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Brent Strawn, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, posted the following article on MinistryMatters.com. It also appears in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider. It’s an excellent reflection…
When God Seems Unjust
I make my living teaching the Old Testament, so I’m quite aware of its “problems.” You might say it’s a job hazard in my line of work. Even if people can’t cite chapter and verse, they often have a strong feeling that things in the first half (actually, the first seventy-eight percent) of the Bible aren’t quite right—that there are some disturbing things over there if you ever bother to read it (most don’t), and many of them have to do with God.
Just a week ago I was called in for something of an emergency “Save the Old Testament!” session for a Disciple Bible Study group at my own local congregation. There I heard yet again what seems to have become the standard interpretation among far too many Christians: “God is mean in the Old Testament, but everything changes with Jesus and the New Testament. What gives?”
This is a big question connected to a large number of others. I can’t solve the first, let alone the rest, not even if I had many times the space I have here, because the “best questions,” or in this case, the most difficult ones, simply don’t have any easy answers. That doesn’t mean we are relieved of having to try, however. The Mishnah has a famous saying to this effect: “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it” (Abot 2.21). So, here are four thoughts on the matter.
1. It’s Not Just an Old Testament Problem
The problem is not just an “Old Testament” one. It is, through and through, from top to bottom, a biblical problem in at least two ways:
(1) The New Testament also has its share of violence and wrath—“mean God” kind of stuff for short. One need only think of the Book of Revelation, or the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), or sayings of Jesus that are far from “meek and mild” to get this point clearly (e.g., Matt 5:25-26; 10:34-36; 16:2-3; 23:1-36; Mark 10:38; Luke 12:49-53; 13:3, 5; 14:25-33; etc.).
(2) The Old Testament has just as much “nice God” kind of stuff as the New Testament. Indeed, much of the New Testament’s “niceness” comes directly from the Old Testament: The Great Commandment concerning the love of God and love of neighbor, for instance (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18), but also love for immigrants (Lev 19:34) and good deeds for one’s enemies (e.g., Prov 25:21; cf. Matt 5:39; Rom 12:20). Or, more directly to God’s wrath, consider Isaiah 54:7-10, which acknowledges God’s abandonment and anger “for a moment,” but now promises great compassion and everlasting love (vv. 7-8). It culminates in the statement that God will never be angry with Israel again—never, just as God will never flood the earth again (v. 9)! Then:
“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (v. 10)
What text anywhere else in the Bible could rival this one in raw mercy and unbounded grace?
Christians who advocate the “standard interpretation” mentioned above are revealing nothing so much as their ignorance on two fronts: (1) their lack of knowledge of the entirety of the Old Testament, including its many “good parts”; and (2) their lack of knowledge of the entirety of the New Testament, including its many “bad parts.” Once again, the problem of God’s violence or wrath is thoroughly a biblical one—not just an Old Testament one.
This means, in turn, that the solution to the problem cannot be only a New Testament one, since the New Testament itself has the same blemishes. The fact that so many Christians don’t know either side of this equation reveals profound biblical illiteracy. That problem, in turn, is especially acute because it prevents Christians from findingbiblical solutions to the very real difficulties posed by biblical texts concerning violence and wrath.
2. There Are Biblical Solutions
Happily, there are solutions to the problems of violence and wrath posed by the Old and New Testaments. Let it be underscored that these are biblical solutions, not restricted to one testament (invariably the New) over the other (inevitably the Old). These solutions will not satisfy everyone, and each difficult text deserves separate, case-by-case attention. It must suffice here, and speaking only of the Old Testament, to again highlight that it knows as much grace as the New Testament (recall Isaiah 54), and that it built into it what might be called “strategies of containment.”
One example: the problem of the conquest and settling of Canaan, and thus the problem of Holy War, bothers modern sensibilities. How could this be part of God’s purposes and plans in the world? Here again is a serious issue; it cannot be addressed simply or simplistically. That granted, it is worth noting that the Old Testament does not repeatedly enjoin this kind of military activity on subsequent generations of Israelites. Nor does it continually evoke the conquest as a metaphor for faithful life with God.
This should be quickly contrasted with the exodus, which is everywhere mentioned and used as a way to describe even much later acts of God, such as the return from exile. The point of comparison is that, in the very way the Old Testament speaks of these things, it suggests that the conquest of Canaan is a limited, time-bound phenomenon never to be repeated; the exodus, however, is the way God works, period (cf. Amos 9:7). That doesn’t fix all the problems with the conquest, but it is a start.
3. It’s Not a New Problem
The problems of violence, wrath, and the like—as well as the “standard interpretation” of these—are nothing new. They are very old indeed, running back at least to the arch-heretic Marcion in the second century.
Marcion was the first to articulate the standard interpretation in full-blown fashion and he ended up throwing the entirety of the Old Testament out (interestingly enough, his position also required jettisoning a good bit of the New Testament!). Marcion’s theology was predicated precisely on antitheses like evil/good, judgmental/merciful, old/new. The church declared Marcion a heretic and resolutely retained the Old Testament (and a fuller New Testament).
The early church father, Tertullian (ca. 160-225), wrote five books against Marcion. Among other things, Tertullian said that a God who disapproves of nothing (that is, who lacks the capacity or disposition to judge or discipline), is unable to approve of anything and thus cannot save or deliver those who experience injustice. Marcion’s “god” may be unambiguously “good” but this goodness makes no (biblical) sense and cannot provide justice for those who suffer. One must be very careful to define what one means by the word “good”—and it should take more than a sentence or two! Moreover, robust Trinitarian theology means the Three are One. To say that one (the Father) is mean with the other (the Son) nice is to introduce unorthodox distinctions into the Godhead. Anyone who believes that a “mean God” inhabits the Old Testament and a “nice God” lives in the New, is making divisions that are not only uninformed, biblically-speaking, but also far too simplistic—even, dare one say, heretical.
4. There Is No Simple Solution
Finally, the previous point means we must steward ourselves to prevent any speech or thinking about God that is too simplistic. God, the Infinite, can never “get said” quite right—not even with many words or even all the books in the world. If we can imagine a situation in which God appears to be as dumb as one of the Three Stooges, we aren’t thinking about God or the problem with sufficient complexity. It would be a mistake to think that we are smarter than God, or the book about God.
Again, that is not to say that the problems of wrath, violence, and so forth (and there are many of the latter!) aren’t real or significant. They are both, and just as they admit of no easy solution, they are not easily understood. Then again, maybe they aren’t meant to be solved or understood. St. Augustine said the following in a sermon:
“[Scripture] can only be understood in ways beyond words; human words cannot suffice for understanding the Word of God. What we are discussing and stating is why it is not understood. I am not speaking in order that it may be understood, but telling you what prevents it being understood. . . What I am saying is how incomprehensible is the passage that was read to us. But in any case, it wasn’t read in order to be understood, but in order to make us mere human beings grieve because we don’t understand it, and make us try to discover what prevents our understanding, and so move it out of the way, and hunger to grasp the unchangeable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.”
Augustine wrote that about John 1:1-3! If it holds true for that text, then certainly it holds true for even more perplexing texts. And so it is that one finds a rich history of interpretation in both Jewish and Christian circles about the most difficult of texts—including and especially ones concerning God’s wrath and violence.
Much more could be said. Much more should be said. But this is a beginning. Perhaps if ministers spoke more about these texts, addressing them in ways like I have done here but adding to that and expounding upon it, the “intractable” problems of the Old Testament would suddenly become tractable after all, and people would find themselves confronted afresh and anew with the whole counsel of God, not just the last 22 percent of it. That would be a victory in more ways than one!
May, 2013 marks the 275th anniversary of John Wesley’s “heart warming” experience at Aldersgate in London. To celebrate this great event in Methodism, World Methodist Evangelism will be sponsoring a Wesley Heritage Tour of England. I will be leading a group and would like to invite you to join me.
As you may recall, the experience of Aldersgate, May 24, 1738, shaped John Wesley’s life. He wrote, “I felt my Heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation.” A movement of renewal and vision began that continues across the globe today. On May 24, we will be joining with the “people called Methodist” to follow the steps of Wesley to Aldersgate. For 9 days we will experience the key places of the Wesleyan revival – Wesley’s Chapel, Bristol, The Pill, Hanham Mt., and Oxford to name a few. I invite you to experience anew the heart of the Wesleyan/Methodist Movement today.
I will be leading a group as part of this pilgrimage. For more information, please download the brochure or email Kim Reisman. Clergy and clergy spouse scholarships are available. This is an exciting opportunity to mark a great event in our spiritual history. I hope you’ll consider joining me.
At the Celebration of Ministry Service at Annual Conference in Indianapolis last week, I was struck again by how we in the Methodist tradition continually strive to invoke the Holy Spirit upon the life of the church and upon those who are to order and lead it: in the midst of conference and bishop, in the call to itinerant forms of ministry and accountability, we confess how dependent we are upon the Spirit to share in the mission of the whole church. I was struck by the way we are to order our lives not simply toward God but toward one another, and by the way our guiding vision always takes a particular shape during a particular time regardless of the challenges. It was a grace-filled moment, to be sure, but also a reminder of the true end to which Christ calls each of us.
In a letter to John Smith on June 25, 1746, John Wesley, in reflecting on the Methodist movement, wrote, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is worth nothing.”
Wesley’s quote captures the deeply missional thrust of the people called Methodists: a church’s pattern of organization and authority – or polity – must be oriented toward the church’s mission of saving souls or making disciples. How we order our lives must somehow support that basic mission. As Wesley would say elsewhere: if we can’t find ways to organize the church toward these ends, then we might as well let the devil win!
As United Methodists we have spent a great deal of energy over the years trying to align our organization more purposefully with our mission. As historian Russell Richey of Emory University has stated, Methodists have always tried to develop appropriate structures that would sustain and nourish their mission depending on the era. What have remained constant over time are those elements that have been distinctive to Methodists from early on: conference, episcopacy, itinerant ministry, and forms of accountability. While these aspects do not provide a full account of Methodist polity, the loss of any of them would diminish something unique to the Methodist way of sharing in God’s mission.
To be sure, it’s a tall order to keep these four elements together, especially during a time of historic transition. It would be easy, for example, to fall into the trap of wanting to do away with one of these principles at the expense of another. It would also be tempting to see the role of the Holy Spirit as only working in our individual lives or congregations as against the structures of the wider church as an institution. And yet, as our history indicates, our polity has persisted through time not just because we have the right structures but because we are actively seeking to respond to what the Spirit is doing.
Such characteristics, of course, are not unique to United Methodists. Other Pan-Methodists and Wesleyan Holiness churches have also struggled with matters of discipline and order – African Methodist Episcopal and Free Methodists come to mind. They are reminders that questions of mission and polity go hand-in-hand in the Wesleyan tradition.
Celebrating in worship at Annual Conference, and praying for those who were being commissioned and ordained, I was moved at how Methodism seeks to order its life as a mission-driven community of faith. Again and again, we invoked God’s Spirit as we sent out those who will serve among us, sharing in ministries of mutual accountability, and renewing our covenant to be faithful to the example of Christ. It was a hope-filled moment, to say the least.
However, as we think about the future of the United Methodist Church, we may also want to ask ourselves why these four elements in our polity have persisted throughout our history. We may want to ask what these may mean in light of our present challenges. As General Conference in Tampa revealed we have much work to do.
Andy Kinsey serves as the Wesleyan Theologian on the Leadership Table of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church and as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin, Indiana.
Bob Walters is the director of connection ministries in the North Katanga Episcopal Area in the DRCongo. He’s also part of an organization called Friendly Planet Missiology. Friendly Planet is a team of missiologists (Congolese and American) committed to empowering and equipping community leaders–particularly those working in the heart of The United Methodist Church’s North Katanga Area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The North Katanga Episcopal Area, which includes the North Katanga, Tanganyika, and Tanzania Conferences, is one of the fastest growing areas of the United Methodist Church. It is also one of the poorest with malaria, cholera, typhoid, and HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many of its districts have survived the recent horrific war in eastern Congo and are struggling to recover. United Methodist pastors and lay leaders behaved heroically during the war and are now in place to lead in the recovery. North Katanga will have 66 delegates at this year’s General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida, the largest delegation attending. 2010 was the centennial year of Methodism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I give you that information so you can have some perspective on the blog Bob posted yesterday – Abandoned and Forgotten. Here’s what Bob had to say:
Monono is exactly 100 kilometers by bicycle from Mulongo, if you take the short cut through the forest around Kyolo, which we did. The ride was serious fast. Team leader Daniel Mumba was driven to get there in record time. We even dropped a team member and sent him back to Mulongo when he pulled up lame. (At least, we didn’t shoot him.)
In the forest, we find a mining encampment. It’s a large group with both women and men mining, as well as women doing laundry, cooking meals, and caring for babies. It’s also a friendly group. I’m having the feeling of running across a Gypsy camp in the backwoods of eastern Europe. (This is my imagination on sensory overload.) They welcome our picture taking and take time out to pose and smile. Don’t let me deceive the reader, this is brutal work and in no way does the friendly welcome of the miners make this situation acceptable. Here is where your laptop or cell phone is born, dug out of the mud by the poorest people on the planet. This hard day’s ride in the scorching sun is a physical challenge for me, but they are going to be here every day for the rest of their lives.
Out of the forest and back on the road, we head into the U.N. Peace Keeping Zone. There is some kind of political demonstration happening in the first village we enter. A large crowd has gathered and someone with a lot of energy is speaking. U.N. troops are there to keep a lid on it. The officer in charge of the company of soldiers makes eye contact and without altering his firm posture, waves us through, as if to say, “We don’t need you in this mix.” I’m needing a rest stop and had mentally prepared myself for stopping in this village, but we wisely keep moving and make our stop 5 kilometers out of town. A couple hours later, the transport with the U.N. Peace Keepers passes us on their way back to their base in Monono.
This is my third visit to Monono, the first in 1991 and the second in 1995. Taylor (with Bishop Ntambo) visited right after the war in 2005. She saw the town in its rubble after being leveled in the war. I’m seeing two distinct pictures. There is the rubble, but it is overgrown and disappearing into the forest. Then there is the artificial city of the United Nations. The “downtown shopping district” of the old colonial days, which was a ghost town even before the war, has freshly painted store fronts and all kinds of trucks unloading all kinds of consumer goods. Generators are running to power communications systems. Pallets of bottled water, Coca-Cola, and beer are stacked outside the stores. The citizens are still living in poverty, but the U.N. soldiers and the accompanying NGO’s are living well, and someone is making a tidy profit.
We are greeted by the district leadership of the United Methodist Church. Here is where my blood begins its slow boil. (I felt the same way when I visited Kalemie in 2009, and Kabalo last year.) The United Methodist Church (the General Church) has totally abandoned and absolutely forgotten these people. This is where I personally lose my cool and say things on a blog that is permanent and global that are unwise, but this is the rant that is my 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg Door.
For the life of me, I can’t understand how a Church that prides itself in going anywhere and everywhere in the world in response to tragedy, misses the (by death toll) greatest humanitarian disaster since WWII. There is no UMCOR here in Monono, no General Board of Global Ministries, even. It’s worse than not responding, we have abandoned the mission stations that were critical to the community for education and health care. And we still haven’t returned. Our Congolese colleagues rightly feel abandoned.
That’s my second point in this rant. How did the United Methodist Church (General Church) miss the heroic work of the pastors and lay leaders during the war, risking life and livelihood to stay in their appointments? and now those same pastors and lay leaders are still there, exhausted and completely out of resources. And we still aren’t there.
These are the brave (and loyal) people who paint a cross and flame on their church or school or health center because they believe that they are on the same team as rest of the United Methodists in the world. They believe that they can go to work each day, without pay and without supplies, because we have their backs. Am I to tell them that Sam Houston isn’t coming? that they’re on their own?
The Catholic cathedral in the center of Monono had its roof blown off in the war. It is now reproofed and repainted and is a symbol of rebirth. I meet with the territorial administrator and he asks why the United Methodists have abandoned their people. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. We visit a school (auto mechanics and electrical) that had been built by the United Methodist missionary Ken Enright. An Irish NGO (Bono?) paid for a new roof and a fresh coat of paint, but it’s still an empty shell. The director of the school hands me an $80,000 proposal for restoring the school to its previous state. I’m helpless to respond, and I’m angry that no one from the General Board of Global Ministries has even been here to see the state of their own projects.
The General Conference of the United Methodist Church is meeting in Tampa next week. There will be 66 delegates from the North Katanga Episcopal Area. If you are there, look them up, shake their hands, and say, “I’m sorry that we weren’t there with you, what can we do to help?”
If you’re from any of our general agencies, look me up. I’m Bob Walters, the newly appointed Director of Connectional Ministries for the North Katanga Episcopal Area. I’m very cross right now, but I can easily be appeased with a smile and a handshake.
We talk about being a worldwide United Methodist Church, but it seems we only really act like it when it’s convenient. Or that could be cynicism getting the best of me. Maybe now that the part of the church that’s actually growing finally has a seat at the table, things might be different. I’m don’t know.
Don’t miss a minute!!
If you’re interested in following along with what’s unfolding at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, FL April 24-May 4, the following links will be helpful:
Official Mobile Phone App for General Conference - United Methodist Communications is providing this for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch and Android. It will allow you to track specific pieces of legislation, live stream some of the sessions, and see photos/articles.
I’m a delegate to General Conference and leave for Tampa on Sunday. My responsibilities begin Monday morning and the Conference itself officially begins on Tuesday. I hope to post some reflections about the meeting and the life of the church; however, given the packed agenda, that may not happen. Next Step’s regular The View From Here bloggers will be posting so be sure to check back for them.
As you might expect, there will be tweets galore. I’ll be providing updates and prayer concerns so you can follow me – @KimsNextStep. There are also hashtags you can check for extended conversation and updates, particularly, #gc2012 and #umclead
I would greatly appreciate your prayers during this significant (but also stressful and often difficult) meeting. There has been a lot of discussion leading up to the gathering in Tampa, some positive, but a lot negative. We’re kidding ourselves if we think General Conference will solve all the problems in the UMC, or if we think any of our large institutional gatherings is what lies at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ. But General Conference still has it’s place, so I hope you’ll join me in fervent prayer for all those involved, that we would be able to discern the best way to connect with God’s unfolding kingdom (which, of course, will unfold regardless of the grand schemes we devise in Tampa).
John and I discovered the work of the International Justice Mission about three years ago. I’m so glad we did. Now they’re celebrating 15 years of amazing work and I’m excited to be part of that and looking forward to the next 15. Here’s some info about this tremendous ministry. I hope you’ll consider supporting their important work.
15 years ago, International Justice Mission began in response to one massive problem: poor children and families around the world desperately needed a defender.
Today, there are thousands of reasons to celebrate – from girls rescued from brothels, to families freed from slavery; from traffickers and rapists held accountable, to justice systems changing to protect the poor.
Over the next 15 years, IJM is embracing a bold vision to protect millions.
Seven ways you can connect with International Justice Mission
Mark your calendars for a great learning opportunity!
Saturday, March 17, Elaine Heath will be speaking at St. Andrew UMC in West Lafayette, IN on the new monasticism in a forum entitled, The New Methodists. Should be an inspiring day!
Click here for more info.
The New Methodists ~ Elaine Heath
Saturday, March 17, 2012
9am – 3pm
$40.00 (watch for upcoming registration info)
St. Andrew United Methodist Church
4703 North 50 West
West Lafayette, IN 47906
Elaine Heath is the McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. She has written several books including The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach, Naked Faith: The Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer, and Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community.
This forum is sponsored by the Wesleyan ConneXion of the Indiana Conference, United Methodist Church.
The Wesleyan ConneXion Third Annual Wesleyan Theological Forum
Preaching Christ in the Wesleyan Tradition