Monday, July 11, 2016

"Christians are people who say, 'Black lives matter'": A sermon on Jonah 1

[Ed. note: We interrupt our regularly scheduled hiatus to bring you this timely sermon from DET contributor Hank Coates.]

Dearly beloved,

I thought long and hard about what I was going to preach on this morning. I’ve been planning this sermon series on Jonah, but in light of events of last week, 300 killed in a bombing in Iraq, two black men seemingly executed for no good reason other than being black in the wrong place at the wrong time, revenge violence of the worst kind in Dallas which left five dutiful public servants, officers of the law, killed while defending people who were exercising their constitutional right to protest, well, I had to think long and hard about what text to craft my sermon around. And that’s just last week, we are less than one month out from the largest mass shooting in modern American history at a night club in Orlando, Florida. Throw in the most bizarre, toxic, and downright frightening election season in my lifetime at least, and you know, it can honestly feel at times that things are coming apart. That things are bad, and that’s scary and we don’t know what’s going on. Now things aren’t as bad as they were in 1968, with massive riots, with MLK and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated, 300 a day getting killed in Vietnam. But I wasn’t born in 68! And so it feels like, to some, that we are on the brink of something. It doesn’t feel like 1968, but for some of us, we wondering if we’re in 1967. In the midst of all this, one thing becomes clear to me.

By Tony Webster (Black Lives Matter Minneapolis) [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
This long, hot summer, when tensions seem at a long time high, we need Jesus. We need him, now, because things are scary out there and it is ok to admit that. America doesn’t need to be made great again, American Christians need to repent of our sins, I need to repent of my sins, which include the sin of staying silent when the innocent are killed, repent of the sin of holding to the sidelines in the face of great injustices being perpetuated against black people every day, repent of the sin of desiring vengeance and justifying the murder of cops doing their job because a couple of bad cops literally get away with murder, and instead, stand in awe of our great, loving God, and in dong so learn again what it means to be Christians. Because at the start of the day and at the end of the day, what is a Christian?

Christians are sinners saved by the power of God in Jesus, who died so that we might live. Christians are people who love neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Christians are people who work for the reconciliation of all peoples. Christians are people who can say black lives matter because all lives matter and that’s why black lives matter. Christians say black lives matter. Full stop. Christians are people who mourn with the broken hearted, be it with the families of the police officers ambushed a couple of nights ago in Dallas, or with the family of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and say to all, “this is not right. This is not how the world is meant to be.” Christians are people who answer the call of Christ to be peacemakers, no matter what the cost or inconvenience. This is what Christians do: they answer the call of the God who loves us, who tells us to arise, go, do something, be my people, obey my command to love, be my witnesses in a broken world. Go, answer the call, tell the world that I am with the world because I love the world! This is hard. And it seems impossible. And so, for all of us, we refuse to answer this call, because it is simply too hard, too scary. God’s call for us is to speak. The human inclination is to remain silent.

But our scripture today, Jonah 1, is about a man who didn’t answer the call of God and instead ran away! Now look, I’m not your pastor. I am privileged to stand in front of you all this summer, it is a real gift to be with you. But I don’t know you as well as Pastor Karen does. You don’t know me. So I have to discern, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what the Word of the Lord to you, to all of us particularly, today, is. And this is hard. This is scary, and maybe I wanted to run away! But, Jonah, all four chapters, seems strangely appropriate for this moment.

We are Jonah. Jonah is the typical human, fallen, scared, confused, seeming out of his league in the midst of crazy circustances. We are Jonah, we can show him a little grace, can’t we? So let’s see what we can learn, if anything, from Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet, someone called by God to get up, go tell others about what God has done, is doing, and will do. And Jonah was called by God, was given a job to do by God, but Jonah didn’t want to do it. He was supposed to go into the belly of the beast, into the city of Nineveh, and preach judgment upon them. Now we can get why Jonah didn’t want to do this, yea? Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians would destroy Israel someday. He was walking into enemy territory to, cry out against that great city, for the Lord had seen its wicked ways. The people in Nineveh? They didn’t know the Lord. Jonah’s job was to tell them about the Lord. But Jonah got a call from God and went the exact opposite way. We are supposed to think that he is driven by the same fear and unbelief that would drive any of us: faced with the prospect of calling out to the great city of Nineveh in the name of the Lord God of Israel, he does not believe the word of the Lord and does not trust that the Lord can deliver him from Nineveh’s evil. So he runs in the other direction. Let me read the beginning of the passage:

By Pax Ahimsa Gethen [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

Now I can understand his disobedience, can you? He’s afraid. It could be like the fear of a black man or woman being pulled over by a cop late in the night. Paralyzing fear. Jonah’s fear, it’s real. It’s human. And we need to acknowledge Jonah’s fear, like we also need to acknowledge the fear of our black brothers and sisters in 21st century America. But, but! I said this passage was a comedy, a farce. It is. But even in comedy, serious issues, of divine significance, can be present and acknowledged. Jonah is a prophet, he is one who speaks the words of God, he is expected to answer the call of God to go preach, but, this is a prophet who runs away. And that’s kind of funny.

So Jonah is afraid. And so he goes into the direct opposite direction of Nineveh. He buys a ticket to Tarshish, which is on the exact otherside of the world from Nineveh. God says go one way, Jonah goes another. Tarshish was a rich port city somewhere in modern Spain. Tarshish didn’t promise death, Tarshish promised a life of luxury. Now Jonah bought a ticket to get on a ship—he spent money thinking that money would buy him an escape from God’s plan, as if money can fix all of his problems. Hmm.
But when God calls you, God doesn’t let you go. Psalm 139 reads,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?

So he let Jonah run away, but there are consequences for our actions. A great storm came and thrashed the boat. And there is meaning in this storm. Storms always come into our lives, and we’re not the only ones who get wet. That’s what happened here, the sailors on board this ship, they are terrified for their lives because of the storm that Jonah brought. Actions have consequences, and those consequences can impact a whole mess of people. Sometimes we bring other people in advertently into our storms. And these sailors, they cry, they cry out to their gods but nothing seems to work. What is Jonah doing? Well he’s sleeping, unaware of the mess he’s made for others because of his disobedience. God’s prophet, the one God called, is asleep.

Now these men didn’t know the Lord. Like Nineveh, they were lost. But the captain of the ship in the storm, he seems to have some sense. He wants all on board his ship to pray for safety, including this man who is asleep in the ship’s hold. “Get up!” he says, “Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” Us. We, Note he says us and we. This captain, who doesn’t know the Lord, is concerned for everyone. He’s not selfish like Jonah, who disobeys the Lord and doesn’t care who such disobedience impacts. No, this captain is a good captain, unlike Jonah, the prophet, who runs away.

These sailors, who don’t know God, they just want to live and they are sure that something, someone can save them, but they don’t know what that something is. The Lord is the only one who can help, but they don’t know the name of the Lord, because Jonah has been silent, Jonah has been asleep, because Jonah ran away. Freshly awakened Jonah emerges on the deck, and they cast lots, and yes, Jonah is outed—he is the one to blame for the storm. And what happens next is profound—these men, who did not know the name of the Lord, come to saving knowledge of the Lord because of Jonah, the prophet of the Lord who ran away!

“Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

They don’t want to cast Jonah into the sea, to certain death, because despite them not knowing the name of the Lord, they are good men. They want to save Jonah, despite Jonah being the cause of all their problems. But Jonah, the Prophet who ran away, is the Lord’s. And the Lord won’t let Jonah go. And the Lord gets what the Lord wants. And what the Lord wants is that all people come to know his saving love that stands on the side of the oppressed, makes the crooked straight, and releases the captives from their chains.

Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

Here’s the thing the text is saying: They know the Lord now; they are not only safe under his protection but they know the Lord by name, all because prophet Jonah ran away. Because the Lord will work through all people, and the Lord never gives up on us, even when we run away.

We are all going to run away. That’s what we do. We are human, and we instinctively run away from the call of God. That’s why we live in a broken world. We have a skin problem, yea, but we also have a sin problem, and that’s why obeying God can be so difficult at times. And it is because of Sin that we run away.

And so I say, Thank God for Jesus.

In our New Testament passage Jesus identified himself, directly, with the Prophet Jonah, the chosen one who ran away. Jesus Christ, is the chosen one from God who never for a moment turns and runs away goes where God sends him: And God sends him to be among us to save us. Jesus, the chosen one, our God, redeems all those who flee from the call of God to love our neighbors as self. Jonah does nearly everything wrong, does not love his neighbor as himself and gets into the deepest trouble imaginable, yet all the while he remains God’s beloved and chosen one. He does everything wrong, almost, yet through him the Lord God of Israel does everything right. And Jesus identifies himself with the Prophet Jonah to send us, today, an incredible message: even though we are Jonah, even though we screw up, even though we run away, "I am the God who is with you and I am going to save you and you are going to be my people and I am going to be your God, and I will empower you to go out into the world to be with my people who are suffering, who are crying out in the face of injustice, I am going to empower you to be my hands and feet to witness to a broken world that I am the Lord, that I am the King who saves, that I am the God who saves. That I am the God who hears my people when they cry out!"

By Tony Webster (Black Lives Matter) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
So brothers and sisters, Grab onto him to learn from him. Let Christ’s light shine on through you. We can’t do this on our own. We need Jesus to get through this moment. And the good news is, that even when things seem dire, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. So let’s not stop at words: with Christ as our guide let us work, let vote, let us struggle, let us join alongside our black brothers and sisters as we strive after a fair, equitable, just, and safe society for all of God’s people.

And I close with scripture, just so you don't think that it is I who has the last word: Proverbs 31:8-9 commands,

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.[a]
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

And Luke 4:18-19 reminds us who it is who we follow:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

[Note from the author: I am preacher at a church where I am not the pastor. I am filling a pulpit this summer of a tiny church, full of God's good people, in rural rural rural North Carolina. I'm called to preach in season and out of season, but I would be lying to you if I didn't say I was nervous about preaching today to a congregation I don't know well. Below is the sermon I preached yesterday. I don't know if it is any good, and I know it doesn't do full justice to our moment. But preachers are called to preach, in season and out. So I preached.]


Saturday, July 09, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Amazingly, it actually has only been a fortnight since the last link post. But I wanted to get this post out to you, gentle readers, in part so I could share a piece of news: DET is shuttering the windows, locking the door, and turning off the lights for a lengthy summer hiatus. This is the last post that we will bring to you until August 16th (at least that’s the current plan).

So sit back and relax on whatever beach, sky-scraper rooftop, tube in a river, or wherever you like to kick it in the summer, and enjoy some good theology reading. In addition to the links below, there’s always the rather robust (that’s an understatement at this point…) DET archives – things like the Karl Barth Blog conferences, our collection of book reviews, the various serials, and should all that fail, the month-by-month archive in the right sidebar.

And while you’re reading through the archives, look at this post about how to cite blogs properly…you know…in case you find something you want to cite: How do I cite a website or blog?

Also, be sure to subscribe to DET by e-mail using the submission box at the top of the right sidebar to ensure that you’re the first to hear about it when DET resumes production. Until then, happy reading!

DET posts:

Good reads from elsewhere:


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Thursday, July 07, 2016

Is the Church Apostolic? David Congdon Interviews John Flett

[Ed. note: John Flett is a long-time friend of the blog (see these posts on his earlier book: one, two, three, four, five), and David Congdon needs no introduction to DET readers. Flett very recently published a second monograph: Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (use code 404-18 at check-out for a 40% discount - limited time only). How could I say “No” when David came to me with the idea to post an interview with Flett on the subject of apostolicity?]

1. For most people the language of apostolicity brings to mind the end of the Nicene Creed or the idea of apostolic succession. What do you mean by the word and why is it such an important issue today?

To be sure, some link the term apostolicity to apostolic succession and bishops, perhaps even increasingly so. It is, however, by no means the only approach. Apostolicity within the Reformed tradition looks first at the Bible as the basis of the church’s historical continuity. Still other groups, notably non-western communions, will interpret apostolicity in terms of missionary movement. The key point for all three, I suggest, concerns the continuity of the Christian faith across time and cultures, and the manner of its being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.

As to why it is important today, one finds an increasing emphasis on the ‘catholic’ nature of the church. This appears linked to a perceived loss of Christian ‘identity’ within the West and a certain panicked need to reforge this identity by reference to a tradition. This approach might be developed in stronger or weaker terms, but I would see the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, Robert Jenson, James K. A. Smith, John Milbank, and William Cavanaugh advancing this general line.

The problem for me is the way ‘catholic’ is used in this debate (note that this refers not to the Catholic/Protestant schism). It promotes a strong sense of how Christian identity develops, how this shapes the form of Christian witness, and the central importance of structure within this schema. Catholic, in other words, presumes an ‘apostolic’ order. When attention turns to the underlying concept of apostolicity, a number of questions surface regarding the cultural location of the church, the missionary method of transplanting this culture, and the relativizing of any communion which is not of this particular culture. Apostolicity is important because it is the fundamental question of Christian identity and the continuity of the faith across times and cultures. But, this ‘catholic’ definition fails to deal responsibly with world Christianity and succeeds in prompting a mission method commonly called colonialization.

2. You mentioned the Catholic/Protestant schism. This idea features prominently in your book. How has it led us astray in our understanding of world Christianity?

We have no authoritative theological definition of diversity. Instead we have a strange tension between the concepts of division and diversity. Diversity is permitted, necessary even, but always set in relation to this caution against division. But what is division? Or, better, what is the concept of unity that leads to our understanding of division? In ecumenical documentation, unity is often developed with reference to structure, meaning that the legitimacy of diversity is measured by its relationship to established patterns of governance. Perhaps that might be acceptable, but the argument continues that the governing structure itself safeguards and encourages a culture within which the Christian is nurtured. All those cultural elements are themselves related to the structure, so, before you know it, the acknowledged need for diversity is reduced to a matter of façade.

In light of this, the Catholic/Protestant schism is a problem because it establishes the point of division though which all diversity is interpreted. Diversity is not a good basic to apostolicity itself. Instead, the diversity of appropriation and expression within world Christianity, including structural diversity, is read as an extended historical consequence of the Reformation era division (the tacit argument being that if the Reformation had not occurred, we would not see such structural diversity today). Moreover, such diversity is to be regulated by the solutions which address the primary Protestant/Catholic schism. One might, however, redefine schism. The key problem is not so much the institutional/structural problem, but the petrification of the gospel. In schism, theological energy focuses on the development of a religious culture concerned with questions that belong to a certain time and place. We end up reading the massive growth of world Christianity though this small lens of (Western) division, and that is precisely the problem that schism encourages. But what if world Christianity, in all its richness, is itself a proper consequence of apostolicity? What if division is the attempt by one expression of the gospel to mandate the form proper for all? One might read much of the New Testament in light of this definition of division.

3. You provide a thorough analysis of key ecumenical documents. What does the history of the ecumenical movement tell us about current global views of the church?

I do not think that it does view the global church in all its diversity. I think that it attempts to develop some framework derived from the tradition and make that universal. When it comes to the origins of the structures under question, earlier ecumenical documents which acknowledged their particular cultural locations have given way to sterilized accounts. There are some interesting discussions which lament the western location of the discussion, but none of these succeed in informing the ‘doctrinal’ discussion. With ecclesiology, as the lived experience of the gospel, a fundamentalism reigns which does not apply to Christology and the sacraments. The 2013 document from the WCC, “The Church: Towards a Common Vision,” is most disappointing in this regard, but really follows the ecumenical logic as it developed through the late 20th century.

4. Jaroslav Pelikan argued that ecclesiology was the doctrine of the 20th century, the way christology was in the fourth and fifth centuries and soteriology in the sixteenth. Do you agree with this and why?

Ecclesiology is, in my opinion, a derivative doctrine – having meaning only in relation to christology and pneumatology. By extension, when we elevate ecclesiology (as we certainly seem to be doing) we elevate a range of necessary and proper particularities into a position of central importance. The resulting debate between communions becomes a contest of these particularities, which themselves become seen as essential to growth in the faith.

None of this is to deny the importance of structures. Indeed, world Christianity and the discussion surrounding contextualization demonstrates the very centrality of structure and the problems which result from the importation of foreign structures. The very binary of established structure versus structural freedom is, for me, a central problem at the heart of the debate. One lesson from world Christianity concerns the conversion of structures by referring them to Jesus Christ, allowing for both continuity and discontinuity.

To put the same point another way, the colonial period illustrates how western Christian forms are neither the sole nor final forms of Christian identity and practice. Less clear is what this actually means in terms of ecclesiology. The debate is often a zero sum game, where the cross-cultural movement of the gospel consists of ‘giving things up’, we lose little bits of the faith when other peoples appropriate the faith. An alternate approach acknowledges that a diversity of form (grounded in the deterritorialisation of the faith) includes a diversity of history. The redemption of histories itself belongs to the story of conversion and maturity in the faith. This sets the discussion on a very different footing.

All of this should direct us to christology and to the grounding of communities. This is the question of apostolicity and finds significant correspondence to key debates that one sees in the New Testament.

5. One of your key claims is that apostolicity has been wedded to the idea of culture. How did this happen and what are the implications?

I suspect that this has always been part of the discussion, but it has assumed greater significance within more recent ecumenical documentation as a way of dealing with the problem of bishops. The cause of visible unity was not being forwarded by an either/or argument concerning the episcopate. BEM constituted a significant advance in the debate by shifting attention from apostolic succession to the ‘apostolic tradition’. With this, the question became one of ‘practices’ and the formation of a community in which each member is called to live according to his or her gifts. One such gift is leadership, and this must both derive from and promote the gospel. One arrives back at the ‘episkope’ issue, but now set in relation to the church as a community, and in service to this community’s witness. It is a clever move which sets a good deal of doctrine and tradition in relation to more contemporary anthropological accounts of identity formation and against fears concerning the loss of this identity through the secularization and pluralization of western societies along with the challenges of globalization. It is all understandable. The singular problem lies in the form of missionary method it promotes – the replication of the culture basic to witness and conversion as enculturation into this culture. These are big claims, of course, so I refer you to the documentary evidence in the book!

6. You mentioned above that discussions of catholicity end up promoting colonialization, and here again you speak about the replication of culture. Could you unpack this idea a bit more? Are you suggesting that post-BEM the implicit missionary method of the ecumenical movement has been a kind of cultural imperialism?

Yes, absolutely. There are two logical elements to the problem. The first element is the establishment of the church as a culture. The ecumenical benefit of this appears to be threefold: first, it provides a concept for how the church both remains the same and changes through time; second, it advances a definition of mission focused on the cultivation of the faith and so the internal life of the community; third, and related, it permits an account of the necessary forms of leadership within this community and in promotion of this mission. The second element is the movement of this culture across cultural boundaries. Though the primary definition of mission is internal to the life of this community, a secondary and external mission is needed to transplant this culture. Because the culture, with all its artifacts, symbols, orders, practices and institutions, is necessary to the building up of the primary internal witness, this whole culture needs to be replicated in another place. Mission becomes the transplantation of a culture and conversion the inculturation into this culture, which strikes me as a workable definition of colonization.

The next question, of course, is why is this link not made within ecumenical documentation itself. This occurs, first, because of the church is described in theological terms. That is, especially due to the historical course of these structures, a certain cultural dislocation is assumed. These structures, so the argument goes, do not reflect one single culture. The problem is that when non-western Christians are queried about their experience of colonialism and the Christian faith, concern is often expressed about the importation of western ecclesial structures (including schism!). These dogmatic structures do reflect a clear cultural form simply because they have developed in response to a certain context (a religious monoculture) and certain questions (how we define salvation, for example).

The link is not made, second, because no overt attention is given to missionary movement. This is a much wider problem even within theological faculties (I can count on my fingers how many western faculties have missiologists). The church fails to look beyond itself and the form of its own replicating movement. Yet, it is precisely mission which holds a mirror up to the local church to show it the nature of its own domestication. Nor is an ever retreating internal focus, which is general tendency today, a solution, because this just exacerbates the problem of a colonial missionary method.

7. One of your chapters explores the work of Dutch theologians on this issue, in particular J. C. Hoekendijk and A. A. van Ruler. Many English speakers will not know these names. Who are they and why are they significant?

In the period before and after WWII, there was a development within Dutch Reformed circles called the “Dutch theology of the Apostolate”. This was first identified with Hendrik Kraemer, and later with J. C. Hoekendijk and A. A. van Ruler. This movement promoted apostolic (missionary) movement as defining the church. Kraemer emphasized the establishment of Christian communities during the post-christendom period (which Kraemer saw as the end of the pagan confusion of religion and state). Hoekendijk’s interest concerned more the relationship of mission to church. Van Ruler was more concerned with the processes of Christianization as themselves belonging to the missionary question. The discussion is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least being the necessary definitions of the church which result. Hoekendijk was heavily influential in the ecumenical movement with many of his ideas influencing the theoretical developments in mission during the 1950s-1970s. I suspect however that he makes a greater contribution than many appreciate simply because he both asks key theological questions and martials some impressive theological resources in answering them. Plus, significant portions of this debate are not translated into English (remaining in German and Dutch).

8. As the subtitle of your book indicates, you bring world Christianity into this conversation. For some this will seem odd, since the ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches would seem to be global in nature already. What has been missing from the conversation and how does world Christianity shape our understanding of the church's apostolicity?

The issue for me is how to understand the massive growth in the faith, not as a continual threat to a non-existent structural unity, but as a living expression of apostolicity. The ecumenical concern, from my perspective, attends more to the global cohesion of an established cultural form, than it does to the reality of world Christianity. Though theorists of world Christianity do not use the language of apostolicity, the dominating issue remains continuity, both in history and across cultures, and the variety of structural expression this requires. One needs to reiterate that the dominant assumption which stems from the Catholic/Protestant schism sets established structure against structural freedom. This approach is both unnecessary and unhelpful. Reference to world Christianity helps us think beyond this schism, pointing to the significance of history, the reality of cultural imposition precisely in the form of ecclesiology, and the importance of the New Testament for understanding what is occurring today.

9. You close the book with a look at the New Testament and seek to draw on the biblical text to help us form a new understanding of apostolicity. In brief, what do we discover in the NT? How does this challenge the standard models? Why haven't we had a clearer picture of apostolicity in the past?

The New Testament is certainly the final word, but it is the previous chapter which really sets the questions that I put to the New Testament. It is again a question of opening the text from its narrow interpretation through the Protestant/Catholic schism. Once this is rejected as the norm, then dated oppositions, such as that between Paul and Luke on the question of the apostles, are obviously unnecessary and even harmful. One can start to read the biblical narrative as linking apostolicity to the formation of culturally diverse communities. Basic here is the christological point that the identity of the community lies in moving beyond itself, the opening of its history into the history of Jesus Christ. It is surprising how many of the presumed ‘necessary’ framing assumptions promoted by the Catholic/Protestant schism simply do not hold, and how many unexplored resources exist within the text for understanding apostolicity in relation to world Christianity.

10. Could you give us an example of one of the resources you find most helpful in the New Testament?

I do not know if reference to a single ‘resource’ is the best way to answer the question. We are better served by first understanding the interpretive lines that the Protestant/Catholic schism promotes. As one consequence, the text is used either to promote structural flexibility or to provide an initial pattern which becomes refined and established through history. Paul and Luke are set off against one another, with Paul advancing flexibility and Luke an established college. It is a horribly anemic and anachronistic debate, and yet one which excites apoplectic fervor.

Once we acknowledge the problematic blinders that the Protestant/Catholic schism have forced upon our reading of the text, then we can begin to look for other clues. I think that a very different definition of apostle and apostleship develops. If we understand apostolicity in terms of the appropriation of the gospel and the conversion of local cultures, then one can have multiple forms of community. The supposed contest between Luke and Paul completely falls away. A further clue is the link between apostolic ‘authority’ and the grounding of communities which coincidentally affirm cultural particularities and reject cultural pretensions. At base, however, apostolicity is a christological affirmation, and I spend a good deal of time exploring what this means, especially in terms of the church finding its identity as it moves beyond itself.

[Ed. note #2: Thanks to David and John for this illuminating discussion. I couldn’t help sprinkling in some emphasis in the form of underlining. Be sure to buy the book! (Use code 404-18 at check-out for a 40% discount - limited time only.)]


Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness (Part 2)

According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, “‘good intention’ is a hall pass through history.”[1]

Intention is something we white Americans tend to focus on in an attempt to wash our hands of black suffering. So long as we “mean well,” we suppose, there is no blood on our hands. But to our black brothers and sisters who are still bleeding, the cleanliness of white hands is quite beside the point.

In my first post, I showed how this white American tendency to reduce the problem of racism to a matter of our intentions is a manifestation of our sinful condition as homo incurvatus in se—as human beings curved in on ourselves. We are so self-absorbed that we encounter our history and our present with black Americans as, above all, a threat to our own self-respect. In our sinful incurvature we have taken it upon ourselves to judge ourselves, and we are desperate for some ground on which to proclaim ourselves free and righteous. We are so consumed, so enslaved, by this task that we are not free for God and for our neighbors.

In this condition, we do not fight racism so much as our own nagging sense of condemnation. We do not work for our black brothers and sisters so much as for our own self-justification. And we will settle at a point where we feel our consciences are clean, even though our neighbors may continue to suffer at the hands of unjust systems.

But there is another way! And that is what this second post is about.

By User: Vmenkov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Rather than approaching the problem of racism in our sinful incurvature, as an exercise in self-justification, we can approach it in the freedom of the One who takes our place as judge—and that means as those whose concern is not for ourselves, but truly for our black brothers and sisters.

According to Karl Barth, Christ has come to take our place as judge.[2] In Christ, that is, God has taken back the judgment seat that is rightfully God’s—the place that we presume to occupy in our vain attempt to be like God. And in this we find our freedom. “It is a nuisance,” Barth writes, “and at bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence. It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right.”[3]

In the One who has taken our place as judge, we white Americans are freed from the all-consuming (and yet ultimately impossible) task of justifying ourselves. “It is no longer necessary that I should pronounce myself free and righteous.” This is “no longer my office or in any way my concern.”[4] As we white Americans relinquish our concern for our own justification, leaving that up to God, we will come to see our intentions as one factor (significant, though not exhaustive) within the complex obstacle course black Americans have to navigate. We will stop treating our good intentions as an excuse for ignoring black problems—because, freed from our sinful incurvature, we will care about our neighbors’ problems as their problems, rather than caring about them only to the extent that they create problems for us.

We will stop making excuses altogether (whether for white behavior or black suffering). In Christ we will be free to acknowledge the depth of our sin against our black brothers and sisters, and we will be given the strength to come face to face with the extent to which we are implicated in the present systems of oppression.

By Deror_avi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
We will no longer have to convince ourselves that we are innocent, because in Christ we have no reason to fear accusation—nor even condemnation. As it occurs in Christ, we know that our accusation and condemnation is in fact God’s grace to us, and our liberation. It is that by which God “has made an end of us as sinners and therefore of sin itself.”[5] Martin Luther describes it as the “death of death, the sin of sin, the poison of poison, and the imprisoning of imprisonment,” and the Apostle Paul as our being “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[6]

If only we white Americans were given ears to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ—the gospel which, according to Barth, demands not only our “notice, or understanding, or sympathy,” but our “participation, comprehension, [and] co-operation”—our approach to the problems of racial inequality would thus change dramatically.

No longer curved in on ourselves, we would be open in love for our black brothers and sisters. We would listen to them, learn from them, and place ourselves at their disposal, where we could be used for God’s liberative purposes rather than our own desperate and futile attempts at saving face. We would confront the problems of racial inequality in their full complexity—even as we ourselves are implicated in them and condemned with them—because we would know that our condemnation as sinners, in Christ, is itself God’s grace to us and the working of our salvation.

May God give us ears to hear.



[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 33.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 231-232.

[3] Ibid., 233.

[4] Ibid., 234.

[5] Ibid., 253.

[6] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1968), 194; Romans 6:4, NRSV.

[Ed. note: Alex DeMarco (@Alex_J_DeMarco) is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who now lives on the North Side of Chicago. He blogs (irregularly, alas) at Religionless-Worldly Christianity. This is the first of two guest posts from Alex on this theme. The full title is: "On the Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness: Lessons from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther (Part 2)." Part 1 here.]


Friday, July 01, 2016

Restless, Reformed, Revisionist? An Entree into Barth's Book on Calvin's Catechism

Within the sprawling smorgasbord that is Karl Barth's oeurve, lesser feasts abound. One such is his lectures, in the early 1940s, on the Apostle's Creed portion of Calvin's Geneva Catechism. (Here I cite the recent reprint, for your purchasing convenience, but my copy is the Meridian paperback edition from 1958).

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

Several things about this fascinating little book stand out.
John Calvin, by Hans Holbein the Younger
(via Wikimedia Commons)
The lectures were addressed to pastors in the francophone region of Switzerland (canton Neuchâtel) and, consequently, were delivered in French. As Jean-Louis Leuba notes in his preface, the text was compiled, with Barth's approval, not from an original manuscript but from notes taken during the lectures, and this fact makes the text a bit quirky.

In his introduction, translator Gabriel Vahanian cites another French Barth text, an introduction to an anthology of Calvin's writings, wherein Barth writes:
Calvin est pour nous un maître dans l'art d'écouter.

(Calvin is, for us, a master in the art of listening.)
Vahanian glosses this: "Calvin teaches us how to listen to the Word of God proclaimed, not to himself, but in the church" (p. 9). By my lights (such as they are), Barth himself was a good listener when it comes to Calvin's work, perhaps a better listener than he often was in conversation with his own contemporaries. In a parallel vein, Vahanian accentuates the emphasis on listening to the Word within the Reformed theological heritage. Listening entails obedience, but it is not passive:

Barth's approach reveals to us that the purpose of Calvin's teaching is to let its eternal subject, i.e., the Word become flesh, confront the individual, and perchance the disciple, aver anew (p. 8)

The theological tradition, understood in a Reformed key, is a living conversation; thus, Barth is free to attend to Calvin and even submit to the great Reformer while also remaining utterly free to disagree and to reinterpret this heritage, as contemporary needs demand. Listening, in other words, is not repristinating. Vahanian continues:

What this means is that a reformed theologian never writes for posterity. He exhibits the living Word today. Only in this manner can what he has to say to his contemporaries have any relevance for their descendants. He is not a master or a doctor as are Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the Roman Catholic Church (p. 9).

Is that really a fair way of characterizing the reception of great theologians in the Roman church today? Perhaps not. At any rate, the basic point remains clear, and coheres nicely with the conception of symbolics and dogmatics one finds, say, in Barth's Göttingen lectures on the Reformed confessions or in volume 1 of The Church Dogmatics. It is a principle, some would say, Barth articulates clearly without always following it himself in his material expositions of classic Christian doctrines. Along those lines, I find the intertextual dimension of Barth's reading attractive: He ruminates on a the catechism, which itself offers an interpretation of the creed, which is grounded in scripture, which both points to and embodies God's revelation in Jesus Christ -- but in such a way that revelation can never be domesticated, never simply given, in the form of a static deposit. Nor are these readings concentric circles; the matter is more fluid than that, I would argue (I hope to provide some examples later).

Saint-Pierre cathedral, Geneva, Switzerland.By Yann (2009).
(via Wikimedia Commons.)
Incidentally, Vahanian himself had an interesting story and was an accomplished theologian in his own right. Born in Marseille in 1927, he would eventually graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary and teach at Syracuse University. Vahanian became known as a "death of God" theologian in the early 1960s, and was in conversation with that movement's more famous figures, Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton. He died in 2012, having finished his career at a distinguished appointment Strasbourg.

I'm not so much an expert in the death-of-God theology movement. My sense, though, is that Altizer's brilliant (and ongoing!) contributions to this trajectory lend special weight to it's roots in radical idealist and even esoteric literature -- especially in Hegel, Nietzsche and Blake. But this movement also had roots in more mainstream, yet revisionist Protestant theologies of the mid-20th century -- especially the work of Barth, Bonhoeffer and Tillich.

Vahanian, apparently, was somewhat grumpy about the Nietzschean turn in the movement. A relative described it this way in Vahanian's obituary, by Paul Vitello, in The New York Times (Sept. 8, 2012).

"He had a totally different theological sensibility from most of them [the death of God theologians],” said Jeffrey Robbins, Mr. Vahanian’s son-in-law, who is chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “He was an iconoclast, and a radical. But he described himself as a lifelong, practicing, disgruntled Protestant Christian.”

Iconoclast. Radical. Practicing. Disgruntled: Those are terms befitting a student of Karl Barth. And also a follower of Calvin.

Lest my comments mislead you, dear reader, Barth in these pages can also, at times, come across as a staunch conservative -- as, for example, when he chastises modernist historians for being obtuse in their critiques of the ancient Christological counsels. Be that as it may, this little Barth book has some gems well worth mining in future posts. Allons-y!