Letters to Phil, #7 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I’m sorry that I have delayed in responding to your most recent letter. But, in fact, I needed to take some time to consider carefully what you wrote and to reflect on my reply.

“Slaveholding, after all,” you wrote, “is not inconsistent with following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.” I must say, Phil, that I didn’t see that one coming. After your indignant protests about your letter being used by other Christians to justify and support the American slaveholding system, I assumed that I understood your position. It is now clear that I was mistaken in that assumption.

I appreciate your clarification of the initial matter. If I understand you correctly, your objection was not so much how your letter was used to justify the institution and practices of slaveholding. Rather, your objection related to the fact of being “used” at all. Am I correct in that description?

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I believe you found the whole idea to be an affront to your nobility and honor as a free Roman man. You noted in your letter that “slaves are used as objects at the disposal of others. Free men are petitioned for favors, not employed as mere pawns in another’s game.” You object to being “used” for any purposes other than your own. Is that the gist of your complaint?

I hope we can return to this conversation about noble male honor and shame at a future time. Again, if I have misunderstood or misconstrued your views, I hope you will set me straight on the matter. But I want to focus on your assertion about slaveholding being “not inconsistent” with Jesus-following. I must admit that your offhand comment left me somewhat breathless.

You continued, “If Paul thought there was a conflict, why didn’t he tell Christians to free all their slaves and to oppose the whole Imperial slave system?” That, of course, is the question that has bothered theologians and commentators for the last two thousand years.

Paul’s cryptic and ambiguous language has kept us guessing, reading between the lines, formulating hypotheses, and writing both papers and policies. That is certainly true of Paul’s little letter to you. It’s job security for Biblical scholars. But Paul’s coyness has not led us on its own to clarity.

You agreed that Paul counseled slaves in the Corinthian congregation to secure their freedom if the opportunity presented itself. But, you continued, that was in no way a blanket condemnation of the system of enslavement. Instead, you suggested, Paul was merely pointing to the path of common sense and self-preservation. I don’t agree with the entirety of your conclusion here, but fair enough.

Then you pointed to Paul’s language in his letter to the Galatian Christians. I wasn’t sure if you knew that correspondence. We have suspected that Paul’s letters were carefully preserved and that copies were circulated to other congregations – often as collections of letters.

You noted that Paul rendered certain human categories superfluous when compared to our oneness in Christ. “For whoever has been baptized into Christ has donned Christ as clothing,” you quoted. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free man; there is not ‘male and female,’” you continued, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”*

You then noted that immediately after this stunning declaration of the Gospel, Paul used an extended metaphor to make his real point. The real point, you observed, was in the previous sentence. “For all [you Galatians] are sons of God by means of ongoing trust in Christ Jesus.”**

You quite correctly observe that in the preceding paragraph, Paul relies on the metaphor of the pedagogue to make his point. The pedagogue in question was certainly imagined to be an enslaved person put in charge of the safety, education, and discipline of the (free) male heir of the household.

Why, you ask, if Paul so disapproved of the institution and practice of slavery, would he then affirm that institution and practice in a theological object lesson. Why, indeed?

You further note that Paul uses another enslavement metaphor and story in the succeeding paragraph – the story of Hagar and Sarah. One of our contemporary scholars, Jennifer Glancy, has pursued similar observations.

Glancy writes of Paul in Galatians, “having incidentally announced that within the Christian community slave and free are not relevant categories, Paul introduces imagery that stresses acknowledged legal and cultural differences between slave and free.”*** It seems you have a scholarly supporter for your argument.

Phil, this strikes me as a modified argument from silence. As a preacher, I have used sermon illustrations from events and realms I might find offensive or have discovered later to be inaccurate. I’m willing to grant Paul the same need for growth.

For example, a favorite old chestnut for preachers is the story about catching monkeys by putting a brightly colored ball in a jar and then tying the jar to a tree. The story is that the monkey reaches in to grasp the ball. The monkey’s fist around the ball is now too large for the mouth of the jar. The monkey refuses to release the ball and is trapped by the monkey’s overweening and now deadly greed.

The story is often used to illustrate the perils of holding possessions too tightly. It’s not a bad point in homiletical terms. You know – “where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also,” etc. But as far as I can tell, the story is a preacher’s fable, passed from one pulpiteer to the next.

I had a colleague who served for years in Madagascar. He scoffed at the story. “Monkeys aren’t that stupid,” he growled, “but preachers often are.”

You might think I digress without end, but bear with me, Phil. I didn’t use the illustration because I approved of or participated in monkey-hunting. It seemed plausible at the time and worked for my purposes. I’ve since learned to avoid such “just so” stories in general in my sermons.

In addition, I’m opposed now to killing and/or eating of any animals – monkeys included. I also recognize the story as another colonizers’ trope that portrays Africans as rudely clever in their uncivilized and somewhat savage setting. I’ve learned a bit and grown a bit. I wouldn’t use the story again.

My point is that Paul’s use of enslavement stories does not entail his approval of the Imperial enslavement system. Do I wish he had used different stories to make his point? Indeed, I do.

Jennifer Glancy describes the problem well. “Paul promises a suspension,” she writes, “of the categories of slave and free, male and female, within the Christian community. His rhetoric, however,” she continues, “insists on the consignment of human persons to places in society that are defined by these very categories.”****

So, Phil, I’m not suggesting that your reading of the Galatians text is somehow “wrong.” I am suggesting that it may not serve as the secure and certain evidence you suppose. I have hopes that perhaps Paul thought better of his rhetorical choices later in his life. In the heat of the Galatian controversy, the blessed Paul may not have been thinking as clearly as he might later have wished.

I also have hopes that perhaps Paul grew and deepened in his understanding of the Gospel and its meaning for how we live as Jesus-followers. One of the reasons I treasure his letter to you is that I believe it is perhaps one of the final letters he wrote before his execution as a martyr.

I’m not suggesting he knew this outcome in detail as he wrote. In fact, I know he asked you to prepare a guest room for him in anticipation of a future visit. I’m sure he hoped that would happen. It seemed, however, that the anticipated visit never took place. I wonder how long you kept that room ready for him after you learned of his untimely death. It would have taken me a long time to recover.

In any event, Paul knew his time was running out, I suspect. So, his words to you have, for me, some of the flavor of final instructions for friends after a lifetime of prayer and reflection. I take this letter as a revelation of Paul’s heart when it comes to you, to Onesimus, and to enslavement. I’d like to think that Paul was less sanguine about enslavement as the years wore on, and clearer about what I see as the inconsistency between slaveholding and following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

It should not surprise you at this point, Phil, that I don’t agree with your offhand observation. I hope you know my disagreement doesn’t come with a sense of moral superiority or condescending judgment. I live in a time replete with similar assertions – many of which have found their way into our laws and social norms.

Recently, for example, we observed the anniversaries of two conflicting legal decisions. On May 18, we remembered the infamous decision of our highest legal body in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. In that decision the court ruled that Black people had no rights which White people were bound to respect.

That decision ratified a system of racial segregation and separation which gave legal sanction to de facto black enslavement under the color of law. The decision asserted that such a system was not inconsistent with a society that proclaimed “liberty and justice for all” as one of its cardinal virtues.

On May 17, we remembered another legal decision – Brown v. Board of Education. That decision overturned Plessy and opened the possibility that common humanity might result in equal justice under the law for all. That decision led to some great strides in dismantling the covert system of White supremacy in our nation. But I am sad to report that during most of my life, our society has resisted those gains and rolled back the progress at every opportunity.

Next week we remember the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a duly-sworn officer of the law. Perhaps that is a commonplace for you. In theory, it’s not supposed to happen in our system (although in fact it happens somewhere nearly every day). The ideal of oneness in Christ is still a distant dream in our churches, and equal justice under the law for all is an equally distant dream in our society.

Unfortunately, the argument that unjust systems can co-exist with the Gospel has not lost its power to persuade and pacify. I look forward to your reply (I think).

Yours in Christ,


*Galatians 3:27-28, my translation

**Galatians 3:26, my translation

***Slavery in Early Christianity, Kindle Location 675

****Slavery in Early Christianity, Kindle Location, 753.

Letters to Phil #6 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

So, you’d like to hear the various theories about what happened between you and Onesimus? All right. I’ll play along, but at some point, I hope you will tell me what really went on behind the letter we have.

The oldest and most traditional reading of what happened is the “fugitive slave scenario.”  In this reading you own Onesimus as an enslaved person.  Onesimus escapes and takes refuge with Paul. There is some debate about whether Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus or in Rome when he writes to you (I lean toward Ephesus, but I’m in the minority in that regard). Then Paul sends back or allows Onesimus to return to your house, letter in hand.

One variation of the “fugitive slave scenario” is the “intercession scenario.”  In this reading, Onesimus does not intend to escape from enslavement as such.  Instead, he has some difficulty with you, his master.  Onesimus flees to a friend of his master who can serve as a mediator and/or advocate in this situation. 

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We have a copy of a letter from Pliny the Younger to one Sabinianus. Pliny was roughly your contemporary and served as a mid-level imperial official in your part of the world. It’s entirely possible that you have heard of him or even had dealings with him. Frankly, I hope not, since he tended to torture first and ask questions later when it came to Christians.

Pliny wrote lots of letters, some to the Emperor and many others to supplicants of various stripes. A freedman whom Sabinianus had formerly enslaved and then released from enslavement had somehow run afoul of his former enslaver and current patron. The unnamed freedman fled to Pliny and asked him to beg Sabinianus for mercy and forgiveness on behalf of and for the sake of the freedman.

The comparisons and contrasts between this letter and the one Paul sent to you are noteworthy as we try to discern what is behind your letter. Pliny is clear that he writes on behalf of the freedman to express remorse and beg for reconciliation. We don’t get that in your letter. Pliny asks Sabinianus – who is likely beholden to Pliny in some way – to pardon the freedman and not to threaten him with punishment. There is no mention of any renewed or deepened relationship along the lines of Paul’s words to you.

So, Pliny’s letter is instructive more for its differences than it is for its similarities with your letter. It may be that Onesimus fled to Paul for protection, intercession, and advocacy. But Paul’s tone and request are quite different from what we find in Pliny’s letter. So, we surmise that the situation was different in significant ways. Perhaps you could enlighten us when you get the chance?

The “intercession scenario” is really only loosely based on the text of Pliny’s letter as we have it. This intercession scenario depends to a large degree on research into Roman law of the time.  The records of that law are theoretical and general and may be of limited value in understanding the actual legal administration of enslaved persons who have fled. 

So, contemporary scholars tend not to put much stock in this variation. That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate or interesting. It’s just that we don’t have much evidence of this practice from your time frame. Our examples don’t seem to convey the same dynamics that we find in Paul’s letter to you.

A second and relatively traditional reading is the “sent slave scenario.”  In this reading you own Onesimus as a slave.  You have sent Onesimus to Paul to comfort and serve him, and perhaps to bring him some money, during his imprisonment in Ephesus (or Rome). In this scenario, Onesimus acts as an extension of you rather than as an independent agent.

A scholar named J. B. Harrill notes that Onesimus may have been sent by the church to protect Paul from the uncertainties of his imprisonment.  This makes Onesimus less of an appendage and more of an agent. In this scenario Paul wishes to retain Onesimus as one of Paul’s co-workers in the Gospel.  This reading does not clarify whether Paul is asking you to free Onesimus from enslavement or merely to “lend” him to Paul. That’s a fairly large difference from our vantage point.

The advantages of this “sent slave” scenario are twofold. In his letter to you, Paul doesn’t condemn Onesimus’ actions, and that absence has to be explained. Nor does Paul offer any apology or remorse on behalf of Onesimus and in his defense. That absence must be explained as well. The sent slave scenario accounts for both of these absences. Since, in this scenario, Onesimus did not “escape” or abscond with your property, there’s nothing for which to apologize.

According to Harrill, Paul’s letter to you contains more similarities to Pliny’s letter and others like it than most scholars would concede. He points, however, to similarities to several pagan letters from a slaveholder’s friend to the slaveholder.  In the letters is often an apology for keeping the enslaved person too long.  Harrill notes some verbal similarities between Paul’s letter and some pagan letters of the time that account for keep another’s slave overlong. 

Harrill expands on this scenario by proposing the “apprenticed slave scenario.”  He notes the similarities between Paul’s letter to you and various ancient contracts to let out a slave as a “journeyman apprentice.”  Harrill argues ”that the letter asks you to let Onesimus be apprenticed to Paul for service in the Gospel…” 

He points to the “partner” and “coworker” language in the letter as evidence for this scenario.  He also notes “that the proposed apprenticeship will turn a ‘useless’ slave (one unskilled in any particular trade) into a ‘useful’ one, both to the master craftsman and to its original owner.”  In this scenario, Onesimus remains a slave—tasked now to Paul for a noble purpose, but still owned by another human being.

A recent, revisionist, reading proposed by Allen Dwight Callahan is the “a brother, not a slave” scenario.  In this reading, Onesimus is a literal brother to you and only metaphorically a slave.  Now, you may find this proposal insulting, if, in fact, you and Onesimus are not brothers “in the blood.” You know better than I that many enslaved people were the products of sex between enslaver and enslaved. That reality was a commonplace if the American slave system, and I can go into the details of that if you’re interested.

That being said, this reading holds that there is some sort of estrangement between the brothers, and Paul is seeking to act as a reconciling mediator between them. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable for any reason (unless it should make you uncomfortable, and then you won’t be expecting an apology). As they say in my time, I don’t write it — I just report it.

A further development of the revisionist reading is the “both a brother and a slave” scenario.  Again, I repeat my apologies if this is not the case. In this reading, Onesimus may have been sold into enslavement to satisfy a personal or a family debt.  Or Onesimus may be a half-brother to you through an enslaved mother.

Each of these positions has things to commend it. I suspect that elements of each of these proposals have some truth in them. As we read, study, and interpret your letter, we tend to keep all of these in mind. I rely mostly on the first traditional interpretation, in the absence of any other information (Hint, hint; nudge, nudge; wink, wink!).

Now, Phil, you are likely wondering why this all matters so much to us in our time. You may know of another set of letters from one of your contemporaries, Seneca. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, he addresses enslavement in Letter 47. While he begins by identifying the enslaved as human beings just like the rest of us, he ends up softening the horrors of enslavement and romanticizing the relationships between the slaveholder and the enslaved.

You see, Phil, Paul’s letter to you has often been used to accomplish the same propagandistic purpose. Following our own Civil War, an ideology and theology arose which came to be called the “Lost Cause.” One of the many elements of that mythology was that the relationship between the enslaved and slaveholders was relatively benign and that the formerly enslaved were actually better off in their former condition than as freed persons.

Scenarios based on the notion that Onesimus remained enslaved after you received the letter have been used to support this mythology. Scenarios that depend on a relatively cordial relationship between you and Onesimus prior to your conversions further support this mythology. Scenarios that suggest enslavement was and is compatible with Christian discipleship and community underwrite this mythology. So, you can see that discerning what actually happened makes a great deal of difference in our time and space.

One of our scholars, Stephanie McCarter, has written on this topic, and you might find her comments illuminating.* “What starts in Seneca’s Letter 47 as a recognition of the humanity of slaves quickly gives way to a similarly romanticized view,” she writes, “as Seneca replaces what he considers to be slavery’s less savory aspects with a damaging fiction: that the institution can be redeemed, even turned into a force for good in the life of the enslaved, by the noble Stoic slave owner.”

I know this takes us back to my previous letter and your displeasure with being used as a prop for how good it was for the enslaved to be enslaved. But that sort of nonsense continues to come back in different disguises over and over again. The goal is always to whitewash the ugliness of the past and to sanctify the power dynamics of the present.

Such efforts have never worked – not for Seneca and not for his twenty-first century acolytes. “No matter how many knots Seneca or proponents of the Lost Cause tie themselves into to posit the idea of a noble master,” Stephanie McCarter writes, “neither the Southern gentleman nor the Stoic sage can ever redeem slavery.”

Thus, many of us hope that what really happened was something that moved Christians toward condemning enslavement rather than redeeming it. That information, however, remains with you, my friend. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,



Text Study for Acts 8:26-40; 5 Easter B 2021

Non-Conforming (Acts 8:26-40)

It would be a shame to miss out on the first example in Acts of the gospel moving from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), and now the “ends of the earth,” aka Ethiopia. We need to exercise some care not to identify “Ethiopia” too closely with the modern nation state, although there are certainly historical relationships. Instead, in ancient usage, the label “Ethiopia” has been “used to refer to Africa [south] of Egypt, to Arabia, and even to India” (Gealy, IDB II:177f.).

The reference here is to the world beyond Palestine. “At times it simply appears to have been a useful word to give vague designation to all peoples far distant from the Mediterranean basin living in the far [south] and [east]” (ibid). I would not suggest that Luke is employing such a vague reference here, since there are details in the story specific to an Ethiopian royal realm. But it is useful, I think, to allow Luke to have multiple meanings in the background of this term. The gospel is moving out!

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By the time of our text, it was clear that “Ethiopian” generally referred to the territory south of Egypt. And Ethiopians would certainly have been darker-skinned and curlier-haired than natives of the Mediterranean basin. Ethiopia was a center for trade and wealth, with traffic in grains, cereals, and fruits, precious metals and minerals, ivory, ebony, and herbs of various kinds.

The main character in our reading is not named. His position, status, and competence, however, are clearly identified. “That a high official in the queen’s court – indeed the treasurer of her kingdom,” Gealy writes, “should be able to read the Greek roll of Isaiah is not a problem,” since the realm had been at least somewhat Hellenized since no later than the time of Alexander the Great. Our Ethiopian friend was a person of power and influence, of education and training, of intellect and curiosity.

But was he a Jew? Whether he was a Jew by birth or by proselyte baptism is not the question. The question is his ethno-religious status in light of the fact that he was a eunuch. The Levitical regulations in Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 state clearly that a man with crushed testicles or removed penis could not be part of the congregation of Israel. Such a one could not be treated as ritually clean, and there was no procedure for reversing either the physical surgery or the purity status.

If the Ethiopian eunuch was a Jew, he was in multiple senses a “non-conforming” Jew. Some scholars argue that the text of Isaiah 56:3-5 renders the earlier regulations out of date, but that is not a strongly held view. It’s worth noting here those verses.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off. (NRSV)

On the basis of the Torah regulations, Gealy concludes that the eunuch was not a born Jew and was unlikely to have been a Gentile proselyte (IDB II:178). Rather, he suggests that the eunuch was “Jew-adjacent,” (my terminology) what was known as a Gentile “God-fearer.”

Jeremias, however, offers a more nuanced view of the situation. Based on the regulations in Deuteronomy 23, rabbis issued legislation regarding “Israelites with grave racial blemishes” (terminology from Jeremias). While such Jews could be included in the community of Judaism, they could not be part of the ritual and political system of leadership. Members of these classes “were forbidden marriage with Levites…, with legitimate Israelites, and with illegitimate descendants of priests.”

Eunuchs couldn’t be part of the worshipping community. I suspect that when the eunuch was in Jerusalem for Passover, he was not permitted to enter any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. They could not marry (at least not other Jews). They couldn’t be part of the Sanhedrin or participate as officers in a criminal court. So, Jew or not, eunuchs were rejected as participants in the full life of Judaism.

Our Ethiopian friend is, therefore, “Mr. Intersectionality” – especially for readers from the dominant, white, European cultures. He represents an ethnic or “racial” group which can easily be regarded as “Other.” He is gender non-conforming, even if that status was forced on him without consent (the likely scenario, since consent was probably given by the parents before he reached puberty). He is a “foreigner” in the life of Judaism as it is centered in Jerusalem, and an outsider to the Roman imperial system.

Esau McCaulley discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in Reading While Black. In the history and tradition of Black interpretation of Christian scriptures, the eunuch is one of at least two representatives of African believers in those scriptures (the other being Simon of Cyrene). “Within the narrative world of Acts,” McCaulley writes, “the conversion of this Ethiopian manifests God’s concern for the nations of the world” (pages 108-109).

The text shows the eunuch as literate, curious, thoughtful, and familiar with the Hebrew scriptures (in their Greek translation). He is reading from one of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah and needs to have the text interpreted. Philip assists with the reading and interpretation at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “The early Christians interpreted Isaiah 53 as a reference to Jesus whose death for sins reconciles Israel and the world to God,” McCaulley notes. “This might have been what Philip explained to the Ethiopian” (page 110).

McCaulley suggests that the eunuch was especially attracted to the description of the Suffering Servant as one who had justice denied to him. Even though the eunuch was likely wealthy, influential, and politically powerful, he was still damaged goods. “In a culture with strictly defined gender roles, he would be seen as aberrant,” McCaulley continues. “Is it possible that he felt that what had been done to him was a grave injustice – for which he was forced, for his own safety, to keep silent like the suffering Christ?” (page 110).

The outsider status of the Suffering Servant (Christ), perhaps spoke to the eunuch in his life situation. He is then a touchstone for outsiders of all sorts who come to a relationship with Jesus. “If the eunuch did connect with Jesus as the one who suffered injustice,” McCaulley argues, “then he would be the starting point for an unending stream of Black believers who found their own dignity and self-worth through the dignity and power that Christ received at his resurrection” (pages 110-111).

McCaulley wants us to be clear about several things. First, it is sin that makes outsiders of us all – not something wrong with the eunuch (or Black people) ontologically. Second, the gospel calls forth and raises up our genuine humanity as children of God.

It’s worth quoting his whole conclusion. “The eunuch remained an image bearer. Christ showed the eunuch who he truly was. Christ, similarly, does not convey worth on ontologically inferior blackness. Those of African descent are image bearers in the same way as anyone else. What Christ does,” he declares, “is liberate us to become what we are truly meant to be, redeemed and transformed citizens of his kingdom” (page 111).

Pastor Lenny Duncan also discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in his book Dear Church. “The story of the queer folks in the church is the story of the Holy Spirit leading one of the early church’s most prominent disciples to baptize a queer person of color,” he writes, “a person who was studying Scripture already, which meant he was already part of the Jewish tradition or at least exploring it” (page 76). He reminds us that “the church is already queer.” The faith story of a “gender non-conforming” person is in our earliest manual on missiology, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles.

Duncan notes that some ELCA folks speak in hushed tones about our decisions as a denomination regarding human sexuality and Christian discipleship – tones that declare these decisions to be the beginning of our decline and downfall as a denomination. That’s bullshit, of course. Christianity has declined as a percentage of the US population by one percentage point per year for most of my life. So, let us not push the blame off on people we have victimized and demonized for centuries.

“People are deciding not to come to our churches,” Duncan reminds us, “because we have allowed [our churches] to become country clubs where we pantomime discipleship or to be German/Swedish cultural centers, not because we finally got the courage to love God’s own children” (page 78). The ELCA is going to continue to decline because of cultural shifts and demographic changes. Will we “go down” loving or fearing?

The Ethiopian eunuch offers a chance to reflect on the gifts and challenges of “otherness.” That must begin, of course, by talking about who is “other.” If the discussion centers me as a white, male, straight, cisgender, middle class American – if I remain the default position for Christians (and perhaps for “real Americans”), then let’s talk about something else – like arrangements for closing the church for good. But if we’re open to the surprising places where the Spirit lands, then we have some reason to go on our way rejoicing.

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-5.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.

Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018)  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.  Kindle Edition.

The Cross in the Middle of Everywhere — Throwback Thursday Books

The Superbowl ad sponsored by Jeep© and featuring Bruce Springsteen has generated thousands of words of commentary in its wake. Some have applauded it as a signpost on the path toward national reunion in the United States. Many have rightly pointed to its affinities with and symbolization of “Christian Nationalism.” The use of an overtly Christian worship space with a cross and heart nailed to a map of the United States is a pretty clear deployment of the iconography of Christian Nationalism.

The critiques are merited and well-taken. My question is this. How did the writers, producers, and owners of this ad miss the obvious subtext? Was it a case of creative tunnel vision, of being so excited about the “trees” of the ad that those responsible missed the “forest” of deeper meaning? I wish it would be that simple and naïve, but I don’t think so.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

It’s not that garden variety Christian Nationalism was slipped in under the radar in some insidious plot. Rather, the ideology of Christian Nationalism has been so taken for granted in the United States for so long that it is simply part of the expected background. The innovation is not that someone slipped in a narrow set of symbols to trumpet White Nationalist Cultural Christian Republicans. The novelty is that any white people noticed and complained.

This brings me to my Throwback Thursday book for this week. I want to lift up The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall. I have read and reread this book so many times that my highlighting has underlining, and my underlining has highlighting – all surrounded by marginal notes and questions in various colors of ink.

In this book Hall continues his project, begun in 1979 in Lighten Our Darkness, to uncover and describe an “indigenous theology of the cross” for Christians in North America. The book is a summary companion to his three-volume work on “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” The chapters were originally lectures delivered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2002. They have that snappy and immediate character of oral presentation and Hall’s passion for the topic.

In this post, I want to focus on the unifying theme of the book and of Hall’s work. I think his work is one resource in understanding why the “Middle” Superbowl ad could slide so easily into mainstream awareness with nothing more than an approving smile and a small tear in our eyes. Christian Nationalism is, I would propose, nothing more or less than a militant expression of the dominant and underlying cultural framework for white Americans on this continent since the first colonialists set foot on its shores. No great revelation, but there it is.

The ideological heart of the North American project is cultural, political, economic, military, and ideological triumphalism. It has gone by several names over the centuries – the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, American Exceptionalism, The Christian Century, Make America Great Again. In all these expressions there is the toxic combination of white male supremacy, Christian supersessionism and triumphalism, and western colonizing imperialism.

If one benefits from the privileges of that wicked cocktail (as I do), life is good indeed. If one lives outside that system, the consequences can be fatal. Hall writes, “the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes possibly the single most insidious cause of global peril” (page 4). Before we recoil in disbelief, let us recall the role of the West in nuclear proliferation, climate change, debt colonization, proxy wars, covert assassinations, and global white supremacy. I’m sorry, Bruce, but that’s what the “Middle” looks like if you’re a person who lives on the Edge.

Western (primarily Calvinist Protestant) Christianity has served as the underlying ideological framework for the “Middle.” We live in a time when that ideology is being identified, outed, and challenged. That’s absolutely necessary for the long-term credibility, health, and even survival of Christianity in the West. “In short,” Hall writes, “it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world of today and tomorrow as a force for life and not death” (page 5).

What the “Middle” really did was to center those systems which are killing us. We saw a lone, isolated, individual man in his pickup truck in the wide-open spaces. All that was missing from the image was the gun rack in the window and steel testicles hanging from the trailer hitch.

“Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck,” writes Ijeoma Iluo in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy–to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo,” she observes. “It may not stop until it has destroyed everything” (page 45).

The chapel at the heart of this triumphalist universe is not the home of an existing flesh and blood congregation but is a geographic landmark – the center of “everything.” It is not, however, even the center of the whole United States but rather only of the “lower 48.” So, it does not take into account people of color in Alaska and Hawaii, much less those in Puerto Rico or Guam. But then, why should it? And why bother with some messy and cantankerous congregation? After all, the American Middle is an ideal and ideology, not an actual community. What is to be centered is not an existing land but rather a conquering culture.

One of my points is that the creators, writers, producers, sponsors (and actor) may have missed the problem because triumphalist Christianity (in its most visible incarnation as Christian nationalism) is not a “bug” in the system. It is the system itself. And that is the problem. “So long as Christian faith is unable to distinguish itself at the level of foundational belief from the Western imperial peoples with which it has been inextricably linked,” Hall writes, “its actions and ethical claims will be ambiguous, even when they are inspired by apparently Christian motives” (page 4).

One would think that Hall had seen the “Middle” ad as he was writing his book. Of course, it antedates the commercial by twenty years. The ad is beautifully constructed and filmed. It hits all the right emotional buttons. There are values which one could admire – unity, empathy, compassion, community. But these values are so diluted by and polluted with the centering of white, male, evangelical, American Christianity, and so associated with the imperialist, colonialist, supremacist ideology of the West that the good stuff is drowning in the powers of death.

No matter how well-intentioned the ad might have been (for the sake of construing my neighbor’s actions in the kindest possible way), its actual message was counterproductive and contradictory at best. The ad’s association with the dominant ideology (which is, after the Ideology of Domination) conditions every element of the overt communication. That Ideology of Domination is readily associated with numerous causes and perspectives that reflect the Middle and reject the Edges.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez addresses this association at length in her award-winning book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I quote her at length:

Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. (page 4).

This triumphalist ideology is so tightly stitched into most of the American Christian fabric that one hardly notices it any longer. And removing that lining from the American Christian garment is and will be difficult and painful.

I would plead, at least, that those of us who are heirs of the “theology of the cross” (aka historic Lutherans) might become familiar with what Hall and his colleagues describe as the “thin tradition.” It was Jurgen Moltmann who noted that this theology was known by at least some Christians but never much loved. After all, who wants to be part of a movement that embraces the sin and suffering, the despair and death, the frailties and failings of human beings – embraces all that with self-giving love and a trust that God works through our brokenness to give real life?

Obviously, not many –not even many Lutherans. “Historical Christianity – Christendom – has steadfastly avoided the theologia crucis because such a theology could only call into question the whole imperialistic bent of Christendom,” Hall writes. As long as triumphalist, imperialist, colonialist white Western Christianity was calling the shots, there was no need to change or even notice. Now is a time, Hall suggests, for a profound reconsideration.

“But now the possibility of such a reconsideration has become a grave necessity for there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven,” Hall concludes, “by the quest for power and glory, or even for survival” (page 7). Perhaps we Lutherans could become part of the solution rather than part of the problem by embracing this thin and little-loved tradition.

That means losing. That means relinquishing our privileged positions in the middle of everything. That means relinquishing power and property to those who have been cheated and robbed for so long (aka reparations). That means the cross is a real vocation rather than a cultural and political symbol. That means, Hall says, “the only way of saying yes to life in such a context is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective no. The theology of the cross is for Christians,” he asserts, “the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.”

Sorry, Boss. The cross in the middle of everything isn’t in Kansas. It’s on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the hearts of people who love, and in the heart of the Creator of all.