This is a guest post. A friend of mine spoke words recently which deserve careful attention by others. For various reasons, she is not able to be public online, so I offered to post her words anonymously. Her story and her thoughtfulness show us a view of God who makes all things right out of deep love for us!
I have a secret. It’s a secret I’ve held all my life, for fear of losing what I hold most dear. I’ve let a few of you in on this secret. But have often feared the ramifications if I were to be forthright about who I am. Why, you wonder? What can she possibly have to hide. I am a member of one of the most maligned and misunderstood ethnic groups in the world today. Many American churchgoers would like to see my people run into the sea.
What’s my secret? I am the daughter of a Palestinian war refugee. My mother was born in Jerusalem, where my family had lived for generations. A few months after her birth her father, my grandfather, was one of 93 killed by an Israeli terrorist’s bomb. Two years later, my grandmother fled in the middle of the night with her two young children, to escape what Israelis call the War of Independence. Palestinians call it the “Nakba”; the “Catastrophe”. My Mother grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut. And the terrorist who killed my, grandfather? He was later elected Prime Minister of the nation of Israel.
I love God and God’s story. I desire nothing more than to be a part of it. Yet, I have struggled with the American evangelical gospel narrative. A gospel that says my people must be annihilated in order to bring about Jesus return. Even within my own bi-racial home, dispensational theology dominated.
Just a bit of background for those who didn’t grow up steeped in the American Evangelical tradition. Dispensationalism is a theological system birthed in America in the 1850’s and popularized over the past 160 years. The version I grew up around holds within it an eschatology that requires Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine be granted to the nation of Israel to set up the end times and bring about the return of Christ. That poses a problem for past and current Palestinian residents. This theology is intimately connected to the mis-treatment of the Palestinian people and our government’s support of the Israeli state.
I’ve spent my life searching understanding of God that is inclusive, not exclusive— that includes people like me. One that truly is good news.
Being half white, I most often have a choice whether to be forthright or not about my mixed racial heritage, though as a child attending conservative Christian schools there were times I was teased and excluded because I stood out as different.
We say sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never hurt us. But even from a very young age we know this is a lie. Words are powerful. They shape our understanding of reality. The same is true of the words we use to tell story of God. I continue to sift through the story of faith I was handed as a child, and I find myself reacting strongly to particular words that paint a picture of a far different God than the God I have come to know.
As I grew in awareness of my heritage and the conversations about Israel in the evangelical churches I attended until college, I faced a very real dilemma. Hide my families story, and fit in or risk being on the outside.
I wonder if I would have walked away from faith completely had I not encountered Quakers, and the existence of a school called Ramallah Friends. Wait, there is a Christian group who sees the treatment of Palestinians over the past 72 years as wrong? Who don’t need to exclude Palestinians in order to make the story of faith work?
Story is a potent medium. How we tell God’s story has a human cost. Religion has always been a means to rationalize oppression and murder. Christianity is no exception. From the moment Christianity became co-opted by empire in the time of Constantine, shortly after the rise of the early church, it was used by some as a tool of oppression. We can look with chagrin at the bloody history that followed justified by a “scriptural mandate”, to name a few: the crusades, colonialism-which led to the oppression and murder of indigenous people around the world, the African slave trade, the holocaust, and the current marginalization, oppression and murder of the Palestinian people; the list could go on.
Almost two years ago, we were asked to agree with a statement which explicitly excluded another entire group of people, those who identify as LGBTQ. You might be able to imagine my inner turmoil. This tumultuous time set me on a path of deconstructing my faith to its foundation— what do I believe to be true about God. What is God’s character, purpose and action in the world?
I firmly believe the lens through which we view ourselves and relate to others is shaped by our concept of God.
In the stories of Christ’s life and work in the Gospels, the arc of the entire biblical narrative, and my living experience of God, I see a God of unfathomably deep love that is about the work of mending the entire universe – which includes but is not limited to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with creation.
This bring us to my first trigger word: “Redeem.” Christians throughout the centuries have been very good at drawing lines, at proclaiming God’s favor only for the “redeemed.” The idea being that Jesus life substituted on the cross for ours brings individual redemption, to individual lives creating a group of redeemed individuals who live in God’s favor. This is a very transactional view of redemption and leads to several problems:
- First, this way of understanding redemption implicitly creates categories: redeemed vs. unredeemed. Once we’ve divided humanity this way, it’s easy to apply value statements to the two groups. Valuable vs. worthless. Righteous vs. Infidels. Now we have justification for the atrocities we perpetrate.
- Second, it’s built on a picture of an angry God whose sense of justice needs satisfaction through blood sacrifice.
- Third, it is often coupled with the idea that the redeemed will be whisked away to heaven and the earth destroyed, so we can exploit creation for our own gain while we’re here. This understanding leaves us with brokenness at every level of relationship—with God, with others and with creation — can the way the church thinks about redemption be redeemed?
If our foundational belief about God is that God is a God of love, not violence, that the kingdom of God is intensely peaceable, and God’s purpose is to make things right, how does this impact our understanding of redemption?
I know that I’m asking us to stretch our frame of a bit. The English definition of the word redeem is quite transactional:
- To buy or pay off; clear by payment: to redeem a mortgage.
- To buy back, as after a tax sale or a mortgage foreclosure.
- To recover (something pledged or mortgaged) by payment or other satisfaction: to redeem a pawned watch.
So consider with me a few of uses of the word redeem found in the Hebrew Bible, stories from Old Testament stories, and see if this transactional definition of redeem rings true.
In the book of Ruth, Ruth and Naomi are destitute. As widows they are the marginalized of their society. Ruth is picking fallen grain from the edge of Boaz’ field, Boaz sees her and inquires who she is. Something happens in the night between Ruth and Boaz, it’s not quite clear what, but the upshot of the story is Boaz becomes their kinsman-redeemer, buying Naomi’s family land and marrying Ruth. This redemption appears transactional.
The story of Hosea and Gomer is another instance where we find the word redeemed. A prophetic tale played out in Hosea’s life of God’s love for God’s people and willingness to bear shame in order to restore relationship. God tells Hosea to marry Gomer, a known prostitute. Shortly after the marriage. Gomer returns to her life of sleeping around.
Eventually she falls destitute and sells herself into slavery. God directs Hosea to go to the public square (thus bearing her shame) and redeem her. Again, money changes hands, so we can read this as transactional redemption as well. The uses of the word redeem in the Levitical law are also consistent with a transactional understanding.
But the most central narrative to the Hebrew people’s identity turns this transactional view of redemption on its head. The word redeem is frequently used in the story of the Exodus from Egypt or texts that refer to it. Deuteronomy 15:15, “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.” God made a covenant with Abraham to make of him a great nation through which all nations would be blessed. But this newly formed people had fallen in to slavery in Egypt. God sets out with Moses help to redeem them.
This redemption isn’t transactional. God doesn’t go pay Pharaoh for the Israelites. This act of redemption is about Shalom, setting things right. God’s people have been enslaved in Egypt. They are oppressed. They are suffering. God moves in might to redeem them. To restore them as a people, to bring freedom.
God offers them renewed opportunity to live in worship of God, in whole relationship with each other and creation. As the central identity narrative of the Hebrew people, this idea of Redemption as God making things right would have shaped their understanding of the narratives found in Ruth and Hosea as well:
Boaz’s redemption of Naomi and Ruth is far greater than a monetary action. Boaz redeems Naomi’s place in society and offers Ruth, an outsider, standing within the community as his wife. It is a redemption of their family name, honor and position—an action of shalom- making right.
Hosea buys Gomer not to be his slave, but to restore her as his wife—a restoration of relationship, a making right—again Shalom.
This brings me to Christmas. What? From Hosea and Gomer to Christmas? That’s quite a leap you say—but hear me out. I love Christmas, it is for me the grand story of making things right. You see, I am all about incarnation. God choosing to enter the fragile and finite stuff of flesh and bone, to become one of us, now that’s magic.
Come the New Year, I have hard time letting go of Christmas. Our tree stays up through Epiphany and some years the Christmas decorations might not be fully put away until February. We need incarnation, to soak in the reality that God, the divine trinity, loves us so deeply that God chose to become flesh in order to redeem us, to make right the brokenness in our relationship with God, with each other and with the earth.
I’ve sometimes pondered how my faith might differ had I grown up in my mother’s Orthodox tradition instead of my father’s protestantism. The Orthodox Church holds Christ’s incarnation as the pivot of history.
This God of love willing to incarnate to make all things right seems the antithesis of the God presented in a transactional or substitutionary view of redemption, an angry judgmental God demanding blood for sin. God, whom we agree is essentially love, purposed the death of God’s own son, turning away from him on the cross?
What of our tendency to judge the acceptability of others to God flows from a need to be sure of our own standing before this angry God whose need for satisfaction trumps love?
An incarnational view of redemption, also called the recapitulation theory of atonement, pre-dates the idea of a transactional or substitutionary view of atonement within the life of the church. God in God’s unfathomably deep love chose to become one of us, reconciling humanity and divinity first within Christ, himself. Christ then lived a life of sacrificial love and obedience to God in opposition to the sinful way of the world, in so doing by his faithfulness Christ redeemed Adam’s unfaithfulness, a remedy for sin systemic and individual. God’s purpose in Christ is to unite humanity, all of creation actually, with God. Redemption, Shalom, for the whole world.
This truth shines in John 3:16:
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
Putting the world right is redemption. God’s action and purpose in the world is redemption —the making whole of our relationship with God, with each other, with the world.
Jesus life and ministry demonstrates our loving God’s restorative purpose. Jesus spends his time with the hurting and the marginalized. He heals, forgives, raises up, dignifies those he interacts with. Jesus talks repeatedly about the kingdom of God, an upside down kingdom where the first shall be last and the foolish things of the world are used to shame the world’s wisdom.
Jesus is put to death, murdered, by the rulers and powers of a broken world. Each and every one of us is complicit with the world’s system. Any time we make decisions that break relationship with another, putting our own wants or desires above living in right relationship with God, others and creation—our desire for security, for advancement, to be right— we buy into the world’s sinful system.
Jesus lived a sacrificially obedient life to its logical end – an unjust death at the hands of the world’s system of empire. The principalities of the world could not co-opt him; he refused to be complicit so they killed him.
What is happening at the cross?
“Jesus sacrificed his life to show us the love of the Father. Jesus sacrificed his life to remain true to everything he taught in the Sermon on the mount about love for our enemies. Jesus sacrificed his life to confirm a new covenant of love and mercy. Jesus sacrificed his life to Death in order to be swallowed by death and destroy Death from the inside.”
[Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God, p. 108]
If God is not abandoning Jesus on the cross, where is God in Jesus suffering? Where is God in the suffering of an ostracized child on the playground? In genocide, in famine, in war? How can we understand God’s posture toward Christ suffering on the cross, and towards us in our suffering?
In the words of Pope Benedixt XVI:
“The Father supports the cross and the crucified, bends lovingly over him and the two are, as it were, together on the cross. So in a grand and pure way, one perceives there what God’s mercy means, what the participation of God in man’s suffering means. It is not a matter of cruel justice, not a matter of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and the reality of creation: the true intimate overcoming of evil that ultimately can be realized only in the suffering of love.”
God has not rejected Christ as he carries the weight of our sin, God co-suffers in love with Christ to condemn the world’s systems of violence, oppression and death. An un-redeemed perspective allows us to make redemption into a personal golden ticket out of hell. This leaves untouched the world’s systematic sin. Leaves the principalities and powers of this world in control and invites us to be complicit with them. We can decide who’s in and who’s out. Whose lives are expendable to bring about Christ’s return.
So how do we live into a redeemed vision of redemption? This idea that God at the cross, through sacrificial love, is offering humanity a way out its continual cycle of greed, oppression and violence. We are invited to join God in co-suffering love with the vulnerable and oppressed, to live into the already-and-not-yet kingdom. For early Christians following the way of Jesus was about changed life here and now.
Justin Martyr writes less than a hundred years after Christ about the mended way of life Jesus offers:
“We who formerly…valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies…”
[Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 14, as quoted in Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Pennsylvania State University Press: 1986), p. 13.]
This redeemed picture of redemption leads me to a new set of questions: How do I as a Palestinian, a mother of grade school children, a community member, live with an attitude of Christ Jesus, who being very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant? How do I, how do we enter ever more deeply into this mended way of life?
Queries for reflection:
In what ways does my picture of God need redeeming?
How might immersing myself in the relentless, persistent flood of God’s love transform my view of self, others and creation?
What does it mean for me to lean into the idea of mended relationship with God, humanity and the world?
Consider using loving kindness meditation this week: Visualize God’s love for you like a light surrounding you. Now visualize someone you care about and the light surrounding them. Now move it outward to your family, then further to your neighbors, your community, to specific marginalized groups, to the whole of creation.