America First, God Second?

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the book of Jonah, asserting that America plays the role of Nineveh in that story, not the role of Jonah (as we like to tell ourselves.) Today, I want to follow that up with a little theological grounding for that idea.

I’m doing this because I can hear folks asking, how can I equate us with Assyria and people from places like Iran or Syria with Jonah, when those people aren’t Christians, or even Jewish? Why would God side with Muslims over us, even if, as a nation, we haven’t always acted very Christian in our foreign relations?

The answer is found in thinking about the relation of humanity to God, and specifically, the fundamental orientation of that relationship. In the telling where America plays the good guy role here, the assumption is made of a Divine-Human relationship where we get to set the terms. From us emanates truth, and all else swirls around us and is described in relation to us. America is good, not on God’s terms, but on our own terms. In this telling, the great fundamentalist fear comes to fruition: truth is made relative, in this case, to the needs of American imperialistic aims. The way of God is made unimportant; instead, the way of America is the guiding lodestar. America First becomes not just a quasi-racist catchphrase, but a theological assertion of primacy.

But this gets the human-Divine relationship backwards. When speaking of God – the Divine, the Ground of All Being, Ultimate Truth – one exists in relation to God, is defined by one’s relationship to the Divine. Paul Tillich writes of the “subject-object distinction,” asserting that God can never be an object in an object-subject relation, but is always the subject.

This argument can be problematic at times, especially when the subjective God is conceived of by human beings as a capricious, angry and self-obsessed God. This subject God, around whom all else orbits, becomes “Anti-humanistic,” a God with little if any concern for humanity, but instead completely caught up in God’s own whims and desires. Humanity’s actions and existence become by-products of God, rather than objects. The subject-object relation breaks down in this case.

God as subject works, though, when we understand God as concerned with humanity, and especially, as Jesus posited, with the “least of these.” This is one of the primary and most important contributions of liberation theology to the conception of God: a God concerned primarily with the oppressed, who stands on the side of those not in positions of power.

That’s what powers my assertion that America is playing the role of Nineveh, and persons in places like Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan are playing the role of Jonah. Because God takes the side of the oppressed. And in the case of American imperialism in the Middle East, the oppressed are the people in those places who are being bombed and terrorized and killed. God sides with them, no matter their religion, no matter their creed, and no matter their nationality. In cases where unjust power in being brought to bear, God could really care less about any temporal identifiers. God cares about the flourishing of human life, in its many varied forms. God takes the side of the indigent peasant farmer before he takes the side of well-fed suburbanites in conflict between the two.

Too often, America plays  the role of oppressor to peoples in the global south and east, especially poor people of color. We do it for well-reasoned “good” ideas, like democracy or liberty. But always, these are justifications that benefit not in solidarity with others, but at the expense of them. This is where I get my grounding the say: in Jonah, we are Nineveh. I have very little doubt about that.

Looking for Jonah

I saw this headline the other day, while scrolling through Facebook. Like so, so, so many things having to do with our President, it made me angry, it offended my sensibilities as an American, a Christian, and a human being, and most of all, it just made me sad.

But it also made me think about the story of Jonah.

Anyone who grew up in Sunday school knows the broad contours of the story. God tells Jonah to do something, Jonah disobeys and runs away from God, a big fish (maybe a whale?) swallows Jonah for three days, during which time Jonah decides he’s sorry for disobeying God, the fish spits him out and Jonah goes and does what we he was told.

In this version of Jonah, the story is all about obedience and disobedience, not just of God, but also of our parents, our teachers, or really, any authority figure. Obedience to authority is a pretty important value for most parents, and this seems like a tailor made tale for teaching such a lesson.

But, this is a really shallow way to read the story of Jonah. There is a lot more going on here. There are a lot of different lessons to learn from this little book, and a lot better contemporary issues to apply those lessons to than whether or not Johnny is listening when Mom tells him no cookies before dinner.

Like, for instance, American imperial hegemony in the Middle East.

Stick with me here.

Jonah is a story that is obliquely about imperial hegemony in the ancient Middle East; in this case, Assyria is the hegemon. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, to deliver a message of impending judgement and possible redemption to the Assyrians. And Jonah really, really doesn’t want to. Why is that? Because if you imagine Jonah being an American (and that’s a really problematic assumption we’ll return to), then the ancient Assyrians were like Iran, ISIS, or maybe more accurately, like imperial Japan. They had a mission of global conquest, and they were constantly attacking and invading ancient Israel. Over the course of a century, they invaded Israel at least three times, capturing the northern capital of Samaria, carrying it’s people off to captivity, and besieging Jerusalem.

So the Israelites really, really didn’t like the Assyrians. You can open to just about any pre-exilic prophet in the Old Testament and find some condemnation and judgement from God for Assyria.

So, imagine one day, you are chilling on your front porch with your dog and a some really good red wine, and then God goes:

“Hey, you, I want you to go to Tehran, and I want you to tell the Ayatollahs that I’m gonna destroy them.”

I imagine you’d be simultaneously like,

“Hey, great idea, God! Way to show those Iranians who is boss!”

and also “Wait, I can’t go to Tehran and do that, I’ll most definitely be arrested and thrown in an Iranian prison and I really don’t think that sounds great.”

And then God says, “Also, tell them if they repent of their violence, I’ll bless them and make a great nation of them,”

and now I imagine you aren’t thinking this sounds like a good idea at all.

You’d run away too, I imagine. Bless the Iranians? Or ISIS? Or imperial Japan? Make them a great nation? Not cool. They’ve all done some pretty terrible things, invaded places and beheaded people and made life pretty difficult for us. The destruction part sounds good, but the blessing, not so much.

But that’s the point. This story isn’t about obedience and disobedience (at least, not primarily.) Rather, this is a story about the universality of God’s redeeming love. As much as we want to think God’s love is mostly reserved for us good, church-going, tithe-paying Christians, it is simply not. God’s love, as we find in so many places in the Bible, cannot be contained or rationed. It extends to any and all people, no matter their transgressions, no matter their background or creed or problems. God showed love to tax collectors, to persecutors, to murderers, and even to Nineveh. So, chances are good that God also loves ayatollahs and jihadis and kamikaze bombers, just as much as he loves Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists.

And that’s some really good news for us Americans, too. Because we need it.

Remember above, when we imagined Jonah as an American and I said that was a problem and we’d come back to it? Well, we are coming back to it.

Because, as much as we want to read a story like Jonah and imagine ourselves the hero, the fact is, we really aren’t.

In fact, in this case, America is more like Assyria.

Jonah isn’t getting sent from Akron to Aleppo. Most likely, Jonah is getting sent from Jalalabad to Washington, to deliver a warning of destruction and opportunity for repentance to us. In America, we are the ones in need of God’s love and grace. 

And that brings me back to that headline. It’s really gross and disgusting to see an arena full of self-proclaimed followers of the Prince of Peace cheering wildly at the idea of bombing the very part of the world that Prince hailed from. It’s also nothing new; America Christians were the biggest, most fervent supporters of an unprovoked war in Iraq, for death-dealing forays into Central America in the 80s, for the ill-fated effort to combat communism in Vietnam. This news item is only the most recent, and most blatant, example of the American-Christian war machine. And it is so blatant this time because we’ve been taught and conditioned for so long to associate the glory of Christianity with the success of American imperial power.

News flash: that’s not the Gospel. That’s kind of the anti-Gospel.

So, in the book of Jonah, we don’t get to play the part of Jonah. Instead, we are imperial Assyria, conquering Israel and carrying the people off and besieging their capital. We are the ones God’s anger is kindled against, the ones in danger of destruction, the ones in need of redemption.

In the book of Jonah, the Assyrians hear Jonah’s message. They repent. They wear sackcloth and cry out to God and are saved. They shelf their imperial arrogance and hubris, admit that being the biggest, most powerful country on earth, with the biggest, baddest military and the most money and the biggest egos hasn’t served them very well.

Let’s hope our Jonah shows up soon. Let’s hope we pay attention.

Why Should Christians Read the Old Testament?

The following is based on a finals project for a class I completed at Phillips this semester; for this paper, we are exploring the question of why the Hebrew Bible texts are important for Christians. I have reworked the paper for a public theology project for a different class, crafting it instead into a blog post. Enjoy!

The Hebrew Bible is an underappreciated corpus of texts in liberal and progressive Christian circles in the 21st century. The skepticism that greets the words contained in them is often well intentioned, but arises out of a deep misunderstanding of the texts, and even a deferral to a more conservative or fundamentalist-style reading of them. This is unfortunate, as the Hebrew Bible has much to offer progressive strands of Christian tradition, and those who count themselves as such should strive to reclaim them in pursuit of a more just and equitable world made in the image of the Kingdom of God.

Divine Violence in the Hebrew Bible

It is certainly true, on a very basic, narratively-minded level, that the Hebrew Bible presents an image of God distinctly at odds with the one many progressives hold; namely, that of a God more loving than angry, more merciful than vengeful, more justice-oriented than arbitrary and demanding, more rational and compassionate than unpredictable and quick to anger. The God we see in the Hebrew Bible does often seem violent and cruel. Just a few examples quickly highlight this. For instance, in the laws and instructions laid out in the books of the Torah, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Divine voice that is allegedly dictating these words commands the people of Israel to put to death violators of a variety of commandments, from the act of adultery (Deut. 22:22) to the act of working on the Sabbath day (Exodus 35:2,) to a child who disobeys their parents (Deut. 21:21.) God’s punishments for rule-breaking rarely seem to be proportional to the violation by modern-day standards.

Beyond the consequences of breaking the Torah instructions, God also makes violent appearances in the narrative sections of the Hebrew Bible. A most egregious example of an arbitrarily violent God is found in 2 Samuel 6:2-7; in this tale, the Arc of the Covenant is being transported on a cart when the ox pulling it stumbles. Uzzah, a man escorting the Arc, reaches out and steadies the falling Arc by touching it, and is immediately struck dead by God for a supposedly irreverent act.

Finally, another commonly cited text in accusing the God of the Hebrew Bible is found in the book of Joshua, when the titular character leads the people into Canaan. They are instructed to “possess the land” (Joshua 1:11), which is understood as meaning to commit Divinely-ordained genocide against the people already living there. And this is indeed what Joshua and the Israelites do, as is recounted vividly in the cases of Jericho (Joshua 6) and Ai (Joshua 8). As the account of the latter conquest states quite explicitly, “The total of those who fell that day, men and women, the entire population of Ai, came to twelve thousand. Joshua did not draw back the hand with which he held out his javelin until all the inhabitants of Ai had been exterminated.” (Joshua 8:25-26) Our modern sensibilities, rightly so, recoil at accounts of such barbaric genocide.

But to accept these stories of violence as the true actions and words of the Divine is not only to misread the Hebrew Bible, but is to accept an interpretation of such dictated by conservative and fundamentalist voices. It is an inherent contradiction of views to assert that the Bible was not in fact divinely ordained and thus a product of human hands and minds, while at the same time declaring these Hebrew Bible passages as describing an angry and violent God. One must consistently apply their hermeneutic to the entire Hebrew Bible, and understand that, just as Leviticus 18 does not carry binding weight towards the nature of same-gender relations in the eyes of God, neither does Joshua 8 definitively describe the will of God regarding violence.

Further, to reduce the Hebrew Bible to a set of passages of recounting  a violent and angry God, and thus essentially useless and discardable, is to miss out on what these texts do have to offer to progressive Christians. The Hebrew Bible is crucially important to those who consider themselves Christians, of any stripe, because it is a central current in the stream of tradition in which we count ourselves. This functions on two primary levels; the texts are crucial in that they are the paradigmatic lens through which we must interpret Jesus and the church that arose after him; they are also beautiful and instructive in their own right for any who seek the Divine, regardless of their impact of Christ and the early church. In this understanding, the violence found in the Hebrew Bible that is ascribed to God must be interpreted in the light of a people who lived in a violent world many thousands of years ago. In this contextual view, the Hebrew Bible takes its place as a progressive understanding of history and humanity, providing a view of the world shaped by the inherent goodness of people and an eye towards justice for the downtrodden and oppressed.

Reassessing the Hebrew Bible: Four Examples

Take the Psalms as a first example. Made up of 150 hymns, laments, and prayers of thanksgiving, this book is a beautiful glimpse into the worship life of the Israelite people. The theological breadth and depth of Psalms is astonishing, with these collections of works finding meaning and use in worship today, many thousands of years after they were first written and compiled. As Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt write in their Introduction to the Old Testament, “…the Psalter is evidence of a long practice of Israel finding poetic, artistic ways to voice faith.” The desire to know and relate to God has never departed from humankind, and the Psalms are a beautiful collection of works that show the timelessness of such pursuits. The King James Version, another text so often derided in liberal and progressive Christianity, provides a particularly striking translation of the Psalms, and should be appreciated for its own inherent beauty.

Another text in the Hebrew Bible that stands alone in its theological complexity and ability to speak to modern sensibilities is Job. Brueggemann and Linafelt write, “It is no overstatement to say that the book of Job is a towering classic of the human literary and theological imagination.” The book presents itself ostensibly as a narrative of the tragic account of Job, who as a result of a wager between God and a figure known as “the Adversary” loses all he has, a series of poetic discourses between Job, his friends, and God grapple with the theological implications of suffering. The book doesn’t end definitively, leaving the reader to ponder whether or not God should exercise God’s power to act in such a way. The presentation of a God who takes and tests, and is thus subsequently rebuked and questioned by human beings, should be enticing and appealing to progressive Christians who look to question structures of authority and power. While certainly not a rejection of the authority and sovereignty of God, the book of Job is a powerful struggle to understand the Divine-Human relationship that carries much meaning in a world riven by injustice and oppression.

The Hebrew Bible is also important for anyone who considers themselves “Christian,” as it provides the primary lens for understanding the context of Jesus, and the church that arose around the memory of his life. Indeed, one cannot read the Epistles of Paul, or other texts such as Hebrews, without a familiarity with the Hebrew Bible and its implications. To read the New Testament without such knowledge is to court anti-Semitism, as Jewish tradition is subsumed by a western Christianity largely detached from the context in which it arose.

Jesus made a ministry of preaching justice to an oppressed people. His priorities did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, Jesus was living into a well-established Israelite tradition. The defining narrative of the Israelite people was (and is) the Exodus out from Egypt, as recounted in the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus. As a result of the story, the Israelite people understood their God as a liberating God, one who sets oppressed peoples free from bondage, and who rejects the structures of empire and power epitomized by Pharaoh’s Egypt. “The God who defeats the oppressive power of Pharaoh and who thereby emancipates Israel from slavery is characteristically the God who delivers from oppression,” Brueggemann and Linafelt remind us. Thus, in order to understand the import of Jesus speaking words of liberation against an oppressive empire, one must understand that he was necessarily alluding to the central narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

Out of this narrative of liberation and justice for the oppressed arises the tradition of the Israelite prophets, who make up the latter half of the Hebrew Bible. Again, to understand Jesus, one must understand that Jesus was stepping into the rhetorical tradition of the prophets. The prophets spoke to an Israel mired in injustice and exile, imploring them to act with justice, and promising the faithfulness of their liberating God. Likewise, Jesus speaks to a people occupied and oppressed, and presents a view of a world reordered to God’s liking. This is most explicit in the quoting of Isaiah attributed to Jesus, found in the Gospel of Mark. Isaiah, writing to an exiled people, promises God’s restorative justice, in the form of restoring those on the bottom to their dignity: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned; To proclaim a year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication by our God; the comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2). The author of Mark puts these words in Jesus’ mouth, in order to draw a parallel between the God who returned the exiles to Jerusalem, and the God who would deliver them from the Romans. In order to understand the mission Jesus felt called to, one must understand that he understood himself as working in the line of prophets stretching back a millennium.

Supersessionism and Responsible Reading

There is danger in this reading of the Hebrew Bible, of course. Supersessionism – the idea that “Christianity has fulfilled and improved on the teachings of Judaism” in the words of my professor, Dr. Lisa Davison, from a lecture she gave in January – is a dangerous habit of Christians, one that silences the authors of these texts and the faith tradition they were contributing to. I invoke Christianity here, not as the “proper” lens for understanding the Hebrew Bible, but in the illustration of the importance the authentic Jewish tradition has in shaping and forming the Christian faith. Christianity arose and formed in a primarily Jewish context; one only has to make a cursory reading of Paul or the Epistles to the Hebrews to see this. So, in order to understand and participate in the Christian tradition, an adherent needs to understand the Jewish faith; there is no better way to do this than to read and grapple with the Hebrew Bible. One shouldn’t replace or supersede the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament -there is no hierarchy of ideas here- but should instead recognize the inherent beauty, power and theological might of these texts, both for their own sake, and for how they help us understand our own faith that formed as a result of this wrestling with God.

Why should Christians read the Hebrew Bible? We should read it because, without these texts, there is no Christianity, no western civilization as we know it, no major monotheistic tradition apart from it. We should read it because we stand in a great river of tradition, and we must understand where we came from to decide where we are going.