Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Two Questions for the self-important in each of us

We are in Greece for a long overdue vacation. We stopped in Germany on the way to Greece to visit some friends. My German vocabulary consists primarily of lines from the Wagner operas. Not exactly useful when traveling in modern Germany. So I find myself in the position of most tourists – in a foreign country where I, like almost all Americans, do not know the language.

It is customary when traveling abroad to ask, “Do you speak English?” And that’s what I have done in previous trips abroad. Something strange happened in this trip, however. From the very first situation in Frankfurt, I found myself asking, “May I speak English?” It surprised me that I asked the usual language question in this manner. And I said to myself, there’s something right about it, and I continued to ask the same question in all subsequent situations where I needed to ask someone for help or directions.

“Am I redundant yet?” That’s the question a man we met at Frankfurt airport asks his boss in London with hope for the day when the answer will be, “Yes.” That will mark the day when he can retire, when he becomes “redundant”. So he asks his boss on a regular basis if he is redundant yet.

I love the concept, and I love the question. It’s the deflating question par excellence. We all want to feel needed, that the world revolves around any one of us. To feel redundant is the answer to all the self-importance we impose on ourselves. And it is an imposition, a burden. To feel redundant is a more accurate indicator of our standing in the universe. 

The two questions represent what I’m not on a daily basis, and they both hit me at the same time – one coming from my own better innards, the other coming from a Londoner looking forward to retirement.

How often do we really think about the words we use? And how do our words often reflect underlying, deep-seated inherited attitudes about the world and people who are not like us? How often do our words reflect an underlying imperialist attitude?

When an American asks, “Do you speak English?”, it really implies a position of superiority. Can you help me in my language? Because I never cared to learn your language! But you should know my language. After all, my language has conquered the world – and along with my language, everything my country stands for! So, surely I can expect you to speak my language. “Do you speak English?”

But when I ask, “May I speak English?”, I’m placing myself in the position of lacking something. I am making myself redundant! I am expressing my own lack of knowledge. I am renouncing my imperialist expectation, and I’m asking the other person permission to speak my language, because I don’t know any other, in the hope that he or she will help me in my ignorance. There’s a world of difference in how I ask for help. Do I place the focus in the other person and what I expect or hope for in the other person; or do I place the focus on my shortcoming and need?

Above all, asking “May I speak English?”, also represents respect for the country where I am traveling and the people of that country. I don’t think most people who ask in the customary way are showing disrespect and most people would say I’m overthinking this matter and drawing too many implications that most people can’t relate to. That’s probably true. But I’ve become so sensitive to matters of imperialist pretensions and inherited attitudes that it’s natural for me to overthink something so basic as how I ask for help in a foreign country. Maybe I’m overthinking, but too often we don’t think enough!

Maybe I’m overthinking, but too often we don’t think enough, because we are so important. That’s where the Londoner’s question comes in. Redundant is the antidote to self-important. So yes, let me be redundant. And may I speak English in my redundancy? 


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The true heart of Islam

It is commonplace for people in this country to speak of Islam as incompatible with Western ‘values’. I myself have fallen into that trap more than once – even in these pages a couple years  back. Muslim leaders have often been attacked for not speaking out against terrorism.

The fact of the matter is that Muslim leaders have repeatedly condemned terrorism that purports to be in the name of Islam. The Manchester attacker a couple of weeks ago had been reported to the police by members of the Muslim community in Manchester who had grown fearful and suspicious of his extremist views. Unfortunately, the police failed to take these warnings seriously – and that has also been true of other terrorists.

The Guardian newspaper now reports that a large group of imams in Britain will refuse funeral prayers to any individuals who carry out terror attacks. This is a very bold and courageous move and it should silence critics – though I doubt that they will ever be silenced. Only the elimination or expulsion of Muslims will satisfy those whose own hatred matches the hatred of the terrorists and their Islamic State masters.

Consider some of the statements quoted in the Guardian article:

“We will not perform the traditional Islamic funeral prayer over the perpetrators and we also urge fellow imams and religious authorities to withdraw such a privilege. This is because such indefensible actions are completely at odds with the lofty teachings of Islam.”

“It is the Islamic duty of every Muslim to be loyal to the country in which they live. We are now asking questions to understand how extremism and hatred has taken hold within some elements of our own communities.”

“We know that many of these people have previously led a life of delinquency. It is often the case that the path towards extremism is outside of the mosque and at the margins of society. We are all grappling with this hateful ideology. This is an ideology that makes killing and hating cool, and uses the words of Islam as a cloak to justify it.”

“To condemn is only half way. We must also actively confront loudly and clearly.”

These are bold statements and give me hope that terrorism will be defeated by the only people who can defeat it – Muslims themselves. Instead of demonizing Islam and building walls against them and spreading false stories about sharia law and other nonsense, we need to work together with them as people of faith. We Christians should weep with them, rather than attack them and their religion. We should weep for our own sins of violence and fundamentalism.

It took Christian churches about 1,800 years to stop reading the Bible with fundamentalist eyes and understanding. It took us many centuries to stop reading certain passages of the Bible as justification for wars and crusades and inquisitions. And there are still Christian fundamentalist sects that use the Bible to justify killings, capital punishment, neglect of the environment, nuclear weapons, damnation for gays, subjugation of women, war in the Middle East (so their “rapture” will come), and other forms of hatred too many to list.

The point that I’m making is that our Jewish-Christian Bible has many passages that can inspire hatred, violence and wars. Most Christian churches have come to a place in our evolution where we can place those passages in context and relegate them to the margins of our faith traditions. The same struggle has to happen within Islam, and the decision of these imams in Britain is a sign that it may already be happening. And perhaps Muslims will overcome the fundamentalist tendencies within their faith communities in less than the 1,800 years it took Christians!

We need to pray – not only for our Muslim brothers and sisters, but also with them. Our sorrows are their sorrows too. Their struggles to overcome the fundamentalist temptations have also been our struggles. What these British imams are revealing is the true heart of Islam. It is time for us who are not Muslims to open our hearts too, and stop judging. It is time for Christians too, to reveal the peace and love that Jesus taught – the true heart of Christianity.


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Does the Orthodox Church have a political theology?

Lately I have been reading some pieces of political theology coming from a variety of Christian sources. And I’m not referring to political agendas or endorsement of political parties. Political theology is not partisan politics under the cover of Christendom. What is political theology? True political theology is neither Left nor Right. Political theology is bringing the gospel into the midst of the worldly powers and principalities and letting the gospel judge the powers and principalities of the world as only the gospel can judge them, in God’s total freedom. Any ecclesiastical attempt to domesticate God’s freedom and co-opt God into a caesaropapist hierarchy is a total betrayal of the gospel. That is why Paul posits powers and principalities even in the “heavenly places” – or what we presume to be heavenly places, such as what the churches claim for themselves:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, RSV)

Is such a thing as a political theology in the Orthodox Church? I consulted a book by Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Orthodoxy and Political Theology, translated from the Greek, and published in 2012 by the World Council of Churches. The straightforward answer is that there is no political theology in the Orthodox Church.

Kalaitzidis identifies a number of reasons why Orthodoxy has not developed a political theology, the primary and all-encompassing explanation being the theocratic and caesaropapist inheritance of Byzantium. As the church became ever more dependent on the state during the Byzantine era, it took on more and more the characteristics of the state and empire. And when the empire fell and many Orthodox nations became part of the Ottoman Empire, the church took over the duties of ethnarch (protector of the racial/national identity) while at the same time ensuring the required loyalty to the Ottoman authorities. In a sense, the Ottoman period was a logical extension and evolution of the Byzantine theocracy. The sole exception was Russia, which was not subject to the Ottomans. There, under czarist rule, the church preserved all the elements of Byzantine theocracy as an arm of the state. The recent resurgence of the Russian Church in the era of Putin is the modern extension of this ingrained tendency in Orthodox polity.

After the wars of liberation in the 19th century, two parallel phenomena occurred. On the one hand, the liberated countries fell under the sway of European “Enlightenment” and nationalism. The churches in traditional Orthodox countries, while opposing the values of the Enlightenment, capitulated to the new nationalism. In the words of Kalaitzidis: the church thus seems to be trapped in a purely ethnocentric dimension operating exclusively within history, restricting its mission “to the realization of the fortunes of the race and the nation” (!), and transforming the preaching about the coming kingdom of God into preaching about national salvation and the preservation of a glorious ethno-religious past.

What Kalaitzidis describes has been the situation in Greece since the liberation from the Ottoman yoke. Thus, when the Chutch of Greece attacks globalization and movements of resistance, it is not on theological arguments or criteria, but on cultural and national arguments and the need to defend national independence, language, religious uniqueness, and ethno-cultural identity.

An additional factor has been the so-called “return to the Fathers” – meaning the Fathers (but never Mothers!) of primarily the early church and Byzantium. As a result, biblical studies have taken a back seat and thus much of the gospel teachings of Christ about the poor and the weak, the victims of history and oppression, economic injustice, are absent in most Orthodox discourse. The most recent trend in Orthodox churches is an increasing turn inward. This is happening not only in the old-world churches but also in a big way in the Orthodox churches of North America, especially since the expansion of Athonite-style monasteries which foster an introverted form of pseudo-spirituality.

There are exceptions to this introversion, but the exceptions only prove the general rule. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is one of the few voices in the Orthodox world for any kind of political theology. Though his primary focus has been on the dangers of environmental destruction and global warming, he has also addressed issues of economic injustice, racism – sometimes in fellowship with Pope Francis, with whom he has developed a very close friendship. The Rev. John Chryssavgis has been closely associated with the Patriarch and has edited many volumes of the Patriarch’s speeches, encyclicals and scholarly papers. Most of these volumes have been published in beautiful editions by Fordham University Press.

While the churches of the old world have a history behind them that perhaps understandably keep them shackled to an ethno-religious paradigm, the failure of Orthodox churches in North America to move beyond these shackles is especially tragic and inexcusable. It seems they want to carry the Byzantine practice of subjection to the state into the context of North America where it does not belong – or should not belong. Money and fellowship with power become the prime motivators for church statements and priorities.

Does Kalaitzidis have anything to propose to make up for this lack that he so accurately describes? I’m afraid not; and thus he perpetuates the Orthodox lack that he has identified. In the second half of his book he repeats the usual patristic/theological affirmations about the church; in other words, he gives us the usual ecclesiology that more often than not contributes to precisely the lack that he describes in the first half of his book! This is the usual cul de sac of Orthodox theology. Eventually everything is reduced to ecclesiology!

Even the most aware theologians can’t avoid circling back to the same old, same old. And in the hands of Orthodox theologians – even the best intentioned – ecclesiology becomes ecclesiolatry. And when you have ecclesiolatry, you don’t need a political theology! You don’t need anything that reminds you that there is a world outside the church, the world of gospel imperatives. When your vision is the vision of the self-perpetuating church, everything – including the gospel imperatives of Jesus – becomes sacramental and wrapped up in “the mystery of the world”.

Walter Brueggemann wrote some magnificent advice in his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (p. 107):

It is my urging that a serious Old Testament student, situated in an ecclesial community, has a responsibility to do careful reading of the Old Testament and to present to the ecclesial community not only those readings that confirm church theology, but also (and perhaps especially) those that clash with, challenge, and undermine seemingly settled church theology. It is my judgment that church theology as commonly practiced is characteristically reductionist concerning the Bible, that it engages in providing settlement and certitude. Such reading may be disturbing and unsettling to “the world,” but it provides a coherence for the faithful.

Ecclesiolatry results when the church becomes “the world” – that world, the one that is unsettled and disturbed by the gospel. And let’s make no mistake about it, the so-called “Old Testament” is as much gospel as anything in the New Testament. As I like to say as often as I can, there is nothing “old” about the Old Testament!

In another informing statement, Brueggemann writes the following (p. 113):

The Old Testament insists that there is a moral shape to the public process that curbs the raw exercise of power. It equally insists that there is a hidden cunning in the historical process that is capable of surprise, and that prevents the absolutizing of any program or power. Thus at the edge of an Old Testament theology, we must ask about the ways in which this odd text might make a difference in the large public crisis in which we are all, willy-nilly, involved.

Only in a serious encounter with the entire biblical witness is a political theology even possible. The Orthodox churches have failed to do this beyond returning to the Fathers and their dogmatic, canonical interpretations.

The other major obstacle is the centrality of the Liturgy in Orthodox consciousness. Indeed, Orthodox view the Liturgy and the entire plethora of hymnography as the most accurate reflection of Orthodox belief. It’s the old affirmation, Lex orandi, lex credendi – “what we pray is what we believe.” That old Latin saying was drummed into me countless times in Seminary. No problem with it. Let the Liturgy and the sacramental life of the church represent the visual, aural and physical/material expressions of the faith. But let the scriptures stand in tension to the liturgical and sacramental self-understanding of the church! Brueggemann is masterful in adroitly addressing this necessary tension:

In tension with that propensity to reductionism, I propose that it is the work of biblical theology to counter the reductionism and to bear resilient witness to those texts and their interpretations that do not “fit.” Thus the work of biblical theology, vis-à-vis systematic theology, is one of tension that is honest but not quarrelsome. In practice, I suggest that it is the liturgy that is to enact the settled coherence of church faith, and the sermon that provides the “alien” witness of the text, which rubs against the liturgic coherence. There can, in my judgment, be no final resolution of the tension between the systemizing task of theology and the disruptive work of biblical interpretation. It is the ongoing interaction between the two that is the work of interpretation. (p. 107)

I will stop these reflections here and continue another day. I’ve only began to scratch the surface of this theme. I hope to continue my thoughts another day.


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Thoreau’s Conscience

Every time I turn to the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, I always find the wisdom that I need in my life and is so sadly lacking in our world of experts and talking heads. Here is a sampling from my perusals today.

In his journal entry for August 18, 1854, he describes in great anatomical detail a Blanding’s turtle, Cistuda blandingii, and its movements. But then he concludes this journal entry with this paragraph:

I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo for the sake of science – but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.

This is how deeply Thoreau cared about the life around him – not just human life, but the life of all living beings in nature, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Every time I see magnificent animals in the wilds of Africa and Asia killed by poachers for profit and to satisfy the immoral desires of rich Americans and Chinese; every time I see images of wounded and abused animals here in our towns and neighborhoods; I wonder how horrible human beings are. Nothing of his troubled conscience troubles us, as we place the needs of our “lifestyle” above the survival of the very planet that is our home. No wonder Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature,” Thoreau wrote to himself. Who among us prays such a prayer?

On June 10, 1857, Thoreau observed a snake:

In Julius Smith’s yard a striped snake (so called) was running about this forenoon and in the afternoon it was found to have shed its slough – leaving it halfway out a hole, which probably it used to confine it in. It was about in its new skin. Many creatures – devil’s needles, etc., etc. – cast their sloughs. Can’t I?

Indeed, Why can’t I? Why can’t I cast off the old nature and put on the new? Isn’t that Christ’s teaching? Aren’t those the words we pray at the Sacrament of Baptism? Are they just words? Is baptism just a ritual, just a photo op for a baby and godparents and parents? Does anything still have meaning in what we do as a church? Why can’t I? Why can’t we cast off the old and put on the new? Are we really Christians? Or just pagans in church disguise?

And one more entry, this one for August 21, 1851. A beautiful philosophical reflection on our bond with nature and all life – though Thoreau sees it more in animals rather than human beings. How do we relate to the animals and plant life that we feed on?

It is remarkable that animals are often obviously manifestly related to the plants which they feed upon or live among – as caterpillars – butterflies – tree toads – partridges – chewinks – and this afternoon I noticed a yellow spider on a goldenrod. As if every condition might have its expression in some form of animated being.


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God of the gaps is no God

I love reading from Bonhoeffer’s writings, especially in the series of the complete works in English translations put out by Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” written between April 1943 (when he was arrested for conspiring against Hitler) and January 1945, three months before he was executed by the Nazis. These letters and papers were published after his death and became classics of Christian faith and expression in the 20th century. Today I came across this letter, dated May 29, 1944, and I want to share it here with you, from the translation in the Fortress edition. It was written to Eberhard Bethke, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and the one who did the most to get these “letters and papers” published after the war. It is the kind of “Christian” writing that is so absent in the superficial Christian “religious” writings of today. Bonhoeffer could stand comparison to any of the giants of Christian history. Note how he speaks of the “fullness of life” from his own perspective of imprisonment and war, and how Christianity puts together the fragments of our lives. I love his calling life “polyphonic” – surely inspired by his great love of music. What he wrote in the concluding paragraph about God as the “stopgap” is extraordinarily important. He rejects any notion of God being the god of the gaps! “God is the center of life and doesn’t just ‘turn up’ when we have unsolved problems to be solved.” Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we declare on Easter night, “Christ is Risen, and life politeuetai!” And I do not translate that Greek word, because I want to write an article on just that word. But please do read this letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read it more than once! It’s the answer you may need for many questions in your life. TRULY THE LORD IS RISEN!

Dear Eberhard,

I hope that despite the air raids you both are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summery days of Pentecost. Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. I often notice hereabouts how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself; when they fail to get what they want, they become desperate; if something succeeds, that’s all they see. They are missing out on the fullness of life and on the wholeness of their own existence. Everything, whether objective or subjective, disintegrates into fragments. Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear—(I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun)—for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. During an air raid, for example, as soon as we are turned in a direction other than worrying about our own safety, for example, by the task of spreading calm around us, the situation becomes completely different. Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. I’ve almost made it a rule here for myself, when people here are trembling during an air raid, always just to talk about how much worse such an attack would be for smaller towns. One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking—as it were, in “preparation for” or “enabling” faith, though in truth it is only faith itself that makes multidimensional life possible and so allows us to celebrate Pentecost even this year, in spite of air raids.

At first I was a bit disconcerted and perhaps even saddened not to have a letter from anyone for Pentecost this year. Then I said to myself that perhaps it’s a good sign, that no one is worried about me—but it’s simply a strange drive in human beings to want others—at least a little—to worry about them.

Weizsäcker’s book on the Weltbild der Physik continues to preoccupy me a great deal. It has again brought home to me quite clearly that we shouldn’t think of God as the stopgap [Lückenbüßer] for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then—as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat. We should find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved. This is true of the relation between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the universal human questions about death, suffering, and guilt. Today, even for these questions, there are human answers that can completely disregard God. Human beings cope with these questions practically without God and have done so throughout the ages, and it is simply not true that only Christianity would have a solution to them. As for the idea of a “solution,” we would have to say that the Christian answers are just as uncompelling (or just as compelling) as other possible solutions. Here too, God is not a stopgap. We must recognize God not only where we reach the limits of our possibilities. God wants to be recognized in the midst of our lives, in life and not only in dying, in health and strength and not only in suffering, in action and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God is the center of life and doesn’t just “turn up” when we have unsolved problems to be solved. Seen from the center of life, certain questions fall away completely and likewise the answers to such questions (I’m thinking of the judgment pronounced on Job’s friends!). In Christ there are no “Christian problems.” Enough on this; I’ve just been interrupted again.


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Behind the Curtain

The Guardian newspaper published an article today about the super-rich of Greenwich, Connecticut, and how they benefit from a tax code loophole called “carried interest”. As a result of this loophole, they pay taxes at a much lower rate than most Americans. People are beginning to wake up, and today’s article in the Guardian was provoked by peaceful demonstrators who upset the morning quiet of Greenwich neighborhoods this past Saturday. These super-rich are mainly Wall Street tycoons and hedge fund owners. Many of them have personal wealth in the billions of dollars.

I have very little or no understanding of such things as hedge funds. And I’m not particularly interested in learning about the esoteric practices of Wall Street manipulators. I’m not interested because I understand these practices and their practitioners by the rubric of the “powers and principalities” that Scripture speaks of:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [meaning the cross – but many translations finish the sentence as “over them in him,” which makes no sense]. (Colossians 2:13-15)

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Who are these powers and principalities? Are they mythical beings like demons and angels? That probably was the understanding of the early Christians who read these letters of Paul. But even within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is another stream of understanding. Consider Chapter 10 of Daniel:

In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks…. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, give heed to the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, so I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia…. But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I am through with him, lo, the prince of Greece will come.

What we have here is a peek behind the curtain. Behind the wars and struggles of our worldly existence there are battles in the heavenly and spiritual realms. Who are the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece that this passage refers to? They are angels that personify the character of each nation. They are appointed by God as guardians of the nations, according to Deuteronomy (32:8-9): When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

According to the “number of the gods” – now that’s a strange statement to find in one of the five books of Moses, the Torah! And the Hebrew of this phrase can be translated in other ways, “the sons of God” being perhaps the most popular. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Septuagint, translates as “angels of God”, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.

The non-canonical Book of Jubilees goes further: … For there are many nations and many peoples, and all are His, and over all has He placed spirits in authority to lead them astray from Him. But over Israel He did not appoint any angel or spirit, for He alone is their ruler, and He will preserve them and require them at the hand of His angels and His spirits, and at the hand of all His powers in order that He may preserve them and bless them....(Jubilees 15:31-32)

The highlighted phrase, “to lead them astray from Him,” is very challenging. Is it a statement that reads history in hindsight? To the Hebrew mind, everything was under the control of God, so if some nations resisted God or fought against Israel, it must be because God ensured that they would be led astray! The Book of Jubilees was written a little before the year 150 BC, roughly around the same time as the Book of Daniel was written. The important thing about Daniel and Jubilees is that they portray the angels (or spirits) of the nations in a negative light. The demonization of these angels of the nations would follow naturally from such depictions.

So when Paul came to write his letters from which I quoted earlier in this article, there was a whole plethora of spiritual beings that came under the broad label “powers and principalities.” Clearly, from the writings of Paul, these powers and principalities were viewed as evil and enemies of God and Christ. In every generation, in every stage of history, the powers and principalities take different form. For Jesus, the powers and principalities were three: Satan (who tempted him three times); the Jewish religious class (who challenged him at every turn); and the authorities of the Roman Empire (who crucified him). All of them celebrated their apparent victory at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm, the victor was Jesus!

Clearly the entire apparatus that I have summarized here is primarily mythical and belonging to a different cognitive age than our own. Today I don’t have to think of demons and angels who represent the nations. The nations do a very good job of destroying life without any help from angels or demons. But nevertheless, there is still a “spirit of the age”; there is a spirit of a nation; there is a spirit of the marketplace; there is a spirit of Wall Street.

And that’s what today’s Guardian article represent for me: the spirit of the marketplace. And without any help from angels, the marketplace has done an excellent job of making the rich super-rich and the rest of us… well, the rest. Hedge funds and the other contortions of the financial sector are foreign to most of us. Perhaps the practitioners themselves don’t fully understand how they work, since so much is done in millisecond transactions by computers. Is this how today’s powers and principalities operate, in the hidden realm of billions of dollars moving along fiber optic highways at the speed of light? Have the powers and principalities of our age triumphed where previously they failed? Has the cross of Christ finally met its match? Don’t bet on it.


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Messages of the Just

A friend shared with me the concluding stanza of the poem September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden. Here it is:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden wrote this poem at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was first published in The New Republic on October 18th, 1939. Auden wrote it at the beginning of a very dark period in human history.

There is darkness today also, of various kinds: climate change and environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, terrorism and the threats of new world wars, racism and prejudices of many types, deadly viruses and the potential of biological warfare, tyrannical governments, electronic surveillance and cyber attacks, religious confusion, superstition and conflict, and I can go on with more. The darkness Auden confronted in 1939 was focused on one enemy; our darkness comes from many directions and different enemies. But the overall picture today is just as bleak as it was in 1939.

Most of us are able to go about our daily lives without much of a feel for this darkness. We watch manifestations of it in our evening or morning newscasts, but then quickly immerse ourselves in our work, family obligations and favorite forms of escapism. That’s one way to respond to the darkness. The other way is to acknowledge it, and oppose it as “ironic points of light” in the language of Auden.

I prefer the confrontational approach. Though I also have my favorite forms of escapist entertainment, I leave much room in my daily life for the Auden approach. I read, I inform myself about the world through reliable sources, I commune with the greatness of the human spirit – in music, literature, philosophy and religious writings – and I try to write and develop my own thoughts. I post stuff here on this website, though not nearly often enough. And I exchange ideas and encouragement with friends and people who also want to rise above the darkness. The friend who sent me Auden’s poem did so to encourage me. And I post it here to encourage you if you also are struggling or need reminding that you are here on earth to be light in the darkness.

The cover of LIFE magazine, March 26, 1965 (click to enlarge)

Physically I’m not able to take part in demonstrations or other forms of resistance, but I admire people and groups who engage in non-violent resistance and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other men and women who took a stand for what is right. Our own Archbishop Iakovos walked hand in hand with Martin Luther King in the famous walk in Selma, Alabama. He was one of the few white clergy and the only church leader to participate in the walk! He was on the cover of the March 26, 1965, issue of LIFE magazine.

I recently watched the film Selma. An actor played the role of Archbishop Iakovos in the re-enactment of this important event in the history of civil rights in the United States. Iakovos was often quoted saying how important it was for him to support Martin Luther King and his struggle. Iakovos even received death threats warning him not to walk with King, but he did, and he made his mark in American history. On that day he was a point of light. He was one of the Just in Auden’s poem.

 

The walk in the film Selma, with the actor Michael Shikany portraying Archbishop Iakovos walking arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed by the actor David Oyelowo (click to enlarge)

The real message of Auden’s poem is in the lines:

… wherever the Just

Exchange their messages.

Who are the Just? They are those who hunger and thirst for justice that Jesus calls “Blessed” in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). The Greek word in verse 6 and also in verse 10 is δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosyne. It is a pity that all English Bibles translate it as “righteousness” because the most direct literal translation of this word is “justice”. Righteousness is too focused on the personal, and Jesus himself wasn’t particularly fond of righteous people if you don’t mind my saying so. He attacked those who were righteous in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. And quite frankly, few people are going to be persecuted for being righteous (verse 10). But people can be persecuted when they stand in support of justice – as Archbishop Iakovos stood on March 15th, 1965.

Archbishop Iakovos sends us a message today, 52 years after he walked with Martin Luther King. He sends us a message as one Just man to the Just men and women of today: Where do we stand? Do we even stand for anything? The fight for civil rights is not over, it continues. Do we care for civil rights? Do we stand with those who are denied justice? What is our own message to future generations? Do we care for our planet and its environment? Do we care for climate change? Do we care to eliminate poverty and hunger? Do we care to end all wars? Or are we too busy with our lives to care for anyone or anything else? Let’s translate Jesus’ words a little more accurately so we can hear more clearly the call to be Just.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

Let’s exchange messages with other Just men and women of today, of tomorrow and of the future – if there is to be a future.

Kneeling in prayer in the film Selma. Prayer of the Just – a message to us.