Archives For Ethics

Remove The Stone

September 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

ID-100113575The events in John 11-12 involve a dynamic interaction between Jesus, his friends, a curious crowd[i] and some very concerned authorities.

We read of spies, intrigue, assassination plots and a mutinous disciple.

The text tells us that Jesus’ friends had serious concerns for his safety in a crowd[ii].  This is emphasised by John when he tells us that Jesus is warned against returning to Bethany (11:8).

In 10:31, John states that the reason for this is due to a previous clash, between offended stone throwers and their intention to arrest Jesus, who only after pushing them back with verbal rebuttals manages to avoid any further unnecessary contact.

We see this danger also exemplified by the assassination plots first laid out against Jesus and then Lazarus. We are later told of Caiaphas, the chief priest[iii], and his appeasement not just of 1st Century Jewish law, but also that of the ‘Pax Romana’; a 1st and 2nd century status quo enforced by Rome’s well disciplined, and heavily equipped legions.

The text then shows the true extent of Iscariot’s character, as Mary, in front of the risen Lazarus and his sister Martha, pours ointment, made of an expensive Indian perfume, onto the ‘feet of Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair.’

In John’s reflection we are unable to escape the tension as he writes:

‘Judas did not care for the poor. He was a thief. Having charge of the moneybag, which he used to help himself to’ (12:6)

The situation appears to have been a mix of grief, anger, joy, faith, reason and fear.

But, who, when tempted would struggle to disagree with Iscariot or the crowd today?

Jesus, this so-called ‘’preacher of love”; the so-called ‘Son of Man’; a man presumed to be one of absolute peace and tolerance, so easily managed to incite the anger of the authorities.

If he is about grace, why is he so divisive?

Look at how Jesus treated his friend Lazarus and see how he is absent when Lazarus’ sisters are in need?

Why did he place his own security over the healing of his friend?

How is that not selfish betrayal?

Did his intolerance know no bounds?  Perhaps the whispers and accusations spoken against him are true?

These questions might not be so unjustified, that is of course if it were not for this key event:

In front of the people gathered to console the grieving sisters, Jesus returns, prays, speaks, and then raises Lazarus from the dead.

Jesus is first met by Martha.

Possibly indicating prior conversations of lament and confusion between Lazarus’ sisters, who speak separately with Jesus and say:

“Lord, if you had been here…” (11:21 / 11:32, ESV)

He tells Martha that ‘your brother will rise again…I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?’ (11:23). Martha’s response is retold in the form of confession: ‘she believes he is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’ (11:27)

Yet, it’s a curious thing that following this John observing Jesus’ body language, describes him as being moved to ‘anger[iv] and indignation’[v]  – better described as a ‘snarl, snort or growl’ (Carson).

With such a response and what we know of Jesus Christ, it is not beyond reason to suggest that:

Here He is, with the power of the life-giver moving through his human veins standing before the tomb of his friend.

Here, Jesus recognizes the lingering effects of death which has passed through Lazarus and still torments those gathered.

The life of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, now silenced by the ‘total peril’[vi]; the ‘nothingness’, which is a ‘stubborn element and alien factor’[vii] that ‘opposes and resists God’s world-dominion’[viii], yet passes its devastating blow throughout all humanity.

It is here that Jesus’ ‘quiet outrage flares up again[ix]‘, yet he responds with an uncharacteristic public prayer, beginning with thanksgiving saying:

‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe you sent me’ (11:41-42, ESV)

Although ‘two interpretations are possible’[x], there is little doubt that at this point:

‘Christ does not approach the tomb of Lazarus as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; He groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer…and contemplates the transaction itself’ (Calvin, 361)

Here ‘Christ shows that he is the commencement of life and that the continuance of life is also a work of his grace’ (Calvin, 356), commanding bystanders to:

“Remove the stone.” (38-39, The Message)
And then he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”.
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:43-44, ESV)

Three things stand out to the modern-era hearers.

First, the text confronts us with three things Jesus does when he is angered and deeply disturbed by the events around him: he asserts himself, turns to prayer and gratitude, and then acts.

Second, is that we do well to understand ‘that grief and outrage are right responses held together, in tension, but grief and compassion without outrage reduces both to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance and rage’[xi]

Finally, from this we can understand that the consequence of Christ’s victory is the right for us to exist. It is no longer a hopeless existence, merely surviving in the shadow of a destructive vacuum of that which has no right to exist.

The events surrounding Lazarus show us that Jesus is opposed to death as much as he is opposed to sin.

In this, His “yes” to life resonates as the preamble for the grace-conclusion found in the scarred Christ standing outside his own tomb, where permission to live, not just for now, but forever in fellowship with God, is granted by grace to the responsive sinner.

 

Sources:

[i] Carson: ‘They were puzzled and confused.’

[ii] John Calvin rightly noted that: ‘the rage of his enemies had not subsided’ ; Commentary of John Sourced from CCEL.org (p.355)

[iii] John 11:49-50

[iv] ἐμβριμάομαι: rebuke; warning; deeply moved; groan. Not ὀργή: wrath; hostility.

[v] ‘His inward reaction was anger or outrage or indignation’ (Carson, 1991)

[vi] Barth, K. 1960 God and Nothingness CD.III.3 Hendrickson Publishers (p.289-290)

[vii] ibid

[viii] ibid

[ix] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 416). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

Image: “Stairs In A Cave” courtesy of  papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Elshtain quote D_O_TThe following analogy illustrates the point that ‘good nature may be a great misfortune if we do not mix prudence with it’[i]:

”An old man and his young son were driving a donkey before them to the next market to sell. ‘Why have you no more wit’, says one to the man upon the way, ‘thank you and your son trudge it on foot, and let the donkey go light?’
So the old man set his son upon the donkey and continued himself on foot. ‘Why, sir’, says another after this, to the boy, ‘you lazy rogue, must you ride, and let you old father go on foot?’
The old man upon this took down his son, and got up himself. ‘Do you see,’ says a third, ‘how lazy old knave rides himself, and the poor young fellow has much ado to creep after him?’
The father, upon hearing this, took up his son behind him. The next person they met asked the old man whether the donkey was his own or not. He said, ‘yes’. ‘There’s a little sign on it’, says another, ‘by loading him thus.’
‘Well,’ says the old man himself, ‘and what am I to do now? For I am laughed at, if either the donkey be empty, or if one of us rides, or both;’ and so he came to the conclusion to bind the donkey’s legs together with a cord, and they tried to carry him to market with a pole upon each of their shoulders.
This was sport to everybody that saw it, inasmuch that the old man in great wrath threw down the donkey into a river, and so went his way home again. The good man, in fine , was willing to please anybody, and lost his donkey in the process” (‘The complete John Ploughman’)

In some respects the father’s acquiescence is blind. His son also shows the same symptoms by his inability to challenge the father’s sedate tolerance which, because of a lack of assertiveness has led to absolute confusion.

Father and son were both paralyzed not just by fear, but also by indifference and indecision.  Something akin to moral failure or as penned by Carl Trueman, ‘moral abdication’.[iii]

They were unable to push back or challenge the wisdom behind what they were accepting, because they were too eager to appease the commentary of their detractors.

Accommodating the high opinions of those around, and not wanting to offend, negated the very purpose of their journey, harming not only themselves, but also the donkey.

In a comment related to this story, the blunt-talking, 19th Century Preacher, the Rev. Charles Spurgeon, stated:

‘Put your hand quickly to your hat, for that is courtesy; but don’t bow your head at every man or woman’s bidding, for that is slavery…A person is not free if they are afraid to think for themselves, for if our thoughts are in bonds we are not free.[ii]

This is somewhat echoed in the words from theologian, Marguerite Shuster:

 ‘Those who Jesus confronted most directly were as likely to want to kill him as to follow him. He seemed to not have the slightest inclination to make hearing and following him pleasant and easy…Truthfulness, in other words, is not determined by customer satisfaction surveys’[iv]

For the free citizen, Shuster’s words mark the very essence of what it means to be a ‘good citizen’ instead of a ‘nice citizen’; the ability to say “yes” and “no” with a ton of responsible care and a stack of well-informed conviction.

Control the language means control of the argument, and therefore control of the people. Under this Machiavellian ethos all contradictions, double standards and hypocrisy are ignored, if the end justifies the means.

Spurgeon’s analogy also shows the danger of double mindedness. Accommodation and blind tolerance, in the forms of indifference and indecision, create the ground from which the late political scientist, and  feminist, Jean Bethke Elshtain unpacks her own concerns:

‘Western democracies are not doing a good job of nurturing democratic dispositions that encourage people to accept that they can’t always get what they want and that some of what they seek in politics cannot be found there’[v]

What Shuster, Elshtain and Spurgeon speak to is the giving of an ”absolute feel-nice yes” with a notable absence of any ability to say “no” and have it respected.

For example: equality, fairness and freedom cannot exist in a truly democratic society when the people give unquestioning loyalty to the state, or the fashionable ideology propagated by some circles in academia.

It is right to suggest that nihilism and its progeny, like utilitarian hedonism or totalitarian fascism, should be identified and resisted by the public when it comes to having a decisive influence on socio-political policy. It is wrong to not allow these to be reasonably argued against in the free marketplace of ideas.

Equally bad is a politics of appeasement which caves in to demands for unrestrained freedom or extremist forms of social justice for easy political gain. Such politics, and those who advocate it show that they do not understand freedom. For genuine freedom[vi] to be realised there must be responsible restraints. For example: the ability to say no to ourselves is an act of freedom. In essence, no self-control, no freedom. Know self-control, know freedom.

Otherwise real mercy and real justice are sacrificed for the sake of an idea of freedom. The problem is that freedom cannot exist without the counterbalance of self-limitation. Freedom is negated if we are not free to say both “yes” or “no” responsibly.

‘Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom. The revolution to achieve justice, through freedom, ends by aligning them against one another.[vii]

Absolute freedom is an illusion because of its innate contradictions. Such as absolute justice, which allows the mob-in-revolt to violently dictate and impose the rule of total law. Or allow a leader to take on emergency powers where, drunk with power, he or she, takes that ”one ring to rule them all.

The place where free citizens become subjects, and take on the lonely and confused, dire submission of Ralph and his faithful companion, who amidst the mad chaos and fire, stirred up by Jack, in Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies, decide:

‘…under threat of the sky, to eagerly take a place in this demented, but partly secure society’. [viii]

It’s as Ronald Reagan said in his 1964 speech, ‘A Time for Choosing‘:

There’s no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace — and you can have it in the next second — surrender.Admittedly, there’s a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face — that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender.

Appeasement, and its cousin, détente, end in an uneven politics of displacement.

This is a lesson learnt the hard way and one that still, eerily, echoes out from Neville Chamberlain’s ”peace in our time”. Something which, at the time, stood out as a so-called justification for the decade long charge of ”warmongering” howled out loud against Winston Churchill in the 1930’s [xix].

We need not look any further for more weight to this than Thomas Doherty’s assessment of that era in his 2013, book ‘Hollywood & Hitler’:

‘Aggression undeterred, is aggression encouraged. That is the lesson of the 1930’s’ [x]

Appeasement only benefits those who are being appeased. It rarely, if ever, benefits those doing the appeasing.

As exemplified by Kennedy’s resolve in the Cuban Missile crisis, Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher, under this freedom in limitation*, good leaders are those who direct us away from both slavery and war, but are not afraid to lead us, under just rules of engagement, into the latter for the sake of avoiding the former.

Like the donkey in a ditch, democracy will be abandoned and lay dormant, placed there by indifference and indecision. Denied, despairing and desperate for rescue, whilst those who chose appeasement, pledge allegiance to an altar of sinister ideologies, advancing by a list of lustful, lost and predatory activism.

Such an activism clings to historically destructive theories that say to humanity “you will only be free when you can liberate yourself from responsibility, and the life-giving source and order of that freedom.”

No longer are people citizens, free because their freedom is recognised as God-given, sourced from outside of themselves. They become thoughtless subjects of an ideology; pawns in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

In a direct challenge to French Communists Albert Camus highlighted this in 1951, claiming that people become subjects to a party, as ‘man takes refuge in the concept of the permanence of the party, in the same way that he formerly prostrated himself before the altar.’[xi]

They willingly march towards becoming the subjects (pawns) in the hands of an “elite” who worship at the altar of deified humanity, created by a ‘religion of [so-called] reason’[xii].

In today’s “post-modern” society we see this in the accommodation of blurred distinctions.

Our society tends to value appearance and reputation, over against the truth and the substance of real character.

The result seems to be a persecution of thinkers. In my case, Christians, who choose a thinking faith over a sedated polis; a faith which doesn’t just parade itself as righteous, but acts in righteousness because of the ‘freedom in limitation’[xiii] granted to humanity by its Creator.

With a large degree of venomous intolerance they are labelled as intolerant bigots and suppressed as an enemy instead of an opponent. Like Israel today, the very existence of Christians stands as a defiant, yet responsible “no” against any ideology that seeks to master and dominate others.

Christian theology is only political in the sense that it enters into conversation with politics. Theology never becomes political. It cannot or it’s no longer free. It’s no longer free to critique the politik and its ideology. It exists in relation to politics, not a substitute for it. Hence the working relationship – a very successful one – between Church and State. Something even Jesus talked about.

That critique is grounded on the conviction that ”Jesus is Lord”. It stands opposed to the worship of Caesar as lord. Therein lies the danger of a Christless Christianity or any Christless Christian West, in general. Absent of Christ. Man becomes god. Only Christ, God become man, stops this. Hence, the way, the truth and the life – true freedom. OR as the Old Testament teaches us, God’s house of freedom vs. man’s house of slavery. In sum, God saves man and woman from themselves, in Christ this authentic “no” has as it’s goal, which is an authentic “yes.”

It is not surprise then that Christians are subsequently forced, or sadly, sometimes surrender themselves into bondage to trends, bad theology, neo-tolerance and failed ideas, which lay waste to the existence of a free and responsible representative democracy, governed by faith, reason, mercy and justice.

Perhaps that old reminder stands as true today as it did then:

‘When we don’t apply a moral criteria to politics, we mix good and evil, right and wrong. Therefore we make space for the triumph of absolute evil in the world’
(Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1971, Harvard address[xiv])

References:

[i] Spurgeon, C.H.  2007 The complete John Ploughman Christian Focus publications

[ii] Ibid. This echoes the biblical call to pray: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach… because a double-minded person is unstable in all their ways’ (James 1:8)

[iii] Trueman, C. 2004 The Wages of Spin Christian Focus Publications Kindle Ed. (Loc.89)

[iv] Shuster, M. 2008 Truth and truthfulness in Performance in preaching Childers & Schmidt, Baker Academic

[v] Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy on Trial, Perseus Books Group (p.62) See also, Elshtain, J.B 2000 Who are we? critical reflections and hopeful possibilities (particularly chapter three) Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Grand Rapids Michigan U.S.A

[vi] Albert Camus, The Rebel 1951 Kindle Ed. (Penguin Classics, 2013)

[vii] Ibid, 1951

[viii] Golding, W. 1954 Lord of the Flies Bloomsbury House (p.167)

[xix] Gilbert, M. 1992 Churchill: A Life

[x] Doherty,T. 2013 Hollywood & Hitler: 1933-1939 Columbia University Press (p.368)

[xi] Camus, 1951

[ix] Camus, 1951

[x] Solzhenitsyn, A. 1978 A world split apart Harvard sourced from Columbia.edu

* The phrase ‘freedom in limitation’ is Karl Barth’s, not mine.

PDF of Reagan’s speech visit: “A Time for Choosing” (American Rhetoric)

‘Pray consistently and never quit’

– Jesus. (Luke 18, The Message)

 

It has been some time since I last read through Eberhard Buschs’ ‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’. Only 101 pages in length, the book is a compendium of lectures given in 2004 on the 1933-34 Barmen Declaration[i], of which Barth was a ‘’principle’’ author.

There were many things about this little book worth sharing. A lot of its content grabbed at my heart and mind, energising the direction of my own theological study. Buschs’ exhortations are helpful to anyone actively pursuing a lens from which to understand God’s alignment with us, through Jesus Christ, and how our response to that alignment is applied in today’s world.

In between other jobs this week I’ll attempt to systematically post small sections I found to be significant.

Here, under the title ‘Thesis Two: The Rigorous Gospel and the Gracious Law’, Busch lays down some serious theology about The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian.

 

‘Christian ethics is an ethics of freedom. It has to do with a freedomBarmen these then and now that has little to do with coercion as it has to do with decision and preference.

It is a freedom that is not practiced in isolation but rather in connectedness with God and his children who are “my” brothers and sisters.
But still, in this sense, it is an ethic of freedom.There may be situations in which one swims against the current and still cooperates with others.

In so doing, one might be able to arrive at good agreements with one’s non-Christian fellows.

In this freedom one will occasionally have to demolish some things critically, but only in order to preserve things worth holding onto or to risk new things.

Behind all these endeavours there will be prayer – and it will become quite obvious whether that is really what is behind it all.

According to the prayer of Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer, our prayer engages first of all the world’s rebellion against God and asks that his name should be hallowed, that his will should be done, and that his kingdom should come. It then asks for God’s engagement in human distress, that he should take to heart humanity’s hunger and thirst, its failure and guilt, its oppression by evil powers.

Such prayer is not merely preparation for the ethical conduct of Christians. It is its first act.’

– (‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’, 2010:47)

 

Of the many good statements about this topic I have read, his claims here rate among the best reflections (Calvin, Spurgeon, Barth, Tozer, Bonhoeffer et.al) on how Christian prayer and ethics meet.

 

Related Reading:

Confessions: Barmen, Barth and Busch.

[i] The significance of the Barmen Declaration, in brief, is its value as a unified statement created by the Confessing Church, in Nazi Germany, which publically rejected the slippery slope embarked upon once theology is surrendered and becomes a blind servant to an ideology.