Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A nonviolent God? The scriptures transformed

The other night, while my friend and I wound around the roads of the Eastern suburbs talking life and faith, she asked whether I believed all war was wrong.

I said I generally believed in a nonviolent God.

She asked me how that was possible, given all the war and bloodshed in the Old Testament.

"I guess I can't believe in a God that would order genocide," was my reply.

These are tough questions, for Christians who take the Bible seriously but want to worship a God of love and peace, not death and violence. The Bible, in fact, does report that God ordered genocide, commanding the Israelites to kill seemingly everyone in their path when they set up shop in the land of Canaan.

It's easy to pretend that these things aren't in the Bible. But they are.

Still, I believe in a nonviolent God. Why? Because I believe in the God introduced to me by Jesus, who taught us how to love our enemies, break the cycle of retaliation by turning the other cheek, and put down our swords to seek healing instead.

The fact is that I read the Bible not by taking every word literally and applying it to my life (there would be a lot of stoning of non-virgins if we were all to do that), but by reading it through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Jesus was a Jew, and so the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) serves as a backdrop to all he did and said. Jesus, the radical Rabbi, lived in the tradition. And yet he transformed it into something new - something that would better serve God and humanity.

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’" said Jesus in Matthew, before adding, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

And so while the law says, "Do not murder", we should go further and reconcile with our brother or sister so it never gets to that point. And while we have heard it said, "Do not commit adultery", we are commanded not even to look at a woman (or a man?) with the desire to possess her (or him). And while the law says, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", Jesus tells us not to retaliate, but to turn the other cheek instead. Break the cycle of violence.

Jesus treats the law as something dynamic, something capable of transformation, something more than a stale scroll used to keep others in their place. But to do this he needs to read beyond the letter of the law and live the spirit of the law, which is ultimately about people and their God.

In some ways, Jesus was doing nothing new - even within the Bible we see new traditions building on old traditions and changing or transforming them. For example different strands that appear in the Torah are in fact in conversation with each other, with varying standpoints on a number of issues. Chronicles 1 and 2 retell and amend stories from earlier on in the Bible. And Job challenges the dominant religious idea, found throughout the Hebrew Bible, that suffering is the result of punishment from God for some sin you have committed.

And so, the tradition of Jesus is the one in which I choose to stand. That is not to dismiss the stories of war and bloodshed in the Hebrew Bible - they are there for a reason though their purpose may have served the earlier Israelite community better than they serve us today. I stand in a tradition transformed by the love of Jesus Christ, which continues to be reshaped and re-imagined by the followers of Christ. Jesus took the law beyond its dead letter, and we must continue to do the same, discerning how it might be applied in our own context.

First and foremost, we must love God, and love our neighbour as ourself. The rest of it hangs on that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Unintended consequences

All Luther and his Protestant followers meant to do was make it clear that faith no longer had to be mediated through a church hierarchy - that all that was required for your eventual heavenly ascent was a personal relationship with God, direct from created to creator, no priests needed, thanks.

Faith, then, only required you, your Bible, and your God. It was, in other words, a private affair, a path of personal salvation, that need not concern anyone else. The proper repository of spirituality was inside the individual, not to be exposed to others, except perhaps in a civilised manner in church on a Sunday.

Incidentally, this marked the start of individualism in the Western world, because suddenly the basic unit of value was not the family, the church or the village - it was YOU, who God related directly with, and YOU needed only to be concerned about YOU.

It also marked the end of the public life of religion, which we saw most poignantly in the separation of church and state.

Some time after that, we lost God. And then someone found her again, huddled under a pew in a cold church. Half of the YOUs were running around outside, making lots of money, ripping other people off; the other half of the YOUs were sitting sternly in the church, after having spent the week making lots of money and ripping other people off.

I think that God really wants the whole world to dwell in, rather than being stuck under a hard wooden pew or stuffed into a confessional booth.