Monday, October 27, 2014

Human Conflict is Sin


I realize that I’ve written a number of posts dealing with the subject of sin, and the struggle to overcome the barriers that divide human communities was the denouement of “A New World: Tear Down Those Walls.” But something struck me during a class that I was teaching recently that revealed the overlap of these two topics. What struck me as result of reviewing some of the classroom material that I use was that the human alienation that accompanies human conflict can itself be construed as sin in that it alienates the human community from God. Our relationship and connection to God cannot be separated from our relationship and connection to one another.

Full Text:

In my course titled “Biblical Literature and the Ancient World” taught at the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, I use one of the sessions to explore the topic of universalism and particularism, both in the Bible and in contemporary religious life. In the Bible, I ask students to explore what is something of a paradox. The Book of Ezra represents a rather narrow, particularistic understanding of the covenant community. This biblical work emerges from a Judean community that had recently returned to Judea following the Babylonian exile. The so-called "restoration" had been decreed by the Persian king Cyrus, conqueror of Babylon. Pursuing a theology that came to see exile as punishment for covenant disloyalty--an idea inherited from pre-exilic prophets like Jeremiah--the leaders of this Judean community are depicted as rejecting the participation of any elements of the community that had not experienced exile. If the Babylonian exile was God's way of punishing and purifying the covenant community, then only those who had experienced the exile were eligible for participation in that covenant community.

But there is another voice that arises from this post-exilic restored Judean community. Beginning in chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah, we hear the voice of a prophet whom scholars recognize as "Deutero-Isaiah," or II Isaiah, preaching to the exiles recently returned to their homeland. Likely a devotee of the earlier Jerusalem prophet for whom the book is named, this post-exilic prophet begins his work by validating the theology of exile and restoration.

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

For this visionary, however, the exilic experience was a clue to another aspect of the divine/human relationship. Only a universal deity--a God of all humanity--could micro-manage the historic process that both enabled Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to affect the requisite punishment of destruction and exile and also orchestrate the subsequent restoration of the destroyed community by the Persian king Cyrus, whom this prophet calls God's "messiah"--God's anointed king.

It is precisely this vision of a universal God that elicits a profoundly inclusive definition of the sacred community. Even eunuchs and foreigners--emblems of those who had heretofore been excluded from the sacred Temple service--are invited to bring their offerings into the newly rebuilt Temple, now called by this prophet "a House of Prayer for all people."

This forms a significant piece of the biblical perspective on universalism and particularism that I share with students. The corollary involves an examination of four contemporary documents that explore this theme from the perspective of four faith communities: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish. The Protestant contribution consists of a policy statement of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA titled "Interfaith Relations and the Churches." This document reveals a true tension among the council’s 50 member denominations that boils down to an apparent conflict between the church's evangelical mission on the one hand and its interfaith mission on the other. Can the church both spread the Gospel while also affording peoples of all faiths the love and respect that the Gospel demands?

From the midst of this clearly confounding theological struggle, the following statement arises:

"Too often we set ourselves against each other. We become separated from God, and alienated from God’s creation. We find ourselves in seemingly irreconcilable conflict with other people. We confess that as human beings we have a propensity for taking the gift of diversity and turning it into a cause of disunity, antagonism and hatred—often because we see ourselves as part of a unique, special community. We sin against God and each other."

What an incredibly profound statement! Conflict, disunity, antagonism, hatred, seeing ourselves as somehow unique, special, "exceptional," are all sins. They alienate us from one another and thereby alienate us from God. I have said this before, but I feel compelled to say it again. This is the struggle and the sacred mission of all people of faith, and we must acknowledge that it is a struggle no less intense than the struggle in which the various messianic/apocalyptic religious triumphalists are engaged. It is a struggle to affect the essential unity of the human community as the human counterpart to the unity of the divine. Indeed one might be so bold as to insist that God's unity and the divine/human connection depend on the unity of the human community. We cannot be denigrating, hating and fighting one another while proclaiming “God is One.”

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