How Being With The Underprivileged Changes the Way You Read the Bible

Bible StudyI read Brian Zahnd’s “My Problem with The Bible” in 2014, and found it an interesting take on how perspectives and filters can either distort or correct one’s reading of scripture. He pointed out that instead of reading from the perspective of the beneficiary of a powerful empire, we must learn to read the bible from the position of the powerless who are totally dependent on God (which is what Israel as a nation was in biblical times). I found his points interesting, but I never thought I’d be writing my own “version” of this article a year and a half down the line.

I co-lead a very small (less than 20 people) house church in one of the poorer surburbs of Accra, Ghana called The Jesus Community, Agbogba. My church is dominated by mainly semi-literate, unemployed/under-employed men and women who will be classified as poor by any economic standard, with only 3 of us properly employed. Of course you can imagine the multitudes of needs in this community, and the struggle to meet them on a regular basis with the virtually non-existent resources we raise. Those of us better employed are asked on a regular basis why we choose to be in this impoverished church community, when there are nice, shiny, glossy megachurches next door that we could attend and meet some of our “middle-class” (if that is the right term) friends who we meet in our professional lives. The answer? We didn’t choose this life, neither did we choose these friends. God sent them our way just as he sent us their way, and for us then, faithfulness and love is all that matters as he works to shape and mold us into something beyond our wildest dreams.

But living life with these brothers and sisters, engaging scripture and being free to ask the kind of daring questions for which we would most surely have been excommunicated or would have been told to “shut up and take it like that” in Ghanaian Christendom, has totally reworked our hermeneutics – our way of interpreting scripture. And so here I offer my thoughts on how this shared life with people less socioeconomically advantaged than I am has changed my reading of the bible. This is not to say that everyone who is in the same state as we are will experience the bible the same way. I’m just telling part of my story.

A New Appreciation for Jesus and the Gospels

The first thing one notices is that the Gospels does portray Jesus as spending a lot of his time with the disadvantaged. One may choose to ignore this, especially a more privileged reader of the scriptures. But being i) a prophet , ii) the Messiah and iii) the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh, it is not surprising that he manifests in his incarnation, the “ways” of Yahweh – of being with the poor, oppressed and outcast. This is not because Jesus hated the privileged, but simply that from the giving of the Torah to the critique of the prophets, the privileged were commanded to meet the needs of the underprivileged and stand by them. And what better way to show this than when Yahweh himself takes on bodily form in the person of Jesus and does exactly that, as we see in the Gospels.

A Greater Affinity With the Prophets of Israel

Having been hooked by the the Gospels has forced me to look again at the life and times of the prophets of the Old Testament (seeing as they are quoted all over the Gospels), and the result I find astonishing. It becomes obvious to me the similarities between the concerns and critique of Jesus Christ and these prophets – the two main concerns being idolatory and injustice. The link between these two is much more evident these days. Someone once said that “You become more like what you worship”, and when the people of Israel departed from their worship of Yahweh, both his character of mercy and his commands of same went flying out the door. And one easily sees the same going on in Christendom today, where many love the notion of “worshiping God” more than the action of “following God” in his ways – ways revealed to us by Yahweh made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For me the poverty and injustice is not far away – I see them many times every week, and I’m reminded of how Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea felt watching the people of Israel abandon the poor and the weak, and still claim “this is the house of the Lord” (Jer 7). I watch contemporary Christendom sing the emotional ooh-aahs of the “I wanna be more like you” and the “Jesus I love you” and “I want more of you” blah blah, and I can only shake my head in sadness. Yes, sadness does fill my heart a lot, re-reading scripture through the eyes of the prophets. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love Handel’s Messiah and Bob Marley with almost equal ferocity – the vision of the Messiah captured by the prophets and put to music by Handel is very moving to me, and Marley’s critique of the “system” is so apt.

A Greater Interest in the Story and History of Israel

Being born Protestant, my default mode was to read Genesis 1-3, skip over the story of Israel and head straight for Jesus and his cross, and then the Pauline epistles to explore his “grace” teaching as opposed to the “law” requirements of Israel. But those days are gone. With my interest piqued by the prophets, I’ve been much more interested in the historical background of the story of Israel and of the times of Jesus. I’m reading more of Ancient Near Eastern culture and looking to see how Israel fit in or critiqued it. I look to 1st century Judaism to understand the struggles of Jesus himself and early Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course this is a work in progress, but the insights already gleaned have reshaped me drastically, and make me see much more the big picture of humanity’s struggle to either eclipse one another or feel safe/superior over against another, into which God placed Israel, and into which God entered himself in the person of Jesus.

A Valuing of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

One of the benefits of conversation and friendship with both people who are and people who aren’t like me, but who love Jesus with the same passion has been that I’m becoming more interested in ways in which we are both being faithful to Jesus, and less worried about battles over the bible or how exactly my theology lines up with a tradition or the other’s way of reading scripture. Jesus’s own way of interpreting AND living out scripture was not always palatable to the theological gatekeepers of his time, but in so far as it was leading him to display a love of God and a love of neighbour, he was game. And when you live the bible with people who aren’t so theologically (or even educationally) savvy but whom you desire to still be in community with, you learn to focus on what is really important, and be less of a watchman. This feeling of mine is best captured by Scott McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet”, which I quote below.

St Augustine once said in his “On Christian Tradition” that if the bible leads the reader to be more loving, then the Bible has accomplished its mission … he offered a graphic image [to explain his point]. Getting the right result of becoming more loving, even if we aren’t as accurate in our interpretation as he’d prefer, is like a person on a journey who gets lost but somehow finds the way to the right destination … its not as if Augustine thought every interpretation was as good as any other … but Augustine knew the Bible’s main mission: so that we become people who love God and love others” (Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, pp 104).

Many (including luminous Christian leaders of the past) have killed in the name of “orthodoxy” – a rightness of belief. I prefer to lose my life in defense of orthopraxy – a rightness of action. That’s not to say I don’t care about good theology (those who know me know that I do), but I’m more worried about what kind of Christianity is being produced by a theological position taken. Some people are miffed when I say I judge a theology by this standard, and I simply like to remind them of Jesus’ own ways of judging what was “standard teaching” around him.

Community Is the Life Blood of the Bible (and of it’s God)

As I read, think and try to practice the bible with other people like and not like me, I’m amazed at the insight that they are able to bring to scripture and life, and yet some of these people do not read the big fat theological books that I read often. It brings home the reality of the tradition upheld by early Christianity that scripture is best interpreted in community.

It becomes more obvious that the grand goal of Paul’s efforts and letters was to create a unique people who learnt to live together in unity and love despite all the sociocultural reasons why they shouldn’t be together. This community was meant to be a sign of the new age launched by Jesus which he called “the kingdom of God”. Thinking back further on the trinitarian nature of God, I’m not surprised that the ability to express the oneness of mind of 3 persons in the Godhead becomes the driving force for creating human communities that also are able to live in the same way. With this in mind then, one is saddened to watch the impact of individualistic readings of scripture that has ravaged the Christendom landscape for centuries.

The Bible is A Call To Action and Participation

Seeing Jesus’ vision of kingdom now, a kingdom filled with people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds learning to live as one and supporting one another in this journey, we are galvanized into making choices to overcome the challenges of injustice, poverty, unemployment, deprivation and segregation that exists amongst us. As we read scripture, we see God on a mission to bring blessing to the world through the actions of the church, and are encouraged to seek out ways in which we can be a source of blessing to the underprivileged amongst and beyond us as well. As action reinforces knowledge, sitting and talking again about these same issues and steps we’ve already taken, alongside wrestling with scripture, we can truly see how the “the ways of Yahweh” are indeed ways of mercy, love and reconciliation. We are indeed reminded of Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A Greater Appreciation for the Plaintive Psalms in the Bible

Sometimes despite all our prayer and all our efforts, things still do go wrong, and we are forced to ask God why. Thankfully we have developed the habit of reading many Psalms everytime we meet, and we noticed the huge number of complaining Psalms that many in Christendom prefer to ignore in preference for only the upbeat ones (or as some Ghanaian churches do, read the Psalms about enemies and use them to heap curses on their personal enemies). Some of these psalms express a hope that God will in the end, come to their aid, but one particular Psalm (Ps 88) simply ends without hope, filled only with accusations against God. Given that God chose to preserve such Psalms in the bible for us, its taught me the foolishness of pretending that life will always be rosy for “those who have faith”, and also the foolishness of not sharing my disappointment with those in community with me when things don’t go well. After all, I live with others who are a lot worse than me, and I believe sharing my own struggles with others reminds us all that we are in this together, and that suffering is not the preserve of the underprivileged. It reminds us that we are not in control, the Spirit of God is, and ours is to take up our cross and follow, even if we seem lost and feel frustrated along the way.

Conclusion

A lot has changed about my reading of scripture, and it’s becoming more obvious how we all can be a people who love reading it, theologizing it, apologizing for it and yet be miles removed from the reality of what scripture is and is meant to be. And in this respect, I offer a reminder

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful … SO THAT the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)

Scripture is for the purpose of making us fit for good works. When Peter spoke about what these “good works” were, he had no other place to point to but to Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good … “ (Ac 10:36-38)

My hope is that scripture leads us indeed to be a people who are schooled in Yahweh’s righteous ways – ways he embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who lived, loved and died to show us these ways – ways that indeed lead to good works.

 

Healing the Divide II – Grace and Works

Grace

This is the 2nd in my series “Healing The Divide”. Find Pt 1 here

As a young, impressionable Pentecostal, one of the things that was drummed into my head about Jesus and his fractious relationship to certain people groups recorded in the Gospels – Pharisees and 1st century Jews in general – was that these people groups tried to gain their salvation through “works”, whiles Jesus came to bring us salvation through “grace”. As I grew up, I realized that this wasn’t just the teaching of the church I grew up in, but rather the standard teaching in myriads of Ghanaian churches, and indeed in the wider body of Protestant churches worldwide. The cardinal proof-text for this has been Eph 2:8-9.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph 2:-9

And yet over the last century or more, there has been quite a change among scholars about the relationship between grace and works, especially with regards to how 1st century Jews at the time of Jesus understood them. It began with 3 friends, C.H Dodd, David Daube and W.D. Davies. It was taken up further by Krister Stendahl, a Swedish scholar, but was set out in full swing by E.P. Sanders, a student of W. D. Davies. And it focused simply on applying a rule that any intelligent, honest person who wants to know the truth about any other people group or religion can universally agree with.

When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. (Rule 1 of Krister Stendahl’s 3 Rules of Religious Understanding)

In simple terms, if you want to learn the most about Islam, you should ask a Muslim, not a Buddhist or Christian. Applying this maxim to Judaism i.e. studying Jewish sources to understand what “grace” and “works” meant to them and not what Christians (who can be considered “enemies” in this case) thought they meant, they found out an astonishing truth – that many Christians, especially since the Protestant Reformation, may have misunderstood Paul when he spoke about the relationship between “grace” and works. Today of course, many others like James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright , Scott McKnight (belonging to a school of scholars collectively referred to as “New Perspective(s) on Paul”) have taken up that challenge and have done further research to improve our understanding of 1st century Judaism and therefore these matters of salvation, grace, works etc. But it seems it will take a few light years before this knowledge trickles down to our churches, as many still talk in the same old ways about grace and works. So here’s my attempt to help the process along by bringing them together in the whole that they need to be held in.

Grace and Salvation in the OT

I begin by examining the relationship between grace and salvation from the New Testament’s own historical context – the context of 1st century Israel. And what better place to learn about salvation than the events of the exodus?

The first recorded use of the word “salvation” or “redemption” is used by Moses in his song written to commemorate God’s work of saving Israel from Egypt in Exodus 15.

The Lord is my strength and my defense, he has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2).

After saving them, Yahweh then enacts a covenant with them, and in that process, explains why he saved them.

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut :7-8)

In other words, God’s salvation of Israel was also by grace – they didn’t earn it. They didn’t work for it. God chose them because of his special promise made to their fathers. The only “problem” is that they didn’t use the word “grace” to describe their salvation in the Old Testament, but if “grace” means unmerited favour like we Christians trumpet everyday, then this fits perfectly with what happened between Yahweh and ancient Israel. For them, works was a means of showing faithfulness to the covenant the God had entered to with Israel, not a means to get saved. As Michael Gorman points out in his book on atonement (which is now my favourite on the subject), the whole point of Jesus’s death as well as God’s previous engagement with the people of Israel was about covenant relationship, which covenant always required both partners to keep the terms of the covenant, whether with Israel or with the church.

This debunks one of the greatest caricatures that many Christians make of Judaism i.e. Pharisees and Jews in general were trying to get “saved” by works. Nothing could be further from the truth, as modern scholarship is discovering.

Having broken this covenant and received God’s punishment for doing so in the form of exile to Babylon, the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were now waiting for Yahweh to re-enact a new covenant with them, by first forgiving them of their previous unfaithfulness or “sins”, as captured by Jer 31:31-34. And this Jesus enacted through the shedding of his blood, though this time he opens the floodgates for others who are not Jews to also be part-takers of God’s new covenant. This was expected to be another work of “salvation”, as expressed by the prophets. The return of Yahweh to enact this new covenant and to “save” them is what Isaiah describes in chapter 52 as “good news”.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns! Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.” (Is 52:7-8)

Grace and Salvation in the NT

In Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, Paul realized that God’s promise to enact a new covenant and to also include the Gentiles in that covenant had been fulfilled. He therefore dedicated his life to letting the world know this, especially the Gentile world. But some Jews were still under the impression that even if Gentiles were now part of the new covenant, they needed to show their faithfulness to Yahweh in the old way – by keeping Torah just as they did. These Jews expected the Gentiles to at least observe the key commands which usually set Jews apart from others – circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, observance of the holy days and eating “kosher” i.e. observance of food laws (Col 2:16). These, scholars point out, are what Paul describes as “works of the law”. This became a point of disagreement between Paul and these people he called “Judaizers”.

Paul argued in his letters, especially in Romans and in Galatians, that the Gentiles do not need to show their faithfulness to Jesus by observing Torah (the Law), but simply by faith in Jesus and faithfulness to Jesus alone. Part of the problem was that Torah itself was meant to separate Jews from Gentiles, therefore keeping it would break the new union between the two that Jesus now provided. Paul was at pains to show then that in Jesus, the Law was no longer in effect, and this he did with his letters.

This is why the same Eph 2, expounds what “saved” means – “saved” means being made eligible to be part of God’s covenant people.

Therefore, [picking up from arguing that salvation is by faith, not works] remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done by human hands) – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11-13)

In effect, just as God rescued Israel by “grace” based on his love for their father Abraham – the faithful one, in the same way God is now rescuing the whole world based on his love for Jesus – the faithful one.

So What About Works Then?

So if keeping Torah was bound to bring back the divisions again, does that mean the people of the new covenant do not have any law to guide them? Far from that, I say. In the same Eph 2, Paul makes a very profound statement, stating the REASON why we are saved.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10)

A 1st century Jew reading this would not have been surprised at all, because as in the old covenant, covenant membership MUST always lead to covenant obedience. The salvation of the people of Israel from Egypt was for a purpose – that by obedience to Yahweh, they may show the world his design for human existence. Hence the expansion of that salvation to cover the Gentiles is still meant to achieve the same thing – that they may do “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.

It is here that Jesus’ life and commands in the Gospels take their place of pride. The “good works” are not a vague term that we can define for ourselves (as I often hear some preachers do). Peter explains exactly what “good works” means by referring to none other than the life of Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good …” (Act 10:37-38)

This is also why I really appreciate the Epistle of James – because he makes the linkage very clear – faith without works is dead. Being a Jew, he know that faith without works is what led to the Babylonian exile, and Paul like James, knows that our works will be judged in the end for faithfulness.

their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light” (1 Cor 3:13)

In fact I thank God everyday that Martin Luther’s attempt to have the Epistle of James and the book of Hebrews removed from the Protestant canon failed (because it somehow advocated “works” according to his definition of it). It would have been a great disservice to the church.

Reflections

The God of the Bible has shown himself to be a God of covenants. Christian understandings of salvation, grace and works must be primarily taught of as a means for us to enter into and stay faithful in God’s covenant relationship with his nation – which in the Old Testament was Israel, but which in the New Testament is Israel expanded to include Gentiles.

However, this way of understanding salvation, grace and works is not the typical way it is taught in churches today, because it is at variance with the way Protestant Christianity has first and foremost misunderstood ancient Judaism as a “works-righteousness” religion, and thence constructed itself as a “grace-only” religion. Some in this Christian tradition have taken this “grace-only” language to such extremes even beyond the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, and any hint that Martin Luther or John Calvin et al may have been mistaken in their understanding of Judaism (which should be normal, since they didn’t have access to the knowledge we have today) is met with accusations of heresy. But for me, an understanding of the New Testament based on a proper, contextual understanding of the Old Testament is vital and yields the following benefits.

  1. The current modes of speaking of “grace” and “salvation” lend themselves to individualism. Salvation is a call to each individual to participate in God’s covenant purposes he has already established before the foundation of the earth. Thinking in this mode expands our vision of God’s purposes beyond “me, myself and I” to “what has God done and is doing with me, and with these brethren of mine”.

  2. Current teaching in Protestant circles tends to not know exactly what to do with the church. We quote the terms “body of Christ” with very little effect, because our gospel and our understanding of salvation is very individualistic, we don’t see the covenant, corporate nature of this people we gather together every Sunday are meant to achieve a goal that no other group on this earth can achieve.

  3. An understanding of “grace” as God’s means of reconciling all forms of ethnic, racial and socially diverse people into one united body through the death of Jesus would have empowered the church to stand against 400 years of slavery in Europe and America (heavily engaged in by “Christian” nations), colonialism and its abuses (same here) , apartheid in South Africa (openly supported by the Dutch reformed church, whose members were the political leaders), anti-semitism and Christian participation in the killing of 6 million Jews in Germany (again, whose political leaders where either Catholic or Lutheran), and participation in countless wars with fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. Instead, the church would have behaved like Andre Trocme and his church in Le Chambon in France, who harbored Jews at the peril of their lives during World War 2 (when confronted by the authorities about habouring Jews his response was “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings”). I was indeed surprised when I got to know that during the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther unfortunately supported the killing of Jews. Reflecting on it, I realized that if his understanding of “grace” didn’t involve God’s reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, but was focused on how people got a ticket to heaven, then it was bound to happen.

  4. Because of the denigration of “works”, Christians have tended not to pay attention to Jesus’s own life and examples – preferring to see them as “too hard” and meant for heaven, or reading them as nice Sunday school stories from which moral platitudes may be obtained. Any attempt by Christians to take Jesus seriously is met with the charge of “trying to gain salvation by works”.

  5. Talk of the Holy Spirit is again, individualized. Instead of the Spirit being the means by which the church is guided to reach its goal, it is spoken of largely in terms of how a particular person can have the Spirit as a genie in the bottle – rub it the right way and say all your wishes, and it will be done.

Conclusion

These days, even the New Perspective on Paul is becoming old news, as others are building on that work to further expand our understanding of Jesus. Certainly, salvation must lead to works. God accepts us by looking at the sacrifice made by Jesus – but he always had a goal – to co-rule this world with his covenant people. This is what Adam and Eve failed at – without dependence on God (in a covenant of obedience), they were bound to follow their own way of claiming to “know good and evil”. In the same way, without faithfulness to God in covenant relationship as modeled by Jesus, the church will go wrong, and do all that it was rather supposed to stand against.

Grace and works cannot be separated. The former must lead to participation in the latter. Thank God for the New Perspective(s) on Paul, and may others take what they’ve done and open further insights in faithfulness to Yahweh, just as the Protestant Reformation did 500 years ago.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has Conquered, Let us Follow Him.

Book Review: The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of The New Covenant

 

51-K0sC-AFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I interrupt my series “Healing the Divide” to bring you my thoughts on a book I just completed, as promised.

It is the Franciscan monk Father Richard Rohr who I heard say in an interview that “A lot of times, one sees only what one is told to see”. I came away from reading Michael J. Gorman’s 2014 publication “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement” with the same feeling. How did I not see this before! Well, I didn’t see it because I wasn’t trained to see it. It was indeed hidden in plain view.

I first heard of Michael J. Gorman when he interviewed NT Wright and Richard Hays together on the implications of Wright’s big book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”. In that conversation, they referred back to Gorman’s own writings on the cross, and I made a mental note to read him sometime. However, I’d been thinking of the subject of atonement for quite a long time, and someone recommended him. To that someone (David Fitch), I say “may your tribe increase”.

Previous Atonement Models

First, what do we mean by atonement, for the uninitiated? Atonement is a fancy word created from multiple words: “at-one-ment”. It describes how human beings become reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, there have been many ways (or models) of explaining how this “atonement” works – some of the models are Christus Victor, substitutionary atonement, moral example etc. And it seems each tradition of Christianity gravitates to one or the other, leading to disagreements.

However, Dr Gorman begins the book by making the following statement:

All models of the atonement are necessarily selective, because the New Testament writers did not set out to write a theology of atonement, and certain perspectives and themes emerge in particular writers and writings more than in others”.

He argues that the selective nature of these models of atonement lead to the following observations:

  1. Current models of atonement are isolationist. “Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole story and requires exclusion of other versions of the story” (Gorman, 2014).

  2. Drawing from the point above, current models are atomistic, not drawing from the richness of other models.

  3. The third problem is individualism. Most models of the atonement are focused “on the individual, rather than on both the individual AND the community”(Gorman, 2014, my emphasis).

  4. Each model under-achieves. On it’s own, each model does not do enough.

He proposes a different starting point for understanding why Jesus died – by looking at Jesus’s own words at the Last Supper in the context of Israel’s own story of covenant in both Torah and the Prophets. It seems that though other scholars may have hinted (in bits and pieces) in the same direction, he might be the first who has written in full detail what he calls a “new-covenant” model of atonement. It is here that he blows my mind. Because he points out that, this should have been obvious, but has somehow been screened out of our conversations about why Jesus died, or has not been read in light of Old Testament history and context.

The Absence of the Obvious

At the Last Supper, the evangelists Luke and Matthew record Jesus using specific words when he shares the wine as his blood.

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Lk 22:20 NIV)

Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)

Though Luke uses the word “new covenant” to describe the blood of Jesus, Matthew simply says “covenant”. But the implications are the same, if we look to Moses and the prophets.

After Moses had received the Law from Yahweh (Ex 19-23), he (Yahweh) instructed him to call the elders of the people together, read it out to them and perform a ceremony. In Exodus 24, Moses does as Yahweh instructed, reading the Law to these leaders and asking them to express their agreement to do as Yahweh has instructed, which they agreed to (“they all responded, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do’” – v 3). Moses then sacrifices young bulls on an alter made from “twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel”(v 4). He then took the blood of the bulls, sprinkled it on the people and said the magic words “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (v 8). Obviously, the blood was meant to seal the covenant between Yahweh and his nation Israel.

The observant reader will realize that these are more or less the same words that Jesus used at the Last Supper. But why does Luke say “new covenant” and why does Matthew say “for the forgiveness of sins of many”?

Here, Gorman points out that as the prophets had attributed the exile from the land to Israel’s sinful unfaithfulness to the covenant with Yahweh, the prophets again had promised that Yahweh will enact a new covenant with his people, a process which will involve him cleansing them of their former disobedience. This is best captured by the prophet Jeremiah.

The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:31-34 NIV)

In a nutshell then, Jesus, echoing both Moses and the prophets, states that the goal of him shedding his own blood was to enact a new covenant between God and humanity. Gorman posits that

The forgiveness of sins is certainly important; it is an integral sign of the new exodus and new covenant. But forgiveness is only part of the larger purpose of God in the Messiah’s suffering and death; the larger purpose is to create a new people who will both be and bear universal witness to the new covenant”. (Gorman, 2014)

Gorman could have ended the book here, and I’d have been convinced, but he goes on further to clarify in what way this new covenant was different from the old one.

The Distinctives of the New Covenant

He draws out the ways in which this new covenant will be “new”, because that is precisely the word that prophets like Jeremiah used to describe it.

  1. This covenant is enacted in and through Jesus’s self-sacrificial actions on the cross. In effect, God himself, through Jesus, sheds his blood to seal this covenant.

  2. Drawing on the Eastern Orthodox theology of “theosis”, Gorman traces all over the Gospels, Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrew how the new-covenant people are not just called to be beneficiaries of this self-sacrificial action, but to participate in it as God’s means of redemption of the world, and as a means of taking on the divine nature. Hence Paul’s statements like I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (Phil 3:10).

  3. In line with point 2 above, he draws on Phil 2:5-11, point out that Jesus’s willingness to be made nothing, “taking the very nature of a servant”, shows an attitude that this new-covenant people must adopt. Its an attitude not to “lord it over”, but to serve, even one’s enemies. Indeed this new-covenant people become a people of non-violent, non-coercive, self-sacrificial love.

  4. This new-covenant is also marked by a widening of the gates for non-Jews to be participants, unlike the previous covenant that was limited to Jews only. This is also part of the prophetic expectations being fulfilled.

  5. An additional dimension that he points out, which I’d never observed before, is the dimension of the new-covenant being both a means of peacemaking and showing to participants in this covenant, Jesus’s way of peace. He reminds us of Paul who, when speaking of God joining Jew and Gentile together in Eph 2, states that “For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14 NIV). Drawing again on the prophetic hopes for a future King, he points out that the goal of righteousness is peace. “See, a king will reign in righteousness, and rulers will rule in justice … the fruit of that righteousness will be peace” (Is 32:1,17 NIV). This peace is not simply an inner peace in one’s individual self, but a reconciliation between all hostilities in the world – what the Jews call “shalom” i.e. wholeness. Hence Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on The Mount – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9)

  6. Lastly, this new-covenant will be marked by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to bind together the new multi-cultural, multi-ethnic new-covenant people of God in their ability to live self-sacrificially, non-coercively and non-violently at peace with each other, and at peace with a world in which violence still reigns, until the consummation of the kingdom yet to come. As he puts it, “Life in this new covenant is life in the Spirit of the resurrected Lord that is shaped by the faithful, loving, peacemaking (and therefore hope-making) death of the same crucified Jesus” (Gorman, 2014).

Step Aside, Former Atonement Theories

And so he wraps up by restating clearly his proposal for understanding the death of Jesus Christ.

The purpose of Jesus’s death was to effect, or give birth to, the new covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak, and servant-love for all (cruciform love) and peacemaking (cruciform hope).” (Gorman, 2014)

He goes on to the express how a new-covenant model of atonement makes sense of all the previous theories of why Jesus died, and yet overcomes all the deficiencies that one sees if one tries to hold only one of them up as the “correct” theory. In this effort then, Gorman has indeed established a way forward beyond the atonement wars, a way forward that was so obvious and yet has been missed for centuries. If taken seriously, it overcomes a lot of the earlier complaints he began with about holding one of the standard ones against the other – complaints of isolationism, individualism and underachievement.

Laying My Atonement Demons To Rest

Michael Gorman’s proposal enables me to finally lay my atonement demons to rest. One of the greatest problems I’ve had with some expressions of substitutionary atonement had been its over-reliance on legal language and it’s tendency towards individualism. A new-covenant model not only takes care of that (especially the latter), it actually places the church squarely where it should be – at the centre of understanding why Jesus died. Hear Gorman on that score:

The existence of Christian community, then, is not an addition to atonement theology, nor a way of superficially joining together myriads of individuals who each happen to have received the forgiveness of sins. Rather, Christian community is part of atonement theology’s very essence. There is no atonement without ecclesiology, and no ecclesiology without a comprehensive account of the atonement” (Gorman, 2014)

In light of this great book, Michael J. Gorman is now very welcome on my Amazon wishlist. I believe after my personal readings of Richard Hays (whose beloved book “Moral Vision of the New Testament” was referenced quite a bit by Gorman), his 3 part series on cruciformity should be next.

It’s not everyday that one finds a United Methodist who describes himself as an Anabaptist-Wesleyan, and yet expounds Eastern Orthodox theology whiles holding a chair in New Testament at a Roman Catholic Seminary, itself a rare feat. These are divisive days, and the church needs courageous theologians like Gorman, who are not willing to let themselves be confined to the boxes of their own traditions, but are willing to seek truth where it may be found. In this respect, Gorman is indeed a gem.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conqured, Let Us Follow Him

Healing the Divide I – Death and Sin

Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc

This is the first of a series of posts on some issues that I feel Christendom may be holding apart which needs to rather be held and taught through together.

So it began by reading 2 Old Testament scholars of our times – Peter Enns and John Walton. Then another OT scholar, John Goldingay further stirred the hornet’s nest with his cautions about reading too much legal language into Jesus’s death on the cross. This caused me to go back and read chapter 12 of NT Wright’s seminal “Jesus and the Victory of God”, where he places the Last Supper (Passover) as an important key in understanding Jesus’s aims of going to the cross. Intriguingly I found that the Methodist theologian Michael J. Gorman, who has written extensively on the cross of Jesus Christ, has done a highly commended work on atonement called “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement”, where he comes at it from the perspective of the Last Supper, raising the point that atonement theories have for too long focused on the mechanics, and not the overall goal of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So how did it end, you ask? Well, you’ll have to be a little patient with me, since I’m only on page 1 with Dr. Gorman. Do check back again in a few days when I’m finished with it and I’ll let you know what I think of it.

In the meantime though, the subject of atonement had been brewing in my mind for a few years now, and I’m already beginning to sense a way forward in the usually polarized debate between adherents of penal substitutionary atonement – the dominant model – and Christus Victor or ransom theories. And that way forward comes from a combination of thoughts from 2 sources – 1) Paul the ancient apostle and 2) a re-reading of the even more ancient story of Adam and Eve from an Ancient Near Eastern perspective, and all this with a bit of help from a particular song in George Frederik Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio. I dare say though that in articulating my thoughts, I’m going to be “slaying” a few sacred cows, but please bear with me till the end, after which you can carry it forward in your own thought processes to see if it works.

The Story of Our House

Twenty two years ago, we moved to our father’s newly built house in a newly developing peri-urban community called Agbogba. Today it’s a nice throbbing surburb in Accra, but back then it was like living in a thousand miles from nowhere. Being surrounded by thick bush and with virtually no neighbours, we faced a lot of attacks from reptiles – snakes and scorpions in particular. I remember we killed quite a few scorpions in our bathroom (God knows how they got there, or why they were so attracted to the bathroom in particular). Once though, a snake of all things actually entered our room in the evening, when we were not even connected to the national power grid and were surviving by the use of lanterns. Thanks to God that nobody in our family was ever bitten by any of these reptiles, as we spotted them early enough to kill them.

But imagine that someone had actually been bitten by one of these reptiles, especially by the snake that actually entered our living room. We’d have had to rush the person to the hospital, whiles some of us would probably also make the effort to search for and kill this snake – lest they strike again whiles comfortably hiding somewhere inside the house.

Paul’s Stinger.

With this story in mind, take a look at what Paul says in 1 Cor 15, quoting Hosea 13:14

“ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law”. (1 Cor 15:55-56).

So now you know which song in Handel’s “Messiah” is playing in the background – “Part III, Duet (Alto and Tenor) – O death, where is thy sting”. I wish I could embed it in this blog, but I digress.

Here, Paul pictures death as a reptile that has a sting – a sting called called “sin”. And the poison within that sting is called “the law”. Hmm, any parallels to my story of snakes and scorpions in our house 22 years ago?

Well, one I can clearly see is that if “death” who is the snake/scorpion/bee (or any other stinging animal that works for your imagination) in Paul’s allusion is not killed, he can still infect other people with “sin”, which works through “the law”. Death then, is the real enemy.

But doesn’t the same Paul rather say that “sin leads to death” e.g. “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23)? Isn’t sin the real enemy? Well yes and no. Think about it. The goal of sin is to bring us to it’s master – death. That’s why death is the payment or ultimate goal. Death is the snake that has infected the world with sin, and without defeating it but simply treating sin, death will simply reinfect us again.

So how is death, sin and law properly related? Why does Paul speak in such terms? Here comes the brilliance of reading the story of Adam and Eve not as modern people, but as an ancient document written to an ancient people, and here I’m grateful to John Walton’s “The Lost Gospel of Adam and Eve” for restating what I always thought was obvious but wasn’t so apparently.

Adam and Eve As Ancient People

Let me retell the story of Adam and Eve, particularly of what Christians call “The Fall”. As I’ve often said elsewhere, a large part of the reason why many misunderstand and misinterpret scripture is simply because they approach it from the wrong perspective. For any serious student of the bible then, learning the appropriate perspectives with which to read scripture is paramount, because contrary to the general Christian thinking, scripture can (and evidently has) yield multiple interpretations based on one’s approach to it. So let’s ignite our imagination with this retelling.

Fair warning: the following contains some shockers and might wreck your Christianity.

  1. God creates Adam and Eve, who are subject to death and sin and aren’t perfect.

  2. God desires that as representatives of the human race, Adam and Eve be able to overcome their mortality. Although he doesn’t tell them, he therefore provides a “Tree of Life”, which can give Adam and Eve victory over their mortality i.e. over death (hint … “but thanks be to God! He gives us the victory[over death] through our Lord Jesus Christ” – 1 Cor 15:57).

  3. God desires that they obtain all wisdom from him and not from themselves (hint – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – Ps 111:10).

  4. God warns them (i.e. he introduces “the law”) that eating of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of God and Evil (i.e. wisdom independent of God) will lead to “death” – i.e. it will prevent them from gaining access to the Tree of Life. They were already mortals and subject to death, but disobeying God means they will not have “life” but rather remain in their susceptibility to death forever (hint – “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – Jn 10:10).

  5. The serpent deceives Eve that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she will “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This is a lie, because being a mortal with finite knowledge, there is no way they can know as much as God does enough to discern good and evil. But humans choose independence from God. They could have been sinful people all this while, but as Paul says, “sin is not reckoned without law”. Therefore they breaking “the law” not to eat of that fruit then leads to them being held accountable thenceforth for all their actions, having chosen independence from God.

Has your mind been blown yet, or do I need to try harder? Well, I’m still reeling even as I type. Suffice it to say that this scheme of reading Genesis 2 & 3 puts the focus squarely on who the real enemy has been all this time – mortality i.e. death, and Satan (who in the NT is associated with the serpent). It points out that humanity indeed needs a shot of anti-venom to save them from sin (forgiveness of sins), but to prevent the sting from being reinjected again, the stinger (death and Satan) need to be defeated. Doing the latter (defeating death) without the former means the poison hasn’t been removed. Doing the former without the latter means that even though the poison has been removed, there is room for another bite down the line.

One thing to note though. Knowing the story of Jesus and his statements in the Gospels, it is possible to read backwards (what Richard Hays calls “figural reading”, or Peter Enns calls a “Christotellic reading”) to see that the Tree of Life was actually Jesus, as he claimed he was the source of life in the Gospels. See the trick? But we leave that there.

Why Haven’t You Heard It Explained This Way Before?

So here are the further stingers that you didn’t know, especially if you are a Ghanaian reading this blog post.

As a Ghanaian, the Christianity you practice today is inherited from what historians call “Western Christianity”. In the year 1054, the church which was one united organisation split into the Eastern (Greek dominated) and Western (Roman/Latin dominated) churches. Therefore the historical term “Western Christianity” refers to all Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. And by default, Western Christianity reads Genesis and Paul according to how a very important saint in the church’s history interprets them – St Augustine of Hippo.

According to St. Augustine’s interpretation of Adam and Eve and Paul’s writings, Adam and Eve were sinless, perfect people, and all humanity inherits their sin through direct descent from them, with the addition that no human being is capable of doing any good as a result of this (what is called depravity). The term “original sin” is used to describe Adam & Eve’s sin and its effects, as expounded by St. Augustine. Some critical scholars think his interpretation is based on a particular (mis)reading of Rom 5:12, especially in the Latin translations of the bible during his times.

On the other hand, if you were born in Greece or Russia and were still a practicing Christian, you might probably have a different understanding of Genesis 2 & 3, because the Eastern church never accepted Augustine’s “original sin” and “depravity” premise. They hold to the notion that everyone is capable of good and evil, and accountable as such for their own actions, which cannot be blamed on Adam and on “human depravity”. However, as far as I know (and I stand to be corrected, being a mere mortal myself), they also hold that Adam was perfect and sinless at creation.

But what if you were a Jew? After all, the Old Testament wasn’t first written to Christians, but to the people of Israel. Well, Judaism is much closer to the Eastern church in this regard, and most Jewish Rabbis react almost “violently” to any suggestions about “original sin” and man being totally incapbable of good that pleases God. Sadly there’s very little commentary about Adam in the Old Testament, and one has to go into books from the 2nd Temple period of Jewish history (which are not within our bibles) to find extensive commentary on Adam. As a result, I believe John Walton’s retelling of Genesis 2 & 3 may be much closer to the Jewish understanding of Adam and Eve than most I’ve heard.

But at least they all agree that humanity as it stands today is sinful, and on that there is no debate.

One notable thing though, is that the Augustinian interpration of Adam and Eve is the main reason why Evangelical Christianity, being children of the Reformation and hence of Western Christianity, is chock full of resistance against any scientific explanations of human origins, because it requires Adam and Eve to be the first human beings so that sin could have been transmitted through them and all humanity can be considered depraved. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Healing The Divide: Atonement Theories

But all this leads me to the two dominant atonement theories, and here is where my thoughts now lead me to.

  1. We need an integration between Christus Victor, which emphasizes Christ’s victory over death and Satan, and penal substitutionary atonement, which emphasizes Christ’s death in our place to cleanse us from sin. Personally, my view of atonement as of today is in line with 1 Cor 15:55 – the stinger must be defeated alongside his sting, or else all the efforts are useless. Therefore in terms of logical flow, I place Christus Victor before penal substitution. This is mostly because it situates the discussion cosmically, before it does so on an individual level.

  2. Many people have pointed out flaws in both models (or in how people explain both models), and adherents of both must pay attention to the critique, and not declare each other as heretics. In my experience, Protestant Christians, especially those who are not very conversant with church history, have a knee-jerk reaction everytime any critique is raised of penal substituionary atonement, primarily because it first defines the problem just as Augustine posed it – that the greater need is saving us from our sins – a salvation which tends to be very individualistic in nature. A case in point: a British pastor Steve Chalke and Alan Mann wrote a book in which in just one chapter, they critiqued some portions of penal substitution. Not only were they ostracised, but one of those who endorsed their books – NT Wright, who is an adherent of both models of atonement – got maligned for supporting “heresy”. The question I asked then is whether we are letting our pet theologies lead us, supposing that our tradition alone has he corner on truth; or whether we are letting the whole witness of the bible tell us how to interpret and understand Jesus.

  3. There are more atonement theories beyond these 2 main ones, and the more we work to integrate the grand picture painted by the New Testament of the meaning of Jesus death and resurrection, the more fully fledged our Christianity will be, especially in practice, not just in theory.

    Conclusion

Now that I’ve got this off my chest, I’m going to return to Michael Gorman. As I mentioned on my facebook wall yesterday, I’m sticking to reading Old Testament theology and the theology of Richard B. Hays this year with the little reading time I have. However, I can almost guarantee that Michael Gorman’s Passover centered view of atonement will be a worthwhile diversion from my stated reading tasks.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conquered, Let Us Follow Him.

Motivational Teaching: How Some Preachers Hate Evolution, But Unwittingly Teach It Everyday

Me or WeThis week I heard a prominent Ghanaian preacher and motivational speaker railing against The Big Bang theory and evolution by natural selection as false and a figment of scientist’s imagination to deny God’s existence. Of course I wasn’t surprised by this, knowing the conservative nature of Ghanaian Christianity, which inevitably defaults to the view that science is against God. This preacher has also been known to be critical of African political leadership and governments (not just the current Ghanaian government) and seems to have dedicated himself and his church to the mission of equipping and encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit within the Ghanaian Christian community, so they can be rid of dependence on political leadership. This he intends to achieve via the medium of motivational speaking, constantly using the bible to teach people to discover their own personal potentials for success in life, and creating conferences and events to do same.

This style of preaching has appealed a lot to the young, middle to upper class Ghanaians, who fancy themselves on a path of upward mobility – of living the Ghanaian version of “the American dream”. In fact it has become a standard gauge by which large numbers of Ghanaian middle class people gauge preachers , and in certain circles of Christianity, that is virtually all that is preached – how one can be a personal success. Which is why I’m going to take a lot of flak for this post because I’m questioning someone who is almost revered in Ghanaian circles for his “wisdom”. But needs must.

Evolution By Natural Selection

So what is evolution by natural selection? Well, speaking from a lay man’s perspective, Charles Darwin proposed a theory in 1859 through his publication “On the Origin of Species” that living beings evolved different features of themselves by adapting to the environment in which they found themselves over thousands of years as a means of survival. In essence then, failure to adapt would lead to extinction. Someone described his theory as “the survival of the fittest”, and Darwin accepted it as a good description of his theory, and so the term stuck with us to this day. It is the foremost scientific theory today to explain how we all got here.

The Christian Response to Darwin

Of course this challenges the common Christian perception that all creation, including human beings were created through God calling them into being out of nothing, and not through a process of adaptation and evolution. Hence Darwin’s theory has not gone down well with many Christians and has been met with open hostility, including the perception that science is out to discredit the Bible. Whether that is the case and whether this hostility is warranted or not is not  the point of this post.

What is more worrying however, is that the more I listen to motivational preachers (at least the Ghanaian ones), the more I find them in line with the principles of natural selection, despite the fact that they vehemently deny it scientifically. Unintentionally, they promote Social Darwinianism, an economic theory which posits that the strong should see their wealth increase whiles the weak should see theirs decrease. Let me explain.

Everybody for Themselves, God for Us All

At the heart of motivational teaching is the individual. Motivational teachers focus on inspiring the individual to attain their highest possible potential. Though they deny it, the attainment of such potential is inevitably measured in terms of attaining success in one’s chosen career, increasing one’s ABC’s (attendance, buildings and cash) if one is a preacher, being a successful entrepreneur, having a good marriage and well behaved children in good schools, being a leader in one’s field (work, politics) and a lot more.

As with everybody else who reads the bible with a filter, their filter is one of discovering “principles” that can be applied by the individual in pursuit of these goals (I once met a Christian who said that all one needs to do is read the book of Proverbs and one will be “successful” in life). Therefore proof-texting i.e. picking texts out of their historical and textual contexts is the order of the day.

Because their measures of success are not very different from the world’s own, it’s not surprising to find a lot of business ethics taught by secular business coaches being preached from the pulpits of such preachers in the name of motivational preaching. As a Ghanaian musical critic, Koda, mentioned in his song “Nsem Pii”, one wonders if one is in a business school or in a church when such secular business ethics are being taught as “keys to success” for Christians.

As a result of the above mentioned point then, there is a lot of appeal to secular heroes, especially in the world of business and politics, to drive home their point. Fused with a modernist desire to see more “progressive” society, there’s a constant appeal to societies that are considered to be “progressive” ones, and in the Ghanaian case, Europe and America is the constant benchmark. Our African context can produce very little good, and a gloomy picture is inadvertently painted about us as a failed people and the West as the best thing since sliced bread.

And when all of this is then fused with a teaching derived from the bible that one needs to “sow a seed” to make these kinds of “success” show up in one’s life, it forms a potent and explosive mixture whose appeal cannot be resisted, especially by the middle class who seek more than they already have, and who can afford to “sow” such seeds.

Everything then boils down to the individual and their ability to appropriate these “principles” to make these things happen in their lives (coupled with exercising the right amount of positive-mindedness, appropriately labeled “faith”, and of course to tip God’s hand with a “seed” or two). In the grand scheme of things then, this is a more polished version of “Everybody for himself, God for us all”. They simply are giving people the tools to do the “Everybody for himself” part of that statement.

Why Motivational Teaching is Dangerous

Here are just a few of the reasons why motivational teaching in church is so dangerous.

  1. At the core of motivational teaching is the individual and their own self-fulfillment. At the core of the Gospel is Jesus and his church. Therefore although motivational teaching may appeal to Jesus or the bible, it’s fundamentally flawed orientation means Jesus only becomes a means to an end – each individual’s own ambitions are glorified as what God desires for them aka “success”.

  2. Motivational teaching has very little impact on systemic evil. Protestant Christianity in general has had a very poor self-understanding of the church community as God’s means of standing up against evil, primarily because the Gospel has been posed as a means of individual salvation for centuries upon centuries. This has led to its participation in violence, racism, slavery, sexism, segregation etc without even thinking twice, because “it’s all about how one gets one’s personal ticket to heaven”. Caught in this historic trap, simply teaching individuals to live up to their own personal potentials means their scope of vision is limited to what they can do as individuals about any situation, not how they can lay down their personal ambitions to work with each other for God’s ambition he has defined for his church.

  3. Because one’s personal ambitions become synonymous with what God wants, motivational teaching leads to a greater pursuit of independence, not dependence (despite the 58 “one anothers” in the New Testament). Even when one feels the need for dependence, it unwittingly drives its adherents towards seeking relationships that will only enable them to achieve their personal ambitions – which means the rich will seek relationships with the rich, ignoring to be with those for whom there’s no obvious benefit being in a relationship with aka the poor, uneducated etc as modeled by Jesus. In the end, motivational teaching furthers segregation.

  4. Motivational teaching assumes homogeneity. Even though it’s teachers claim that we are all not the same and must each fulfill our own destinies, it still works with the assumption that we all begin with the same set of opportunities. Therefore it assumes that once a person does “enough” – where “enough” can be “enough hard work”, “enough smart thinking” or “enough positive thinking” etc, one can “be a success”. It fails to recognize privilege – that some people are more predisposed to “success” than others simply by virtue of where they come from, what education they’ve received, the social connections that their parents have that they can tap into, the environment created for them during their childhood to flourish in, the abuse that one may have suffered growing up which may have created some handicaps etc.

  5. Because of the assumption of homogeneity, its individualism and confusion over the task of the church, motivational teaching and its adherents take very little practical steps to work at elevating those who are less privileged, in contrast to Paul’s statements in the New Testament that “the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty” (1 Cor 12:23). Despite all the “wisdom” coming from the pulpits of our leading “motivationalists”, have they wondered why the poor, uneducated Ghanaian doesn’t come to their church to receive such “wisdom”, and yet go to those they claim are “charlatans” to be deceived and abused? Have they wondered if perhaps their message and their practice actually only works for those who are already on the upward drive, and not for “the least of these” that Jesus spent the most of his time with in 1st Century Galilee and Judaea?

  6. Motivational teaching makes heroes of secular people, whiles leaving Jesus’s own example of self-sacrifice for the other behind. The problem of finding our examples and way of life from elsewhere instead of from Jesus is a long-standing problem in the church, but in motivational teaching this is magnified to gargantuan proportions. It is so bad that it swallows bare-faced capitalism hook, line and sinker without any form of discernment. I don’t need to be detailed on this one. Just listen to most motivational speakers and you’ll see no difference between their view of life and that of notable capitalist business moguls. And yet when Mary was told she was to give birth to the Messiah, she sang He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:53). That’s some pretty strong stuff.

Conclusion

For me there is some dissonance between the loud protestations against Darwinian evolution and the modern day “motivational preaching” movement. Because at the end of the day, no matter the protestations of this movement, their teaching is all about the survival of the fittest – about how one’s personal “potential” is king and one’s survival, along with one’s family is paramount. And what could be a more apt description of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection than this?

And maybe the reason why most of us middle to upper class Ghanaians have bought into it wholeheartedly is that we’ve fallen into the trap that prevents us from reading Genesis 1-4 not as a statement against evolution, but rather as a reminder never to get to the place where we respond to God, as Cain did, “Am I my brother’s keeper”?

Book Review: The Lost Word of Genesis One

lost_word_john_waltonIt occurred to me this weekend that though I read and recommend many books, mostly on theology, discipleship and church practice, I’ve never written a review of any of them before for the benefit of other people who might find these books useful themselves. So henceforth, I’ll be writing reviews of books which I find significant as I read them. And I’m starting off with a highly controversial one on no other subject than Genesis One. Hope you stick around for this and other reviews in the future.

PS: This will be a long review because I have a vested interest in this subject, as I’m sure many do.

How I Came to Be Reading It

I first heard of a cosmic temple way of looking at creation from NT Wright when he referred to GK Beale. Though I’m yet to read Beale himself on the subject (his book is still on my Amazon wishlist), subsequent references to the cosmos as the temple of God by other writers, as well as of Scott McKnight’s recommendation of John H. Walton’s take on Genesis 1-3 led me to this book instead. Interestingly I read the second in this “Lost World” series – “The Lost Word of Adam and Eve” before this one, but now I wish I’d bought and read this one first. Sigh. As they say, the water has already passed under the bridge. Suffice it to say that I need to go back and read his take on Adam and Eve again.

Who the Author Is

John H. Walton is Old Testament Professor at Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical university which was recently in the news in the issue of Prof Hawkins and her statements about Christians worshiping the same God as Muslims. Previously he was Old Testament Professor at Moody Bible Institute. One cannot get more conservative than Moody, which makes Walton an even more interesting character for his conclusions and perspectives.

The Book Proper

John Walton’s “The Lost Word of Genesis One – Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” presents his ideas in the form of propositions he makes, and then explains in detail why he makes each proposition. His later propositions are more or less implications of accepting his earlier propositions, as any logical writer will do.

The Key Premise

The key to his propositions is that for too long, many interpreters of Genesis 1 have been approaching the subject from a material perspective – being more interested in the how of creation rather than a functional perspective – which is more interested in the why of creation. This has then led to the development of many “camps” in the attempt to interpret Genesis 1 to fit a materialistic ontology – ontology is a fancy word for “what it means for X to exist” where X is anything we want.

This has led to the development of 3 main camps when it comes to Genesis stories

  1. The Young Earth camp, which believe the earth must be only about 6000 years old or so and that everything happened exactly as described by Genesis 1 and reject modern scientific conclusions about the universe as we have it and the origins of humanity. Most Ghanaian Christians I know fall in this category mostly by default.

  2. The Old Earth/Intelligent Design Camp who accept most of what the scientists say about the origins of the earth i.e. that its millions of years old etc and not 6000 years or so, but still insist that the bible reveals scientifically how God created this world and must be factored into the equation when looking at scientific questions of origins.

  3. The evolutionists (both natural and theistic) evolutionists who believe that the bible doesn’t necessarily reveal the scientific details of how the earth and humans came to be, and side with whatever is the best scientific theory to explain the world and humanity today, including the current dominating theory of evolution.

John’s premise is that all these camps are stuck in a material ontology – they assume that Genesis 1-3 must be talking about the how of creation, not the why of creation. He then challenges all 3 camps to take Genesis and the Old Testament seriously not on the grounds of how modern people read a text, but how the ancient people to whom Yahweh was revealing himself as the creator of the world, would have understood what he was saying. He makes the following caution, one that expresses a warning I’ve learnt and give out to others copiously when it comes to reading the bible.

The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all mankind. But it was NOT written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel, and secondarily through Israel to everyone else”. pp 7

Ontology

He gives examples of ontology, and shows that we all do speak of ontology in different ways, but seem to limit ourselves once we come to the book of Genesis.

For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing … in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material … we can analyze what it is made from. These physical qualities are what make the chair real, and because of them, we consider it to exist”. pp 21

But he throws in another mode of “existence” – a functional mode.

Consider a restaurant that is required to display it’s current permit from the city department of health. Without that permit, the restaurant could be said not to exist, for it cannot do any business … here … it is the government permit that causes that restaurant to exist, and its existence is defined in functional terms”. pp 23

Even staying in the realm of English usage we can see that we don’t always use the verb create in material terms. When we create a committee, create a curriculum, create havoc or create a masterpiece, we are not involved in a material manufacturing process”. pp 24

In effect then, “our material view of ontology in turn determines how we think about creation”.

ANE Cultural Survey

He proceeds in a survey of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories from Israel’s neighbours – Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Akkadian, Canaanites etc, and shows how their creation stories are functional in nature – describing how the god/gods created the earth, making it suitable for habitation by humans by establishing these:

  1. Day and night

  2. The weather cycles i.e. creation of clouds, winds, rain, sun etc.

  3. Separation of the earth from the land for vegetation to grow and to enable agriculture

Interestingly we almost see the same pattern after the flood of Noah when God promises that

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:22)

Here Yahweh’s focus is not on the material form in which these things will take during their restoration, but the functional form in which they will take – to serve the needs of mankind so they can flourish again.

This doesn’t mean that the god/gods couldn’t have bothered about the exact how of their material creation, but simply that the fact that creation is material is taken for granted, and the focus is on placing these created things in such a way that it makes human life possible.

Hebrew Context of Genesis 1

Walton the proceeds to do a textual and cultural analysis of the occurrences of key words used in the creation narrative, and deals with words and phrases like “In the beginning”, “formless and void” (tohu va bohu), “create” (bara).

In the case of “bara”, the Hebrew word for “create”, he shows all the 50 occurrences of it in the Old Testament, arguing that a large percentage of the usages of the word are for non-functional purposes. He questions those who believe that “bara” in the context of Genesis 1 MUST mean material creation by the ff statement.

How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that “bara” implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity … Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the context never mentions the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e. out of nothing) … [however] the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained as indication that “bara” is not a material activity but functional one.” pp 42.

On this last point about functional usage of “bara” he makes a deeply stunning claim

This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered.” pp 42.

In his opinion then, day 1 to 3 describes the creation of functions – day and night on Day 1, using the standard Jewish mode of counting days by “evening and morning” (v 3-5); the separation of waters above and waters below for dry land on Day 2 using concepts that were normal to ancient people because in ancient times people believed the sky was solid, holding up the rain with windows being opened to cause rain to fall ( v 6-8); and God simply speaking (this time the word “create” or “made” is not even used) to cause the separation of land from sea and speaking again to cause the land to produce vegetation.

Day 4 to 6 then describe functionaries – those who will function within ordered space. Day 4 sees the creation of the greater light (sun) and the lesser light (moon) to govern the day and night, and to mark off “signs, seasons, days and years”. I commend the NIV’s translation that says “let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years”. Walton points out that “The Hebrew word [seasons] when it is used elsewhere designates the festival celebrations that are associated with the sowing season, the harvesting season and so on”. The word then should not be associated with our scientific “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall” or the Ghanaian “Harmattan and Rainy Season”. Note again that in Day 4 to 6, Yahweh largely speaks, assigning function, which is common to ANE contexts when a functional mode of creation is in view. Where he “creates”, he’d already “spoken” of what these functionaries should do, which should point us to the functional nature of the usage of the word “bara”/ “create” in these passages. Of course in Day 6, he creates mankind in his image. Note here that it doesn’t say he created Adam and Eve, but mankind. This leaves room for questions about whether Adam and Eve are the first human beings or not, but that’s a question for the second book.

Walton’s conclusions on Day 7 was for me the most revealing portion, shedding light on the rest of the days before it, and also on the rest of the bible story. Walton points out that whereas most modern people would have seen Day 7 as God simply resting i.e. taking a nap after all the hard work six days prior, an ANE reader will have seen it for exactly what it is – when a god/gods enter a temple to take their “rest”, it means it’s now time for the god/gods to actually operate after the previous days of preparation/consecration of that temple for the god. “Rest” then is not the ceasing of work for its sake, but the operation of a temple according to the way it’s supposed to have been operated after all the functions have been put in place and the functionaries i.e. priests have been appointed and consecrated. This would then hark back to the 2 Chron 5 and 1 Kings 8 where immediately the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple built by Solomon, the glory of the Lord filled the temple, a sign that Yahweh had “rested” in his temple after the 7 long years of construction, and which “rest” was then followed by “seven days and seven days more” of feasting by the people of Israel (1 Ki 8:65). It is from this Day 7 that Walton obtains the term “cosmic temple inauguration” to describe this view of Genesis 1.

Summary

Based on these descriptions of the functional nature of God’s creative activity in the 6 days of creation, and his “rest” on the 7th day, Walton proceeds in his remaining propositions to explain the implications of reading Genesis 1 as a functional and not material creation description.

  1. Though certain camps claim that they are taking Genesis 1 “literally”, they might find that they are rather imposing modern categories of material ontology on an ancient document whose focus is on functional ontology (I’m looking at you, Young Earth creationists). Speaking on the subject of “literal” meanings, he retorts “Someone who claims a ‘literal’ reading based on their thinking about the English word ‘create’ may not be reading the text literally at all, because the English word is of little significance in the discussion” pp 169.

  2. There’s no need for Christians to insist that science MUST align with Genesis, and the effort to align Genesis with science, especially to insist that the dominant scientific theory has holes in it that can only be filled by the existence of God (aka God of the gaps or Intelligent Design) is again barking up the wrong tree. Here I quote Walton himself – “If randomness cannot be sustained in certain cases, that still does not ‘prove’ design. Likewise, if design cannot be sustained in certain cases, that does not ‘prove’ randomness”. He goes on to say “We are fully aware that what we call ‘scientific truth’ one day may be different from the next day. Divine intention must not be held hostage to to the ebb and flow of scientific theory”.

  3. Modern Christianity must revises it’s attachment to the “natural/supernatural” dualism that modernization has now imbued us with. A large part of the resistance towards science is driven by the fear that if science provides a “natural” cause for an event, it means God could not have been involved in it. The idea of a “natural”/ “supernatural” explanation for the occurrences we find in creation is not natural to ancient readers, and is imported into the text by modern readers.

  4. Having revised our dualism as above, Christianity must then resist the attempt by some scientists to assert that because evolution may be the best scientific explanation for the world today, it presupposes that there is no meaning to our existence because “God couldn’t have been involved in it”. Science cannot prove purpose, it can only explain process. The idea that creation is purposeless is exactly what a cosmic temple view of Genesis undermines – it rather puts more responsibility on us as Christians to realize that existence is teleological i.e. purposeful. It has a goal, signified by understanding Genesis 1 as God creating for us a place where he could dwell with us and where we could share with him the task of taking good care of his temple – of his sacred space. No matter what scientific theory explains how we got here, that purpose will never change.

  5. Christians then should not feel the need to choose “science or faith”, because Genesis 1 is not meant to be a scientific description of material creation. Christians can and must engage in the sciences fully, knowing that their goal, just like every scientist is to make discoveries that are beneficial to human flourishing, whether other scientists are unwilling to admit God’s activity in those discoveries or process or not. Schools should teach whatever scientific explanations are currently accepted, without asserting meaninglessness or purposelessness.

Why I Find Him Convincing

Many people will find John H. Walton’s perspectives uncomfortable, and although there are still a few questions brewing in my head, I find his cosmic temple inauguration view a much better model of understanding Genesis 1 than the young Earth Creationist one I grew up with. My reasons are below.

  1. Having received previous theological shocks through reading New Testament theology with the history of 2nd temple Judaism in mind, I’ve come to see how immensely important historical context is to reading a text. Therefore I have no qualms at all with Walton’s prejudicing of Ancient Near Eastern history as a means of understanding Genesis 1. Cultures are never isolated and always imbibe and absorb from one another. To think that ancient Israel will be immune to this is to ignore the reality of human societies in favour of utopia.

  2. A cosmic temple view of creation makes sense of God’s desires to dwell with his people expressed in the Old Testament, and is also in line with the picture and activities of God revealed in Revelations 21 & 22 where heaven and earth come together and God dwells amongst us, with no temple because he himself is the temple.

  3. A cosmic temple view of creation, with humans being the images of the God of this temple, aligns very well also with both the Old and New Testament emphasis on God’s people (whether Israel in ancient times or the church today) being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, tasked with carrying forth the task of “subduing the earth” i.e. of taking care of God’s temple in which we live.

  4. Walton’s views radically change the relationship between science and faith. Christians can stop being so scared of science not aligning with Genesis and get on with the business and purposes of their God – a purpose that science can never discover (because teleology is not possible to establish scientifically), but which Yahweh revealed to ancient Israel and which we have received today to carry forward.

  5. His view of rest also helps to explain Jesus’s almost “lackadaisical” attitude towards the Sabbath. Contrary to the idea of taking a nap, Jesus shocks the Pharisees with the statement that “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I’m working too” (Jn 5:17). Sabbath should remind us of whose in charge, and remind us of what we are called to be – stewards of the one in charge for the benefit of humanity and for creation itself. Hesitation in that responsibility of care is to lose sight of that calling, whether it’s a Sabbath or not.

Okay, this has been too long a post already. I hope to bring you a review of “The Lost World of Adam And Eve” soon, as I need to go back and digest it again. But certainly, Walton has an admirer in me.

Why Penteco-charismtism Is Shooting Itself In The Foot

The Holy SpiritAs is always the case with any human institution, there comes a time when Christian churches and church traditions lose their way, and instead of being a means of salvation and a display of the coming kingdom, rather become a means of oppression and abuse, looking nothing like the Jesus it claims to follow.

Take for instance the Protestant Reformation, which was prompted by certain Roman Catholic priests abusing indulgences by charging money for prayers for dead relatives to be moved from purgatory to heaven. By the time the time the dust settled, the Reformation had lead to the division of the Western church into the modern day Protestant churches on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic church on the other. And although the Roman Catholic church condemned its own priests for such behaviour during and after the Reformation, the harm of division had already been done. Now even in modern times, I watch how Protestants refuse to learn from Catholicism or Catholic scholars, because they assume that the battles of the Reformation are still raging. The reverse also continues to remain true in many Roman Catholic circles.

Or take for instance my own church tradition the Anabaptists, who stuck together to survive death and torture by both Protestant and Catholic Christians. Running away and settling in the US, all sorts of division now blossomed amongst them, with denominations breaking away from each other over many debates, including about whether Christians watching TV or driving motor cars is a sin or not. Arminian scholar Roger Olsen recently did an interesting post on the Beachy Amish, driving the point home further.

But I have never seen division on the scale on which I’m seeing it being perpetuated today in Ghana, particularly amongst the Penteco-Charismatic tradition here. And that’s why I write this post to plead with my fellow Christians in this pond of Christianity, in light of not only recent events but observations and conversations I’ve had with people directly involved in this movement in Ghana.

I hear many Christians appeal to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for unity amongst his people, and I get the feeling we may not realize the enormity of that task if we continue to stand in the same old place looking at Scripture, Jesus and the church from the same old perspectives. So here are some things that I think need serious re-evaluation if this tradition and others wants to realize unity even within itself (including at their own local church levels) much less unity with other Christians. Some Penteco-charismatics may express these problems to different degrees, but my aim is to simply state them for evaluation, and let the chips fall where they may.

Re-evaluate The Attachment to 1 Cor 2:4

When I was a Pentecostal, one of the basic proof-texts that was used to justify the need for us to display “signs and wonders” was 1 Cor 2:4. The NIV says

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4 NIV)

I remember reading Derek Prince (a well known Pentecostal voice), who stated that the main criteria for determining who was an apostle was that they needed to be a person that demonstrates signs and wonders, and used this text to back it up. I didn’t know how powerful this interpretation of scripture had a hold on Penteco-Charismatism until I met two different leaders in this tradition, who expressed their frustration at being sidelined within their own tradition because they didn’t exhibit the usual penchant for miracles and signs in their ministries. In fact I just saw a book on Monday by one of the leading voices of this movement in Ghana, which is specifically titled “Power Demonstration”, with pictures of him having healed cripple people on the cover.

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This interpretation has meant that anyone who displays some “signs and wonders” in this movement, no matter how flawed their theology or practice of Christianity is, cannot be questioned because – and here is the standard answer – “If God was not with him, he won’t be able to display such ‘power’ as Paul says”. And therein lies the problem.

Not only is this a pivotal text in this movement, it has become a source of division – a source of gauging one Christian’s “spirituality” over the other, even amongst themselves. Pastors appeal to their ability to perform these “signs and wonders as a demonstration of power” to quench any criticism, and now have a free rein to do as they please. And this teaching is so ingrained in their followers that one can even be labelled “satanic” for being critical of any such preacher.

The sad thing though is that this interpretation of “demonstration of the Spirit and of power = signs and wonders” is not a legitimate interpretation of this scripture. Many scholars have drawn attention to the fact that in context, 1 Corinthians is a letter Paul wrote to rebuke the Corinthian church for adopting the exact behaviour that we see today – the elevation of some Christians and Christian leaders over the other based on their exhibition of one “spiritual” characteristic over another. They point out that v 2 of that 1 Cor 2 contains an essential pointer, which Paul had already elaborated in 1 Cor 1:18 . In v 2 Paul says For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, which should point out to us that what is central to Paul is the cross of Jesus. And in 1 Cor 1:18 (and many other parts of Paul’s epistles) points to the self-sacrificial nature of the cross as God’s power, which should show us that Paul is not talking about signs and wonders in 1 Cor 2:4.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 NIV).

It is at this point that I will point us to no less a person than a Roman Catholic – Michael J. Gorman – whose thoughts on the paradox of the power of weakness as a display of the power of God come highly recommended. Unless of course we are still in the “Catholics are heretics” mode of Christianity. But I trust we are wiser than that.

Maybe, just maybe, we all may recover the Pauline sense of weakness for the sake of others being strength, so that real unity can be achieved like he actually pleaded with the Corinthian church to seek and work towards.

Re-evaluate the Elevation of “Revelation” over Scripture

The second such attachment which needs re-evaluation is the tendency to claim a personal position as “revelation” by the Spirit, which can then not be critiqued by anyone else. This flows from a flawed understanding of Paul’s statements about his gospel having been revealed to him (Gal 1:12; Ro 16:25-27; Eph 6:18-20)

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:11-12 NIV)

The above passage has been used within this tradition to justify insulating oneself from being challenged for a theological position, claiming that whatever a person was saying they received it “by revelation, not by human origins”. The colloquial term for this is “revi”. As a result, even when clear heresy is being taught, most Penteco-charismatics feel bound by passages as above to shut up their mouths and receive it as teaching from God’s own Holy Spirit which must be obeyed.

But this could not be farther from the truth. The easiest place to grasp what Paul is talking about when he talks about his gospel being a revelation that is unique is in Ro 16:25-26, with the key in v 26.

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith” – (Ro 16:25-26 NIV)

Here, the tendency for Christians to read the New Testament on its own without realizing its linkage with the Old Testament (especially in the Protestant tradition, which forgets that Paul is not a 16th century German but a 1st century Jew) has greatly inhibited our ability to get what Paul is talking about. In the Old Testament God had desired that the Gentiles (referred to as “the nations”) will be part of God’s chosen people in the age to come. Paul therefore realized that the return of Yahweh in the person of Jesus signaled the opening of the door to Gentiles. God’s grace of previously choosing only the people of Israel had now reached to the Gentiles through Jesus’s death on the cross, and it was time for them to also become part of God’s people. This opening of the doorway to Gentiles is what Paul considers distinctive about his ministry, as something that has been hidden (and continues to be hidden) to some of the other apostles, but which had been revealed to him. This is what motivated Paul to dedicate himself solely to mission amongst the Gentiles, as compared to his fellow apostles. His “revelation” was not outside the purview of scripture – his revelation was already within scripture, but needed a dedicated person to execute. Jesus Christ simply commissioned him Paul to be such a person. To assume therefore that Paul was somehow teaching us that God could reveal anything outside of scripture and the rest of us mere mortals should just shut up and swallow it hook, line and sinker is to totally misunderstand Paul and simply use him for our personal benefit.

Interestingly after Paul’s great claim of “independence of revelation”, he still “sought the approval of men” after 14 years of ministry by going back to Jerusalem and in his own words presenting “to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Gal 2:2). And he did receive that approval, simply because it was obvious to the Jerusalem leaders (again being 1st century Jews familiar with the OT) that God was using Paul to actualize what God had already spoken about concerning the coming in of the Gentiles.

Re-evaluate A Contract View of Faith

On this subject I’m grateful to Greg Boyd’s book “Benefit of the Doubt” for articulating something which had been on my mind for a while now – the issue of how Christians of many stripes, not just Penteco-charismatics, understand and use the word “faith”. It seems though the the problem shows itself up in extreme forms in the Penteco-charismatic tradition due to the influence of the “Word of Faith” stream in its midstt, but its been around in Protestantism for a long while.

Many people have a view of the word “faith” as mental certainty which works according how much of it one has. As a result, people are taught that once they have mental certainty about something and pray to God about it, they will receive whatever they pray for. This has been key even to evangelistic efforts in most Protestant traditions for centuries. People are even taught that doubt is a sin. Hebrews 11:1 has become the proof-text for this mentality. And yet the same Heb 11 says the people of old who had faith did NOT receive the things promised (v 13). That should clue us in that the idea that God will act according to the measure of your faith is not only bogus, its not what faith is actually about. The idea of faith as the means by which one exercises one’s side of a contract that binds God to fulfill his side is not only unbiblical, it is actually delusional.

The faith that the New Testament talks about needs to be understood again in light of the Old Testament, which pictures it in terms of a relationship. God’s relationship with the people of Israel is pictured in terms of a marriage covenant, not a legal contract. God calls Israel his bride in many OT passages (Jer 3:1,8,14;Hos 2:2,7), and calls her a harlot when she’s proven unfaithful. In marriages we enter into a relationship of trust (not a contract), and we learn to walk with each other, in sickness, in health, till death do us part. The marriage survives not because of faith in the marriage certificate that one receives, but because of constant work by both parties to keep the relationship alive. When one’s trust is in the certificate and not in the character and action of both parties, that is the beginning of the end – and that is exactly what happened to Israel in the exile. The were so certain God’s choice of them as his people was irrevocable, they got comfortable and chased after other gods, and were exiled by Babylon.

Thinking of faith this way may help not only Penteco-charismatics but a large swathe of Christianity to get away from the inevitable sickness that “faith as a contract” produces – individualism, the number one tool against unity. Because we will wake up to the fact that God desires a relationship with his bride – the church – of which we each are individually constituted. Faith then becomes our trust as individuals and as a community in the one who we are in a relationship with, whether we “get” what we want when we pray or not. That’s how a marriage works, not so? Whether we get what we want or not, we stick to our spouse. That’s how the people of old listed in Hebrews 11 viewed faith, which is the reason why even though they didn’t receive the promises, they were faithful to the end.

For me it also begins to make sense why certain New Testament scholars (especially of the New Perspective camp) point out that in many places of Paul’s letters, the Greek word “pistis” should be translated as faithfulness, not as faith. Ah well, what can a mere mortal like me contribute to that debate?

Conclusion

Well, enough of the advise. As they say, a word to the wise is in the north (or is it “enough” rather? I forget). One simple question that Penteco-charismatics must ask themselves is that why does it seem to be that almost every preacher that most people consider chalatans claim a Penteco-charismatic background? Is it because this tradition gifts them the tools for such abuse, and limits their ability to be questioned?

There’s a Ghanaian proverb that says “when your brother’s beard is on fire, keep water close to yours” – obviously in case the flame jumps from his to yours. It’s a simple reminder that we all need to learn from history, and not just our history, but the history of others not like us.

Unity does not come on a silver platter, its hard work and demands listening and learning and repenting sometimes. Let those who are called by their king to unity learn to major on that which is major. That Jesus is Lord. That he has called us to make known his self-sacrificial kind of kingship both in the church, and beyond it. And that the only means by which the world will know if we are truly his disciples is not in the abundance of signs and wonders, not in some unique “revi”, not in our abundance of “faith” we can exercise, but rather “if ye love one another”.

PS: For more on reading the New Testament with the Old Testament in mind, join us on Emmaus Road Moments on 7th March, 2016 and let’s dig in deeper. See ya.

Announcing “The Emmaus Road Moments”

Emmaus Road Moments
Emmaus Road Moments

So it’s happening on the 7th March 2016. What’s happening, you say?

Those of you who have been listening to our podcast (Podcast On the Mount) will have noticed that Jonathan and I keep talking about certain themes – the exodus, the exile, the Messiah, the kingdom of God, salvation, the promises of God, Yahweh’s return, the age to come, the prophets, vindication etc. Well, we’re putting together an event dubbed “The Emmaus Road Moments” (obviously stolen from Lk 24:13-35) to do a little bit of “beginning with Moses and the Prophets” as we shed light on why these things are important to reading and grasping the New Testament. It also gives you the chance to ask all the questions that you wanted to ask about our episodes of the podcast so far.

Over the past few years of reading and digesting scholars like Scott McKnight, Michael F. Bird, Ben Witherington, NT Wright and Richard B. Hayes, its become more and more apparent to us how important a good grasp of the Old Testament is to understanding the New Testament. Struggling with Old Testament scholars like Walter Bruggeman, Christopher J.H. Wright and John H. Walton only sunk home the feeling further. This has led us to 3 major conclusions so far.

  1. No matter how much one desires to be faithful to scripture, one’s reading of the bible will be limited if one is not aware of the history and context of the books of the bible. We hope to shed some light on reading the NT with the history of the people of Israel in mind.
  2. There is a huge gap between the insights that biblical scholarship has revealed about reading the bible faithfully, and what is actually taught in our churches. In essence, many of our preachers in Ghana are simply teaching received theology, some of which has been debunked years ago as no longer valid interpretations of scripture but which continue to be the norm in churches. Very few of our preachers are actually committed to serious study of the bible, and fewer still are actually trained to do so. We hope to give some of the lessons we’ve learnt about the “how” of studying the bible.
  3. Jesus is the hermeneutic key to moving from simply knowing the bible to being empowered to take that knowledge and live out the kingdom. Getting that right means a world of difference to how we approach scripture. We hope to show how Jesus casts his light on the Old Testament hopes, dreams and expectations, and how disciples like Paul who are familiar with the history of the people of Israel now reframe everything they did around the coming of Jesus.

So if you will be in Accra on the said date, then you should make it a point to join us at the Good News Theologial Semianary at Oyibi, on the right side of the main Dodowa road after the Valley View University campus. We hope everyone is seated at 10 am, and we’ll serve refreshments as well. Here’s a link to google maps directions from Madina Atomic Junction to the Seminary

We intend to share the slides as well as teaching material that we used when we went through this topic ourselves with our attendees, so please register for free here so we know who is coming and also so we can send them to you after the event.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to Dr Thomas Oduro, Principal of the Good News Theological College and Seminary for giving us the opportunity to use his facilities for this event. May his tribe increase.

See you guys soon. Bring along 2 things – a friend and your questions. I promise to answer all your questions to your satisfaction (just kidding. I’ll tell you plainly if I have no clue to your question)

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity III – “By The Grace of God”

Grace

Here’s Part I and Part II of the series.

One of the great failures in communication is to use the same words with a person, but have different understandings of what those words mean. This failure is even worse when these words are associated with or derived from the bible, and yet have taken a totally different meaning and are subsequently being read back into the bible. So for those who actually do care about what the bible and Jesus has to say to the world, a vital skill to develop is the discernment to recognize when biblical words have been co-opted by the culture around us, and to ensure that we articulate a clearer explanation of what we mean when we use those words. In this respect I believe that one of the saddest and most damaging failures of contextualization amongst Ghanaian bible teachers for decades is how the wonderful New Testament language of “grace” has been totally bastardized by Ghanaian culture, unhinging it from its biblical roots. As with everything that Christendom comes along with, it’s gotten so bad that this unbiblical usages has become the standard way by which one’s “devoutness as a Christian” is judged in Ghana. Let me explain.

The Old Testament and Grace

We see the term “grace” used mostly by Paul in his letters to the churches he founded. However the concept it carried had been in use long before Paul to describe God’s choice of the people of Israel as his chosen people. As I’ve previously argued elsewhere, the idea that 1st century Judaism was a religion of works-righteousness where people were trying to get saved through “their own righteousness” has been proven largely to be an incorrect position that Christians attributed to Judaism since the days of the Protestant Reformation. As NT scholar Richard B. Hayes of Duke Divinity puts it

“The most important advance of New Testament scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century has been its dramatic reframing of the relationship between early Christianity and formative Judaism”. – Richard B. Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

First century Jews believed that God chose Israel by grace – because he loved their fathers (Deut 7:7-8) – and not because of any work they did. To them keeping the law was a means of showing that one was indeed under grace. Grace was god’s gift of making them his “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), a gift they did nothing to deserve.

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7:7-8)

The New Testament and Grace

Paul’s usage of the word grace falls exactly in this same line. By the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the doorway had now been open for the Gentiles to also become a part of God’s chosen people as expressed by prophets of old about Yahweh’s return. This time however, membership shall not be counted by descent from Abraham, but by “faith in Christ”.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God … Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:8-13)

For the Paul then, “grace” is about how Gentiles (and other classes of excluded people) came on equal footing with Jews to become part of God’s chosen nation.

Paul further expanded the usage of the word grace to cover additional grounds. He speaks of God setting him apart “from his mother’s womb” to preach him amongst the gentiles “by his grace” (Gal 1:15-16). He speaks of receiving “grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom 1:5). He calls the gifts of ministry given to his Gentile church members “gifts according to the grace given to each of us” (Rom 12:6).

But Paul goes on to say something which is quite striking, and I believe has been the cause of stumbling of many in Ghanaian Christendom regarding the use of the word “grace”. He says everything he is and everything HE HAS DONE is God’s grace. It is explicit what Paul is talking about, but I think sadly many exegetes haven’t paid attention to the whole point Paul is driving at.

But by the grace of God I am what I am … ” (1 Cor 15:10)

Thankfully he doesn’t stop there, but continues

and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor 15:10)

In the above usages of “grace”, Paul speaks of it as empowering him to actually engage in mission for God – a mission which he has repeated mentioned – of bringing that same grace that he has received to the Gentiles. This second usage of “grace” describes then a special empowering to serve God, not just a grace to be anything he so desired. In essence, grace must lead to work, and Paul says his missionary efforts are all due to grace on his life.

The Corruption of Grace

It would seem however that in the fervency of Christianity (especially the Protestant category) in Ghana to emphasize grace as God’s free gift, it has lost its anchor – 1) that grace was about God accepting us Gentiles (in this case Ghanaians) into his family aka election. 2) that grace was about the power to continue to serve in God’s mission (not our own mission) AFTER being called into this family.

As I began to pay more attention to these usages of grace in the New Testament and to compare it to contemporary and historical Ghanaian Christianity’s usage of it, I began to realize how deviated we might be from the New Testament understanding of it. I recently asked in our church what people meant by the Twi word “adom”, and the answer was universally the same – unmerited favour for anything good in this life. And therein lies the problem – our concept of grace has no boundaries. We began to reflect on the songs we used to sing in our previous lives as Pentecostals and other Christian traditions (and some of which are still in vogue today), and the usage of the word “adom” in those songs – “adom” being the Twi word for grace.

Song 1

Twi – “Se wo abrabo mu nsem, yeyie mawo a, hwe yie na wo an hoa hoa wo ho, efrise eye Onyam n’adom ara kwa, na wo te se nia wo ti.”

Translation – “When life is good for you, do not get proud about it, but remember that it is by God’s grace that you are who you are

Note – The boldened part looks a lot like 1 Cor 5:10

Song 2

Twi – “Adom, adom, adom bia m’enya. Adom na miti ase, emu na me keka me ho, emu na me ye m’adie nyinaa ”

Translation – “Grace, grace, oh what grace I have received. It is by grace that I live, it is by grace that I move, it is by grace that I do everything”

Note – This sounds a lot like For in him we live and move and have our being” in Acts 17:28, but note Paul didn’t use the word “grace” here.

I could go on giving more examples of Ghanaian Christian songs with this motif. The word “adom” in these songs has moved beyond grace as a means of election and as a means of empowerment to serve after joining the elect, to grace being used to describe any “good” thing that comes one’s way. This has led to the following behaviour and subsequent questions in Ghanain Christendom.

  1. Amakye Dede, a popular highlife musician whose music I love was involved in an accident last December, and his manager died. He survived, and in typical Christendom fashion, Christians responded with “It’s only God’s grace that saved him from the accident”. The question becomes why did that grace – if it’s free and unmerited – not extend to his manager? Or did Amakye merit it?

  2. A marriage announcement is typically made with “By the grace of God, Kofi is getting married to Ama next week”. If grace is free and unmerited, why is Adwoa who is 35 years old not married, but Kofi and Ama in their twenties are getting married?

  3. During prayer meetings, one is reminded to pray thanking God that one is alive, because it is only by the grace of God that one is alive and not at the ICU of Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, Ghana’s largest hospital. The obvious question is – if grace is free and unmerited, what kind of arbitrary God would decide to put some in a coma and allow some to breathe air freely? And is it the abundance of my thanks that keeps me from being in a coma like those unfortunate brethren? If that’s the case, is that grace really free and unmerited?

It is this usage of “grace” that has permeated Ghanaian Christendom such that when one is asked the simple question “how are you”, the “Christian” response is “I’m fine BY GOD’S GRACE”. When I began paying better attention to New Testament theology, I became wary of responding this way, and simply responded with “I’m fine” or “I’m alright”. Interestingly I’ve received queries from some friends as to why my response is always “dry” – by this they mean my response doesn’t sound “Christian”. Fortunately/unfortunately I still respond “I’m fine by the Grace of God” to my older relatives (uncles and aunties and that old crowd) because until I declare myself a Moslem or something else, it is the “Christian” thing to do, and I’m better off saving myself the trouble of negative impressions and questions. Even some Christians expect Moslems to somehow respond with “Nyame Adom oh” i.e. “I’m fine by God’s grace”

But what Christendom doesn’t realize about being precise about language is that if we decouple it from it’s biblical moorings, our words will be (and have already been) co-opted by interests not aligned with Jesus Christ, and we will either complain bitterly about these to no end or end up reading the bad usage back into our bibles. Let me give an example.

The Ghanaian hiplife rapper EL (whose artistry I totally admire by the way, coupled with my bias towards him as a former student of Presec Legon) has recently released a song called “Koko”, meaning “Easy”. Standing in front of a cross mounted by the German Christian missionaries on Mt Gemi in the Volta Region a century ago, he speaks of how everything is easy for his god to do for him, and one line says

Pidgin English – “And by his grace, there’s no girl I no go fit run oh”

Translation – “And by his grace, there’s no girl I cannot have as my lover”

Can Christians endorse this usage of the word grace, especially when being used to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Is this the way of the Christian God as we see in the bible?

Conclusion

And yet EL is very right if judged by the already flawed understanding of “grace” in Ghanaian Christendom. If anything one determines as “good” for oneself must have been made available to you “by the grace of God”, then EL’s ability to snag any woman he desires is indeed by the grace of God. By extension, the ability to steal money from one’s public service job to build a nice house for oneself is “by the grace of God”, not so? Ever wonder why corruption is not going anywhere soon when the 70% Ghanaian Christian population think like this?

And one of the clearest ways that we can begin tackling this is to properly introspect our “gospel” songs, even our old favourites. Because the easiest way to spread false teaching in Africa is to put it to a nice danceable beat. The African love of dancing is a double edged sword that has been used to carry flawed theology for eons, and cannot be left to wander on its own without inspection. It’s part of the reasons why in my church we resolved to write and sing our own songs, instead of complaining about some of the trash being produced in the name of “gospel” music in Ghana.

I’ve had pushback from some friends about my qualms on the abuse of this “by the grace of God” theme, even when answering the simple question “how are you”, but I’m not budging from it. I might consider it if I were a high Calvinist and believed in divine determinism, but I’m not and so I desire that we rather wake up from this abuse. Because if we do not become a people who properly discern our culture, there will be only one end result – our culture will swallow us up, and there will be nothing left of true Christianity to speak of, practice or even defend.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conquered, Let Us Follow Him.

Of the Gitmo Ex-Detainees in Ghana – The Jesus Response

CT47pO8W4AUlTr3.jpg-largeOver the past few days, there’s been quite a brouhaha about a government of Ghana decision to accept from the US government some two Yemeni ex-detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison. These two like many of the inmates held illegally by the US government in this particular prison, have never been given a fair trial and convicted of any illegal activity, but have been held for 14 years of their productive lives. It seems Ghanaians are peeved that the US government is using us to pay for it’s sins, suggesting that they should either be released to the US or go back to their home country Yemen.

On an ordinary day, this would have been one of the news items that I listen to and ignore because of the usual hot air in the media circles, but when not only the Ghana Christian Council (representing the Protestant community in Ghana) but also the Ghana Catholic Bishop’s Conference enter the fray with all manner of objections regarding how “dangerous” these people were and why the government of Ghana should give humanitarian aid to “terrorists” to rebuild their lives again, I as a Christian couldn’t sit in my corner and mind my own business again. I could disagree with the government for offering to let them stay in Ghana, but the decision had already been taken and they are already here. So the question that faces us as Christians is – what is the Christian response to this situation? But I’m afraid that the response of these 2 bodies smacks of anything but the response that Jesus would give to such a situation. So I’ll like to remind we the mere Christian mortals who sit on no councils about what it actually means to be a Christian, and how we are called to respond in such situations.

Listening To Jesus

There is a disease that has plagued the church of God for centuries and will continue to be with Christianity for a long time to come. That disease is called amnesia, and is signified by the fact that whenever the Christian body has found itself in need of guidance, we have tended not to look at Jesus’s own words, life and example to guide us. We have tended to resort to philosophical, intellectual, emotional, cultural or nationalistic resources to answer the complex problems of life, assuming that Jesus has no real answers to these problems. After all, he only cares about how our sins are forgiven so we go to heaven, and not really how we take our day to day decisions. This disease is not just a disease of the Ghanaian church, for the Ghanaian churches simply inherited this attitude from their founding Western churches. This disease is more than a thousand years old, so you can imagine how difficult it is to treat.

But I need to remind our august Christian bodies (and the larger Christian body in Ghana) that Jesus is not just a saviour from sins, he is Lord of every sphere of our lives, and it is to him we MUST first look to discern how to deal with any matter, even when his way is uncomfortable to us. And in this particular case, I must admit that Jesus’s way will be VERY UNCOMFORTABLE for our churches today. And yet he reminds us that if we will be his disciples, then we MUST carry our crosses and follow him to the same place of suffering as he went, which means we have no choice in this matter except the choice of the way of Jesus.

The Way Of Jesus

Many Christians have been sold a romanticized view of the life of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Even as adults, we still read the Gospels as the nice, docile, over-spiritualized stories that we were taught in Sunday school about Jesus’s life as one of wonder and miraculous deeds. But his was a life of great struggle with the social forces of his time, any of which would have considered him a traitor for not taking up their course or for ruffling feathers. Let me paint picture of what the socio-political landscape was so you see Jesus and his life in the Gospels for what it really was.

  1. The Roman empire, one of the most brutal empires ever on the face of the earth to this day, was ruling over Judea. Not only were Jews paying the temple tax of approx. 23% per year, they also had to pay taxes to Rome. The more a tax collector like Zacchaeus could collect, the more commission they got, and of course as normal greedy humans, they did not fail to abuse this, and made the Jews hate Rome even more.

  2. There was a raging feud between the Jews and their Samaritan half-brothers. The Samaritans claimed that their temple on Mt Gerizim was the right place to worship Yahweh, and the Jews said the temple on Mt Zion was the right place. According to the historian Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, this actually led to the Samaritans desecrating the Jewish temple with human bones, to which the Jews, led by John Hyrcanus, retaliated by destroying the temple on Mt. Gerizim. As a result of this enmity then, no self-respecting 1st century Jew would have eaten from a bowl previously eaten in by a Samaritan.

  3. The Pharisaic party was on the prowl, making sure that everyone obeyed the laws of Moses (Torah). This wasn’t a simple matter of “gaining brownie points to go to heaven”. They believed that not obeying the laws of Moses is the reason why they were taken into exile in Babylon, and the reason why empires like the Greek and subsequently Roman ones were still ruling them. Keeping Torah therefore was to them the means to ensure that God will look favourably on them and come and deliver them from these oppressive empires.

  4. There were many people who felt that waiting for God to intervene to save them wasn’t enough. They needed to take their destiny into their own hands and fight the enemy, whoever the enemy was (Romans, Samaritans and fellow Jews who they thought were siding with an enemy etc). Such people were called “zealots”, because of their violent zealousness for their nation’s freedom. They are  akin to the modern Islamic extremists in every sense of the word, except the word “terrorist” was not in use at the time of writing the bible.

Now given this landscape, I’ll encourage us Christians to go back and read our Matthew, Mark, Luke and John again. Because Jesus’s life was nothing but radically opposed to all these sides, in the ff ways.

  1. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt 5:43-45). In the midst of all this violence and injustice perpetrated by Enemy Number 1 – the Roman empire – Jesus reminds his disciples that to truly “be the children of your Father in heaven” (v 45), we must learn to love our enemies. I don’t know what Jesus was smoking then, but since we have sworn to be his disciples, we either find what the brother was smoking and get high on it ourselves, or we take him seriously.

  2. Jesus, in his parable about the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), answers the question “who is my neighbour?” by telling a very uncomfortable story whose import was that not only those from our ethnic group are our neighbours, but even those who are considered beyond the pale – like their good old hated Samaritan half-brothers. To make matters worse, Jesus actually spent 2 days in Samaria, during which time he’d have broken all the rules about how Jews should relate to a Samaritan. (Jn 4:1-43)

  3. When the gatekeepers of socio-religious behaviour (the Pharisees) come to Jesus with a woman who had committed adultery and to whom they were ready to exact punishment exactly as Torah prescribed, Jesus’s statement that “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” totally disarms them, and they leave this woman alone. In this case she was actually guilty of her crimes (at least Jesus say she should “go and sin no more”), and yet mercy is the order of the day for Jesus (Jn 8:1-11).

  4. Jesus had none other than a “terrorist” as a disciple. Those who believe the KJV is the best thing since sliced bread will not notice this, since in the KJV his name is rendered “Simon the Canaanite”. But modern scholarship has debunked that translation as flawed, and therefore in newer bibles we get to know who he really was – “Simon the zealot” (Mt 4:10).

This was the kind of uncomfortable company that Jesus kept – terrorists, adulterers, greedy tax collectors and wine drinkers. This was very unsafe and unsavory company – the kind that your mother would give you a strong warning about. And just in case you thought Jesus could do this but didn’t require it of us, he goes and spoils the party for his disciples. After warning them that for his sake they will be arrested and “brought before governors and kings”, he tells them that “the student is not above the teacher … if the head of the house [Jesus] has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household [his disciples].(Mt 10)

I could go on and on and on with Jesus’s examples. I could remind us also of the socio-religous environment of the early church, especially as founded by a “former terrorist”, Paul the apostle, all over the Roman world. I could remind us of what the Roman historians recorded about the Christians in Rome who took in people with mysterious sicknesses which their society thought were contagious and deadly, but whom they loved and cared for till a large number of them recovered. They had no scientific knowledge then, and if it was our deadly ebola virus, they’d have died for seeking the welfare of others, but fear wasn’t their forte – love was.

Conclusion

The way of Jesus is not the way of the world. The governments of the world would sometimes do what is wrong and sometimes do what is right. Our cultures and societal structures can intentionally or unintentionally work to divide and sow seeds of discord and fear, instead of reconciliation and love. The early Christians knew that, which is why they realized themselves as the community in which the evils perpetuated by our governments, societies and cultures will be gradually reversed by the love of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is why they listened to Jesus and looked to his example, so they could discern when they needed to offer their support to a cause and when they needed to stand against their society and governments for supporting the wrong cause. This is why the Spirit of God was given – to lead the church in discernment so it will be obedient to God’s will, and not societal, political or governmental will, even when such leading will be considered “stupid”, “unpatriotic”,“wreckless” or “dangerous”. That is why Paul reminds us that For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The cause of Christ is not a cause that will always make sense to Ghanaians and Ghanaian culture, and the earlier we Christians realize that, the better it will be for our discipleship to Jesus.

If the American church had looked to Jesus’s guidance instead of openly supporting their nation’s choice to go to war and kill millions of Arab people and destabilize the whole of the Middle East because of the lives of 3,000 Americans lost on September 11th 2001, maybe we wouldn’t be here debating whether we should accept just 2 Yemeni detainees who have not even been declared guilty by any court of competent jurisdiction. We would rather discern the way of Jesus in this matter – that it’s not about who caused what and why they were not returned to America or Yemen. Its about Jesus testing our claims to be his disciples by putting 2 lives before us who are asking for a chance to rebuild their lives after 14 years of being treated like animals, whether they are actually terrorists or not. If we are rather interested in to casting our stones at them like the Pharisees, maybe it’s because we are still sick of that disease that was unleashed centuries ago – that Constantinian disease that makes us forget what kind of king we serve – a king who died on the cross for his enemies.