Apr  2017 25
Two Christian Views on Peace, Justice, Compassion

Editor’s Note: The following post is derived from a presentation made at an interfaith event in Tulsa, Okla., The Table of Abraham, on Sunday, April 23, 2017.

As the majority of U.S. citizens, we Christians have the greatest responsibility to work toward a society that embodies peace, embraces compassion, and seeks justice.

And, as is the case in Christian worship, confession must come close to the beginning of the service. Christians must confess that the stories we tell ourselves about our purpose in this nation have been self-serving. Fueled by self-serving stories, we have destroyed lives. And, fueled by other-serving stories we have contributed to a more just, peaceful, and compassionate society.

Which story we fuel is a matter of interpretation. The Bible does not “say.” We interpret.

The following two options are interpretations. They are not nuanced and entirely fair, because I am trying to draw a sharp contrast for the sake of laying out choices for interpretation.

First Interpretation

This is a life-for-all-based-on-what-is-good-for-some narrative. It begins with white European immigration, supported by a reading of the Bible that appropriates the story of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. America is the Promised Land.

The colonists bring God and civilization. When necessary to claim land and sovereignty, the courts looked to a papal bull of 1452. In that declaration, the pope used his authority to declare war on all non-Christian nations as enemies of Christ and to conquer and to divide between Catholic nations.

In 1823, the U.S. courts used that authority, which they claimed the U.S. was a beneficiary thereof, to deprive Native Americans of their sovereignty.

Much wealth in the U.S. was built on slave labor, and justification of white supremacy and of enslaving Africans was proof-texted using Paul and the story of Noah cursing Ham and his descendants.

In this narrative, white Christian people are innocents, the good ones, the Chosen People, the more civilized, with the right God and the right religion—all 240 or so right versions of the right religion.

Peoples who don’t look like “us” are acceptable only to the extent that they act like us and embrace our ways. Compassion is for the deserving, which includes only those who are like us. Justice is arranged to uphold the rightful hierarchy of values.

Peace is domestic tranquility resulting from everyone knowing and staying in their places, and is enforced by religion, schools, police, courts, the government’s the threat of force—and, if all that should fail, by the threat of millions of gun owners.

Second Interpretation

This one begins with Babel and then the Exodus. It is a narrative built on interpreting biblical stories that I believe require more humility and compassion than the first narrative, and lead to with more justice and peace for more people.

Tower of Babel. In this story, humanity is united to build a tower and take over heaven, to “Make a name for ourselves!” “Being a creature is no good! Let’s storm heaven, toss God out, and rule ourselves.” God thought that was a bad idea, dispersed them, and confused their languages.

There are theological consequences of dispersion—multiplication of language, ethnicity, geography. We can know God only by metaphor, image, analogy, so the diversity of languages, landscapes, and locations contribute to multiple perceptions of God. And the only way to break forth from one’s limited social location is to get to know persons from elsewhere.

This narrative should be accompanied by humility about our truth-claims and a desire to seek understanding rather than assume we understand. And humility and the desire to seek understanding are virtues that contribute to a compassionate, just, and peaceful society.

Now let’s bring in the Exodus narrative.

The Bible is woven throughout with criticism of empires. In contrast to ancient near eastern gods who sanctified the hierarchy of kings over peasants, the Exodus story begins in God hearing the cries of God’s people as they suffer in slavery—which by the way, is the starting point for much African-American Christian theology in this country, a country which began as Egypt for them.

From Egypt to the Babylonian destruction of the temple, to Persian, Seleucid, Roman oppressive rules, one finds the God of the Exodus showing up again and again.

The Exodus narrative is a critique based in: humanity is created in the image of God, idolatry must be avoided (including worshipping kings as gods), slavery and all forms of social oppression are condemned, and there is a moral law to which no king or elected leader is exempt, and God hears the cries of those who are suffering and will work for their freedom.

Every Sunday when Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, we pray the line: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Well, in Greek, Kingdom=Empire. “Your Empire come” is how Jesus’ hearers heard his words—with the issue being there was another Empire, there is another ruling authority in place.

God’s way cannot be identified fully with any human way, or the actions and agenda of any particular nation.

If Christians in America took the Exodus narrative seriously, we might have more compassion for the peoples America conquered and the persons we enslaved, and then act in ways to ground a more solid peace and more equity and justice.

For we have been the Egyptians who took others into slavery. We have been Babylonian conquerors of the land’s indigenous peoples, destroyed their sacred places, and sent them into exile.

If we interpreted the nation’s actions using the God of the Exodus as a starting point, we would not live in a myth of perpetual innocence that makes peace, justice and compassion impossible.

This second interpretation is woven on the backbone of humility, seeking understanding, and repentance because God hears the cries of the oppressed, works to set them free, and blesses persons who join in that work.

The line politicians give at the end of nearly every speech, “And God bless the United States of America” should extent include these words “whenever we act where and how God is acting and present.”

The work of justice is an act of love. Many Christian theologians over time have said something similar to Augustine’s ancient and Reinhold Niebuhr’s modern claims that love is the heart of God and that justice is a social expression of love.

In this second interpretation, we would live in the line from the letter 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love casts out fear.”

By contrast, the word a preacher gave the president the day of his inauguration was: be like Nehemiah and build a wall. Christians could contribute to a nation that welcomes the sojourner with protective hospitality—perhaps most especially the refugee. We could make an anthem out of the verse from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art.”

The story of the Good Samaritan could easily be the Compassionate Samaritan. At the start of that story, Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” At the end of that story, after telling the tale of a beaten man who was not helped by two of his “own kind” but by a man whom “his kind” despised, Jesus does not answer his interrogator’s question. Rather, he posed a different version of the question: “Who proved to be neighbor?”

This story is about recognizing the humanity of a person, regardless of labels. The Samaritan acted to relieve the beaten man’s suffering, and acting to relieve the suffering of another is the heart of compassion. Remember, after Jesus asked, “Who proved to be neighbor?” the reply was, “The one who acted with compassion.”

Final Word

Peace in this second interpretation is not tranquility based on everyone staying in one’s place and, if anyone disrupts the hierarchy of being, force is brought to bear to return that person to where they belong.

In the second interpretation, peace is a telos, a goal, never fully reached by any human society.

We approach peace by striving for justice, with justice understood as ordering a society based on recognizing the dignity of every person and doing everything we can to avoid and eliminate oppression.

As the Psalmist (85:10b) wrote so beautifully, when God’s reign is really here, “righteousness and peace will kiss.”

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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