Prophetic Evangelicals: Envisioning a Just and Peaceable Kingdomby Malinda Elizabeth Berry
In this inaugural Prophetic Christianity volume, fifteen contributors share their visions for a biblically centered, culturally engaged, and historically infused evangelicalism. Interacting with a wide variety of influential thinkers, they articulate several approaches to creating a socially responsible, gospel-centric, and ecumenical evangelical identity.Contributors… See more details below
In this inaugural Prophetic Christianity volume, fifteen contributors share their visions for a biblically centered, culturally engaged, and historically infused evangelicalism. Interacting with a wide variety of influential thinkers, they articulate several approaches to creating a socially responsible, gospel-centric, and ecumenical evangelical identity.Contributors: Raymond C. Aldred Vincent Bacote Bruce Ellis Benson Malinda Elizabeth Berry Chris Boesel John R. Franke David Gushee Peter Goodwin Heltzel Pamela Lightsey Cherith Fee Nordling Ruth Padilla-DeBorst Gabriel Salguero Helene Slessarev-Jamir Christian T. Collins Winn Telford Work
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Prophetic EvangelicalsEnvisioning a Just and Peaceable Kingdom
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
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Chapter OneThe Just and Peaceable Kingdom
Bruce Ellis Benson, Malinda Elizabeth Berry, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel
"True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice," writes Martin Luther King Jr. Prophetic Christianity today should seek to proclaim and embody the just and peaceable kingdom. We understand shalom as primarily the presence of justice among everything and everyone from close friends to entire nations. To be at peace with both our neighbors and the wider community means that our relationship to others and the community of creation is fundamentally one of justice. Harmonious and reconciled relations with others result when there is an ethical respect that characterizes those relations. Only when our relations to others are truly just can there be shalom. Justice within shalom is the destination of prophetic evangelical theology.
Shalom: Not an Easy Peace
Shalom and eirene are the Hebrew and Greek words that translate into English as "peace." But in the translation process, we have lost some important theological and ethical norms that define shalom. We often define peace as the absence of violence and war. From this perspective, we can easily reduce peace to mean equilibrium, avoidance of conflict, and even the maintenance of the status quo. But God does not desire such easy peace. When Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives" (John 14:27 NRSV), he explicitly contrasts the peace of God with that of the world. God calls us to shalom, the biblical peace that is concerned with justice, equity, and integrity — what we do and the kind of people we strive to be.
We are acting as God's shalom people when we preserve relationships, liberate, and speak on behalf of the weak, poor, and defenseless in the face of those who act to preserve their own self-interest, power, and prestige. Being people of God's shalom requires discernment because sometimes we must speak prophetically, while at other times we need to listen with a pastoral heart, and on some occasions we must act with the shrewdness born of God's wisdom. Shalom is about the hard work of ensuring that all have what they need, rather than feeling satisfied when people get what they deserve. Shalom is manifested when everyone is safe and sound because no one experiences, issues, or acts on threats to harm or attack others.
Shalom also has a very personal dimension. To seek the peace of the other is to treat the other as loved by God. As Martin Buber reminds us, shalom is restored through "I-Thou" relationships, which stand in conscious defiance to "I-It" relationships. "I-It" relationships objectify and exploit, while "I-Thou" relationships nourish and nurture the other in the other's full humanity. Shalom calls us to be people of integrity, and straightforward rather than manipulative or duplicitous in our dealings with others. It calls us to suspend our self and empathetically listen to others, facilitating deeper understanding and lasting love. In every moment, we are acting to preserve and transform relationships that bring God honor.
The Hebrew prophets are harbingers of shalom. They call the people of Israel to embody God's peace in the earthly struggle to end injustice and achieve justice. Justice and righteousness, mishpat and sedaqah, are brought together in prophetic discourse as a reminder to Israel of their mission to restore creation's shalom as a concrete way of worshiping their Creator (Gen. 18:19; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8).
The prophets' call echoes the Torah's call for Jubilee justice. A trumpet announces the Year of Jubilee; everyone in the land, especially the down and out, hears the clarion call loud and clear. In the Jubilee Year, God's whole creation — the whole land and all God's children — is provided for in concrete, compassionate ways. The land is to lie fallow, debts are to be forgiven, slaves are to be freed, and the poor are to be fed (Lev. 25:8-12; Deut. 15:1-7). The land lies fallow for a year so it can have the recuperating time and mineral nourishment that will prepare it in full for the next harvest. Jubilee justice calls the people of God to restore God's peace to the land and the poor with abundance. It promotes an ethic of rest, equity, excess, and transformation.
Jubilee justice is the hope of the poor and the oppressed. God hears the cries of hurting creatures. When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, they cried out to God, who called Moses to lead them into liberation. As God hears the cries of the dispossessed, so too are the people of God called to hear and respond to the cries of the suffering. The prophets call Israel to care for all God's children, but especially the marginalized — the widows, orphans, strangers, and poor — as one of the central practices of justice within shalom (Zech. 7:9-10). They also predict a Jewish Messiah who will fulfill the prophetic tradition, a Prince of Peace, bringing Jubilee justice to the whole world.
The prophecy of a coming Messiah is fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. Expressing the gracious and everlasting love, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14). Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, "The very form in flesh and blood, therefore, is, as such, the pure light of divine love pouring itself out: in Christ the species and the lumen coincide — as manifest, personal love.... God has become man, and he will never again lay aside this humanity; the Son's humanity, and everything in the reality of the Church and of the cosmos that flows forth and will eternally flow forth fromit, will forever be our open access to the Father.... But he is theWord which has become flesh and is always becoming flesh." Because God has become human, humanity will always be loved by the God who is the loving Creator and Redeemer of the world. Through the power of the Spirit, we are called to a personal union with the living Christ that becomes the basis for our ministry of seeking the flourishing of all humanity and the whole of the good creation.
The peaceable kingdom is a Spirit-empowered, Christ-centered movement that acknowledges our full humanity, weakness, and vulnerability. Karl Barth's book The Humanity of God represents an important turn to the Jewish flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, ushering in a "new change of direction in the thinking and speaking of evangelical theology." What Barth reminds us is that any discussion of flesh or the body must be grounded in the incarnate flesh and human body of Jesus Christ. The Jewish and human flesh of Jesus becomes the way that God mediates salvation to the world.
Barth's interest in Christ's full humanity was anticipated in earlier theological anthropologies in Continental philosophy, including Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of "human, all too human." If we form communities that form Christ's church, then true humanity will be a new humanity. As humans we cannot become "godlike" in our human longings, urging, and will to power. Christ's flesh, broken for us, leads us into the places of brokenness in our own bodies, souls, relationships, and communities. We feel dissatisfied with our limits. We feel human.
Amidst our struggle to proclaim and embody good news to the poor, we discover our own poverty as human beings. Jean Vanier writes, "Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, not to those who serve the poor! I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news, in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love." This place of poverty, imperfection, and despair should not incite a will to power, but inspire a will to serve the weak.
Through taking on our humanity, Jesus Christ becomes the One who loves and understands all humans, especially the disinherited. As Obery Hendricks Jr. argues, theology today needs to rediscover Jesus as a poor Jewish political revolutionary who was fully engaged in the prophetic struggle for justice against the oppressive logics of the Roman Empire. In contrast to Romans who rendered Caesar holy and Jews who saw the temple as holy, Jesus taught that the needs of the people are holy. Social holiness is expressed through lovingly meeting people's basic human needs. It was as a vulnerable human and apocalyptic prophet that Jesus led a grassroots movement for love and justice from Galilee to Jerusalem and out to the ends of the earth.
Jesus' politics were intent on resisting the powers of sin, death, violence, and evil, powers that oppress and keep people down. Through this prophetic resistance, through the spilled, shalom-infused blood of Jesus Christ, God breathes life into the church to propel it to become a community of the resurrection. The church is not just "treasure in earthen vessels"; rather, through the Eucharist, we come to understand ourselves as the resurrected body and resurrected community: Christ has no body on Earth now but the church. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, evangelicals today are being drawn together into a prophetic, intercultural movement for justice.
Prophetic evangelicalism was forged in the fires of the struggle for justice with roots in America's great awakenings. As prophetic evangelicals we seek to recover this prophetic evangelical past and begin to live into a prophetic, intercultural future. Our spirit of creative activism harkens back to the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement's legacy of social engagement and the twentieth-century civil rights movement's tradition of reminding the church of its civic relevance and prophetic possibility. So who are the role models from our past who help us understand the shalom politics of prophetic evangelicals today? People like Charles Finney, Jonathan Blanchard, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Carl F. H. Henry, and Martin Luther King Jr.
During the nineteenth century, Charles Finney at Oberlin College and Jonathan Blanchard at Wheaton College both used their presidential offices as a platform to forward theological and ethical arguments for the abolition of slavery. Gifted and passionate preachers, Finney and Blanchard used the vehicle of revivalist sermons to disseminate their message of social justice. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman traveled around the country delivering heart-stirring abolitionist talks and arduously assisting slaves to find freedom through the Underground Railroad. These two streams of evangelical activism shared a common revivalist past. Together they directed evangelicalism toward the prophetic embodiment of justice.
What Truth and Tubman, Finney and Blanchard all had in common was that they were convinced that personal and social transformation went hand in hand. For them, it was not a question of choosing between personal salvation and social transformation. There was and is no such thing as "the social gospel" distinctly separate from "the personal gospel," and vice versa. Instead, they called believers to salvation through one united gospel, preaching that anything less was a false gospel. Prophetic evangelicals are serious about embodying this unified gospel.
"The cries of suffering humanity today are many. No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man's condition dares respond in the name of Christianity," wrote Carl F. H. Henry in 1947. Henry's Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism "exploded like a bombshell in the fundamentalist camp." As a result of its cultural withdrawal and worldly irrelevance, fundamentalism had sold its prophetic birthright for a bowl of pottage. The fundamentalists were so busy defending the faith and seeking to be holy outside of the world's polluting influence, they had become stone-deaf to the needs of the world. Henry prophetically challenged the evangelical world that had been lulled into complacency to wake up and hear the cries of suffering humanity. The call of prophetic evangelicals is to discern and embody parables of the just and peaceable kingdom through active participation in the worldly struggle for justice in a suffering world.
While Henry called evangelicals to proclaim Jesus and justice, Martin Luther King Jr. showed them how to do it. United by the revivalist tradition of America's great awakenings, Henry and King sought in their own ways to renew evangelical public theology in the United States. While many scholars have interpreted King's theology as shaped by the black church tradition and Protestant liberal theology, he is also shaped by evangelicalism's activist tradition. Part of the reason that African American Christianity was successful in the civil rights movement was because it was part of the historical tradition of evangelical revivals, such as the First and Second Great Awakening. Prophetic black Christianity is the true successor of the tradition of evangelical awakenings in the United States that were often marked by their commitment to radical social change.
King rendered Jesus' call for a peaceable and just kingdom through the metaphor of the "beloved community." Beloved community is the "creation of a society where all men can live together as brothers, where every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality." Since all people are made in God's image, human personality is seen as sacred. Thus, all God's children should be able to be active participants in the church and the democratic republic.
The peaceable and just kingdom has both an "already" and a "not yet" character to it. King used the term "beloved community" to refer to the "already," earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God. King's dream of beloved community was birthed in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956. When King arrived in Montgomery as a young preacher, he was gradually drawn into the struggle for civil rights in the community focused on integrating the public bus system of the city. True beloved community would be realized in Alabama only when both blacks and whites were free to sit where they wanted on the bus. With Rosa Parks and others, King organized African American residents to carpool and walk to work in order to overturn Montgomery's segregation ordinances.
King's confrontational civil rights activism in Montgomery led to a white racist, reactionary backlash. When confronted with the bombing of his own home, which came close to endangering the life of his wife and children, King faced an enormous ethical dilemma. Would he and the Montgomery movement respond with violence or would they seek the path of nonviolent struggle? King chose nonviolence, setting up a paradigm for the remainder of the civil rights struggle. He viewed Jesus not only as a suffering servant but also as an active peacemaker who went boldly into places of conflict and modeled peace as a social form of reconciliation.
King's nonviolent strategy was successful in the Southern interior. In 1963, his leadership of the Southern freedom movement culminated in the March on Washington where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. This speech was a high-water mark in the civil rights struggle; however, because of the depth and extent of the problem of racism in the United States, King's dream was quickly turned into a nightmare. Reflecting back on his dream in his Christmas Eve sermon in 1967, King said, "In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of the afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare." The nightmare began on September 15, 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan murdered four young black girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Riots ensued in Newark, Watts, and Detroit. As the Vietnam War waged on, King began to work out the logic of his shalom politics in more radical and comprehensive ways. Just as the life of an African American was as valuable as the life of a white American, King argued that because of our common humanity the life of a Vietnamese citizen was as important as the life of an American citizen. His prophetic nonviolent theology led King to oppose the war in Vietnam.
Excerpted from Prophetic Evangelicals Copyright © 2012 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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