Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Bold Biblical Christianity
distributed 7/26/19 - ©2019

Today's Eco-Justice Notes is an "in house" message to our Christian constituency.

I want to spell out a foundational principle which may seem obvious to many of us, but which is forgotten, or even denied, by large segments of the church.

In one sentence: The biblical Christian faith is intimately concerned with the "worldly" events of the day.

After I offer a few well-known examples from scripture, I'll comment on why this principle is important, and name an upcoming occasion to put it to work.

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Let's start with the exodus, that act of holy liberation of an oppressed and exploited people from the Pharaoh's tyranny. God hears the cry of the people, calls out a leader who confronts the Pharaoh, and guides them to a new land. Needless to say, this is not an incidental little story. It is the defining event of the Jews, their "creation story." The whole biblical narrative falls apart without this incursion into the geopolitical situation of 1250 BCE.

Do you remember the messy story of King David and Bathsheba? It is a scandal of rape and murder, where the king violates pretty much every moral norm. So a prophet, Nathan, goes and directly confronts the king, trapping him in self-incrimination. (2 Samuel 11-12)

Another prophet, Amos, brings words of judgment on "you who trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land." This isn't some abstraction. He calls them out for following responsible trade practices during the religious festivals, but then cheating on weights and measures as soon as the holiday ends. (Amos 8)

Jeremiah sends a detailed message to the king of Judah, contradicting the prevailing optimism that the army of Egypt would save them from the invading Chaldeans. He's accused of treason and imprisoned. (Jer. 37)

Isaiah, too, gets into the nitty-gritty of invading empires, conquest and deliverance. The changing circumstances of Israel evoke profoundly different theologies and prophetic messages between First Isaiah (chapters 1-40) and the later writings (chapters 41-66). Second Isaiah has the nerve to name Cyrus the Persian as God's messiah (chapter 45). The prophetic word depends on what's going on in the world at that moment.

But, you might say, that's all in the Old Testament. That's before Jesus taught us that religion is all spiritual, and has nothing to do with worldly or political things.

Really? Then what about the Palm Sunday story, when Jesus enters Jerusalem in a carefully staged anti-imperial counter-parade that's a direct rebuke to Pilate's entry into the city with the forces of the Roman empire? (See "Palms of Prophetic Proclamation.")

Paul's letters are mostly "occasional," addressing specific issues that have cropped up in churches around the Mediterranean. Like Nathan, he calls out sexual misconduct. His advice on eating food offered to idols is really concerned with avoiding loyalty to the Roman emperor, who claimed to be a god. (1 Cor. 8) When Paul triggers riots in Jerusalem, the authorities "ordered him to be examined by flogging." (Acts 22:24) Paul uses his legal status as a Roman citizen to avoid a beating, and to continue his preaching.

Wrapping up this quick tour, we'll go to the final book of the Bible, Revelation. It is a hard book to understand, because it is filled with images that minimally obscure the countless references to the Roman empire. It is like trying to decipher a series of political cartoons. ("And the elephant and the donkey waged battle for control of the swamp.") The revelation to John is just as much a story of triumph over empire as is the story of the exodus.

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I don't know how many times I've heard church leaders shy away from contemporary issues by saying, "Oh, that's too political." And so churches are silent about impending war, about the abuse of immigrants, about poverty and homelessness, and about the climate crisis.

Somehow, a lie has taken hold that Christianity is all about personal salvation, about feeling good, and about eternal truths that never make a real difference in the world. In far too many settings, Christianity is safe and domesticated and irrelevant.

That placid form of the church is a travesty.

The Bible is an account of God wading into all of the mess and complexity and the power struggles and the sin and evil of the world. The Judeo-Christian faith is all about the rejection of empire, and the struggle to embody the realm of God, of shalom. It is about justice -- down to earth justice that liberates the poor and the oppressed. It is about judgment upon those who abuse power and exploit the poor or the land.

If we live in the tradition of a biblical faith, we will be fearless in confronting kings and emperors, and even presidents and legislators. We will look at the current headlines and discern where God's purposes are being advanced, and where the promises of God are being denied. We will be bold in naming names when individuals and institutions are in the wrong -- as did Moses and Nathan and Jeremiah.

A biblical Christianity will read the signs of the times, and be prophetic in both judgment and hope. That kind of Christianity will be a threat to the powerful, and a gift to "the least of these." We can see prophetic faith and witness in movements like "Moral Monday." But that outspoken kind of Christianity bears almost no resemblance to what is found in countless congregations which never say a word about what is really going on in the world.

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Today's call to the church -- a call to be biblically relevant and bold in addressing the real issues of our time -- is a prelude. I've been setting the stage for what I intend to write next week.

Coming up in September, people around the world will join in a Global Climate Strike. Expanding from the persistent witness of students who have walked out of school, striking for climate action, a larger strike is planned for September 20, and into the week following.

Next week, I'll write about ways that churches could take part in that strike, especially on Sunday, September 22. I'm not proposing that climate be mentioned in the prayers that day, or that there be a polite sermon. In the spirit of a "strike," the church can be bold and relevant.

I'll say more next week. Until then, reflect on whether the church -- your church -- has the courage to be biblical in speaking faithful truth about the world.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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