March 30, 2018

God's Solidarity with the Oppressed: Biblical Reflections for Good Friday

In a post on this blog that I am surprised to discover is now more than five years old, I proposed an approach to (religious/devotional) reading of the Bible which I called the Bible as dialogue. The central question motivating this approach is, why is the Bible written from diverse human perspectives? That is, what are we to make of the fact that the Bible does not present itself as direct divine discourse, the way the Quran does? My proposal, in brief, was that we are not meant passively to ingest the contents of this book, but to 'think along with' the human characters (both the authors and the people who figure in the stories), in order that we might be shaped—morally, intellectually, and spiritually—by this conversation among characters in diverse circumstances aiming to live the life with God. This approach is consistent with regarding God as the author of the collection in as strong a sense as you like, but it means we can't just naively suppose that God means us to endorse everything that is said. Instead, we must ask: what does God (regarded as the author of the collection) intend us to learn by contemplating these words, said by this person, in these circumstances?1

Although I'm still not totally sure this is the correct way for Christians to approach our sacred texts, I am no longer uncomfortable with its consequences, and I am now actively aiming to follow it. Today (Good Friday) I want to try to employ this approach in reflecting on the significance of the crucifixion narrative in the context of the total canon. ('In the context of the total canon' makes this kind of a large project for a blog post, so it will take me a little while to circle back around to the crucifixion; bear with me.)

On any reading of the Bible, it must be admitted that many of the earliest characters in the narrative have a rather impoverished understanding of God. When Abram is first called, God does not challenge his preconceptions about what gods are like. On this conception, gods are tied to certain people and places, they 'play favorites', they jealously demand loyalty to the exclusion of other equally real, powerful deities. It is quite normal, on this conception, for a god to prefer some particular nation or people group simply because they are his or her "peculiar people" (Deuteronomy 14:2 and 26:18, KJV). It is further perfectly intelligible that a god should want to have a "peculiar people" of this sort, and might call Abram out of Ur with the aim of forming a new nation whose national deity that god would be.

The Pentateuch is an origin story, a founding myth,2 for the people of Israel.3 The national identity of these people is tied up with the identity of YHWH as their national deity. It is for this reason—because he4 is their national deity—that YHWH finds the oppression of Israel in Egypt intolerable, and must overpower the Egyptian gods in order to bring Israel out of oppression. YHWH fights for his people. Their enemies are his enemies and he will crush them. Thus we read, "The Lord is a warrior ... Lord, Your right hand shattered the enemy. You overthrew Your adversaries by Your great majesty. You unleashed Your burning wrath; it consumed them like stubble" (Exodus 15:3, 6-7).

Yet even in the Pentateuch there are the beginnings of an attempt at a broader, less parochial and nationalistic, understanding of God, and this is part of the progress of the people of God toward understanding YHWH as what we can now recognize as capital 'G' God—not one god among others, not limited to one people or place. This process of universalization is visible in the incessant warnings that, having escaped their oppression, the people of Israel must not now become oppressors. Thus, for instance, the very strong words attributed to YHWH in Exodus 22:21-24:

You must not exploit a foreign resident or oppress him, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. You must not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, they will no doubt cry to Me, and I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will burn, and I will kill you with the sword; then your wives will be widows and your children will be fatherless.

In passages like these, found throughout the Law, doubt is cast on the picture of YHWH as a friend of Israel and enemy of Egypt, simply as such and on account of his special relationship to Israel. Instead, it begins to appear that YHWH is a friend of the oppressed and an enemy of the oppressor, and this stance knows no national or ethnic boundaries. Israel is repeatedly warned that if, having been freed from their oppression, they become the oppressor of others, YHWH will turn on them and punish them as he punished the Egyptians.

As I read these texts (within this 'dialogue' approach), they represent a genuine tension, a genuine struggle of the people of God to understand their relationship to God and to understand who God is. As we come to understand YHWH as the one God of the universe, and not a local tribal deity, how can God be understood to bear a special relationship to Israel, to oppose their enemies and fight their battles? God, we are to understand, has chosen a people who have been wanderers, foreigners, and slaves in order that they might have compassion on, and show solidarity with, the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed—in order that they might love their neighbors, even if their neighbors are poor, foreign, orphaned, etc. Take a look at the context of the famous command to "love your neighbor as yourself:"


You must not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages due a hired hand must not remain with you until morning. You must not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you are to fear your God; I am the Lord.

You must not act unjustly when rendering judgment. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly ... You must not hate your brother in your heart ... Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:13-18, HCSB).

In the text of the Pentateuch, we can find (at least) three conceptions of Israel's identity as the people of God, and they stand in some tension with one another. There is a genealogical conception (descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), a conception in terms of ritual correctness, and this ethical conception, rooted in compassion for and solidarity with the oppressed.

Although canvassing every text would be far too large a project, it seems to me that this last conception 'wins out' in the prophets. Thus in Isaiah the following words are attributed to God:

I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to Me; I am tired of putting up with them. When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look at you; even if you offer countless prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow's cause (Isaiah 1:15-17, HCSB).


Later in Isaiah: "Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field until there is no more room and you alone are left in the land ... many houses will become desolate, grand and lovely ones without inhabitants" (Isaiah 5:8-9, HCSB). Also, famously, in Hosea: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6, NKJV).

In the New Testament, John the Baptist is building on the prior Hebrew prophetic tradition when he says, "don't presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees! Therefore every tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:9-10, HCSB). Neither genealogy nor ritual correctness is sufficient to be the people of God; it is necessary to produce the 'good fruit' of love, and particularly compassion for the oppressed.

There is, however, another tension. All of these texts continue to see God's solidarity with the oppressed in violent terms: if God is the friend of the oppressed, God must be the enemy of the oppressor. And, indeed, we still find violent imagery of this sort in Isaiah, for instance:

When My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens it will then come down on Edom and on the people I have set apart for destruction. The Lord's sword is covered with blood ... for the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah, a great slaughter in the land of Edom (Isaiah 34:5-6, HCSB).

Why is Your clothing red, and Your garments like one who treads a winepress?

I trampled the winepress alone, and no one from the nations was with Me. I trampled them in My anger and ground them underfoot in My fury; their blood spattered My garments, and all My clothes were stained. For I planned a day of vengeance ... I crushed nations in My anger; I made them drunk with My wrath and poured out their blood on the ground (Isaiah 63:2-4, 6, HCSB).

These texts stand in stark and disturbing contrast to the message of mercy and forgiveness found throughout so much of the rest of Scripture—not just the New Testament but also the Old. Thus in Ezekiel: "'Now as for you, son of man, say to the house if Israel: You have said this: Our transgressions and our sins are heavy on us, and we are wasting away because of them! How can we survive? Tell them: As I live'—the declaration of the Lord God—'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person turn from his way and live'" (Ezekiel 33:11, HCSB). It is also reasonable to suppose, in Jonah, that the prophet's refusal to accept God's forgiveness of Nineveh is based not only in his tribalism but also in his view of Nineveh as the oppressor. After all, Nineveh is the capitol of the Assyrian empire which, like all empires, was established by conquest with all the associated atrocities, and maintained by the oppression of subject peoples. Thus the pressing question, which the book of Jonah does nothing to resolve, is, how can God be on the side of Israel if God also has mercy and compassion toward Israel's oppressors? What if God had just forgiven the Egyptians? And yet, if God is not merciful and compassionate, what will become of us? We too are involved in the oppression of others. And what will become of Jonah who, because of his hatred of Nineveh, fled the command of God? Thus we read: "Through the Lord's mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness" (Lamentations 3:22-23, NKJV). The frequently ignored implication of this popular passage is that if the God's mercy and compassion should come to an end, we would be 'consumed' by God's wrath. Similar language is employed in Malachi, connected again with the theme of oppression of the vulnerable: "I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness ... against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, and against those who turn away an alien ... For I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob" (Malachi 3:5-6, NKJV). Israel has become the oppressor, Malachi alleges, yet God's mercy has not changed, but is renewed every morning. Therefore, they have not been consumed by God's wrath.

Thus at this point in the Biblical dialogue (that is, at the end of the Old Testament), the people of God find themselves in a quandary: how can a God who grants mercy to the oppressor be a God who sides with the oppressed? It is worth noting that this is a very practical problem today, in connection with rehabilitative or restorative approaches to criminal justice. On the one hand, it seems that a punishment designed to harm the offender merely has the effect of wrecking yet another human life, in addition to those who have already been harmed by the offence. And yet, if we have compassion on the offender, so that we try to help and not harm him, have we really taken seriously the harm he has done, the lives that have been destroyed? Should one feel compassion toward Nikolas Cruz? His too is a life destroyed. It is humanly or naturally impossible that his life should again have the sort of value it might have had if he had not become a mass murderer. If we have pity or compassion on him for this do we thereby fail to take his guilt seriously? If it were possible to restore such a person to right relationship with the human community so that he could again live a valuable and productive life, should we do it?5

In the gospels, Jesus walks right into this puzzle, preaching the Kingdom of God. The gospels record that he is consistently misunderstood: his followers, and some of his opponents, think that the Kingdom of God must mean a new political order, with Jesus' closest friends on top. The disciples have a habit of getting into arguments about who is going to occupy the highest position in this political order. Even after Jesus has died and risen, the book of Acts reports, the disciples still want to know, "at this time are You restoring the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6, HCSB) Jesus steadfastly refuses. He refuses because he has not come to be the oppressor, but to be the oppressed. He will not wield political or military power. Even as he is arrested, he instructs Peter, "Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword" (Matthew 26:52, HCSB; the parallel text at John 18:11 identifies the disciple in question as Peter). Jesus tells Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world ... If My kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight" (John 18:36).

Instead of coming to a palace, Jesus comes to a stable. Instead of being recognized as a king, he is condemned as a criminal. Instead of a parade in his honor, he is marched naked through the street, carrying the instrument of his own execution, driven by a whip. Why?

Every theist is faced with the problem of why God chose suffering for God's creatures. Christianity adds to this the even more puzzling assertion that God chose suffering for Godself. Why?

I don't think the Biblical authors (or the broader Christian tradition) have arrived at any one answer to this question. All of our views of the matter are merely partial. But here is a part of the answer, driven by the previous reflections. How can a God who forgives the oppressor be on the side of the oppressed? By becoming one of them. Jesus famously said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did it for Me" (Matthew 25:40, HCSB). Through the gospel narrative, God says to all of us:

When you are indifferent or hostile to the homeless, I take it personally. I have spent cold nights in a dirty stable.

When you turn away refugees, I take it personally. I have fled my homeland in fear of violence.

When you show indifference toward wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice, I take it personally. I have been wrongfully condemned.

When you fail to oppose the use of torture against your alleged enemies, I take it personally. I have been tortured as an alleged enemy of the state.

When you fail to value human lives, I take it personally. I have suffered death at the hands of people like you.

In the Old Testament, God commands: "have compassion on the vulnerable and the oppressed, because you were vulnerable and oppressed when you were slaves in Egypt." In the New Testament, God commands: "have compassion on the vulnerable and the oppressed, because I was vulnerable and oppressed when I walked among you."

The repentance, the reformation of life, that God demands from those who have participated in oppression is to begin to see God in the face of the oppressed. When we do so, God is reported as saying in Zechariah, "they will look at Me whom they pierced. They will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for Him as one weeps for a firstborn" (Zechariah 12:10, HCSB). When we see the face of God in the ones we have wronged, we will know the "godly grief [that] produces repentance" (2 Corinthians 7:10, HCSB), and we can begin to make things right.

The Christian church, unfortunately, has had great difficulty holding onto this lesson. The disciples' initial mistake, of thinking that the Kingdom of God Jesus preached means putting people like us on top of the political order, is constantly resurfacing. Within a few centuries of Jesus' death, Christians had gone from the oppressed to the oppressors, using both mob violence and the violence of the state against their political and theological opponents. Jesus' (self-proclaimed) followers have often seemed to think that his kingdom was of this world: we can't seem to stop fighting. Christians have used open violence, palace intrigue, and, yes, democratic processes in an attempt to position ourselves on top, and when we have succeeded we have almost always oppressed others (as humans with power inevitably seem to do). But if the true God is the God revealed on the cross, then we must put away our swords and learn to see God in the face of the oppressed. Whenever those who purport to be the people of God become the oppressors, the axe is already at the root. May God have mercy on us all.


Notes

  1. This means that, on this approach, no matter how strong a claim of divine authorship we want to make, this will not entail inerrancy in any recognizable sense. When I first proposed this model, I was uncomfortable with this implication, but I am now prepared to embrace it. Peter Enns and William Brown (among others) have convinced me that, for the serious student of the Bible, the doctrine of inerrancy must ultimately die the death by a thousand qualifications. Indeed, even many self-identified 'Evangelical' Bible scholars place so many qualifications on the doctrine that it would no longer be recognizable to the ordinary Evangelical pew-sitter. It is, I think, more honest forthrightly to abandon the term 'inerrancy', and the label 'Evangelical' along with it. (In light of the social/political connotations the term 'Evangelical' has developed, I'm inclined to say "good riddance.")
  2. In calling it a 'myth' I take no stand, one way or another, on it's relationship to history. From what I (as a non-expert) understand of the archaeological evidence, it seems pretty clear that things can't have happened quite exactly the way Exodus and Numbers narrate them (and the early portions of Genesis very clearly can't be taken too literally). Still, the story might well bear some relation to some (rather less spectacular) historical events. In calling it a 'myth', however, I don't mean to be saying anything about that. I just mean that the story's real point is to give the Israel of a later date its national identity. In very much the same way, the USA's founding myth is this story of popular rebellion against tyranny ("taxation without representation") in favor of individual rights, self-sufficiency, and representative democracy. The American myth is a narrative constructed from an incomplete and biased selection of historical facts plus some embellishment, but it is certainly not without historical basis. What makes it a myth (in this sense) is that its role in constituting America's sense of identity is (practically speaking) more important than its relation to objective history. Similarly for the narrative portions of the Pentateuch.
  3. Apologies for the excessive footnoting.
  4. By the early centuries AD, Jewish and Christian theologians already recognized that God was not really male (or female). We now have a greater understanding of the ways in which, despite this explicit recognition, we have often implicitly continued to think of God as male in very problematic ways. For this reason most theologians and philosophers of religion today (including myself) avoid using gendered pronouns for God. However, at this early stage in the Biblical story the characters still seem to understand YHWH as a 'he': a male deity in a world populated by both gods and goddesses.
  5. These sorts of questions about the value of the lives of perpetrators of horrendous evils, and the appropriateness of forgiveness and/or reconciliation in such cases, have been insightfully explored by this excellent book by the late Marilyn Adams, and in a number of lectures by Eleonore Stump.
Posted by Kenny at March 30, 2018 11:17 PM
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Comments

Happy Easter, Kenny; nice post: the Platonic dialogue approach makes sense I think (e.g. it explains why there are four gospels)

Posted by: Martin Cooke at March 31, 2018 3:55 AM

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