Christianity is not Impotent

God Wins

A Poem by Mike Garner

 

Sweet Breaking

The entrance of God

Enfleshed in people

Possibility ready to be imagined

Bending the will of the world

Wisdom and nonviolence prevail

God’s will accomplished

The world will dance

 nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD— (Numbers 14:21)

 This elliptical phrase from the book of Numbers leaves the LORD’s thought unfinished. We receive only an oath, an irrevocable proclamation, and promise. The oath expresses the desire of God for all humanity to hear his voice, to see the land healed because humanity lives the glory of the LORD as his children. Yet how all this will happen is not said, it is to be imagined, and to be lived, as we all grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

      We can know God but we cannot prove God exists. However, we can remove any negating assertion in a similar statement. I know, Christianity is not impotent and it can be proven theologically in the realm of intellect, existentially in the lives of martyrs, exemplary souls, and practically in the world. The hope pieces of scripture express the hope of God for humanity. God’s hope is not vain. The eternal triad of faith, hope, and love, bring the presence of God into the world and actively work toward a redemptive reality both now and yet to come.

      Often people will state portions of scripture without even knowing what is meant or able to answer with any real evidence of efforts at articulation. For instance, “We are all children of God because we are created in his image”. However if asked to define with clarity the image of God borne by humanity, they are at a halt to respond. The image of God in humanity is easily seen in the study of God’s activity in redemptive history. God is a relational, redeeming creator who keeps covenant; these along with insight and the capacity to love is evidence of the image we bear. Within the immediate setting of Genesis 1:26 it is apparent that humanity is the apex of God’s creatures and able to subdue creation because of likeness and image.

    Something is missing however, it is a clear definition on the ‘likeness’; scripture states that we are created in both the likeness and image of God. Understanding ‘likeness’ is crucial for speaking theologically about the human condition.

Then the LORD God said,

“See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil;

and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life,

and eat, and live forever”—

(Gen. 3:22)[1]

     As the creation narratives unfold it is apparent that likeness finds its consummation after eating the prohibited fruit. The power of choice, the freedom to reach beyond the structures of reality, even to say ‘no’ to God belongs to humanity. However, because humanity is self-destructive, impatient, and chooses to ‘kick against the goads’, life without end is become out of reach. God has given us freedom both to say ‘no’ to God (not a wise move) and to create our own reality. It is freedom that exhibits likeness. Our freedom as creatures in the likeness and image of God is so honored by God that he never violates our will.[2] God never wins through coercive force, existence is real not written; God wins by revealing God’s self to be love and goodness.

    We err when we think that humanity is not responsible for the reality we have created. Jesus life as event enters history to expose the cycles of violence, to enable us to see the evidence of our capacity to destroy ourselves as a reality to be changed through the reign of God, through being in Christ, by entering the rest of God, by living with eternal life as a conviction that cannot be conquered. In Christ we are empowered as recipients of the Spirit to change history. Christianity is not impotent! God is love, not a warrior or a monster.

     Christianity is a religion to be practiced, and a way of life to be learned. It was systematically dismembered by being assimilated into the powers of human government through elitist structures of power. It was reduced to dogmatism and claims of correct belief became the idols that required the death of any resistor. Correct belief became more important than living a faith that requires love of neighbor as the evidence of love for God. God’s mercy sees the heart while ‘correct belief’ resists maturation and negates insightful theology through useless pedagogical claims.

Reconciling the OT with Jesus

     The misperception that the OT supports violence is an incorrect interpretive lens. The confusion for NT believers results in either a God in process or a dualistic God that is both violent and uncontrollably angry. The OT can be read through the lens of Jesus as the consummate revelation of God along with the application of genre to OT books and dismantle violent readings.[3]

    It is imperative to learn that every time the OT uses a Yahweh speech formula (Thus says the LORD) the reader must consider the genre of the book, the speaker, and the view of God represented in the claim. A reader’s misperception of the Yahweh speech formula as inviolable surrenders their own power to think critically about claims and actions inconsistent with the character of God. Further, all purposeful literary design that demonstrates great care and effort in producing scripture is lost if the speech formula cannot be questioned. 

     Once a person learns to read the Christian canon in its entirety, free from the errant concept of God-sanctioned violence, then the message of Jesus becomes the kind of good news that makes redemption both personal and historical. To annul the gospel of Jesus and his message, a message meant to change the world, by accepting violence as unconquerable and war as inevitable is to reject the gospel and reduce it to impotence. It is because of this that Christianity is filled with a history of violence, and abuse of the name of Jesus.

    Within the teaching of Jesus and the theology of scripture are revelations on humanity that coupled with the Spirit given to us are able to quite literally change the world. To abandon this thought is to lose faith, hope and love to inevitability. It is unfortunate that scripture is read in a manner that only seeks to interpret God. The scripture is written to enable us to find God at the same time we must learn about ourselves. This is so because in the creaturely reality God must always be enlfeshed, must speak, and hear. This being said, scripture is instructive on all that impedes humanity from being the people of God, and impedes Christianity from presenting the good news as historically salvific; not merely personal.

Correcting Theology

    I do not think that saying we are totally depraved is correct; it is a hopeless statement, bereft of faith, and void of love in it’s description of the human condition. Acceptance of our humanity is impossible when such extreme statements as ‘total depravity’ govern our concept of human potential.

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

(Romans 2:14-16)

       When Paul speaks of people who live acceptable lives, according to their moral conscience, it is clear that total depravity is inconsistent with Paul’s thought.  The founding murder, the story of Cain and Abel, demonstrates that Cain has the power of choice.

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

(Genesis 4:6,7)

     If our power to choose good is removed from us because of some primal event and those born afterwards inherit this untenable condition, then God is at fault. The general attitude produced by the ideology of hereditary sin abolishes hope before we even begin.  The theology that follows spends its energy on justifying God and becomes esoteric in the sense that it is logically absurd yet defended by persons supposed to be both sane and wise. If our freedom to choose is abolished and we have lost ‘likeness’ then any relational reality between humanity and God is become nullified.

Sacredness

       In the life and teaching of Jesus it is clear that the preservation of life defines how the Torah is to be read; this is also so for a good reading of the OT.  The only sacred object in the eyes of God is humanity; each one of us. For this reason, we see all claims of sacredness attributed to symbols, ceremony and location are rejected by the prophets. This truth is so basic that its simplest declaration is quoted by Jesus who raises it’s challenge to love of enemy; in affect, our enemy is our neighbor who is to be loved.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

(Leviticus 19:18) 

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

(Luke 6:35)

      The brother of Jesus, in the epistle bearing his name, turns all religious effort toward the weakest persons in society. James teaches that religion is corrupted when it does not serve the needy. This simple truth, that the purpose of religion, that the worship of God, is accomplished when, like God, we honor humanity as sacred.  For this reason the massive effort to accumulate weapons designed to be nothing more than massive explosions able to destroy both the ground and human life represents an immorality that is unconscionable. In the alleged civilized world of state power, life is not sacred, only the state, only their power. Our greatest threat to life is the very structures that we expect to bring order to life. It is because the powers do not seek peace, they seek to dominate others, they seek unjust gain, and laws that are void of sacredness bind them. They regulate evil rather than do good.

      The world needs a religion of peace, a religion free from the idols of militarism, materialism, and nationalism, a religion free from useless theology that contributes nothing to the healing of the world. The world needs Christianity to be wrestled away from ignorance, from popular culture, from the state, from therapeutic, feel-good reductionism. God entered the world in the person of Jesus and introduced to us a way of living able to heal the world.

Christianity the Power to Change the World

       Christians are to be creators of reality. The reality we create is first within; it is unconquerable because of the God who empowers us, and because we receive the Spirit of the Lord in our bodies. Our status as aliens is to be seen as difference; a difference so profound that our lives are a mixture of radical goodness and a groundedness that focuses our love on people in the present. Although the world cannot see it, a Christian is a person so grounded in reality that they see through all of the world’s guises and view God waiting for our response. 

    The inter-relational reality created in Christian community is to be an affective embodiment of God. It is a place where a practical balance of separation from, and engagement with, the world is integrated into daily life. It is a place where people of all ages learn to find God in the world and most importantly to bring God into the world through their thoughts and practices. People need to be taught how to live in relation to one another. Social intelligence is for everyone! However, it is not mere civility or niceties, it is recognition of the other, it is to understand reality-creation as Christian practice. Social intelligence is not ignoring reality or classifying people as toxic, rather it is born of spiritual intelligence. It is wisdom schooled in the classroom of love and insight.

 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

(Matt. 5:9)   

    Christian’s are peacemakers. Peace making requires courage and resistance to evil. Peace is always governed by love and mercy. Peacemaking always utilizes wisdom and nonviolence. In Jesus’ statement from the Sermon on the Mount, the qualifying activity of a child of God is peacemaking. It is reasonable to say that warmongering is disqualifying to the position of living as one of God’s children.

   I think at this point in my reflection it is evident that the education of a person is not the systemic method present in schools across the U.S. Rather, education’s emphasis on human development, on maturation, on learning peace, is the activity of a community and leads to a hunger for learning.

   In conclusion to this piece, I must say that at the root of all violence is the failure of men and women to live together without domination. Herein lies the healing of the world, for us to learn to live together as gendered beings comfortable in our skin, housing the Spirit, ever serving one another for the flourishing of life.

 

[1] Although the Hebrew noun ‘likeness’ is not used in Genesis 3:22, the preposition is still compatible with the intent and meaning of ‘like’ or ‘as’.

[2] Although God does not violate the human will, God does influence our will. The power of God to influence the will is a task to imagine in all its possibilities and complexities. However it does not appear within the experience of humanity that God actively influences human will for controlling our development or history. The exception is certainly those persons like Abraham, Moses, and Paul who are given a revelation. The prophets were also beneficiaries of gracious influence. Outside of these exceptions it seems that God’s influence is limited to the people who say ‘yes’ to him. To those who hear and obey, who, through likeness and image, through faith, bring God into the world.

[3] In all of my writings I continually offer nonviolent readings that are consistent with the revelation of God in Christ;  in particular is my book Theological Adventures