God's Mercy Was Washing Over the World

I started reading Donald Spoto's The Hidden Jesus: A New Life. Though many won't like the "liberalness" of the biography, parts of the book just soar with poetry. I was struck by this passage contrasting the message of John the Baptist--a message of repentance and imminent judgement--with the message of Jesus, a message of "good news" and forgiveness.
What was the reason for this urgent and positive action [in Jesus's ministry], so different from the tone of the Baptist's message and typical Jewish reasoning? The answer was clear from what Jesus began to say and to do almost immediately. He not only taught, he healed; he not only preached, he blessed, consoled and transformed lives. Not only was there good news for the poor, but for everyone. He was "a friend of tax collectors and sinners," and of the sick and possessed, the smug and the sedate, the demented and the lonely, the impolite and the unattractive--everyone who was unacceptable and every kind of outcast came within the reach of his saving embrace.

It was no longer a matter of people repenting of their oppression of the poor, receiving a baptism of water as a sign of that repentance and a desire for a newness of heart. Now--in everything that Jesus was saying and doing--God's mercy was washing over the world for everyone, like the sweep of a cool spring rain over the hot, parched wilderness.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

13 thoughts on “God's Mercy Was Washing Over the World”

  1. Interesting. I haven't read this book, but it seems to put in a nutshell the case against all of the liberal Christologies I have seen. Marcus Borg and others paint a compelling picture of a Jesus who whose teaching is exemplary and insightful, but who does not, in the end, do anything. They seem to deny that Jesus in any real sense enacts God's healing, blessing, and transformation. The "liberal" Jesus, as I've encountered him, is almost exactly like John the Baptist--calling to repentance and pointing beyond himself, without having a transformative or redemptive role of his own.

    In contrast, Spoto seems spot on in viewing Jesus as the locus of God's activity, not only in what he says, but also in what he does. Bravo!

  2. Hey Richard, Irish archaeologist and biblical scholar Sean Freyne has a pretty compelling idea that perhaps the shift between Jesus and his mentor John the Baptist is ecology: the asceticism of the Judean wilderness vs. the abundance of the Galilean hills. This might hint a little at Jesus' asceticism in some areas and reasons for accusations of drunkenness and gluttony.

    A little off subject: while working on a paper about nonviolence and anarchism, I came across an interesting anecdote that related to your Slavery of Death series. During the successful 1918 Indian peasant revolt against unfair taxes, many participants admitted that they took to nonviolence because they were afraid to fight. Gandhi was disturbed about this extreme misinterpretation of satyagraha, which he argued was an extremely active force unassociated with passive resistance. To the shock of colleagues, Gandhi began recruiting these peasants to fight for the oppressive British empire in WWI because if Indians were too afraid to fight then they must learn how to fight in order to renounce it: "A nation that is unfit to fight cannot from experience prove the virtue of not fighting." Satyagraha required impassioned fearless fighters.

    The recruitment campaign failed. In a letter to a friend, Gandhi summed up the experience: "But do you know that not one man has yet objected [to recruitment] because he would not kill? They object because they fear to die. The unnatural fear of death is ruining the nation."

    I found this story in an essay on Khan Abdul Ghaffer Khan and his 100,000 strong nonviolent army amongst the historically revenge-oriented Pashtun.

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    That's a fascinating story. And I agree, if pacifism is fear-based it's not a Christian witness, nor, it seems, was it for Gandhi.
    Different note: if you were to recommend some good books on Christian pacifism and/or Christian anarchism, what would you recommend? (Others feel free to recommend as well.)

  4. Whew, there’s a lot of good stuff on both. Mark Van Steenwyk recently wrote a good primer called That Holy Anarchist. The original series is on Jesus Radicals. Dorothy Day is an oft-cited example, as are Peter Maurin's Easy Essays. Alexandre Christoyannopoulos' Christian Anarchism is a comprehensive survey, and Tripp York’s Living on Hope While Living in Babylon is supposed to be good. Wes Howard-Brook's “Come Out, My People”! and Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire could probably be put in this category as well.
    One of the best books on Christian anarchism and pacifism is Ched Myers’ Who Will Roll Away the Stone? His discussion of both topics is pretty potent. Regarding Christian pacifism, Yoder’s Nevertheless is a famous text, and so is Walter Wink’s Powers trilogy, especially Engaging the Powers. He also wrote a little book called Jesus and Nonviolence and edited the anthology Peace is the Way. Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer (Church of Christ-er who I think went to Harding) just edited a book called A Faith Not Worth Fighting For. Ted Grimsrud is a Mennonite theologian who has written quite a bit at his blogs Peace Theology and Thinking Pacifism; especially good are his reflections on WWII and the just war tradition (and why the two don’t go together). Christian Peacemaker Teams published a book of stories called Getting in the Way. And the Berrigan brothers are pretty amazing as well. Also, if you haven’t heard of Las Abejas, check ‘em out on Wikipedia: a Christian pacifist society of indigenous Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, committed to nonviolent resistance against neoliberalism, imperialism, and militarism, but also committed to forgiveness and reconciliation.
    Wow, that’s a lot and not even the tip of the iceberg. I’ll end by saying there’s a lot of worthwhile stuff that informs these Christian practices, like David Graeber’s stuff on anthropology and anarchism and voices on radical and strategic nonviolence. But that’s another conversation for another time. 

  5.  How then and why did the never-ending slaughters perpetrated by Christians both against non-Christians, and against other Christians of different tribes, sects and nationalities?

    Perhaps the Papal Bulls of 1455 and 1493 which authorized, in the "name of god" and for the "glory of jesus" the brutal  Christian/European colonialism/imperialism of the "new" world, were just segments of The Life of Bryan movie.

    And perhaps World Wars I & II were just extended  very dramatic episodes of Disneyland - which I used to watch on Sunday night TV.

    And perhaps the Shock and Awe crusade against the people of Iraq by Christian America was a latter day version of "mercy" and "grace" washing over,  the thus pulverized and smithereened victims.

    And perhaps all of the people of Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan and elsewhere who were/are victims of depleted uranium were thus "washed" too, as if by gentle rain from "heaven". And the countless thousands, even millions more to come. And ALL (I repeat ALL) of the future generations of the human beings to come - QUITE LITERALLY.

  6. Richard Beck, I have recently changed from agnosticism to creationism. I've read through some of your blog, and want to ask you this question. As a man who has never "known" God (aside from reading the Bible), how can I know Him(Jehovah) when I don't even believe He specifically exists?

  7. Thanks! Some of this I've read but some is new to me. Always trying to expand my reading list.

  8. If you are drawing an equivalence between Jesus and Empire then I really don't know how to help you other than suggest a better theological education (for a start see Jonathan's list of reads in this thread).

  9. Hi Jonathan, I am grateful for this extensive reading list as well.  Was it you who first mentioned Ched Myers here at the ET blog?  I just browsed the TOC of Who Will Roll Away the Stone (Amazon look inside), and wow:  I don't believe I've ever seen such a fascinatingly rich Table of Contents!  The book is added to my Wish List.  Also bookmarked Ted Grimsrud's blog to look at later.

    The new young pastor at our church is hosting a short book study of Wink's Jesus and Nonviolence beginning on 7/25.  After Dr. Beck's introduction to Walter Wink here, my decision to sign up for the book study was a no-brainer.  Besides the fact that it is a golden opportunity to hear, firsthand, what (or who) the new guy is passionate about.  :-)

    Anyway, I need these bread crumbs to stay true.  From the poem "Ceremony" (Leslie Marmon Silko):  "So they try to destroy the stories, let the stories be confused or forgotten..."  So twisted.

    Thanks again, Jonathan.  (And to Dr. Beck for asking.)  ~Peace~

  10. Richard;
    This is a beautiful Sunday homily, like I might hear in my church, and like I need every day.  Thanks be to God.

  11. Hi Susan! I did indeed mention Ched a while back. And you'll be interested to know that he opens Who Will Roll Away the Stone? by quoting that very poem by Silko. The restorative resistance of story is pretty central to Ched's work. Which is partly why I prefer him to scholars who prooftext in support of pacifism. And also that Ched actually does stuff.

    I enjoyed Walter Wink's little book, but his Powers trilogy really seems to get at the overarching theme of the myth of redemptive violence. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention Bishop Helder Camara's The Spiral of Violence. Unfortunately, Christian apologists get sidetracked in discussing violence only as a response, what Camara calls revolutionary violence. But what about the structural violence which instigates these responses, and the extreme repression that usually follows resistance? 

  12. I guess that's one reason John didn't consider himself worthy to tie the sandals of Jesus. Personally, I appreciate John a lot. He had a hard job! He didn't get to do anything but "prepare he way," but he did enough! I know ou're not taking issue with John't ministry, but somehow I feel a little uncomfortable with the "comparison." Jesus had a very high estimation of this Harbinger of the Kingdom' yet, admittedly lowly members of hat kingdom are greater han he! Maybe our comments are a move toward nicking his enegmaic statement.

    Both Jesus and John did God's will. Both crossed enough self indulged power brokers to loose heir lives. John pointed to Jesus. He acknowledged a greater was here whose baptism was not only for rmission of sins but carried with its promise he be Spirit o God. If John were alive today, his mess age sold be quite appropriate, but he would be baptizing in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ the One who would and did increase. Preaching rpentance and pointing people to Jesus......the fulfillment of that difficult daunting mission. John would be the first to greet your observations with approbation!

Leave a Reply