Thursday, March 11, 2010

But Vengeance IS Good News: A reply to David Ker

David Ker is thinking about skipping the bits of the Bible where vengeance is mentioned.  Given his African context where Christians sometimes seem a bit too keen to hand out divine retribution themselves this is totally understandable. Neither would such an action be without precedent, Ulfilas the 4th century bishop refused to translate parts of the OT into the language of the Goths for fear they might get the wrong end of the stick.

Perhaps more to the point is that anyone who preaches or teaches has to be selective in the texts they use (as there are only so many hours in a life) and so they will naturally use the texts which seem to them the most useful, enlightening, and life giving in their situations.  But I think Ker has a few things backwards, he writes,
Two weeks ago in The Bible is not the Gospel I made the controversial claim that the Gospel is more important than the Bible. We are called to preach the Gospel not preach the Bible. 
Which is true, but not not helpful.  It is a bit like saying a person is not their body, we are called to love peole not their bodies, so I am free to ignore certain bodily needs of others because they are only needs of the body not the person.  The Bible is not the Gospel, but the Bible contains the Gospel in such a way as to make it impossible to distill the Gospel from the Bible and do without the Bible.  Cut holes in the Bible and you are cutting holes in the Gospel, even though the Bible is not the Gospel.  Ker continues,
And the overwhelming witness of the New Testament is that Jesus and all preachers after him used the Old Testament very selectively as a launching point for a message about the Kingdom and its King.
This is one of those ideas that seems to have wide circulation and is used to justify all sorts of "violence" against the OT.  But it just isn't true. No Jesus and Paul and the other NT writers did not systematically make sure they quoted from every genre of scripture but everything they taught presupposed the OT, in its entirety.  The gospel of the NT can only make sense and be understood as its stands on the foundation of the OT.  Not only so but when Jesus and Paul and the others use the OT they do not just proof-text widly but have a profound intertextual hermeneutic.  That this is so is slowly being demonstrated by the new(ish) wave of scholarly interest in the NT use of the OT.

Ker uses as his own proof text the Nazareth manifesto of Luke 4:16-19.  The thing is in Luke it doesn't actually say what Jesus did or didn't read out, it only points us to the place in the scroll that he read from.  This is not evidence of Jesus selectively quoting scripture.  Notwithstanding, Ker suggests two reasons why Jesus missed out the vengeance bit of Isaiah 61:1-2.

First, pragmatically, Jesus was using this passage to kick off his ministry which was to be about God’s favor. Second, and related, is the fact that under the new covenant that God was making with all the peoples of the world, vengeance was set aside, or you could say transferred to Christ who bore all the vengeance of God’s wrath on the cross in our place.
We need to ask what God's favour means to a people living under the oppresive goverment of a foreign power.  It means that their enemies get dealt to.  God's favour is not a "nice" thing and his vengeance "nasty."  In Isaiah 61 the direct result of God's vengeance is the comforting of those who are mourning and grieving.  Why are they comforted because God's vengeance is good news to those who have been oppressed, ruined and devastated.  Vengeance does not mean revenge, it means justice.  More specifically it means God's justice. Revenge is what happens when we take it upon ourselves to deal with those who have oppressed us, to punish them.  It always goes wrong because we are not capable of true justice.  God is.

I would suggest, and humbly because I do not share David's context, that perhaps it is those very vengeance texts that need to be taught and preached so that those Christians who are wronged can rest from their own desire for revenge and trust in God's ultimate justice.  For those who are oppressed and victimised God's vengeance is good news, if you skip that bit they may feel an even greater need to take matters into their own hands.

Pax vobiscum.
Let me know what you think. :-)

5 comments:

  1. Interesting post. I really resonate with this comment: Not only so but when Jesus and Paul and the others use the OT they do not just proof-text widly but have a profound intertextual hermeneutic.

    I'm trying to reflect on your post in the light of Jesus' ministry and his own response to the Roman occupation which was clearly different from what many of his compatriots wanted or desired. Could Jesus not have been rightly criticized for failing to do justice? If we believe he is the Son of God, he was the one person who could actually could have managed justice rather than vengeance.

    One of the things I envy about contemporary Judaism is that they have millennia of accepted biblical interpretation to guide them in their reading of Hebrew Scripture. Very little of their interpretation takes at face value - for instance - the idea of bashing one's enemies babies on the rocks. A lot of that interpretation is also what many Christian inerrantists might view as "liberal" - "Well, clearly, bashing one's enemies' babies on the rocks is not God's will, so how are we to read this text in a different way?"

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  2. Thanks Pam. I think many of our problems actually stem from the fact that the accepted hermeneutic of main stream evangelicalism is the bridge paradigm where we interpret a text by distilling principles from it. Butthis paradigm of interpretation is the child of Schleiermacher, the granddaddy of the liberal movement. (you might like to read my essay on the subject, http://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0BwE7s9uFBKTFMWRiMmJhODgtZjQzZS00YWE5LTgwMDktYWY0ODUzNWY5YzRj&hl=en if you do let me know what you think!)

    The other problem is that we tend to work in verses, whereas I don't think Jesus or Paul would have interpreted psalm 13:9 apart from the whole psalm. If we read psalms, not verses, many of the issues we have about "what does this mean" are resolved because those verses within the context of the psalm are clearly not paradigmatic for Christian praxis! All those little numbers in our bibles unfortunately affect interpretation in all sorts of ways, and this is one of them.

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  3. Your essay is actually rather a lot to digest! I think I'd need to sit down and take notes to be able to take it all in. None of the alternative approaches that you outlined felt satisfying in and of themselves to me.

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  4. I'm right with you on a people living under an oppressive regime envisioning favor in terms of retributive justice. And I think you are exactly right about our attempts at revenge always going wrong.

    I did speak about interpreting Psalm 63:9-10 with my Mozambican students in the context of our desire for revenge being subsumed by God's command to love our enemies. It is all we have and I believe it is the strongest political force in the world.

    Thanks so much for writing this.

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  5. Welcome David! I felt the provocative nature of your post diserved a polemical response, and I wasn't quite sure how your application relating to Ps63 connected to the rest so I ignored it. You started a great conversation, which is surely what blogging is all about.

    PS your new Caveat: "I’m not advocating “New Testament Only” Christianity. Instead I am advocating the centrality of the Gospel in our sermons as opposed to unfiltered preaching of “The Bible.”" is another interesting discussion in itself. I think perhaps it could relate to the way the early church interpreted according to the "rule of faith" which is a bit like having an unwritten constitution...

    blessings

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