Danger! Danger! Tongue Ahead

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 11, 2018, based on James 3:1-12.

With evocative and memorable imagery, James 3 highlights the power of our words, both positively and negatively. Our words can create or destroy. They can build up or tear down. They can help or harm. The things we say, and how we say them, matter. This is especially true for anyone in a position of influence—including, but not limited to, the “teachers” James mentions.

For me, the most remarkable statement in this passage comes toward the end of it: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9). This statement is significant for at least three reasons.

First, it affirms the truth that all humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Sin has not altered this fact, nor is this a special status only for Christians who are intentionally being conformed to the image of God in Christ (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). All humans, including those we consider “the least” or “our enemies,” have been made in God’s image.

Second, this statement affirms the truth that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with others. How we treat other people is the real litmus test of the authenticity and depth of our relationship with God. This is emphasized in various ways throughout the New Testament, most bluntly in 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” This truth goes back to Jesus, who linked “love of God” with “love of neighbors,” love of “strangers,” and even “love of enemies” (Matt 22:36-40; 25:34-40; 5:43-48).

Third, this statement affirms that this second truth extends not just to our actions but also to our speech, both how we talk to other people and how we talk about them. Gossiping about others, spreading unfounded rumors. Slandering others, sowing known lies. Harassing others, throwing cruel, demeaning words their way. Bullying others, verbally intimidating them. Anathematizing others, cursing them beyond the pale. How many times do we passive aggressively smile to people’s face but then cut them down behind their back?

James’ teaching here has particular relevance in our digital age, in the realm of social media. Safe behind our computers or smart phones, we say things to and about people that we would never say to their face, or never say off line at all. Yet behind that icon on the screen is an actual eikōn of God, a human person created in God’s very “image.” If we wouldn’t speak of God in that tone, with those words of “cursing,” how can we speak of another person in that way?

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

There are at least seven passages in the Bible where God is depicted as directly permitting or endorsing slavery. Two of these are in the Law of Moses: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves from conquered peoples permanently, and the Israelites could sell themselves into slavery temporarily to pay off debts (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). The other five passages are in the New Testament, where slavery as a social institution is endorsed and slaves are called to obey their masters “in everything” (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-20).

But slavery is viewed positively in Scripture well beyond these commands. Owning slaves was seen as a sign of God’s blessing (Gen 12:16; 24:35; Isa 14:1-2), and there are literally dozens of passages in the Bible that speak of slavery in passing, without comment. Slavery was simply part of life, and most people saw it as just the way things always were, even the divinely ordained order of things.

slaveAnd yes, in case there is any doubt, this was real slavery: “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod 21:21). Both Old and New Testaments called for better treatment of slaves than many of the peoples around them, and the Law of Moses in particular called for better treatment of fellow Israelites as slaves. But slaves could be beaten (Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20), and slaves could be taken as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or even raped without serious consequence (Lev 19:20-22).

These passages are all pretty straightforward. One could even say that the Bible is clear on this: the institution of slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing. This has in fact been the Christian view through history: it’s only in the last 150-200 years that the tide of Christian opinion has shifted on slavery.

So why do Christians today believe slavery is wrong? Why don’t we believe “slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing,” even though the Bible is pretty clear on this?

Well, there are two main reasons, it seems to me.

The first reason is simply that our society has shifted on this. The reasons for this are complex, but in basic terms this shift has happened because 1) a vocal minority first called for the abolition of slavery, which 2) eventually prompted governments to enact legislation abolishing slavery, and 3) the simple passage of time has normalized this disapproval of slavery among us as a western society.*

It is instructive to read arguments back and forth between Christians on African slavery during the 19th century. Christians in support of slavery—mostly powerful white landowners—pointed to all the biblical texts I’ve outlined above, along with things they saw in the Bible that supported the inferiority of Africans in particular.

But a segment of Christians—former slaves and white activists—joined others in opposing slavery. These Christians emphasized biblical teachings like “love of neighbour” and the Golden Rule and all people created in God’s image and “there is no longer slave or free in Christ.” It took decades of arguing their case, often being shamed and vilified by opposing Christians—the dispute even touched off a bloody civil war—but eventually their view won out.

The passage of laws legalized their view, and the passage of time has normalized their view. We no longer worry about the social instability that abolishing slavery might cause, nor are we concerned that somehow we’re being unfaithful to God by not following the biblical teachings on slavery.

This points to the second main reason Christians today believe slavery is wrong in spite of the clear biblical passages that permit or endorse slavery: we have developed a different hermeneutic, a different way of reading the biblical texts on slavery.

The early Christian abolitionists paved the way. Rather than emphasizing the specific Bible passages that directly approve of slavery, they looked at other biblical texts and themes that they saw as more big-picture, more transcultural and timeless: the creation of humanity in the “image of God,” the “liberation” and “redemption” themes of the Exodus, the love teachings of Jesus, and the salvation vision of Paul. That is, they set the stage for a way of reading the Bible that was not grounded in specific texts of Scripture, but in a trajectory of “Exodus to New Exodus centred on Christ,” or “Creation to New Creation centred on Christ”—a larger biblical narrative with Jesus at its heart.

And so when Christians today read the slavery passages in the Bible, this is what we do. “Sure,” we’ll say, “the Bible says this here—but we know from Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image, and we know from Galatians 3 that there is no longer slave or free in Christ, and don’t forget about God redeeming Israel from slavery and Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves.”

In other words, we no longer take the slavery-approval passages as direct and straightforward teaching for all times and places. Rather we take these as instances of the way things were done in the past but not the way God really wants things to be. They are descriptive of what once was; they are not prescriptive of what is to be.

So the next time we hear someone talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” on women’s roles, or saying that “the Bible is clear” on homosexuality, or whatever the topic might be, think about this: the Bible is at least as clear on slavery, yet thank God we no longer believe that slavery is God’s will. We’ve read the Bible, and we’re following Jesus.

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* I’m well aware that slavery still exists in the world, but I don’t know of any Christians who approve of it. Maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out with those Christians. I’m also well aware that the abolition of slavery has not brought about full freedom and equality and justice for people of African descent in the western world. My focus here is on the institution of slavery itself, but that’s just one side of the coin: racism, both personal and institutional, is the other, and is still ongoing. See also my comments below, in particular on whether recent western slavery was radically different in kind than ancient Greco-Roman slavery.

The Perfect Portrait of God

I’m not a visual artist. I cannot draw, I cannot paint. My stick figures don’t even look like stick figures.

But over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for the visual arts. I think it really started when we lived in England and we took advantage of all the free museums and art galleries. And so I’ve been working out what kind of art I like: John Constable’s English Romantic landscapes, Claude Monet’s French Impressionism, among others.

de-grebber-god-inviting-christ-to-right-handI also have an interest in religious art, Christian religious art in particular. Ancient Eastern icons. Rembrandt’s portrayals of the life of Christ. Depictions of God—like the famous one in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or this one by Pieter de Grebber.

It seems that when we attempt to portray God visually, this is where we often end up: God is an old man with a white beard. He might be a kindly grandfather figure, benevolent and benign. Or he might be an untouchable monarch in all his pomp and state. Or he might be a judge, robes swirling, scowling with the full force of the law. But he’s an old man with a white beard, regardless.

And, in our portaits of God, we imagine God as up there, out there, somewhere other. God is heavenly holy, unreachable, untouchable. God is immensity. God is eternity. God is omni-potency.

But did you know that God has actually given us a self-portrait? This portrait of God is an “exact representation of God’s being,” as Hebrews 1 puts it. It is the “very image of God,” as Colossians 1 says. And—although God has nothing against old men with white beards—God’s self-portrait is nothing like our typical picture of God.

This perfect portrait of God is Jesus.

This means that the perfect portrait of God is a baby, born of water. Umbilical cord twisting toward his mother. Amniotic fluid matting his dark hair against his olive skin. Eyes tight shut, mouth open, wailing his newborn cry.

The perfect portrait of God is a child. Toddling, falling, and getting back up. Forming first words—“Abba,” perhaps. Laughing at silly games, scraping knees in play, being comforted in a young mother’s warm embrace. God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.

The perfect portrait of God is a teenager. Learning, questioning, questioning again—even the chief rabbis in Jerusalem. Taking on responsibility, taking on independence, taking on hopes and fears to guide his years ahead. God’s kingdom belongs to these as well.

The perfect portrait of God is a young adult, born of spirit. Living and loving, laughing and lamenting among kith and kin in a small village in Galilee. Acquiring his father’s craft, creating something out of nothing but a bit of formless wood or stone.

The perfect portrait of God is a grown human, fully alive. Devoted to God in faith, committed to others in love, tenacious in hope for good things to come. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. The whole Law is summed up in these things.

weistling-kissing-the-face-of-godThe perfect portrait of God is Jesus. And this changes everything.

God is not in the earthquake, not in the storm, not in the fire—but in the still silence of a sleeping baby, a mother’s gentle whisper.

God is not in our chariots and horses, our instruments of power and death—but in our acts of tender love and humble compassion.

God is not in our strength, nor in our riches, nor in our wisdom—God is in the poor in spirit, the humble in heart, in those who must rely on God even for their daily bread.

God is not in our might and power—but in the Spirit, God’s persistent yet gentle wind of peace.

God is not in our impressive words written or spoken—but in the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

God is in a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Our Lord, Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

A meditation given at Morden Mennonite Church on December 25, 2016. Click on images for sources. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.