Friday, November 27, 2009

Amazing grace: Roman justice VS the saving restorative justice of God

Here is another quote from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Roman justice was a way of bringing order out of chaos, but it resulted in a system of more justice for some (the elite) and less for others. Furthermore, it required a system of punishment and deterrence that included the shame of public crucifixion for those who threatened the order that Roman justice created. In other words,... Roman justice required the exclusion and even the destruction of anyone perceived to be a threat to the peace/the social order/justice. The descendants of Roman justice, including certain contemporary versions of domestic as well as international justice, inevitably follow a similar pattern, culminating in the destruction of the enemy...

The saving, restorative justice of God revealed in the gospel is an alternative way of setting people right with God and with one another. It takes place not by inflicting violence to the enemy, but by absorbing violence on behalf of the enemy. Its extreme modus operandi is not to crucify but to be crucified. It does not require the destruction of the enemy but the embrace of the enemy. The justice of God, therefore, is not the opposite of compassion but the very expression of com­passion. It is at once the manifestation of God's faithfulness, because this is the way God is, and of God's grace, because it is not what humans deserve. Romans 3:21-26 and especially 5:6—8 demonstrate that Christ crucified displays this kind of divine justice, simultaneously revealing that "normal" forms of justice are in fact alien to the gospel:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)"

If Gorman is right, there is much for us to reflect on.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Discipleship re-visited, as the church faces the temptation of cultural captivity

Here is another quote from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Today, once again, many Christians and churches face the temptations of cultural captivity, 'spirituality' without discipleship or ethics, and knee-jerk nationalism. These are all forms of cheap grace, or cheap justification—a relationship with God in which God is believed to be a kind of cosmic agent of 'salvation' (happiness, blessing, security, prosperity, etc.) who requires little or nothing of the allegedly 'saved' or 'blessed.' Cheap justification is justification without trans­formation, without conversion, without justice. Once again, someone needs to speak, not merely of grace, but of costly grace; not merely of justification by faith, but of costly justification by faith. That someone is Paul."

Of course the language of "cheap grace" and "cheap justification" is not found in Paul's letters (not literally). But Gorman's critique must be heard. Any reading of Paul's letters will find that as Christ-followers we are challenged to follow the way of the Cross. At the heart of his letter to the Romans, we find a very important verse.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:17)

In the Greek the words for "co-heirs", "share in his sufferings", and "share in his glory" start with the same prefix, which means "with-" in English. This means that, for Paul, the three are all very important and are indeed interlocking ideas and cannot be separated (especially with the connecting words "if indeed" and "in order that").

Discipleship can be costly. I personally find it very challenging. But I think ultimately it is the love of Christ that compels us to follow him wholeheartedly. For me, I am very much aware of my limitations and weaknesses, and I ask the Holy Spirit to help me on the journey.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The challenge of biblical literacy

I think the greatest challenge for the church today is that too often Christians (individually and corporately) allow others to read the Bible for us (rather than reading it ourselves).

Today I read an article entitled "The Challenge of Biblical Literacy" (written by Cheryl Catford in Faith and Life Issue 3 October 2009). Here is a quote from the introduction.

"Bible illiteracy among the general Christian population has reached alarming levels and evangelicals are not far behind. George Barna's research amongst American churches in 2000 revealed that among adult and teen believers the most widely known Bible verse was "God helps those who help themselves" (yes, you're right, it's not in there). For some Australian Christians the only encounter they have with the Bible is when a small portion appears on the screen during the weekly service - there is no need to actually touch a Bible at all."

Catford then suggests five reasons (the following sections of the article are not cited in full):

1. The demise of Sunday School

"Today, children's programs are much more entertaining but, unfortunately, the Bible does not always feature prominently."

2. The atomisation of the Bible

"But so few have been taught or grasped the whole story so the Bible becomes a confusing jumble of unrelated stories or bits of information."

3. The desire for instant individual gratification

"Often the Bible is treated as the source of instant answers to whatever problem or question the reader has. "

4. The fear of not being relevant

"However, this concern has resulted in the proliferation of sermons that have little Bible content and seem more like motivational messages."

5. The emphasis on experience

"The old fallacious dichotomy between 'Word' and 'Spirit' seemed to force a choice rather than a marriage of the two in the lives of mature believers."

I suspect that there are more reasons (not unrelated to the above). For example,

a. An over-reliance on the teaching of our 'faith-heroes' (or 'superstars in our tradition/movement/counter-movement') - we have to remember that they are not always right! We need to read the Bible ourselves!

b. A culture that embraces pragmatism (the simplistic notion of 'if it works then it must be from God') almost unconditionally

c. An increasingly popular underlying theology that downplays the importance and value of Scripture

In the conclusion, Catford says,

"And the solutions? That is for another article but suffice to say all Christian leaders need to take the situation seriously."

Something for us all to ponder.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gormon on the gospel according to Paul

A few quotes from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Jesus was not crucified for preaching a search for God within, as the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas describes his message, but for preaching the coming of the reign of God, a political image that stirred up both hope among Jews and fear among Romans. Paul was no different; he preached the 'gospel' of God." (p. 42)

"According to Paul, the gospel of God is not a set of propositions; it is the account of the planned, executed, and soon-to-be-consummated benevolent intervention of God into the history of Israel, human history more generally, and the entire cosmos to set right a world gone awry. Both the intervention itself and the retelling of it effect transformation in those who receive the message for what it is - good news of God's action in Christ and the Spirit." (pp. 44-45)

"To be sure, Paul's gospel calls individuals to a right relationship with God, but it calls them into a community where right relationships with God and with others - both insiders and outsiders - are taught, learned, and practiced." (p. 45)

An African's view on war and violence

I picked up a book by Samuel Waje Kunhiyop called African Christian Ethics. There is a chapter on war and violence. Here is a quote from the conclusion.

"Violent means have frequently been employed to try to solve the incessant conflicts around the world. But the current situation in Africa shows that violence is not the answer. Violence produces more hatred and more violence, but never ultimately resolves the conflict.

The answer to the nagging conflicts in the church and in the continent is the non-violence that Jesus practised and instructed his followers to practise. This refusal to accept violence does not mean that we passively accept whatever is done to us, nor does it mean that we cannot use force to protect ourselves when attacked. What it does mean is that we must not accept the use of force as a means of settling conflicts. Instead, we must encourage non-violent but active resistance when dealing with African ethnic and religious conflicts.

The effectiveness of non-violent responses to oppression and injustices has been demonstrated worldwide. In South Africa, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela stood for non-violent but active resistance to the oppressive apartheid regime. In the United States of America, Martin Luther King Jr. was the major spokesman for non-violent bin active resistance to racial segregation. Gandhi adopted a non-violent approach to solving the political crisis in India.

Only love for the enemy and the determination not to use force or violence will win conflicts and win the enemy. These attitudes provide a theologically based "framework within which to carry on the vital task of building structures that can eventually eliminate war and its causes". The only effective remedy against oppression and injustice is the replacement of evil structures that have been institutionalized with good and just structures:

'The only true answer to violence is to have the courage to face the injustice which constitutes violence ... The privileged and the authorities will come to understand that common sense obliges one to choose between bloody and armed violence, on the one hand, and on the other the violence of the peaceful: liberating moral pressure.'"

I find that this African author's approach to the issue is different from that of Western theology. Kunhiyop is aware of the Western approach (as discussed in the beginning of his chapter). But he does not go into a detailed debate regarding just war and pacifism. Rather, he looks at the wars and conflicts in Africa and then examines the Bible to find an answer. He discussed many Old Testament and New Testament passages in detail. I think it is a good approach.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Respect the Scripture and those who have suffered for it

Tonight I read a book with my son. It's about how the Bible was handed down to us. One person it mentions is John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English and was condemned by the religious and political institutions at the time as a heretic. I told my son that people like him suffered and/or died for the Bible, because they considered it as God's Word, and that it was to be respected and was important for our faith. Then my son said that those who persecuted people like Wycliffe were very mean.

It's true, isn't it? It comes from the mouth of an innocent child.

In my circle of friends I have increasingly come across sincere and lovely Christians who believe that certain Scriptures should be "deleted" because they cannot be from God. For example, they think that certain passages in Isaiah cannot be from God because those passages say that God is a God of vengeance. For them, these passages are incompatible with the message of love that Jesus teaches. They cannot come to terms with the tension between God's judgment and the grace of God found in Christ.

I do very much respect these Christian friends, for I know them personally and they are among the best Christians I have come across in my life. But I wonder whether their thinking stems from a Western modern worldview in which a belief system (as it is often assumed) should have as few internal tensions as possible, and that we (human beings) can get to choose which parts of the Scripture can be "deleted" when we want to resolve certain tensions. I think the earliest Christians did not have this problem. People like Luke and Paul did not seek to resolve those tensions. The biblical writers (e.g. the author of Job and Habakkuk) saw those tensions. They struggled with them. They even lamented and protested. But they learned to live with them and put themselves in the hands of a faithful and loving God.

Sometimes I think my friends are trying to deal with certain Christians/churches/doctrines that have turned the Bible into an idol and used the "authority of the Bible" as an instrument to abuse people. My friends are right in realising that there is a real problem there. The gospel message, as revealed in the Scripture, is about setting people free, not putting them in bondage. We submit to the Bible - not a particular interpretation of the Bible, a particular statement of faith or confession - as the rule of faith.

But one must respect people like Wycliffe, and many Christians in the world who have suffered and/or died for the Bible (for translating it into the common language or for keeping in their possession). They do so because they have experienced the transforming power of the Scripture as it is the revelation of the Creator God and the teaching of Christ through the Spirit.

Is social justice something that only some Christians should engage in?

Often pastors and leaders come to me and suggest that not everyone should engage in social justice. It is an important area of the church, they say. But they also think that people have different gifts and not everyone is interested in this area of ministry.

True and not true. It is true that everyone has different gifts and talents. But it is not true that individual Christians can opt out of defending the powerless. Despite our different gifts and talents, everyone of us should bear witness to Christ. Some of us use words. Some use actions. Some spend the majority of their time relating to Christians and little time on proclaiming the gospel, because their gift is not in proclaiming. But it doesn't mean that they don't pray for evangelistic activities. Similarly, not everyone is good at pastoral care. But everyone should in one way or another express their love for those in need.

In the same way, I believe that everyone should defend the cause of the poor and vulnerable. Some do it by engaging in advocacy work (e.g. writing a letter to or visiting an MP about social justice issues). Some do it through prayer and financial giving. Preachers can include justice issue in every sermon. Everyone can play a part by buying fair trade products.

The Micah mandate is not for a selected group of Christians. It's for every follower of Jesus.

"He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

We use different gifts and talents for the cause. Some spend more time on social justice. Some spend less. But the call is for everyone.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book review: Another Way to Love

Here is another book review for Another Way to Love. I have written a chapter in the book, but unfortunately the review doesn't mention it. Having said that, the review is very positive and says that it's a great book to read!

Click here for the review.

The apostle Paul in one sentence

I am reading Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Here is a quote from the book (p. 8). It's a one complex sentence to describe Paul. It takes a bit of concentration to read, but it's worth the effort.

"Paul preached, and then explained in various pastoral, community-forming letters, a narrative, apocalyptic, theopolitical gospel (1) in continuity with the story of Israel and (2) in distinction to the imperial gospel of Rome (and analogous powers) that was centered on God's crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus, whose incarnation, life, and death by crucifixion were validated and vindicated by God in his resurrection and exaltation as Lord, which inaugurated the new age or new creation in which all members of this diverse but consistently covenantally dysfunctional human race who respond in self-abandoning and self-committing faith thereby participate in Christ's death and resurrection and are (i) justified, or restored to right covenant rela­tions with God and with others; (2) incorporated into a particular manifestation of Christ the Lord's body on earth, the church, which is an alternative community to the status-quo human communities committed to and governed by Caesar (and analo­gous rulers) and by values contrary to the gospel; and (3) infused both individually and corporately by the Spirit of God's Son so that they may lead 'bifocal' lives, focused both back on Christ's first coming and ahead to his second, consisting of Christlike, cruciform (cross-shaped) (1) faith and (2) hope toward God and (3) love toward both neighbors and enemies (a love marked by peace-ableness and inclusion), in joyful anticipation of (1) the return of Christ, (2) the resurrection of the dead to eternal life, and (3) the renewal of the entire creation."

I think it's a good way to understand the apostle Paul and his letters.