Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Homeless God

by Caleb Ratzlaff

Westview Christian Fellowship is located in the Queenston neighbourhood, a district in St. Catharines that has abnormally high rates of poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy. Westview has become a strong community partner through sharing its resource and expertise with a women’s Centre, Westview Centre4Women. The Centre provides refuge, community, and a variety of services for women living in the Queenston neighbourhood. Although the Centre was initiated by the church as a response to a need in St. Catharines' downtown context, the Centre, in turn, responded to needs in the church when some of the participants became involved in leadership and support. Last year a number of women from the Centre expressed interest in an introductory course on Christianity. After trying the Alpha program, an evangelistic program which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith, we decided to create our own curriculum to better suit our situation.

While considering this neighbourhood and the request for a course on Christianity, I was struck by one of the many compelling arguments found in Nik Ansell’s most recent book, The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of J├╝rgen Moltmann. Simply stated, Nik argues that Scripture is a story about the work of God and humanity making a home, a place in this world defined by care, respect, and love—something many struggle with in Queenston. This got my imagination turning: if creation is God’s domestic homemaking skills at work, was God homeless before he turned on the lights? Does God experience similar feelings and challenges as those associated with homelessness?* It’s a strange speculative thought, that creation emerges out of a God forsaken space, a space Moltmann argues is within God, akin to a woman’s womb.

This got my imagination turning: if creation is God’s domestic homemaking skills at work, was God homeless before he turned on the lights?

Regardless of the speculative nature of God’s homelessness, this theme seems to highlight the parallels between the desire of God and the desire of the homeless in Queenston. Both desperately desire a home. The other interesting element illuminated by this train of thought is the idea that, as part of creation, humanity has a meaningful role to play in creating and sustaining this home. In fact, Scripture often emphasizes God’s desire to live among and with us. Nik picks up on this idea arguing for a conception of human freedom understood as a force that participates in God’s creative power. When allied with an absolute and answerable to it, human action is co-creative with divine activity. This co-creative power parallels the development of a fetus, a stage in life where one has trouble distinguishing mother from child. Similarly, when God’s dwelling place is made manifest one has trouble distinguishing creator from creation. Scripture certainly describes a God who, in wisdom and love, desires the creation of a home—the earth and everything in it. Read through this lens, it’s very easy to see how Westview Centre4Women is engaged in the same homemaking work described by Scripture.

On this reading, creation receives special emphasis. Home, God’s and our own—the kingdom of heaven—is not some place “else”, a place in the sky or an afterlife, for example. That which calls us home doesn’t call us out of creation, but rather provokes the opposite: it calls us into this miracle. The kingdom of heaven, God’s home, is right here: it’s downtown St. Catharines in the Queenston neighbourhood, in our kitchens, part of our businesses. The kingdom of heaven is in that really dirty spot between the countertop and the stove. The kingdom of heaven is found amongst the relations we have with both each other and every part of the natural universe. We don’t necessarily need to do anything or go anywhere to find or be discovered by this home. Creation groans for homemaking.

The theme of homemaking is a the major touchpoint in the life of the church and, implicitly, at least, helped guide our work on the new curriculum. The main reading we chose to build up from is found in the parables in Matthew that begin with the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (although helpful, the readings were only a small part of the curriculum, other more experiential exercises ultimately played the largest role in the teaching process). Those familiar with these passages might be surprised by this choice because they are often associated with doctrine on hell. Here again, Nik’s book was instructive, offering a way in which one could begin understanding how the parables connect with the theme of homemaking.

The kingdom of heaven, God’s home, is right here: it’s downtown St. Catharines in the Queenston neighbourhood, in our kitchens, part of our businesses.

Homes get messy. Our house needs upkeep: things break, roofs leak, landlords can be fickle. Similarly, family relationships get messy: parents can fail to raise their children with love and care; children can rebel and hurt their family; societal structures can make the lives of the poor, the single mothers, and the children difficult. When home becomes something it’s not—something defined by fear, pain, and abuse—God and our work together is frustrated. This is precisely what was happening in Jesus’ time: the temple, the place that claimed to be God’s home, was devouring the vulnerable, stealing their houses, and forcing the widows, the children, and the poor to live on the street.

Jesus was so upset with this mess that he told those in charge, those who believed they were part of God’s kingdom, that a day will come when they will be thrown out into a darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. As Nik points out, the conflict between Jesus and the nation of Israel is explicitly stated in Matthew 8:
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him,“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, is important because it is one of many places in Matthew's Gospel where Matthew alludes to the Book of Jeremiah. Thus, allusion suggests that Jesus sees his work as part of Jeremiah’s prophetic tradition. Jesus, like Jeremiah, warns the Israelites that their sin will lead to their destruction.

Nik also points out a second allusion to the Old Testament concerning the Greek word gehenna, often translated “hell”. Matthew uses this word more than any other New Testament author, often in reference to Isaiah and Joel, two Old Testament books in which the Hebrew translation of this word is prominently featured. There the word gehenna (or hell) is translated “valley of death”. In Isaiah and Joel, gehenna is the place where the nations will be judged as “those who have rebelled against me”, (Isa 66:24). Isaiah and Joel contain prophecies that declared an immanent, this-worldly judgment of the nations that were enslaving and destroying the nation of Israel. Nik argues that in Matthew we find an interesting reversal. Here the prophecies made by Jesus clearly depict the valley of gehenna (hell) as the place where Israel will be judged.** Instead of Israel’s enemies in danger of burning in the valley of death, now Israel itself balances on the precipice.

This reversal would not have made Jesus many friends among the leaders of Israel. Further, like the imminent, this-worldly judgment experienced by the nations that oppress Israel in the Old Testament, the subjects of Israel experienced a similar judgment. In only a few decades after Jesus’ prophecies, Jerusalem and the temple are completely destroyed and many of the Israelites who oppressed the poor are literally thrown into the valley of the dead.*** Through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the kingdom of heaven announces its coming and all those who were captives are set free; those from the east and the west, the poor and vulnerable, are confirmed as subjects of the kingdom of heaven.

Christ’s struggle manifests the drama of Scripture and God’s homemaking power, which is fundamentally allied with the ordeal of the homeless and ultimately the entire Queenston neighbourhood.

For those attending the Wonder Wednesdays course, we discover a story of the poor, the homeless, and the vulnerable struggling to make a home. The struggle of the homeless is Christ’s struggle: his home—the temple and the leaders of Israel—has rejected God, it rejects him and his warnings, and is on the cusp of destruction. Christ’s struggle manifests the drama of Scripture and God’s homemaking power, which is fundamentally allied with the ordeal of the homeless and ultimately the entire Queenston neighbourhood.


*Nik spends a considerable amount of energy probing the nothingness out of which creation springs, something Moltmann might connect to his kabbalistic notion of zimzum.

**Nik Ansell, The Annihilation of Hell, 324.

***For more on these allusions see N.T Wright’s book, The New Testament And The People Of God: Christian Origins And The Question Of God, Volume 1.

Further reading on Ground Motive:

"Trading Hell for Hope: An Interview with Nicholas Ansell"
"The Walking Dead Meets Resurrection"
"On (Not) Accepting Reality: Introducing The Annihilation of Hell"

Caleb Ratzlaff attends Westview Christian Fellowship in St. Catharines ON. and is a member of Westview Centre 4 Women’s board of directors. Caleb is looking forward to graduating from ICS in May after successfully defending his M.A. thesis this past winter. Caleb is a stay-at-home parent to his two young boys and can name every character from “Paw Patrol” by heart.

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