Sheep, Goats, and Ethics From Powerlessness

I hate how Christian ethics is done.

And I admit when I say this, I may not fully appreciate or understand Christian ethics as it has historically been done. But I hate what I understand.

And this is what I understand.

Christian ethics privileges and empowers action. It does so by making the identity and intention of the actor, rather than the relational nature of the action taken (its effects and consequences, intended and unintended), as the focus of contemplation. What matters most is “good people” (always self-identified) acting with the best intentions (again, always self-identified) to better the lives or well-being of others.

This bothers me because it fails to appreciate how relational an act is. If a person chooses to express their love for others or concern for the world through the exercise of some kind of power (state power or social power), then there will be coercion or violence involved. And coercion or violence can easily be, well, “misunderstood” as something other than love or compassion.

And then the self-centered nature of the Christian ethical conversation — it’s all about how the actor felt and meant, rather than what the actor actually did — becomes clear.

This is ethics from power. From a position of power, that insists acting is possible, and thus always the more moral course than not acting. I suppose it makes sense, given that Christian ethics arose is Christendom, contrived by powerful people to justify the exercise of power, to provide justification and salve consciences that acts clearly harmful, destructive, or even downright murderous were somehow “moral.”

I don’t like ethics from power. And I don’t think the Bible, to the extent that it is even a guide to ethical behavior, gives us an ethic from power.

Rather, scripture gives us an ethic from powerlessness.

That is the story of God’s people in scripture — not actors, but acted upon. Not subjects, but objects. Not as a powerful nation, but one besieged, conquered, exiled. By God, who tells them several times, from the Red Sea (explicitly) to Golgotha, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.”

What might an ethic from powerlessness look like?

How about Matthew 25 and the story Jesus tells of the final judgement?

(31) “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  (32) Before him will be gathered lall the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates nthe sheep from the goats.  (33) And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  (34) Then othe King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you ufrom the foundation of the world.  (35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  (36) I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  (37) Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  (38) And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  (39) And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ (40) And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these dmy brothers, you did it to me.’   (41) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  (42) For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  (43) I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  (44) Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  (45) Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  (46) And these will go away kinto eternal punishment, but the righteous kinto leternal life.”

Now, a lot hinges in our reading of this in who we see ourselves as and where. For good Lutherans, who believe deeply in unearned salvation by God’s Grace, this is a disturbing passage, for it suggests that those on the left and those on the right somehow earn their eternal fates through their deeds.

And let’s set that aside for a minute.

Mostly, I’ve heard this interpreted as a prompting to act, that most Christians see themselves as either potential sheep or possible goat. That this judgement is for them, and that Jesus was telling his disciples how to act in the world. We should feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so forth. This is fine as it goes, all of these are acts we can do in love and mercy for the world. There’s no real conflict with  anything else Jesus ever taught in Matthew (or elsewhere).

But the passage comes after a long series of things Jesus tells his disciples about the end of the age, the coming of the tribulation and the Son of Man, the cursing of the fig tree (which may or may not represent the Temple in Jerusalem), and the parable of the foolish and the wise virgins. And all of these are things Jesus is describing will happen either around or to the church. Things which we as God’s people will simply watch, powerless to do anything about or even know when they are coming.

Yes, Jesus admonishes those who wait to fill their lamps. Possibly by doing deeds of love.

But I think there’s another way to read what’s going on at the judgement of the world.

It all hinges on who we think “the least of these” are. If they are others, not us, then we are in the running to be sheep or goats, depending on how we act.

But what if “the least of these” is us? The church? The followers of Jesus?

And in this, Jesus is assuring the church that in the midst of the horrible things happening in the world, there will be some kindness, some mercy, some compassion shown to his people. And that, on some level, the world will be judged by how it treats the church.

Not by how much power or privilege it gives us, not by allowing us “religious freedom.” But by simple acts of kindness that defy the violence of the world.

So, how does this relate to ethics? Simply this: by being the church, we provide the world a chance to meet Jesus. Not through our words or our testimony, our desire (or call) to make disciples, but in the misfortune of our lives, by being a people in need, subjects of power (rather than objects), poor, sick, imprisoned. This is one way way show the world who God is, and how to respond to God. In this, Jesus tells us there will be sheep and goats — those who respond with kindness and mercy and those who do not. We will receive much, and some of it will be exactly what we need.

Again, a hard reading for many Western Christians, who wish to give rather than receive, who wish to be hosts rather than guests, because power and privilege are inseparable from hospitality and charity. And, after all, aren’t most of us we relatively well-off white people, ridden by guilt, who somehow need to assuage our consciences and deal with our power? Aren’t we self-sufficient? Don’t we have what the world wants, needs, desires?

It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and. Once, I preached on a story I edited for The Saudi Gazette about Muslim charities in Jeddah striving to help homeless and impoverished Saudi widows by giving them a place to live and some skills to earn a meager living.

“Even though there are no followers of Jesus anywhere in this, can we say with any confidence that the widows aren’t meeting Jesus when they meet those who help them, and those who help aren’t meeting Jesus when they meet people in their need?” my sermon went. “Because I see Jesus throughout, and I trust that God, and grace, are present.”

It’s hard to lay down power and privilege. We’d rather disperse it more democratically, so all have equal amounts. Maybe that’s possible, but I don’t think so. Which is why I see Jesus calling us to powerlessness, to be “the least of these” in a world that has never much cared for the least of anything. To take that risk, knowing we have the assurance of God that we will be cared for. Whatever happens.

We may be objects. But we are the objects of God’s love.

On Pope Francis, and Being Church in the World

There’s an interesting piece at The American Prospect this morning dealing with Pope Francis and how he might — and won’t — change the church:

Francis’s personal conduct has reframed the church’s resistance to secular Western pluralism. Under Benedict, this clash was a “culture war” over sexuality and exclusive claims to truth, and an ugly contradiction between public moralizing and private protection of sexual predators. In Francis’s care, the narrative of the church has become the story of a persistent Christian community of dissent: one led by a man who tries to abide by Jesus’s commands in his own life and one that challenges income inequality on the same grounds it challenges abortion and gay marriage (all of these, Francis says, reflect “moral relativism” and the “throwaway culture” of modern capitalism).

It seems to me that Francis understands something John Paul II understood, and Benedict XVI did not: the pope is the “pastor to the world,” and has to act pastorally. The pope has to live out the Gospel in a very particular way, showing compassion and concern for people, meeting them where they are, as they are, showing them where they are already participating in God’s work for the world. And inviting them to understand that work of compassion, care, redemption — the work of love — is God’s kingdom.

Culture war, the right’s favorite form of engagement, is not pastoral. It does not meet people where they are, but demands they change first in order to be part of God’s work in the world. Culture war demands the world get right with God, and then tries to bend the world to its will. Because only then will God pay any positive attention to the world.

That is not how it works. God calls and gathers people first. And then they are changed. Jesus didn’t tell the fishermen to get right with him and then follow. He called them to follow, and in following, Peter, James, and Andrew (and all the rest) were changed and formed, and became the people who could do what Jesus called them to do — preach and teach and baptize.

Francis gets this. I think it’s because he understands this is an ethic from powerlessness. The ethic of the Gospel, and of most of scripture, is to a people who have little or no power. They cannot shape events, they have little say in how they live and little ability to change the conditions under which they live. They are not actors, they are acted upon. They have no will that matters. The forces of history have conquered and occupied them, sent them into exile, made them serve masters they cannot and would not choose.

We can respond to this with despair and violence. For a time, I did. Or wanted to.

Or we can respond as Jesus did, with love. A love that doesn’t demand to run the culture or the country, that doesn’t demand on a legal and political monopoly of truth, but a love that is willing to risk everything to show that the the power to which we as God’s people are subject is not the final word. It is not real power. This love proclaims itself the way, the truth, the life, but does so as it gives of itself.

Francis gets this. Because this kind of love, a power wielded from below, expresses itself not in the words so beloved of culture warriors, but in deeds. How we live far better confesses our faith than what we say, and Francis tries to live to show the way of Jesus — a God who walked among us, among the poor, dependent on grace, healing and teaching and preaching and calling and gathering.

Benedict never understood because he was a thinker and a teacher, not a pastor. Getting the ideas right was important to Benedict. There is a role for that in the church, since bad ideas can seep into the air and water and contaminate everything.

But our faith is, in the end, a practice, and not a notion. Yes, we confess that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But that is the beginning of a calling, to love and live and die and rise as Jesus did. Not sitting cozily and smugly in comfortable little communities (how many of Jesus’ disciples retired to play golf, or died of old age?) pronouncing judgment upon the world, but taking risks, going where descent and respectable people don’t go and living with people who know sin and judgment so intensely that the presence of God’s love in their midst changes their lives!

There are few figures like the pope in the world today. Maybe the only other comparable human being is the Dalai Llama. These two people become the closest things humanity has to global religious figures who can speak to our hopes and fears. That’s going to be a hit and miss task most of the time, given how big the world is and how awful most understanding of religion is. But Francis washing feet, and breaking the “rules” while he does it, is a far better testimony to the faith than any speech or confession.

Worthen, the author of the Francis piece, goes on to quote a prominent Southern Baptist:

“We need to be known more by how we care about the hurting than how we yell at them,” wrote Southern Baptist leader Ed Stetzer in a Christianity Today essay on what evangelicals can learn from the pope. “The world is often confused when they see Jesus caring for the poor and hurting while His followers, well, don’t.”

It matters what we believe. And Christians have gotten good about arguing over fine points of faith in order to condemn other Christians to outer darkness. (I’m Lutheran, I know of what I speak. We have have some of the most frightful and annoying conversations on things almost no one else cares about.) But if God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has acted to save us, then the words of our faith matters a whole lot less than our deeds of love.

The Difference Between Priests and Prophets

Well, as I wait in the limbo that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s first call process, I have been considering my situation.

I’ve have interviewed with three different congregations. One said “no” quite emphatically and quickly, for that I am thankful. I could have been pastor there, but honestly, the place was not my first choice and so I’m rather glad they said no.

I have interviewed at another church in a Chicago suburb, about four months ago, and they kept in touch with me and told me to hang on, they were having some difficulties with their process and then … nothing. I have contacted them, and they have not responded.

Nor has the Metro Chicago Synod responded to me for the last two weeks. It’s a little nerve wracking, and you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to send an e-mail with a “hold on” or “they made a decision” or something. I’m not asking for much.

Of course, throughout this process, I am also keenly aware — a previous candidacy committee refused to approve me, did so for reasons they mostly kept to themselves, but they did tell me they did not believe I was fit to be a pastor in the ELCA, and that given how badly our encounters went during the candidacy process, they had a hard time imagining how I’d deal with a church council. Which, to be honest, was a fair concern. At the time. It’s something they could have helped with, if they’d wanted to. But they didn’t.

I deal with this some in my upcoming book, which will be published by Wipf & Stock sometime in late spring, I think. My editor has my second draft, and among all the other things I am waiting for right now, I am waiting for his critique.

Bleh. I hate waiting.

At any rate, the process of dealing with first call stuff has gotten me to think a little bit about what people seek in a pastor and what God seeks in the people God calls.

Because they aren’t always the same thing.

Let me boil it down to a dualism — priests and prophets. The priest’s primary job is to represent God’s people before God. The prophet’s primary call is to represent God before God’s people.

And these are not the same tasks.

What do I mean by representing God’s people? Well, the job of the priest is is to present the people’s petitions before God, to speak their hopes and dreams and seek God’s favor on those hopes and dreams. Among settled people — and most human beings, wherever they are, are settled people, rooted to land and community and kin — those hopes and dreams are typically for ample rains (good fortune), a bountiful harvest (wealth), many children (again, a kind of wealth, but also to fill the world with kin), and victory against enemies (success in endeavors). The priest takes the concerns of the people, and offers them to God, as a sacrifice, in petitions. The priest mediates between the people and God on the people’s behalf. And all the priest does is focused on the people’s needs.

We are your people, O’ God, the priest says. Continue to bless us.

American Lutherans are a settled people. They look primarily to priestly figures to represent them before God.

But God calls prophets too. And prophets do something different — they represent God before God’s people. The words that prophets speak, the things prophets do, and the way prophets live, are all difficult for settled people, and sometimes jarring and even very offensive. But the whole point of the prophetic is to remind the settled people that God’s will for them is frequently much bigger, and sometimes entirely different, from what the people want — good fortune, wealth, lot of kin, success in life. The prophet speaks the word of God, the judgmental word and the comforting word, in times of failure, misfortune, defeat, death. The prophet tells us that strangers and enemies are beloved of God too. The prophet speaks a word of redemption, a reminder that the dead (to whom settled people are very attached) have no say, no vote, no voice.

The promise of God is for the living. For the future. For us, but also for people we will never know.

Prophets are unsettling because they are unsettled. They have been ripped from place, from kin, even from their past (because past, and place, and kin can get in the way), so they can more clearly see some of what God has promised.

God is blessing you, the prophet says. God is faithful. You just have to understand, it doesn’t look the way you think it should.

Two things come from this for me. First, I am much more prophetic than priestly. And I say that only because people keep telling me. And I suspect that will make finding a call, in a church where we like our priests and don’t really know what to do with prophets (we think simply saying “rich people suck” is prophetic, but it isn’t), difficult. I don’t like it, but I’m okay with it. It’s not like prophets in the Bible have stable careers, health insurance or pension plans. If this is who I am, then who am I to argue with God?

But there’s another point, one I suspect I will spend more time in the future contemplating.

The Bible is frequently called “counter-cultural,” but that term gets so misused that frankly, I do not like it. (Again, there are those who claim that saying “rich people suck” is counter-cultural, and it isn’t.) Rather, the Bible is prophetic. It is a prophetic witness to a settled people that what they want, that what they think God has promised them (God to Abraham — land, blessing, lots of children), isn’t going to work out in the way they think it should. There are a few priestly figures in scripture (Ezra comes to mind as the most prominent), but most of the serious characters in scripture are prophets.

Those prophets say absurd things. In the midst of the great siege, surrender. Go over to the enemy. You aren’t coming home any time soon. Loving God’s people is like loving a prostitute.

And they do strange things. They cure the enemy general of his leprosy, and do this without making any demands he stop the war or change sides. (And he doesn’t.) They marry prostitutes and give their children strange names. They bury their underwear, dig it up later, and wear it for all to see.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that God’s love is bigger than their hopes and dreams. It is a reminder to a settled people where oldest sons inherit and strong men protect that crafty, second-sons get the blessing and whiny nancy boys can end up saving the world. That the king can be a murderer, rapist, and indecisive boob and yet God still loves the stuffins out of him. And makes promises not just to us but to the entire world through that really awful king.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that the future does not necessarily depend on the past. That God’s promises are for the living, for the survivors, for the remnant. The future is God’s to make. And not ours.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people who want freedom, power, and glory that our salvation, our redemption, and our liberation are the gifts of a God who surrendered to our violence, who gave in, who died ignominiously, on a cross, as a criminal and a traitor. And that those gifts don’t necessarily mean what we think they ought to mean. Or look the way we think they ought to.

Honestly, I do not know when — or even if — I will find a call in this church. I trust God, and while I’ve been at this more than some (and it’s hard not to be a little angry about that), I’ve been waiting a lot less than some others I know. I trust God. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve been led into the wilderness to die. But I trust God.

A Sweet Little Song to Contemplate John 3:16

At some point, I’m going to abolish my songblog — it never was able to accomplish what I wanted — and migrate all of that content over here. Or just republish a thing or two.

So, this is a song I wrote Saturday. It was also my children’s sermon for the second Sunday of Lent this year. I wrote songs as children’s sermons whenever I can. But they’re not always children’s song.

Anyway, I explained that while we often try to figure out what the Bible means, sometimes we should hear the words, and contemplate them. I’m not sure they got the meaning of contemplate or not, but I said a song where we repeat things — say them over and over — helps with that sometimes.

No, there weren’t two of me singing this morning.

A Wandering Aramean Was My Father

My sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, preached at Grace Lutheran in Westchester, Illinois. This is more or less what I preached, though I did some improvising as well.

* * *

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives the Israelites a prayer they are to pray when they make their first offering to God after a settling — after planting and harvesting — in the land of promise.

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.

“A wandering Aramean.” That’s Abraham, the father of us all. Yes, that includes us too, as Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Galatia,

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

A wandering Aramean was my father. I am his son, the son of a wanderer.

Bear with me, but let’s hear that first reading again:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And so Abram — he has not yet been given his new name Abraham — leaves. He leaves everything. And for what? A handful of promises. And vapor, all of them. A land that I will show you, God says. You won’t know it’s the place until I tell you. As for the rest of it, those are promises made to Abraham, but they aren’t for him. He will never realize any of them. They are made to his descendants. People he will never meet. People he will never know.

There’s a couple of ways to think about this. And I don’t want you to think in terms of either/or, but rather, both/and. Like we, in God’s eyes, are both sinners and saints.

We are the people God makes the promises for. We have received the promise. We are the blessing to the world, we reside in the land that God has given to his people. That this land — maybe it’s the physical earth upon which we live, it’s Westchester, it’s this very ground, the United States of america — and maybe this land that flows with milk and honey is the church. Not just Grace, but the ELCA, the whole of Christ’s church, this body that we have become in the world.

We are, after all, a settled people. We have roots here. Oh, we may move from time to time, as the situation requires. But this is our land. Yes, our ancestors took flight and crossed an ocean and some part of a continent. But that was like Israel wandering in the wilderness. It’s over now, and this is the place.

We are the multitude, countless as grains of sand, as stars in the sky. (And not the bright Chicago sky, either.) We are the promise. Paul says so. We are Abraham’s children, through Jesus.

(But consider for a minute — a land flowing with milk and honey is a phrase used in scripture only to describe the promise. Once Israel actually gets there, the land is never described that way.)

And maybe, just maybe, we too are Abram, there in his home in what is now southern Iraq. And these are promises made to us. But they aren’t for us. We are wandering Arameans too.

What does it mean to be given a promise you will never realize? To grab hold and trust in something you know you will likely never see?

Let’s look again at those promises God gives. I will make you a great nation through which the whole earth will be blessed? What does that mean when you’re just a handful, and you have so little? What does blessing even mean? And how will I, will we, be a blessing to all the families of the earth?

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse. That means there will be dishonor. Perhaps a great deal. God isn’t going to save us from it, just merely get even for us when it happens.

But that also means people who are strangers, who don’t share in this promise, will bless us. Will be kind, will care, will do us good.

Where is this place God will show us? How far away is it? What does it look like? Or must we wander, aimless, until God finally says, “Here, and no farther.”

As part of the first-call process, I’ve been interviewing a lot recently with churches looking for a pastor. Congregations where people are anxious, careful, wondering, places where they’ve been wounded by strife and division and where they mourn loss. I too wonder, and I too am anxious, who will call me to shepherd them? How much longer must I wait before someone decides, before the Spirit of God blows as she will through hearts and souls, and some people are inspired to say, “he shall lead us.”

All of us, wandering, aimless, knowing that God is guiding but not to where. Having a promise. Knowing only that God will show us when we get there. Here, and no further.

Promises given, held tight to.

And that’s the funny thing about a promise from God. The promise itself is as good as whatever is promised. Because God does not lie. I shall be blessed? Then I am blessed! I shall be a great nation? Then no matter how small I am, I am a great nation. Because God has promised. It is as real now as it will be for anyone who might actually inherit generations from now.

Do you know what eternal life is? What the Kingdom of God is? I don’t. I know we have it. I know, brothers and sisters, we have eternal life in Jesus Christ but I have no idea what it is. I don’t. Jesus promises eternal life in him. That’s enough. I don’t need to know what it is to know it’s real, it’s true, and it’s God’s gift. I don’t.

Lent reminds that we are a wandering people. Really, we are. For all our settledness, we are exiles. Grumbling, angry, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, anxious, and filled with sorrow. Exiles, carrying all we have with us. For the journey.

And then we meet Jesus. Minding our own business, we come across him, or he comes across us, and he invites us to come and see, to follow him, to feed his sheep, claims us as his own, because he knows us far better than we will ever know ourselves.

We follow Jesus because he calls. We follow, without really knowing what we’re following, only that it’s good news and we know Good News when it falls on our ears and fills up our hearts. We see signs and wonders and hear incredible things — we must be born again, with water and spirit, or we shall never enter the Kingdom of God! But how is that possible? What does it even mean?

And yet, every day, I get up, gather the manna that God has scattered as my daily bread on the ground, roll up my tent, and start walking, knowing God is there, that Jesus leads and guides and protects, pillar of cloud and fire. When Jesus tells me, be born of spirit and water and come into the Kingdom, I say, “see, here is water! What’s stopping us?”

When he tells me that the Son of Man must lifted up, and that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life, I gaze upon the glory of God crucified on that cross, the ultimate great deed of terror, and I say, “My Lord and My God!”

And I don’t understand. I follow, I believe, I trust, and it’s true, but I do not understand.

Abraham wandered his entire life. He never settled down. He never had a home. Sometimes, he was weak and vulnerable, and had to pretend his wife was his sister in order to save himself and those he cared for. And sometimes, he was a force to be reckoned with, and even went toe to toe with God in order to save a handful of righteous people in the sinful and inhospitable city of Sodom.

But he never had a home. He never had ground to call his own. And when his wife Sarah died, he had to bargain with a Hittite for a place to bury her.

It’s easier for some of us to imagine that life than others, I suspect. I find it easy. But then I’m a wanderer. Home is wherever I can pound a tent-peg in, water and graze my animals, snuggle with Jennifer, and maybe even rest for a few days.

But none of it matters. Because our real homes are not made of wood, or brick. The ground upon which we build, and live, and work, and love, bear our children and bury our dead, is not soil underneath our feet. All of it is Jesus. All of are wanderers because God’s people are wanderers. And all of us are home because we belong to Jesus, who lived with us, died with us, and rises, so that we may have everlasting life.


My Favorite Story from the Qur’an

While we’re on the subject of Satan, and the fall, I’d like to deal a bit with one of my favorite stories from the Qur’an al-Kareem, one of the Qur’an’s several versions of the fall of Man and the disobedience of Satan. This is from Surah al-Araf, The Heights, the seventh surah of the Qur’an.

The translation by Mohsin and Khan — my personal favorite, given how literal its non-parenthetical translation is — reads as follows:

11 And surely, We created you (your father Adam) and then gave you shape (the noble shape of a human being); then We told the angels, “Prostrate yourselves to Adam”, and they prostrated themselves, except Iblis (Satan), he refused to be of those who prostrated themselves.
12 (Allah) said: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate yourself, when I commanded you?” Iblis said: “I am better than him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.”
13 (Allah) said: “(O Iblis) get down from this (Paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you are of those humiliated and disgraced.”
14 (Iblis) said: “Allow me respite till the Day they are raised up (i.e. the Day of Resurrection).”
15 (Allah) said: “You are of those respited.”
16 (Iblis) said: “Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path.
17 “Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left, and You will not find most of them as thankful ones (i.e. they will not be dutiful to You).”
18 (Allah) said (to Iblis): “Get out from this (Paradise), disgraced and expelled. Whoever of them (mankind) will follow you, then surely I will fill Hell with you all.”

What follows is the story of Adam and Huwwa’s temptation and fall. But this little exchange fascinates me, and tells me all I need to know about who and what Satan is. (Because it does not contradict a Bible story, or anything specific in scripture, I accept its moral legitimacy.)

Iblis (an Arabic version of diabolos, διάβολος, the term used in Matthew 4), is present with all the angels in heaven or paradise the moment God makes man from clay (طين). Sometime before, God made the angels and Iblis, and while it’s not said here what God made them from, Iblis claims to be made from fire (نار) — a fact he haughtily and arrogantly cites when he refuses the command of God that all the other created things bow before the Man.

Consider, for a moment, this scene. In Surah al-Baqara, another version of this is related. God has commanded the angels to bow before the man, the Angels question God. “Do you mean to fill the earth with these things that will cause mischief while we worship and adore you?” God dismisses the objection, teaches the man the names of all things, then asks the angels, who do not know. But here, there is no angelic objection, just a demand — all the beings God has created up to this point are commanded to bow, to grovel before the thing made of clay. And they do.

All but Iblis. Angel of jinn, it doesn’t matter (there is evidence in the Qur’an for both.)

“I am better than he!” (انا خير منه) Because Satan was made of fire, and fire is apparently better than clay.

At this point, God condemns Iblis. Leave paradise! You are finished!

And Iblis, for his part, doesn’t argue about this. “Hold off on that until the last day!” he demands. And God, in God’s mercy, agrees.

Further, Iblis then promises to lead astray any of the mud creatures as he possibly can, in order to teach God a lesson. This new creature, so dear to God (and who just seems to be standing there while all this happens), will prove to not love God anywhere near as much. And to not be anymore loyal to God than Iblis.

Fine, says God. I will fill Hell with all of you.

What intrigues me most is that Satan, from the moment of his rebellion against God, knows that he is doomed and defeated. He doesn’t argue with God — he merely asks for a postponement to his sentence, in order to work more mischief. But Iblis/Satan knows he is done. Knows he has been defeated and condemned.

So from this, it is pointless to follow Satan. Because then you are following one who has already lost and knows it. There can be no victory in following Satan, in falling for his temptations, because we are falling for one who has already lost, and in his desire to wreck some kind of vengeance upon God, promises to drag as many of these mud creatures with him as he can. (What follows next is the fall, but the qur’anic version always ends with Adam and Huwwa learning and speaking words of repentance to God, so this is not an Augustinian “original sin” moment so much as it is an attempt to deal with the human condition and create a foundation for humanity’s moral relationship with God for Muslims. To be fair, this is what Augustine does too.)

Satan has already lost, the story says. So only a fool follows Satan.

I take something similar from something Jesus says in John 16:

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (ESV)

All of these things are important to me because I get a little tired of people saying we must struggle to overcome evil. The overcoming of evil has already been done, and too often the evil in question is usually outside ourselves. It resides in some other. Or it is in a pietistic denial of self, a demand for denial which leaves no room for the kind of “love of self” that a true love of neighbor requires. The Devil has already lost. He was defeated on the day he came into being. We need not fear him. The love of God, in the Son of God, has already overcome the world.

The Fall of Man and the Frustrating of Human Purpose

That’s a terrible title, I know. Sorry.

As I was preparing for my sermon this Sunday, I noticed something interesting in the Genesis 2-3 account of “the fall” of humanity. (I put that in quotation marks because not everyone sees it that way. I don’t believe most Jews do.)

God makes the man out of mud — mud formed, I think, from the soil of the ground and the mist that is in the air (it hasn’t rained yet) — breathes into him of his spirit, which makes the man alive. And then, in Gensis 2:15, God does the following:

The LORD God took the man kand put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (ESV)

So, the whole point of humanity’s existence — the man is humanity at this point — is to tend the garden.

God later says that the man shouldn’t be alone. God then makes a mess of animals, sets them before the man and he invents all sorts of wonderful and silly names for all the creatures God has just made. But it’s not enough. The man is still alone, however. The animals are swell, but not quite fit company to truly help the man. To truly be a companion. So, he put the man to sleep, does a bit of surgery, and makes a woman.

Her purpose, in this passage (this is a passage about purposes) is to keep the man company. To help him. To be a companion.

So, then there’s this snake, and an eating of fruit, and pretty soon, the man and the woman find themselves ashamed and embarrassed because they did something God told them not to do. And then come the curses. We’ll skip past the cursing of the serpent, noting only this is why girls are afraid of snakes (joke), and go to the heart of the matter in Genesis 3:16-19:

16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”   17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;  18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (ESV)

At first glance, it seems the curses are unequal. Even possibly unfair. The woman is cursed, but when God turns to the man, God curses the whole earth. The man himself is not actually cursed.

But consider the matter if we speak of created purposes. The Genesis passage seems clear — the man is created to tend the garden, the woman is created to be a companion and partner to the man. Her curse, then, frustrates that created purpose. It turns it into something that can, and often times will, be unpleasant, the source of much pain and suffering. She is no longer a partner, but her desire is changed, and the man shall rule over her. This is not nature, this is curse. That is, the way so many men and women organize their lives together is not what God originally created either for.

And in cursing the earth, God is frustrating the man’s purpose. He was made to tend a garden, a garden which required little work because it was full of so many good things to eat. (UPDATE: Or rather, the nature of work itself was changed, and work itself has become a curse, something human beings do in pain more than with joy.) Now, he will work hard, and often times pointlessly, to eke out a bare living from an uncooperative earth. (Thistles and thorns appear to be a product of the fall, if the text is to be taken literally…) By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread. Again, this is not nature, it is curse.

So, we live in the curse. In which we have been alienated, by the man and the woman’s disobedience (Adam and Hawwa), from our created purposes. I don’t honestly know what other implications flow from this, and I won’t try too hard to build an entire edifice of theology on this scaffold. We are fools to think we can, through our own efforts, alter the curse at all (the earth remains at times terribly uncooperative and capricious, even with the gifts that science and mass industrial production have given us). And yet we can, as men and women, in moments, transcend the curse. Perhaps this is what the kingdom Jesus proclaims is all about.