David and David’s Son on Love and Power

In this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts there’s quite the juxtaposition between the Old Testament reading and the New Testament epistle.

On the one hand there’s 2 Samuel 11:1-15. The headings in the NRSV describe the story as, first, “David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba,” and second, “David Has Uriah Killed.” More accurately, these should be “David Rapes Bathsheba” and “David Murders Uriah.” This is Israel’s favoured king, the king who would form the template for the Messiah to come. But instead of walking in righteousness and establishing justice through self-giving love, David’s lust and abuse of power leads him to rape and murder.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Carl Bloch, “Healing of the Blind Man”)

On the other hand there’s Ephesians 3:14-21. This is a prayer of Paul (or a Pauline disciple) for power and perception, but not the kind that David displayed. This prayer is for spiritual power, to be “strengthened in our inner being” by the presence of the risen Christ and to “know the love of Christ” in all its multi-dimensional fullness. This is a power that walks in righteousness and establishes justice through self-giving love. It’s the power of Jesus the teacher and healer from Nazareth, crucified and risen. It’s the power of the Son of David, the Messiah who surpasses the expectations of his template.

In these days of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, of #EveryChildMatters and #CancelCanadaDay, David’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when we wed ourselves to earthly power and then abuse that power for our own selfish ends. Paul’s prayer points to a different way: living in the infinite love of God, the Jesus-love that compels us toward justice and peace and joy in the kingdom of God.

#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

“Jesus Died for Our Sins”: Sketching Out Atonement

Diego Velázquez, Cristo crucificado

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ death lately. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the journey we’ve just been on through Lent, following Jesus to the cross.

As I’ve thought about Jesus’ death, both recently and over the years, I keep coming back to the “gospel tradition” the Apostle Paul received from others before him and passed on to others after him, a tradition that was probably formulated within two or three years of Jesus’ death:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas and the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3-5)

This tradition shows that very early on Jesus’ death was being interpreted as “for our sins.” But what exactly does this mean?

I’d guess that when most people hear that phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” they immediately plug in a whole cluster of ideas: we sin by disobeying God’s moral law; God’s holiness therefore bars us from being in God’s presence and God’s justice demands a penalty be paid, the penalty of death; God is justly angry with us. To say, then, that “Jesus died for our sins” means that “Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for our sins demanded by God’s justice, and thus turned away God’s righteous wrath, bringing us divine forgiveness and allowing us to be in God’s holy presence.” This idea is called “penal substitutionary atonement.”

However, the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” doesn’t necessarily mean all those things. For it to mean all those things requires many assumptions to be true about who God is, how God operates, what sin is, what forgiveness involves, how justice works, and so on. These assumptions are never actually stated in any one passage in Scripture, but must be inferred from various passages and then all brought together before being read into this phrase.

In fact, I’d suggest that the phrase from this early tradition, “Christ died for our sins,” simply means that “Christ died with respect to our sins”—Jesus’ death concerns our sins, even “deals with” our sins, somehow, in some way. Exactly how this works, however, is not spelled out in this phrase.

The New Testament uses many different metaphors to try to explain how this works, what it means to say that Jesus’ death “deals with” our sins. Images of animal sacrifice, scapegoating, redemption from slavery, covenant ratification, military victory, martyrdom, friendship, gift-giving and more are used by the New Testament authors to interpret Jesus’ death “for our sins.” Some of these can lend themselves toward the popular “penal substitutionary atonement” idea described above, but many of them don’t at all. This is what keeps atonement theologians in business, looking for the best model for making sense of “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

I’m not at all fond of “penal substitutionary atonement.” I have a whole laundry list of reasons for this, and maybe at some point I’ll pull together a fuller post on the problems I see with this popular view. In a nutshell, though, I’d simply say that at its best penal substitution is a minor theme in the New Testament, and in its worst manifestations it’s a terrible distortion of the gospel. Some of these worst manifestations pit God against Jesus, for example, or they make God out to be a violent abuser who can’t control his own anger, or they turn the gospel into a private transaction that has little impact on personal ethics or social justice.

But is there a better way of making sense of the confession that “Jesus died for our sins”? How do I think about this?

This would require a whole series of blog posts. Actually, it would require a whole book or more. It’s also something that is still very much evolving for me. However, let me sketch out a few thoughts that specifically relate to some of the ideas found in the popular notion of “penal substitutionary atonement.” Even this brief sketch makes for a long post, so buckle your seatbelts.

One of the common themes of many human religions through history is the idea that our circumstances are a reflection of divine favour or disfavour. If things are going well, our god is happy with us. If things are not going well, our god is not happy with us. In extreme circumstances—facing a severe drought, experiencing a horrible plague, being conquered in war, suffering exile or enslavement—our god is very angry with us for some terrible wrong that we have done.

What’s needed is “atonement.” Usually this is some sort of sacrificial act, in many ancient religions even the violent, bloody death of some living thing. This blood sacrifice appeases our god’s wrath against us for the great wrong we have committed and returns us to our god’s favour. (Exactly how or why this works is rarely or variously explained. Does it satisfy some “life-for-life” sense of justice? Does it expend the god’s anger? Does it cover or remove the transgression that has been ritually transferred to the victim? Is there something special about “blood”? Does the god simply like the smell?)

Another common theme of many human religions through history is the idea that the divine presence is sacred, special in some way, and so cannot be entered lightly. Proper rituals must be followed, performed by the right people and/or in a state of religious “purity.” If we do something that makes us “impure” or “unclean,” then we cannot experience or enter our god’s presence.

What’s needed is “purification.” This can involve anything from ceremonial washings to special prayers, but often it includes some sort of sacrificial act, in many ancient religions even the violent, bloody death of some living thing. This blood sacrifice purifies us, cleansing us from our religious impurities, and allows us to enter our god’s presence. (Again, exactly how or why this works is not often or uniformly explained.)

These perspectives were shared by the ancient Israelites, including their leaders and the writers of their Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). People did things, even everyday, ordinary things, that made them religiously impure and thus unfit for experiencing or entering Yahweh’s presence. And when terrible things threatened individuals or Yahweh’s people as a whole, it was understood to be because Yahweh’s wrath had come upon them for their sin. What was needed to atone for their sin and turn aside Yahweh’s wrath, or to purify them from their uncleanness and allow them into Yahweh’s presence, was a violent, bloody death, a sacrifice of something or someone else, offered out of devotion to Yahweh.

The story of Phinehas son of Eleazar gives a vivid example of this. The story is told in Numbers 25.

In the story a plague has come upon the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. This is viewed as Yahweh’s wrath against Israel because of their sin—Israelite men have been cozying up to Moabite women, one thing has led to another, and they have ended up bowing down to their gods. A terrible thing has happened, which means God must be very angry because of a great wrong that has been committed. And so Yahweh calls on the Israelites to kill those men who have married Moabite women, in order to “turn away” his “wrath,” his “fierce anger.”

But before this can happen, Phinehas hears of an Israelite man who has taken a Midianite wife, he tracks them down to their family tent, he impales them with a spear—and the plague stops. Phinehas is hailed by Yahweh as a hero, with these words:

Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites. (Num 25:11-13)

All this sounds like “penal substitutionary atonement”: our sin puts us under God’s wrath, and what’s needed is a violent, bloody death offered in devotion to God in order to turn away God’s righteous anger, to make “atonement.” This same language, the same basic ideas, are found in other biblical stories and lie behind the animal sacrifices described in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

But there are some problems with this whole way of thinking, problems which the Old Testament itself acknowledges. Not all bad circumstances are because God is angry with us because of our sin, just as not all good circumstances are because God is pleased with us. A blood sacrifice doesn’t actually change the heart, our inner disposition that prompts our outward actions. Even more, a blood sacrifice doesn’t actually change the world; it doesn’t bring true justice within society, or a real and lasting peace, or a full and flourishing life.

There is a “minority report” of voices through the Old Testament that highlight these problems. Here are a few samples:

Sacrifice and offering you [Yahweh] do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required. (Psalm 40:6)

For I [Yahweh] desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

“With what shall I come before the Lord [Yahweh],
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

When we turn to Jesus in the Gospels, now, we see a few interesting things.

First, Jesus agrees with the “minority report” of the Old Testament. He severs the necessary link between sin and circumstances: while it is true that we generally reap what we sow, with harmful actions leading to harmful consequences, it is not true that all our experiences of harm are the direct result of our sin. Jesus also affirms that outward cleansing rituals don’t change the heart, and he even re-configures “holiness” in terms of acts of mercy and justice. Jesus also quotes some of those Old Testament texts that de-center or devalue blood sacrifice as a means of atonement or purification: what’s most important, Jesus says, is devoted love of God and self-giving love of neighbour; that is, “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Second, Jesus forgives sins apart from blood sacrificeThis is startling to the religious leaders in power primarily because, as they say, “only God can forgive sins.” However, Jesus’ action—like John’s “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” before him—would surely have raised concerns because there is no reference to Temple sacrifices. This was a live issue in Jesus’ day—the Essenes, for example, seem to have denied the efficacy of the Temple sacrifices and did not look to them for atonement. After another generation, with the destruction of the Temple and the inability to offer blood sacrifices, Judaism as a whole re-imagined atonement in the terms of the “minority report” of their Scriptures: repentant prayer, bearing fruit in acts of justice and mercy, atones for sin.

Jesus’ forgiveness of sins anticipates this later Jewish development. Jesus’ forgiveness shows that God does not need blood sacrifice in order to forgive sins. Instead, what Jesus calls for, and thus what God requires, is “repentance”—an inner change of disposition involving a recognition of one’s sin and a commitment to live differently—and “faith”—a devoted trust or allegiance to God expressed in following the way of God in self-giving love.

This leads to the third thing that distinguishes Jesus’ approach to sin, atonement, purity, and especially “sacrifice”: Jesus does not sacrifice something or someone else for his own good; rather, he gives himself for the good of others, even his enemies. Phinehas, a model of the majority view in the Old Testament on these things, you’ll recall, atoned for the sin of Israel by committing violence against another, spilling the blood of another, sacrificing another for the good of many. Jesus, by contrast, atones for or “deals with” sin by bearing the violence of others in himself without retaliation, allowing his own blood to be spilled with forgiveness on his lips, giving up his own life for the good of all.

In all this, in Jesus’ life and teachings culminating in his death, Jesus shows us a better way, God’s true way for atoning for sin: through nonviolent, self-giving love for others, even for one’s enemies. This alone is what will bring about true justice within society, a real and lasting peace, a full and flourishing life for all.

Jesus’ death, then, is really a kind of “anti-sacrifice”—in the full, dual meaning of the Greek prefix “anti.”

Jesus’ death is “anti-sacrifice” in that it is “against sacrifice”: it underscores the reality that blood sacrifice is not needed for God to forgive, it is not needed for us to experience or enter God’s presence, and it doesn’t bring about either the personal change of heart or the wider justice, peace, and life that we need.

And Jesus’ death is “anti-sacrifice” in that it is “instead of sacrifice”: instead of the violent, bloody death of something or someone other than ourselves in order to bring justice and peace and life, what’s needed is the nonviolent giving of ourselves for the good of others, the good of all, including friends, neighbours, and even enemies.

In other words, Jesus’ self-sacrificial death brings an end to blood sacrifice of any kind—animal sacrifice, capital punishment, war death, and more—once and for all.

There’s much more that can be said about the meaning of Jesus’ death than this. For example, Jesus’ death is a subversion of the evil powers of this age, the unjust powers-that-be in the world that oppress and enslave. Jesus’ death is also a revelation of who God is and the way God works in the world, showing God’s true power and wisdom, showing God’s love. For some thoughts on these things, you can check out my post on “The Foolishness of the Cross.”

There’s also much more that can be said about the themes I’ve mentioned and how they are used in the Bible, themes of “sin” and “justice” and “divine wrath” and “atonement” and “holiness” and “purity” and “sacrifice” and more. These themes certainly continue into the New Testament and many are important to Jesus, though the way they are used needs to be carefully parsed.

Nevertheless, this gives at least a sketch of where my thinking is at on these biblical concepts and how they all come together into some kind of coherent understanding of what it means to say that “Jesus died for our sins.” Constructive comments or honest questions, as always, are welcome.

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.

MLK and “The Things that Make for Peace”

On December 20, 2015, I preached a sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on “The Things that Make for Peace.” I’ve excerpted some of that sermon already in a previous post, but in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. I’m posting another excerpt, my conclusion to that sermon.

Many of you will know that a month ago I went to a theological conference down in Atlanta. While I was there I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church Martin Luther King grew up in, the church he served as pastor for part of his career.

MLK Light LoveAs I’ve been reflecting on these “things that make for peace” this week, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial justice in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. King developed several principles of nonviolent resistance—principles of peacemaking, in other words—that sound a whole lot like what I’ve just described from Luke’s Gospel. This is no coincidence, as King based these principles in large part on the life and teachings of Jesus.

First, Martin Luther King emphasized that peacemaking is not passive, and it’s not for cowards. To use King’s words, peacemaking “is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” This takes tremendous moral courage, because it means standing against evil on one side while facing ridicule on the other. This takes tremendous inner strength, because it means resisting violence and injustice without resorting to violence or injustice oneself.

Another of King’s principles of peacemaking: in his words, it is “directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” The goal is to defeat injustice, not unjust persons. The goal is to defeat fear and ignorance and hatred, not fearful or ignorant or hateful persons. The goal is to bring peace, what King called the “beloved community.”

Here’s the next of MLK’s principles: we must be willing to accept suffering without retaliation. How can we do this? King says “the answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive.” The goal is to reduce or even eliminate unearned suffering for everyone; but sometimes, this requires that some people—or even just one person—needs to suffer unjustly before the eyes of the world in order to bring about that redemptive transformation.

Underlying these principles of peacemaking are two further principles, spiritual principles. In King’s words, this brand of nonviolent peacemaking “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” There’s an important correlation between inner peace and outward peace: peace among us requires peace within us.

We need to know forgiveness ourselves in order to forgive others. We need to have empathy awoken within ourselves if we want to have compassion for others. We need to rid our hearts of hatred if we want to see the world rid of violence. We need peace in our own souls if we hope to have lasting peace in society.

And underlying all this is one final principle: the principle of faith. This peacemaking, King says, is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” In our active struggle for peace, a struggle that may require our own suffering, we must believe that “there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

You see, Martin Luther King realized something that many of us miss: God has already revealed his peace in Jesus. God has shown us “the things that make for peace.” God has laid out for all to see God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, peace among us.

The question is, will we walk in it? Will we “recognize the things that make for peace”? Will we follow Jesus in “the way of peace”? Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem?

May God give us eyes to see the path of peace laid out for us in Jesus. And may God give us the faith, the hope, the love—the moral courage and selfless compassion—to trust in God’s way of peace and walk in Jesus’ way of love.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

“Turn the Other Cheek” ≠ “Be a Doormat”

This past Sunday I taught our adult Sunday Study class. As always, it turned into a wide-ranging discussion only remotely connected to the topic, in which we noted and immediately solved all the world’s problems. (Just kidding, of course. It took us at least 45 minutes to solve them all.)

Turn Other CheekOne of the things that came up along the way was Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” command. It was suggested that maybe this and other commands like it are for an ideal, future “kingdom of God” and aren’t expected to work in the real world right now. Or, maybe these sorts of commands are simply for our individual relationships and not for our wider social relationships.

“Turn the other cheek.” Yep, it’s a hard one. It seems utterly unrealistic, unworkable in the real world of playground bullies or abusive spouses or oppressive regimes or violent extremists.

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matt 5:38-41)

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

What do we do with these commands? Is it true that they’re just for our individual relationships, or maybe that they’re simply for some time down the road, when God’s eternal kingdom comes to fruition?

To the idea that these commands are not intended for the real world right now, we have to say an unequivocal “No.” At least, that’s not the way Matthew sees them. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus’ emphatic declaration that he expects his followers to “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Matt 7:24-29), and the Gospel as a whole concludes with Jesus’ call for his followers to make disciples who will “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). Everything. Even the hard bits.

But there’s something else from these teachings themselves that suggests these are not simply for some ideal “heavenly kingdom”: in that ideal kingdom there would be no need for these commands, because no one would strike you on the cheek to begin with. In fact, these commands of Jesus only make sense at the place where the kingdom of God collides with the kingdoms of this world. These commands only make sense in a world where there are oppressive enemies and violent retribution—clashing with a new world in which there are no enemies and there is no vengeance.

How would Jesus’ first disciples have heard these words? Who were their “enemies” who struck their cheeks or made them give up their cloaks or forced them to walk a mile? Probably, as time passed, there were several “enemies” who could be named. But for those first Jesus-followers the “enemies” that would have immediately come to mind were the Romans.

The Romans. Seen by many (by no means all) first-century Jews as godless oppressors, Gentile dogs trampling on God’s holy people all over God’s holy turf. And the immediate, flesh-and-blood symbol of this imperial oppression? The Roman soldier, with the power to knock heads and commandeer cloaks and force burden-bearing marches.

Suddenly Jesus’ commands here take on new meaning. “Turn the other cheek”? “Love your enemies”? This isn’t for some idealized future, nor is it just for our everyday relationships. This is about a clash of empires, a collision of kingdoms, two worlds coming head-to-head—and affecting all our real-world right-now relationships, from individuals to families to communities to societies to nation-states.

Think about this: if someone in a position of power over you “strikes you on the right cheek,” what are your options?

One option is to fight back, to strike them on the cheek, to go all “eye for eye” on them—but they have all that raw power behind them, and this is only going to get ugly fast. Violence, even “justified violence,” always, inevitably, begets violence—on you, on them, on innocent others.

A second option is to back away in abject submission, to be a “doormat.” This is what people typically think Jesus means here—just take your licks and accept your lot in life. But just as Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, strike them back,” so also Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, bow down to them in subjection.”

No, Jesus commands a third way, a way that is neither the “return evil with evil” way nor the “passively submit to evil” way. Jesus commands his followers to stand up with dignity, look the oppressor in the eye, and challenge them to expose their injustice and inhumanity by inflicting another gratuitous blow.

In other words, Jesus advocates what Walter Wink calls “defiant vulnerability,” or what Tom Yoder Neufeld perhaps better calls “creative non-violent resistance”: “creative” because giving the extra garment or walking the extra mile are outside the normal rules of enemy engagement (Killing Enmity, 25). Glen Stassen and David Gushee go even further, saying Jesus’ commands here are “transforming initiatives”: they “take a nonviolent initiative that confronts injustice and initiates the possibility of reconciliation” (Kingdom Ethics, 139).

Creative, transforming, non-violent resistance. Just like all those in recent history who, inspired to various degrees by Jesus’ life and teachings, initiated some of the most momentous changes ever seen toward more just societies: Mahatma Gandhi in British colonial India; Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jim Crow-era southern United States; Lech Wałęsa and Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) in Soviet Communist Poland; post-imprisonment Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid.

It’s counter-intuitive, for sure. But contrary to popular opinion, “redemptive violence” is a myth while “turn the other cheek”—rightly understood—actually works.

It’s important to get this right. This is not a command to an abused wife that she should just stay with her husband and submissively accept the blows, whether physical or otherwise. This is not a command to terrorized Iraqi Christians that they should just accept what’s happening to them as God’s will. This is not a command to the boy being bullied after school that he should just take the black eye and slink away in fear. These kinds of things are most emphatically not what Jesus is saying here.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIt’s helpful to look to Jesus’ own example. It is clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the many things Jesus commands his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, he demonstrates for them as he goes to the cross. Turn the other cheek? Check. Love your enemies? Check. Pray for your persecutors? Check.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not do these things for himself, but for others. For all the “poor in spirit” who are in “mourning,” for the “meek” who “hunger and thirst for justice” (Matt 5:3-6), Jesus steps into their place as “merciful peacemaker,” “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:7-11).

Jesus becomes the champion of the oppressed, taking the blow aimed at them, standing up for them with dignity, looking the oppressor in the eye and exposing their injustice and inhumanity with every gratuitous blow—and this becomes the spark for true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life.

This is what the bullied child, the abused spouse, the oppressed people, need. They need a champion. And not a champion who will strike back blow for blow, and just make the problem worse. They need a champion who will stand up to their oppressor on their behalf, who will expose the oppressor’s injustice and inhumanity and initiate the process toward justice and peace and new life, whatever the cost.

So how do we “turn the other cheek”? Not by being a “doormat,” passively submitting to violence or oppression or abuse over and over again, spiraling downward until all involved are de-humanized and eventually destroyed.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—which means imagining and enacting ways to expose evil and injustice which maintain our dignity, which do not demonize our “enemies” but instead show compassion toward them, and which open the door to possibilities of reconciliation and a better future.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—on our own behalf if there is no one else to take up our cause, and certainly on behalf of others who are beaten down and need a champion.

None of this makes Jesus’ commands to “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” any easier. If anything it makes them harder—because it commits us to not just speak of justice, not just pray for justice, but to actually step out and work for justice.

Maybe I should go back to solving the world’s problems with my Sunday school class. This “walking in the way of Jesus” thing is way too convicting, way too challenging, way too hard. Kind of like walking on a really narrow way

A special note for abused spouses and children… Please hear this clearly: You are under no obligation to remain with your abusive partner or parent. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean that, neither does “Wives, submit to your husbands” or “Children, respect your parents,” and if someone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Contact an organization like Genesis House that can provide advice and shelter for you and initiate the process of healing for you and any others involved. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, and if you are unable to take this step then I pray you will know God’s sufficient grace through your suffering and God’s power through your weakness—and that you will again consider taking this step if the abuse continues.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Christians and Israel (3) – God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples

This series is adapted from a sermon I preached on August 3, 2014, “What should we think about Israel?” See here for part one, “Describing the Crisis,” and here for part two, “Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.

In the last post I claimed that modern Israel is not the heir to the biblical promises to ancient Israel. That claim is controversial among some Christians, to be sure, but I trust that my claim in this post will not be. At least, it shouldn’t be controversial, but all too often it seems that Christians act as if they don’t really believe it.

Here’s my second claim: as followers of Jesus seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

Jesus teaches us that we are to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Matt 6:33). This is a call to allegiance: Jesus is saying that our allegiance to God’s kingdom and God’s way of justice stands over and above our allegiance to any earthly kingdom or any worldly way of justice.

And God’s kingdom transcends borders, it transcends our geographical and political boundaries, it embraces our ethnic and cultural differences. God’s kingdom includes all peoples equally: every tribe, every nation, even all creation. To believe otherwise is, to be frank, not just un-Mennonite, it’s un-Christian—it is even anti-Christ, in opposition to Jesus and the global and cosmic scope of his reconciling work (e.g. Col 1:13-23; Rev 7:9-17).

So when Jesus calls us to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice,” he is calling us to give our allegiance to the reign of God that transcends national borders and includes all peoples, and to seek justice for all within God’s shalom.

This means that we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jews and Muslims.

This means that we are called to denounce violence wherever it is found, whether in Hamas rockets killing a 4-year old Israeli boy playing in the living room of his kibbutz home or in Israeli missiles killing Palestinian children playing soccer on the beach.

This means that we are called to put a spotlight on injustice and oppression, those situations where there is an imbalance of power leading to an abuse of power—as there certainly is in Israel taking over land in the West Bank for Israeli settlements, or in Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas rockets from Gaza (and no, the “human shields” argument doesn’t hold water).

1054px-Israel-Palestine_peaceThis means that we are called always to strive for the things that make for peace. There are many average Israelis and average Palestinians who do not want war, who want to share the land and live in peace. There are many Palestinians who do not support Hamas and its violent ways. There are many Israelis who oppose Israel’s offensive in Gaza, or even Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. There must be a better way forward, and as citizens of God’s kingdom we must encourage the search for that way, to be peacemakers, true children of God (Matt 5:9).

Christians here in North America don’t help the situation when we blindly support Israel in all her policies. Given the horrible history of anti-Semitism, there is good reason for supporting an Israeli state that makes special provision for citizenship of ethnic Jews. But there is no good biblical or historical basis for seeing modern Israel as the rightful heir to the land. And, in any case, our ultimate allegiance is not to any nation state on earth, but to God’s kingdom and God’s justice—and thus we must seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

I invite you to conclude this series the way we at Morden Mennonite Church concluded the original sermon on which the series is based: by praying the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting on it as a prayer for all people.

Our Father in heaven, in whose image all people have been created, hallowed be your name. May Your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom without borders, your will for justice and peace, on earth as it is in heaven…

Amen. Come, O Lord.

For some other Anabaptist perspectives and initiatives related to Israel and Palestine, check out these websites: Mennonite Palestine Israel NetworkChristian Peacemaker Teams – Peace and Justice Support Network. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“From sea to sea”: On Canada, the Church, and the Kingdom of God

This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday. It was prompted by the reading from Zechariah 9:9-12 in light of both Canada Day and the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly this past week.

Update (July 2018): Here’s the audio of a recent revision of the full sermon:

A mari usque ad mare. “From sea to sea.”

That’s Canada’s motto, a symbol of our national unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic.

Canada Flag 2Most Canadians probably know the motto, but they might not know it comes from Psalm 72. It’s a psalm that was likely part of the coronation liturgy of ancient Israel. It’s a prayer for each new king in David’s dynasty, expressing all the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel with each successive king:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth… (Ps 72:1-8)

It’s quite the prayer, whether for ancient Israel or for twenty-first century Canada. In fact, ancient Israel and modern Canada have a few things in common: both relatively young nations in their eras, both small nations in the shadow of giants, both with big dreams for a glorious future.

While most Canadians might know our nation’s motto, and some might know its biblical origins, I suspect very few are aware that it also comes up in a later biblical book, in a much different setting.

The book is Zechariah, and in Zechariah’s day things were not at all like they used to be. Israel has been divided and conquered, their grand hopes for the future crushed. The people have been cast into exile, and a few have just recently returned from that exile to re-build Jerusalem’s walls and temple.

In many ways this ragged band of Jewish returnees felt much like many Christians feel in Canada today: the glory days are behind us, the days of a sanctuary bursting at the seams, bustling with worshipers and filled with choirs. Like the old-timers in Zechariah’s day who remembered the original temple of Solomon, many among us today remember the old days, and weep (Ezra 3:12).

But here’s what Zechariah does: he takes this ancient song of Israel’s kings and uses it as a powerful symbol of hope for the future:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10)

One day, Zechariah promises, God will come again among his people. One day there will again be an anointed king of Israel who will fulfill those ancient hopes. One day the prayer of Psalm 72 will be answered.

Jesus is this king. So we as Christians believe. The prayer of Psalm 72, the promised answer to that prayer in Zechariah 9—these are fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus is the world’s true Lord and King. Jesus has come to bring justice to the world and peace on earth, the full shalom of God. Jesus has come to bring flourishing life to all God’s creation: a healing of wounds, a restoration of brokenness, a very reversal of death. Jesus is this promised king, who brings in God’s promised kingdom, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what the New Testament means when it declares that “Jesus is the Christ,” the Messiah, or “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is what it means when it proclaims that “Jesus is Lord.” This is what the gospel is all about, “the gospel of the kingdom” or “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But while God’s kingdom will come on earth, this kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). It’s not like any kingdom this world has ever seen, unlike any nation on earth. It operates by a different set of rules, values that are upside-down compared to the values of earthly realms.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the poor are richly blessed, where the sick are freely healed, where the outcasts are at the center.

God’s kingdom is a realm where enemies are loved as neighbours, where neighbours are loved as ourselves, where our selves are denied for the sake of others.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the king is a servant who suffers in love, and that sets the agenda for everything else.

But God’s kingdom is also a realm where real life is found, resurrection life, through that self-giving love.

God’s kingdom is a realm where parties break out when the lost are found, where banquets are laid out for the last and the least.

God’s kingdom is a realm where water for ceremony is turned into wine for celebration.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the whole world is invited: from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women and children of every tribe and nation.

In fact, God’s kingdom is not any nation at all, nor any organization. It’s a perpetual grassroots movement, starting with a ragged band of followers: a tiny seed that grows into a world-shading tree. God’s kingdom is the dynamic reign of God, the Creator God ruling over all creation in love and faithfulness, bringing justice and peace and flourishing life.

MC Canada doveWhat does this all have to do with Canada’s future, and with the future of the church in Canada? Just this: our hope for the future lies in Jesus, the one who truly answers the Psalmist’s prayer and fulfills Zechariah’s expectation, the one who has truly been given all authority from sea to sea.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any nation, even one so glorious and free as Canada—may God keep it so. Should Canada fade from history, should the world map be radically re-drawn, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The kingdom of God cannot be identified with any nation. A nation can reflect kingdom values to a greater or lesser degree, but no nation is the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is bigger than any nation—it has no borders, in fact it breaks down borders of geography and race, economics and social status. God’s kingdom is outside the power structures we create, our governments, our laws, our law enforcement, judicial system—because however good those things may be, they are inevitably abused and corrupted, always in danger of supporting systemic evil.

God’s kingdom is among us as people, not among us as a nation.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any church organization, whether globally or nationally or regionally—or even us locally. Should Mennonite Church Canada or Manitoba be dissolved, should Morden Mennonite Church even cease to be, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The church is not the kingdom of God.

The church is called to be a witness to God’s kingdom, a signpost of the kingdom, pointing people to God’s dream for the world. Local churches like Morden Mennonite are to be a kind of outpost of God’s kingdom on earth, nurturing the upside-down values of the kingdom, a test plot showing what the kingdom of God can be like.

But God’s kingdom is bigger than any local church, broader than any particular denomination—it encompasses the world.

Our hope for the future lies with Jesus, the world’s true Lord and King. And this means our hope for the future lies in the extent to which we follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom.

Do we truly want to follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom? Do we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice? Then let’s count the cost. Let’s ask ourselves some hard questions—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the last and the least among us? The vulnerable, the marginalized, those outside our white, middle-class, heterosexual norm? Who are the lost? The doubting, the confused, the spiritually seeking, even the most egregious sinners?

To the extent that we first the last, feast the least, and find the lost, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the poor among us? The needy in our community, the homeless in our cities? Who are the sick? The dying, the mentally ill? Who are the outcasts? The elderly, the lonely, the disabled? The refugees, the immigrants, our host indigenous peoples? The convicted criminals, the shamed victims?

To the extent that we richly bless the poor, freely heal the sick, and center ourselves on the outcasts, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are our enemies? Our theological enemies, our political enemies, those difficult people who seem to always be against us, those who seek to harm us? Who are our neighbours? The people next door, the people down the street, the people in that other church, the people in that city next door?

To the extent that we love our enemies as neighbours, and love our neighbours as ourselves, denying ourselves for the sake of others, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

These things have nothing to do with how many people we have in our pews or how many programs we have in our church. They have nothing to do with how closely our society’s laws parallel our sexual ethics, or how well Canada’s economy is going. These may well be good things, but they are not signs of the kingdom.

Rather, Jesus says the signs of the kingdom are these: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In other words, the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found, enemies and neighbours are loved alike.

To the extent that we do these things as a church and as a nation, God’s kingdom is among us—and Jesus, the world’s true King, reigns from sea to sea to sea, a mari usque ad mare.

May it be so.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.