For years now we have had a more or less regular ‘housegroup’, which meets (as decreed somewhere in the Bible) on Tuesday evenings. A few months ago we moved out of the living room into a pub- it was time to change things around a bit. We have been using the shape of some of Brian McLaren’s writing to aid our discussion- from ‘A new kind of Christianity’. It is a great book, and has started to put some firmness into parts of my faith that had been decidedly muddied by all of the Emerging Church discussions and debates. (Not that I regret a single question mark!)
Last week we continued a discussion about how we might understand the storyline of the Bible. McLaren (or Bazzer as we decided to call him) suggested that many of us had become used to reading the whole of the Bible backwards through all those towering figures of our theological landscape, back through the Reformation, into the middle ages, then the dark ages, and in particular, the days of the Holy Roman Empire, which Bazzer considers the real cusp of the matter. At this point the new religion (Christianity) became mixed up not only with Empire, but also with Greco-Roman philosophy. The end result it that it is really hard to see backwards because of all the edifices that we have built along the way.
Read the book for more detail on all this, but we tried to chew a little on the Polarity of Greco-Roman thought- giving us the polar opposites of Platonic perfection and the fallen state of mankind. We did this by looking again at those early stories in Genesis- of Adam and Eve with their troubled offspring, the subsistence hunter-gatherers who became farmers, then city builders, and fanally Empire makers- the rise/fall of man.
Here, the Roman Zeus- living in a removed, perfect state, setting impossible goals for his ephemeral people to reach towards, and seeking to rescue a few only be the skin of their teeth (eventually through a legalistic confidence trick with his son Jesus) starts to come unraveled. Zeus is replaced by Elohim.
Looking backwards, we read the early stories of Genesis in the Greco-Roman philosophical polarity- perfection/fallen. The garden was perfect, and as we mucked it all up, we were cast out, imperfect, therefore God could not be around us- Plato again.
But Elohim never mentions perfection- he talks of things being ‘good’, or even ‘very good’. In these stories, the journey from the garden is not one of lost perfection, but rather lost innocence. Rather than going from a perfect state casting us out into the darkness, Elohim makes clothing, avoids issuing the death penalty as promised to those who eat the fruit of the tree, and so on and so on. Elohim constantly engages, constantly circles back into the rise/fall of mankind. Even when they start empire building.
As we talked about this, I saw Michaela becoming frustrated. Eventually she spoke up- “So why did Jesus have to die? What was his mission if not to rescue, to save?”
I have been thinking about this question and the discussion we had the other night. Unsurprisingly, it leaves me with more questions;
If there has been a ‘fall’ of man, is it really the kind of fall I grew up talking about- one of individual sin, inherited by each subsequent generation as part of our human DNA? This kind of ‘fall’ keeps us trapped in the old Platonic polarity. It allowed Evangelical Christianity to focus on private morality to the exclusion of almost all else and the purpose of the death of Jesus in this understanding is to give a chosen few backdoor perfection– undeserved, but gloriously exclusive.
But there is this other version of the fall of man(kind) encountered in Genesis. It is a fall upwards- away from our root and branch engagement in the soil of the world that we live in- towards enclosure and management of the land first for storage of food, then for personal profit. The more we have the more we want and our ambitions grow to the sky like the tower of Babel. Then there is this word again- Empire. If there is a polar opposite to the Shalom of Elohim it is Empire. Power used and abused. Richness accumulated at the point of sword and on the backs of the slavery of others. From Genesis to Revelation this the Bible is shadowed by Empire. This fall is not an individual one, it is collective.
But Elohim does not retreat even from Empire. He is there in and through it all. Hating some of it, raging against it sometimes- particularly when his people accommodated with it- even became the enslavers themselves.
Back to Michaela’s question- Jesus death, in relation to this collective fall can be understood clearly in his own use of the words of Isaiah, spoken from exile, in slavery to empire;
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
Here it is- the kernel of the nut. The Shalom of Elohim; the New Kingdom. A totally different kind of empire. One based on love of one another, on the joy of life and the refusal of the power of Empire.
The first kind of fall- the individualistic perfect/fallen polarity seems to have allowed for Christianity to exist within empire with hardly a ripple. It allows us to set aside the revolutionary stuff and focus on saving the few for the really important stuff, not the Aristotelian stuff of boring reality, but the Platonic promise of eternal perfection.
But the New Kingdom can not exist in the other kind of fallen world without challenging empire. We can not live alongside poverty, injustice disease, broken lives, etc without wishing, praying, working upon it the Shalom of Elohim.
Or can we? The forces of empire are strong after all…
Michaela told a story right at the end of a place she had worked- a job that was supposed to be all about community building- encouraging participation and engagement with marginalised people and groups. A new manager came in who knew all the language, but seemed driven only towards establishing and using power; she was building an empire. The rules of the organisation had changed overnight. Suddenly success was measured by a business model- by conquests won over other ‘competing’ community groups. It tore Michaela apart.
And there you have it; the shalom of God opened wide, but the Empire rises again. But Elohim is waiting…