Friday, September 30, 2011
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through
him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come
into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all
people. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall
not make cast idols. You shall not bow down to their gods, or
worship them, or follow their practices. Take care that you are
not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed
before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, 'How
did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.'
And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon,
and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and
bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God
has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.
For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree
from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands
of an artisan...
If you turn aside from following me, you or your
children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that
I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship
them, Then they will say, 'Because they have forsaken the LORD
their God, who brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt,
and embraced other gods, worshiping them and serving them; therefore
the LORD has brought this disaster upon them.'
The Lord said: Because these people draw near with
their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts
are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment
learned by rote;
For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its
god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever
Do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow,
or shed innocent blood... do not go after other gods to your own
hurt. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images
resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals
or reptiles... they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and
worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who
is blessed forever!
'And you know the way to the place where I am going.'
Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and
the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through
Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid
the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called
knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards
the faith. I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with
plausible arguments. Holding to the outward form of godliness
but denying its power. Avoid them!
If anyone says to you, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!'
or 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false messiahs and false
prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead
astray, if possible, even the elect.' He opposes and exalts himself
above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes
his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them,
'Rulers of the people and elders... Let it be known to all of
you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing
before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead... There is
salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven
given among mortals by which we must be saved.
John 1:1, 3, 14; Exodus 20:3; Exodus 34: 17; Exodus
23:24; Deuteronomy 12:30; Deuteronomy 4:19; Jeremiah 10:3; 1 Kings
9:6,9; Isaiah 29:13; Micah 4:5; Jeremiah 7:6; Romans 1:23,25;
John 14:4-7; 1 Timothy 6:20-21; Colossians 2:4; 2 Timothy 3:5;
Matthew 24:23,24; 1 Thess- alonians 2:4; Acts 4:8,10,12.
'God is dead, Marx is dead, and I don't feel too
In a pluralistic culture we are more aware of others'
A missionary in Nigeria visited a young man in back
street of Lagos. On his bedside table were the Bible, the Book
of Common Prayer, the Koran, three copies of Watchtower (magazine
of the Jehovah's Witnesses), a biography of Karl Marx, a book
of Yoga exercises, and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by
These days we travel more, TV shows documentaries
of foreign cultures, students study abroad, multicultur- alism
in the West is here to stay...
Intolerance is increasing too. Militant Hindus have
a motto 'Save India from Christian imperialism!' Many Moslem countries
make it a punishable offense to proselytize. Then there's Lebanon,
and Northern Ireland... Religion and politics can be volatile
subjects, particular- ly when they mix.
Something else has happened that has never happened
before. People (to paraphrase T.S.Eliot) have left God not for
other gods, they say, but for no gods; and this has never happened
before. It is possible both to deny gods and worship gods - gods
like rationality, money, power, sport etc. And it will all lead
to an age advancing progressively backwards...
Of all the world's religions, Christianity has the
greatest number of followers (33%), followed by Islam (18%), Hinduism
(13%), and Buddhism (6%).
What is religion? Definitions are legion: 'what we
do with our solitariness'; 'how we relate to others'; 'our answer
to fear'; 'an ultimate attempt to enlarge and complete one's personality
by finding the supreme context in which we rightly belong'. Everyone
is religious, in some sense.
Although Freud termed religion 'mass neurosis' --
religious believers were infantile, unable to break outgrown ties
with their parents -- Carl Jung said of his patients over thirty-five,
'all have been people whose problem in the last resort was that
of finding a religious outlook on life.'
There is an increasing hunger for religious reality.
'Baby-boomers' under 45 are not in church as often as their elders,
but they claim to be as religious. They read Shirley Maclaine
and play around with the New Age movement. In a noisy world people
searching for 'God who is Sound and Silence' as the Maitri Upanishad
puts it are going in larger numbers to Buddhist monasteries and
Hindu ashrams -- places of quiet serenity, simple life-style,
meditation, brief talks and questions. More young people are reading
the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Chinese I Ching, or do Yoga, transcendental
meditation or Zen courses.
Let's ask the hard questions in order:
Was Ghandi a Christian? No, as we saw in the movie, Ghandi, although he admired
Jesus, he lived and died a Hindu. But E. Stanley Jones said of
him: 'He taught me more of the spirit of Christ than anyone in
East or West.'
A harder question: Is Ghandi in heaven? Christians
offer three broad answers: (1) Conservative Christians have their
doubts. The principle of Karma (cause and effect - paying off
your own guilt) is poles apart from grace (God's free forgiveness,
which you don't deserve). Augustine's theology inspired western
Christians to believe that those outside the church are dammed.
A more refined view might be Karl Barth's 'Religion is unbelief',
or Hendrik Kraemer's conviction that non-Christian religions were
not means of salvation in any sense.
However, others would argue, what kind of God would
organize for most of his human creatures to burn in hell forever
- many of them because, by accident of birth, or the disobedience
of the Christian minority to evangelize, they had never heard
the gospel? Is he not the Father of Jesus, who prayed for those
who crucified him? Does he not want all to be saved and come to
know the truth (1 Timothy 2:3,4)?
(2) More liberal Christians would answer: 'Be tolerant.
There's value in all religions. They all lead ultimately to God.
Of course Ghandi is with him!' The problem with this view is its
failure to take seriously the question of truth. If the original
Christians were 'liberal' there would have been no mission, no
(3) Is there a way between these two extremes? Yes,
the more cautious say 'Only God knows: our eternal destiny is
in his hands alone'. With evangelicals like Howard Guinness (The
Seekers) or JND Anderson (Christianity and Comparative Religion)
they ask: Does God 'accept' only people within the 'covenant community'
- whether Jewish (in the OT) or Christian (in the NT)? No: what
about Melchisedek, Rahab, and Cornelius? Certainly Jesus Christ
is unique, and Divine: he alone was God in human form. We are
not to take everyone's views, mix them up, and get an identikit
picture of God. Jesus is the only way to God. But that may not
mean that only Christians are saved (see Romans 2:11-16).
Roman Catholics, at the Second Vatican Council, moved
from extra ecclesiam nulla alus (outside the Church, no salvation)
to 'The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy
in other religions.' Devotees of non-Christian religions may be
'implicit believers' or, in Karl Rahner's phrase, 'anonymous Christians'.
Hans Kung says these religions may provide ordinary, whereas the
Christian Gospel provides extraordinary means of salvation.
Don Richardson (Eternity in Their Hearts), says God
has revealed himself to more people than we might imagine. The
one invisible God is resident in many folk religions. Christianity
doesn't replace this revelation, he says, but completes it. Pachacuti,
King of the Incas, led a religious reform in the 1400s encouraging
his people to worship Viracocha, the Creator, rather than Inti,
the sungod. His hymns to Viracocha sound like the Hebrew Psalms.
When missionaries came to the Santals in India in the 1800s, they
found a tradition about Thakur Jiu, 'the Genuine God'. Many became
Christians. The Chinese had Shang Ti, the Lord of heaven. The
Karens of Burma believed in Y'wa, the true God.
Non-Christian religions are a testimony to people's
search for God. They may be far from the God of Jesus, but God
is not far from any one of them. God cares for all his human creatures
with a love we who are biassed in favour of those who are like
us can't imagine. His rain falls on the just and the unjust...
All religions have good and evil elements. As novelist
Mary McCarthy observed: religion makes good people good and bad
people bad. Christians have burnt heretics, Jews robbed Palestinians
of lands and homes, some Hindus still burn widows (sati), tribal
witchdoctors put curses on people, Moslems wage religious wars.
(An eminent Egyptian scholar said privately to Hendrik Kraemer:
'I no longer believe in Islam but, if anyone were to attack the
prophet publicly, I would kill him!'). Never forget that Jesus
was rejected and sent to his death by people who belonged to a
highly moral and spiritual religion. But, you say, well, Christianity
has sanctioned evil, but in essence it is good. True: people from
other religions say the same of their faiths too.
Christianity, said Karl Barth, stands as much under
the judgment of the Gospel as other religions. Roman Catholicism
will be judged for the Inquisition; and the Protestant John Calvin
for standing by as Geneva burned the 'heretic' Servetus...
Will everyone be saved? George Macdonald says all
answers to such a question are deceptive. Two things are certain:
all who are saved are saved through Jesus Christ. And a merciful
God can handle the judgment of his loved creatures without our
help! Jesus said everyone's going to be surprised at the last
judgment. We should aim to be secure in our own faith, and be
open-minded about matters that are God's prerogative.
So why evangelize? To get them into heaven? Yes,
but there are better motives: the glory of God, obedience to Christ,
and sincere love for others. Although Christ is not known everywhere,
he is everywhere. We are called to make him known, not to make
Some don'ts and do's in evangelism: Don't major on
the faults in other religions: the faults in your own are bad
enough. Don't argue: you may win the argument but lose the person:
today the world is a conference table not a lecture hall, so learn
to listen as well as you talk. Above all, be compassionate: Jesus
preached judgment on Jerusalem when it rejected him, but he also
wept for the city. Share your faith, as a beggar sharing bread
with another beggar. Ask 'what are my friend's felt needs?', and
start there. (An African proverb says 'Hungry people have no ears!').
Invite overseas students home: perhaps your family could 'adopt'
one. (Most in the Book of Acts were converted while away from
home). Teach English to some one. Encourage your church to translate
the service into another language, or host an ethnic church.
And, beyond all that, remember Jesus' approach to
Nicodemas. This cultured man wanted to talk about the contrasts
between Jesus' teaching and that of Judaism. The conversation
started courteously enough, but very soon Jesus said to him 'You
must be born again!'
That is still the essence of the good news - even
for the very religious.
Good teaching is found everywhere. In every religion
there is something good, but good teaching alone cannot give life.
Life is only to be had throught he giver of life, not through
the pages of books.
Sadhu Sundar Singh, Alys Goodwin, Sadhu Sundar Singh
in Switzerland, Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1989, p. 49
Where is the truth in other faiths? There are three
bad ways to solve this problem. One is to lump all religions together
and dismiss them all. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, to stop
believing in God does not mean that people will believe in nothing.
They may substitute a nationalistic for a religious faith, and
be more fanatical than before. Another is to affirm that each
religion is part of a whole. 'There is only one religion, though
there are a hundred versions of it.' (George Bernard Shaw). The
third is to be absolutist: only people like me have the truth!
Amos (9:7-9) thundered against the exclusivism that believed God
only cares for people 'like us'. 'People of Israel, I think as
much of the people of Sudan as I do of you...'
Rowland Croucher, from an unpublished sermon, 'Do
Other Religions Also Lead to God?'
God comes to us in Jesus who is the way. We are like
people who have fallen into a pit and in that fall have been injured.
Our legs and our arms are broken. For anyone to lower a ladder
into the pit and say, 'This is the only way out, climb it,' only
adds to our desperation. But if the ladder is lowered not for
us to climb out, but for one to climb down and lift our broken
body into his arms, carrying us upwards and to safety -- that
is good news indeed!
Henk Booy, quoted by A.M. Watts, 'Christian Claims
in a Pluralist Society'
The neutral observer... looks at the plurality of
religions from the outside: for him or her the existence of more
than one true religion is self-evident... The committed believer
looks... from the inside...: what is the true religion for me?
...I confess openly that my standpoint is that of a Christian.
I am convinced that Christianity is the true religion. I cannot
prove it -- faith can never be demon- trated -- but I can offer
good reasons, which convince me... We come to a third and ultimate
perspective...: there is a vertical dimension, that of the Absolute.
As Christians we do not believe in Christianity but in God. Christianity,
as a complex of dogmatic teachings, liturgical rites and codes
of behaviour, does not escape the ambivalence of our human, historical
condition. As Karl Barth used to say, religion is always a shaky
and relative thing: not religion as such, but the absolute Being
to which it is directed is the true absolute. This is the primordial
and ultimate reality which we call God, which the Arabs call Allah,
which Jews and Indians decline to name, but worship none the less.
In relation to this ultimate and absolute reality of God, even
the true religion is relative... Even Christianity is in via:
ours is a Church on pilgrimage, on the way, which has not yet
arrived at the goal of seeing God face to face. To admit this
is neither liberalism nor relativism nor syncretism; it is faith,
pure and simple.
Hans Kung, 'Ecumenism and truth:the wider dialogue'
In the past we have sometimes been guilty of adopting
towards adherents of other faiths attitudes of ignorance, arrogance,
disrespect and even hostility. We repent of this. We never-theless
are determined to bear a positive and uncompromising witness to
the uniqueness of our Lord, in his life, death and resurrection,
in all aspects of our evangelistic work including interfaith dialogue.
The Manila Manifesto
Krister Stendahl is fond of saying that no interfaith
conversation is genuinely ecumenical unless the quality of mutual
sharing and receptivity is such that each party makes him- or
herself vulnerable to conversion to the other's truth.
Leonard Swidler, 'Interreligious and Interideological
The other religions are not to be understood and
measured by their proximity to or remoteness from Christianity.
They are not beginnings which are completed in the Gospel... To
fit them into this model is to lose any possibility of understanding
them. Moreover, what do the concepts of 'near' and 'far' mean
in relation to the crucified and risen Jesus? Is the devout Pharisee
nearer or further than the semi-pagan prostitute? Is the passionate
Marxist nearer or further than the Hindu mystic? ...Is the Gospel
the culmination of religion or is it the end of religion?
Lesslie Newbigin, The Finality of Christ
It has become customary to classify views on the
relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist,
exclusivist, or inclusivist... [My] position is exclusivist in
the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in
Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying
the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist
in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God
to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism
which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation.
It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work
of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism
which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done
in Jesus Christ.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
People are saved by faith even though the informational
level varies... Paul had a great deal more insight into the way
of salvation than Abraham did... but Abraham was not less saved
than Paul was... This does not make the pagan who responds to
God, as Jethro did, a Christian. We should not call him even an
'anonymous' Christian. It would be reasonable to consider him
a pre-Christian perhaps. The main thing is that such a person,
though for the moment lacking Christ through no fault of his own,
and thus I suppose 'lost', is not going to be damned, because
he cried out to the merciful God in the only way he could and
Clark Pinnock, 'Can the Unevangelized be saved?'
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things
Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either
be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached
egg - or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your
choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a
madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you
can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his
feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising
nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left
that open to us. He did not intend to.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
A world of nice people, content in their own niceness,
looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately
in need of salvation as a miserable world - and might even be
more difficult to save.
C S Lewis, in Charles Colson, Against the Night,
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, pp.139.
Lord God, Creator of the universe, who has revealed
your loving nature and purposes for our lives in Jesus, help us
to love you, to obey you, to honour you, to adore you. We have
not loved you as we ought, and we are sorry. We have not obeyed
Jesus' command to take the good news to everyone, and we are sorry.
We have not honoured you by honouring others; rather we have felt
superior to them, and we are sorry. We have not adored you, but
rather our mental caricature of who you are - a god created in
our image - and we are sorry.
Help us to abandon any religion that is immature,
destructive or unloving. Help us to see you as the Father of all,
to whom all are dear, and whose patience and long-suffering are
everlasting. May we regard the truth we have received in Jesus
as a precious resource to be given away, not hoarded. Remind us
constantly that there is much, much more that we do not yet know,
and to be very humble when in dialogue with others whose lives
have followed the beat of a different drummer.
In the name of Christ, your Son, Amen.
And now may the Spirit of Jesus, the One who hugged the demoniac, touched the leper, accepted the worship of a prostitute, and who honoured Samaritans, infect our thoughts and attitudes, so that the God who is not far from any one of us, will touch the lives of others we meet this day, for the honour of his name. Amen.
Henk Booy, quoted by A.M. Watts, 'Christian Claims
in a Pluralist Society', Christian Century, March 1, 1989, p.223.
Rowland Croucher, 'Do Other Religions Also Lead to
God?', a sermon preached in various churches and campuses.
Hans Kung, 'Ecumenism and truth: the wider dialogue',
The Tablet, 28 January 1989, pp. 92-93.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan,
1960/1978, p. 56.
The Manila Manifesto, Lausanne II Conference of Evangelicals
in Manila, 1989.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Finality of Christ, London,
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,
Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1989, p.182-3.
Clark Pinnock, 'Can the Unevangelized be saved?',
The Canadian Baptist, November 1981, p.9.
Leonard Swidler, 'Interreligious and Interideological
Dialogue', in Swidler, L. (ed.), Towards a Universal Theology
of Religion, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, p.38.
Further reading: Ajith Fernando, The Christian's
Attitude toward World Religions, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1987;
Ian Gillman, Many Faiths One Nation: A Guide to the Major Faiths
and Denominations in Australia, Sydney: Collins, 1988; David Johnson,
A Reasoned Look at Asian Religions, Minneapolis: Bethany House
Publishers, 1985; Josh McDowell & Don Stewart, Concise Guide
to Today's Religions, Amersham-on-the-Hill, Bucks: Scripture Press,
1983; Vinay Samuel & Chris Sugden (eds), Sharing Jesus in
the Two Thirds World, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Adele Gonzales, Life is Hard but God is Good (Orbis, 2011)
Here’s a brilliant, ‘progressive Catholic’ attempt to ‘present the best theodicy possible.’ Adele Gonzales knows about suffering – via losing her beloved father unexpectedly when she was 14; soon afterwards she was shipped to Florida from Cuba without any English language skills; and she’s suffered emotionally, spiritually, physically (rheumatoid arthritis) - and ecclesiastically in a conservative Catholic church - in many ways…
Here’s a brilliant, ‘progressive Catholic’ attempt to ‘present the best theodicy possible.’ Adele Gonzales knows about suffering – via losing her beloved father unexpectedly when she was 14; soon afterwards she was shipped to Florida from Cuba without any English language skills; and she’s suffered emotionally, spiritually, physically (rheumatoid arthritis) - and ecclesiastically in a conservative Catholic church - in many ways…
Her vocation includes leading seminars and doing personal spiritual direction with other sufferers. Early in her career, when confronted in a meeting at which she was speaking on all this with a question about God, evil and suffering, her instinctive response was ‘Shit happens!’. Fortunately a wise bishop who was present mollified the shock-and-awe in the place by agreeing with her!
Back to losing her father: because he was a Mason she was told he went to hell: fortunately a wise and caring priest convinced her otherwise, via the story of the Prodigal’s father…
Why 9/11? Well, don’t forget ‘we Americans experienced on our own soil the terror, despair, and powerlessness other nations live with every day’. And Hurricane Katrina? ‘The entire world saw firsthand the poverty and misery of the black community… [and witnessed] city leaders blaming state leaders who in turn blamed the federal government’. How does one make sense of the Haitian earthquake? God’s vindictiveness over their voodoo superstitions? No. Haitians – 80% of whom are Catholic – believe God is good, even though life is hard: La vie est dure, mais Dieu est bon.
Who is this God?
I am in the air you breathe;
I am in the wind you ride;
I am in the song you sing;
I am in the tears you cry.
I am living water;
I am dance and song;
I am pain and sorrow;
I am fire and love.
I am the one living God:
I am the fountain of life;
I have come to bring you peace;
You are unique and you are mine…
How does God best do that? By becoming incarnate in Jesus and suffering with us and for us. (Versus the traditional nonsense about God being ‘impassible’ – not able to experience suffering).
How does God best do that? By becoming incarnate in Jesus and suffering with us and for us. (Versus the traditional nonsense about God being ‘impassible’ – not able to experience suffering).
But yes, evil is always the greatest obstacle to believing and trusting in God. As theologian Hans Kung wrote: suffering or evil is the ‘acid test’ for every religion.
Christians have tried to theologize it all via the Augustinian notion of original sin. But Sister Gonzales would prefer to say that though evil and suffering are real, as Anne Frank writes in her diary while hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam: ‘Everyone has inside of them a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love!’
· Structures and institutions? ‘Sometimes I sense darkness in the room, and have to leave immediately…’ Their crimes against the common good go beyond the accumulation of the sins of their members… (Example: those who manage the institutions of the church and its finances are mostly removed from the Church’s pastoral life).
· Hell? It’s not so much about fire and heat as about the absence of God.
· A great contemporary evil? ‘Noise’: ‘I don’t blame Apple, or Sony, or any other corporation for the noise, but I think the evil of greed lurking in the background has a lot to do with it.’
· War? As Pope John Paul II said: ‘War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity’. But we didn’t listen, and invaded Iraq anyway…
· Unforgiveness (to an angry divorced woman): ‘This jerk made your life miserable for ten years and now you’re giving him fifteen more free of charge so that he can continue to ruin your life?’ Result: an instant ‘aha’ experience and the woman decided to get counseling. Forgiveness takes place in 5 different contexts – Accepting God’s forgiveness, forgiving ourselves, asking to be forgiven, forgiving God, forgiving others (people, communities, institutions)…
· ‘It may sound crazy, but I believe that without the energies of love, pain, anger, and many others, creation would be less than it was meant to be. Growth and development involve change, and change is always painful and frustrating. [So let us] put our energies… into positive actions that could lead to healing, rather than in wasting them in hatred, anger, and revenge.’
· ‘I know I am a better person because of… evil. My father’s sudden death, our exile from our country of birth, my mother’s blindness, my little cousin’s leukemia, the struggles to finish graduate school, my many illnesses since I was young… are experiences which have made me the person I am today. I believe that the greatest good that has come out of these “evils” is the ability to empathize with someone else’s pain and to walk in their shoes, to be a woman of hope, to enjoy and share a great sense of humor, and to believe without any doubt in the goodness of God and of the universe…’
· Yes there’s mystery here: and by definition a mystery is unknowable. But as an eastern spiritual master put it, wisely: ‘Pain is part of living, but suffering is optional’. Francis of Assisi endured a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual pain, but he was joyful. William O’Malley: ‘The sufferings of Christ did not cease when Jesus died. Christ still suffers when we suffer, and – we trust – our suffering is redemptive just as his sufferings were redemptive’
· Finally, Richard Rohr: ‘If you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it to those around you and even to the next generation’.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
(1) THINKING BIBLICALLY ABOUT JUSTICE
"Justice and righteousness...Caring for the poor and needy ... Is not this to know me? says the Lord". Jeremiah 22:15b-16
Christians of all kinds - Catholic, Conciliar and Evangelical - are now more concerned than ever about social justice. Theology is never a "value-free" discipline, and in a world of stark injustices, many are doing theology from the side of the poor, rather than from an acquiescent, privatised Western perspective.
For CATHOLICS, Mater et Magistra (1961) broke the long alliance between Catholicism and socially conservative forces. Twenty years later Laborem Exercens inveighed against multinationals fixing high prices for their products and very low prices for raw materials.
EVANGELICALS in Berlin (1966) saw social involvement as the enemy of 'biblical evangelism'; Lausanne (1974) viewed them as complementary; Wheaton (1983) saw social action and political engagement as integral to evangelism.
The WCC's Towards a Church in Solidarity with the Poor (1980) urges us to read the Bible from the perspective of the poor: :The Bible is a book of hope, concern and solidarity with the poor .... Unfortunately when the poor were given low priority in the life of the churches ... ecclesiastical institutions frequently become part of oppressive systems."
Who am I to write on this subject? I belong to the group least qualified to speak about justice and the poor. I am a white, Anglo-saxon Protestant evangelical, middle-class, a 'senior citizen', well-educated, living in a rich, lucky country (Australia) with a happy family in a quiet, treed suburb. I can "work" most systems to my advantage. My job's fulfilling, I'm on a full pension, I've been around the world several times. I've worked hard, saved hard, studied hard, and I play hard. As a kid I scrounged bottles, animal manure and scrap metal for pocket money. We were not rich, but we were never hungry.
I grew up believing most of the poor were either lazy or stupid. Why the constant shortage of bricklayers? If Japan can do it, why not Bangladesh?
Righteous indignation focussed on things like pornography, violence and sexual sins, rarely such macro-ethical issues as poverty, injustice, race and war.
My "conversion" began when I found that most of those who served the poor did not share these ideas. Dom Helder Camara, for example, flirted with fascism ("God, Fatherland and Family", "order is more important than justice") until he worked in the favelas in Rio - those festering piles of human beings separated by bits of cardboard and corrugated iron.
Paulo Freire says the middle class have a choice - to identify with the rich and influential, or with the poor, who have very few choices. Such a conversion is scary: there's fear of giving up what we have worked hard for; guilt that what we spend on luxuries would keep many starving families alive; a feeling of helplessness ...
The income gap between the poor and the rich, everywhere, is widening. Since the Industrial Revolution we've never learned to share it properly. It's not "trickling down" to the ever-increasing poor.
THE BIBLE is certainly big on justice. The Hebrew and Greek words for justice (yashare and tsedeg, and dikaiosune) may have three meanings: personal virtue (Noah, or Joseph, were "just" Gen. 6:9, Matt. 1:19); judicial fairness (:Lev.19) or social responsibility: behaviour towards others which is like a covenant God's gracious concern for us. Unfortunately the KJV's use of "righteousness" for tsedeg gives the impression, not of justice, but rather holiness of living, which is an important but diminished understanding of the biblical idea.
Social justice concerns attitudes to the least privileged - the poor, widows, orphans, foreigners. When harvesting, the Israelites were to leave them something (Deut. 24:19-21). Interest on loans is forbidden (Ex. 22:25). All persons - including slaves and migrants - are entitled to rest on the sabbath (Ex. 23:12, Deut. 5:14). Slaves must not be treated harshly (Lev. 25:39-43). There is a clear relationship between oppression and poverty: "Remember you were once slaves" (Deut. 26:5-8). The God of the Exodus intervenes on behalf of the powerless and oppressed: so must his people.
The message of the prophets: "Seek justice, correct oppression" (Is. 1:17). They thunder against the rich and powerful who oppress the poor but their outrage is strongest against a religion devoid of justice (Hosea 6:6, 8:13; Amos 5:15, 21-25; Micah 6:6-8, Is. 58:1-11; cf. Prov. 21:3). God accepts or rejects Israel's worship according to their concern for the poor. Even prayer mustn't be a substitute for helping the poor (Isa. 1:15-17). In the relatively affluent 8th century BCE Israel, poverty was not accidental. The prosperity of the rich rested largely on the exploitation and mistreatment of the poor - through a legal system biased towards the rich, monopoly control, restrictive trade practices, unjust wages and arbitrary price increases. Many of the poor had lost their land to large property owners. Later, Ezekiel rebukes the rich for unscrupulously accumulating real estate for profit (22:28).
Many of the Psalms describe God judging the world with justice (e.g. 96:13; cf. 97:6, 98:9). His will is that justice and peace kiss each other (85:10-11). "The Lord executes justice for the oppressed" (146:7).
The angel's message to Zechariah promises that John, in the prophetic tradition, would summon a people "back to the way of thinking of the righteous" (Luke 1:17) (not "national self-interest"!).
Mary's Magnificat praises a God who shows mercy, scatters the proud, puts down the mighty, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry (and by these means "helps Israel" Luke 1:46-55).
Jesus" ministry will bring good news to the poor ... announce a "jubilee" (Luke 4:16-19). In the Jubilee (Lev. 25:3-5, 8-12) soil was to be left fallow, debts remitted, slaves liberated, and property returned to owners who had forfeited it by debt.
God in Christ becomes poor, choosing the weak, as Paul says, to "confound the mighty". The Kingdom, says Jesus, is given to the poor (and to the rich if they will repent). It is all about new relationships - with God, with others. It turns our customary values upside down: so the "first in the kingdom" are those with no status in society. The poor are blessed, not because of their poverty and misery, nor because they are "better" than others but because they recognize their need for God (Matthew 11:5, 5:3-11, Luke 6:20). To the rich, the gospel is "bad news before it is good news", so the rich young ruler, with his inordinate love of money and power is told to sell his possessions and give them to the poor so that he could have "treasure in heaven" (Matthew 19:16-30). It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. We echo the words of Jesus' friends: "Who then can be saved?" No wonder the poor, the outcasts, the "excluded" heard him gladly. He enjoyed parties with disreputables, so the religious establishment was outraged at his behaviour. They "rubbed in" the fact that he was from Nazareth, an obscure therefore despised town.
The Kingdom is not something we passively await (as the Thessalonians later thought), but we help make the kingdom happen. There is mystery here: we must sow seed, God gives the gift of life, so that we can reap the harvest. He calls us to be co-redeemers with him. "They have no wine" at Cana, so Jesus asks for the cooperation of the servants as he produces some. Today, they have no jobs, no justice, no opportunities, no freedoms, no homes, no hope. If we don't fill the jars, there will be no miracle......
Jesus cut across selfish patriotisms and universalized the idea of "neighbour". Injustice done to anyone, anywhere, is my concern. One's neighbour is chosen, not given, as Hans Kung put it.
At the great judgment (Matt. 25:31-46) we shall learn that to serve others in their need is to serve the Lord himself. To ignore the poor is to turn away from the Lord. To be persecuted for the sake of justice is to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus (Matt. 5:6, 10,11).
The NT epistles are replete with admonitions to care for the poor (e.g. Gal. 2:10, James 2:5-7, 5:1-6, 1 John 3:17, 1 Tim. 6:17-19). Greed is a cardinal sin, a form of idolatry (1 Cor. 5:10-11, 6:10, Eph. 4:19, 5:3, 5, Col. 3:5).
The Bible does not condemn inequality of possessions per se. Redistribution so that "all have an equal share" is not a biblical idea. Those who argue this way will have to do it on philosophical or socio-political rather than biblical grounds. (Jesus enjoyed Galilee's feasting and suffered Golgotha's thirst. Paul experienced both prosperity and poverty, Phil. 4:12). What the Bible condemns is indifference by the affluent to the plight of the destitute. We "bless the poor", not paternalistically, but as God has blessed us - "grace justice" rather than "parity justice". The goal of justice is not equality, but shalom, a peace which assures the true humanity of individuals and communities.
A THEOLOGY OF SOCIAL JUSTICE must include the following:
* Every human being is made in God's image. (So we uphold the right of every person to live in freedom, in dignity, in peace, in health, and to know the One whom to know is to experience fullness of life).
* Our generous Creator has entrusted us with a bountiful world, which we "subdue" but also "replenish". The earth was given to all, not just to the rich. (There is enough food to go around - for our need, but not our greed. It is not God's will that a quarter of us live in luxury while the rest struggle to survive).
*The "mark of Cain" is upon us - we are all sinners - but God's gracious concern is for both Cain and Abel, exploiter and exploited. (Jesus differentiated between "sinners" and "sinned against". To the Pharisees he preached judgment, so that they might receive forgiveness; to the sinned-against - "I do not condemn you: go and sin no more").
* I am my brother's keeper. (I must not walk by on the other side of the road/tracks/sea).
* He sends his prophets who say "The effect of justice will be peace" (Isa. 32:17). (False prophets want "peace, peace" without justice).
* Abundance may betoken God's blessing, but it carries an awesome stewardship. Because God's shalom issues in and from right relationships between us and God and each other, we have a simple choice: his kingdom, or violence. (Outside the kingdom all are oppressed, some by unjust systems and persons, others by their selfishness and greed. Jesus said the second oppression is much worse than the first).
* God comes among us both as judge and victim (rebuking our selfishness and being nailed to a cross).
* He calls upon us to repent, to live in radical obedience to the Kingdom's demands, not just as individuals, but in loving community. (A mural in a Romanian church shows people ascending into heaven in community, but falling into hell alone and isolated).
* We pray "Give us this day our daily bread". (If I am hungry that is a material problem; if someone else is hungry, that is a spiritual problem - Berdyaev).
* Our mission in a lost world includes word (preaching good news), deed (faith without works is dead), and sign (words and deeds without the Spirit's power may not be Christian, 1 Thess. 1:5, I Cor. 4:20).
Finally, something to ponder from Billy Graham's latest book Approaching Hoof Beats: "My basic commitment as a Christian has not changed, nor has my view of the Gospel, but I have come to see in deeper ways the implications of my faith and the message I have been proclaiming. I can no longer proclaim the Cross and the Resurrection without proclaiming the whole message of the Kingdom, which is justice for all."
In the next section we shall look at the five practical ways of Doing Justice (research, reflection, prayer, compassion, action).
(2) DOING JUSTICE
"The really important teachings of the Law (are) justice and mercy and faith. These you should practise...." (Matthew 23:23)
(1) RESEARCH: GET THE FACTS.
Talk to the "poor" - single parents, unemployed, migrants - and to social workers, district nurses, etc.
Who are the poor? Definitions are elusive, but the poor know who they are. They have no "place". Some are poor geographically, "displaced". Others are poor emotionally, with no place in a loving family/community. Others are poor spiritually, having no place in Christ's kingdom. Many are materially poor - they are deprived, within their communities, of the basic necessities to "live decently". In Australia, they may not be starving, but they can't afford a good education or holidays, or car repairs, or all the bills.
Why are they poor? Is it their own fault? Most answers are either too simple or untrue. Perhaps it's the death of a parent, ill-health, physical/mental disability, collapse of a business, breakdown of marriage, lack of basic education, medical bills for sick children - the list may be endless. As someone wisely put it: "....the causes of poverty are precipitated more by problems in the organization and structures of society than by individuals themselves."
Which brings to economics. Our national and international systems revolve around greed and power - "the international imperialism of money" (Pope Paul VI). People are rich or poor because of the "distribution system"; what makes money gets done, what doesn't make money doesn't get done. Richard Nixon, when U.S. president said in a moment of candour, "The main purpose of American aid is not to help other nations, but to help ourselves."
Selling powdered milk to poor people (who can't read the directions) makes money, so - until too many babies die - why not? And your morning cup of coffee: it's grown in the two-thirds world, where people are hungry. We have money for coffee while people in Sao Paulo's favelas have no money for food. So the plantation owners grow coffee for us instead of black beans for them. Understand? (It's the same with tobacco: and, incidentally, if you smoke and drink coffee you are 40 times more likely to get lung cancer than if you imbibe neither). Brazil has more cultivated acreage per person than the U.S. , yet in recent years the proportion of undernourished there has risen from 45% to 72% of the population.
1.9% of El Salvadorans own 57.5% of the land - mainly selling cash crops abroad while at home hunger is endemic. Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against his country's injustices and the newspapers almost daily vilified him as corrupt, insance, a communist - and never printed his sermons. (Many wealthy El Salvadorans are mass-going Catholics too). Behind him on an office wall were huge photos of two priests who were murdered, and a banner HE WHO GIVES HIS LIFE FOR ME IS SAVED. Romero was shot while celebrating the eucharist on 24 March, 1980. In El Salvador, to work among the poor is an act of subversion.
The multinational corporations exist to make money for their stockholders, and they do it very well (Coca Cola invested $80,000 in India and by 1977 had made $16m. profit). Dom Helder Camara said for years that if rich nations paid fair prices to developing countries for their natural resources there would no longer be any need for aid and relief projects. Most developing countries rely on cash from one or two products. For example, in 1960 three tons of bananas in Honduras could buy a tractor; but in 1970, the equivalent was eleven tons. They say it's each government's role to legislate morality. (But if the government is in the pocket of the multinationals, and against the poor.....?).
Heard of Minimata disease? A company in Japan kept dumping mercury into the water for years after knowing it was causing paralysis, retardation, insanity and death. The company was simply making money. There's money in mercury poisoning, red dye #2, fluorocarbons, alcohol, and a million other harmful things.
Back home, 50% of Australian university students are from families in the top 16% of the occupational scale. About 35,000 households in Victoria alone have their gas and electricity disconnected each year: many others go hungry to avoid this (they choose hunger to being cold). Over 100,000 each year are now seeking help for food, clothing and rent from relief agencies.
What are the functions of poverty in a country like Australia? Peter le Breton (Australian Politics, A Fourth Reader , pp. 99-100) says they include:
(1) Dirty, repetitive, dangerous, undignified and menial work is done (mostly for low pay)
(2) The rich can divert a higher proportion of income to savings and investment, to foster economic growth the benefits of which mostly favour the rich
(3) If you're rich enough you'll pay little or no tax: the tax burden falls unequally on poorer wage-earners
(4) Poverty creates jobs like corrective services, police, social workers
(5) The poor buy goods no one else wants - secondhand cars, clothes etc. - enhancing incomes for sellers of these commodities
(6) Those who espouse social norms of the desirability of hard work and thrift can accuse others of being lazy and spendthrift. So these latter are, of course, undeserving of the privileges the former enjoy
(7) The deserving poor (e.g. the disabled) can allow the rest of us to feel altruistic, moral, and practise the Judaeo-Christian ethic
(8) The powerless absorb the economic and social costs of change and growth: they are pushed out of their communities by high rents, urban "development" and freeways to convey the middle-class from the suburbs to the central business district .....
For Jesus when a system got in the way of people's wholeness, it had to go. Inveighing against the Pharisees' legalistic religious system he said, "The sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Our systems are mostly serving mammon, so we too will call for systemic change. We may not hold to any particular economic/political theory: a Christian is called to critique all ideologies. (As the cynic put it, capitalism is man exploiting his fellow-man; with communism it's the other way around!!). Systems either do God's will, or they are under his judgment .....
(2) REFLECTION: THINK ABOUT THE FACTS.
Working hard to think clearly is the beginning of moral conduct (Pascal). Reflection and praxis go together. If one is sacrificed the other suffers (Freire). Some are too quietist, seeking only bliss, or too philosophical, seeking only ideas, or too activist, seeking only bread. (Don't just do something, sit there!).
Beware of temptations not to think objectively. Our church congregations are mostly embedded in the rich half of society, so our "suburban captivity" can be self-protective. We meet few destitute "hidden people".
The problems are complex, but some things can be said simply:
2-1 Poverty is not just a lack of resources, but of power, of knowledge, of help and of hope. Poverty is loneliness. So it's not alleviated by handouts alone, but when the poor themselves become givers.
2-2 The best prophet of the future is the past, Lord Byron said. Reinhold Neibuhr has argued (convincingly in my view, in Moral Man and Immoral Society) that if we wait for the powerful to come altruistic we will wait forever. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The powerful have never - well, hardly ever - relinquished their privileges without some form of coercion being applied to them. Those with a biblical view of sin and evil won't find that surprising.
The dictionary says power is "the capacity to act". Because the exercise of power-for-good may be dangerous Christians often have an aversion to the use of power. Power means responsibility: and flight from power may mean a flight from responsibility.
2-3 Let us beware of "selective indignation", preaching only against evils threatening my family/group/church. Ask what Jesus got mad about .... And I accept myself as part of the problem, rather than blaming others: what have I not done that causes this one to be poor?
2-4 Our education system encourages us to "succeed" - which may not be the same as enhancing good human relationships. There's a tension in education between conformity to and the transformation of society. Some education may aim at collecting knowledge and certificates; transformation means asking how education can be liberating. (In Latin America learning to read is more than learning a skill, as in the West. It's a revolutionary activity as people learn about values and rights. That's why the powerful keep people illiterate).
2-5 Each of the world's peoples has its own particular cultural, ethnic and political distinctives: these must be respected. "First world" models of development may not be appropriate to developing countries. May we arrogant westerners be sensitive to the feelings of some overseas oppressed who consider us impertinent meddlers in their affairs. In the film Gandhi I remember that great man saying to the British, "Let us fail, if necessary, but with dignity, rather than have you here running things better while we are deprived of our liberty." The "excluded" must become the subjects of their own history, being part of the decision-making, and encouraged to control their own destinies. If an oppressed group is not crushed completely, they will organize themselves to defend their rights and values. With regard to injustice, we - the helpers - must always ask, What do the helpees want us to do? Speak out or not? Exert pressure on their oppressors or not? Engage in some form of activism or not?"
2-6 "You can't legislate morality" is a cop-out. All that is legislated is morality: the question is "What kind?" When the state fails to legislate mercifully, the church will do what it can, and will call the state to account, as the prophets did.
2-7 Jesus grew up in an oppressed country. The Zealots were "freedom fighters", Herodians and Sadducees went along with the status quo; Essenes withdrew to the desert; Pharisees debated questions of private morality. Jesus disappointed them all, renouncing violence, exploitation, apathy and moralism: they're all dehumanizing. His was the way of sacrificial love. [See "Was Jesus a Christian?" http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/9664.htm ]
(3) PRAY. Ask "Who are my people?" then pray fervently for them - and their oppressors. Prayer, says Jacques Ellul (Prayer and Modern Man) is the ultimate act of hope. Prayer is "God with us" in our struggle. It is the only possible substitute for violence in human relations. Without sincere and earnest prayer the church can easily develop a bureaucratic oppressive mind-set, becoming an ally of, and operating like, worldly powers. Prayer rescues action from activism, and inaction from bewilderment and despair. But prayer is not a substitute for action. Contemplative love is not the end, but a means to the end of authentic love. As Thomas Merton put it: let us not forget that Mary and Martha are sisters.
(4) FEEL. This is "listening presence", compassion, identification and encounter (i.e. incarnation). We won't do this as well as Jesus did but we must try. Reality is much more than objective facts. We must not act for others merely through feelings of personal outrage, but when - and until - through caring friendship we earn the right to be invited to be their helper or advocate. Such feeling presence enables us to transcend narrow bigotries. (Pharaoh's daughter saw more than a baby crying; she saw the baby of an oppressed Hebrew crying). Our practical help and advocacy for the poor will have the marks of suffering - the beatings, crown of thorns, and the nails - if we are truly the church of Jesus Christ. Only thus will it be sacramental, mediating the grace of God to those in need.
(5) ACT CREATIVELY. We must do theology, not just be committed to reflection on reflection.
Let us not ever be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems: if enough individuals act, in concert, almost any problem can be solved. To act is to effect change; godly action is to bring in the kingdom somewhere on earth. Robbers move against their victim; the priest and Levite have a passive mind-set and move away - to be "neutral" (encouraging more injustice); the Samaritan uses the materials at his disposal (donkey, oil, wine, clothes, money, physical strength, compassion. In our culture he would also make representations to the police about security on the Jericho Road).
The church is involved politically if it does nothing: it is voting for the status quo. All it takes for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing. The villains in Jesus' stories were seldom men who did things they ought not to have done; usually they were people who left undone the things they should have done. The rich man let Lazarus lie unhelped at his gate; the servant made no use of his talent - these received the severest condemnation. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Churches are bearers of traditions concerning ultimate meaning and value, and are already organized, so they are ideal mediating groups in our society.
[See "Christians Have a Biblical Mandate - Be Political!'
If "charity begins at home" then a church will ask: "What needs exist in our neighbourhood, and what resources do we have to meet them?" Day-care facilities, a food box in the foyer, counseling centre (with fees related to ability to pay), housing for the homeless/elderly, writing letters to keep elected officials honest - these are some beginnings. Above all, let us build "shalom churches" where the values we preach to the world are incarnated in the faith community.
However, charity is not justice. A charitable act is a somewhat spontaneous, temporary, non-controversial response to an accident or tragedy. Conditions of injustice are not accidents. They are never "acts of God" but acts of men and women with power. To relieve victims of injustice demands that the root causes of injustice be addressed and removed. Charitable acts must not be a substitute for this more controversial and radical activism. Giving a pneumonia sufferer a box of tissues may be of some comfort, but it is irrelevant to the victim's recovery, which depends on other factors.
Father Brian Gore, an Australian priest held for 14 months in a Philippine prison, said that aid organizations were actually supporting a system of injustice when they do not ask why Filipinos went hungry. "An organization which exclusively looks at the effects rather than the causes is a dead loss", he said. We must therefore be involved in process as well as projects. Dom Helder Camara's best-known quote is devastating on this issue: "When I give money to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask 'why are they poor?' they call me a communist!" From a biblical perspective, mercy and justice belong together.
Individual activism can be encouraged. Jeremiah got across ideas through "prophetic signs" - going around in a loin-cloth, wearing a wooden yoke, etc. These are more than symbols, they are dramatic parables of judgment, arousing peoples' inquisitiveness and enabling them to hear God's message more clearly. Our mass media would notice this sort of thing! Collective advocacy is usually more effective however (prophets today can also be dismissed as crackpots). Public opinion can be changed. (In Australia, unfortunately, it's not the quality of the opinion that counts, but how many hold it. Our elected representatives mostly follow public opinion, they do not lead it, as in some European countries).
Often church councils and assemblies think they're doing something when they pass resolutions. Being reactive rather than active, these often change nothing, if they are not linked with other courses of action. (An offensive U.S. TV show interviewed married couples in their bedrooms about their sex lives. Churches passed resolutions which changed nothing - until someone organized 5000 families to boycott the sponsors!).
Such activities force us to ask tough questions. Polarizations will occur; we may find ourselves crusading with the "ratbag element"; and we'll discover that self-interest and power games exist even in churches!
FINALLY, the evils here are ubiquitous, huge and complex. But we must not succumb to immobility: let us do something, and be free to learn through failing, if necessary. Let us repent of our sins of omission before we blame others for their sins of injustice. Then let us get involved. Fighting poverty is war: the violence of poverty kills just as surely as bullets. I am convinced, however, that we must fight this war non-violently. Christ gave his life for others who could not save themselves: let us give our lives for the wretched of the earth. Let us begin with ourselves, and in a world of crying need, adjust our lifestyle accordingly. Let us renounce addictions, especially those involving the desire for immediate gratification. Let us be Christ to others, as Luther put it - serving them, being advocates for them, acting as agents for change. Albert Einstein said: "The problems of the world cannot be solved with mechanisms, but only by changing the hearts and minds of people and speaking courageously."
But remember, there's no point in bearing a cross if you don't believe in resurrection.
[For one modern story about confronting "The Powers" in the context of gross injustice, seeThe Amazing Dawn Rowan Saga - http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/4728.htm ]
Text: Romans 16: 1 - 27
Caller to American Christian radio talk show: 'What
do you think of Philip's four daughters who prophesied?' Guest
clergyman: 'It just means they witnessed for Christ.' Caller:
'But why can't women teach and preach?' Clergyman: 'That ministry
is for men only and I can give you a very good reason: God made
roosters to crow and hens to lay eggs.'
Today we celebrate the calling and induction of ....
into the pastoral ministry of this church.
In this 'charge' I want to look at one of the most
controversial questions in the church: the issue of women in
leadership ministries - a contemporary issue for Australians,
with the Anglican church agonizing about whether or not to ordain
women priests. I will be presenting a point of view which I believe
is correct, biblically, but I acknowledge there are other views
(and no doubt your letters will help clarify those!).
This article is not addressing the issue of women
in ministry. That's not in question: all Christian women and men
are ordained to ministry at their baptism. The issue is one of
women in ministries of leadership.
First, eight general observations; then we will look
at the ministries of eight women named by Paul in Romans 12. [The
full sermon concluded with four ideas about pastoral ministry:
this ministry is about (1) disciplining the church's trouble-makers
(Romans 16:17-18), (2) developing a Christian character (16:19-20),
(3) building a Christian family (16:21-23), and (4) proclaiming
the Christian gospel (16:25-27)].
(1) No one can read the Bible intelligently without
taking into account the cultures which produced the various Scriptures,
and the 'cultural baggage' we bring to their interpretation. Some
say, 'You just simply read what's there!' but 20,800 different
Christian denominations in the world today are each asking 'Be
reasonable - interpret the Scriptures my way!'
A girl in a Christian sect told me God is like a
giant man. He 'walks on the mountains' so they'd measured his
size (with help from the geography of Palestine, and some trigonometry!). 'Does he have wings?' I asked. 'No, he's like a giant
man.' 'But what about the Scriptures that tell us he hides us
under his feathers, etc.?' She then had an attack of cognit- ive
dissonance: her whole interpretive apparatus collapsed: she'd
never thought of that!
Most who 'take the Bible literally' don't stone adulterers
or practise footwashing, or enrol widows over sixty. Some read
the Bible and become pacifists, others militarists. Our reading
of the Bible is always conditioned by our exper- iences, our culture,
Within our own culture many have inferred from the
paucity of women in the highest levels of corporate management
that 'women are not leaders and therefore shouldn't be'. However,
others have noted the splendid work of women as pioneer missionaries,
or leading whole denominations (like General Eva Burrows of the
Salvation Army) and ask 'why not?' Because I am married to a female
pastor, every day I share experiences of God using her to bless
others, and that has helped shape my approach...
But, more importantly, I believe the Lord has yet
more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word.
(2) There seem to be two paradigms relative to male/female
relationships in the Scriptures - a male-dominated patriarchical
or hierarchical paradigm, and an egalitarian one. Both are there,
and it generally depends on one's religious, cultural and psychological
predispositions which paradigm one prefers. Or we align ourselves
with the teaching of an admired pastor, or the church of our childhood,
or a well-known author. We then interpret all the difficult texts
to conform with that chosen paradigm. Generally, males have a
tendency to lead; women are generally better than men at 'adapting'
to others' leadership. (Notice I didn't use words like 'domination'
But fortunately God is not a legalist. Even if male-dominated
cultures produced the Scriptures, he raises up a Deborah to lead
the whole people of God. Some of us wouldn't have let him do that...
The four daughters of Philip were prophet- esses: can you name
one or two in your church?
(3) Both males and females were created in the image
of God. Roberta Hestenes writes: 'In Genesis 1 and 2 it seems
clear that God's intention for man and woman is that of complementary
partnership... and jointly given the charge to be fruitful, subdue
the earth and have dominion... As a result of their sin the note
of subordination is introduced (Genesis 3:16: 'Your desire shall
be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.')... In Jesus
Christ [we have a] priesthood of the whole people of God, female
and male (1 Peter 2:9)... The church is built (Ephesians 2:20)
upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Women are part
of that foundation.' (1) Hierarchy results from the Fall, in which
both the man and woman participated. But you say Eve was to be
a 'helper' of Adam, implying inferiority. Not at all. The same
word is used of God, helping Israel.
(4) Jesus, Paul and Peter were way ahead of their
chauvinistic cultures in granting personhood and dignity to
women. Some rabbis debated as to whether women had souls! Women
were there at the cradle of the Messiah, and at the cross and
the resurrection. Women had never known a man like Jesus - he
never put them down or flattered or patronized them. He had no
uneasy male dignity to defend... 'Women itinerated with Jesus
(Luke 8:13)... They were commissioned by him to tell the good
news of the resurrection... (Luke 24:1-11). The double sexual
standard for men and women was firmly rejected by Jesus (Matthew
5:27-28; 19:3-9; John 8:1-11). Not a trace of hierarchical behaviour
or teaching appears in any of the gospel accounts.' (2)
(5) At Pentecost the Spirit fell on women and men:
'sons and daughters' both prophesied. In the apostolic church
ministries were exercised according to giftedness, rather than
'office'. That system came later... The early church was more
'charismatic' and less institutional, more given to informal contacts
than dependent on structures and constitutions. Prophecy is quite
common in younger churches, and almost non-existent in older churches.
Prophecy, says Paul, is the highest spiritual gift: and both men
and women prophesied in the early church. (3)
(6) Brethren scholar F.F.Bruce suggests our understanding
of male/female relationships must be viewed through the 'window'
of Galatians 3:28: '[In Christ] there is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus'. Although Jewish
women did not need to attend worship and were certainly not permitted
to participate vocally in it, Christian women participated freely
in worship, prayer and prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:5, 14:6; Acts
21:9). 'In Christ' is a phrase that occurs 164 times in Paul -
ie, 'within the Body of Christ' there is neither male or female.
(7) Evangelical Anglican scholar Dr. Leon Morris
says of the Titus 2:5 injunction that women should be 'submissive
to their husbands so that the word of God may not be discredited'
that 'these days it would be brought into disrepute by a strict
subjection. Again, women's subjection is to be such "as is
fitting in the Lord" (Colossians 3:18). In a day like our
own we must ask "What is fitting?" It seems impossible
to empty such passages of cultural standards.' (4)
The apostles seemed to be putting their foot on the
brake a little so as not to create a scandal by women blatantly
abusing their new-found freedom in Christ. The early Christians
were way ahead of their culture in their attitudes to women (eg
Paul's radical injunction that husbands love their wives as Christ
loved the church). But many churches today are way behind their
culture - we are creating a scandal for the opposite reason.
(8) The main reason why there aren't more women in
positions of leadership is, I believe, psychological. The little
boy in us men can't cope with strong women: we left home to get
away from maternal authority. Indeed, many men seem to have a
near- pathological fear of losing power to a woman. Few men have
women mentors. They usually don't read books by women. Men usually
define themselves in terms of job success; women in terms of relationships.
When I talk to male clergy they usually volunteer statistics which
measure progress or growth. Women clergy tell stories about people...
Men and women bring different value-systems to the
task of ministry: they are complementary if we are smart enough
to maximize the potentials of each...
TEN WOMEN IN MINISTRY.
In Romans 16, we have people from at least three
races - Latins, Jews, and Greeks, who are 'all one in Christ Jesus.'
They are from lower and upper classes, including slaves and freed
slaves - these, with people from the privileged groups are now
all 'one in Christ Jesus.' Of the 29 people, ten are women. Apart
from Priscilla, none is mentioned elsewhere in the NT. And Paul
- who some think belittled the status of women in the church -
honoured these women and held them in high regard. 'In spite of
the lack of information on these women, it is reasonably certain
that they must have had some importance in the Church to be included
in this list of greetings.' (5) Paul also held the church in high
regard: in these verses (1-16) Paul mentions the church at Cenchrea
(1), all the churches of the Gentiles (4), the church in their
house (5), the churches of Christ (16). Paul had a great concern
for the welfare of individuals, and for the churches. The church
of Jesus Christ is glorious, not because it's perfect, but because
it is being redeemed!
The phrase 'In Christ' is mentioned ten times in
the first 16 verses. Whether Paul talks about Christians suffering
or serving, the supreme thought in Paul is that these believers
in Rome were all 'in Christ' or 'in the Lord' (vv. 2,3,7,8, 9,10,11,13;
cf. 8:1; Philippians 3:14; 4:13).
In the ancient world (as today) when someone is applying
for a position or job they seek testimonials or references from
others who know them well. In the Brethren Assemblies I grew up
in we had 'letters of commendation' from one assembly to another
if someone was traveling or moving residence. These sustatikai
epistolai, letters of introduction, were common in business transactions
in the ancient world as well.
So Paul is here commending Phoebe (16:1) to the church
in Rome. She is the bearer of this letter. He asks them to welcome
Two terms describe her - diakonos - deacon, servant,
minister, and prostatis - a great help to many people. Is diakonos
a reference to a special 'order' of ministers? We don't know.
The term is used generically in 1 Thess. 3:2, 2 Cor. 3:6, 11:23;
of a specific group or function in Phil 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8,12.
And it is used of Christ (Romans 15:8), Apollos (1 Corinthians
3:5), Timothy (1 Timothy 4:6) and of Paul himself (1 Corinthians
3:5, Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23,25). An evangelical NT scholar,
E Earl Ellis, in an article 'Paul and his Co-Workers' (1971) concluded
that diakonoa in Paul referred to a special class of co-workers
who were active in preaching and teaching. (6)
She is also a prostatis - the only time in the NT
this word as a noun appears. In secular Greek at that time this
was a relatively strong term of leadership. The verb is used by
Paul in three out of five occurrences to refer to leadership in
the Church. Thus the word probably suggests Phoebe had a prominent
role: one translator uses the word 'overseer'. And I still meet
churches which won't have a woman on their diaconate!
Prisca and Aquila (16:3) were a fascinating couple.
Prisca is sometimes called Priscilla (Acts 18:2,18,26) - an affectionate
version of the same name.
When they first appear on the pages of the NT (Acts
18:1-2) they're in Rome. Claudius banished Jews from Rome in AD
52 and this couple settled in Corinth. They were tent-makers -
the same trade as Paul's - so in Corinth he stayed with them.
They and Paul left Corinth together and went to Ephesus where
Prisca and Aquila settled (Acts 18:18). A brilliant Alexandrian
scholar Apollos visited Ephesus, and stayed with Prisca and Aquila.
Apollos did not have a full understanding of the Christian faith,
so in addition to hospitality this special couple taught him as
well (Acts 18:24-26). Later, when Paul wrote his first letter
to the Corinthians from Ephesus, he sent greetings from Prisca
and Aquila and from the church in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19).
Next we hear of them back in Rome: the edict banishing Jews must
have lost its steam, and many people like Prisca and Aquila no
doubt drifted back to that city to their old homes and jobs. Once
again we discover they have a church in their home. The last time
they appear is in 2 Timothy 4:19, and they're back in Ephesus.
One of the last messages Paul sent to anyone was to this couple,
who had come through so much with him.
So wherever these nomadic people are - Rome, Corinth,
Ephesus, back in Rome, or finally again in Ephesus - their home
is a centre for Christian ministry, worship and hospitality (1
Cor. 16:19, Philemon 2).
But there's something odd about the way they're mentioned
in despatches in the NT: they are always mentioned together, and
on four of the six occasions Prisca is named before her husband.
Normally - then as now - the husband's name is mentioned first
- 'Mr. and Mrs.'. One theory suggested by (Presbyterian) William
Barclay is that she was a member of a noble Roman family: 'It
may be that at some meeting of Christians this great Roman lady
met Aquila the humble Jewish tentmaker, that the two fell in love,
that Christianity destroyed the barriers of race and rank and
wealth and birth, and that these two, the Roman aristocrat and
the Jewish artisan, were joined forever in Christian love and
Christian service.' (7) Maybe. But perhaps it's more likely her
leadership gifts or her role in the church was the reason she's
Paul calls them fellow-workers: the same term is
used of men such as Timothy and Titus, as well as of women such
as Euodia and Syntyche. 'He also considers Apollos and himself
God's "fellow- workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9). It is in
this group of people who take leadership in the ministry of the
gospel that Priscilla, without any distinction related to her
sex, is included as well as her husband Aquila.' (8) We don't
know what roles all these people had as 'fellow-workers' - perhaps
their roles were as diverse as their gifts.
Mary (16:6). There are at least six Marys in the
NT story - and they are all special people. We don't know anything
more about this Mary than that 'she has worked very hard' among
them, a similar expression to that used of Tryphena and Tryphosa
and Persdis (16:12). What kind of hard work? Did she grow flowers
for Sunday services? Clean out the room before house-church? Serve
eats after the worship? Perhaps - these so-called menial tasks
are honoured when the Lord Christ is served. But the Greek verb
'work very hard' is used regularly by Paul to refer to the special
work of the gospel ministry. Only twice does Paul use it in a
common or secular sense - both within a proverbial expression
(Ephesians 4:8, 2 Timothy 2:6). Paul frequently describes his
apostolic ministry with this word, and also the ministry of other
leaders and persons of authority: the context of some of these
stresses the need for respect for and submission to such workers.
[Cf. Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2,3) two women Paul describes
as having '...contended at my side in the cause of the gospel'
Andronicus and Junia (16:7) were Christians before
Paul was - their conversion goes right back to the time of Stephen,
so they must have had a direct link back to the earliest church
There is some debate about the sex of Junia or Junias.
Paul's word junian may be either masculine or feminine. So we
have to be a bit tentative here. Andronicus was certainly a common
male name, but there's no evidence Junias was used as a male name.
John Chrysostom (d. AD 407), one of the first Greek fathers to
write extensive commentaries on Paul, and known for his 'negative'
view of women, understood that Junia was a woman. He marveled
that this woman should be called an apostle! In fact... the first
commentator to understand Junia as a male name (Aegidius of Rome)
lived in the 13th century. (9)
He/she is outstanding among (en) the apostles: does
this mean Junia was well known by the apostles or well known as
an apostle? '[The] natural meaning in Greek is that these two
were outstanding as apostles.' (10) The term 'apostle' was used
in the early church not just for the Twelve but for any authorised
Were Tryphaena and Tryphosa (16:12) twin sisters?
Their names mean 'dainty and delicate' but they worked (kopian)
to the point of exhaustion! Barclay suggests Paul may have had
a smile on his face when he wrote that!
The mother of Rufus (16:13) was one of two women
mentioned specifically but not named. She brought to Paul the
help and comfort and love which his own family refused him when
he became a Christian. Julia and the sister of Nereus (16:15)
were both greeted without comment.
Note that all these people were commended for their
work: we are called to serve, not just to be church consumers!
Note also the way Paul encourages people: when did we last do
Finally three scholarly comments. # 'Romans 16:1-16,
then, in an incidental way, allows us to see that Paul had several
women co- workers in the church's ministry. Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa
and Persis (as well as Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in Philippians
4:2-3) all shared in the hard labours of a gospel ministry. Priscilla
also was a fellow worker with Paul in the ministry. Phoebe was
a minister of the Cenchrean church and a leader in the Church.
Junia was, along with Andronicus (her husband?) an outstanding
apostle. When the issues of Paul's view of women in the church
are addressed in reference to such texts as 1 Corinthians 14:
34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15, these women co-workers in the ministry
must not only not be forgotten; they must be accounted for in
the overall assessment of Paul's view.' (11)
# 'That Paul should not only include a woman among
the apostles but actually describe her, together with Andronicus,
as outstanding among them, is highly significant evidence (along
with the importance he accords in this chapter to Phoebe, Prisca,
Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus, Julia and
the sister of Nereus) of the falsity of the widespread and stubbornly
persistent notion that Paul had a low view of women and something
to which the Church as a whole has so far failed to pay proper
# 'Just as the church has moved beyond the NT toleration
of slavery to a recognition that Christian principles forbid slavery,
so too we can with a good conscience accept a larger place for
women in the ministry of the church than was possible in first-
century society.' (13)
When I visited the largest church in the world in
Seoul, Korea, in 1978, I was not surprised to learn that 80% of
their small group leaders were women. I attended one of these,
led very capably by a woman. The church is immeasur- ably impoverished
when more than half its members are debarred from exercising leadership
ministries not on the basis of the presence or absence of giftedness
or competence, but simply because of gender. I thank God for the
many women who have toiled so graciously for the Lord despite
this discrimination. The time has now come to practise the principle
that in Christ social, racial and sexual barriers have been removed.
(1) 'Scripture and the Ministry of Women' in Roberta
Hestenes and Lois Curley (eds.), Women and the Ministries of Christ,
Pasadena, California: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1979, p.7
(2) Hestenes, ibid., pp. 7-8.
(3) See Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, New York:
Doubleday, 1987, chapter 2, 'The Church as Institution'.
(4) 'The Ministry of Women', in Leon Morris, John
Gaden, Barbara Thiering, A Woman's Place, Sydney, Anglican Information
Office, 1976, p. 27.
(5) David M Scholer, 'Paul's Women Co-workers in
the Ministry of the Church', Atlantic Baptist, 23:4, April 1987,
(6) Ibid, p. 20.
(7) The Letter to the Romans, Edinburgh: The Saint
Andrew Press, 1958, pp. 230-231).
(8) Scholer, p. 20.
(11) Scholer, op. cit., p. 21.
(12) C E B Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary,
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987, p. 377.
(13) I. Howard Marshall, 'The Role of Women in the
Church', in Shirley Lees, (ed.), The Role of Women: Eight Prominent
Christians debate today's issues, Leicester: IVP, 1984, p. 196.