Thursday, November 17, 2016

Seriously Bishop Brian, Part 2

Having written my previous blog on the idea that natural events are caused by personal sin, I had another string of thoughts that I must put out there.

Bishop Brian claims it is murder (e.g. Cain and Abel), homosexuality, and other such sins that directly caused the event. Often abortion is also singled out in such ‘prophetic oracles.’ Let’s just assume for a moment that the honorable bishop is correct, and God is smiting New Zealand for these sins.

The first question that comes to mind is why this place of all places? According to GeoNet the quake hit fifteen km north-east of Culverden. I suppose on the rationale of the bishop we are to suppose that the people of Waiau and Culverden are really bad sinners. As God supposedly chose this place, they must be guilty of more of this than other New Zealanders? Their sins have purportedly made the earth there heavy, and it is spewing up.

Now, in 2013 Culverden was a country town of 428. North-east is Waiau, very close to the epicentre, which had 261 people in the 2013 census. If God is upset with our sins, why here? Are the folk of Waiau or Culverden worse sinners than others in NZ? Taking Jesus’ question in Luke 13:2-5 see previous blog), are these 700 or so people worse sinners than say, people from Albany, Auckland (where I live)?  I would have thought a good volcanic eruption in Auckland might be closer to the money (if his assumption is true).

I see in Culverden there are other retailers, a Four Square Shop, Farmlands, a motel, PGG Wrightson. There are also the Culverden Tearooms (a scene of carnal pleasure?), a Challenge Petrol Shop, a domain, a silversmith, and a school. There is a pub. Aha, is this the scene of the debauchery that led to the earthquake? Or is it the Culverden Indoor Bowling Club where it is all going on? I see there is a police station in Culverden, perhaps a harbinger of the rampant crime pervading the town. I looked around the Canterbury police statistics, but didn't earth up much on Culverden. Ah, but then there is also a Catholic Church there and the Amaru Cooperating Church, which is listed in the Presbyterian Church’s of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Of course, these are traditional churches—can they be taken seriously? 

Getting real; two churches, one pub, mmmm, worse sinners? Absolutely not. I can hear Jesus’ answer to his own rhetorical question in Luke 13—no, they are not worse sinners. Rather, he said watch yourself, me and Bishop Brian included.

What about Waiau? Here there is even less going on. There is a motor camp, a school, a foodmarket, a café, a lodge, a hall and library, a few other spots, and houses. As the epicenter of the earthquake, one wonders what the heck may have been going on in these places? Are the folk of these small South Island Towns living horrendous lives of sin under those roofs? Somehow, I think not any more than those in the areas Destiny Churches are found are doing so.

Then there is the second question of what sins Brian highlights. He and others who espouse such a theology and interpretation of the world seem focused on sexual sins (especially homosexuality) and abortion. Now, I am pro-life and find abortion deeply grieving. I also have a pretty conventional Christian view of sexuality. However, for the life of me, I can’t understand why these particular sins are singled out above others.

Where sex is concerned, what about the enormous range of other sexual sins that are going on around the place? I myself lived in a de facto relationship in my early 20s before becoming a Christian. We lived in Pakuranga-Howick, Auckland, why were we not smote? I sure deserved it with this line of thinking.

While Jesus did speak on sexual immorality, he spoke more about sins concerning money and greed than anything else? Way more! Luke’s Gospel is almost a manifesto against greed! So, what about the sins of rampant materialism, consumption, greed, and the acquisition of enormous wealth at the expense of others? This could include those who preach a false prosperity gospel that God makes us wealthy if we are generous and obedient, especially with tithes and offerings. It could include those who have become rich through their ministries? Paul warns Timothy of such people in 1 Tim 6 where he states that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil! Is the real problem materialism? The problem with this is that would mean the good folk of Waiau and Culverden are hoarding their wealth at the expense of others to a degree greater than the rest of the nation. Mmmmm. Hardly likely.

What about hypocrisy? Jesus spoke on that a lot, heaps in fact. When talking on hypocrisy it was almost always the religious leaders in his sights. Could it be the hypocrisy of religious leaders that caused the terrible events in Canterbury? Then again, with no church buildings in Waiau (I may be wrong on this but couldn't see one on google earth), that is hardly likely either. Or are the clergy of Culverden to blame? Like, like most small towns, the believers can’t afford clergy, so that idea can be put to bed. What about other sins of arrogance and pride? What about social injustices like racism, sexism, and mistreating others because they are different? Like homosexuals for example. You don’t find Jesus targeting them at all! When he targeted people it was always religious leaders for their hypocrisy and legalistic self-righteousness! Religious leaders be warned!

The truth is that the whole assumption that these earthquakes is due to the sins of these poor folk is utterly repulsive and unfair. It is to be repudiated as repugnant. Is it acceptable for supposed theologically astute church leader to make such claims? It is theologically wrong and it is downright mean. Even if God does smite people in this way, the claims just don’t add up. Why the heck these little towns? Why the heck these particular sins? 

I prefer Jesus’ approach—we are all sinners and we all need God’s mercy and salvation. When he came, he didn’t come to smite us but to befriend us and welcome us into a different world. Where there was suffering, he didn't preach wrath, he reached out in love. He fed them. He healed them. He welcomed them. He didn't accumulate wealth, he divested it. He foresaw a world that does no condemn but invites people into relationship with a God who identifies with people in their suffering. So, seriously? Come on!

Seriously Bishop Brian!

Oh Brian, seriously! Brian Tamaki’s latest sermon statements concerning the earthquakes besetting NZ reveals the deep theological illiteracy of many NZ Christians. The idea he is espousing is an old one, going back to the earliest days of human religious understanding. It works like this—natural events need explaining. The answer, someone of us did something wrong to displease the deity(s). So, when an earthquake hit in ancient Greece, the gods were displeased. If an earthquake hit Israel, Yahweh was displeased. In response, the deity(s) caused the horrendous event as a warning and punishment. We find this all over the OT—sin leads to God’s specific judgment. They then jump to the particular sin and sinners that caused the event. They then blame them. In the ancient world, whole groups were shut out of cities for such things.

Now as we come to the NT, we find that Jesus utterly severs this link. Here are three examples. 

In Mark 2:1–11 there is a blessed suffering severely disabled man who is brought for healing. As one would expect from Jewish religious leaders, they interpret his disability as a judgment of God on his sin (or that of his parents). When he arrives, before all, Jesus declares his sins forgiven. This infuriates the Jewish leadership for two reasons. First, Jesus is a mere man and has no authority to forgive sins. For them, this is blasphemy. They are riled. Second, if the man is supposedly forgiven by Jesus, why is he still disabled? He can’t be forgiven if he is sick (because the two are intertwined). Jesus perceives their anger and thinking and asks whether it is easier to forgive the man’s sins or heal him. This is a trick question, as the Jewish leaders would see them as equally difficult because one presupposes the other. That is, if he is forgiven, he will be healed. If he is healed, he is forgiven. So, Jesus heals the man. This proves (to the Jewish way of thinking) that he is forgiven. The Jewish leaders do not perceive that God is among them but want to kill him. They cling to their false worldview despite their thinking being demolished before their eyes with a seemingly impossible event—the healing and forgiveness of such a man. This shows that, as John says of Jesus that Jesus did not come to bring judgment but to save (John 3:17). Jesus here puts a wrecking ball through the axiom that bad things happen because God is punishing us.

The second example is John 9:1–3. Jesus and his team of followers are walking around in Jerusalem. They come across a blind beggar, the worst of situations in the ancient world where there is no social welfare system like ours today. Demonstrating the standard thinking of their age, the disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is. The man is blind because of his or his parents’ sins. God is punishing him(them) then. Jesus’ answer directly exposes that this is false—“it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In one statement, Jesus clearly explodes the mythical direct link between suffering and judgment. The poor beggar is blind not because of sin, but so that God can display his glory in him. Jesus then heals him. The message here is that when we meet a person in such a situation, our call is not to judge them, but to help them with God’s mercy and compassion. It tells us through the direct words of Jesus that disability is not directly caused by God because of the sin of a person or their family, but so that God can glorify himself through him. Those of us who know those wonderful disabled people who refuse to let their disability hold them down can understand this. We see God in them and shining through them. Further, God’s glory is seen when humans respond to suffering not with judgement, but with merciful compassion. This is what we are called to do in an earthquake of when we bump into someone in need in any situation. We help them. Thankfully, this is the usual kiwi way. May it ever be.

The third example is Luke 13:1–5. At this time, some rebellious Galileans were killed by the Romans and the Roman Prefect Pilate mixed their blood with the sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus took this as an opportunity to again rupture the so-called link between personal sin and judgment. He asks those present, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” In other words, did they suffer from the Romans due to their excessive sin? Surely, they were bad sinners that is why the bad stuff happened. Jesus answers, “no, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So, they suffered this way, not because of their sin. He uses it as a warning to all people to turn from sins and live well to receive eternal life. He asks again, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” This sounds like an earthquake situation, whereby a building falls on people—something we know only too well in our recent history (may God have mercy). Jesus answer, is again crystal clear, “no, I tell you.” Again, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to tell all listening that all need to repent, turn to God, and live well, to receive eternal life. 

In other words, yes, all people are sinners. We Christians are no different to anyone else in this regard. Such events come and go, hurting the righteous and unrighteous alike. Yet, they do not say anything particular about the sin(s) of the people in mind. To use the modern vernacular, “shit happens.” Jesus wasn’t the first to challenge this axiomatic link between bad events and God’s judgement. It is challenged in the OT wisdom literature. This is especially seen in Job, where Job’s friends are like Bishop Brian telling Job that it is his sin that caused his horrific experiences. Job stands his ground refusing to yield to their accusations. He is right. Bad stuff happened because bad stuff happens. Yet, in the end, he humbles himself before God.

What Brian and others show is their lack of theological understanding, which is tragic from any church leader. They have not learned the basic interpretative principles of reading Scripture. We begin theological exploration not with the Old Testament but with Jesus. What did he say and teach? What did those with him pass on from him? We then read the OT back through the lens of Jesus, and as we do, we see that Jesus came to clarify God and what he is really like. The ideas in the OT are clarified. One of the things that we find is that the axiomatic link between personal sin and horrific events is shattered. That is good news because when horrible things happen, we don’t need to go hunting around to find scapegoats for the bad events, people we can expose and ridicule. Crap happens. It is a busted world. We are mortal and vulnerable. Good people die young. Bad people prosper. Horrid things happen. We are all flawed. We all need mercy. We all need help. Jesus came to show us what that looks like.

And where is God in such situations? Is he is heaven throwing the thunderbolts with violent rage? Not in the book I read. No. God showed us what he is like and his attitude by coming among us as God’s Son made flesh—a person, like us. In fact, that is the story of Christmas which we will soon celebrate. He didn’t come on a chariot to destroy. He came as a baby in a manger, vulnerable. He didn’t grow up and start demolishing humanity for its sin. Aside from throwing a bit of furniture around because of the corruption in the Temple, he showed that God is love. When around the sinners of the world he did not harangue them for their depravity. No, he ate with them—the ultimate expression of concord in the ancient world. He was their friend, and they were his friends. The only people he clashed with were those who refused to hear his message and perceive what God was doing in him—the sort of people who assumed bad stuff happens because we sinned. No, Jesus went into the dark places to help, feed, and heal. He touched the untouchables. He refused to stoop so low as to hit people when they were down with messages of God’s wrath due to their so-called sins. He healed them with a touch. Then, he did the unthinkable. When he was arrested and unjustly tried and brutally crucified, he only showed compassion and love—even to those who engineered his death with their repulsive duplicity. He refused to unleash the wrath of God even when they killed the King of Glory. He did it to show us how far we are to go in love and compassion, not judgment and wrath—the point of sacrificial death.

As he lived this way, he showed us what God is like. God is not some Zeus-like figure, full of anger, smiting the bad guys! We don’t need to find the bad guys and vilify them. We don’t have to try and figure out which of their sins caused the problem. This is nonsense. What we should constantly be doing is looking in the mirror and assessing ourselves and seeking to be better people. Where we find suffering like our poor friends in the north-east of the South Island, we should be among them helping them, caring for them. If we can’t, we can send aid and messages of love and support. Actually, we see this from the good folk of the region including many churches who are horrified at this accusation made by the so-called Bishop. We see it from the religious and non-religious alike, and that is glorious. Rather than these accusatory sermons, why not a sermon calling forth the people of the church to give lavishly to aid efforts? Perhaps such churches can partner with other churches and aid groups down there on the ground who are actually helping those in pain and torment. Now that’s a message people might warm to. Jesus would be there among them, comforting, encouraging, and loving. He is not up in the hills moving the tectonic plates to destroy those heathen sinners!

All Christians need to think seriously about how to understand God. All revelation of God (the gods), including the Old Testament, are partial when put alongside the coming of God the Son. He defines who God is. And he does not look like the wrathful god who is proclaimed by many Christians. They simply have not grasped the essence of Christianity—JESUS! He is not like this. He calls us not to be like this. If we choose to believe in him, he empowers us not to be like this. He spurs us all on to be people of love, compassion, and mercy, being prepared to go the extra mile for all others who suffer burdens. This is Christianity in action.

As a passionate Christian, it hurts me to hear another one naming the same God speak so ignorantly. I apologise on behalf of the church to all who are personally hurt by such false ideas. Our God is not this wrathful cosmic beast smiting humankind for their sin. Rather, he is reaching out to us in love, justice, mercy, and compassion to show us the way of love. Let’s keep doing this. To the people of the South Island, may the Lord bless you and keep you. Kia Kaha. Our prayers and thoughts are with you.