Friday, March 06, 2015

Can Christianity Be Reduced to Love Seeking Justice?

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By Ethan van der Leek

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Jószepf Molnár
The Bible is filled to the brim with stories, wisdom, and prophecies of God’s liberating energies. One of the founding and establishing moments of Israel was God’s act to free them from slavery and oppression in Egypt. This event is inaugurated when God sees his people’s misery and hears them crying out. The God of the Hebrews is an attentive God, a God who responds to suffering. And it is this attentiveness that he summons his elected people too.

The event of the exodus is etched into the memory of Israel and makes its mark throughout the Old Testament. It is established at the outset of the Ten Commandments, prefacing the law given to Israel as a mark of their covenant relationship with God: “Remember the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”. The law itself is filled with concern for the suffering; “care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”, God says, “proclaim a year of jubilee”. It is present in the Psalms, the songbook of Israel, as a call to remember God’s faithfulness in raising Israel from Egypt. The prophets, too, claim that Israel was not faithful to God and they expressed this unfaithfulness by oppressing the poor and the land, ignoring God’s call to be a light to the nations and establish a kingdom of love and justice; Israel forgot God’s act of liberation, and established themselves as oppressors and idolaters, for which the justice of God brought them to exile.

In the New Testament Jesus is the fulfilment and culmination of the justice of God. He comes to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and to preach that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He preaches and ushers in the Kingdom of God, calling tax collectors, prostitutes, and all manner of sinners to follow him in a disruption of the established social order built around the pax Romana, the “peace” of Rome established and maintained at the tip of a sword. God’s love in Jesus unsettles everything. “Blessed are you who are poor,” we read (Luke 6:20). The Apostle Paul describes equality and unity between opposites in Christ: no Jew and Greek, no slave and free, no male and female, but a universal equality of love and justice established in God’s promise through Jesus. So then what are we to make of all this, this major theme in the Bible of God’s love and justice, of his action in the world, and his commands and invitations that his chosen people participate in that love and justice? Is that the heart of the Christian message? It has been said, rightly so, that cutting every passage about justice from the Bible would leave a rather tattered and flimsy volume. The pursuit of justice through love is a massively central message of the Holy Scriptures.

But are the scriptures and the Christian traditions reducible to such a message? There are certain circles of Christianity where it may seem so. If you’re disappointed or frustrated with an individualistic, self-centered, and emotionally-based Christianity, where else is there to turn but the proclamation and action of love and justice? And in our contemporary climate influenced by scientific truth, skepticism, and cynicism towards traditional Christian beliefs and practices, doesn’t it simply make sense to reduce the message of Christianity to one of love and justice? Shouldn’t Christianity adapt to the current day and age by working out and practicing its ethical principles only and forgetting about spirituality, transcendence, or other things of the past? Consider the title of Gretta Vosper’s 2009 book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, and you’ll get a sense of the questions I’m asking.

Christianity, though, needs to maintain the importance of prayer, spirituality, worship, and other aspects of the Christian life that may seem superfluous to the pursuit of love and justice. It is only in maintaining them that love and justice be pursued with any Christian integrity. Christianity should never let itself be separated from the pursuit of love and justice but it also should never let itself be reduced to an ethical system, whether individualistic sexual ethics on the one hand or public-justice ethics on the other. On both sides of this spectrum is the assumption that Christianity is an ethical system; the only disagreement is on what that ethical system consists of, which ethical propositions are held to be true.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pedro Berruguete
What is the alternative proposal? How can Christianity simultaneously never let go of acts of love and justice while at the same time never reducing Christianity to them? The answer has to do directly with Christ: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). There is no attempt to be self-dependent in Jesus; he constantly grounds and reminds himself of his Father in heaven, who is a mystery of boundless love and justice, a mystery which cannot be grasped, never fully captured in thought or in deed. In Philippians we read that Jesus embraced this very ungraspable mystery, he “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7).

As imitators of him, we are summoned, called, invited, to do the same, to take on the very nature of a servant. But we do so in recognition of our dependence on God. What flows from this is a passionate concern for love and justice, for the poor and oppressed in our world. But it is a manifestly non-judgemental, non-patronizing, and non-superior pursuit of justice, particularly in confronting those with whom we disagree on what God’s reign manifests itself as. It is of course passionate, convinced, and energized by the life of God at work within it. But instead of being a source of pride, this pursuit of justice will spring from a source of grace, that is, God’s desire to make his life known through you through communion and union.

Our imitation of Christ continues unto glorification: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…. Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9, 11). We are invited into Jesus’ relationship with God, such that we cry out “Abba, Father!” Through Jesus, the firstborn of the new creation, we are born unto a new creation and participate in God’s dwelling in all things. Our acts of love and justice are real instances of the God’s life already here and God’s life still to come, as are our acts of prayer, worship, and silence. We are not proud or self-aggrandizing; instead, we are joyful, filled with the authentic joy that comes from God to making his home in us so that we become increasingly and infinitely more like him in whom the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Not a reduction to ethics, but an elevation of ethics to the very life of God into which all creation is summoned.
Ethan van der Leek is in the MA program at ICS. His thesis is exploring the relationship between Christology and philosophical anthropology in the writings of the 20th century French philosopher Michel Henry. Next year he will be working as a campus minister at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC and continuing theological studies at Regent College in Vancouver.

First photo used from wikipedia in the Public Domain; second photo used from wikipedia, in the Public Domain.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Expanding Our Response To the Call of Justice: An Interview with Gerda Kits

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Gerda Kits is Assistant Professor of Economics at The King's University in Edmonton, Alberta. Her research brings the insights of economics to bear on real-world problems, notably ecological issues such as agriculture and conversations surrounding the Alberta oilsands. Additionally, Kits is concerned with the ways in which people of faith interact with issues of justice, and her work attempts to help professionals and non-professionals better understand their place and role in the complex web of social and environmental issues facing us today.
The following is an interview carried out by e-mail between Dean Dettloff, Post-Conference Animator for the CPRSE, and Dr. Kits.
Ground Motive: Thank you for your willingness to participate in this interview, Gerda. To start, let’s talk a bit about the intersection of justice and faith. Our society seems to be ambivalent about whether or not faith makes a difference when pursuing questions of justice and their solutions. Some say it should be treated neutrally, as a personal commitment that should be held away from one’s research and projects. Others suggest faith is inextricably part of how one interacts with identifying injustice and working toward justice. What have you found in your work on these issues?

Gerda Kits: First, faith is one of the reasons many of us work for justice. Pursuing justice is an imperative for Christians – it’s all over the Bible. That’s not to say that all Christians have to work for justice in the same areas, or in the same ways; there are many different forms it can take. But we all need to be engaged somehow, because it’s an integral part of our faith.

But faith also shapes how we understand justice. Sometimes justice is perceived narrowly as simply respecting the rule of law, or not discriminating against people, etc. In my understanding of the Bible, Christians ought to have a much fuller and more holistic idea of justice as restoring right relationships, and making sure people are able to live out their God-given calling. That goes far beyond simply obeying the law, towards taking positive steps to ensure people have access to all the different kinds of resources and relationships they need to flourish. So the specific issues we decide to pursue, and the solutions we propose, are going to be fundamentally shaped by our faith as well.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Tarantino's Leap: Miracles and Faith in Pulp Fiction

This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

By Benjamin Shank

Pulp Fiction changed my faith. This might seem like an extraordinary thing for a film by postmodern violence-meister Quentin Tarrantinto to have accomplished. After all, the movie features criminal activity, senseless brutality, prolific profanity, drug use, and sexual bondage and domination, to name only a few elements that many Christians might question.

But, seeing it again soon after it hit Netflix a few months ago, I was reminded that accomplishing the extraordinary in a strange fashion could be just the point. In a concluding monologue, Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, states:

“Now, whether or not what we experienced was an 'according to Hoyle' miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Christianity: Slave Morality or Anthropotechnics?

By Dean Dettloff

Fernando Niño de Guevara, Inquisitor
In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that Christianity bound humans to what he called “slave morality.” On his telling, morals are not absolute goods but relative, developing out of historical situations. Slave morality arose in response to what he calls “master morality,” which is characterized by strong will. Weak willed individuals, according to Nietzsche, unable to overcome the strong, responded by inventing morals to keep the strong in check. This invention, however, was not done out of love (despite its claims to the contrary), but out of resentment, fear, and pessimism. The weak, unable to overcome the strong, asserted themselves by the creation of arbitrary values. Although these values are presented as shining examples of altruism, they are haunted, says Nietzsche, by a hidden and embarrassing egoism. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

Christmas for Cynics


By Dean Dettloff

The close of 2014 has seen a series of volatile revelations about United States government. Grand Juries came under scrutiny as the suspiciously “ambiguous” case involving the death of Mike Brown failed to go to actual trial, a scrutiny compounded by the completely obvious events surrounding the death of Eric Garner which also failed to go to trial. The country began to erupt in a series of massive protests, a flurry of public debate, and the desperate attempts of some to dismiss the reactions to these injustices as immature or “uncalled for.” As if that wasn’t enough, the results of the Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s torture practices were published revealing incredibly disturbing details hidden from public view. And all this in the midst of the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election signaled for many what seemed like an almost Messianic change on the world political scene, yet whose presidency will be marked by #Occupy, the proliferation of drone warfare, the silencing of whistleblowers, and a clear message that the surveillance state isn’t going away anytime soon. As the New Year is upon us, many find themselves reasonably cynical about the possibility of the next year being anything “new” after all.