Racial and Ethnic Tension: Letting the NPP School Us

reconciliationWe live in a big world, but indeed we live in a small one. Today, news is available to us all at the touch of our fingertips and via our TV screens, and one’s serene life somewhere can be brutally disrupted by news of happenings thousands of miles away. This was the case last month with the series of news reports concerning racial violence in the US, focused on killings by white police officers of black men, and retaliatory killings by aggrieved black men of innocent police officers. Being a Ghanaian “sitting my somewhere”, its all too easy to ignore this phenomenon and go on with my life, but that innocent, mind-my-own-business side of mine died a few years ago, courtesy of certain shifts in my perspective on the human problem of racial and ethnic tension driven by changes in my reading of the New Testament.

Let me be straightforward here. I believe that the church is the only tool designed by God to actually show the world how racial tensions can be overcome. Not the government, not politics. But to do that the church has to confront some of it’s own flawed theology which has rather seen it buying into the racial hatred instead of standing against it. And it is here that I wish that the church worldwide, especially Protestant churches in America (but also critically, in Ghana) will take seriously the tremendous work over the last few decades of the school of thought about the NT called the New Perspective on Paul (heretofore referred to as NPP). I’ve written quite a bit about the NPP, and my latest take on reading the bible with that perspective can be found here. Coming away a few weeks ago from Scott McKnight and Joe Modica’s “The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical And Missional Implications of the New Perspective”, a compilation of essays by a number of scholars on the implication of taking the New Perspective seriously, I looked again at what was happening in America, and it was obvious to me why Protestant Christianity hasn’t done much to help resolve this problem, but may have rather participated in worsening it, knowingly or unknowingly.

The NPP’s Paul: The Bearer of Yahweh’s Reconciliation

Although there are many well known scholars associated with the NPP and they all don’t agree with each other on every detail, I’ll be presenting mostly the thoughts of Nicholas Thomas Wright, seeing as he’s the one I’ve read the most from, though these points are not unique to him.

  1. Paul wrote his letters in reaction to issues that arose as a result of his unique ministry amongst the apostles – being one who had dedicated himself solely to ministry to the Gentile world. He was dealing with problems, not writing a rule book.

  2. The primary problem was that of how Jews and Gentiles are all now acceptable before Yahweh without the requirement for the Gentiles to keep the Law.

  3. Paul poses Jesus’s death as a means by which Yahweh reconciles himself not just to his unfaithful wife Israel (and by extension, Jews), but to the rest of the world, to the nations, who have not known him but who are his anyway. Paul uses the language of “peace” to describe this in many of his letters.

  4. This reconciliation was not only between Yahweh and his creation, but also meant a breaking down of the barriers of hostility between Jews and Gentile. Paul’s letters are full of guidance on how his churches should navigate this new reality, primarily by laying down one’s rights for the benefit of the other.

  5. The cross is the means of God breaking the powers that hold us in chains to the devil, and setting all his creation free from the captivity of sin. God himself being willing to die on the cross to reconcile himself with his people is described by Paul in 1 Cor as “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18) or “the demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor 2:2-4) .

  6. By this means of reconciliation, nobody has the upper hand anymore to be considered part off the people of God. Yahweh requires all to receive the gift of his forgiveness so to be considered a part of his people. This is what Paul’s language of adoption is all about. There are no more any natural born children – both Jew and Gentile are adopted children “in Christ”.

  7. Being “in Christ” means one participates in his righteousness. Jew and Gentile become considered righteous/justified by being participants in Christ. There’s a long debate within the NPP on how to interpret 2 Cor 5:21, but I think Michael Gorman’s interpretation using the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis is much better than NT Wright’s on this matter.

  8. Yahweh now desires that all his people learn to live as one people, via his own power – via his own Spirit. The only means by which life together for people of different cultures, backgrounds and social standing is possible is via the same the cross as the example of God in Jesus – via self-sacrifice and the laying down of personal “rights” in favour of the other. Love within and without the body of Christ is the goal, and the power to love is given in living by the Spirit, not living by the flesh.

  9. The Spirit then, is not given as a genie in a bottle to be rubbed up to fulfill personal desires and egos of those amongst and within whom it dwells, which is exactly Paul critique of the Corinthians. The Spirit gives different gifts to different people in order that those gifts may be used in service to the united people of God that gather together – to be used in service and in love.

  10. The church is a sign to the world that Yahweh’s desire to be known as God over all the world, and hence to abolish ALL DIVISIONS so there is only one people of God has been launched. Therefore when the church fails at the task of integrating the rich and poor, the slave and free, the black man and the white man, the Jew and Gentile, male and female, the church has lost sight of it’s calling, and is still living in this age, when the age to come has already been inaugurated by the death of Jesus.

Reconciliation: The Center of Paul’s Teaching

It becomes obvious the impact that taking the NPP seriously about Paul’s mission, and reading the bible as a narrative of how God desires to choose a people for himself and dwell with them has on our practice of Christianity and church. Building our understand of Jesus and Paul beginning from Yahweh’s choice of Israel to his choice of the whole world via inclusion “in Christ”, yields a church that is not just interested in “saving souls” for heaven, but in revolting against the divisive structures of this world whiles in this world. And it will have to do this by taking up it’s cross and actively working towards ethnic, racial, gender and socio-economic integration within its own walls by the power of the Spirit, before it can have something to tell the world about these issues.

Rather, within most Protestant circles, Paul (and hence the whole bible) is read as focusing on justification of individual sinners before God, making one’s personal salvation the beginning and end of the matter, and leaving churches confused about their purpose after they have actually “won the souls”. No matter how hard classical Protestant leaders have tried, it’s been impossible to defend the accusation that a) the Protestant Reformers read back their own experiences of battling Roman Catholicism into Paul’s letters and therefore distorted its meaning and that b) their reading of the bible, and the propagation of such a reading within Protestant Christianity has led to individualism on the one hand, and complicity in or inertia in the face of divisive evil like slavery, racism, segregation, sexism, colonialism and violence on the other. Even when reconciliation is mentioned in most Protestant teaching, it is limited to God reconciling himself to the sinful individual, and has very little with people groups being reconciled to one another (whereas Paul’s language is of God reconciling himself to humanity, not just individuals, as well as bringing reconciliation amongst people groups). The most Protestant of all European nations in the early 20th century, Germany, was also the worst culprit when push came to shove.

In Africa, our Protestant churches, still bearing the individualist fruits of their Western torchbearers , continue to be totally incapable of any real social transformation. The systemic evils of tribalism, classism, corruption, poverty, unemployment and destitution continues to abound, whiles they spend all their energies raising “harvest” upon “harvest” to build the next big church building. Charity is practiced as one-off events meant to placate consciences, typically in far off, romantic locations. The needs of church members, or neigbhourhoods within which local churches are situated are marginalized in favour of grandiose investments in infrastructure projects on a national scale so these churches can put their name on it and claim they are working for the common good – what I call “empire building”.

And yet given the realities of the time in which we live, it is frustrating to watch Protestant Christian leaders, especially within the Reformed tradition in the West, focus on defending their heroes instead of being true to scripture and to the mission of Christ in the world – to the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, to the hope of all races and tribes singing together before the throne, which age has already been launched by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So I have little hope for both the American and African church when it comes to racial reconciliation if it continues down it’s good old individualistic trajectories. This trajectory is the main reason why 40 years after segragation laws were revoked in the US, American churches are still segregated into churches dominated by whites and churches dominated by blacks etc. In this light, I wish the American Reformed churches will realize that the New Perspective is not it’s enemy. The Spirit which is at work in the Reformed churches, though they somehow failed to listen to Him when the cry for freedom from slavery, segregation and inequality rang out in times past, and which today all Reformed churches acknowledge was a mistake, is the same Spirit which is at work to bring Black, White, Asian, Arab, Jewish Christians of all classes, gender and economic standing together in post 9/11 America. The Sprit’s work didn’t come to an end  after Reformation, and it certainly will not be kept in that bottle forever. It is better to listen to the Spirit and to truth, than to be engaged in defense of tradition.

And I have little hope for African Protestantism when it comes to reconciliation at all levels, if it continues down its good old Christendom trajectory. For African Protestant Christianity is so comfortable in its Christendom mode, there is very little introspection and questioning going on. It took our brothers in the Western world two World Wars to cause Christians to ask serious questions about the individualistic teaching that allowed such evils to happen. Today, Europe has virtually abandoned Christianity, and faith in Jesus is declining in the US as well. Do we need some cataclysmic events here before we wake up and smell the coffee that is brewing – the coffee of ethnic, social and economic reconciliation that the Spirit of God has been brewing for the world since Jesus’s resurrection?

Wake up, and smell the coffee!!

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

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Faith of the Centurion

Recently I’d been reading on what the NIV appropriately titles as “The Faith of the Centurion” in Luke 7:1-10. This passage taught me a lesson on faith, and I want to put down my perspective of it as gleaned from this passage. Of course I’m only going to scratch the surface of this topic, since there are a million and one other writings on this most important issue.

The story goes of a servant of a centurion who was valued highly by his master fell ill. The centurion sends the elders of the Jews to see Jesus and plead for him to heal the servant. Jesus agreed to go, but on the way the centurion sends friends to Jesus saying

Lk 7:6-8 “(6) … Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. (7) That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. (8) For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this’ and he does it.”

Jesus later expressed surprise at the faith of this centurion, telling the crowd following him that he hasn’t found such great faith in Israel, and when the centurion’s friends returned, the servant was healed.

I pondered over why Jesus said he hadn’t found such faith before, and what the Holy Spirit taught me I want to share here. I’ll call these the steps to faith.

Belief in An Almighty God

As a military man, the centurion was well versed with the notion of authority. He himself was “under authority, with soldiers under me”. He is able to give instructions to his soldiers, and they must be carried out, or they face the penalty of death. In the same way, his statements show a conviction that Jesus was a man of might and authority over the spiritual realm (and by extension the physical as well). In other words, he was God or sent from God – and the centurion considered himself unworthy to receive Jesus under his roof. Jesus only needed to give a command. This tallies with what the writer of Hebrews said about God.
Heb 11:6 “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him

In this day and age of increasing rebellion against God conveniently named “atheism”, it is very important that any form of faith that can be considered Christian faith be first founded on the fact that there is an Almighty God whose will we must seek to do. I recently had an arguement with a professing Christian who had a lot of questions to ask about why Christians do what they do, and I had to remind them that if they did not believe in God’s existence, then no answer I could give will be enough to convince them. I believe I’m writing to Christians and therefore do not need to go into the intricacies of the existence of God.

Absolute and Resolute Belief in His Word

But say the word, and my servant will be healed”. Having established the fact that Jesus was a man of authority as he himself was, he goes on to tell him to just “say the word”. For us Christians who already express a belief in God, this statement is of unparalleled importance. It is the difference between living faith and dead faith, between commitment and lukewarmness, between the good servant and the unfaithful one.
Faith is not founded on emotions. It leads to emotions. It is not founded on logic. It leads to logic and wisdom – and is one of the reasons why Paul discourages arguements based not on the authority of the word of God but on logic. Faith is founded on the word of God, and our obedience to it. Heb 11:1 defines faith as
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” And this is exactly what the centurion expressed.

But how can we achieve this? We believe in God, but we’ve not seen him before. How can we be “certain of what we do not see”?

  • We are certain because he told us so. Ge 15:5-6 “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them’. The he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’. Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness”

    Abraham believed God’s promise or God’s word, and God considered him righteous. Note what Jesus said in Jo 6:47 “He who believes … has everlasting life” – not shall have. In the same way by believing in God’s word, God immediately imputed righteousness to Abraham. Faith is based on accepting God’s word – very simple.

  • They say seeing is believing. But seeing before believing is not faith. Faith is based on what has been said by God before, and clinging to them then brings the physical manifestation of them.

Jo 11:39-40 “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone’. Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days’. Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

  • What is the guarantee that the word of God is true? That what God has written in his word will come to pass? Because His word is truth. Jesus told his disciples in Jo 15:3 “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you”. Ah, so the word of God can cleanse us? Then know these as well:

Jo 17:17 “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth”.

2 Sa 7:28 “O Sovereign Lord, you are God! Your words are trustworthy …”

Jo 14:6 “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me’”

Jn 1:14 “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

These expound emphatically one of most fundamental declarations of the nature of God and His word. You cannot believe in one and ignore the other. You cannot claim a belief in God but ignore His word or vice versa.

Confession and Appropriation

It is important to note that what the centurion believed, he did not keep to himself. He personally sent some elders to Jesus to plead on his behalf for his servant’s healing. Believing that Jesus Christ could heal his servant was not enough to save him – taking the steps to see that happen was.
This is the point where faith has an emotional manifestation. A genuine faith will always be confessed and acted upon by its professor.
Ro 10:8-10 “… (8) But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: (9) That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (10) For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
Note that v 9-10 are preceded by v 8, – “the word of faith we are proclaiming” confirms what we have concluded before that faith is based on God’s word. However, the residence of faith is not in the mind. It is in the heart. This is where faith and emotions meet.
We all know that it is emotions that drive us to do what we do. Remember, every decision is pondered in the mind. Once the mind is made up, we begin to act on our decisions with our emotions now taking over. This is how a Christian is able to withstand all the pressures that the devil brings against him – because he/she takes the word of God personal. We can’t begin to really experience faith in God if we will not allow it to take control of our hearts. How many references are there to people storing up the word “in their heart”?

Ps 31:30-31 “The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip”

Ps 119:11 “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”

Pr 3:1-3 “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the table of your heart.

I could go on and give all the listed verses from the small concordance in my study Bible (I’m sure a bigger concordance will give me almost more than twice what I have here) but the point is still made – the repository of faith is the heart. The word must be stored in the heart, which is the driving seat of human body. So faith and emotions are very compatible because true faith leads to action, but it’s foundation is the word of God.

Allow me to digress a bit here – faith is different from hope, which is stored up in the mind. Someone pointed out to me 1 Th 5:8

1 Th 5:8 “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation

Faith and love emanates from the heart and must be protected by a breastplate. Hope is in the mind. Also faith is here and now – it is an active thing, not something of the future. Remember the number of people Jesus healed because they had faith in him. He didn’t say they should wait for a future resurrection before they receive their healing. He healed them there and then. So even though something we may be claiming from God by faith has not yet manifested, continuing in the faith that what you asked has already been provided is what makes what your desire come true.

Jas 1:5,6 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God …. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind”.

See another example of the distinction between faith and hope. Col 3:3-4 points out that by faith you are now in Christ, but your hope is to be glorified with him when he appears.

Col 3:3 “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”

Col 3:4 “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory”.

Most often but not always, references to hope in the NT are to future events of glory, whiles references to faith are to a present status of a disciple relative to Christ or His word.

Living out Your Faith

Although not exhibited by the centurion in our passage, I cannot close this article on faith without talking about living out your faith. You have believed God’s existence and believed in His word. You have stored up his word in your heart and confessed him with your mouth. Aren’t these enough? Well, I’ll raise a few hairs here by saying that going through these things guarantees you a place in His kingdom, but not an inheritance in it. Why? Because faith without works is dead. We’ve already established that saving faith does not depend on anything but repenting from sin and believing that Jesus Christ is Lord. Period. No rituals, no “works of righteousness” or “penance” or “good deeds” is required. It is free, by grace and by faith.
Eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.

But there is a purpose for that salvation through grace. Interestingly it is stated in the same breath as this one is, but I can count the number of times I’ve heard somebody preach about it in the same breath as the one stated above.

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

Tit 2:14 Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

The purpose of salvation by grace is so we can show our faith by our works – works which God has prepared way in advance for us. Note I didn’t say gain faith by our works but show forth our faith by our works. Works is the evidence of faith, not the guarantee of it.

Jam 2:14-19 “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, I have deeds’. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”

I believe this passage does not require a rocket scientist to understand, as my brother Odarno will tell you. However, I’ve heard some prosperity preacher massacre this passage beyond recognition before and I only pray for God’s mercy for him.

The passage in James also matches what Jesus said in Jn 15:1-2

Jn 15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off ever branch in me that does not bear fruit”.

Note that the branch that is cut of was already IN Jesus the tree. This signifies one who is already a self-declared Christian, but who is bearing no fruit. Such a person on the day of Christ’s return for the first resurrection will be sent straight to the lake of fire, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. My next post will go into more details on this issue of the faithful and unfaithful servant.

But what are these works? Well, they are simply works done in the love of God. In the same Jn 15, Jesus talks about “remaining in his love”. This love is the love given by God himself, and it is the same standard that Christ requires of us.

Jn 15:9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love

Jn 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”.

Eph 1:4 “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons …”

In all these passages, the word love here refers to the “Agape” love. This love can only be given us by the Holy Spirit.

Ro 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Gal 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy , peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law”

Well, I need not say more on this. If there is no evidence of faith in our lives, we need to look again at it because even the demons claim faith in God, but we all know their destination. And if our works done in faith are not motivated by the love of God, they become worthless deeds, and stand the chance of being called evil deeds.

Mt 7:22 “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Conclusion

To conclude, there is no doubt about the importance of works after faith. Rev 19:7-8 tells you explicitly what they are for.

Rev 19:7-8 “Let us rejoice and be glad and five him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given here to wear (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints)”

The KJV says “righteousness of the saints” but almost all other translations have the above rendering. If you do not have any righteous acts to contribute to the garment, where do you think you will be? Your guess is as good as mine. Are you still warming the pew?