Exodus Food

Last week I reviewed some notes I posted here in 2011 regarding the New Exodus themes in the Old and New Testaments. Associated with those notes I also reviewed some material from Brant Pitre's book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist regarding the second coming of manna:

Recall from that discussion of New Exodus material that in light of the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:15-18, many scholars have suggested that Jesus invoked the idea that he was the one Moses foretold--a second Moses leading a New Exodus.

As noted, there were a variety of things that were expected to accompany this second Moses--a New Exodus, a New Passover, a New Law, a New Covenant, a New Tabernacle, and a New Promised Land.

And along with all this there was also the expectation that the Exodus miracles would return with the second Moses. And one of these was the return of manna.

You'll recall the original manna story:
Exodus 16.4-5, 11-15
Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

The LORD said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’”

That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat."
"What is it?" As Pitre recounts, there was actually a great deal of rabbinic speculation regarding that question. And the bible gives some clues. For example, the manna "tasted like honey" (Ex. 16.31) suggesting that the manna was a foretaste of the Promised Land, a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3.8). Supporting this association, that manna was Exodus food, is the fact that the day the Israelites began to eat the food of Canaan the manna stopped:
Joshua 5.10-12
On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.
Manna is the food of travelers and sojourners, the bread eaten between Egypt and Canaan, between Liberation and Consummation.

More, manna is bread from heaven. Manna is supernatural, the food of angels:
Psalm 78.23-25
Yet he gave a command to the skies above
and opened the doors of the heavens;
he rained down manna for the people to eat,
he gave them the grain of heaven.
Human beings ate the bread of angels;
he sent them all the food they could eat.
In light of the New Exodus expectations, the Second Temple Jews believed that one of the signs of the Messiah, as the second Moses, would be the return of manna, the "bread from heaven." Given that expectation, and that in various places Jesus hints at being the second Moses, we can ask: Did Jesus ever speak of the return of manna?

Pitre argues that we find one reference to manna smack in the middle of the Lord's Prayer:
Give us this day our daily bread.
The echo of manna should be obvious in the phrase "give us this day." As you know, manna was collected each day and not kept over for the next. So the frame here in the Lord's Prayer is a New Exodus frame. And according to Pitre there is more.

You'll have noticed a repetition in the prayer: a mention of "day" and "daily." In the Greek these aren't the same word. The first occurrence is the word we all know as "day." But the second word, translated as "daily," is a bit of a mystery.

The word in question is a neologism and it occurs nowhere else in the bible or in antiquity. This is the only time the word is used which makes it hard to know its meaning. The word is epiousios:
Give us this day our epiousios bread.
What does epiousios mean? Opinions differ. Ousia means "existence," "being," or "nature." Thus, some translate "epiousios bread" as the "bread we need for being/existence." But Pitre points out that the prefix epi means "on," "upon," or "above." Thus he argues that the better translation of "epiousios bread" is the "bread above nature/existence." In short, "epiousios bread" is supernatural bread or heavenly bread--the manna spoken of in Psalm 78. In light of this, we could translate the Lord's Prayer like this:
Give us this day our heavenly bread.
Or, if you want to convey the New Exodus motif directly:
Give us this day our manna.
In this translation the Lord's Prayer become an Exodus prayer for a people liberated from bondage and journeying to the Promised Land. It is a prayer for manna, for supernatural sustenance during the journey. It is a prayer for those who have been set free from slavery but who have yet to reach the New Heaven and the New Earth, the land flowing with milk and honey.

While some may question this interpretation of the Lord's Prayer, we are aware of a more explicit discussion of Jesus and the new manna in the gospels: Jesus' Bread of Life discourse.
John 6:30-35
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
We see the New Exodus expectation voiced by the people: If Jesus is the Messiah, the second Moses, then where is the manna? Jesus responds with "I am the bread of life." A few verses later Jesus makes the association with manna more explicit: He is "the bread of heaven."
John 6.48-51a
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
There it is. Jesus himself is the new manna. Jesus is the bread that sustains the Exodus community.

Pitre is a Catholic scholar. Consequently, when he reads "I am the bread of heaven" he thinks of the Eucharist, of Christ being actually, if miraculously, present in the bread of the Eucharist. In this reading the Eucharist is the manna, the actual body and blood of Jesus. This reading is supported by the final part of the Bread of Life discourse:
John 6.51b-58
"Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.
As Pitre rightly points out, Catholic theology, with its doctrine of transubstantiation, is well positioned to interpret this text, and even more so in light of the new manna theme. The actual body and blood of Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Immanuel, God physically with us in the Eucharist, sustaining us as manna on our Exodus journey. And like we saw with the Israelites, the presence of Christ in Eucharist tastes like honey, it's a foretaste of heaven. The Eucharist is our daily manna, our taste of Christ, until we reach the Promised Land.

That's a pretty powerful argument for transubstantiation. The Eucharist--Christ's mystical presence among us--is our manna, the bread of heaven that daily sustains the church on her journey to the Promised Land.

That said, I don't think Protestants are excluded from this understanding. Though we don't believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus, we do believe that when two or more are gathered in Jesus's name Christ is present amongst us. And thinking along these lines we might move Pitre's analysis in this more "Protestant" direction.

Specifically, where is the body of Christ? Is it found in the mystical doctrines of transubstantiation? Or in the koinonia of those gathered in the name of Jesus?

True, this need not be an either/or. But if the "body of Christ" can be associated with koinonia, if Christ is with us in the mutual love we share, then might not the corporate body of Christ be the new manna?

Might manna--our daily bread--look like this:
Acts 4.32-35
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Might our mutual love be our manna--the "bread of heaven," the Exodus food--that sustains us on our journey to the Promised Land?

Search Term Friday: Salvation By Calvinball

I get all sorts of search terms about the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. A series I did in 2008 entitled The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes still gets all sorts of traffic. 

Recently, search terms looking for "calvin's babysitter" linked to one the final posts in that series which is also a personal favorite.

From a theological vantage, my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips come from a storyline that Bill Watterson gives us in September of 1995.  

Calvin and Hobbes comes to an end in December in '95 and in the waning months of the strip we get a two week storyline, ten daily strips in all, devoted to the relationship between Calvin and his evil babysitter Rosalyn.

As you may recall, Rosalyn functions as a kind of satan-figure in Calvin and Hobbes. Rosalyn embodies all the forces arrayed against Calvin. Rosalyn is an impersonal enforcer of rules. She represents the non-relational, non-empathic application of power. Thus, the Calvin/Rosalyn relationship is inherently antagonistic. And the final Rosalyn story in ‘95 begins on just that note:

But the story begins to take a different turn as Rosalyn becomes open to a "deal," a kind of quid pro quo in the relationship:

The game Calvin selects is, you guessed it, Calvinball:

Obviously, Rosalyn is a bit skeptical about this game:

But Rosalyn dons the mask and starts to play:

And soon the dynamic of Calvinball, an inherently relational dynamic, begins to affect her:

And by the end of the night the world is entirely different:

And with that, we say goodbye to Rosalyn. These strips were her swansong. Calvin and Hobbes would end forever three months later.

Theologically, then, what are we to make of the final Rosalyn strips?

As I've described it, Calvinball represents a trusting, non-competitive, relational space. Without rules Calvinball can only be played in a context of trust and mutuality. Thus, only friends can successfully play Calvinball together. This is why Calvinball is the game of choice between Calvin and Hobbes.

So here in the final Rosalyn strips Watterson shows us Rosalyn, the personification of rules, entering into the ruleless world of Calvinball. And by entering the relational world of Calvinball Rosalyn, and her relationship with Calvin, is transformed. This satan-figure becomes a friend.

Rosalyn's distrustful and hierarchical application of power is replaced with mutuality, spontaneity and trust. Rosalyn is saved by Calvinball.

I like to think that Calvinball is a metaphor for church. A place where hierarchy is replaced by mutuality. Where rigidity is replaced by creative spontaneity. Where rules are replaced by relationship and trust. Where coercive power is replaced with the messy anarchy of friendship.

"You see how people lord over each other in the world," Jesus said, "It shall not be like that with you."

And I like to see that place as being the workshop of our salvation. A place where lording over is replaced by loving service, where the last in the world become first, where the least become the greatest. A place, as with Rosalyn, where love begins to slowly unwind us, gently healing how we've been demonically formed and malformed by power and distrust.

A place where we are saved by Calvinball

The New Exodus

Out at my bible study at the prison we are working through the entire bible. We're in Jeremiah right now.

And as we've been working through the Old Testament I've been struck by how helpful the paradigm of the New Exodus has been.

In 2011 I worked through some New Exodus material and I find myself referring to these notes over and over out at the prison:

We can begin with the question, what were the Jews expecting of the Messiah?

If you quizzed people in your church about that question my guess is that the #1 answer would be that the Messiah would lead a popular revolt to eject the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom. To be sure, this was a part of the constellation of ideas surrounding the concept of Messiah. But the expectations regarding the Messiah were actually much richer and broader, more inclusive and even cosmic in scale.

One of the notions that captures this richer vision was the expectation that the Messiah would be a Second Moses. Moses himself predicted that a Second Moses would come with the expectation of a New Exodus. Consequently, many of the Second Temple Jews believed the Messiah to be the fulfillment of this prophecy:

Deuteronomy 18:15-18
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.
As a Second Moses leading a New Exodus the expectation was that there also would be a second giving of the Law. A New Law and New Covenant. More, this New Law would be written on hearts rather than on tablets of stone:
Jeremiah 31:31-33
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people."
In addition, there would be a New Temple. We need to recall that a lot of the Second Temple Jews thought that the rebuilt temple was a bit of a sham. You'll likely remember that when the old-timers saw the Second Temple they wept, for it was only a shadow of its former glory. We should also remember that after the destruction of Solomon's temple the artifacts in the Holy of Holies (like the Ark of the Covenant) were carted off never to be seen or heard from again (until Indiana Jones found them).

So in the time of Jesus the Holy of Holies was empty, suggesting that the Shekhinah of God had not returned to dwell among the people. So God was absent. The people were still in exile, despite being back in their homeland. Thus, the expectation was that the Second Moses, who built the tabernacle, the first dwelling for God's Shekhinah, would repeat this feat, building a New Temple that would bring God's dwelling back to earth.
Ezekiel 37:25-28
They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”
Even more, in addition to a New Law/Covenant and a New Tabernacle/Temple, the Second Moses would bring the people to a New Promised Land. And here's where the vision really starts to transcend the political. The New Promised Land isn't just about restoring the fortunes of Israel. The scale of the New Promised Land is cosmic in scope. It will be a New Heaven and a New Earth:
Isaiah 65:17-18
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
Finally, if there was to be a New Exodus we'd also expect to see a New Passover meal. Though there is no direct biblical quotation for this it's clear how a New Passover would have been expected in conjunction with a Second Moses and New Exodus. Outside of the bible there is historical evidence, from both Jewish and Christian sources, that the Second Temple Jews were looking for a New Passover, what they called the Passover of the Messiah. (In fact, many Second Temple Jews expected the future Messiah to be revealed during the Passover.)

Summarizing all this: 
The Jewish Expectation of the Messiah as Leading a New Exodus:

1. New Exodus
2. New Law and Covenant
3. New Passover
4. New Temple
5. New Promised Land
Given these expectations, the question readers of the New Testament can ask is this: Do the New Testament writers show Jesus leading a Second Exodus?

Giving a New Law and Covenant? Instituting a New Passover? Rebuilding a New Temple? And leading us to a New Promised Land?

The answers all seem to be yes, which opens up rich and exciting perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus and ways to link the Old and the New Testaments.

Doctor Who and Non-Violence

Let me quickly apologize to Doctor Who fans for the title of this post as it might have excited them. I'm sorry that this post isn't a theological analysis of Doctor Who and non-violence. But please link to good work in this area in the comments.

This post is simply a funny exchange I had with my son Aidan on this subject.

Aidan loves Doctor Who. I've only watched one episode. So the other day I was asking Aidan lots of questions about Doctor Who and what he liked about the show.

As Aidan shared I quickly discerned that in most episodes the good Doctor has to deal with a variety of creatures, aliens and monsters.

And then Aidan says, "But Doctor Who doesn't use violence."

I'm intrigued, "He doesn't use violence?"


"Well," I ask, "then how does he fight all these creatures if he's non-violent?"

Aidan pauses and then says, "Well, he runs away a lot. There's a lot of running away."


I wrote this post last week before the Doctor Who premiere on Saturday. Which I watched. The Twelfth Doctor is here! Anyway, the exchange above with Aidan last week made me laugh--the connection between non-violence and a lot of running away.

But if you watched the premiere the show left you speculating about if the Doctor pushed one of those monsters to his death. Sarah Bessey thinks the Doctor did push. Aidan isn't sure.

It'll be something to watch as the season unfolds.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 7, The Eccentric Kingdom

This will be the last post in this series where we have been exploring the metaphor of eccentricity in Christian belief and practice.

To summarize, in my book The Slavery of Death I talk a great deal about having an eccentric identity, an identity "hidden in Christ." I've not talked directly about the eccentric identity in this series as I've written about it extensively already. This series has been about other applications of eccentricity beyond the description of an eccentric identity.

And so far we've seen how eccentricity can be used to describe transcendence, the prophetic imagination, hospitality, enchantment, the positive facets of doubt, and the economy of love in the faith community.

In this post I want to describe how eccentricity can be a metaphor for missional ecclesiology.

We've already seen a hint of this in Part 2 when we noted how eccentricity can describe the outward-looking orientation of the hospitable community finding God in the stranger. That post in describing this eccentric orientation--facing outward rather than inward--could have served as the sole observation regarding ecclesiology, but I wanted to add one more insight.

Specifically, the idea I have here is the contrast Nathan Kerr makes in his book Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission. Specifically, we should think of the Kingdom less as a territory (e.g., as a city or polis) than as a mission.

As a sojourning, landless missionary community the Kingdom of God doesn't claim and then defend space over against others in the world. As the old hymn testifies, "this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through."

To be sure, the pilgrim nature of the Kingdom can tend toward the escapist. But the eccentric metaphor can help here by highlighting that the issue isn't escaping from the world but, rather, being radically in the world. The goal isn't to leave the world but to live in the world without boundaries.

The Kingdom doesn't withdraw and hunker down behind bunkers and high walls. Rather, the faith community is sent into the world as salt and light. Not of the world, but very much in the world. The separation between the Kingdom and the world isn't a boundary but one of vocation and calling.

As my ACU colleague Randy Harris has remarked, perhaps the only good thing that came out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the word "embedded," where journalists were described as being embedded among the combat troops, became a common word. Because the word embedded is a perfect word to describe the relationship between the church and the world.

The eccentric Kingdom doesn't claim territory over against the world. The eccentric Kingdom doesn't erect walls to create a gated community. Rather, the eccentric Kingdom, like salt and leaven, is embedded in the world.

The eccentric Kingdom is the embedded, pilgrim, landless, possessionless, homeless, sojourning, itinerant missionary community called and commissioned to live lives of radical service and availability to the world.

More Than Three Minutes: Resistance and Grace in Ferguson

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Ephesians 6.11-12


I wrote a post encouraging White America, especially White Christian America, to carry the cross of sympathy for Black rage as it was being expressed on the streets of Ferguson. But as police officer Darren Wilson faces a grand jury inquiry the question arises: What should be the Christian response to officer Wilson?

I want to be clear, it is not my place to forgive Darren Wilson or to demand forgiveness from others in the name of Jesus Christ. What I want to do is return to my earlier post to show how I think that analysis can help us think through the thorny issues regarding the relationship between grace and resistance.

The main point I tried to make in my previous post is that our tendency is to narrowly and tightly focus on the moral narrative regarding the altercation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. What happened? Who was at fault? Who is to blame?

I suggested that this is a mistake. It's a mistake for a couple of different reasons. For example, it's unrealistic to demand victims to be wholly innocent before we'll treat their victimhood as worthy of respect and attention. As believers in universal if not original sin Christians should get that. You don't make innocence a prerequisite for compassion. Otherwise compassion would cease to exist.

But the main reason it is a mistake to focus narrowly on sorting out the blame in the altercation between Darren and Michael is that it creates a causally closed narrative, a tightly bounded moral drama that played out between two people, and only two people, on the streets of Ferguson.

But this story cannot be reduced to what happened between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m. on August 9, 2014.

This is about more than those three minutes.

To be sure, what transpired during those fateful three minutes is extraordinarily important to the U.S. government, Darren Wilson and Michael Brown's family. Sorting out what happened during those three minutes will be the preoccupation of the grand jury and the court trial should one follow. And Christians should be interested in the justice of how all that plays out.

But a Christian focus should be broader than how the U.S. legal system adjudicates those three minutes. As I stated in the comments to my prior post, in regards to racial reconciliation and justice the innocence or culpability of Michael Brown in what happened between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m. on August 9 is largely irrelevant. If, for example, it is determined by a jury that Michael attacked Darren in his police car, tried to take his gun, and later tried to rush him, does any of that undermine the validity of the rage among the Black citizens of Ferguson? I contend it does not.

The rage on the streets of Ferguson is historical and systemic in both nature and origin. The rage in Ferguson is not rooted in the innocence or culpability of Michael Brown. And yet, that focus on Michael Brown will be the temptation of White America. Because if we 1) reduce the story to those three minutes and 2) find enough evidence of moral culpability then the narrative causally closes, the moral loose ends are neatly tied up and the status quo can remain intact.

In short, Christians must resist the temptation to reduce the racial issues in Ferguson and the US to the moral drama of those three minutes. We must, rather, consider how those three minutes are historically and systemically embedded in structures of oppression and injustice. Our view must be wider.

In theological language, the moral story of Ferguson isn't about "flesh and blood." The moral story is about more than those three minutes. The moral story isn't about the relative guilt or innocence of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The moral story is about historical and systemic oppression and injustice, about the "principalities and powers" and "spiritual wickedness in high places."

And if the moral frame of Christan resistance regarding the principalities and powers shifts attention away from the culpability of Michael Brown it does the same for Darren Wilson.

To be sure, for Michael Brown and his family focusing on and determining the culpability of Darren Wilson during those three minutes is extraordinarily important. As it is for the U.S. government.

But again, for Christians the frame is wider, which shifts the focus away from the guilt or innocence of Darren Wilson. And it's from within this wider frame where we can find resources for both grace and resistance.

As for resistance, if the guiltiness or innocence of Michael Brown does not allow us to sidestep the burden of resistance neither does the guiltiness or innocence of Darren Wilson.

Because that will be a temptation. Again, if Darren Wilson is "innocent" many will feel safe to move on. And if Darren Wilson is is found "guilty" many will feel safe to blame him and judge him as a sinner. The shooting of Michael Brown would have been caused by one individual's moral failure, a lapse in virtue and piety. A mistake. Or the product of a "bad person."

Which means the guilt of Darren Wilson gets the system and our history off the hook. Guilt can be reduced to an individual, reduced to those three minutes.

Darren Wilson can become the scapegoat for the system.

And that's the point we need to focus on.

The system wants us to scapegoat Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

The system wants us to keep our focus on those three minutes and only those three minutes. Either Michael or Darren are to blame. So let's blame them. One or both of them. Let's let them carry, for three minutes, the sin and guilt of us all.

But resistance isn't scapegoating. Resistance isn't fetishizing over the guilt or innocence of Michael and Darren. Resistance isn't a battle against the flesh and blood of Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

Resistance is about the principalities and powers, the on-gong fight against systemic and historical forces of oppression and injustice.

And perhaps surprisingly, by focusing our resistance upon the principalities and powers, we can find here resources for grace. In resisting the principalities and powers we can find grace for flesh and blood, grace for both Michael and Darren.

Maybe Michael did punch Darren and try to attack him. Wouldn't I, if I carried the legacy of young black men in America, have done the same?

And maybe Darren shot a youth in the head as he raised his hands and said "I don't have a gun. Stop shooting!" But am I not, as a White American, complicit in the systemic and historical sins that led up to that moment and which fueled the subsequent resentment and rage?

And if I can come to see myself in both Michael and Darren then perhaps I can come to see how grace for flesh and blood can emerge alongside and from within rage and resistance.

Again, it is not my place to forgive Darren Wilson if he is found guilty. But I will not blame him. Nor will I blame Michael Brown should Darren Wilson's actions be deemed justified.

I will not scapegoat either of them. I will not blame either of them.

But I will blame us. I will blame us for historical and systemic injustice and oppression.

This is about more than three minutes.

Our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

And in that battle, I pray, we can embrace both resistance and grace.

Search Term Friday: How Much Money Is Enough?

This week a search term question brought someone to the blog:

how much money is enough?

Wouldn't it be nice to get an answer to that question?

Well, that question linked to a 2012 post were I shared insights from the book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.

The point of that post was that we can never have enough because of the way money hides our greed and insatiability:

One of the things the Skidelskys do in their book  How Much is Enough? is provide an analysis of the roots of our insatiability, why we can't seem to answer the question "When is enough enough?" Why is it that we keep wanting more and more?

A part of the reason has to do with the advent of money.

Money has blurred the line between needs and wants and between necessities and luxuries. Because of this we tend to want more as the line of "enough" is fuzzy and obscured.

How has money contributed to this situation?

One of the things that the Skidelskys point to is how money has shifted us away from use-value to exchange-value. Prior to modern economies and the ubiquity of money value was determined by use. The question wasn't "How much does something cost?" but "What is it good for?" Value was tied up with function. A shovel was valuable because it helped you dig. A bucket was valuable because it helped you carry things. And so on.

When use-value governs our imaginations the question "How much is enough?" is easier to answer. For example, how many forks do you need? How many cars? How many shoes? How many chairs? How many lawnmowers?

When we ask about use-value we get a sense that there is a reasonable answer and a limit to how much might be "enough." We don't need 100 forks or cars or shoes or chairs or lawnmowers. How many lawnmowers is enough? Just one for most of us.

Most of the ancient moral philosophers, as they pondered vices such as greed and acquisitiveness, were working with conceptions of use-value. That is, they could rightly see and condemn persons who acquired more things than they had use for. Such greed looked irrational, it was hoarding. Why would anyone want 1,000 chairs or shovels?

But things changed with the rise of money. Money shifted us away from use-value to exchange-value. Instead of acquiring chairs or forks--which have defined functions and, thus, inherent limits as to how many of these things are "enough"--we now acquire money which has no particular use or function beyond purchasing power. Money introduced liquidity into our lives, where goods can be reduced to money and that money used to purchase other goods. In modern economies liquidity is what makes the world go around. But liquidity makes is hard to determine how much is enough.

How much money is enough? It seems clear that a person with 1,000 forks has a bit of a fork-problem. How many forks do you really need? You only need as many as you have use for. But what about money? Does someone with with $1,000 have too many dollar bills? How about $10,000? Or $100,000? Or $1,000,000?

Because money has no use-value such questions seem odd. You can never have enough money because money is about exchange-value. Money can get you anything with a price, anything you need. Or want. And that's the root of the problem. When our desires shifted to money rather than to real goods and their function we lost our ability to draw a clear line between need and want and between necessities and luxuries.

Money, in sort, allows us to hoard. Someone with a million forks is clearly insane. But someone with a million dollars? To be sure we've tried to make a connection here. Misers are those who hoard money like a crazy person hoards forks. We think of someone like Ebenezer Scrooge here, a miser counting his money, hoarding it, having too much of it.

But the miser is an old-fashioned concept. The miser expressed a moral worry in the early years of capitalism when use-value began to give way to exchange-value. The miser was an attempt to apply notions of hoarding, a notion coherent in a world of use-value, to the new era of exchange-value. The miser was hoarding money. The miser had more than enough. Like a person with 1,000 forks.

But again, the miser as a moral concept has fallen on hard times. It would sound weird today to call a millionaire a miser, a hoarder of money.

But it's not just an issue with millionaires. Money has affected how all of us ask and answer the question "How much is enough?" We can never have enough money. And this drives greed, materialism, consumerism, and insatiability.

Basically, because of liquidity money hides our hoarding.

With the rise of money we've lost the ability to ask "What do I really need?" That's a good old-fashioned use-value question that we should spend more time contemplating. Unfortunately, our questions tend to be exchange-value questions, questions like "How much can I buy?"

And with those sorts of questions leading us forward the words of Paul seem particularly prophetic and apt:
1 Timothy 6.10
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 6, The Eccentric Economy of Love

In my books Unclean and The Slavery of Death I describe how, especially in America, our neurotic fear of death often manifests as an embarrassment regarding our neediness and vulnerability.

One of the most shaming things in America is to ask for help, especially material, economic and financial help.

But we are also shamed by physical and psychological needs. Aging. Debility. Handicap. Mental illness.

Success in America is to need nothing. To never need help. Your job in America is to be fine. Autonomous and self-sufficient. To be anything less--to need the help of others--is to be a failure. A drag on society. A loser.

This shaming is killing our churches as it shuts down the economy of love, the ways in which we share and respond to the needs of others and how they respond to our needs. The theologian Arthur McGill calls this economy of love a "community of neediness."

But the flow of this economy shuts down if everyone in the church is neurotically shamed into hiding their needs from others. We all would rather play the hero, we all want to be the helper, the one who serves. But we don't ever want to be the one being rescued, or the one needing help, or the one who is being served. Standing in that location--being the needy one among us--is very, very uncomfortable.

Churches tend to hide their fear of loving each other by serving strangers outside the community of faith. The church gives food at the food pantry. The youth group builds a house for a poor family on a mission trip. We send money overseas to the Third World.

Those people are the needy people. We'll help them. But me? I'm fine. I'm good. No, I don't need anything. Can I help you?

It's not that those people at the food pantry or in the Third World don't need anything. It's that the church is responding to these needs in a state of denial. The church is denying its own need, weakness and vulnerability. Thus, the church comes to see itself as a hero, riding in on a white horse to save others. Since we don't need anything from the people we are helping there is no reciprocity, no economy, no relationship, no giving and sharing back and forth.

We show up, do our good deeds and then pack up and leave. Why? Because we don't need anything from those people. They need us. We don't need them.

But we do need them. And we need each other.

All that to say, the economy of love is an eccentric experience. Need is turning outward to others with the expectation of help. What I currently "have" on the "inside" is not enough. I am not self-sufficient. I need you.

In a community of neediness I must look eccentrically outward toward others. In the eccentric economy of love I am filled by others who pour themselves into my life as I pour myself into theirs.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 5, Doubt, Gratitude and an Eccentric Faith

Up to this point in the series we've been using the metaphor of eccentricity to describe our experience of God--Father (transcendence), Son (God in the Stranger) and the Holy Spirit (enchantment).

In this post I want to shift gears and talk about doubt and the eccentric experience of faith.

For years I've written about doubt on this blog. As I've noted many times, borrowing from the work of Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in their book In Praise of Doubt, doubt is a chronic condition in modernity.

The reason for this is how modernity has affected the psychological experience of faith, where faith is located in the mind. In a pluralistic and hyper-connected world religious belief is no longer a cultural given, something in the back of our minds, something taken-for-granted, an inherited legacy from past generations. Rather, in modernity faith is at the front of our minds experienced as a choice among a suite of competing options. This can be a choice between the denominations within Christianity. Between the world religions. Between faith and the varieties of unfaith (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, ignosticism). And this is a choice--simply because it is a choice--that has to be routinely revisited. This makes faith feel fragile, tentative and provisional.

Consequently, doubt is a consistent aspect of our religious experience. We doubt because we chose faith and because we chose faith we'll never escape doubt.

And yet, many of us don't cope with this situation very well. Doubt is associated with anxiety at the deepest levels. Doubt makes us question the foundational aspects of our lives, the deep structures that make life coherent and meaningful.

And a couple of different things can happen at this point.

First, the doubt might lead to violence. As I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, surveying the work of Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory, in the face of existential anxiety we can engage in worldview defense. We replace the doubt with dogmatism which makes us hostile toward out-group members. And yet, this show of conviction is actually being motivated by a deep-seated fear. Rather than dealing with the existential anxiety we externalize the fear by angrily lashing out at those who we perceive to be a threat to our values, culture, beliefs, worldview and way of life. You see this fear-driven dogmatism and attacking behavior all over the place in Christianity--online, in our churches, in our political discourse.

Consequently, as I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, a person might want to not repress their doubt to paper over their doubt with a fear-based show of conviction. Doubt, as I argue it in the The Authenticity of Faith, becomes the psychological price one is willing to pay to be welcoming, curious and open toward out-group members.

And yet, many people struggle in trying to carry this burden. They have opened their minds to others but the associated doubts--the question marks they have placed behind everything--create existential crises and panics that can lead to cognitive rumination, depression or other psychological problems. And if not these psychological problems the doubt produces a host of spiritual problems--cynicism, listlessness and spiritual dryness.

So this is a difficult business. It seems like living with doubt makes you walk this tightrope between dogmatism or depression.

Consequently, I've struggled to find a better way through this thicket. How do you, psychologically speaking, keep from slipping into dogmatism while avoiding the existential funks? 

In The Slavery of Death, though a book not directly about doubt, I think one answer can be found. Specifically, I think doubt can be replaced with an eccentric experience of faith which I believe to be rooted in the experience of gratitude and gift.

Gratitude and gift are eccentric experiences. Something is "given" to us. Consequently, our sense of ownership, territoriality and proprietorship is attenuated. Our posture toward life becomes open-handed and receptive rather than tight-fisted and possessive. This allows us to face the uncertainties and fortunes of life with an experience of gratitude rather than anxiety. Gratitude is a balm for existential anxiety and it softens the heart toward out-group members. If life is a gift there is nothing to protect or defend. All is grace.

In sum, what I'd like to suggest is that while doubt has some advantages in how it lowers your hostility toward others, it is difficult to build a spiritual life around the experience of doubt. A better route, in my estimation, is to use religious belief and practice to cultivate an eccentric experience of faith, where the provisionality of doubt is retained in the experience of gift but where existential anxiety is replaced with gratitude and joy.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 4, Enchantment, the Porous Self and the Spirit

In the last two posts I've described how the metaphor of eccentricity can be used to describe God's transcendence and the missional community's expectation of welcoming God in the stranger. In this post I want to connect eccentricity to the experience of enchantment.

All told, then, these three posts illustrate how eccentricity can be used for Trinitarian reflection. God the Father is the focus when eccentricity and transcendence are being discussed. God the Son is the focus when eccentricity is used to discuss encountering God in the stranger, the Matthew 25 encounter of Jesus in the "least of these." And here in this post we'll use eccentricity to describe the enchantment of the world and the encounter with God the Spirit.

So, how does eccentricity relate to enchantment?

I'd like to borrow the analysis of Charles Taylor and how he relates enchantment to the buffered and the porous self.

Writing at the blog the Immanent Frame about his book A Secular Age, Taylor describes the relationships this way:
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Taylor's argument is that the modern experience of disenchantment has been less a matter of changing beliefs than an intrapsychic change, a change in how we experience the self in relation to the outside world.

Specifically, in an enchanted world the boundary between the self and the world was "porous." The outside would could impinge upon, affect and invade the psyche. The porous self, we might say, was an involved, engaged and relational encounter with the world.

By contrast, in the modern era the self has become introverted, isolated, and closed off from the world. "Buffered" against the world. The ego is now alone with itself, disengaged, withdrawn, and no longer in relationship with the world. And according to Taylor, it is this shift from the porous to the buffered self that drives the experience disenchantment:
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here...

And so the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous...[A] similar point can be made about the relation to spirits. The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory” or “belief.”
As I hope should be obvious, the experience of the world as enchanted is driven by eccentricity. Enchantment is the experience of the porous self encountering something from "outside" the boundaries of the buffered self.

Consequently, the pneumatological encounter--the experience of the Holy Spirit--is an eccentric encounter.

And as Taylor goes on to say in his essay, the porous self is, thus, an experience of risk, uncertainty and vulnerability. Eccentrically open the porous self can be interrupted by the Spirit. By contrast, the introverted and buffered self is "autonomous," impervious to the interruptions of the Spirit and, thus, unable to be surprised by God.

These observations circle back to my posts a few months ago about the nature of the charismatic experience. Specifically, in reviewing James Smith's book Thinking in Tongues we described the charismatic experience of the Spirit as being rooted in an eccentric openness to God, especially God doing something different or new.

Smith describes this eccentric orientation as "a deep sense of expectation and an openness to surprise." Eccentric openness to the Spirit, Smith continues, "makes room for the unexpected" where "the surprising comes as no surprise."

And a key feature of this eccentric openness is cultivating a posture of receptivity. As Smith says, "pentecostal spirituality is shaped by a fundamental mode of reception." This posture of receptivity moves the self from buffered to porous, shifting us from disenchantment to enchantment and into an experience where there is risk, vulnerability and the potential for surprise in the encounter with the Spirit.

The practical point in all this is that enchantment is less about believing in unbelievable things than it is in cultivating a relational self. Enchantment is overcoming the introverted ruminations of modernity--being locked up alone in your head--in cultivating a relational life that is eccentrically oriented and open to interruption and surprise.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 3, Welcoming God in the Stranger

In the last post we discussed the eccentricity of God as a way to understand the Otherness and transcendence of God and how when God is experienced as being "outside" the boundaries of current social, political, economic and cultural arrangements this creates the imaginative capacity for prophetic utterance.

In this post I want to discuss how the eccentricity of God helps us envision something else: hospitality and welcoming God in the stranger.

Welcoming God in the stranger has been such a huge theme over the last ten years I don't know if I need to review that idea here. I simply want show how the notion of eccentricity nicely informs our theology of hospitality.

The insight should be obvious. If God is always coming to us from outside the boundaries of the faith community then God is always approaching us as the stranger. Strangers, by definition, are eccentric. In all the shades of meaning. Strangers are different from us. Strangers are on the edges. At the margins. Outside the boundaries and borders. Strangers are Them rather than Us.

Thus, the welcoming of the stranger is an eccentric encounter.

Consequently, a hospitable community will be eccentrically oriented, moving out from the center toward the edges and then past the boundaries to the area "outside" the faith community.

We encounter Jesus eccentrically, going to find him "outside the gates."

A missional community is an eccentric community, a community facing outward toward the stranger rather than inward upon themselves.

The eccentric, hospitable and missional community is not incurvatus in se--curved inward upon themselves--but is, rather, excurvatus ex se, curved outward in welcome to others.

The Only Way I Know How To Save the World

So I wrote a blog post about race relations and Ferguson.

Was it a helpful post? I don't know. Will it make a difference? I don't know.

I'm glad I wrote it to express solidarity. That's never a bad thing. But I struggle with writing such posts.


For one thing, I find my motivations obscure and hard to penetrate.

Why did I write the post?

People were looking for, calling for responses from White Christians. Did I respond out of guilt? Was I shamed into it?

Did I write because I wanted to help, to add my voice, or because I was signaling, managing a social media image? Showing that I was one of the "good Christians" who got a post out there?

I don't think I did it for any of those reasons, but I never fully trust my self-assessments. I can't say for sure that my motives weren't mixed.

I want to do good, but I also want to be perceived, perhaps more than I'd like to admit, as being a good person.

Beyond these neurotic motivational ruminations, I also struggle with writing those sorts of posts because I wonder if they make any difference.

Does a passionate, in-your-face blog post, Tweet, or Facebook note actually improve race relations? Surely it gives the impression that you've done something, but does it make a difference?

I wonder.

We demand that people write things about race relations--Show up on social media!--but do all those posts and Tweets add up to anything tangible and lasting? Are we actually changing the world as we sit at our computers? Or is it all just going down a digital drain?

And if we are not effecting concrete and lasting change, why are we demanding more words on screens?

These are the sorts of things that roll around in my mind when any controversial subject hits social media. I'm always eager to express solidarity. We need more of it. So I want to add my voice. But my lingering skepticism about motivations and efficacy makes my head hurt.

And then I went to church.

Last night was the monthly meal, praise and communion service at Freedom Fellowship, the church plant I've written so much about.

The events in Ferguson were on Paul's heart tonight. So Paul called Henry, Ray, and Christiana up to the front, to stand with him as we prayed for Ferguson, each of them representing all the races in our fellowship.

And so we prayed. All of us together. Praying for Ferguson. And pledging to love each other as members of the body of Christ.

During the meal beforehand, Jana and I sat with Anthony. Anthony is Black.

Passing by the nursery I held the hand of one of our newest members, three month old Richard, bouncing on his mother's lap. Baby Richard is Hispanic.

During services Jana and I sat with Moses. Moses is Black.

And I drove Henry home after church. We listened to Tejano music. Henry is Hispanic.

I am White.

This is the body of Christ.

Each of us in that church, despite our race and everything else that divides us, from gender to education to socioeconomic status, showing up to eat together, worship together and pray together.

I don't know how to fix America's race relations problem. Does writing a blog post help? I really don't know, though I'm glad I wrote it. A blog post is what it is, and that may be much or very little.

Does walking in a march help? Sitting with a candle in a vigil? Signing a petition?

I don't know.

But what I do know is this. And it dawned on me during Paul's prayer. And listening to Ray give us a little spontaneous prophetic exhortation afterwards.

It dawned on me as baby Richard, with his dark chocolate eyes, squeezed my finger. It dawned on me when I asked Henry to translate Spanish lyrics.

Yes, social media and Internet activism are wonderful things. Tweet and blog away my brothers and sisters.

But for my part, the only way I know how to save the world is by going to church.

My Brothers and Sisters at Freedom Praying for Ferguson

The Passion of White America

Many of you I expect have been closely following the stories and images coming out of Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's death. I want to draw your attention to this image:

This is a photo, as you can tell, of some young men in Ferguson lighting a Molotov cocktail. I bring your attention to this image as images like this one have been used as moral counterweight to the images of peaceful protesters, hands aloft, facing lines of militarized police officers wielding automatic weapons. 

I've been pondering images like this as I believe our reactions to them are extraordinarily important in efforts at racial reconciliation.

Psychologically, many of us consume media narratives associated with tragedies like the death of Michael Brown by sifting the events until we find evidence of wickedness amongst Them in order to absolve Us of any guilt or moral reckoning. In the case of Ferguson a picture like the one above is used as evidence that Black rage is inappropriate, illegal and immoral and that the police actions in recent days were thus justified and warranted.

The problem with this sort of reasoning is that images and stories such as these are not prompting reflection, confession, repentance, change or conversion. They are, rather, being used as moral ballast to prevent any reflection, confession, repentance, change or conversion from taking place. Evidence of wickedness--looting, Molotov cocktails, etc.--on "their side" appears to restore some sort of moral balance, bringing us back to a status quo where nothing changes.

We selectively pick and choose among the wickedness until we find what need to absolve us of guilt allowing us to emotionally and politically disengage.

In the language of the gospels, instead of looking at the speck in our brother's eye--and that speck might look like a Molotov cocktail--we fail to look at the beam in our own eye.

When we see pictures like the one above before anything we must morally reckon with the backdrop of oppression and injustice that produced the violence. Even Rand Paul, who may be the next GOP Presidential nominee, admits this much. Yesterday Senator Paul wrote this:
...Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It is what the citizens of Ferguson feel when there is an unfortunate and heartbreaking shooting like the incident with Michael Brown.

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.
Given the legacy of oppression and injustice that Senator Paul describes I believe White America is called to the spiritual labor to look upon Black rage with understanding if not compassion.

To be candid, it is unreasonable to expect an entire race or class of people to bear injustice, down to a person, stoically, non-violently and peaceably. In the face of oppression and state-sanctioned violence violent responses are inevitable. Sociologically and psychologically, the pressure cooker of oppression is going to blow from time to time. You just can't oppress people for generations and expect docility and good manners each night on local television. There will be ugly and violent episodes. That there aren't more of these episodes is a testament to Black patience, resiliency and civility.

But people can be pushed too far. Breaking points will be inevitably reached. And when that happens our first impulse should not be to mistake the symptoms (Black rage) for the underlying disease (systemic and generational oppression).

To be very clear, I'm not suggesting that violence is justified and should go unpunished. What I am suggesting is that if we are to make deep and lasting progress with racial reconciliation Black rage and violence must be suffered.

If anyone should understand this, Christians should. We, more than anyone, should understand that reconciliation isn't painless. Sin has it wages. Reconciliation will involve taking up our cross.

And this is the passion of the cross, the non-violent bearing of the sins of the world, especially our own, to bring about reconciliation. This is the only poultice that can draw the poison out.

Black rage is the cross White America must suffer for White sins, the passion we must endure, if our peoples are to be fully and deeply reconciled.


Some clarifications to add to the initial post.

I expect, and this is my fault for which I take full responsibility, that some readers will see in this post the suggestion that innocent Whites are Christ-figures bearing the sins of guilty blacks in the same sort of way that an innocent Christ bore the sins of a guilty humanity.

To clarify, that substitutionary innocent-for-guilty logic isn't what I'm trying to invoke. I'm using the metaphor of "taking up your cross" in its common usage, repentance and penance and bearing the consequences of your sins. When we make a mess of our lives the only way forward if reconciliation is the aim is to accept the consequences of our sins, to assume the guilt of our sins--to carry our cross--in putting the pieces of life back together.

My reference to the passion is that sins will have consequences, an associated suffering or reckoning that will be a part of the cross we have to carry. And a part of that burden, among other things, will be the rage of those we have abused. That rage, produced by our sin, will be a burden that we must carry when we take up our crosses in the journey toward reconciliation. As I said above, when Whites face Black rage they must suffer it. Not ignore it or use it as grist to justify the status quo or to turn the channel. Sins have consequences, a burden, a passion, a pain that must be faced and endured.

As Black voices tell us, reconciliation comes with a price, a cost, a burden. A cross if you will. This cross, this burden, is one that Whites habitually refuse to pick up. And my argument in this post is that a part of that cost and burden will be sympathy for Black rage and violence. But that's a price that many Whites simply will not pay. Sympathy for Black rage. And if you cannot suffer that--Black rage over the death of Michael Brown--how are we going to be able to make any progress?

Here's what I know after having spent many years as a part of these conversations. White people are more than happy to talk about racial reconciliation until 1) the rage is directed at them or 2) the burden of reconciliation becomes too costly.

In short, we want atonement and reconciliation without a cross--no passion, no assumption of guilt, no willingness to suffer as we carry the burden of our sin.
And maybe here is where, perhaps, the notion of vicarious suffering does play a part. Christ may have been innocent, but for the purposes of atonement and reconciliation he assumed guilt. Christ "became sin." And in a similar way we may have to assume the burden of sins that we have never personally committed.

Consider the case for racial reparations recently made by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's a simple moral argument: the sins of slavery must be paid for. That is making atonement. But who is going to pay for the sins of the past?

Well, it's going to have to be White America of this or a future generation. But few in White America are willing to carry or assume these sins, to atone for these sins, to suffer in our time for sins of the past. We are not willing to carry the cross that slavery produced in America. And it's that unwillingness to undergo this passion, the refusal to carry the required cross, that I'm trying to describe.

And it's not just with something like reparations. This unwillingness to suffer and assume guilt typifies much within race relations. For example, the inability of us to endure the hot anger of Blacks of our acquaintance because, hey, I'm one of the good guys, I'm on your side. It's this inability to stand there and listen to the anger, to suffer and carry the anger, that creates the impasse.

No one wants to carry or suffer the anger. Thus Black rage bounces off Whites who are either indifferent or who want to deflect the anger onto others. No one wants to suffer.

Search Term Friday: The Threshing Floor of Araunah

Every week I get people coming to the blog searching for "the threshing floor of araunah."

That's a pretty obscure topic, but it links to a post I wrote last year about a bible lesson I taught out at the prison.

Those reflections are of theological interest as it's an example of using unexpected resources from the Old Testament to address issues regarding God's nature, specifically how God's nature is described and used in doctrines like penal substitutionary atonement or hell being eternal conscious torment: 

The book of 2 Samuel ends with what many scholars call "appendices," bits of poetry and narrative that are tacked on to the end of the book. These appendices are found in 2 Samuel 21-24.

The last story from the appendices, found in Chapter 24, recounts the census David undertakes and God's judgment upon him for doing so. Explanations vary as to why God was angered by the census. For whatever reason, the census was an act of hubris by the king, a usurping of God's prerogatives as the True King of Israel.

David realizes his sin and confesses. God, through the prophet of Gad, gives David a choice of punishments: three years of famine, three years of being chased by enemies, or three years of plague. David chooses the plague. A destroying angel bringing the plague then begins to move through Israel.

But then something interesting happens. As the destroying angel approaches Jerusalem God changes his mind and says "Enough!":
2 Samuel 24.16
When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
David sees the angel stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah and asks for God to stop the plague. David then buys the threshing floor, builds an altar on the spot, and offers sacrifices to God.

But what I find interesting in the narrative is that God already stopped, before David's request and his sacrifices. Various translations of verse 16 read that God "relented," "repented," "changed his mind," and "felt sorry."

The destruction stopped because something happened in the heart of God prior to any human appeal or sacrifice.

I think this is interesting because of why this story is included as an appendix to 2 Samuel. Specifically, this story was included in the book to explain why the temple was built where it was built. The threshing floor of Araunah was on Mount Moriah--the Temple Mount--where the temple was eventually erected:
2 Chronicles 3.1
Then Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David. 
I think this is interesting as from this point forward the temple becomes the location of sacrifice in ancient Israel. You would come to the temple to offer sacrifices so that God would forgive your sins.  And because of those rituals you might come to believe that God needs or requires these sacrifices in order to show and extend mercy.

And yet, in the primordial account of the threshing floor of Araunah we note that mercy wasn't triggered or brought about by sacrifice. Mercy was found in the heart of a God who repents and relents. Mercy was found in a God who says "Enough!" to punishment, without sacrifices or blood.

Lessons learned here? A few I think.

The sacrifices associated with the temple might lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about God's mercy and the necessity of sacrifice. As seen in 2 Samuel 24, the story of the origins of the temple, God doesn't need sacrifice to show mercy. And God can stop punishment whenever God wants.

To be sure, sacrifice is important. But the importance of sacrifice is symbolic rather than causal. That's the point too many Christians have missed. Sacrifice is symbolic rather than causal.

Sacrifice has no casual potency in the economy of God. Sacrifices bring about absolutely nothing.

Mercy is not caused or produced by sacrifice.

Mercy is only found in the heart and freedom of God.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 2, The Eccentric God, Transcendence and the Prophetic Imagination

When Karl Barth published the second edition of his famous commentary on Romans in 1922 it is said to have landed "like a bombshell on the theologians' playground." Why? Because Barth proclaimed the radical transcendence of God. God was "wholly Other."

The observation I'd like to make is how eccentricity is a great metaphor to describe the Otherness and transcendence of God. The eccentric God is always experienced as "outside" the system and status quo. God approaches us from "the outside" of our current arrangements and understandings. Consequently, when it comes to God the community of faith has to adopt a receptive posture, waiting upon the initiative of God. And while all this is often described with the language of "transcendence"--using a higher vs. lower metaphor--it can also be described by the eccentric metaphor, an inside vs. outside distinction.

Specifically, God is Other but the eccentric metaphor sees God as less "above" us than "outside" us, less "over" us than unable to be "captured" by us. The eccentric God cannot be "bounded," "encircled" or "delimited" by human experience, social arrangements, systems, or dogmas. Thus, I think eccentricity is a helpful metaphor for those who want to speak of the transcendence of God but who also want to locate that Otherness immanently rather than hierarchically.

Consequently, because of its ability to speak of God's Otherness immanently rather than hierarchically--rather than God existing "high above" us we speak of how God cannot be "captured" or "bounded" by the status quo--I think progressive theology would be attracted to the metaphor of eccentricity in speaking about God's transcendence.

But why is it important to preserve the Otherness of God?

Given my reference to Karl Barth, his story in relation to Nazi Germany is a good place to start in on an answer.

The reason why Barth's commentary on Romans was a "bombshell" was that it attacked an impulse within liberal German theology that was locating and even reducing God to human experience. In many ways that impulse within liberal theology is, in my opinion, an extraordinarily healthy move. Personally, I think it's a very biblical move. "God is love" being the best summary of this theological  inclination. To say nothing of the Incarnation and texts like Mathew 25.

And yet, this is a very fragile business and it rests upon a critical assumption, an assumption that is the great weakness of liberal, humanistic and progressive theology. Specifically, identifying God with human concerns and affairs assumes that human experience and social life will tend toward the virtuous, that people are naturally good and loving. When liberal theologians deconstruct the transcendent God to identify God with love the assumption at work is that human "love" will naturally and inevitably--two huge, huge assumptions!--tend toward the light.

Simplistically, the vision behind liberal theology is a sort of moral optimism and utopianism: Identify God with what humans think is loving and good and trust people to get those things right because people are awesome.

The trouble with this, obviously, is that there is a lot of darkness in humanity. In theological terms, the problem with progressive and liberal theology is that it lacks a robust theology of sin. Consequently, when humans are left to define for themselves what is right, just or loving things can get twisted pretty quickly. When God is defined immanently God just is whatever humans say God is. And if humans are pulled into darkness "God" is also pulled into darkness. God is used, in fact, to justify the darkness.

This was Barth's point about liberal theology and how it enabled the rise of Nazism. Specifically, by so closely aligning the voice of God with the voice of human experience liberal theology lacked the prophetic resources to critique human experience when the human experience in Germany turned toward Nazism. The relationship between human experience and the divine had grown too intimate, chummy and cozy. Thus, the German church was not equipped to speak a prophetic Nein! to Hitler. Some did--Barth, Bonhoeffer, the White Rose, the Confessing Church--but by and large the German church folded in the face of evil. There were not enough prophets in the land. There were not enough people who saw daylight between God and the swastika.

This is a story that has been told before. But to be honest, I think liberal theology gets thrown under the bus a bit too quickly in this telling. Because its not like conservatives have a great track record on this score. For example, in America today it is the religious conservatives who struggle seeing daylight between God and the American flag or God and the free market.

Psychologically speaking, I think everyone--conservative and liberal theologians, creedally orthodox and heterodox theologians--is tempted to align the voice of God with their own voice.

To be quite candid, I don't think Trinitarian theology protects you from wickedness. Trintiarian theology isn't a moral talisman that you can wave to ward off the devil. Nor do I think, to be fair, that process theology or liberation theology is a moral talisman that you can wave to ward off the devil.

The only thing that reliably wards off the devil is the cross, kenosis and loving self-giving for both friends and enemies. The cross is the only protection from wickedness and evil in the world. 

So there is this problem that we all face, liberal and conservative alike. There is a chronic and constant psychological tendency to see God as aligned and identified with our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, our theology and our PhD dissertation.

This is why we need the eccentric God, a God that cannot be bounded, encircled or delimited to our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, or our theology. God is "outside" all these mental, social, economic and political containers.

Phrased another way, the eccentric God is free.

The wholly Other--the eccentric God--cannot be captured, contained, circumscribed, co-opted, cordoned off, chained up, corralled or cooped up.

Alliteration, baby!

And because of this there is daylight between human experience and God which creates the imaginative capacity to envision God speaking a No! against us. Walter Brueggemann calls this capacity the prophetic imagination. I talk about this in the last chapter in The Slavery of Death.

Let's have Abraham Heschel sum it up:
[T]here must be a counterpoint to the immense power of man to destroy, there must be a Voice that says no to man, a voice not vague, faint and inward, like qualms of conscience, but equal in spiritual might to man's power to destroy.
There must be a Voice that says No to humanity, a Voice equal in spiritual might to our power to destroy.

This is the reason we need the eccentric God.

Incarnational Theology and Mental Illness

As a psychologist I wanted to insert some thoughts, in the wake of Robin Williams' death, into the current conversation about faith and mental illness, depression in particular.

In addition to the issue of extending welcome and compassion to those suffering from mental illness--and there have been some great reflections posted online about that issue, see Sarah's and Ann's--I wanted to make a theological observation.

Within Christianity discussions about mental illness are often afflicted by Gnostic and dualistic assumptions, where there is a hard (even ontological) division made between the soul/spirit/mind and the brain. Specifically, we often assume that the soul is separate from the neurotransmitters in the brain. Thus, even though you might have, say, low serotonin levels in the brain in the case of depression, the soul has the ability to override the brain to "chose differently." Willpower and choice in this vision are radically separate and distinct from those low serotonin levels.

But things like willpower, motivation or mood actually are those serotonin levels. And even if reducing the soul to brain-function makes you nervous at the very least we must admit that the soul is radically affected by and dependent upon those serotonin levels.

In short, when it comes to mental illness we have to reject the Gnostic and dualistic assumptions that have governed the conversation about mental illness in our churches.

What this means is that mental illness requires incarnational theology and reflection. Depression is about our bodies. But the Gnostic impulses within Christianity often obscure that fact. The brain is an organ of the body as much as our stomachs and livers.

Our theological reflection must attend to embodiment, and this includes mental illness. And if we do this my hope is that not only will we become more accepting of the bodies of others but that we'll expand our understanding of "spiritual formation," coming to see how attending to and caring for the body in mental illness is as "spiritual" as bible study and prayer.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 1, A Peculiar People

In my book The Slavery of Death I use the notion of eccentricity to describe Christian identity, the experience of finding and grounding your identity outside of the boundary of the self. I'm borrowing this notion of eccentricity from David Kelsey's two volume work Eccentric Existence. Whenever speak of eccentricity I reference David Kelsey because I'm using the hell out of this idea but I don't want people to think I coined the term or introduced the idea.

And I do owe David Kelsey, because the more and more I think about this notion of eccentricity the more and more connections I see, connections that go beyond my treatment in The Slavery of Death. I've come to think that eccentricity is a hugely potent and explanatory idea.

So what I'd like to do is share some posts about "Eccentric Christianity," showing some connections between eccentricity and other theological and biblical concepts. The ideas themselves won't be novel, what will be novel (and I hope illuminating) will be how all these disparate ideas find themselves under the umbrella of eccentricity.

But before getting to the theologically heavy stuff, let's begin this series with a comment regarding the definitional playfulness of the word "eccentric."

The word eccentric comes from the Greek combination of ek (out of) and kentron (center), with ekkentros meaning "out of center." In the late Middle Ages this term--eccentric--was mainly an astronomical term describing orbital systems where the earth was not placed at the center. Thus, Copernicus' theory was "eccentric," the earth was displaced from the center of the solar system.

So the earliest idea of eccentricity was astronomical in nature. And this is the idea at the heart of David Kelsey's analysis, the one I borrow and combine with ideas of Arthur McGill in The Slavery of Death to describe a vision of Christian identity formation. That is, using the astronomical metaphor, an eccentric identity is an identity where the focal point of the self is shifted away from the center. The ego, in a kind of Copernican Revolution, is displaced from the center and moved to the periphery. The self is displaced being the "center of the universe" so that it may orbit God.

A related notion is how eccentric describes "a location elsewhere than at the geometrical center." The notion here is less orbital and more geometrical. Eccentric is the area outside--eccentric to--the center. This is the main metaphor we'll be working with, the notion that something eccentric is "outside" the boundaries we create.

These, then, are the geometrical metaphors we'll be playing with. But the charm of the word eccentric is how it has normative and behavioral connotations as well. As we all know, people can be eccentric, a bit "off center," with the "center" being some cultural or behavioral norm. Thus the definitions of eccentric as "tending to act in strange or unusual ways," "deviating from an established or usual pattern or style," and "deviating from conventional or accepted usage or conduct."

What a delightful multivalenced way to describe the Christian life. Eccentric Christianity is a new orbit where the self is displaced and God is found at the center of life. And in this displacement the Christian begins to act in "strange and unusual ways" in relation to the norms of the world. 

We become, in the words of the King James Version, "a peculiar people."