Tag Archives: Miroslav Volf

Theological Influence: Miroslav Volf

One of the projects I have decided to do is to catalog in some small way the influence of

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University

some of the major thinkers who have influenced my growth as both a Christian, a pastor and as an individual as I reengage some of their work in my reading. Since I just finished rereading After our Likeness by Miroslav Volf I will use him as the first, (well other than my beginning of a similar document of the work of Martin Luther). I have only met Professor Volf once in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he was speaking and yet as an author his works from the first one I picked up in my final year of seminary in 2004 (Exclusion and Embrace) have probably done more than any other modern theologian to challenge and shape me over the past twelve years. I have not read everything Volf has published but what I have read has been very fruitful and thought provoking.

after-our-likenessAfter our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. (1998) This works started out as a Habilitationsschrift, one of the dissertations that Volf had to submit for his doctoral degree from the University of Tübingen. This is probably the hardest to read of Volf’s work and the most abstractly theological. He attempts to bring a Free church ecclesiology into conversation with a Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology represented by Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger, who would after the publication of this be elevated to be Pope Benedict XVI, from the Catholic Church and Metropolitan John D. Zizoulas from the Orthodox church.  Volf’s ambitious project attempts to deal with issues that deal with both the concrete forms of individual churches as well as the catholicity of the church. He begins his contribution to this dialogue with John Smyth’s position (based on Matthew 18:20) that where two or three or more saints are joined together that there is the church.  The individual church in his model is joined by the action of the Triune God to the church universal.

work-in-the-spiritWork in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, (1991) This volume also evolved out of Volf’s doctoral studies, this one out of his dissertation evaluating Karl Marx’s understanding of work from a theological perspective. Within Work in the Spirit he takes this dialogue with both Karl Marx’s understanding of work and Martin Luther’s concept of vocation and tries to apply these to our context where work is far more dynamic than in Luther’s or even Marx’s time. Volf highlight’s the idea of charisms or gifts of the Spirit as a departure point to attempt to imagine a theological view of work that is not limited to Marx’s view of the alienation of work or Luther’s more static view of vocation. Because this flows out of his doctoral work this still is a little more formal than some of Volf’s later works.

exclusion-and-embraceExclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) This is the volume that introduced me to the work of Miroslav Volf and from the first page of the preface, where he lays out what is at stake in this theological exploration, through the final chapter on Violence and Peace it is a passionate and articulate formulation of a theology of the cross for our time. Volf is able to be both honest about the challenges of reconciliation while holding before the reader the dream and hope of embrace as the end for which we are called to work. He powerfully weaves together theology, scripture and personal experience into a work that I have gone back to multiple times in my own ministry.

free-of-chargeFree of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2005) This was written for a less academic audience but keeps Volf’s profound insight into the nature of forgiveness and his honest reflections about the struggle to forgive. Volf addresses many false views of both God and forgiveness in this beautiful little work that continues to delve into the vision of reconciliation he began in Exclusion and Embrace.

end-of-memoryThe End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006) Volf continues his reflections on reconciliation by exploring memory and the way our identities are formed by what we remember. Bringing together theology, psychology, sociology as well as personal experience and reflection into a cohesive reflection on how memory and forgiveness can live together. Another profound work that continues to work towards the goals of reconciliation laid out in Exclusion and Embrace.

against-the-tideAgainst the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities (2010) This is a collection of short essays, many originally appearing as a column in Christian Century. Like all collections there is benefits and challenges: this is not a cohesive work like his other volumes but it is a collection that you can pick up a three-page reflection and then put down without losing a train of thought. There are some gems in this work and it probably would be best as more of a reflection type reading rather than a volume to read straight through.

captive-to-the-word-of-godCaptive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (2010) I don’t remember this volume as well as many others of Volf’s. Like Against the Tide it is a collection of (longer) essays from a span of sixteen years on how to read the scriptures. Volf presents a way of not only reading scriptures theologically in a pluralistic world but also makes the point that ultimately theology should lead beyond a way of thinking to a way of living.

flourishing-volfFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (2015) One of the things I love about Volf’s writing is that he asks good questions that need to be wrestled with. The question for this book is fairly simple: What is a life worth living? And what does religion (specifically but not limited to Christianity) have to contribute to the answer of this question? This is a measured and wise beginning of the answers to those questions. Volf engages both the ancient wisdom of books like Ecclesiastes and Job and the questions they prompt that still resonate in our lives.

Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct of War

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

Deuteronomy 20

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. 2 Before you engage in battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the troops, 3 and shall say to them: “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; 4 for it is the LORD your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” 5 Then the officials shall address the troops, saying, “Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit. 7 Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” 8 The officials shall continue to address the troops, saying, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.” 9 When the officials have finished addressing the troops, then the commanders shall take charge of them.

 10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. 12 If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13 and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16 But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17 You shall annihilate them– the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites– just as the LORD your God has commanded, 18 so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.

 19 If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? 20 You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.

 

I would love to be able to say that the remarks made by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University that his students should arm themselves so that they could ‘end Muslims before they come in’ has no scriptural place to justify it, but that would mean looking aside from passages like Deuteronomy 20. Ultimately, from the way I read scriptures his remarks were not only wrong but inflammatory and yet passages like this probably feel like home for some conservative evangelical Christians who seem to feel the right to bear arms is more important than anyone else’s right freedom of religion. Yet, passages like this are in need of discussion and the warrior image of the God of Israel is a potent image which can be used for both good and ill.  As I discuss when talking about the second half of Deuteronomy 2 the warrior image of God which is used throughout the scriptures can be used in both powerful ways for good and evil. We have uncomfortable, well at least uncomfortable for a Christian who tries to take the witness of Jesus seriously, passages like this as a part of our scriptures. What I will attempt to do below is first talk about this text within the context of war in the ancient world and what it meant then, discuss some of how this powerful language can be used appropriately in our day as well as the challenges of this text in our secular and polarized age.

The Passage in the Ancient World

War is an assumed reality for the people of Israel, especially being at the crossroads for trade and movement of troops in the ancient world. In a world where empires would rise and fall around them the land of ancient Palestine would (and still does) find itself pulled between competing kings and empires. Ancient Israel, with the exception of a brief period under David and Solomon, is never a major military power in comparison to the other ancient empires (and in Deuteronomy 17 we see how Solomon is the opposite of the model king Deuteronomy envisions). And if the people of Israel are not to be a society whose strength relies upon its military might and muscle they probably felt the need for a way to demonstrate their reliance upon God in this reality. If Deuteronomy is finalized within the context of the Babylonian exile it may also be reflecting back upon the ways the focus on their own military solutions failed them in their conflict with Babylon.

The practice of a priest coming forward and blessing the troops for combat would not have been unusual in the ancient world. The soldiers of Israel, especially if they were fighting a larger opponent with better equipment, would want to believe that the fighting they were engaged in was a part of a holy war. Perhaps Psalms like 144 would become individual prayers for the soldiers after the priest gave their blessing:

1Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; 2 my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me. Psalm 144: 1-2

These words and the sense that the endeavor that they are taking part in is the LORD of Israel’s battle and war may also serve to provide a sense of justification for the horrors of war they are to endure. The charge given by the mustering officer which gives an opportunity for those who have not yet been able to enjoy the fruits of a good life (house, fruit of the harvest and family) to return from battle so that they would not be deprived of these things. These three things the mustering officer allows people to return to also are lifted up as a part of the curse of disobedience:

You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruits. Deuteronomy 28:30

Also the charge for anyone who is disheartened to return home does point to the reality that fear in combat is contagious, and yet for Deuteronomy this fear is also the result of a lack of trust in the God of Israel. While there is no stigma attached to the previous reasons for release from service in an honor based society there would be for this last one. Military duty was expected of the males of ancient Israel, they were to fight for their God and for their king (or judge or leader).

This passage addresses two types of conflicts, the conflict of occupying the promised land (which is covered second although in the narrative of Deuteronomy its time is near at hand) and the invasion of future enemies.  For the enemies of the future where the people of Israel come to take a city they are to offer terms of peace, the word behind this is shalom, but it is a brutal peace. The only way a city would probably accept these terms was if they saw no possibility of resistance for it ensured forced labor of all the people. In many respects this envisions a society, like Egypt, that is based upon conquest and slavery. Unlike our current world where war is an endeavor which societies go into debt for, war was a profitable endeavor in the ancient world. If a city resists their invasion there is the spoil of the city which goes to the conquerors once the men defending the city are slain. The booty is not just wealth, but also the women and children and livestock which may all serve to enhance the wealth of the invader. War in the ancient world, and in modern society as well, is not kind to women. Even for the Israelites, who have a little more protection for the conquered than some societies, the women are viewed as spoil. Even though we may interpret the commandment on adultery prohibiting the rape of women from a conquered village ancient Israel probably did not, they still viewed women as a commodity and adultery was primarily an offence against the male.  The ancient world was a violent world and war in any time in hellish.  For the list of enemies of the towns they will be occupying there is to be no accommodation, they are to be completely wiped out. There is to be no spoil but they are to be dedicated for destruction, they are herem (those to be destroyed, annihilated). In modern times we would consider this genocide.

A final note is on the environment which is also a victim in times of war. Siege warfare, which is the type of warfare represented in this section of Deuteronomy, involves cutting a city or refuge off from the surrounding resources of food and water and waiting for the supplies within the city to become desperate. Part of siege warfare against a walled city (which is the first line of defense for a city in the ancient world) is constructing siege engines which are designed to either breach or to go over a city wall. Siege engines and the practice of war in the ancient world would often consume the trees for use in these engines or burn them so that they couldn’t be used by an enemy. While crops can grow back in the next growing season the loss of trees involves a long term loss of production. The limit of cutting down only the trees that do not produce fruit to limit the environmental destruction of the siege is unusual, as well as the way the Deuteronomist frames it, “Are the trees human being that they should come under siege from you?” For the author of Deuteronomy, the conflict is with the people and not with the environment.

Militaristic Language and Its Positive and Negative Usage

You do not have to look far for examples of how religion has been used to justify any number of horrors. This is not exclusive to any faith and occurs even in non-religious governments. As Miroslav Volf states memorably:

The majority of the world’s populations is religious, and when they are at war, their gods are invariably at war too. It would seem that if we reconciled the gods we would come closer to reconciling the peoples. The question is, however, who is fighting whose battles in those wars? Are the people fighting the battles of the power-hungry gods or are the gods fighting the battles of their bellicose peoples? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. My suspicion is, however, that the gods mostly get the short end of it: they end up doing more of the dirty work for their presumed earthly servants than their servants do for them. And when the gods refuse to do the dirty work most people involved in conflicts either discard them in favor of more compliant gods or seek to reeducate them, which amounts to the same thing. The poor gods! What they have to endure at the hands of their humble devotees! (Volf, 1996, p. 284)

And it is not hard to see how passages like Psalm 149 “Praise the Lord!…Let the high praise of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands” (verses 1, 6) can quickly evolve into “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. There is great damage that has been done when people are absolutely convinced that the LORD or another god is on their side and that they are involved in a struggle against an unredeemable opponent. Whether it is groups like ISIS/ISIL, or Christian groups calling for the elimination of Muslims, or even the inter-ethnic atrocities like Rwanda and Bosnia that are justified under the belief that they are the righteous ones of a god purging the earth of the infidel. These actions seem to come first from the desire to do violence or oppress another group and then the religious militaristic language is brought in as justification of the work. The poor gods, what they must suffer from the hands of their devotees.

Yet, for all of its danger and the way that militaristic language has been utilized to sanctify violence, oppression, enslavement, rape, environmental destruction and even genocide, I still think there is a place for this language. Psalm 46, which was Luther’s inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress”, is full of militaristic images as the song itself is and yet it also speaks to the conflict that the faithful feel in the world. In the hands of the oppressed it has often been utilized to point to the God of liberation that cares for and lifts up the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and the least. It has certainly been misused by the powerful as well as the disenfranchised to authorize their violence. Yet, it also has spoken to people in their lives. We may not be able to redeem texts like Deuteronomy 20, or at least not all of it, but it speaks to a people whose lives did involve conflict. We may not share the Deuteronomist’s certainty that God is on our side, and when we are too certain we probably have crafted a god in our own image, but we do need to wrestle with, in a world that is still full of conflict, war and oppression, where our God is in the midst of these struggles.

War, God and our Secular Age

The enlightenment arose out of the ashes of conflicts over religion in Europe and now we live in an age where, in the United States and much of Europe, spirituality has been consigned to the realm of private choice. When pastors and priests blessed the soldiers of the various armies going off to war in World War I, the war to end all wars as it was known then, they believed that their causes were linked directly to God’s cause and that nation and God were closely joined together. After two world wars and countless other wars of the twentieth and twenty first century for most people in the United States our current wars may have religious undertones but they are not authorized by God. There are exceptions to this, but the wars of state are no longer uniformly blessed by the churches, mosques, and temples of the land. In the United States the war on terror has at times moved towards being portrayed as a between Christianity and Islam, yet within many religious circles there has been a continual lament and protest against this conflict as well.

As people of faith how do we engage warfare and conflict? What are the central beliefs that shape our interpretation of the world around us? If faith in merely a private spirituality we never have to engage questions like this but if it is a public faith, then we have to engage our faith in the messiness and the conflicts of the real world. As a Christian and as a Lutheran I do go back to the life and witness of Jesus which continually calls us to love even my enemy and to pray for them, to turn the other cheek in response to being struck and to learn how to forgive. Christians have long struggled with theologically making a case for various wars or military service and I won’t even attempt to answer those questions here. I am a military veteran and that is a part of my own history and the things God used to shape me for my life and thankfully I never had to endure the hell that is war, training for war is hellish enough. And yet, I can hope, with Isaiah, for the time when nations no longer train for war, when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Forgiveness in a Graceless World-A Sermon

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot's Church Melbourne

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot’s Church Melbourne

Ernest Hemmingway tells in one of his short stories called “The Capital of the World” an episode about forgiveness which goes like this:

Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive form of Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.

Now the joke is all about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, but it also expresses a deep seeded truth that I think many of us can relate to about our desire for forgiveness to be received. For I think we all have those times where we wish we could change an action that hurt someone in the past, or to be able to take back the words that we said. We wish those words could be like the cartoon bubbles that we could pull back into our mouth to where they were never uttered in the first place. SFC Rubley who was my platoon sergeant while I was a platoon leader in the army used to talk about wanting to be able to lasso the words and say come back. But there is no bringing them back, there is no undoing the past, there is no way to go back and take back the words that were said or put in words that needed to be said. And the reality is that there is truly no future without forgiveness, there is no way forward without a new start. In fact, while forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called upon as followers of Christ to do it is also at the very heart of our faith. It is right up there with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, in fact it is necessary for both of these for there is no way to love one’s neighbor without forgiveness. We might think that the world of the bible it might be easier to live into forgiveness, but that would be mistaken for you see the bible is written in the same world that we live in. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories of brokenness, unreconciled differences, and woundedness. Even very early in Genesis (Genesis 4) we encounter the story of Lamech which is the opposite of forgiveness, “I have killed a man who attacked me, a young man who wounded me. If someone who kills Cain is punished seven times, then the one who kills me will be punished seventy-seven times!” Or the very first family we follow for a long journey in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah or Abram and Sarai as they start out, is a story of brokenness-yet we don’t often think of it that way. God’s promised child had been a long time in coming and Sarai says to Abram ‘we’re not getting any younger, why don’t you sleep with my servant Hagar and have a child through her and that can be the child we have been waiting for.’ And so Abram does and Ishmael is born, and yet later-after God has changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and the promised child Isaac is born there is no longer, at least in Sarah’s view, anyplace in the household for Ishmael and Hagar and the image is from a sculpture of Abraham saying goodbye to Ishmael, Hagar is facing away and Sarah is watching from behind the rock to ensure this son of Abraham from Hagar will be sent away. Ishmael will never return until both Sarah and Abraham are dead and only then will Isaac and Ishmael be reunited to mourn the death of their common father. But just because the people that God works through in the bible don’t live out God’s vision of forgiveness-that doesn’t mean that is who God is.

Abraham_thumb

As Psalm 103 says:

6 The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.

 7 He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.

 8 The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

 9 He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.

 10 He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.

 11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

 12 He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

 13 The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

 14 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.

The God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, who doesn’t remember them anymore and who is tender and compassionate as a father is to his children. This is the God that the bible points to again and again and again and yet it is so easy to try to transform God into something different, something less gracious and more judgmental. One of the things I find interesting is that there are a number of Christian theologies out there that try to understand God as somehow bound to a system of rules and laws that God must act in accordance with- and if anything the bible contrast God against the rulers of the nations around them that are like that.

Unlike King Xerxes in the book of Esther, who while he is drunk summons his wife Vashti to appear before him, a summons which Vasti refuses, and so he passes an edict that she shall never again appear before him. Then he wakes up the next day realizing what he has done, but it is now a law and he cannot break it-God is not like that. Unlike King Darius in the book of Daniel who loves Daniel and yet is tricked by his advisors to pass an edict where everyone is to pray to King Darius and when Daniel is caught praying to God, Darius has no choice-he is bound by the law to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. But God is not like that, no God is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and then when one is missing leaves the 99 in the wilderness in search of the one, or like a woman who has 10 coins and losing one searches the house until the one is found and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice. Or like a father who has two sons, and one of the sons, the younger one, says to his father in effect, ‘dad I wish you were dead, give me what is mine after you will be gone so that I may go away from you, away from my family, and away from all that has defined me.’ And the father grants him his request and when the younger son finds himself in a foreign land starving, feeding pigs (doing that which is completely against what he was before) and wishing for what the pigs eat and no one gives him anything and he says to himself, ‘you know my father’s servants are better off than I am’ and so he goes back home and he is expecting to be a servant-but the father seeing the son rushes out to meet him, wraps his arms around him, puts a robe on him and a ring on his finger, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party to reestablish this son with the community. And welcomes him home not as a servant, but as a son-against every rule of the way things should be. Yet there is another son in the story, the older son, who knows the way things should be, the way the rules say they should be and so he stands on the outside of the party refusing to go in and enter the celebration. So the father goes out to this son who says in effect, ‘father, I wish you were dead, for welcoming back in this younger brother who brought so much dishonor, who broke all the rules, who did everything I haven’t done” and yet the father loves both sons. The son who has gone away, who was lost-who went away and who came home again and the son who never left but now stands on the outside of the party unwilling to go in, dealing with his own anger and unwillingness to forgive and his own woundedness.

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

We serve a God who relationships are always more important than rules and people are more important than ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who should be most receptive to this are the ones who understand this the least. Take for example the story of Jonah, Jonah is sent by God to go to Nineveh-but Jonah hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want them to turn but wants them to receive God’s wrath and so Jonah goes on a ship in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. But Jonah cannot escape the God who won’t give up and so in the midst of the storm Jonah asks the sailors to give him death, to throw him into the sea because Jonah would rather die than see mercy given to the Ninevites, and yet God refuses to allow that to happen and so God sends the fish and then places him back on land and Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people turn and Jonah pouts.

In the story of les Mis, whether you’ve read it in the novel or seen it as a musical or on the big screen there are two major characters throughout the story. There is Jauvert, the lawman whose life is bound to his dependence on the law for order. The main character though is Jean val Jean who begins the story in a prison camp having served twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon Jean val Jean’s release from prison he is defined by the reality that he has been a prisoner and that there is no one who will hire him, he is a thief-and to everyone it seems he will always be a thief until when he actually does steal from a bishop and after being captured the bishop says, ‘but you left the best’ and gives him the golden candlesticks as a part of the gift. A gift which allows him to start a new life with a new identity as Misseur le Mer, and yet in the eyes of Jauvert who continues to track him throughout the story he is always the thief, and even at the end of the story when Jean val Jean spares Jauvert’s life-Jauvert cannot live this new story, he would rather die than to forgive and live in a world where the law fails him and so he does die, he commits suicide rather than forgive.

There are many people who would rather die than forgive, who would rather carry their enmity to their grave rather than let go of it, rather than let something that they have that they can hold over someone else be given up. For that is what forgiveness is, forgiveness states that I refuse to let the actions which caused me harm in the past to define our relationship going forward. Forgiveness gives us freedom from having to seek a better past. It allows us not to be defined by the things that we have done, but rather to be defined by the relationships that have been opened to us. That’s what God does, God comes and brings that forgiveness that we need even before we are ready to accept it, in the hope that we will begin to live into it. But forgiveness is not easy for us, I know a person who is a Lutheran pastor now but she didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church and going for the first time to a Lutheran church she heard at the end of the brief order of confession and forgiveness, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins,” and she turned to the person next to her and said, ‘that’s it!’ For God indeed, yes that is it, God has already made the journey of forgiveness, but for us many times the journey still lies ahead.

In our gospel today we hear Peter wrestling with this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about:

 Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

At seven times Peter probably thinks he is being generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy times seven takes the world of power and revenge and retribution and turns it on its head. The world of Lamech is reversed. And it is not a point of counting up to 490, the calling is to forgive.

and then Jesus also answers with this parable (Matt 18: 23-30)

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.

Now the millions of dollars is actually downplaying the size of the debt owed, in modern conversion we are probably talking billions, it was as one scholar put it the amount of money a worker could expect to make in 150,000,000 days-and if you want to figure out how many years that is-it is far more than you will ever live. It is a debt that is so large it could never be paid and this man find himself in a crisis. The story continues on:

 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold– along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned– to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

He didn’t do what the man asked for, the man asked for more time ‘give me more time and I’ll pay it back’ but the master released him from this debt and gave him a chance to start over

 28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

So many times I believe that is the way we may want to react, what’s in my best interest. It allows me to be the insider and the other person to be the outsider. Frequently the biggest critique of Christians is that they act, not like God, not like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, but rather like the older brother or the forgiven slave. Forgiveness is good for me but these other people are still sinners, they still owe me, the things they have done still define them as people who need to be punished, shunned, set aside. I’ve got to be honest that in a lot of my conversations with people outside the church the most common reason they are no longer a part of the church has nothing to do with any philosophy, or anything on TV, radio or the internet and everything to do with how they were not met with forgiveness by others within the church. Somehow they were marked as the sinner, the outcast, the untouchable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the story continues with Matt 18:31-33 and the horror of the other slaves seeing how this forgiven slave acted in light of the incredible forgiveness he received.

 

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

You see God wants to meet us in grace, God wants to meet us in justice and it goes back to us not living out the love and grace we have been given. And I think it wounds God when we abuse the gifts that have been given to us, when we set ourselves up as better than everyone else. When we receive grace and turn to the rest of the world in judgment. And I think God wants to meet us in grace, but I also have come to believe that if the only place we can meet God is in law, justice and judgment, then God will meet us there as well. The parable concludes:

 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t like the end of this, it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I know that there are times where God has to come to me and remind me, ‘Neil this is not the life you are called to.’ ‘This is not who you are called to be, you are called to be on the journey of forgiveness.’ And it is a journey, and there are times where you may say ‘I forgive something’ and then something comes up and you realize you are still viewing your neighbor in terms of things they have done in the past. I had to learn this in my own life and journey, and I still bear scars from where I have been wounded. The reality is that there is a risk that comes with forgiveness, that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt again. And what happens if the other person doesn’t accept the forgiveness you offer. That doesn’t exempt you from the calling to be forgiving, and to be on that journey yourself. Forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation happening. And I know that there are wounds that may be too deep to forgive at that moment, but we are called to be on that journey. A person who I’ve learned a lot from is a man who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and is Croatian in background, a man named Miroslav Volf, and those who know a little of the history of Europe in the 1990s, this was the area of Bosnia and Kosovo where the Serbians and Croatians were in a conflict, an ancient conflict that had its roots hundreds of years earlier that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when the Serbians were in power and began to move towards wiping out the Croatians, destroying entire villages, committing incredible atrocities and killing thousands while displacing tens of thousands. Sometime shortly after the events in Bosnia, Miroslav was working on his PhD in Germany working through the idea of forgiveness and embracing the enemy when another well known scholar, Jürgen Moltmann, said to him Miroslav could you embrace a chětnik, the very soldiers who had done all this to your people? And Miroslav’s answer was I believe an honest one, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” Even genocide requires forgiveness. Doesn’t mean it is an easy journey and there may be something that is so horrible where our answer is also, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu could say in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation committees after Apartheid in South Africa, ‘There is no future without forgiveness’.

Forgiveness is the one thing we are called upon to do in the midst of the Lord’s prayer: to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, or forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Or as one of my friends who is a pastor in Washington State related a story to me of a young girl learning the Lord’s prayer, and not knowing what trespassing was she said, “Forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash-pass against us.” The wisdom of children, so forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash pass against us.

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The Names We Take and the Names We Give

I enjoy music, a wide range of music, and so one of my hopes was to take something that strikes me when I am listening to it throughout the week, take the lyrics and their meaning and then see what thoughts it evokes. Just because today’s offering comes from the world of Rock/Metal and it happened to be what got me thinking today…you never know what might provoke thought.

One note before going further, the song, My Name by Shinedown does contain profanity which some people may be offended by. I have removed much of the repetition of chorus and tags in the text of the lyrics. My comments will be below, I also deal with some offensive material in this post due to the nature of the subject.

My Name (Your Wearing Me Out)

My name is worthless like you told me I once was
My name is empty ’cause you drained away the love
My name is searching since you stole my only soul
My name is hatred, and the reasons we both know
 

Worthless, empty, searching, hatred 
Who am I right now?
 

You’re fuckin’ wearing me out! 
You’re always dragging me down!
 
You’re the fake fallen force of nature’s sick mind!
 
I don’t need a gun to take back what’s mine
 
It’s over
 
It’s over now
 
You’re done wearing me out
 

My name is screaming like the sound of your heart failing 
My name is loco like the motive that betrayed me
 
Screaming, loco, don’t say you know who I am right now
 

You’ll be ancient history 
But who am I right now?
 

My name is revenge and I’m here to save my name 

I’m sure somebody is thinking, “these are terrible” why would anyone want to focus any time on this, but we all give and take names, some that are honorable and good and some that are horrible. I say to people dealing with the aftermath of verbal and psychological trauma, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.” Names and words hurt, and even the most resilient person will occasionally take a label that someone else gives them into part of their personality. If you look back at some of the work I discuss from Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, you can see how powerful this is. Taking a name is a way that shame takes hold of us. In the song the person’s names become: worthless, empty, searching, hatred, screaming, loco, revenge…they may not be the names we want but sometimes they are the words we take and give.

Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace relates a story from his homeland from the perspective of a Muslim woman:

“I am a Muslim, and I am thirty five years old. To my second son who was just born, I gave the name “Jihad.” So he would not forget the testament of his mother—revenge. The first time I put my baby at the breast I told him, “May this milk choke you if you forget.” So be it. The Serbs taught me to hate. For the last two months there was nothing in me. No pain, no bitterness. Only hatred. I taught these children to love. I did. I am a teacher of literature. I was born in Ilijaś and I almost died there. My student, Zoran, the only son of my neighbor, urinated into my mouth. As the bearded hooligans standing around laughed, he told me: “You are good for nothing else, you stinking Muslim woman…” I do not know whether I first heard the cry of felt the blow. My former colleague, a teacher of physics, was yelling like mad, “Ustasha, ustasha…”And kept hitting me. Wherever he could. I have become insensitive to pain. But my soul it hurts. I taught them to love and all the while they were making preparations to destroy everything that is not of the Orthodox faith. Jihad—war. This is the only way… “(Volf 1996, 111)

Fortunately most of us are not literally named something as horrible as Jihad, although the family dynamics of hatred passed from one generation to another are very real, as does the reality of abuse: physical, psychological or sexual. The natural response for a wounded person is to wound another, if I am insulted the natural response is to bring someone else down to make myself feel better (even though this doesn’t work and only decreases my own self worth). Yet the cycle of naming continues.

How does the cycle end? How do we give new and better names to ourselves and others? It isn’t easy. It starts first with being clear about who we are, and what are the names we are willing to accept for ourselves, and even the type of self-talk we do. No matter how bone-headed some action may have been that doesn’t make a person an idiot-they are simply someone who did something dumb. A child who shoplifts can either take it into their identity that they are a thief or they can be ashamed of the action, I stole something, but that doesn’t change who I am. I’m a person with a fairly strong sense of who I am, but even I have to work at this.

I have a plaque in my office, given to me by Nate Frambach who was my advisor which says: “Neil Eric White you are a baptized child of God. Whatever else you are, remember you are that; for that is the basis of whatever else you are.” I go back to this often. At the root, that is a name I’ve taken that I desire to be the touchstone any other name is judged by. I’m not always there, there are times when another name seems to overwhelm that or any other name, but eventually I come back to this name that I claim this name that isn’t wearing me out. There is much more to say so perhaps I’ll spend some more time here next week.

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