The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.
Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed
As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live at a higher sense of identity and purpose.
Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, quoting the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.
The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians.
Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.
The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic wellbeing.
Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose
Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.
For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.
One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a truly human, resurrection people?
The Resurrection Life
There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:
- To the tribalist, first God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our customs. Who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
- Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, killing tens of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be more egregious than we ever would care to imagine.
- And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.
So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life is what it means to be truly human.
[Photo by Navid, CC via Flickr]