A God Who Does Not Countenance Abuse Or Oppression

The unfolding of the fight for freedom leads to cries of horror from the Egyptians, and it is a difficult challenge to say how a God who hears the cries of the suffering responded to those cries, especially when those cries were of Egypt’s own innocent children slain on the historic night of the Passover, . . . . I canno resolve the crisis of meeting God as both compassionate and violent in this story. At the very least it requires nothing that the Israelites’ escape – a tale of their cries of terror turned to shouts of joy – comes at an incredible cost. Egypt’s loss inspires a “lament such as has never been and never will be again” (Exod. 11:6). Here we come face-to-face with the complexity of Yahweh, something I will return to below with the lens Jesus gives us to see God as both hearer of cries and present in the midst of the suffering itself, crying out. – Christian Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters To Those Seeking God, p.86

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[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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The angel of death on the night of the first Passover. It is God's action that killed first born, children and adults, across Egypt.

The angel of death on the night of the first Passover. It is God’s action that killed first born, children and adults, across Egypt.

Being the good white liberal young man I was, I had all sorts of untested and unexamined assumptions in my head. Among those were that social change through non-violence was both (a) the only really acceptable Christian approach; and (b) advocates of violence only continued a cycle of violence that would leave more and more people dead. There is an insistent logic to this position that is so attractive. It is the balm in Gilead that soothes the sin-sick soul.

When I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary, among the first things I read that challenged all the things I thought I knew were true was the black liberation theology of James Cone. In his powerful, prophetic denunciations of the religion of white supremacy, he offered a vision of Christianity that denounced every comfortable middle-class platitude I believed to be true.

Later, reading Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, I was intrigued by its final chapter, “Exodus Church”, in which Moltmann offered the Exodus story as a paradigm for the church’s existence and ministry. Part of that paradigm includes the affirmation that ours is a God who chooses sides, whose loving action is directed at particular persons, particular groups, and toward particular ends. While never taking a stand on any particular social practice, it was clear that these particular theologies, protest and political, demonstrated a particular Biblical reality that white liberals like me would prefer to skate past as quickly as possible.

To say that political and social non-violence are articles of faith – dare I call them idols? – among mainstream white Christians is not going too far. We elevate the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. to some kind of Gospel, as noted by a commenter above during a discussion on this very issue. Apparently, even after decades during which the equivocal nature of King’s “victories” have been analyzed, criticized and then re-evaluated again, it remains a capital “T” Truth that, by refusing to respond with violence to the violence of white supremacy, King showed the world change through non-violence is possible. Few things get white liberals all tingly like quoting verses from The Sermon On The Mount to proof-text their stance. The warmth of moral superiority is the best blanket.

Yet, how do we understand the Exodus story? The killing of Egypt’s first-born wasn’t the first time violence had been visited upon them. Flies – that bite and sting, preventing work; frogs – that can kill and eat fowl, eggs; locusts – to devour crops; boils – to leave people ill, unable to work, to exile themselves from the rest of society; turning the river to blood – no potable, usable water in a desert land means death. God’s actions against the Egyptians – including hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to allow the people to leave, despite the cries of his people to do so – try any comforting vision of the white liberal God. This founding story of the Israelites demands we stare in the face the reality not only that God chooses sides, but is ruthless with those who oppose God’s divine plan. Even when that opposition is prompted by God’s action (“the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .”).

I’m not suggesting something like the old and heretical notion that the God of the two Testaments is somehow two distinct entities, or that who God is undergoes a fundamental change at some point between the Testaments. On the contrary, using a reading of Scripture that is both old and new, ancient and post-modern – placing the Christ-event at the heart of the Biblical testimony, stretching back to creation and ahead to the final consummation – we see, again, that God chooses sides. The issue isn’t whether God has somehow changed; the issue, rather, is the odd western insistence on the universality of the Biblical testimony. That temptation to universality, yet another idol best dispensed with, creates a blindness to something I learned from one of my theology professors, Dr. John Godsey: The Scriptural testimony does not move from the general to the specific; rather, it moves from the specific – the Incarnation is nothing if not the Glory of God present in a single person, at a particular place and time – to the potentially universal (“go preach the Gospel to all nations, starting in Judea and Samaria”). I say “potential” because while the promise of world-wide witness is offered, it is a task that continues to this day.

The Passion narrative, like the Passover narrative, is one no less filled with violence and death, betrayal and heartbreak, with that final Easter shout of joy only possible because we have all traveled the via dolorosa with Christ. The way of salvation is not around the horrors and pain of this life. Redemption, Divine acceptance, only comes through blood. That the pain and blood is brought about by God’s actions we too often set to one side, so quick are we to get to the end of the story. We who read the Exodus story, identifying with the Hebrew people and their suffering all the while living as the Egyptians, our national wealth extracted through the toil stolen from slaves and share-croppers, have an obligation first and foremost to remember this story is not our story. When we are confronted by the Passion narrative, living as we do in a great imperial nation, we should remember that death is on our hands. Wanting to identify with the bleeding dying Jesus, or the oppressed and worn-down Hebrews, forgetful of our complicity with ongoing injustice, death-dealing, and oppression does violence to the text; we cannot hear the condemnation of our arrogance, the rejection of our comfort with violence as a tool of national and international policy, and our smug satisfaction that a commitment to non-violence somehow wipes away centuries of genocidal policies toward our Native peoples, African slaves, and others. Unless we recognize that the heart both of the Passion and Exodus stories – related from beginning to end – is a story of God living out preferential treatment. Part of that preferential treatment is the active rejection of those who would thwart God’s designs.

The most potent counter-argument are the words of Jesus from the Cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Doesn’t that, it is argued, offer redemption to those who kill Jesus? By extension, doesn’t that offer redemption to all of us? Doesn’t the whole notion of God’s preference ignore the reality that salvation is offered to all? The only answer to this valid point is that no redemption, no salvation, no conversion is possible without acknowledging, in the words of Bishop Cranmer, our manifold sins and wickedness. We can only do that if we allow the Divine violence of the Passion/Exodus stories to convict us of our complicity in injustice and violence against those whose cries God hears.

The real truth is so simple: White liberals love non-violence because we are terrified that all the violence visited upon God’s enemies will be directed at us. God chooses sides. We need to remember whose side we’re really on.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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