First, a prayer:
God, creator of heaven and earth, it is time for you to come, for our time is running out and our world is passing away.
You gave us life in peace, one with another, and we have ruined it in mutual conflict.
You made your creation in harmony and equilibrium. We want progress, and are destroying ourselves.
Come Creator of all things, renew the face of the earth.
Come, Lord Jesus, our brother on the way. You came to seek that which was lost.
You have come to us and have found us. Take us with you on your way.
We hope for your kingdom as we hope for peace.
Come, Lord Jesus, come soon.
Come, Spirit of Life, flood us with your light, interpenetrate us with your love.
Awaken our powers through your energies and in your presence let us be wholly there.
Come, Holy Spirit.
God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, triune God, unite with yourself your torn and divided world, and let us all be one in you, one with your whole creation, which praises and glorifies you and in you is happy.
~Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 145
There’s probably no topic that has a bigger gulf of study between academic discussions and church discussions than eschatology–often thought of as the study of the “end times.” I have a lot of critiques about academic theology and I have a huge passion to see theology connect better with the church and popular discussions.
Well, eschatology–the ‘end times’–is a topic in which I think the Church has really lost a sense of transformative focus and turned eschatology into something that I struggle seeing the fruit of the Spirit within. If this is the work of the Spirit in bringing God’s Kingdom among us, then eschatology, maybe even most of all, should be full of love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest.
Being awakened to a, ahem, fuller eschatology really has rejuvenated much of my own faith and hope not only for the future but also the present.
Last Sunday, we got home late from a whirlwind trip to Santa Barbara (about a 3 hour drive). My daughter is in 4th grade and here in California 4th graders study state history and do a project on the California missions.
This is a pretty difficult history in part because of how Christianity was used to virtually enslave the native coastal populations of Chumash, Tongva, and others.
Yet, the continuing work of the Franciscans in Santa Barbara (the only mission with a continuing community of Franciscans since its founding) has a lot of light and hope and help in it I could see going on these days–I really like the preaching of the pastor there. But, it wasn’t constant progress from then to now. That work also had some really dark times even as recently as the last few decades.
What do we do with the Franciscans of the 1th century or the Franciscans involved in horrid scandals in the 20th century (which impacted, I learned later, one of my good friends in 4th and 5th grade)? Does that ruin any chance of hope? Do we abandon ourselves to rage or despair? Or do we, on the other hand, ignore the tragedy and evils of humanity?
I don’t think so.
Eschatology involves not a dismissiveness about the past, nor a triumphalism, but a hope that we are never wholly lost in our brokenness, that at every point we are invited to seek a better way even in this present life and be people who encourage, renew, edify each other.
The vision God gives us of our future should bring us peace because we know we don’t have to be people who hate, who undermine others in competition or attempts at asserting our will. We don’t have to be caught in the frenzy and never ending expectations of the world.
We can become people who listen. Who learn, Who dance in the rhythms of the Spirit’s work, remembering the brokenness of the past in seeking a redeeming story of life together, reconciled and finally truly free.
Where are you needing freedom this week? What do you need freedom from? Who can you give freedom to in your efforts?
Let us together seek a living eschatology that in bringing us hope for what is to come makes us be bringers of life and freedom to our neighborhoods and to our families.
This isn’t our work, this is the work of the Spirit that we sing and dance with as we learn the words, the steps, and love those around us.
It’s also really true that our trip this last weekend was a wonderful getaway after a very long season of sickness, frustrations, and other things.
I lived in Santa Barbara for a while growing up and my family then had some really difficult experiences, that eventually caused us to leave, severe financial and health issues. But in being back with my own family, I was able to find places of peace I remembered and places of beauty to share.
It was busy, but it was also restful. I pray you are able to find places and moments of rest, of beauty, of deep grace that helps you think of the challenging moments with a sense of God’s care and provision.
The story God is writing continues, and let us seek God’s telling in our lives and in those around us.
Good insights here talking about narcissism among pastors, though nothing surprising. I’m struck and stuck with the reality that church leadership is structured to select for narcissistic leaders, and that is what troubles me a lot about the huge emphasis on “leadership development” in churches, which is often much more emphasized than spiritual or emotional development.
This isn’t unique to church leaders, of course, but churches, of all places should be free of this kind of reality–if they were structured in the pattern of the Holy Spirit’s work of giving gifts and empowerment to all the people. Another troubling reality is that narcissist leaders can be very wise and very astute in ministry and the Bible.
There are a lot of leaders who fall, of course, but there are also a lot who thrive in ministry and are very famous in their ministry, but are still narcissists, leading others into destructive habits. Meanwhile, there are a lot of wonderful, balanced, pastors who are struggling because they are made to feel insufficient compared to those “successful” ministry.
It’s a bad cycle that endures because it’s what our church models continue to develop.
How different all this is from the instruction I received as I grew into my own Christian faith. I was taught to recite the creeds, I was prepared for confirmation on the basis of a catechism that in effect told me that there were certain articles of belief to which I must subscribe. My head was constantly engaged, my mind filled with information.
But this did not involve the whole of myself, my five senses, my emotions and feelings, and above all my imagination. Nor did it bring any sense of continuity or belonging, seeing myself as being inserted in my own generation into a great and continuing heritage of the past.
I had no sense of being a member of a long chain of family and kin stretching back into the past, and so being able to draw from a shared common storehouse of memory and storytelling. If I am discovering how to pray differently (and also to think and to feel differently), it is because I am now finding a holistic way which better responds to the wholeness and the fullness within my own self. And this of course helps me to become the person who I would much prefer to be.
De Waal, Esther. The Celtic Way of Prayer (pp. 35-36).
Something I wrote in 2011 for a now defunct site. Gets at how the theology we sometimes want, even in Christmas, isn’t really the theology we need. In this 2020 Christmas, we need a theology of hope within the messiness.
Do you know (well of course you know) the old hymn Away in a Manger? Here are the words:
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay
The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
‘Til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there
This is a popular carol to be sure, one of the most popular. The sentiment is nice, indeed steering pretty much into being sentimental, emphasizing the peace of the moment, the quiet, the contented, inviting us into this still moment so as to still our hearts, encouraging us to imagine ourselves in this most pastoral of scenes so as to renew our faith in the God who cares for us and will take us, as well, to the place of peace. Lovely.
And yet… I wonder about it a little bit, and I wonder about it in a way that reflects some of my thoughts on so much of our Christmas liturgies and celebrations.
We’re docetic. This carol is docetic.
Now, before you get offended, let me tell you more exactly how you should be offended, since I basically called us heretics. There were two main ways in which the early Church erred in their thinking about Jesus.
There were those who tended to see him only as this guy, this great guy mind you, but just a guy, with a special message and work that should inspire us.
On the other side, there were those who really emphasized the fact Jesus was God, and the conceptions of God being what they were they couldn’t see how this Jesus was really a real human.
So, they danced around the idea of how this Jesus appeared in human form, but didn’t really cavort with real flesh, blood, or any of the other trappings of physical life. This latter approach was called docetism.
Now, we’ll confess that’s wrong. The incarnation is in our creeds, after all. We confess Jesus was both this guy and this God, and would heartily argue with someone who suggested anything different.
And yet, like with this carol, our worship and liturgy is much better about emphasizing the glory of Christ’s divinity than the earthiness of Christ’s humanity.
We want to be lifted up, lifted away, given space within God’s throne room, transported out of our present troubles and be promised that this impassive savior will deliver us to live in a safe, protected, always still, paradise.
The baby wakes, but the baby doesn’t cry.
That’s what we want all our life to be like. All our problems would appear, but not disturb us in any way. Just like the little Lord Jesus.
Only that’s almost certainly not how it was. We worship in a way that seems like we’re honoring God, but in a way that so often dismisses the real glory of what happened. We want to protect God, to keep Jesus safe, to honor him and make up stories that are more impressive. Sort of like what some in the early church did with the gnostic infancy stories.
That’s not really honoring God, though, is it?
The reality of the Christmas story is not that it was this moment of perfection, of stillness, of beauty and life and constrained adoration. The reality of Christmas was that everything was going wrong. Joseph was ordered by a hated ruler to travel at most inconvenient time. His wife was very pregnant.
The roads were dangerous, the weather probably was bad, and in general they were pulled away from their life. One thing went wrong after another. They finally got to the town of Bethlehem, but they couldn’t find a place to stay.
We know this story, but think about it again, now. Think about how you might feel if you had to travel during the Christmas season, the airports shut down, and all the local hotels were booked.
Think about how you feel when you go to the store, to many stores, and can’t find that thing—that ingredient or that perfect present—no matter where you go. Think about the frustrations that come with visiting family (after all Joseph had to go to the town where his family originated).
We like to reflect on peace and stillness, and get annoyed with all the frustrations pulling us away from our ‘proper’ religious focus. Only, it’s precisely with those frustrations that we can understand the fullness, the glory, of the incarnation. God isn’t this otherworldly being, away from us, distant from us, separated.
Jesus wasn’t this still, little child in this nicely arranged nativity scene—put the shepherds over there, and Mary and Joseph standing beside the small little manger, with maybe an angel or two off to the side and the wise men hovering over the manger right behind Mary and Joseph.
The nativity was messy.
It was a barn and a stable.
Birth is messy. Travel is messy.
It’s all messy and it’s all frustrating and it’s the sort of thing that makes a person confused and angry about why everything seems to be going wrong, the best laid plans going awry no matter how much we try to get things going right.
To this, God entered into this world. Into this, was Jesus born.
In the midst of the messiness and frustration and distraction, God became a human, participating with us so as to restore us.
We want to ignore the trappings of real life when we create our Christmas worship. Only that’s precisely what God didn’t want to ignore.
It came to pass in the midst of messiness. That’s the way of God’s work with humanity. It does not lift us out and away, it leads us through the times of wilderness and struggle, forming us and shaping us, creating us anew.
The earliest Christians called their faith The Way, and that’s because it was precisely in the midst of struggles and frustrations that Christ gave a new way of living, one that resonates the work of God even, and especially, when things just don’t seem to be going right.
And that’s precisely the place where God enters in, joining with us, bringing life and hope.
When it is messy, when it is loud, when everything seems out of hand, God is with us, incarnated among us, joining together in our struggles right when they seem the most overwhelming.
We don’t ignore the struggles. We look for the God who became a baby in the midst of a messy, awkward, frustrating manger. Because we know this incarnation means all things are made new.
And, no doubt, that little Lord Jesus cried. Because that’s what babies do.
Thanks be to God.
Amy re-wrote the lyrics to this carol that I think better fits the truth and our situations.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head
Dirty and smelly, the family of three
Exhausted from labor and from their journey
The cattle are noisy, the poor baby wakes
Mary, still bloody, no pain meds she takes
She swaddles him up in the clothes that they brought
And feeds and burps him like Elizabeth taught
The rest of the town sleeps in homes and hotels
Ignorant of wonders the angel foretells
The shepherds arrive in amazement and joy
The last in the culture are first to the boy
The Way in a manger, the Truth and the Life
He enters right into the mess and the strife
A crib laid with diamonds and gold He deserved
He came to serve others, not to be served
Merry Christmas and Happy Long-Awaited New Year!
Read: Psalm 25; Lamentations 3; Romans 15:1-13; Ephesians 4
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.”
Know the hope.
But what is hope?
Hope is one of those words that is overused to the point of gutting it of real meaning. In much common use, hope is really made equivalent to “want”.
In this, it’s really saying “this is what we’d like to happen.”
I hope I get that promotion.
I hope my team wins.
I hope those family members don’t get into one of their usual arguments over Thanksgiving.
I hope I can get away for some vacation some time next year (these latter two may be connected hopes).
Such anemic hopes are often the opposite of being content, the kind of content that Paul says he finds in all circumstances.
We struggle with such hopes because they are rooted in our desires, or our variously achievable assertion of will.
When we get what we want, we feel victorious, and that’s an addictive kind of experience. When we don’t get what we want, we linger in an identity crisis of one kind or another, and that’s an experience that cannot be sustained so has to be resolved one way or another.
Driven to either more achievement or to resolve our sense of lack, we enter into forms of frenzy.
When caught in this chaos, I find it hard to be content in any circumstances. When things are going well, I look to see how much more well they can get. When things aren’t going well it is easy to fall into anxiety or distraction.
The early monastics used the term “acedia” to describe this kind of spiritual depression, where our will and emotions are caught in a trap of disoriented yearning, and we lose sight of the calling we have been given in Christ.
A person caught in this can be fully of busyness, always rushing around, always trying to do more and more, always wanting to hear what this person or that person thinks or is doing. Or they can be caught in despair, no longer caring, no longer loving, no longer confident God is really at work.
This isn’t about ‘clinical depression’ because a lot of people living within acedia can seem very full of life and optimistic. But they are oriented in their wants and their wants are driving them in constant frenzy. Or it can look like depression, but has a culpable quality because it is embraced as being identity and objective perspective.
Wants drive us to frenzy.
So often we take our yearnings and turn them into temporary satisfactions, drinking sea water when we’re caught on the ocean in a life boat.
Hope leads us to peace.
Real hope, substantive hope, is a driving vision of the future in which we find our self satisfied in a deep sense.
Hope isn’t just about our wants, though often our wants are folded into the bigger vision of our hope. Hope is salvation because what we need, what we most need, is something far too many people have despaired to ever find.
Who am I? Who can I trust? Am I a real person?
The hope offered in Christ gives answers to these questions, an inviting answer of welcoming into a new community of eternally valued life.
We don’t have to strive to prove ourselves having worth. God love us.
We don’t have to give into the patterns of the world and the ways it says we have to establish our identity or order to find approval or acceptance. We have value in Christ.
We don’t have to fight or undermine others in order to show ourselves stronger, wiser, better. We have a place at God’s table, sharing and laughing and singing with others.
Hope is an orientation because it provides a vision that addresses all the concerns and questions in life. It gives us something beyond us to focus on, and keeps us from indulging the whims, distractions, sins that undermine our love of others.
Eschatologies that are established in anxiety or fear always push toward dysfunctional communities because they are rooted in a perspective of the world and the flesh. They are eschatologies of want: wanting to escape, wanting to dominate, wanting to indulge.
An eschatology that is rooted in substantive hope offers a different path through life.
Patience, because frenzy isn’t God’s way.
Perseverance, because the present frustrations aren’t in control.
Joy, because in walking with the Spirit we experience a new kind of life in every moment.
Gentleness, because it’s not our will we’re fighting for but seeking that God’s will be done. And God is full of grace.
Hope is the path of keeping in step with the Spirit, the way of understanding that life is much bigger and much deeper and much livelier than the wan attempts the world celebrates.
And because of this bigger vision of life, we grow in our capacity to love with the very love God resonates, seeking the best for others, seeking their fullness and possibility.
No longer anxious, we can also find rest, celebrating the Sabbath as a weekly expression of our deep, if sometimes disciplined, hope in God’s eternal presence.
Is hope leading you this day? If not, what is driving your sense of self and decisions?
Where are the areas of frustration or distraction in your life? Are you doing things to prove yourself to others (or to your own self)? How is the hope we find in God’s Great Story helping you to navigate the crises within your community?
Stop for a little bit right now.
Pray for peace. Pray for rest.
Pray that despite all indications the world throws at us, we can hope with a genuine hope that transcends all possibilities because the Spirit is at work and Christ is with us.
Thanks be to God.
There’s a tendency in human thinking to assume that knowledge tends toward a binary: either right or wrong, good or bad, left or right, we are helping or we are hurting, us versus them. There can be nuances within broad positions, but it seems popular to assume the positions themselves cannot share the stage of truth. Some may admit to the possibility of a third position, taking good points from each side and forming a synthesis that then gets at what is best.
However, these aren’t necessarily the only options, and indeed in both theology and science we find a fair bit more complexity, even to the point of approaching paradox. Jesus is not either God or man, nor is he (in orthodox terms) a curious synthesis of both God and man. He is fully God and fully man. Light is not either particle or wave, nor is it (in scientific terms) a curious middle ground between particle and wave. It is both particle and wave. It’s an odd assertion, but true nevertheless.
True with light and maybe true with politics. As crazy as that latter point might sound, it really seems true when I think about the different ways Pannenberg and Moltmann approached political theology. Moltmann is more well known, so I’m going to focus now on Pannenberg.
Wolfhart Pannenberg burst onto the scene in 1961 (in a way that theologians were able to burst onto scenes in the mid-twentieth century that they’re not in our era) with his contribution to a collection of essays on the revelation of history. That little volume, of which fifty-eight pages of the hundred-eighty-page book were written by Pannenberg, was a significant foray in the battle for a post-Barthian theology.
History was knowable and history was the domain of God’s revelation, an indirect revelation in which the activities of God displayed his own character and oriented humanity toward transformation. This revelation is on its way to the eschaton, and yet this revelation was not human initiatives nor dependent on a linear, progressive view of time. It was God’s revelation from the future, that expressed God’s being through God’s rule, an inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that interacted and reorients our experience of life, the universe, and everything.
This Kingdom is, by definition, political, because that’s what kingdoms are.
Later, amidst his sometimes shockingly prolific work, he took a sustained interest in theological anthropology. This interest was not new, but the way he poured into it was unique among theologians. His Anthropology in Theological Perspective is a tour de force of engaging theology and the social sciences, illustrating Pannenberg’s goal of thoroughly public theology that draws deeply from a broad range of writing and unapologetically Christian perspective that assumes that theology is a contributing partner to every discussion.
God made the world, after all, and truth is thus oriented by that reality. At this time, that’s more of a hypothesis in a sustained research program, though one that defined Pannenberg’s whole theological project. In that major text, as well as throughout many other smaller texts that explore shared themes, Pannenberg included discussions about politics and social responsibilities.
Yet, for the most part, while his contemporary and theological complement, Moltmann, needs no preface to discussing his political theology, Pannenberg tends to be almost entirely left out of that category.
There’s two reasons for this. The first is that Pannenberg was particularly anti-Marxist in an age in which Marxism was becoming dominant in academic analysis and definitive in political theologies in particular. He was a supporter of Ronald Reagan and saw both capitalism and America as positives.
In his autobiography, Moltmann puts it this way: “We both, each in his own way, tried to do theology in the light of Christ’s resurrection. But although my idea of promise and his idea of anticipation show theoretical correspondences, the practical consequences we drew in politics could unfortunately be completely contrary to each other.” (106)
The second reason Pannenberg has been left out is that Pannenberg is not particularly focused on the practical engagement of theology in specific ways. That is, his focus is more on coherent orthodoxy than orthopraxy. Political theology in our era tends to be less concerned about theory and more about what we should do in light of our theological assumptions and mandates. It may be reflection still, but it is reflection on praxis.
In light of these issues, that Pannenberg tended to be a supporter of the kinds of Anglo-European politicians that political theologians were increasingly reviling and that his theology isn’t oriented toward specific social actions, his contributions became increasingly left out of conversations and texts.
Add to this that in his later career he became less interested in the social sciences and more interested in dialogue with the so-called hard sciences it is not surprising that his contributions to political theology are not well-discussed.
Pannenberg was far from silenced on the topic of politics. He contributed in both German and English publications, with his American voice taking shape especially in the pages of the journal First Things, which shared Pannenberg’s intellectual fervor and conservative perspective.
All this to say, Pannenberg was both a theological heavyweight, especially on the topics related to anthropology, and a political conservative. These were cohesive positions for him. That is why coming to terms with his thinking is very helpful for understanding how someone like Franklin Graham can argue his politics is not only consistent with but also reflective of his long standing Christian commitments to both evangelism and social action around the world.
Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach to history might be called Hegelian influenced, but it is far from being Hegelian in substance. Rather than being an idealist about human progress, Pannenberg is better considered a historical realist. His well-developed hamartiology is at the root of his anthropology, and defines sin as being misplaced identity, finding meaning and value in that which is not God.
God’s revelation in history orients humanity to finding their identity in God once more. That is the hope for the world, and it is expressed in the love God has for each particular person. The priority is always on the freedom of the particular to find oneself again within the orienting presence of the divine, and in this to no longer be captive to egocentric impulses to define their self or assert their self over against others, but rather to live in exocentric freedom with others, which is the orientation of the Kingdom of God.
Humanity is made open to the world, rather than closed off to it and to others, and this requires the element of freedom to be maintained. The historic tendency is for rulers or systems to attempt to dominate social context, and in this to define meaning for each person and manipulate their needs.
As the manipulator influences the consciousness of meaning, the result is a humanity cut off from its true self and instead locked into temporal assumptions about human meaning that always depersonalizes and misdirects a person away from their true self.
The one who controls the social narrative controls the orientation of the systems in the environment and that is why, as Pannenberg puts it in his book The Church (19) “the model of human community which the Christian church is to represent dare not be indebted to human lordship for its unity, but only to the lordship of God himself.”
Pannenberg’s strong emphasis on human freedom requires orienting sociality in God, as only God provides the orienting substance that can be sustained through eternity. This non-idealism leads to his critique of Marxism, which he argues begins with a distinct anthropology and so utilizing Marxism can not be excused simply by ignoring its atheistic elements.
In other words, it’s not the perspective on God that is Pannenberg’s main problem with Marxism, it is its perspective on humanity, which he argued assumed a narrow perspective on human life and meaning that also, by definition, excluded finding holistic meaning in God’s identity.
Instead of seeing politics, and human thriving, through the lens of Marxist anthropology, Pannenberg emphasizes a version of human life in which sociality is best expressed through particularity.
A person who has been transformed by God moves out of the egocentric bluster and into an exocentric experience of life, in which one is free to be who they have been made to be and, in this, being expressive in participating with the freedom of others. Such a situation is best enacted in the context where a thoroughly Christian anthropology is given space to be developed in its wide diversity and expressed through immediate relationships (which create a web of interconnectivity across social boundaries)
Thus, Pannenberg also has a distinct understanding of what freedom entails. It is not a free-for-all of justifying sin-drenched distractions. Nor is it simply a fetishization of individualism, though Pannenberg’s defense of private property has raised that charge. Instead, it is important to protect freedom of each person so they can express their freedom in the lordship of Christ, not the lordship of a system or government.
Thus, Pannenberg supported conservative politics as he saw that system as de-emphasizing social control over people and maximizing possibilities of expression, within which those who were oriented in Christ could then be most free to express this life in holistic ways. It is the transformative identity of Christ in a transformed people that call out a new pattern of free mutuality, substantive reciprocity and recognition of one another as fully formed people.
This expression is political as it involves the whole experience of life together, but it is not established on false claims of meaning that can come from bureaucratic definitions or governmental allegiances. It is an expression of the Kingdom of God at work among us, a proleptic experience of that which can only be fully realized in the eschaton.
In this, we can see Pannenberg’s emphasis on theology from below taking on an eschatological orientation. Rather than seeing social change as demanding revolution or authoritarian demands, Pannenberg is strongly anti-authoritarian for the sake of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom works in the midst of a transformed people who live transformed lives in the power of the Spirit. It is “theocentric from below” in approach, idealizing God’s intervention and revelation among particular people and contexts, rather than “anthrocentric from above,” which generalizes human society and attempts to enforce patterns of resolution onto people.
Attempts to impose an ideology from above results in continued identity distortion and eventual social conflict, even if in the short term there are immediate solutions. He points to the historical evidence of communist countries, and how their idealistic rhetoric does not result in social equality but devolves into authoritarian and bureaucratic oppression. In emphasizing a collective humanity, it dehumanizes particular people as part of the process, allowing for
The Kingdom participates with the Spirit who works through history, not primarily through a “World-Historical” figure but in the midst of the infinite complexity of particular beings, who finding their identity in Christ live out the Kingdom in manifold ways. Thus it is more like a fractal working from the inside, which insists on genuine conversion to the identity of Christ for a new way of life in the midst of the world.
This is not as dramatic nor as immediate a result as happens through top-down implementation whether through political parties or, in extreme cases, revolution. The argument is that it is, however, more thorough and resistant to false promises or corrupted participants.
In many ways it reflects the political theology of the ante-Nicene church, rather than the post-Constantinian church that sought quicker change of both theology and practices through government-enforced mandates.
This slow-change may seem stifling and ineffective, however, as church historian Alan Kreider recently put it, this emphasis on transformation from below was a “patient ferment” in the society that led to substantive lasting changes in the long term.
I wrote the above about 4 years ago as part of an invited series on theologians and their political theology. I’m reposting it with these thoughts because of a little conversation I was having on Twitter.
This isn’t to argue for, let alone defend, any specific political solution we’re faced with these days. More it is to suggest that underlying the media-driven reductionism of different demographics actually misses a key issue in political theology.
There’s not a binary in which two sides are being taken in a shared understanding of Christian calling, rather there’s a distinctly different underlying methodology at work which can confuse even the most esteemed academics. Those who only see one kind of goal of politics and only see solutions moving through this, want to deride the other side for making the wrong choice or ignoring the broader mandate. Meanwhile, the other side derides the former for its own political blindness to what are seen as a more narrow range of particularly politically charged issues.
Both sides charge the other with being non-Christian, hating Jesus, and maybe in league with the devil.
This all goes to exactly why CS Lewis so sharply protested a particular “Christian” party in the mid-20th century. There can be shared goals and distinctly different solutions proposed. More, understanding how Pannenberg and Moltmann could share so much in common and yet come to very different political positions is a reminder for us all that our closest compatriots in the Gospel may be quite far away from us politically.
I know this has been clear to me. I have a lot more in common with some people I disagree with politically than many of those who might share my political leanings. Probably why I’m not quick to betray my Evangelical or Progressive brethren in order to gain points in popular media or the academy.
To say that one side hates life or hates the poor or hates choice is really just giving into the kind of partisan rhetoric that the political system pushes on us to make us think it is the only solution. It’s only interested in its own perpetuation and wants us to ignore that in places where any side has power there, oddly, still remains the same problems.
This is precisely the choice Jesus refused to make, not choosing the Pharisees, or the Romans, or the Zealots. He had his own way that wasn’t going to gain anything by offering his allegiance to them.
Know that I’m writing this now because I’m used to the Christian Right falling into this trap but now see those I respect on the other side mirroring the same kind of rhetoric they said they used to dislike.
I’m thinking the big problem with 2020 for most of us is that we’ve willingly handed over our emotions for other people to control, then blame them for leading us like slaves to their whims.
Some people are dealing with huge problems to be sure. But most of us are frenzied up because of what might happen or how we see others misbehaving in whatever way interrupts us
It’s road rage leaking into every part of our life.
Be still today.
Stillness is not betraying our causes, it keeps us focused on the prize and says our emotions are ours to control.
I value that Juneteenth is getting a lot more broader attention these days. It’s a really important day in American history, not so much this particular day (which was when the Emancipation Proclamation became applied in Texas) but as part of a long process of freedom for slaves. In many ways it is like the Declaration of Independence, which wasn’t signed all on one day, but we pick a day to honor what it set in motion.
For about 30 years, any time I’ve been asked about my favorite movie, I have immediately responded with Glory. Don’t believe me? The soundtrack was the first CD I ever owned (before I even had a CD player) and the VHS tape was likewise the first I owned, and that was when videotapes were priced for rental, so it cost quite a bit (a gift I deeply wanted and got for a holiday).
That movie hit me in so many ways and came at a time in my life when I was seriously into Civil War history. If you don’t know it, it’s a movie about the first regular army Black regiment in the Civil War. It stars Matthew Broderick, but the key role really is played by Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor.
I liked it then and now because it was such a good portrayal of the Civil War, maybe still among the best, and also because it entered into the complexity of the experiences of the time, both among whites and blacks, who all came to the field of battle with vastly different journeys.
It shows how there was mixed motives for the war but also how deeply the abolitionist movement was behind all that happened.
It also shows the complexity of responses within that movement, with some advocating for equal treatment and others committed to a paternalism.
I think especially of the contrasting scene where the Massachusetts 54th is sent to support another Union regiment in the South which was made up of freed slaves, which they called contraband. Both regiments were ‘free’ but the 54th expressed a dignity and commitment by the soldiers and the officers together.
It isn’t an easy movie to watch, especially in contemporary climate where likely much of the raw treatment shown wouldn’t be allowed. Though it really is tamed down compared to what life was like for far too many.
I’ve since learned that I have family on both sides who fought on both sides of this war, so it’s a story that deeply intersects my own heritage in deeply thought provoking ways.
What I really loved about it then was the message of hope within the struggle, the message of perseverance, of fighting for a cause even when there are enemies both on the outside and the inside. It digs into the deep trauma and emotions such trauma continue in and yet has this inspiring message of working together within patterns of injustice that lead to movements of hope.
The message of Juneteenth brings this all back, and so we’re likely watching this movie again this evening. It’s not an easy story, and the deeply troubling message is how the moment of freedom and possibility that came out of the Civil War eventually, far too quickly, devolved into cowardly treatment of former slaves and blacks all over the country. It also points to how violence may solve an immediate problem but there’s a need for deeper transformation too, which Glory also gets into.
Humanity and human history are complex, and we rightly critique the ways sin distorts, co-opts, and then controls our society in systemic and personal ways. But in the midst of this there are glimpses of liberation and people of all kinds of backgrounds who fight for that liberation.
Even if the battles aren’t always one, there’s such a need to honor those moments where freedom broke through and to find renewed hope for the moments we encounter in our age.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, which is a day that people from many nations heard words of hope to share together in a new experience of humanity. This is not a hope the world offers or a hope the world can pull off on its own. The world offers only more reasons to divide and rage.
The miracle is not the tongues, but the possibility there’s a new way that languages, races, nations, cultures are no longer reasons to hate but become ways of hope and sharing. Too often even the church has used language of peace to inflict chaos and spread more chaos widely.
Today is the day we remember there is a way of unity because of diversity and a way of deep peace that overcomes injustices and promises wholeness as individuals and as a community. But it is also a day we remember the world cannot and will not do it on their own. I have little hope people will do better. I have hope the Spirit can and does bring the Kingdom among us even now.