Grace Emerges

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Postmodern Revolution of Freedom

by Brad Duncan

In these articles I'm exploring an interesting concoction called Postmodern Christianity.  It's what you get when you combine postmodern thought and culture with belief that Jesus is God and the Bible is true (as a historical narrative more than a law book).  In some ways I've provided an over-idealized view of the world in which postmodernism creates a new amazing! form of Christianity.  You might say I'm overly optimistic.  You might say that postmodernism will do nothing to Christianity except ruin it with false notions that truth is relative and uncertain.  You might say that I am focusing too much on people and humanity, rather than rules of behavior, devotion to God, and structured organization.  It could lead to anarchy.  You might also be concerned that postmodernism will water down the gospel, negate holiness, and abandon love for the Bible.  Am I right so far?

In this article I want to propose reasons why postmodernism will create something very good for Christianity.  I'm proposing a revolution!  Just like when Jesus came and brought a huge revolution of thought about God, religion, spirituality, right and wrong, and purpose for humankind, I am certain that embracing aspects of postmodernism and letting go of past modern structures will liberate us Christians to return to these core aspects of the teachings of Christ and lead a revolution of Christian culture and thought.  This revolution will make the Church a more positive influence with a more powerful message of love for the world.  The Church will take it's place as the example and inspiration for others in the world on how to best treat our fellow humans.  In doing so it will point the way to God, the God of love and grace that we believe in.  The Church will also act to make the world a better place.  By doing these things, the Church will honor God and spread the good news of God's kingdom to the world.  And all of this by following Jesus!  Let me take a few minutes to explain the connection.  Maybe, just maybe, whether you are an idealist like myself or not, you will see this connection and embrace the same hope.

Articles so far in this series:

Slavery vs. Freedom

The first major revolutionary thread of the gospels is freedom.  If you were to read Luke chapters 1-8, as well as some of the prophecy literature in the Old Testament, and then stop and describe what Messiah means based on these passages, you would describe a king and his kingdom designed by God to set people free.  The king is revealed to be the Son, or Incarnation, of God born as a human with the purpose of bringing rescue ("salvation") to all mankind.  This image of liberation by a savior closely (and amazingly!) parallels the rescue of Israel from Egypt -- in both cases the people of God were rescued from a kingdom of slavery and oppression.  In both cases they were brought to a kingdom in which they were given freedom and independence while being governed directly by God as the head of the kingdom.  The hybrid image of "a kingdom" & "liberation from slavery" forms a powerful identity for Israel.  While they serve God as their king, this king does not seek to dominate them, but to give them an identity as the "people of God", elevating them to holy status.  God calls on the people to govern themselves in kindness and wisdom while living holy and pure lives that honor God.  In contrast, serving the human king, Pharaoh, meant violent oppression and slave labor.  Given this history and identity of Israel, it's not a coincidence that God chose to promise the Messiah as a liberator, who would come to once again bring liberation, perfecting and completing the promise of a kingdom populated by the people of God.  It also fulfills the promise of God to Abraham, long before Moses, when God called Abraham and told him his heir would bring blessing to the whole earth.

If we understand Jesus as this liberator, then Luke 1-8 makes perfect sense. Some of the highlights that strongly support this image are:
  • Before Jesus' birth
    • Luke 1:17, the angel promises that John the baptist will make ready a people prepared for the Lord
    • 1:32,33, the angel promises Mary that Jesus will "be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom."
    • 1:46-55, Mary's song is a beautiful prophecy about God "my savior" rescuing people from oppressors and blessing them.
    • 1:67-79, Zechariah prophecies at the birth of John the baptist, that God has come to "help and deliver his people" and has raised up a mighty savior.  He also indicates that this liberation will look like compassion and peace, in contrast to "darkness" and the "shadow of death".  A kingdom governed by God is understood to be first and foremost a liberation of the spirit and humanity of God's people, not the formation of a political entity.
  • At the birth of Jesus
    • 2:10,11, The angels declare the famous "Good news for all people!  The savior is born today.  He is Christ the Lord," and the host of angels declares peace on earth and glory to God in heaven.
    • 2:25-38, in the temple, both Simeon and Anna declare the baby Jesus as the salvation of all people and the liberator of Jerusalem
  • Jesus as a child
    • 2:41-52, Jesus grows up aware that he is the Son of God and not just the son of his earthly father, and he is preparing for his greater purpose.  
  • John the baptist
    • 3:1-14, John prepares the hearts of the people to return to God and to follow the Messiah.  He levels the playing field (mountains leveled, crooked roads made straight) and calls all humanity to see God's salvation, proclaiming the good news to the people
    • John baptized Jesus and God confirms with a loud audible voice and visual sign of the dove descending from heaven that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.
  • Jesus in the wilderness
    • 4:1-13, In an amazing exchange between Jesus and the devil, Jesus is offered by the devil to inherent the earthly lordship of the kingdom of man, to rule over them and have all power over them.  The image resonates with the slavery and oppression of Egypt over the Israelites.  Jesus opposes the devil and shows that he will lead a different kind of kingdom, where people live in the goodness of God, not in the shadow of a tyrant.
  • Jesus in the temple
    • 4:14-28, in direct declaration of his intentions to liberate the oppressed, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 and is nearly thrown off of a cliff for it!

17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, 19and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[e] 
 20He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” [Luke 4, CEB]

  • Start of his ministry
    • 4:31-44, Jesus begins to spread the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived, in all the areas around his home town.
    • Chapters 5,6, Jesus calls disciples, heals people, and teaches about the new kingdom
  • Sermon on the mount
    • 6:20-26, In the Beatitudes, Jesus sets up a stark contrast between the new kingdom, in which people of all walks of life love God and live in peace and happiness, as opposed to the old kingdom, where the people with power, wealth and privilege rule the oppressed.  See my article discussing this.  
    • 6:27-49, with many other teachings, Jesus describes how the new kingdom will be a place of kindness and the goodness of God, in which people love their enemies, and share their belongings.  They will understand the "heart" of the law of God that puts all people on equal footing before God, rather than the legalistic "letter of the law" approach that allows people to lord their righteousness over others while treating people badly.

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the good news of God's salvation for all the earth, we are proclaiming a king which is the Incarnation of God on earth, and a kingdom where we exist as God's people.  At the same time ruled by God and bringing freedom and independence to God's people.  This is in contrast to, and in liberation from, the old kingdom and oppressive ruler of man.  What/who is this old ruler?  Jesus directly opposes the devil and the prince of the world as the ruler of the earth.  But, he also directly opposes oppressive human power as well as the "slavery from within" that comes from living by selfish deeds that satisfy selfish desires.  Greed, consumerism, unbridled ambition, selfishness -- these are often the things that enslave us.  God came to liberate us from slavery from oppression both from without and from within, by offering us membership in a kingdom as God's free people.

Another word for liberation of people from slavery, is Revolution!  Like when the people of Israel revolted against Pharoah.  By coming to start a new kingdom, saving people from the old one, God started a revolution that in time would sweep the face of the earth, to become one of the most powerful human forces on the earth.  The kingdom of God led by Jesus is now embodied in the Church.  And as the Bible indicates many times, this kingdom shares its goodness (blessing, salvation) not only with believers, but also with the whole earth.

The Modern Kingdom

In modern times, theologians well understood the important role of Jesus as liberator of mankind.  Liberation theology (see the wiki article) and other movements such as the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured this concept the most strongly.  These ideas continue to influence Christian ethics and church policies.  The role of Jesus as liberator, creating a kingdom characterized by freedom and independence, forms a strong identity for today's Christians.  We talk about religious freedom being a God-given right, not only so we can be free to organize and worship God without being coerced by government, but also so that we can enjoy the liberation of choosing our own path for following God as we feel God is leading us.  We recognize that all people have a right and need to listen to God (the holy spirit) for themselves and to be able follow as they are led, rather than following human kings who indirectly represent the will of God for us.  When we become Christians do we still believe in rights, equality, and freedom?  Liberation theology says that the gospel brings that kind of independence to believers.

However, if you read about liberation theology, you will also see that it was strongly opposed.  At the time the movement was a splinter off the Catholic church, and the Catholic church opposed it as being too Marxist (socialist/populist) - leading people away from orthodox practices and toward a grassroots, localized organization.  It was too focused on the people and not on religion!  Also, some proponents of liberation theology did not follow a peaceful path, but sought to secure their independence from oppression via violence.  On the other hand, Martin Luther King, Jr., correctly redefined the liberation movement as a pacifist movement, where we stand up for freedom using peaceful means, following also in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi in leading peaceful resistance.  Jesus taught revolution by changing within, not fighting the rulers in power.  However, Jesus DID oppose those that claimed to follow God but instead followed selfishness in order to build their own kingdoms.

Continue reading about theology and the evangelical movement, and what you find is that in the modern era, much of the teaching about Jesus as liberator was replaced (or combined with) the notion of domination, conquest, or an army of God.  In the modern mindset, the kingdom of God should be expanded using structure, persuasion and physical means to create a large army of followers for God.  People should be enlisted in the Church through membership, reciting creeds, declaring their loyalty or saying the prayers of forgiveness.  The kingdom became more of a lofty future concept (the kingdom "in heaven" instead of the kingdom "of heaven"), and whatever hardship we endure on this earth is worth it in order to secure future glory.  The kingdom on Earth became more an issue of duty and service, rather than freedom, independence and abundant life that comes from peace.  In fact, we don't live in "peace" but instead are called to service, confession of sins, prayers for forgiveness, disciplined religious duties, organized worship and dedicated evangelism.  In many ways the new believer is offered "good news" and "freedom" only to find that this good news is filled with requirements for service and duty.  Instead, the good news should be described as freedom and independence.

In modern times, liberation of the people and removing worldly power often led to a power vacuum that was filled again by the structural hierarchy.  We see this in history over and over again.  Socialism, initially just a populist philosophy, led to tyants taking power and enslaving the people again.  In the modern mindset there must be clear hierarchy, rules, institutions and authority.  Those that wish to take advantage of this for their own gain are the most likely to end up in charge.  This modern tendency negates the freedom.  But in the Church, this very freedom is fundamental to following Christ !

Does religious freedom only mean that we are free to enslave ourselves to whichever master we choose?  Or does religious freedom mean that under God we are all on level ground and God brings us into a new liberated state, in the new kingdom?

What does liberation look like for the Christ-follower?  If we pledge our service and allegiance to God, the Church and human authorities - we may be missing what God really has in mind, which is to unleash our creative mind, heart and spirit to grow into a more beautiful human and to make a positive change in the world.

Postmodern.  Revolution?

That brings us back to the original question.  Since Christ liberated us, how does postmodernism bring freedom, if we are free already?  How is postmodernism any different than what we have in modern religion?
Postmodernism avoids prescribing doctrines, practices and requirements.  What is important about the Church is the humanity of it.
Let my people go!
Any such system of requirements should be taken with a grain of salt.  It may be useful or interesting, but it is not to be taken too seriously.  If it works, keep it.  If not, toss it!  We should not value the institution above its constituents.  The individual and community aspects of people who are the carriers of the very spirit of Christ on this earth, are formed into a vital entity - the people of God - that offers huge hope to the world.  It also embodies and demonstrates the freedom that God is so determined to bring to humanity: freedom from oppressive rulers, freedom from structure and domination, and freedom from the destructive cycles of greed and selfishness that can enslave us from within.  Only with this type of freedom can we succeed in spreading God's kingdom to the whole world.  God is serious about Freedom!  Thus the Liberator.

In this way, postmodernism can bring a revolution against the modern structure, even tearing it down when needed.  In doing so it gives us a new chance to explore the freedom that comes from our identity as God's children.  This brings us right back where we started, with John the Baptist and Jesus opposing the religious system of the day, and offering membership in a new kingdom ruled by peace and freedom.  As Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20).

Modern God: a ruler king that is pleased by service and duty
God Postmodern: a creator king that brings freedom and identity

No comments:

Post a Comment