What’s on the other side of the Bridge?

The ‘bridge illustration’ really is a good presentation of the gospel, even if it is just part of the gospel.  I have seen the light come on for children and adults where they begin to understand what God has done for them in a deeper way.

For those focussed on black and white morality, the ‘bridge illustration’ makes a lot of sense.  “We are over here because of sin.  God is over there because he is perfect.  But in Jesus we can be with God again.”  It makes sense.  It is simple.  It answers a spiritual puzzle.

But there is a problem. The bridge is an illustration, not the entire reality.  This leads to the spiritual immaturity and stunted growth.  At the beginning it is true, but faith must grow here and now, and not merely wait for heaven.  We can’t remain stuck on the level of the ‘bridge’ for our entire spiritual lives.

To build strong disciples of Jesus requires us to understand that the God side of the bridge is much much more than ‘going to heaven’. It is in fact ‘life in the kingdom’ here and now, as well as then and forever. The ‘bridge’ is a great tool. The Lord’s Prayer talks about God’s Kingdom coming to earth from heaven in the now and for the future.

On the eve of the Big Bang

Let me tell you how God redeemed the world. On the eve of the Big Bang, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were making a final run-through of their plans for the event. The Son was enthusiastic. "I think we’ve nailed it," he said to the Father. "I’m going to speak everything into being as your Word, and the Spirit here is going to breathe life into it. Then the two of us toss it back to you, and the cosmic party dances itself right into our Trinitarian lap. Elegant! Tov meod! Kala lian! Valde bona, and all that!"

"I have a problem, though," the Spirit says. "I’m the one respon­sible for the PR in all this, especially when it comes to the fail-safe gambit of Incarnation we’ve planned to cover both creation and re­demption. The Son really does make the world, right? But with the human race locked into time and space, it’s going to look as if we haven’t seriously tried to redeem the mess they’ve made until Jesus shows up late in history. The fact that we’ve had the Son in there tidying things up from the beginning is the last thing they’ll think of. How do I convince them the Incarnation isn’t just an after­thought?"

"Easy," says the Father. "Sure, it will look as if the Incarnation of my Word is simply a response to sin. But since all three of us will have been intimately present to everything from square one, all you have to do is give them images that show both creation and redemption going on full force from the start. From before the beginning, in fact, since we’re talking about it right now. What’s the problem with that?

"The problem," the Spirit explains, "is precisely with the images. However many mysterious, right-brain images of the Word’s age ­long presence I give them, they’re going to dream up transactional, left-brain ones and view him as something you inserted late in the day. Think of the damage they can do to your reputation as the Fa­ther who creates or even to the Son’s, as the one who redeems if they decide to think of you as the coach in a football game and the Son as the quarterback. Since you’re not going to reveal the Word’s Incar­nation until some two-thirds of history has gone by, how do I stop them from thinking you kept him in the locker room until the fourth quarter? We three may know he’s been in there right from the first possession, but no one else will. Even your biggest fans are go­ing to be hard put to sell that as brilliant management."

"Listen," the Father says. "I decide what’s brilliant management, not the fans. And as for my reputation, that’s your department, not mine. Besides, haven’t we talked about this practically forever? You know the drill. All through the process of revealing my Son in his­tory, you keep slipping them images of the hiddenness of his Incar­nation — of the mystery of the Word’s activity in the world even be­fore you arrange for him to be born of Mary. You’re going to hang images like the Paschal Lamb and the Rock in the Wilderness in their minds. After that, all you’ll have to do is get somebody like Paul to say that those things were presences of Christ before Christ — that the Lamb and the Rock are in fact my Incarnate Word antici­pating himself. What’s so hard about that?"

"Plenty," the Spirit answers. I’ve been doing simulations of hu­man thought in my mind. I think we’ve underestimated the effects of cooping people up in four dimensions. Look at it from my point of view. You plunk Jesus into the world at one spot in history, and then you expect me to convince them he’s present as your Word in all of history — before, during, and after Jesus?"

The Son interrupts him. "But I really am going to be present. Or, to put it their way, I really will have been all along. So I don’t see…"

The Spirit’s patience is wearing thin. "Give me a break! Since I’m the one who has to take everything that’s yours and get it across to them, I’m trying to solve your problems here too. Just think about what they’ll do with a Jesus who stays in history for only thirty-three years. Even if I get John to say that he’s the Word who made every­thing from the beginning, they’ll probably imagine him as a pot of holy soup we delivered too late for a good many of our customers. And after they’ve jumped to the conclusion that the Word wasn’t present to anyone who lived before Jesus, they’ll leap to the even more dreadful notion that nobody who lived after him can have his benefits until their assorted churches get him canned, marketed, and distributed to them."

The Father tries to break in. "But what about the Pentecost party we’ve planned to get the church going? Won’t that. . . ?"

"I’m sorry," the Spirit insists, "but I’m afraid Pentecost will be just one more thing for them to misread. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally on board with both of you. But suppose I do give you the rushing mighty wind and the party hats made out of fire. Even sup­pose I throw in the mystery of speaking in different languages in or­der to get the universality of the Son’s work into the picture. They’re still going to think the church is in the world to sell clam chowder to customers who never had it before.

"I mean, think of the possibilities for ecclesiastical arrogance. Je­sus takes away the sins of the world, right? In him, everyone who ever lived gets free forgiveness for whatever went wrong in full, in advance, and all in one cosmic shot, no strings attached. I’m even going to get the church to include "one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins" in the Nicene Creed so they’ll see that the Baptism of Jesus himself does the whole job, even if no one else ever gets baptized. But do you know what they’re going to do with that? They’re going to paint themselves into a corner and say that the unbaptized go to hell or even that sins after Baptism make forgiveness flake off like a bad paint job, and that unless Christians go to confession for a sec­ond coat before they die, they’ll go to hell too. Oh, sure. We’ve also agreed on this Reformation business where I convince them that no­body has to do anything to be forgiven except trust the grace that Je­sus has already given everybody. But give them a hundred years after that and they’ll manage to turn faith itself into a requirement for grace: no faith, no forgiveness. Out the window again goes the free gift we’ve given them once and for all; and back in comes forgiveness as a deal that’s good only as long as they behave themselves."

"But why on earth," the Son wonders, "would they balk at get­ting something for nothing like that? Free grace and dying love isn’t enough for them? Would they rather we dealt with them on the ba­sis of accountability?"

The Spirit just keeps pressing his point. "I don’t understand it any better than you do; all I know is what my simulations tell me. Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it. If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, they cry "Unfair!" That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation. Remember? I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, be­lieve it or not. Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do any­thing to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don’t trust the gift, of course, it won’t mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces any­one are, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea."

Finally, though, the Father has had enough. "I understand your difficulties," he says; "but after all, somebody’s got to be in charge here. In my mind, we’ve come up with a revelation that does the work of your chocolates without making us look like candy-push­ers. The Son and I have every confidence in you. If you want to in­spire the odd Christian apologist here or there to come up with im­ages like that, be our guest. As I said, it’s your department. But we’re coming down to the wire here, so let’s call this a wrap. We have a big day tomorrow."  –

Robert Capon,  "Where It All Began," prologue to: The Fingerprints of God; Tracking the Divine Suspect Through a History of Images

Reading Herem Non-Violently

Joshua is a hard book. It’s basically a story of war and conquest, of the tribes of Israel entering the Promised Land and eradicating and displacing the peoples living in the land. Anyone who has taken the trouble to look dispassionately at it quickly comes across some very difficult passages.

I argued here that Joshua’s war and land policies were time-specific and limited. They applied only to the conquest and settlement period and are not a precedent. The book contrasts the acceptance of God’s plans by Rahab and the Gibeonites (2:9-11; 9-10) with the resistance to it by others (5:1; 9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5). This contrast suggests that the Canaanites perished for resisting God, and not for their religious decadence or economic oppression. Those who submit to God’s sovereignty are saved but resistance is met with force.

However I am impressed with this non-violent reading for the text by Richard Beck

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the cherem texts are the most difficult texts in the bible and that their existence in the Bible may be the single greatest reason why people come to reject the bible and the faiths built upon it.

To set the stage I’d like to suggest that cherem should be viewed as a part of a theodicy, as a way Israel explained exile to herself.

Most scholars believe that Joshua was written during the exile. And if that seems to be a bit too historical-critical for your tastes, Joshua is aware of the Divided Kingdom (e.g., both Judah and Israel are mentioned in 11.21, a distinction that would only make sense after the Divided Kingdom), the fracturing of the Davidic dynasty, which eventually culminated in exile.

So how is Joshua a theodicy? Well, the author of Joshua looks back and describes how Israel, at least at the beginning, had an absolute hostility toward idolatry. In the book of Joshua this hostility–of which cherem is the most extreme example–is a religious, ideological, and national ideal.

So the ideal was for Israel to have extreme antipathy toward their pagan neighbours and the gods they worshiped. Trouble is, the book of Joshua ends on an ambivalent note as Joshua predicts that, after his death, Israel’s hostility toward false gods will fade and that they would, eventually, turn from Yahweh to idols. Joshua’s prediction at the end of the book:

Joshua 24.19-20
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”

The people, of course, object to Joshua’s prediction. Still, after all those cherem texts an ambivalent note is struck at the end of the story and, given the hindsight of exile, Joshua’s words are found to be prescient. The people don’t keep up the antipathy toward foreign gods–an antipathy embodied in the cherem commands–and they turn away from God. And as Joshua promised, exile soon followed.

The point here is that cherem is working within a theodicy. Specifically, if Israel would have kept up her antipathy toward idolatry–of which cherem played a part–then exile wouldn’t have happened.

But Joshua is more than an explanation about the origins of exile. Joshua is also viewed as a sermon, a sermon being preached to a people living in exile among false and foreign gods. And it’s message seems to be crystal clear: Remember Joshua and the cherem! Be like Joshua and show unwavering hostility to these foreign gods you are living with!

That is how the story tends to be interpreted, an interpretation that leans toward rather than away from religious violence. But I’d like to flip that interpretation on its head.

Okay, with all that as background let’s move into my argument.

I’d like to start by suggesting that cherem was a logical outworking of the Levitical purity tradition. Cherem wasn’t just warfare. Cherem was a form of religious sacrifice, a holocaust in particular. Cherem was a burnt offering for God.

[Note: holocaust means "burnt offering" or "a sacrifice consumed by fire."]

Why is cherem the logical outworking of the Levitical purity tradition? The purity, holiness, and sacrificial impulse of the Levitical tradition sets in motion a process of dehumanization. To be a holy people "set apart" creates an in-group/out-group psychology that eventually leads toward out-group hostility. Cherem–killing out-group members because they are impure and unclean–is simply the endpoint of that trajectory. The purity/holiness impulse logically leads to violence. Basically, holocausts lead to Holocausts: the sacrificial logic of Leviticus leads to cherem.

Cherem–eradicating the pagans, offering them up as burnt offerings–was an act of purification.

Having noted the connection between cherem and the Levitical tradition we can now turn toward a non-violent reading of the cherem texts. To do this there are two moves we need to make.

The first move is this. If cherem represents the logical outworking of the Levitical tradition–how the pursuit of purity will eventually manifest in scapegoating violence–then we need to note that the Levitical tradition comes under criticism within the biblical narrative. The bible is a story that turns against itself in interesting ways, often beating modern sceptics to the punch.  Any reading of the cherem texts needs to take note of the fact that the prophets and parts of the Wisdom tradition strongly criticize the Levitical tradition of which cherem is a part. According to these texts God isn’t pleased with holocausts. Burnt offerings, and I’m arguing that we should see cherem as a burnt offering, are not desired by God:

Hosea 6.6
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

Psalm 40.6
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.

My point here is that the Bible gets there first, beats modern readers to the punch in criticizing cherem. Though burnt offerings are a part of the OT, their theological significance is also strongly questioned and rejected. I think this affects how we read the cherem passages. There is a stream of biblical material that argues that God doesn’t desire or require burnt offerings like cherem. I think Jesus aligns himself with this stream of material in his teaching that God "desires mercy, not sacrifice."

Noting all this is important, but it doesn’t yet get us to a non-violent reading. Let’s move on to the final observation that gets us there.
Recall again that Joshua was written during the exile. And as I described above many have read Joshua as a sort of cautionary tale for those living in exile among foreign gods. The message many presume Joshua is preaching is that during exile Israel should follow the example of Joshua showing a cherem-like hostility toward idolatry and their pagan oppressors. Basically, Joshua, with its stories of cherem and military conquest, is a heroic story to inspire religious zealotry.

But I wonder if that understanding is correct.

Having recently read the book of Joshua I was struck by the following: Cherem doesn’t work. That seems to be one of the take home points of the book.

Cherem, as a burnt offering, had the practical goal of keeping Israel pure and separate from false gods. One way to accomplish this purification, obviously, was the eradication of pagan neighbours and their idols. It’s hard to be tempted into idolatry if those idol-worshipers no longer exist.

But at the end of the book Joshua predicts failure. And the reader in exile knows Joshua was right. Cherem didn’t work, it didn’t lead to the purification of Israel. How come?

For two reasons. First, as the book of Joshua makes clear Israel couldn’t kill everybody. A cherem-inspired strategy of "kill them all" just wasn’t practicable. And Joshua makes that clear. Israel wasn’t able to make herself pure and "set apart" by violently eradicating paganism in the land. Israel couldn’t use violence to religiously isolate herself in the world. Cherem couldn’t create a social quarantine. At the end of the day, Israel was going to have to live with and among pagans and foreign gods.

And what outcome does Joshua predict about how that’s going to work out? He predicts failure and eventual exile. Which is exactly what happens.

And I believe this failure at the end of the story creates a deep ambivalence about the practices of cherem read about earlier in the story.

Basically, the ending of Joshua suggests the following interpretation: Israel’s real problem, it’s deep problem, is a heart problem. It’s not a pagan neighbour problem.

Joshua seems, at the end of the book, to accept living with and among pagan neighbours as a given, as an on-going reality, as an inevitability that violence won’t ever change. Purity via social quarantine just isn’t possible. It’s as if Joshua is saying, "Killing our neighbours isn’t going to protect or purify us. We are our own worst enemy." At the end of the story Joshua seems to  argue that what is needed are hearts devoted to God, not pagan cities devoted (cherem) to God. As Hosea 6.6 states, what is needed are not holocausts but "acknowledgement of God." And on that score Israel fails.

Is this a plausible reading of Joshua? Is Joshua a story about the failure of cherem? I think so. To see this let’s try to get inside the head of the Jewish reader reading Joshua in exile.

To start, we must imagine the murderous hate many of the Jews felt toward their captors and oppressors. See Psalm 137.1-4, 8-9:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

We can imagine how this hate fed a violent desire to kill and eradicate the pagans, to practice cherem upon them. (A hate, we might add, that the Jews felt toward the Romans in the NT. And Jesus speaks into that hate the very un-cherem-like sermon of "Love your enemies and turn the other cheek.")

Now imagine handing the book of Joshua to these hate-filled people, a people itching to kill the pagans and dash their babies against the rocks. What do you think they would take away from the book of Joshua? That cherem is a good idea? Or a bad idea?
Yes, cherem is in the book. Which, given a superficial reading, suggests that Joshua is pro-cherem and, thus, a book that fans the flames of religious violence.

But that reading fails to take into consideration the failure at the end of the book. A failure that produced the exile the reader is now experiencing. And I wonder, by the end of the book, would the hate-filled reader really walk away with the view that the solution to Israel’s exile problem was more cherem? Or would the reader come to see and accept the conclusion of Joshua, that living with and among pagans is inevitable, and that faithfulness to Yahweh, with and among pagans, rather than violence, is the only way to holiness.

Basically, cherem and holocausts didn’t prevent exile.

But, ironically, "acknowledgement of God" while living with the pagans would have.

And if that’s so, what’s the final lesson of Joshua?

Kingdom Planting

I’m impressed with this insight from David Fitch:

I would like to call all missional church planters (and for that matter missional leaders period)  into “political organising” for the Kingdom.

“Political organisers” (often called “community organisers”) work in neighbourhoods, villages and cities to gather people around a cause for the improvement of certain aspects of their neighbourhoods or villages.

Missional leaders are “political organisers for the “politic of Jesus.” We are “political organisers for the Kingdom.”

Our primary task is to gather people around the King under his Rule for the manifestation of His Kingdom in our midst for the sake of God’s blessings and righteousness in the neighbourhood and inviting the world into that.

We gather people into the reconciliation of all things in Christ, the renewal of all of life in relation to God through Jesus. This is a social reality. This takes gathering people and organising them.  This takes welcoming Christians, contextualised systems and recruiting (non coercively) and then those outside the realm shall come. So my challenge is for missional leaders to become “political organisers for the Kingdom

Toxic bath water

I find this very well put by Rick Lawrence

"The truth is, we’re all born into toxic water—there’s not a person on earth who has escaped the “sin bath.” That means all of us, to use Lady Gaga’s template, are “born this way.” Some of that toxic residue is more culturally acceptable—greediness, selfishness, insecurity, anger, narcissism, and so on. The truth is, we’re all born with a proclivity for something(s), and our environment often triggers what is latent and makes it active. All of us must wrestle-out the consequences and influence of sin in our life. Capitulation is certainly a pragmatic strategy, but I can’t defend it as a path that honours God or spin it as “obedience.”

As fellow travellers, we have no business heaving stones at the adulterous woman—Jesus made that clear in John 8. But we also have no business normalising sin to take the pressure off the dissonance we feel when we love people (just like ourselves) who are contaminated by sin.

God said a brave and true thing to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It’s God’s grace, the power of our weakness, that is our path forward."

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