Without justice, we’re not reading the same book

Without justice, we’re not reading the same book July 21, 2014

Chris Tilling points us to Adam Neder’s 2009 book, Participation in Christ.

I appreciate Neder’s subtitle: “An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.” Many readers have found Barth’s huge, dense, multi-volume work to be impenetrable, so if Neder has really found some way in, then we should be grateful to him.

Much of what Tilling shares from Neder is still pretty heavy stuff — immensely Barthy and not easy going. But let me share just one tiny bit from the very first page of Neder’s book:

According to Barth, revelation is not merely the offering and acquisition of information. … It is an event in which God establishes an orderly fellowship between [God] and human beings. “God’s Word means that God speaks,” and since it is God who speaks, to hear [God’s] Word is not simply to become aware of [God], but to obediently acknowledge [God] as Lord. Thus revelation is inseparable from reconciliation.

Ah, OK. That, I think, explains a great deal. That’s an insight just maybe even bordering on an epiphany.

Just to be clear, when Barth talks about “God’s Word” and about “revelation,” he doesn’t mean the Bible. He means Jesus Christ. For Barth, the fundies have it backwards. They worship an inerrant Bible that tells them how to understand Jesus. Barth worships Jesus, who tells him how to understand the Bible.

When Neder/Barth tell us that “revelation is inseparable from reconciliation,” they’re talking about reconciliation with God — what we sometimes call transcendent or “vertical” reconciliation. I haven’t read the rest of Neder’s book, so I don’t know if he goes on to argue the same thing in the same terms when it comes to “horizontal” reconciliation — reconciliation with our fellow humans.

But it doesn’t really matter whether or not Neder or Barth makes that argument, because the epistle of 1 John has that covered. That epistle never allows us to separate reconciliation with God from reconciliation with one another. The two things are, in 1 John, identical:

Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. …

Martin Luther King Jr. exegetes this passage from 1 John.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

“Everyone who loves knows God.” “Whoever does not love does not know God.”

“Revelation is inseparable from reconciliation.”

We invite a world of frustration when we try to separate them — even when we’re just separating them in the hopes of then putting them back together. We get this idea that one will lead to the other — that we can achieve one by means of the other. We want to believe that revelation can somehow produce reconciliation. And so we wind up trying to exegete our way to justice.

I respect the effort and I share the goal. I admire the heroic work of abolitionist Bible scholars like Albert Barnes, I’m humbled by the patient determination of egalitarian writers like Mimi Haddad, and I’m awed by the courage and fortitude of young Matthew Vines as he takes on the clobber texts of anti-gay clobber-textianity They’re fighting for justice and truth. They’re right and they’re on the right side.

But I also can’t help but notice that their approach hasn’t ever really succeeded. We can’t exegete our way to justice because exegesis is an appeal to revelation, and revelation is inseparable from reconciliation. Without reconciliation, revelation cannot be seen or heard or understood.

I suspect that Neder/Barth is on to something there. Revelation — an understanding of the Word of God or of the word of God — cannot lead us to justice because such revelation cannot precede justice. They are inseparable — meaning understanding arrives with justice.

What that suggests, I think, is that folks like Barnes, Haddad and Vines aren’t so much planting the seeds of justice as they are showing us how to reap the fruit of it.*

I don’t think this means the work of biblical scholars isn’t valuable, or that it isn’t necessary. I think it is necessary, but that it can never be sufficient. We will never produce justice as a result of better biblical understanding unless we also produce better biblical understanding as a result of justice.

“Aha!” cry my conservative friends, critics, catechizers, gatekeepers and inquisitors. “Just as we suspected. All this talk of ‘justice’ is an attempt to change the meaning of the Bible.”

Yep. That’s true.

Because if you’re reading the Bible without justice, then whatever meaning you think you’re finding there needs changing.

Everyone who loves knows. Whoever does not love cannot know.

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* That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg distinction, perhaps, since fruits and seeds are also inseparable. And I’m perilously close to undermining my own argument by hinting that reconciliation might precede revelation rather than accompanying it. Plus I’ve likely upset the Barthians by invoking their guy and then two beats later collapsing the transcendent into the immanent, and from what I gather that’s not really how they roll. But bear with me here, I’m in the middle of an almost-epiphany and I’m just trying to get this down and essay it out.


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