Sunday, February 26, 2006

Justice and Charity, Part IV: Eschatology and the Ethic of Jesus

What goes through your mind when you try and buy a house? Is it the normal stuff – number of beds and baths, yard, etc – or the “official” stuff; namely, ‘location, location, location’?

I recently read an article from the Detroit Free Press about the current problems with the decaying Motor City. Now, I know it’s hip to talk about the renaissance in Detroit, but I also know that everytime I go downtown it feels like I’ve just walked into the lovechild of the Balkans and Beirut. So, when the article spoke about one particular aspect of urban decay that was creating unforseen difficulties, my stereotypes weren’t challenged – they were enforced.

The issue to which they were referring was the problem of wild animals. Due to the razing of lower income housing projects and the demolition of condemned skyscrapers, Detroit has invented an “urban prairie” to which the animals of the surrounding suburbs and woodlands are now flocking as a resource for food and shelter.

It’s like someone said, “How can we make this city scarier? I know…wolves!”

My point is this: if you’re planning on making a move soon, chances are you’re not planning on moving to Detroit because you’re probably feeling a little bit like I am about the town. You’re probably thinking that the inherent coolness of motown isn’t worth the risk of personal injury – yet I wonder why this kind of thinking isn’t employed more frequently in other areas of our lives.

Spirituality, for instance, is really about a choice between two homes, or kingdoms as Jesus called them. In fact, most of Jesus’ teaching was about living for/with/in the kingdom of God. This is the kingdom that is alternately referred to in the gospels as having arrived, being near, being upon us, and coming soon. It is the kingdom that seems like it is already here, and yet not fully here; kind-of like Jesus is already the King over all Creation, yet He’s not wearing a crown yet.

Some people refer to the kingdom as being like the wind – for we see and feel its presence and its effects, but we cannot actually see it in-and-of-itself. The wind moves trees, but you never see the wind. The kingdom moves people, but you never see a giant glowing castle being constructed on people’s pants.

So what is this kingdom? Well, perhaps we can understand the kingdom of God as being the place where God is in charge. It is the place where things are as God wants them to be. This, of course, is in contrast to our world today where things are as all kinds of people want them to be, which frequently happen to be the exact opposite of what God wants for us.

Our world is a world of death-dealers, when Jesus is the provision of peace. Our world is a place of preference and disunity, where Jesus has called us to love one another for his namessake.

But I think we’re forced to ask ourselves whether or not we can have access to the kingdom while we’re on the earth. Is it possible that we could – even periodically – live as if we were in Heaven by virtue of allowing God to have His way with us? Is it possible that, by acting as God’s agents in our city, that we can actually bring His world to our World?

I think it is, and more – I think this is the crux of justice and charity. Not a world that we have created and are managing, but a world He has made and we are giving back.

Let’s read quickly from Revelation 21.1,2: “I saw Heaven and Earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendant out of Heaven as ready for God as a bride for her husband.”

A new Heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusasalem as a bride for God – that’s romantic language for our future, much more so than any utopian vision, and the kind of speech that makes me wonder whether or not on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven isn’t really an interim solution. Maybe everything we’re doing is preparing us for an afterlife of surrender, where the One who knows best is given free reign to rule and have us happy He’s doing so.

It’s passages like this, thoughts like this, that make me wonder if we don’t totally have life/government/church/relationship/family wrong; that makes me wonder if it’s even safe to talk about another way of living than what we commonly see on television or portrayed through our neighborhoods. It makes me wonder if there is any point to a quiet defiance that promotes an alternative to western civilization.

I’m talking about a life that honors our soul instead of ourselves.

Eugene Peterson makes a great distinction between “soul” and “self” in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. If we really believe that we are made in the image of God, the imago dei, as the bible clearly asserts – then we must conclude that there is a peculiarity and a holiness about our very construction. There is something about the way that we are made that represents an incredible amount of care, an assertion that we are one-of-a-kind while simultaneously being one-of-His-kind.

Our word for this is soul.

Soul is an assertion of wholeness, a prohibition against fragmentation. “Soul” is a barrier against reduction, against life reduced to mechanics and facts; “soul” carries with it the resonances of being god-created, god-breathed, god-sustained, and god-blessed. Theologians define it as the enmeshing of our mind, our will, and our emotions; but I might suggest that “soul” is something so deep within us that it narrowly escapes definition and the very process of defining it seems somehow to leave us with less of a sense of what our soul is rather than more.

And, in our culture, “soul” always seems to come in second.

In our world, “self” is king, for we are selfish people concerned with pleasure and preference, ideal circumstances and the “right” aesthetics. We want the things we like and are a little irritated – at best – when contexts and people and churches and products are not as we would most want them to be. We rarely think of how we might enhance the experience of other people’s lives, or join in with them and take delight in their happiness, but instead devise means of growing our advantage.

This is a battle I’m fighting now with my basement.

I’m trying to finish my basement so my new daughter and Jacob can have extra play space; but, in the process of this behemoth project costing me more than I thought and taking more time than I anticipated, I am consistently pulled into a vortex of evil emotion. I want it done, now, for no more money, ever – and if I have to seel my children to get it done I’ll gladly do so.

Okay, not really – I’m being extreme, but I’m extreme because the truth is extreme and it reveals extremely awful things about my own character and inconsistency.

It reveals that I am more concerned with myself than with my soul.

“Self is the soul minus God.” [Peterson]

It is all that’s left of the soul when all of the intimacy and transcendence have been hoovered out of it and prostituted for raw materials.

Peterson gives us a clue as to how we see this in our world, noting that the common use of the terms “resource” and “dysfyunctional” betray how we really see people. We see people as resources because we want to identify how they can help us in our ministry, or thinking, or job, or finances; and, we see other people as dysfunctional because they cannot help anybody, let alone themselves, in these areas.

What we’re really doing, though, is not identitfying people – we’re de-peopling them.

Our thoughts are the industry of depersonalization; and, everytime depersonalization moves in, soul moves out.

This is a key issue in Justice, and one of Bono’s major critiques of the United States in our dealings with Africa. We treat “them”as the poor, or the unfortunate, the foreigner or the “African” but we don’t think of them as people. We don’t think of them like Americans; we depersonalize the rest of the world because of the supremacy of our standard of living and the distance that separates Michigan from Nigeria. That distance is not only spatial, but visual – because we’re never there, “they” only come to us as 10-inch figurines on a plasma screen; they aren’t people, they’re news.

And may God forgive us for so uncritically accepting a world other than the one He created, for this is our chance to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. This is our opportunity to trade our world for His world, to trade a selfish life for a soulish one.

The word soul, according to Hebrew scholars, is actually a metaphor. Independent of the Tanakh, the word “nephesh”, or “neck”, is the etymological root of our “soul.” “Soul” comes from “neck.”


Because a neck ties together our brain and our heart. It connects our vital organs to our logical and center for reason. The neck floods our brain with blood and our body with synapses, and ensures that we stay connected to ourselves. The neck houses the trachea, the windpipe, and so provides breath to our mind.

This is soul.

And the kingdom of soul, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom that presents God’s plan for personal attention over our plan of depersonalization, is a kingdom in which we can live right now – if we choose to do it.

You remember we began by talking about urban decay, well let us conclude by talking about another city – the city of God. This passage is taken from Revelation 21.21-22.5, from the Message translation by Eugene Peterson, and describes the kingdom of heaven:

The main street of the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. But there was no sign of a Temple, for the Lord God--the Sovereign-Strong--and the Lamb are the Temple. The City doesn't need sun or moon for light. God's Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp! The nations will walk in its light and earth's kings bring in their splendor. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won't be any night. They'll bring the glory and honor of the nations into the City. Nothing dirty or defiled will get into the City, and no one who defiles or deceives. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb's Book of Life will get in.

Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, ight down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service--worshiping, they'll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age.

That’s incredible imagery – the shining city of a place where God rules, where He gets what He wants, where things are as He wants them to be.

But to be honest, it still feels like a description of Heaven rather than heaven-on-earth, and when I think of what the kingdom may look like now it’s a little something more like this letter that was recently delivered to my assistant:

"Norma, i spoke to david about tithing. i always give what i can because you know i don't have a lot, but i believe in my heart that the lord will take care of me and my boys, so this is my offical first tithe with a little extra. 10% right? and a little extra seed money. you decide where it should go, okay - i feel blessed to be here and my heart is happy.

thanks so much for your blessings,

love me.”

If the soul really is the meeting of intimacy and transcendence, I think we see that here.

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