Tuesday, November 29, 2011

...More Like Guidelines...

Truss shadows by paynehollow
Truss shadows, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

I've been in several conversations in several places of late that have had a common theme that I think may be boiled down to: What is the role of rules as found in the Bible.

It has been suggested to me that the bible is a Book of Rules. I objected to that characterization. In my estimation, it would be more apt to say that the Bible is a book of Grace, or a Book of Truth (with the Truth being ultimately about Love and Grace), or a Book of God's Love for humanity, something along those lines. But "a book of rules..."?

That seems, to me, to be missing the point.

Are there rules found in the Bible? Yes, of course there are. There are rules specifically given to the Israeli people thousands of years ago. There were rules of how to "do" church in the first century AD. There are rules that can be considered universal in nature and there are rules that are obviously to a specific time and place and people.

But to call the Bible a rule book seems to be wildly missing the point.

It seems to this reader that a large part of the Bible's story of God's grace is dealing specifically with this topic. In the Old Testament, we see people hewing to the rules of sacrifice and religion and God stops them, telling them bluntly, "I desire MERCY, not Sacrifice."

They missed the point.

We see Jesus doing this repeatedly with the Pharisees, those wonderfully moral and righteous men who seemed to repeatedly miss the point, holding fastidiously, harshly fast to rules (with demands that others also hold fast to their long list of rules), but being lacking in love and grace.

I have oft-repeated what I learned growing up about understanding the Bible: We ought to interpret the whole Bible through the lens of Jesus' teachings. One of the pivotal snippets of teaching that I find in Jesus' teaching is this simple line...

The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.

I find this to be a pivotal, KEY teaching to understanding our relationship to rules, whether found in the Bible or elsewhere.

Consider the Sabbath rule, as found in Exodus 34...

“These are the things the LORD has commanded you to do: For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day [Saturday] shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.”

Or, as directly quoted from Exodus 20 (ie, the Ten Commandments...)

“Remember the Sabbath day [Saturday] by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns..."

The rule is fairly clear and unequivocal. On SIX DAYS, we should do all our work. But on the SEVENTH DAY (Saturday), we should rest. We should NOT work on Saturday, nor should our family or people who work for us.

Clear. Easy enough to understand (although, reasonably one might question "what constitutes 'Work'?" - still, pretty clear). Straightforward.

But Jesus' helped CLARIFY the "command" for us...

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath."

We travel down the path of Pharisees when we hang fastidiously to a rule without considering the context. When we condemn others for a "sin" but we're only considering the rule in a woodenly literal way and we're not considering that rule through the eyes of love, mercy and grace, we run the risk of condemning as sin, what is NOT sin.

Jesus' followers were guilty of transgressing a sin, IF we took that law woodenly literal. But that would have been missing the point. The Sabbath was made FOR US. The rules are there FOR US. for OUR sake. TO HELP.

In one of these conversations I've had lately, someone accused me of treating these COMMANDS, "more like guidelines..." (cleverly invoking the Pirates of the Caribbean running gag... "You're pirates. Hang the code, and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway..."). He intended it as a slight, but yeah, maybe I DO treat them more like guidelines.

Certainly that seems to be the message of Jesus on the Sabbath rule. "You're condemning them for doing something good - eating. That 'thou shalt not work on the sabbath...' that's more like a guideline. The POINT is, that the rule is there FOR YOU, for YOUR GOOD."

THE Rule, as repeatedly summarized in the Bible (and indeed, by our own hearts) is Love God, Love your Neighbor, do Good, embrace Grace. THAT is THE HARD AND FAST RULE that we are to hold to.

The "rules" (lowercase "rule"), they're more like guidelines. They are there for our benefit, to help guide us in the paths of Love and Grace.

Yes, prostitution is not good for the oppressed prostitute or the needy/oppressive john. That is the guideline. BUT, in the Bible, we see the story of Tamar, who USED prostitution to take a stand against Injustice and for Good, for Love, for Grace. Thus, she "broke" the "rule"/guideline in an effort to hold close to THE Rule - Love, Grace.

We see this in David and the disciples "working on the Sabbath." Breaking the "rule" to hold fast to the "RULE."

We see this in Jesus healing on the Sabbath, breaking the "rule" to hold fast to the "RULE."

We see the pharisees MISSING the point in their heaping of rules upon rules on the shoulders of their followers, but missing out on grace.

We see the Israelis missing the point in their adherance to giving sacrifice, but their lacking in mercy.

The "rules" are there FOR OUR SAKE, to help us walk in the RULE of Grace, of Love, of Mercy and Justice.

And, for that reason, it seems to me that we too often have made the Bible into a mere rulebook and missed the point of the Story: Living into Grace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theology for the Social Gospel

Roger, Amos, Cindy by paynehollow
Roger, Amos, Cindy, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

When I was a much younger man, I was fairly strongly influenced by a work of fiction called, In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. It's a book published in 1897 and influenced by the Social Gospel Movement of the day. While many are unfamiliar directly with the book, they are aware of it secondarily through the WWJD phenomena. The now-rather-trite bracelets, etc, of the last few years that supposedly serve as a reminder, "What Would Jesus Do?" gets the catchphrase from Sheldon's book.

The story in the book tells of how a preacher and some in his well-to-do church were influenced by the radical notion of not taking any action without first asking, "What Would Jesus Do in this situation?" and then acting accordingly.

Although I did not know it at the time, Sheldon was influenced by prominent "social gospel" theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch. The book was his way of furthering that message.

And what was the message of the Social Gospel (much maligned in some circles today)? According to Merriam Webster, simply this:

the application of Christian principles to social problems

Other common definitions fall along these lines...

The Social Gospel was an early 20th century Protestant Christian movement which placed its emphasis on the application of Christian principles to society's problems.

Not so radical, one would think. And yet, apparently it is revolutionary, at least some might say.

I say all that by way of introducing some of Rauschenbusch's own words on the topic, from his A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917)...

The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the
sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.

Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls on us for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations...

Theology is not superior to the gospel. It exists to aid the preaching of salvation. Its business is to make the essential facts and principles of Christianity so simple and clear, so adequate and mighty, that all who preach or teach the gospel, both ministers and laymen, can draw on its stores and deliver a complete and unclouded Christian message. When the progress of humanity creates new tasks, such as world-wide missions, or new problems, such as the social problem, theology must connect these with the old fundamentals of our faith and make them Christian tasks and problems...

On the other hand the idea of the redemption of the social organism is nothing alien. It is simply a proper part of the Christian faith in redemption from sin and evil. As soon as the desire for salvation becomes strong and intelligent enough to look beyond the personal sins of the individual, and to discern how our personality in its intake and output is connected with social groups to which we belong, the problem of social redemption is before us and we can never again forget it. It lies like a larger concentric circle around a smaller one. It is related to our intimate personal salvation like astronomy to physics. Only spiritual and intellectual immaturity have kept us from seeing it clearly before. The social gospel is not an alien element in theology...

Neither is it novel. The social gospel is, in fact, the oldest gospel of all. It is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Its substance is the Hebrew faith which Jesus himself held. If the prophets ever talked about the “plan of redemption,” they meant the social redemption of the nation.

So long as John the Baptist and Jesus were proclaiming the gospel, the Kingdom of God was its central word, and the ethical teaching of both, which was their practical commentary and definition of the Kingdom idea, looked toward a higher social order in which new ethical standards would become practicable. To the first generation of disciples the hope of the Lord’s return meant the hope of a Christian social order on earth under the personal rule of Jesus Christ, and they would have been amazed if they had learned that this hope was to be motioned out of theology and other ideas substituted...

The doctrine of the Kingdom of God was left undeveloped by individualistic theology and finally mislaid by it almost completely, because it did not support nor fit in with that scheme of doctrine. In the older handbooks of theology it is scarcely mentioned, except in the chapters on eschatology; in none of them does it dominate the table of contents.

What a spectacle, that the original teaching of our Lord has become an incongruous element in so-called evangelical theology, like a stranger with whom the other doctrines would not associate, and who was finally ejected because he had no wedding garment!

In the same way the distinctive ethics of Jesus, which is part and parcel of his Kingdom doctrine, was long the hidden treasure of the suppressed democratic sects. Now, as soon as the social gospel began once more to be preached in our own time, the doctrine of the Kingdom was immediately loved and proclaimed afresh, and the ethical principles of Jesus are once more taught without reservation as the only alternative for the greedy ethics of capitalism and militarism. These antipathies and affinities are a strong proof that the social gospel is neither alien nor novel, but is a revival of the earliest doctrines of Christianity, of its radical ethical spirit, and of its revolutionary consciousness.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ol' Axeman Jesse

Ol' Axeman Jesse by paynehollow
Ol' Axeman Jesse, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

On the top of the mountain
there is a clearing

and from that clearing,
you can see as far as you'd like

but only when the leaves are gone
and the summer is ended.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Laughlin Boy

A song based on the life and death of Seth Laughlin, a Quaker Civil War resister...

Laughlin Boy
by William Jolliff

That laughlin boy was a boy of honor and he loved virginia well
but he would not fire a rifle so he sat in a cold jail cell
so he sat in a cold jail cell

he was pierced and he was beaten forty stripes he gladly bore
but he would not serve the devil in that awful civil war
in that awful civil war

listen to me children, well i wouldn't tell a lie
listen to me children, well i wouldn't tell a lie

twelve grey soldiers stood before him and they aimed their rifles true
he prayed lord, oh please forgive them for they know not what they do
for they know not what they do

those young soldiers would not fire they defied the general's plan
so the army changed his sentence who could murder such a man?
who could murder such a man?

listen to me children, well i wouldn't tell a lie
listen to me children, well i wouldn't tell a lie

they hauled him far away to richmond far away from his kids and wife
there, pneumonia wracked his body that good man soon lost his life
that good man soon lost his life

now his wife is sadly weeping seven children wonder why
lord it seems that truth and honor sure can come at an awful price
sure can come at an awful price

listen to me children, well i wouldn't tell a lie
listen to me children, well i wouldn't tell a lie

oh, have you heard many a story told by old and young with joy
about the faithful deed of daring that was done by the laughlin boy
that was done by the laughlin boy