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|Lamentations 1:1-6||Psalm 137||2 Timothy 1:1-14||Luke 17:5-10|
By David Lull
What do you say about God when bad things happen? How do you reconcile God’s unconditional and unsurpassable love with texts that ask God to kill the enemy’s “little ones”? What—concretely, physically, empirically—does it mean to profess, “Christ Jesus is savior”? Can slavery serve as a metaphor for complete devotion to Jesus today?
Judah is suffering in exile, “because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions” (verse 5). How many people of faith think that, when bad things happen, they are God’s punishment for violations of God’s commandments? Pat Robertson (of the 700 Club) and Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, KS) are not the only ones who have said that. Normal people of many faiths believe God acts that way.
This issue is one example of why “process theologians” take metaphysics seriously! For most of western intellectual history, theists have taught Jews, Christians, and Muslims that God is the cause of all that happens—the good and bad alike. When bad things happen, God must have caused them to happen; therefore, God must be punishing those to whom bad things happen. God punishes nations in times of war by causing their defeat. People are poor, because God has not blessed them. God causes hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis to punish the wicked. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred scriptures contain enough support for this view to lead many Jews, Christians, and Muslims for two thousand years to think that is the only way to believe in God.
In the 1960s, theologians declared that this God was dead. Recently, “new atheists,” who do not know of any other way of thinking about God, reject faith in God. Lamentations 1.1-6 offers an opportunity to proclaim an alternative to classical theism: namely, a God who is infinitely, everlastingly empathetic, relational, and inspiring. A God whose very being is love cannot be apathetic, domineering, coercive, and vindictive!
The plight of the Judeans—the destruction of Jerusalem and their life as exiles in Babylon (verses 1-3)—is so great that the psalmist skips the cry to God that usually begins lament psalms (see Marti Steussy, Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today, 195). At the end of the psalm (verses 7-9), instead of offering a prayer for God to free the Judeans from exile and to restore Jerusalem, the psalmist asks God for vengeance—to do to the Babylonians what they did to the Judeans. In the middle section (verses 4-6), to motivate God to avenge the Judean’s suffering, the psalmist promises that the Judeans would resist the temptations of living in a foreign land and remember their God and make Jerusalem the object of their greatest joy.
Progressive Jews, Christians, and Muslims—if have permission to generalize—may find this psalm offensive. A God who would respond to imperial Babylonian barbarism with barbaric vengeance is the opposite of a God whose love is unconditional and unsurpassable. Some Jews, Christians, and Muslims, on the other hand, believe that extreme vengeance might be exactly what God’s love for Jews, or Christians, or Muslims requires (see, for example, Psa 14.12).
The New Testament, however, contains seeds of a very different vision in passages like Mt 5.43-48//Lk 6.27-28 and 35; Lk 23.34; and 1 John 4.7 and 16. If Christ’s dying for the ungodly, sinners, exemplifies God’s love (Rom 5.6 and 8), and if God reconciled God’s enemies through the death of “God’s son” (Rom 5.10), how can God rain barbaric vengeance on anyone, however evil they might be, or we might think they are? If Christ “died for all” (2 Cor 5.14-15), he died for everyone without exception—including people who behave like the ancient imperial Babylonians.
As I write this commentary, reports of the use of deadly gas in Syria are a sickening reminder that the killing of “little ones” is still a tactic of war today. Lest we be judged by our own self-righteous judgments, Americans need to remember what President Obama omitted from his recent speech justifying U.S. military action against Syria: The U.S. is the only country to use nuclear weapons in war—against “little ones” and other noncombatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan. The U.S. used chemical weapons (napalm and agent orange) in the Vietnam War. Companies in the U.S., West Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and France supplied chemicals from which Saddam Hussein’s regime made poison gas to use against Iran and Kurdish separatists in the 1980s. Confession would be good for the soul of the nation! It might also turn greater attention to nonmilitary responses to Syria (see Susan Thistlethwaite, “10 things we can do right now about Syria instead of bombing,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/09/06/10-things-we-can-do-right-now-about-syria-instead-of-bombing/).
What, if anything, can progressive Jews, Christians, and Muslims affirm in Psalm 137? I have adapted below Marti Steussy’s three proposals (Psalms, 196). I end with one of my own.
First, this psalm is not a call to arms. The Judeans are not to take up vengeance themselves. The psalmist asks God for retribution. Vengeance is God’s business (compare Deut 32.35; Rom 12.19; and Heb 10.30). The psalmist, who speaks for the exiled Judeans, wants God to kill the Babylonian’s “little ones”—presumably so that they would not grow up to be Judah’s enemies. God, however, is not limited by the psalmist’s barbaric proposal. God has unsurpassable knowledge of possible forms of vengeance and will decide what “love divine, all love’s excelling” requires.
Second, “Psalm 137 presents the beginning of a conversation [with God] that may move to someplace quite different but that arguably has to begin in anger, because that is where the psalmist is” (Steussy, 196).
Third, this psalm can be an occasion for empathy with other people’s pain and the desire for violent revenge. This might be an opportunity to explore our response to hearing news of the attacks of “9/11,” or the news of the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT, or the death of Trayvon Martin, or the gassing of Syrian citizens, or the demolition of Palestinian homes, or the rape of an Indian woman on a tourist bus, or the thousands killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Will we not find in us a desire for revenge, from which we have to turn away in search for what God’s universal love requires? The key is to let the psalmist move us to empathy—even radical empathy for “enemies”—and to asking God to take whatever action God deems right.
Fourth, the middle section of this psalm offers something positive that people who are suffering can do: remember God’s steadfast love. God’s love is a companion at times of suffering. If God is for us, who can be against us, and who can separate us from God’s love (Rom 8.31-39)?
2 Timothy 1:1-14
In the Greeting (1.1-2), the Greek phrase translated “the promise of life in Christ Jesus” (in the NRSV) is open to two interpretations. On the one hand, it could mean that “the promise of life” was manifest “in Christ Jesus.” On the other hand, it could mean that “the promise” consists of “life in Christ Jesus”—that is, life lived by participation in Christ Jesus. The difference between these two interpretations of the Greek phrase is one of emphasis, not substance. Christ Jesus “abolished death,” so that the life that Christ “brought” is “immortality” (1.10). In addition, the life promised “in Christ Jesus” is a “godly life” lived by participation in Christ Jesus (3.12). The promise, in other words, is that Christ Jesus’ “godly life”—namely, a life of devotion to God—will shape the lives of those who participate in Christ Jesus; and that, by participation in Christ Jesus’ immortal life, their lives will be made immortal.
I want to lift up three things here. First, saying that this life is “in Christ Jesus” does not mean that there is no role for our action. Participation “in Christ Jesus” is our responsibility. It is the act of being intentionally, deeply immersed in Christ Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It requires our act of allowing Christ Jesus to shape our lives. It means that the life we live is not entirely our own “work.” It is a life worked out in-with-and-through Christ Jesus.
Second, life in Christ Jesus is not law/rule-oriented; rather, it is oriented to a person, Christ Jesus. The pattern of this life is, broadly speaking, one of devotion to God. On the one hand, life lived in devotion to God is a possibility for people of many (all?) religious traditions. Different traditions will lead to different forms of devotion to God. “Godly life in Christ Jesus” will be one that conforms to the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1.13; compare 3.15, which can mean “through [the] faith that is [manifest] in Christ Jesus”)—that is, to Christ Jesus’ faith and love. Some Christians turn Christ’s faith and love (or Christ’s faithfulness) into a set of “Christian” rules or laws, which are external motivations and obligations. As an alternative, life conformed to Christ is one that comes from a deep, intentional orientation and desire for Christ to be in all we think, feel, and do. The author of 2 Timothy combines these alternatives: The presentation of Paul as an example to be followed (1.3-2.13 and 4.6-18) frames or brackets maxims about behavior that Timothy was to avoid and that he was to pursue (2.14-4.5).
Third, “godly lives lived in Christ Jesus” are made immortal because they conform to God’s everlasting purpose to create healing, reconciliation, and justice in a broken world. One way to think about the promise of immortality is to believe that the promise in Christ Jesus is that you will continue to have personal subjective experience forever after death. Another way to think about the promise of immortality is to believe that it is a promise that God, the Immortal One, will forever remember and cherish the acts and lives that contribute to healing, reconciliation, and justice in a broken world. That includes the promise that God, the Immortal One, will forever remember those who suffer in a broken world and will forever keep on calling for healing, reconciliation, and justice in this broken world. To be adequate, the former way of thinking about subjective immortality would need to include the latter way of thinking about objective immortality in God’s memory. Some theologians would argue that, to be adequate, the doctrine of objective immortality would need to include some form of subjective immortality. Process theologians are not of one mind on this matter.
In this letter, the Thanksgiving (1.3-5) is about Timothy’s “sincere faith.” This faith is the opposite of the so-called faith of those who were ashamed both of the gospel and of those who were suffering for the gospel (1.6-14). It is a faith that builds up confidence, love, and self-control. It is the faith of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice (1.5).
The danger is that Timothy will not find the courage to stand up for the gospel after what has happened to Paul. Timothy was to rely on “God’s power” (verses 7-8). This is the same “power of God” that “saved us” according to God’s “own purpose and grace” (verse 9).
I want to make four comments about verses 9-10.
First, salvation is through God’s “purpose and grace,” not through human actions. This is so obvious to most Christians that it almost needs no explanation. Certain explanations, however, have screwed it up miserably and tragically. Christians, especially Protestants, too often contrast the Christian emphasis on God’s “grace” with the alleged Jewish emphasis on human “works.” This false contrast is a slander that violates the 8th Commandment! Paul, a Jew, was well aware that the priority of God’s grace was firmly embedded at the core of Jewish theology (e.g., see Romans 9-11).
Second, the word “grace” has become synonymous with “mercy,” at least in certain Protestant traditions.” The concept of divine “mercy” is sometimes in the sphere of “grace,” but the latter is a broader term, and its emphasis actually lies elsewhere. In common Greek, “grace” is a term for a favor or gift that the giver gives, not out of pressure or obligation, but out of the giver’s own free will and purpose. If there is any necessity involved in God’s “grace” (gift, favor, benefaction), it is only and entirely a necessity embedded in God’s own purpose. The God of the Bible is a saving God. It is God’s very nature to “save” people and all creation from their flaws and from all kinds of harm.
Third, that’s what the statement that “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (verse 9) means. The divine “grace” that “has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (verses 10) is God’s eternal purpose. God’s purpose in Christ Jesus is the same as God’s purpose, from “before the ages began,” to save people and all creation from their flaws and from all kinds of harm.
Lastly, the statement that “our Savior Christ Jesus … abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (verse 10) is not only theological, but also political. For a theological interpretation, see my comments above. For its political implications we have to read it with ears tuned to the imperial theology of the Roman Empire. First, the application of the term “savior” to “Christ Jesus” sounds unremarkable in the depoliticized form of Christianity characteristic of most churches today. In the Roman Empire, however, it would be a declaration that the savior of the world was the acclaimed Messiah of Israel, a peasant Jew whom Roman imperial authorities had executed in the Judean territory that the Romans had conquered and occupied for many generations. That was a challenge to the claim that only the Roman emperors deserved the title of “savior.” Roman emperors “saved” the world with imperial military and economic power. Their power brought death to anyone who opposed Roman imperial interests. In contrast, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (verse 10).
Let’s recast the theological interpretation of the faith-statement that Christ Jesus is savior of the world and reclaim its political dimension. Both require great care. For example, we might think of commending Christian faith to people of other religious traditions as an invitation to convert to Christianity. Another option is that Christians can invite Hindus and Buddhists to consider whether or how Christ Jesus can be savior of or for them—even as they remain Hindus and Buddhists. Similarly, Christians can consider how Hindu and Buddhist traditions might creatively transform their understanding of Christ Jesus as savior.
The political dimension of this faith-statement is also tricky. History teaches us the dangers of institutionalizing “Christ Jesus is savior” (e.g., in a “Holy Roman Empire”). Those who profess “Christ Jesus is savior” ought to know better than to think that one’s country or anything else—e.g., a political party, wealth, or fame—is their savior.
On the positive side, let’s engage in creative thinking about how “Christ Jesus is savior” can save this broken world from economic and ecological disasters. Those of us who find/look for salvation from a Jewish Messiah who lived and died in a land conquered and occupied by an imperial power might be moved to feel empathy for today’s conquered and occupied people and work for their freedom and justice. Those of us who find/look for salvation from a Jewish Messiah who proclaimed God’s preferential option for the poor might feel called to work for more equitable distribution of wealth and the earth’s resources. Those of us who find/look for salvation from a Jewish Messiah who taught us to pray for God’s rule “on earth as in heaven” might work for ecologically sustainable policies and communities. The point is to live out the faith-statement, “Christ Jesus is savior,” in concrete, physical, empirical actions in the world.
As Alfred North Whitehead said, “Ideas [e.g., ‘Christ Jesus is savior’] won’t keep; something must be done about them.” Similarly, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7.21 NRSV). Jesus also said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6.46).
The “Pastoral Letters” (1-2 Timothy and Titus) are among the six Pauline letters whose authorship scholars dispute (the others are 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians). According to Michael Gorman, 50% of scholars think Paul did not write 2 Thessalonians, 60% think Paul did not write Colossians, 70% think Paul did not write Ephesians, 80% think Paul did not write 2 Timothy, and 90% think Paul did not write 1 Timothy (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 88-89). You can find discussions of the arguments for and against Paul’s authorship of these letters in any of the standard New Testament introductions.
If this letter represents the adaptation of Pauline traditions for a later generation, “Timothy” would be a fictive character, representing a model Pauline believer patterned after the “historical Timothy” (e.g., see Phil 2.19-23). “Paul” would also be a fictive character, patterned after traditions about Paul’s imprisonment (e.g., see Phil 1.12-26). The “historical Paul,” who already would have died as a martyr in Rome, would now be speaking “from the grave” to the “historical Timothy’s” successors.
What difference does it make either way? For one thing, we have to allow for possible different perspectives on themes and topics within the corpus of Pauline letters. We can explain those differences either as “developments” in Paul’s own thinking in response to changing circumstances, or as later generations’ adaptations of the views of the undisputed letters in response to new historical developments. Regardless of which approach you choose, these letters are in the Christian Bible; as such, they invite Christians to engage in critical dialogue with them.
This is an odd assortment of sayings! On the one hand, they are independent proverbial sayings, appropriate for any occasion. On the other hand, their arrangement suggests a kind of logical movement from verse 1 to verse 10. Verse 5 looks like a response to the warning against causing “one of the little ones [i.e., a disciple] to stumble” (verses 1-2) and to the requirement to rebuke a member of the community who violates the community’s moral standards and then forgive the repentant member (verses 3-4). The implication of verse 5 is that obedience to these sayings calls for “increased faith.” Evidently, causing someone to “stumble”—a threat to the fabric of the community—is so easy and common that it takes more than ordinary faith to avoid it! Apparently, rebuking and forgiveness is so difficult that it takes more than ordinary faith to do it! Jesus’ response is reassuring: The faith you have is sufficient for both tasks, because a small amount of faith can accomplish unbelievable things (verses 5-6)! Notice that both tasks have to do with interdependent relations within a community. In addition, notice how these sayings contrast sharply with Lamentations 1.1-6 and Psalm 137, where God does not forgive, and where a community prays for the killing of its enemy’s’ “little ones”!
The logic of the saying in verses 7-10 is not as clear. They could be a warning against thinking that obedience to Jesus—“the Lord” of the first two sayings—merits a reward. Doing no harm and restoring the moral health and wholeness of the community are simply fundamental expectations. They could also be a reminder that those who “rebuke” and “forgive” are not “lords”; rather, they are “slaves.” Jesus is “the Lord.” The “rebuke” should conform to Jesus’ desire for transformation. It should not belittle, demean, or crush the offender. The “forgiveness” should conform to Jesus’ forgiveness of all sinners who repent.
What should we say about the legitimacy of slavery and its class system that verses 7-10 imply or presuppose? First, because of human trafficking for sex-for-hire today is a form of slavery, and because of the history of human trafficking for cheap labor, we cannot be silent about the way this metaphor has been a “word of terror” for many people. Second, it is difficult to find an analogy for most people in most social systems today. An employee, by mutual agreement, owes an employer work for a period. The rest of the time, the employee is free to work for other employers or enjoy time free from work-for-hire. Third, this metaphor, in contrast, describes the way Jesus’ followers owe Jesus, “the Lord,” all their time, all their work, and their very lives.
David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is the incoming director of the Process and Faith program of the Center for Process Studies (Claremont, CA). He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA). An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Lull taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia, an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus. His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.