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.

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