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Author: Gordon King

The Theme of Faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 2

The Theme of Faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 2

Faith is an important theme in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus entered Galilee announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. Listeners were encouraged to repent and believe the good news (1.14-15). I think this statement represents the starting point for faith. It is the conviction that the Creator God has entered the world in a new way through Jesus. The healing stories help us to understand God’s intention to bring wholeness to all areas of life. As we journey with Jesus, we also learn that the healing of the world requires suffering and death on the cross. Additionally, his followers are called to walk in the way of the cross.

Faith precedes healing in several passages (2.1-12; 5.21-43; 7.24-30; 9.14-29; 10.46-52). We can also say that faith is implicit, although not specifically mentioned, in other stories and summary passages. Think of the leper in Mark 1 who breaks the purity code and falls on his knees before Jesus. It is important to observe the extreme need of those who seek Jesus’s healing power and their intuition that he is their only hope. This is exemplified in the account of the woman with a vaginal flow of blood in Mark 5. She has spent all her savings on physicians that offered no help. She is convinced that she will be healed if only she touches his garment.  Jesus stops to listen to her story. He affectionately calls her his daughter. He tells her that her faith has saved her. Here we see that salvation is related to our wholeness in this life and beyond into eternity.

Two other passages merit comment. Jesus returns to his hometown in Mark 6. The villagers denigrate the local boy whose family still lives nearby. Jesus marvels at their unbelief and is unable to do mighty works apart from healing a few sick people. This story suggests that people’s faith gave Jesus a space in which to operate with God’s power. Conversely, the lack of faith placed limits on his mission of healing. I am reminded of a comment attributed to Phil Yancey: “God does not go where he is not wanted.”

In Mark 11, Jesus speaks about faith that can move mountains. This statement, on its own, might be interpreted to mean that miracles are possible provided that there is sufficient faith. The corollary is, of course, that the lack of miracles, including healings, indicates that the threshold of faith has not been achieved. We blame victims for being stuck in their need.

We need to be reminded that Jesus earnestly prayed that the cross would be removed from his vocation. In the garden of Gethsemane, he was strengthened to face death but faith did not give him a “pass.” In alignment with their master, faifIthful disciples will be betrayed by their closest loved ones, face persecutions, endure hardships, and be brought before hostile authorities. Faith does not get us what we might want. Faith brings us into communion with the Father to whom we belong even as we go through periods of suffering and brokenness.

I wish to make two final comments. God responds to people that desperately recognize their need for grace and healing. Too often our congregations have demanded an approved doctrinal statement for inclusion rather than the deep recognition that our lives are broken and wounded apart from God’s healing. Christians, in North America, are often middle class professionals at home in the world of ideas. There are people on the margins who will come to us demonstrating their faith by expressing an urgent need for God. Some of their actions will be as unwelcome as the digging through a roof to bring a friend to Jesus. Will we make room for these people in our fellowships? Will we start where God meets them in their needs and lead them into the deeper faith of being followers?

The story points to the role of friends and family that desire to see the healing and restoration of loved ones. The gospel narrative encourages us to pray faithfully for these people and to find compassionate ways to bring them to the God of grace and new beginnings.

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The theme of faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 1

The theme of faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 1

The story of the healing of the paralytic offers a rich opportunity to engage in narrative theology. In this piece, I explore the theme of faith. I have written it in two parts for ease of use by readers.

Part 1

The western tradition, to which I belong, values intellectual thought and concepts. Faith is often defined as the content of what one believes. Accordingly, there are basic doctrinal statements about God, Jesus, and the Spirit that are define the orthodox Christian faith. Select passages of scripture are used that support this way of approaching faith. A classic text comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom. 10.9).

The story of the healing of the paralytic requires us to consider faith from another perspective for two reasons. First, the faith that Jesus recognizes is attributed to the four friends of the paralytic. Second, the doctrinal content is vague and ambiguous. These men simply believe that Jesus has the power to heal. We do not meet them in the narrative as disciples that sit at the feet of Jesus.

I am intrigued by how human tragedy and urgent action interrupt a theological conversation. The description of the scribes (the official interpreters of Torah) seated inside the house implies that they have taken an official position. Their intent is to investigate and debate the prophet from Galilee whose teaching has popular authority. Jesus represents a threat to their honor and influence.

The sound of men digging through a thatched roof would have been disconcerting. The sight of a paralytic being precariously lowered on a stretcher must have been riveting. One can imagine how eyes moved between the men on the roof, the paralytic, and the anxious owner of the home.

The description of Jesus seeing the faith of the four men is important. One does not see intellectual beliefs or doctrines unless they are printed on a page. Jesus is a witness to the urgent and desperate actions of four men. They have faith that Jesus can help their paralyzed friend. They know that his announcement of the in breaking of God’s rule has been accompanied by healings and exorcisms. He has restored health, dignity, and freedom to broken and wounded people.

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The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

I want to reflect on the healing of the paralytic in the next few posts. One of the intriguing features of Mark’s narrative is the connection between the forgiveness of sin and the physical restoration of the man that was carried to Jesus by his friends. This passage represents the only time in Mark when Jesus explicitly tells someone that they are forgiven and released of their sins.

The pronouncement of forgiveness is controversial here because Jesus acts with the direct authority that belongs only to God. The scribes in the audience are outraged and harbour accusations of blasphemy. This crime would be punishable by death. In fact, Jesus is accused of blasphemy in the trial that leads to the crucifixion. It is also controversial because there have been no signs of repentance and no indication that sacrifices will be offered by the paralytic in the temple.

I want to make two points here for preachers, Bible study leaders, and lay theologians.

First, even in our modern secular society the burden of guilt can be a destructive force. Unresolved guilt impacts on spiritual, physical, and emotional health along with networks of relationships. The pronouncement of God’s forgiveness gives individuals the opportunity of a new beginning.  In the case of the paralytic, the experience of forgiveness is part of the healing process.

Second, forgiveness can be controversial. We are most comfortable in a world where people get what they deserve (ourselves being the exception). We are uneasy when the church pronounces the unmerited grace of God’s forgiveness to people that have harmed others through violence or deception.  Forgiveness without punishment can seem scandalous.

Perhaps the best route to understanding the controversial nature of forgiveness is through human stories that can serve as representations of the greater miracles of God’s grace.

  • Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. The trial judge was Percy Yutar. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He was released in 1990 and was elected president of South Africa in 1994. He invited Yutar to have lunch with him in the president’s office. Mandela stated that he was trying to model the reconciliation that his country needed. Yutar, after the luncheon, described Mandela as a saint. The lunch meeting was severely criticized by people associated with Mandela that wanted some measure of justice rather than forgiveness.
  • In Rwanda, a woman went to a prison to witness the baptism and offer forgiveness to a young man who had killed her husband (an Adventist pastor). She invited him, after his release, to come and live with her and her children so that he could study at an Adventist Secondary School. She was criticized by people that felt she had dishonored the memory of her husband and disrespected the fundamental standards of justice.
  • Malcolm Gladwell wrote that his faith was renewed by Wilma Derksen of Winnipeg. Derksen’s daughter was murdered in 1984. Wilma Derksen drew deeply on her faith and the Mennonite tradition of meeting violence with love. She forgave the man accused of her daughter’s death and was able to experience her own release and healing. Gladwell compared Wilma Derksen with other families that have lived with bitter wounds and the unresolved desire for justice.
  • Anthony Berry, a British MP, was killed in the Brighton Bomb blast of 1984. The man responsible was the IRA master bomb maker Patrick Magee. Jo Berry went to a church to pray when she learned of her father’s death. She realized that she was being called to work for understanding and peace. She made several trips to Northern Ireland and entered the alienation and resentment felt by Irish Catholics. Sixteen years later she met Patrick Magee. They went on to work together to promote peace, understanding, and reconciliation. Jo Berry received death threats and was accused of being a traitor to her nation and the memory of her father.
  • On 17 June 2015 Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, entered a Bible study in an African American church in Charlestown, South Carolina. He took out a gun and killed nine people in a racially motivated crime. The situation, which could have erupted in violent confrontations, was defused by family members that offered forgiveness in their pain. One woman spoke of her deceased sister: ” she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

We live in a broken and wounded world. The road of the cross requires us to be people that proclaim and demonstrate forgiveness for the healing of individuals and our communities.

 

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Revised Posting on the Dimensions of Health

Revised Posting on the Dimensions of Health

My friend Sharlene Craig helped me think through some of the content of the last post on 8 dimensions of health. I have reduced the number of dimensions to seven. I have also tried to show that a problem of specialized care is that we concentrate on one dimension of well-being to the exclusion of others. Trusted friends and spiritual advisers play an important role in helping us to redefine and reshare our expectations of what it means to live fully and meaningfully during different chapters of our lives.

I appreciate further comments. This reflection will hopefully serve as an entrance point to understanding the healings and miracles stories of our faith.

Revised version:

Bible study or home groups meetings are part of the ministry program of many churches. In preparation for a time of shared prayer, group members often talk about the health concerns of people in the congregation before lifting them up to God for his grace and healing. We want to make three observations; (1) there is a common concern for biomedical issues (diseases and injuries) that affect people of our congregations; (2) people of faith sense the need for God’s intervention in addition to the assistance of paid professionals; and, (3) other issues related to the health of individuals and communities are often neglected in conversations and prayers.

We submit that health and well-being are virtually synonymous concepts for most of us in western countries. Well-being is a broad concept that has several dimensions. Yet when we discuss health, often our default option is reduced to biomedical considerations. We may fail to engage in broader conversations, prayer, and pastoral care that encompasses other dimensions that are integral to living a full and abundant life.

The limitation of this fixation on biomedical health can be illustrated in the following example. Bradley is a robust middle–aged man. He works out regularly in a gym with the advice of a personal trainer. His blood and heart tests are normal. He has not missed a day of work in the past 10 years. However, things are not as good in other areas of Bradley’s life. At work, where he is a manager, Bradley has trouble with employee retention and morale. He is officially on a work improvement plan. He has lived on his own since his marriage ended five years ago. His children avoid him. His neighbors think he is angry and overbearing. He has no significant friendships. Most of us would acknowledge that someone like Bradley is not healthy notwithstanding his physical strength and vigor. This extreme example challenges us to broaden our working definition of health.

Seven dimensions of health

It may be timely to open discussion about multiple dimensions of health. There is general agreement that our well-being is a complex and multi-faceted concept. Christians would say that we were created with a range of needs including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. Working from this perspective, we wish to propose a working model that has seven health dimensions that together play a role in defining the well-being of individuals and their communities. Each dimension relates to the other six in different ways to form a pattern of intersecting lines.

The biomedical functioning of our bodies can be considered as the first dimension of health. In times of crisis, we seek assistance of doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and pharmaceutical products that we find in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies.

In recent years, people in western countries have broadened the definition of well-being to include mental health. We acknowledge that individuals struggle with issues such as self-concept, traumas from the past, and distorted perceptions. Mental health specialists include psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors with diverse products including psychoanalysis, self-help books, and anti-depressant pharmaceuticals.

The third dimension of our proposal is supportive relationships with family and a broader community of people. Well-being requires a balanced sense of belonging and independence, participation in the lives of others, trust, and acceptance. When there are relational dysfunctions in families or social networks, professional assistance may be sought from social workers, therapists, and other counsellors.

The fourth dimension of health is security. A sense of well-being requires relative confidence that needs for food and shelter will be met in an adequate manner. Security also includes access to education, health care, and public safety without fear of prejudice or oppression. In countries like Canada and the USA, we depend on governments and the business sector for fair employment, social policies, and the protection of citizen’s rights.

We propose that intellectual well-being is the fifth dimension of health. This category is concerned with encouraging open and enquiring minds. Intellectual health involves the freedom to ask questions, to learn, to think critically, and to examine one’s cultural assumptions. The professionals generally associated with intellectual health are teachers, librarians, poets, artists, and authors.

The sixth dimension of health is concerned with the ways that we individually and corporately relate to God’s creation. Human well-being depends on the quality of air, purity of water, preservation of bio-diversity, and maintenance of soil nutrients. The abuse and exploitation of the environment is a threat to our existence. The list of professionals concerned with creation care include scientists, conservationists, farmers, certain politicians and activists.

The seventh health dimension is spiritual in that it concerns our relationship with God the Creator and Sustainer of all life.  The spiritual dimension probes the big questions of the purpose of life, morality, forgiveness, and eternal life. The professionals in this area are people like pastors, rabbis, and imams.

Reflections

Our bodies were made in such a way that we would recognize our finite and vulnerable nature. We are endangered by disease, injury, misfortune, and violence along with the ravages of time. Every human life ends with death. This commonality explains, at least partially, our concentration on the biomedical dimension of health. We have the desire to extend life as far as modern science makes possible (and even to have the right to use science to end our lives).

This singular focus has restricted our understanding of what it means to live in ways that are full and meaningful. Well-being is a thick concept that is not restricted to the biomedical or mental health dimensions. People that enjoy well-being have a realistic self understanding, thrive on supportive relationships, participate in their communities, appreciate basic securities, wonder at the goodness of creation, and depend on God’s loving presence. We have tried to express this broader view of health through the seven dimensions.

We deliberately included a list of qualified professionals associated with each dimension to make the point that specialists may perpetuate a narrow focus that fails to consider other components of well-being of individuals within their communities. As a result, we must rely on trusted family members, close friends, and spiritual advisers to help us to navigate and balance our needs and desires regarding how to live well.

A Hebrew poet asked God to teach us to number our days so that we could live with wisdom (Ps. 90.12). This Psalmist understood wisdom in a practical manner. I am attracted to Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Teach us to live wisely and well.” I propose that congregational leaders have an important role in helping people to live fully and meaningfully through different life stages. The seven dimensions of health require us to be attentive to the well-being of individuals and communities including the quality of relationships, social equity, opportunities for intellectual growth, respect for creation, and spiritual nurture. Our dialogue, pastoral work, and prayers should be grounded in a broader definition of health.

 

Gordon King lives in Calgary, Canada. He is author of Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus (2016),

Sharlene Craig is director of Human Resources and Member Care for Canadian Baptist Ministries.

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Biomedical issues are only one dimension of health

Biomedical issues are only one dimension of health

Bible study or home groups meetings are part of the life of many churches between Sundays. In preparation for a shared time of prayer, group members often talk about health concerns of individuals and lift these people up to God for his grace and healing. Three observations may be made; (1) health issues are a common concern of people in a church community; (2) the working definition of health is often limited to bio-medical dysfunctions or injuries; and, (3) there is a sense that God’s involvement transcends the work of medical specialists.

I submit that health and well-being are virtually synonymous concepts for most of us in western countries. Our default option, when considering health, is the biomedical dimension. We may overlook the example of robust individuals who are wounded people that inflict damage on themselves, others, and the created order. Yet most of us would acknowledge that such people are not healthy notwithstanding their strength and vigor. This extreme example challenges us in our reflections, prayers, and pastoral work to move beyond the well-being of physical bodies and to consider other dimensions of health.

Eight dimensions of health

As indicated above, our working definition of health often has a select group of themes related to the biomedical functioning of our bodies. I call this the first dimension of health because of the immediate association of modern medical practice with individual well-being. In those times when we are unable to function at an acceptable level, there is a general tendency to seek the assistance of medical specialists in designated locations. The sense of need intensifies both in times of crisis and in the long-term process of watching our strength decline due to age. We turn to doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and pharmaceutical products that we find in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies.

In recent years, some people in western countries have broadened the definition of well-being to include mental health. We acknowledge that people struggle with issues such as self-concept, traumas from the past, and distorted perceptions. Accordingly, mental health concerns now have a place alongside bio-medical matters as people are helped in the process of restoration to functional levels of health.

However, it may be timely to open discussion about other dimensions of health. In a general manner we would all agree that human life is complex. Christians would say that we were created with a range of needs including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. Working from this perspective, I wish to propose that there are eight health dimensions that play a role in defining the well-being of individuals and their communities. The reader will note that in opposition to the hyper-individualism of our time, I hold that personal health is related to the collective health of one’s community.

 

Dimension Description Typical Professionals
Biomedical Concerned with the functioning of the physical body, disease, and injury. Doctors, nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, personal exercise trainers etc.
Mental and

Emotional

Concerned with self-knowledge, stability, and positive attitudes. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, diverse counsellors and pharmacists.
Family relationships Concerned with the quality of relationships in the immediate and extended family. The goal is a balanced sense of belonging and independence in a warm and supportive environment. Families members generally seek to resolve their own issues. Outside professionals may include social workers, counsellors, police, and lawyers.
Community Networks Concerned with functional communities that offer employment, education, recreation, and a sense of belonging. Optimal community networks are dependable, just, accessible, and non-discriminatory. Politicians, employers, public servants, and leaders of civic organizations including places of worship.
Security Concerned with people’s confidence that the basic needs of human dignity will be met. These include shelter, food, transportation, primary medical care, and protection. Reliance on government and family may be detrimental to one’s sense of self worth. Social workers. People that address chronic poverty in the charitable sector
Intellectual Concerned with encouraging open and enquiring minds. Intellectual health involves the freedom to ask questions, to think critically, and to examine one’s cultural assumptions. Teachers. Community librarians. Youth works. Poets. Artists.
Creation Concerned with the well-being of the planet including clean air, pure water, biodiversity of ecosystems, and the health of soil and oceans. Environmental scientists and activists.
Spiritual Concerned with the big questions of God, the purpose of life, morality, and eternal life. Pastors. Rabbis. Imams.

 

Reflections

We recognize the painful reality that our bodies were made in such a way that we are constantly endangered by disease, injury, misfortune, and violence along with the ravages of time. No one escapes death as we experience it during this life. This commonality explains, at least partially, our concentration on the biomedical dimension of health. We have the desire to extend life as far as modern science makes possible (and even to use science to end our lives in ways that we choose).

This singular focus has restricted our understanding of what it means to live in ways that are full and meaningful. Well-being is a thick concept that is not restricted to the biomedical or mental health dimensions. People that enjoy well-being have a realistic self understanding, thrive on supportive relationships, participate in their communities, wonder at the goodness of creation, and depend on God’s loving presence. I have tried to express this broader view of health through the eight dimensions.

A Hebrew poet asked God to teach us to number our days so that we could live with wisdom (Ps. 90.12). This Psalmist would have understood wisdom in a practical manner. I am attracted to Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Teach us to live wisely and well.” I propose that congregational leaders have an important role in helping people to live well at every life stage, including those troubling times when our bodies are weakened and the shadows of death lengthen around us. We are challenged to redefine “health” in a broader way for people in our congregational communities.

 

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Resiliency in Bearing Witness to God’s Rule

Resiliency in Bearing Witness to God’s Rule

There is dramatic showdown between a prophet and state religion supported by the royal palace narrated in the Old Testament. 1 Kings 18 tells the account of a faithful person of God in conflict with the 450 representatives of Baal on a mountain of Israel. We need to remember that the worship of Baal was promoted by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The royal palace issued orders to seek and kill prophets of Yahweh.

The Biblical account narrates that God responded to Elijah’s prayers in a way that was decisive, powerful, and political. There was no doubt that God had triumphed over the forces of evil.

The fire on Mount Carmel matches our longing that God will reveal himself in power and strength in our own time. I find that prayerful desire expressed in Isaiah 64.

 

Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

So that the mountains would quake at your presence….

To make your name known to your adversaries,

So that the nations might tremble at your presence.

 

I read these words from Isaiah as a statement of despair about the world coupled with faith in God. The prayer comes out of a context of confusion and disappointment. It was uttered during a time when public and individual morality were on shaky ground. There was little confidence in national leaders outside their tight circles of sycophants. People of faith felt marginalized and weak.

People of faith had felt this way during the time of Elijah. They were on the losing side in contests of power.  The civic religion of Baal had become dominant in the nation. King Ahab was corrupt. Elijah was forced into exile in Phoenicia during the purge of Yahweh’s prophets. He knew that Ahab had search parties in surrounding countries with orders to kill him.

Elijah kept his faith during the dark period of marginalization and threats to his life. I am attracted to his faith and his faithfulness. I am reminded that Jesus spoke about resiliency using the phrase steadfast endurance. I need this virtue in my life and witness.

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Stress

Stress

2017 has been a rough year for many people around me. I understand. It is hard to be optimistic about the world around us, and, at times, our own participation in it.

We all deal with different forms of stress. The tensions we feel may come from troubled relationships, employment demands, health issues, financial difficulties, and the general state of the world. Under stress, most of us function at a reduced level. We may find ourselves going through the motions of our vocation without being fully in the game. We show up as required, but our hearts are not engaged. We perform our duties but with the nagging sense that something is missing.

I gave attention to the relationship between stress and resiliency of international workers a few years ago. I have a respect for those people who answer the Spirit’s prompting to work in the borderland areas of our world. The communities of the poor face immense issues. Let me name a few; lack of food security, contaminated water, unstable employment, ethnic violence, gender prejudices,the prevalence of disease, inadequate housing, the education of children, and the oppression of the rich. At some point, community development workers may become discouraged and despondent. They may show up for work but retreat to their homes when the day is over. They prefer reports to relationships. Drug dependency, alcohol addiction, and family problems may add further elements of stress.

A chronic illness brought my international career to an end in 2011. I now live in Canada and have many opportunities to observe similar patterns of stress in our country. Pastors, social workers, and community agents seek to participate in individual and social transformation. At the same time, they must deal with their own stuff along with workloads that may seem insurmountable. The best of us go through dry patches. Some of us are worn out and emotionally empty. We wonder if we can ever regain what we lost.

Jesus taught his followers to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18.1). I have been wondering what that means for me and my colleagues called to vocations of service and witness. Please allow me to give a few thoughts that I am trying to apply to my own life:

First, prayer means something more than simply SOS calls that ask God to bless your to-do list for the day. Prayer involves locating yourself in the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The intimacy with God allows us to share our emotions, our emptiness, and our confusion. God never looks at the clock on the wall and rushes his child away to work. Ruth Padilla DeBorst recently invited us to engage in lament with the Lord. She reminded us that we can lay before God the brokenness of the world and the wounds of our hearts. We can express a profound sense of grief and ask the Spirit to transform our broken hearts. We can ask God for new eyes through which to see his presence and work in the world around us.

Second, we can confess that we have lost heart. We know it. People around us probably sense it. God certainly holds us in sight and understands that we need renewal. The Spirit specializes in heart work. But finding heart again takes time and some deliberate decisions about priorities. One small suggestion that I have is to spend time with positive people. Last Sunday night, Regine and I had dinner with friends in Christian ministry. Each of us had personal struggles that were weighing us down in one way or another. The time together, with good food and laughter, made our hearts light. Each of us shared about a moment in which we experienced grace in the past month. We felt God’s presence through the testimonies that we heard.

 

Pray. Do not lose heart. I want to carry these words of Jesus into the last two months of 2017.

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When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

When was the last time you heard a sermon on racism?

Racism and prophetic protests against racism are part of the Biblical message. I wonder why we hear so few sermons in our churches about this moral issue.

Perhaps Stassen and Gushee (2016) are correct that the dominant white culture (to which I belong) has taken a social evil and neutered it by reducing it to the level of individual relationships while protesting that we are nice people. That argument does not work in groups where we hear the stories of people and groups that have suffered from oppression and prejudice embedded in the structures of economics, law, education, and social relations.

In this blog I want to give two Biblical examples of racism and the protest against it for a higher ethic of justice, equity, and mercy.

The Good Samaritan

A well-known expression of racism is found in the gospel of Luke. Luke 9:51 marks a key transition in the mission of Jesus. He tells his followers that they will leave Galilee and begin the long journey to Jerusalem. The chosen route takes them through Samaria, a region with an ethnic population that has a troubled relationship with Hebrew people.

Jesus sends messengers ahead to request hospitality. However the elders of the community reject this traditional duty because he was traveling to Jerusalem. The Samaritans considered that their temple on Mount Gerizim was the legitimate place for the sacrifices stipulated by the Torah.

Two of the disciples request permission to pray for fire to come down from heaven to destroy the village. I read this as a genocidal petition with an appeal for God to utterly blot out the people of another ethnic group for a perceived offense. Jesus rebukes them and moves on to another village.

The protest is found when a lawyer asks Jesus to define the term “neighbor” (Luke 10.29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which a despised foreigner is faithful to God’s law.  The story is meant as much for the disciples as it was for the lawyer.

A House of Prayer for All the Nations

I submit that there is an earlier example. After the Babylonian exile, there were tensions between the returnees and the people who had remained in the land. The former exiles had the advantage of political power through their connection with the Persian Empire under Cyrus. The Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah show concern for a pure bloodlines. Marriages between former exiles and the daughters of the people of the land had contaminated the holy seed according to those in positions of power (Ezra 9.2). The solution was to send away wives and children of these intermarriages.

The protest is found in the third section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66). The prophet speaks into the social situation of post-exilic Jerusalem and the surrounding area. He encourages his listeners to maintain justice and do what is right (Isa. 56.1). He advises that the temple will be a house of prayer for all the nations (56.7). Foreigners joined to the Lord will be admitted to the temple and eunuchs will be welcome in the house of God (Isa 56.3-8). At the close of Isaiah, God speaks that he will gather people from all the nations and that some from these foreign ethnic groups will serve as his priests (Isa. 66.21). There is an inclusive prayer in Isa. 64.8-9.

O Lord, you are our father;

We are the clay, and you are our potter’

We are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

And do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Embedded racism is such a destructive force in the USA and Canada. Surely we do not need to be convinced. We need to ask questions about doing justice and loving our neighbor across boundaries of race and ethnicity? I don’t think we can leave the protest up to professional athletes!

I am bold enough to make a few suggestions for pastoral leaders.

  1. Confession is important. Can we confess before God that we live in social settings with a history of racism? Can we ask God for forgiveness and for direction in living by the standard of his kingdom?
  2. Can we expose our congregations to stories of people whose experience of life is different from our own? My seminary ethics class listened to a Youtube speech of Dr. Cornell West speaking about racial justice. We realized that our tendency was to evaluate social issues from our personal perspectives rather than from those who have suffered from the oppression of the dominant culture.
  3. Can we seek to build relationships with other people in order to enter more deeply into their experiences. In Canada, the challenge is to build relationships of equity and repentance with Indigenous people. Majority caucasian churches in the USA are challenged to share their congregational life with African Americans and Latinos in particular. We should expect suspicion and questions about our motives. People from other groups will be looking for attitudes that are patronizing and bear messages of superiority. A contrite heart and broken spirit are more compelling before God and before those who feel pushed to the margins.
  4. Can we discover some shared projects in which caucasian people serve in secondary roles? We do not always have to be the leaders.

Racism is offensive to God who created every human in his image. Let’s do something about it.

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The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership Part 2

Students in my Christian Ethics class at Ambrose discussed an excerpt from Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations (1992) on Monday.

I was not surprised that no one had previously heard of Havel. The relative lack of public recognition of is not surprising. We do not pay much attention to political leaders outside of North America unless they threaten us or represent a major power.

Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). Subsequently he was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Prior to entering into the political life of his country, Havel had been a dissident who was imprisoned by the communist government. The Velvet Revolution, which he led, was credited as a major factor in bringing down communism is Czechoslovakia.

It is important to know his background. Havel’s reflections on political life were forged in the heat of the furnace of experience.

I have listed below some of the things that impressed the students in my class as they reflected on his writing.

  1. Havel believed that there was a moral nature to politics. He attempted to nurture a sense of “higher responsibility” in conducting his duties as president. One aspect was to cultivate goodwill, decency, and respect for others.
  2. He recognized evil in the way political candidates displayed “… an extravagant hunger for power.” “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” He also understood that he had the same inclinations and was required to begin the work of moral renewal in his own heart. “As in everything else, I must start with myself.”
  3. He had a lifelong commitment to non-violence. “Communism was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity.” “Violence only breeds more violence.”
  4. He tried to use the office of the president to as a model for the larger government. He encouraged “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.
  5. He saw himself as a servant who had moral duties to the community and to future generations. Although not a professing Christian, he understood that he would answer to a higher power. “… we are observed from above, … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten…”
  6. He displayed what the New Testament calls steadfast endurance in times of discouragement. “I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”

We spent class time reflecting on two questions:

  1. How does the political morality of Havel compare to Jesus’ teaching about the virtues of leadership that were to guide his followers? The context of a European president is, of course, very different from a Galilean rabbi and his disciples.
  2. Is there one thing that each of us could learn from Havel for use in our own context where we are leaders by position or by influence?

I leave those questions with the readers of this blog post.

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The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics at Ambrose Seminary. Next week we will discuss ethical issues of political leadership. In preparation for the class, the students are reading an assigned excerpt of Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations ((1992).

Havel was a playwright, essayist, and dissident under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. He spent several years in prison. His movement, the Civic Forum, played an important role in the Velvet Revolution that brought communist rule to an end in his country. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). He was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. This summary simply shows that Havel was not a detached theorist or a critic from the sidelines.

The book Summer Meditations was written during a ten day holiday in 1992. It represents the unique reflections of a president during his term in office.

I asked my students to identify the virtues of character displayed by Havel and then compare them with current leaders, local and global. I will report on our discussions in my blog next week. Today I would like to share some of his thinking about his role as president at a critical time in its history.

Havel emphasized the moral nature of genuine political leadership. He believed, that as president, he should stress the significance of moral values in all spheres of life including the economy. He engaged in a deep reading of his context. Liberation from communism had unleashed “… an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.” The new breed of politicians was hungry for power. “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” Havel was particularly pained by the imminent separation of the Slovak population to form their own country.

Havel remained convinced that politics itself was not a disreputable business “… and to the extent that it is, it is only because disreputable people make it so.” “Those who enter politics “… bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and it is their responsibility to seek out the best in that society, and to develop and strengthen it.”

Havel wrote of three personal convictions that guided his work.:

  1. He felt that his public speeches should repeatedly and regularly draw attention to the moral dimensions of social life. He sought to stir the dormant goodwill in people and emphasize the importance of placing the shared good above personal interests. “… people want to hear that decency and courage make sense ….”
  2. He felt that the office of the president should act as a positive influence on the government and the country creating “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.”
  3. He felt that his ideals and values should be injected into the decisions that he was required to make as president: “… my longing for justice, decency, and civility, my notion of what, for present purposes, I will call the moral state.”

 

As far as I know, Havel never fully identified with the Christian faith. In an interview he once stated that he tried to live in the spirit of Christian morality. The excerpt my students will read displays his belief that a higher power stood over his life: “… we are observed from above … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten …”

I hope the students benefit from reading Havel. I feel that his reflections provide a helpful place from which to evaluate the moral qualities of political leadership in our own time and context. It means little to call oneself a Christian. It means a great deal to act as a follower of Jesus. Havel helps point the way forward.

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