Jun 12, 2009

Only God Can Judge Me?: A sermon on judgment in the Gospel of John

For my Johannine Literature course, I wrote a sermon for my final paper. The difficulty was incorporating my knowledge of the original Greek into the sermon and explaining what it meant for today's culture. So, the cultural references in this sermon include: The Simpsons, the movie Equilibrium, a track by Tupac Shakur, and the fundamentalists who drop off those annoying Chick tracts. Scriptural traditions I referenced were: the Bodily Resurrection, the Son of Man traditions, and the idea of God as Parent in the Gospel of John as well as Second Temple Jewish literature.

Only God Can Judge Me?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century

I have been meaning for the last month or so to address the rise of anti-Semitism taking place here in the United States. As a Christian dedicated to nonviolent resistance and anti-racism movements, one would be left to wonder why I have not fallen into deep despair over recent events. I see a pattern, whether it is the mainstream media showing only positive stories of the terrorist organization Hamas in Palestine or whether it is Jewish professors in academic setting being silenced because they exposed the hidden history of anti-Semitism in early and current Protestant liberalism. Last month, The United Nations Conference on Racism actually became the UN conference against the nation of Israel and Judaism. Just this week, Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright blames the Jews for keeping President Barack Obama away from him. The recent shooting shooting at a Holocaust museum proves that violence against Jews here in the United States is a symptom of an anti-Semitism that has yet to be confronted in American culture.

The problems lies with the North American church which struggles with not only the history of racism in the United States, but also the anti-Semitic history of both here in the U.S.A. and the history of the Church universal (oh, say, the Crusades and the Holocaust, for instance). Many Christians in the ecumenical circles try to whitewash over the differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam claiming that these are the three great Abrahamic faiths and that really, as monotheistic religions founded upon different prophets, we should all just get along and not even address histories of racial violence and real theological differences. But there is a problem with this approach: difference is viewed as PROBLEMATIC! On the other side of the coin, some in evangelical circles have particular readings of the New Testament in which the Church REPLACES Israel as God’s chosen people. This conclusion can only be drawn if one first presupposes that it is necessary to read the New Testament into the “Old” Testament. The Old Testament, then, and therefore the Jewish Scriptures, are viewed as not being a source of revelation with its own history and integrity outside of the Christian tradition. Thus, when Barack Obama and James Dobson argue over certain passages in Leviticus , we could hear Christian leaders on Fox News claiming that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount SUPERCEDES the Jewish law.
UNIVERSALISM nor SUPERCESSIONISM are proper options to addressing the current predicaments faced by many North American Jews or the people of Israel. The church should look for a theological answer in the tradition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leaders of the Confessing Church movement during Nazi Germany. In one of the documents he helped to author, the Bethel Confession, protested against the Aryan Clause that the German Christians were trying to enforce in churches, having segregated church services for Jewish Christians, etc., etc. It is important to note, that even though Bonhoeffer says that the Church living among all nations takes the place of the Old Testament people of the covenant, it is a theological argument against a NATION-STATE (Germany of the Third Reich) which claimed to be the new Israel. In Bonhoeffer’s European context, state churches still held sway over and against free churches. The freedom of conscience was a foreign idea. Notions God’s faithfulness and our faithful response are the keys to understanding Bonhoeffer’s political theology; this requires living out the biblical narrative of God’s suffering love in solidarity with victims. Christian support for Israel should not be a blind, uncritical love affair, but grounded in the recognition of God’s faithfulness in the story of Israel and Jesus the Messiah.

“God abundantly shows God’s faithfulness by still keeping faith with Israel after the flesh, from whom was born Christ after the flesh, despite all their unfaithfulness, even after the crucifixion. It is God’s will to complete the salvation of the world, which began with the election of Israel, through these selfsame Jews (Romans 9-11). Therefore God continues to preserve a ‘holy remnant of Israel after the flesh, which can neither be absorbed into another nation by emancipation and assimilation, nor become one nation among others as a result of the efforts of Zionist and other similar movements, nor be exterminated by Pharaoh-like measures. […]
No nation can ever be commissioned to avenge on the Jews the murder at Golgotha. ‘Vengeance is mine, says the LORD.’ (Deuteronomy 32:35, Hebrews 10:30). We reject any attempt to misuse the miracle of God’s especial faithfulness toward Israel after the flesh as an indication of the religious significance of the Jewish people or of another people. […] The special element in the Jewish Christians does not lie in their race or their character or their history, but in God’s special faithfulness toward Israel after the flesh and in that alone. The way in which the Jewish Christians have a special position in the church which is not based on any legal ruling in itself makes them a living memorial of God’s faithfulness with the church and is a sign that the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been broken down and that faith in Christ may not be perverted into a national religion or a racially determined Christianity. It is the task of the Christians who come from the Gentile world to expose themselves to persecution rather than to surrender, willingly or unwillingly, even in one respect, their kinship with Jewish Christians in the church, founded on Word and Sacrament.” (Bonhoeffer, 136-137)

In other words, the Christian response to the anti-Semitism should not a joining in of the chorus of liberal and conservative antipathy towards the story of the Jews, but a joining in solidarity with those being persecuted. The cross of Christ, the historical revelation of God's complete and unalterable faithfulfness, deserves no other.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Geffrey B. Kelly, and F. Burton Nelson. A Testament to Freedom : The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rev. ed. [San Francisco, Calif.]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.


Jun 10, 2009

Pet Peeve: Political Campaigning in the Pulpit

I am taking a break from posting on Just(ice)fication: Divine Righteousness from a post-colonial perspective and an extended break from posting on Insights for Christian activism to discuss one of my pet peeves about certain church services.

My favorite Gospel in the New Testament to read growing up as a wide-eyed eight year-old in Louisville, KY was the Gospel according to Matthew in the King James version. This would explain a lot about my religious and political beliefs because I take the Sermon on the Mount to be authoritative since, you know, Jesus is the Master of the Universe in addition to being a very intelligent Teacher. Matthew 22:21 I especially love to quote, even today in the poetic form of the AUTHORIZED version of God's Holy Word: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." This passage, after I took Dr. Ron Flowers "Church and State Law in America class" a few years ago took on a new meaning for me.

Do not get me wrong. I am not one of those people who say, well, Jesus was not into politics, as if a relationship with the Master and Messiah of my life has no implications whatsoever for my relationships with my neighbors, the opposite sex, my country, my government. Indeed, there are political obligations for those who wish to represent Jesus the Messiah, whether they be male or female, black or white, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, etc., etc.

What I disapprove of is the brand of Constantinian Christianity that says the church exists to legitimate the political powers that be, whether it is in the form of a democratic-republic, constitutional-monarchy, or Islamo-fascist state. Because of the Church's prophetic task to take the Good News to the world and make disciples, it is necessary for some Christians to become involved in politics. But this involvement should not be at the expense of ignoring Christian principles just to suit one's own agenda or appease the people.

What I continue to find disturbing is North American churches on the RIGHT and LEFT where the messages from the pulpit are little more than the campaign slogan of the last general election, maybe a YES WE CAN there just to get the people excited or COUNTRY FIRST here so we can wrap the cross of Christ around the American flag. It makes me sick to my stomach to see politicians come up in front of congregations and pretend they are not campaigning and tell about how much they love the LORD and how much of a family woman/man they are. I have heard horror stories, from white Democratic campaign activists themselves bragging to me how they love to go to Black churches to drop-off campaign material (identity politics aside-- i will address this in later posts)and I have also seen on television Charismatic pastors preach that George W. Bush was God's man in 2000 because God spoke to Moses through a burning bush in Exodus 3. These are plain abominations! But, alas no one cares because nothing is sacred any more. Very little distinction between the holy and the worldly, the Christian and the lost. But I guess that is the point, though, huh?

Jun 6, 2009

JUST(ICE)FICATION PART 1: James Cone’s Doctrine of Justification: Divine Righteousness in Post-Colonial Perspective

Recently, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight of JESUS CREED has been working on a series dealing with, N T Wright, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul . At the center of the debate is the discussion whether or not the Reformers (especially Martin Luther) were correct in understanding the apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith as a response to the early Judaisms’ work righteousness. Tradition tells us that Paul was making a case against the Jews who viewed themselves as following the law and somehow earning their salvation to the next world; but is this view of history accurate? The scholars of the New Perspective on Paul would disagree. It is hard for me to totally concur with the traditional Reformation understanding of justification as well since one cannot say that there was just ONE Judaism in the first and second centuries. I personally think that N T Wright (as a first-rate biblical scholar) wasted his time in addressing John Piper and the hyper-Calvinists’criticism of him and the NPP school. The debate over whether or not this or that Judaism taught salvation as earned or not is completely irrelevant to the pressing issues of today. The point of Paul’s Gospel concerning God’s righteousness is to describe for us God’s action in the continual story in the life of Israel and Jesus the Messiah.

When one looks at history, while there are some objective facts to be retrieved, one cannot help but see history as a mirror reflection of one’s very own story. Martin Luther, for instance, viewed his condemnation of some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church as part of a tradition of the apostle Paul’s struggle against the Jews’ works righteousness. With this narrative understanding of history, let us take as our example, James Cone, to some known as the father of Black Theology. Cone sees himself (although a Methodist) as sharing a similar plight to Martin Luther and St. Paul; the difference being the historical context, social location, and type of heresy/works righteousness that needed to be confronted. In his work, BLACK THEOLOGY & BLACK POWER, Cone provides a theological doctrine of divine righteousness which seeks to destroy white supremacy both in the white American church and white American society.

Adherence to the Reformation doctrine “Justification by grace through faith” has political implications in the minds of Black Theologians. To accept God’s grace for Cone, means that “that because God has acted for all, all men are free—free to respond creatively to that act. It thus becomes the act of Christian love to proclaim the Good News of freedom by actively fighting against all those powers which hold men captive” (Cone, 52). God does not move out of necessity; God has the free will to choose to act because God is sovereign, and God has done so in a particular way in history. The drama of the biblical narrative reveals God’s just actions. Therefore, Christian doctrine of justification should first begin in the very praxis of Yahweh and his Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Cone explains:

"It is important to note that God’s righteousness refers not so much to an abstract quality related to his Being in the realm of thought—as commonly found in Greek philosophy—but to his activity in human history, in the historical events of the time and effecting his purpose despite those who oppose it. This is the biblical tradition. Israel as a people initially came to know God through the exodus. It was Yahweh who emancipated her from Egyptian bondage and subsequently established a covenant with her at Sinai, promising: [Exodus 19:4-6]” [….] Divine righteousness means that God will be faithful to his promise, that his purposes for Israel will not be thwarted. Israel, therefore, need not worry about her weakness and powerlessness in a world of mighty military powers, ‘for all of the earth is mine’ (Exodus 19:5). The righteousness of God means that he will protect her from the ungodly menacing of other nations. Righteousness means God is doing justice, that he is putting right what men have made wrong.” (Cone, 44)

In other words, divine righteousness that is disclosed in the story of the Exodus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to protect the defenseless and weak Hebrew children over and against the evil Egyptian empire. Our faithful obedience to God requires our recognition that security and salvation lie with God alone. Cone adds:

“God will unquestionably vindicate the poor. […] If God is to be true to himself, his righteousness must be directed to the helpless and the poor, those who can expect no security from this world. The rich, the secure, the suburbanite can have no part of God’s righteousness because of their trust and dependence on the things of this world. ‘God’s righteousness triumphs when man has no means of triumphing.’ [Barth, Dogmatics] His righteousness is reserved for those who come empty-handed, without any economic, political, or social power. That is why the prophets and Jesus were so critical of the economically secure. Their security gets in the way of absolute faith in God.” (page 45)

While Cone does not explicitly discuss the Resurrection at length, the implication of his doctrine of justification is that the Resurrection vindicates God’s Elect Savior whose life and ministry is forever justified (1st Timothy 3:16 ). The emancipatory mission of Jesus of Nazareth has been approved by the One True God, the God of Israel for all eternity. The Son of Man came to judge the Roman Empire by taking the side of the oppressed, healing the lame and the blind, and opposing the religious and political authorities of his day. Not one human being is able to accuse Jesus the Messiah of any wrongdoing. As the apostle Paul asks, “Who will bring any charge against God’s Elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:33-34). We as sinful human beings are unable to bring any charges against God’s Son because he lives a perfect and blames life; and it is only by Jesus’s death and resurrection that God “makes a way out of no way” in which the Church can participate in his holy life.
I will let Cone have the last word:

“Radical obedience to Christ means that reward cannot be the motive for action. It is a denial of faith to insist on the relevance of reward. Is this not what St. Paul had in mind when he spoke of justification? When Paul uses the term ‘justification’ in reference to Christ he mean that sinful man, through complete trust alone, is accepted by God and is declared an treated as a righteous man. He is emphasizing man’s inability to make himself righteous. All human strivings are nil; man cannot earn God’s acceptance (Romans 3:20; Gal. 3:22). Salvation is by the free grace of God. There is no place for the conceit that men can save themselves by their own efforts, if they try hard enough.” (Cone, 125)


Works Cited
Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power An Original Seabury Paperback, Sp 59. New York,: Seabury Press, 1969.