Withdrawal for reflection.
In this essay I address Christian churches in the United States, particularly those that recognize the significance of Christian-Muslim relationships. I ask whether and how it is possible for a Christian church identified with this society and its self-idolizing culture to be an authentic participant in God's Mission--concretized, embodied, and incarnate in Jesus designated the Christ. Embraced, confronted, and called by God through Jesus, are we not, like Paul, asked to retreat again and again into Arabia to reexamine and rethink what God in Christ calls us to be and do? (1)
Three withdrawals into the Arabian wilderness
Saul's Arabian experience. Saul of Tarsus has recorded his Arabian experience. It began with a violent attack on Jesus and the Jesus movement. As a Jew, circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, and a Pharisee with a rigid interpretation of scripture and tradition (Phil 3:4-5, Gal 1:14), Saul was convinced that Jesus was cursed by God (Gal 3:13). The passage from Deut 21:23, "the one who is hung on a tree is cursed of God," was a banner under which Saul imprisoned and put to death the followers of Jesus. In his letters to the Galatians and Romans it is clear that from Saul's perspective Israel was the chosen of God; circumcision was a sign of a Yahweh-Israel covenant that excluded the Gentiles; and righteousness in preparation for the judgment of God called for an obedient response to the Mosaic Law (Rom 9:1-5). The claim of the early Jesus movement that Jesus was the longed-for Messiah promised by the ancient prophets was for Saul a demonic claim that threatened God's ultimate truth and had to be eradicated (Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6; Acts 9:1-9).
With this conviction that he and his fellow anti-Jesus loyalists represented the Truth of God, Saul hurried to Damascus to stamp out the early appearance of a truth-threatening heresy (Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6). On the road he claims to have met Jesus (1 Cor 15:8; Gal 1:12; Acts 9, 22, 26). From Saul's perspective Jesus had been justly crucified, his death had been advocated by members of the religious elite, and he had been executed by the Roman Empire--the provider of global prosperity and peace.
Jesus began the conversation by asking, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Jesus hereby identified with the Jesus-movement people!
"Who are you, Lord?" is Saul's stupefied response.
"I am Jesus whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:1-9).
This experience sent Paul into Arabia to reconsider his understanding of the Truth of God. Everything had to be reconfigured. Saul had not met God through his interpretation of the Law as a ladder-climbing journey into the presence of a righteous God. Rather, God in Christ had met him right in the middle of his blindness to God's truth. "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). The ladder-climbing system was shattered. Zealous, religious persons were exposed as being blind to the ultimate purposes of God. Legal system climbing is not truth; trust in system-breaking love and grace was experienced as the source of authentic life.
Paul's initial thoughts moved on to other revolutionary statements. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the messianic dreams (1 Cor 1:20). Righteousness is not the conclusion of a law-keeping discipline but the sheer gift of God (Rom 3:21-16). The Law is not the final saving act of God but serves as a pedagogical instrument for a particular chosen people (Gal 4:1-7). Jesus became a curse for us (Gal 3:13). A radical revolutionary vision, thought through while in an Arabian wilderness, provided Paul the dynamic initiative for an engagement with the first-century Roman Empire.
Jesus' Arabian experience. The Gospels indicate that Jesus' own ministry began as a revolutionary vision in the Arabian desert. Jesus' message and ministry began with the Holy Spirit driving him into the wilderness (Mk 1:12) to meditate upon the meaning of the voice from heaven that declared him to be God's Son. Was this a call to focus upon "bread," or material goods (Mt 4:3-4)? Was it a call to a violent revolutionary challenge to the Pax Romana (4:8-11)? Was it a call to use supernatural power in order to wow the crowds in the Coliseum seats (4:5-7)? Or was it a vision of justice, righteousness, and compassionate healing that would be achieved by vulnerable servanthood as envisioned by Second Isaiah: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations" (Isa 42: 1ff.; Lk 4:-20)?
According to the Gospels, Jesus was convinced that the chosen people who had been called to be a light to the nations had tragically lost their way (Isa 42:6, 49:6; Mt 5:14). They were salt that had lost its savor and fig trees that did not bear fruit; the religious elite had become unproductive stewards of God's vineyard. John came baptizing with the water of repentance and forgiveness in order that Israel as light to the nations might be restored. (2) With Israel and as an Israelite, Jesus entered into that baptism of transformation. The old Israel with no oil or light was to be buried and cleansed in the waters of Jordan. The new oiled lamps were to rise. The Light of God would again shine upon the earth. But the message and mission had begun in the desert, in recapturing the true vision of the Reign of God. It was in concretizing this Reign of God that Jesus, identified as the Prophet, the Son of Man, the Messiah, fulfilled all the prophetic dreams of ancient Israel (Lk 10:23). A revolutionary vision, prayerfully thought through in an "Arabian experience," empowered Jesus as he announced, "The kingdom of God is drawing near" (Mk 1:14-15).
Luther's Arabian experience. Our Lutheran tradition has Arabian roots, too. When Luther was still a boy carrying his father's dreams of his becoming a lawyer, Columbus "discovered" America. With the arrival in Latin America of representatives of the royalty of Portugal and Spain, the Catholic Church declared that the new land belonged to the Pope and their Church. Similar high-seas adventures and intercontinental journeys had already planted or were soon to plant the church in Africa, India, China, and Japan.
Luther has been criticized for not developing a Protestant branch of this expanding church to rival the papal global movement. (3) However, Luther represents a "retreat into Arabia" for rethinking the gospel message. James Scherer has attempted to capture Luther's reclaiming of the gospel as the foundation for the future mission of the church. (4) Luther's transforming "Arabian missiology" focused on salvation as a gracious gift of forgiveness and a "cloak of righteousness." The gift was not the consequence of a religious, disciplined climb into God's presence but the trusting reception of God's gift--in Paul Tillich's phrase, "the acceptance of my unconditional acceptance." Furthermore, Luther's Arabian reinterpretation was not initiated by a voice-from-heaven experience but from persistent conversation with the biblical text.
Luther did have a "bolt of lightning" religious experience that so terrified him that he forfeited his father's legal dreams for himself. It frightened him into becoming a monk. It was as a monk that he attempted to scale the rugged mountains of religious discipline to find peace with God. It was as a monk and a biblical student that he also discovered the incredible mystery of God's grace. The righteousness of God was not a reward to be won; it was God's offering of the cloak of righteousness to those who trusted the Giver.
Paul, Jesus, and Luther are foundational theological models for the "retreat into Arabia" for rediscovering God's mission of truth. If we are to be authentic witnesses to God's truth encountered in Jesus, the Christ, we also must go into Arabia. We need to retreat for prayerful reconsideration of what we believe God calls us to be and to do. In our engagement with Muslim neighbors we must rethink our seeming imprisonment in U.S. identity and values. We also must reevaluate our theological identity and language in order that it may communicate rather than hide God's Good News.
Rethinking U.S. political identity and materialistic values
The most difficult challenge for U.S. churches when rethinking engagement with Muslim peoples is our identity as U.S. citizens. This is so because Christianity is so easily identified with American civil religion. Evangelical fundamentalism is quick to identify Christian commitment with national patriotism. Furthermore, the U.S. and Israel are perceived to be God's elect nations as world history comes to a final climax. (5) Evangelical fundamentalism decisively affects our U.S. identity because its vision is powerfully propagated by thousands of missionaries, here and around the world; by innumerable radio and television programs; and by current U.S. President George W. Bush, who is identified with this "Christian" vision.
National security as a crisis of faith and witness. A primary issue of our contemporary context is the obsessive concern in the United States for "national security." President Bush continually repeats that his primary responsibility is the security of the American people. Fear for our lives and safety after 9/11 has driven the national psyche into a seeming frenzy. The absurd dimensions of this xenophobic fear is reflected in a conversation I overheard in a small town in central Wisconsin just after the U.S. security color code had been raised. A supermarket checker, in a terrified voice, questioned the safety of her local family. Her fear arose in spite of the fact that her children were far more likely to die at the hands of a drunken driver, be sexually abused, or die of staph infection in a Wisconsin hospital.
Elevation of the security of U.S. citizens (5 percent of the world's population) far above the security of the global human community results in a perspective that considers the other 95 percent of the global family to be of secondary significance and marginalized for the sake of the security of the U.S. population. People outside the U.S. can then be patriotically designated as collateral damage--human bodies to be heaped up and burned to the god of the U.S. preventive war.
These "other" peoples of the world angrily resent being classified as inferior citizens of the world's family and the U.S. arrogance that assumes the superiority of U.S. values, democracy, and power. The "world" does not hate us because of our values or our freedom. We are hated because of our domineering arrogance and power. Like a divinely appointed emperor, the President declared: "You are either for us or against us!" Globally, this nation is identified as Christian. The President of the U.S. claims to be a "born-again" evangelical Christian; the President's cabinet is photographed in prayer; Billy Graham as national chaplain supports the President in prayer. With those images floating around the world, Jesus the Christ is often identified with the national security powers of the U.S. In contrast to the vulnerable servant of God and humanity, Jesus is mutated into the omnipotent wrathful Power who seeks the security of a "Christian elect."
Ironically, the right-wing fundamentalist movement advocates a theology of a fire-breathing judge who has designated the U.S. and Israel as special agents in the concluding chapters of world history. The world continually hears the incantation "May God bless America" as an Empire seeks to impose its national security and values upon the earth.
An imperial faith totally distorts the gracious divine presence that came to expression in the life, message, and mission of Jesus the Christ. The Jesus of the hugely popular Left Behind series drives nails into the hands of the vulnerable servant of God whose hands still bear the marks of a first-century cross. It is irresponsible to take the name of God, from which all life and healing flow, and use that name for the security of 5 percent of the human race! To confess God as the Maker of heaven and earth, or to confess Jesus as the Son of the Cosmic Maker, is to confess that we belong first to the human race and secondarily to family and nation. The only legitimate primary prayer is "God bless the human family." In a war-obsessed society fixated upon self-security, the authentic Jesus people ask "What is best for the human race?" Jesus people are called to speak God's truth to a frightened and often violent people. A church in this distorted context is driven into Arabia to distinguish itself from national deities.
At the beginning of the Iraqi conflict I deeply appreciated Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as he and other church leaders questioned and challenged U.S. policy. Thankfully, there are Jesus people who, like Nathan the prophet challenging David the king, and like Stephen challenging the people of the synagogues, question and challenge today's powers.
Materialistic values and concepts as a crisis of faith and witness. The crisis of the Jesus movement in the U.S. today is not limited to national security fears and imperialistic drives. It includes also the acceptance of materialistic principles and values that dehumanize people and society. U.S. society is permeated with such values. A person is valued by the wages or salaries accumulated, by the money and commodities possessed, and by the entertainment and recreational possibilities at one's fingertips.
This system believes that a free/deregulated market will produce most efficiently the goods and services needed to create a life-fulfilling society. Human wisdom and technological ability are called upon to discover genetic codes, perform brain surgery, and engineer high-performance robots to replace laborers on assembly lines. However, this wisdom and technology cannot be trusted to evaluate the market system, which might be defective or dehumanized. At present 30 percent of the world's population produce and consume 85 percent of the world's wealth, leaving approximately one billion people living in abject poverty and another billion living on $2 a day. The growing global gap between the possessors and dispossessed is simply accepted as the consequence of people unwilling or unable to compete in the global economy, and in the meantime we will be about the American patriotic duty to buy often and consume much more than we need. (6)
The national security/imperialistic drive within our society, coupled with materialistic free-market consumerism, indelibly marks our society and even our churches. The free market largely determines pastoral and staff salaries within churches and consequently pension benefits. In the ALC 70 percent of pastors chose not to invest their pension funds in socially responsible investments but rather put them into funds guided by the materialistic free market where profits take priority over human values. How does one testify to the compassion and love of Jesus who values, affirms, and is committed to reconciling relationships and the restoration of authentic humanity? How does one testify to Jesus who prioritized the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized when one's life is entwined with a system that prioritizes the rich and wealth? Does that not drive us into an Arabian-desert encounter with God and our conscience? Are we not called into Arabia before we are able to witness among Muslim peoples?
An account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, early Bishop of Smyrna, reports that this 83-year old bishop was dragged before an imperial legate in the midst of a multitude of citizens. They cried out for his death with the words "A way with the atheists and the destroyers of our gods!" (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, chaps. 9-13). Polycarp and the early Jesus people refused to recognize the Empire and the Emperor as the divine power before which everyone bowed in gratitude for imperial security and prosperity. They steadfastly proclaimed that Jesus was Lord and that the Father of Jesus was God. In reaction to the Christian vision the Roman populace condemned the Jesus people as atheists, denouncers of Roman gods, and betrayers of imperial security and prosperity.
Perhaps in our desert experience we can listen for the Spirit's call and reclaim the title "atheists" that was hurled at the early Christians by the population of the Roman Empire. Can we by the power of the Spirit muster the courage to reject our own imperial deities? Does the Spirit not drive us into our Arabian experience to ponder how we can extricate the authentic gospel from its identification with the societal deities of U.S. culture? When will we recognize that our baptism into Jesus and the Father and the Spirit is an identity that takes priority over a pledge of allegiance to our flag?
Tim LaHaye, one of the authors of the Left Behind series, claims that red, white, and blue blood flows through his veins. (7) This vulgar distortion of the faith and the less vivid reflections of it found in ourselves must be encountered in our Arabian wilderness experiences. With Jesus we are called into our own dialogue with God and Satan in order that we might possibly be salt, light, and leaven in the world.
Reevaluating our witness among Muslim peoples
This issue of Currents is dedicated to the recognition of Dr. Harold Vogelaar, Professor of Islamic Studies and Interfaith Relations at LSTC, so I focus here on the seeming impossibility for U.S. citizens to witness authentically to Jesus among Muslim peoples. In the remainder of this essay I touch on several theological issues significant for Dr. Vogelaar that emerge when there is an engagement between Muslim and Christian peoples.
Sacred texts. When I began to teach theology in Nigeria 48 years ago, I noticed that Muslim and Christian texts were at the heart of many discussions. However, even more important was the understanding of the nature of those texts. Traditional Muslim theology insists that the Qur'an in Arabic is the literal Word of God and as such is inerrant and infallible. Allah gives a verbal message to an angel; the angel gives that message to Muhammad; and Muhammad speaks that message to the people. The message is in no way influenced by the consciousness of the prophet. The prophet is merely a vehicle of communication. Textual studies do take place within Islam but are limited to seeking for the original meaning of the text in a particular context and its possible relevance for today.
My early teaching experience was within an African ecumenical Christian context deeply influenced by Protestant orthodoxy and Christian fundamentalism. Most of the students understood the biblical text in the same way that their Muslim friends understood the Qur'an: the Bible was the result of a divine dictation of the inerrant word of God (see 2 Esdras [4 Ezra] 14:38-44). There are biblical passages that reflect this view of sacred texts, such as particular prophetic announcements that begin "Thus says the Lord" or with a similar introduction. However, biblical texts are permeated with historical accounts that make reference to historical sources rather than divine dictation (Josh 10:13; Num 21:14; 1 Chron 29:29); prayers that question God (Jer 20:7ff.; Job); content that reflects human fallibility concerning the nature of the universe (Genesis 1-3); contradictory views of eschatology (Psalm 30 and 1 Corinthians 15); uncertainty about one's theology (1 Cor 7:39-40); historical variations (the cleansing of the Temple in the Synoptics and John); and so on.
Many within the Christian community see the biblical sacred texts as deeply and indelibly molded by the human communities and authors who wrote, edited, or collected these texts. The art of biblical interpretation is the sensitive search within fallible and vulnerable human documents for a divine encounter that has the potential for transforming life that it might be permeated with trust, hope, and love. A fundamental starting point for the Jesus people in the art of hermeneutics is the conviction that Jesus is the Christ and, as the Christ, is the key to biblical interpretation. The biblical texts contain many and various theological traditions that are in conflict with one other. The Jesus communities look for those traditions that are fulfilled in Jesus as the Christ and those that flow from this event and explore most fully the Crucified Truth found in Jesus. The Lutheran tradition has inherited a treasure in Martin Luther's thought that scripture is the manger in which Jesus is to be found. (8)
These two premises--scripture is marked by the human, and Jesus, the Christ, not scripture, is ultimately the Word of God--are basic to our Arabian theological meditation as we reflect on our engagement with Muslim peoples. These premises demand that the violent portrayal of God in many biblical passages not be interpreted as the Word of God. (9) Burnt offerings of women and children are not the Word of God (Deut 13:12-18). The words of Jesus, "It was said ... but I say ... love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44), are the Word of God. Imperial powers crush victims. Kingdom-of-God people are crushed in their nonviolent, vulnerable struggle to transform life from within. Jesus, the Christ, was hanged at Calvary as the consequence of that struggle. That is the Word of God!
Jesus, the Christ, and the scope of grace. Traditional theological discussions have assumed that the higher or more normative the Christology the more exclusive the gospel, and the lower or less normative the Christology the more pluralistic the gospel. Contemporary discussions usually accept this premise and assert that the New Testament reflects the former while post-Enlightenment and postmodern theology assume the latter.
These assumptions reflect a complete misunderstanding of much of the biblical and Jesus tradition. (10) We must reclaim that the central biblical and Jesus tradition affirms that God's saving activity and revelation is universally present and at the same time affirms that Jesus, the Christ, is the authentic concretization of God's activity and revelation. The revealing and transforming work of God incarnate in Jesus as the Christ is the same revealing and transforming work of God universally present throughout the universe. In the words of the Gospel of John, "The true light which is enlightening all of humanity was coming into the world" (John 1:9), or, in the words of Augustine, "The Son [Logos] came [broke into our sphere of reality] to where the Son already was" (The Trinity, Book II, chap. 5). "The Logos of the Gospel [John 1:1-14] reveals what is everywhere present, everywhere bringing light, everywhere pointing to and witnessing to that which is the true light coming into and enfleshed in the world." (11)
This cosmic revealing and saving Reality is witnessed to in a variety of traditions and texts throughout the Bible. There is one God who is Creator of heaven and earth; there is one human family created in the image of God with the potential of imaging God (Genesis 1); there is one Mind or Wisdom of God that is manifest throughout all creation and all humanity (Proverbs 8; John 1). This Wisdom or Word of God comes to expression within the chosen servants of God (Isaiah 42; Col 1:20). However, the same Word of God is found outside the household of faith, salvifically active in a Gentile king, Melchizedek, who blessed Abraham, the father of the elect servants (Gen 14:17-20); in Job, who struggled with God; in a pre-covenant maidservant, Hagar, who saw God (Gen 16:7-14); in astrologers from the East, who honored the birth of a child and returned to their homes guided by God (Mt 2:1-12); and in Roman military officers who prayed to God (Acts 10). Jesus fully recognized the activity of God and faithful responses to God outside the "chosen people." He saw God in the life of a Syrophoenician widow serving Elijah (Luke 4); in Naaman the Syrian officer healed by Elisha (Luke 4); in the Samaritan businessman who rescued the ambushed Jewish traveler (Luke 10); and in the nations gathered on the final judgment day separated not by religious ritual or theological theses but by their response to the least in their midst (Mt 25:31-46).
Central to the early Jesus movement is its evident openness to the universal presence and activity of God and the conviction that the God who is universally present is also authentically and normatively concretized or incarnate in Jesus the Christ. One can trust that the life-affirming and transforming love encountered in Jesus embraces and permeates all creation. The radical nature of that all-embracing divine love becomes specific in the words of Jesus, "Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44). It is incarnate in his words from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34).
Furthermore, all humanity is universally embraced by that divine love, grace, and forgiveness whether they know it or not! Note the unknown love of God for the terrorist of Nineveh (Jonah 1-3), the humble tax collector who cried out "God be merciful to me, a sinner" (Lk 8:13), or the stumbling ignorance of those who are welcomed or denied participation in God's ultimate cosmic re-creation (Mt 25:35ff.).
The Jesus movement is called into participation in this inclusive pluralism of the very early church. (12) This means recognizing the presence and activity of God within Muslim peoples and traditions. It means being called into engagement with people who have also walked and wrestled with God. It means the possibility of being enriched, informed, and transformed by the insights and wisdom of Muslims who also find themselves challenged to seek Truth. It means being woven into a common humanity where divine Truth is always distorted by human brokenness and error. It means that we trust that the compassion and grace and vulnerable servant-hood embodied in Jesus already embraces Muslim people and Christian people in spite of our differing theologies. It means sharing visions of transforming Truth that are both similar and distinctive, and living those truths in the presence of God and one another.
We as the Jesus people are called into Arabia to rethink the height, depth, and breadth of God's saving presence. As the New Testament testifies, we do not honor Jesus by limiting the scope of God's grace incarnate in the Christ.
Jesus, the Christ, and the vulnerability of God
Because the concept of the vulnerability of God is not accepted in Islam, it is an issue that must be considered in the Christian-Muslim dialogues. In recent decades the vulnerability and suffering of God has been a topic passionately debated within Christian theological discussions. The biblical tradition that focused on a narrative describing the living relationship between a personal God and the human family spoke of the Divine in terms of joy and sorrow, anger and compassion, love and forgiveness. In so doing it posited no questions about the suffering and passibility of God.
As the Christian faith moved into a Hellenistic culture it was affected and transformed by a philosophy that questioned the passion-filled immorality of Hellenistic deities and pointed rather to a metaphysical/ontological Reality that transcended human feelings and thought, an ultimate unchanging Reality beyond human limitations and therefore beyond suffering or passibility. The Ultimate One or Unmoved Mover was impassible and omnipotent. (13)
Christian theology adopted these Hellenistic philosophical categories and for centuries reiterated the impassibility of God. God could not and did not suffer. There were ongoing attempts to retain the earlier biblical tradition in discussions of the Incarnation in which the two natures of the Christ, although unmixed and distinct, shared the attributes of each other through a mystery of an exchange of attributes. (14) However, in recent years a multiplicity of theological initiatives has increasingly affirmed the suffering of God. (15) A primary thesis has been that one cannot affirm that God is love unless one is willing to also affirm that the cost (16) and consequence of love is suffering with, because of, and for the human community. (17)
This discussion is crucial to a dialogue between Christian and Muslim theologies. First, it is the vulnerability and suffering of God, particularly manifest in the crucifixion of Jesus, that authentically critiques Christian imperialism. The power of God revealed and active in a crucified Messiah is not the power of violent coercion that crushes the enemy but rather the power that is willing to be vulnerable to coercive violent power.
The original revelatory events of the Jesus tradition are radically distinct from the origins of the Jewish and Islamic traditions. For example, the Jewish community's celebration of Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, commemorates the violent Maccabbean revolt against the Seleucid Empire led by Antiochus Epiphanes. The origins of Islam lie in the prophetic ministry of Muhammad who served not only as prophet but as wise statesman and a strong military leader. Nonvulnerable political coercive structures and power are integrated into both Judaism and Islam.
One must immediately add that ever since Constantine the same political order and coercive violence has been structured into Christendom. However, it did not so mark Jesus or the early Jesus movement. It is argued by Christians as well as Muslims that the reason for early Christian pacifism was simply that Christians as a persecuted minority were in no position to create a political entity requiring the use of force. However, when Christian numbers took over an empire it was only natural and logical for them to use their power to coerce a new law and order.
This is a misconceived approach to the radical challenge that confronts us in Jesus. Jesus asserted that the kingdom or Reign of God is led by a heavenly Father who passionately cared for all the children of God or by a Mother who wept over the children of the city. That love is deep--weeping and suffering with those marginalized and in pain and rejoicing and partying with those who had been lost and were now found! That love is life-affirming, healing, and transforming. It embraces all of humanity, even the enemy who insists upon denying God's creative and caring will. In the Reign of God, political or social violence was never to be used. Occupational forces of the Roman Empire were to be assisted when claiming their Roman right to have their burdens carried for a mile. Furthermore, in the name of the coming Reign of God one should spontaneously carry the burden for two. If in arrogance a superior slapped one's face with the back of his hand, kingdom people would offer the enemy a second chance--the other cheek. The old adage from sacred scripture--"an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"--is no longer valid among kingdom people. In the new world one challenges evil with good. The old customs regulating legal retaliation where evil was challenged by evil were no longer relevant in the kingdom that Jesus envisioned. Now humanity would participate in the perfect love of God who causes the rain and the sun to bless both saints and sinners (Mt 5:38-48).
Furthermore, in the vision of this radically structured new reality, people not only care for one another, they are recruited to serve one another. This is not the usual society where the elite and powerful demand the service of the weak. In the Reign of God the elite are marked by humble servanthood, not because they have no choice but because this is God's chosen vocation for Godself and for the new Spirit-created community (Mk 10:42-45).
This is an upside-down community. It does not fit or compete with the present structures. The marks of noncoercive love--universal value for all humanity and creative and caring service--shatter all ethnic and political structures that demand exclusive solidarity or coercive political force. This reality does not emerge out of law and order but bubbles forth from the cosmic springs of life as the Spirit of God permeates life as salt, leaven, and light. It crosses geographical, ethnic, and political boundaries without resorting to the present world's weapons of military and economic power.
Some have remarked that, whereas the idealism of Jesus may be compatible with our personal moral or ethical standards, it is not adequate for the necessary order demanded by social and political structures. This would seem to be true. In the words of an ELCA theologian, "You wouldn't want Jesus as the mayor of your city" or of a Chinese communist bureaucrat, "You can't run a country that way." (18)
The contemporary Jesus movement continues to debate the question: How do we understand and interpret the radical Jesus of the Gospels? The Anabaptist movement (Mennonites and Brethren), the Quakers, and other peace movements insist that we be conformed to the nonviolent but prophetic Jesus. (19) There seems to be a radical Christian authenticity to this way of discipleship. Still, most Christians seek in some way to modify Jesus' nonviolence in applying the values of Jesus to contemporary political and economic structures. For example, when society discusses the possibility of war, we as Christians often begin our discussion with "a just or justified war theory." However, when we enter this world we are leaving the visions of Jesus and also the Buddha, and we are in the same world as our Muslim sisters and brothers and others living outside the Jesus and Buddha stories.
Our Arabian conversation and meditation must accept the challenge of a dialogue with the radical Jesus, a dialogue in which we attempt to hear the voice of God amid the cacophony of demonic voices and national anthems. We are called to recognize that ultimately the values of love, integrity, care, gentleness, trust, and compassion can never be coerced. These are kingdom-of-God values and affect us as salt, leaven, and light. Neither muscle nor might provides an ounce of power in their emergence (Zech 4:6). Furthermore, forgiveness and reconciliation, which are at the heart of the gospel, cannot be coerced. Force is irrelevant in matters of forgiveness. If I betray or hurt someone, there is no possibility of my reconciliation through coercive force or bribery. My reconciled future lies only in my family's or friend's willingness to accept my betrayal into their own life--to live with it, agonize over it, and offer me a future with them. My future with God lies in that same vulnerable love of God embodied on Calvary.
How do we live out this radical reality concretized in Jesus? How do we relate that radical vision to the ambiguity and brokenness of our lives as citizens, cultures, ethnic peoples? The original Jesus vision calls us into living relationships with people and the world. This vision may speak of a kingdom that transcends this world; however, it is passionately wrapped up in the world. Jesus, for example, challenged the revolutionary zealots of his day who convinced other first-century Jews and their Pharisaic leadership to commit national suicide. Jesus challenged the religious elite and their temple system that commercialized a faith intended to draw the community into communion with God. He challenged religious scholars and traditionalists who had distorted a prophetic and wisdom tradition that lifted up the values of righteousness and compassion and replaced it with legalistic laws and rituals that burdened or damned most of the human race. Jesus proclaimed a radical vision of the kingdom of God that relegated Caesar and the Empire to cosmic irrelevance. However, he did not condemn a Roman centurion for his military vocation. Dare we find and follow this radical vision into our Arabian desert?
The Incarnation and Trinity
The theological formulations of the Incarnation and Trinity are teachings that have constructed walls between Christians and Muslims. This is tragic, because such walls hide the distinctive treasures of each community and do not allow recognition of the contextual nature of the later formulations.
The primary distinction between the two communities is found in the Jesus story and in the Muhammad-Quranic narrative. The Jesus story, as noted above, envisions a Reign of God embodied in Jesus and the early disciples as a reign of an all-embracing, life-affirming, vulnerable, forgiving servanthood. One of its primary marks is a Spirit-created, noncoercive dynamic that transforms life from within. It moves through creation as salt, leaven, and light. Islam from its inception affirms the value of creation and humanity's God-given purpose to guide the ordering of that creation under the guidance of Allah's messenger. The seal of that prophetic vicegerency is found in Muhammad's Quranic revelations that speak not only to personal ethics but also to the God-given political, social, and economic structures that are to be imposed upon society for its well-being. Here lies the primary distinction, originating in the revelatory events of each community.
A secondary distinction is the contextual articulation of the ultimate significance of these events for the faith communities involved. Within the Muslim community, the theological formulation has remained simple and faithful to its original Semitic context. Muhammad is a prophet; however, within a pluralism of prophetic voices, Muhammad and his Quranic message are the final seal of universal prophecy. It is normative for the Islamic community and global societies. In contrast to the Muslim insistence on maintaining the Semitic context and the Arabic language, the Jesus community immediately adopted the Greek language and began to interpret the gospel in Hellenistic theological and philosophical terms. Within the very early Aramean-speaking Semitic church Jesus was not confessed as divine. Jesus was a prophet, the Prophet, the Son of Man to whom God's Reign was to be gifted (Dan 7:9-14; Mk 14:60-62), the Messiah dreamed of by earlier prophets and kings (Lk 10:23), and Son of God as one called and designated perhaps for a royal role. As the Jesus movement entered the Hellenistic Mediterranean world it moved into an environment where Caesar was honored as lord and god and divinities were understood to visit the earth (Acts 14:8-18). Furthermore, with the mythologies of mystery religions and the categories of Neo-Platonic philosophy the early Christians found symbols and categories that enabled them to speak of the ultimate meaning of Jesus within the Hellenistic culture.
In the Roman Empire where Caesar was lord and god, Christians rejected this allegiance with the hymn so that "every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:10-11). In the context of the mystery religions, one was called to die and rise not with deities of the natural order but with Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate and raised by the Spirit of God (Rom 6:1-11). In the context of Neo-Platonic philosophy, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the biblical narrative were interpreted within Plotinus's philosophical world of the One, the Mind, and the Soul/Spirit. (20) Only in this Hellenistic world was Jesus confessed as divine. Within this context the Jesus movement explored the possibilities of testifying in ontological as well as historical symbols and realities. These confessions are already prevalent in the Greek New Testament. The Gospel of John declares that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14); however, Jesus ascends to meet his God and our God (John 20:17). Paul writes, "The one who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped ... humbled himself and took the form of a servant" (Phil 2:5-11). Paul also writes that the risen Christ will finally deliver all to God, that God might be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). All of these confessions are meant to testify that God's truth is expressed in the Jesus story. The theological symbols are not the Word of God; Jesus, the Christ, is the Word of God.
How do we rethink this faith in the Arabian desert? In our discussions and dialogue with Muslims, can we return to the ultimate issues that make the Jesus story distinctive? Rather than being guardians of trinitarian theological formulations and cross-bearers within sacred wars, can we, as a contemporary Jesus movement, return to the priority of compassion and love and God's call to the vulnerability of divine servanthood concretized in Jesus, the Christ? Can we once again accept a confession of our faith in Semitic historical terms in order that the primary gospel message might be heard? (21)
The understanding of the "sacred text," the scope of God's saving grace, the vulnerability of God and the crucifixion of the Christ, and the secondary significance of trinitarian and incarnational theology are theological challenges that call us "into Arabia."
Mark W. Thomsen
Visiting Professor of Mission
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1. One could question whether Paul went to Arabia to rethink the message. Acts 9:25 indicates that he escaped a Jewish death plot by leaving Damascus but makes no mention of a trip into Arabia. Acts 9:26 has Paul traveling immediately from Damascus to Jerusalem to join the disciples. In Galatians 1:17-18 Paul reports that he went into Arabia and then, after three years, to Jerusalem. Because Paul gives a first-hand report in Galatians, it is probable that the Arabian visit followed his escape from Damascus. Arabia was not densely populated and had no major cities, so it is likely that Paul sought refuge rather than Gentile converts. And it is certain that he would have been reflecting on the significance of his Christ encounter for his theology.
2. See Oscar Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1950), and W. F. Flemington's article "Baptism" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (1962).
3. James A. Scherer, Gospel Church and Kingdom (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 54. See also Kelly A. Fryer's contribution to The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution, ed. Richard Bliese and Craig Van Gelder, chap. 2, endnote 4 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005).
4. Scherer, Gospel Church and Kingdom, 51-66.
5. Charles Marsh, Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia and self-designated "evangelical," reports in the New York Times (January 20, 2006) on pro-war sermons preached by evangelical fundamentalists during the time leading up to the present war in Iraq.
6. Walter Brueggemann, "Counterscript: Living with the Elusive God," The Christian Century (Nov. 29, 2005), 22-23.
7. Timothy LaHaye, Newsweek (May 24, 2004), 48.
8. Martin Luther, "The Gospel of Christmas Eve, Luke 2.1-14," Luther's Works 51:21.
9. Brueggemann, "Counterscript," 25. I find Brueggemann's use of sacred texts in interpreting the nature of God to be questionable. Every biblical text appears to have equal validity. He writes, "But the primary reason that the text is not monolithic, one-dimensional or seamless is not because of such flaws but because the key character is elusive. God is, as Job found, irascible in freedom and pathos-filled in sovereignty, one who traffics in hiddenness and violence. This God does not fit much of our theological preference and certainly does not conform to any of our bourgeois reductionism. This God is the one who keeps life ragged and open, who refuses domestication but who will not let our lives be domesticated, either." This irascible God does not challenge my irascible, violent inner self that is enticed by violent solutions to human problems.
10. See S. Wesley Ariarajah, The Bible and Peoples of Other Faiths (Geneva: The World Council of Churches, 1985), 1-28, and Mark W. Thomsen, Christ Crucified: A 21st-Century Missiology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2004), chaps. 1, 3, 4.
11. Thomsen, Christ Crucified, 35.
12. John 14 has often been used as the basis for an exclusive position (also Acts 4:12), and all other data are subsumed under this theme. I have taken the inclusive/pluralist position as well-founded in the Jesus story and its biblical context. One can also read John 14:6-7 as compatible with this view. See Paul Rajashekar, "Navigating Difficult Questions," in The Evangelizing Church, 96-98, and Thomsen, Christ Crucified, 84-86.
13. See Warren Williams, The Passion of God (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), and Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988).
14. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 227ff. See also Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, 25ff.
15. See Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, 16ff., for a host of references to biblical theologians including Wheeler Robinson and Abraham J. Heschel, Asian theologians Kitamori and Song Lee, Process theologians Daniel D. Williams and Charles Hartshorne, and Black theologian James Cone. See also Moltmann's The Crucified God; Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003); and Terrence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
16. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, 17.
17. Fretheim, The Suffering of God.
18. Both quotations are from personal conversations.
19. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972). See also Munib Younan, Witnessing for Peace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), and Mitri Raheb, Bethlehem Besieged (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), both of whom advocate nonviolence in a world of Zionist oppression.
20. Augustine, The Confessions, Book VII.
21. See the study God and Jesus: Theological Reflections for Christian-Muslim Dialogue (Division for Global Mission and Inter-Church Cooperation, American Lutheran Church, 1986). See particularly Robert Jenson's "The Risen Prophet." Jenson and the study argue that within the Semitic world of Islam the role of the prophet is recognized. Jenson argues that the resurrection is God's act that identifies the Risen Prophet as the authentic voice of God. See also Mark Thomsen, "Christology of the Spirit and the Nicene Creed," Dialog 16 (Spring 1977): 135-38, where I argue that a Christology of the Spirit is a legitimate contemporary christological confession and would be applicable in a contemporary Semitic world.
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|Author:||Thomsen, Mark W.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
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