Praxis: Friendship in Prophetic Action for Shalom

As I reflect on the meaning of praxis in relation to development within my current context, a very special friend comes to mind: Mr. JB. I met JB ten years ago as I served with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) for a summer leading home repair mission teams. My encounter with JB is likely the single-most influential factor in my decision to return to ARM in 2014 to join the full-time staff. In this context of ministry with ARM, my understanding of praxis – generically defined as “a unity of theory and practice” (Ledwith, 2009, p. xiv) – has been shaped by the stories of families in rural Alabama who strive to live lives of dignity and purpose in spite of their poverty housing conditions. These stories reveal how Alabama fails to be a “sweet home” for so many of its residents. Unlike my privileged experience as a middle-class, Euro-American, raced as white, able-bodied male, the experiences of families I have come to know through ARM are marked by various struggles with systemic injustice and marginalization due to race, class, gender, and (dis)ability. My friendship with JB was my informal introduction into this new, bewildering reality of poverty in my own backyard. As I try to be friends with JB, I am led into situations that call for a special kind of action – prophetic action – inspired by the Spirit of Jesus who still anoints God’s children to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to liberate the oppressed” (Lk. 4:18b, Common English Bible). This prophetic action is founded on the hope of “the day of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:19), which is a day of joy, peace, holistic and dynamic flourishing, and perfect community with God, neighbor, self, and all creation – a day of shalom. These three themes – friendship, prophetic action, and shalom ­– inform the praxis I am seeking to embody. After reviewing common definitions of praxis, this essay will briefly explore an understanding of praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

In most cases, praxis refers to a synthesis of thinking and doing, acting and reflecting. The term arose as a response to modern, Western culture which is rooted in “a dualistic post-Kantian epistemology which presumed a fundamental dichotomy between… thought and action” (Markey, 1995, p. 193). However, praxis can also take on broader, less specific meanings. Markey (1995) finds at least three fundamental understandings of praxis in common usage.  Following Aristotle, praxis can be synonymous with practice or any kind of “direct activity.” Second, following Kant, praxis becomes “any ethically relevant human behavior” (Markey, 1995, p. 180-1). These two understandings remain ambiguous since neither explains the purpose or goal of praxis. However, the third way of understanding praxis as identified by Markey’s (1995) analysis is more explicit about its purpose. Following Marx, praxis is seen as “human creative activity” that transforms history and people, as social praxis that shapes culture, and as revolutionary praxis which “works to subvert, counter, and overturn the existing social praxis” (Markey, 1995, p. 181).  This particular understanding of praxis is the most applicable to the aims of development, which seeks the transformation of individuals and socio-economic processes including subversion of the status quo in contexts of systemic injustice and oppression.

My friendship with JB and reveals the need for the kind of revolutionary praxis that Marx suggests. Even though he and I grew up in the same county in rural Alabama, our life experiences could not be more different and more unequal. JB is an African-American man, raced as black, twice my age, who is unemployed, and lives alone in a severely dilapidated mobile home where he gets by on a very low income from government assistance. JB has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has struggled with alcoholism, and has not been able to keep healthy relationships with his family or his surrounding community. JB’s home is very close to the town where I grew up in a very comfortable home, received a decent education, and was given all the love, support, and opportunity I needed to thrive. If not for my service with ARM’s home repair ministry, I would not have crossed JB’s path because social life in Sumter County is still sharply divided by race. My church, my school, my neighbors, and my friends were virtually all white in a town where African-Americans made up nearly 75% of the population. This oppressive reality of social division and inequality stands in opposition to the will of God who desires an abundant life of justice, love, and community for all people in all places, Sumter County included. A truly Christian praxis, which will be even more radical than Marx’s understanding of revolutionary praxis, is desperately needed to create a space for God’s healing and redemption to unfold in Sumter County and other rural communities across the state. This Christian praxis will be characterized by friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

Through my experiences with JB and many others I have come to know in rural Alabama, I have been convinced that Christian praxis must begin in friendship because praxis is, first and foremost, an embodied response to the God who is Love. As Gustavo Gutierrez (1988) makes clear, “if there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to [the praxis of] liberation, because love exists only among equals” (p. xxxi). Beginning with friendships makes space for people to learn to give and receive from one another, to trust one another, to care for one another, and to share their stories from the heart. This foundation of love, trust, equality, and mutuality are essential to Christian praxis. What’s more, in order for these praxeological friendships to be truly Christocentric, they should be shaped by God’s option for the poor “not because Christ is with the marginalized but, rather, Christ is the marginalized” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 57). For me, this means trying to be friends with someone like JB who reveals Christ to me in uniquely powerful ways. I have come to learn that “Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those [like me] who serve the poor,” because “God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed” (Oliver, 2009). Those who pursue friendships of solidarity with the poor as part of their praxis must be involved in the transformation they seek to see in others and their communities, and be ready to be transformed themselves. As Ledwith (2009) notes, praxis is not an individualized experience because “in praxis, my journey comes together with others in the quest for critical consciousness: making sense of the world in order to transform it as a collective experience” (p. 41).

Christian praxis begins in deeply personal friendships, but it must move on to prophetic action. As stated previously, praxis is understood generically as a unity or synthesis of theory and practice. This dynamic is usually described as the action-reflection cycle. For Freire (2000), the two are inseparable such that “true reflection… leads to action… [and] that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection” (p. 66). However, this is not a linear, step-by-step process. Instead, according to Freire (2000), “action and reflection occur simultaneously” (p. 128). This cycle is articulated well within Brueggemann’s (2001) concept of prophetic ministry which seeks to “to nuture, nourish, and evoke [an alternative] consciousness and perception” that simultaneously “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness… [while,] on the other hand, [serving] to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (p. 3).

Christian praxis is prophetic to the extent that it employs a critical analysis of power, ideology, and hegemony. This reflective analysis will reveal how power “is located within a multidimensional system of oppressions in which we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 143). In response to these death-dealing systems of oppression, prophetic Christian praxis will invite a “public sharing of pain,” which “seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 117). This lamentation goes deeper than political protest, and allows the voices of those who suffer most to be heard the loudest.

At the same time, prophetic Christian praxis will bring people together to work for concrete changes in their lives and communities. This will mean interacting with and possibly challenging “the political and social structures that normalize injustices” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 47). However, this political action, founded as it is in friendships, will begin locally and, over time, extend to develop “a [global] reach that aims to transform the structures of oppression that diminish local lives” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 3). This transformative action will look different in every context, but will, in every context, consist of “offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 116). Christian praxis as prophetic action must build upon its personal relationships to inspire movements for structural change that can adequately criticize the status quo while energizing diverse groups to pursue in unity a renewed common good where “justice [rolls] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Finally, Christian praxis that begins in friendship and leads to prophetic action will be inspired by a vision of shalom. Or, as Gutierrez (1998) says it, praxis is “the activity of “peacemakers” – that is, those who are forging shalom” (p. xxx). This Hebrew concept found in the writings of the prophets is usually translated as “peace,” but its original meaning is much richer. According to Myers (2011), shalom summarizes God’s “kingdom vision for the better human future”, and describes a community of “just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (Kindle loc. 3778). All Christian praxis must be evaluated in the light of this holistic, comprehensive vision of redemption.

However, the light of shalom shines into the present from the future that God and God alone is working out. Shalom is the hope of those who pursue Christian praxis – not their reality – and “hope must be an inherent part of our present commitment in history” (Gutierrez, 1988, p. 11). The pursuit of Christian praxis will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. The structures of social injustice it seeks to transform are deeply embedded, and change will sometimes be slow. And, hardest of all, Christian praxis “will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves,” which are just as caught up in systems of oppression as those oppressed (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 118). Ultimately, our praxis towards shalom can only be a participation in God’s much bigger praxis towards shalom. Praxis, therefore, is a gift received by grace through faith. For now, this gift of shalom is only seen in part – “a reflection as in a mirror” – but on the coming day of the Lord “we shall see [it] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

What does this understanding of Christian praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom mean in my context of ministry among children and families in rural Alabama? First, it means making friendship with those I serve not only a personal priority, but a matter of organizational culture and ethos. It can be easy to see ARM as just another “social service agency” where people with “needs” go to get their needs met and where people who like to “meet needs” go to volunteer. In pursuit of Christian praxis, ARM will need to be transformed from a social service agency to a social capital enterprise where friends – not “needs” – are met. Second, it will require creating a space for with whom we serve to voice their grief and struggles. Both myself and ARM’s volunteers need to hear and come to know the depth of suffering that is endured by families in rural Alabama who live without adequate housing. Third, Christian praxis will require an expanded advocacy role, especially on the state level, which engages and challenges Alabama’s political structure. ARM is already involved in this work in very small, indirect ways, but a deeper commitment must be made. This commitment to political change must be informed by and even led by those families with whom we serve. Finally, the gift of shalom as our hope reminds us to rest, enjoy, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together. Along with all the “doing” of ministry, there must be time simply for “being” together in God’s presence. ARM already tries to incorporate rest and times of fellowship between families and volunteers into its ministry design, but this practice must continue to grow even more widespread. As I recall my friend JB in light of this essay, I wonder: how can I be his true friend? How can I listen, amplify, and share in his pain? What are the socio-economic powers at work in his life and community? Who can come together to challenge these powers? What does shalom look like for JB?

Bibliography

  • Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • De La Torre, M. (2004). Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
  • Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
  • Markey, J. (1995). “Praxis in Liberation Theology: Some Clarifications,” Missiology: An International Review XXIII (2).
  • Myers, B. (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
  • Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Sabbath People

Our sermon this morning was on keeping the Sabbath and I’ve been thinking about it all day. In the fall of 2012, I led a small group at our church through a book by Lynne Baab on keeping Sabbath – and then proceeded to keep the Sabbath ZERO times. Sabbath is hard.

There’s also a book on the Sabbath by Walter Brueggemann I would really like to read (oh, also the one by Abraham Joshua Heschel) called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It was released in January so I haven’t had time for it, but since its Brueggemann I know its worth reading. The title connects to the thoughts I’ve been having today on the Sabbath.

During the sermon, our pastor described the Sabbath as a law that brings freedom; a kind of protective cage that gives us space to rest and be replenished emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It made sense to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Is Sabbath just a matter of regularly marking off space in our lives for rest? Surely that would be a good thing but, as the title of Brueggemann’s book suggests, Sabbath runs deeper than “discipline”.

Sabbath is about identity.

We see this clear as day in the Deuteronomic version of the Sabbath command:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:12, 15).

The Sabbath command is directly linked to Israel’s memory of how God liberated them and thereby transformed their identity from oppressed slaves to God’s covenant community. 1 Peter 2 brings this identity forward and applies it to an early Christian community: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” God’s Sabbath-people that is.

Sabbath-keeping cannot be merely a discipline that we apply to ourselves externally – as if it were something that existed outside of us that we could grasp. Sabbath is who we are – not just something we do.

This is what makes Sabbath so hard for me (and maybe you too). If it were just something I could do, I doubt I would have much trouble with it. I struggle to keep Sabbath because Sabbath means letting God be God and recognizing that I, ultimately, do not and cannot sustain my own life. Sabbath is realizing that only God can save me and set me free for new creation life.

It’s a change in identity.

This change happens in two dimensions. We’ve seen the first already. Sabbath is being set free from the sin that keeps us enslaved to evil and death. There is no rest in Egypt; we are commanded to produce (or consume?) more and more with less and less. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God is leading all creation out of this restless, suffocating slavery in Egypt. We’re headed to the promised land. God’s liberation is for a purpose: to create – or re-create – covenanted community.

We’re freed from the forces of sin and evil but we’re freed for covenanted community. This takes us back to Sabbath’s first appearance in the Bible: creation. Sabbath was, first and foremost, something that God did which is perfectly reflected in God’s being. God’s created the world and then God stopped and rested and thereby named (created) the Sabbath. God kept Sabbath because God wanted to enjoy communion with creation, to take a stroll as it were through this new home. Being-Sabbath means being a creature, specifically one created in the image of the triune God who exists as a personal community of Parent, Christ, and Spirit. Our promised land is the new creation, the reign of God, in which humanity fulfills its original vocation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Sabbath people are liberated slaves who cultivate and sustain flourishing community with God and all creation.

Yes, Sabbath is something we do and maybe that’s where we have to begin. Lord knows we need help stopping and resting. As we do that, let’s not forget that Sabbath-keeping is not just a “discipline” that we can choose to practice – it’s who we are.

 

 

Alexander on Raced-as-Whites Confronting Whiteness

White American Christians need a liberation theology of their own to free them from the denial of their own past…. White Amer-Europeans must courageously own their past, without guilt but with great intentionality, to change the present and the future. This means Amer-Europeans will have to engage in a collective or corporate type of confession and repentance that looks incisively at the systemic and ingrained violence that has been such a consistent part of the American experience…

Paul Alexander in “Raced-As-White,” PRISM, Vol. 20, No. 4 Summer 2013 (click to download the full text of this issue)

How Does Jesus Save?

This post is a paper I wrote on Christology and soteriology for my systematic theology course this semester. As I was writing this paper, I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to say all there is to say, or even all that should be said, about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. So, this paper is just my best effort at saying something about the saving person and work of Jesus Christ.

At the age of seven, I walked down the aisle of my Southern Baptist church and gave my life to Jesus. I prayed the sinner’s prayer: admitting my sin and my need to repent and be forgiven, believing that Jesus was God’s Son who had come to save sinners, and confessing that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. As I grew older, I learned how Jesus revealed God’s love for me when he took my place on the cross and bore the punishment I deserved. God could forgive me because my sin-debt had been paid in full; I had been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. As a result, my soul was now secure for all eternity because death was conquered through Jesus’ resurrection.

This soteriology – the “study of how [Jesus] acts as soter, or Savior”[1] – holds a view of God’s justice which “requires either punishment for sin or a satisfaction for the offended honor” of God.[2] Jesus, as the perfect man, bears the required punishment because he is the only one capable, as he is also God.[3] Jesus’ crucifixion therefore becomes the means of atonement; making a way for God to be reconciled with sinful humanity.

Several features of this soteriology are highly problematic: its required use of violence to satisfy God’s justice,[4] its individualistic view of humans and sin,[5] and its nearly exclusive emphasis on Jesus’ death at the expense of his birth, ministry, and resurrection.[6] In addition, this “atonement theory” is deeply flawed because, as Robert Jenson notes, it is based on a dualistic Christology – the study of the saving person of Jesus in relation to God and humanity[7] – deriving from Pope Leo’s Tome which “posits two active ‘natures’ [in Christ] doing things to each other” in order to accomplish salvation.[8] As Jenson suggests, all “atonement theories” should be reconsidered in light of a soteriology based on an integrated Christology in which the one, whole person of Jesus “just is our reconciliation [because] what [he] is and what [he] does are the same.”[9]

This kind of integral Christology was proposed by Cyril of Alexandria and it played a major role in the deliberations of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. While he accepted the language of rival bishops in Antioch which spoke of Christ having “two natures,” Cyril insisted that Jesus Christ was “one hypostasis, or “one subject,”[10] in which “human and divine were so united” that the properties of one nature could be wholly and truly applied to the other.[11] At Chalcedon, the council appropriated Cyril’s thought to affirm Christ as “the one divine Son, who possesses at once complete deity and complete humanity.”[12] The “Definition” put forward at Chalcedon has since served as the orthodox framework for Christology by requiring one to talk simultaneously of Jesus as “God acting in our midst” and “as a human being in the ordinary sense of that term.”[13]

Jenson further develops Cyril’s Christology by describing Jesus’ two natures as “labels for communities” so that his “human nature” is his being as a participant in the historical community of creation, while his “divine nature” is his being as “one of the three whose mutuality is… God.”[14] As the only co-participant in the divine community of Trinity and the historical community of creation, Jesus Christ is the author of salvation as a “relation of communion” between the Triune God and all creation.[15] As God-who-is-communion made flesh, Jesus reveals “not just [God’s] true self but the true identity of [humanity],” so that God’s existence as Trinitarian community is revealed as the life towards which the creation community is being saved.[16] Through the incarnation, Jesus saves the “entire network of creation” from the sin of alienation and so that relations of mutual indwelling between human beings and God, others, and the natural world can come to life.[17] This saving communion “transforms all aspects of humanity so that the abundant life can be lived by all to its fullest.”[18] In this soteriology, all aspects of the incarnation event – Jesus’ birth, teachings, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension – take on a salvific purpose. Who Jesus is as the member of divine community incarnated in human community is the same as what he does in leading all creatures into holistic communion with God and each other.

Since the incarnation is a historical reality, salvation as communion is also a historical reality. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, since “God is manifested visibly in the humanity of Christ,” God is “irreversibly committed to human history.”[19] Salvation, then, is “God’s gift of definitive life to God’s children, given in a history in which [humanity] must build fellowship.”[20] This gift of life “embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ.”[21] Salvation is neither individualistic nor otherworldly; it is participation in the “fullness of love… which unites the three Persons of the Trinity; it is to love as God loves” through concrete, historical acts towards the construction of just community among all people and created things.[22]

In Jesus, God became a particular Jewish man at a particular moment in history. As a result, Jesus has “definitively, once for all, made [God] contextual.”[23] If God is contextual, and if salvation is communion with God and all creation, then salvation must also be contextual – “one size does not fit all.”[24] Creation is a vastly diverse community and God has called it good, but this diverse community is attacked by alienating sin in an equally diverse ways. A contextual salvation of communion means that the work of salvation towards the restoration of just community will be different in each particular context in order to be “saving” for that context.

As a Euro-American male living a middle-class lifestyle in the United States, God is saving me from an anxiety and guilt driven compulsion to save the world on my own terms and saving me for a life of solidarity and friendship with those who have been oppressed by the social structures of sin which support my comfortable lifestyle. As I come to terms with the enormity of injustice in the world, my first reaction is to do all I can, or give all I can, towards a “cause” for justice. However, as Miguel De La Torre notes, this kind of justice is a perversion which only preserves my privilege and its accompanying structures of injustice because it does not involve love relationships with others.[25] Salvation for me begins by following “the way of poverty, the way that Jesus himself shows us as he moves toward the cross;” the way which, as Henri Nouwen notes, refuses “success, power, influence, and celebrity” and chooses “weakness, powerlessness, compassion, and obscurity.”[26] This “way of the cross” is not a self-crucifixion, but is rather, as Costas describes, a process of kenosis: “an emptying of oneself, of [one’s] power and privileges; making oneself available to others by becoming their servant.”[27] As I am emptied of the power and privilege I have inherited from the structural sins of racism, sexism, and classism, I am saved for an active commitment to help “the poor and exploited to become aware of their situation and seek liberation from it.”[28] This active service should not only empower the liberation of others, but should be “oriented toward the formation of liberated congregations that will stand in solidarity with the poor and be thoroughly committed to God’s struggle against the scandal of poverty.”[29] I am being saved insofar as who I am and what I do contributes toward the building of just friendships among all people. As I walk this way of salvation in God’s grace, I am reminded that “the world is not mine to save.”[30] My participation in salvation as communion through kenotic service towards liberated community affirms that I am not God and the world will not be saved on my terms or by my power.

Banquet on the Bridge

Banquet on the Bridge
Phenix City, AL – Columbus, GA


[1] William C. Placher, ed., “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology  (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 188.

[2] Leanne Van Dyk, “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 213.

[3] Robert W. Jenson, “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 204.

[4] Van Dyk, 212.

[5] Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 42.

[6] Van Dyk, 214.

[7] Richard A. Norris, ed., The Christological Controversy, Sources of Early Christian Thought Series, ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 2.

[8] Jenson, 205.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Norris, 28.

[11] Placher, 185.

[12] Norris, 30.

[13] Ibid, 31.

[14] Jenson, 202-203.

[15] S. Mark Heim, “Salvation as Communion: Partakers of the Divine Nature,” Theology Today 61, no. 3 (October 2004): 323.

[16] Orlando E. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1982), 26.

[17] Heim, 325, 329.

[18] Miguel De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 43.

[19] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 109.

[20] Ibid., xxxix.

[21] Gutiérrez., 84.

[22] Ibid., 113.

[23] Costas, 25.

[24] De La Torre, 39.

[25] Ibid, 12.

[26] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living A Prayeful Life, ed. Wendy Wilson Greer (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), 64.

[27] Orlando E. Costas, “Mission Out of Affluence,” Missiology 1, no. 4 (October 1, 1973): 413-414.

[28] Ibid., 418.

[29] Ibid., 420.

[30] Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, “A Merciful White Flash: While Despairing of Nuclear Annihilation, I Received An Irresistible Consolation,” Christianity Today 52, no. 4 (April 1, 2008): 59.