Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Whole New World

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God.
II Corinthians 5:16-21

Prayer will cease to be a technique for enlisting God to help us ‘make it’ in the dominant system; it will instead become a way of bathing our inner world in the transforming presence of God, a way we seek to be shaped by the new framing story, the new reality, the good news, so that we can be catalysts bringing transformation to the dominant system.
Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change

I don't mean to get all "end-of-days" on you, but this week's lectionary New Testament reading from Paul comes from the Jewish world of apocalyptic. For the 1st century Jew, like Paul and Jesus, there was an imminent hope in the final Day when their god, Yahweh, would come and rescue them from the enemy (the Roman Empire at the time) and would change the course of history forever. It would be a time of peace and justice and equitable distribution of resources. All Gentiles--from those in neighboring countries who oppressed them to folks they'd never heard about from distant lands--who did not know the God of love and justice, would flock to the "New Jerusalem" to learn the ways of the people of God and life would be understood from a completely different perspective (Isaiah 2:2-4). Paul's language in II Corinthians 5 reflects the hope of the prophet Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

Paul was absolutely convinced that the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of this apocalyptic era, the end of days, the ultimate unveiling of the "reign of God." The "human point of view" (Greek sarx) signfied a "normal" understanding of the world. According to Ched Myers in Ambassadors of Reconcilation (2009), sarx is "one of Paul's metaphors for the deeply rooted, socially conditioned worldview we inherit from our upbringing" and it "dictates what and how we 'know,' constrains our imagination, and locks us into habitual enslavements of all kinds."

Our normal worldview is flipped on its head when confronted by the world-shattering event of Jesus of Nazareth, the anointed king who stepped out of the grave into a whole new order. The "new creation" (kaine ktisis) is much more dramatic and revolutionary than the translation of The Living Bible (and other English editions) gives it credit: "When someone becomes a Christian he becomes a brand new person inside." This translation, and others that interpret kaine ktisis as "new creature," puts all the emphasis on an individual's private spiritual encounter with the resurrected Messiah. However, nowhere else in Scripture does ktisis refer to an individual person (see Romans 8:18-25 for the norm: the whole world). No doubt, those of us pledged to Christian discipleship are committed to deep contemplation, prayer and introspection. It is a personal matter. However, the idea behind "new creation" is far more cosmic and complex. As Myers writes, it is a fundamental "re-evaluation of everything." In other words, God is transforming the entire world, not just my soul.

When we make a "decision for Christ," we shift our focus away from ourselves to a world longing for reconciliation with God. We Christian ambassadors intentionally participate in this crucial reconcilation process, guided by a completely transformed worldview dedicated to an empire that does not passively go along with "common sense" or "just the way things are." We have new rules to live by. We have an abundance mentality and a humble orientation that values others above ourselves. We grieve at any hint of injustice, violence, hostility and abuse. And we struggle for the healing of the world. Our Jewish brothers and sisters call this "tikkun olam," piecing the world back together. When we join with others gathered around the wisdom of Jesus, we form new societies that see the world differently. In an essay called "The Original Revolution," John Howard Yoder outlined the basic countours of this "whole new world:"

-A new way to deal with offenders: to forgive and reform!
-A new way to deal with violence: to suffer!
-A new way to deal with money: to share!
-A new way to deal with leadership: to draw upon the gifts of all members, even the most humble!
-A new way to deal with corrupt society: building a new order, not smashing the old!
-A new pattern of relationships between man/woman, parent/child, master/slave
-A new attitude toward the state and toward the ‘enemy nation’

Of course, racial reconcilation is assumed in Paul's inspirational words. His challenge was to unite these small communities of Jews and Gentiles who pledged allegiance to the "new world" in Jesus the Messiah. Our contemporary challenge is to imagine what this ethnic struggle must have looked like. Jews and Gentiles had completely different customs (sarx)--the blend of languages, diets, mannerisms and mores would have culminated in awkward, abrasive misunderstandings and quarrels. Yet Paul is convinced that their allegiance to Christ trumps all of these normal ways of defining life. Identity divisions--male or female...slave or free...Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:28)--are overcome only when folks imagine themselves living in a "new creation" with a new vocation: the ministry of reconciliation. As humanity is reconciled back to God (Genesis 1-3), we are reconciled to each other in forgiveness and healing. We find a solidarity in being loved and accepted by the God who created the world and is determined to redeem it. Only then will we come to realize Isaiah's apocalyptic vision: more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.

Isaiah 65:19b-23

But this is no escapist wishful thinking. As we imagine this kind of world, we anticipate it by living it and praying for it now. We can only become the justice of God by reframing into a completely new perspective bathed in Christ: spiritually, socially, economically and politically. This new perspective creates a whole new world.
Update: This week, Obama met with lawmakers and community leaders to dialogue about immigration reform saying "my commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is unwavering." Meanwhile, his Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, told leaders in Mexico that immigration reform was highly unlikely due to "el clima de confrontación política en Washington." These conflicting messages offer us an important reminder of Paul's powerful metaphor for Christian mission. If we are truly "ambassadors for Christ" we will offer the same message of reconcilation and love that Jesus offered, no matter how unpragmatic or unrealistic the outcome. We must be unwavering in offering this kind of hope to our brothers and sisters of diverse genders, ethnicities and political affliations. Who are those who desperately need to hear and experience God's love and acceptance and promise of redemption?

--Theological Autopilot


  1. I appreciate your perspective. I've enjoyed reading these posts of late. However, I just find myself highly skeptical that any form of religion must be maintained in order to achieve this "new world." Granted, the term "religion" might be something worth discarding (even in your mind). However, even the term "christian" seems to be forever destined to be limiting. What can theology do besides echo itself??? Is not the very nature of a word or a label to particularlize and exclude? This is what theology bears with it in its present state: it can't break out of its own tendency towards reduction, exclusion, and limitation because of its linguistic nature. Perhaps a new vocabulary isn't the key, because it'll fall into the same trap of the practico-inert. What can thus be done?? The only thing I can envision (currently at least) is a highly politicized praxis of collectivity that bears no resemblance to the old - in toto. Thus, all must become new - wouldn't this discontinuity be true to the life of Jesus?

  2. Austin, thanks for the passionate dialogue although I didn't understand all of your are reading too much Hauerwas! One thing that EasyYolk is committed to is the importance of being "traditioned," highlighting the unique contributions of different forms of spirituality, from secular to atheist to Jewish to different brands of Christianity. Although EasyYolk is adamantly Christian and specifically progressive (prophetic) Anabaptist, we seek to find overlap with our progressive brothers and sisters in other traditions. The Enlightenment attempted to collapse all differences into timeless truths and universal principles in order to keep members of different religious traditions from killing each other. The unintended consequence was an elimination of the beauty and power of each unique religious tradition. We believe in dialogue, emphasizing how traditions can learn from the strengths of other traditions.

  3. Gotta love Hauerwas... I just recommended him to two friends and you popped into my mind :)

    I really appreciate the willingness for inter-community dialogue. This is something that is seriously lacking in a universal, cogent, passionate, honest, and praxically-driven sense. Coming from a very conservative theological environment (against which I have somewhat reacted), I find this very refreshing - and not simply in a we're-just-trying-to-be-nice sort of way, but in a this-is-true-to-the-spirit-of-Jesus sort of way.

    I guess my main concern of late has been the limits of such inter-community dialogue. I mean, perhaps there is a way to engage in a cosmic renewal of "biblical proportions." But how do we create a unified human morality/politic, while simultaneously preserving the particular religious, social, and cultural expressions that make the creativity of humanity beautiful? I think that's the task...

    It's not an easy question that can be answered in one response, I'm sure. But that's kind of where my mind is of late...