Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why Not Weiss? The Historical Jesus vs. the Paul of Faith

Perhaps it's my roots in evangelical Protestantism. Or maybe it's a certain Anglican penchant for both/and thinking. Whatever the reason, Johanness Weiss gets off on the wrong foot with me in the introduction to his monumental little book on the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus.

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).

But before I lay into Weiss' work, I must preface my gripe with words of praise. Overall, this is a superb, tightly argued biblical-theological tract that has borne portentous historical significance since the first edition was published in 1892. As the editors of this edition demonstrate, Weiss is not merely intent to critically engage historical Jesus research, but he also is keen to integrate this historical spadework with contemporary systematic and constructive interests. Put another way, Weiss explores the problem of how the Jesus of history, in his message and vocation, might continue to be normative for modern believers. To that end, he seeks to retrieve the historical Jesus -- more specifically, to retrieve the uncanny and unnerving apocalyptic preacher from Galilee -- and in the process decimates the overly sentimental, moralistic and anachronistic notions about Jesus propagated by 19th century liberal Protestant biographers.

Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
To recover the real Jesus in his own context as a living voice for faith entails, for Weiss, confronting not only post-Enlightenment and Romantic liberal voices but challenging conservatives as well -- in particular, Lutheran confessionalists. In particular, Weiss insists we must chose between Jesus, preacher of the Kingdom of God, and the apostle Paul, who (ostensibly) was obsessed by a narrow, doctrinaire fixation on justification by faith. In other words, Weiss pits the message of a living person against a supposed staid doctrine. In his original context, perhaps, he is making an important point; by contrast, for some of us 21st century readers (myself included), Jesus vs. Paul comes across as a tired cliche.

Weiss begins his introduction with these claims:

Even to common historical sense it must appear appropriate when describing the posi­tive character of the Christian religion and the historical circumstances under which it arose to take as the point of departure and center of systematic theology the main ideas of Jesus' proclamation, rather than Paul's doctrine of justi­fication. This likewise gives a more satisfactory basis for a really systematic arrangement of the series of Christian con­cepts which theology has to offer with respect to the special tasks for our time (p. 57).

Weiss is making a double-edged, historical and constructive claim here: First, Jesus' preaching of the kingdom is more primitive to Christianity's Palestinian origins than is Paul's Hellenized soteriology. The difficulty here, of course, is that Paul's writings are earlier than the Synoptic Gospels by about a generation (and Weiss is aware of this). So what privileges the Synoptic tradition over Paul's letters? Part of the answer, which I hope to illustrate in a later post, is that Weiss' confidence in the authenticity of the Jesus tradition conveyed through the Synoptics would count as "conservative" (or credulous, depending upon one's perspective) by 21st century standards. Thus, Weiss is no skeptic: He believes the historical Jesus is eminently recoverable, as long as the researcher can bracket some typical modern ideological commitments.

Second, and somewhat surprisingly, Weiss is arguing that the primitive teaching of Jesus itself should be the primary and controlling source for contemporary systematic theology -- more specifically, that Jesus' Kingdom teaching forms a more sure basis for organizing the topoi of systematic theology than is Paul's carefully worked out and rhetorically sophisticated musings on the relationship of Law and Gospel, faith and justification. Weiss is particularly keen to integrate dogmatics and ethics -- that is, to recover what later interepreters might term the "existential" force of the Christian faith. His worry is that a preoccupation with justification by faith issues in a passive and individualist fixation on piety in and of itself. He writes:

The artificial isolation of religious experiences, "of the action of God upon men," from the religious-ethical reactions of individuals is a necessary con­sequence of the separation of the two disciplines [dogmatics and ethics] which in turn follows from the mechanical demarcation between justification and new life (ibid.).

Weiss hopes his study will help reinvigorate pastoral theology, freeing it from hidebound orthodoxies.

[I]t is an open secret that preaching and instruction which proceed according to the pattern of the ordo salutis in the old Protestant sense, bounce off the majority of our contemporaries without effect (57-58).

Weiss argues that this orthodox interpretation 1) fails to integrate the religious good with the ethical imperative; 2) the doctrine of redemption it promotes is too abstract and insufficiently practical; and, consequently, 3) this paradigm, focusing on forensic justification, neglects the need for growth and formation within a process of sanctifying grace.

For now, I leave you with three of my own questions. First, does Weiss have a legitimate critique to level against some of his orthodox contemporaries? That seems plausible, though I would need to do more research and look at more texts to evaluate the perspicuity of this criticism. Second, and crucially, how does all this look in light of contemporary revisionist interpretations of the Apostle Paul and, particularly, his teachings on justification and sanctification? Finally -- and I think this is just a perennial question for Protestant theology as a whole -- just how should we relate the proclamation of God's free, saving grace in Jesus Christ with the task of spurring the growth of believers in faith and love? That is, what is the proper ethics -- and I would add, the most faithful political stance -- that should ensue from our soteriology?

However we might answer these questions, it seems to fair to say that Weiss' preface seems like an odd way to begin a tract that interprets the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic figure who believed that the final judgment and the coming Kingdom of God were imminent.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Archie Spencer on the Dangers of Reading Karl Barth

One weighty volume published in 2015 was Archie Spencer’s treatment of the analogia fidei: The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability. It is a dense volume that took me a long time to work through. Spencer engages in a number of different specialist conversations to provide both an analytic account of how analogy functions in the Christian theological tradition and a constructive proposal based on his reading of Barth as vectored through Eberhard Jüngel. Although I cannot competently comment on all Spencer’s specialist engagement, I can vouch for the volume as a thought-provoking piece of exposition.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-1283-23A / Lachmann, Hans
CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In any case, there are a couple places where Spencer stops and reflects on reading Karl Barth. In particular, he reflects on the dangers of reading Barth. Now, he doesn’t mean that reading Barth is dangerous to your faith. Far from it, in fact. Spencer means that there are certain pitfalls that readers of Barth must be aware of if they are to read him aright. So I thought that I would share these with you, gentle readers, so that you might better watch your metaphorical step. (As usual, bold is mine and italics are original.)

The first place where Spencer discusses these “dangers” is in his introduction. There he identifies the “twin dangers in reading Barth” (p. 25): “first is a general lack of close reading of Barth himself.” In other words, make sure you actually read Barth! I second Spencer here. Far too often folks pronounce on Barth without first reading Barth carefully. We all do this to a certain extent with many different theologians, so I don’t think there’s anything special about Barth here. We should always do our best to engage with a thinker carefully before making pronouncements about them. Let it also be so with Barth.

“The second [danger] is in reading Barth ahistorically in terms of his own development.” In other words, don’t read Church Dogmatics 4 like it was written at the same time as The Epistle to the Romans. There’s lots of decades in between there and Barth’s thought constantly moves throughout his life. There are certain key continuities, and it is the case that you can recognize his body of work as being from the same thinker. We aren’t talking here about massive shifts. But there are shifts, and new pieces that come in, and rethinkings. Barth scholars have recognized this at least since Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Spencer singles out Bruce McCormack’s work as exemplary here. But there have been some refinements (many of them helpful) and reconceptions (some of them unhelpful) even since McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (I’ll not name names). But the point is, one must pay attention to such things in order to read Barth aright.

After ~150 pages of exposition, Spencer returns to elaborate this theme further. Now there is a third danger, in addition to reiterating the first two (p. 180): “The third danger is the failure to read [Barth] all the way to the end of his dogmatic project.” This is really a further elaboration on the second “danger.” In other words, you have to track Barth’s core commitments all the way through his development if you really want to understand how his thought works. It is, after all, very easy to just read the bits of Barth where he discusses a topic most explicitly without also considering what came before and comes after, and how other discussions impinge on matters. Spencer is thinking specifically about the place of analogy in Barth’s thought and how some folks focus on Barth’s treatment of this subject in the 1920s without considering Barth's reconfiguration of this material in later work. When one reads Barth aright on this question, Spencer claims, on sees that “the dialectical feature in Barth’s theology is precisely the testing of all analogical predication by the christological criteria as the single root of God’s self-revelation” (p. 181).


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Friday, October 21, 2016

The Love of Christ vs. the "Leap of Faith": Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

A few weeks ago, I offered an introductory post on Karl Barth's fascinating little book on Calvin's Geneva Catechism.
Tandem in freefall, over Chicagoland, by Douglas S. Smith
(Public domain. Courtesy
The genre is a little misleading, as is often the case in Barth's works of historical theology: The catechism often seems more like a convenient vehicle for Barth to articulate own critical and constructive commitments rather than simply an object of historical interest in its own right. We find this early in the text, where Barth offers a critical gloss on Questions 13-14. The topic: How do we attain certainty that God loves us?

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Unsurprisingly, Barth highlights the Christocentric focus of Calvin's answers, and spurns an abstract approach rooted in natural theology:

Calvin clearly indicates the origin of our knowledge of God's love. Note well: it is not a question of a general and abstract and philosophical knowledge, not a question of a treatise on the love of God in nature or on love in general; all this, all these abstract ideas are a piece of paper, a great noise, only ideas. The Gospel, on the contrary, tells us about realities (p. 37).

Along with this goes Barth's characteristic actualism:

The task of theological reflection and of preaching does not begin at all with abstract ideas, but with the reality of God's action. The love of God is not an abstract quality of God's; it is an act: God takes to heart our misery (ibid.)

Still, Barth notes, human reason and philosophy naturally resist this direct confrontation with divine love in Christ. Perhaps God's love can be conceived as a general phenomenon, or as an ideal that Jesus instantiates paradigmatically? Barth insists, rather:

For Calvin, on the contrary, Jesus Christ holds a central position. There is not an "essence" of God's love that one could know as such, and then a "manifestation" of such a love whose eminent representative is Jesus Christ. No distinction is made between the principle and the person, between the message and the messenger. Jesus Christ is what he brings forth. (p. 38, italics in original).

Finally, Barth never misses a chance to slam an existentialist emphasis on trust in God as a experiential leap of faith; nor is he warm to the notion of the cool-headed and rational Pascalian wager. He adds these additional remarks on the the theme of "the authority of the Word":

To "trust" in God is not taking a chance, leaping into the darkness, or gambling and betting. For the Word of God is the very revelation of God, and the revelation of God is the demonstration of God. On the basis of that demonstration we have this "trust" -- a "trust" that is not out of whimsey but an act of true wisdom (p. 39).


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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger - New DET Contributing Author

“I hold to theology because only theology embraces the true,
tenable, and flawed as reality holds them.” – Marilynne Robinson

Hi! My name is Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger and I’m thrilled to be a new contributing author here at DET. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, the state with the nicest people and most breathtaking sunsets. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, and I'm grateful for the ways in which that tradition taught me to love Scripture, modeled how to seek God in prayer, and encouraged me to take my profession of faith in Christ seriously.

I attended Wheaton College in IL where I intended to major in music performance, though I quickly discovered that the kinds of questions I was asking weren’t being answered in orchestra rehearsal. So I found my way to the Biblical and Theological Studies department, where I was challenged to carefully and charitably assess my long-held beliefs and was encouraged to embrace my academic passion - studying theology opened up a new language for me to interact with faith and practice. Feeling like I was just starting to scratch the surface of some fascinating conversations I was having in the classroom, I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary to continue my education in the MDiv program. One of the best parts about seminary was getting to do it with my husband, Max, who is an excellent theologian and scholar. My greatest joy is doing life with him.

At PTS I focused mainly on historical and systematic theology, initially avoiding Karl Barth but inevitably coming to love him. I avoided Barth because I thought he was the theologian who all the white bearded guys studied (no harm intended here!), but quickly discovered a theological voice that spoke with such passion and brilliance that I had to listen. I love Barth’s complexity, conviction, and creativity, and hope to make his work an integral part of my own in the future.

I also moderated a student group - Food Justice Fellows - which works to raise awareness of the connections between hunger and systemic racism within American urban environments. It was around the table and because of the patience of friends that I was gently brought around to the realities of racism within the United States, and the strong Biblical witness of justice that calls us to act against oppressive systems. I got woke. Now I cannot do theology without attending to justice, to the life of God who ultimately will lift up the oppressed and will bring low the privileged. Now I cannot do theology without literature, art, and poetry, because they often tell the story of justice in ways that theology alone cannot. To this end, I find Mary, the mother of God, to be a particularly helpful starting point for theology, both in her artistic expression and her prophetic witness.

All that to say, my interests are pretty broad, and I’m excited to explore some of them here with y’all at DET (like that quote by Robinson up there!). I’m currently working as a Campus Minister at Benedictine University and, God willing, will be applying to PhD programs in the next year or so. Though I have deep Baptist roots, I now worship within the Anglican Communion. Outside of the workplace and the classroom, you’ll usually find me spending time with Max and our adorable Bernese mountain dog, Calvin, aptly named after the Reformation theologian. I say aptly named because once Calvin, the dog, barked so loudly that our icon of Jesus was knocked off the shelf. He is a true Calvinist, indeed. We love being outside, reading, and doing most anything and everything together.

Also, beyond writing for DET, I am a guest contributor over at the Women in Theology blog. You can read my first post, which was all about Barth and his alleged affair (yep, I went there). Be on the lookout for my second post, which will be published soon!

[Ed. note: And, of course, stay tuned for more of Kathryn here at DET! ;-) ]

Follow @KBHeidelberger

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Gollwitzer Gold (part 2): More gleanings from Twitter

Some of you, gentle readers, may remember when I previously posted a collection of Gollwitzer quotes that I had shared on Twitter. Well, Gollwitzer died today 23 years ago, in 1993. And so I have gathered another assortment of #Golli tweets for you all as a way to commemorate his passing into the ecclesia triumphans.

So, I give you the following without further ado and in honor of Gollwitzer's life and thought.

By Stiftung Haus der Geschichte (2001_03_0275.4240) [CC BY-SA 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

And how's this for a little gem with which to conclude?

Now, I realize that I'm one of the few people who read Gollwitzer. Perhaps you can tell that I'm trying to change that. So if you have also discovered the power and vitality of Gollwitzer's life and theology, and the deep relevance of his work for our own time, I invite you to write a note in the comments section. That would, indeed, be a truly fitting monument to Golli. Besides, I'd love to hear from you and know that there are others out there!


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Friday, October 14, 2016

Back to Square One: Weiss on Jesus' Apocalyptic Kingdom Message

Reading David Congdon's seminal work has brought home for me how crucial for Rudolf Bultmann was the turn-of-the-century recovery, within New Testament studies, of apocalyptic eschatology, especially as this development helped bring to a close the first, liberal quest for the historical Jesus. (For a primer on this topic, I recommend Congdon's Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology, Cascade, 2015, chap. 1).

Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The scholarship of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, especially, established a revolutionary -- and especially, in those days, jarring -- portrait of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who foretold a cosmic, cataclysmic and immanent judgement of the present evil age that would usher in the Kingdom of God. Previous portraits of Jesus, marked by post-Kantian ethical idealism, had interpreted the coming of the Kingdom of God as an internal affair -- or maybe more precisely, a reality that begins interiorly and spreads outward into the social world. That is to say, the kindgom in such view serves as a catalyst of a subjective spiritual transformation that would foster an emerging ethical commonwealth centered upon love of God and neighbor. In a popularizing vein, Adolf von Harnack portrayed the teaching of Jesus as a dual affirmation of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all people.

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).

Weiss and Schweitzer changed all that, and their work sparked a series of crises in biblical studies and theology that marked the beginning of 20th century theology. The effects of this revolution continue to this day, though I would argue the older liberal-historical type of reading continues to thrive in certain circles as well, for example among some proposals authored or inspired by the work of the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s and 90s.

As with the earlier scholars, so too with me: My first encounter with the apocalyptic Jesus instigated my own crisis of sorts, goading me to pursue graduate studies in theology. I will always partially praise (or perhaps blame) a political philosophy professor for his offhand remarks about Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus and about the problem of "myth" in the Gospels for my decision to enter seminary rather than soldiering on in my little part-time job as a burglary reporter at The Birmingham News (that's Alabama, folks, not the UK). Before long, I had worked through Schweitzer's Quest and then his other major Jesus book, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, and before long I was reading one of his books on Paul. Then I was reading Tillich and Teilhard, and on it went.

Bultmann himself found Schweitzer's conclusions to be too extreme and considered Weiss to be the more seminal figure in the field. Weiss (1863–1914) taught biblical criticism at three major German universities -- Göttingen, Marburg, and Heidelberg -- and died as the shock waves from his work were still cresting across the Protestant academy. Bultmann wrote this about Weiss' impact:

When I began to study theology, theologians as well as laymen were excited and frightened by the theories of Johannes Weiss. I remember that Julius Kaftan, my teacher in dogmatics in Berlin, said: "If Johannes Weiss is right and the conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one, then it is impossibleto make use of this conception in dogmatics." (Jesus Christ and Mythology, Scribners: 1958, p. 13).

The situation changed dramatically in the decades that followed:

Today (in 1958) nobody doubts that Jesus' conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one -- at least in European theology and, as far as I can see, also among American New Testament scholars. Indeed, it has become more and more clear that the eschatological expectation and hope is the core of the New Tesament preaching throughout (ibid.).

Though I've read a decent amount of Schweitzer's work in Christian origins, I had never read the original text that proved so important in Bultmann's development -- namely, Johannes Weiss' groundbreaking tract, Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. As it happened, I grabbed this book at a church tag sale a while ago, so I thought I'd write a post or two carefully working through the text. The editors of my edition indicate Weiss's work, despite its historical importance, was relatively neglected by the early 1970s. I don't know whether that is still the case, though I do know that the winds of historical Jesus scholarship have shifted in recent decades among a number of the Third Questers, and also that critical research on apocalyptic eschatology has achieved crucial advances. Still, I like old books, and often find they understand newer ones better. So please join me -- ad fontes! -- as I hope to explore in future posts one of the classic texts that spurred a theological revolution more than a century ago.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Receiving God's Shalom as a Gift: A Guest Sermon about Peace and Justice by Josiah Daniels

Foolishly taking matters of peace and justice into our own hands leads to death. We can only receive the justice and peace of God as a gift. All that’s left is to live a life of thanksgiving, oriented towards the kingdom.

We as humans are more interested in taking than receiving. Because of this, we are not accustomed to living a life of gratitude. To view justice and peace as a gift, versus something to be established via human ingenuity, is a radical reorientation. But that is just what the Word of God means to do: reorient us. God’s Word provides a counter-text for the community of faith. This counter-text puts a major emphasis on God’s shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for the socially and individually restorative peace and justice of God. Our texts today detail how God expects the world to work. But, as is to be expected, humans tend to have “better,” more “efficient” ways to establish peace and justice.

Both the fascists and the neoliberals alike are convinced they are the final authorities on what constitutes as “justice” and “peace.” One group speaks of “law and order” while the other group speaks of “mandatory minimum sentencing.”

By Philip De Vere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Those who dare to allow the Word to reorient their lives are stumbling blocks to some and mere fools to others. We have learned to say no to the negative definitions of peace and justice which have been defined as the absence of tension. God’s shalom can only be received in struggling with those on the margins who have been left out or cut out due to humans taking matters of peace and justice into their own hands.

In Isaiah chapter 1, the prophet has rather adversarial language for those who have convinced themselves they’ve got justice and peace figured out and all that remains is making a few sacrifices, having some parties and singing a few worship choruses. Isaiah perceives the foolishness of the people and, as Isaiah tends to do, he lets them have it starting in v. 10:

10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,[a]
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

To say Isaiah is harsh here is putting it mildly. Isaiah uses poetry to break through the ideological safeguards his listeners have created. Isaiah’s listeners are likely the “urban elite” who rarely think about justice and peace for those on the margins because they have found themselves in positions of prestige and power. These people are not compelled to think about the orphan, the widow or the oppressed because they are established citizens with rights, privileges, food, housing etcetera. Maybe they thought to themselves, “This is all the justice and peace that’s needed!” It seems as though it never occurred to them the justice and peace they established for themselves excludes and oppresses the vulnerable of society.

So YHWH, through Isaiah, labels their rituals of thanksgiving as “abominations.” These acts are not done as a response to God’s gift of justice and peace; these “sacrificial acts” are half-assed attempts at diverting God’s attention away from the poor and oppressed. I can hear these disobedient people saying, “We’ve perfected the whole justice and peace thing. Look at what we’ve accomplished! Now, pay attention to our personal piety, our immaculate festivals, our abundance of material goods that we are willing to let you in on, God!” But God’s not buying it. In fact, Isaiah says God “hates it.” God hates it because the people have convinced themselves they have it all figured out and all that’s left is to congratulate themselves by giving thanks while the orphan and widow suffer evil under their heel. The dire tone of this passage is crystal clear as God does the unthinkable: compares the people of Judah and the city Jerusalem to the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Sodom is especially infamous for its alleged sexual immorality. I’m confident everyone here has heard a sermon where the preacher has explained that the reason Sodom was judged by God was due to their “homosexual perversity.” Well, that’s just not what the text tells us. The prophet Ezekiel tells us why Sodom was judged, chapter 16 verse 49:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom, “As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Two important things to notice: ONE) Sodom’s judgment has nothing to do with people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans or Queer and everything to do with exploitation of the poor. The sooner we Christians get that through our thick skulls the better. TWO) Both Ezekiel and Isaiah poetically connect the accumulation, arrogance and abusive attitude of the powerful with the violent exploitation of the poor.

Today, in our own city, the powerful continue to exploit the poor but try to tell us it is for the sake of “peace and justice.” The city of Chicago continues to assure us the reason so much of the city’s budget goes to the police department is to maintain “peace and justice.” God forbid that that money be put towards preventative programs, mental health facilities or restorative justice initiatives! They tell us the blacksite known as Homan Square is not a torture dungeon, but simply a storage facility for police cars, equipment, weapons. There have been activists across the street from Homan Square occupying a space known as Freedom Square for 17 days straight. Well for what reason? Because they wish to expose how the police stockpile and exploit under the guise of “peace and justice.” The psalmist, like the activists at Freedom Square, exposes the oppressor’s propensity to accumulate and abuse all for the sake of “security.” Psalm 33 verses 16 and 17:

16 A king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
and by its great might it cannot save.

This passage should scandalize us when we hear it. It should scandalize us just like it would have scandalized the original hearers. Think about it… the king or, for us, all state authority, is not the final arbiter of peace and justice. The warrior or, for us, the police officer, is not the one who will save us as a result of better, stronger weapons. The war horse or, for us, the military-grade tank, will not give us the hope of shalom, but only more violence and carnage. Here the psalmist exposes just how disastrous it can be when humans foolishly convince themselves that through their own might, justice and peace can be attained!

The people this sort of “might-makes-right” attitude impacts the most are the vulnerable or, as the psalmist puts it, “the poor and needy.” Psalm 37 verses 14 and 15:

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

Violence consistently and disproportionately plagues the vulnerable. But there is a cycle to the specific sort of violence I am talking about--it is a vicious cycle. Those on the top exploit those on the bottom, which often leads to those on the bottom responding with force. The biblical witness understands this vicious cycle and therefore chides the powerful for abusing the powerless. Dissimilar to our society today, you will not catch the Bible proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter activists are responsible for being nonviolent if they expect the same from police.” Against this popular opinion, the bible demonstrates an awareness to the ways in which the vicious cycle of violence finds its genesis in the powerful exploiting the powerless, moves to the powerless avenging injustices, resulting in the cycle beginning all over again.

I want to make two very crucial points here: Firstly, while I consider myself to be a proponent of militant nonviolence, to me, it seems completely bass ackwards to criticize oppressed people for violently responding to those who abuse their positions of authority. Secondly, while I wholeheartedly believe that the cycle of violence is only perpetuated by retaliation, it does not mean that the oppressor and the oppressed are both equally victims. A somewhat controversial example is this: For the 5 police officers murdered in Dallas--the sacredness, the quality of their lives are just as important as the lives of Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. But the quantity of systemic injustices perpetrated against people of color by the police is one major point of departure that needs to be recognized if the cycle of violence is to ever be broken. The person who helped me understand this truth was Martin Luther King Jr. As he reflected on the emergence of “black rage” in 1967, and an increasing amount of young people who were becoming disenchanted with nonviolence, King was tempted to paternalistically chastise youth who had given up on radical pacifism. But as he thought more about the systemic conditions that created ghettos, economic inequality and police brutality, he was forced to conclude that he could not speak out against the violent retaliation of the oppressed without speaking clearly against the violence of the powerful. For the psalmist, this means critiquing the “king” and the “warrior.” For Dr. King, and for us, this means critiquing the politicians and the police.

At this point, you might be thinking, “It sounds like we just need to try harder to make sure the vulnerable experience God’s justice and peace.” If you are understandably thinking that, listen closely to our gospel reading for today found in Luke 12, starting in verse 32:

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Stop. Did you hear that? The kingdom of God, where justice and peace are perfectly embodied, is not something we can make or take with our own hands, it is something our extravagant, faithful, loving, merciful, righteous God gives to us as a gift.

Francisco de Zurbarán [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
This gift of the kingdom is perfectly embodied in the gift of Jesus Christ. The peace and justice of God’s rule is evident in the words and deeds of Jesus. In his book, God of the Oppressed, James Cone observes that Christ articulates a preferential option for the oppressed when he says things like, “Blessed are the poor,” “the last will be first,” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Here, in Christ, is God’s gift of peace and justice. Here, in Christ, is God’s gift of the kingdom.

This free gift given to us by our God should illicit a life oriented towards thanksgiving. The thanksgiving God desires is peace and justice. Thankfully, we do not have to scramble around worrying about how to create this peace and justice; all we need to do is look at the kingdom-oriented life of Christ to get an image of what justice and peace are actually supposed to look like.

Back in Luke 12, Jesus shows us what a kingdom-oriented life of gratitude, justice and peace looks like, verse 33:

33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Those who live a life of thanksgiving cannot help but be generous to the poor and needy. These folks cannot control their desire to see the vulnerable lifted up because they have the gift of the kingdom, that is, Christ Jesus, living inside of them.

As is our custom here at Church on the Block, the first Sunday of every month is when we gather together to partake in the Eucharist. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” We come to this table with thanksgiving because we know Christ’s presence is mediated through this meal. And where the gift of Christ’s presence resides, God’s peace and justice abound. By eating this bread and drinking this “wine”, we consume peace and justice. And then we go out from this place, with peace and justice in our bones, to live a life oriented towards thanksgiving.

Our posture when approaching this table is key. By posture, I do not mean credentials--this table is open to everyone. The way we should approach this table is with a posture of thanksgiving, hands out, ready to receive the good gifts God wishes to give us.

As we prepare to enter into this time of thanksgiving, I would like to invite everyone in the room to come forward and be filled. With hands and hearts prepared to receive the gift that is Christ’s body. As you receive these gifts, don’t thank me, thank Christ. Once you receive the bread and the juice, return to your seat and when I ask, please stand and proclaim the Mystery of Faith. We will all say together, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Then, together as a body, we will eat the bread and drink the cup. Let us pray.

Lord, we thank you for the gift of your son, who perfectly embodied a kingdom-oriented life. As we partake in this meal, we pray that your peace and justice would live in us. We renounce our sinful desires to take matters of peace and justice into our own hands. We pray for you to remind us that peace and justice can only come from you. Once reminded Lord, we pray that we would live lives of thanksgiving. Remembering the poor and needy, just as Christ demonstrated for us. Lord, we remember you. Please, remember us.

[Ed. note: Josiah R. Daniels is an MDiv student at Northern Theological Seminary. He lives on the Westside of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood. His primary interests are contextual theologies, political theologies, rhetorical criticism and the Hebrew Bible. You can follow him on twitter @josiah_Rdaniels. This sermon was preached on August 7th, 2016 at Church on the Block in Chicago, Illinois.]


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