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Salvation as Freedom from Sexual Abuse and Oppression

Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, are in the midst of the exposure of pervasive sexual abuse and scandal. While sexual abuse is a problem in the culture as a whole, Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham says, abuse occurs as much or more in the church as outside of it. Tchividjian, whose organization (GRACE – Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) addresses the issue of sex crimes in churches, says sexual abuse in evangelicalism rivals that of the Catholic Church, so that churches as a whole are in the midst of an epidemic. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime. 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. A study by Abel and Harlow revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. Considering that, “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing — both in and outside the church — that exists,” according to Tchividjian, and the fact that those churches promoting women’s subordination to men create what has been described as a “rape culture,” the troubling statistics are only the tip of the iceberg.

A joint investigation by two Texas papers resulted in a report revealing that over 200 Southern Baptist pastors, youth pastors and deacons were convicted or took plea deals for sex crimes over the past 20 years — creating over 700 survivors. Considering the vast majority of rapes in the United States never lead to a felony conviction, these numbers suggest astronomical levels of violence. Women and girls, in particular, can be silenced in hierarchic churches that teach “complementarianism” — the belief that God ordains male authority especially in the church and the home. Having been conditioned not to question men, some women struggle to stand up to male misconduct, and when they do are often dismissed. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Paige Patterson, described a young man’s lewd comments toward a teenage girl as “biblical” and said the proper response to abuse within marriage “depends on the level of abuse to some degree.”

 Beth Moore, a Southern Baptist speaker and author, reports years of misogynistic treatment.[1] Her descriptions of abuse sound verbatim like my wife’s treatment by an administrator at a Bible College where we were employed: “I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of.” Her encounter with “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women,” she says, was one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life.” Faith, one of the smartest people I have ever known (and not because she married me), experienced being continually shut down in meetings, yelled at in private, and otherwise being ignored. Moore says, “I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged.” In one especially grievous encounter, a theologian she admired and looked forward to meeting immediately reduced her to an object. “The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, ‘You are better looking than (he named another woman speaker).’” She concludes, “Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason.”

 “Evil” may be the correct word, at least in our experience and the experience of countless others. Abuse of women, in comparison to the “important” work of Christian leaders, is often not considered worthy of preventive action. Tchividjian, who as a prosecutor dealt with thousands of accusations against churches says, “It was just amazing how many church leaders and church members had no problem coming to court and testifying on behalf of the character of the defendant, and how few came in defense of the victim” (a 9 out of 10 ratio, he says). Though the abuse my wife suffered was legally actionable, her complaints were sidelined as, like that of thousands of women, her abuse was deemed acceptable by “Christian” standards. As Tchividjian describes it, “The powerful and the influential, the perpetrators, those are the ones that we embrace.” Instead of imitating Jesus, always taking the side of the wounded and marginalized, illegitimate “Christian” authority is deployed to abuse.

While the issue of “complementarianism”versus “egalitarianism” touches upon the problem, I fear that what may be missed in reducing it to “gender roles” is the holistic nature of both the problem and solution.  Biblical salvation is directed toward defeating sin and a primary result of sin is oppressive alienation between men and women and oppressive notions of authority.  One of the curses of the Fall, part of what it means to have forfeited the image of God, is that man shall oppressively rule over women and women will masochistically succumb to this rule: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). What is demonstrated in the early chapters of Genesis is that this alienation extends to God, creation, and even to alienation within the self. While we can categorize these various forms of alienation, they are all constitutive parts of the same problem, experienced as oppression: toilsome oppression in work, murderous relations with others, and shameful/oppressive self-awareness, and ultimately institutionalized religious oppression in idolatry (resulting in human sacrifice).  The ultimate sacrilege occurring in churches today is the sacrifice of women and children, the outworking of the Fall characteristic of Moloch worship, in the name of Christ.  

Authentic Christian salvation cures this oppressive curse, specifically as it relates to gender. The wedding feast of the lamb, Israel and the Church as bride, the depiction of the oneness of marriage fulfilled in Christ and the Church, or the resolution of male/female alienation, depicts final reconciliation. Gender problems are at the center of the human problem and salvation is depicted, in this key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh.” Egalitarianism versus complementarianism, in isolation, does not capture the fact that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from a right understanding of God and how gender reflects the divine image and how this has been lost. The failure of the image and its restoration, or the human predicament and its resolution, certainly pertains to the role of women in Church leadership and the relations between husband and wife, but these latter issues are only the end point of the narrative sweep of Scripture.

Gender, along with class and ethnicity (male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile (Gal. 3:28)), functions through binary opposites creating a meaning foundational to the identity of a closed cosmos and economy. Maleness, freedom, and Jewishness are the privileged basis lending meaning to femaleness, slavery, and Gentileness, in a mode in which power is gained through dominating the other. Authority is that which can penetrate, oppress, and exclude, creating the privileged identity – the authority. The ultimate sexual act, the final ethnic determination, the height of economic privilege, entails extreme violence. In this sense, death is always the coin of the realm circulated in an economy Paul will dub the “law of sin and death”; the operating principle of this world.

Christ followers are freed from the law of sin and death through a reconstituted ethnicity (no Jew nor Gentile), an alternative socio-economic order (no slave nor free), and through a reworked orientation to gender (no male or female – directly and pointedly referring to Genesis), by being joined to Christ, though it is only the latter category which will have an enduring ontological meaning.  Ephesians (5:31-32) pictures salvation as the fulfillment of the original promise of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Image bearing capacities are brought to completion in a dissolution, not of male and female per se, but of oppositional difference. The power of the law working in and through degrees of separation is undone through the “one flesh” relationship in Christ.

Continued abuse, oppression, and mistreatment of women in church and in the name of Christ indicates misapprehension of the narrative force of Christianity – a complete obscuring of the point of salvation.


[1] https://blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html

Does Complementarianism Undermine the Gospel?

In Genesis humans are depicted as bearing the image of God as male and female. God speaks in the first-person plural, “Let us,” and humans are created as a plurality. This means image bearing is integral to human relations of every kind: sexual relations, family relations, marriage relations, but also in relation with God (that is the human image presumes relation to the Origin). Male/female is of course a characteristic running throughout creation – so it is simultaneously that which humans share with other creatures. While human spirituality (bearing the divine image) and human created/creatureliness cannot be reduced to gender, gender pertains throughout, so that both human depravity and the heights of spirituality find expression in human sexuality. Idolatrous religion, in its Old Testament depiction and in Paul’s summation of that depiction in Romans 1, manifests itself in human sexual misorientation, while the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the culmination of human spirituality, is depicted in terms of a fulfilled marriage relationship. This culminating wedding feast is the reconciliation of humankind with God, but simultaneously the restoration of right interpersonal, intrapersonal relations, and relation to creation (Revelation 19-21). In other words, resolution to the problem of gendered relations (through Christ as groom and the Church as bride) is not just part of the biblical story, this is the biblical story.

Gender problems are at the center of the human problem (male dominance and female desire, Gen. 3:16) and salvation is depicted, in a key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:32). Salvation depicted as the fulfillment of marriage must mean that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from understanding who God is, what the human predicament is, and the manner in which we are delivered from that predicament. Which is to say, the role of women in Church leadership or the relation of husband and wife cannot be isolated from the narrative sweep of Scripture. A typical error of isolating these issues is to misread the curse of the Fall, male domination and oppression of women (Gen. 3:16), as if God is accommodating or even encouraging this oppression, and then to read this into particular New Testament passages.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender, failed and successful marriage and male/female relations in the church respectively, but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) are to be realized by being “joined to Christ” or being “in the Lord.”

In I Cor. 11, the image restored in the body of Christ calls upon a direct correlate between male/female relations and the Father’s relation to the Son (the key to understanding “headship). Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man (ontologically and universally). Identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations.  Just as subordinationism is a Trinitarian heresy, the same applies to the relation to men and women (part of Paul’s prolonged argument against oppressing other people).

Romans 7:1-4 depicts the universal misorientation to the law as a marriage problem. The woman who would consort with a man, other than her husband, while her husband is still alive is representative of failed humanity. The resolution is not to kill off the living husband or wait around for him to die (abolish the law). Two realms of knowing, knowing the law with the mind and knowing in the Hebraic sense (knowing in the flesh), have come into conflict and cannot be coordinated. The woman’s troubled love life (legally married to one man and illegally consorting with another) is not simply her singular problem, but represents the human predicament.  The point of the illustration, deploying the conflict between sex and marriage, is that the law dictates and determines every aspect of this relationship. Knuckling under to the law (a submissive or passive relationship to the husband or law) or transgressing the law, are not the resolution.  The problem is the oppressive axis of the law (authority, the husband, the punishing law) coordinates even the most intimate relationship. Domineering authoritarianism (the husband or law calls all the shots), passive self-effacement or open rebellion, describe life under the law, which Paul equates with sin.

The resolution is to be found in coordinating the two kinds of knowing (mind and body) by becoming the bride of Christ: “you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another” (7:4, NASB). This enables a joining to another in a fruitful relationship (“in order that we might bear fruit for God” vs. 4). Redeemed humanity is the bride of Christ, pregnant with the fruit of true love. The attempt to “gain control” as an orientation to the law, in either the typical authoritarian or submissive role, is suspended.  Christ, as husband, represents a suspension of the force of the law and being found in Christ as bride brings an end to agonistic domination and submission, as authoritarian rule is suspended.

Self-alienation and alienation from others, are not ultimately resolved apart from this reconciliation to be had in Christ. In both Ephesians and Romans this discord overcome in Christ directly pertains to human sexuality: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32, ESV). In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

The New Testament accommodates culture in certain instances, and does not seek to simply overturn the law or kill the husband, as in Paul’s illustration. For example, the church came to decide that the institution of slavery, though widespread in the ancient world, was incompatible with the New Testament’s vision of the freedom and dignity of human beings. Those New Testament texts that seem to support slavery (such as Eph. 6:,5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; I Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10, I Peter 2:18) must be coordinated with the clear undermining of the institution of slavery by other passages and by the whole of the Gospel narrative. This undermining is accomplished not through directly attacking slavery, but through a revolutionary subordination, which even those passages seemingly allowing for slavery point to. As in Philemon, radical subordination to Christ (on both the part of Onesimus and Philemon) is a mode of undermining the accepted cultural norms. The slave or servant of all is now the position to be sought as the servant is following the example of Christ. Texts which accommodate slavery should not be used to perpetuate slavery in the church nor should those passages accommodating the traditional role of women be allowed to distort the point of salvation. Freedom in Christ is not simply a metaphor for release from authoritarian oppression, it is breaking the bonds of oppression in every form (but most especially in male/female relations).

The nature of the Christian revolution is an undermining of the Powers (slavery, marriage customs, powers of the state) through submitting but not succumbing. Jesus refuses to remain in the grave, though he willingly went there. Paul offers up his head to Rome, not in defeat, but knowing that “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21, NASB). Scriptures commanding subordination of women and slaves, or subordination to the power of Rome, are not meant to preserve authoritarian roles but to undermine them. Paul is beheaded, Jesus is crucified, and the apostles are martyred, not because they obeyed and hoped to preserve cultural norms, but because they submitted in such a way as to overturn those powers through an alternative Kingdom.

The story of Fall and redemption is to be read as pertaining directly to overcoming of authoritarianism, forms of subordinationism, oppression and alienation.   There might still be slave/free, male/female, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories are suspended (Gal. 3:28), as with the law. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and one can treat these categories, in Paul’s explanation, as “if not” (I Cor. 7:29-30). They are no longer definitive, they do not pertain, as this symbolic order is displaced with an alternative “Spiritual” grammar.  To miss this deep grammatical shift, from the letter that kills to the Spirit which gives life, (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) is to miss the transvaluation of Christianity.

 While there is undoubtedly accommodation behind male/female instruction given in the New Testament, I am afraid Christian complementarianism, focused as it is on a few verses, is missing the narrative force of the story of salvation.  Though Paul commends a woman apostle, women evangelists, deaconesses etc. he also recommends male elders. Is the conclusion that women are excluded from Church leadership, or is this a dogged commitment to the oppression the Gospel is overcoming? In Timothy, is Paul commanding a peculiar submission of women to men or is he commanding that women too should study and learn? N.T. Wright claims, that his command that women be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. In the most perverse of examples, where Christ is portrayed as “head” who sustains and serves all, it has been presumed that a husband as head is the one who is the authority figure. As in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men has led to reinstituting of the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). (I have dealt with this here). The Godhead has been redefined, and one fears that the role of the Son as true head is lost.

Where these passages are cut off from their life situation and where theory is formed in isolation, some of these verses may be deployed as proof texts for complementarian forms of female subordination but this would seem to contradict the suspension of the law and its oppressive authority. This is the potential tragedy connected with reifying traditional roles captured in complementarianism. It misses the fact that the Gospel is overturning fallen norms of what it means to be male and female.

When I Am 64 – Life’s Lesson

Today, on my birthday, Jason and I had a long discussion about the nature of salvation – sort of a meaning of life lesson. I must admit that David Bentley Hart’s universalism makes perfect sense at one level and at another seems to empty the world, humanity, and the particulars of our individual history of meaning. Jason, my earth bound, Wendell Berry loving, poetry making friend, sent me back to a strange reminiscence. I was relating the simple story of Wacky Cake, my traditional birthday cake, and its meaning (which I warned him I was making up). Then he began to question if my mother really was a Mississippi shrimp boat captain and I realized the key element of our discussion is how we see meaning woven into our own lives and history.

At birth, like baby Moses, they put me in a Singer Sewing Machine lid as we floated out of Kansas City, stopping for a time at a trailer court on Dixie Highway in Louisville Kentucky. A few blocks away a missionary family, the Maxey’s from Japan, kept a small house for furloughs and Pauline Maxey gave birth to my wife. Faith and I must have crossed paths at the local Safeway, where I would have nodded and cooed, “I will be back.” Our ancestors had sailed from Maxey and Harlaxton, only a few miles apart in England, to converge in both Virginia and Kentucky and our lives would eventually merge to produce an ongoing stream.

But my father had called the trip a “vacation” and a trailer court along Dixie Highway did not fit the bill. We moved on to Biloxi Mississippi to the Ever Breeze trailer court where Mama ran a shrimp boat and Dad headed back north while we vacationed – the next four years. Hinkle, a family friend, owned a cypress shrimp trawler named “Shirley,” built in 1928 and requiring three crew members captained by my mother. They hired a young man out of the Air Force, Jim Slayton, who could nurse the engine along, and a very religious first mate, Joe Dee, whom my father said devoutly made the sign of the cross on all important occasions – according to Mom he must have “double crossed” when stealing the days catch and tools . High winds beached the Shirley just out of Gulf Port. My memory is of hard rain beating down on a flimsy trailer roof along the wind-swept coast. Luckily, the hurricane of 59 sank the Shirley before Joe Dee could completely bankrupt the family and before my mother was lost at sea.

So, we headed to Page, Arizona where my father would build the Glen Canyon Dam (it was not clear to me if he required help). We were leaving the “gween gwass” of Mississippi for a miserable desolation, and my only consolation, as I explained to my mother, would be in catching a small Indian. Dad wore a hardhat and carried a metal lunch pail with a thermos, so as to build the dam. My first memory of a present, I presume it was my fifth birthday, was a miniature pail with a miniature thermos, my Rosebud. Objects invested with a weight of meaning, a magic C. S. Lewis describes in his boyhood garden contained in a dish, from which Narnia would spring.

At 7 I acquired a beagle who was my own hound of heaven. My father was running for mayor, promising to close down all gambling in Parsons Kansas and promising to rid the town of its arch villain, Ed Thompson. Ed was a political operative all over Kansas and my father was in the basement printing off anti-Ed literature when huge Ed Thompson knocked on our door at midnight, and my father at about 5 feet 4 inches confronted the meanest man in Kansas. Ed followed my father to the basement and helped create more anti-Ed Thompson literature and helped run Dad’s campaign, which my father won.

Much later, my father and I met Ed downtown, and I remember feeling important that I was in on this special meeting, which was about Mr. Magee, Ed’s beagle. For some reason Mr. Magee wanted to abandon political life with Ed, and required a country home. Ed and I walked with Mr. Magee and I noticed the dog was eating grass and Ed explained the medicinal effects of grass. Meeting Ed and his dog became a warm memory – a living sort of magic.

Mr. Magee, who would politely wipe his feet when coming inside and could open his own cans of dog food, became the center of my life. I remember a long morning in which we had a rabbit trapped in a pipe and I was trying to slide the rabbit my way to rescue him from the jaws of death at the other end of the pipe. After hours of struggle I grabbed the rabbit by the ears and took him home as a pet – but something happened that morning.  Part of it was that Mr. Magee must have gotten the point, as he later gingerly carried a baby rabbit unharmed and set it at my feet. The patterns of memory I have with this dog are tinged with a deep spiritual sensibility. My first great trauma in life and my first religious experience, prayer, occurred when Mr. Magee disappeared.

Could it be that this little piece of history, trivial, nearly nonsensical, bears meaning?  Isn’t the world and our passage through it somehow enchanted? Is there one point where we can say, here eternity intersected time, so that this moment is weighted forever as part of the life of God and it now pervades all things. If the cross, the life of Christ, the resurrection, is such a moment in time, then why not a similar significance interwoven throughout life. The old woman hidden behind a mound of plastic flowers whom I have come to help make artificial flowers at age 7. Her small kindnesses, our quiet conversation, the sheer delight of my first ice cream sandwich, my salary. Hours and days spent alone on the Texas prairie; are they empty or lost or woven into my eternity.

What weight does any history bear and what dignity? Aren’t we to be about creating, constructing, weaving eternity throughout the moments of time? We are not simply the passive recipients of the divine future presence, but are to be conduits of eternal purpose as co-creators here and now. The great danger in notions of post-mortem universal correction is that creations purpose is denied its eternal weight – its intersection with the divine worked out in the history of the cross and all history. Justice will amount to nothing. None of it will have mattered one way or another. The devil will be saved according to Origen, and Hitler, Himmler and Stalin are on the same level as Mother Teresa.[1] The world enchanted by eternity, or left un-created, unmade, unfulfilled, is part of the weight borne in the responsibility of Imago Dei.




[1] Clifford Dull in correspondence. See the Patheos article by Geoff Holsclaw https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2019/10/02/reviewing-david-bentley-hart/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm


On the Resurrection of the Earth

To live a life of peace is to be committed to the pursuit of rightness, of what is just and good.  This is because there can be no peace outside of equality of concern for one another’s needs and well-being.  This is a reality that many who prescribe to the prevailing false gospel simply cannot understand, which may be why it was so sensible to adopt the Trumpian “America-first” mantra–or why his insistence that the world is better served if everyone in it is looking out for their own interests only (which can only perpetuate a world of ceaseless conflict and struggle against one another and the world itself) didn’t raise any alarms with so many who claim to follow the man who said “love your neighbor as yourself” or his apostle who said, 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[i]

If the life and actions of Jesus are to be considered the highest ideal, I suppose the religious culture of our day (like that of centuries past) has some explaining to do.  Its love of power and comfort over and against the needs of its neighbors seems to have accepted that the reality of our world is exactly the one mentioned parenthetically earlier–a world of ceaseless conflict and struggle.  The rightness (think “righteousness” of Jesus’ claim “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness “) that we truly hunger for which can just as easily be translated (in this context and in the beatitudes) as “justice” is one which is intended to produce the opposite: a world without conflict and struggle against one another.  A world that is free to exist in peace.

This is the world I take to be promised in Romans 8.  In this passage, I believe Paul is teaching that we (if we have shared in his suffering[ii]) may look forward to sharing in Jesus’ resurrection and that of the entire earth (kosmos), which has also shared in his suffering (just not by its own will).  That this good earth is awaiting a final restoration that will take place when these bodies are restored as well indicates to me that the justice (rightness, righteousness) which is a promise of the Kingdom of God is his promise to restore this creation’s intended order.  And it is our call as followers to live a life in this time which bears witness to that resurrected order.

It is that witness that, I believe, is vital to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  And this has little to do with regular church attendance and completing religious rituals.  It has more to do with living together in a community in which we look out for one another’s needs and care for one another.  Where we share the body and blood of Christ and take these into ourselves, bearing them in our own bodies.  

It also means that we reject the values of the world: its idolatries and violence.  If we are a people who believe that God has something better for those who follow, then we are free to refrain from killing one another to protect our own lives.  

These idolatries include not just the violence we do to one another, but that done to the earth itself, its exploitation and destruction.  The earth is a gift that we were intended to live within and care for, according to the earliest stories of our scriptures.  Importantly, Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that the earth suffers not because of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it to suffering, bears another clue.  For some time I have taken “the will of the one who subjected it” not to be God’s, but to be Adam’s (humanity’s).  We are the ones who have subjected and continue to subject one another and the earth to suffering.  And it is the peacefulness of the Kingdom of God that is intended to alleviate that suffering in anticipation of the resurrection.

In about a week, we’ll be starting a new class at Ploughshares Bible Institute.  In this class, we’ll be discussing these issues specifically: the tie between peacefulness with one another and peacefulness with the earth itself.  I’ve written about this in greater length here.  The course is called THE 310 Christian Community in the World.  It is a study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  We’ll be reading some beautiful works of fiction and poetry, essays and scripture, and having some amazing discussions about the Gospel’s burden for Christian community and the place in which that community lives.  We’ll even witness some examples of hints of resurrection in our world now.

Join us!


Click here to register.


[i] Philippians 2: 3-11 (NIV)

[ii] It’s become increasingly fashionable to wear the title “Universalist.”  For my part, while I applaud the desire for inclusivity and share it, I cannot help but feel that this must mean, first, an inclusivity to share the cross of Jesus.  I, myself, would bar no one from the invitation to participate in the Kingdom for any reason.  But I cannot escape that this seems to be the prerequisite of enjoying the resurrection in my reading.  It seems to me that Universalism is only reasonable if one holds to a substitutionary (penal) understanding of Jesus’ work of atonement.

Does Hart’s Dogmatic Universalism Miss the Real World Engagement of Christian Hope?

David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, arrives at an unquestioning universalism which he poses against the “hopeful” but “timid” universalism of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and concludes that to be timid simply springs from being muddled. Either everyone will be reconciled to God through the work of Christ or some human beings will never be reconciled – both cannot be true. If Hart’s argument has a target audience, beyond those who already agree with him, it must be to nudge the hopeful universalists toward his dogmatic universalism. Hart blends philosophical and biblical argument and concludes that the notion of “tension” between two irreconcilable positions is simply a way of eliding “contradiction” and, the ultimate Hartian insult, this timidity is just giving way to a “post-Hegelian dialectical disenchantment, as well perhaps as a touch of disingenuous obscurantism” (p. 103). It is his blending of modes of discourse which I want to question: Is biblical certainty of the same order as philosophical certainty and do these modes of discourse position us differently in regard to the work of Christ, history, and most especially the problem of evil?

It is not that philosophy and theology are absolutely discreet, but the incremental difference between “hopeful” and “certain” universality pertains to tone and perspective. That is, Hart’s tone, his wonderfully entertaining arrogance, is not a side light of this work but is gained from a perspective he would have everyone adopt. Here we have not so much to do with the hard work of explaining how justice can possibly be meted out or how evil can be resolved. This tone of certainty smacks more of the perspective of a philosophical transcendence, which need not bend to the limited perspective of a mere human. The categories are dealt with, the formal causes and problems engaged, while there is really no comprehension of how this really works. I certainly believe in a final justice but the comprehension that this is so is far different than understanding how it is going to be made the case. The justice enacted in Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, by way of contrast, deals in the realm of human history, human experience, and allows for human understanding. This too is a certainty, but it is a certainty in progress, working itself out in history, and engaged not in terms of an absolute philosophical certainty but the “hopeful” certainty of faith. The former need not take into account the realm of evil or the contingencies of history. The latter is a humble “hopeful” certainty which deals in the reality of human perspective and the existential fact of suffering and evil.

The argument for humility may sound like a niggling critique, but it makes all the difference in terms of the problem of evil. We can, in portions of Hart’s argument, momentarily set aside the real-world overcoming of evil in the Cross of Christ – the engaged position of those responsible men and women called to action in the face of evil[1] – as we our now given a God’s eye view above all of the sound and fury.  It turns out that the weight of God’s action is in the future, far removed from real-world engagement with evil, beyond history and on the other side of death. Isn’t the danger of this absolutely confident universalism that, like infernalism, it so weights future categories so as to empty out the necessity of the Cross and our taking up the Cross?

The objection is not that Hart does this permanently or all the time, he is too good of a theologian for that, but the entire argument is geared toward adopting a tone warranted, not so much by a Christocentric perspective as by arguments from formal cause. Both may give rise to what we call “certainty” but the former brand of certainty is an engaged certainty, which looks to the gradual triumph of the work of Christ and the Cross. The latter certainty can skip over all mere historical, known categories, and invest its trust in an incomprehensible future. For example, purging fire (a perfectly sound idea) is as metaphorical as punishing fire, how either works is beyond comprehension. Unlike the Cross, which we can ascertain, comprehend in part, witness to, the certainty imbued by this future work is made of the same stuff as purely formal analytical arguments (of which Hart is so critical).

Hart’s confident universalism functions in this book much in the same way that divine apatheia functions in The Doors of the Sea. In order for God to not be implicated in the problem of evil, the mode of rescue is through an apatheia beyond comprehension. A book spent on disclaiming theodicy reverses course in the case of God so as to provide Him, if no one else, a way out. The Cross in turn, rather than being a real world unfolding of the defeat of evil (as an ongoing battle) is “a triumph of divine apatheia” (p. 81). Hart’s formal cause is protected from evil, in both instances, by formally dismissing the contingencies of evil as entering into the equation. This is accomplished not by focusing on what is knowable about God in Christ, but by trusting primarily in what is apophatic, a-historical, and ultimately unknowable. One might speak of this trust as “certain” as part of a formal and flawless argument but it is a certainty that almost certainly has nothing to do with the real world-defeat of evil found in the historical Jesus. The fault is not in the logic of the argument but in the perspective it affords.

The Christocentric perspective, as with the evil which it takes into account, primarily deals in the concrete and specific and is not aimed at protecting formal arguments nor an abstract understanding. While one might be certain of one’s formal statements about God, does this form of certainty give rise to ethical behavior, to resistance to evil, to assuming personal responsibility or does it, in fact, have the opposite effect?

As with the discourse of the friends of Job, the heirs and guardians of infallible arguments, their knowledge is dispensed from a height which could lord it over the evil that plagued their poor, muddled thinking, friend. Their knowledge is pure and positive and does not rely upon taking into account momentary evil. While their thought takes flight from the world, Job’s hope is that God would show up in the midst of the world.

“This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).

There is a certainty in Job’s statement, but it is not the certainty of his friends in their apprehension of formal cause. It is a hopeful certainty that takes into account his present suffering. It is not through denying or turning away from suffering that we see the presence of God in Christ; it is by entering into the truth of these realities that we best apprehend God.

In his deployment of creation ex-nihilo Hart notes, “God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly.”[2] While God does not determine himself in creation, is it the case that this is sufficient revelation for his human subjects? Contrast this with Luther’s critique of scholasticism:

Thesis 19: ‘He is not rightly called a theologian who perceives and understands God’s invisible being through his works. That is clear from those who were such ‘theologians’ and yet were called fools by the apostle in Romans 1:22. ‘The invisible being of God is his power, Godhead, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and so on.  Knowledge of all these things does not make a man wise and worthy.’

Thesis 20: ‘But he is rightly called a theologian who understands that part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world to be presented in suffering and in the cross. That part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world is opposed to what is invisible, his humanity, his weakness, his foolishness…For as men misused the knowledge of God on the basis of his works, God again willed that he should be known from suffering, and therefore willed to reject such wisdom of the visible, so that those Who did not worship God as he is manifested in his works might worship him as the one who is hidden in suffering (I Cor. 1:21).  So, it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross. Thus, true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.’[3]

Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critique of theological liberalism, which mostly served the Nazi cause, took its strength from their engaged form of Lutheranism. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). Hart’s form of certainty stands in danger of foregoing the necessity of reconciling the two forms of discourse he engages and thus produces a philosophical certainty in place of the hopeful assurance of faith. The formal realities of God known through creation take precedence, in his dogmatic universalism, over the hopeful universalism of faith in Christ.  The danger is in missing the prime reality of the world engaged by Christ; the basis for a responsible ethical overcoming of evil.


[1] In Bonhoeffers description.

[2] David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho, in Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, (Vol. 3, Number1 (September 2015): 1-17) p. 5

[3] Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

Rereading Sacrifice in the Old Testament

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

What alternative is there to atonement theories that do not seem to grasp or be grasped by what God did through Jesus? A shift needs to be made, if God is not violent, who is? If God did not come up with the idea of a sacrifice, who did? To find an answer, the story of the first sacrifice and the story of Cain and Abel will be analyzed below that will challenge the presumption that God requires sacrifice of a deadly kind; that God is angry and is violent. Could it be that humans are the author of sacrifices, and it is humans who are angry and violent?

This question challenges another popular misconception: “If it is in the Bible, God wanted it.” It is important to state that just because something is in the Bible does not mean that God requires it, or that it is a need of His, or that He agrees with it. There are many sinful things written in the Bible, there for the purpose of teaching humankind to practice the opposite. [1] Given the question of the origin of violence and the challenge to this basic presupposition, let me propose an alternative reading to the first sacrifice and the first murder.

Sacrifices Before the Law And God’s Sacrifice

To demonstrate the consequence of evil initiated by Adam, God makes the first sacrifice in order to clothe them (Genesis 3:21) because they are ashamed.[2] This is important theologically because, “The garment given them is special…. A kuttōnet is always worn by one in authority (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31–33; Exodus 28:4, 29–30 … [15 x in all]; 2 Samuel 13:18–19; 15:32; Isaiah 22:21; Job 30:16; Song of Solomon 5:3).”[3] God covers their nakedness (shame) with something better than what they could do on their own (Genesis 3:7). In Galatians 3:27 Paul says “all of you who were baptized (Romans 6) into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).”

It is important to see that the first sacrifice made was by God in order to cover humankind’s shame. God had to appease a soon-to-come wrathful humanity (the next chapter, in Genesis 4). This is the complete opposite of what most atonement theories teach.

Cain and Abel’s Sacrifice

Cain and Abel brought an offering to God. Cain gave from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. Things get complicated when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. In a traditional reading, God seems to be demonstrating favoritism toward Abel. And many Apologists give several explanations of why this is so, some of these explanations include:

  • Cain brings what he wants, Abel brings the best.
  • The soil was cursed by God (Cain is offering from what is cursed).
  • Cain brings less than what he is supposed to. Abel brings the exact amount.
  •  God required a sacrifice of blood, not fruits

What is never asked and answered is, when did God ask them to bring an offering or sacrifice? What were God’s requirements? Hebrews 11:4 only says that “Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did.” But nowhere in Genesis 4 – or the rest of the Bible – is there any request from God to do such a thing. So, why did Abel conceive this idea of an animal sacrifice? The only previous recorded example was when God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall. As suggested previously, given a retrospective view, perhaps it was God appeasing humanity’s wrath, not humanity appeasing his wrath. Both brothers may have had a mistaken assumption.

Abel brings a sacrifice to a God who did not ask for one, because in reality there is no wrathful God to appease.  On the positive side, at least he demonstrates a willingness to please God, and so the Lord had regard for Abel. On the other hand, Cain sacrifices Abel since his previous sacrifice was not pleasant to God. Abel found an outlet in the bloodletting of the sacrifice for the violence inherent in all human beings, Cain had no such outlet and so killed his brother instead.[4]

If we follow this logic, the significance of the sacrifice takes on a completely different meaning than that found under the logic of traditional atonement theories.

A mistake is made; the lie of sin and death remains intact. Abel offers an animal’s blood to appease God’s wrath (the lie of sin), something God did not ask for. Cain, in turn, offers his brother’s blood (the lie of death), even with God’s forewarning against such an act, the murder was committed. Two options arise: kill your brother or love your brother. These are the two options open to humankind. Unfortunately, humankind chooses – frequently – to murder the brother.

Given this understanding, Jesus mission does not begin in His death. In order to expose the lie projected onto God (that it is divine anger that requires sacrifice), Jesus exposes the source of anger in his encounters with the leading Jews. With His death the exposure of the lie is complete as is his absorption of human anger. With His resurrection there is an overcoming of the worst that human anger can mete out. He exposes and displaces the lie with the truth of love for the brother. “For one will hardly die for a righteous man…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).


[1] For example, many people in the Old Testament were polygamists, even many of the key characters (heroes of the Bible), but God did not want this or looked at it as if it was right (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:3-12). The Bible is written not to tell humankind God’s needs, it is written to tell humankind what humankind needs in order to be the “image-bearer of God.

[2] This is an assumption; Genesis 3 does not specifically describe a sacrifice. “…but immediately in chapter 4, Abel knows to bring an animal sacrifice to God. And the Israelite reader would think of sacrifice, as well, because in the Tabernacle the skins of the animals went to the priests for clothing and additional income. (Allen Ross y John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus, vol. 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 57.)”

[3] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 35–36. N. T. Wright explains in The Day the Revolution Began, “Humans were made to be ‘image bearers,’ to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator…. Humans are made to worship the God who created them in his own image and so to be sustained and renewed in that image-bearing capacity.” After the Fall, humans “abdicated their vocation to ‘rule’ in the way that they, as image-bearers, were supposed to.” Humans had authority, and even after they exchanged it for a lie, God covers them with an authoritative garment.

[4] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, y David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 42.

Hell and Universal Salvation

If one has never questioned infernalism (the belief that some or many will experience eternal torturous punishment in a future after-life), David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven Hell and Universal Salvation is probably too large a pill to swallow. On the other hand, those who have never questioned infernalism are probably not the target audience of the book, which is part of the problem and Hart’s opening point; “I know I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity” (p. 4). Those who follow the argument will simply agree that it “successfully expresses their views,” while those who disagree will either dismiss his argument out of hand or presume to leverage the same old tired counter-arguments. “The whole endeavor may turn out to be pointless” (p. 4). The feeling of futility may be peculiarly irksome as the gravity of eternal torturous punishment pulls every other doctrine into its orbit, even and most especially the doctrine of God. If God is eternally angry (in spite of the Biblical teaching that he is not), if eternal torture of finite humans is part of his plan and necessary to his ends, and if it is by this means that God demonstrates his sovereignty, one might become suspicious, Hart argues, that Satan has taken the place of God and that worship of one or the other is an arbitrary choice.

 The problem is, if one pulls out the infernalist thread, then atonement theory, anthropology, and doctrine of God, in the common Western understanding will also unravel. Hart’s hard-hitting volume raises the question, given “the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment” and the “absurdities and atrocities” it entails (p. 78), whether we are still dealing with the same God and faith as that of the New Testament? Given the “moral hideousness” (p. 79) of infernalism, given that like God one will be required in eternity, according to Tertullian, to learn to relish “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” given that, according to Martin Luther, “the saved will rejoice to see their [former] loved ones roasting in hell” and that according to Thomas Aquinas “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven)”  (p. 78), given all this (and more) do we still have to do with the religion of love of the New Testament? Hart does not put the question exactly like that, but this gets at the enormity of the shift for which he is arguing. In short, eternal hell distorts the character of God, changes the nature of salvation, puts human will at the center of eternity, creates a feeling of elitism, diminishes the value of the vast majority of humanity, and shifts the focus of the New Testament and the work of Christ away from salvation from sin and death to salvation from eternal torturous existence.

Several pages of the book are given over to simply listing those New Testament passages which seem to describe an unqualified universality. The opening epigraph sums up the idea of some 25 passages Hart deals with: “Our savior God. . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4, Hart’s rendering). Hart’s translation of the New Testament, which he considers the required starting point (he sees the book as a companion to his translation), at a minimum, “restores certain ambiguities” (p. 3) read by the early Church as entailing universal salvation. The evidence indicates, “that the universalist faction was at its most numerous at least as a relative ratio of believers, in the church’s first half millennium” (p. 1). This did not rule out belief in hell, rather; “to them hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of I Corinthians” (p. 1). Hart maintains, “There have been Christian universalists . . .since the earliest centuries of the faith” but the theological influence of Augustine has given rise to two millennia of misunderstanding in the West (“if only he had died twenty years earlier,” Hart laments elsewhere).

A significant part of the book is spent refuting the notion that the integrity of free will requires belief in infernalism. Hell allows some to be in eternal rebellion while others use their free will to choose God. In either case, the main thing is the integrity of human will (unblighted by coercion or by circumstance). Hart’s point is that this entails a faulty view of free will.  Is free will total freedom from any constraint, any authority, any tradition, so that nothing constrains? What would total lack of constraint look like, presuming it a possibility? We might describe someone who jumps off a bridge or who runs into a burning building for the sheer fun of it as exercising their unconstrained freedom. Maybe the individual wants to feel the freedom of flying off the bridge or maybe they want to experience the exhilaration of being burnt alive. This person may be exercising a kind of liberty, but it seems they are slaves to delusion, that they are experiencing a poverty of rational freedom. Pure choice, free of purpose, and free of a goal is simply “brute fact” and has nothing to do with free will.

Our choices (or will) are always exercised on the basis of some rationale and this reason depends upon circumstance. In the Bible, humanity is depicted as deluded, held captive by a lie, enslaved to sin. This means understanding and knowledge are bent by circumstance and will is deluded by sinful contingencies and capacities.  Sin is a marring of reason, an obscuring of the truth, and a perversion of reason. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free, so that freedom requires truth. To imagine that free will is at work in the state of sin is to misunderstand both the nature of free will and sin, as well as salvation

Salvation is the exposure of the delusion and the displacement of a lie with the truth so that one puts on her right mind by having the mind of Christ. The more one is in her right mind, the more she is conscious of God as Goodness that fulfills all beings. The more she recognizes that human nature can have its true completion and joy only in him, to that degree she throws off the fetters of distorted perception and is freed from deranged passions. Seeing the good in God is simultaneously a reshaping of the will, so that rightly understanding and rightly willing are synonymous with total freedom. Liberated from crippling ignorance and emancipated from the impoverished condition of sin, the rational soul can freely will only one thing – its own union with God. Seeing the good, the true, the beautiful in God, draws us inevitably toward God. As John depicts it, “When I am lifted up, I will drag all men to myself” (John 12:32). God’s will is being enacted in creation, in history, in all of our lives culminating in universal worship: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).

The compelling necessity of the light is not a constraint on freedom, as demonstrated in the truly human one. The “integrity of Christ’s humanity entails that he possesses a full and intact human will, and that this will is in no wise diminished or impaired by being ‘operated’ . . . by a divine hypostasis whose will is simply God’s own willing” (p. 189). True freedom in no way necessarily entails the possible choice of rejecting God, as Christ could not have been fully human. This lack of choice is no constraint upon the freedom of the will. It is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good; a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.

Hart’s dogmatic universalism raises the question of focus (is it, like infernalism, weighted heavily toward the future) and balance (where is justice to be found), which I will address next week.

A Gospel for the Earth and its Creatures

A friend who writes a lot about gender equality admitted that someone once said to him, “Stop worrying about women and concentrate on the gospel!”  The assumption, of course, is that whatever one takes to be “the gospel”[i] has nothing to do with whether women are treated as human beings.  It’s just about getting your “sins” erased so that you can “go to heaven.”  And any time we spend worrying about anything other than getting people to heaven is a distraction.

The problem, of course, is that the actual Gospel[ii] has next to nothing to do with “getting our sins erased so we can go to heaven” and everything to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  As the Lord said in his prayer, we seek God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.  In other words, being saved from sin means being saved to live differently according to a very different set of values and assumptions.  These assumptions are shocking to the world.

The religious dualism that convinces people the Gospel has nothing to say about systems of power, injustice, and oppression is the same one that has convinced many that it also has nothing to do with “economy” or “economics.”   I use “economy” here broadly, not just (but including) the concept of money.  Economy is bigger than money. It’s about how everyone and everything survives, how resources are used, and how things, creatures, and people are taken care of.

It’s no coincidence that after the Pentecost event and the establishment of the church in Acts 2, the first description of what the church did included worship, prayer, teaching, and the establishment of an alternative economy within the body that looked very different from the power-driven, exploitative, military-checked capitalism of the Roman empire—an economy which most folks back then assumed to be necessary.  It was just the way things worked.  There were poor classes and rich classes and slave classes, merchants and consumers, everyone in their place under Caesar.    

It’s not much different for 21st century Christians whose thinking about things like shopping, how much we consume, what we throw away, what we eat and drink, and where we get our food (and whether or not slaves are involved) is captivated by the central assumption that our economic values are “necessary,”[iii] that they require no reflection and are morally and theologically neutral.  Shopping is a form of entertainment, food comes in throw-away plastic containers, and what does going to heaven have to do with any of that?

It’s similar to asking the question (even without assuming the answer), “should Christians serve in the military?” Frequently, one is met with, “What do you mean ‘should?’  Of course they do!  You want a bunch of pagans fighting your wars?”  The lack of ambiguity is simply a forgone conclusion.

When pressed, though, the person asked will, invariably, become irritated and, eventually, offended.  And it’s precisely because assumptions formed by the teaching of Jesus about something like violence undermine the assumptions that people use to make sense of the world around them—assumptions which help them feel safe and secure.  There simply are “bad people” who want to harm “us” and must be killed.  We prepare to kill them if they ever enter our homes and we send our children to kill them overseas on the world scale.  That some of them will certainly die doing so is the “sacrifice” that makes our “freedom” noble.  To begin to rethink this reality calls into question every other assumption one has about what is true and right.  To consider the possibility that it’s wrong is deeply unsettling.

I have found the same incredulity of response when questioning American consumerism.  In a conversation a few months ago I made a statement that made sense to me but just bewildered a friend of a friend.  I said, “I think we have to learn to stop treating the earth like it’s a source of resources.”  I thought it was obvious that I meant we ought to think of the world as more than a source of resources and that those resources are limited and meant to be shared—that we should treat it like it’s our home and like it requires our carefulness.  This person, clearly astonished that I could be so naïve, responded, “Where else are we going to get our resources, Mars?”  His next comment implied he had serious doubts about my intelligence.  I was the guy who was against killing cows but thought hamburger was ok because it “came from the store.”

The exchange would have been humorous if it weren’t so sad.  His incredulity was due to his unwillingness (perhaps inability) to consider that the ways and rates at which we consume “resources” (a useful reductionist euphemism for the land, creatures, trees, and people around us) has moral and even theological implications.  “Hell, we gotta get our resources from somewhere!”  What I was presenting him with was so different and so challenging that it undermined his central assumption about how economies work.  It was outside of anything he had ever thought about and was unsettling for him.  And he responded the way people do when their core assumptions are called into question.

On a larger scale, one sees this in the phenomenon of climate change denial.  For some time, I’ve wondered why the notion that our lifestyle has affected the climate generates such passionate screeds and accusations of “liberal agendas.”  Why is clean water a political agenda?  Well, it’s actually obvious.  When people respond to data suggesting CO2 emissions are harming the earth, it implies that driving cars and clearcut logging are no longer morally neutral things.  Pointing to plastic islands in the Pacific and plastic crises in third world or developing countries implies that our greedy, throw-away lifestyle is ruining other people’s lives and we have an obligation to stop. 

Think of it this way: the accusation that being concerned about climate change is tantamount to “socialism” is an admission that western rampant capitalism is destroying the planet.[iv]  Even Donald Trump understands this.  In a recent press conference, when asked whether he still rejected the data on climate change, Trump claimed he wasn’t interested in losing American wealth on dreams and windmills.  He understands (I make no claims on how explicitly) that love for our neighbors, plants, creatures, and the earth means changing the values of the economy.  And he (explicitly) chooses greed over love.  That “believers in Jesus” applaud this reveals just how dualistic and simplistic the faith they’ve been taught actually is.

This is what becomes evident when one examines it in much detail.  These economies (I want to speak more broadly than just American capitalism) are inherently violent and unjust.  They exploit and use up and destroy without concern for neighbors, fish, trees, and birds.  The way we set up and live in our societies are, in fact, extensions of the way we view one another and the world.  They are contingent on the minds and imaginations of sinful, greedy, and violent people.  They are founded on a lie that we are all individual consumers in a land of unlimited resources, tasked by God to use up as much as we can before we die. 

But the Gospel of Jesus presents an alternative.  This is the alternative we hope to understand in our class, THE 310-Christian Community in the World.  The description is: A study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  You can listen to Vangie Rodenbeck and me talk about it here. We’ll be reading together one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, one that puts feet on some of the remarkable values we’ll be discussing, a book called Jayber CrowIf you’re interested in the author, Wendell Berry, the best introduction to his work I’ve ever read is here.  For myself, I can tell you that this perspective has affected me deeply, and I’ve written extensively about it.  Here is one of my more meaningful attempts.

These are the questions which will be informing the dialogue of our class:

  1. What does peace look like when it comes to how cantankerous people live near and with one another?
  2. How does peaceful community challenge the myth of western individualism?
  3. What values shape Christian thinking about economy and consumption?
  4. Where does our food come from and why does that matter?
  5. What does a life shaped by these values look like?
  6. What does our theology have to say about the land and waters, the plants and creatures that live in these, the value of humans and their relationship to all of it?
  7. What does it mean to exercise the image of God in his creation?
  8. What is the eschatological message of a theology that cares about the earth, its people, plants, and creatures?

In one of my classes years ago, I quoted NT Wright about the irony that some who were strict “creationists” were those who were the least concerned about taking care of “creation.”  The immediate (and sincere) response from one of my students was “but what about abortion?”[v]  She, like many evangelicals, had been fooled into thinking that abortion is the only contemporary moral issue the Gospel has any application to.  That to care about how we treat the earth means we must accept partial-birth abortion.  This, however, is a lie which has distracted evangelicals from a myriad of other important issues, manipulated them into blind political allegiance which embroils them in ceaseless culture wars, and is itself antithetical to the Gospel.  In my opinion it has even disrupted their ability to think about abortion itself. 

The truth is, the Gospel speaks into every part of our lives because it seeks to restore God’s whole created order, and believing this only deepens our understanding of the work of Jesus in this world, of peace and the value of life, and how to live as an alternative Kingdom community within the kingdoms of the world whose values are not the Lord’s…but, more on this when you take the class. 

Please join us.

Follow the Link here to register.



[i] I want to point out that I use a lower-case “g” when I’m referring to a gospel that I take to be different from the Gospel.

[ii] See what I mean?

[iii] It may not be clear, but my intent is to use the term “necessary” in an ontological sense—as opposed to “contingent.”  “Necessary” here meaning “having itself as the source of its own being.”  It just “is” and can’t be helped. 

[iv] Politically, this is something that “progressives” like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez readily (if not partially) accept and have attempted to write into their national policies.  It is something that, I believe, “conservatives” try to ignore and have attempted to stifle by drawing ridiculous caricatures of these policies.  My concern is that conservatives and progressives, each, are too invested in this economy to adequately address the problems.  It will require a change of thinking and values to truly present a Kingdom solution.

[v] The truth is, this is a common reaction and one which genuinely mystifies non-conservative folks who struggle to understand how people who can be so adamantly “pro-life” can be so unconcerned about the places we “live” in.

Letters from My Father

My father was born in 1911, eight years removed from the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, four years before the first coast to coast telephone call, and well within an age to remember WWI. As a child, he heard of a new weapon called a “tank” and pictured it according to the only tank he was familiar with – a sort of large oil drum with a slit around the middle permitting vision and a seat in the middle suspended in midair, large enough to simply roll over the enemy and every obstacle. His mother still enjoyed racing her horse and buggy against challengers along main street in Parsons Kansas, even though the Model T was quite popular.  As a boy he shook the hand of Frank James (of outlaw fame), whose ranch was a tourist attraction in Oklahoma. He would be among the 2nd generation of pilots and was taught to fly, he would find out later, by a flight instructor who taught an entire generation without benefit of ever attaining a pilot’s license. He owned a variety of airplanes, boats, and horses, the latter which he would race. He was a small-town mayor, edited and published his own newspaper, was the owner/operator of a small airport, and managed a variety of mobile home factories.

He lived through the Great Depression – though he was of an age and temperament that, in the telling at least, made of the Depression one of the most colorful and least depressing periods of his life. Depression in fact, is the last word I would associate with my father, despite living with the effects of polio and struggling his entire life to earn a living for a large family, which he was not unsuccessful at doing. Even in his final years in the nursing home, unable to walk and his memory sometimes unclear, he was still geared to making the most of his time. He instructed me to bring him the want ads from the newspaper as he planned to set up a car brokerage using the nursing home telephone.

My brothers and I would inherit no fortune, but the legacy we received was in the stories he told, which were not morality tales but which conveyed a perspective, a history, we carry. The comparison might be with those fascinated by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, but my father’s stories were not otherworldly, but earthy, firmly located in a particular time and place, concerning people he had known or his own experiences, and yet always bearing a sort of enchantment.

Many of these stories he eventually reproduced in written form.  A simple example, Roy Hardman:

Roy was a piano tuner and totally blind. He could not tell daylight from dark and his wife was also totally blind. Through the “short money” years, Roy and his wife raised a family of three, owned their own home, and was never dependent on the County, State, or relatives for any kind of assistance.

Now, one of the most far fetched tales of my repertoire is: Roy drove his own car. I have seen him many times in the Twenties with one of the children beside him telling him when to stop, turn, etc. Furthermore, as the children grew older, he taught each of them to drive the automobile.

Leroy, his second eldest has told me that his main caution was: “You can’t depend on the other driver avoiding you, as a lot of drivers don’t watch where they are going.”

Dad walked with a limp and many of his stories concerned those, like himself, whom he affectionately referred to as “gimps”: “My definition has always been a person with a handicap in appearance but not in reality. The ones to whom I refer have so completely overcome any handicap that they rather proudly refer to themselves as gimps.” Peg Highland, Up and Down John, Kraut Cutter Cherry, One Eyed Johnson, bore their “disability” in their moniker. Others like Luther Cortylou, another up and down walker, were known, not for their disability, but for an added flair it gave them:

If he passed fifty women on the street, he lifted his hat fifty times. It may have been an optical illusion, but it appeared as if he grasped the crown of his hat on his high step, held it level and stepped down from under the hat without having to lift it.

Cortylou was, in my father’s description, “in no way handicapped other than being president of a bank.

One Eyed Johnson worked for my father selling educational courses, during Dad’s short stint as a “professor” (another story). According to Dad, Johnson carried his glass eye in his coat pocket as it was most uncomfortable in his eye socket, but he thought it more dignified to have two eyes in place when calling on a prospective student. So, he would pop it in at the last minute to make a good impression.

He would knock and step back in his most elegant pose for the lady (he was selling secretarial courses) to open the door. A big smile that exposed teeth resembling the keyboard of a small piano, one blue eye and the other eye covered with tobacco crumbs and pocket fuzz. It was impressive as I am sure they remembered it forever.

There were over a hundred characters and stories, many simple vignettes, Dad would relate which had a cumulative effect. I suppose one could extract some sort of moral from some of his stories; many were darkly humorous, but all of them flowed out of a deeply amused, profound appreciation for life and people.  

 In my college years, feeling he had neglected corresponding with us regularly, Dad began to send us monthly letters addressed to his four sons, not by name but in the fashion of the Chinese television detective, Charlie Chan, who addressed his children numerically (“number one son,” etc.). He would simply print out the numbers 1-4 and circle the appropriate number. I was living in the dorm at the time, and a group of students, upon hearing I had received another letter, would gather to read it. Many of the stories were those that I had heard growing up, and so I knew them word for word; where to pause for effect, and the cadence in which they were told. Others were new to me (a bit off-color), vaguely remembered, or filled with new detail.  After more than a year of receiving these letters, one Christmas he presented each of the four of us with a bound copy of the letters.

More than forty years have passed since I received those bound letters and I have acquired hundreds of books and have even begun to dispose of books, as I realize I have limited time and space.  I have noticed postings on Facebook of people listing ten favorite or most influential books, most of which (being as I am friends with those of similar background) I have read or am familiar with. Some of the choices I agree with, some I feel sad that one has had such an impoverished life of the mind. I would have trouble sorting out single volumes among the many books which have been of key importance. Mostly I have read, absorbed the main points, moved on. The Brothers Karamazov profoundly impacted me, but I don’t think I have the energy or desire to reread it. Certain theologians deserve a second look, but mostly “I got it.” Maybe it is a sign of old age – I continue to read – but am less easily impressed, harder to engage fully, and much of my library, I now realize, is of limited importance.

The one book in my library which I will not part with bears a gold inscription against a black background, Letters From Papa. It may be of limited literary value, and no, it is not of biblical proportion. But having grown up with my father’s stories, I recognize the primary importance of narrative in finding and appreciating time and place.  The stories of a small town in Kansas were preparation for realizing the extraordinary in the ordinary: say, in the town of Bethlehem a child was born and they laid him in a feed trough as the child and his parents were economic and social gimps, not worth notice.  

Can Nations be Christian?

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

A few years ago, I visited Washington D.C. again, having been to our nation’s capital probably a half dozen times.  I am always taken aback by its history and its architecture.  On this last visit I was admiring the Jefferson Memorial, a tribute to one of our country’s founding fathers and our third president.  What caught my attention were the inscriptions inside of the memorial.  Many of them were references to God.  One such quote reads,

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. 

The Jefferson memorial is not the only place where scripture or references to God are inscribed.  The Washington Monument also has scripture verses and references to God.  One could do a search of the whole city and find thousands of references to God.  Our very Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

With all these references to God and the faith of some of our founding fathers it makes sense that many believe America is a “Christian nation.”  Yet can any nation actually be Christian?  Does calling a nation Christian make it Christian?  The question can only be answered by discerning what it really means to be Christian. 

The term “Christian” was first used at the church in Antioch.  It is quite possible that these earlier followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians, but it was name the community gave to the church because they saw that these people followed Jesus.  The word “Christian” simply means “little Christ.”  The city of Antioch called Jesus-followers “Little Christs” because they saw the people of the church imitating the life and ethics of Jesus.  This labeling by the community of Antioch is important because it gives us a huge clue to what it means to be Christian.  The Christian then, is one who has allegiance to the teachings and person of Jesus and seeks to imitate these teachings.  This core is easily seen in other New Testament passages.  Here are just a few examples.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he called people to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27).  In what we call the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

In all these passages we see the theme of allegiance and imitation of Jesus as essential to being a Christian. 

The Apostle Paul understood that allegiance and imitation were key to what it meant to be Christian.  It could be said that at the heart of his letter to the Corinthian church, with its many problems and issues, was the question, “What does it mean to be Christian?”. Paul answers this decisively when he tells the church in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  Paul was saying that being a Christian means following Jesus

This idea was not unique to Paul.  Peter says in 1 Peter 2:21, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” The apostle John would say in 1 John 2:6, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”  Jesus’ brother James would insist that being a follower of Jesus was not simply a matter of intellectual belief but had everything to do with imitating Jesus’ ways and life.  He would say in James 2:14ff that faith without action (imitation of Jesus) was dead.  The New Testament seems to be clear that to be Christian one must have allegiance to Jesus and imitate his ways.  So, can nations be Christian?

The easiest way to answer this question is to explore whether any nation has ever demonstrated allegiance to Jesus and sought to imitate his ways.  We need to be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that just because people want to be a Christian nation or desire that such a nation exist that it means it is Christian.  A duckling can grow up with dogs and even believe that it is a dog, but even though it tries to behave like a dog, tries to do dog-like things, it can never be a dog.  It is still a duck.  Throughout history nations have called themselves Christian, have claimed to do Christian-like things, but this does not mean they are Christian.  I believe that if we honestly evaluate what is at the heart of nation state, we must say they can never be Christian.  Though some certainly believe themselves to be Christian, they can never be Christian.  Christianity is reserved for those who imitate Christ and follow him.  Let me give you an example of a nation seeking to be Christian and believing their cause to be Christian.

During World War 2 one of the main leaders of a country who called themselves a Christian nation said this,

In this hour I would ask of the Lord God only this: that He would give His blessing to our work, and that He may ever give us the courage to do the right.  I am convinced that men who are created by God should live in accordance with the will of the Almighty.  No man can fashion world history unless upon his purpose and his power there rest the blessings of this Providence.

It is clear that this person believed their cause and their nation was Christian.  So, who said this?  Franklin Roosevelt?  Winston Churchill?  We might easily believe it to be either, but these words were, in fact, spoken by Adolf Hitler.  Hopefully it’s obvious that Nazi Germany was not a truly “Christian” nation.  They neither followed the words of Jesus or sought to imitate him. 

But, can America be the exception?

Again, the criteria we are looking for is following Jesus and imitating him.  Certainly, many Americans believe the nation to be Christian based on superficial statements like saying we are “under God,” but words are not as important as actions (thinking you’re a duck does not make you a duck). One only has to look throughout our nation’s history to see that, as a nation, we have not followed Jesus, nor have we imitated him. 

This is not meant to be overly harsh, but to demonstrate that nations can never be Christian because nations have different interests and agendas. Nations cannot imitate Christ partly because to do so they may cease to exist as nations.  If the heart of being a Christian is loving one’s enemies, then it is safe to say that America and all other nations have never been Christian.  America has always had enemies and even though we invite them to join us and we might even to seek to love them it is only when they seek to serve our interests. 

Christians, on the other hand, are to love their enemies regardless of their actions or intentions.  If Christians are called to put down the sword, then it is evident that America is not Christian.  America and all other nations use the sword to keep people in line and even at times (unknowingly) may be agents of Gods plans.  If Christians are to be “just people” then one can look at American history and see it has not been just.  The stain of slavery and the inequality of women and minorities are just a few examples of our injustice.  Justice for all is a great dream for America and one we should strive for but it has never been realized and since nations are part of the fallen world, they never will achieve this goal.

It is my prayer in writing this blog that the reader will agree that nations cannot be Christian.  Only the church can be Christian.  I love the nation I live in.  I want to be a blessing to it and even strive to live out my Christianity in it.  Hopefully Christians see that the only nation which is Christian is the Jesus nation.  This nation is a nation which has no borders and is without enemies of the flesh, but is a people who seek to imitate and follow the one leader: Jesus.