Thursday, December 16, 2010

FULL SALVATION: Rethinking Soteriology & Evangelism

“If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity, in heaven or hell?” This question is representative of the soteriology that has driven traditional evangelism for centuries. Salvation, according to this stream of tradition, is concerned with the individual going to a post-mortem destination either to be with God in heaven or to suffer eternal punishment in hell. In this simple, dualistic approach to salvation, traditional evangelism has distorted the matter that is most beautiful to Christian theology: God’s salvific love for all creation. We see evidence of this distortion in our daily lives. From the militant signs endorsing hell at Christian rallies (e.g. Westboro Baptists) to the sarcastic cartoons in pop culture (e.g. The Far Side) to the visceral reactions to anything that smells like Universalism (e.g. recent backlash to Rob Bell), it is plain to see that God’s love has become somewhat of a conditional algorithm. But is this really as good as the Good News gets? If so, there are millions who find Christianity’s message wanting. Nowadays, our opening question is more likely to receive a recalcitrant and postmodern “Niether” than an authentic opening up to the Good News of Jesus Christ. I believe that the ineffectiveness of traditional evangelism is rooted in its divergence from the biblical meaning of salvation that is most clearly revealed in Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God.

In the following essay I aim to explain that our approach to evangelism is determined by our soteriology. As such, I will argue that a Universalist soteriology allows for a more biblical and thereby more effective means for evangelism. Immediately one may question whether Universalism and evangelism together yield an oxymoron. That is, why evangelize if all of humanity will be saved? This inquiry stems from the attempt to fit Universalism into the old wineskin of traditional soteriology. But, as we shall see, Universalism and evangelism can and must be harmonized when fitted into the biblical narrative, particularly the good news of the kingdom of God.

Because a thorough defense of Universalism cannot be offered within the scope of this paper, the ultimate goal is to offer a solid foundation that enables us to enter current conversations on salvation and evangelism. With groups like the Westboro Baptists on one hand and Universal Unitarians on the other, it is imperative that Christians be able to dialogue with others on matters of salvation, after-life and ultimate hope. To offer this foundation I shall: (1) Wrestle with the weaknesses of the traditional view and its negative effects on evangelism; (2) Submit a biblical case for God’s “Full Salvation;” and (3) Propose how this latter view generates more effective evangelism.

Before moving further we may define what Universalism is and what it is not. Universalism is the belief that “all [humankind] will eventually be reconciled to God.” Universalism is not the belief that non-Christian religions are vehicles of salvation; that is, to decentralize the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one and only Way, Truth and Life to God (John 14:6). In contrast to Universalism is what is called Exclusivism (sometimes referred to as Particularism). This is the belief that only bona fide believers in Jesus will be saved. With these clarifications we may explore the differences between Exclusivism and Universalism and how each affects evangelism.

The fundamental difference between Exclusivism and Universalism is to be found in their distinct emphases. While both views wrestle with the same set of questions, their schism is eventually caused by an explanation of God’s election. We shall first examine Exclusivism. Ultimately, the exclusivist is forced to reconcile the seemingly contradictory nature of God as both compassionate and just. That is, if God is loving, how can God send the lost to suffer eternal punishment? Tradition has dealt with this question by explaining that God must punish the lost because God must deal with sin justly. Sin, which causes an infinite fragmentation between humankind and God, leads to our own destruction (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, God simply lets humankind receive what we deserve.

Yet this explanation only leads to more questions. Firstly, if God foreknew that human beings would fall into sin, why create them in the first place? Or is it God’s desire that human beings suffer? Augustine answers this question by stating that “God would never have created a man… if He had not known at the same time how He would put such creatures to good use, and thus enrich the course of world history;” and similarly: “He judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist.” Here we begin to see that the emphasis of Exclusivism is on God’s sovereignty, particularly a form in which God can do whatever God pleases so we’d better acquiesce.

A second question for the Exclusivist view is how God may permit infinite suffering for a finite amount of sin. Tradition has addressed this matter similarly:
“God is indeed merciful, but He is likewise just; wherefore his justice requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of both body and soul (Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, Q.11).”
God, according to this view, is just in sentencing sinners to eternal punishment because a sin against God is an infinite offense. Again, we may see the emphasis revealed: What God will do is not a matter of our business; we must put up or shut up.
But a third and perhaps more troubling question arises from the Exclusivist view on grace. As a result of the infinite rift caused by sin, human beings can only be saved by God’s grace. This means, correctly, that God wills the salvation of those who are saved. Extremely troubling, however, is the logical corollary that is present in Exclusivism: God also wills non-salvation. If God is able to “conquer the stubbornness of the people by his grace… it does not happen because he does not want it to happen.”

Here is the ultimate example of the weakness in Exclusivism’s emphasis on God’s election. Jan Bonda sums it up well:
“Submit - for he is God! Accept, acknowledge, and agree that he is good even if he wants our children to be punished throughout eternity. That is what the tradition wants to teach us. It is forced to teach us that, as long as it accepts eternal punishment as a biblical doctrine. Augustine was the first to grasp this and to express it in words. After him no one could deny it: If there is eternal punishment, it is because that is how God wants it to be. And if God wants it, we can only submit.”
As the summary illustrates, a refusal to submit to this tenant of traditional Christian theology is nearly tantamount to the refusal of God – or at least the “truth” about God. How many men and women throughout history have been excluded from the Church because they refused to accept that God allows the perdition of many? How many people in our world today are yearning for God, yet cannot submit to the picture of God painted by traditional soteriology? This is where Exclusivism leaves many, myself included, wanting. This deficiency is made plain when we consider how Exclusivism affects evangelism.

What is obvious from the start is that the main objective of evangelism in the exclusivist paradigm is to confirm that the individual is bound for heaven after death. This is a result of the soteriological emphasis on post-mortem reward/punishment. Part of our issue with this already is that evangelism becomes as much about escaping hell as it does about entering heaven. But more concerning are two other repercussions for evangelism. The first is an over-emphasis on existence after death, which thereby de-emphasizes the here and now. This orientation produces an unhealthy neglect of the present world. Moreover, it has generated some of the most unbiblical speculations about the afterlife, which become terrible hindrances for Christian discipleship. The second and corollary is a Platonic body/soul dualism that over-emphasizes the soul due to the over-emphasis on the invisible hereafter. Thus, Christians who subscribe to the exclusivist view are less inclined to worry about the physiological needs of their neighbors: “We’re going to heaven when we die so why worry about those starving in Sudan?” Missiologically, what matters for those in Sudan is that their soul be saved for heaven.
Perhaps most troubling is that an exclusivist evangelism along these lines has very little need for the life and ministry of Jesus. What is most necessary is simply Jesus’ atoning death on the cross that allows sinners to go to heaven. As we shall see, this is a tragic distortion of salvation. Yet for most exclusivists, the teachings of Jesus become merely supplementary – except, of course, when he warns of eternal damnation!

Because of these characteristics, exclusivist evangelism produces a “believe the right thing” theology. That is, salvation is confirmed by the response of faith to God’s grace expressed in the form of believing ‘X’ – most commonly that Jesus died for one’s sins. Thus, the emphasis on the soul produces an evangelism that targets the rational mind and persuades it to assent. Upon confirmation of belief, the important stuff is taken care of! The rest, it seems, is just Christian sub-culture. Unfortunately, this approach to evangelism couldn’t be further from the message of Jesus.

Another flaw in the exclusivist approach to evangelism is less obvious but no less harmful. As we noted above, Exclusivism explains the horror of eternal punishment by arguing that God is both compassionate and just. Yet it is this picture of God as both compassionate and just that subtly influences those who endorse it. For example, it influences Christians to neglect injustice and/or administer punishment by way of the implicit reasoning, “If God punishes sin in the name of justice, why can’t I?” Of course very few people think this specifically, but there is ample evidence that what we ultimately believe about God affects how we live. Such is the very heart of this essay. Furthermore, Exclusivism incidentally squelches human feelings, which are essential to our salvation as God’s people. Augustine called those who question God’s perdition of the lost “tender-hearted” believers. Likewise Dante and Aquinas, from whom tradition has inherited much of its views on heaven/hell, encouraged Christians to leave behind their sympathy and simply accept the truth of God’s eternal doom. Such suppression of human feeling is the opposite of salvation in the kingdom of God. Further still, the view of God as a righteous judge who separates humanity into two categories seems to cultivate the same kind of Pharisaic scapegoating that Jesus adamantly condemned (Matt. 23). Being judgmental is the second most common perception of evangelicals.

While there are other deficiencies in the kind of evangelism that Exclusivism produces, these are the major flaws that I believe inhibit the true meaning of salvation and a subsequently effective approach to evangelism But my final critique of the evangelism generated by Exclusivism is this: With whom do converts fall in love? As I read the Bible, I am compelled to believe that God desires that we fall in love with Him in the person of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that Exclusivism produces Christians who have fallen in love with heaven, not God. It is, after all, difficult to fall in love with a God who threatens eternal damnation to those who do not respond adequately. Accordingly, “The theologian who succeeds in convincing believers that the doctrine of eternal punishment does not lead to a terrifying image of God has yet to arise.” Perhaps this impasse is indication that it is time for our theology to change. Perhaps we need to read Scripture afresh. Perhaps it is time for Christians to quit speculating about “What will happen” and start considering, “What does God will?” It this latter question that I believe provides the foundation for the “Full Salvation” of God and healthy evangelism for the kingdom of God.

Universalism has received a great deal of criticism over the course of history – and rightfully so. Recurrent censures include the following:

“It trivializes the radical sinfulness of fallen humanity, and plays down the penalties due for such sin; it compromises morality by denying that good or evil choices make any ultimate difference, and undermines the missionary mandate of Christ by implying that evangelism and conversion are incidental to salvation.”

These criticisms deliver a deathblow when Universalism is fitted into the soteriological paradigm of tradition. When Universalism is defined only as the doctrine that one day all of humanity will be reconciled to God, then these criticisms may well apply. However, such Universalism is not biblical Universalism – what we shall hence refer to as God’s “Full Salvation.” These criticisms divert the emphasis from what God wills for creation to anthropocentric speculations about final outcomes. As Christians, we cannot speculate about what will eventually happen until we understand what God wills. Thus, our argument for Full Salvation can only stand on the foundation of what God wills. This must be understood in the context of the biblical narrative, particularly the kingdom of God.

Contrary to the hermeneutics of Exclusivism, the Bible is not the story of God saving some while rejecting others. The Bible is the story of God’s faithfulness to the unfaithful. It is the story of God keeping God’s covenant with Israel, despite Israel’s infidelity. And what exactly is this covenant to which God remains faithful? It is the covenant that was made with Abraham:
“I will make 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 curses you I will curse; and in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2,3)

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. But Abram said, ‘O Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’ Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and number the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:1-6)

Here we see that election means not God’s giving of salvation as a kind of reward, but as an invitation to participate in God’s salvific mission. God’s desire is to form a community that outnumbers the stars! However, God desires to do this through Abraham and his people. Upon closer examination we may see why God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel (the first evangelist!).

In Genesis 18, the Lord approaches Abraham about Sodom, a city of great sinners (Gen. 13:13). After the Lord pronounces judgment upon Sodom we are told that Abraham intercedes on their behalf. Instead of accepting that God can do whatever God pleases or that Sodom’s sin deserves punishment, Abraham pleas with the Lord for their salvation. This is why God chose Abraham! “By asking for the salvation not only of the righteous but of the entire city, Abraham does exactly what God wants.” This is further evidenced in the story of Jacob. Like Sodom, Jacob’s brother Esau has been traditionally branded as an example of God’s double election. Yet the story of Jacob beautifully displays the reality that God intends the salvation of those who are considered un-elect. We see that Jacob was at first pictured as the one who wanted God’s blessing at the expense of his brother. But the story posits that God’s blessing comes only when Jacob includes his brother. Indeed, Jacob becomes Israel – a blessing to the nations – only when he understands his true mission.

This theme of intercession for and inclusion of the “un-elect” is found throughout Scripture in the person of Moses (Exod. 32), the prophets (Isa. 56, Jer. 14, Ezek. 16) and the Apostle Paul (Rom. 9-11). The theme concerns us here because it is indicative of God’s ultimate purpose to save all of creation and our role as bearers of this good news. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

God’s Full Salvation must be considered in light of the kingdom of God. Contrary to streams of Exclusivism, biblical salvation has very little to do with post-mortem destinations. Instead, salvation has to do with a this-world reality. That reality is the kingdom of God. It is undisputed that this was the crux of Jesus’ message (Mark 1:14-15; Matt. 4:23, 9:35; Luke 4:43, 8:1, 16:16). This phrase, Basileia tou Theou, is often translated the ‘reign of God’ as it denotes the manifest rule of God. Thus, by employing kingdom language, Jesus was invoking the ultimate hope of Israel: that one day God would act decisively within history to restore the world to right and rule over it with Israel as God’s covenant people. Salvation, therefore, is the fulfillment of God’s mission in the world that was begun in the Abrahamic covenant and sealed by Christ’s death and resurrection.

In his life and ministry Jesus inaugurated the Full Salvation of God by welcoming the “unelect.” If this were not the heart of Jesus’ ministry then there would have been no early church mission to the Gentiles (a.k.a. the “unelect”). But this is what history affirms and it can mean nothing less than that God desires the inclusion of all in the kingdom community. Certainly Jesus had stern warnings of judgment for some. However these judgments were not suggestive of final conclusions; they were harsh assessments of current praxis that inhibited the Full Salvation of God. What is unquestionable, however, is that Jesus’ life and ministry – the very presence of salvation – broke down the exclusivism of his day. In Jesus, who is the very image of God (John 1:18, Heb. 1:3), we find the God who wills the salvation of all.

Perhaps most telling are Jesus’ own words about his death. What Exclusivism employs as the criterion for dividing humankind is, for Jesus, the means for inclusion: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). So too does Paul see the cross as God’s final and inclusive “Yes” to creation: “So also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18). In the death of Christ, therefore, we see not only God’s faithfulness to justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5) but also God’s eschatological substitution for the sin of all (Rom. 5:6). And if the death of Christ is seen as God’s eschatological substitution for sinners, then the resurrection of Christ may be interpreted as God’s eschatological seal of the Full Salvation.

To be the Body of Christ thus demands that the church embraces soteriology and evangelism that resemble Jesus Christ, the One who wills Full Salvation. We are no more concerned with a systematic “What will God do?” but rather a missiological “What does God will?” I believe this is the correct approach considering that Jesus taught us to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If this is our prayer, then evangelism can be nothing less than the present hope in God’s will to include all of creation in the kingdom of God.

When we understand salvation as life in the kingdom of God and not simply a post-mortem destination, then we may better comprehend the biblical notion that God wills the salvation of all; what we have heretofore called “Full Salvation.” We remember that salvation in the kingdom of God is no less than the fulfillment of God’s call to Abraham because it is through Jesus, Abraham’s seed, that the nations of the world are blessed (Rom. 5:18). Not only this, but also we may note that salvation in the kingdom of God is pneumatological reality (Acts. 1:6-8). That is, salvation in Christ comes through the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). With these recognitions we may discover the church’s unique role in Full Salvation and consider their impact on our methods for evangelism.

Firstly, our understanding of biblical salvation changes the way we define evangelism. Instead of “saving souls” or “accepting Jesus into your heart,” evangelism is the invitation to live in the kingdom of God. This means that all and sundry are invited to join the community of God’s kingdom and begin living under the Lordship of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This has an immediate and momentous impact on the church: we must be that community to which we invite others! Evangelism in light of God’s Full Salvation fundamentally includes living the reign of God (which, not coincidentally, demands we discern God’s will!). This is precisely why salvation cannot wait until after death. Salvation in this paradigm is the invitation to begin living now the way that God’s community shall be forever. Evangelism, then, is not just a verbal invitation to those who are yet included; it is the relational reaching out by which we include those who are yet a part of the kingdom community. This sufficiently refutes the ludicrous accusation that Universalism “undermines the missionary mandate of Christ.” Universalism is the missionary mandate of Christ! God’s Full Salvation demands evangelism.

Secondly, because salvation is a present reality, evangelism ought to focus on immediate, holistic needs. Contrary to the censure above, God’s Full Salvation does “trivialize the radical sinfulness of fallen humanity” via the na├»ve optimism that things will one day be OK. Instead, Full Salvation invites us to respond to those starving in Sudan with compassion because God desires their salvation – and that salvation means becoming what Jesus and the early church modeled: the kingdom of God. Evangelism in this paradigm cannot compartmentalize human existence into body/soul or physical/spiritual. Evangelism matters here and now because salvation is here and now.
Third, the belief in God’s Full Salvation overcomes the impasse of perdition. Christian evangelism has no place for the desire of hell. “As soon as we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell we find ourselves in great danger.” Exclusivism has yielded many Christians who resemble the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. At the very least, shouldn’t biblical Christians subscribe to Arminian Universalism? We have seen above the kind of evangelism that results from the lack of hope in traditional soteriology. Contrastingly, God’s Full Salvation allows for a foundational message of hope: “The Creator will not rest until the human race has reached the destiny for which it has been created.”

Fourth, and in rebuttal to the criticism above, God’s “Full Salvation” actually enables Christians to address sin, not ignore it. This has two components. The first is that it enables us to speak of the “elephant in the room” because no longer does this elephant equate to eternal damnation. Instead we may speak of sin in light of God’s love, which ultimately opens us up to see sin all the more clearly as that which inhibits salvation under the reign of God. A second component is that we may speak of sin in terms of present reality because salvation is a matter of present concern (not just future, as is assumed by the criticism above). Like Jesus, we may use this-world realities to elucidate the seriousness of sin. For example, as Jesus compared the road of sin to Gehenna, a burning pile of human waste, so too may we speak prophetically against the sinful realities in our world. What is sin? Sin is human trafficking. What is hell? Hell is Auschwitz. Hell is starving children in a world of abundant resources.

This last point naturally leads to the question of how the proponent of Full Salvation interprets New Testament passages used to endorse the traditional view of hell. While the scope of this paper cannot begin to deal fairly with these texts, three remarks may be made. First, the explicit teachings of Jesus on hell must be interpreted in their original context. Not only do these occurrences make use of Gehenna as a rhetorical, device, but also Jesus’ stern warnings to the religious elite contrast his kingdom soteriology with that of the Pharisees, for whom the earliest form of Exclusivism had become ‘orthodoxy’. Secondly, hell is certainly real as both a present and future state, but not an everlasting state. Hell, as we mentioned above, is the road of sin that leads to death. It does not take long to see these realities in our present world just as it was real to Jesus in the First Century. However, present hell screams for punitive cleansing (cf. Gen. 4:10) and thereby divulges its transience. As a future reality, we must make a third remark about hell. Like the biblical notion of salvation, Jesus’ teachings on hell must be interpreted in light of Old Testament theology. The Hebrew scriptures largely remain silent on ideas of post-mortem punishment. Moreover, Old Testament notions of judgment, from which Jesus drew his teaching, contain no hints of the unending punishment that we find in modern exclusivism. Instead, judgment in the Old Testament – even God’s “eternal fire” (Jer. 17:4) – is not the final word but a means to reconciliation with God (cf. Jer. 31:38-40). There is substantial grounds for arguing that God’s judgment is itself salvific. This does not, however, mean that biblical teaching on hell may be glossed over as a “means to reconciliation.” Paul makes clear that all will be judged (Rom. 14:10-12, 2 Cor. 5:10) and that the man whose work is burned up “will suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:10-15). Yet, Paul also claims that those who suffer loss “will be saved, but only as through fire.” Here, as in the Old Testament, hell may be a terrible – yet purposeful – experience that God uses to achieve God’s one, true purpose: the salvation of all.

A fifth and final affect on evangelism is that Full Salvation offers a wider vision of what God is doing in the world. We see glimpses of God’s inclusive intentions every day in the many “anonymous Christians” who do not associate with Christianity but are themselves instruments of God’s salvation. These men, women and children arise in all cultures and in all world religions and live, unknowingly, under the reign of God by the gracious power of the Spirit. Instead of seeing them as excluded and dividing humankind into neat categories, we may engage with them and say, “Look at what God is doing! Look at where the God of the Bible wants us to go – together!” Such an approach enables us to explore hopes and possibilities with non-believers, not simply dole out religious formula or advice. For example, questions like If Jesus were running the world, what might it look like? might instigate creative ways to discovers God’s Spirit leading us toward Full Salvation.

In our study we have seen the adverse and often unbiblical effects that traditional soteriology has on evangelism. These effects include a de-emphasis on Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God and kingdom ethics; little need for presence of the Holy Spirit; Platonic body/soul dualism and unhealthy speculation about the after-life; individualism; judgmental attitudes and exclusivity; decreased sensitivity to emotions; lack of practicality for present needs; and the inability to fall in love with the of God of Exclusivism. I believe that the decreasing relevancy of this form of evangelism communicates its weaknesses. With a fresh reading we may see that the God of the Bible wills the Full Salvation of creation. This is not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by optimism that one day God will flip a switch and all will be hunky dory again. Such universalistic hopes are, in actuality, a response to the shortcomings of traditional soteriology. Instead, we have presented a biblical form of Universalism, here designated “Full Salvation,” in which salvation is defined as life under the reign of God, which is both now and still to come. This affords us a more rounded soteriology that is eschatological, pneumatological and Christocentric.

More than this, however, Full Salvation allows for a more biblical and thereby more effective evangelism. The examples of Abraham, Jacob, and, most importantly, Jesus demonstrate that God’s elect are eschatological people. “When God gives Abraham his promise, and when Abraham believes, the fulfillment is nowhere in sight. All has yet to happen.” And yet Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Might it be time that Christians begin believing in the promise of God, even when fulfillment is nowhere in sight? In his ministry Jesus always loved people ahead of time. Not only ahead of time, but across the orthodox divide. But not only across the orthodox divide, but beyond the chasm of sin and death! Evangelism that is biblical must not lose faith in God's eschatological love.

This is what God’s Full Salvation is about. It is not about proving a conclusive, airtight solution to the doctrine of salvation; it is about seeking what God wills and praying “Thy will be done,” even when fulfillment is nowhere in sight. And when we discover what it is that the God of the Bible wills for creation, we cannot help but fall in love. When the will of God is that all of creation be saved, Christianity is indeed Good News for the world.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Paradox, Ambiguities and the Mask of Imagination

Christian theology holds many ideas in tension. We often call them paradoxes. Martin Luther called the Christian existence simul iustus - simul peccator (at once righteous and a sinner) and iustus in spe, peccator in re (righteous in hope, sinner in fact). Christian theology claims that Jesus of Nazareth's death on the cross at Golgotha won the decisive victory over sin and death. Yet, try telling this to someone suffering real trauma in the here and now and they'll shrug you off like a bad joke. Christian theology also claims that the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of God's altogether new creation, the initiation of God's coming Kingdom, a new age over which God reigns and Jesus is Lord and King.

Some paradoxes are beautiful. Others seem to be blatant contradictions to the current state of our 'reality.' More often than not these mind-numbing conceptual conflicts do not become resolved but rather lead to a completely new set of questions and ambiguities. More often than not, these intellectual and existential conundrums steal hours of sleep and cause me to resort to two of the most frequently employed words of my generation: fuck it.

When it comes down to it, I understand Christianity as a religion of hope. The most fundamental claim in Christianity is that Jesus is Lord - now. It's not that having a Lord or God of some sorts is comforting; it's the kind of Lord and God that Jesus is. Jesus is the King whose kingdom is all about compassion, not blame. Jesus is the Lord whose life embodies trusting others, not coercion. Jesus is the God whose meaning is love, not hate. And Jesus is the Incarnated God who suffers alongside us, as exemplified in His horrific death. Yet the final word was not death, it was that love, trust and compassion win the day! Indeed, this is Good News.

This has brought me courage and strength to carry on through many battles (though I cannot claim to have had a difficult life whatsoever). Nevertheless, acknowledging the reality that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of all creation gives the believer a hope that the Way of Jesus of Nazareth is the Way of Victory, the Way of Truth, and the Way of true human existence with God and creation.

What supports the claim that Jesus is Lord is the historicity of the Easter event. That God raised the dead Jesus to new life exhibits many things. The resurrection confirms all of the pre-Golgotha claims about Jesus. It also vindicated Jesus as the Messiah for whom Israel had long awaited. What's more is that the witness of the early church as followers of this crucified Messiah provides one of the greatest mysteries of history. But I shall not digress on historical studies here.

What interests me here is the ontological claim that "Jesus is Lord." This, as I have mentioned, is the foundation of all hope for the Christian believer. This claim is at once contemporaneous and eschatological. We claim that because of the resurrection, Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is Lord over all creation now; and Jesus is also the Lord who will come on the Day to complete God's work of redemption. And this is where perhaps the biggest paradox begins to unfold.

Firstly, to claim that Jesus is Lord now is immediately open for question. Many people, Bill Mahr for example, look around at the atrocities of our world and laugh at the believer's claim that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is Lord over all creation right now. To claim that a Palestinian Jew from 2,000 years ago is the rightful King over the cosmos is somewhat of an absurd claim. This claim becomes even more laughable when those espousing it do not seem to behave like it is true! But then again, this claim did not die out even under the harshest of persecutions throughout history (see the Wiki page on this subject). There is something mysterious to this claim and there is also something comfortably right about it. Perhaps this is where a Christology from before (or "beyond") plays into the equation. That is, that our understanding of Jesus the Christ is not solely dependent on the Jesus of time/space history ("Christ from below"), but the mystical Christ who meets us from somewhere beyond history. This is the Christ whom Kierkegaard called the "Christ of Faith."

Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the fact that stating the claim "Jesus is Lord" requires an awfully courageous amount of imagination (I sometimes prefer the term imagination over "faith" because imagination implies that one is tapping into something ahistorical, yet a redefinition of faith in our age is certainly needed). To posit that Jesus is Lord is the most radical claim a human being can make. It is radical because: a) as Lord over the cosmos we are subject to a new order, a way of being that is proffered by Jesus now and thereby affects our lives now (Jesus is Lord implies the present tense!); and b) the claim that Jesus is Lord is an authoritative claim that confronts the powers in this world.

This is where most people who endeavor to know Jesus become stuck. Admittedly, this is where I become stuck much of the time. (Paul Ricouer calls this stage the "Second Naivete," a stage where the simple answers of the "First Naivete" are deconstructed). How is it that Christians can claim "Jesus is Lord" in the midst of the completely contradicting realities we face everyday in news headlines, interpersonal relationships, and personal brokenness? It all seems to be a bunch of malarky. Not quite the "opiate of the masses," but still some kind of fairy-tale story that doesn't seem to make much sense in our situation. "Jesus is Lord?" Really? Show me, please.

As an ontological claim, which is what "Jesus is Lord" must be to have any sort of meaning whatsoever, it seems to be no more convincing than the Platonic claim "The realm of forms is real." Yes it might make for a good explanation in theory, but does it match up to what I'm experiencing now? What good is an ontological claim that doesn't ring true ontologically for me here and now?

The answer is that ontological claims do not only "explain" reality, they also create it. An ontological claim such as "Jesus is Lord" is not meant to merely explain reality ex post facto, it creates a new reality by drawing us into its world. An ontological claim that does not necessarily "match up" with our current situation demands that we live into the new world that it creates. The claim, "Jesus is Lord," demands that we live into it. Therefore, it is not only an "explanation," it is also the source of hope.

To the above question regarding the ontological veracity of the claim, "Jesus is Lord," a theologian may respond, "How do you know what reality is? How do you know that the claim, 'Jesus is Lord' is not true?" What if we are, as Paul suggested, "asleep," unaware of the reality of Jesus' lordship? This is a beautiful, intellectual offering: perhaps we are so lost and hidden from God that we do not realize the Truth of Jesus' Lordship. Yet it still just that: a hypothetical offering, a confession, a witness.

At the end of the day, ontological claims - especially the mysterious and seemingly improbable ones - demand the support of more than abstract, intellectual theories. They demand embodiment. They demand earthly manifestation. They demand that "Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." This suggests that we have more control over creating (or rather living into) reality than perhaps we realize. Furthermore, does this suggest that we may choose the foundation of our reality? I believe so.

But what if that foundation is not, in fact, true? Here we must return to the nature of ontological claims.

Can an ontological claim be false even when we think that it is true? Of course. Is this not exhibited by the child who "believes in" Santa Claus, or in the Elron Hubbards who invent mysterious pagan religions? Therefore, we may see that claims about reality can, in fact, be false no matter how much we think they are true. This argument is posited against Christianity as well. And, I sympathize with it. Yet those who proffer such criticism ought to explore more thoroughly the ontological claim(s) offered by Christian theology (that is, the entire system of claims offered by Christian theology. This includes the major doctrines of creation, anthropology, salvation, ecclesiology, pneumatology and eschatology). But I digress. Here, however, we are focused on the one particular claim, "Jesus is Lord." And now we must consider the flip side to the nature of ontological claims.

Can an ontological truth be true without our recognition? Yes. This is exemplified everyday through scientific discovery (i.e. we discover truths about reality of which we were previously unaware). Therefore, we must entertain the thought that the ontological claim, "Jesus is Lord," could be true - whether we acknowledge it or not. The real test of its veracity comes, as I have suggested in the preceding paragraph, when we live it out. That is, Is it true that Jesus is Lord when we live in a world where compassion and trust win the day? Is it true that Jesus is Lord when we quit categorizing people by race and gender and see everyone as family? Is it true that Jesus is Lord when sharing and communal living become the modus operandi of society?

The ultimate test of any ontological claim is when we attempt to live into it. And this is why I cannot give up on the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of the cosmos. I have lived into it, albeit imperfectly. I have shared in it. I have experienced it. And no other ontological claim has offered me anything more true than this.

Yes, Christianity is a theology of tension and paradox. It is extremely frustrating at times because we live in the tension of competing ontological claims. Christianity says, "Jesus is Lord," while much of the current world says, "Greed is lord," and other contradicting claims.

But at its core Christianity is a theology of hope. The claim, "Jesus is Lord," calls us into a new reality, a new creation. The Lordship of Christ whispers in our ears about a different Way of being. It beckons us to embody the reality that the Living, Loving God reigns. The claim invites us partner with God and create a new creation where the lion and lamb lay down together and justice and righteousness permeate the earth.

It is not some kind of fairy-tale or opiate to sedate us during our current troubles. It claims what will ultimately be. It claims, "Jesus is Lord now because Jesus will be Lord at the end of all things." The truth of this claim will become plain to see when those who are both simul iustus - simul peccator embody this paradox within the ultimate paradox, that Jesus is Lord.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Age in Which We Live

Ten observations of our current world.

10. People at the gym work out with a little blue tooth device attached to their ear so that they can converse with other people thousands of miles away and/or look like Star Trek characters.

9. Grocery stores have to hire employees specifically to collect the shopping carts left in the parking lot by careless patrons.

8. My friend can pull a tiny device out of her pocket and begin a live video chat with someone thousands of miles away - all in a matter of seconds.

7. An average day includes roughly 87,000 flights over the continental USA, with over 5,000 airplanes in the sky at any given moment.

6. Urban teenagers can organize hundreds of their peers together in a matter of 30 minutes via Twitter (yet mainline churches can't organize ecumenical potluck dinners).

5. Food product companies have to boast that their product is made with "REAL" ingredients.

4. The FDA is about to approve genetically engineered atlantic salmon because salmon sellers want to produce more faster. At the same time scientists are "growing" beef in laboratories.

3. My friend who teaches in West Philadelphia was given a $150 budget for her teaching supplies for the year. She has spent over $200 of her own money, which she claims is normal for teachers at her school.

2. It is quite rare to see the operator of a moving automobile who is not also operating a mobile phone.

1. It is virtually impossible to eat a packaged food that does not have wheat or corn as a main ingredient.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


From the solitary "A" terminal in a remote airport seven men stood staring at seven airplanes. The airplanes were all different in size, shape and color. There was a gigantic airbus that seated hundreds. It dominated the jetway with its blue-and-orange wings. There was a sleek, private jet, with tiny triangular windows and posh interior. An amateur-looking propeller plane with a dirty windshield sat in the shadow of the jet. It was extremely small, the kind that you only take up for short, tourism rides. Just behind the prop was a standard 747 blanketed with neon colors and a gigantic silhouette of a dinosaur with its long neck running the contour of the plane's tail. Next to the pre-historic beast plane was a rough-looking military plane. It had exterior scars that made it look much older than it was. But the enormous engines affixed to the wings gave it an air of rugged confidence. Still yet there was another just beyond the military tank-plane: a small, sea plane with a pointed yellow nose and blue propellers. It rested on its odd, buoyant ski-legs. Last and completely to the right side was a very normal looking express jet. Dark navy blue with eight oval windows.

As the men examined the seven planes a woman approached them and offered them each a free ticket on the plane of their choice. The first man chose the posh, private jet. The second: the military plane. The third took the airbus while the fourth man joined the second on the military plane. The fifth man confidently boarded the neon dinosaur and the sixth chose the sea plane.

The last man stood alone and the woman gently asked, "And you?"

"Well that all depends," the man responded.

"On?" inquired the woman.

"The destination."

"Good question," she said with a nod of confirmation. The woman handed the man a flight schedule indicating where each plane was going.

The narrative we choose to live by ought to be determined by its telos.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What I Learned from Never Watching LOST

Over the past four weeks we've heard a lot about the popular TV series, LOST. The season finale, which aired on May 23rd, drew in 13.5 million viewers for an exciting 2-hour episode. In the days following, newspapers, blogs and internet buzz covered all things LOST, while dedicated fans re-watched the finale with the hopes of tying up the loose ends of a complicated, time-warping plot.

I was not one of those fans. Having never seen an episode of LOST I cannot add anything valuable to conversation about the series that captured millions. Nor can I answer any inquiries about islands, flashbacks, airplanes, or the Darma Initiative. However, as an outsider looking in, I would like to humbly offer my own perspective on how LOST has effectively demonstrated what I believe is an important and timely (although not new by any means) message for our world.

After dialogue with many LOST fans and reading a handful of reviews about the series, I have noticed one dominant motif. It seems that while LOST left many questions unanswered, ultimately the series was an extraordinary specimen of storytelling and character development. In short, it's all about the characters and their stories. The writers of the series brilliantly (I am assuming based on secondary sources) integrated philosophical, theological, and literary concepts into the plot. It even had a dash of quantum physics to chew on. All in all, LOST seems like a profoundly interesting TV show that did not pander to the lowest common denominator of viewers. This I like.

And what I really like is that the general consensus about LOST provides us with a fairly solid world view for "real life." That is, life is not as much about answering all questions as it is about the story and the characters. At the end of its story, LOST remains mysterious and somewhat confusing. At the end of the day, life is very similar: mysterious, filled with wonder, and often times downright perplexing. But what outshines these mysteries is the story - a story that is too good to miss. It is a story in which the interdependence and relationships between characters is what matters most.

As Jack said in season one, "If we can't live together, we're going to die alone." Characters, not answers, is what life is all about.

This became even more explicit in Jack's quest to solve problems scientifically [thank you Jesse O'Brien for this insight]. Ultimately, it seems that even science comes up short in explaining and solving the mysteries of the island. So too do science and reason fall short in explicating the wonders of life. At the end of the day it is faith - in story and characters - that give us ground to stand on. In my experience, it is faith in a grand narrative and my place within that story that allows me to appreciate the interdependence of characters and the beautiful mysteries of chapters yet to be told.

There is something more beautiful, more true about life when we humbly admit that we cannot explain everything and we resort to having some kind of faith. A great example of this is found in Job, a man who suffered many inexplicable things and wondered much about life's mysteries. But at the end of his journey, Job concludes, "Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand / things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (Job 42:3).

Having never seen an episode of LOST I am just that - lost. But I do see an interesting - and not coincidental - philosophy driving what makes this TV series such a "true" story about life. Perhaps someday I will find myself stranded on a desert island with a TV and the entire LOST archive and I can watch this interesting story for myself.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Neighbor as Self: Oh What a Revolution

What would happen if people simply followed the Golden Rule? What might be the result of people treating people as they themselves would like to be treated? This morning I saw yet another example of why this simple yet revolutionary philosophy is urgently needed in our world.

Philabundance is non-profit in Philadelphia that helps collect and distribute food donations to the greater Philadelphia area. I was volunteering there this morning with some friends when I learned of certain haphazard practices by such corporations as Wal-Mart, Target, and Shop-Rite. It all came about when I noticed that most of what Shop-Rite had donated was really just trash. That is, canned goods that were so severely damaged that not even Philabundance, a food bank that aims to end hunger, would distribute them. I realized that what Shop-Rite was doing was simply sending their trash to Philabundance instead of disposing it themselves.

But why? Ohhhh right. Capitalism makes anything that can be categorized as "smart business" okay.

Shop-Rite donates the items that they themselves refuse to sell to Philabundance instead of disposing of them properly. By doing this they can write off a ton of products for tax deductions and also look good in the process (by claiming "We donate 'X' amount of products to Philabundance per year!"). And not only does Shop-Rite receive a tax credit for this donation to the non-profit sector, but they also spare themselves the cost of having a trash company collect their un-sellable goods.

This practice is not uncommon. I learned that Wal-Mart also does this. In fact, two years ago Wal-Mart donated 4 pallets* of expired condoms to Philabundance. Why would a food bank need condoms? And expired ones? Because it's cheaper than having to dispose of them. Evidently Target is also notorious for this behavior.

If we play this out logically it looks like this: for-profit companies use the system to have the government take care of responsibilities that belong to the private sector. How is this at all ethical? This is, in my opinion, one of the flaws of capitalism (I'm not "anti-capitalism," but every system has flaws). The all-too-common problem in capitalism is that unethical behavior is justified by that which may bring about greater profit.

But what strikes me the most is the lack of the Golden Rule in these business practices. Why on earth would you donate a product that you yourself would not sell or buy? The all-too-common answer is that "it's good enough for them." Who is them? The entire point of the Golden Rule is that you are them!

Jesus summarized the entire Law in two commands: Love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29-31). What would happen if people embraced this? What would happen if even companies and corporations embraced this? What if corporations refused to treat other corporations any other way than how they would want to be treated? Sure, the "competition" of capitalism might decline. But what is the potential result?

If you read this post, I challenge you to write three possibilities that might occur as a result of corprrations treating one another as they would like to be treated.

* pallets are the wooden platforms that are used in warehouses for stacking and storing products. A typical pallet can hold around 1 ton of product.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thoughts on Eschatology [#1]

When one tells a story to children, the children listen intently as they become captivated and drawn into the story. The storyteller speaks slowly and dramatically, providing great details, painting beautiful pictures, and the listeners' attention is fastened.

The story flows from the storyteller to the children. The children lack any power to draw the story out of the storyteller. The story cannot be forced or sped up in its telling. It must be received in the story's proper timing and telling. The story itself is gift.

As the story is told, the children anticipate. With each new revelation of the story the children are drawn further in. And as they are drawn further into the story so too are they more and more able to guess what may be around the next corner of the story.

How does this happen? Imagination - a function of human existence that is greatly under-appreciated and underused except in the case of children. "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 18:3)

an easter haiku

the crucified God:

paradox of paradox.

Only love can grasp.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Please Shut Up: A Proposal for Glenn Beck

In another melodramatic act for attention, Glenn Beck claimed that social & economic justice were synonymous with socialism and communism. He then urged Christians to run from churches who advocate social justice. See HERE.

Now, what I'm about to do is sometimes considered "proof texting." That is, taking verses of the Bible out of context to support an argument. But this is usually done with ONE or TWO verses. What I'd like to display is that the Christian God, as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, is totally concerned with the issues of social and economic justice and the Bible is filled with hundreds of verses that support this.

One of the strongest themes of the entire Bible is CARE FOR THE POOR AND NEEDY.

"...but during the seventh year let the land lie unploughed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove." - Ex. 23:11

"Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God." - Leviticus 19:10

“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.’” - Leviticus 23:22

"The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." - Pr. 22:7

"When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbour, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. Then he will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God." - Deut. 24:10-13

" He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. [that is to say, God will remove the wealth from him, and give it to the poor]" - Pr. 28:8

“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest." - Ex. 22:25

"He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." - Luke 3:11

"You received without paying, give without pay." - Matt. 10:8

"Then Jesus called his disciples and said, 'I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and I am unwilling to send them away hungry.'" - Matt. 15:32

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." - Luke 4:18-19

"Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me... How hard it is for those who have riches to ender the Kingdom of God!" - Luke 18:22-24

"Then Jesus said to his host, 'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'” - Lk. 14:12-14

"And all [early Christian community] who believed were together and shared all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need." - Acts 2:44-45

"With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need." - Acts 4:33-35

"One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God." - Acts 10:3-4

Consider the following picture painted by Aristides, a philosopher around A.D. 125:

They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they lone one another. They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath, distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit and in God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them sees him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.

So guess what, Glenn Beck? You're wrong. You're a liar. And you're completely misunderstanding the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

You may hate the idea of socialism because it would cause you and your cronies to redistribute your personal wealth, but you're wrong about Christianity.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Lenten Reflection: Part II – Jesus & the Wild, Wild Spirit

In February I wrote a brief reflection on the significance of the approaching liturgical season of Lent. In that note I challenged both myself and readers to embrace the opportunity that Lent affords us to go deeper in our journey with our Lord Jesus. Now that we find ourselves in the middle of this contemplative season, I would like to share an additional reflection.

The season of Lent is designed to emulate the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-14). Thus, it is quite appropriate to use this story as a launching point and guide for our Lenten journey. In doing this I have discovered that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a rich resource for reflection.

All too often I forget that Jesus lived his life in the most radical way: he was utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit. The opening line of this account emphasizes this point by asserting that Jesus was led by the Spirit to wander in the wilderness. To follow the leading of the Holy Spirit is not exactly clearly defined, but one thing is for sure: it may lead you to the wilderness. That is, following the Holy Spirit may lead us away from what is popular, mainstream, or conventional. Jesus affirms the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit in John 3:8 when he informs Nicodemus that the Spirit moves wherever it pleases. The Holy Spirit is not a tame companion, but we may trust that where the Spirit leads we may find life. This Lent I am trying to discern what it means to depend on the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, we may find ourselves led by the Spirit to a solitary place. As I read the Gospels I am constantly amazed to find how often Jesus was escaping to a lonely place to pray (Matt 14:23, 26:36, 26:44; Mark 6:46; Luke 5:16, 6:12, among others). The fact of Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit and his example of spending time alone in prayer has offered me an explicit model for discerning the direction of the Holy Spirit.

As we journey toward Jerusalem and the events of Christ’s Passion, I encourage you to wander in the wilderness and find time to be alone in prayer alongside Jesus. Then and only then will we discover the wild unpredictability of the Holy Spirit and allow God to take us through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Solidarity with the Poor as Requisite for Living the Christian Life


“Jesus… did not write a book but formed a community.”

- Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society

Very few people go to the library to read about Broadway shows; most people go to NY to see for themselves. Likewise, there are few people who are content to browse travel brochures in place of a vacation to the Caribbean; most people choose to go and experience the islands for themselves. Both Broadway and the Caribbean require our physical presence to be appreciated. In this way, the following essay is filled with great irony.

The topic to be discussed is solidarity with the world’s poor. Irony, in this case, has two causes. The first is my own context. I am an educated, white male who has spent most of his life in the upper classes of comfort. Thus, my own writing on this topic is ironic, if not also somewhat fraudulent. But secondly, and more ironic, is that the argument that will be posited below belittles the very medium through which it has been communicated. Ultimately I am asking this paper to do something that it is incapable of doing.

By noting this irony I hope to further emphasize the thesis presented below. That is, that writing about solidarity can never replace the primacy of experiencing solidarity. Therefore, the goal of this essay is not to “convince” the reader, it is to move the reader. My hope is to share a combination of experience, theology, and scripture that will provoke a stirring in your heart. That stirring of the heart is really the focus of this essay. It is precisely what I believe enables us to do sound theology in the first place, and it is the locus from which our best theology is constructed. And so although this essay cannot usurp the primacy of the very topic that it aims address, I do believe that words have power. It is my hope that the words expressed here will move you toward a life lived in solidarity with the poor.

In our preaching to rich and poor, it is not that we pander to the
sins of the poor and ignore the virtues of the rich. Both have
sins and both need conversion. But the poor, in their condition
of need, are disposed to conversion. They are more conscious of
their need of God.
All of us, if we really want to know the meaning of conversion
and of faith and confidence in another, must become poor, or at
least make the cause of the poor our own inner motivation. That is
when one begins to experience faith and conversion: when
one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial
capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that
without God we are nothing.
To feel that need of God is faith and conversion.

- Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, February 18, 1979.


Many people often describe the focus of Jesus’ mission as peace, justice or love. While these are all good answers, they are merely components of the greater mission that Jesus came to fulfill. The ultimate message that Jesus came to preach was the Kingdom of God. Peace, justice and love are all aspects of the greater mission that is the Reign of God. This was the mission that led Jesus to live among the marginalized while calling together a community of disciples from varying social classes. Therefore, the goal of the Kingdom of God is not just peace or justice or love, but rather a new “Kingdom Community” where peace, justice, and love abound. The goal of the Reign of God is a world of reconciliation among human beings. This, I believe, is only possible through solidarity with the world’s poor. Unfortunately, most churches in the Western world lack the commitment to solidarity. This is the scandal in most North American churches today. We want to have our cake and eat it too: we want a Gospel that preaches justice and love for the poor, but we want to remain at a safe, comfortable distance. Thus, what ends up happening is not the Kingdom Community through which we become poor together and are yoked side by side to live under God’s Reign, but rather a broken community where the poor remain at the margins and become mere recipients of well-intended donations or the subject of First World ‘projects.’ This, I believe, must change by becoming a church of solidarity.

During my experiences in El Salvador I witnessed first-hand the fruits of a gospel of solidarity. Therefore, this subject has been heavy on my heart and mind over the past four weeks. In the following essay I would like to provide a brief study on the theme of solidarity and its effects on theology and ecclesiology. The first element of our study will present Jesus’ life as the way of solidarity. Though much can be said on this, a concise review of Jesus’ example in the Synoptic Gospels will suffice to establish Jesus’ model as a clear precedent for solidarity. The second portion of our study will bring together the perspectives of a few Latin American theologians and my own experiences with various churches in El Salvador to look at the theological and ecclesiological fruits of solidarity. And, lastly, I will consider how living in solidarity may be done in my own ministerial context. Altogether the goal of this essay is to provide the reader a cogent argument for solidarity with the poor as the requisite for living under the Reign of God. Before beginning with Jesus’ example it will be helpful to elaborate on the concept of solidarity among the world’s “poor.”

Who are the Poor?

In a world of extreme economic disparity it is easy to limit one’s definition of poor to strictly financial terminology. However, in this study I would like to broaden our understanding of who are the world’s poor by employing two descriptions provided by Jon Sobrino and Joachim Jeremias. The first consists of persons of low repute; those who are excluded based on factors outside of their own control. Jeremias describes these people as those “whose religious ignorance and moral behavior [stands] in the way of their access to salvation, according to the convictions of the time.” These are people who, due to factors beyond their control, cannot live as agents of their own destiny. This description has nothing to do with financial status but is rather a social stigma.

Secondly, the world’s poor may be seen as those who suffer from real oppression. These are the sick, the foreigners, the hungry, the thirsty, and more. It is this group that, as we shall see below, find themselves as primary addressees of Jesus’ Good News. With these two characterizations of the term “poor,” we may now turn to study how Jesus met these women and men from the “underside” of society.

Jesus as Our Example for Solidarity

Before even surveying what we know of Jesus’ life we must begin with the theology of the Incarnation as the heart of a model for solidarity. That God would become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:3,14) is the epitome of solidarity. The person of Jesus, who is the “reflection” and “bearer” of God’s glory and nature (Hebrews 1:3), is the solidarity of God who is Immanuel: “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). What Jesus models in his life’s behavior is, therefore, a continuation of the solidarity initiated in the Incarnation.

The Gospels provide a clear example of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor. While there is not enough room here to discuss all aspects of Jesus’ life, we may touch on a few examples of solidarity that are each strongly supported by Jesus scholars. The first is the location of Jesus’ home and concentration of ministry: Nazareth of Galilee. Nazareth was not the place from which one would expect a great prophet to come, let alone the Messiah (John 1:46). This would be the equivalent of the next FMLN president to come from San Martin! God’s choice to become incarnate in a Jewish man in Nazareth of Galilee is a clear example of God’s choosing the way of solidarity among the poor. Furthermore, Jesus focused his ministry in the small towns of Galilee. The largest city of Galilee, Sepphoris, is never once mentioned in the Gospels. Rather, small towns such as Capernaum,Cana, and Bethsaida are recorded as the popular sites of Jesus’ mission. In addition to these specific towns, there are also references to locations such as “the country” (Mark 1:39), “homes” (Mark 2:1-2, 15), “through grain fields” (Mark 2:33), “the sea” (Mark 3:7), and “on a mountain” (Mark 3:13) that indicate Jesus’ ministry on the periphery.

We may further understand why Jesus spent his time in these small towns by examining to whom Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God. A quick survey of the Gospels will reveal that Jesus was primarily concerned with the marginalized of society. The unclean (Mark 1:23, 40), the sick (Mark 1:32), sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:15) are all listed as those with whom Jesus shared fellowship. Moreover, Jesus’ immediate following of disciples consisted of a diverse group of men from lower class professions such as fishing and tax collecting. As a carpenter Jesus himself was an artisan, not a peasant. Therefore, conventional opinion that Jesus was a homeless peasant is not entirely true. That is, we must take seriously that Jesus chose to move toward the margins of society and live with the poor. Jesus himself gave an appropriate summary of his mission when he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of site to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
(Luke 4:18)

When we begin to see Jesus’ life more clearly - as he lived in solidarity with the poor - we may then begin to comprehend the theological and ecclesial implications of following Jesus. It is to these theological and ecclesial implications that we shall turn.

Theology in Solidarity with the Poor

All theology is contextual. The story of God’s people in biblical writing and the example of Jesus demonstrate that the context of the poor is the place from which the best theology is built. Beginning with the Hebrews and the Abrahamic community, God’s people throughout the Bible, for the most part, constructed their theology from the perspective of the periphery. Jesus, as we have mentioned, also constructed his theology from the perspective of the underside. This is true of the early church as well until the conversion of Constantine in 312 C.E. Therefore, the Liberationist approach to theology - that is, constructing theology from the “underside” - is not a new or progressive methodology but rather a return to the way that God’s people throughout the biblical narrative constructed theology. The question we must explore, then, is: What is advantageous about constructing theology from the perspective of the poor? Once again it will prove beneficial to examine Jesus’ life.

By choosing to live in solidarity with the poor Jesus allowed himself to experience their anxiety. By living among those who suffer, Jesus was able to perceive the ultimate question: what is the meaning of a life laden with such difficulties? The key to this approach is that Jesus did not begin with what he thought he knew about God; rather, he began with the lived experiences of the people who were suffering. C.S. Song encapsulates Jesus’ approach to theology well when he writes:

“In short, Jesus knew and experienced anxiety of all kinds firsthand and not secondhand, in person and not in theory, as a matter of everyday experience and not as an occasional project designed to “immerse” its participants for a day or a week in a slum to see for themselves how people live in dire conditions, or in a poorly ventilated factory to see how young women workers work ten hours a day for subsistence wages.”

The point of solidarity with the poor is not to find timeless theological truths, but rather to ask relevant theological questions that may be explored together as a community. Is this not what Jesus was trying to do with the community of disciples? He did not concern himself with useless debates about the Law, but instead gave his time and energy to living alongside those who suffer. What we may glean from Jesus’ approach to theology is that “it is people who are in distress and suffering who tell us who God must be and what God wants to do.”

This approach to theology is largely missing from the church in North America. If we are to take seriously our calling to follow Jesus’ Way, then we must consider Jesus’ approach to constructing theology. Theology born from the perspective of comfort and wealth is not going to produce a theology that lands anywhere near the Kingdom of God. The current situation of many churches in North America exhibits this failure to produce life-giving theology that is relevant to the needs of society. Instead, these churches are put to sleep by theologies that promote safety, segregation and preservation of the status quo.
Fortunately, however, theology from the “underside” is powerfully existent in Latin America. Because of this, there is much to learn from our sisters and brothers who live south of the border. The Liberationist approach to theology is often explained as “a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.” Ultimately, this approach grounds theology in lived experience; which is what makes it so advantageous. The epistemology of experience is the clearest method for knowing. . This is why the Christian Church must experience the “underside” through solidarity in order to produce theology that aligns with the heart of God.

One example of the theological fruits of solidarity with the poor comes from a woman named Serena in the town of Zacatecoluca. Over lunch one afternoon, Serena shared the story of her conversion from a theology that permitted distance from the poor and neglect for the real needs of those on the periphery to a theology that drew her to live in solidarity with the poor and meet tangible needs. The process of conversion came after the 2001 earthquake during which Serena had no choice but to live in the world of those who were suffering. It was then that she began to see that the Good News includes meeting real needs like food, water, and medicine. What is significant about this example is that Serena’s theology was changed by her personal encounter with those who suffered. Not unlike Jesus, Serena’s theology was transformed by the experience of living in solidarity with the poor. Colin Morris puts it clearly when he names these kinds of personal encounters as “a fiery visitation from God [with] limitless capacity to stab the conscience awake.” It is this personal encounter with the world’s poor that must be the fountainhead for our theology.

When living with the poor is our starting point, a much more communal theology is likely to develop. This is due to the high population and crowdedness that characterize poor communities. This is certainly the case in El Salvador where it is easy to find oneself uncomfortably surrounded by people everywhere; but even more so in impoverished areas. Thus, theology that is constructed in this setting is much more likely to value inter-dependence, sharing, and fraternity. An example of this comes from a community of I.D.P.’s in San Martin. This community of roughly 200 people currently “squats” on federally owned land on the edge of a mountain where mudslides have recently swept away homes, crops, and the hopes of many. Despite extreme poverty and geographic dangers, these people are steadfast about maintaining their community. More specifically, a church within this community, Iglesia Bautista Disipulos de Cristo, is attempting to raise the money to move – not just its own congregation, but the entire community to new land. This is the kind of theology that is born out of living in solidarity and it is the kind of theology that points toward God’s ultimate agenda that is the Kingdom Community.

These are just two examples of how living in solidarity with the poor enables theology that aligns with the Reign of God. Solidarity with the poor is not about getting theology “right” or arriving at a final answer; rather, it is about living from a place that enables the life-long process of constructing and reconstructing theology that reflects the Reign of God. The perspective of the “underside” is mostly absent from the North American church and that must change if we are to recover a clearer understanding of the Reign of God. In the final analysis, the world of the poor offers the non-poor a vast resource for discovering who God is and what God desires. Out of this theology will no doubt arise a more healthy understanding of the church.

Solidarity and Ecclesiology

When our theology is driven by our experience of living in solidarity with the poor then the church becomes a church of the poor; and, ultimately, a church focused on the base. The movement of Christian Base Communities came about during the 60’s and 70’s in Latin America and continues to be a successful ecclesial model today. Though this is not the only model for being a church of the poor, the advantages to this approach are plentiful. Most notably, these churches are aimed to meet people in their context. For example, the leaders of these churches rise up out of the community as opposed to the common Western model of assigning ministers to foreign communities. This approach is exemplified clearly by SEBLA, a seminary located in San Salvador. SEBLA aims to train leaders to think theologically in their own context and they do this by literally going out to various communities to offer theological education, which allows each church to live and move in its own context. In addition to this SEBLA makes every effort to train both women and men, young and old, and especially those who cannot afford education. As a result, members of these communities are empowered to participate with confidence in the life of the church. Thus, a common trait of this ecclesiology is shared ownership of the church community.

Another advantage for being a church of the poor is that it allows the church to be a dynamic community who is free to move with the Holy Spirit. What enables this freedom is the detachment from institutional powers. This is powerfully visible in the life and work of Oscar Romero who, though he was an archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, became detached to the structural hierarchy as he lived in solidarity with the poor. By doing this he allowed both himself and the church of the poor to move with the Holy Spirit to live out the Kingdom of God. The church in San Martin (mentioned above) is also an example of a community who is free to move – literally! – with God’s Spirit. As a church living in solidarity with the poor, they are not concerned about settling down as much as following God wherever God may lead. Moving, more often than not, means changing and adapting with the times so that the church remains relevant to the needs of society and faithful to God’s ongoing work of redemption. This is an advantage that few North American churches experience.

There are many other advantages to the ecclesiology that is born out of solidarity with the poor: reactionary ministry, intimacy, experiential theology, mobilization, and a grassroots disposition, among others. What is clear from our two examples, however, is that the church of the poor is far more capable of living under the Reign of God than many mainline churches in North America. Incidentally, one of these North American churches happens to be my own place of ministry.

Solidarity in My Own Ministry Context

Because my place of ministry is very wealthy, it is difficult to imagine how I might live in solidarity with the poor in my setting. However, the definitions of poverty used above allow me a good starting point, particularly the first. Considering this definition, it does not take long to realize that there are many “poor” at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church. Those who are denied a “seat at the table” include young children, teenagers, and the elderly. For example, recently there was a brunch served after the worship service that was intended for the entire church community. But the teenagers were afraid to enter the parish hall simply because the invitation was never made explicit to them. This is a perfect example of the culture of exclusion that our community has propagated by not living in solidarity with the poor.

Part of living in solidarity with the poor means experiencing their perspective. One of the ways I do this is by imagining the worship service from the perspective of a child or teenager. While the formal liturgy is loaded with meaning, it is also quite boring and inaccessible for young people. This is due to years of nobody living in solidarity with the poor of St. Christopher’s, namely, the youth. As a result, years passed while children silently endured curious rituals and seemingly pointless monologues. In our current situation, I face the challenge of questioning decades of tradition that have passively been accepted as the timeless norm. I am trying to change this by considering how the worship service might be adjusted to meet the needs of the youth, but this is a steep, uphill battle.

Another piece of living in solidarity with the poor means giving a voice to those who have no voice. This task must flow out of first experiencing the “underside” so that the voices are first heard and understood. I attempt to do this by listening to the concerns of the teenagers and then voicing them to those in positions of power. What is difficult, however, is that most of the teenagers have little to say and are fairly uninterested in taking any ownership of our community. They are not interested in the kind of “power” that our church has to offer. They are not interested in becoming leaders in our church. And rightly so! Nobody wants to be given a position of authority in a stifled church! This is highly problematic for me and I am trying to live these important inquiries alongside the youth and perhaps one day find ways to meet these needs.

What is of particular note is that the struggles of the poor in my community are largely due to the structural power of the Episcopal Church. This is why I have mentioned above the benefit of adopting an ecclesiology that is detached from structural power. In my own ministry I spend very little energy concerning myself with power. I am foremost concerned with being faithful to the Reign of God and living alongside the young people in our parish. Incidentally, I have found that by doing this I have acquired great power and respect in our community. Truly the way of service is much more powerful than the counterfeit power created by structures. While there is more that could be said about serving the poor in my context, space limits me. What is of importance, I believe, is the recognition that there are poor in any context and we must choose to live in solidarity with those on the “underside.”


The ongoing attempts to work for peace and justice by both NGO’s and churches are of great value in our world. But ultimately they fall short of the church’s mission. The mission of the church is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and “preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). That Gospel is the Good News of a new “Kingdom Community” over which Jesus is Lord and King. As our exemplar, Jesus shows us not only what the Reign of God looks like, but also how it is to be brought about. The mission of the church, therefore, cannot be done completely from behind a desk or sitting in a pew. The mission of the church must be carried out alongside and with the poor. From this location “will be heard nuances of the Word of God which are imperceptible in other existential situations and without which there can be no authentic and fruitful faithfulness to the Lord.” In the final analysis, solidarity with the poor is indispensable to the Christian life because it is the only possible way to incarnate the Good News of the Reign of God.


Jesus looked around and saw them following. “What do you want?” he asked. They replied, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see,” he said.

- John 1:38,39

The most difficult part about returning from El Salvador is trying to articulate my experience to others. It is impossible. After attempting to explain my trip to a number of people I found myself severely disappointed. I could never quite convey the experience that was being replayed in my mind as I spoke. The semi-interested expressions on their faces were always a sign that I was wasting my breath. And while this is a frustration, it is also a blessing. If our experiences could be completely expressed to others through verbal or written communication, then our experiences would lose the distinctively personal force that allow them to shape who we are. Coming to an understanding that our lived experiences ultimately determine who we are is what solidarity is all about.

When two of John’s disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, Jesus did not reply with a specific answer. Rather, he invited them to come and see for themselves (John 1:38,39). When a rich, young ruler asks Jesus the ultimate theological question, Jesus invites the young man to join him on the journey (Mark 10:17-22). His invitation is to come and experience what God is doing in history.

So too have I developed a stock response to people when they inquire about my trip to El Salvador. Rather than attempt to articulate the inexplicable, I simply reply to the person by saying, “Do you really want to know? Come and see.”


Cook, Michael L., “Jesus from the Other Side of History: Christology in Latin America,” from Theological Studies, no. 44, (1983): 258-87.

Costas, Orlando, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1982.

Escobar, Samuel, Changing Tides: Latin America & World Mission Today, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002.

Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1973.

Keener, Craig, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Kynes, William L., A Christology of Solidarity: Jesus as the Representative of His People in Matthew, Lanham, Maryland: University Press, 1991.

Morris, Colin, Include Me Out! Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward, London: Epworth Press, 1968.

Reynolds, Thomas E., The Broken Whole: Philosophical Steps Toward a Theology of Global Solidarity, Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2006.

Shaull, Richard, “Latin America: Three Responses to a New Historical Situation,” from Interpretation, no. 3, (1992): 261-270.

Sobrino, Jon, Jesus in Latin America, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987.

Song, C.S., The Believing Heart, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999.

Shooter Shop Protest

Yesterday I joined the Heeding God's Call conference to begin putting pressure on another gun shop in Philadelphia (see video above). CLICK HERE for an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the protest.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Lenten Challenge

In the middle of February we will begin the liturgical season of Lent. The 40-days before Easter are designed to be a period of self-reflection, preparation, and journeying toward the climactic events of Holy Week and Easter Sunday. In many ways it is similar to the previous season of Advent as we awaited the celebration of Jesus' birth. But Lent is traditionally a time to purge the self of the things that inhibit abundant life and relationship with God. It is a time to go deeper spiritually by increasing our awareness of our sin and to set our hearts and minds on the Kingdom of God.

The weekend before Lent begins many people will celebrate the holiday of St. Valentine; a holiday that traditionally symbolizes love and romance. This is all well and good, but I hope that we don't get so wrapped up in chocolates and candy that we lose sight of the greatest love story of all: the story of God the Creator becoming one of us so that we might know the Way of Love. This is what the season of Lent is all about. So my challenge to you, dear brothers and dear sisters, is to journey with Christ Jesus our Lord through the season of Lent, through Holy Week, to the Cross, all the way through to the other side where the Love and Hope of Easter declare God's Love for the world.

If you are interested in participating in this Lenten challenge, I encourage you to spend time with Jesus by reading in the Gospels over the course of Lent. Journey alongside him during his ministry in ancient Palestine. You may find old stories convey new wisdom or you might discover things you never knew were there. I would also encourage you to spend time in prayer. Though prayer is a somewhat obscure practice, we can be sure that what matters to God is simply a willing spirit (Psalm 51:17). And as Henri Nouwen affirms, "what happens in prayer is not measurable by human standards of success or failure."

So, will you join me in the Lenten challenge? And more importantly, will you join our Lord Jesus on the journey? I would like to write a Lenten reflection sometime in March to continue this focus on the journey of Lent. If you would like to share your thoughts or experiences, please email me or comment here because this journey is meant to be shared together.

Eph. 1:5-6 -- God destined us in love to be his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he bestowed on us in the Beloved.