Tag Archives: divine election

Interacting with God of the Oppressed 5 — What is the Good News?

I am working my way through James Cone‘s God of the Oppressed. Come join me on my journey as I learn about Black Liberation Theology.

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In chapter four, Cone tours the Scriptures to introduce us to the God who liberates. Cone contrasts the god of Greek philosophy, who is distant and uninvolved, with the God of the Bible, who is actively involved in the history of the world. In the Old Testament, “God’s revelation is inseparable from the social and political affairs of Israel.” (pg. 57).

The story of God’s acting in the affairs of Israel starts with the Exodus. Here, God liberates Israel from slavery and covenants to be their God. The rest of the Old Testament narrative is the story of how Israel forgets or remembers the God who liberates and the consequences when they disobey the covenant, or blessings when they remember the covenant.

Cone argues that the Old Testament writers (particularly the prophets) are united in their belief that God is completely committed to justice for the poor and weak (pg. 65).

Cone then turns to the New Testament and outlines how Jesus is both the continuation and completion of the Law and the Prophets (pg. 66).

Jesus’ mission, as Cone sees it, is summed up in his Lordship and Servanthood and these represent, “the establishment of justice through suffering” (pg. 69).

Cone emphasizes the texts that demonstrate that Jesus is on the side of the poor. (Luke 4:18-19; Luke 7:22; etc). As such, the Incarnation is  that “God in Christ comes to the weak and the helpless, and becomes one of them, taking their condition as his own and thus transforming their slave-existence into a liberated existence” (pg 71).

The message of liberation that is at the heart of the Incarnation cannot be understood, nor is it good news for the oppressor. It is offensive to them. Indeed, only the poor and weak can truly understand Jesus’ words, “Come to me…and I will give you rest…” (pg. 71)

So who are the poor? Cone rejects all attempts to spiritualize the poor. He argues that scholars from the affluent cultures are guilty of minimizing “Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the poor by interpreting poverty as a spiritual condition unrelated to social and political phenomena” (pg. 72). The gospel, ultimately “excludes those who stand outside the social existence of the poor” (pg. 73).

So what does this mean for theology?

Cone summarizes four implications of this understanding of the gospel:

  1. “There can be no Christian theology that is not social and political…” (pg 75).
  2. “Theology must be prophetic…” (pg. 75).
  3. “Theology cannot ignore tradition…” (pg. 75).

and the big one, 4. “Theology is always a word about the liberation of the oppressed and humiliated. It is a word of judgment for the oppressors and the rulers. Whenever theologians fail to make this point unmistakably clear, they are not doing Christian theology but the theology of the Antichrist” (pg. 76).

While Cone is right to emphasize social justice and Jesus’ mission to the poor and weak and down-trodden, has he taken it too far? How poor is poor? How do we compare the poor? The poor in North America are rich compared to the poor in South America or Africa or Asia. Does that mean that the Gospel is more for the poor in one culture and not another?

Should there not be an element of spiritualization? If Jesus came to save the whole world then are we not all poor, weak, down-trodden in some way, be it physically or spiritually?

I can’t help but wonder if Cone is presenting a modified version of election, wherein the Gospel is only for certain people at a certain time in a certain situation. In which case, in many ways it looks like this “good news” is not for me. Indeed, being a white female living in North America, I am not poor or oppressed compared to so many others in the world. What does this mean then? If Jesus’ good news is for the poor and the oppressed, then did I not actually receive it?

Jesus’ call that I experienced was not merely a call to discipleship, to come and take up my cross and follow him. It was a call to freedom, a call to being liberated from sin and doubt and despair and a crappy childhood. And it is because of that personal call to liberation that I am able to, in turn, take up my cross, to follow Jesus, to not take the side of the oppressors, and to preach freedom and life to the outcast, the poor, the prisoner and the helpless. If I had not experienced it in my own life, no matter how ‘spiritualized’ it was, my testifying to the liberating power of the cross would be hollow.

 

 

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Willie Jennings: Reprobation & Race

“Reprobation is not simply a state of existence opposite of election; it is also a judgment upon the trajectory of a life, gauging its destiny from what can be known in the moment. Reprobation joins the black body to the Moor body and both to the Jewish body. All are in the sphere of Christian rejection and therefore of divine rejection.”

–Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, page 34

How is this trajectory possible, you may ask? In short, Jennings’ starts with the premise that the formation of the nation-state as well as the colonial moment–where persons like Christopher Columbus came to see people of color as objects to be used for the glory of the Spanish empire–depends on Gentile Christians searching for their identity apart from the story of Israel. To sum up Jennings’ arguments, the Gentiles (all of us) have no hope apart from YHWH; colonialism and nationalism are false hopes outside of a covenantal life with the One True God. From this perspective, the particular doctrine of election and reprobation described above (which may sound familiar to many readers) is inherently a supersessionist project, especially considering the notion in many Christian circles that the Church replaces Israel.

The notion of a “stereotype” of blacks as criminal has deep theological implications; in this understanding, blacks are predestined to live lives under suspicion. The Prison-Industrial Complex becomes an appendage to the divine will.

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Elected from Nothingness: Predestination and Creation ex Nihilo

Thomas Jay Oord has an interesting take on the doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo.

(Here is my liberationist defense of Creation ex nihilo, taken from an independent study project finished two years ago).

The creation account in the Bible does not give us a detailed, eyewitness report of how everything was brought into being; we, along with the scribes who recorded the canon, can only hope to humble ourselves like Job when he was confronted by the Creator: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”[1] The creation story gives us an accurate portrayal of who the Creator is and who God intended us to become.  Christian tradition confesses that the first person in the Trinity, God the Parent, as the creator god we locate in the stories in Genesis chapter one and two.  The Nicene Creed states: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.”[2] The particular Christian understanding that God has always been a Parent means that the Father has never existed without the Son.  A father cannot be identified a father without first having a child.  The Son exists in relation to God the Father and the Father subsists in relation to God’s Son.  In Augustinian terms, the Holy Spirit is the familial love shared between the Father and Son; this is the description of God’s relationship within the Godhead, or the immanent Trinitarian fellowship.[3] The act of creation, therefore, is a sovereign decision by the Triune God to establish a relationship with a creation outside the membership of the Godhead.  Moltmann contends:

The federal theological tradition has termed this God’s trinitarian decision to create the world, interpreting it as God’s inner-trinitarian covenant. […] For it is in this eternal covenant of the Trinity, a covenant made for creation and glorification, that the self-determination of the Father, Son, and the Spirit takes place; and this self-determination, as self-limitation, means making room for creation and making possible the liberty of the non-divine image of God in God.[4]

The One True God exists as a God-in-covenant who creates in order to institute relationships with creation.  God the Almighty Parent fashions the universe in covenant with the Word (Son) and the Breath (Spirit) of God.  Biblical descriptions of God the Parent portray the first person the Trinity as having both maternal and paternal attributes.  Leonardo Boff notes that the Council of Toledo declared that “we must believe that the Son is begotten or born from the womb of the Father”; he adds that “the Father in the begetting of the Son and breathing-out (with the Son) of the Holy Spirit, can also be called Mother.”[5] The Genesis accounts of creation describe the labor pains of the Creator.  Evans comments, “In fact, a rereading of the Genesis 2:4-7 account of creation suggests a God who breathes the breath of life into the new-born cosmos, clearing the mucous from its air passages and enabling the created order to breathe on its own.  This is a womanist trope for the bringing into existence which did not exist before, of giving life, of bonding, of caring.”[6] The relationship between Triune God and God’s creation is free and open because God first decided to freely associate Godself with the world.

African-American Christians affirm God as creator by insisting that God ‘makes a way out of no way.’  The doctrine of creation ex nihilo serves as a description of God’s life-giving omnipotence.  Baker Fletcher observes:

God who “makes something out of nothing […] is like the poor mothers of the globe, who with other women in their families or communities pull a scarcity of resources together to produce a context of sustenance for their young.  God is like those who survive cities torn apart by hurricanes with nothing but the clothes on their back and a scarcity of resources, if any to begin life anew.  The very power of renewing life, individually and collectively, is a divine gift received from a God of courage and grace.”[7]

The fact that God generated all of creation from nothing means that God was impoverished of relationships outside of the immanent Trinitarian covenant.  God’s poverty of fellowship with the Other prior to creation points toward a Creator who prefers a special relationship with those whom society deprives of communion–the marginalized and the undesirables of this world.  In this way, God’s election of the humiliated occurred before the act of creation; in the lack of relationship between the Triune God and the other, we discover God’s creative intent from the foundation of the world.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians that the Trinity chose the afflicted of this world “before the foundation of the world,” according to the riches of God’s grace in order to gain the inheritance of redemption as God’s own people.[8] Lemuel Haynes recognized the inseparable bond between creation and liberation: “The deliverance of sinners is consistent with the law of God and dignity of divine government.”[9] Divine government in the 19th century New Light Calvinist rhetoric referred to the Creator’s character as God was in the beginning.  God the Parent Almighty is also redeemer because the creator god of scripture cares for and provides for the creation.


[1] NRSV, Job 38:4

[2] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Volume I, 165.

[3] Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 104-105.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 111.

[5] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, 170.

[6] James Evans, We Have Been Believers, 76.

[7] Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing With God, 71-72.

[8] Ephesians 1:3-4, 11, 14.

[9] Lemuel Haynes “The Prisoner Released.” In The Life and Character of Rev. Lemuel Haynes, 235.