Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Poverty, Liberation and Christian Scriptures: Part II

Here is Part II of the unrefined final paper... enjoy... or just smile and nod if you think it too long :) 

While the Old Testament is advantageous for the reader of the Christian Scriptures to and the initial development of a hermeneutic of poverty, it must refuse to end there. Instead, the reader of Christian Scripture must extend into the New Testament corpus that bears witness to God's concern for the poor and oppressed through the incarnation of Jesus as Messiah. Moreover, the New Testament as witness to the life and vocation of Jesus not only builds upon the writings within the Old Testament, but also unveils God's once and for all revelation that in Jesus the whole world, to begin with the poor and oppressed, is being made right (Mat. 20:16; Rev. 21).

The tendency of Christian theology is to development doctrines and statements that are reserved for the intellect and situated in the academy, regardless of their liberal or conservative affiliations. However, faithful Christology is neither passive to nor absent from real human experiences and manifestations of evil and injustice. James Cone offers an alternative to conventional Christology and biblical theology:

Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ…There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed (A Black Theology of Liberation 1).
That is to say, Christian theology not only incorporates, but also and especially hinges on a theology that elevates and liberates the poor and oppressed in a wide variety of oppressive contexts. Furthermore, this hermeneutic is not developed ex nihilio, but gestates in light of the life and vocation of the real person of Jesus and attested to within the pages of New Testament.

The gospel narratives affirm the suggestions of Cone and underscore the nature of Christian theology as liberation theology in their earliest beginnings. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that references Israel’s history of exile, which is the incarnated narrative of Jesus as the exiled one for all the exiled of the world (Mt. 1:1-17). Moreover, Jesus’ escape from Egypt illustrates the infant Jesus as the new Moses who will lead the poor of the world out of empirical oppression and into new and final liberation that is the mark of God’s kingdom (Mt. 2:19-23). The gospel of Luke also records the lyric of Mary, mother of Jesus, which signifies the nativity as God’s grand act of deliverance for the poor and hungry:

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Lk. 1:52-53).
That is to say, the entrance of Immanuel is the ultimate witness that affirms “God’s predilection for those on the lowest rung of the ladder of history” (Gutierrez xxvi). The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, is the very God who, in and through Jesus, became poor for the sake of the poor first and then also for the whole world. [7]

The Gospel of Luke is also advantageous in the illumination of a Christocentric theology of poverty and oppression in its record of Jesus' opening statements in his adult ministry. In other words, Luke is intentional in the portrayal of the Messiah as the one who has come to fulfill and announce the much anticipated prophetic jubilee:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:16-21).
In other words, what Isaiah had announced as a future anticipation and eschatological hope for the people of Israel (Isaiah 61), Jesus declared as fulfilled in and through his Messianic vocation. This is because, for Jesus, as with the tradition of which Jesus entered into, salvation was not merely a matter of personal wholeness and eternal assurance. Instead, “the essence of the gospel is shalom" (Villafane, Seek the Peace of the City 53), whereby all of creation is liberated from real and present manifestations of evil and injustice that distort the divine intentions for humanity and creation now.

The life and ministry of Jesus consistently unveil a Messiah who is concerned not only for the future of individuals and society, but also and especially the present infringements upon personal and societal shalom. Japinga writes:

“Salvation for Jesus involved wholeness, healing, and reconciliation for individuals and for society. He did not promise instant transformation, but the hope of the Kingdom and its radically new social structures” (Japinga, Feminism and Christianity 109).
The pages of both the synoptics and the Johannine text illustrate Jesus as the incarnation of the very message within the unfolded scroll of Isaiah. That is to say, Jesus enters into contexts of captivity and releases those held in bondage (Mark 5; Luke 5:17ff); Jesus encounters the blind and opens their eyes to receive sight (Mark 9:46-52; Luke 18:35-43; John 9); the favor of the Lord is also declared, albeit for the poor and oppressed first and then also for the whole of humanity and creation (Matthew 5:1-12). While the acts of Jesus could be, and often have been, interpreted as witnesses to the divinity of Jesus, these pericopes are surely more than Messianic apologetics. Instead, the gospel writers incorporate these texts as attestations that in Jesus a new Moses has come to lead a new exodus for the oppressed, e.g. Matthew; the year of Jubilee has begun and shalom is finally here, e.g. Luke; new creation has begun for both people, systems, and the entire cosmos, e.g. John; and we must quickly be on our way as we follow and live into this gospel for the sake of the world, e.g. Mark.

The vocation of Jesus has often been reduced to merely a matter of personal salvation through a personal Savior. Moreover and especially, the life and vocation of Jesus has also been underscored as primarily about the promise of a future kingdom with yet-to-be-seen hopes and dreams. However, the expectations of the likes of John the Baptist suggest something quite different. [8]  Instead of a sweet by-and-by, the intrigue and lure of the Messiah, as illustrated within Matthew, is much akin to the Lukan incorporation of Trito-Isaiah:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (Matthew 11:2-6).
Again, the vocation of Jesus underscores a Christocentric and biblical theology deeply concerned about the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. That is to say, Christian theology is liberation theology, which is just as concerned about the transformation of the present as it is about the hopes and expectations of the future. [9]

One of the more prominent illustrations within the New Testament of Christian theology as liberation theology regards the Luke 18 and 19. These two texts buttress the confessional prayer of a tax collector with the narrative of Zaccheus. First, in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee declares, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector" (v. 11). Said differently, "God, I thank you that I am not poor, that I am not an immigrant, that I do not have a criminal record, that I have never been addicted to drugs, that I am not a minority, that I do not live in contexts of oppression." Then we hear the (un-named) tax collector, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" (v. 13) and Jesus' exaltation of this humbled other. Yet this tax collector remains unnamed. However, if the reader has tracked with the Lukan account of the gospel story up to this point, the reader then knows that there is always something more to be discovered in Luke’s narration. That is, Luke hints and guesses to a much larger Messianic portrait in hopes that the reader will connect the dots. Thus the incorporation of Luke 19:1-10 and the illustration of this tax collector who had a name after all- Zacchaeus.

As with many of Jesus' parables, Christian theology and ecclesial homiletics have hyper-spiritualized this narrative so much that we have crafted clever nursery rhymes for children and rendered this subversive illustration socially irrelevant. Preachers consider it nice that the tax collector was humble and repentant in Luke 18; teachers are quick to affirm Zacchaeus’ humble heart. Evangelists love Zacchaeus because he repents of his sins and turns to Jesus, a perfect platform to announce for others to do the same; children’s ministries even love that Zacchaeus was "a wee little man." While this is all true to a point, these truths may cause the reader of Christian Scriptures to miss that the humbled sinner and tax collector "standing far off" in prayer is also named Zacchaeus. After much contemplation and deliberation, even confession, he has climbed down from his elevated position in the tree, given reparations for his unjust and oppressive deeds (i.e. repents), and identified with the poor he once exploited. It is only after this sort of repentance that Jesus then says salvation has come to this son of Abraham. [10] Said differently, salvation in the economy of God is directly linked to a concern for and identification with the poor and oppressed. As Luke says elsewhere, "blessed are you who are poor…woe to you who are rich" (6:20,24); "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30); "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (18:14). Again, Christian theology is liberation theology that celebrates the jubilee and shalom that is first for the poor and oppressed and then also for the whole world. [11]

The Gospel of Luke offers yet another advantageous anecdote in Jesus' encounter with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. The gospel writer records:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.1 Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).
This text is typically preached as a means to compare and contrast Martha’s distraction and obsession with menial tasks (i.e. “many things”) to the personal piety and contentment embodied by Mary (i.e. her attention to “only one thing”). The hearer and/or reader is then encouraged to be less like Martha and more like Mary; less distracted and more focused; less domestic and more pious. While there may be some truth to these pastoral statements, Luke again draws the reader's attention to something more. In other words, Luke’s incorporation of this narrative, which directly follows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and the elevation of a marginalized people, is yet another Lukan attempt to underscore the social implications of Jesus’ vocation. That is to say, while Martha is about the domestic chores of a first-century woman, Jesus celebrates Mary’s bold move to sit at the feet of Jesus as though a student of her rabbi.

Luke 10:38-42 is thereby less prescriptive, i.e. be like Mary, and more descriptive, i.e. this is what the kingdom of God looks like and who is invited to participate. Moreover, Jesus is once again illustrated as the great liberator from systems of oppression and exclusion. Borg writes on this pericope:

Jesus was a guest in the home of two sisters named Mary and Martha. Martha played the traditional women's role of preparing a meal, while Mary related to him disciple to teacher. When Martha complained that she was doing all the work, Jesus endorsed Mary's behavior. In a first-century Jewish social context, it was a radical point. Jesus treated women and men as equally capable (and worthy) of dealing with sacred matters. In a time when a respectable sage was not even to converse with a woman outside of his family, and when women were viewed as both dangerous and inferior, the practice of Jesus was startling (Jesus A New Vision 134).
Israel's and the world's Messiah announces the kingdom of God as that which moves beyond gender roles and social classes and invites all to participate in God's action in and through Jesus the Messiah. The revolutionary and prophetic statement, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her,” is then echoed in the declarations of Paul, who writes that in Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female- all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:27-29; Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:11). [12]

The concern for the poor and oppressed and a vocation of liberation was not only the emphasis of Jesus, but also and especially a primary characteristic of the first Christian communities. The book of Acts begins with illustrations of the earliest churches subversion of systems of exploitation and segregation. Luke writes in the companion to his gospel:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved" (Acts 2: 43-47).
The ethos of these faith communities parallels the witness of the gospel and the ministry of Jesus that underscored a liberation that is especially for the poor and oppressed. In other words, the earliest disciples were intentional to see that all walls of division and hostility, e.g. economic and social class, crumbled and made feasible the shalom of God (Eph. 2:14). Luke writes later in Acts, "there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold" (4:34). [13] That is to say, the economic practices of the earliest Christian communities announced to the world that the year of jubilee had once and for all come. [14]

The exploration of the New Testament ethical and economic witness can be explored ad infinitum; however, one can gather without hesitation that a primary concern of the corpus of these canonical texts and the related Christian praxis illustrated there within was for the liberation of the poor and oppressed in their midst. In other words, it can be said that the early Christians took seriously the mandate of Jesus, the poor will always dwell among you (Mt. 26:11; Mk. 14:7; Jn. 12:8). Moreover, the ethical praxis that marked early Christian churches were as also and especially framed by the eschatological hope that the day would come when all oppressive systems and empirical forces. e.g. Babylon, Rome, etc., would be overcome by the vocation and kingdom of the slaughtered Lamb who was the world's Messiah (Rev. 13:8; 19:15, 21). Furthermore, the future anticipations of Jesus' disciples inaugurated prophetic and subversive incarnations of an alternative economy that was marked the kingdom of God.[15] That is to say, ecclesiology began and ended with an eschatology, and the same should hold true today.

The question posed for us today is, so what? We read the pages of the Old and New Testaments and are faced with the real and endemic nature of poverty that was not only encountered by the people of antiquity, but also continues to plague our contemporary world filled with both hope and great despair. We, too, echo the cries and concerns of Job and both demand and anticipate God’s promised deliverance and renewal of a world that was created as good, just, and at peace. We are reminded that poverty is not only an ancient dilemma and an academic and sociological concept. Instead, it is a real and on-going systemic evil that demands both a divine and human response and solidarity. [17] That is, God’s people, namely the Church, are to incarnate the divine pathos that not only exposes the reality of poverty, but also confronts the systems and legislations that promote and sustain it.

In essence, God’s people, in rhythm with the Old Testament witness, are to embody a prophetic imagination that “requires more than the old liberal confrontation if the point is not posturing but effecting change in social perspective and social policy” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination xii). This is to be pursued not solely because of the observations made through human reason or condition; rather, because it is our real obligation as the people of God who proclaim and inaugurate the reign of God made known to the world in the person of Jesus. [19] This reign assures not only spiritual redemption and renewal, but also and especially the reconciliation of all things oppressive, unjust, and evil, including real and systemic poverty that offends the character of God and prompts God’s people towards renewed mission. In other words, it is certain that poverty is problematic, yet it is God’s people, in light of the real character and nature of God, who are called to work towards and effect change within the world, on behalf of the poor, and in anticipation of the day when God will make all things new.

The Christian Scriptures, i.e. the Old and New Testaments, unveil a theology that is an interested and concerned theology. Moreover and especially, Christian theology moves the reader towards an embodied liberation theology that incarnates the missio Dei, which is for the poor and oppressed first and then also for the whole world. In other words, Christian theology as liberation theology has deep implications for a missional theology and related missional church(es). As Karl Barth once wrote:

The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and, moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak, weak, and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world (Evangelical Theology 38). [19]
The church’s embrace of a missional ecclesiology, framed by the entire corpus of the biblical witness, enables the community to bear witness to the Triune God and to live into the biblical story of the reconciliation and redemption of all creation, especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed (Franke 68). The missional church takes seriously the present realities of injustice and oppression that work against the biblical witness and the divine concern for all the marginalized of the world (Heschel 151-153). This is born out of the conviction that “resurrection doesn’t mean escaping from the world; it means mission to the world based on Jesus’ lordship over the world” (Wright, Surprised by Hope 235). That is to say, the missional church [20] practices an inaugurated eschatology (Wright, Surprised by Hope 221) and lives as a foretaste to the reign of God (Guder 101). Furthermore, the missional church neither dismisses nor takes for granted theological discourse. On the contrary, theological reflections and propositions are returned to their proper positions as the gospel’s dialogical and dynamic servants versus closed and irrelevant goals. In the end, Christian theology as liberation theology demands individuals and communities to move beyond mere discourse and into fresh incarnations of jubilee and shalom that are for the poor and oppressed first and also for the whole world.

[7] It could be said that this is an interpretation, at least a contextualization, of Paul’s words, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
[8] Prominent Womanist Theologian, Stephanie Mitchem, writes to this point, “Salvation in a womanist view desires transformation of self and society.” (Introdicing Womanist Theology 111).
[9] This is a key point for James Cone, “It is not that God feels sorry and takes pity on [the oppressed] (the condescending attitude of those racists who need their guilt assuaged for getting fat on the starvation of others); quite the contrary, God’s election of Israel and incarnation in Christ reveal that the liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity” (A Black Theology of Liberation 64).
[10] Cone's insights are worthy of notation, “In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors. The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land” (A Black Theology of Liberation 6). However, while in agreement that the gospel begins with the poor and oppressed, it certainly does not end there. Instead, as this narrative in Luke illustrates, when individuals and societies relinquish their roles in exploitive structures and oppressive systems salvation is then also available to them.
[11] Mitchem again illustrates a Womanist perspective that is relevant to this discourse, “Jesus is seen by black women as equalizer since he is for all people regardless of class, race, caste, or gender. Jesus is seen as freedom because he challenges each believer to move past mere equality as a goal for justice into the goal of full liberation for all. Jesus is the sustainer for people in great need. Jesus is the liberator who empowers black women to work for the liberation of others.” (A Black Theology of Liberation 114).
[12] Maybe this is the greater caution of this narrative- being too distracted by the assumptions of our culture and social systems of our communities that we fail to take notice that in Jesus an open invitation has been extended to a wider fellowship then we ever dreamed possible- even permissible. Then the traditional warnings may be appropriate- be not Martha, but celebrate and engage the Marys of this world. In this light, I have been daily challenged to expand my hermeneutical horizon and engage less familiar and sometimes suppressed voices from the margins. The words of Jürgen Moltmann are advantageous in this regard, “Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit 17).
[13] The legacy of the first Christian communities continued into the centuries that followed. Tertullian writes in his Apology 39, "We who are inwardly bound together in spirit and in soul can have no hesitation in surrendering our property. We hold everything in common except our wives" (Arnold 92-94). Aristides, who wrote to the emperor in the early second-century, also testifies to the ethical and prophetic witness of the early Christians, “They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God…. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs… They acknowledge the good deeds of God towards them. And see, because of them, good flows on in the world” (Apology 15, 16; see Arnold, Early Christians in Their Own Words 86-88).
[14] Richard B. Hays offers some well-versed insight into early Christian ethics, "The New Testaments direct commands and general rules about possessions are embedded in a canonical context that complicates simple literal application...even within Luke-Acts the rule that disciples of Jesus must give up all their possessions (Luke 14:33) is set alongside other teachings and narratives that pose different models of faithful response to the gospel. Zacchaeus, for example, is commended for his repentant response...even though he gives up considerably less than everything. Even the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and 4) is characterized by generous sharing of possessions rather than radical renunciation. The point is that we cannot derive simple or univocal rules for economic practice from the New Testament" (The Moral Vision of the New Testament 467). Therefore, the challenge is for the church to pursue creative and innovative, even contextual over homogenous, solutions to systemic poverty.
[15] Howard-Brook and Gwyther offer beneficial commentary, "The Hellenistic cities of the eastern [Roman] empire all had ekklesiai, or citizens' assemblies. The assemblies engaged in civic planning, cultic ritual, and the discussion of issues of concern to the urban citizenry. In our culture the ekklesiai might be labeled "Town Hall" meeting. The followers of Jesus originally set themselves up as an alternative citizens' assembly. Yet the apparent attractiveness of empire began to entice some members of the ekklesiai back inmto Rome's orbit" (Unveilng Empire xxii). It can be said that contemporary churches are just as enticed by modern day empirical orbits.
[16] Moltmann writes, "In actual fact, however, eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hope inspired by it. from first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present" (Theology of Hope 16).
[17] “To paraphrase a well-known text of Pascal, we can say that all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes. They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed- in one way or another- in active participation to liberate humankind from everything that dehumanizes it and prevents it from living according to the will of the Father” (Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation 174).
[18] N.T. Wright affirms, “The Christian calling to radical holiness of life is likewise a matter of inaugurated eschatology, that is, of beginning to live in the present by the rule of what will be the case in the ultimate future…the summons to live in God’s new world” (Evil and the Justice of God 120).
[19]Jürgen Moltmann challenges the church to embody similar quests for liberation and incarnational surrender. He writes, "If the promise of the kingdom of God shows us a universal eschatological future horizon spanning all things- 'that God may be all in all'- then it is impossible for the [hu]man of hope to adopt an attitude of religious and cultic resignation from the world. On the contrary, he is compelled to accept the world in all its meekness, subject as it is to death and the powers of annihilation, and to guide all things towards their new being. He [or she] becomes homeless with the homeless, for the sake of the home of reconciliation. He [or she] becomes restless with the restless, for the sake of the peace of God. He [or she] becomes rightless with the rightless, for the sake of the divine right that is coming” (Theology of Hope 224).
[20]Brian McLaren refers to this as a “new kind of Christian.” He writes, “Jesus’ message is not about escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. So people interested in being a new kind of Christian will inevitably begin to care more and more about this world, and they’ll want to better understand its most significant problems, and they’ll want to find out how they can fit in with God’s dreams actually coming true down here more often” (Everything Must Change 4).