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Friday, July 25, 2014

Elisha the Israeli prophet and excessive force

Elijah was a great prophet in Israel's history. After he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, his successor, Elisha, steps into the role and does even more miraculous things. Many of his miracles are recapitulated a thousand years later in the ministry of Jesus: lepers are healed, children are raised from the dead, multitudes are fed from a small amount. But there is one supernatural story that Jesus did not emulate.
2 Kings 2:23-24  He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”  And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (ESV)
In my religious tribe, American Christian fundagelicalism, I never read any criticisms of Elisha in the commentaries I read, or the websites offering answers to hard questions. Google's front page hits to the topic of Elisha and the bears will offer defenses of Elisha and God in this story. The defenses are along the lines of, God was defending his prophet from a gang of (idol worshipping) young men who wanted to kill him.
It seems to me, rather, as a gadfly in my tribe, that Elisha was in the wrong in his response to these kids. Jesus was surrounded by a mob who wanted to throw him off a cliff. Luke recounts this story and makes sure Elisha is mentioned in his gospel account. But unlike Elisha, Jesus simply passes through the mob.
Luke 4:27-30 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.
Jesus didn't curse anyone. Even as he hung on the cross, a victim of a lynch mob, his request in the name of God the Father was for them to be forgiven.

Elisha was wrong. God is not named as the agent who instigated the bears. There is a correlation, but not a causation established between the curse and the mauling. Sometimes, random things happen, that build up one's reputation. If two bears come out on a mob of 50-60 people and everyone scatters, there's a good chance Elisha is not one of the mauled. He's still a bad example.

However, he's viewed as a positive example in this story by many. He's the underdog in the story. The old guy against the mob of young bullies. They have their numbers but he has God on his side. Elisha uses his direct connection to God to cause disproportionate pain on his opponents. God is cool with that.

But Jesus's example is completely different from Elisha's. Jesus goes around telling people to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you. Jesus tells people to love their enemies and not curse them. Jesus is the full revelation of God, not Elisha. Elisha is another messed-up human being with anger issues yet still used by God. Elisha's story of the confrontation with the youths is a story of failure, not of blessing and success. Meeting violence with greater violence is not the way of Jesus.

In the past couple weeks, the militarily superior Israeli Defense Force has received under 40 casualties while delivering 20 fold more in return, not just guerrillas either, but mothers and children, graphic link. This is the way of Elisha. This is not the way of Jesus. And I'm deeply disturbed, but not surprised, that many leaders in my religious tribe of fundagelicals think Jesus supports Israel's abuse of power.

What if the way to lasting peace is the way of forgiveness and generosity? The way of vindictive, overwhelming force only sets up the next outbreak, see Germany after World War 1. The way of open handed generosity to enemies leads to mutual prosperity, see Japan and Germany after World War 2. The way of Jesus is of forgiveness and generosity.

For more thoughts on Gaza and Israel check out these links.
The only two sides of any human conflict for Christians who love their enemies by Morgan Guyton.
Israel, Gaza and the Fatal Spirit of Versailles by Juan Cole

Sunday, July 13, 2014

book response: The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage by Mark Achtemeier

All Christians wrestle with applying Jesus' second highest commandment, the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31. The conservative church in the United States, has felt this is overruled by other passages in the Bible when it comes to homosexuals among them and outside. But some of us within the conservative church have challenged that hermenuetic. Mark Achtemeier is one respectable voice within the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) who used to argue within the church nationally against full inclusion but has repented of this stance and now wants to help the church become fully inclusive of homosexuals. He uses all the familiar tools, methodologies and principles of conservative Bible scholarship to assuage those who cannot fathom how full inclusion is possible in his new book.

He writes, "The result of this encounter with the Bible has been a growing conviction that the church’s condemnation of same-gender relationships is a tragic and destructive misinterpretation of the Bible’s message. Moreover it is a misinterpretation precisely because this so-called “traditional” teaching ignores classical principles of scriptural interpretation that date back centuries in the history of the church."

Conservative readers should know that he did not write this because he came out of the closet himself, nor because a family member became gay. He writes this as someone who used to write position papers for the PCUSA defending non-inclusive ecclesiology. Although he is not gay himself, his encounters with gay seminarians challenged his presumptions.

He asks, "I also started to wonder what kind of God we were dealing with if the traditional condemnations of homosexuality really did reflect the will of God. These questions arose as I realized that people like Kristi did not choose their same-sex orientation, nor did they have the ability to embrace a lifelong discipline of celibate singleness."

Ex-gay therapy has done more damage than good. Exorcisms of homosexual demons are even worse. This is not to deny that some people have experienced changed orientations, but it's not common. So for those believers who are homosexual, who have tried for years to pray the gay away unsuccessfully, who love Jesus and his church, who seek marriage, what options does the church have for them?

He looks at history and shows how the church has changed its strongly held positions before, despite the proof texts, from slavery in the United States to John Calvin's wrestling with usury prohibitions and economics in Geneva. He looks at the Bible's positive intentions for marriage. He also looks at the seven clobber passages that are used to condemn homosexuals. He calls them fragments, because he shows that when these passages are read in their Biblical, literary, and cultural contexts, they condemn violence and oppression, which completely agrees with the Golden Rule Jesus calls us to honor.

He wants the church to see homosexuals with new eyes and the passages historically used against them in fuller dimensions, dimensions that in actuality do not condemn the same gendered attractions of our fellow human beings. This is a "safe" book to read for conservatives who are willing to listen to a different viewpoint from a fellow conservative believer. I wish my brothers and sisters would all read it, at least to understand how inclusiveness can be apprehended biblically.

I received this as a complimentary copy from NetGalley for my unbiased review.