Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Not location, location...covenants, covenants.

Noticing that the last post evolved into an abortion/death penalty discussion, I thought it would be 'fun' to both defend and challenge what is perceived as an inconsistency on the part of those people who believe, both in preserving life in the womb, and in the death penalty. When we read our Bibles, we can't simply claim promises or apply precepts willy/nilly. Heck, if we did, we'd be killing disobedient children, forbidding women to worship during their monthly period, and cutting off our hands, among other things.

No, instead of wooden literal application, we need to wrestle with the question of whether any particular text has precepts and promises that we are to live by/under today, or whether particular promises/commands are limited in their scope of application to a particular people group. For example, Deuteronomy 28 promises wealth, fertility, and victory in battle to all those who obey God. Can we claim this promise as our own?

I don't think so, because this is a promise given to the nation of Israel in the context of their life as a theocracy, where God is King and the law is found in Exodus and Leviticus. Since neither America or any other nation is a theocracy in this moment, we can't rightly claim the promises given to a theocratic nation, nor are we bound by its laws. This doesn't mean there's nothing of value in those laws. Many of them, in principle at least, were later reiterated by Jesus with an even fuller application than that which was initially observed by the Jews. But to claim promises or be bound by Old Testament law would mean that the covenant of Moses belongs to us today; I don't think that's true, and if it were true you would need to apply it wholly and literally in every situation. Any takers?

OK, so we've looked at what is called the "Mosaic" covenant and I've explained why I don't think it applies directly to us, but is rather a place from which we gleam principles. What about the covenant with Noah? It's offered to us in Genesis 9 and includes in it, among other things, the eating of meat, the reality that animals will forever be afraid of people, the promise that God will never again destroy the earth by a flood, and... get ready for it: the notion that a person who kills a human should be punished by being put to death. There it is, right there in God's covenant with Noah, based on the notion that human life is so precious that the punishment for forfeiture of life should be 'forfeiture of life'.

You can go ahead and argue about whether it makes sense; you can discuss the problems of conviction of innocents; you can talk about the myriad of problems that arise in trying to apply this justly and consistently. But what you can't do is say that God never favored the death penalty. He did - and He did it in the covenant made with Noah, a covenant which we're told is still in place today, for all people on the earth. This isn't some esoteric precept offered to an ancient theocracy - this is a precept given at the end of the flood, ostensibly to preserve the dignity of humans, and curb violence.

Whether I agree with our particular application of the death penalty in the United States isn't the point of this entry. (I don't) But when people say that it's hypocrisy to be 'pro-life' and 'pro-death penalty', they need to think through their covenants: which ones apply to today and which ones don't? The charge of hypocrisy seems to be rooted in a cursory reading of the Bible that doesn't consider thoughtfully enough which covenants apply to us directly and which don't.

Perhaps most significantly, we need to ask if the ethic of Jesus, particularly the ethic of loving one's enemies and laying down one's life as a means of disarming violence, doesn't trump all other covenants. The author to the Hebrews hints that it does.

But even this leaves us in a quandary, for Paul would later declared that the government is granted the sword precisely for the purpose of curbing evil. There's a time for the state, apparently, to challenge oppression and violence through the use of weapons. Of course, this leads to a whole different subject, a 'can of worms' so to speak, and it's late, so I'll leave things right where they are, except to say that the one precept that seems to be in almost every covenant, from Abraham to Jesus, is the call to care for the poor. Paul and James, unarguably proponents of the covenant under which we live today, both claim that caring for the poor is the ONE THING that gives evidence to the reality of our faith. That's why health care is such a vital issue, where radical changes are needed.

PS - Mr. Obama gave a remarkable speech tonight in my opinion. Perhaps most encouraging was his capacity to find ground for consensus building on various divisive positions, ground we so desperately need to find once again as a nation. There are so very many issues at stake in this election that I pray none of us will become single issue candidates, but rather that we will listen carefully, dialog openly, and choose wisely.


At 29/8/08 06:55, Blogger Living-dom said...

Jesus calls us to side with the poor, care for the poor, seek justice for the oppressed. To me in both cases of abortion and capital punishment, we as a society have to make a tragic decision between justice and murder.

At 29/8/08 09:45, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the thorough and thought provoking article.

So Thou Shall Not Kill should really have an addendum.

Thou Shall Not Kill*

* - Unless provoked, deemed legal by the government, done by the government, or a form of retribution to a person who has killed.

Or maybe changed to: Thou Shall Occasionally Kill.

It would surprise me if many of the pro-life, pro-Death Penalty folk could quote or use the scripture as precisely as you to justify their opinions. Usually it has to do with a primal instinct or fear. What frustrates me is the apparent loss of mercy and compassion for the guilty/convicted.

The reason I mentioned the death penalty/abortion in the last post was to use an example that I thought was somewhat hypocritical, and truly a ONE topic issue, that many Christians decide their vote on(At least with the many people in my family, and friends as well.)

So their allegiance to this one issue is powerful enough to choose a Bush over ANYONE who is pro choice, or a McCain over an Obama, without any consideration for the potential upside for us as a nation.

Making a checklist of things promised by Obama last night, including: Tax cuts for the middle, tax hikes for the rich, healthcare for those in need, a promise to end the war in Iraq, and acknowledging that the government is FOR THE PEOPLE...who would be against this?

Well he is pro-choice, and pro-contraception...Forget him, lets vote for the other guy.

It was nice to see such a powerful speaker for a change.

At 31/8/08 22:58, Blogger Geoff said...

Hi Richard, just to stir the waters a bit here, I would like to offer a different take on God's view of death penalty: God never favored/favors the death penalty, but God allowed the death penalty as a human way of dealing with ethical situations that people were otherwise unable to respond to properly.

Regarding the covenant with Noah - there is no consensus, but I tend to side with those who see the " man his blood will be shed" statement not as an admonition, but rather a statement of fact, essentially describing what humanity will do in an effort to ethically resolve our fallen, sinful state without Christ. In other words, it's not God who demands the death penalty, but we do, on God's behalf, due to our inability to deal with sin constructively.

This is exegetically reasonable when one looks at the Hebrew text; I submit it is also reasonable within the greater context of Scripture, even though there are many instances of God "commanding" Israel to wipe out other nations, etc. I think those statements tell us less about God and more about the people who claim to speak in God's name. This is tricky, of course, because I don't want to downplay the importance of obedience to God's commands, which is also part of the deal. But I think it's inadequate to say, as many Christians do, that "God allowed the death penalty, so why shouldn't we?"

In fact, all of the above is moot in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. If we are called to act as Christ, then the death penalty, as an act of judgment that cannot be resolved by forgiveness after the fact is out of bounds for us. You seem to hint at this very thing when you mention the "ethic of Jesus." I think viewing all action through a Christological lens makes the death penalty a non-option for Christians. Those who disagree basically have to take a one-dimensional view of the Law and God's "immutability."

As for Paul's mention of the state and the sword in Rom. 13, not only is that passage, properly understood, not dealing with the death penalty (Glen Stassen does a good job of unpacking this), but since the Kingdom of God always supercedes the kingdoms of this world, it really doesn't matter what the state decides to do. If American law allows the death penalty, that is no reason for Christians to support it. The law of Christ bears no relation to the laws of any nation, it's only ever the other way around, if at all.

Ok, that's my 2 cents. :-)


At 1/9/08 09:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Thanks for your post.

At 1/9/08 09:49, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

To echo the previous entry: Thanks for the post Geoff... your view of Noah's covenant and Romans 13 make a lot of sense and have a great deal of validity. I've always wondered though, about the implications of that line of interpretation, because it seems to lead to a conclusion that there's absolutely no overlap between service of the state and service of God's purposes. In other words, if it's true that followers of Jesus are NEVER to use violence - not even in service to the state for the curbing of evil - then it would follow that Christians must relinquish any involvement in service, either in the military or in the police. This, of course, has the effect, of creating a world where those without the moral compass of God's revelation through Scripture, are charged with curbing evil. I've never been able to see how this makes sense. And if it does make sense, then we're not dual citizens at all, but solely citizens of one kingdom, and notion which I think Jesus hinted was false when he advised us to 'render to ceasar' and 'render to God'.

Thanks for the post Geoff, and the good dialogue.

At 2/9/08 16:26, Blogger Geoff said...

Hi Richard,

Yeah, that's the rub, huh? As Christians, we do have a responsibility to the poor and oppressed, and part of that responsibility is speaking truth to power. But I have come to the view that a Christian ethic must always remain grounded in the example of Christ, and, as such, it will always privilege sacrifice over vengeance and grace over judgment. Given that there are, in addition, other well-known flaws inherent to capital punishment, I think Christians should try taking a different approach, one that actually reflects Christ's words.

When it comes to those rare situations where we're genuinely trapped between a rock and a hard place, I look to the example of Bonhoeffer, who basically threw himself on God's mercy and begged for forgiveness, because he knew that, in plotting Hitler's death, there was no way to avoid a negative outcome. If he committed murder, he was sinning. If he didn't, innocent people would die. Sometimes that is the reality of a fallen world. But I think that we use the "lesser of two evils" as an escape clause far too often, and capital punishment, in my view, falls under that error.

At 2/9/08 22:56, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard and Geoff,

There has been much to digest with your posts, and both of you have valid questions, answers and opinions.

"This, of course, has the effect, of creating a world where those without the moral compass of God's revelation through Scripture, are charged with curbing evil"

We currently have the Christian influence in the United States, and many are charged with helping to curb evil. With the current state of affairs ranging from war, violence, poverty and all the rest of it, maybe it is time for us to opt out and simply live by example, as Jesus did. Your quote insinuates that non-Christians do not have the intelligence or any moral compass to do capable job, when we certainly are not doing a decent one as it is.

Maybe a different approach is needed.

What came to mind when I read the latest of your replies, were friends of mine who are Jehovah's Witnesses, and a documentary I watched called Knocking(Please keep in mind I am not wanting this to become a for or against tangent.)

After viewing the documentary(done my an ex-Witness and not designed to be PRO Witness) it shed a light on what a solid Christian belief can be, and is to them.

They follow God's word, by being apolitical, including not serving in war, no government service, and played a massive roll in SAVING American free speech rights for all religions. There stance also included being imprisoned by Hitler, as they would not denounce their faith(which is all they had to do to be released.) It is worth watching.

What I appreciate about their view, is the belief of being one nation under God, as opposed to country, and living as they understand God is telling them.

I am so tired of people living in fear, and being reactionary to the extremes of hot button topics. It is frustrating to see Christians turn their back on forgiveness and mercy for the sword so often, when there could be other solutions.

At 3/9/08 17:30, Blogger Geoff said...

Hey anonymous, I echo your sentiment about being tired of people living in fear... I find myself living that way at times, and it's so frustrating, because I know that's not what Christ has called us to...

And, I think it brings up another aspect to the whole issue of the covenant with Noah: If the point God is trying to make is that violence will breed violence, then we have to ask: In what ways do our lives contribute to violence? I would say that fear is one of the major components of violence.

If we live with a mindset that creates a duality between direct (i.e. murder or manslaughter) and indirect violence (our spending habits, the words we use, etc), that seems to be contrary to Scripture. Too many Christians, it appears, are content to let judgment come upon those who directly inflict violence, while shrugging off indirect violence as an unavoidable result of a sinful world. But Jesus apparently didn't see things that way (Matthew 5). He viewed direct and indirect violence as equally damnable. So, if I contribute to someone's death by not providing for them in their need, am I a murderer? Apparently Jesus would say yes. How does this change the picture?

I realize I've been speaking spiritually and not "practically." Practically, there is a difference between murder and other forms of behavior. But are Christians supposed to focus primarily on what is "practical", or are we supposed to follow Jesus, no matter what? This, I think, is where the real conflict exists. What we believe isn't always practical. And we don't really know how to deal with that. So we fall into the "just follow Jesus" camp and the "be ethically responsible" camp. And yet, somehow, those two need to be held together... I tend to side with Kierkegaard who thought that sometimes being a person of faith will mean doing something that looks completely unethical -- like offering your son as a sacrifice (or, offering the gift of life to a murderer?).

Ok, I'm done rambling for now. :-)

At 25/10/09 23:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...







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