Saturday Night Theologian
27 January 2008

Isaiah 9:1-4 (first published 23 January 2005)

In his second inaugural address, President Bush spoke a lot about freedom. He said that over the past fifty years Americans have "defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders." To which distant borders is he referring? Certainly Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Granada, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia. . . . The list goes on and on. "Defending freedom" has become a euphemism for "looking out for number one," and as the president noted, it is not just a recent phenomenon. In the eighth century B.C.E. the Assyrian Empire expanded its borders south and west, incorporating under its direct control the provinces of Dur (the Way of the Sea), Galazu (the land beyond the Jordan), and Magidu (Galilee of the nations). It carved these provinces out of the land of Israel, specifically, out of the land associated with the ancient tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. Probably writing shortly after the fall of Israel, the prophet Isaiah writes to the people of Judah, whose king, Hezekiah, had visions of a land that extended to the borders of the kingdom of David and Solomon, one that included the areas now under the control of the Assyrians. The people of those lands, he says, have suffered greatly under the imperialist policies of Assyria, but hope remains. "The yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian," says the prophet. Isaiah sees God as the champion of the oppressed, one who offers freedom from their enemies. What is freedom? The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, ostensibly in an effort to bring freedom to its people. The U.S. sent hundreds of thousands of troops into Vietnam for the same stated purpose. In 2003 President Bush sent American armed forces into Iraq under the banner of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Did the Afghanis, the Vietnamese, or the Iraqis welcome such efforts to bring them freedom? Undoubtedly there were some who did, at least at first, but as foreign occupation wore on and promises of a better life kept retreating into the distant future, the tide of public opinion turned more and more strongly against the invading armies. It happened in Afghanistan and in Vietnam, and it is happening again in Iraq. Even putting the most positive spin on the motivations of the invading army, how can one justify the mayhem, carnage, and suffering that have resulted from these attempts to establish freedom? Maybe the problem is that the definition of freedom that imperial powers use is not the same as that imagined by the masses of the oppressed in distant lands. Look again at Isaiah. What the people long for, he says, is the removal of the yoke, the bar, the rod of military oppression, not the substitution of one oppressive ruler for another. Moreover, Isaiah suggests that the people long to rule themselves, on their own terms. The problem that the inhabitants of Galilee had wasn't that they were ruled, it was that they were ruled by a foreign power. Foreigners, even those with the best of intentions, have a hard time understanding the culture, the language, the religion, and the aspirations of the people whose land they occupy. On top of that, there is the yearning of all people to make their own way. If they want to be capitalists, fine; if they want to be communists, fine; if they want to try a different approach to economic policy, fine. People don't want outside ideas imposed upon them. There are some basic human rights that all rulers (including imperial rulers) must follow, but within those parameters there is much room for experimentation. Let people figure out for themselves what system of government they want. Let them determine for themselves whether their current borders make sense, or whether existing borders should be eliminated (a la Germany) or new borders should be created (a la the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Above all, freedom implies religious liberty, the ability to worship God--or not--according to one's own understanding and conscience. Over the next four years, may our nation support true freedom around the world, freedom as the citizens of the world themselves see it, and may Christians lead the way as advocates for freedom.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9 (first published 23 January 2005)

One of the primary differences between fundamentalist and progressive Christians is the attitude toward theology, or knowledge of God. Fundamentalists believe that there is a set of propositional truths that cannot be questioned if one is to remain a true Christian. Christians are urged, or sometimes required, to pledge allegiance to these truths, and their acceptance is a measure of faithfulness to God. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, reject a fixed set of propositional truths that must be accepted by all. Individual Christians or congregations may well have a set of beliefs to which they adhere, but they do not make acceptance of their particular set of beliefs a requirement for being recognized as a Christian. The difference between these two approaches to theology is apparent in the contrasting terminology: fundamentalists talk about truths; progressives talk about beliefs. It is not that progressive Christians don't believe in truth, it is just that they are skeptical that their understanding of the truth is complete or universal, either geographically or chronologically. The psalmist describes his chief desire as being allowed to abide in God's house all the days of his life, to behold the beauty of God, and to inquire in God's temple. The word translated "inquire" could also be rendered "examine," "investigate," or "consider." Whatever the exact nature of the psalmist's desire, it involves using the mind to approach God. There is no implication that the psalmist has a fixed list of truths to which he wants to pay homage in the temple. On the contrary, he portrays himself as one who does not already have all the answers to life's questions. In this week's Christian Century, the editors discuss the theological implications of last month's disastrous tsunami in the Indian Ocean. "To say the event reminds us of our finitude or our inability to control nature is to mumble platitudes. To say God willed such devastation for some greater reason is to administer a theological slap to the tear-stained faces of all who mourn, especially the parents who mourn their drowned children. To say God was powerless to do anything to stop the disaster may make the divine seem less monstrous, but it leaves us with no God worthy of the name." Spouting "propositional truths" like "God is omnipotent" and "God is love" in response to the big question--WHY?--reveals the shallowness of such an approach to the divine. Real life isn't black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. Real life is shades of gray and ambiguity, and any theology that doesn't recognize that is both simpleminded and impotent. Christians should always be seeking to know God better, seeking to understand the ways of God more fully. However, we should also realize that our understanding of God will always be clouded by our limited intellects and our blinkered worldviews. We can grow in our understanding of God not by accepting some predefined, cookie-cutter theology, but only by intense reflection, contemplation, and inquiry. Understanding of the divine comes not through memorization of statements about God but through prayerful consideration of God's world and God's work in that world.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (first published 23 January 2005)

Suicide car bombers today in Iraq killed more than 20 people. Since most of the victims were Shiites, it is likely that the bombers were Sunnis. Iraq is a land that has been ruled by Sunnis for centuries, even though the majority of the population, like its neighbor Iran, is Shiite. One sect of the religion making war on another is not limited to Islam. Catholic and Protestant Christians have been killing each other for years in Northern Ireland, although a tenuous peace is now in place and may finally be taking hold. Factional differences don't always lead to war, of course. Often differences between two groups of the same religion lead "merely" to oppression, prejudice, or excommunication. Christian factions go back at least as far as the mid-fifties of the first century, when they were present in the church in Corinth. Immediately after the opening greetings to the church, Paul admonishes the members not to divide into warring factions. There were apparently two main groups, those allied to Paul on the one hand and Apollos on the other. Whether there were also "Cephas" and "Jesus" groups, or whether Paul invented these merely for the sake of rhetoric, is debatable. The origins of the first two groups is easy to trace. Paul himself was one of the founders of the church in Corinth, and he stayed in the city for a year and half after his arrival. Later, an Alexandrian Christian named Apollos came to Corinth and helped lead the church. The nature of the differences between Paul's and Apollos's teachings are never specified, but one can imagine that Paul, who thought of himself as "a Pharisee of the Pharisees" and was a disciple of the eminent Palestinian rabbi Gamaliel might have had several differences in doctrine or approach from the Alexandrian Jew Apollos, who was likely schooled in the allegorical approach to scripture of Philo of Alexandria. It is instructive to note that Paul does not try to refute the teachings or methodology of Apollos, though he was undoubtedly aware of the specifics of their differences of opinion. Instead, he urges the Corinthian Christians to embrace one another and focus on their shared faith. Regardless of our differences, Paul says, we have more in common with one another than we have differences, "for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Paul had strong opinions, but he knew how to focus on what was most important. For the early church to survive, differences of opinion would have to be tolerated, and Christians with different approaches would have to be accepted as fellow believers; otherwise, the church would founder and cease to exist. Two thousand years later, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with perhaps two billion adherents. We have divided into dozens of major groups, with hundreds of minor divisions among them. In and of itself this isn't bad. It is natural for individuals who share a common set of beliefs, a common interest in a particular style of worship, or a common worldview to want to worship together. The problem comes when one group decides that its own set of beliefs and practices is normative and that others are less authentic Christians, or perhaps they are not really Christians at all. I see this frequently with my students, some of whom like to distinguish between "Catholics" and "Christians" (they seem to be unfamiliar with the term "Protestant"). Paul admonishes us to respect one another and recognize those with whom we differ as legitimate followers of Christ. Yes, we worship differently. Some prefer a solemn, contemplative worship service, while others stand up and shout and raise their hands in praise. Yes, we organize our church years differently. Some follow the traditional seasons of the Christian year--Advent, Lent, Pentecost, and so forth--while others treat every Sunday (or Saturday) the same. Yes, we have different beliefs. Some take the Bible very literally, believing in a literal Adam and Eve and flood, while others see many biblical stories as religious literature akin to other similar ancient writings. Some insist on the Chalcedonian formula for describing the person of Christ and the essence of the Trinity, while others use the language of symbol and speak of the mystery of the Incarnation. In spite of all these differences, we have one very central thing in common. We all accept the centrality of the cross in both the life of Jesus and in the individual Christian experience. We accept Jesus as Lord and try to emulate him in our lives today. With Paul, let us embrace our brothers and sisters who belong to different factions. Let us share fellowship with them if they are willing. Finally, let us worship together and celebrate our common faith. That which identifies us as Christians is more important than those things that divide us.

Matthew 4:12-23 (first published 23 January 2005)

When I first discerned the call to ministry in my own life, I was unsure exactly what direction I wanted to go. I could see myself as pastor of a church, but I could also see myself as a professor in a college or seminary. Little did I suspect where my spiritual journey would lead. I have served on staff in a Spanish-speaking church (when I went to the church I didn't speak a lick of Spanish), and I have taught school in South Africa. I have taught high school math and science, and I have managed the information technology department for an academic publisher. I have worked on a large digitization grant for a library association, and I have started my own non-profit corporation. Now, among other things, I'm back to teaching. Who can say what's next? What a wild, woolly, wonderful road it's been so far! When Jesus began his public ministry, his initial preaching mirrored that of John the Baptist. Today's reading from Matthew's gospel tells us that Jesus' public words were the same as John's: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." It didn't take long, however, before Jesus' ministry diverged from that of John's, who was now in prison. The gospel writer summarizes Jesus' ministry, based on a reading of Isaiah 9, as shining a light on a people in darkness. What initially began as a call for repentance quickly became a mission to heal and teach the masses. What I find encouraging about all this is that Jesus grew in his ministry in a way similar to the way in which I grew in my own ministry, and I know other people experience similar vicissitudes in their lives. How many people over 40, or even over 30, still work for the same company as they did when they first came out of college? How many people have worked for the same company for 15 or 20 years? Some, but not many. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and it's nice to know that Jesus' public ministry, though short, had some twists and turns in it. And what about the previous ten or fifteen years of Jesus' adulthood--how did he spend those years? As the old Nissan commercial used to say, "Life is a journey, enjoy the ride."