Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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Paul at Philippi – Systemic Deception Unmasked

Acts 16 marks the point in time when the infant church moved beyond the confines of what we today call the Middle East and Turkey. The Aegean would prove to be the cradle of Christianity as we know it. The shores of the Mediterranean would be where Christian theology would develop over the next several centuries.

  1. The Macedonian Vision (16:6-10)

We have a vivid description of Paul’s fumbling to find his next mission. Twice the Holy Spirit stopped him from pursuing further missionary work in Asia. Finally Paul and his companions end up at Troas, on the coast. There they receive their marching orders from the Spirit, but in the form of a nighttime vision (or dream?) of a man of Macedonia, begging Paul to cross the sea into Europe. Paul understood the vision but no action was taken until there was concurrence – συμβιβάζοντες – that the vision was indeed of divine origin. Group discernment was crucial. Verse 10 marks the beginning of the ‘we’ mode of narrative in the Book of Acts. It is thought that the ‘we’ sections of Acts represent those segments of Paul’s travels when Luke, the author of Acts, joined the missionary group.

Wall icon of Paul’s vision at the chapel of the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Chambésy, outside Geneva in Switzerland. This is a starkly modern interpretation of the scriptural passage (Acts 16:9). It combines a modern industrial image of Macedonia with a very traditional iconographic image of Saint Paul across the water from the industrial image that beckons him. This is the kind of iconography we need more of today as an evangelistic tool. But we must be careful not to impose a modern contrast between Europe and Turkey-Middle East to Paul’s time. The entire area was united by a common cultural heritage.

  1. Arrival at Philippi – Lydia (16:11-15)

Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi around the year 48. True to their usual practice as devout Jews, they look for a place of Jewish worship on the Sabbath, but they presumably acquainted themselves with the city and its people before the Sabbath (cf. verse 12), as Paul would do later in Athens (Acts 17:16-23).

It does not appear that there was a synagogue in Philippi, but Paul found a place of prayer. Literally, the Greek text does not say “place of prayer”; it simply says “prayer”. In the mind of the author, prayer defined a place; there was no need in the Greek text to write “place of prayer”! The “prayer” was found outside the gate of the city by the river.

How does a place become prayer?

The gathering at prayer was a group of women. Paul and his companions sat down and talked with them. Were they all Jewish? We are not told. But Paul’s usual practice when entering a new town was to speak first to local Jews before going to the Gentiles. Lydia was among the gathered women – a prominent woman in the town and a woman of some means to be trading in the very expensive purple cloth. She was from Thyatira in Asia (today’s Turkey). So perhaps she had her first contact with Judaism in her home town. She was a worshiper of God. In other words, she was a “God-fearer” (θεοσεβής), a common term for Gentiles who were drawn to worship or honor the God of Israel. Luke tells us that the Lord opened her heart so that she paid close attention to Paul’s teaching, thus emphasizing the divine initiative in Lydia’s conversion.

Did God override Lydia’s free will in opening her heart to receive Paul’s teaching? No the choice was hers how to respond to Paul’s teaching. God opened her heart so she would pay careful attention to Paul, but the decision to become a disciple of Christ was hers. She and her entire household were baptised. No prolonged catechism, as became the custom in subsequent church development, just preaching the simple good news of Jesus Christ. Indeed, nothing ecclesiastical is needed when the Spirit is moving!

Lydia’s immediate response was to offer gracious hospitality to Paul and his companions. She was very persuasive – παρεβιάσατο ἡμᾶς, Luke tells us. The verb here represents a forceful action. She was indeed very persuasive. Hospitality is a perfect response to God’s initiative. Hospitality defines the mutuality of our story with God.

  1. The troubling spirit of a slave girl (16:16-24)

The main incident in Philippi involved a slave girl who had a “spirit of divination.” The Greek text refers to πνεῦμα πύθωνα, a python spirit. The python was a snake that was associated with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. The high priestess at Delphi – called the Pythia – gave oracles while in a trance or state of ecstasy (μαντευομένη).

The English translation is rather misleading: “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl…” This sounds like a chance encounter. But the Greek text implies something perhaps more confrontational: Ἐγένετο δὲ πορευομένων ἡμῶν εἰς τὴν προσευχὴν παιδίσκην τινὰ ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα πύθωνα ὑπαντῆσαι ἡμῖν = “It transpired as we were going to the prayer a young girl with a python spirit encountered us.” The verb ὑπαντάω can mean “go out to meet, draw near” – in other words, an intentional encounter, not a chance encounter! As a matter of fact, the verb has a second meaning: to oppose, to meet in battle. This was not a chance encounter! This was a confrontation between the Spirit of God that was guiding the apostles and a spirit of deception.

The girl was not just a slave to her masters, who made money off her, but also to the spirit that drove her divinations. She followed Paul and created a confusion between the God of Israel and the highest god of the pantheon of popular belief – whoever that highest god was; Zeus, perhaps, in Philippi? A cult of Theos Hypsistos is well attested in cities of the Aegean and Propontic Thrace in the middle of the first century. As the pagan philosopher Celsus would later put it, “I think that it makes no difference whether we call Zeus the Most High [ὕψιστος], or Zen, or Adonai, or Sabaoth, or Ammon like the Egyptians, or Papaeus like the Scythians.” Confusion of spirits is very much still with us. Syncretism is attractive to many people, especially self-identified “spiritual seekers.” Paul could not tolerate such confusion.

The poor slave-girl followed Paul for many days. Paul heard her; he heard her cries as cries for liberation. Do we hear the cries of the powerless on our way to “prayer”? Does pious, religious god-talk keep us from seeing the oppression of people? Ministry in the name of Jesus releases people from oppression, especially poor women, and gives voice to those who are voiceless. Who are some of the voiceless in today’s world?

Paul is “annoyed” the NRSV translators put it. The Greek says διαπονηθεὶς, deeply pained, disturbed throughout his being. He experienced not only anger at the deceptive spirit but also pain at the captivity of the girl. He performs an exorcism in the name of Jesus Christ. The Most High God is not Zeus or any other supreme being, but the God who works σωτηρία – salvation, deliverance – by the name of Jesus Christ.

The reaction to the exorcism is immediate and vicious. The girl’s masters, the authorities and magistrates, and the crowds – κύριοι, ἄρχοντες, στρατηγοί, ὄχλος – and later also the ῥαβδοῦχοι, the policemen [literally, the rod carriers], all ganged up against Paul and his companions. Their entire social order was under threat – a magnificent example of commerce, politics and religion working together to keep a system going when threatened by new teaching! This is a powerful scene. It clearly echoes the scene at the judgment and crucifixion of Jesus, where religious and political authorities were joined by crowds.

  1. Conversion of the Jailer (16:25-34)

The prison scene is beautiful and needs little commentary. Here it’s an earthquake that sets the prisoners free, unlike in earlier imprisonments in the Book of Acts where an angel opened the prison doors (5:19 & 12:7). Another household baptism takes place and the jailer, just like Lydia, offers hospitality to the apostles. The jailer’s question to the apostles, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” echoes the rich ruler who asked the same question of Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, etc.). Although perhaps the jailer is not thinking of eternal life. Salvation carried many meanings for a pagan such as the jailer. Or, the author has put his question in terms that a Christian reader will understand. We must always be careful about how much of our current beliefs we read into ancient texts.

  1. The Denouement and Departure (16:35-40)

By morning, the apostles are back in jail. But the magistrates clearly want Paul and his companions to be let out of prison so they can go on their way – the quicker the better. The jailer himself understands this to be the intention and advises Paul to leave the city. But Paul will not go quietly. As Roman citizens, they meant to expose the illegal acts of the local authorities. They received an apology from the magistrates, who nevertheless asked them to leave the city – surely an echo of Luke 8:37, where the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave after he healed the demoniac. A return visit to Lydia to encourage her and the brothers and sisters with her and a farewell to Philippi. But Paul will be back on his next journey in the Mediterranean lands (Acts 20). And a few years after he established the Christian faith in Philippi he wrote a beautiful letter to the community in Philippi.

The Philippi episodes clearly unmask the collaboration of commercial, political and religious forces to keep a society ordered for the benefit of the powerful. Isn’t this the state of the world as we know it? How should Christians respond to the exploitation of the poor?

What does Acts 16 say about the ease with which societies point to foreigners as the reason for economic and social problems? Xenophobia was part of the established order that the authorities wanted to protect in Philippi.

Paul and Silas prayed and sung in prison – and the foundations of the prison were shaken. When God’s people pray and sing powerful things happen – but only when they are not for our own spiritual edification! This is the key that is missing in so much of today’s Christianity. Paul and Silas were singing and praying – and the other prisoners were listening. A community was being formed right there in prison. And this community should shake the foundations not only of that prison, but of the system of incarceration in general. That has not happened. Christians are among the most eager supporters of prison systems. Is there a difficulty here that we’re not seeing? That we are not debating?

At the end of Philippi sojourn, Lydia’s home becomes a house of ex-offenders! What does this say about the ways our society treats ex-offenders? How should the church reach out to prisoners?

The Philippi sojourn raises profound political and socio-economic questions that are still pertinent to the situations that prevail today in society. Do we have the courage to confront these questions?


The church knows only one totality

In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.

Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.

For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)

Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”

The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.

But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)

I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.

The execution grounds at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer and others were executed on the morning of 9 April 1945

Memorial to those executed on 9 April 1945 (click to enlarge)











Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.

So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.

Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.

The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.

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Our Totalitarian Lives

I stand in awe of Karl Barth (1886-1968), generally acknowledged as the greatest theologian of the 20th century and one of the greatest of all time. My awe is not simply at his theological depth and understanding of Scripture; I’m awed at the sheer quantity of what he wrote and published. His greatest contribution to Christian theology is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, a multi-volume work of over 9,000 pages (in its original German). When I consider this huge work and the countless other books and papers that he contributed to a deeper understanding of our Christian faith, I cannot help but think how meagre our own efforts are. Today, with all the tools that technology has given us to make research and publication so easy, what theologian produces one-tenth or one-hundredth of what Barth produced with only a typewriter and printed books at his disposal? As I said, I stand or sit in awe of Barth – and other men like him of bygone eras who produced books for the ages instead of idiot tweets that our own era will be known for.

The recently published book, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, contains precisely what its title signifies, transcripts of various public “conversations” in which Barth participated and in which he answered questions posed to him by a variety of people – not just professional scholars and clergy, but also journalists and even prisoners! Barth was very fond of visiting prisons and having group conversations with prisoners. When he toured the United States in 1962, he insisted on visiting some major prisons, including San Quentin in California. The greatest theologian of the century was no aloof elitist.

One of the most fascinating conversations in this collection is one that took place on June 24th, 1962, with Protestant book dealers, in the Alpine village of Flims in his native Switzerland. One of the questions posed to him was as follows: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Certainly an important question to ask at that time, when Europe was divided between a totalitarian East and a democratic West, but also an important question to ask in any modern era; very much including our own. Barth’s answer was long. A few quotes are worth sharing:

“Totalitarian” – that somehow refers to something whole, comprehensive. And when one says “totalitarian state,” one apparently means a state that demands something in its entirety from humans….that they place themselves without reservation at the disposal of its teaching and its will and its purposes. The total state is a state that says, “You shall love me with your whole heart, with your whole mind, from the entirety of your soul, and from the entirety of your strength” (and here Barth is clearly alluding to God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:5 as being demanded by the state). And there we have the mystery: the total state, even when it poses as being atheistic, is a state that arises in the shape of a deity and wills to have from humans that which only God can will to have from humans. That is the imposing thing about such a totalitarian state: it is, so to say, a caricature of God. Even when it wishes to be atheistic, it somehow has to represent God in a distorted form on earth….a curious contradiction: the godless atheistic state that presents itself, reveals itself, and represents itself as divine.

Is it clear to all of us that not only the Communist state and also not only the Hitler state, but rather every state has something of the totalitarian state in it, that every state, even the finest and freest and most democratic, thus resembles a large cat, which has fine paws to be sure, but whose paw has claws stuck in it somewhere? And the claws in the cat’s paw – that is the totalitarian element in every state: and one can never be entirely certain just when that totalitarianism will appear. As I say, in every state!

After giving a couple recent examples in Swiss history, he goes on to some startling statements which should give us pause to reflect on our own habits.

You know, that’s how it is with the totalitarian spirit: it doesn’t begin with the state. Human society, if you will, is totalitarian as such. Society around us automatically demands certain things from us. It doesn’t make much noise, as long as one goes along with it. But when one doesn’t go along, when one swims against the stream, things get nasty….What “they” believe and think and do – this “they” governs “in the air” (reference to Ephesians 2:2 and Paul’s teaching about powers and principalities in Ephesians 6:12). Without police! No one lands in prison. But everyone has to do and has to approve what “they” do and approve….Because society is always based on this “they”, there is also occasionally a totalitarian state, and then its claws become more or less apparent….

Now, you see, something much larger stands behind the totalitarian society and then the totalitarian state. I would say it is a totalitarian world. Yes, what the Bible calls “the world” is a being full of totalitarian demands. When the apostle Paul spoke of it, he spoke of those powers and authorities that rule. He named them “thrones, principalities” and so on. And that is not mythology. That is the truest reality. (Further passages in Paul that explain what Barth is referring to: Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 1:16, Colossians 2:15)

You can guess what this is leading to: Barth’s itemization of some of the social constructs that define our lives: fashion, media, sports, money. He even makes a humorous reference to his experience in the United States in the previous months:

Or take something else, what we now call “traffic”. Take a look at our streets with all these cars! I have just had this experience in America….four cars next to each other in one direction and four in the other direction! And nonstop, day and night. You ask yourself, what’s going on here? What are they all rushing to? Yes, they must rush. Things are in a hurry, yes, in a hurry. And so they hurry along. And then to realize that cars like this are rushing and racing all over the world! We wouldn’t have it any other way. No, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It must be so. But when something must be so, then it is something totalitarian. Modern people have mostly become car people, and to be sure, not in the sense that they govern cars, but rather that cars govern them.

So now it should be evident to you that we live within an entire spiderweb of such powers and authorities, and you have before you what I call the totalitarian world.

If I were present in an audience listening to this methodical exposure of the totalitarian instinct I would have become breathless. How true Barth’s words ring, and even more today than 55 years ago. Because how much further we have traveled down the road of totalitarianism!

What would Barth say about today’s digital world, and especially social media and the power they hold upon a growing majority of the “world”? Hardly a day goes by that we are not reminded of the power social media exerts in our lives, even defining how many of us receive our news, influencing even elections in democracies such as ours. How free are we, truly? The things Barth used as examples of society’s totalitarian instinct are still with us – fashion, money, media, sports – but now we have an even more powerful force in the prevalence of social media. His image of “traffic” and cars applies even more to the digital world that now controls so much of our lives. The Guardian newspaper included a devastating article on New Year’s Day: Take it from the insiders: Silicon Valley is eating your soul.

A pre-Christmas statement by Facebook claimed that although “passive” use of social media could harm users, “actively interacting with people” online was linked not just to “improvements in wellbeing”, but to “joy”. “In short,” the Guardian article states, “if Facebook does your head in, the solution is apparently not to switch off, but more Facebook.” So if you’re not happy, it’s because you’re not using Facebook enough! Don’t be a light user of Facebook and social media, immerse yourself, find happiness online with Facebook!

The former Facebook president Sean Parker warned in November that its platform “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” God indeed only knows – or we will know when it will be too late, after we have created a few generations of robots ready to be assimilated into a Big Brother corporate totalitarian state such as those depicted in movies of dystopian futures. Another former Facebook executive was quoted to say: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth … So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.” But he still loves the company! So must we all, despite what it’s doing to our brains and our social interactions. One Stanford University lecturer and tech consultant pontificates with statements like this: “For new behaviours to really take hold, they must occur often.” But even this devotee came to realize the truth of what he was promoting and eventually installed a device in his home that cut off the internet at a set time every day. Nice that the elite can have such digital solutions to digital sickness. Most people are not so lucky. Even Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPad, was quoted in 2010 to say that his children do not use the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he said in an interview. Again, the elite have options that the majority of the people who will become drones in a dystopian future do not. I’m not exaggerating.

The scariest part of all this and the reason why I want to relate it to the biblical teachings about powers and principalities is that the owners of these companies – Facebook, Google, etc. – do not have control over what their digital platforms are doing. It’s all done by bots – pieces of software that perform automated tasks – and other such digital entities which follow their own rules and probably create or will create their own realities. Tristan Harris recently told Wired magazine: “Right now, 2 billion people’s minds are already jacked in to this automated system, and it’s steering people’s thoughts toward either personalised paid advertising or misinformation or conspiracy theories. And it’s all automated; the owners of the system can’t possibly monitor everything that’s going on, and they can’t control it.” The same Tristan Harris asserted: “Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts.” I don’t care about governments – I don’t trust them – but I do care about religion, especially my religion. So in a sequel to what I write here I want to look at Barth’s answer to the question originally posed to him: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Can the Christian church have any resistance to the multiple threats of totalitarianism?

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An Ill-Mannered Jesus


More than 200 newspapers carry the advice column of Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners. I was curious to see if Miss Manners could help Jesus with some dinner etiquette, so I did aa quick Google search. In August of this year, someone asked Miss Manners for advice:

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I find myself stunned at most people’s table manners. For example: breaking bread/rolls and buttering each bite, using a thumb to push food onto a fork, using a place spoon for soup, cutting up an entire entree salad at once, serving coffee after dessert, leaving napkins on the table at end of a meal, passing salt and pepper together, etc.

I never say anything, but just wonder if the etiquette rules I was taught, and followed in a very upper-level hospitality position, have been canceled.

GENTLE READER: It is never a good idea to monitor other people’s table manners, and not only because you are apt to spill something all over yourself while you do so.

Miss Manners notices that you are already agitated, because you have mixed up what should and what should not be done, and thrown in some general rules.

Just to clarify:

Bread and rolls should be broken into small pieces and buttered individually; thumbs should not be used as pushers; the so-called place spoon is a medium-sized oval spoon that can be used (as the teaspoon should not be) for soup or dessert; napkins should be put to the left of the plate at the end of the meal, and salt and pepper should be passed together.

That people violate these and other basic rules does not mean that they have been canceled. So no, the Etiquette Council did not say, “Oh, go ahead, plough in with your hands, who cares?”

But it did resolve to refrain from watching.

So Miss Manners advises not to watch what other people do at a dinner – but there are rules for dinner etiquette.

By Miss Manners’ standards, Jesus showed very poor manners when he was invited to a dinner (Luke 14:7-24). When the parable of the banquet (verses 16-24) is heard without its context of Jesus being a guest at a dinner, it can lead to some very misleading interpretations. Let’s see the context of the parable in Luke 14.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. (Not actually a parable, but advice!) “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(And he offered advice to the host!)

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

(And only then does he tell the parable of the banquet!)

When the parable is read without its context it has often been turned into an allegory, where the invited guests represent the Jews and the lame and the poor represent the Gentiles who are brought in by God to replace Israel. That’s the danger of reading the parable without its context – and the context is an actual dinner to which Jesus has been invited!

When the context is taken into consideration, the parable becomes an expression of the great reversal that Jesus brought into human consciousness and human relations. This was a theme very dear to Luke when he wrote his Gospel. It starts in chapter 1, with Mary’s Magnificat (to call it by its Latin designation).

Part of it reads as follows:

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

We sing this every Sunday morning in the Orthodox Church as part of Matins (Orthros). But have you ever noticed those words? Or do they perhaps make you blush with embarrassment? As in: Really Lord? When did all this happen? When did you bring down the mighty and send them away hungry? The reality of the world seems to be the exact opposite of what Mary magnified the Lord about!

Was Mary naive when she spoke these words, when she sang them in her heart? Was Jesus naive when he said the meek shall inherit the earth? Is the NT out of touch with reality after all? No, Jesus knew what he was saying. Mary was well aware of the ways of the world when she sang that the Lord has brought down the rich and powerful and left them empty and hungry. She knew that’s not the way of the world. The rich are not brought down or sent away hungry; they are only getting richer and more powerful, often with the help of politicians.  But Mary knew what new values the child that would be born of her would bring into the world.

And that child grew to be a man. And that man spoke as the Word of God – the incarnate Logos, by whom and through whom everything was created. And that man Jesus spoke to the host and the guests at the dinner where he was an outsider guest, and told them how it should be among human beings. The parable of the banquet is not so much about heaven as it is about the earthly existence that represents the values of God’s kingdom.

Look around. Are the proud and mighty brought down from their seats of power? Are the rich going hungry? Are the poor well fed? If the answer is NO – and it it is – then the kingdom of God is not among us. Does the church reflect the values of the kingdom and the great reversal that Jesus taught? The answer is again NO. Do individual Christians reflect the great reversal in how we live our lives and who we honour and who we vote for? Do we reflect the values of the kingdom in how we accept those who are different from us? That’s what today’s parable is about. So don’t dream of heaven if you can’t dream God’s dream for life here on earth.

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The Cross is not a political slogan

Living in Montreal and two other Canadian cities in the 1970s I became aware of the politics that ruled the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada. As a matter of fact, it came to the point, at least in Montreal, that the Hellenic Community administration that governed all the Greek churches of Montreal was split along the lines of the political parties of Greece!

The politicization of the church has been a fact since the unfortunate transformation that the emperor Constantine initiated. We are still living in the Constantinian era. And not only the Orthodox Church! Even those churches that do not consider Constantine as a saint are nevertheless living under the shadow cast by his reign.

Consider the 20th century. The official Lutheran Church in Germany quickly capitulated to Hitler, leaving only a small remnant of German Lutherans who remained loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than Nazi ideology. The Catholic Church in Spain supported the dictatorship of Franco; and in most Latin American countries supported and blessed ruthless dictatorships throughout most of the 20th century. Even in the Greece, the church embraced the dictatorship of the colonels, 1967-73,  and the slogan, <<Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών>>, loosely translated as, “Greece, [the land] of Greeks, Christians”. I inserted “the land” which is not present in the original but is one of the ways it can be translated – the other way being “Greece, [for] Greeks, Christians.” I also separated Greeks and Christians by a comma to capture more of the flavor of the original. For the meaning is not that there are Greeks who are Christians – but Greeks ARE Christians. If someone is not a Christian he or she is not Greek, and hence not part of Greece. It was a slogan that perfectly expressed the marriage of church and state and the nationalist identity of every embedded member of that society.

The colonels’ slogan can be equally well applied to other societies. There is a very sizable segment of the US population who would subscribe to something similar for American society. It is all part and parcel of the politicization of Christianity that we have inherited from the fourth century revolution in church-state relationship.

Today politics define the Christian experience in this country to an increasingly alarming extent. Once a label has been attached to a person’s form of Christianity, that person is only allowed to support the politics that go with that label. So, for example, a “liberal” Christian cannot be liberal if he or she is against abortion. A “conservative” Christian cannot be conservative if he or she approves of same-sex marriage. If you were “evangelical” in 2016 you had to vote for Donald Trump; if you were “progressive” you had to vote for Hillary Clinton – you were a traitor to your label if you voted otherwise! So your political or religious label puts you in a straitjacket – hence the polarization that is quickly destroying the social fabric and the possibility of reasonable dialogue.

Nazi insignia combining key symbols, including the cross (click to enlarge).

Typical piece of Nazi “Christian” propaganda (click to enlarge)

This is a frightful situation. Allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ is replaced by allegiance to a political slogan or ideology. This is what the church did in Nazi Germany. Nazi Christians even represented the Cross inside or with the swastika! But there were a few Christians who did not fall in line – and many of them paid with their lives. The most famous of the resisters was the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent two years in Nazi prisons but was quickly killed by order of Hitler in the last days of the war, as the Allies were about to enter Berlin. During his two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters and theological essays that were collected after his death by his close friend and relative, Eberhard Bethge. They were published under the title Letters and Papers from Prison, a book which I consider one of the most important books ever written by a Christian. It is a book well worth reading as the line between the cross and political and racist ideologies becomes increasingly blurred.

Like all citizens of a nation, Christians will have their own political views and preferences – but we do not have God’s permission to turn the Cross into a slogan or marry the gospel of Jesus Christ to any political ideology, left or right. Political engagement is important and necessary for Christians. But political engagement is tricky and treacherous. Better to be wrong in your politics than to be wrong in defending your politics with scripture! Venture with fear and trembling. And never assume that God agrees with your politics.


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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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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.