Are we in debt to God?

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2016

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the first in a series on salvation and human flourishing.]

My agenda here is to talk about Jubilee. I believe that Jubilee is a central theme throughout the entire Bible, even if the term itself isn’t used very often. A key text is Luke 4, which tells of when Jesus opens his public ministry with words that would have associated him with the Old Testament’s year of Jubilee—which is one of three levels of Sabbath regulations in the book of Leviticus.

Sabbath theology

There is the Sabbath day, the seventh day, a day of rest—which when first instituted was radical for the Hebrew people who had recently been liberated from slavery where there was no rest. Every seventh day should be a time to stop, to recuperate, and to remember how God, in God’s mercy, had given them freedom.

Then there is the Sabbath year, the seventh year. During the Sabbath year, the land was to be allowed to rest, to not be cultivated but to recuperate. The Sabbath year was also a time for the forgiveness of debts, including the release from service for indentured servants, temporary “slaves,” you could say, who worked for others to pay off their debts. Part of the idea here, too, was the reminder of God as a God of mercy and generosity; and part of the idea as well was to prevent a long term separation between various classes of people—no indefinite indebtedness, no separation of the wealthy from the poor, of debtors from debtees.

Then the third level was the year of Jubilee. Here, after 7 sets of 7 years, the 50th year, land was to be returned to those who had originally owned it. There was to be a redistribution—or, we could say, an end to the redistribution—of the land. Instead of being redistributed to the big landowners, it goes back to those who first owned it. It would be as if in the United States all the wealth that has been redistributed from the lower and middle classes to the 1% would be returned every 50 years.

The year of Jubilee was a profound statement about God’s intentions for the community and, more than that, even, a profound statement about the character of God. Prevent having a few push the many off the land; have a society that cares for the vulnerable. Continue reading “Are we in debt to God?”

Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy

Ted Grimsrud—September 20, 2015

In the first post of this four-part series (drawing on presentations to a Sunday school class at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA), I offered a summary and critique of the standard atonement theology characteristic of much of western Christianity. This is called the “satisfaction view” of the atonement, and I suggest that some of its problems are related to the way it presents God in relation to salvation as mechanistic, retributive, and punitive. I have written at length elsewhere how this theology actually has the tragic impact of leading Christians to be more supportive of violence (e.g., war, capital punishment, harsh criminal justice practices, corporal punishment of children).

Restorative justice

My thinking about Christian salvation has been helped a great deal by conversations I have had with my friend Howard Zehr about restorative justice. Howard has been a leader in the movement to reshape the way our society deals with the brokenness caused by crime. Howard’s approach is to focus especially on the needs of the human beings involved, especially the victims (who are often ignored—or worse—by the system) as well as the offenders (who rarely are helped to find healing and often after an encounter with the system end up offending again). We wrote an article together, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” that attempted the beginning of articulating a theology for restorative justice (I also have been working on a book manuscript, Healing Justice [And Theology]).

Howard introduced me to a book, Justice as Sanctuary, by a friend of his, a Dutch law professor named Herman Bianchi. Bianchi uses a provocative image. He says that theology is a big part of our problem of criminal justice practices that make things worse, in terms of some problematic ways it has influenced the practice of criminal justice in the West. So, he suggests, what we may need is something like homeopathic medicine where we use a does of what makes us sick actually to help us heal ourselves. That is, he says, a different kind of theology might be able to help us overcome the problems of retributive justice.

The book I wrote about this, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, then, is a kind of exercise in homeopathic therapy—focusing on a rereading of the Bible and salvation as a way of moving toward a more peaceable way of dealing with wrongdoing that will help break the spirals of violence so widespread around us.

In this post I will discuss the Old Testament—followed by two more in the weeks to come that will focus first on Jesus’s own teaching and practice in relation to salvation and then on the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our salvation theology. Continue reading “Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy”

Should Jesus determine our view of God?

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2015

The question of how to understand the peaceable message of Jesus in relation to less than peaceable pictures of God in the Bible and in the Christian tradition has challenged ethically concerned people of faith almost since the very beginning.

The arch “heretic” Marcion in the second century after Jesus infamously jettisoned the Old Testament and much of the New Testament in his effort to sustain an authentically Christ-centered faith. Though Marcion’s proposed solution to the problem probably made things worse, his impulse to support a coherent view of God and Jesus together is understandable and perennial.

The spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists certain have a stake in this on-going conversation. By lifting up Jesus’s life and teaching as normative and by accepting high claims for the authority of the Bible, we really can’t avoid questions about how to harmonize what seem to be powerful tensions among the various sources of information about God.

In recent years, the broader Christian community has seen an uptick in interest in revisiting these themes. Prominent writers such as John Dominic Crossan (How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation) and J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent God) are very recent examples of dozens of books that have been written in the past two decades that struggle, often very helpfully, with the theological (as in doctrine of God) implications of interrelating the peaceable impulses of Christian sources with the more violent aspects of how the tradition has presented God.

A welcome contribution to an important conversation

For those, like me, who welcome this conversation and think we still have a ways to go to achieve a genuinely faithful resolution, Bradley Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena, CA: CWRpress, 2015), will be seen as a singular contribution. Jersak does significant original thinking. Perhaps even more importantly, he writes accessibly in a book aimed at a broad audience. Jersak writes about deep issues in a clear and lively style reflecting the combination of his academic training (a PhD in theology and present vocation as a professor) and two decades work as a pastor and church planter. His own varied ecclesial journey (early life as a conservative Baptist, a stint as a Mennonite pastor, current connection with the Orthodox Church) is seen in his empathetic and inclusive sensibility. Continue reading “Should Jesus determine our view of God?”

Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?

Ted Grimsrud

I wrote my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, out of a conviction that the Bible does contain a coherent peace message (or, I could say, a coherent healing message or a coherent mercy message). Surprisingly to me, I wonder now whether this conviction is shared by all Mennonite academics.

While I would have preferred a more sympathetic reviewer, I appreciate the issues raised by Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman’s review of Instead of Atonement in the January 2014 Mennonite Quarterly Review. I want to reflect on several of those issues, not mainly to argue with Suderman but more to take the opportunity offered by his review to address some key elements of how we wrestle with the Bible in face of our call to be agents of healing in the world today.

There will be five issues that I will write about: (1) Is the best way to approach “biblical concepts” through focusing on the big picture or on analyses of specific words? (2) How do we understand God’s judgment in relation to God’s mercy? (3) How seriously should we take the Bible’s own way of summarizing its salvation story? (4) Is suggesting that the Bible has a coherent message actually making an inappropriate “universalized claim”? (5) What kind of assumptions should we have as we approach the Bible? Continue reading “Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?”

Salvation and the way of peace—(6) Is There an Atonement Model in This Story?

[This is the sixth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first five posts in the series.]

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The Basic Argument: Old Testament Salvation

For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice required to make salvation possible. This is the doctrine of the atonement, commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification through his sacrifice on the cross.” However, the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’s death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God.

The Old Testament emphasizes a few key moments at the heart of salvation: (1) the calling of Abraham and Sarah to parent descendants who would form a people to bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of these descendants from slavery in Egypt; (3) the coalescing of these liberated slaves into a coherent peoplehood shaped by Torah; (4) the establishment of this community in the promised land; and (5) the sustenance of this community even after the destruction by the Babylonians through the prophets and Torah.

The story portrays each of these five “moments” as expressions of God’s unilateral mercy. In none of these cases was God constrained by holiness or the need to balance the scales of justice before the gift is given. In some cases, violence may be seen as an element of the story. Human beings do reap consequences for their injustice. However, the violence is peripheral. The gift does not require that there be pre-payment of appeasement or punishment. It is unearned; the violence is not inherent in its bestowal.

The centrality of the gift may be seen in the role the law and sacrifices play in salvation. Both are second steps, responses to the gift. God acts directly to give life to Abraham and Sarah; then they offer sacrifices. God acts directly to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt; then God gives the law to shape the people’s responsive living. Salvation is not the consequence of obedience to the law or the offering of sacrifices. To the contrary, obedience to the law and the offering of sacrifices are consequences of salvation.

This view of salvation is reinforced by Israel’s prophets even amidst their sharp critiques. They proclaim that salvation is a gift; it simply requires trust, while its fruit is faithful living. Reject the gift and you will face consequences—but even then God awaits your return should you choose to do so. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(6) Is There an Atonement Model in This Story?”

Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fifth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first four posts in the series.]

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Paul on the need for salvation

The interpreter of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection who has shaped the generations since most powerfully has been the Apostle Paul. Christian salvation theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology. After examining key elements of Paul’s thought, I conclude that Paul understands salvation in ways fully compatible with the Old Testament and the story of Jesus.

Like his predecessors, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world. Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor. Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death.

Romans 1–3 provides one important opportunity for Paul to spell out his understanding of Jesus as savior. At the heart of the sin problem for Paul is the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God—with the consequence that instead of experience God’s healing justice, idolators experience “wrath.”

As Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are about salvation. Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger directly aimed at people God has rejected. We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel. “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.

The true law exposes the sins of us all. It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols. At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives. This problem characterizes Jews and Greeks alike. This is the problem: the universality of the domination of the “power of sin” (Rom 3:9) over all groups of people. Being a member of the empire does not save one—nor does being a member of the religious institutions that had emerged around Torah. In fact, when such membership fosters injustice it has become a curse, a ticket to alienation and idolatry. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation”

Salvation and the way of peace—(4) Jesus’s death and resurrection

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fourth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first three posts in the series.]

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The story of Jesus’s death helps us understand the violent dynamics of our world and helps us answer the question of how to respond to violence without adding to the violence. This story helps us understand why the simple message of God’s love has not been readily embraced in our world. And this story helps us understand how God works to overcome these problems.

Using the logic of retribution (and its application in atonement theology) as the basis for understanding the meaning of Jesus’s death and our salvation actually leads to the opposite conclusion from what the story conveys. The story tells us that the logic of retribution was an instrument of the fallen Powers, not God—and that Jesus’s followers should see in the story a direct refutation of that logic.

In what sense does Jesus bring salvation from the dominance of the fallen Powers? The Powers rely on belief. As long as we believe in their ultimacy, trusting in them for security and meaning, the Powers rule. Jesus challenges human beings to change our allegiance. He asks us to trust in God’s love and not the sense of superiority over others that legalistic belief in the law provides. He asks us to end our trust in the assured access to God that sacred rituals (at a price) provide. He asks us to end our trust in the sense of power over others that being on good terms with the empire provides. In these ways, trust in Jesus breaks the hold of the Powers.

Jesus’s death links with salvation in that: (1) it exposes the fallacy of the logic of retribution; (2) it exposes the direct link between this murderous logic and the institutions that exploit it; (3) it shows that the spiral of violence that is set loose and ever-deepened by this logic may be broken only by non-retaliation and mercy in the way Jesus embodied them; and (4) it sets the stage for God’s act that vindicates how Jesus exposed the Powers and embodied domination-free life when God raises Jesus from the dead. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(4) Jesus’s death and resurrection”

Salvation and the way of peace—(3) Jesus’s life and teaching

Ted Grimsrud 

[This is the third in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]

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The story told in the gospels places itself in the heart of the traditions of Israel. Jesus presents himself in this story as embodying the promises of Yahweh to his forebears. For Jesus the Old Testament’s salvation story remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truth of the old story.

Jesus and Old Testament salvation theology

In the stories of Jesus’s birth, we learn that indeed something new is at hand, a “new thing” in full harmony with the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. There is no hint that something has to happen to God to make restoration possible. God initiates the reconciliation. God unilaterally declares that salvation has come and is especially available to vulnerable and marginalized people.

The birth of Jesus is not linked with the logic of retribution. The birth stories’ announcement of salvation’s presence contains no sense of a new approach to satisfy God’s aggrieved holiness or violated honor or to balance the scales of justice with ultimate innocent sacrifice. The stories point only to God’s initiating mercy and forgiveness.

As Jesus begins his public ministry, he expresses his own sense of continuity with the Old Testament salvation story. In his resistance to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quotes Israel’s scriptures. In his opening message to his home synagogue in Nazareth, he links himself with Israel’s hopes and Yahweh’s promises from the book of Isaiah. Throughout his teaching as presented in the gospels, Jesus quotes and alludes to and paraphrases the Old Testament. He never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures.

Jesus drew on Torah to transform how people viewed God’s participation among the people. People in power used debt to enhance their power and wealth at the expense of the less powerful. Jesus saw debt differently. Drawing on Torah, Jesus’s believed debt provided an opportunity for forgiveness. God does not demand repayment for every ounce of indebtedness. Rather, God offers abundant mercy. The debts would be forgiven without any kind of payment. Jesus’s God was not a God who maintained debt records for the purpose of foreclosing on the poor, but a God who canceled debt and restored life. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(3) Jesus’s life and teaching”

Salvation and the way of peace—(2) The Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the second in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]

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read the Old Testament as a Christian, through the lens of Jesus. Reading the Old Testament in this way simply means allowing Jesus’s values to guide how I sort through the various witnesses. What follows are some ideas about how the Old Testament presents salvation in ways that point ahead to the life and teaching of Jesus.

Salvation as wholeness

Salvation has to do with wholeness. To gain salvation leads to harmony with God, other human beings, and with the rest of creation. We need salvation when we live with disharmony, when we experience brokenness instead of wholeness. The Bible presents salvation on three levels: (1) salvation as liberation from the Powers of brokenness, (2) salvation as restoration of harmony with God, and (3) salvation as restoration of harmonious human relationships. The Old Testament story places priority on salvation in the first sense (liberation). The other two follow from and depend upon the first. Because God acts to deliver, people are then freed to respond to God and restore harmony in their relationships with God and to live at harmony with one another.

In presenting salvation the way it does, via concrete events communicated in stories, the Old Testament locates this salvation in history and not in a cosmic, transcendent context. Salvation in the Old Testament is not about some transaction in the heart of God or some sort of weighing of the cosmic scale of justice. Rather, salvation has to do with flesh and blood actions.

We see in the Old Testament salvation story two distinct themes. First, God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises salvation: a gift of newness in the context of barrenness. God plans to use the community of faith to bring newness to all the families of the earth. This call begins a long process where God’s persevering love bring salvation. Second, God intervenes in the exodus to bring salvation to God’s people. God is a God who liberates the oppressed. God’s salvation does not come through human power politics. God’s salvation leads to a rejection of the values of empires such as ancient Egypt.

Behind God’s gifts and God’s demands lay God’s mercy. Salvation comes from God’s infinite store of mercy that leads to God’s persevering and patient love finding expression in Israel’s history. Salvation arises as God’s initiative and God’s unilateral intervention to heal. The salvation story tells us: (1) God, in love, commits to a long healing process with humankind and (2) God’s healing work involves at its core a counter-cultural sensibility that exalts the oppressed and vulnerable and defies power politics. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(2) The Old Testament”

Salvation and the way of peace—(1) The problem

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the first in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]

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In our present time in the United States, being a self-identified Christian makes a person more likely than a non-Christian to support warfare, punitive criminal justice practices including the death penalty, and corporal punishment of children. It seems likely that one reason American Christians are more pro-violence is because of their acceptance of a theology that understands salvation in terms of God’s retributive justice.

The logic of retribution

This salvation theology is based on a certain view of the “atonement”: The atonement is seen to  be how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross. Implied in this understanding of atonement is that God’s ability to provide salvation is constrained pending the offering of an appropriate sacrifice. It seems inevitable that violence play a role in satisfying the demands of God’s character—and that violence is part of God’s response when the satisfaction is not forthcoming.

As a rule, to act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides our normal tendency not to be violent. Most socially accepted uses of violence (such as war, capital punishment, and corporal punishment) follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this logic usually rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution; using violence is justified as the appropriate response to wrongdoing. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (usually defined as repayment of wrongdoing with violent punishment, pain for pain).

We may call this the “logic of retribution.” In this logic, people understand God in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. They see God’s law as the unchanging standard by which sin is measured, and believe God responds to violation of God’s law with justifiable violence. Most violence is justified as being in some sense an expression of this deserved punishment. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(1) The problem”