Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Youth Ministry as an Exercise in Liberation Theology: Reflections on Gustavo Gutierrez

As it has been mentioned in previous blogposts, all Christian theology is to be liberation theology that pays particular attention to God's special concern [1] for oppressed and marginalized peoples and communities. This is where Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, and his classic contribution to Christian theology, A Theology of Liberation, is advantageous for both academic and pragmatic forums and Christian witness. What follows are reflections from one of my favorite works of theology.

Over the course of my nearly ten years in ecclesial ministry, mainly in the realm of youth work, I have discovered a pervasive, albeit false, dichotomy, i.e. church speech as distinct from church praxis. The segregation of these disciplines is one of the most infectious misnomers among God's people. This is especially true of the faith communities located in suburban contexts of luxury and privilege. Therefore, it is no accident or coincidence that the bulk of liberation theology has roots in and develops from contexts of poverty, communities of oppression, and voices from the margins. In other words, for the aforementioned, Christian theology is liberation theology and refutes any and all dichotomies that segregate speech and witness. [2] Gutierrez writes, "we cannot separate our discourse about God from the historical process of liberation" (xviii). Moreover and especially, this discourse does not bud within a vacuum, rather blossoms in light of real communities and contexts of oppression. Again, Gutierrez writes:

These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer, are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities (xix).
Therefore, as the Christian pursues related speech and discourse it is imperative to do so not in isolation from, rather in solidarity with the very communities and individuals whom God, in and through the vocation of Jesus, seeks to liberate and redeem. [3]

This theological posture is precisely the rationale for the missional paradigm that has been implemented within the youth ministry I serve, particularly the upcoming immersion experience in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. That is, the hope and prayer over the past four years has been to implement an environment whereby students in the youth ministry, their parents, and related volunteers in the program would become all the more aware of the vital intersection between what we say about God and the gospel and how God's people live into the character of God and related speech. In other words, it has been our intention to overcome the false assumption that theology and mission are two distinct characteristics of the life of a disciple. The result of this missional paradigm, i.e. youth ministry as an exercise in liberation theology, has been young disciples questing to discover how salvation extends well beyond personal assurance of a sweet by-and-by and more into incarnated acts of socio-political justice and reconciliation. Gutierrez says it best:

Salvation is not something otherworldly, in regard to which the present life is merely a test. Salvation- the communion of human beings with God and among themselves- is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ... (85).
This sort of activity in our youth ministry has led to a wide range of relationships across diverse lines of demarcation, or as Paul said, dividing walls of hostility (Eph. 2:14). Students in the Imago Dei Youth Ministry have lived in solidarity with those on the margins, others caught in cycles of poverty, and neighbors on the fringes of society. These relationships have not been developed so to fuel an appreciation for what they have, to earn credits for school, or to boost a resume. Instead, youth have become convicted that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is to live in rhythm and communion with God's predilection option for the poor.

Nonetheless, there is a danger that lurks nearby when one reads Gutierrez', A Theology of Liberation. That is, one can read an assume that such a theological development is yet another genre created and explored by disengaged academics who have spent years-on-end in isolated study. However, Gutierrez is sure to remind the reader that liberation theology has its beginnings in latino youth movements at the forefront of prophetic gospel witness (40). This observation is yet another reason why, no matter how many degrees I earn or the trajectory of my ecclesial vocation, I long to stay engaged with the Spirit's activity in and through teenagers. It is my conviction that the unashamed nature and fearless character allows young disciples in a variety of contexts to live into the gospel of liberation with authenticity and audacity. Moreover, youth are sensitive to and move beyond irrelevant jargon and hope for alternative and just expressions of social, political, and economic systems. Again, this is not because they are neo-socialists or budding communists. Instead, today's youth, some in the suburbs and others in developing nations, are deeply concerned for proponents of the gospel to move beyond abstract anticipations and into real incarnations of liberation and peace:

The ultimate reason for commitment to the poor and oppressed is not to be found in the social analysis reuse, or in human compassion, or in any direct experience we have of poverty. These are all doubtless valid motives that play an important part in our commitment. As Christians, however, our commitment is grounded, in the final analysis, in the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option that has its roots in the unmerited love of God and is demanded by this love" (xxvii).
Gutierrez reminds the church that there is a point of departure between trendy altruism and ecclesial Christian mission. This departure is found in the real conviction that Christian theology is a missional theology especially concerned for the poor and oppressed. Moreover, this gospel is confessed and pursued not to those on the margins, rather alongside those who are considered last by the world's standards. [4]

While I have found the contributions of Gutierrez and other liberation theologians to be advantageous and faithful to the biblical witness, there is a significant caveat. That is to say, I do not work in communities often associated with poverty, oppression, and injustice. Instead, I work among the elite, the wealthy, and the privileged who live in luxury and comfort versus hostility and marginalization. If God's preferential option is for the poor, is the gospel even available to them? Gutierrez is both consistent in his conviction and sensitive to this real tension when he writes:

The great challenge [is] to maintain both the universality of God's love and God's predilection for those on the lowest rung of the ladder of history...we have here two aspects of the church's life that are both demanding and inseparable: universality and preference for the poor" (xxvi)
Therefore, the task as a suburban youth pastor is to develop an ability to underscore not only the urgency of this preferential option, but also God's deep and universal love for all of humanity- to include those in contexts of comfort.[5] Nonetheless, what I have found, more often than not, is that when students engage the gospel of liberation and dwell in solidarity with those on the margins they understand God's love for them, even as suburban dwellers, to a much fuller and faithful extent. That is to say, they see themselves as fellow image bearers of a Creator who is concerned especially for their oppressed neighbors, brothers, and sisters, and also possesses a deep and abiding love for them in the 'burbs. In essence, the youth I serve recognize that they have found refuge within a broader community and larger story that is not only for them, but also and especially for the whole world. This is what makes youth ministry as an exercise in liberation theology so addictive and contagious, not only for youth pastors, but also for the larger Christian communities in whom they are a part. Even more, this is why we continually pursue partnerships with those in contexts of poverty and injustice, both domestically and internationally, because this is where God is most at work.

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez refers to this as"God's preferential option for the poor." He writes, "The universality of Christian love is, I repeat, incompatible with the exclusion of persons, but it is not incompatible with preferential option for the poorest and most oppressed" (160, italics mine). This thesis stems from the biblical emphasis on God's mission of liberation that consistently elects and saves those in who stem from communities and contexts of marginalization. See my paper, "Poverty, Liberation, and Christian Scripture"

[2] The words of James Cone, prominent Black Liberation Theologian, are pertinent to this discussion, Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ…There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed (1).

[3] Gutierrez writes, "To be a Christian is to be in solidarity....the process of liberation requires the active participation of the oppressed..." (67).

[4] Gutierrez offers yet another beautiful insight, "the historical point of view allows us to break out of a narrow, individualistic viewpoint and see with more Biblical eyes that human beings are called to meet the Lord insofar as they constitute a community, a people. It is a question not so much of a vocation to salvation as a convocation" (45). That is, any and all work of liberation theology as missional praxis is to be in partnership with those who are poor, oppressed, and on the margins. This is the framework in which our summer missional experience to Tegucigalpa, Honduras stems and gestates.

[5] This is not to suggest that there are not real experiences of poverty, injustice, oppression, and other forms of suffering in the suburbs, for there certainly are. Instead, I suggest that when one enters into community with those for whom God is especially concerned in cross-cultural experiences, those for whom God has a preferential option in one's own community are much more easily recognized. When this occurs, the Christian is commissioned to to pursue solidarity with their most local of neighbors.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Further Reflections from Genesis: Cain, Where Is Your Brother, Abel?

The Ghent Altarpiece, ca. 1390-1441
I am Cain. I am the first born son of Adam, who by the help of God was born to my mother Eve. My story is from the beginning. You may know it well. It may even be your story, too.

I can still hear the voice echoing in the wind; the voice of Yahweh, “Cain, where is your brother, Abel? Cain, where is your brother, Abel? CAIN, WHERE IS YOUR BROTHER, ABEL?

My name is known. My name, Cain, is synonymous to many with violence, murder, deceit. Who would ever think to name their child Cain? It wasn’t always that way. My name was given to me as a witness that the Creator God had helped bring into the world yet another reflection of God’s image. Cain is similar to the Hebrew word for “acquired,” as in by the help of the Creator my mother acquired a son.

Cain, where is your brother, Abel? CAIN, WHERE IS YOUR BROTHER, ABEL?

We had gone out to the fields together to bring offerings to God. My younger brother, Abel, was a shepherd. He offered the best of his fold, the most precious of his flock. And the Creator God was pleased. I was a gardener. I offered the leftovers of my harvest from the ground cursed due to the actions of my father, Adam. And God took no regard. I remember thinking: How dare my brother, my little sibling, outdo me? Who is he to think he can bring delight to the Creator by giving his very best? Abel, I will see that you never outdo me again.

Abel was innocent, for sure. He did not deserve the consequences of my pending behavior. Yet envy and rage continued to loom large when I heard the voice again, “Cain, why are you angry? Cain, be on your guard. Cain, sin is lurking at your door. Its desire is for you. It wants to plant seeds of bitterness that will grow into vengeance and will produce violence. Cain, you must overcome your violence before violence overcomes you.

I lured my brother into the fields we both knew so well. We had grown up in these fields. But these fields now haunt me. My brother’s blood cries out from the ground of these fields. My brother’s blood was shed by my hands in these fields…

“Cain, where is your brother, Abel? Cain, where is your brother, Abel? CAIN, WHERE IS YOUR BROTHER, ABEL?”

I do not know! Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my brother’s keeper?

The voice paused, but not for long. I knew the answer to the question. I knew I was my brother’s keeper. I knew I was to be co-laborers with my brother in the Creator’s call for us to be fruitful, to multiply, to care for and reproduce the life God created as good. But I took it instead. I crushed my brother, made in the same image of the God who created us both. I twisted the image. I offended the image. I killed the image. I tried to cover and burry the image…

But Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. Not even I could thwart the concern of this Creator for my younger brother. Not even death could overcome the compassion of this Creator for my younger brother. This creator hears the cries of the oppressed, the weak, the wounded, and those suffering at the hands of violence and injustice. This Creator hears the cries of even the dead.

But for me, a murderer, an abuser, the keeper of death over life, there would be no hope…or so I thought…

Then I heard the voice again, “Not so!”

Could it be that God’s compassion is even for me?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Genesis and the Beginnings of Biblical Narrative

This Sunday Westminster Presbyterian Church begins a series on Genesis. While we have dibbled and dabbed in the Old Testament over recent years, this marks the first time in a while whereby we will explore the Pentateuch, i.e. first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The hope is to explore Exodus in the fall! That said, I scrolled through my previous writings and stumbled across this resource below, aware that as we approach Genesis it is imperative to take notice of the genre of narrative that provided a significant platform for this ancient text. This is important so to avoid doing violence to the text and reading out of or into Scripture what was never there in the first place.

Happy reading as we begin with the "book of beginnings"...

The biblical witness is compiled of a diverse set of literary forms and genres. It is imperative for the reader of Scripture to develop the skills necessary for the recognition of the related mediums used within to evoke the intended messages and meanings relevant not only to the world of Scripture, but also to the world of the reader. One of the primary literary forms that exists throughout Scripture is narrative. The biblical writers generate stories through the movements of characters within particular settings in order to interpret events and give meaning to realities. These narratives ultimately fit within the larger biblical story of God’s mission to and for God's people and creation. There are several key questions pertinent for the development of the skills and abilities necessary for the reader of biblical narrative. These questions will both challenge the reader’s approach to biblical narrative and enhance the ability to discern the intended meanings and representations of the related stories.

What is the difference between event and story?
This is a crucial question in the discipline of biblical studies and hermeneutics, i.e. interpretation, for the confusion of the two easily and often leads to a reading of the biblical witness external to the nature of the text and the natural function of the content. The primary distinction between event and story is that a story is the interpretation of an event(s) that formulates an understanding of the world and the related course through it (Bartholomew and Goheen 19). That is to say, events are what happened. Stories interpret what happened in order to illustrate what is happening and the intended relationship to past, present, and future readers (Ryken 83). The intention of story is to craft the characters, settings, and circumstances of an event in a particular arrangement for the communication of an interpreted idea (Ryken 81). Furthermore, events can elicit infinite stories intended to move the reader in a particular direction and affirm related metanarratives, i.e. large and overarching stories, and worldviews, i.e. how we interpret reality and human experience. The task of the reader is to carefully distinguish between event and story and maintain constant awareness of the personal biases and subjectivity (Fokkelman 25) that may affect honest readings of an event and infringe upon the proper intentions of a story.

The Scriptures incorporate a vast array of narratives that are uniquely crafted in efforts to interpret particular events for the movement of the theology, history, and mission of God and God's people. These narratives are representations of reality intended to communicate particular truths to the readers (Berlin 13). However, the truth of these stories and the truth of the depicted events are not one in the same (Bauckham 44; Berlin 14). In other words, the event of Israel’s captivity by Assyria is one truth; however, the narrative of Israel’s exile to the eastern nation as consequence for neglect of torah is another truth in light of the biblical witness.[1] The former is the true event; the latter is the true theological interpretation of the real event illustrated and framed by a much larger story (Schnittjer 16). When these truths are confused and the lines between story and event are blurred, the intended purposes, whether for history, theology, or others, are mistaken.[2]

How does biblical narration shape the meaning of, and interpret through representation, the events narrated?
Biblical narrative is a literary device and art form utilized to communicate meaning(s)(Berlin 135) to the reader(s).[3] The narrations within Scripture are carefully and creatively constructed with intentionality that goes beyond a report about given events. Instead, biblical narrative crafts events in a particular form for the sake of interpretation and representation pertinent especially, although not limited, to theology. Essentially, in order to inquire about the meaning(s) of biblical narrative, the reader must interact with the form, methods, settings, characters, activity, language, and intended audience of the story (Ryken 81). The reader of biblical narrative must understand not only the meaning of the story, i.e. content, but also how the meaning is illustrated, i.e. form (Fokkelman 29). This being the case, hermeneutical dialogue is critical to the proper interpretation and representation of biblical narrative (Fokkelman 24-25).

In biblical narrative the storytellers control not only what details and elements of the narrative readers see, but also how and when the readers see and interpret these components (Ryken 85). Literary devices such as repetition, highlighting, gaps, and analogy are activated with regularity to guide the reader in particular directions for the exposition of meanings (Ryken 83; Berlin 136-137). The narrators may also introduce commentaries through authorial assertions, i.e. narration external to the characters, and normative spokespersons, i.e. narration through a character within the story (Ryken 84-85). However, the conclusion of the narratives is often the most significant key to the interpretation of the meaning and the intended representation of the event(s). All of these devises are creatively included within the construction of biblical narrative and aid in the movement of both the thematic significance and the intellectual interpretation of the story.

One of the most significant concepts in the study of biblical narrative is that the characters, settings, movements, and activities within the story serve a greater purpose and carry heavier burdens than themselves (Ryken 83). The storytellers illustrate not only the reality of the characters involved, but also the reality in which the reader lives. Ryken comments, “The primary rule of narrative interpretation is thus the rule of significance: we assume that the writer intends to say something significant about reality and human experience” (82). This representation of reality and experience arrives only when the reader engages fully with the whole story and the related form (Ryken 86). In this, the reader gains greater insight into the storyteller’s intended meaning and suggested interpretation and representation of the illustrated events.

What should be the readers’ responsibility and posture toward scriptural narrative?
The reader of biblical narrative bears great responsibility in the realm of biblical interpretation. Each reader brings to the text an abundance of biases and preconceived notions about the narrative’s meaning and representation. This being said, the reader is to approach Scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion, aware of the tendency to read into Scripture an interpretation external to the true nature and movement of the text (Hays 219). However, readers are not to deny personal subjectivity; rather, they are to engage and employ it for the benefit of the biblical witness versus the private ideologies and objectives of the reader (Fokkelman 25). The discipline of such hermeneutics allows the mind of the reader to be transformed by the Gospel and opened to fresh perspectives and trusts in God’s promises made known and complete in the faithfulness of Jesus (Hays 220).

The reader is also to be wise and embrace a hermeneutic of trust. The biblical witness can often seem out of sync with reality and the promises contained within empty. Therefore, “a trusting hermeneutic is essential for all who believe the word of the resurrection but do not yet see death made subject to God…Our reliance on God entails a death to common sense, and our trust is validated only by the resurrection” (Hays 219). The reader of biblical narrative is indeed to be suspicious of his/her inability to comprehend and his/her potential to misread. However, as the Scriptures take shape in the lives of the reader, guided by God’s Spirit, a transformation begins and an ability to trust the text and the God sovereign over it occurs (Hays 221). The reader is encouraged to ask difficult questions and explore honest criticism related to biblical narrative (Hays 222). At the same time, the reader is to read with a hermeneutic of consent and trust that elevates the biblical witness over and against the reader and the related suspicions. Ultimately, we can only faithfully live into and trust the biblical witness because of the faithfulness of the Messiah and the reality of Jesus' resurrection. For the Christian, all biblical interpretation is subject and witness to this event and story.

How should biblical narrative shape us as readers?
Biblical narrative is to goad the reader into a fresh interpretation not only of how the world was, but also how the world is (Bartholomew and Goheen 18). There is no larger story than that which is told within the pages of Scripture. That is to say, the narrative world of Scripture is also the reader’s world; the biblical story is also the reader’s story (Jenson 32, 34). This story gives shape and meaning to the realities of the reader and his/her movements through the world. Furthermore, we live in a world saturated by stories and myths. What is needed is not an escape from this storied world; instead, the need exists to embrace a more ethical and redemptive story and witness that transforms a world obsessed with narratives of domination, oppression, and consumption. This is the story generated by the collection of narratives within the Christian Scriptures (Bauckham 46). The biblical story is the unifying element that holds together all other forms within Scripture (Bauckham 39) and tells the public story of the entire creation.

How, in summary, does biblical narrative work?
Biblical narrative functions as the literary device necessary to communicate God’s work of creation, justice, redemption, and reconciliation through his people for the sake of the world. Events, characters, settings, themes, and conflicts are juxtaposed against other stories and forms in efforts to generate the single coherent story of exodus and resurrection that runs throughout the entire biblical witness (Bauckham 43). Biblical narrative interprets the realities of the world and frames them in a particular context. This framed story invites readers to embrace it as their own and live into the witness as it continues to unfold and anticipate the consummation of the Lord’s covenantal promises of new creation. Ultimately, biblical narrative works to anticipate the story of the Messiah and God’s work of liberation and new creation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the story of Scripture. This is our story. This is also the story of the whole world. As N.T. Write suggests, N.T. Wright, “‘the whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth’” (Bartholomew and Goheen 20).

[1] The entirety of Scripture hinges on the balance of event and story. Jenson explains, “The message of Jesus’ resurrection, the gospel, is a message about an event and so itself has the form of a narrative…The church reads her Scripture as a single plotted succession of events, stretching from creation to consummation, plotted around exodus and resurrection” (29).
[2] This is nowhere more evident than when the creation and flood stories are utilized for the purposes of science and history. Many well-intended students interpret these elements primarily as events, much to the neglect of their inclusion for the sake of biblical story and theology. Berlin comments, “…we are conscious that art is representation, but we forget that literature is, too. When we read narrative, especially biblical narrative, we are constantly tempted to mistake mimesis for reality- to take as real that which is only a representation of reality. And, conversely, we may be blind to a piece of the narrative picture because we are unaware of how it is being represented” (14).
[3] Fokkelman reminds students of the plurality of meaning within biblical narrative, “We constantly run the risk- whether during our first or our thirtieth reading of the story- of thinking: I’ve got it! So this is what the story is about!” (26).

Works Cited

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Poverty, Liberation and Christian Scriptures: Part II

Here is Part II of the unrefined final paper... enjoy... or just smile and nod if you think it too long :) 

While the Old Testament is advantageous for the reader of the Christian Scriptures to and the initial development of a hermeneutic of poverty, it must refuse to end there. Instead, the reader of Christian Scripture must extend into the New Testament corpus that bears witness to God's concern for the poor and oppressed through the incarnation of Jesus as Messiah. Moreover, the New Testament as witness to the life and vocation of Jesus not only builds upon the writings within the Old Testament, but also unveils God's once and for all revelation that in Jesus the whole world, to begin with the poor and oppressed, is being made right (Mat. 20:16; Rev. 21).

The tendency of Christian theology is to development doctrines and statements that are reserved for the intellect and situated in the academy, regardless of their liberal or conservative affiliations. However, faithful Christology is neither passive to nor absent from real human experiences and manifestations of evil and injustice. James Cone offers an alternative to conventional Christology and biblical theology:

Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ…There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed (A Black Theology of Liberation 1).
That is to say, Christian theology not only incorporates, but also and especially hinges on a theology that elevates and liberates the poor and oppressed in a wide variety of oppressive contexts. Furthermore, this hermeneutic is not developed ex nihilio, but gestates in light of the life and vocation of the real person of Jesus and attested to within the pages of New Testament.

The gospel narratives affirm the suggestions of Cone and underscore the nature of Christian theology as liberation theology in their earliest beginnings. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that references Israel’s history of exile, which is the incarnated narrative of Jesus as the exiled one for all the exiled of the world (Mt. 1:1-17). Moreover, Jesus’ escape from Egypt illustrates the infant Jesus as the new Moses who will lead the poor of the world out of empirical oppression and into new and final liberation that is the mark of God’s kingdom (Mt. 2:19-23). The gospel of Luke also records the lyric of Mary, mother of Jesus, which signifies the nativity as God’s grand act of deliverance for the poor and hungry:

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Lk. 1:52-53).
That is to say, the entrance of Immanuel is the ultimate witness that affirms “God’s predilection for those on the lowest rung of the ladder of history” (Gutierrez xxvi). The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, is the very God who, in and through Jesus, became poor for the sake of the poor first and then also for the whole world. [7]

The Gospel of Luke is also advantageous in the illumination of a Christocentric theology of poverty and oppression in its record of Jesus' opening statements in his adult ministry. In other words, Luke is intentional in the portrayal of the Messiah as the one who has come to fulfill and announce the much anticipated prophetic jubilee:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:16-21).
In other words, what Isaiah had announced as a future anticipation and eschatological hope for the people of Israel (Isaiah 61), Jesus declared as fulfilled in and through his Messianic vocation. This is because, for Jesus, as with the tradition of which Jesus entered into, salvation was not merely a matter of personal wholeness and eternal assurance. Instead, “the essence of the gospel is shalom" (Villafane, Seek the Peace of the City 53), whereby all of creation is liberated from real and present manifestations of evil and injustice that distort the divine intentions for humanity and creation now.

The life and ministry of Jesus consistently unveil a Messiah who is concerned not only for the future of individuals and society, but also and especially the present infringements upon personal and societal shalom. Japinga writes:

“Salvation for Jesus involved wholeness, healing, and reconciliation for individuals and for society. He did not promise instant transformation, but the hope of the Kingdom and its radically new social structures” (Japinga, Feminism and Christianity 109).
The pages of both the synoptics and the Johannine text illustrate Jesus as the incarnation of the very message within the unfolded scroll of Isaiah. That is to say, Jesus enters into contexts of captivity and releases those held in bondage (Mark 5; Luke 5:17ff); Jesus encounters the blind and opens their eyes to receive sight (Mark 9:46-52; Luke 18:35-43; John 9); the favor of the Lord is also declared, albeit for the poor and oppressed first and then also for the whole of humanity and creation (Matthew 5:1-12). While the acts of Jesus could be, and often have been, interpreted as witnesses to the divinity of Jesus, these pericopes are surely more than Messianic apologetics. Instead, the gospel writers incorporate these texts as attestations that in Jesus a new Moses has come to lead a new exodus for the oppressed, e.g. Matthew; the year of Jubilee has begun and shalom is finally here, e.g. Luke; new creation has begun for both people, systems, and the entire cosmos, e.g. John; and we must quickly be on our way as we follow and live into this gospel for the sake of the world, e.g. Mark.

The vocation of Jesus has often been reduced to merely a matter of personal salvation through a personal Savior. Moreover and especially, the life and vocation of Jesus has also been underscored as primarily about the promise of a future kingdom with yet-to-be-seen hopes and dreams. However, the expectations of the likes of John the Baptist suggest something quite different. [8]  Instead of a sweet by-and-by, the intrigue and lure of the Messiah, as illustrated within Matthew, is much akin to the Lukan incorporation of Trito-Isaiah:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (Matthew 11:2-6).
Again, the vocation of Jesus underscores a Christocentric and biblical theology deeply concerned about the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. That is to say, Christian theology is liberation theology, which is just as concerned about the transformation of the present as it is about the hopes and expectations of the future. [9]

One of the more prominent illustrations within the New Testament of Christian theology as liberation theology regards the Luke 18 and 19. These two texts buttress the confessional prayer of a tax collector with the narrative of Zaccheus. First, in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee declares, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector" (v. 11). Said differently, "God, I thank you that I am not poor, that I am not an immigrant, that I do not have a criminal record, that I have never been addicted to drugs, that I am not a minority, that I do not live in contexts of oppression." Then we hear the (un-named) tax collector, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" (v. 13) and Jesus' exaltation of this humbled other. Yet this tax collector remains unnamed. However, if the reader has tracked with the Lukan account of the gospel story up to this point, the reader then knows that there is always something more to be discovered in Luke’s narration. That is, Luke hints and guesses to a much larger Messianic portrait in hopes that the reader will connect the dots. Thus the incorporation of Luke 19:1-10 and the illustration of this tax collector who had a name after all- Zacchaeus.

As with many of Jesus' parables, Christian theology and ecclesial homiletics have hyper-spiritualized this narrative so much that we have crafted clever nursery rhymes for children and rendered this subversive illustration socially irrelevant. Preachers consider it nice that the tax collector was humble and repentant in Luke 18; teachers are quick to affirm Zacchaeus’ humble heart. Evangelists love Zacchaeus because he repents of his sins and turns to Jesus, a perfect platform to announce for others to do the same; children’s ministries even love that Zacchaeus was "a wee little man." While this is all true to a point, these truths may cause the reader of Christian Scriptures to miss that the humbled sinner and tax collector "standing far off" in prayer is also named Zacchaeus. After much contemplation and deliberation, even confession, he has climbed down from his elevated position in the tree, given reparations for his unjust and oppressive deeds (i.e. repents), and identified with the poor he once exploited. It is only after this sort of repentance that Jesus then says salvation has come to this son of Abraham. [10] Said differently, salvation in the economy of God is directly linked to a concern for and identification with the poor and oppressed. As Luke says elsewhere, "blessed are you who are poor…woe to you who are rich" (6:20,24); "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30); "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (18:14). Again, Christian theology is liberation theology that celebrates the jubilee and shalom that is first for the poor and oppressed and then also for the whole world. [11]

The Gospel of Luke offers yet another advantageous anecdote in Jesus' encounter with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. The gospel writer records:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.1 Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).
This text is typically preached as a means to compare and contrast Martha’s distraction and obsession with menial tasks (i.e. “many things”) to the personal piety and contentment embodied by Mary (i.e. her attention to “only one thing”). The hearer and/or reader is then encouraged to be less like Martha and more like Mary; less distracted and more focused; less domestic and more pious. While there may be some truth to these pastoral statements, Luke again draws the reader's attention to something more. In other words, Luke’s incorporation of this narrative, which directly follows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and the elevation of a marginalized people, is yet another Lukan attempt to underscore the social implications of Jesus’ vocation. That is to say, while Martha is about the domestic chores of a first-century woman, Jesus celebrates Mary’s bold move to sit at the feet of Jesus as though a student of her rabbi.

Luke 10:38-42 is thereby less prescriptive, i.e. be like Mary, and more descriptive, i.e. this is what the kingdom of God looks like and who is invited to participate. Moreover, Jesus is once again illustrated as the great liberator from systems of oppression and exclusion. Borg writes on this pericope:

Jesus was a guest in the home of two sisters named Mary and Martha. Martha played the traditional women's role of preparing a meal, while Mary related to him disciple to teacher. When Martha complained that she was doing all the work, Jesus endorsed Mary's behavior. In a first-century Jewish social context, it was a radical point. Jesus treated women and men as equally capable (and worthy) of dealing with sacred matters. In a time when a respectable sage was not even to converse with a woman outside of his family, and when women were viewed as both dangerous and inferior, the practice of Jesus was startling (Jesus A New Vision 134).
Israel's and the world's Messiah announces the kingdom of God as that which moves beyond gender roles and social classes and invites all to participate in God's action in and through Jesus the Messiah. The revolutionary and prophetic statement, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her,” is then echoed in the declarations of Paul, who writes that in Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female- all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:27-29; Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:11). [12]

The concern for the poor and oppressed and a vocation of liberation was not only the emphasis of Jesus, but also and especially a primary characteristic of the first Christian communities. The book of Acts begins with illustrations of the earliest churches subversion of systems of exploitation and segregation. Luke writes in the companion to his gospel:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved" (Acts 2: 43-47).
The ethos of these faith communities parallels the witness of the gospel and the ministry of Jesus that underscored a liberation that is especially for the poor and oppressed. In other words, the earliest disciples were intentional to see that all walls of division and hostility, e.g. economic and social class, crumbled and made feasible the shalom of God (Eph. 2:14). Luke writes later in Acts, "there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold" (4:34). [13] That is to say, the economic practices of the earliest Christian communities announced to the world that the year of jubilee had once and for all come. [14]

The exploration of the New Testament ethical and economic witness can be explored ad infinitum; however, one can gather without hesitation that a primary concern of the corpus of these canonical texts and the related Christian praxis illustrated there within was for the liberation of the poor and oppressed in their midst. In other words, it can be said that the early Christians took seriously the mandate of Jesus, the poor will always dwell among you (Mt. 26:11; Mk. 14:7; Jn. 12:8). Moreover, the ethical praxis that marked early Christian churches were as also and especially framed by the eschatological hope that the day would come when all oppressive systems and empirical forces. e.g. Babylon, Rome, etc., would be overcome by the vocation and kingdom of the slaughtered Lamb who was the world's Messiah (Rev. 13:8; 19:15, 21). Furthermore, the future anticipations of Jesus' disciples inaugurated prophetic and subversive incarnations of an alternative economy that was marked the kingdom of God.[15] That is to say, ecclesiology began and ended with an eschatology, and the same should hold true today.

The question posed for us today is, so what? We read the pages of the Old and New Testaments and are faced with the real and endemic nature of poverty that was not only encountered by the people of antiquity, but also continues to plague our contemporary world filled with both hope and great despair. We, too, echo the cries and concerns of Job and both demand and anticipate God’s promised deliverance and renewal of a world that was created as good, just, and at peace. We are reminded that poverty is not only an ancient dilemma and an academic and sociological concept. Instead, it is a real and on-going systemic evil that demands both a divine and human response and solidarity. [17] That is, God’s people, namely the Church, are to incarnate the divine pathos that not only exposes the reality of poverty, but also confronts the systems and legislations that promote and sustain it.

In essence, God’s people, in rhythm with the Old Testament witness, are to embody a prophetic imagination that “requires more than the old liberal confrontation if the point is not posturing but effecting change in social perspective and social policy” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination xii). This is to be pursued not solely because of the observations made through human reason or condition; rather, because it is our real obligation as the people of God who proclaim and inaugurate the reign of God made known to the world in the person of Jesus. [19] This reign assures not only spiritual redemption and renewal, but also and especially the reconciliation of all things oppressive, unjust, and evil, including real and systemic poverty that offends the character of God and prompts God’s people towards renewed mission. In other words, it is certain that poverty is problematic, yet it is God’s people, in light of the real character and nature of God, who are called to work towards and effect change within the world, on behalf of the poor, and in anticipation of the day when God will make all things new.

The Christian Scriptures, i.e. the Old and New Testaments, unveil a theology that is an interested and concerned theology. Moreover and especially, Christian theology moves the reader towards an embodied liberation theology that incarnates the missio Dei, which is for the poor and oppressed first and then also for the whole world. In other words, Christian theology as liberation theology has deep implications for a missional theology and related missional church(es). As Karl Barth once wrote:

The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and, moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak, weak, and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world (Evangelical Theology 38). [19]
The church’s embrace of a missional ecclesiology, framed by the entire corpus of the biblical witness, enables the community to bear witness to the Triune God and to live into the biblical story of the reconciliation and redemption of all creation, especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed (Franke 68). The missional church takes seriously the present realities of injustice and oppression that work against the biblical witness and the divine concern for all the marginalized of the world (Heschel 151-153). This is born out of the conviction that “resurrection doesn’t mean escaping from the world; it means mission to the world based on Jesus’ lordship over the world” (Wright, Surprised by Hope 235). That is to say, the missional church [20] practices an inaugurated eschatology (Wright, Surprised by Hope 221) and lives as a foretaste to the reign of God (Guder 101). Furthermore, the missional church neither dismisses nor takes for granted theological discourse. On the contrary, theological reflections and propositions are returned to their proper positions as the gospel’s dialogical and dynamic servants versus closed and irrelevant goals. In the end, Christian theology as liberation theology demands individuals and communities to move beyond mere discourse and into fresh incarnations of jubilee and shalom that are for the poor and oppressed first and also for the whole world.

[7] It could be said that this is an interpretation, at least a contextualization, of Paul’s words, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
[8] Prominent Womanist Theologian, Stephanie Mitchem, writes to this point, “Salvation in a womanist view desires transformation of self and society.” (Introdicing Womanist Theology 111).
[9] This is a key point for James Cone, “It is not that God feels sorry and takes pity on [the oppressed] (the condescending attitude of those racists who need their guilt assuaged for getting fat on the starvation of others); quite the contrary, God’s election of Israel and incarnation in Christ reveal that the liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity” (A Black Theology of Liberation 64).
[10] Cone's insights are worthy of notation, “In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors. The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land” (A Black Theology of Liberation 6). However, while in agreement that the gospel begins with the poor and oppressed, it certainly does not end there. Instead, as this narrative in Luke illustrates, when individuals and societies relinquish their roles in exploitive structures and oppressive systems salvation is then also available to them.
[11] Mitchem again illustrates a Womanist perspective that is relevant to this discourse, “Jesus is seen by black women as equalizer since he is for all people regardless of class, race, caste, or gender. Jesus is seen as freedom because he challenges each believer to move past mere equality as a goal for justice into the goal of full liberation for all. Jesus is the sustainer for people in great need. Jesus is the liberator who empowers black women to work for the liberation of others.” (A Black Theology of Liberation 114).
[12] Maybe this is the greater caution of this narrative- being too distracted by the assumptions of our culture and social systems of our communities that we fail to take notice that in Jesus an open invitation has been extended to a wider fellowship then we ever dreamed possible- even permissible. Then the traditional warnings may be appropriate- be not Martha, but celebrate and engage the Marys of this world. In this light, I have been daily challenged to expand my hermeneutical horizon and engage less familiar and sometimes suppressed voices from the margins. The words of Jürgen Moltmann are advantageous in this regard, “Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit 17).
[13] The legacy of the first Christian communities continued into the centuries that followed. Tertullian writes in his Apology 39, "We who are inwardly bound together in spirit and in soul can have no hesitation in surrendering our property. We hold everything in common except our wives" (Arnold 92-94). Aristides, who wrote to the emperor in the early second-century, also testifies to the ethical and prophetic witness of the early Christians, “They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God…. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs… They acknowledge the good deeds of God towards them. And see, because of them, good flows on in the world” (Apology 15, 16; see Arnold, Early Christians in Their Own Words 86-88).
[14] Richard B. Hays offers some well-versed insight into early Christian ethics, "The New Testaments direct commands and general rules about possessions are embedded in a canonical context that complicates simple literal application...even within Luke-Acts the rule that disciples of Jesus must give up all their possessions (Luke 14:33) is set alongside other teachings and narratives that pose different models of faithful response to the gospel. Zacchaeus, for example, is commended for his repentant response...even though he gives up considerably less than everything. Even the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and 4) is characterized by generous sharing of possessions rather than radical renunciation. The point is that we cannot derive simple or univocal rules for economic practice from the New Testament" (The Moral Vision of the New Testament 467). Therefore, the challenge is for the church to pursue creative and innovative, even contextual over homogenous, solutions to systemic poverty.
[15] Howard-Brook and Gwyther offer beneficial commentary, "The Hellenistic cities of the eastern [Roman] empire all had ekklesiai, or citizens' assemblies. The assemblies engaged in civic planning, cultic ritual, and the discussion of issues of concern to the urban citizenry. In our culture the ekklesiai might be labeled "Town Hall" meeting. The followers of Jesus originally set themselves up as an alternative citizens' assembly. Yet the apparent attractiveness of empire began to entice some members of the ekklesiai back inmto Rome's orbit" (Unveilng Empire xxii). It can be said that contemporary churches are just as enticed by modern day empirical orbits.
[16] Moltmann writes, "In actual fact, however, eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hope inspired by it. from first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present" (Theology of Hope 16).
[17] “To paraphrase a well-known text of Pascal, we can say that all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes. They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed- in one way or another- in active participation to liberate humankind from everything that dehumanizes it and prevents it from living according to the will of the Father” (Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation 174).
[18] N.T. Wright affirms, “The Christian calling to radical holiness of life is likewise a matter of inaugurated eschatology, that is, of beginning to live in the present by the rule of what will be the case in the ultimate future…the summons to live in God’s new world” (Evil and the Justice of God 120).
[19]Jürgen Moltmann challenges the church to embody similar quests for liberation and incarnational surrender. He writes, "If the promise of the kingdom of God shows us a universal eschatological future horizon spanning all things- 'that God may be all in all'- then it is impossible for the [hu]man of hope to adopt an attitude of religious and cultic resignation from the world. On the contrary, he is compelled to accept the world in all its meekness, subject as it is to death and the powers of annihilation, and to guide all things towards their new being. He [or she] becomes homeless with the homeless, for the sake of the home of reconciliation. He [or she] becomes restless with the restless, for the sake of the peace of God. He [or she] becomes rightless with the rightless, for the sake of the divine right that is coming” (Theology of Hope 224).
[20]Brian McLaren refers to this as a “new kind of Christian.” He writes, “Jesus’ message is not about escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. So people interested in being a new kind of Christian will inevitably begin to care more and more about this world, and they’ll want to better understand its most significant problems, and they’ll want to find out how they can fit in with God’s dreams actually coming true down here more often” (Everything Must Change 4).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Poverty, Liberation, and Christian Scriptures: Part 1

June 25th marks yet another milestone in my faith journey: graduation from seminary and the earning of a Masters of Divinity.  However, I find it ironic, as someone who loves the theology of Karl Barth and his dialectic approach to church speak, that my degree suggests that I am a "master" of "God talk."  Nonetheless, I look forward to the next phase of ministry afforded through this achievement yet assured that I still am and always will be unfinished.

Here is Part 1 of an unrefined final paper: Poverty, Liberation, and the Christian Scriptures.

The Old Testament has often been relegated to a subservient status within the Christian Scriptures. While the Old Testament is valued and regarded as a corpus of inspired texts, many have assumed that what really matters is the New Testament. However, it must be emphasized that only when one is immersed within the writings of the Old Testament can a real and full appreciation begin to surface for what has occurred within the New Testament, especially in the climactic Christ event and the beginnings of the Church. In other words, it is the Old Testament that gives birth to the significance of the New Testament and the related theological, sociological, and ethical dimensions of the Christian faith. Therefore, it is a pivotal decision for the reader of Scripture to develop not only a familiarity with the major narratives and themes of the Old Testament, but also to engage the plethora of ethical issues that arise from the sacred texts and continue to bear relevance to the contemporary situations and missional vocations of God’s people. One of the more prominent concerns within the Christian Scriptures regards the plague of poverty and real manifestations of human oppression and marginalization.

In order to explore the depths of the Christian Scripture's illustration of the divine and human concern for poverty and, more intimately, the poor, it is first necessary to unveil poverty as problematic within the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. Old Testament.[1] In other words, it is not only the contemporary activist who interprets the condition of the world’s poor as paradoxical to the supposed character and activity of God, but also the Old Testament itself that exposes the conflicted nature between the divine and human experience. Job elicits one of the most raw and honest complaints towards the Creator that indicts the divine passivity:

Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days? The wicked remove landmarks; they seize flocks and pasture them. They drive away the donkey of the orphan; they take the widow's ox for a pledge. They thrust the needy off the road; the poor of the earth all hide themselves. Like wild asses in the desert they go out to their toil, scavenging in the wasteland food for their young… From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer (Job 24:1-5, 12).
Poverty was a grave injustice that wreaked havoc on the ancient world and was the heinous results of human oppression and autonomous activity. Poverty, as underscored by Job, was “a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God” (Gutierrez 165). It was a sub-human reality that distorted not only the imago Dei, but also the missio Dei. Yet God appears, in the eyes of contemporary and ancient observers alike, to be unconcerned, unaware, and unresponsive to the oppressive situations of the world’s poor. Job’s response is not an uncommon and undeserved voice within the Old Testament (cf. Ps. 13; Ps. 42:3, 10; Ps. 79). Nonetheless, despite the reality of poverty and the oppressive and evil systems that promoted it, God was and is not unconcerned and absent from unjust and negligent human behaviors.

The witness of the Old Testament underscores the character and nature of God as one who not only created humanity, but also continues to sustain God’s created people. God first demonstrated a divine generosity in the creation of a garden, the bringing forth of created beings, especially humanity, and the giving of fruitful trees of which humans were to “freely eat” (Gen. 2:16). The Psalter [2] also elevated the created order and activity within as evidence of the divine spirit of sustenance, “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it” (Ps. 65:9; cf. Ps. 104). However, the exodus and God’s deliverance of Israel from the oppressive Egyptian empire was the narrative to be remembered most (Ex. 13:3; Deut. 5:15; Deut. 24:18, 22). The same God who liberated the Hebrews from captivity and provided bread from heaven and water from a rock (Ex. 16-17), was the same God who would continue to provide for God’s people and especially serve as a refuge to the poor in the land (Is. 25:4). It was when God’s people abandoned this reality and claimed autonomy that trouble and judgment surfaced (Deut. 8:11-20). In essence, poverty was illustrated as offensive to the very nature and character of God who sought to give God’s people enough for each day (Ex. 16:4).

Poverty and other forms of exploitation not only offended the character of God, but also elicited the divine concern [3] and compassion towards God’s people. In other words, God was not understood as an abstract being void of an emotional attachment to the human condition. Instead, God empathized with and acted on behalf of God’s people, especially in the midst of injustice and oppression. Abraham J. Heschel wrote, “Man [and woman] is not only an image of God; he [and she] is a perpetual concern of God” (292). The God illustrated in the Old Testament heard the cries of the people and always provided a way out (Ex. 3:7-12; Deut. 24:15; Ps. 12:5-6; Ps. 40:1; cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). Moreover, the divine pathos was to be remembered and celebrated by God’s people and proclaimed to each generation in expectation that God would continue to act on their behalf and provide for God’s people, even in the midst of the most oppressive and impoverished conditions (Ps. 78; Ps. 136).

Furthermore, the divine pathos unveils the reality that God, although faithful to the whole of humanity, has a particular concern for the poor and oppressed. Again, Heschel provides beneficial insight, “God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the widow and the orphan” (213). The reality that God delivered the Hebrew slaves [4] from the hands of the empire and established laws and commands to ensure that it would “go well” with the liberated en route to a new land (Deut. 5:16, 33; Deut. 6:3, 18) exposed God’s preferential option (Gutierrez xxvi). The God of creation “raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Sa. 2:8) as an on-going reminder that “the needy shall not always be forgotten nor the hope of the poor perish forever” (Ps. 9:18). The ancient world, as with the contemporary, was saturated in oppressive systems and destructive empires of injustice; yet, the good news was that God opted to side with the poor and marginalized (Job 34:26-28; Is. 61:1-11; cf. James 1:9-11; 5:1-6). This was the hope of Israel and the declaration of God’s liberated people as they anticipated the day when God would once again put the world to rights.

In the Old Testament, the divine pathos and Israel’s vocation directly correlated with one another. [5] God was not believed to be a distant deity disengaged from human experience, activity, and struggle. Rather, Israel was understood as the gathered and scattered community of God’s witnesses in the world and the incarnation of the missio Dei (Is. 43:10; 44:8). This was especially evident within the writings of the Hebrew prophets:

But the prophets face a God of compassion, a God of concern and involvement, and it is in such concern that the divine and the human meet. Pathos is the focal point for eternity and history, the epitome of all relationships between God and man (Heschel 296).
As God was concerned with the conditions and plights of humanity, so God’s people were called to be concerned. The prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel’s vocation, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). The same was echoed in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Israel was to remember their previous identity as an enslaved and impoverished people, delivered by the liberating power of God, and served as vicariates of the Creator as they looked after the poor and marginalized in the land (Deut. 10:12-22). In essence, Israel was not only to embody a life and vocation of concern, but also a heart and ethos of empathy for the oppressed.

However, the Old Testament underscores the vocation of Israel as not only a means to empathize with the poor and oppressed, but also as God’s commissioning of Israel to alleviate and prevent systemic poverty. Gutierrez wrote:

“But it is not simply a matter of denouncing poverty. The Bible speaks of positive and concrete measures to prevent poverty from becoming established among the People of God” (167).
These measures can be observed as the laws and commands within the prescribed Torah obedience. Israel was to live into a social and economic reality where they gave liberally to the poor, whom were always to be provided for and included as valid members within their community (Deut. 15:11). In essence, there was to be “no one in need” within the walls of Israel because God would provide abundantly even as Israel distributed generously (Deut. 15:4). Furthermore, Israel was commanded to sanction portions of their harvests and fields for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22) and to leave the remains of the harvest to be gathered by the alien, the orphan, and the widow (Deut. 24:19-22). Even the calendar was recognized as a measure to prevent on-going systemic poverty. Every seventh year debts were to be canceled and the harvest to be left for the poor and marginalized (Ex. 23:11; Deut 15:1); every third year the communal tithe was to be set apart for those in need (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12). However, it was the intended practice of the Jubilee year that was to ensure that poverty was not transferred from generation to generation. Every fifty years land was to be returned to the original owners in conjunction with that year’s Day of Atonement and the celebration of not only spiritual, but also economic redemption (Lev. 25). Ultimately, as long as Israel was faithful to and practiced Torah obedience it would go well with God’s people and they would “lack nothing” (Prov. 28:27; cf. Is. 58:6-9).

A final element of the Old Testament witness against poverty and towards liberation concerns both God’s sure judgment and eschatological hope. Once again, the prophets prove beneficial in the assessment of the Old Testament’s concern for systemic poverty. Isaiah warned of the judgment that was to come upon those who “make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (10:1-2). Jeremiah confronted the “wild vine” (2:21) that became Israel and Judah for their greedy pursuit of “unjust gain” which had become a centerpiece within their naïve national optimism (8:4-13). In other words, God’s people became an abomination (Jer. 8:12) in their fundamental distortion and betrayal of their missional and covenantal vocation (Jer. 11:1) towards economic justice (Brueggemann A Commentary on Jeremiah: 88).

However, Amos was even more explicit in the confrontation of systemic poverty that permeated the covenantal nations. In particular, Amos’ final oracle was reserved for the indictment of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2:6-8). Unlike the first six oracles which referred to one nation’s activity against another, Israel’s violations were self-inflicted. Wolff categorizes the accusations against Israel as the sale into debt-slavery of the innocent and the needy, the oppression of the poor, the abuse of maidens, [6] and the exploitation of debtors (165-168). Despite God’s constant work of liberation and exodus on behalf of his people, they had forsaken their mission, abandoned their identity, and betrayed the covenant. Israel had become like the surrounding nations, only worse. Their actions were against their own people. The people who had been liberated from oppression had become the ultimate demonstration of injustice. Therefore, God pronounced judgment and lead them to the same fate as surrounding nations, i.e. devastation and exile (Amos 3:11).

Nonetheless, the day was promised when God would put the whole world back to rights, restore justice, rebuild temples, resurrect vineyards, and redeem the fortunes of God’s people, especially the poor (Amos 9:13-15; cf. Ps. 9). The Creator promised to establish a new and everlasting covenant, whereby God would restore the fortunes of the people and, through God’s anointed, deliver good news about all forms of deliverance, redemption, and jubilee (Is. 61; Jer. 32:36-44). God was on the brink of making all things new and about to plant a fresh and harmonious vineyard of abundance and peace (Is. 65:17-25), where the poor could eat and be satisfied (Ps. 22:26), the meek would find their joy and praise in the Lord (Is. 29:19), and all those in need would have more than enough (Is. 55:1-5). This was the eschatological hope of God’s people and that which would come to fruition in the already-and-not-yet jubilee proclaimed, announced, and incarnated by Jesus the Messiah (Luke 4:16-21).

[1] There are many levels of poverty addressed within the Bible.  Liberation and Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, writes of the dialectic between three meanings of the term poverty: real poverty as an evil- that is something that God does not want; spiritual poverty, in the sense of a readiness to do Gods will; and solidarity with the poor, along with protest against the conditions under which they suffer (A Theology of Liberation xxv).  This paper will concentrate on real poverty and some allusions to the biblical mandate for solidarity. 
[2] Brueggemann provides a beautiful summary of creation-oriented psalms, The whole world is daily dependent on Gods sustenance, Gods face, Gods presence, Gods breath.  The world is impressive and to be celebrated.  But it has no independent existence.  It is genuinely creation, i.e., always referred to the Creator (The Message of the Psalms 32).
[3] Abraham J. Heschel refers to this as the divine pathos, “Pathos means: God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil. He is always partial to justice” (The Prophets 298).
[4] Brueggemann writes of the derivation of the Hebrew name, “The term hapiru in various forms and with various linguistic cognates appears in the Ancient Near East in the second millennium to refer to stateless people who live at the edges of society, threaten society, and are in turn threatened by it. It is widely thought that the biblical term Hebrew is linked to the term; if so, then the early references to what became Israel are linked to a border social movement of marginal, precarious peoples” (The Prophetic Imagination 134).
[5] Heschel writes, “From the beginnings of Israelite religion the belief that God had chosen this particular people to carry out His mission has been both a cornerstone of Hebrew faith and a refuge in moments of distress” (The Prophets 39).
[6] “In other words the elder, already married, father has intruded upon his son’s love affair, and by so doing has turned a young woman into an object for the gratification of forbidden lusts. Thus the clan ethos which Amos affirms guards not only the marital relationship and the legal rights of slaves, but also the very personhood of a young woman, as well as her potential marriageability” (see Joel and Amos  by Wolff 167). All of the offenses here mentioned surely had economic repercussions against those violated.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Is a Refuge: Reflections from Youth Beach Retreat 2011

This past weekend the Imago Dei Youth Ministry traveled to the Ocean City Tabernacle for our annual combined middle and high school spring retreat. This year's theme, Refuge:Psalm 46, was selected by our youth ministry leadership team, and it was perfect!

I am convinced that the suburban lifestyle, while filled with its perks and privileges, is often the cause of most teen angst, depression, and exhaustion. In other words, the constant need to compete against one's neighbor, live into the myth of achievement, and pursue a road that is supposed to end in the wealthy and luxurious standards set by generations past, often leaves youth drained and spent before they reach 17.[1] That said, many of our students come to this retreat looking for, among many other things, the permission to rest and claim an identity other than 4.65 or 1750.[2] That is to say, contemporary youth and especially those in Imago Dei Youth Ministry are looking, searching, and hoping for refuge.

Hence Psalm 46.

We explored the three-stanza ancient poem and contemplated the nature of refuge, the concerns and hopes of our cities, and the reality of God as ours and the world's refuge. Aided by on-the-street interviews of familiar faces in West Chester, remixes of Psalm 46 as a call to worship, and A Brief Statement of Faith (1983) as an "Affirmation of Faith," the 60+ youth and adults were formed and found shelter in not only the Psalm and one another, but ultimately in the God who became a refugee in and for the whole world.

I would love to write and reflect further on the weekend, but I would not be able to do it just service. Instead, I captured it on film and compiled this video for use at our wrap-up session on Saturday night...

So, what is a refuge? Where do you find refuge? May we all find refuge in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob..

1] For an interesting documentary, check out Race to Nowhere: http://ww.racetonowhere.com/
[2] FYI, these are numbers used for GPA and SAT respectively. A subversive and alternative identity, imago Dei, hence the name of the youth ministry :)