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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of True Faith—Hebrews 11:29–12:2

Faith is an enacted practice we live into through our whole selves, continuously laying our souls and bodies bare and vulnerable before the unknown. The consequences of this are thoroughgoing, touching every single aspect of our lives and making demands on both our loyalties and our activities in the world.

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.

12Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

According to Hebrews, faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1) Faith is an enacted practice we live into through our whole selves, continuously laying our souls and bodies bare and vulnerable before the unknown. Over time, we can develop a sense of surety in what is paradoxically not yet existing andin the existence of that which we can experience yet never categorize or control.

We grow in faith through continuously standing at the edge of the unknown, with no guarantees for our safety should we continue forward. We might gain a sense of comfort with mystery and the unknown after repeated forays and develop trust in our intuition about what lies within the unseen; yet, we can never be completely certain in a rational, scientific fashion, for that would imply that we can predict the outcome and the unknown would cease to be so. Faith can only exist within the unknown.

We categorize faith as a noun, something we “have,” yet that misses the point entirely. One does not simply have faith, as if it is merely a possession that one might pick up occasionally, appreciate for its beauty, but ultimately lay back down on the mantle along with our memories from our childhoods and the one family heirloom we think is the prettiest and so put it in the one place it’s most likely to be seen.

Faith is instead an action that must be enacted, a skill that must be honed through constant discipline, attention, and, frankly, some really hard work. It demands our full devotion and commitment, even to the point of death—both physical and social death. Faith is costly, a fact that the person who wrote Hebrews knew only too well. The author recognizes that we might have “drooping hands” and “weak knees” (12:12), but still demands that we have discipline so that we can “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1).

Hebrews therefore states that enacting faith is courageous, for perseverance in the face of seemingly endless danger and struggle, with very little prospect of liberation or even relief from suffering, is the textbook definition of courage. This applies regardless of whether someone is facing physical danger and death or is holding fast to one’s convictions secure in the knowledge that doing so won’t harm them physically, but may result in social ostracism or death. In the end, courage is a person or community staring directly in the face of danger, marshaling all of their strength amidst the guarantee of at least some measure of fear—if not absolutely crippling terror—and keeping faith with their promises, obligations, and convictions.

Faith is powerful, yet has very little to do with human visions of power, including their attendant temptations to dominate, control, and possess. The power in faith is God’s power, and we are only able to truly wield power through faith in God and God’s vision for the creation. Hebrews takes pains throughout chapter 11 to demonstrate how, at every moment in the history of God’s people told through the Hebrew scriptures, when humans seemed to possess power, it was actually God working through them. Their faith in God received approval and, through that approval, the power of God’s word remade the world.

Hebrews devotes twenty-six verses of chapter 11 to demonstrating how Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses all enacted faith, which God then demonstrated God’s approval of by granting each of them the power to impact the creation in a meaningful way. Hebrews uses the phrase “by faith” to establish a framing device that allows the reader to understand the similarities between all of these examples in their enacting of faith, and God’s response: “By faith” a person did what was pleasing in God’s sight and God responded by demonstrating approval. Abel died at the hands of Cain; yet Abel’s sacrifice was seen as righteous by God and through his faith Abel was granted the power to still teach God’s people through his example (11:4). Through their faith Abraham and Sarah were able to overcome their infertility and God ensured that “from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore’” (11:11–12).

This framework—through their faith in God, humans are empowered by God to perform mighty deeds, for the purpose of showing the power of God to the world—continues through the rest of chapter 11, expanding the previous focus on notable male individuals (including judges and kings in 11:32) to include women (11:31), the sick and dead (11:35), the imprisoned (11:36), the martyred (11:37), and even the entire company of Hebrew people, unnamed yet faithful and protected by God through the Red Sea (11:29), war (11:34), and seemingly endless wandering and migration (11:38).

Faith is the medium of conversation between God and God’s people: the people speak to God through their actions—the demonstrations of their faith in God and God’s will for the world—and God speaks back through actions—the demonstrations of God’s approval of human faithfulness. Through repeated rounds of this conversation, humans are able to see that God consistently keeps God’s promises to care for and love God’s people.

This is not to claim that humans are free from pain, suffering, and death due to their enacted faith in God. The conversation of enacted faith between humans and God occurs in the context of a world that is “not worthy” (11:38). God’s people are still tortured, killed, harassed, forced into exile and hiding, rendered destitute and left starving, and generally punished for keeping their faith in God. In verse 39, Hebrews makes a dramatic turn, stating that God didn’t keep God’s promises to all who came before the age of Jesus Christ and who were commended for the faith they enacted in God as their part of the grand conversation between God and God’s people.

Actually, God had a different plan the entire time: that Jesus Christ, through his enacted faith in God, would persevere even through his endurance of the cross and would thus demonstrate for all time what enacted faith in God would constitute, would demand of us, and would result in. Through Jesus, humans have the perfect example of human faith enacted, God’s approval demonstrated, and the power granted.

Hebrews doesn’t leave any room for error here: God expects that we enact our faith in God completely, without hesitation or reservation, while holding as secondary any other oaths and promises we have made to anyone besides God. Faith in God is a marathon that demands our entire attention and commitment. It is the perspective through which we view everything else. Power isn’t true power unless it stems from God’s response to our faith in God, enacted. Courage isn’t true courage unless it is demonstrated through our efforts to persevere in the effort to enact God’s will.

The only certainty of true faith is that God will always respond. Beyond that, we must be willing to live at the edge of the unknown: vulnerable, weak, and willing to lose all earthly comforts at a moment’s notice should God demand that of us. As we don’t possess faith, we don’t truly possess anything else, including our own bodies. They are all gifts from God, granted with the expectation that we will use them to enact our faith in God by aiding in bringing about God’s will for the world.

The consequences of this are thoroughgoing, touching every single aspect of our lives. Our resources are not our own, to hoard from those who have need of them in order to survive: as God’s people were destitute yet were of greater worth than “the world,” we cannot claim to have any faith in God when we allow people to starve for lack of food, or die for lack of adequate healthcare. Our land is not our own, to build walls upon in order to “protect us from invaders” from the south: as God’s people were migrants, seeking safety from danger and liberation from slavery, true faith demands that we welcome every. single. refugee. who comes to us in need of food and shelter.

We cease to have any claim to the name Christian the very moment we allow any other concern to stand in front of God’s will for the world: you CANNOT serve two masters. You CANNOT serve both Trump and God, both the Second Amendment and God, both nativism and God, both capitalism and God, both white supremacy and God. True faith demands your complete commitment, even unto your whole life: in whom will you enact your faith, these false idols listed above, or God?

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