Category Archives: Opinion

Letter to the Editor – founding values and the PM

Ray Barraclough (A Progressive Christian Voice Australia) has kindly shared the following:

Dear Member of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) inc [APCVA],

I was delighted to discover that I was able to have a letter published in the Monday (3 May) edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.

The issue I addressed in my letter was sparked by responses to a speech that the Australian PM gave to a gathering of his fellow-Pentecostals….

I was responding to the claim that Australia was founded on “Judeo-Christian values”.

I am sure there were a whole mixture of values influencing the framers of The Australian Constitution from Enlightenment-influenced lawyers to a spiritualist Alfred Deakin, and others in between, including Judeo-Christians.. 

My take is that, like the framers of the American Constitution, the chief movers-and-shakers wanted to entrench the separation of Church and State. That is why both the American and the Australian documents refer so very sparingly  (and warily) to any role the state may have in regards to religion.

Anyway, the SMH printed my letter. A copy is printed below.

Best wishes,

     Ray

PS. I hope that a number of APCVA members could pen letters on important issues to their appropriate media. (And let us know that they have done so.)

————–

Dear Madam/Sir,

If the Australian federation was founded on Judeo-Christian values, as Judith Bond asserts, (Letters, May 12) then two explanations at least are needed.

The federation speedily enacted laws based on white supremacy, namely the ‘white Australia policy’.

While also no mention was made of prior Indigenous occupancy of the country.

And the federation was created through the dispossession of the same Indigenous peoples.

What Christian values shaped the supremacist action and the dispossession?

Christianity served as a chaplain to white supremacist European empires that, for centuries, dispossessed Indigenous people across four continents.

Sincerely,

   Ray

[Rev’d Dr Ray Barraclough]

oOo

Opinion: Jesus was different

Peter E. Lewis

Since writing the 2nd edition of my book The Ending of Mark’s Gospel: The Key to Understanding the Gospels and Christianity in 2020 I have come to realize how different Jesus was and that his life before his baptism was the foundation for what became Christianity. Although his mission began suddenly when he was about 30, his previous experience must have provided the motivation for what he said and did.

     According to Mark, Jesus’s birth was natural, but he was very different from everyone around him and he knew it. His relatives thought he was mad (Mark 3:21) and went to take charge of him. They knew he was different, and the most likely reason for this was that he was illegitimate, the result of his mother being raped by a Roman soldier when Sepphoris, just a few kilometres from Nazareth, was sacked by Roman forces after the death of King Herod in 4 BC. So Jesus looked different, probably with non-Jewish features. 

     He was also different in other ways. He was obviously very intelligent and religiously minded, and as a carpenter he would have been involved in the rebuilding of Sepphoris, which was the capital of Galilee and a centre of Jewish culture. It was probably there, rather than in his village of Nazareth, that he learnt the Hebrew scriptures, and in the gospels he is sometimes called “Rabbi” meaning a teacher. As a rabbi he should have been married with children but there is no evidence for this in the New Testament, and it is reasonable to assume that he was gay.

     Being gay in that Jewish environment he would have felt alone; and as Joseph, his legal father, had probably died when he was very young there was no father-figure in his life. It is therefore understandable that he should form a close personal relationship with God, whom he called “Abba” (an intimate term for “Father”) in Mark 14:36. This relationship for Jesus was a loving one.

     So we have a young man who is gay, looks different and feels different, yet is steeped in the Jewish culture of his time and place. Because of his loving nature he finds consolation in his relationship with God. Although not accepted by others he feels accepted by his Creator. It might have been when he was a teenager that he identified with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 who was ‘despised and rejected.’ Isaiah does not say why the servant was despised, but as someone so different in this very religious environment Jesus probably felt the same. In the gospels there are allusions to the book of Isaiah, and several times Jesus says that the son of man, meaning himself, must suffer. In Mark 10:45 he says that he came to serve and give his life.

     When he was about 30 he went to receive John’s baptism of repentance. At his baptism Jesus experienced his old life being washed away, although he must still have been aware of his gayness and accepting of it. At the same time something amazing happened: the Holy Spirit entered into him (Mark 1:10). In the Greek text published by the United Bible Society the preposition is

which means ‘into’. Jesus felt that the power of his Father was in him.

     This man, so different and alone, now had a purpose in life. He could see the meaning of it all: his Father had put him in this time and place to bring in the Kingdom of God. So as a commanding and charismatic figure he embarked on his mission. He told everyone the good news, that the Kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15), and he was determined to bring it in.

     In the Kingdom everyone is loved by the Father and with his love there is acceptance, forgiveness and healing, just as Jesus had experienced it. When others believed him remarkable things happened and large crowds gathered to hear him and bring their sick loved-ones to him. The gospel writers all agree that he taught about the Kingdom of God, usually in simple parables so that the people could understand. Some readers, however, have seen Jesus as a passive character in the story, the helpless victim of a cruel world or an innocent man crushed by the wheel of fate. This perception could have derived from Isaiah 53:7 where the Suffering Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter, but this only applied to Jesus after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The situation was actually very different because Jesus was in control all the way.

     He knew he was the Messiah but not in a political sense. The idea of a coming Messiah was in the Old Testament, and the gospels are full of allusions to passages in it and quotations from it. Some readers have suspected that the gospel writers just made up these connections to support their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Although this was sometimes the case, as when Matthew referred to Isaiah 7:14 to support Jesus’s virginal conception, the allusions are mainly there because Jesus used them in his mission. His stage-managed entry into Jerusalem refers to the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. His disruption of the business in the Temple, which must have caused the authorities great concern, referred to Jeremiah 7:11. Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures and he intended to follow them in what he said and did. Even when he was silent before the high priest (Mark 14:61) it was not just a coincidence. He was following the script in Isaiah 53:7. He knew exactly what he was doing.

     Jesus arranged everything according to his plan, which was also God’s plan. He had provoked the Jewish authorities to kill him, and to make sure he told Judas to inform them where he would be after their fellowship meal, which was the Passover meal in Mark’s gospel. The Passover festival was significant for Jesus’s purpose because it symbolized the salvation of the people. What is supremely significant is that during this meal Jesus said that the bread he gave them was his body and the wine was his blood, meaning that he would live in them. Like the Suffering Servant he ‘poured out his life’ (Isaiah 53:12) just as the wine was ‘poured out for many’ (Mark 14:24). He did this out of love. In the gospels the Greek word for love is

(agape) which means a self-giving concern for others. In this way Jesus gave himself for others and brought in the Kingdom of God.

     Jesus would have arranged with Joseph of Arimathea, who was waiting for the Kingdom of God (Mark 15:43), to put his body in his tomb. Jesus expected that when the disciples came together to eat food after his crucifixion, they would realize that he lived in them. He probably did not expect that the Jewish authorities would remove his body to prevent the tomb becoming a rallying site for his followers, but the empty tomb proved to be an added bonus for his purpose, which was to bring in the Kingdom. Actually it was the Father who arranged for the tomb to be empty. He had prompted the authorities to think of removing the body.

     Jesus had to die as the Suffering Servant died. ‘He poured out his life unto death.’ (Isaiah 53:12) It was God’s way of putting his spirit into the hearts of human beings. The Kingdom of God is thus the community of spirit-filled disciples. They are held in God’s love, which goes out to the world through them. It is amazing to think that it originated in the love that a gay man felt for his God and God had for him.

                                                                                                                 Peter E. Lewis, May 2021

oOo

The Date of Mark’s Gospel

 Peter E Lewis

The second edition of my book The Ending of Mark’s Gospel: The Key to Understanding the Gospels and Christianity was published in 2020, and in it I described a paradigm shift in my thinking about this gospel. Also I argued that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome in about 52 AD. Such an early date is very much a minority view these days, but the more I investigated the matter the more convinced I became. The date is important because if Mark wrote only about twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion it supports the essential truthfulness of his account. As I explained in my book, although the text was subsequently interfered with in several places the original author (or authors) was genuinely trying to relate what he or she knew and believed. 

     In Mark 13:2 Jesus predicts the demolition of the temple in Jerusalem, and scholars have assumed that the gospel was written after 70 AD when the temple was destroyed. But in 1952 the British biblical scholar Vincent Taylor explained in his commentary that in prophesying the destruction of the temple Jesus stood in line with the prophets Micah and Jeremiah, and he went on to say, ‘In point of fact the temple was destroyed by fire, and of this there is no hint in the saying, a difference which cannot lightly be dismissed.’ After the destruction of the temple Josephus wrote in Jewish War 4:388 that there was ‘a certain ancient oracle’ that the city would be taken and the temple burnt. D.R. Carson and Douglas Moo in An Introduction to the New Testament published in 2005 state that Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13 ‘reflect stock Old Testament and Jewish imagery having to do with the besieging of cities rather than the specific circumstances of the siege of Jerusalem.’ However, for other reasons Vincent Taylor concluded that ‘the weight of evidence favours a date after Peter’s martyrdom rather than during his lifetime.’ (According to tradition Peter was martyred in Rome during or after the persecution of Christians in 64 AD.) Taylor considered that Mark writing ‘during Peter’s lifetime is improbable in the light of the testimony of Irenaeus and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue.’

     Concerning the prologue to Mark’s gospel, Bernard Orchard and Harold Riley examined it in detail in a section of their book The Order of the Synoptics Why Three Synoptic Gospels? published in 1987. They considered that even if its composition was as late as the second half of the fourth century it reflected second-century traditions. They explained that there are two recensions of the prologue. In the first there is a sentence stating that ‘after the demise of Peter’ Mark published his gospel. In the second, before these words are repeated, there is another sentence which states that ‘when Peter heard about it’ he approved it. Orchard and Riley concluded that ‘there is no discrepancy between them, but merely the clarification that a later situation allowed to be brought out and which the compiler of recension I did not include.’ Orchard and Riley thought that the recensions simply reflected the statement of Clement of Alexandria who wrote in about 200 AD that when Peter knew of Mark’s gospel ‘he neither actively prevented nor encouraged the undertaking.’

     The testimony of Irenaeus has been a big obstacle to an early date for Mark’s gospel because in the late second century he stated that Mark wrote after the departure of Peter and Paul. Here the word ‘departure’ means death. The full text is as follows: ‘Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.’ Rudolf Von Harnack, following J.W. Chapman, was convinced that ‘Irenaeus simply wished to prove that the teaching of the four chief apostles did not perish with their death, but that it came down to us in writing.’  Harnack was Professor of Church History at the University of Berlin, and in his book The Date of the Acts and of the Synoptic Gospels published in 1911 he argued that this meaning becomes clear when Irenaeus’ text is carefully examined. So according to Harnack, ‘Irenaeus does not mean to say that the gospel of St Matthew was composed at the time when St Peter and St Paul were preaching in Rome, nor that the second gospel was not written until after the death of the two chief apostles. He had no further information concerning the origin of the two gospels than what could be read in Papias, upon whose words his own are based.’ In the early second century Papias had written that Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord.

     A multitude of scholars have written about the date of Mark’s gospel and given various opinions. Harnack argued that it was written in the 50s because he believed that Luke read it before writing The Acts of the Apostles, which he finished in about 62 AD. As I explained in my book, I think Luke wrote during or after the period 64 to 70 AD when the temple was destroyed. Luke showed that he knew what happened in the Jewish war because he changed Jesus’ prediction that the abomination that causes desolation would be set up in the temple (Mark 13:14) to ‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.’ (Luke 21:20) Luke knew that Jesus’ prediction recorded by Mark never happened. All things considered, I believe that Mark wrote his gospel in about 52 AD.

     Progressive Christians should try to think independently in regard to biblical studies and be wary of majority opinions. It is so easy to jump on a bandwagon and be carried away. John Shelby Spong in his book Unbelievable published in 2018 wrote on page 183, ‘Biblical scholarship is quite certain that the earliest copies of Mark ended with verse 8 of chapter 16 – that is, with the women, having heard the resurrection message, fleeing in fear and saying nothing to anyone. . . . The great majority of New Testament scholars now accept the fact that Mark ended his gospel exactly as we find it at 16:8.’ Readers of my book about the ending of Mark’s gospel know that the great majority are probably wrong. 

oOo

                                                                                              

Hans Kung – Paul Collins remembers

Hans Kung: a theologian for everyone

By Paul Collins Apr 14, 2021

[Originally posted at ‘Pearls and Irritations: John Menadue’s Public Policy Journal‘]

Hans Küng died last Tuesday aged 93. I had the honour of knowing him as a friend. He was a rare breed: a theologian who spoke to people of diverse beliefs and none.

It’s not often that you get a chance to improve a world-famous Swiss-German theologian’s English as you drive along the Reuther Freeway in Detroit, Michigan in your Volkswagen Golf. Yes, I know ‘world-famous’ is not a term that you usually apply to theologians, but this was 1983 and the theologian in question was writing op-eds for the New York Times, was being interviewed by all the major US networks, was giving lectures all over the country and was Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. I was his temporary amanuensis and occasional driver.

‘Paul, make sure I speak proper ‘English’ English, not American English,’ he said as we drove to yet another lecture. I took as our guide to ‘proper’ English some of the patter arias from Gilbert and Sullivan. No one can write tongue-twisting English like Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, and Küng took to the modern major general and Sir Joseph Porter, KCB like a duck to water. He was fascinated that the British navy minister was called ‘First Lord of the Admiralty,’ and he loved the ‘three little girls from the ladies’ sem-in-air-ry’.

Born in Sursee, Switzerland, in March 1928, into a middle-class family, Küng was the eldest of seven with five sisters.  Deciding to be a priest at age 11, he studied for the Diocese of Basel and was educated at Rome’s Gregorian University, the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique de Paris. In his Memoirs he says that he grew up ‘in the time of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power and the threat to our national and personal freedom’ in Switzerland and that, he says, ‘shaped my early years.’ Freedom of thought and speech were primary values for him.

For the rest of this article go to: A theologian for everyone.

oOo

Opinion: Truth Telling about the Bible

by George Stuart

[This is a long but very interesting paper but one that contributes an enormous amount to the field of critical progressive thinking. Treat it like a book and come back to it with coffee in hand! It lends itself to much debate! George has conducted probably his last service at Toronto Uniting Church, Hunter Valley NSW, because of what he describes as age (85) and frailty.

For a number of years, he has thought it important to give worship leaders alternatives to the lyrics which are in the official Australian hymnbook volumes – The Australian Hymnbook, first published in 1977, and Together in Song, first published in 1999.  Most of the tunes he uses can be found in many different hymnbooks throughout the world.   The tunes he uses are always identified by name. He writes lyrics from a ‘progressive’ theological perspective.

All his new lyrics are available free, for use in public worship.  They can be printed and copied; they can be projected through data projectors as Power Point Presentations; they can be electronically stored for future use.   Most of the musical scores can also be printed, as required; all from his Website. This is a huge resource and a great asset in the world of progressive christianity. ]

Truth-Telling and our sacred book.

In the pursuit of ‘Truth-Telling’, I believe the church has some difficult ‘Truth-Telling’ to do about our past particularly regarding our sacred book, the Bible.  Why the Bible?  Because it comes to us from our somewhat distant church past.  This ‘Truth-Telling’ is not absent but I believe it has to be far more obvious to the general public and also needs to be given more voice within the church to help our members confront the issues this ancient book raises.  By this, I believe the church may gain again some credibility in our world today.

With the call to excise from our present situation the ‘honoring’ of the names of historical figures who are now being exposed as slave-traders, violent leaders, racists, etc., along with the disfiguring and dismantling of statues of past prominent figures of history, some of it in the name of the ‘Truth-Telling’, maybe now could be an opportune time for some more hard thinking about what more needs to be said by the church about the our church’s past.

There are many issues raised by our sacred book but being specific, I believe it is very necessary for the church to ‘call out’ and repudiate the violent activity of the God which is depicted on so many of the Bible’s pages, particularly of the Old Testament but also to a lesser extent of the New.  I think this ‘Truth-Telling’ about our sacred book needs to be done especially when Christians and Christian leaders make critical comments about the way some people, particularly non-church people like President Trump, use the Bible. 

‘Truth Telling’ about the past, as we all know, can often be very difficult and painful because it can bring to the light those parts of history we wish to ignore or forget; parts that we do not wish to discuss with, or teach to those who may not know.  It often raises those parts of history about which many of us take a very different posture today, thank goodness, but it can also raise guilt feelings which we find very uncomfortable and to a degree, sometimes resist. 

Self-examination within the church can be unsettling particularly when it exposes our ‘dark’ past and thus can offend others who are members of our own ‘tribe’. 

When Jesus involved himself in some ‘Truth-Telling’ about his Jewish history in the Hebrew Scriptures, he got himself into strife.  Early in his ministry, we are told, he was in the synagogue at Nazareth, teaching.  The reaction of those listening was,

And all spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth ;…(Luke 4:22.)

However, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus continued his teaching with,

And he (Jesus) said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.  But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon to a woman who was a widow.  (Referring to a story in 1 Kings 17:8-24.)  And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them were cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian.  (Referring to a story in 2 Kings 5:1-14.)  (Luke 4:24-27.)

Jesus certainly knew his Jewish scriptures.  Very selective in his quoting, but the stories are there and were probably avoided by the current religious leaders and teachers.  Some confronting ‘Truth-telling’!  Was this exposing a side of their history his fellow Jews didn’t want to hear?  The stories he was referring to were suggesting that foreigners were respected and even cared for more than their own Jewish ancestors.  What was the result of this ‘Truth-Telling’?

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath, and they rose up and put him out of the city and they lead him to the brow of a hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.  But passing through the midst of them he went away.  (Luke 4:28-30.)

It amazes me how quickly crowds can turn from praise to persecution.  I find it worrying that this can be the reaction to ‘Truth-Telling’.  The fear of persecution may even lead to the avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ particularly if it is thought that this persecution could be carried out by members of one’s own ‘tribe’.  It may also lead to unwanted division within the ‘tribe’.

So, I hope you find this paper useful.  It is my honest attempt to do some ‘Truth-Telling.’, as I see it.  I think we regular church-goers sometimes accept, without a great deal of scrutiny, what we are told in the church.    

Although extremely difficult for me, I feel I need to construct this paper using the concepts of God that are nearly universal in the church and certainly promoted right throughout the Bible.   These concepts include the anthropomorphic characterization of God and connected with this, that God is a being, a person, who ‘does things’.  This biblical God intervenes in human history to execute God’s will and purpose.   Being a panentheist I find all this unacceptable and I use quite different images when speaking of God.  I am somewhat reluctant to use the word God at all, because of the immense unwanted baggage which it carries and which seems extremely difficult to throw off.  My concept of God is that God is in everything and everything is in God, so for me, the life force, the inherent underlying foundation of all that is, is ‘involved’ but not intervening from ‘outside’. 

So in this paper I use biblical images and concepts to try to connect with regular church-goers because I think this is where many start.  But by using these images, I do not wish to convey the impression that I like using them or that they are the foundational images and concepts of God that I embrace.  Not so!

In this paper I refer to ‘Reader-Response interpretation’, quite a few times.  Because of the study I have done regarding the numerous Bible references I make throughout this paper, I recognise my interpretations can differ from other people’s interpretation.  I have found that very different interpretations are given by various biblical commentators when they deal with the same text. 

‘Reader-Response interpretation’ is reading into the text one’s own experience of one’s own day and culture, rather than reading the text itself; taking note of what the text actually states and then learning from it, always taking into serious consideration its 1st Century middle-eastern cultural context.

I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged in this ‘Reader-Response interpretation’ a great deal, and in extreme cases, have created their own text and then proclaimed it as being what the Bible teaches.  I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation, hopefully not to an extreme. 

Moises Silva expounds on this matter.

Insofar as every reader brings an interpretive framework to the text, to that extent every reader generates a new meaning, and thus creates a new text.  [1]

 Edgar McKnight, a respected proponent of Reader-Response theory, suggests that since we cannot completely break out of our self-validating system, ultimate meaning is unreachable. All we can hope for is to discover and express truth ‘in terms that make sense within a particular universe of meaning’.  We may, therefore, continue to discover or create meaning, ‘which is satisfying for the present location of the reader’.  [2]

With this in mind, in this paper I am claiming to do some ‘Truth-Telling’.  That may be seen by some as being arrogant.  Am I saying, “My interpretation of the Bible is one of ‘Truth-Telling’ whereas other approaches and interpretations are false and not concerned with ‘Truth-Telling’?”  I certainly hope not.  I don’t wish to give that impression but I suppose this is the predicament that one can get into when one expresses one’s views with passion and strong commitment.  Others who disagree with me are ignorant and wrong!!  I don’t wish to even suggest that.  I certainly have passion and strong commitment to what I put forward in this paper, however, I wish, in no way, to say or suggest that other people who have different approaches are not as concerned with the truth as much as myself. 

Their search for truth may be more productive than mine.  For you to decide.

Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.

For me, one of the very troublesome issues of ‘Truth-Telling’ in the church is violence in the Bible. 

Violence in itself, must have a place in telling about humanity’s past, the church’s past.  Not telling the violent aspect of the past can cause the cry for ‘Truth-Telling’.  However, when ‘Truth -Telling’ about the past in the Bible involves telling about a God being violent and commanding humans to be violent, I have a huge problem.  Not that it is there, but that it is often either just accepted, explained away, ignored or completely avoided.

For years I have been faithfully questioning many parts of the Bible as to whether they really teach me about the God of love that I perceive Jesus taught and reflected in his life.  I have no right to expect all the stories in the Old Testament to teach me about the God I learn from Jesus, however, being a follower of Jesus and a member of the church, I have the whole Bible, including the Old Testament with its stories and its teachings in front of me.  In every church service, at least one, and sometimes up to four Bible passages are read.  Thus, the Bible is presumed to be extremely important in the instruction of Christian beliefs and for guidance about how we should live.  I need to determine whether particular stories and teachings help my spiritual growth or hinder it.  I believe this dilemma is shared by many regular church-goers, but many who think about this issue of violence, put it out of sight because it is just too difficult.  Why is it difficult?   Because the Bible is revered as authoritative but it has stories in it that speak of a God demanding the slaughter of infants and children!

The other day I was sharing with a friend in my congregation, my concern about violence in the Old Testament.  She is one whom I regard as a faithful follower of Jesus.  She is a regular church-goer like myself. She said to me, “Well George, just don’t read it.”  Maybe sound advice.  However, the whole content of the Bible is still available for everyone, including church-goers, to read and study and so my concern remains.  When such issues are addressed by serious ‘Truth-Telling’, and when followed by essential, competent teaching, this helps us ordinary church-goers address these.  Otherwise we are encouraged to keep our heads in the sand!

So, to my endeavor.

At the outset, it is important to emphasize that in the Bible, the violence of God and God’s commands to be violent, are nearly always God’s response to idolatry, worshipping other Gods, and/or the practice of injustice and corruption by the Israelites and their national and religious leaders.  Regarding God’s violence, the ‘religious’ aspect of life, the human relationship with God, is nearly always bound to the ‘secular’ practice of justice and the appropriate use of power, the relationship that humans have with other humans. 

As an example, a few quotes from Jeremiah.

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed blood in this place, and if you do not go after other Gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever.  (Jeremiah 7:5-7.)

Also,

Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord.  Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness into which they shall be driven and fall; for I will bring evil upon them in the year of their punishment, says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 23:11-12.)

This connection of the worship of other Gods and the practice of justice in society are linked continuously throughout the Bible as that which incurs God’s judgement and consequentially, particularly in the Old Testament, God’s violent punishment.  However, it must also be acknowledged that the violence of God is sometimes directed at the enemies of God’s chosen people and is often very excessive.  The Exodus story is at the beginning of this violence and it continues in the violent conquest of the Promise Land.  This particular partisan violence of the tribal God of Israel sickens me!

It takes the Bible only about 100 verses, not counting verses which are just lists of names in genealogies, for this biblical God to impose and carry out the death penalty on all humanity except one family and a few animals; Noah plus; see Genesis `6:7.  This God burns to death all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah except one family; see Genesis 19:24-25.  And this God systematically inflicts death and destruction on the whole land of Egypt, including innocent men, women, young people and children; see Exodus chapters 7 to 14.  I deal with this story in great detail later.  I could go on and on and on.

These stories, being the product of a theology of about 3000 years ago, I take none of them literally but for me, the image of God presented in them is ultra-violently abhorrent.  I do not believe that my reaction to this image should be ‘awkward and embarrassing’, as one much respected commentator seems to suggest.  For me, that trivializes the matter.

This violent image of God continues throughout the early books of the Old Testament and then there are numerous references to this God of wrath and vengeance in the prophets, fighting against idolaters and God’s enemies. 

And the angel the Lord…slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians.  (Isaiah 37:36.)

The violence of God continues in the later books of the prophets, including Amos, Hosea and Micah.  These books have many statements about God waring against idolatry and injustice, those who don’t obey God’s commandments and even sometimes against enemies of God’s chosen people.  These prophetic books are also appropriately quoted about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness and about God demanding justice and mercy from human beings in the exercise of their personal relationships with each other.  An important example of this is in the Book of Micah in which there is the often quoted text of significant moral challenge.  Notice again how the exercise of justice is linked to the peoples’ relationship to God. 

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8.)

However, only nine verses before this injunction, God says that God will act very violently.

I will root out your Asherim from among you and destroy your cities. And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey.  (Micah 5:14-15.)

Asherim refer to Gods who were worshipped, other than Yahweh, Israel’s’ God,

This violent image of God is not absent in the New Testament, as is clearly demonstrated in certain texts in the gospels and other parts of the New Testament, especially the Book of Revelation.

A major image of God in the Bible is that of a God who deals out rewards and punishments.  These rewards and punishments are very often excessive.  They are not absent in some parables of Jesus in the gospels. 

Along with most regular church-goers, I do not believe in a violent or punitive God.  I think this is because I do hear in church services, a lot of ‘Truth-Telling’ about the good content of the Bible.  The violent image of God is by no means the only image of God presented in the Bible and in particular, in the Old Testament.  Far from it; however, in my experience there has been a skewed instruction about our sacred book, which can be pinned down to a lack of ‘Truth-Telling’ about the ‘dark’ side of its content.  This violent image is on a vast number of its pages, so in calling for ‘Truth-Telling’ about it, I need to highlight some stories, as I remember them.

At this stage I need to say that I believe this violent image of God plays little to no part in the message of Jesus, as I understand it, and I find it significant that Jesus seems to avoid parts of this ‘dark’ side of his Jewish scripture.  I give examples of this a bit later

Probably the worst story.

It is the notorious story in 1 Samuel 15.  It deals with the first command the Lord gave, through the prophet Samuel, to King Saul after he had been anointed king.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt.  Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’  (1 Samuel 15:3.)

Saul did not follow the commands of the Lord to the letter.  He took Agag, the king of the Amalekites, a live prisoner and did not kill the best of the animals.  This story concludes with how Samuel kills Agag by ‘hewing him in pieces before the Lord’; see. 1 Samuel 15:33.

According to the Hebrew word used for God, Yahweh, this story belongs to the ‘J’ tradition.  I deal with this important issues in some detail latter on. 

I believe this whole story is a disgraceful story regarding the image of God contained in it.  Not a story to be read in a church service, especially if it is concluded with, ‘In this is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.’  Also, not a story for Sunday School children.

The Exodus story.

The Exodus story is important to me because it is taught as part of my Christian heritage and it still features in some of our church liturgies.   Jews celebrate it very frequently and especially at their yearly Passover festival.  To an extent, it tells of the origins of the Hebrew nation.   This particular story is a pivotal story for the Children of Israel, told as biblical history of their great national liberation.  Marcus Borg writes,

For the people of ancient Israel, the story of the exodus from Egypt was their ‘primal narrative’. It was the most important story they knew.  [3]

Also,

…as Israel’s primal narrative, the exodus account is a paradigmatic story of God’s character and will.  [4]

Also, I pick on the Exodus story because it is considered by some as a paradigm story for the whole of the Old Testament.  Father Richer Rohr states,

One of the great themes in the Bible, which begins in the Hebrew Scriptures and is continued in Jesus and Paul, is called ‘the preferential option for the poor’; I call it ‘the bias toward the bottom’.  We see the beginnings of this theme about 1200 years before Christ with an enslaved people in Egypt.  Through their history God chooses to engage humanity in a social and long-standing conversation.  The Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery, through twists and turns and dead ends, finally brings them to the Promised Land, eventually called Israel.  This is a standing archetype of the perennial spiritual journey from entrapment to liberation.  It is a universal journey.  [5]

My interpretation.

Reasonably recent translations of the Bible are what many regular church-goers have and I am trying to put this paper together as one of those, a regular church-goer.  So in my study of this Exodus story, I have concentrated very much on the biblical text in the Revised Standard Version.  Also in this paper I have commented on what some liberation theologians say, given a brief reaction to the film ‘The Ten Commandments’, stated what some modern biblical commentators teach and also have researched some material about the historical growth of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Lastly, I have compared what some different translations have as the specific words of the story.  In this comparison I have used the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV and the Good News Bible, GNB, comparing them to the one I usually use in the paper, the Revised Standard Version, RSV.  This extra reading and study is probably significantly more than many other regular church-goers have done, so, there may be some new material for you in this paper. 

The Story.

I now comment in great detail, on the Exodus story as I understand it and interpret it, looking particularly at the image of God within it. 

Like some other stories in the Old Testament, the Exodus story for me, presents an image of God as a separate, supernatural, very powerful Being/Person, intervening in human history to execute God’s will and purpose.  I believe that, at the time of writing, ‘the Lord’ was understood as being the Hebrew tribal God.

In a nut-shell, this is the story I have been taught.  This is how I remember it.

The Hebrews, called the Children of Abraham, were a nation of oppressed slaves in Egypt and their cries of suffering were heard by God, so God came down to earth and sent Moses to announce God’s work of liberation.  God sent ten plagues to demonstrate God’s power in ‘signs and wonders’, and through them, punished Egypt because Pharaoh would not let the Hebrew slaves, God’s people, go.  The first nine plagues in the story are; water in the Nile River and all over Egypt turned into blood; frogs; lice and gnats; flies; cattle death; boils; thunder, hail and fire; locusts and darkness for three days. These plagues caused untold death and destruction in all the land of Egypt; the death of all animals and the total destruction of all vegetation, fruit, plants and trees.  The last and most devastating plague was that of the human death of the first-born of all Egyptian families and thus caused the death of countless humans, some infants, many older children and adults.

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  (Exodus 12:29.)

After this, Pharaoh, wanting to rid himself and Egypt of these Hebrew slaves, submits to the Lord’s demand to let them go, but as they are escaping, Pharaoh turns on them again.  The Hebrews slaves get caught at the edge of the Red Sea, with the sea of water in front of them and Pharaoh and all his warriors behind them.  They are terrified.  But God, in a show of almighty power, ‘divides’ the waters, enabling the Hebrew slaves to go forward on ‘dry land’.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.  And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry land, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.  (Exodus 14:21-22.)

The Egyptians had their hearts ‘hardened’ by God so that they pursued the escaping slaves.  All the Egyptians in chariots and all Pharaoh’s horsemen get drowned when God ‘returned’ the water to its natural position.  Thus God demonstrated, yet again, God’s power in this final ‘sign and wonder’.

And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they shall go in after them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots and his horsemen.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.  (Exodus 14:17-18.)

Also,

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained.  (Exodus 14:28.)

As a consequence of this final and most powerful ‘sign and wonder’, the people of Israel are at last liberated from their bitter slavery and continue their journey as God’s chosen people, freed from the oppression of Pharaoh.  God’s power is greater than Pharaoh’s so the Hebrews’ great liberation is achieved.

The biblical background to the story.

This Exodus story and its biblical background is found in Exodus 1:1 to 15:21.  I found the background in chapters 1 and 2 very important.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it states that all the brothers of Joseph, together with their families, numbering 70, went to Egypt with their father Jacob.  Joseph was already in Egypt, holding a very senior position in Pharaoh’s kingdom.  However, after Jacob,

Joseph, all his brothers and all that generation died’, there ‘arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.  (Exodus 1:6,8.)

Then,

These Israelites are so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us.  (Exodus 1:9 GNB.)

So the Egyptians enslaved them,

The Egyptians came to fear the Israelites and made their lives miserable by forcing them into cruel slavery.  (Exodus 1:12-13 GNB.)

Although there is little hope of ever establishing correct dates for what was happening, if indeed anything did happen, it appears that this slavery continued for hundreds of years.  Some estimates suggest upwards of 700 years.  The Bible gives its comment when it states,

The time that the people of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.  (Exodus 12:40.)

The situation of the Hebrew slaves was hopeless.  They were being treated extremely brutally at the hands of the Egyptians.  They had no freedom.  They were bitterly oppressed.  They were slaves.  Their slavery was accompanied by the systematic killing of every Hebrew male child, following the decree of the reigning Pharaoh.

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.  (Exodus 1:22.)

And, according to the story, as already stated, this had continued for hundreds of years, so there were many generations of Hebrews who had known nothing in life except bitter, brutal slavery and the slaughter of their children.

There is a problem here.  If all the Hebrew male children are killed at birth, who is to sire Hebrew children for subsequent generations.  They would all be half Egyptian.  Yet, many years later, at the time of the Exodus, there is said to be literally hundreds of thousands of slaves, and they wouldn’t be all women.  My point is, I guess, that as with this, other statements in the story could be equally exaggerated or plainly false.  This and the whole story, simply cannot be taken literally.

Such is the biblical background to the story; an immensely wretched situation for all the Hebrew people.

I read the story again, for the First Time.

With the above biblical introduction to the story, I read the story again ‘for the first time’.  Thanks to Marcus Borg for that phrase.  Initially I was delighted that the Lord was on the side of the desperately suffering slaves.  At last they had someone who was concerned about their suffering and wanted to do something about it.  They could not do anything for themselves.  Their life had been so wretched for so long!  They needed help.  But, now, God being on their side, was going to do something.  That was all very positive. 

But alas, as the story continued, I became more and more disillusioned by the Lord who inflicted so much suffering and destruction on all the land of Egypt and its inhabitants, eventually killing thousands of Egyptian men, women and children, in order to free the slaves.

Five interwoven themes of the story.

So to my analysis of the story.  After a close reading of the Exodus story itself, in chapters 7 to 15, there seems to me to be five different but intimately connected themes running through the whole story.

  1. God’s self-promotion suggests to me that the Lord insists, ‘I am the Lord’, to be acknowledged universally.  This recognition was to be given throughout all the earth.  This Lord is determined to ‘gain glory’.
  2. The Lord intends to free God’s people from the cruel, oppressive rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt.
  3. God enlists human agents, Moses and/or Aaron, to communicate with Pharaoh and to cooperate with the Lord in performing the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.
  4. The Lord ‘hardens’ Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will try to resist God’s power.
  5. Pharaoh is very brutal and is continually obstinate in refusing to obey the Lord’s commands and to recognize the Lord as Lord.

The text is saturated with all five.

I use both ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ throughout this discussion because I believe there is no distinction between the two, in the minds of regular church-goers.  ‘The Lord’ is ‘God’ and vice-versa.

  1. I cannot ignore the self-promotion by the Lord.  The story is full of it.  In my interpretation, ‘I am the Lord’ is a short, emphatic proclamation that demands an immediate response.  This self-promotion as well as self-identification, occurs 15 times.  ‘I am the Lord.’ occurs in the text as spoken by the Lord or by Moses, quoting the Lord to Pharaoh or to others.  Seven times in the text it is stated that something will happen ‘so that they will know that I am the Lord.  God’s intention is for God’s glory/name to be known throughout the earth and be acknowledged as its Lord; see Ex. 9:14,16,29.  This emphasis on God ‘gaining glory’ is stated several times late in the story, notably as the reason for the last ‘sign and wonder’; see Ex. 14:4,17-18.

Brueggemann states in his commentary about this last ‘sign and wonder’ that,

The reason for Yahweh’s action is crucial for our interpretation.  The last confrontation will be staged so that “I will get glory over Pharaoh.”  Yahweh arranges the confrontation as an exhibition of enormous power, not for the sake of Israel.  The final decisive intention is not Israelite freedom, but Yahweh’s glory, which is decisive.  The outcome of the struggle (which Yahweh will win) is that Pharaoh in all his recalcitrance shall come at last to know “I am Yahweh.”  [6]

In other words, in the final ‘sign and wonder’ of God, this first theme, that of the Lord wanting to ‘gain glory’ and be recognized as Lord of all, totally overshadows the second theme, mentioned below, that of the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves.  Parting of the waters is the final act which secures the successful escape of the slaves, yet that is not mentioned as the reason for this last ‘sign and wonder’.  It all has to do with God ‘gaining glory.’

  • From the very beginning, God’s intention to free the Hebrew slaves is made abundantly clear; see Ex. 3:7-10.  The Lord is aware of God’s peoples’ situation of suffering; see Ex. 3:7-8, 6:5; and God demands the freedom of God’s people by commanding Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”  This demand occurs six times in the text; see Ex. 7:16, 8:1,20, 9:1,13, 10:3, however, every one of these is linked to the first emphasis above, because the full demand is “Let my people go that they may serve/worship me.”  For me, the purpose as stated in the text, is not specifically to give freedom to the slaves, which is vital and obviously intended, but that ‘they may serve/worship me’ thus giving the Lord more glory.  Was the Lord’s main intention the freedom of the slaves or the worship they would give the Lord after their liberation?  Obviously both were important.  Freeing the Hebrew slaves is certainly a major intention of the Lord.  God chose which side to be on, the side of the oppressed, and because they were God’s people.  God intends to make good, God’s promise in the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; see Ex. 6:4-8. 
  • The Lord uses Moses and/or Aaron as God’s agents to communicate all God’s messages and demands to Pharaoh, sometimes at great risk to their own safety; see Ex. 10:28.  The Lord never speaks directly to Pharaoh.  God enlists Moses’ and Aaron’s cooperation by constantly being the Lord’s mouthpiece, and also by doing certain things like using Aaron’s rod; see Ex. 7:9,20, 8:5,17, 9:25, 10:13, 14:16, throwing ashes skyward; see Ex. 9:10, raising their hands to the sky; see Ex.9:22,33, 10:22, or stretching out their hands; see Ex. 14:21.  In the text, God constantly executes God’s ‘signs and wonders’ with the assistance of Moses and/or Aaron throughout the story.  Moses is told by the Lord to perform the miracles; see Ex. 4:21, and he and Aaron perform them; see Ex. 11:10.  At one point, Moses seems to have the power to perform miracles without the Lord’s involvement, in that, by stretching out his hands, he stops the thunder and the hail; see Ex. 9:29,33.  This may be the case, but it is God who gives Moses this power. 

I find it interesting that the Lord does not request any involvement of Moses or Aaron in the killing of the first born Egyptians.  God does it by ‘himself’; see Ex. 11:1,4, 12:12,13,29, 13:15.  God’s ‘destroyer’ is mentioned as God’s agent only once; see Ex. 12:23.  The story conveys to me that God alone is the deliberate killer.

Even though Moses and Aaron are important ‘agents’ of God, I still believe that accountability for all the ‘signs and wonders’ always and ultimately rests with the God of the story.  For the story, it could be no other way.  God is the initiating force behind what happens and without the Lord nothing would have happened.

  • Before the story of the actual Exodus story begins, the purpose of ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ is made explicit; see Ex. 4:21,so that he will not let the people go.’  Then halfway through the story; see Ex. 10:1, ‘that I may show these signs among them.’, and near the end of the story, see Ex. 14:17, ‘so that they will go in after them.’  These purposes are confirmed many times through the story, in that the phrase, ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ is immediately followed in the text by Pharaoh deciding to ‘not let the people go.’  This suggests that a causal connection exists.  There are 19 times stated in the text when this ‘hardening’ occurs; ten of which state that it is the Lord who does the ‘hardening’; seven times when no attribution is made and twice where it is stated that Pharaoh ‘hardened’ his own heart.  These numbers strongly suggest to me that the ‘hardening’ in the story, is God exercising God’s unopposable influence on the decision making ability of Pharaoh.
  • However, near the beginning of the story and even before the Lord performs any ‘signs and wonders’, Pharaoh slaps a further severe dictate on Hebrews, in that they are to gather straw for themselves as well as continue to make the same quota of bricks: see Ex.5:10-13.  Previously the slaves had been given the straw.  Pharaoh is a merciless slave-driver, before we are told his heart is hardened.

Pharaoh is totally unwilling to bow to the Lord’s demands or to recognize the sovereignty of God.  Even after God has consistently shown that God has much superior power, Pharaoh refuses to accept he is the loser, and that in the end, all he will do is incur more determination by God and thus eventually leading to God inflicting death on all Egyptian families.  12 times it is stated in the text that Pharaoh would ‘not let the people go’, several times associated with ‘he would not listen to them (Moses and/or Aaron)’; see Ex 7:4,13, 8:15,19, 9:12.  Near the end of this saga, just prior to the warning about the last plague of the death of the first-born of all Egyptian families, Pharaoh threatens Moses that, if he comes back into Pharaoh’s presence, he will be killed; see Ex. 10:28.

Comment on 4 and 5.

For this story, I to try to sort out the puzzle raised by Nos 4 & 5 above, as to who is actually the real force behind Pharaoh making his decisions.  On the one hand there is the Lord’s ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’, which is dominant in the text, but on the other hand Pharaoh does ‘harden his own heart’, twice in the story.  Also the Lord knows what Pharaoh’s reaction will be to the Lord’s demands; see Ex. 7:22, 8:15,19, 9:12,35.  Probably this is quite predictable to anyone who knew the way Pharaoh exercised his authority so ruthlessly and without fear.  Several times in the story Pharaoh makes hostile decisions without any mention of God ‘hardening his heart’; see Ex.5:10-11, 10:10-11.

Even though the Lord’s influence on Pharaoh’s decisions is unmistakably evident and extremely compelling, maybe irresistible, I think Pharaoh would have welcomed such influence because it confirmed what he was going to decide anyway.  This, of course in no way excuses the way God uses God’s powers of influence.  For me the puzzle remains.

So what for me now?

Pursuing a line of questioning, causes me considerable unrest because I am questioning a fundamental story of the Bible and thus, the Jewish celebration of it.  I am a follower of Jesus but might I separate myself off from my heritage if I keep on questioning?  If, however, I am going to do this exercise of what I understand to be ‘Truth-Telling’, I must keep questioning.

With the above as my understanding of the content of the story, although difficult, I must be honest with myself and ask the questions, ‘What does the story actually say to me?’ and ‘What is the image of God that I perceive is being conveyed to me in the story?’ 

I know I can answer questions only from within my own prejudicial predisposition, whatever that prejudice is.  My prejudices and predispositions will become far more evident to you as you read, rather than to me as I write.  However, I have tried to avoid bias and let the text itself have dominance.

I am trying to look at meanings within the story.  I am not taking the story literally. 

I believe I have looked at the actual content of the text in close detail and have given it, I think, little expansive interpretation.  I have given what I think is a logically simple interpretation, while still regarding it all as story, albeit told at a particular time, in a particular situation, to a particular group of people in a particular culture, all very different to my own.

For example, if the words in the text say, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve/worship me’, I have given the interpretation that the reason for God wanting God’s people to be let go from the oppressive rule of Pharaoh, is ‘that they may serve/worship me’.  If this is repeated through the story in the text, then I have understood that the story-teller is trying to emphasize that this is the reason.  If the command elsewhere in the text, to ‘let my people go’ is not immediately followed by some other reason, then I understand this to mean that, ‘that they may serve/worship me’ is the only reason for slaves’ liberation.  There is no other.  I think this is logical, reasonable and may well be correct.

However, underlying the actions of the Lord in the story, is the intense and resolute intention to free the Hebrews slaves.  As I have already said, God has chosen sides because God’s purpose is to liberate the oppressed slaves, who are God’s people.  This is also determinative in God wanting to keep God’s promise made to Abraham; see Ex. 2:24, 3:7-8,17, 6:2-8.

I came away from the story feeling alienated from the Lord because of all the destruction, terror and suffering the Lord inflicts.  This feeling however, made me totally confused because the Lord had to do something major to free the slaves.  Violence seemed the only possible way to accomplish this.  Pharaoh was so obstinate and recalcitrant.  One might even say the Pharaoh ‘forced God’s hand’.  But the violence of the God involved was excessive and God was responsible for it all; no one else was.

I am in a bind because the more I look at this story and try to understand its teachings, the more I become confused.  The image of God it portrays, I think, is of a power-hungry, self-indulgent, violent individual who will use any strategy to extract total submission from an adversary.  If the Lord in the story was a human being, I think most people would agree but if this main character is God, then I have a huge problem.  Yet this same God is on the side of the oppressed slaves, determined to bring them to freedom.  This God is determined to put a stop to the terrible injustice dished out by Pharaoh.  The difficulty for me is the means by which this God achieves it.  God in the story is more violent than the brutal force of Pharaoh.  My problem increases.

Are there times when being confronted with the violent abuse of power, the only way to prevent it is by using stronger violence?  Is the teaching of Jesus about enemy love always adequate and appropriate?

God of the Exodus and Jesus.

Richard Rohr states;

I believe the Exodus story is the root of all liberation theology, which Jesus fully teaches and exemplifies, especially in the three synoptic gospels; see Luke 4:18-19.  Jesus is primarily a healer of the poor and powerless.  That we do not even notice this reveals our blindness to Jesus’ obvious bias.  [7]

While I accept Rohr’s comment as far as it goes, like most other commentators I have read, he does not address here, the profound difference between Jesus and the God of the Exodus, regarding how each achieve liberation.  Also, like most people who quote the incredibly significant and well known Luke passage, he fails to comment that Jesus, by cutting short that reading from Isaiah, separates himself off from the violence of God; ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’; see. Isaiah 61:2b.  I deal with this later when commenting on how Jesus uses his Jewish scriptures. 

Carol J. Dempsey, Associate professor of Theology at the University of Oregon, USA Portland, states

Christians came to understand themselves as “the new people of God”; see, 1 Peter 2:9-10; Exodus 19:6, and thus heard the Exodus story of liberation in relation to their own lives and to the Christ event.  Release from the tyranny of sin became analogous to the freedom gained by the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.  Within the gospel tradition all the stories that depict Jesus healing people of their infirmities; see Luke 10:1; forgiving their sins; see, Mark 2:1-12; and working for their benefit in the midst of rigid political, social, and religious institutions and mindsets; see Matt 12:1-14, embody the spirit and theology of liberation first heard in Exodus, where God is depicted not only as hearing the people’s groans but also as committed to doing something about their pain and suffering.  [8]

For me, linking the liberation of the Hebrew slaves to the liberation ‘from the tyranny of sin’, gives approval for God to deal violently with sin by the ‘killing of his son’, as in substitutionary atonement theory.  Both are totally unacceptable to me.

What was Jesus on about, regarding the meanings I see in this Exodus story?  I make four points.

  1. Unlike the God of the Exodus, Jesus was non-violent in his work of liberation.  He acted with acceptance and hospitality, and thus liberated the poor, the diseased the outcasts and oppressed; see the above quote from Carol Dempsey.  And he was ridiculed and criticized by the people, including the religious leaders of his day, for associating with the oppressed and the outcasts. 

…the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  (Matthew 11:19.)

and,

Now the tax-collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2;)

and,

And when they saw it, they all murmured, “He has gone to be a guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7.)

  • Jesus was not interested in ‘gaining glory’ or having ‘his name known throughout the world’ or ‘showing his power’ through violent, destructive ‘signs and wonders’.

Jesus’ third temptation as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’  (Matthew 4:8-10.)

And, when people wished to make Jesus their king, thus giving him glory, he would have none of it.

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself.  (John 6:15.)

And again, about being known throughout the earth;

Then he (Jesus) strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.  (Matthew 16:20.)

And yet again, Jesus seems to turn his back on ‘signs and wonders’ when speaking to an official whose son was ill.  He seems to rebuke him.

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”  (John 4:48.)

Then there was the enquiry from John.  If Jesus was interested in ‘signs and wonders’ they were totally different to those used by the God of the Exodus.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him (Jesus), “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  (Matthew 11:2-5.)

  • On leadership and the exercise of authority, Jesus taught his disciples the opposite, to the way in which the God of the Exodus acted.  The God of the Exodus, as I perceive that Lord, fits perfectly into the mold of the Gentiles.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28.)

And again,

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.  (John 13:3-4.)

  • All the killing and the violence displayed by the God of the Exodus, goes in the opposite direction to the teachings of Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil.  But if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  (Matthew 5:38-42.)

Also,

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”  (Matthew 5:43-44.)

I could go on and on but the Lord of the Exodus is on the side of the slaves, the same as Jesus is on the side of the oppressed.  This is extremely significant but there seems to be hardly anything else about the God of the Exodus that reminds me of Jesus.  It is nearly all the exact opposite.  When I look at the behavior and not the intention of the God of the Exodus, I think the opposite and then say, “Yes. That’s Jesus!”

I know these above New Testament texts are quoted hopelessly out of their context, but I still think they all point to the different way by which Jesus worked to achieve his goals.  For me, they are symptomatic of his whole message.

However, and it is a big HOWEVER! 

Jesus seems to act only on an individual basis.  There seems to be no activity on his part to initiate or organize on a group basis, any resistance to systemic oppression and abuse of power.  He speaks out repeatedly about the systemic oppression of the poor and the hypocritical abuse of power, particularly by the religious leaders of his day, but these are all individual disagreements he has with his adversaries.  He also does teach a great deal about what our individual response as disciples should be to violence against our own person, but for me, it all seems to concentrate on individual action.

But the Exodus story is about systemic oppression against a nation!  I ask the question, “What would Jesus have said to all the Hebrew slaves?”  I wonder.  I wonder what his attitude to Pharaoh would have been.  I wonder what he would have said to him.  I wonder how or if he could have persuaded Pharaoh to let the people go.  If Pharaoh still would not let the people go, I wonder what would have Jesus’ reaction been.  I wonder if he would have lead or at least encouraged some sort of revolt against Pharaoh. 

Jesus did warn his disciples to expect that both individual and systemic violence would be used against them when they went out to preach his message; see Matthew 10:16-23, 28-31.  BUT, he didn’t seem to have any strategy, non-violent or otherwise, for protesting against systemic oppression that might bring about regime change.  Some may suggest that he didn’t pay much attention to this way of protesting.  In the Matthew text referred to, there is no comment about how to correct, or even counter the unjust treatment that the disciples would most likely receive.  There is only an encouragement for the disciples not to be fearful, to endure and then in Heaven all will be made right.

So have no fear of them…..Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul…Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Matthew 10:26,28,31.)

and,

… he who endures to the end will be saved.  (Matthew 10:22.)

and,

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…  (Matthew 10:23.) 

and,

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,…  (Matthew 10:32.)

All this is an individual response. 

There is no mention of organized resistance to systemic oppression.  Jesus advocates non-resistance to evil, but this is very different to non-violent resistance to evil. 

With Jesus, we do get a public action of protest against systemic power; the incident in the temple when he overturned the tables of the money changers and herded the cattle and the sellers of pigeons out of the temple; see Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17.  Different commentators mention different things that Jesus was actually protesting against and they also give different meanings to the Old Testament quotes that are used by the gospel writers in the passage.  However none question the protest itself.  Some commentators suggest this act of Jesus was violent and indeed, the ‘trigger’ that quickly precipitated his crucifixion. 

There is no mention of any of his disciples being actively involved and no organization of a group protest. 

This line of questioning leads me to ask, “Why did Jesus teach nothing about slavery.”  It was part of society’s system and had been so for millennia.  I have little doubt that the exercise of masters over slaves in Jesus’ day would have been, in some cases, similar to that of Pharaoh in the Exodus story.  Slavery, as always, would have been an example of systemic oppression in Jesus’ day but he says nothing about it.  Why?

The Exodus story teaches me that systemic violence must be dealt with by stronger violence.  It teaches me that, ‘Although violence loses, it also finally wins.’  About how to deal with evil, the story seems to me to give the opposite instruction to that which I am given by Jesus and most of the New Testament.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:21.)

Back to the story.

Death at the center.

The Exodus story has death as the principle feature in most of its content.  It is saturated with the stench of death; see Ex.7:21, 8:14.  A death-dealing God is one of the main characters.  Fish in the Nile die; see Ex. 7:21.  All cattle of the Egyptians die; see Ex. 9:6.  All green plants, tress, fruit, man and beasts are all struck down; see Ex. 9:25.  The locusts complete the task; see Ex. 10:15.  Even frogs died; see Ex. 8:13, and locusts are driven into the Red Sea; see Ex. 10:19, both, after they have done their destructive work for God.  Flies seem to escape death because they are just ‘removed’; see Ex. 8:31.  All first-born humans of Egyptian families die; see Ex. 12:29.  All Pharaoh’s warriors die; see Ex. 14:28.  This is what the text says.  Right through the story, it is death that is result of the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.

On four occasions God makes a ‘distinction’ between Egypt and the Land of Goshen, where the Hebrews live, as well as between the Egyptians and the Hebrews, regarding what they owned; see Ex. 8:22, 9:4,26, 10:23.  Using this ‘distinction’, God inflicts death only on the Egyptians and what they own, but protects the Hebrew slaves and what they own.

In the story, we are not told that Pharaoh tried to retaliate by destroying the Land of Goshen, like the ruin brought on by the flies on the Land of Egypt; nor killing the Hebrew owned cattle; nor striking down all the Hebrew men, beasts, plants and trees, as inflicted on the Egyptians and Egypt life, by the hail.  In the story, destruction, death and killing is only initiated by the Lord.  In the story Pharaoh does not retaliate to the plagues with any increased harsh edicts on the slaves nor striking out at what the slaves owned or where they lived. 

I am not trying to say anything good or bad about Pharaoh.  I am just relaying what the story, the text, does and doesn’t tell us.  Make of it what you will.

Pharaoh does continue to not let the Hebrew slaves go.  There is also Pharaoh’s probable intention to kill the escaping Hebrews or at least recapture them to make them all slaves again, see Ex. 14:5-10, but the story tells us that this was unsuccessful because of God’s protection, see Ex. 14:19-20.

If this is ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story, I read little to none of this detail in what I have read in most modern commentaries and I hear nothing of this in what I am taught by the present church.  In the avoidance of all this violence, is there avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ here or am I on the wrong track?   

Continue reading

Loving our International Enemies

Rodney Eivers

11th April 2021

            At a recent meeting of a SOFiA (Sea of Faith in Australia) small group the topic was raised of the relationship between China and Australia. The subject was presented by an Australian citizen of Chinese ethnic origin. She outlined the cultural and historical background to explain why the Chinese government responds and acts in the way it does.

            I found much to agree with in what she had described. I penned a response to her. One of the readers of the response suggested that my notes deserved a wider readership.

            Hence, my UC Forum companions I offer you my comments in response to J’s exploration of what makes China do and say what its government does.

Dear J,

                        Thank you, such a lot, for your detailed and informative details on the background to Chinese policies. I very much agree with the position you have taken in getting to understand (in your personal case, probably more of a recall) why China acts the way it does.

            For me, it is a case of applying a wider principle in both personal and international relationships. That of loving one’s enemies. In loving them, of course, they no longer become our enemies. And, it follows that a good way to start making friends is to be aware of where they are coming from; what makes them tick. You have done us the service of providing some reasons for the behaviour of the Chinese government through the Chinese Communist Party. It is a topic that I would enjoy talking about with others whenever the occasion arises.

            But I want to bring in here also the wider principle. I will include the other “axis” power in that – Russia.

            It distresses me that, with this world we are leaving to our grandchildren, there is so much war talk and aggressive posturing. It does not have to be.

            If we are worried about war in Europe, let us encourage Russia to join NATO. If we are worried about keeping the international shipping lanes open in the South China sea, invite the Chinese navy to join the USA, Australia etc. in jointly patrolling the oceans. We already have the structure of the United Nations to facilitate international cooperation       

            Is it really that hard? 

            Think about what is already happening.  I find it amazing and incongruous that we have the United States and Russia shaping up against each other with piles of atom bombs ready for MAD. At the same time the United States is using a Russian rocket to send Americans to the international space station!

            What about China and Australia?  Believe it or not, as recently as 2019, China and Australia shared in joint military exercises on Chinese soil – Hainan Province. Once again, it can be done.

            For now, the Western democracies, if they could hang together, rather than squabbling with one another a la Brexit and “Make America Great (in isolation), have far the upper hand in overall economic and military power. Strategically no country can come anywhere near matching the international naval power and influence of the United States. So now, while we have that advantage, is the time to work at bringing the authoritarian regimes in with us to maintain a peaceful world.

            Perhaps we could learn from what happened after the second world war and the battle with Germany and Japan. With Germany there was the Marshall Plan. With Japan the conquering allies allowed the nation to maintain its cultural traditions. And now, of course, Germany and Japan are prime examples of the working of national democracy and international harmony. Internationally they are friends of the very people they warred against so intensively those years ago.

            We read this week of North Korea and President Kim Jong Un acknowledging that his country is in dire economic straits. Perhaps there is an opportunity for some sort of international “Marshall Plan” in North Korea rather than having both sides threaten each other with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.” Once again, the “West” has by far the superior power in the relationship.

            So, yes, let’s get to understand our “enemies” better. Who knows? By doing this we may leave our world in a much better condition for those who come after us.

oOo

Recognising Jesus – Mark’s influence on Luke and more

Dr Peter E Lewis

Dr Lewis has continued his valuable forensic and philological work on the ending of Mark’s Gospel with a focus on the ending of Luke’s Gospel:

Following the publication of the second edition of my book The Ending of Mark’s Gospel in 2020 I have been thinking about the ending of Luke’s gospel. Luke’s ending (24:1-53) is based on Mark’s ending (16:1-20) and is a modified and magnified version of it. When this is realized one can work out how Luke’s ending developed into its final form. Also one needs to understand that during this period of development a pro-Peter group had become powerful in Rome.

  Consider Mark 16:12,13. Two disciples were walking in the country when Jesus appeared to them in a different form. They returned to Jerusalem and reported it to the rest, but they did not believe them. In Luke 24:33-35 we read: They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. (NIV) Notice how incongruous are the words, and has appeared to Simon. Nowhere in the gospels is this appearance to Peter mentioned. The words have obviously been inserted here so that the first appearance of the risen Christ was to Peter, not to Mary Magdalene as in Mark 16:9 or to the two returned disciples.   

     Next consider the word “saying” in Luke 24:34. In the Greek text it is in the accusative case and therefore refers to the Eleven, but think of the enormous difference it makes to the meaning of the passage if it is in the nominative case. Then it refers to the two disciples who had recognized Jesus when he broke the bread. In Codex Bezae, a 5th century uncial manuscript, “saying” is in the nominative case.

     Next consider the word “assembled” in Luke 24:33. The Greek word occurs only here in the New Testament, but it does occur in the Septuagint and in Classical Greek where it has the connotation of mustering troops. The word seems out of place here, and raises the question why the disciples were together in Jerusalem at this time. In Mark’s gospel the situation is plainly stated: the Eleven had come together to eat food (Mark 16:14). It was their first post-crucifixion meal. If Luke 24:33-35 is read with Mark’s account in mind, the text becomes: They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them as they were eating. The two disciples said, “The Lord has risen indeed!” Then they told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. Then Jesus appeared and the Eleven were startled and frightened.

     Realizing that Luke’s version was based on Mark’s account makes a tremendous difference. It means that although at first the Eleven did not believe the two disciples, they had the same experience when the bread was broken. It enables modern Christians to realize that they are those disciples on the way to Emmaus. When the bread was broken, then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24:31) 

The group who inserted the appearance to Peter wanted to squash the meal idea because they believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus described a spiritual resurrection. They recognized Jesus when they ate the bread because he had said that it was his body. Jesus meant that he would live in his disciples. The pro-Peter group confirmed their belief in the bodily resurrection in Luke 24:39 when Jesus said to touch him, and in 24:42 when he ate fish.  

     In 1 Cor. 15:5 Paul said that Christ appeared first to Peter. Women, of course, were excluded because their testimony was worthless. Probably it was at the Council of Jerusalem in 49 AD when Peter, James (Jesus’ brother) and others claimed that they had seen the risen Christ.

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Understanding Easter

by Carl Krieg, first published at progressivechristianity.org on 17th march 2021

In a matter of but a few weeks, Christian churches around the globe will retell the story of how on the morning of what we call Easter, the tomb of the crucified Jesus was found empty  because he had risen from the dead. That imagery, combined with appearances to the disciples,  powerful and positive as it is, has been immortalized through 2000 years of music and art, and has influenced anyone attending Sunday School. The imminent arrival of Good Friday and Easter is a good time to both recall some facts easily overlooked and then reflect upon what they might mean. The facts fall into four categories.

1. The economic, social and political situation in Galilee was one in which the rich and powerful, be they Romans, priests of the temple, or landowners, oppressed the poor, constantly demanding more in taxes and in crop share. Into this situation came Jesus with his disciples, living and teaching an egalitarian community for all. His followers included women and men, slaves were non-existent, and the group shared whatever resources they possessed, quite the opposite of and challenge to current social norms. However seemingly insignificant the movement may have been, it posed a threat to the establishment, and so Jesus was crucified and the disciples were persecuted.

2. The Romans practiced crucifixion for about 500 years, often with thousands of victims at a time. The total number over that long a period is unimaginable, but huge as it must be, there is only one instance of an intact buried, crucified skeleton. The inescapable conclusion is that the tormented bodies were left to scavenging animals or thrown into mass graves. Denial of proper burial was part of the punishment, and Pontius Pilate was not the type of person to have pity and do things any differently.

3. The New Testament writings called Matthew and Luke share a great deal of material. They both use the earlier writing Mark to provide the structure of their gospels, and additionally they both contain verses so similar, if not identical, that the consensus is that they had before them another source common in the early church. Scholars call this source Q, from the German word Quelle. The fact that Matthew and Luke include Q in their story about Jesus means that it was a reputable source and that the community that produced it was a reputable and acceptable group of disciples. Remarkably, the Q source has no reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. So what we have is an early community of disciples of Jesus who either knew nothing of the last days of their leader and teacher or for whom those days did not matter. Furthermore, their testimony was willingly accepted, integrated with, and placed equally alongside the gospel of Mark.

4. As the 1st century progressed and thoughts about Jesus proliferated and spread, at least two lines of thought can be found in the Writings. One continues the egalitarianism of Jesus and is found in two places. First, the book named after James, who was leader of the Jerusalem church and likely the brother of Jesus. Second, Paul, who wrote that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” In other words, all are equal. The other line of thought represents a return to the normative oppressive social structure that Jesus had tried to overcome and replace. It’s starkest expression is the book of Timothy, but is also found in many other late writings of the developing church. This line of thinking subordinated women, required slaves to be obedient, and commanded everyone to obey the authorities who, of course, represented the financial interests of the dominant rich and powerful.

So much for the facts, but how do we put them together? There are many different perspectives, and what follows is one possible scenario.

It was during his life that Jesus impacted many who then became his followers, some of whom stayed with him while others moved on. How and why he had such a profound influence are questions for another day, but the short answer is that he presented to them both an image of what human, loving life was, and also an image of a God separate from and independent of the constrictions of temple religiosity. These concepts of loving humanity and loving divinity inspired and infused both groups of disciples. For those who stayed with Jesus, even though he had suffered the most horrible death imaginable, those disciples felt him to be alive in their midst as they continued the community he had created. It was a mystery beyond understanding and comprehension, but for them a certainty nonetheless. Jesus had lived, died, and now lives again. They were convinced that the evil and death manifest on the cross was not the final word, that cosmic Love overcomes evil and death, and that ultimately everything returns to God who makes all things right. For those who moved on, such as the Q community, knowing nothing of the death of Jesus, they also were certain that he was still with them even as they traveled, a spiritual presence that continued to convince them that Love is the underlying essence of the cosmos.

In the attempt to illuminate this certainty and this mystery, there evolved  from the group who stayed with Jesus images of an empty tomb and stories of appearances to the disciples, neither intended to be taken literally, but intended rather as tools to help others understand the mystery. Unfortunately, as time passed and new generations joined the nascent church, the images became identified with the thing itself, and resurrection came to mean resuscitation rather than renewal on a cosmic scale. And the revolution called for in Jesus’ proclamation that the equitable Kingdom of God was at hand, succumbed to the old way of patronage and patriarchy, the shift in thinking no doubt encouraged by the vested interests of the wealthy. Resuscitation and the power structure we find in Timothy go hand in hand as they push aside and replace the initial gospel story.

ven as we consider all the facts, the basic story that emerges is quite simple. The disciples were re-born while they lived with Jesus, and his death neither deterred nor discouraged them.  Instead, they turned to one another and embraced, fully aware in their hearts that he was not only still with them, but also that the newness he embodied embraced the universe. This was the bedrock of their faith and forms the foundation for the day we call Easter.

 
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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2000+ years of patriarchy

In just over a year, the #MeToo movement has toppled powerful men around the world. Yet in most of the world’s major religions, women are still relegated to second-tier status.

Cardinals, top with red caps, and bishops attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the closing of the monthlong synod of bishops, inside St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, on Oct. 28, 2018. (Claudio Peri/Pool Photo via AP)Cardinals, top with red caps, and bishops attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the closing of the monthlong synod of bishops, inside St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, on Oct. 28, 2018. (Claudio Peri/Pool Photo via AP) January 15, 2019 By David CraryShareTweetShare

(AP) — Women have been elected heads of national governments on six continents. They have flown into space, served in elite combat units and won every category of Nobel Prize. The global #MeToo movement, in 15 months, has toppled a multitude of powerful men linked to sexual misconduct.

Yet in most of the world’s major religions, women remain relegated to a second-tier status. Women in several faiths are still barred from ordination. Some are banned from praying alongside men and forbidden from stepping foot in some houses of worship altogether. Their attire, from headwear down to the length of their skirts in church, is often restricted.

But women around the world in recent months have been finding new ways to chip away at centuries of male-dominated traditions and barriers, with many of them emboldened by the surge of social media activism that’s spread globally in the #MeToo era.

Millions of women in India this month formed a human wall nearly 400 miles long in support of women who defied conservative Hindu leaders and entered an important temple that has long been off-limits to women and girls between the ages of 10 and 50.

In Israel, where Orthodox Judaism has long restricted women’s roles, one Jerusalem congregation has allowed women to lead Friday evening prayers. Roman Catholic bishops, under pressure from women’s-rights activists, concluded a recent Vatican meeting by declaring that women, as an urgent “duty of justice,” should have a greater role in church decision-making.

Many feminist scholars are challenging the rightfulness of long-standing patriarchal traditions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, calling into question time-honored translations of verses in the Bible, Torah and Quran that have been used to justify a male-dominated hierarchy.

Social media is seen as a big catalyst in boosting activism and forging solidarity among women of faith who seek more equality. The #MeToo movement has been evoked — even in the ranks of conservative U.S. denominations — as a reason why women should expect more respectful treatment from male clergy, and a greater share of leadership roles.

“Women are looking for opportunities to have their voices heard and be more effective in their religious traditions,” said Gina Messina, a religion professor at Ursuline College in Ohio who describes herself as both a feminist and a Catholic theologian. “Using social media is an opportunity to say what they think.”

She co-founded a blog called Feminism and Religion that has scores of contributors around the world and followers in more than 180 countries. She also co-edited a collection of essays by Christian, Jewish and Muslim women explaining why they haven’t abandoned their patriarchal-leaning faiths.

“The perception seems to be that it is a feminist act only to leave such a religion. We contend that it is also a feminist act to stay,” the three editors write in their foreword.

Here’s a brief look at the status of gender equality in several of the world’s religions:

ROMAN CATHOLICISM
Catholic doctrine mandates an all-male priesthood, on the grounds that Jesus’ apostles were men.
A decades-long campaign for women’s ordination has made little headway and some advocates of that change have been excommunicated. Women do play major roles in Catholic education, health care and parish administration

While the recent meeting of bishops at the Vatican produced a call to expand women’s presence in church affairs, no details were proposed. The seven nuns who participated along with 267 male clergy were not allowed to vote on the final document.

Earlier this year, a Vatican magazine published an expose detailing how nuns are often treated like indentured servants by cardinals and bishops, for whom they cook and clean with little recompense.

At the University of Dayton, a Catholic school in Ohio, religion professor Sandra Yocum says some of the young women she teaches “are having a hard time seeing where they fit in” as they assess the church’s doctrine on gender roles and its pervasive clergy sex-abuse scandals.

“They have a deep concern for the church,” she said. “They want to respond in some way and take a leadership role.”

Messina sometimes engages in “small acts of dissent” to show displeasure with patriarchal Catholic traditions. At the recent funeral for her grandmother, she changed a Bible reading to make the passage gender-neutral.

“We have to continue to push — regardless of whether it’s in our generation or five generations from now.”

Rose Dyar, a senior at the University of Dayton, says she’s determined to team with other young Catholics to help the church overcome its challenges. The ban on female priests isn’t enough to drive her from Catholicism, but it dismays her.

“I absolutely support women’s ordination,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t foresee it happening anytime soon, and that breaks my heart.”

ISLAM
Some of the most important traditions and practices of the Prophet Muhammad were preserved and carried forth by the women closest to him — his wives and daughters. But as with many other major faiths, women in Islamic tradition have largely been relegated to supporting roles throughout recent history.

Women in Islam do not lead prayer or give traditional Friday sermons. In larger mosques where women are welcome, they are almost always segregated from men in the back or allocated spaces on other floors with separate entrances and exits.

In Saudi Arabia, a male-dominated interpretation of Islam bars women from traveling or obtaining a passport without the consent of a male guardian. Only this year did the kingdom allow women to drive.

Changes are happening elsewhere. In Tunisia, President Beji Caid Essebsi has proposed giving women equal inheritance rights with men — a much-debated topic around the Muslim world. In the Palestinian territories, Kholoud al-Faqih became the first female Shariah court judge in 2009, in part to help women beset by domestic violence.

Some women are challenging interpretations that state only men must attend traditional Friday prayers. A few have chosen to create their own prayer spaces, like the Women’s Mosque of America in California where women lead the services and female scholars share their knowledge.

The bylaws for that mosque were drafted by Atiya Aftab, who teaches Islamic Law at Rutgers University and is chair of the board at her mosque — a first for a woman in New Jersey. She says moves in the U.S. to expand women’s roles in the Islamic community have sometimes been met with conservative backlash, but the momentum for change seems strong.

In Texas, Muslim women recently formed a group that has investigated and publicized instances of sexual, physical and spiritual abuse committed against women by Muslim community leaders.

JUDAISM
The gender situation within Judaism is markedly different in Israel and the United States, which together account for more than 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population.

The largest U.S. branches, Reform and Conservative, allow women to be rabbis, while the Orthodox branch does not. In Israel, the Conservative and Reform movements are small, and Orthodox authorities hold a near monopoly on all matters regarding Judaism.

One major source of contention: the Orthodox-enforced policy of prohibiting women from praying alongside men at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Numerous women protesting the policy have been arrested, and several American Jewish groups were angered last year when Israel’s government backtracked on plans to expand a space where both men and women could pray.

However, there have been moves to expand Orthodox women’s roles in religious life. A Jerusalem congregation, Shira Hadasha, has adopted a liberal interpretation of Jewish religious law that incorporates women’s involvement in services, such as leading Friday evening prayers and reciting from the Torah on the Sabbath.

An Orthodox organization called Tzohar is trying to advance women in roles where social custom, not religious law, has excluded them — such as teaching Jewish law or certifying restaurants’ compliance with kosher standards.

“If Jewish law does not say that something is prohibited, but just because of social or cultural reasons women were not involved, we see no reason that they should not be involved, said Tzohar’s chairman, Rabbi David Stav.

MORMONISM
Women in the Mormon church are barred from being priests, leading local congregations or holding the top leadership posts in a faith that counts 16 million members worldwide.

The highest-ranking women in the church oversee three organizations that run programs for women and girls. These councils sit below several layers of leadership groups reserved for men.

The role of women in the conservative religion, officially named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been a subject of debate for many years, with some members pushing for more equality and increased visibility for women.

The church has made some changes in recent years; women’s groups say they mark small progress. In 2013, a woman for the first time led the opening prayer at the faith’s semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City. Later that year, a conference session previously limited to men was broadcast live for all to watch.

Mormon women are still expected to wear skirts or dresses to worship services and inside temples, but the religion has loosened its rules in recent years to allow women who work at church headquarters to wear pantsuits or dress slacks and to let women serving proselytizing missions to wear dress slacks.

The church shows no signs of budging on women’s ordination. Kate Kelly, the founder of a group called Ordain Women that led protests outside church conferences, was expelled from the faith in 2014.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Lorie Winder Stromberg, 66, a member of Ordain Women’s executive board. “I think women’s ordination is inevitable — but I have no sense of the timing.”

HINDUISM AND BUDDHISM
The gender-equality situation in these two Asian-based faiths is difficult to summarize briefly.

Neither has a single supreme entity that enforces doctrine, and each has multiple branches with different philosophies and practices.

In Buddhism, women’s status varies from country to country. In Thailand, a Buddhist stronghold, women can become nuns — often acting as glorified temple housekeepers — but only in 2003 won the right to serve as the saffron-robed full equivalents of male monks, and still represent just a tiny fraction of the country’s clergy.

India’s Sabarimala temple had long banned women and girls of menstruating age from entering the centuries-old house of worship. Some Hindus consider menstruating women to be impure.

The Supreme Court in September lifted the ban, and violent protests broke out after women entered the temple. Earlier this month, women formed a human chain spanning than 600 kilometers (375 miles) to support gender equality.

“The Hindu temples at present have almost 99 percent male priests,” said women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari, director of New Delhi-based Center for Social Research. “Things have to improve.”

SOUTHERN BAPTISTS
While many Protestant denominations now ordain women, the largest in the U.S. — the Southern Baptist Convention — is among those that don’t. It advocates that women submit to male leadership in their church and to a husband’s leadership at home.

Southern Baptist leaders say this doctrine aligns with New Testament teaching. One passage they cite quotes the Apostle Paul as writing, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”

A recent statement from SBC leadership insisted that Southern Baptists “are not anti-woman.”

“However, because Scripture speaks specifically to the role of pastor, churches are under a moral imperative to be guided by that teaching, rather than the shifting opinions of human cultures.”

Cheryl Summers, a former Southern Baptist who has challenged the church to improve its treatment of women, describes this gender doctrine as “tortured logic” — especially given the accomplishments of SBC women in the secular world.

“There’s tremendous cognitive dissonance for a woman of faith who is leading professionally or through volunteer efforts when she experiences the glass ceiling and walls in her place of worship,” Summers said via email.

For the past year, the SBC has been roiled by a series of sexual misconduct cases involving churches and seminaries, prompting some activist women to demand new anti-abuse policies.

(Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.)

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Hang in there! – To our younger subscribers

Rodney Eivers, Chairperson, UCFORUM

19th February 2021

          The UC Forum website continues to draw subscribers from far and wide and it is refreshing to see that some of them recently are of a younger generation.

          One would expect to find doctrinal progressivism being the choice of young people having, as they do, lives of several decades ahead of them. The sad observation, though, is that it is the more mature folk who are drawn to this more open way of fitting religious faith to the 21st century environment. Indeed, to the extent that they are drawn to Christian faith, fundamentalism seems to win in the appeal to the young. An explanation of this contrast may be that thinking, older people, after a lifetime of seeking and expressing a Christian faith, are finding that the suppositions behind orthodoxy do not fit their experience and realities of the current intellectual age.

          But where do young seekers go to find and share experiences of their faith in something beyond orthodoxy?

          In Australia there are actually very few Uniting Churches (or other mainline denominations) which avowedly declare themselves as doctrinally wholly “progressive”. There may be only several in each Australian state or territory. Last week we featured one of them, the Woden Valley Uniting Church in the Australian Capital Territory. There are of course now many congregations that would describe themselves as liberal/inclusive/open and welcoming people who think critically about all they are told. These congregations have many progressive thinkers in them.

          What we do find, however, is that most congregations, perhaps the majority, have one or two individuals with a progressive orientation. Likewise, with the ministers of many congregations, Paul I and I have been surprised, when having a quiet private chat with many church leaders, at how many of them, in confidence, are receptive to progressive interpretations of Christian traditions and of, for instance, the UCA Basis of Union.

          On the right-hand panel of this website, you will find a long list of congregations being attended by our subscribers and these are only the ones we know about. Those congregations and their ministers would value your moral support. They do need to be wary of the guardians of orthodoxy in being too public but in many cases I expect you will find they will be helpful in finding you a niche.

          Perhaps if more young people come along and show their interest in promoting and following the Jesus way in a non-supernaturalist, non-theistic view of the world,       they will come to find warm companionship in many more of our churches.

oOo