Lost Books & Names for God

I’ve been reading the Chronicles this afternoon (after futzing around on my ukulele; it’s been that kind of day) and I always like it when I come across things like this:

26 Thus David the son of Jesse reigned over all Israel. 27 The time that he reigned over Israel was forty years. He reigned seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 28 Then he died at a good age, full of days, riches, and honor. And Solomon his son reigned in his place. 29 Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer, and in the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and in the Chronicles of Gad the seer, 30 with accounts of all his rule and his might and of the circumstances that came upon him and upon Israel and upon all the kingdoms of the countries. (1 Chronicles 29:26-30 ESV)

We have, I think, the books of Samuel the seer — if that’s what 1 & 2 Samuel are. We don’t have a “Book of Nathan,” nor do we have a “Book of Gad.” If I have to guess, elements of Nathan and Gad have been included or appended to Samuel’s account.

Samuel, of course, is the cranky old seer (although he starts out as a young man who hears voices and succeeds to the effective prophetic rulership of Israel when Eli’s sons show themselves to be corrupt) who must deal with Israel wanting to be like all other nations and have a king. He dies in 1 Samuel 25, though Saul conjures up his unhappy spirit from sheol, and tells Saul (among other things), that “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me [in sheol].”

Nathan is the man of God (and, per 1 Sam 5:14, might also be one of David’s sons) to tell David he won’t build a temple for him and to call the king on his nonsense regarding Bathsheba and her husband Uriah (who David arranges to kill).

Gad the seer is the prophet who comes to David late in his reign to tell David he must choose the price for conducting the census (2 Sam 24):

13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days ‘pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. 16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house. (2 Samuel 24:13-17 ESV)

(Again with the treating floor…)

So, if I have to guess, we have Gad’s and Nathan’s accounts — or portions of their accounts, or excerpts from their accounts — in the official history as it has been given to us. For example, both books of Kings constantly refer to something called “The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel,” which may or may not be what we have (and most likely not the two books of Chronicles).

Chronicles has a bit of a Johannine feel to it. The fourth gospel, as John is constantly referred to, strikes me not as an independent account, but one that requires the reader or hearer to be familiar with the basic synoptic account. It has a “yes, that, but this also” feel to me. And Chronicles feels that way too. It isn’t an alternative history to Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, but an addition, a “this too.”

What’s most odd about Chronicles is the frequent use of the word we translate as God — אֱלֹהִים elohim — and not the proper name of Israel’s God, יהוה YHWH, which we frequently translate as LORD. YHWH is used in Chronicles, but God is used a lot more. It may be, then, that Chronicles was written in a more cosmopolitan context. Elohim was always used for God, but YHWH notes the very special relationship Israel has with the one who called and gathered it.

This is actually true of Jonah, for example. Where the reference is to the God who is in special relationship with Israel, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying…”, the proper, formal, personal name is used. Jonah prays to the Lord. Jonah speaks to the Lord.

But when the king of Ninevah issues his command to repent, he speaks of God — elohim. They are, of course, the same. But the king of Ninevah doesn’t have the same relationship as Jonah does. (Now, this gets a little messy at the end, where God speaks to Jonah as God, and not the Lord, perhaps making it clear that the boundary is now much fuzzier than Jonah — and us — think.)

Chronicles feels like it might be written for external consumption. “See, our YHWH is also your elohim.” The name of the Lord is not absent from Chronicles, it’s just played down quite a bit. In favor of God.

And yet, even with that, the proclamation of Cyrus which ends the Chronicles account, ends with the emperor of Persia using the proper name of God and referring to the Lord.

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven [יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם], has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up. (2 Chronicles 36:23 ESV)

If the use of God is intended to tell a non-Jewish listener in this now cosmopolitan civilization that they worship the same God as the conqueror, this use of Lord sneakily acknowledges the opposite — that your God is really our YHWH. It would have been readily understandable in Aramaic, which became the lingua franca of the Babylonian and Persian empires. None of this silly argument over what word for God denotes which god (and is one right and is one wrong). There is one אל (however it is spelled or pronounced) and no matter what you might think, he also happens to be our יהוה. Ha! Gotcha!

The Bitter, the Angry, and the Discontented

I’m procrastinating. I do have an essay in mind to write about the events of last Friday, but I’ve been deliberately avoiding it. I’ll get around to it.

This morning, something else came to mind, one of my favorite passages from 1 Samuel. About David, who is probably my favorite character in the whole Bible.

1 David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. 2 And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander [לְשָׂ֑ר, literally “captain”] over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.

3 And David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab. And he said to the king of Moab, “Please let my father and my mother stay with you, till I know what God will do for me.” 4 And he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold. 5 Then the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not remain in the stronghold; depart, and go into the land of Judah.” So David departed and went into the forest of Hereth. (1 Samuel 22:1-5 ESV)

It is hard to overstate just how difficult David’s situation is here. He has been anointed king, Saul having lost the “mandate of heaven” with his refusal to give to God what God demanded of the plunder from Amalek. David has fought for Saul, killed Goliath, becomes BFF with Saul’s son Jonathan, “took the lyre and played it with his hand” whenever Saul was troubled and tormented (as Saul often was) with an evil spirit, and has fled Saul after the king tries to kill him.

He is now in the wilderness, southwest of Jerusalem in what is now Israel “proper” (the 1949 armistice lines). He is on the run. At this point, it looks for all the world that David has no future. All he has is the anointing of God, and nothing else. Saul is still king, still commands an army.

But David has an army too. In his reduced circumstances — a long way from the court of Saul, where he plucked the lyre, carried Saul’s armor, and fought Israel’s enemies so successfully that Saul “stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them.” (1 Sam 18:15) It may not seem like much of an army — the distressed, the indebted, the embittered (or discontented) — but it’s an army David will use to great effect, to fight off the Philistines, to fight for the Philistines, to battle and defeat Amalek and eventually, as the core of the army that will defeat the House of Saul and re-unite the kingdom.

They come to David. He doesn’t come to them. They join him. He doesn’t join them. They hear of him, know he’s someone who can lead them, and they gather around him. This army of discontents come to Adullam to follow David.

I like David. The more I read of scripture, the more I like him. I want to say he’s not reflective, but in all those psalms he wrote, David clearly praises and thanks and pleads and laments. He thinks. He considers. He contemplates. But he also acts.

And all he has, right now, in this cave with this bands of misfits and rejects, is the blessing of God.

13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:13 ESV)

So we know where the Spirit led David. Into a kind-of exile, as a fugitive and sometimes mercenary leader fighting for the very Philistines he had battled (1 Samuel 27:8-12) and would later battle again. It’s hard, David’s exile life. But one he lives fully.

Because David knows God has not abandoned him. He trusts in God’s time. In God’s anointing. And in the Spirit which “rushed upon” him, and never left.

Other Activities

The blog has been quiet for the last couple of days. Well, except for loyal readers who have commented! Bless you.

I’ve actually had a couple of requests to comment on the decision Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court. I really don’t want to (some of my strongest held views are ambivalent), but I think there’s something to be said in not wanting to say it. So, sometime early next week. Not today.

Today, most of the day, I was on my guitar, playing my Jesus music. Yes, I love my Jesus music. I do sometimes play my pre-Jesus music — songs I wrote before 2009 — but honestly, I’m 47, and I find it increasingly hard to sing, with a straight face, some of my teenage and young adult angst. I know, I know, I should be writing, or cleaning up sidewalks, or directing traffic, or something. I’m not getting paid for anything right now, except maybe having a pretty face, and there are days when writing is a chore. I’d rather play music. Heck, there are days music is a chore, and I’d rather ride my bike to Oregon.

Anyway, I’m going to start regularly using a little app called Periscope to promote my music, and the book, and whatever else comes to mind. (A Chicago author, by the name of Nath Jones, I met a couple of weeks says she uses periscope to promote her books.) Periscope does live video on the internet, and I figured it might be an interesting thing to do, broadcast myself practicing and playing. So, if you’ve a phone, and you want to hear me sing (I’m actually pretty good), and you want to hear theologically and scripturally substantive devotional music (I don’t do Jesus is my boyfriend stuff, and not much of what I sing would merit waving your hands to), then download the app and give me a listen.

I’m hoping to have the first broadcast be sometime Sunday, 28 June.

On Symbols, Substance, and White Supremacy

So, suddenly it’s become politically and socially acceptable to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from public space and banish it from polite conversation.

This is strange. In my life, I would never have imagined that this symbol would ever be contested by white conservatives in the South. There was so much honoring of ancestors and heritage in the defense of that flag that it seemed a permanent part of America.

I’ve never defended the Confederacy, though I have in the past defended secession as a general principle. I’ve always thought arguments claiming the secession of the southern states in 1860 and 1861, and the subsequent war, was about something other than slavery — such as tariffs — was foolish. Slavery had divided the nation since almost the moment it was formally founded, and certainly since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It had set Kansas on fire, made the murderous terrorist John Brown into a hero, and fixed the eye of the Southern ruling elites toward the Caribbean, where they envisioned an expanded American empire of slavery.

(Tennessee lawyer, journalist, and “adventurer” William Walker managed to do some of this on his own when he a group of Americans conquered and ruled Nicaragua for a few years in the mid-1850s. Among his first acts as el presidente, Walker re-established slavery in the tiny isthmus state; it had been abolished in Nicaragua in the 1820s.)

At the same time, I think the end of the American Civil War (note: it was more a failed act of secession, like the Biafra War or the long and failed struggle in Sri Lanka by the Tamils for independence, than a true civil war, which is historically a fight by two or more parties to govern one particular patch of territory) is not such a happy one. Yes, slavery was ended, but white America’s commitment to true racial equality — to treating black Americans as equal citizens — was found wanting, and largely abandoned a decade after the guns fell silent.

However, it is the precedent — that no one says no to America or leaves for any reason — troubles me the most. It is state power without limit, government which cannot be resisted, and we would see — especially in the 20th century — just how far those who ruled would push those limits. It also contains in it the very seeds of an American version of The Brezhnev Doctrine — once you are part of America, you cannot walk away. Empire was the likely outcome of the war no matter how it ended. But we now live with an American empire that simply cannot be escaped.

But back to the matter at hand. The banishing of the Confederate Battle Flag from acceptable public discourse is happening at a dizzying speed. I won’t argue with it. While the South has long honored its war dead (particularly from 1898 onward, when the Spanish War allowed the ex-secessionists to feel like proper Americans again), the Confederate Battle Flag was resurrected in the 20th century primarily as a symbol of resistance rather than of unity. The War with Spain allowed the citizens of the former Confederacy to finally consciously and enthusiastically embrace American symbols, and in turn, America embraced the South in popular culture in a way it never had prior to that. The first few decades of the 20th century saw a popularization and nationalization of all things southern, including the South’s coarse racism.

Consider: Al Jolson, an immigrant Jew from Lithuania, invents large portions of his early career — in the teens of the last century — by singing songs about the Suwannee River, “memories” of “mammy,” crooning darkies, steamboat races between “the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee,” and singing in blackface to crowded halls across the country. His family may have arrived penniless in America decades after slavery ended, but he profited hugely — as did so many others — from the country’s distorted and romantic telling of it ugly racist story.

(By the 1930s, and definitely by the 1950s, popular culture had become significantly less overtly and coarsely racist, choosing mostly to ignore blacks altogether instead of caricaturing them. The resurrection of Jolson’s career in the late 1940s, for example, was largely free of his earlier, racially loaded material.)

In America 100 years ago, even progressives were racist. To be a racist was to be American, and to embrace American symbols. When it marched in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan would march with the American flag. Not the Confederate one.

By the 1950s, that had changed, as the great Kulturkampf over what America meant — were American ideals universal, meant for all people everywhere, or were they very particular, and only really for white people? — began. The majority view looked upon the end of Western colonialism (white, European rule) of Africa and Asia, and seeing independence movements springing up claiming the enlightenment heritage as their patrimony too, saw American segregation and racism as both an embarrassment (how can we claim to support African independence when blacks at home are not free?) and presenting an opening for communist ideologues to exploit (because the Americans don’t really mean it when they support your freedom; look at how they treat their own black people!). It would embrace the civil rights movement, and embrace some form of anti-colonialism abroad. This was the majority view, and the view of nearly all of America’s governing elites from the late 1940s onwards.

But there was another view, that saw independence struggles in the emerging “Third World” as a form of communism in and of itself. The United States should support white rule where and when it can, because nothing good can come of dark skinned peoples governing themselves. Indeed, they are incapable of doing so. This was never widely held among elites (although it was probably what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed), but it was widespread among conservative white America from the beginning.

As an example, the intellectual forebears of Dylann Roof [sic] condemned the Kennedy Administration’s failure to support Salazar’s Portugal following India’s invasion and annexation of Portugal’s last possessions on the Indian subcontinent in 1961. Failing to stand with Portugal, the thinking went, was a victory for communism and the eventual destruction of white civilization.

This was never a majority view following the Second World War, this idea that the world’s dark-skinned people are incapable of governing themselves (again, this was a progressive view once; Woodrow Wilson believed this intensely). But it was held by enough people to cause trouble. And it’s still not settled. Not really.

Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, gets us back to the Confederate Battle Flag. It should have been banished from polite conversion decades ago. It doesn’t belong there.

At the same time, I cannot help but think the whole move is … well, meaningless. It will be one more thing for conservatives to be angry and resentful about in a few months the next time righteous anger is stoked when a black man dies at the hands of a police officer.

“What do you people want from us?” I can hear a Fox News talking head say in angry exasperation. “We’ve done everything you’ve asked!”

The flag is a symbol, and the sins of America are not symbolic. It also costs nothing to apologize for sins you didn’t commit. It may make you feel good, but you can’t really repent of something you didn’t do, and thus cannot really make right. (This also applies every time liberal Christians apologize for the Crusades or slavery.) You didn’t do it, and Jesus’ admonition to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 comes to mind:

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31 ESV)

The only sins you can repent of are yours. Yes, scripture is clear, you may pay for the sins of your fathers (and their fathers, and theirs), because of the things their sins set into motion, but you cannot really repent of them. You can only bear the consequences of their sins. And hope that repentance will alleviate or ameliorate the current course of events.

And the sin in question is foundational to America: that blackness is viewed in and of itself as a permanent other, a threat to good order, potential disorder which power and law and authority must control and dominate. This is foundational to America, it goes back to the 17th century. (In some flavors of the American civil faith, blackness is viewed as a “curse,” something that cannot really be undone.) If we wish to repent and atone and do penance, then we must consider not the Dylann Roofs of America (though the fact that alienated young white men are most likely to do this says something else about us we need to consider), but how we think about blacks, how we police them, how we fail to consider them — long after the ending of the War Between the States legally made them full citizens — as equal participants in America.

Because we still treat them as occupied people, people to be controlled. We still govern and police them in ways we don’t even police or treat poor whites (who we are generally content to let wallow in their own misery and failure). We still consign them to a kind of outer darkness, and we generally close our ears to their wailing and gnashing of teeth.

This, and not slavery, or some flag, is what we as Americans now need to repent of.

I’m not optimistic. I’m not even hopeful. Because the criminalization of blackness is so foundational to America, and so rooted in “evidence” and “reason” for some, that fixing it (even if that’s possible) would be like trying to repair a portion of the foundation of a house while trying to live in it and keep it from falling over. I know there are people of goodwill out there trying to improve things. And I know many black folks are angry that after so much struggle, and so many promises, so little has changed.

I do know people of goodwill can hack through or find their way around it. I’ve seen them do it. I’ve tried to do it myself. But fixing the society … I don’t know.

I do know that 30 years ago, a white conservative could defend Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, and even Portuguese rule in Angola. (Because I heard them do just that.) But even then, most such conservatives had long forgotten Goa, just as today they had long forgotten, and are embarrassed by, Rhodesia. That’s something.

Maybe there’s reason to be hopeful, then. As we consign symbols to outer darkness, we banish the things they represent as well. It’s slow, agonizingly slow, and too many brothers and sisters will suffer and die between here and there. And it still only marches around the fundamental sin of America, the criminalization of blackness, and the daily brutality that results, which remains on ugly display, something far too many are still far too proud of.

There is a Future

I’ve been whining lamenting a lot in the last year or so, being unemployed and waiting — so very much waiting — for book stuff and all that to happen that I’ve not articulated much of a vision for the future.

I have written about an intentional Christian worshiping/living community, something semi-monastic. It’s an idea I still like.

But there’s the immediate situation.

Jen and I need work. I have not had a proper job for more than a year, and haven’t had any luck finding one. We’ve also not had a proper place to live in this time, which makes finding some place to settle … difficult. We’ve been kept up by the kindness of dear friends and absolute strangers. It’s been amazing.

But … there’s nothing quite like having a hovel of your own. Jen and I have not had that for a while. That wears on you.

That said, we are also very, very flexible. I am willing to hit the road and talk about my book, or even preach and sing the gospel to those who are interested. (I sing pretty good, and I’ve got a nice collection of songs that tell the Bible story almost from front to back!) There’s nothing holding us anywhere except, well, where do I go to speak? Who wants to listen? (If that’s you, let me know…) This is why I hope the Family Life Interview, and the coming piece in Christianity Today, result in some interest.

Further, I’ve decided I need to also make a little music available on iTunes and Spotify. I have very much wanted to work with other musicians, and have some professionally made stuff (if possible), but honestly, I’ve been making and recording my own music myself for 30 years. I think I’ve learned a thing or two, and if I keep the recordings very simple, and focus on a handful of solid, and very catchy songs, maybe something will come of it. I’d like this done by the beginning of August, if possible. I’ve got the tools, I just need the physical space to record.

Also, it would be nifty to record a collection of Advent and Christmas songs. On the ukulele.

Right now, however, it looks like more wilderness time. I hate the wilderness, but there has always been manna, and water from the rock, and God has always led and protected us with pillars of cloud and fire. (t doesn’t feel that way sometimes, but Israel wasn’t all that grateful to God either!) If anyone out there can help — work leads, church leads, you want me to come speak, you have a cabin in the woods or an unused camper or even a great big tent we can stay in, whatever — that would be great.

Mostly, though, I want to meet you. Meet the Jesus in you. And talk to you about meeting Jesus in the midst of fire and terror, at the World Trade Center, on 9/11. And I think you, your church, your group, would really like to hear that.

UPDATE: House concerts are also a definite possibility. Come invite me to sing the Gospel at your house!

First Interview!

Well, here is my first interview, with Sonny Delfyette of the Family Life Network. They are also giving away 20 copies of my book. (Which you should read if you have not.) So, if you live in the Western New York / Pennsylvania area, enter to win!

Anyway, follow the link above, and listen to the podcast!

I do need to find a better way to introduce myself, and I have worked out a better answer as to what Christians ought to think of their Muslim neighbors (based, of course, on Matthew 25). But generally, I’m happy with this, and I hope some good things come of it! Soon!!!

Now God, more of this, please.

Occupation, Not Exile

I was listening to The Seminary Dropout podcast the other night (Shane Balckshear), specifically the interview with N. T. Wright (at the behest of a reader) and I came to realize I was wrong about something.

For the longest time, I had seen exile as the church’s fundamental condition, the condition God corrects in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And while I’ve been thinking for a while on this, and even “preached” on the matter last Sunday, it took Wright quoting Luke to finally get me to a place where I realized exactly what was wrong.

Exile is not the condition of God’s people (though I am sympathetic with those post-exilic Israelite scribes and teachers who believed that, even with what Cyrus the King of Persia had done, Israel’s exile never really ended). Occupation is.

And that changes how I see what Christ does, what the kingdom is, and what the church is.

There is a huge difference between exile and occupation. Exile is an earned condition, the consequence of Israel’s sinfulness. “Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor,” the Lord tells Israel through the prophet Jeremiah. It’s also, fundamentally, an elite condition — it’s Israel’s elites (mostly) who are hauled off to Babylon, who settle in a place they call Tel Aviv along the banks of the Tigris, who mourn and weep for the loss of home, and who discover that God — who had been so tied to that house in Jerusalem — actually came with them. Into exile.

Occupation, however, is not a consequence of sin. Not like exile. It is not something Israel contributed to in the way Israel clearly brought about its conquest and subjugation at the hands of Babylon. Over the years, Israel’s circumscribed independence is given over to the Greeks, hard won in a brutal war of independence, and then slowly given over to the Romans as — I understand it — Israel’s elites vied for power.

This is the Israel Jesus is born into. An occupied nation, a powerless one, controlled and dominated by outsiders, and not to the benefit of the people of God. This is the nation Jesus proclaims the coming of the kingdom, calls for repentance, reads from the scroll of Isaiah of good news for the poor and liberation for the captives. Everything Jesus does, everything Jesus is, addresses this condition of occupation.

The beatitudes, the sermon on the mount, love for neighbors and for enemies, all of this are instruction on how to live faithfully under occupation. Grace, the kind Jesus constantly displays and describes in his parables, is not for a powerful people, but for the powerless.

Jesus does not end the occupation. He doesn’t even necessarily turn it on its head. He does, however, live and proclaim that the power of the occupation to subjugate, dehumanize, and destroy, is not “real.” I mean, it is, but it isn’t. (I’m not saying this well…) It’s not final. It is not the last word. And therefore, the ways and means of the occupation — the ends of occupation (what I think other Christian scholars have taken to calling “empire”) — are not ultimate things and do not matter in the eyes of God. Jesus is merely repeating, in and with his life, what God tells Daniel following his vision of the four beasts: However, frightening this vision might be, “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.”

When we live the commands of Jesus, when we love one another, when we counter the violence of the world with the kind of love Jesus commands us to, we live out the kingdom. Love is an act of resistance to the power and violence of the occupier.

I suspect even St. Paul’s pietistic twaddle can — and should — be looked at from this perspective, that he was writing to a church that was struggling to witness to the truth of God’s grace and love under occupation. I will consider that as I read Paul from now on.

The question of what this means for us is also important. Christendom was an odd condition. It was the church, the people gathered to live faithfully and fruitfully under conditions of occupation — people who did not control or determine their own lives — that embraced occupation it self, in much the way Israel demanded the king it should not have. Christendom was, then, the church of the occupation, using law, order, and power to shape and rule the world. (This is what always happens when we decide we’re good enough and smart enough to put the last first and the first last.) Much good came of Christendom, but because of Christendom, most Christians lost sight of where God really was in the world.

God remains with the occupied. They are the people who truly matter to God. Christ may have ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father, but the people God truly cares for — the people to whom Good News, healing, and the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed — are the poor, the occupied. The rich and powerful can hear, and be moved by these things (as they clearly are, such as the Centurion and Zacchaeus in Luke, or the rich man who wants to know how to obtain eternal life, or ), and invited to become of the community formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it’s not primarily for them, and part of what they must surrender as they become part of this community are the privilege and power that being an occupier gives them.

I’ve lived and believed this understanding of the Gospel, and of Israel’s history, for a long time now. But until recently, I’ve not actually had language to speak it. I do now. I expect much more will come of this realization in the future.

A Costly Forgiveness

I did not preach today. But if I had, I would have preached something like this:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the man who was paralyzed— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” (Luke 5:17-26 ESV)

Early in Luke’s gospel, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man. And the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees, are scandalized. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And Jesus, after forgiving the man who had been lifted down into his midst, turns to the scribes and the Pharisees and he says, “Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven, or get up and walk?” And he then commands the paralyzed man to get up and walk. And he does. He grabs his mat and he walks home, free, healed, whole, forgiven, praising God all the way.

It’s a miracle, this forgiveness. And it’s proclaimed long before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities, long before he is tried and tortured and executed by the Romans.

Long before our crucified Lord utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We’ve heard this story for so long that we know how it ends. It bores us, this story of Gods’ Son incarnate in our midst, who forgives sins and performed miracles and taught with authority. We know it ends with forgiveness and resurrection. That ending no longer surprises us, no longer shocks, no longer amazes, no longer fills us with awe and wonder.

We yawn. Of course it ends that way, we say. We’ve told this story our whole lives. Our parents told it, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, farther back than almost any of us can remember. We are the inheritors of a whole civilization — of law and order and power — built on that forgiveness, those miracles, that empty tomb, his commands to follow and make disciples.

Of course it ends that way. How else can it end?

We are entirely too complacent and self-satisfied about this story. We’ve told it so long we’ve forgotten what it really says and the power it really has. We’ve so focused on the civilization this story breathed into existence and its trappings, great and small, that we’ve lost sight of the story itself.

And in doing so, we’ve made forgiveness cheap. We’ve come to expect it. Even demand it. Of course God forgives us. That’s what God does. All is right with the world when those are wronged somehow forgive those who wrong them. After all, We’re the good and decent people God has forgiven. Whatever we confess with our lips, this — we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives — that’s what we truly believe.

That’s how we truly live.

But we miss — we completely miss — the cost of that forgiveness. Jesus came into the world, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, and got nothing but heartache. “Only God can forgive,” say the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus heals the paralytic to show not that he can heal, but to show that he has been given the authority to forgive sins.

And for this, the scribes and the Pharisees and the Romans and the crowds eventually call for his death. And they kill him.

Because he forgives.

Even in the act of dying, of being murdered by the state and its brutal authority, Jesus proclaims forgiveness.

This is a costly forgiveness. Bought at a price. A bloody and brutal price.

And make no mistake, the hands covered in blood are ours. We have betrayed him, abandoned him, mocked him, called for his death. We have beaten him, flogged him, humiliated him, tortured him, compelled him to walk to his place of execution, nailed him to that cross, demanded he prove himself God and save himself. We followed and wailed and did nothing. We are not innocent. We are not good people. We have done all these things.

We do not deserve to be forgiven. We deserve a God who would smite us or drown us or reduce us to dust. God once looked upon a world full of wickedness, regretted that he had ever made humanity, and blotted out damn near every living thing on the face of the earth.

Yet, we are forgiven. The one who we have murdered — God as flesh in our midst, light from light, true God from true God — forgives us. We, who are killing him, are forgiven.

We do not deserve it. We are not good people. We are wicked and sinful, with murder and hate in our hearts. And we struck God dead. Because he spoke these words of forgiveness.

But we are forgiven. We, who betrayed, and abandoned, and killed him, we who ran and hid, we who gawked and did nothing, we are forgiven. We who are law and order and power are forgiven.

It is not cheap, this forgiveness. Because it strips bare any notion we are innocent. To be forgiven is to be reminded that we are judged and condemned. Remember that. It puts the lie to our favorite confession, that we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives. We are not. Only one is innocent.

And we put him to death because of that.

No, we don’t deserve this forgiveness. And we should not expect it. Not given who we are. Not given what we do.

But we are forgiven. The God whose betrayal, arrest, torture, and murder we so readily arranged and took part in does not stay dead. And he comes to us — all of us — and says, “you are mine; follow me.” He shows his wounds, the wounds we eagerly inflicted upon him, and says, “I am risen. Do not doubt, but trust. Go and share the good news!”

The women and men who met the risen Lord, and lived into their forgiveness, who preached and taught and traveled, who lived and died this good news, built this civilization that so paradoxically allows us to forget who we are. What we did to God. And how God responds to us.

Sometimes, though, we are reminded. Sometimes events reach through the fog of law and custom and culture and force us to see who we are. To see who our suffering, crucified God is. And to remind us, really remind us, that for all our wretchedness, for all we have done, we are forgiven. We don’t deserve it. But we are forgiven.

Respond to that gift with awe and wonder. With grace and forgivness. Knowing how it was bought. Remembering the part you played in it, as one unworthy of the Lord you helped put to death. Forgive, as you are forgiven. Remember the cost, and forgive.

Love your enemies, and forgive them, remembering that Jesus speaks not of an abstraction, of people far away across the sea who may mean you harm. He spoke to a people who were conquered and occupied, whose enemies lived in their midst, commanding and compelling, beating, and raping, and killing. Who dealt with those enemies every day. Because, all too often, that’s what law and order and power means.

If you don’t see your enemies in your midst like that, then consider — you might be the enemy someone has to love, to be blessed when you curse, prayed for when you abuse, turned the other cheek to when you slap, handed both coat and tunic to when you demand. Consider this costly forgiveness, that it’s yours, given freely to you, and let it change who you are.

Let it change how you live.

Do not be the kind of person who needs to be met and resisted with this kind of love. Lay down your power and your privilege and live as someone God has called to truly inherit the earth. Live as someone Jesus speaks words of blessing to, and not woe. God is merciful and kind even to the ungrateful and the evil, makes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust. It better, however, to be kind, to be just. To forgive, as you are forgiven.

So be merciful. You helped kill God, and you deserve to drown, to perish so utterly the world would never know you existed. And yet, he has come to you in your fear and terror and shown you his wounds and you have been given new life. You met him in the teaching of the word and the breaking of bread. He still claims you. You are still his.

You have been forgiven. So take up your mats. And walk.

No More Flair!

Apparently, Kim Jong Un has given up wearing flair entirely…

And here…

Now, it may be that he has finally come into his own as “supreme leader.” I could find no examples of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, wearing such a pin, and I found no examples of his father, Kim Jong Il, wearing the flag/portrait pin. It may be he has nothing to prove, or feels he has nothing to prove.

Flags

I don’t normally comment here on current events, at least ones that don’t involve North Korea. But the killing of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and an image of gunman Dylann Roof from his Facebook page, has prompted me to comment.

First, a little bit about images. One of the reasons I pay attention to North Korean media, and tend to discount speculation about events in North Korea from those outside the country, is that outsiders simply do not know very much. But the images, when examined thoughtfully, can tell us some things.

For example, after Kim Jong Un became supreme leader, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the Korean Central News Agency ran a series of stories featuring Kim Jong Un visiting military bases and embracing soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots. It was sappy and even a little silly looking.

But, how do you convince a nation that a 27-year-old (allegedly) who rose out of nowhere is fit to be the “father of the nation?” Easy — you show him physically caring for people. Even as the image didn’t tell us much, it told us a lot. We can get past mindless speculation (did Kim really kill his uncle with hungry wild dogs, or a mortar round, or an anti-aircraft gun? Does he like fancy cheese and Swiss cigarettes?) into seeing what the pictures themselves are communicating.

Which gets us to Dylan Roof. The photo from his Facebook feed is that of a sullen, and even angry, teenager in a black jacket with a couple of flags on it:

Specifically, the flag of apartheid-era South Africa. And below it, the flag of Ian Smith’s self-proclaimed white supremacist state of Rhodesia.

Now, some symbols are affectations. A friend from high school noted that a British flag, or even an anarchy patch, is an aesthetic affectation. They say something of the aesthetic preferences of the wearer. The young mod wearing the British flag is not likely swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. (I hope I remembered that righ, because it has been a long time…) And the wearer of the anarchy pin or patch likely hasn’t given the “A” much real consideration. It likely means, at most, loud and angry music.

I would even go so far as to say the Stars and Bars the Confederate battle flag is an affectation, at least for white people who wear it. (I’m not denying the hateful potency of the symbol for black and brown folks, but merely saying many white people who embrace the battle flag do so for reasons that have little to do with overt racism.) It may say something about the politics of the wearer (or their personality), but mostly I suspect it tells us more about the wearer’s cultural and aesthetic preferences than it does their social and political views: the music they listen to, what they do and consume to have fun, who they think they are. (And aren’t.) It may be adopted consciously as a racist symbol by the wearer, but it doesn’t have to be. Especially if adopted carelessly and thoughtlessly, through a kind-of cultural osmosis. Because frequently, cultural affectations can be picked up carelessly or thoughtlessly, something adopted because those around have adopted them or they strike someone’s fancy.

Now a swastika, and most Nazi imagery, is more than an affectation. It cannot (or cannot easily) be adopted carelessly, simply because one is surrounded by people who wear it. It is not omnipresent in American society, and carries a fair amount of stigma in polite society. So, a swastika tells us something about the politics and worldview of the wearer, and not simply their aesthetic or cultural preferences, because it has to be very consciously and purposefully adopted.

Which gets us to Roof’s flags. These are not affectations. Thought and purpose had had to go into their adoption. Especially that Rhodesian flag, which is the symbol of one of the most repugnant and racist regimes of the post-WW2 era. It’s an obscure flag — I didn’t recognize it at first — and thus he had to do some work. Rhodesia didn’t strike Roof’s fancy, white supremacy mostly likely struck Roof’s fancy. The kind of methodical and brutal (and ironically, doomed) white supremacy that was Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.

There is, unhappily, a subculture in America that venerates the days of white rule in southern Africa, particularly Rhodesia, but also Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, and especially looks longingly to the Rhodesian Armed Forces as a heroic example from a bygone era. It is tiny, very marginal, and once upon a time spent its days slobbering over feature articles and firsthand accounts in Soldier of Fortune magazine, and frankly is populated more by idle dreamers than actual doers.

Well, until yesterday.

The picture tells us a lot. Roof has communicated a great deal in this image. He has told us what he admires, and how he thinks the world should be organized. Who matters, and who doesn’t, and why. And he told us these things some time (though how long I am not certain) before he walked into an AME church and killed nine people.

My friend asked an interesting question, one I hope pundits, reporters, and police investigators will ask for some weeks to come — Did Roof wear these flags in public? Why didn’t anyone notice the flags, and what they meant, and say something? Or do something? What did the adults around Roof know and believe that he thought it was okay for him to wear the symbols of two white supremacist regimes — history Roof had to actually go dig out and find in order to learn?

There may be other questions too, I do not know.