Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting. Continue reading

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Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in the Memphis sky…

As you’re probably aware, on this day 40 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Fewer people are aware of this speech he gave 41 years ago, today.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

Continue reading

Thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday hangover day”, also known as the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for today, from the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, TNIV)

We’ve all probably heard this passage time and again, and it certainly is a powerful message – the uber-self-righteous Pharisee getting his comeuppance while the humble tax collector is justified. Unfortunately, we often look at it as an example of “works righteousness” versus “faith” and use this parable to justify our own Protestant theology (on the falsehood of viewing ancient Judaism as “works righteousness” that was later corrected by Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on “grace”, see the opening of my article on Galatians 3:28). We also have this tendency to assume the Pharisee is boasting of his own accomplishments for all to see, though where we get this idea that he’s bragging before other people I have no idea – the text specifically says he stood by himself.

We Americans love underdogs. Odds are, if you cared about the game, you wanted to see the lowly Giants knock the arrogant Patriots off their high horse in the Super Bowl last weekend; however, according to Vegas, if you bet on the game the odds are you bet on the Patriots. One might say we love the idea of the underdog, but when it gets down to brass tacks we want to go with the winner.

We love this parable for much the same reason we love underdogs – and in this case it’s a no-lose situation, because Jesus endorses this underdog. But if we understood this passage better… we might not see it in such black-and-white terms. Jesus’ audience surely would not have.

I think this parable is much better understood not as a contrast between the “works-righteousness” of the Pharisee and the “faith” of the tax collector, but rather between their ritual purity according to the Jewish holiness code. The Pharisee epitomized the utmost purity, and his sect was the most punctilious when it came to observing the law and the traditions they used to “protect” the law. The tax collector was the exact opposite – ancient Jewish literature refers to tax collectors as being no better than Gentiles. Given that they were Jews, and given the extreme importance of kinship relations in the ancient world, this meant not only that the tax collector was cut off from his immediate family but from the national life and his place as a member of the chosen people of God. Not only was the tax collector ritually impure, but he was a traitor to his people, and Jesus’ audience would likely have despised the character the moment Jesus introduced him into the story.

It is no accident that this story comes very shortly before the story of Zaccheus – whom Jesus proclaims “a son of Abraham”, which indicates that he has been brought into the people of God from being no better than a Gentile. His statement that the tax collector was justified essentially carried the same weight and would have been no less scandalous. For Jesus one’s identity is not based on national birth or on adherence to the purity code, but on the right recognition of one’s place before God and recognizing the necessity for mercy and forgiveness, receiving new life from God as a gift that enables one to participate in the world of New Creation, as a member of the family of the redeemed people of God.

This story ends here, but the story of Zaccheus in chapter 19 provides a coda of sorts to the parable – as we all know, Zaccheus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone he has wronged. Zaccheus’ repentance beckons us to look back to the parable and wonder what this tax collector would have done had Jesus continued the story from that point. It is likely that Zaccheus would have bankrupted himself in the quest to make restitution, as basically his entire income would have depended on coercing people out of their money, livestock, produce, property – whatever he could get out of them. If we are to truly see the tax collector in this parable as justified, that is to say made righteous, we ought to assume he would have gone home and done the same. The Greek word translated “justified” means “to be made righteous/just” and implies not only some spiritual state he would attain before God, but a real change in his being that would affect his outward life and daily praxis. Every time it or one of its cognates is used in the New Testament, it carries the connotation of reconciliation on both the “vertical” axis between the person and God and on the “horizontal” axis between the person and other people. As John Howard Yoder says in The Politics of Jesus, it is probably not too much to say that without reconciliation there is no justification (check out his chapter on justification by grace through faith).

We like the easy association with the underdog, but stake our well-being on the one we think is going to win. We identify with the tax collector on the surface, but are we willing to follow this identification through to its conclusion? Today begins the season of Lent, the time of self-reflection, fasting, and penitence during which we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Day. Many of us associate Lent with “giving up” something, which becomes a chore to maintain, a burden to bear. I want to suggest an alternative mindset – I suggest that we do not primarily associate Lent with a “giving up”, but with the receiving of a gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us to root out those places where we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. If the tax collector was to be re-integrated into the people of God, there were many things he would have to do both to demonstrate and to solidify in his own self the new heart he had been given by God in the moment of justification. Old habits would have to be broken, old patterns of consumption discarded, old ways of thinking about people and possessions abandoned. In the same way, if we are to participate more fully in the kingdom of God and to be made more into the image of Christ as his body, we need the same.

In the season of Lent we have the opportunity built right into the church calendar to mediate on the scriptures and ponder our own selves and our relationships, especially our relationships with people and with possessions, and our nature as consumptive beings within this consumer culture. We have the solemn duty to reconsider our communal, social, and political affiliations and activity, to contemplate the ways our economic lifestyles and the ways of thinking, doing, and being we take for granted affect our neighbors, be they our neighbors across the street, our neighbors in Bangladesh, or our neighbors who will possess the earth after we are long gone from it, after our bodies have returned to the dust from which they came. “For remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If we are to identify with the “underdog” in this passage, it is imperative that we ask God to search us in this time, to ask God to bring to our minds and hearts those ways we yet need to be made like Jesus, and to ask him to show us the habits that need to be destroyed, those things that have power over us that must be broken. We must be prepared to follow Jesus to the point of losing everything, trusting that God will raise us from the dead – and after all, if we really believe in the resurrection, what are we doing piddling around with our insane worry about cell phones, hybrid automobiles, and flush toilets? Christ came so that the dead could be raised and for no other reason. There is no other solution other than that we be put to death with Christ, and raised with him – dead to the world, to social position, to economic affluence, to political power, and alive with Christ the suffering Messiah who turned the violence directed against him around and defeated it, breaking its stranglehold on the world in the process.

Feel free to respond to this post and tell me not only what you are doing for Lent, but how it relates to your own reflective process and the ways you are asking God to seek you, to confront those areas where you have not yet given yourself up to be made into the image of Christ, and give them up and be transformed. Tomorrow or the next day I will post my own answers.

Subverting the rhetoric of American empire

Brandon Rhodes has written an EXCELLENT article at Jesus Manifesto called “Severing the Rhetorical Roots of the Empire“. In it he lists some quotes, inviting followers of Jesus to creatively rewrite them to displace idolatry and blasphemy with subversive truth, just as Paul and other early Christian authors rhetorically usurped Caesar’s place of privilege and subordinated him to the risen Christ.

I’ll start with a few contemporary quotes that ought to be easier to start with, and then work back in history.

George W. Bush:

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”

Bush #2:

“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Bush #3:

“In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”

Bush #4:

“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Abraham Lincoln:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Thomas Paine:

“We have it within our power to begin the world over again.”

The U.S. Constitution:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I believe that if we are to speak prophetically to the political realities of our time we have to produce language that echoes and engages the foundational statements that form the core of the American’s political self-understanding. These blasphemous claims, rooted in the idolatry of the flag and national spirit, must be challenged with the truth that Christ alone is Lord, that Christ alone is the one who defeats evil and brings peace and justice, that Christ alone makes atonement and hallows the earth, and that Christ alone has recreated, is recreating, and will recreate the world.

I end this post with one of my own – the antecedent should be obvious.

I pledge allegiance to the cross, to the one who carried it and died upon it,
and to the reign of true peace and justice, the kingdom of God in the world,
one church under God, holy, catholic, and apostolic,
in the unbreakable bond of divine life with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
with true freedom and perfect justice for all.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

This is one of King’s most important speeches and yet one of his most little-known. Delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, this speech provides a scathing denunciation of the practices of the American government on the world stage, particularly in Vietnam. King extends his methodology of nonviolent action to the nation-state, famously saying “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

We have institutionalized King, making him into an icon of the supposedly American ideals of freedom and justice and neglected to remember his enormously potent critique of America’s very failure to live up to those ideals. He has been turned into some kind of fuzzy saint and placed high in the pantheon of “America’s greatsTM,” a would-be tool for those whose violence he denounced. It is imperative that we drink deeply from King’s critique of the violence of American society and extend it to the present-day situation, to the actions and even very nature of corporations as well as nation-states and revolutionaries, exploring the ways violence breeds violence and a violent reaction destroys our humanity just as surely as does oppression. We must inhabit his vision for reconciliation through loving our enemies. The following story, taken from Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, demonstrates the depth and revolutionary power of King’s vision through the action of his comrades in the SCLC:

One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the American South, a large crowd of black and white activists was standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, singing to pass the time. Suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and afterward he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. . . “Do you you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” The sheriff?! “Cer-certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord” – it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

The Rev. James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he explained, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me, Jim? – we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

And Jim Clark did change. Realizing he could not be reelected without the black vote, he began courting black voters and later confessed that he had been wrong in his bias against blacks.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that the vision had to include more than just improving the status of oppressed people – that it includes loving the oppressors and consistently applying the critique of violence to areas beyond our immediate sphere. As globalization increasingly brings us into the living rooms of people in Sri Lanka, China, and Bangladesh (and vice versa), we must become aware of our relationships with them, with the ways our affluent lifestyles do violence to them, and ways we can oppose violence and purveyors of violence while yet showing the love of Christ which transforms the most wretched sinners into beautiful saints.

May we, like Dr. King prays, know the world in which we live and how to be ministers of reconciliation, agents of the Kingdom of God within it.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Continue reading

Galatians 3:28 and gender equality

One thing I’ve heard on a couple of message boards lately is the statement that Galatians 3:28, which says “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but you all are one in Christ Jesus”, does not in fact refer to a social equality that is expressed in the practice of the church. That is to say, specifically, they say this verse does not speak in favor of women having co-equal roles in leadership with men. They say it refers only to some kind of equality within the kingdom that is spiritual, eschatological, and referring to salvation, that all are saved alike in Christ and that Paul is merely expressing that converting to follow the laws of Judaism is no longer necessary for followers of God.

This interpretation is highly inadequate for many reasons, a few of which I will highlight here. Since E.P. Sanders wrote his major works on early Christianity and its relationship to ancient Judaism (including Jesus and Judaism, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People) the old Reformation assumption that Judaism was a religion based on “works” and Christianity was based on “grace” is no longer tenable. The ancient Jews, in the various sects, were every bit as dependent on grace as any Christian, and the workings of the law were properly seen as a response to what God has done, not as a way of earning God’s favor. In light of that, it is extremely difficult to defend the case that Paul is simply putting the law aside in favor of a new grace-based understanding, as his understanding of grace is already quite Jewish. Rather, it is more accurate to say that Paul shifts the locus of our response to grace from Torah observance to following Jesus, with baptism as the sign of the covenant replacing circumcision. If you follow the argument through Galatians 1-3 with this in mind, other conclusions follow.

The obvious first conclusion is that Paul chastised Peter for committing a social gaffe, even though observant Jews who disagreed with Paul’s stance towards the Gentiles would have said he did the right thing. It is precisely the point at which Peter breaks table fellowship with the Gentiles that Paul disputes him, and table fellowship was a concept that had serious social implications at the time. Paul’s practice was to include all at the table, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, which is a practice that stands in stark contrast both to some Jewish practice (remember all the trouble Jesus got into for “eating with sinners”) and to Roman festivals. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman circles, eating with someone was as sign of communion with them, and both communions enforced division between different groups of people. “Good Jews” didn’t eat with “sinners”; Roman patrons and masters would eat at the same table with slaves and other lower-class people, but the higher-ups would consume large portions to demonstrate their wealth and station while those who had not did not – thus the public table practices reinforced the divisions in Roman society (see the relevant discussion in 1 Corinthians 11 for Paul’s magnum opus on this subject).

The nature of Peter’s error reinforces the social equality between Jews and Gentiles in the church – neither is to possess a privilege from which the other is barred. Paul’s basis for arguing thus ultimately is the nature of Jews and Gentiles as the seed of Abraham through Jesus, who ultimately is the seed of Abraham in fulfillment of the promise from long ago, and so all provisions of the New Covenant apply equally to Jews and Gentiles both in fellowship in this life as well as in the eschaton. Paul drives this point home, though, by doing something startling – the same equality he applies to Jews and Gentiles he also applies to slave and free (which undermined the very basis of Rome’s economic system) as well as to male and female (which undermined the patriarchal basis of Roman society, grounded in the idea of Caesar as paterfamilias for the whole empire). If we are consistent in our application of Paul’s argument to all three social divisions, then we must ascribe the same social standing within the church, in this life, to women as we do to men. There are no second-class citizens, which must include provision for women to have equal authority as well as equal opportunity to leadership, teaching, and prophetic ministry to men, just as it did for Gentiles to Jews.

In fact, Biblical scholar Tatha Wiley, in Paul and the Gentile Women: Reframing Galatians, argues that the relationship between men and women is not just a peripheral issue for Paul in Galatians 1-3 but rather closer to Paul’s heart. She argues that, were circumcision to be required for Gentile men who followed Jesus it would not only enforce the Jew/Gentile dichotomy but also the male/female division of Judaism that essentially presented women as second-class citizens who were unable to have real authority and leadership in religious life. Paul didn’t just argue that Jesus does away with the “Holy of Holies” that allows every believer access to God’s presence that only the high priest could have in the traditional Jewish faith, but rather he does away with the whole system and its divisions between Jews, Gentiles, men, women, priests, and people.

When you look at Galatians 3:28 in its literary context and in the context of how exactly Paul’s statements subvert both the hierarchies of ancient Jewish practices and the foundations of Roman society, it seems clear to me that the verse demands equality for women with men which must include all areas of Christian social practice in this age, and not just the age that is to come. The inbreaking of God’s reign of peace and justice into this world requires that we radically alter our perception of social relations and come to the table together to honor the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire, by N.T. Wright

article link

The good Bishop of Durham has summed up a lot of things quite concisely in one article that I spend pages and pages on this blog discussing. He goes briefly over passages from Romans and Philippians within the framework of a discussion of the term “Gospel” and Paul’s conception of Jesus as Messiah and Lord with some closing reflections on the subversive nature of the Gospel and how we might think about it today. It is especially worth reading for his brief statements on the idea of God’s righteousness/justice (the same Greek word, dikaiosune, can be translated both ways) vis-à-vis the Roman goddess/concept of Iustia.

I do find it interesting that he mentions that “the subversive Gospel is not designed to produce civic anarchy”. For all his care to avoid anachronistically reading back Protestant and modern categories into the ancient texts, including ideas such as equating “Gospel” with the doctrine of justification through faith and the history-of-religions approach that separates “religious” ideas in ancient texts from “political” ideas (just as modern thought tends to do), this seems to me to be a rather uncritical use of the term “anarchy”.

I agree that the purpose of the Gospel is not to replace one human political order with another (which is one of the thrusts of Romans 13), and I also agree that there is a kind of affirmation of the structures in scripture that have become the fallen powers and principalities, in that humans need structures to aid us in living life – but at the same time Christ is Lord over the powers and the church, I believe, is called to be involved in working to create redeemed structures to help us govern our lives. Anarchy as a political philosophy can very much be cast in those terms, though I tend to think more in line with my friend Bruce Wright’s idea that the ideal church would be made up of people who “live anarchistically in community”.

This is not to say that Tom Wright is dissing anarchists here, at most the question of anarchy is tangental to the whole article, but it’s interesting to me that he is generally so careful in how he relates present-day ideas to ancient texts and when the term “anarchy” comes up he seems to be rather uncritical.