Two posts ago, I made a comment implying that there is a difference between threats and predictions in the Bible. I have learned about this difference from Terrence Tilley’s book Story Theology, a passage from which is shown below:
Many Christians have believed that the Bible reveals certainly some events which will occur at the end of time. Usually they have extracted specific sentences from the biblical stories and construed them as Divine Statements infallibly Revealing the Course of Future Events. By doing this, however, they have extracted an assertion or metaphor from the narrative in which it was embedded and which determined what it could mean. When this connection is lost, losing the original force of the utterance is risked because this extraction makes the meaning of the removed assertions or metaphor independent of the story. Such loose assertions can then come to meant almost anything, and free metaphors can come to carry incredible implications.
For example, the force of many of the central utterances in eschatological stories in the Bible is that of threat. “If you keep on doing what you’re doing,” the story-teller warns, “you’ll be in trouble with God!” These stories are often fables or fantastic image of the future either in or out of this world. Yet when sentences used as threats are extracted from the stories, they can become predictions. Then they are read back into the stories as predictions, and the stories are read as coded glimpses of the future, shown to the authors who had to write in code at God’s dictation.
In order to understand the forces of stories of the future properly, an interpreter also needs to take seriously the fantastic aspects integral to them. They are not stories about the world in which we live, but are quite “out of this world.” In fact, they are stories of another world. This means that we cannot presume that the principles for interpreting them are the same as the principles for interpreting stories set in the world in which we ordinarily live.
The desire for certainty and control can be very powerful. Christian or not, human beings long to know and to be secure. Sometimes this longing manifests itself in personal relationships; other times, in politics and business. It can also be seen in religion.
End times triumphalism is a major obstacle to healthy Christian theology, I’m afraid. Not long ago I heard a sermon preached a church here in Austin that basically concluded like this: Jesus’s way of dealing with sin in the world is through mercy… for now. As such, we are to be imitators of that mercy. But one day Jesus is going to come back and violently claim his rightful throne, and we want to be on his side when that happens.
This makes me think of some of our not-so-great hymn language in the Protestant tradition:
Oh, when the moon drips red with blood,
Oh, when the moon drips red with blood,
Lord, I want to be in that number,
When the moon drips red with blood.
— a verse from “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In“
Now, I do not blame this pastor for what in my view is a misinterpretation of the biblical narrative. Sadly, the problem is much more imbedded in our institutions and culture more generally — especially in certain seminaries — of which he is a product. Getting free of that influence is very difficult.
Plus, it always feels good to think that we’re on “the right team” — God’s team — and that our team is going to win. But here’s the trouble: if we’re supposed to imitate God, and God is our example, and if God in Christ is violent and/or vengeful at any time, then why would we ultimately ever be truly disturbed by violence? Sure, God is holy, and we are not, so therefore we should obey God… But is it the case that God’s holiness makes God justified to carry out violence, or does God’s holiness make God the only truly non-violent One? That we can even ask this question should give us pause anytime we’re tempted to take for granted confidence in a version of the story that predicts the end with us and our worldview on top.
Of course, non-violence has a bad reputation and is widely misunderstood. In a future post, I plan to highlight what I’ve learned from Walter Wink about the non-violence of Jesus — basically, how it is anything but passive. More importantly though and to the point for my purposes here, I simply wish to contrast two possible outlooks from a Christian perspective:
- First, there is the one just described above in which we rejoice with the God who conquers the enemy — i.e., the non-Christian? the devil and his demons? — because justice has been served… and we have been spared.
- Secondly though, I would also want to consider the possibility not that the “God” or “Christian” team wins, but that a victory comes through the discovery that we’re all supposed to be on the same team. And the only way to be excluded from this team is to not wish to be part of it.
By saying we should all be “on the same team,” I’m not advocating for tolerant, superficial peace (like Pax Romana or modern-day liberalism). That kind of teammate-ship is based on an underlying deceit — namely, that peace can come without repentance. Instead, I mean the true peace of deep justice and what Jewish liberation theologian Marc H. Ellis has called revolutionary forgiveness — a process of reconciliation that happens as a result of a mutual recognition between two or more groups of their guilt and complicity, and therefore also their need for mercy and renewed covenant together.
As with Tilley, it’s pretty clear to me that we’ve been warned not to “keep doing what we’re doing” unless we want to “be in trouble with God.” The question that matters then, however, is not who gets judged, how and when, but what we are doing that offends God. The Christian tradition has called this what “sin.” So maybe sin is simply starting our own team.
I don’t know whether and how many people will sign up for God’s team — which is the only team — but I think the way to do so might be to realize that winning is not the goal of the game. And I suspect only God can bring about that realization.