Politics of Scripture

Essays featuring a specific Book of the Bible.

Genesis

All of humanity comes from the Source and all our journeys will lead us back to the Source. The story of Jacob’s Ladder reminds that God is not far away but right here in the ordinariness of our everyday struggles, the answer to our desire for oneness.

In the story of the rivalry between Esau and Jacob, we discover a typology that can shed an unflattering light on a number of the tensions that exist between people in the modern world.

There is perhaps no biblical virtue more foreign to the contemporary Western mind than hospitality. For us, the deeply ethical connotations of hospitality for the stranger—the resident alien or refugee—have been largely replaced with a call for general neighborliness and an often all-too-partisan welcome.

The call and blessing of Abram in Genesis 12 is the beginning of a thematic thread that is developed over the rest of the scriptural witness. As the heirs of Abram, we are both the recipients and the bearers of his promised blessing to the nations.

In taking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve attempt to gain rule before they are ready to exercise it. Their example may be a cautionary one for a church that too precipitously throws itself into the political arena.

In the narrative of Abraham’s conversation with God concerning the destruction of Sodom we find an example of the faithful fulfilment of the calling of the people of God. We are to be those who seek to preserve the world from condemnation by our righteous and life-giving presence within it, tenaciously refusing to abandon it to its destruction.

The promise that Abraham will become a great nation is connected with the circumcision of his foreskin, forging a connection between sex and politics. This connection has controversial and unsettling resonances in a liberal society that would often separate the two.

God’s covenant with humanity and creation after the Flood is a universal one, a theme that is often revisited in later Scriptures. This is an important word in a world with wars fuelled by religious differences.

It is tempting to airbrush out the uncomfortable reference to the Canaanites living in the land promised by God to Abram. However, the questions raised by this text are worth tarrying with, presenting us with challenges that are deeply pertinent to our own situations.

The Old Testament account of Jacob’s sojourn with Laban can expose some contemporary Christian blindspots, not least in assumptions concerning the ‘biblical’ meaning of marriage. However, we must also reckon with the limitations of the text’s own perspective, giving voice to the silent female characters within it.

Marx on Genesis 3

In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes: ‘Englishmen, always well up in the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients’.

The first reaction of the reader to Abram’s calling, “That’s supposed to be me,” gives way to the second realization, which is “That COULD be me.” And it is in imagining the fear and anxiety normally attendant to leaving everyone and everything behind that the seed is planted in the reader’s heart for concern for real-life strangers.

Exodus

The divine violence of the drowning of the Egyptians in the deliverance of the Israelites through the Red Sea raises challenging questions about the character of liberation and the foundation of nations.

In maintaining a faithful Christian presence in the political realities of this age, few things are more important than living and acting in God’s good time, being people who find their life in the living memory of a sustaining past, who patiently wait in hope for a promised future, and who are kept in the present through faith in the daily mercies of One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Christ’s institution of a memorial helps us to do just this.

Luke’s account of Pentecost frames it as the installation of a prophet. As we reflect upon the shape of the prophetic vocation and the content and shape that Luke’s narrative gives to the Church’s calling we will be empowered for our political vocation in the twenty-first century.

The narratives of the crucifixion are narratives within which we are implicated as sinful human beings. However, many Christian readers of the gospels have read these texts in a manner that demonizes the Jews while absolving themselves.

The first commandment—that Israel should have no other gods beside YHWH—is the foundation for our liberation, as it was for Israel. It delivers us from all other ideas or powers that might claim our absolute loyalty and obedience.

At moments of crisis, it can be the responsibility of committed individuals to secure and represent the self-understanding of the community or nation to which they belong, to provide the seed from which the entire social body can be renewed. Within easily neglected political dimensions of the baptism of John we may be recalled to our potential and vocation as political individuals in this regard.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses ceases to be the leader of Israel. He is brought to the top of Mount Nebo, to look over the Promised Land. Timothy Simpson highlights six relevant principles that we can learn from this account.

Our discomfort with the notion of God visiting the sins of parents upon their children may lead us to avoid wrestling with Exodus 20:5-6. This would be a mistake. This reference occurs in the context of the prohibition upon idolatry and challenges both our attempts to sanitize God and our idolization of our children.

Israel’s experience of thirst in the wilderness should draw our attention to the experience of those for whom thirst and lack of water is a reality of life in our own day. We must identify and address some of the ways in which we are complicit in the forms of injustice that produce such a situation.

In the Passover we find a myth of the foundation of a nation that differs markedly from the contractarian myths of the Western liberal tradition. It disclosure of the sacrificial basis of the political order offers us a hermeneutical key for understanding the roots of our own nations and helps us to understand how we might be established as communities of faithful witness to them.

Having experienced the Ten Commandments through the lens of moralism and legalism as a child, they can appear oppressive and controlling. Re-reading them with fresh eyes in adulthood, however, we can discover previously unexpected anti-authoritarian and egalitarian contours.

The idea that the political aspects of the Ten Commandments are confined to the latter portion and that the beginning portion is only ‘religious’ in nature is unsustainable. The politics of the commands themselves as well as the politics of the conversations in which those commands are embedded continue to be instructive for faithful communities today.

Leviticus

The practice of gleaning, commanded in Leviticus and illustrated in the narrative of Ruth, disrupts the sort of connection we may suppose exists between the ownership and the use of property. The principles of economic justice it implies can guide us in our contemporary politics.

In YHWH’s instructions to Israel in Leviticus 19, we see a concern for social justice and the righteous treatment of the poor and weak which has continued relevance in our own day.

Numbers

In Numbers 11 the power of leadership that had formerly been concentrated in Moses was spread more widely among the people. This vision of the diffusion of leadership throughout the body politic is one with many challenging lessons for our current situation.

Deuteronomy

Not merely a time for ‘leisure’ or ‘recharging’, the notion of sabbath involves deep concepts of justice.

Deuteronomy 26 and Luke 4 both involve the navigating or enduring of pressures. The pressure of God’s liberating inbreaking overcomes and escapes those pressures that would exert themselves against it.

Moses taught Israel that its primary calling as a people before the nations was not conflict but witness through its showcasing of the goodness, wisdom, and righteousness of the divinely given law. Likewise, the chief political task of Christians is found in the cultivation of a quiet extraordinariness in the most ordinary affairs of life.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses ceases to be the leader of Israel. He is brought to the top of Mount Nebo, to look over the Promised Land. Timothy Simpson highlights six relevant principles that we can learn from this account.

Fom the vantage point of those who would come after them, the Deuteronomist’s community realizes that, though there may appear to be a wide array of choices for the community to make about the direction it will take, in reality, there are still only two, and one is still unthinkable.

Joshua

The Israelites no longer needed God to provide manna for nourishment, but had their own land. The manna, in one sense, represents charity work. It is helpful and gives immediate attention to the person in need. Yet, if we are not advocating for the Promise Land where housing is affordable, jobs are of plenty, oppression is repressed, etc, then we need to have a reality check.

Ruth

The United States is engaged in a public conversation about what our responsibility is to the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who are arriving at our southern border. In the story of Ruth we encounter principles of radical hospitality that reshape the debate.

Perhaps part of the reason why disparities in food distribution continue to exist is that, when those of us who have food enough on our tables try to respond to disasters such as famine, without connection with the people who suffer them, both they and us are likely to come away empty. The ironic use of famine in Naomi’s story is able to suggest to us another way, an approach to famine that sees first the emptiness in relationships when kin from the ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ worlds find ourselves absent from one another.

What makes for a good neighborhood? This is a question that American society has been struggling with in different ways for some time now. On one level, a response to this question might have something to do with a residential street dotted with beautiful lawns, white picket fences surrounding lovely homes, low crime rates, good real estate values, and maybe children playing in safety. On another level, however, the neighborhood can be a metaphor for the larger society. The question of what makes for a good American society is a much more divisive issue. It has been the source of rancorous disagreement throughout the election season. On this, and any political issue, election rhetoric becomes a contest of stories, a battle between narratives. Each party works to craft a persuasive narrative that can account for the present situation and also lift up its own vision of America’s future. At the same time, the narrative must offer bleak warnings about the dangerous values and vision of the other party. In the midst of such rancor, it can be a challenge to find a gracious vision of what the good neighborhood looks like. This week’s Old Testament lection from the second half of Ruth, however, can help us go a long way toward finding that gracious narrative. As last week’s post by Timothy Simpson pointed out, there is a lot more to the story of Ruth than usually meets the eye. It may not be typical to think of this story as embodying a vision for the good neighborhood, but the book is making some bold claims about precisely that…

This makes the book of Ruth a deeply political subject, which is very different from much of the popular appropriation of the book, which emphasizes the relationships first between Ruth and Naomi, and then Ruth and Boaz. These are important pastorally, but there is still much left to learn from the book that goes beyond these narrow concerns…

1 Samuel

In their response to Samuel’s declaration of the character of the monarchy they had requested for themselves, Israel tragically assented to the establishment of various structural injustices. However, the first step towards a world ordered by justice is rooting out the false belief that injustice is our lot.

As political theologians we may be peculiarly vulnerable to the error of neglecting—or even denying—the significance of the obscure and personal struggles and victories of the faithful that do not assert themselves onto the grand public stage of society. We have much to learn from Hannah’s recognition that, in God’s answer to her prayer for a son, the seeds of a dramatic social and political upheaval had been sown.

1 Samuel 8:4-20 illustrates how fear of vague enemies can lead to the development of a military-industrial complex and fuel the domination of rich elites of the mass of a people. Against this stands the Deuteronomic vision of limited monarchy under God.

What should be read as a text which presents God as the champion of and in solidarity with the oppressed, can all too quickly be read as presenting God as the Santa Claus at the mall promising you everything you want. But that’s not what this text is about.

Ideological State Apparatuses, a phrase made famous by Louis Althusser, function in society to keep the bourgeoisie culture dominate. This is done through institutional establishments, such as the church, family, etc. In the US, the American Dream has been a dominant ideology that gives hope to the unprivileged that they too have a chance to thrive in a higher economic status. Unfortunately, this myth rarely comes to fruition for the lower class or the immigrant because achieving upward social mobility is nearly impossible. The American Dream thus represents a master-signifier. Something present in our culture that one must believe to be a welcomed person in society. This week’s lectionary readings could be related to the ISA that penetrate societies. From the Hebrew Scriptures passage it speaks of the beginning of David’s career as King surrounded by a religious ISA. In the Christian Scripture, Jesus speaks a parable of how everything shall eventually become God’s Kingdom. These Scriptures are both politically driven, one speaking of an earthly kingdom ruled by a king chosen by God, and the other concerning the Kingdom of God.

In many ways, the text represents what is happening in global Christianity, which Westerners still believe is centered in Europe and North America, but which is actually diminishing there by the day even as the faith explodes in the Two-Thirds World.

2 Samuel

Nathan’s courageous condemnation of King David’s sin is a timely example of court prophecy faithfully performed.

The story of David and Bathsheba is a story of power’s corruption and of the cover-ups of abuse—a story with considerable resonance in our own day.

Contrasting the characters of William Faulkner’s great novel Absalom, Absalom! with King David exposes the way in which the unlovely can be redeemed, albeit not without suffering.

The book of Samuel’s unembarrassed portrayal of a form of political rule suffused by eros—a politics displayed in David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan—may provide an illuminating challenge to our attempts to pursue a rational politics beyond such dynamics.

King David’s actions in taking Bathsheba provide a shocking and illuminating case study in the behavior and psychology of impunity. The prophet Nathan’s employment of parabolic misdirection in his exposure of David’s sins suggests an effective manner in which such impunity can be confronted.

While the abuses of power and privilege in modern banking may not be as explicit as David’s crime, they are parallel. People in power tend not to consider the cost of their self-interest in communal terms. Most families who are facing foreclosure in New York City today are the victims of banks who regard a homeless child as a reasonable side effect of their profit motive just as David regarded Uriah’s death as a reasonable way to Bathsheba.

This kid is a nobody from nowhere. Yet it will be this forgettable, easily dismissed kid whom God will raise up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the greatest of all who ever lived and ruled, but nothing like any who have gone before him in those roles.

1 Kings

King Solomon’s desire for wisdom to equip him for just rule establishes him as the paradigm of the Wisdom tradition and as an example for us to follow. The scriptural emphasis upon wisdom in rule may contrast strongly with contemporary emphases upon technique.

Framed merely as a story about the call to discipleship, and omitting verses 17-18, the fact that God is instigating political coups through his prophets in this passage could easily be missed if we didn’t consider the scriptural context of this week’s lectionary reading. Reflecting upon this passage and the ensuing events, we can learn something about God’s relationship to political rule.

Ahab’s murderous appropriation of Naboth’s vineyard is an example of rulers’ assault upon and destruction of local wealth built up over generations. A contemporary analogy to Ahab’s sin can be found in government treatment of Black communities in highway construction.

According to 1 Kings 8, prayer is what Israel is supposed to do in times of helpless hopelessness. The temple is where they turn when there is nowhere to turn. Israel as a whole was invited to appeal to the High King for help in times of trial, and the text leads us to wonder if every polity directs its hopes toward a temple.

Elijah’s ministry takes place during the reign of king Ahab in the 9th century BC. The narrative about the prophet is expressly political. It depicts a political dissident who speaks against the powers of his day, with the main focus on promoting the worship of Yahweh and fighting against the worship of Baal. The prophet’s actions must be understood against a wider Near Eastern context where religion was completely intertwined with politics and where Yahweh was the national god of the Israelites.

Defining one’s territory is in and of itself a highly contentious endeavor. Defining God’s territory brings this to a whole new level. In the building of Solomon’s Temple we see that God is to great to be contained by any single building or territory.

This week’s lection is a well-loved, much-cited chestnut from which a thousand moralistic sermons have germinated. And with good reason. Solomon becomes king and when given the chance to have any wish fulfilled by God, chooses wisdom over the usual favorites, long life, wealth and power.

As even a cursory glance at this weeks lectionary reference will reveal, however, there are a couple of gaps in the text. The first is what happens just before Solomon dies, as he gets last minute instructions from David about scores that the family needs settling. The second is between the time that Solomon ascends to the throne, and the time Solomon and Yahweh have their little heart-to-heart. When you read that part that the lectionary omits, what you find is not Solomon sitting around having his daily quiet time in prayer and study of the scripture, but rather in the ruthless pursuit of control and the exercise of the royal prerogative of vengeance against the enemies of the monarchy…

2 Kings

We are the heirs of Elijah’s legacy. His influence is evident within later writings of the Bible, the Bible’s earliest commentators, and within the Bible-shaped parts of our own culture. But how might we assess our inheritance? Elijah is a hero of the covenant. Moses redivivus. A witness to God’s justice and mercy for those without power. And yet. . . Elijah’s legacy is also that of a “troubler” (1Kings 18:17-18). Although the prophet denied the title, the Jewish rabbinic tradition has not been afraid to name troubling features of his ministry. He seems more pre-occupied with his own difficulties than those of the people. He does not advocate for the Israelites. He uses violence.

Esther

The Book of Esther understands well the challenges of living in a world where one might have to juggle and negotiate different, even conflicting, identities and loyalties– one political, one ethnic and religious. But it is interesting that while these identities are sometimes open and sometimes undisclosed, they never correspond neatly to the categories of “public” political lives vs. “private” religious lives. Esther’s hidden religious identity makes claims on her public life as well as her private life…

Psalms

In a world awash with weapons of death, perhaps it is time to focus on the trust we have in guns and violence and threats of violence, in whatever form. Psalm 20 might be a good place to begin.

‘Under New Management’: The perfect way to describe people who are led by the Good Shepherd, rather than by the false shepherds of this age..

God brings his judgment in and as the light, providing us with a pattern for human justice.

The prophetic parables of the vineyard afford their hearers an illuminating vantage point upon the intergenerational peoplehood and unified moral agency of a nation. They offer us a new way of perceiving our national selves beyond the stifling frame of secularism.

Psalm 8’s presentation of human dominion and politics as a creation of God has significant ramifications for our posture towards the various forms of human rule and authority. The juxtaposition of divinely appointed power and human weakness humbles arrogant ambition, encouraging a spirit of meekness and modest service in our politics.

Psalm 111, which may seem disjointed and a collection of sayings, does, however, offer a consistent political teaching. It emphasizes politics in virtuous imitation of God in his works and the rejection of the politics of fear.

Psalm 14:1, though popularly employed to dismiss non-theists as foolish, is principally targeted against practical atheism, against those who believe that justice is without force in the universe and that all that matters is power.

The psalmist wrestles with despair, drawing strength from remembrances of God’s past protection and help. Politics, which must also face the threat of despair, can learn from the way that both the psalmist and Christ after him preserve the glimmer of hope against despair’s engulfing darkness.

The psalmist calls us to the fear of the Lord, offering us the secret to its pursuit. Straightforward though it may be, the psalm’s challenge to avoid evil-speaking, deceit, and to depart from wickedness and pursue peace would have seismic effects for our political landscape were we to commit ourselves to it.

Psalm 85 speaks of the meeting of justice and peace in a kiss in God’s new order. While we often futilely pursue such a goal through our politics, in Scripture we see its fulfilment through the cross.

Proverbs

Proverbs presents a vision of political wisdom that calls for deep moral integrity of political actors, both in their most public and in their most private behavior. It offers an alternative to the cynical demoralization of contemporary entertainment-driven politics, with its celebration of permission and transgression.

Wisdom’s publicly raised voice challenges the simple ones, who love being simple; the scoffers, who delight in their scoffing; and the fools, who hate knowledge. The reproof of Wisdom is especially relevant in the contemporary political world, where so many of our leaders and politicians thrive upon such popular attitudes.

We don’t expect our politicians to say much about the poor, but what about the church? When was the last time you preached or heard a sermon on the poor? Not poverty, but the poor, and not as an illustration, but as a focal point. (We might ask the same thing about a college or seminary class that purports to be about the cultivation of wisdom or faith.) The readings from Proverbs and James (see below) refer to the poor directly. Both passages are striking because they go further than a soft paternalism that might urge us to care for the poor. James and Proverbs offer not an appeal to our altruism, the work of charity, or a political agenda or campaign. They are not looking for votes or a clear conscience. They see the poor as part of the community and concern for the poor as an integral part of the life of faith and wisdom….

Ecclesiastes

In the radical changeability and uncertainty of our world, the collapse of our political projects and the apparent futility of our labors can tempt us to despair. Ecclesiastes grapples with these difficulties and presents ways in which to maintain hope within the vapor of our lives.

Isaiah

Isaiah the prophet received his call; we must be prepared to receive ours.

Epiphany is a story of a baby who, in the time of King Herod, despite all the principalities and powers that continue to overpower and oppress in our world, offers a different hope.

The prophetic parables of the vineyard afford their hearers an illuminating vantage point upon the intergenerational peoplehood and unified moral agency of a nation. They offer us a new way of perceiving our national selves beyond the stifling frame of secularism.

No matter how established we may think we are in this life, we are always on the way to another. To steady our step and to guide our path, we need to practice hope.

A competent sentinel must be vigilant, alert to and able to read the faintest signs upon a distant horizon, perceiving the most miniscule of details and discerning their greater import when they finally appear. In the opening chapters of both Matthew and Luke, we encounter a series of watchers and signs, presented in part as examples to the readers of the gospels in their own watching.

Transformation begins by inspiring—by breathing in—hope. Only then can we exhale justice. In ‘Immanuel’, God’s sign of hope for a desperate world, we find the means by which we can pursue justice.

In the declamation of Isaiah 1, the prophet associates Judah and its rulers with Sodom, for their inhospitality, injustice, and the presumption that they can hide this from God. Zacchaeus, a man characterized by such Sodom-like injustice, is delivered from this as justice is welcomed into his house in the person of Jesus.

God’s way are qualitatively different from ours, belonging to a different order, relativizing human good and exposing human evil. Isaiah’s vision presents and invites people to God’s way of abundance, mercy, and inclusion from their own ways of scarcity, revenge, and exclusion.

In Isaiah 42, the prophet speaks both of the vulnerability of a dimly burning wick and the great light of the world. Understanding the relationship between these two images can provide us with hope and insight as we seek justice in our situations.

Isaiah offers us a startling vision of a society beyond scarcity and gross inequalities of wealth, leading to a subversion of all our economic logic. If we are prepared to re-conceive our world as a divine gift to all, we will be prepared to work towards a day when no one is excluded from God’s bounty.

What the world needs is not another group of people scrambling for advantage or clamoring for privilege, but rather a community of people engaged in acts of transcendence that move beyond the interests of the self towards the furtherance of the common good. That will only happen when the church tells the truth about how and why it was so chosen by God and re-orders its practices accordingly.

Isaiah 35:1-10 is a hopeful final statement to First Isaiah. Bringing together images of nature leading the way into a new world and release from political oppression, it continues to resonate in our contemporary situation.

Jeremiah

Jeremiah dared to proclaim a covenant renewed, a world revived, a future resurrected. In the midst of a broken world, Jeremiah declared God’s endless fidelity, which brings forth life in the midst of death and despair.

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains political dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional political utopias and idealized societies.

In light of the two kingdoms doctrine and the separation of church and state, understanding the appropriate form of Christian prayer for and engagement with the political realities of our societies can be complex. In Jeremiah’s message to an exiled people, we find a pattern for prayer in a pluralistic context, a calling that identifies our primary task to be one of seeking the common good and welfare of our communities, rather than one of submission or conversion.

Jeremiah 31:27-34 confirms for us that God is present through the thick and thin of pain and suffering and in the disturbing questions that these experiences raise. But a day will come when God out of God’s grace and mercy will provide the community with all that is needed to overcome this pain and build life anew.

The policy of accommodation, cooperative political activities and praying to God for the well-being of a foreign city as suggested by Jeremiah was both innovative and a great challenge to the exilic community. It also has lessons for us as we seek a public, politically and socially relevant theology.

It is a challenge to reflect on politics and advent together. As advent emerges and we begin to anticipate the emergence of God’s presence into the world anew, as we expect the child who taught peace and preached liberation for the poor and oppressed, I cast my eyes on the political landscape and struggle to glimpse what might be breaking forth with new life. Perhaps this is a problem with how we conceptualize the birth of Jesus, as a grand cosmic event, an episode of a preordained salvation history, the inauguration of a new kingdom of peace on earth. There is another element to this extraordinary story, its ordinariness. Jesus is born in a Galilean backwater, to an unwed teen mother, lost in a crowd of travelers. Jeremiah prophesied to his ancient community about a time when justice and righteousness will emerge into history. We still await the fulfillment of this prophesy. But refracting this vision through the circumstances of Jesus’ birth will perhaps teach us to look for this hope in unexpected places…

Ezekiel

Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dead bones of exiled Israel brings life and restoration to a people who considered themselves beyond hope. Faced with lost causes, recognition of the creative power of the prophetic word can extend the horizons of the possible and inspire a wider range of political action.

Daniel

For those living in powerful nations, for those prospering in the global economy, our response to the Reign of Christ Sunday might better be one of repentance than triumph, of humility rather than arrogance. For the reign of Christ stands in opposition to our own reigns, as the world is turned upside down, bringing judgment for those in power and justice for those who have suffered.

The story of the deliverance of Daniel’s three friends from persecution for their faith takes an unpleasant turn as a new form of religious oppression is set up as its immediate effect. Apparent victories are all too often co-opted by the vicious dynamics of the political systems that they appeared to have overcome. In Advent, however, we see a political rupture that can never be dissolved back into the prevailing power structures.

Increasingly in liturgical circles it is becoming politically incorrect to talk about the “kingship” of Christ. Such a term now brings with it all the baggage of patriarchal interpretations of the biblical text. It calls to mind the exploitation brought about by colonial powers, abuses of power at the hands of politicians, and perhaps every abuse of power—abuses which represent heinous tragedy and sin. However, while we lament such abuse it is important to remember that power, in political terms, is itself neutral. It is a gift given by God in creation, which when wielded in the hands of human beings can be used for either selfish or selfless purposes (usually with correspondingly negative or positive results). Unfortunately, too often we as human beings struggle to monopolize power for our own sakes and consequently abuses occur…

Hosea

Personally, I’m glad that Hosea is in the lectionary, though there is not much in it that we will “like.” As it is with spinach and colonoscopies, we can nonetheless grasp the value of things which otherwise might leave us cold.

Amos

The Prophet Amos employs the plumb line as a powerful metaphor for justice in society.

One of the reasons why Amos made people squirm in his day and why Belhar irritates us in our own is because those of us used to being in charge have little practice in and less patience for listening to people whom we deem to be our inferiors.

Jonah

The prophet Jonah receives a lesson about the richness of God’s grace and our duty to welcome it, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of our enemies.

Micah

True worship has little to do with the ‘commodification’ of liturgy; it has everything to do with the performative embodiment of God’s redemptive narrative through justice, mercy and fidelity.

Micah’s message reminds us of the importance of small beginnings and the potential of the things that can start from them. Alongside this, he teaches us of the necessity of the actions whereby we live the difference that God desires to create in the world.

Habakkuk

In the declamation of Isaiah 1, the prophet associates Judah and its rulers with Sodom, for their inhospitality, injustice, and the presumption that they can hide this from God. Zacchaeus, a man characterized by such Sodom-like injustice, is delivered from this as justice is welcomed into his house in the person of Jesus.

Habakkuk 2:4—’The righteous person will live by his faith’—is a familiar text. The recognition that the faith in question may be God’s own faithfulness, rather than our own stumbling faith, may inspire a stronger confidence in us as we face a world of injustice.

Habakkuk’s prophecy raises the unsettling question of how to deal with the image of the Divine Warrior in a sensitive manner. Handled carefully, rather than compounding violence with more violence, Habakkuk’s prophecy can function as a powerful appeal for justice.

Zephaniah

In the wake of an atrocity such as the San Bernardino shooting or the attacks in Paris, the choice between the politics of righteousness and the politics of fear will press upon us with a renewed urgency. However, it is righteousness—justice and ethical probity—that is the only genuine answer at such a time.

Haggai

As it was with Haggai, the real test of leadership is not necessarily the capacity to motivate people to action, but rather to keep them fixed on that same goal when it becomes clear that the rhetoric that moved them in the first place bears little resemblance to the actual situation in which they have to act.

Matthew

Epiphany is a story of a baby who, in the time of King Herod, despite all the principalities and powers that continue to overpower and oppress in our world, offers a different hope.

While often read merely as an account of judgment, heaven, and hell, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats reveals a love that overcomes dualism.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins, a rare example of women appearing in the parables and sayings of the gospel, invites us to consider challenging questions of representation.

Jesus’ trick answer to the Pharisees concerning the paying of taxes to Caesar speaks to the Christian’s appropriate posture to American Civil Religion, which has been provoked into a fuller revelation of itself by Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

The prophetic parables of the vineyard afford their hearers an illuminating vantage point upon the intergenerational peoplehood and unified moral agency of a nation. They offer us a new way of perceiving our national selves beyond the stifling frame of secularism.

Jesus’ shrewd response to the elders and chief priests’ question about his authority revealed the authorities to which they themselves were beholden. It should provoke us to ask which authorities prevent us from following God in our situations.

Through his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus undergoes a conversion experience from his ethnocentrism. In the ugly shadow of recent events in Charlottesville, we must follow his example.

In the interaction between God’s establishment of circumstances and our free response to them, we see something of the way that God enables us to be more human.

All of humanity comes from the Source and all our journeys will lead us back to the Source. The story of Jacob’s Ladder reminds that God is not far away but right here in the ordinariness of our everyday struggles, the answer to our desire for oneness.

Water is a right, not a privilege. It is not something won for right belief or fortunate circumstances of birth, but rather a gift of sustenance and refreshment that comes from our Living God.

In his challenge to the rich young ruler, Jesus also challenges conservative family values politics, offering us an alternative vision of relations in the kingdom of God.

The events of the first Easter invite illuminating parallels and contrasts with the shock and terror of contemporary state violence.

Mark

The power of state in both Greco-Roman times as well as today hinges upon a hierarchal power structure. Jesus, however, calls us to compassion in a horizontal social structure.

Christ is the Lord of the storm. We can leave fear behind and cross over to the other shore.

Not merely a time for ‘leisure’ or ‘recharging’, the notion of sabbath involves deep concepts of justice.

At Easter we should remember that anger and fear cannot win, but that joy can.

It is the crucified Christ who sends us out to his sisters and brothers who are being crucified by the powers-that-be every day. Are we willing to do what Jesus requires and die in the process? Or will we deny Jesus in order to save ourselves?

Sometimes effective resistance necessitates speech or decisive direct action. Yet sometimes resistance also demands a tactical silence.

One of the most striking features of Jesus’s teaching and practice was its authority, which both liberated and bound his hearers. Does the Church dare to speak with authority today?

The call of Jesus to Simon, Andrew, James, and John summons them to leave behind a way of life that supported an exploitative imperial economy and to devote their efforts to serving the kingdom of God instead.

Perhaps the kind of wakefulness that Christ is calling us to in anticipation of his coming is a wakefulness to the urgent cries and needs of one another. Perhaps Christ is calling us to truly recognize one another before we will be able to recognize God in our midst.

Often misread as a statement in praise of ‘sacrificial’ giving, Jesus’ observation concerning the widow’s offering at the temple is designed to condemn exploitative structures that prey upon the most vulnerable. We should not be able to read this account without reflecting upon comparable systems of economic injustice in our own day.

The greatness of the love commandment lies not in its surpassing value over and against all of the other commandments of Jewish law but, rather, in its ability to hold up all the rest. It’s less about beating out all of the other candidates and more about helping them to do their jobs.

Luke

Resurrection is at work among and recognized by those at the periphery long before those in the center.

The story of the sign given to the shepherds—the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger—both recalls and anticipates other scriptural events in significant yet surprising ways. It also reminds us of our vocation, as those who must declare the good news of the sign of Christ to the shepherds of our age.

The Magnificat is a song of divine disruption, the song of God’s revolution.

Mary’s Magnificat challenges us to bend our sight, to look both forward and backward. For without a vision of the future, without a messianic hope, we can only ever mourn the past—we can never envision its regeneration, a new heaven and a new earth.

For the disciples on the Emmaus Road, the resurrection was the key to unlocking the meaning of Israel’s history. As a master key, however, its power extends further, opening up our eyes to the one in whom all of human life and history holds together.

In calling for Christ’s kingdom, we do not call for Christ to dominate over and against the world. Rather, his kingdom brings transformation of the world, so that the world corresponds with God’s justice and grace, enabling creation’s arrival at its fullest selfhood.

In the declamation of Isaiah 1, the prophet associates Judah and its rulers with Sodom, for their inhospitality, injustice, and the presumption that they can hide this from God. Zacchaeus, a man characterized by such Sodom-like injustice, is delivered from this as justice is welcomed into his house in the person of Jesus.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is situated against the backdrop of the promise of the coming kingdom and the vindication of the righteous that will come with it. We too can look for future vindication and Jesus’ parable may speak to our own convictions about being on the ‘right side of history’.

Habakkuk 2:4—’The righteous person will live by his faith’—is a familiar text. The recognition that the faith in question may be God’s own faithfulness, rather than our own stumbling faith, may inspire a stronger confidence in us as we face a world of injustice.

Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a challenging account of the one neglected at the gate, who ends up being exalted, while the one at ease within is cast out. This story has a particular contemporary resonance in the context of the recent events surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

As in the case of the unjust steward in Luke 16, a radical change in our handling of money is required, if we are to survive the great day of accounting that is to come. We must use the limited time and opportunity remaining to us to escape the clutches of our greed and expend our dirty money to pursue true and incorruptible riches.

John

In the first beginning, the Word gave form to that which was formless; in this new beginning, the same Word speaks a word and brings peace to men who are afraid.

To understand the meaning of John 3:16, we must reject the popular image of a docetic Jesus.

When Jesus clears out the Temple in John 2, he presents a vision for the reformation of God’s house. As questions about guns in churches are raised once again in America, this vision is one to which we must attend.

God is calling us to life in God’s world together. We are to live as those who recognize our Shepherd, who heed and follow Christ’s call.

Real faith knows and embraces doubt and questioning. Rather than locking ourselves in, as the disciples first did, we should learn from the curiosity of Thomas. The opposite of faith is not doubt but fear, and it is time to shed our fears.

In the healing of the blind man in John 9 and the response of the religious leaders and teachers that follows, the power of scapegoating is revealed, as is the assurance that Jesus will overcome it.

John the Baptist presents Jesus as the Lamb of God, an identification continued in the book of Revelation. Looking to the Lamb, rather than to the great and powerful Beasts, should inform our politics as Christians.

God who became one of us so inconspicuously is still walking among us, very quietly, making our lives special.

The question of the status and authority of the church after Jesus’ bodily departure looms large over the Farewell Discourse, manifesting both the concerns of the disciples and concerns of a later Johannine community. On account of the Spirit’s presence, the church is empowered to speak with a fresh yet authoritative voice to new challenges.

In Jesus’ teaching concerning the Good Shepherd in John and the healing of Tabitha in Acts we see the importance of hearing and of the forms of response that hearing makes possible, whether for serving and following God or for our serving of each other.

The disciples’ failure to find their desired results when they returned to fishing following the resurrection of Christ resonates with the experience of many who are drawn back to old patterns of life after a personal encounter with Christ. Their struggle to recognize the risen Jesus challenges us to form communities within which Christ’s presence will be apparent to people in a similar state of uncertainty.

Acts

The gory fate of Judas is an unsettling feature of the narrative of Acts for many modern readers. Yet recovering the New Testament authors’ sense of the fearful consequences of opposing the reign of Christ is a necessary task for political theology.

Rooted to the spot after the Ascension, the disciples needed to be told, not primarily what to think, but what to do.

In both Luke’s account of the Ethiopian eunuch and John’s discussion of love, the New Testament holds out the promise of a chastened yet real utopian vision, founded in God’s self-gift in King Jesus.

Through his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus undergoes a conversion experience from his ethnocentrism. In the ugly shadow of recent events in Charlottesville, we must follow his example.

Pentecost does not present us with the ideal of the uniform, homogeneous community, but with a divine power that traverses all of our differences. God’s will is to unite us in our diversity, not to extinguish it.

The story of the Ascension in Acts alerts us to the task of faithfully waiting and witnessing.

Paul’s statements concerning the peoples in his Areopagus speech in Athens have historically been used as justification for racism and Apartheid. There are, however, other ways to understand his claims.

God is calling us to life in God’s world together. We are to live as those who recognize our Shepherd, who heed and follow Christ’s call.

Beyond mere understanding—which we can arrive at with languages not our own—God’s communication in people’s native tongues at Pentecost manifests a deeper commitment to the recipients of revelation. The Holy Spirit addresses us in the language of our hearts and our dreams.

The masters of the demon possessed slave girl in Philippi provide a powerful example of the politics of fear in action. Paul’s reticence to heal the girl and face the likely repercussions in this instance contrasts with the courage of the recently deceased Daniel Berrigan.

In Jesus’ teaching concerning the Good Shepherd in John and the healing of Tabitha in Acts we see the importance of hearing and of the forms of response that hearing makes possible, whether for serving and following God or for our serving of each other.

Luke’s account of Pentecost frames it as the installation of a prophet. As we reflect upon the shape of the prophetic vocation and the content and shape that Luke’s narrative gives to the Church’s calling we will be empowered for our political vocation in the twenty-first century.

Romans

Giving voice and hope to groaning and suffering creatures is the political task that we can take up for the oppressed creation in imitation of the Spirit, who advocates for us to our true Sovereign for the hope of our bodily redemption.

Christians are called not to ignore despair, but to help sow joy in its wake; not to condone hate, but to be all the more zealous in their own loving in its face. The politics of overcoming evil are about neither ignoring nor condoning evil, but rather, fighting it with the strongest power possible—love.

In Romans, Paul speaks of a God of reconciliation, who makes friends of enemies. Principles of reconciliation and of the love of enemies have often been quarantined from the political realm in systems of political thought that prioritize the enemy-friend polarity. However, a politics of love for enemies and of reconciliation with a creation from which we have become alienated may never have been more urgent.

Advent declares that the time has come upon us, that the King of Kings is about to arrive. The Advent claim that Jesus is Lord is a fundamental orienting claim for all of our politics.

Paul speaks to our self-conscious understanding of tragic fatedness in Romans 7. Like him we long to be released from such an apparent fate, where we are not free to live as we know we could and should. This is more than an individual bondage to sin. It recognizes that sometimes we are prevented from living as we feel we ought by more than our own will; sometimes we are oppressed by the wills of others or even a system which seems to have a will of its own that is impermeable to reason.

So now these chopped-apart verses stand in our textual memory as a testament to a moment when our movement was frightened by the logical conclusions of its own radical claims.

A Reflection on Romans 8:26-39, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Corinthians

In maintaining a faithful Christian presence in the political realities of this age, few things are more important than living and acting in God’s good time, being people who find their life in the living memory of a sustaining past, who patiently wait in hope for a promised future, and who are kept in the present through faith in the daily mercies of One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Christ’s institution of a memorial helps us to do just this.

As it is often detached from its broader context and treated as a standalone paean to love, the significance of 1 Corinthians 13 within Paul’s overarching argument about the Church as a polity is often neglected. When the context of this chapter is appreciated once more, its political significance will emerge.

Paul’s argument that spiritual gifts are the manifestation of the one Gift of the Spirit, given for the service of the common good, provides a useful starting point for reflection upon the meaning of representation in society more generally. The ecclesiological vision of 1 Corinthians 12 resonates in challenging ways in our polarized political cultures, summoning us to new modes of engagement.

Paul’s teaching about the manner in which love for weaker brethren should guide behavior when considering eating food sacrificed to idols provides principles that remain relevant, long after the issue that provoked their articulation. The role that politics and the state play in contemporary forms of idolatry suggests analogies that can be drawn between the responsibilities of first century Corinthians and our own.

In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Paul articulates the reality of eschatological imminence. Against this background, he advances an ethic that maintains a delicate balance between occupation with and preoccupation with our present world order.

The world is ever changing and God calls Christians of every time and every place to be a part of this change. While often misread as a call to abandon the world, this weeks reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of many of these calls contained within Scripture — urging Christians who are in the world to change the way in which we interact with and thus influence the world.

2 Corinthians

In a modern political milieu where leaders are choosing strength over heart, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 reminds us of Paul finding his strength through weakness.

The clear distinction between the Christian works of mercy and generic social activism and charity work is often forgotten, leading to a fraught relationship between them and the Christian gospel message. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers us a better way.

The politics of new creation involves the bringing together of words and actions in the form of consistent living, by means of the work of the Spirit of Christ. Hypocrisy and intolerance among Christians are a departure from this model, flowing from an unwarranted confidence.

The pursuit of truth and justice is often onerous and taxing. The incremental gains accomplished by strikes and protests, grassroots organizing, and community coalitions pale in comparison to the large-scale success achieved by corporations and the governmental institutions who collude with each other. The quest to halt imperialistic conquests by the American war machine, ameliorate poverty, reform a racist and unjust judicial system, and empower communities can often seem like a dead end street, but the light of hope still shines through the darkness […..]

Galatians

Ephesians

Sometimes politics is less about the leaders and more about whether communities choose to live together in wisdom or folly.

Although the Apostle Paul’s discussion of our struggle against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places may strike many readers as a relic of a primitive cosmological outlook, it is fiercely relevant in our own day, where white supremacy functions as just such a power. Ta-Nehisi Coates has spoken of the illusions and lies undergirding the American Dream and, with the Apostle, calls us to awake to and struggle against the forces and ideologies that bind and enthral us.

The formation of a new international polity is integral to the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the gospel. The Church provides a model for transformed international relations.

The author of Ephesians is addressing the conflict between Jew and Gentile Christians (“the cut/circumcised” and “the uncut/uncircumcised”). The politics of this text could be boiled down to the first century conflict between these two groups. It’s a definition so basic and so simple that it belongs in a Politics 101 course. Where it gets interesting, however, is not how one defines the conflict, but how the author of Ephesians deals with it…..

Philippians

As we are prepared to empty ourselves, we can experience “the beginning of the other”, the Reign of God.

‘And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.’ The notion of love overflowing in knowledge is odd to modern Western ears, accustomed as we are to a divide between reason and affections. However, such a love that overflows in knowledge could transform much of our politics.

Privilege is a ubiquitous reality in our world, though one to which we are often oblivious as privileged persons. In Paul’s description of his posture towards his privilege he gives us a worked example of what conformity to Christ can look like and poses the challenge to us to follow the same path in our own situations.

The stark repetition of the admonition to being of one mind in the first and last phrases is particularly arresting, and particularly challenging for us today. After all, for contemporary liberalism, being of one mind is no virtue, and the same could be said for most contemporary Christians. We no longer think of pluralism as simply a pragmatic political strategy for negotiating irresolvable difference, but as a good in itself. It is difference, we say, that makes us strong, tolerance and indeed embrace of otherness.

Within many criminal justice systems, deterrence is a significant element of the rationale of imprisonment. However, Paul’s letter to the Philippians reveals the emboldening power of imprisonment for faithful witness. The example set by courageous leaders who will risk imprisonment for the sake of truth and justice continues to have great power, even within our contemporary situation.

1 Peter

Christian political witness must be built around and declare Christ as the great eschatological stone laid by God. He must either be approached as the stubborn obstacle, arresting the development of all idolatrous political visions, or as the chief cornerstone, the sure and solid basis from all else can take its bearings.

1 John

In both Luke’s account of the Ethiopian eunuch and John’s discussion of love, the New Testament holds out the promise of a chastened yet real utopian vision, founded in God’s self-gift in King Jesus.