Thursday, May 31, 2012

Liberation Theology and Whippoorwills

Wednesday’s ChurchandWorld linked to an article in the New York Times, “A Campaign Pitch Rekindles the Question: Just What Is Liberation Theology?” The author, Mark Oppenheimer mainly focuses on Jeremiah Wright and the Black liberationist theologian James Cone. But he does bring in other liberationist theologies including womanist theology and mujerista theologies both feminist theologies which could be grouped under liberation theology. But Oppenheimer’s take on liberation theology is rather sentimental and unscholarly. He writes:

Contrary to the simplifications of the past four years, liberation theology, which has become hugely influential, teaches not hate, nor anti-Americanism, but a renewed focus on the poor and the suffering, as embodied by Jesus.
Well, it does in a sense do that, but still, most Christian theology includes a focus on the poor and suffering. Think of Mother Teresa, none have cared for the poor with more zeal, but she was not involved in what is called liberation theology. And really some liberationist theologians are very anti-American seeing America as the evil empire or even the beast.

Several years ago I wrote a paper on liberation theology. So in some sense it may be slightly dated, but I am going to post it here although it is fairly long.


Often, my granddaughter, Melissa, after visiting, leaves me a small picture she has drawn, or a poem or essay she has just composed. Recently I found written on a small yellow piece of paper:

          Why, Why?
           Does the whippoorwill cry?
          Or the cat at the late moon
          When all is fine
          On mouse he’ll dine,
          Or maybe, on whippoorwill.

At first I saw this as just a fun ditty, but pondering deeper these verses merged with a lot of information I have been reading about liberation theology and the small ditty took on a deeper meaning. The cat and the whippoorwill have something in common; they are both touched by the horrendous fall of humanity. They suffer from the pangs of humanity’s sin. (Of course the mouse does too!) We are sure of why the whippoorwill is crying; he is going to die in the mouth of the cat. Perhaps the cat, red in tooth and claw, wails, because he is the one who will kill the whippoorwill. But what does this have to do with liberation theology?

First some explanations about liberation theology: Liberation theology had some of its early beginnings in the Afro-American struggle for equal rights. But that movement and its main spokesperson, Martin Luther King Jr., did not really provide the main tenets of liberation theology. They did open the door for the whole church to understand that poverty and loss of freedom should and could be addressed by the Christian faith. Not really a new idea, but one that needed to be renewed in the United States.

The basics of liberation theology can be found in the Christian movements against repressive governments in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s.[1] The most basic understanding of the various liberation movements, as Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson state, is that liberation theologians insist, “theology must be intrinsically linked with a specific social and cultural situation.” While this particular kind of contextual theology could lead to relativism, Grenz and Olson explain that liberation theologians hold a mediating view as a shield against relativism, but one that links liberation thought to Marxist thought. That is, “In order to rise above the self-enclosed ‘knowledge’ of class and race interest, people can and must exercise ‘critical consciousness’ or ‘dialectical thinking.’” Grenz and Olson explain:
This means that each person must gain awareness of one’s own vested interests and subject them to scrutiny and criticism. By becoming suspicious and critical (dialectical) in relation to the dominant thought-forms of one’s own culture, a person’s knowledge can rise above the social-environmental conditioning[2].
Grenz and Olson point out that within this system it is believed that all knowledge arises out of the “conditioning process of the social environment,” including theological knowledge. Therefore, even theological viewpoints are something to critique and rise above. Within this system absolutes in theology are often seen as detrimental.

Since such knowledge is bound up with the “unique situation,” of the knower a different theology is required for each situation and it arises from the experiences of the people. According to Grenz and Olsen all liberation theologies are “contextual,” and therefore not “universal.”[3] In this scenario the theology of Martin Luther, the German Reformation leader, may not apply to South East Asia; the theology of John Calvin may not apply to Ghana.

For instance Sara Hurtado Rogers reported in a letter on the web site of The Institute for Theological Education of Bahia, concerning the course, ‘Women Doing Theology,’ that the class, “examined a variety of myths and ideologies, deconstructing those that suppressed them . . . and celebrating those that empowered and continue to empower them.” [4]

Linked to the understanding of theology as knowledge growing out of cultural experience, is an understanding that when doing theology, “praxis”(action) precedes reflection. One acts for the poor and oppressed and then reflects on the meaning of the action in the light of God’s word. This is in opposition to reflecting on God’s word and then allowing its light to shine on the needs of the poor as well as the action of those who are assisting the poor.[5]

Additionally, many liberation theologians insist one only encounters God in action on behalf of the poor and oppressed or even simply, one is encountered by God in the poor and oppressed. This can be seen in the movie The Mission. Robert De Niro plays a degenerate slave trader who has killed his own brother. In repentance he carries his pack of armor up the steep terrains of the jungle where a young tribe member finally releases him from his burden.

For the Evangelical Christian the young South American Indian becomes a metaphor for the work of Christ who has both saved the slave trader and reconciled him to his former enemy. For the liberation theologian the encounter with the young man is the actual means of salvation. The slave trader can only find release in the actions of a potential slave. This too often places humanity above Christ.

If the oppressed poor are the essential subjects of liberation theology, then their oppression is the central focus of liberation theology’s view of evil and sin. Generally such evil is seen as a corporate entity, not individual sin. With some links to Marxist ideology, most liberation theologians have usually focused on capitalism and corporations when explaining the causes of poverty and oppression in poorer nations and among oppressed peoples.

However, there are those liberationists who hold to a very biblical view of individual sin. Martyr, Oscar Romero, wrote in 1977, “When we preach the Lord’s word, we decry not only the injustices of the social order. We decry every sin that is night, that is darkness: drunkenness, gluttony, lust, adultery, abortion, everything that is the reign of iniquity and sin. Let them all disappear from our society.”[6]

However, at present, according to most liberation thinkers, globalization is the tarnished arch that holds together the evil empire of capitalism. Novelist, Paule Marshall, gives an example of sin and evil expressed as capitalism and corporations in, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. She pictures a hog butchering in a small island nation whose people, in the past, were oppressed by slave traders and are, in the present, oppressed by foreign corporations. The old sow becomes a symbol for the greed of empires and corporations as well as a sacrifice meant to appease, not the wrath of God, but the wrath of the people. The hog is described as “enormous.” Marshall writes:
In its younger days it had been known throughout Spiretown as a thief and aggressor because of the habit it had of breaking out of its pen and invading other person’s yards, where it would not only set itself up as the supreme authority over the pigs and chickens, but would appropriate whatever it found there that was edible, battening on it until its stomach sagged.[7]
The story becomes a complete deconstruction of religious symbols and meaning. The pig is the sacrifice, the people show wrath against the dead sow, cursing it, and tearing off its hair in “savage fistfuls.” And one of the main characters, Saul, a Jew, finds a kind of redemptive feeling in the sacrifice of the pig and the actions of the people. In the story he mulls over his feelings about the hog killing:
And in the midst of all the things that had disturbed him about the pig-sticking, there had been beneath the violence of the act an affirmation of something age-old, a sense of renewal, which had left him exhilarated, in a high mood.” He saw himself as an old bowl, “He was as cracked and chipped, as flawed, but scoured clean, a vessel into which new wine could be poured.[8]
While the political and religious views of liberation theologians are widely debated among theologians, liberationists at least can be praised for insisting that God cares for the poor and that Christians are responsible for the poor and oppressed.[9] There are, however, several serious flaws in their theology and that leads back to the crying whippoorwill and the wailing cat. The cat and the whippoorwill, as well as the mouse, are waiting for the final redemption that delivers them from a corrupted creation, corrupted by the sin of humanity. They are wailing and crying for the final redemption of the children of God.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8: 19-24 NRSV)

Corruption has to do with more than the sin of corporations and empires, for their sins are, themselves, a symptom of individual sin. The decay of society is caused by fallen humanity; by the inner corruption that alienates each of us from a holy God. We are all individuals in rebellion against God. Since sin begins with individuals, the unique Son of God, through his death and resurrection, overcomes sin in the lives of individuals. For, even though together we become, in Christ, the Church and the one body of Christ, we are each called individually to Christ. In Christ we are restored to God and then to our brothers and sisters.

Because liberation theology often does not call for the redemption and transformation of the individual person, it carries the seeds of furthering evil. Movements, meant even for the oppressed and poor, filled with unredeemed individuals, who believe a utopia is possible because of human potential and goodness, have often grown into monstrosities. Religious history is cluttered with the remains.

The modern phenomenon of Jonestown, whose leader forced its members to commit suicide, and the nineteenth century perfectionist community, Oneida, whose members practiced free sex as a means of negating their attachment to any material thing or person, are examples of small religious communities whose leader’s ignorance or denial of both human sin and God’s redemption caused horrible suffering. [10]

The rise of Communism and its disastrous consequences is the major contemporary picture of a utopia meant for the poor and oppressed, which in turn oppressed and made poor because of human sin. It seems the cat is always waiting to eat the whippoorwill although they both are crying and wailing because of sin.

Moreover, the emergence of expanding hierarchical bureaucracies within mainline churches in the west, whose leadership often espouse some features of liberation theology mixed with the norms of western culture add to a constant deteriorating vision of Christ’s kingdom. The deterioration comes because they also reject most biblical and orthodox theology in its expressions of sin and redemption. There is no biblical, hence no real prophetic substance coming from such leadership. With only a focus on rights from a secular point of view, and sin as a corporate entity, the uniqueness and holiness of the kingdom is worn away.

Sometimes even sin prevails as “Christian” in the bureaucratic system. For instance, while the Presbyterian Church USA often focuses on rights that are culturally acceptable, e.g., the rights of the poor or the rights of women, etc. the rights of the unborn are ignored. Ignored despite past calls for the life of the unborn by Christians as diverse and as devout as Dietrich Bonhoeffer [11], Elizabeth Achtemeier, Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa. Liberation theology emptied of biblical substance and pushed as merely social agendas can and in some cases is becoming a foundation for ‘mere politics’ rather than a theology for the oppressed.

Additionally, theologians, who are open to reformulating, from experience, the person of Christ to meet the complexity of situations, rather than seeking answers in God’s word, are on shaking ground. Jesus Christ cares for the poor, his parables often show concern for the poor, (Luke 16:19-31) and in the Gospels he even equates himself with the poor, (Matt 25:31-46) but he does not place the poor or the oppressed in the position of being the door that opens the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather Christ offers himself as both the door and the Shepherd who watches over the sheep.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. . . I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and go in and out and find pasture. . . . I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10: 7, 9, 11).”

Here Romero also concurs, devoutly, with the more biblical view. He writes:
It would be worthless to have an economic liberation in which all the poor had their own house, their own money, but were all sinners, their hearts estranged from God. What good would it be? There are nations at present that are economically and socially quite advanced, for example those of Northern Europe, and yet how much vice and excess! The Church will always have its word to say: conversion. Progress will not be completed even if we organize ideally the economy and the political and social orders of our people. It won’t be entire with that. That will be the basis, so that it can be completed by what the church pursues and proclaims: God adored by all, Christ acknowledged as only Savior, deep joy of spirit in being at peace with God and with our brothers and sisters.[12]
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus sitting as King, and as Son of Man, puts the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. He calls the sheep blessed by the Father and tells them “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (34).” He commends them for having fed the hungry, offering hospitality to the stranger, clothing the poor, and visiting those in prison. And he tells them they have done this as though he himself was the recipient.

John Calvin, equating these passages with Ezekiel 34:18, is careful to remind the reader that these verses do not imply that salvation is earned by charitable works. He writes of verse thirty-four, “but before speaking of the reward of good works, he [Jesus] points out, in passing, that the commencement of salvation flows from a higher source; for by calling them blessed of the Father, he reminds them, that their salvation proceeded from the undeserved favor of God. Among the Hebrews the phrase blessed of God means one who is dear to God, or beloved by God.”[13]

It is the ones blessed of God or dear to God who will feed the hungry, offer hospitality, cloth the poor and visit those in prison. The one belonging to Jesus Christ turns their attention first to Christ and his word, and in that relationship turns their attention to the needy of the world. It cannot be otherwise or the needy will be harmed.

Finally, the Church of Christ, those who belong to Jesus, in the midst of caring for the oppressed and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, wait for the final and ultimate coming of the kingdom of God. They wait for their Lord. And so does the whippoorwill, the cat and the mouse.

Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
(Titus 2:13, 14)

1 Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, 20-th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1992), 212.

2 Ibid., 214-15.

3Ibid.,, 215.

4 Letters of Sara Hurtado Rogers at,

5 Grenz & Olson, 20-th Century Theology, 219-20. and, H.M. Conn, “Liberation Theology, New Dictionary of Theology, Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, editors, J.I. Packer, consulting editor, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1988), 387-391.

6 Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Words of Oscar Romero, trans., James R. Brockman, forward, Henri Nouwen, reprint, (London: Fount Paperbacks, Collins 1989) 13.

7Paule Marshall, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, reprint (New York: 1969, New York: Vintage Books, Random House 1992) 252-53.

8 Ibid., 259.

9 See Grenz & Olson for a very helpful assessment of all the problems connected to Liberation Theology. 222-224.

10 For an excellent article featuring the Oneida community, see: Frederica Mathews-Green, “The Oneida Experiment: What We Have Discovered About Not –So-Free Love,” found in Gender: Man, Women, Sex, Feminism, published by Conciliar Press, also article in Touchstone, November, 2002, and at

11 “Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge, editor, Neville Horton Smith, Trans., Macmillan Paperback Edition 1965, eleventh printing, (New York: Macmillan Publishing 1975), 175-6.

12 Romero, Violence of Love, 10.

13 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 3, trans, Rev. William Pringle, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids at

Picture by Melissa Tregilgas

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Advocacy Committee for Women's Concerns, voting against biblical marriage and preparing for progressive intolerance

The members of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, (ACWC) have posted the same statement on all those GA items which seek to change the definition of marriage from marriage between a man and woman to marriage between any two consenting adults. Their advice contains basically the same wording they used on the same kind of item at the 219th General Assembly. In committee 13, Civil Union and Marriage Issues, the wording for items 13-01, 13-04, 13-06 and 13-11, includes this advice:

“The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns concurs with the rationale given in this overture. The practice of excluding people who are gay and lesbian from marriage has its roots in the persistence of patriarchal standards for the lives of women and men. The notion that men and maleness are superior dictates that men and women behave in particular ways that abide by the constructed rules their sex has been assigned. For this reason, same-gender loving women and men are perceived as a direct threat to the norms that patriarchy lays out, as they, in their loving, challenge the models of prescribed masculinity and femininity determined by patriarchy. Gay men are a threat as they are often perceived as “too feminine,” and lesbian women are perceived as “too masculine.”…
As we watch as state by state people in the U.S. are standing against this form of discrimination, we challenge the church to act now with a prophetic voice that joins in this justice movement, rather than responding after marriage equality has been established across the country.” [1]
However on the AI items, 13-02,13-05 and 13-08, that would allow for those pastors, who wished to do so, the right to marry same gender couples, while also stating that those who would find it unexceptable need not do so, the ACWC’s advice is thus:

While ACWC does believe that allowing teaching elders to conduct marriage ceremonies of same-sex couples is a movement in the direction of progress in the church (See ACWC’s rationale for Item 13-09), we hesitate to endorse an authoritative interpretation that explicitly states also the allowance of refusal to conduct services or give use of church property. The authoritative interpretation ACWC has chosen to support in Item 13-09 certainly does allow for refusal to conduct a ceremony, as no teaching elder is forced to conduct any marriage ceremony, regardless of the sex of the couple. It simply is not explicitly stated. As the church continues to make progress on this issue as state-by-state we see acceptance of same-sex marriage increasing widely, leaving the allowance for refusal unstated will make for easier movement toward full access for same-sex couples to marriage in the church in the long run. (Italics mine)[2]
On AIs 13-03, 13-10, that do not state there should be an allowance the ACWC has this quote:

The ACWC concurs with the rationale given in Item 13-09 and understands implementing this authoritative interpretation to be a movement in the direction of progress in the church for fair and equal treatment of all people regardless of sexual orientation. While we advise approval, we do so with an understanding that this is only one step in moving toward a truly just approach to same-sex couples in the church. The ACWC would still advocate for full access to the covenant of marriage blessed by the church for all couples, regardless of the law of individual states. In all things, we believe the church is called to be ahead of the government when it comes to implementing just policies.

Two explorations need to be made here. The first quote leads to a question—how did such nonsense became the ideology of a supposedly Christian woman’s organization? The second and third quote are troubling—it portends a battle between not only church and state, but between denomination and church. To put it clearer, between that which is no longer church and that which is the Church.

The first quote: How did the ACWC come up with such nonsense as found in the first quote? There is a long history, but first of all notice they are not saying anything about Scripture or the importance of the biblical text. But they imply that the biblical text is simply human and is not the word of God. They are implying that the living Word of God, who stated that marriage, was between a man and a woman, and the written word of God has no authority. So what historical background informs their views and where does their authority come from?

(Before I go further with this I want to be very clear that there is no biblical text which states that gay men are a threat because they are too feminine or lesbians are a threat because they are too masculine. Marriage and its exclusive nature, between a woman and a man, are God’s choice and mandate by right of creative power and wisdom. We should bow before God's wisdom knowing that he does all things well.)

But the words used by the ACWC have a history and a theology. And they are a denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the good he wishes to do in the world through both men and women. There is a very well acknowledged but complex history of such radical feminism. However, to put it simply a part of the feminist movement evolved from a cultural, or romantic feminism that saw all male leadership as overbearing and cruel. It saw the essence of women as the good and ideal.

This radical movement can be traced from Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-98) to the late radical feminist Mary Daley. Neither Gage nor Daley were Christians and they both hated the Bible and Christianity with a vengeance. Gage dabbled in the Occult and Daley became interested in both the occult and modern Wicca. And for both most evil could be traced to ‘the patriarchy.’ The ACWC is infected with such ideas.[3]

On ACWC’s Facebook page they have links to several radical feminist websites. Their connections to the world of radical feminism are quite clear. For instance on March 16th ACWC focused on a ritual for women’s history using a ritual by the extreme feminist group Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER). They linked to the liturgy. It ends with “Dancing Sophia’s Circle:

Ring us round O ancient circle,
Great Mother dancing free,
Beauty, strength and Holy Wisdom,
Blessing you and blessing me.

The ACWC Facebook page is also connected to the Feminist Agenda Network, which seems to deal with many Progressive Presbyterian issues. And the ACWC page is also loaded with progressive issues which celebrate their victories including those connected to abortion. Except for human trafficking, orthodox and conservative women’s concerns, whether they are Presbyterian or not, are not a part of the page or of the organization.

The second quote, which pushes for an Authoritative Interpretation which does not state that those whose conscience would be hurt by marrying same sex couple were free to not do so is a wide open statement about the ACWC’s understanding of human freedom. They wish to prepare the way for a time when all in the denomination would be required to marry same sex couples. They undoubtedly see a time when the United States government would make it extremely difficult for those who believe in the biblical definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman only.

There are many reasons to vote no on all of these items and AIs, but an important reason is because now one can see the ideological views of those pressing for a yes. They are boldly intolerant in their tolerance of sin. They care not a bit for the authority of Scripture or the future of the Church of Christ.

[1] With this introduction “The ACWC’s rationale for Item 13-11 is applicable here as well:” this same quote is also placed on all Items asking for the biblical definition of marriage as between a woman and a man to be upheld. 13-07, 13-12, 13-13

[2]The item 13-09 is that item the ACWC agrees with and this is their statement: The ACWC concurs with the rationale given in Item 13-09 and understands implementing this authoritative interpretation to be a movement in the direction of progress in the church for fair and equal treatment of all people regardless of sexual orientation. While we advise approval, we do so with an understanding that this is only one step in moving toward a truly just approach to same-sex couples in the church. The ACWC would still advocate for full access to the covenant of marriage blessed by the church for all couples, regardless of the law of individual states. In all things, we believe the church is called to be ahead of the government when it comes to implementing just policies.

[3]For instance see, The rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches #2, The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History #3; The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History # 4; The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History # 5 and The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History # 6

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Item 15-09 a flawed document- vote no & pray

I am not sure who put together the overture from the Presbytery of San Jose that is now item 15-09, but they did some manipulation with at least one of their sources. That leaves me to wonder about the rest of their material. Item 15-09 is one of the items in The Middle East and Peace Making Issues Committee, entitled, “On Human Rights and Religious Freedom of Arab Christians and Other Palestinian Citizens.” The Item is mainly concerned with better oversight of all religious holy sites in Israeli, yet it includes the idea that Israel persecutes Arab Christians. And in the rationale the decrease in the Arab Christian population is blamed on Israel.

The source the authors of 15-09 were rather dishonest with is “JCPA Background Paper: The Palestinian Christian Population.” This is an excellent paper which I highly recommend to all commissioners to the General Assembly of the PCUSA, in particular those commissioners who will be in committee 15. The author is Ethan Felson, Vice President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. I wondered if he could be fair when writing about Christian communities and after reading the whole paper I see that he was fair. And it was his fairness that was misused.

At the beginning of the GA item rationale the authors write, “The decline of the population of the Arab Christian community has been reported by many sources including the State Department, the World Council of Churches, and the Palestinian Authority,” and then they name the JCPA and quote from Felson’s paper:
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs [JCPA] describes the pressures faced by the Christian community including “restrictions on visas and travel, family reunification, poor economic opportunities, and the difficulties of everyday life including checkpoints and in some instances residential separation from places of work due to the security barrier. These conditions are real.”
But the authors fail to quote what comes immediately after that:

The Palestinian Christian Community also faces pressures related to the Muslim majority among which they live. For example, in 2007, the only Christian bookstore in Gaza was firebombed, its owner kidnapped and murdered. These factors all contribute to emigration, which remains a real and serious concern.
Felson goes on to point out that the Palestinian Christians have a low birthrate and he figures that into his discussion of the seemingly decreasing population. The rest of his paper counters the charge that the Palestinian population is decreasing because of Israel. He uses numbers, charts and a great deal of general information that is very helpful. But my point is that the authors of item 15-09 took Felson’s paper and used it dishonestly to their advantage.

As to the concern of Item 15-09 about religious freedoms and the protection of holy sites, there is a more recent report, 2010, by the U.S. Department of State.[1] It does list abuses by various groups and even government officials although it is not an overwhelming report. As for protection of holy sites it includes this:

The 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law safeguards the holy sites of all religious groups including in Jerusalem. All holy sites enjoy certain protections under the penal law, which make it a criminal offense to damage any holy site, and historic sites are also protected by the antiquities law. The government provided resources for the upkeep of holy places of all recognized religious communities, but provided significantly greater levels of government resources to Jewish holy places.

A government policy since 1967, upheld repeatedly by the Supreme Court and routinely enforced by the police citing security concerns, denies all non-Muslims the opportunity to worship at the Temple Mount. While the government ensured limited access to the Temple Mount to everyone regardless of religious beliefs, only Muslims were allowed to pray at the site, although their access has been occasionally restricted due to security concerns. Israeli police regulated traffic in and out of the compound and removed non-Muslim visitors if they appeared to be praying. Since 2000 the Jordanian Waqf that manages the site has restricted non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Non-Muslim religious symbols are not allowed to be worn on the Temple Mount.
The report is very long it covers both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. And it covers the religious laws of all parties. Interestingly the PA and Israel have some of the same laws but in reverse. Islamic law affects a great deal of the West Bank and Jewish law, Israel. But different Christian communities, in both places, are given legal rights. Hamas on the other hand uses strict Sharia law.

Israel’s biggest problem stems from its desire for security and has to do with giving various faiths, both Christians and Muslims, access to their holy sites. Also, although Israeli law allows for proselytizing, still those who do have been harassed. But there are problems on all sides. One part of the report has this:

Nazareth (population 72,000), the city with the country's largest Arab majority, experienced strained relations between the growing Muslim majority and the Christian minority. On October 6, 2010, Sheikh Nazem Abu Salim, the imam of the Shihab al-Din mosque, was indicted for inciting violence against Christians and Jews that resulted in attacks (including one Jewish death), supporting Al Qaeda, and recruiting for global jihad. Some Arab Christians in Nazareth said that fear of reprisal by members of the Islamic Movement prevented them from proselytizing openly.

But also:

On October 29, 2010, an arsonist broke into the basement of the Christian Alliance Church in Jerusalem and set fire to the building, partly destroying it. Ten foreign volunteers were awakened and escaped, but required treatment for smoke inhalation. The church is located in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and allows Messianic Jewish and Arab Christian congregations to use its facilities. A large crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews watched the fire, with four of the young men chanting loudly "Let it burn!" The fire marshal determined the cause was arson, and the police began an investigation
But here is the Presbyterian problem: For the GA to vote and pass this item which is aimed only at the Israeli government rather than at the whole complex situation is ludicrous. It really is a stab at the Jewish people. It makes no sense at all. Some religious persecution happens from a policy that is perhaps over sensitized to security needs. (Sometimes rightly sensitized.) Some abuse happens because a radical Muslim cleric becomes over zealous in his sermons and his people over zealous in their actions. Some happens because ultra religious Jews become over zealous in their speech and actions.

This isn’t an issue for Presbyterians to be voting on. And as I have shown the item itself is flawed. Some times, probably too many times, Presbyterians tend to believe they can solve the problems of the world by voting on them, and by sending mandates out to world leaders. Jesus made the statement that some demons only come out by fasting and prayer … But since you must vote, vote no. But do fast and pray for this troubled land.

[1] The authors of the report used a 2008 and 2009 report

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fairy-story, Tolkien and Jesus

John Shuck is asking about Jesus again. Shuck writes about the speculation, arguments and thoughts of four progressive authors he is interviewing. I would rather listen to N.T. Wright or a Presbyterian professor like Andrew Purves, but Shuck did write something that made me jump and say Oh! I want to write about that:

I like the grit and guts of Frodo Baggins, but the real genius is Tolkien, right?

This was a way of saying that the authors of the gospels have more importance than Jesus since they are the ones shaping (making up?) the story. Well, J.R.R. Tolkien would have something to say about that, and in fact he did.

Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” carries within it a truth that lifts up and undergirds not only the truth of the incarnation but shows how it shines with absolute beauty. And the explanation not only speaks to the truth of the person of Jesus Christ, and I am not sure Tolkien was attempting this, but it explains why so many times we see an image of Jesus in the great literary characters like Frodo Baggins.

Tolkien writes of how the real fairy story has a certain turn in which a great joy occurs. He also writes of it as the ‘consolation of the happy ending.’ Tolkien writes:

But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-stories has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At lest I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophe tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
And then Tolkien adds to this by further defining the fairy-story, calling it “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)” and insisting the joyful turn is unexpected and will not occur again. He also adds that there is sorrow and failure in the story but it simply adds to the joyful turn. That turn, when it comes, according to Tolkien, gives to the reader a great start of joy.

And then Tolkien turns to Jesus. There is much more, but there is this;

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would never be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the true fairy-tale because they walked with, touched, heard and loved the reality they wrote about. And that other Person of the glorious Trinity reached into their hearts and minds reminding them and writing with them:

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you also the eternal life, which was with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ . These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (1 John 1:-4)”

Picture by Penny Juncker

Good news for both Fremont Presbyterian Church and Sacramento Presbytery

Some good news for both Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento and the Presbytery of Sacramento. Yesterday, May 22, 2012, during the presbytery meeting the Administrative Commission which had been placed on Fremont was rescinded. The vote was 52 to 41. One of the very helpful actions was the chairman of the COM stating that he had changed his mind about the AC. I think this is good news for both Fremont and the Presbytery because now reconciliation as Christian brothers and sisters can occur.

For those who are just reading about this, Fremont had filed a complaint with the Synod of the Pacific asking that the AC be removed because Fremont had followed the gracious dismissal policy of the presbytery. They also asked for a stay which was granted. And although the presbytery had asked to have the stay removed earlier this month the synod refused to remove it.

I pray that other churches and pastors across the United States, who are going through troubling reactions to their need for withdrawal from the PCUSA, will begin to experience a new climate of graciousness.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Connecting to hate

Do we really want to be shaped and molded by an organization that flirts with hate groups and hate language? If we saw them shaking hands with David Duke or donning a KKK robe would we speak up?

They are unable to discern between reasonable criticism and slanderous material. They are unable to see the difference between anti-Semitism and proper concern about the Jewish state of Israel. The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has no sense of shame over the grievous connections they make with outrageous anti-Semitic web sites or—is it that they are unaware of the meaning of anti-Semitism so find their identity in the very term that pulls in images of such persons as David Duke, Joseph Goebbels or even Adolf Hitler.

IPMN once again connected by tweet to “My Catbird Seat” and even in the wording before the link they tell the reader that they are connected to My Catbird Seat. As I have stated before, My Catbird Seat is a sister site to Veterans Today the noxious web site whose board is chaired by anti-Semite Gordon Duff.[1] My Catbird Seat’s administrator and editor is Debbie Menon who is also the Middle East issues editor for Veterans Today.

The article that IPMN has linked to is “US House Stealthily Passes Extreme Pro-Israel Legislation” by Philip Giraldi who also writes for Veterans Today. (Most of the writers at MCS also write for VT) There isn’t anything terribly wild about this article; the author doesn’t like a bill that Congress passed, a bill which helps Israel. Giraldi attempts to portray the passing of the bill as some kind of a conspiracy and even suggests that The American Israel Public Affairs Committee helped write the bill. Of course, once again the lie is that Jewish organizations in the United States own Congress.

But the important issue is that IPMN and their communications chairperson, Noushin Framke, believe that an organization that stands up for David Duke is capable of providing helpful news and views especially if it is something the IPMN wants to publish and can not find anywhere else. On both MCS and VT is an article by David Duke, “Do Zionist control Wall Street? The Shocking Facts!” (Scroll down the page to find it.) Menon who posted the article on both web sites prefaces it with:

David Duke lays out the facts of the Zionist control of Wall Street and International finance like nothing else! David Duke, is an easy messenger for many to shoot, but they will find the facts a bit harder to kill and bury. Truth does not lie dead very long, nor does it rest long in the grave, no matter how deep they dig it.

There are other articles—one defending Duke when he was jailed in Germany for anti-Semitism. In that article the author, Mike Harris, states “Today he [Duke] is held as a political prisoner of Soviet/Communist Jews who have infiltrated the German government, because David Duke has the courage to speak the truth.” The article is on both MCS and VT.

Many of the people connected to IPMN will attempt to help persuade the members of General Assembly’s committee 15, Middle East and Peacemaking Issues, to vote to divest from companies doing business with Israel. While this issue is the committee, Mission Responsibility through Investment, and the GAMC’s recommendation it is certain that IPMN will be pushing that item along side all other items which are against the Jewish State of Israel. If for no other reason, and there are other reasons, commissioners should not allow such an anti-Semitic organization to guide the direction taken by Presbyterians.[2]

To put it figuratively, the hand that has touched the hand of Debbie Menon or Gordon Duff who have touched the hand of David Duke should not touch the hands of other Presbyterians except to cry repent.

[1]For more information on this site see, “Veterans Today: Against the Jewish people, against Christians, and against veterans, At Naming His Grace and “Buyer Beware: Veterans Today and its Anti-Israel Agenda,” at Southern Poverty Law Center (Hate Watch). See also
[2] Some of the other reasons for not voting for divestment are (1) Divestment is one sided it does not speak to both sides. (2) some of the equipment that these companies provide brings security to both Israel and Palestinians; for instance when a suicide bomber blows themselves up at a checkpoint or even in cafĂ©, etc. they not only kill Israelis, they kill other Palestinians. (3) Focusing on divestment rather than the needs of both sides, Israel’s security and the Palestinians need for jobs as well as a state, is attempting to take the easy way out of solving a problem. There are more.

Monday, May 21, 2012

GA-Item 11-15, "Words Matter Project" opening the Re-imagining door again?

The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC) is the sponsor of GA’s item 11-15 “A Resolution to Encourage Participation in the Words Matter Project.” The Words Matter Project is connected to the National Council of Churches of Christ through the Justice for Women Working Group. The Presbyterian Women’s Justice and Peace committee is involved in the project. The project, which in some ways seems benign enough, with some fairly even resources, is nevertheless, a track back to the Re-imagining years of mainline denominations, when some radical feminist advocated using other names such as Sophia in place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Historically the committee that began the project listed several goals with two questions:

“1. How does our language for God, one another, and our world move us toward God’s justice?

2. What new/other imagery is there to help us connect with God?


a. Unmasking the power of language and the part it plays in patriarchy/kyriarchy, including exploring God-language as a cultural construct,[1]

b. Emphasizing the effects of language on real, physical lives, connecting our lives and our personal and social realities with God’s justice,

c. Learning how to have productive dialogue with folks of differing opinions, bringing this sacred conversation to the wider church and the world, and

d. Lifting up other names or images of the divine which emerge from scripture study, prayer, meditation, or other life experience to express the multiplicity of who God is.”

In one document entitled "Words Matter: Promoting dialogue rooted in diverse contexts that continually explores language as a life-giving tool," the authors explain the project is meant to return the mainline denominations ‘back’ to the use of more expansive language for both God and humanity. They state that they wish to go further than naming God and are concerned that using such words as blindness to speak of human sin hurts those who are physically blind or using darkness to speak of evil is hurtful to those who are not white.

Two problems emerge within the project. First, this is a totalitarian attempt at controlling language. The biblical text becomes extremely problematic but also most literature and human speech would face the possibility of either becoming useless unmeaning words or politically incorrect words. And secondly, the project leaves the biblical God without any concrete absolute identity. The benign part is linked to the fact that several persons with a fairly orthodox background have written devotional pieces for the project. One of the dangerous maneuvers is the instructions placed above all devotionals:

Words affect all of us differently. As you read this prayer, read with generosity, and consider which images and words speak to you, and which make you bristle. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing in the “Comments” section, please use that space to expand upon an image or word from the prayer that resonated with you, or that you felt was missing, and write an expansive prayer of your own.
The prayers are theoretically prayers for Lent. But they are not really devotional in the normal sense but are rather meant as an exercise for using correct language which will not offend anyone. The prayers that were to be written in reaction to the published prayers (and no one responded) are meant to show another person what words you are comfortable using rather than truly worshiping Christ as Savior and Lord.

Although most of the prayers themselves are biblically centered it is bothersome that one is addressed to Sophia.

In the same manner another devotional piece, Lenten Devotions, which offers both good devotions and flawed ones has as its basic problem devotions meant to teach the correct use of language. In the first devotion (Romans 5:12-19) the author, Lydia York, A Minister in Discernment with the United Church of Christ, who serves on the board of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, focuses on Paul’s use of Adam and Jesus to speak of the one who brought sin into the world and the one who removed the curse of sin. York is concerned that Eve is not used as a representative of humanity. In the second devotion, (Matt. 4:1-11), Dr. H. Frederick Reisz, Jr., President Emeritus of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, uses the temptation of Christ to show how words can be used wrongly, “they wound and heal.”

The third devotional, (John 3: 1-17), written by Jason Stewart Sierra, staff officer for the Episcopal Church Office for Young Adult and Campus Ministries, is the story of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus. Sierra turns the story away from Jesus’ word’s that one must be born again to the idea that we must better understand earthly things in order to know God. As he puts it:
Jesus here calls us to learn a new language—or to re-learn what we know about the world so that we might learn about God, to re-look. In order to step into the holy we are called to know the mundane as God would have us know it, to spend that energy of re-seeing, re-looking, re-naming the world.
Another devotion, taken from Eph. 5:8-14, and written by Rev. Irene Monroe, who is the Coordinator of the African American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School of Religion, has to do with the use of the words light and darkness. Monroe insists that the Bible pushes racism with such sections as Genesis 9:18-27 and Ephesians 6:5-8. She states, “The Bible is replete is [sic] racialized language that has damned and subjugated people of color.” [2]

Monroe combines that with the insistence that “We must, as Christians, look at the systemic problem of what happens when the racialization of light and dark imagery has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.” In other words (pun intended) the author believes that the biblical use of light and darkness is meant to hurt others, therefore we should not use the words as metaphors for good and evil.

The ACWC is asking that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) promote and encourage the Words Matter Project. They are asking that the GAMC “include the Words Matters Project on its website’s carousel of rotating features for one week each quarter.’ They are asking that the GAMC along with the ACWC “develop and distribute a bulletin insert promoting the Words Matter Project.” And they are asking for money, “Direct the General Assembly Mission Council to provide support to the National Council of Churches’ Justice for Women Working Group for Phase 2 of the Words Matter project in the amount of $4,000.”

In the rationale the ACWC points out that “To date, Presbyterian Women’s Justice and Peace Committee of the Churchwide Coordinating Team has contributed $3,000” to the project. The ACWC is trying to make sure that the PCUSA contributes as much to the project as the Evangelical Luther Church in America and the United Church in Christ has contributed.

This is an open door toward something the PCUSA has thankfully moved away from in the last several years. That is, a project that in the end moves the denomination away from the clear biblical language of the Church. Language about God can neither be whim nor be filled with political or cultural adjectives; the Church lives by the truths of Scripture.  More so, the Words Matter Project is a move toward totalitarian ideas about all language. The 220th GA should reject this recommendation.

[1] The document list the definition of patriarchy as “commonly understood as the dominance of men over women in a variety of ways relating to differences in power, opportunities, and even the language that is used for people and God.” They define kyriarchy as a “term coined by feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza is used to describe all systems of “lordship” of one person or group of people over and against another, i.e. men over women, white over black, straight over lgbt, ablebodied over differently abled, etc. Schussler-Fiorenza, and the J4WWG, believes these systems of power to be interconnected and deeply entangled with one another, so that one may not speak of discrimination against women without also speaking of racism, heterosexism, etc.”

[2]It is important to point out that the authors of these documents are combining such abusive words as 'retard' with widely accepted words such as light and dark. There is a difference.

Friday, May 18, 2012

For all those struggling to stand in the PC (U.S.A.).

For all of those struggling to stand in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting himself to him who judges righteously; and he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live  to righteousness; for by his wounds we were healed. For you were continually staring like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Speaking of heresy and the Redwoods Presbytery's defiance

“The practical implication is that Redwoods may help set a precedent for defiance of the GAPJC when other ministers are hassled for doing ministry.”(Comment by John Shuck at Redwoods Presbytery Refuses to Rebuke Rev. Jane Spahr.

 “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

Ten years ago I was part of a large group of people involved in giving workshops on new religious movements. Although workshop leaders and plenary speakers came from various denominations, the conference was at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville Kentucky. One of the ladies I shared lunch and conversation with was someone who taught at a Christian college in Canada. I still remember her talking about the dire circumstances of the mainline Canadian denominations and what that meant for many small rural churches.

She stated that the churches, mainly made up of older devout members, were being sent pastors who believed in nothing; the older saints having served Christ faithfully for many years, had to endure the ministry of disbelief. I am reminded of this when I read of the Presbytery of the Redwoodsdefiance of the GAPJC’s order to rebuke Janie Spahr.  I am reminded of this as I spend time contemplating the future in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

Rereading some words by Eugene Peterson from his book Traveling Light a thought, perhaps a conviction, came to me. Peterson, in the book, is writing about the freedom that Jesus gives. It is about the book of Galatians and Paul’s admonishment to not allow others to curb your freedom in Christ. It is about not being afraid of the surrounding culture, either in society or the Church.

I must confess I have been afraid to speak up—about the vigorous and influential pursuit of disbelief, the insults hurled at the orthodox, the fact that a man who disregards all that is biblical and faithful, even the belief in a personal God, will be helping to shape the outcome of the next General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Yes, there will be others at the Assembly that undoubtedly embrace the same non-biblical ideologies as John Shuck. [1] But I know of no one else who so mockingly pushes anti-Christian teachings while at the same time persecuting the saints with his words.

Hans Cornelder, the General Editor, of ChurchandWorld has linked to several of Shucks postings, including, North Carolina... sigh,  The easy solution to the PCUSA's dilemmas and. Will the real Jesus please rise? .* Why do I note this constant diatribe by Shuck? Because when heresy is allowed full rein, Churches die piece by piece. And when a church, or in this case, a denomination dies thousands of lives are hurt, some destroyed. This is Christ’s great plea to some of the churches of Asia Minor that they repent and that there be no need to remove their lampstand from its place. (Rev. 2,3.)

Our denomination is in extreme trouble; as far as apostasy goes, the PCUSA’s record on abortion, sexual perversion and greed link us with apostate movements of the past including Israel’s unfaithfulness in the Old Testament.[2] Following close on the heels of that record are the many teaching and ruling elders who disparage the redemptive death of Jesus Christ on the cross while often failing to affirm biblical Christology.

And it is chilling to see how leadership allows, even encourages such leaders as Shuck and Spahr. There needs to be a time when leaders we all know by name say, “No, I don’t agree with John Shuck—he is heretical and hurting the denomination.” We need a few Martin Luthers to stand.

And in truth it isn’t Shuck or even Spahr who are ruining the denomination; it is partly the leaders in the denomination who fail to discipline. Further it is also leadership which fails to uphold the clear teaching of Scripture. And surely it is the orthodox, myself included, who too often fail to confess straight forwardly our Lord.  

Four times in the book of Judges the text states that there was no king in Israel. Two of those times it states that “everyone” or “every man” did what was right in his own eyes. All of these references have to do with gross sin. Sometimes it is the setting up of an idol and an apostate priest. Another time it is the story of the horrible rape and death of a priest’s concubine and his awful indifference. And yet in 1 Samuel when the people ask for a king both God and Samuel respond with anger. That is because God was to be the king of Israel. God was rejected in Judges. He was rejected in 1 Samuel:

The Lord said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. (8:7)

The Church has a King. But still Jesus’ people reject his kingship. And still sin endangers the people of God; too many of us do what is right in our own eyes. The sin and rebellion that is enjoyed this week and touted on too many blogs, web sites and tweets, will be the sin that evolves and darkens the lives of so many needy people.

It is possible that soon those who disbelieve will be sent to those who cannot afford to call a pastor. There is a possibility that those who despise the blood of Christ, who look upon his second coming with distain, who speak only of social justice but never of redemption and transformation, who make fun of the orthodox while promoting their own heresy  will be those who teach most of the the PCUSA’s youth.  

But the Lord of the Church is keeping watch. The little ones, which include the old, are in his care. The Lord of the Church has plans that we cannot see nor even fathom.  There is always a King, a kingdom and grace and mercy because the cross is a reality and the resurrection a fact. And there is freedom—which includes the freedom of the Church to stand against the culture yet stand for the people who need Jesus Christ and his redemptive and transforming power.

*ChurchandWorld covers Presbyterian & Methodist news in particular, as well as news about the global church with opinions about issues that church leaders are interested in, from left to right. It is a subscription site with very reasonable prices.

[1] I have been afraid and hesitant to write about anything that Shuck has written since filing a complaint against him for allowing and using sexually loaded comments on his blog which were aimed at me. I lost the complaint but Shuck for a while cleaned up his blog postings. While he has not allowed anyone to use my name nor has he referred to me, except in a tweet to the Vice Moderator, I have been afraid that the sexual insults would start again.  But now I see that trying to avoid that possibility allows, without debate, for the furtherance of false teaching.

[2]The greedy part of this accusation is just now surfacing as some presbyteries through all kinds of underhanded methods attempt to take property away from those who are leaving.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Holy Spirit and spirit possession: parallels?

In a news article entitled “Spirit of Understanding,” the Presbyterian News Service writes about the San Francisco Theological Seminary’s T.V. More lectures and one of the speakers, Rev. James Noel who spoke comparatively on the Holy Spirit and spirit possession among various African religions. The subtitle of the article is, “Noel draws parallels between African spirit possession and the Christian doctrine of Holy Spirit.”
While this is only a news article and not the whole lecture, I nonetheless want to make some comments using Noel’s quotes placed in the article by the author Jerry L Van Marter. I always hesitate to do so when I cannot find the primary source. But since it isn’t posted and I think it is important I will do so.

According to Van Marter, Noel stated that “Christians have not discounted the reality of spirits but theologically evaluated them as evil or, at best, impediments to full conversion…” And Noel conjectured that, “This evaluation forecloses any comparison between the religious phenomenon of spirit possession and the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit or pneumatology.”

Noel gives a reason for wanting to view the two together. It is because he believes the slaves brought to the United States from Africa were comforted by their experience of possession since in an unfamiliar land they still experienced something familiar which they believed touched the unknown. Noel suggests that the only way one can understand the African beliefs and experiences is by comparing the two, the possession of spirits and the Holy Spirit.

Using the Old Testament account of the bands of prophets being possessed by the Holy Spirit, Noel likens it to the possession encountered by those in African religions. He goes own to speak of how the Spirit (And here I am not sure if I should capitalize Spirit.) speaks for national concerns. Noel then tries to identify the Spirit by quoting Abraham Eichrodt, “part of the nabis’ [gathering of prophets] power was focused not on individuals ‘but exhibited a strong pre-occupation with national concerns.’”

Noel continues:

The spirit was part of the drama unfolding on the stage of the Middle East’s geo-political history … We can discern, then, a tension in Christianity over whether the Holy Spirit is to be treated as an experiential and subjective or a conceptual and objective reality.
It is then suggested that there is a competing view of the Holy Spirit in the United States and a competing view of social justice. One view being to avoid the religious and focus only on politics and the other to focus on the Spirit as “a powerful force for justice.”

This last comment is seemingly an attempt to see the Holy Spirit as the leader of a movement to bring about social justice. However,  I want to look at some of the other thoughts which really accumulate in Noel’s statement that there is a tension in Christianity over whether the Holy Spirit is “to be treated as an experiential and subjective or a conceptual and objective reality.

So there are three problems: equating spirit possession with the Christian’s encounter with the Holy Spirit; using the example of the prophets in the Old Testament as an example of spirit possession since both are controlled by the spirit; and the suggestion that  there is a tension in Christianity about treating the Holy Spirit as an experiential and subjective reality or as a conceptual and objective reality. I want to look at these in order.

Equating spirit possession with possession by the Holy Spirit:

John S Mbiti, who was Professor of Religious Studies at Makerere University of Uganda and Director of the Ecumenical institute, Bossy, Switzerland,  in his excellent book African Religions and Philosophy explains that for most African tribal religions there is a difference between the “living dead” and spirits, but the difference is one of time and distance. The living dead are still known by the living. They are still part of the tribe or family. Spirits have moved into the realm of stranger, they are unknown. And Mbiti writes about the reaction of those who believe in such spirits:

Since the spirits have sunk into the horizon of the Zamani, they are within the state of collective immortality, relative to man’s position. They have no family or personal ties with human beings, and are no longer the living-dead. As such, people fear them although intrinsically the spirits are neither evil nor good. They have lost their human names, as far as men are concerned—i.e. those that once were human beings [some are divinities]. To men, therefore, the spirits are strangers, foreigners, outsiders, and in the category of ‘things.’ (78)

And as far as possession goes, for the most part, it is not welcomed although that is not always so. But the important point here is that the spirits cannot in any way be equated with the Holy Spirit. Spirits are supposedly humans who have died, who have entered the world of immortality and are therefore unknown. The Holy Spirit is personal, he knows and is known by the believer—the relationship is intimate. Going deeper the spirits know nothing of Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the believer is to lift up all that belongs to Christ.

Old Testament Prophets as an example of spirit possession:

When Noel speaks of bands of Prophets he is undoubtedly thinking of Saul among the prophets in 1 Samuel 10:9; 19:18-24 and the schools of prophets in 1 & 2 Kings. The ones in 1 Samuel are the stories of Saul being overcome by the Spirit of the Lord as he meets the prophets.  Saul’s first encounter with God’s Spirit and the Prophets is an affirmation that God has chosen him. In the last story Saul takes off his outer clothes and prophesied all night; that is, in a sense, a judgment on his disobedient and manipulative actions. He was attempting to kill David. None of this proves that the actual prophets were in anyway possessed and their will overthrown by the Spirit. They were certainly not possessed by spirits, but rather the Spirit of God rested on them.

On the other hand in the New Testament several people are possessed by demons and are totally controlled until Jesus or one of his disciples free them in the name of Jesus. Such African religious possession is much more like demon possession since the person is overpowered and controlled. Mbiti, after explaining that in African religion some possession is not always feared but used as a means of gathering information through mediums, continues:

 But on the whole, spirit possessions, especially unsolicited ones result in bad effects. They may cause severe torment, on the possessed person; the spirit may drive him away from his home so that he lives in the forests; it may cause him to jump into the fire and get himself burnt, to torture his body with sharp instruments, or even to do harm to other people. During the height of spirit possession, the individual in effect loses his own personality and acts in the context of the ‘personality’ of the spirit possessing him.

There is more, loss of sleep and health-enough to understand that such possession and the movement and work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life have no relationship whatsoever.

The suggestion that there is a tension in Christianity over how the Holy Spirit might be treated, as an experiential and subjective reality or a conceptual and objective reality:

The answer to this tension, if it is true, is that the Holy Spirit is both but neither. This is what I mean: The Holy Spirit is a person, the third person of the Trinity. Therefore the Holy Spirit is objective reality in that the Spirit is, as God is, separate and above humanity. On the other hand the Holy Spirit is a gift given to the believer by Christ and in turn the Holy Spirit lifts up all that Jesus Christ is. This is the subjective part, but undoubtedly not in the manner meant by Noel. Frederick Dale Bruner and William Hordern put it this way:

The work of the Holy Spirit is the honoring of Jesus Christ. The work of other spirits is the honoring of themselves or of other realities. We are not necessarily in the presence of the Holy Spirit when we are in the presence of a great deal of talk about the Holy Spirit. But wherever  a church or a person centers thoughtfully (that is biblically and evangelically) on honoring the person, teaching, and work of Jesus Christ, there we may be quite sure, we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit’s work is the thoughtful honoring of Christ. The Holy Spirit does not center on the Holy Spirit. [1]

That is to say, in the presence of the Holy Spirit we are experiencing Jesus Christ above all else. It is experience but only because it upholds all that we may biblically know of Christ. The Spirit is never the drama unfolding in history—a feature of Hegel’s dark thoughts. Rather the Spirit is that gift of the Father and the Son who coming to the church convicts the world “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit glorifies Christ guiding Christ’s people to Christ who is truth.

[1] Fredrick Dale Bruner & William Hordern, The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House 1984) 15.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The authority of Scripture or whatever

Reading both Louise Westfall’s sermon on the Covenant Network’s web site and John Vest’s devotional on his blog, I am struck by their low view of Scripture. Although both the sermon and the devotional, are seemingly about homosexuality, the substance of the matter is about the inspiration of the Bible.

There are all kinds of refutations that might be made about various ideas in these two documents such as the Bible and Paul advocating for slavery, but the real problem to confront is the issue of inspiration. The truth is that the denomination is not breaking apart over homosexuality but over the authority of Scripture.

Louise Westfall in her sermon, “A Biblical Perspective on Homosexuality,” writes:
The Bible reveals God’s Word (though notice that is NOT the same as saying the Bible is a record of God’s words). Presbyterians have always understood Scripture as a unique witness to the Word of God in the formation of the covenant community of Israel, the life and ministry, saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the birth of the Church.

Yet at the same time, Presbyterians have always understood that the words of Scripture must be interpreted (guided by the Holy Spirit) to become God’s Word for us.
John Vest in his devotional, “Paul’s Opinion on Marriage,” writes:
In a sweeping chapter on his understanding of marriage, Paul notes quite clearly that he is offering his own opinion rather than a direct commandment from God. Not only that, he offers this opinion based on his belief that the world would soon end with the second coming of Christ. Unless we missed a major memo, that didn’t happen as Paul (and most of the early Christians and writers of the New Testament) thought it would. There is no question that his teachings were influenced by this end-times mentality. What do we make of such thinking twenty centuries later? What else was Paul wrong about? What else was merely his opinion, not the word of God?

…It should teach us that what we now consider scripture was once the contextual and perhaps even provisional writings of real faith communities trying, as we are, to figure it all out. It should humble us to realize that even Paul was sometimes grasping for answers. …
Reading both of these together one at once sees that although both Westfall and Vest have some respect for some texts and words of the Bible they do not uphold the Scriptures as the written word of God.

Westfall adds a unique way of understanding authority; that is, she claims that until the Holy Spirit interprets the words of the Bible to the Christian community, the words are not the words of God. Meaning, I would suppose, that it is the interpretation that is inspired. Stating that the Holy Spirit interprets the word is not wrong but insisting the word is not the word of God until the Holy Spirit interprets is not only dreadfully wrong it fails to consider the Scriptures as the inspired word of God.

A better way of understanding what the Holy Spirit does is to say that the Spirit enlightens the mind and heart so that the reader and hearer will believe. As the Westminster Confession states: “…we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word ..” It is not the Holy Spirit’s interpretation that causes the word to be God’s word to us but the Spirits enlightenment for us of what is already God’s word. But as to the inspiration and authority of Scripture the Confessions are very clear—they are the word of God. The Second Helvetic Confession states:
We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the Fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures. 5.001
Vest does not begin with any particular method for distinguishing what could be called the word of God, rather he leaves us in despair of knowing what is truly God’s word and what is not. Once again, one could go through Vest’s devotional pulling out some of his attempts to prove that not all of the word is the word of God.

For instance one could suggest that Paul’s statement that it is his opinion about something rather than a command of God does not mean that Paul was wrong or that the words were not inspired by God. And, as for Paul and other Biblical writers concluding that Jesus would soon return and they were wrong- two points should be made.

First, many scholars have concluded that Paul was not referring to the coming of Christ, but rather he was concerned about some internal crisis that the Corinthian Church was experiencing. Secondly New Testament writers often speak of the soon return of Christ, as Vest points out with some disparagement, but surprisingly this point does not mean they were wrong, the Church must always be aware of Christ’s soon return. On this very point F.F. Bruce quotes John Henry Newman:
Though time intervene between Christ’s first and second coming, it is not recognized (as I may say) in the Gospel scheme, but is, as it were, an accident. For so it was, that up to Christ’s coming in the flesh, the course of things ran straight towards that end, nearing it by every step; but now, under the Gospel, that course has (if I may so speak) altered its direction, as regards His second coming, and runs , not toward the end, but along it, and on the brink of it; and is at all times near the great event, which, did it run towards it, it would at once run into. Christ, then, is ever at the doors.[1]
Bruce adds this, “In the Christian era it is always five minutes to midnight. But as ‘the course of things’ runs along the edge of the final consummation, that edge at times becomes a knife edge, and at such times the sense of it being the ‘the last hour’ is specially acute”[2] But, the main issue is still the Scripture as the word of God.

Without Scripture as ultimate authority the Church has no authority. That is not to say that Christ is not the head and the one voice that we must obey, but the Church only knows Jesus in and from Scripture. Any denomination that starts tearing away the authority of Scripture, picking here and there at various texts, will eventually end with a different Jesus, a Jesus that is made up of varying kinds of human experience including sin.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the process of casting away her reformation heritage, which includes sola scriptura, simply for the sake of sexual perversion and and an unholy unity based in a spirituality that has no center.

All Scripture is Inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

[1] Quoted from, J.H. Newman, “Waiting for Christ,” Parochial and Plain Sermons’, vi (London, 1896), 241, in  F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Eerdmans 1970).
[1] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Eerdmans 1970)65.

Dice picture by Christopher Juncker