Creation, Exile, and the Pandemic

Inspired by our chapel series last fall called “Hope of All Creation,” I have been increasingly interested in how the creation itself reflects the actions of God and the relationship between humanity and God in the Bible.

One idea I wanted to explore is the way in which the good news of Jesus is not just about redeeming human souls, but all of creation. The entire cosmos will be restored to right relationship with God. Paul beautifully describes this cosmic hope found in Christ:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25

With any eye towards the “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21) promised in the gospel, I am curious how creation imagery in the Bible reveals a broader picture of God’s creative actions. Our theology often emphasizes the relationship between God and humanity to the exclusion of humanity’s relationship with creation and God’s relationship with creation. In an age of unprecedented climate change that threatens the well-being of the vulnerable throughout the world, I believe it is crucially important to highlight these relationships in our faith communities, drawing from a deep well of biblical ideas about creation.

The book of Isaiah is filled with creation imagery that reflects God’s intentions and the people of Israel. The prophet sings a love song depicting the nation of Israel as a vineyard that produced the wild grapes of injustice and bloodshed (5:1-7), but will one day make peace together with God (27:2-6) and “fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6). God’s salvation will be known in all the earth (11:9, 12:5; c.f. Hab 2:14) by way of a Messianic seed: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1).

One key text that discusses the state of creation in response to social injustice is the so-called “apocalypse of Isaiah” (ch. 24), in which the economic and social upheaval present in Israel (24:1-3) associated with the destruction of the environment:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.”

Isaiah 24:4-5

I’d argue that, in most of the Old Testament prophets, the state of creation seems to reflect the relationship between God and God’s people. In our time, human-made climate change, brought about by needless consumption (and made possible by exploiting the poor), has ravaged the environment. In this way our world is experiencing “ecological consequences” of injustice, which are found throughout the book of Isaiah.

Without downplaying the devasting human impact of Covid-19, I believe that the pandemic can lead us to reflect on our relationship with the environment. Recently scientists have noticed an unprecedented drop in C02 emissions as much of the industrialized world “shelters in place” to control the spread of the pandemic. According to the historian of 2Chronicles, one purpose of the exile was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (20:31) In other words, while the people are not presents (and are away in exile), the land itself is finally able to rest after Israel had neglected the commandment to care for the land (observing a weekly Sabbath rest).  I am struck by the parallel.

As we come to terms with the destruction of the environment, we lament. We might be inspired by the language of the prophets, who personify land that “mourns” the exile (Hosea 4:3, Jer 12:4) In the NRSV Bible, Joel 1 has the header “Lament over the Ruin of the Country” and plainly observes that “the fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails”(Joel 1:10). In my estimation, all of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible (save, perhaps, Obadiah and Daniel) describe the destruction of the earth. If the exile (the subject of the prophets) is about a fall from grace due to social injustice, then injustice and the destruction of the earth are deeply intertwined.

Through sharing the gospel, Christians see themselves as being agents in God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. But I wonder how much “building the kingdom” also involves caring for creation.  I am currently reading The Green Gospel which seeks to provide an agricultural context to the time of Jesus and how this might prompt us to redesign food systems to be more sustainable and equitable.  

Despite the destruction evident from exile, the hope of the gospel spreads further, to the far reaches of the cosmos:

  • “By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)
  • “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:19-20)
  • Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, in which creation is animated by love and mutuality, we long for the day when “the flower appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:12).

Perhaps one of the most poignant messages of hope for our time is expressed in Habakkuk 3. Despite destruction during the Bible and destruction now, God’s saving work continues:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Hab 3:17-19

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Pandemic reflections

This has been a strange summer. The global pandemic has forced faith communities around the world to find new ways to “be the church.” I believe that this time can transform and grow us as followers of Jesus if we accept the invitation.

When the pandemic gained momentum in the United States I became curious about theological lenses  for viewing this unique time. I attended a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Veritas Forum called Coronavirus & Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking?  I was inspired by the idea that the Judeo-Christian narrative makes meaning out of suffering by attaching it to “a narrative of redemption.” They discussed this idea in the context of the theological journey of Israel in exile and Jesus’s own plea, “let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). One speaker suggested that “lament is the seedbed of creativity.” In other words, how can the limitations and pain of social distancing spark creative ideas for connection?

During the pandemic we feel distant and disconnected. We find joy from phone calls, socially distant gatherings and perhaps more time with loved ones. But relying on fleeting bits of connection is not God’s intention for humanity. We are meant to live in community: to be with and beside people, to perform acts of kindness and generosity. We long for the ability to connect with people again, in more fulfilling ways. During the pandemic I have wondered how our angst during the social distancing might be parallel to the eschatological hope that God will make all things new. We see only fragments of God’s rule and reign a care for humanity and creation. We long for God to make all things new through the resurrection of Jesus, until that day when we relationships  between God, humanity and creation are fully restored, sustained by the river of life and the tree of life, whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

A closely related lens for the pandemic is that of apocalypse. As in every generation, Christians identify current catastrophes with images in Revelation or even claiming it as God’s judgement. But the word apocalypse does not mean “the end of the world”. This is a modern misunderstanding, particularly in American Christianity. Scholars Tim Mackie explains that the Greek word for “apocalypse” means “uncover or reveal—to make something visible”.  Thinking about an apocalypse as an unveiling of things that were previously hidden forces us to acknowledge buried realities that have come to light (Luke 8:17). In the United States, the reality of systemic racism has become more apparent by the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on communities of color and rampant police brutality, both of which have stamped out Ruach Elohim, the breath of God.  According to John the visionary the blood of all who are unjustly murdered will be accounted for (Rev 18:24). In this way, we see apocalypses as opportunities to “pull back the veil” and more fully understanding of underlying realities and pursue justice.

I have come to see that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus is inherently political. The word “politics” means “the affairs of the city” and deals in the welfare of its people. The Old Testament prophets had harsh words for those perpetuating systemic injustice: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees” (Isa 10:1). Jesus spoke about God’s government – the kingdom of heaven – more than any other topic: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)  I believe Jesus’s jubilee mission to free the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) presents a marching order for white Christians to pursue racial reconciliation.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Pentecost and cutting off the breath of God

During quarantine I have been recording multi-track handbell videos of hymn arrangements. Since this coming Sunday is Pentecost (the arrival of the spirit in Acts 2) I posted a recording of the hymn “Breathe On Me, Breathe of God.”

It didn’t occur to me for several hours how my video may have been inappropriate (or at best, awkward) to post just a day after black man George Floyd was pinned by white offers, screamed “I Can’t Breathe” and then died in custody. This story (and the countless others like it) continues to fuel both righteous anger and deep complacency in the United States.

As I began to consider Pentecost in this context, I was filled with anger. While Pentecost is (and has been since Ancient times) one of the most lively days in the life of the Church, I began to lament, knowing that God’s gift of the spirit — God’s breath — has been denied to so many people of color in the United States. At the very beginning of creation God’s spirit actively participates and “hovers over the waters” (Gen 1:2). God’s breathe continues to form and reform us. When we hurt others, we both deface the image of God and deny God’s gift of breath. We deny the gift that God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

For many of us it’s easy to think that we don’t commit violent crimes and therefore “we’re good”. But Jesus offers a stunning rebuke to our complacency by describing in the Sermon on the Mount what life in God’s kingdom is all about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-24)

Maybe Jesus knows that anger can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence. Maybe Jesus knows if left unchecked anger leads to unhealthy relationships, to mental and physical anguish. Anger has the power to destroy us and to destroy communities, just as police brutality does again and again.  For Jesus, living in the kingdom of God (and in true communion with God) is about reconciliation: “first be reconciled to your brother or sister”. For Jesus, building the blessed community involves acknowledging our pain and our brokenness and working toward restoring our relationships with one another.

And anger is not “good” or “bad,” by itself. It may more useful to acknowledge, as with any emotion, that anger can be helpful and harmful. Righteous anger has the power to move us to action, particularly after an injustice has happened. Jesus, speaking truth to power, became angry with those who upheld unjust systems. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the pharisees: “woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23). While these leaders “followed the rules” for presenting temple offerings and sacrifices, they failed to enact the intent behind the law: justice and mercy and faith.

As a so-called Christian nation, we are so far from pursuing justice for black and brown people. Who is it, really, that can’t breathe? We claim that we live by the Holy Spirit, we ask for it to “break me, melt me, mold me, fill me”. But do we really trust and follow the spirit’s power do so? The book of Acts tracks the movement of the Spirit after Pentecost and describes ways that it led the apostles to pursue justice. Early on Peter bears to the spirit’s power to convict the counsel or Jesus’s unjust killing:

“The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God  rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” (Acts 5:27-32)

This language of “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (used several times in Acts) has deeply painful overtones in the United States, where many historians observe that today’s victims of police brutality are much like victims of lynching after the Civil War. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes:

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgatha – should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’s death. But it does not. In fact the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections on Jesus’s cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was essentially a first century lynching.” (30)

Jesus Christ already died for our sins. How long do black and brown people have to die in the United States for the sin of racism? Floyd’s is just one of countless black lives lost to police brutality in the United States. With the prophets and the Psalmist we cry “How long, O Lord?” Because when we kill image-bearers, we kill God.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern.

How lonely is the city

“How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” is how the Old Testament book of Lamentations begins. These words suggest that the life of the city is dependent on people and the relationships between people. When these are absent the city itself feels lonely and “the roads to Zion mourn” (Lam 1:4). 

The other week we began studying Lamentations in response to everything happening in the world because of COVID-19. The grief-filled words remind us that lament is an important part of a life of faith. We lament to express frustration and even our anger for the way things are. The book of Lamentations helps with that, as “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.” Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamentations” in NIBC, 879

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, talks about how lament gives voice to the grief and sadness that result from the task of “reality,” or honestly identifying the state of things. This can be especially challenging when others do not share our concern. We hear this also in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). O’Connor echoes Brueggemann:

“The book of Lamentations practices truth-telling. It refuses denial and reverses amnesia by inviting readers into pain and affliction in all their rawness. It urges us to face suffering, to speak of it, to be dangerous proclaimers of the truth that society wants to repress. … Advice like ‘Get over it,’ Get on with it,’ ‘Look on the bright side,’ reinforces the dehumanization of the sufferers by refusing to accept their stammering efforts toward truth” and healing. (O’Connor, 892). 

Wherever you find yourself in this journey, may we be supportive of each other, being people that “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). In our communities may we share words of comfort and hope in the midst of struggle. Like with the book of Lamentations, may our “stinging cries for help, [our] voices begging God to see, [our] protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.” (O’Connor, 879).

– Mitchell Eithun and Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

Justice, Forgiveness, Restoration, and Truth-telling

This past year, we’ve spent some time talking about justice and forgiveness. The Bible shows that God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; 16:7-8) and that Christians ought to forgive (Colossians 3:13). Yet, how forgiveness and justice relate to each other is not always obvious, as too often people (including and especially Christians) understand justice as an unnecessary part of forgiveness.

However, Rachael DenHollander, wisely argues that forgiveness that ignores justice denies who God is (and denies a bit of our worth as human beings, especially as people against whom injustice has happened). In an interview with Christianity Today, DenHollander, notes:

“I worked to get to a place where I could trust in God’s justice and call evil what it was, because God is good and holy. One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”

I agree with DenHollander that acknowledging injustice is an important part of recognizing who God is and how things ought to be. It is only in recognizing that God loves justice that we can truly forgive. When DenHollander speaks of forgiving Larry Nassar, she says:

“It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.”

Perhaps another way of looking at justice and forgiveness is through the lens of restoration and/or truth-telling. Both justice and forgiveness are about restoring the wrongs that have been done, especially in terms of restoring relationships between humans and in relationship to God. Truth-telling is about acknowledging that it was truly evil; forgiveness can’t exist outside of that acknowledgement. Nor can any restoration of relationship happen without acknowledging that something truly horribly happened (that deserves punishment.) Or as DenHollander puts it,

“It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.Obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”

To hear more about Rachael DenHollander’s understanding of justice and forgiveness, you can watch her presentation at Calvin College’s January Series in January 2019. You can start at minute 6 if you’d like to skip the part of how she met her husband.