The Incarnation & The Iconoclast: A Theological Framework of Hope in the Midst of Suffering & Abuse

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This last weekend I gave a paper at CATA’s 2018 conference in Toronto Canada. Below is just a snippet before we load the recording onto the Split Frame of Reference Podcast.

The Incarnation & The Iconoclast:

A Theological Framework of Hope in the Midst of Suffering & Abuse

Surviving chronic abuse, especially in a Christian context, can be disillusioning and disorienting—much like existing in “the room” from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. On the surface the room may seem normal, and yet if one pays attention, he or she will notice it is ill-proportioned, if not designed to gradually condition one to accept the distortion as what a room ought to be. Initially one sees that the room is off, but “near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment” but off kilter enough to “go on teasing the mind even after the deception” is unmasked.[1] If one continues probing one sees the room is not just ill-proportioned, but has several distorted, if not disturbing details. In a similar way, abuse functions to do more than injure and destroy, it seeks to remake reality and warp images and perceptions. One fighting to survive abuse finds that not only must they fend off a constant assault on one’s identity as coercive tactics are employed to ensure the abuser’s distortions are “made reality” i.e. felt in real time and space with maximal control, but the distortion may also be internalized and maintained by others as accepted reality. Both the target and Christian community will need all of its biblical and theological resources to resist this false and damaging reality if they are to live out their calling as image bearers and to borrow a phrase from a book title, “push back the dark.”[2]

Abuse becomes more complicated when intermixed with classic manipulative and abusive tactics are appeals to the example of Christ, catch-words, such as “forgiveness,” “grace,” and “submission.” The experience of abuse is also made more difficult by bizarre expectations that those experiencing various (and often prolonged) attacks just “move on,” be more “positive,” or less “selfish” from the community at large. These concepts are frequently, if not regularly, out of place and used in oversimplified ways—especially as it relates to Scripture. The result? It is implicitly or explicitly communicated that the target should not be concerned about their own self-respect, dignity, well-being or need for healing from damage done to them. Rather, it is the abusive individual’s voice that must be heard, his or her perceptions and feelings and the group’s sense of equilibrium that must be religiously guarded, at all costs as it was with the infamous cases involving Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, the Southern Baptist Convention and the past actions of Willow Creek.

In this brief presentation I will be offering a particular way of approaching abuse theologically by considering it in the framework of iconoclasm, the incarnation and the imago dei. I will simultaneously be countering some of the harmful misuses of scriptural concepts used to continue the abuse of power by offering a different theological framework or particular theology from which to understand suffering, abuse and bold resistance. As support I will be drawing from the doctrine of theosis and Christus Victor models of atonement as well as the language of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This beginning of a constructive theology will be developed around two figures: the iconoclast (one who abuses, whether structural or personal) and the incarnation, and our participation in them. This venture will involve arriving at an understanding of Christ’s and one’s own identity through narrative placement.[3] 

The Incarnation and The Iconoclast

“Let there be light.” The Anastasis icon meets us in a burst of uncreated light as the Incarnation descends down into the darkness of Hades parting the earth as though it were the Red Sea and shattering the gates of the underworld. In a moment we are caught up in the transfiguration as we see him for who he is—the Incarnation—our hope and life—yet still wrapped in the dark mystery that is God signified by the gradation of blue surrounding him. With nail pierced hands reminding us of his bloody struggle, he grabs Adam and Eve, drawing them up out of their graves towards himself to follow him in resurrection freedom. “Christ is depicted not as the victim of mortality and evil, but as the victorious Son of God, clothed in glory, who by death has conquered death, and has released those who have been held captive.” The Devil is bound and “the darkness of Hades has been filled with light.”[4]

Colossians 1:13-14 describes those who are in Christ as persons who are “rescued from the domain of darkness,” and transferred into the kingdom of the Son in whom we have redemption and forgiveness. And this is possible because the Son is the “image,” the perfect and natural icon, “of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him (vv. 15-16).” The Incarnation, the Son, who is fully God yet differentiated from the Father and Holy Spirit, is the one by whom creatures, those “other” than God, were created, are being held together in God’s ongoing creative act (Col 1:17), and through whom they are recreated. He is firstborn of creation because he is the destined Lord over creation and he is the one through whom all of creation will be brought to completion. The Incarnation lifts us up, not just out of the grave, but also up to himself to become like him. As those made in the image of God and rescued by the Incarnation we are called to be creative agents of liberation and representations of God in the world. 

The Incarnation is the basis for reconciliation (Col 1:20-23). The Incarnation, the perfect human who cried tears of blood from stress, was crushed by the weight of the cross and died. Reconciliation through a “fleshly body.” He entered into our darkness to rescue us from an “alienated and hostile mind” and “evil deeds,” bringing us hope (Col 1:21-23). And, the Incarnation chose to dwell (or tabernacle) among humans as one who stepped in on behalf of those who were marginalized and exploited by society by eating with and openly associating himself with them while calling to account those who claimed holiness yet exploited others. And he demonstrated God’s heart for humanity by becoming impoverished, humiliated, and abused. His sacrifice in the flesh and opening the gates of Hades is a call into perfect love in him. Having been lifted from the grave into resurrection life, the church is called to enter into the dark with the light of Christ, exposing and binding evil wherever we find it to set the captives free. We are called to recognize and respect the image of Christ within us as we endure unrelenting and unimaginable suffering and respect other image bearers who are as well.

The destiny of a person and humanity are wrapped up in the incarnation, the perfect and natural icon of God, the template and telos for all creation who enables us to live out our purpose to love out of a “pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”[5] Human beings were created to represent God on the earth, to be in relationship with God, the world and one another. Put differently, God gave “his face to Adam and Eve,” to us, “so that—individually and collectively—[we] may become his icon[s] within the cosmos.”[6] Individuals only truly become themselves when they can accurately see the face of Christ in their reflection. To bear the “image” of God means one has the potential to grow into the “likeness” of Christ, and ultimately be united with God.

            And what of the Iconoclast? The incarnation and the iconoclast represent two polarizing yet unequal figures: the first is creative and life giving and the other, destructive yet disconnected from the source of creative life and destined to fade with time. The Iconoclast is a figure representing a power: whether personal, institutional or mob. Functionally, they may be bullies at work, abusive individuals at home or church, oppressive systems or to a lesser extent, merely cogs or a group identity that has taken on a life of its own transcending any individual identity. In the end, the iconoclast does not value human beings as made in the image of God and in turning away from “the other,” the iconoclast turns from his or her own purpose.

            At its core, an iconoclast worships a false image of his or herself and despises the image of God in others and attempts to smash the image of Christ in others or recast that image into one of distortion. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “...for the individual who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly, and the ugly becomes beautiful. The true becomes false, and the false becomes true. The evil becomes good, and the good becomes evil.”[7]An iconoclast sets what he or she perceives as the self in the place of God, having rejected the divine image within themselves and others and in doing so puts him or herself in opposition to the Incarnation and his purposes. The abuse of power, among other things, is a pervasive form of idolatry. The abuse of one dearly loved and valued by God, and bears his image, is a life orientation that is sacrilegious at its core.

Reframing Abuse

In order to resist the iconoclast, one must be able to identify “him” or even one’s own dark shadow, that piece of the self that eludes consciousness and if recognized would lead to the understanding that one is less good than perceived. All that is not of God, must be brought to light and exposed before it can be converted. Part of one’s call as made in the image of God in the context of sin is to expose those dark corners, those ill-proportions of “the room” for what they are so that they can be offered to the Lord and then transformed. Part of this process of offering means reframing the iconoclast’s narrative, discerning it as a negation of the good and seeing oneself and the “other” as made in the image of God—as beings worth fighting and dying for, rather than a necessary sacrifice to the false self. One must see abuse not as a one-time “slip up,” nor a “sin” to be excused or left unspoken, but a pervasive pattern of idolatrous rebellion against the Incarnation and all that he stands for. With that said, we now turn to part of our corporate shadow.


[1] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 294-295.

[2] A phrase taken from the title of Elizabeth M. Altmaier’s book, Push Back the Dark: Companioning Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.

[3]Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with the Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1.1 (2007). Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[4] John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, St. Vladimir’s Press, 122.

[5] 1 Timothy 1:4 NIV

[6] Daniela C Augustine, The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology, 176.

[7] MLK 7 March 1961, 427

———

This was a unique experiment for me and if I am honest, a little uncomfortable because it represents the tip of an ice berg involving tons of exegesis, nearly 25 years of conscious theological reflection wrestling with at least three realities: 1) God is immeasurably good, personal and everywhere with us, 2) the reality that evil and abuse exists, and 3) the deep desire and draw—almost like a siren’s call—to become more like Christ. These realities were highly ingrained from an early age from my reading and interpreting of copious amounts of Scripture, experiences of the Spirit forming my character confronting me with the goodness he gave me along with the bad, later reading the church fathers and interacting with Eastern Orthodoxy, and, an early experience of God the day I “accepted Jesus into my heart” that has instilled in me a conviction of his omnipresence in such a way that is intimately connected with our life and being as humans.

At the end of the day, I find this paper terribly lacking. It does not cover all of my thoughts, show any of the exegesis, does not dissect or show how I have drawn from all of my patristic sources, nor get into many of the out workings of my use the seventh ecumenical council…among other things. It is also a faint sample of what is in my mind. Until next time. ;)

-AQ

Did Isaac abuse Ishmael? Exploring Paul's Interpretation of Genesis 21:9 in Galatians 4:29

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In light of various sinful patterns and movements (#MeToo, #ChurchToo) that have been illuminated in the church, I felt it might be appropriate to offer a paper I wrote for my Galatians class at Fuller.

Nestled in the center of Paul's retelling of the story of Hagar and Sarah in Gal 4:21-31 lies a lingering question (among many!) with which all commentators continue to grapple: how did Ishmael "persecute" Isaac, and what is the relevance of the differing verbs in Gen 21:9 (παίζοντα: LXX) and Paul's interpolation of ἐδίωκε in 4:29? Perhaps Douglas Moo best represents the persistent speculation amongst commentators when he writes that the LXX rendering of παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ in Gen 21:9 "could be construed as a form of persecution…" and "[this verse] is the basis for Paul's claim about persecution."[1] Other commentators concur with Moo's perspective in some sense,[2] but most modern commentators seem to be in basic agreement that Ishmael did not persecute Isaac in the original Genesis narrative.[3] This paper will pursue three independent strands of argumentation that will be synthesized: first, I will survey the use of the verb παίζω in the LXX and in the relevant Second Temple literature, beginning with a lexical survey. Second, I will investigate how Paul interprets the event by his uses of διώκω within the context of Galatians (1:13, 23; 5:11; 6:12), specifically the text under question (4:29): what is the relationship between both verbs? Third and finally, I will offer a provisional thematic re-reading of Galatians with the intent of showing the consistency of my research. Thus, the language of "persecution" in Galatians is not contextually different from Gen 21:9, but reflects something closer to a "rhetorical tease" and Paul's own application of the verb under question.[4]

παίζω: A MODERN LEXICAL SUMMARY

Due to the fact that the verb παίζω occurs only once in the New Testament (1 Cor 10:7, which is a citation of Exo 32:6 LXX), great care must be exercised if one is to fully understand the semantic scope of the verb. Various lexicons have offered glosses and there are significant overlapping definitions:

50.8 παίζω engage in an activity for the sake of amusement and/or recreation – "to play." ἐκάθισεν ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πεῖν, καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν "the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to play" 1 Cor 10.7.[5]

παίζω play, amuse oneself, dance 1 Cor 10:7.[6]

παίζω, Dor. παίσδω: f. παιξοῦμαι and παίξομαι: aor. i ἔπαισα: pf. πέπαικα, later πέπαιχα:—Pass., pf. πέπαισμαι, later πέπαιγμαι: (παῖς):-properly, to play like a child, to sport, play, Od., Hdt., etc.

2. to dance, Od., Pind.:-so in Med., Hes.

3. to play [a game], σφαίρῃ π. to play at ball, Od.; also, π. σφαῖραν Plut.

4. to play (on an instrument), h. Hom.

II. to sport, play, jest, joke, Hdt., Xen., etc.; π. πρός τινα to make sport of one, mock him, Eur.; π. εἴς τι to jest upon a thing, Plat.: the part. παίζων is used absol. in jest, jestingly, Id.:-Pass., ὁ λόγος πέπαισται is jocularly told, Hdt.; ταῦτα πεπαίσθω ὑμῖν enough of jest, Plat.

2. c. acc. to play with, Anth., Luc.[7]

20329 παίζω as giving way to hilarity play, amuse oneself; as idolatrous worship dance, carry on in boisterous revelry (1C 10.7).[8]

A brief review of these resources offers multiple nuances within ancient literature, especially as it relates to the ambiguous context of Gen 21:9 LXX and Paul's own citation of the verse. Does παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ refer to Ishmael simply "playing" with his friend, an innocuous and innocent affair? Is there a sinister subtlety of violence involved, in the sense that Moo has inferred? Is there a more troublesome aspect involving violence, sex or sexual abuse as suggested by the secondary interpretive gloss in Louw & Nida[9] and Paul's sole use of the same verb in 1 Cor 10:7? For instance, Paul's clarifying comments in v.8 explicitly evoke sexual immorality: "neither should we commit sexual immorality (μηδὲ πορνεύωμεν), just as some of them committed sexual immorality (ἐπόρνευσαν) [my translation]" show that this verb can be used in a context of sexual depravity,[10] although the verb's principal meaning is not concerned with being a euphemism for sexual (mis)conduct: all words are conditioned and defined by their context, as well as by the broader corpus of relevant literature. 

παίζω: THE EVIDENCE OF THE LXX

The LXX utilizes the verb about 21 times, and there are several different categories where παίζω is used in the Greek Old Testament. The placement of each instance should not be seen as concretized, but as a potential location as there is some significant overlap with many individual citations.[11] I have deliberately excluded Gen 21:9 from categorization until the end of this section, where I will offer a suggestion about its placement, and a subsequent reading of Galatians with my placement in mind.

1.     Sexual (Mis) Conduct / Idolatry/ Revelry[12]

The Greek text of Gen 26:8b speaks of Isaac "playing" (παίζοντα) with Rebecca. This verse shares the same syntactical structure as Gen 21:9b:[13]

      Gen 26:8b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ρεβεκκας τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ

      Gen 21:9b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς[14]

This near exact linguistic parallel suggests a coordinate meaning for παίζοντα, which contextually in Gen 26:8 likely refers to some sort of sexual intimacy: Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebecca engaged in some sort of activity that reveals to him that they are not merely brother and sister.[15] The text is not as forthright as we might like,[16] but because the text emphasizes her beauty (v.7: ὡραία) and Abimelech's implied desire to "lie with" (v.10, κοιμάω)[17] Rebecca, the most likely explanation is that the participle is used within a subtle sexual context. Similarly in Exo 32:6, the infinitive is used in reference to the people of Israel: ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πιεῖν καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν: "the people ate and drank and rose up to play." Contextually, the focus is on a "festival" (v.5, ἑορτή) suggests revelry and excessiveness, but not necessarily sexual depravity.[18]

2.     Military and War, Judgment and Violence

Multiple uses of παίζω occur in the context of warfare and violent judgment, sometimes from God. In 1 Sam 13:4, the author notes that "all Israel heard" that Saul had "played" (πεπαικεν: perfect active) with an enemy garrison: contextually, this most likely refers to violent destruction (see also 13:3). Likewise, in 2 Kings 9:15 we have the aorist form of ἔπαισαν in a related context of "making war" (v.15, πολεμεῖν), suggesting that ἔπαισαν is being used in a battle context and thus carries violent connotations.[19] Isa 3:15-16 begins with God's response to the "humiliation of the poor" (v.15b, πτωχῶν καταισχύνετε), which sets the stage for the explanatory Ἀνθ (taking it as causal: "because"). V.16 then speaks of God's exacting judgment against an entire city for oppressing the poor, and specific phrase ποσὶν ἅμα παίζουσαι ("[dancing] together [with] their feet") likely refers to a "pompous attitude" (v.16, ὑψηλῷ).[20] As a counter to God's judgment in Jer 14:19 the prophet responds with, "Why have you played with us?" (ἵνα τί ἔπαισας ἡμᾶς). The use of ἔπαισας may denote 'toying with,' but the context seems to be far more violent (see the image of violence [μαχαίρας, "sword;" λιμοῦ "famine"]) and the text reflects God's violent retribution against Jerusalem, his "vehement affliction" of his sinful people. In Jer 30:14, God smites Israel: "For I have played you with a plague[21] of the enemy " (ὅτι πληγὴν ἐχθροῦ ἔπαισά σε). In the context of God's judgment, this verb most likely refers to God not innocently 'rejoicing' with Israel, but harshly judging them.[22]

3.     Being Toyed With/ Mocking

In Judg 16:25 Samson is "ordered" (καλέσατε)[23] before the entire assembly—who are engaged in revelry[24]—and is forced to "perform before [them]" (καὶ παιξάτω ἐνώπιον ἡμῶν). This citation certainly carries connotations of "mockery" and the idea of being "toyed" with (ἐνέπαιζον: "mocked, ridiculed"). 2 Sam 2:14-15 concerns an event where Abner and the others force the "boys to play" (παιξάτωσαν: imperative) before them. The boys are then slain, reflecting both a military conquest and the element of being "toyed with,"[25] as a superior torments a subordinate or God "toys" with a beast.[26] An additional sinister element might be found in Prov 26:19, where in a poetic flourish, the people lying in wait to betray the righteous man is caught and they say, "I acted playfully!" The use of παίζων (active participle) in the context of "betrayal" (φωραθῶσιν) suggests a mocking and deflective response at being caught in the act. Jer 15:17 captures a response of the prophet against God: "I did not sit in their Sanhedrin playing" (οὐκ ἐκάθισα ἐν συνεδρίῳ αὐτῶν παιζόντων): this citation is used sarcastically, in the sense of wasting time—in some sense, the prophet is mocking both himself and God for assuming such things.

4.     Innocent Playing and Dancing/ Worship

This section includes most of the undisputed examples. In 2 Sam 6:5,[27] 6:21 and 1 Chron 13:8[28] and 15:29[29] the verb refers to David (and sometimes the Sons of Israel) "dancing" before the Lord in a context of worship and celebration. In response to God "showing mercy" (ἐλεήσω) in Jer 30:18-19, the people of Israel rejoice and the celebration of singing and playfulness (παιζόντων) will return after the judgment, and this is captured beautifully in Jer 31:4 where God rebuilds Israel whom he has been judging, and the synagogue will be celebrating and "playing" (παιζόντων) as the judgment has ceased and reconciliation has commenced. Finally, in Zech 8:8 God predicts a time of peace for Israel, and an image used is the "playing" (παιζόντων) of boys and girls in the streets, without fear or malice in their hearts: the author puts forth a penultimate and picturesque vision of boys and girls playing together, without contempt or mockery or revelry. Innocence thrives and shalom has been achieved. In Jewish literature outside of the LXX, we have two uses of the verb. In both instances (1 Esdras 5:3; Sirach 32:12) the verb is used in a similar context of worship and merriment, although Sirach 32:12 includes an admonition to "not sin" which may suggest the possibility of revelry and put Sirach in category 1, but this is by no means explicit.

In summation, the evidence of the LXX and Jewish literature is variegated and subtle, often employing multiple ideas within a single text; hence the intentional overlapping of the stated categories. However, it seems reasonable to exclude section 4 from consideration in interpreting Gen 21:9, while including sections 1, 2 and 3 for this reason: Sarah's visceral response in 21:10 does not seem warranted if Ishmael simply "play[ed] or "jest[ed]" with Isaac.[30] Category 3 is possible because of the rabbinic and targumic history of interpretation,[31] but it seems less likely because the verb μυκτηρίζω (c.f. Gal 6:7, "to mock") does not seem to be used in the LXX to refer to disinheritance and the question about "mocking" raises more questions than it answers. However, given Sarah's deeply hostile response to this "playing" in the LXX (which Paul approvingly cites in Gal 4:30), it seems likely that the most historically plausible explanation includes some sort of violent (perhaps sexual) misconduct, as disinheritance for sexual sin is a chief issue for early Judaism and especially for Paul—hence Sarah's hostile response. For instance, "disinheritance" is commonly a result of sexual immorality (c.f. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5-6). However, this is not to suggest that sexual sins are an exclusive category worthy of disinheritance, but that they are involved in the wide range of general sins (c.f. Sirach 9:6 and perhaps Psa 72:27 and Pro 29:3 LXX). Similarly, categories 1 explains the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8[32] to 21:9 and suggests a correspondence with sexual conduct and violence given the preponderance of evidence within category 2; however, the primacy of category 1 and 2 appear to be tentatively and thematically appropriate because of Sarah's response,[33] the Jewish evidence for sexual sin resulting in disinheritance, and the explicit parallel in Gen 26:8. How this impacts Paul's use of the Ishmael and Isaac narrative in Galatians, especially in chapter 4, will be explored below, but only after we explore Paul's interpretation.

PAUL'S INTERPRETATION OF GEN 21:9

The Old Testament was Paul's Bible.[34] Regarding the coherence of the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek text, J. Ross Wagner astutely notes the following: "the Septuagint, as a whole, renders the Hebrew in a fairly conservative manner."[35] Thus, any modern attempt to grapple with the significance of Paul's citation of Gen 21:10 must account for his interpretative use of ἐδίωκε ("persecute") in Gal 4:29. This has lead many commentators to express puzzlement over Paul's seemingly arbitrary use of the Ishmael/Isaac event. Philip Esler concurs with most commentators when he writes, "in relation to Gal. 4:29, however, one looks in vain in the Old Testament for any indication that Ishmael persecuted Isaac…"[36] Brigitte Kahl puts the dilemma forth as "the term persecute in Gal 4:29 differs from Gen 21:9 where Ishmael "plays" with Isaac."[37] Is there a coordinate meaning between ἐδίωκε and παίζοντα? Semantically and lexically, this cannot be, so the question must be answered thematically, even theologically. However, as has been shown above, there are good indications that cast doubt on the first part of Ensler's largely representative comments. For instance, given the close proximity of the verb and Paul's citation (a mere nine words apart in the LXX text) as well as the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8 and the preponderance of LXX evidence suggesting some sort of inchoate violence, the logical connection seems quite strong: παίζοντα thus most probably forms the basis for Paul's use of ἐδίωκε, and "playing" most probably carries a negative and even violent connotation in the original context of Genesis and Paul's exploits this in his argument in 4:21-31. Thus, while Moo was correct to draw attention to the verb in Gen 21:9 (see above), his generic application does not help explain the visceral reaction of both Sarah and Paul, and he misses the potential identification of Paul with Sarah and Isaac.

Therefore, as Paul re-imagines and interprets the actions of Ishmael,[38] one can see several lines of theological reasoning being teased out. If Ishmael was (sexually?) abusing Isaac in Gen 21:9, then Paul intentionally sided with the victim in this historical circumstance, and in the new apocalyptic landscape, he also sides with the "persecuted" in Galatia. Additionally, Paul's ethical alignment with Sarah and Isaac and against Hagar and Ishmael takes on a different moral dimension: any sort of oppression (whether sexual or not) is immediately labeled as "persecution," and the rhetorical power of this line of argumentation being applied to the "teachers" is something they would surely find rhetorically offensive—hence, perhaps his point in using it.[39] This may also suggest that Paul is running counter to the dominant interpretation of Ishmael in his typological use, or is at least zeroing in on a specific neglected aspect. Therefore, Paul's seemingly harsh citation of Gen 21:10 places him as a type of rhetorical punctiliar mother figure,[40] casting away an oppressive force with her authority.[41] Read in this hypothetical light, Paul can be seen as taking the side of the abused in his epistle to the Galatians, siding with the gentiles over and against the 'teachers.' This may also indicate a moral alignment with gentiles in Gal 3:26-29 as "sons" and "heirs of God; their inclusion means no person, regardless of a presupposed social hierarchy, is excluded from God's invitation to 'sonship' and the "altered" status of being 'one in Christ'[42] (perhaps specifically also with slaves and women in Gal 3:28)[43] and especially table fellowship with Gentiles in 2:11-14. Paul re-casts the Genesis narrative in terms of violent/sexual dynamics that even his Jewish interlocutors would have found disquieting, especially since he equates them with being among the abusive, troubled, disinherited sons of Hagar and Ishmael, specifically as analogical punctiliar types.[44] As Asano has astutely noted, "the application of [Gal 4:29] is denouncement and exclusion of the circumcisors as unauthentic descendents,"[45] or as people acting in a coordinate matter with the historical abusive Ishmael.

A BRIEF AND PROVISIONAL REFRAMING OF GALATIANS

While certainly not explicitly violent or sexual in his own context, Paul's interpretive use of ἐδίωκε in 4:29 helps elucidate what he thinks παίζοντα means in Gen 21:9. This "playing" takes on a negative connotation, which Paul asserts as "persecution." This is to be compared to Paul's own "persecution" of the church in 1:13 and 1:23 in terms of "destructive power" (πορθέω),[46] of a person exacting violence over others (4 Macc 11:4). Specifically, the reference of "destroying" used in 4 Macc 11:4 suggests a correlation with Paul's violent authoritarianism against the fledgling Jesus movement/s in Acts, a history he clearly repudiates in Gal 1:13 and 1:23 (see also Phil 3:6), and the subsequent "persecution" he receives via oppressive forces (2 Cor 4:9; 12:10). The additional language of "persecution" in Galatians refers to Paul being "persecuted" in some ambiguous sense (5:11, διώκομαι), and to the 'teachers' "not wanting to be persecuted" (6:12, μὴ διώκωνται). To be fair, Paul never directly says that the Galatians are being "persecuted" by the 'teachers,' only "compelled" (Gal 2:3, ἠναγκάσθη) and "disturbed" (Gal 1:7; 5:10)—thus the Genesis citation suggests oppressive compulsion and abuse that can, in turn, be interpreted as "persecution," drawing a direct literary link between them. This may also suggest that the 'teachers' were on the ecclesiological inside, according to Paul—rather than being cast out from the church, the mere fact of their association as potentially being persecuted for their faith is an aspect that Paul assumes—perhaps grudgingly. In other words, Paul's insinuation of the 'teachers' saying "I do not want to be persecuted" assumes that one is already involved within a specific organization, although they may not remain in the organization due to the encroaching oppression.

Paul's use of ἀνάθεμα in Gal 1:8-9 in relation to his "gospel" may be a rhetorical hyperbolic condemnation, but it may also suggest that Paul may be of two minds on the ecclesiological nature of the 'teachers.' It also may function as a rhetorical wake-up call for a Jewish-Christian mind, as the Old Testament image of being "accursed" is often used in a context of violent destruction of Gentiles from YHWH (c.f. Num 21:3 LXX). In other words, these "teachers" are included within the sphere of the church, which suggests—perhaps—that Paul's language is intended for their instruction, not their destruction.

Before his own experience of the Christ-event Paul was, in essence, functioning as a type of Ishmael, "persecuting" and "destroying" the powerless.[47] Thus, Paul's confrontation of Peter in 2:11-14 explicitly reveals a shift in power and the dissolution of force and "coercion to live like a Jew [i.e. another ethnic person]" (2:14, ἀναγκάζεις Ἰουδαΐζειν) with the subsequent inclusion of both Jew and Gentile are "sons" (υἱοί: 2:20, 3:7, 26; 4:6-7) under the familial promise made to Abraham. Therefore, Jesus is the penultimate "son" who was "born from a woman" (Gal 4:4) and is the One who liberates people from "the present wicked age" (1:4, ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος τοῦ ἐνεστῶτος πονηροῦ), an age now dominated by Christological mutuality and "bearing one another's burdens" (Gal 5:13, 6:2). Violence has no currency in Christ's kingdom. Thus, we now participate in a new life as a liberated family under the Spirit. Hence, for Paul, we are children of the oppressed (Isaac and Sarah), not the oppressor (Hagar and Ishmael).[48]

CHILDREN OF ISAAC: A CONCLUSION

Interpreting Paul's own interpretation of παίζοντα reveals a great subtlety: it helps the reader clarify the seemingly harsh responses of both Sarah and Paul toward both Ishmael and the 'teachers,' especially in light of Second Temple Jewish views of sexual ethics and inheritance rights. While tentative, we have seen that while there are significant linguistic nuances to the verb παίζω in the LXX, Paul's own understanding likely refers to violence and/or sexual misconduct –i.e. abuse (c.f. 1 Cor 10:7-8), strongly suggesting a repudiation of violence, especially as it relates to the church. We have also seen that this verb performs a dual function in his discourse: Paul's interpretation of the ancient Ishmae/Isaac event is proleptic,[49] impacting his own application of the citation of Sarah's disinheritance of Ishmael and Hagar, and consequentially of the 'teachers.'[50] The context of Paul's citation is thus consistent with his application because his use is both true then and immediately related to a situation in Paul's present, even if it lacks the same specific context. Paul's imagination of the Ishmael narrative brims with dynamic possibilities.[51] Thus, the interpretive ground is fertile for a potential reframing of the totality of Galatians in light of this stated hypothesis, especially with the abused and oppressed at the interpretive forefront of the narrative discourse as those most in need of the liberating freedom found in Christ according to the power of the Spirit.

NQ

_________

[1] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 310.

[2] Moo cites James D.G. Dunn, 1993a, 256 as agreeing with him, as well as "most commentators." Moo, Galatians, 310.

[3] C.f. Martinus C. de Boers, Galatians: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 306-307, 306. He states the issue very succinctly: "The Genesis account does not indicate that Ishmael persecuted Isaac." J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 444 passim. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 223-224. Philip F. Ensler, Galatians: New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1998), 214. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Word: Dallas, 1990), 217. Longenecker also includes various targumic and rabbinic literature for post-Pauline interpretations of the Ishmael/Isaac story.

[4] The phrase bears repeating that I am offering this as a "provisional" reading, and only as such.

[5] Johannes E. Louw and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2 vols. 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies), 1989. BibleWorks, v.10. Louw-Nida offers the following clarifying gloss: "the specific reference of παίζω in 1 Cor 10.7 is probably to dancing, but some scholars interpret παίζω in this context as a euphemism for sex."

[6] Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). BibleWorks. v.10.  

[7] Henry George Liddel, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon: With a Revised Supplement. Edited by Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie. 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). BibleWorks, v.10.  

[8] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), BibleWorks, v.10.

[9] See n.5.

[10] The citation of Exo 32:6 LXX passim is intriguing, as the sin does not seem to be explicitly about sexual sinfulness. YHWH speaks of Moses' people being involved in "lawlessness" (ἠνόμησεν) in v.7 and "commit[ing] transgressions" (παρέβησαν) in v.8. Certainly, "lawlessness" and "transgressions" does not exclude sexual sin (see perhaps Isa 57:3 LXX), but the context is concerned principally with idolatry.

[11] To categorize these citations according to 'negative' or 'positive' uses appears overly narrow, and does not account for narrative or genre nuances. A word may be negative, but to whom exactly? The perspectival nature of Greek is a force to be considered here, hence my caution.

[12] Due to idolatry and sexual immorality often being corresponding phenomena in the Biblical literature, it seems appropriate to place them together in this singular category, albeit with the noted caveat that they can be distinguished from another.

[13] They also share the same root (εἴδω—21:9, ἰδοῦσα; 26:8, εἶδεν) for a person "seeing" or "witnessing" the actions of another.

[14] Specifically: active participle + preposition + genitive singular proper noun + definite article + genitive singular common noun + personal pronoun. The differing genders of the singular common nouns, definite articles, and personal pronouns are the only divergent grammatical aspects, which suggests literary overlap.

[15] Jewish literature roundly condemned incest: c.f. Psalms of Solomon 8:7-10, Pseudo-Phocylides 182 and Jubilees 33:10-20. See also Lev 18:6-18. Paul's own worldview seems to fit with the broader Jewish perspective on incest (1 Cor 5:1-5) and other perceived sexual sins (Rom 1:26-27).

[16] To be fair, there are other options: perhaps they were indeed 'playing' or 'dancing' and Abimelech simply deduced that they were more than brothers and sister. However, it seems more likely that Isaac and Rebecca were engaging in 'married activity' that is common to married couples. 

[17] While this verb is most often used to refer to literally "lying down" (Gen 19:4) it seems like it can also be used as a euphemism for sexual activity (c.f. Gen 19:32-34; 30:16); if this is the case, then my argument may be strengthened by the similar use of παίζοντα in Gen 26:8.

[18] The idiomatic use of "eat and drink" throughout the LXX normally refers to that: the consumption of food and drink. It does not appear to include revelry except for this context. Paul's own interpretation of Exo 32:6 clearly includes sexual immorality, but the Exodus text itself is unclear.

[19] To press in further, the immediate context of Gen 21:9 does not have any contextual markers indicating that this was a generic 'violent' event as if an instance of sexual misconduct would not perhaps be violent.

[20] This citation may also have some overlapping characteristics with section 1: perhaps revelry is additionally involved as the following verses speak of specific (festive?) jewelry and attire.

[21] The semantic nuances of the singular noun πληγή seem elusive: I rendered it as 'plague' via the lexicons, but I am not at all confident in my understanding of the noun here.

[22] This citation may also belong in section 3 below, for while the context is about judgment and violence, the notion of being "toyed with" is also possible.

[23] Samson is not beckoned or merely 'called;' the imperative form of καλέω is used so "ordered" seems contextually appropriate, especially to a captive humiliated judge of Israel.

[24] V.15a: "and when their hearts had become merry." (καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἠγαθύνθη ἡ καρδία αὐτῶν), which may suggest revelry and debauchery.

[25] The "boys" are called παιδάρια, suggesting that they are younger than Abner and Joab; the context most probably includes a power dynamic, but it is unlikely that rape or sexual misconduct is in view. Bruce notes that Jewish reception history of this verse likely denotes "bloodshed." Galatians, 224.

[26] Job 41:5 speaks of God "toying" (παίξῃ) with Leviathan, displaying God's sovereign power over a mythic beast.

[27] David and the Sons of Israel "were playing before the Lord" (παίζοντες ἐνώπιον κυρίου). The author uses the same participial form as Gen 21:9.

[28] Here the author, instead of saying David was playing "before" the Lord, has ἐναντίον, which may add a subtle hint of perspectival hostility from God's perspective.

[29] Perspectivally, Michal is the one who sees David "dancing" and playing" (ὀρχούμενον, παίζοντα), and this fills her wholeheartedly with contempt (ἐξουδένωσεν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ αὐτῆς). I suspect this is in reference to the display of the King before all people, and the reception of his "playing" is seen as negative by her; the author is less forthcoming about his or her own perspective.

[30] Per Martyn's designation, which seems fairly unlikely given the evidence of the LXX. See Galatians, 444.

[31] C.f. Martyn, Galatians, 444 n.155.

[32] See n.13. However, the marital relationship between Isaac and Rebecca is not equivalent to two same-sex youths, so this parallel is not as thematically precise as I would hope. Nevertheless, the sexual nature of Gen 26:8 provides some basis for my tentative proposal because of the precise parallelism.

[33] The LXX uses ἐκβάλλω for Sarah's command, a verb that has strong connotations (c.f. Gen 3:24), especially as it relates as a consequence to violence (c.f. Gen 4:14).

[34] C.f. Moisés Silva, "Old Testament in Paul" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 630-642. For a specific and imaginative reference, see Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul and Interpreter of Israel's Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[35] J. Ross Wagner, "The Septuagint and the 'Search for the Christian Bible,'" in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics (ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 5-28, 21.

[36] Ensler, Galatians, 214. See also John Calvin who writes, "Moses says that…Ishmael ridiculed his brother Isaac" and this is affirmed by the use of the participle. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Translated by T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 89.

[37] Brigitte Kahl, "Hagar's Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagining of Galatians 4:21-31," Interpretation 68.3 (2014), 257-269, 269 n.40. Kahl's interpretation is fascinating and deserves far more interaction than I can offer.

[38] This would not be a reinterpretation, as Paul likely viewed the original historical event in a violent and/or sexual manner. This would also most likely not be an allegory but perhaps an analogy. Contra Michael B. Cover, "Now and Above; Then and Now: Platonizing and Apocalyptic Polarities in Paul's Eschatology" in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, The Gospel, and Ethics in Paul's Letter (ed. Mark W. Elliott, Scott J. Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 220-238, 224 who views Paul's use as an allegory; this seems to be too broad a category—Paul seems to be drawing a contemporary comparison, hence 'analogy' seems like a more appropriate fit, one that fits well with 'typology.'

[39] This may also be a cause for division between the "teachers" and the general assembly, where the "teachers" are caught in the rhetorical cross hairs, and the assembly is viewed as "free."

[40] As Beverley Gaventa and Susan Eastman have persuasively noted, this is not uncommon for Paul. C.f. Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) and Susan G. Eastman, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). See also the incisive work by Margaret Aymer on this point: "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Mother Paul Revisited" in Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest: Biblical Mothers and Their Children (ed. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 187-198.

[41] Paul's imaginative interpretation, if I am correct, leaves a multitude of questions lingering about the status of Hagar, who was able to give Abraham a son when Sarah was unable to do so. Status symbols and cultural markers are far more deeply embedded in the narrative, and perhaps Paul saw something we have missed.

[42] "What is altered," according to John Barclay, "…is the evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015), 396-397, 397.

[43] For instance, Paul consistently advocates for women (1 Cor 11:5; Rom 16:1-16; Phil 4:2-3) and slaves (The Epistle to Philemon; perhaps 1 Cor 7:21) elsewhere, so this adds some support for my contention. C.f. both John Jefferson Davis, "Some Reflections on Galatians 3:28, Sexual Roles, and Biblical Hermeneutics," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19.3 (1976): 201-208 and Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 166-172 for this crucial issue of women's equality in the church via Gal 3:28. See also Barclay's applicable comment in n.43.

[44] Contra Ben Witherington III, who sees Gen 21:8-14 as being "at most" about "Ishmael playing with Isaac." While Witherington does mention the "metaphorical" nature of the verb in question, he seems to mistakenly downplay the context of Genesis 21. See Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 337-338.

[45] Atsuhiro Asano, Community-Identity Constructiojn in Galatians: Exegetical, Social-Anthropological and Socio-Historical Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 177.

[46] Sexual depravity can, of course, take on a corrupting influence: c.f the imagery in Col 3:5 and Eph 5:5.

[47] C.f. Acts 8:1-3. The word διωγμός can be used in a violent context (2 Macc 12:23).

[48] This is where Brigitte Kahl's incisive article can begin to shed additional light. See n.37.

[49] Martyn, Galatians, 436 states that Paul's typology is not "timeless." It might be more helpful to say that Paul's use of the Ishmael/Isaac event is timely and in this way timeless. Typology and analogy are not separate interpretive spheres, as Martyn seems to suggest.

[50] This may also help reframe the perspective of the 'teachers' without downplaying their potentially abusive tactics or removing Paul's deep concern over their enforced Torah observance on Gentiles.

[51] For a work that explores this, see Bruce W. Longenecker, ed., Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

The Sin of "Grace"

Holiness.jpg
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The evangelical world, broadly speaking, is in turmoil. At least, it should be over the rampant sexual abuse, exploitation and systematic dis-empowerment of women in their churches. In the words of Al Mohler regarding the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), “judgment has come.”[1] But this is not just a “Southern Baptist” problem. True, the SBC became what it is today through well documented conspiratorial power grabs, eliminating moderate dissent and promoting a male-only view of leadership (what could go wrong?), but they are not alone in the promulgation of their theology and misconduct.   

Maybe as a whole, we evangelicals are a mix of those who are horrified by the exposures (most recently out of the Southern Baptist denomination), those who are dismissive and those who are hopeful either because we have faced horrendous obstacles by abuse from our own or openly advocate for those who have. I tend to think we are finally at a point, comparatively, where our problems are more difficult to ignore, more difficult to further pile on those exploited. And yet, in the midst of this a haunting dichotomy lingers: judgment vs. grace. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the worst sinners? Didn’t he eat with the sinners? Wasn’t he the one that said, “go and sin no more” and desires us to have the same response towards the fallen?

I believe we fundamentally misunderstand grace and judgment if we see them as polar opposites or dichotomous. They are not.

There is actually a consistency between what God says he likes and dislikes and how he responds to others. The God of the Bible repeatedly makes it clear that he detests those who prey upon the vulnerable and promote injustice. He says that he is sick of the outward religiosity and that really didn’t change between the Old and New Testament. All of Amos 5 stands as God’s scathing critique of evil:

21 I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 Then enters Jesus. The God, the Word, who “tabernacled” (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us (John 1:14). To put it mildly, he was not thrilled with what was happening in the temple of his day and he was not thrilled with the sins of the religious leaders. So often, the picture painted of the religious leaders vs. the people of Jesus’ day by evangelicals is one of stringent rules vs. people who are unable to follow them. However, this is not quite right.

Sometimes, those who are the most judgmental are the most willfully evil.

The Holy Elites vs. “The Sinners?”

Let’s take a look at how the biblical text describes these religious elites. Certainly they lacked grace for those “outside the circle,” but was their crime really their attempts to be holy? Was their problem really that they just had such high standards and no grace for those who couldn’t be as holy as they were? Not so much.

Luke 20:47 says they “devour widows houses.” They are identified as “children of snakes,” “evil,” “guilty” and will have to answer for themselves on Judgment Day in Matt 12:34-37. In Matthew 23 Jesus points out that they do not in fact “practice what they teach.” Instead, they crush others. They love the show of holiness, but they are really “hypocrites” and “children of hell,” “greedy,” “self-indulgent,” “lawless.” Sure, they love to do lots of outward signs for show—as do many of our “men” of God today—but they ignore “other aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.”

Then lets look and see how they treated Jesus. Sure they claimed they were just concerned about the law, but most of their actions expose an underlying power hungry jealously to the extent that they are well known to have broken the law to get an innocent man, in this case Jesus, killed. And this was not the first time. In Matthew Jesus points out that God sent them prophets and teachers of the law but they killed some by crucifixion, flogged others in the synagogues, and displaced others. They “will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people.”

What about the so-called sinners Jesus ate with? True, often the crowd or religious leaders called them sinners but seldom does the text (with some exceptions such as the woman at the well or the later addition to John of the woman about to be stoned). However, these people are often extremely marginalized and made out to be the evil ones. And the ones who did have sin and were marginalized are invited into grace—to live on without sin—and change their life.

The Sin of “Grace” i.e. Injustice

The consistent voice of the Bible is that God desires the protection and value of those individuals society and even the religious community wrongly devalues. AND there is a consistent call for the exposure and displacement of those who prey on other people. But we have it all backwards, we heap rhetoric of “grace” without restitution on serial abusers enabling them to continue their activity and by extension forcing their victims to march on with the weight of their burden strapped to their backs. We enable abusive behavior and use perverse interpretations of Scripture to do it. We take the Lord’s name in vain. And those who have suffered? We decide what they really need is to “forgive.” That is the go-to. And by forgive we mean “moving on” i.e. not being hurt, angry or insisting on justice and even maintaining messed up relationships with abusers. We do not wish to hear of their anguish. It’s tiresome. And we feel good about ourselves because we have extended “grace.” But not for them.

The God of the Bible has consistently called for grace towards those who stumble and repent and doubly those who are exploited and marginalized. The God of the Bible has consistently hated serial evil aka abuse and injustice. Hate may be an understatement. The God of the Bible has consistently loved those who try and live a holy, righteous life in their interactions with others. He is a God of love and wants us to be people of love. Grace and judgment flow from the common fountain of divine love. And in the context of this discussion love means propagating justice in the every day. Jesus called out the powerful regardless of rank and attempted to shame them in public for clear, willful exploitive behavior and he physically sat with and ate with those who were not in the “in crowd.” He identified himself with them and identified them as the people of God (i.e. Sons or daughters of Abraham).

Church, go and sin no more.

 

[1] "Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over."

 

 

Let There Be Light

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Stalking projections, anxious, you've begun—

Implement your “grand schemes,” ready the knife

Speak deceptively into the void—

What you meant to destroy he breathes his life.

 

“Let there be light,” Redemption parts your sea

Scattering the darkness before my path

The Man of Sorrows walks alongside me

His narrative renaming Satan’s wrath.

 

The eyes of the Lord see your violent heart

But darkness illuminated turns bright

Painted into him, recreated art

Hope manifested in the darkest night.

 

Grace dawns, encompassing all in its light

Sin’s spiral fading, collapsing figments

Hope born of Eve out of Satan’s blight

Transfiguration of life contingent.

 

Don’t you know, our lives are fleeting?

A breath—

A moment in time—

After all, our ‘end’ in him redeeming

His breath—

His love poured, sublime—

 

Oh, that veiled face, history’s dawn!

Joy emanating, He runs. For “It is done!”

 

--AQ©

Resisting Evil Part 2: The Incarnation and the Iconoclast

“And do not participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them.” (Ephesians 5:11.)

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So often the call to stand against evil comes from a triumphalist position of power. We are asked to rise from our lofty position of comfort and offer a hand from above to the unfortunate. More often, the stand against evil is thought to be against “known” agreed upon evil. Too easy. Minority group or person X is evil and hence they must pay.

But often the need for warriors and knights require material and social risk and when knights turn their backs, the one called to fight is the one being crushed. This brief reflection on the incarnation and the iconoclast reaches up to the discussion on resisting evil from below. It is especially for those facing destructive hostility on a prolonged basis and presents the audacious call to oppose evil from the ground.

The Iconoclast is a figure representing a power whether personal, institutional or mob. Often, it is an actual person who wants to destroy you for any reason: whether to feed their own ambition, greed, ego, sense of order or because they hate what you stand for. They may hate you for your faith.

...And yet, the cross is a symbol of the victory and power of God over sin and death that radically reoriented human history. Any attempts the iconoclast made to mar the image of God was subverted and their power inverted.

Read the rest at Tim Fall's blog.

Or check out Resisting Evil: Pt. 1 “Forgiveness” Versus Stepping Out in Faith or, Resisting Evil: Pt. 3 "Masks, Disillusionment & The Light"

 

Surviving Psychological Warfare From Abusive People

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"Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

-Psalm 46:10-11

Initially, I did not want to believe what was happening even as I sensed it. What were the chances? And yet, I felt the threat in my environment before my brain could make all the connections. Once I acknowledged what was happening to myself, I quickly started running through my checklist of what to expect. I knew more than likely I would have no help, the wider group would turn on & try and punish me believing the abusive person in part or entirely. I also knew to expect to either eventually be eliminated (any reputation I had would not matter) or suffer for possibly years. Oh, and then there would be those instances that somehow it was my fault to X degree I was targeted and questions about forgiveness if I ever, ever told anyone about it. I was not so concerned with this part of it, I am frankly used to it. Still, one more thing to deal with.

I was scared. I knew what was ahead and did not want to go there, yet go there I was. Still, it helped to go in afresh already understanding some basic power dynamics and having some tools in my tool bag.

What follows are only some of my basic strategies for dealing with abusive people. More specifically, how to survive psychologically while being repeatedly targeted. "Targeting" is behavior that is ongoing (if not predatory), harmful and directed at you. The behavior can take the form of a person(s) continually projecting their insecurities onto you by continuously harassing, belittling, physically hurting, trying to humiliate, embarrass, isolate you and/or ruin your reputation. I've even had at one time someone follow me around and lie about me to everyone I tried to talk to as a new person at some point in life.

The goal of the abusive person is zero-sum: In order for me to maintain my image of myself, become greater or feel big you must be destroyed. It is a mistake to attribute this to insecurity. Rather, it is an inflated ego that must consume all in its path at whatever cost. It is about their need for power and control and they have targeted you as a threat to that. I do not have any special education in this area, only my own experience, and some informal research. Take my advice as just that and adapt according to your specific situation and seek professional counsel in cases of physical abuse. For prayer, more specific examples or strategies (including tactics) that are not included here please contact me via email: allisonquient@hotmail.com.

Before I begin, please note that I am absolutely opposed to revenge and believe you should, if you can, remove yourself from the situation or avoid these people! However, this is not always possible. Sometimes they will try and use people in power to try and yank you back into their clutches (or are the people in power). They may even try and follow and sabotage you. Apply the following as aids of resilience to help you hold out until you can escape:

  • Formation of Your Core

  • Being Still/Quiet Inside

  • Know the Board/Battle Field

Formation of Your Core

Understand that at its core the abusive behavior is about power and control. They want to have control over your person and identity so that they can be "bigger." You must have a strong sense of self to resist their advances. In elementary school, people with weaknesses are targeted for those weaknesses, but more often among adults, it is done toward those who are in some way or another perceived as "threats." More than likely you were targeted because you represent a threat, not because you are deficient.

A narrative of "deficiency" is a tactic the abusive person employs, not the motivating factor. This might be because you have something they want. Perhaps you are liked, talented, you threaten their paradigm, you are different in some way...etc. It could also be that they have this hole in their life and need to project their faults and motives onto someone else. In the case of bullying, statistically bully targets are independent, highly skilled, have a high level of emotional intelligence, altruistic, intelligent and otherwise well liked. I even experienced a backlash at one point because, in addition to everything else, I would not go along with at least three attempts of a targeter to smear a leader who was correcting this person's errors. Sadly, the favor was not returned by this leader when it was my turn. Regrets? NOPE. All of this to say, it is not you, it's them, 100%. Don't give equal validity to the characterizations of manipulative and abusive people.

Primarily, you are engaged in psychological warfare and must be resilient and established in your sense of self. Your objective once you know you are being bullied, harassed, abused: survive and continue your right to your vocational calling to live out of God's love. Let God be manifest in your situation and form you in the process of destruction (Seeing Christ in the Dark). If you cannot leave or remove yourself from the situation, think: You may do X to me but I will pray, be formed in the light of Christ and oppose you with all the means at my disposal. However, they will wear you down with their negative messages whether you believe them or not and you must keep resisting especially when they gaslight you or make you think it is all in your head (switching between them having your best interest in mind, but then again, you are just an "incompetent piece of crap"). This can also take the form of constant subtle messages that are highly contextual and will make you sound like a crazy person if you try and tell anyone else.

Clear the next several months if possible and figure out ways to lower the inflammation in your body (low impact exercise, massages, herbal remedies...etc), buy some food that your stomach can handle under extreme stress when you do not want to eat (ex: Miso), and you will probably need Vitamin B Complex (or nutritional yeast) in a few weeks. 

Over time you will start to not be able to recognize yourself as easily. You will be constantly on edge from hypervigilance, may have internalized some of the narratives, or started to act and think in ways adapted to a dysfunctional environment. After I had gathered enough information to know what was going on, develop and implement a survival strategy, I found I was still on edge and way too aware of everything around me. After several months this was unsustainable and I was drained. I had even absorbed another person's anxiety (INFJ habit)! It was time to consciously remember who I was and separate myself from what I was absorbing from my environment while still allowing myself to perceive what I needed to (contact me for details on how to create psychological boundaries).

That said, contact several friends outside of the situation who can remind you of who you are over an extended period of time. Be proactive now so you are in a better position to put up a fight because eventually, you will not be able to think as clearly. You are a human being and humans need community and belonging. Expect pain from extended isolation and personal attacks even if going in prepared.

As believers, our sense of self comes from our identity in Christ, our God who will never leave us nor forsake us and sees within us infinite value, worth, and dignity. What will ultimately keep you going is: 1) Hope, 2) A clear understanding of who you are and 3) conviction that you are not alone. First, recognize that this will not last forever and rest assured in God's future reconciliation of the world. Take a moment to breath realizing it may not seem like it, but this will not last forever. Our hope is in God's kingdom come and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. On this basis, we can pray for our everyday sustenance and survival in the here and now. God's hope is 'why' we can keep fighting and pressing on (Resisting Evil). Find passages to meditate on (Psalms are great) in times of discouragement and find liturgical prayers and icons for when you are run down, and your mind is less articulate (there will be physiological changes over an extended period). 

Second, know yourself very well. Regarding weaknesses, DO NOT let abusive people define you. They will twist minor things into major things and even make stuff up. They will block you from social resources and barrage you with crazy messages about yourself. It's their pattern. Expect it. Don't even take the time to consider the supposed "kernel of truth." If you need outside input, depend on people who have proven themselves to be friends calling you out when you are wrong and encouraging you in what is good. In other words, internalize NOTHING from an abusive person since their thinking and habits are distorted and unreliable. Do NOT grant anything to them and do NOT use their evil behavior as opportunities for reflecting on your faults. This also means having strong psychological boundaries where the abusive person's reactions are on them and you do not take responsibility in any way shape or form. Those of us who have grown up in abusive contexts often have what I call a rigid cause and effect type thinking. I spilled the milk, therefore, I am responsible for you flying off the handle. Or, you did X horrible things, I reported it and you got in trouble, therefore I am to blame for what happened to you. You are not responsible for their mess.

To complicate matters further, those around you will most likely turn on you, try and heap guilt and responsibility on you, and if someone is actively lying about you, others will most likely believe them! Expect it. Plan on it. Move your next several months around and plan out little retreats. If they have not completely bought into the abuser's narrative, they will at least think you are responsible for not defending yourself properly, for not just "ignoring" it, or you somehow had it coming in some way. Often the abusive person has sucked others into their constructed narrative about you to rationalize their behavior and sabotage you ahead of time. At the very least, hold onto who you are and don't get lost in the narrative yourself. Listen to God's voice in prayer and in his word and let him breathe truth into your mind when everything gets chaotic and distorted. 

Lastly, know you are not alone. God is with you. You must pray, and pray often because God will help protect and form your inner self during this awful time and because sometimes he will rescue you from the situation itself. Much could be said on this point (see my other posts). That said, get outside help in the form of friends, coworkers, people from church, family...etc anyone who will support you. Avoid like the plague those who have the knee-jerk reaction to assign you blame or add moral responsibilities of forgiveness, politeness or anything really while you are in the middle of fighting for your life.

Unfortunately, you must be calm, collected, outwardly snap happy and polite, but out of necessity so that others do not attack you, not out of moral obligation or imperative. I watched in awe as a woman who was still being harassed legally by a rich physical abuser (beat her up while pregnant with racial slurs) spoke to him on the phone. Think: fake Flanders family from the Simpsons. She knew she had to be polite, cheerful and careful otherwise it would be used against her. This is not something I do well as an introvert. When I am gloomy I want to be by myself and hide! Do your best. No one is perfect. Still, count on the abusive person using your "bad attitude" against you after they run you over for months or years. 

If possible get people who will keep you grounded, will concretely protect you, will help you navigate/strategize and will stand up for you if they are in a position to. You will need the wisdom of others to counteract the trauma or fatigue from having to be fake happy or calm for extended periods while fighting off the barrage of cloaked intentions, insults, overt aggression...etc.

 Being Still/Quiet Inside

Coming out on the other side of an anxiety disorder I have been learning what it means to be still and quiet inside in the midst of chaos, but as a healthy individual whose mind will not be flooded with abnormal amounts of anxiety outside of my control. In Psalm 46 it describes having a solid trust based off of who God is, the works God has done in the past and hope for tomorrow amidst poetic catastrophe. When you are being attacked verbally or physically, are having to frantically deduce pieces of gossip/lies being spread about you, or are shocked to discover you have been manipulated by someone, breathe. Internally take a step back and try and see the situation for what it is without panic. Your heart may still be racing and your head swimming because your body perceives a threat. You are being threatened and let your body respond accordingly. It is ok. You can be calm even while your body is flooded. Focus your mind on Christ who went before you and is beside you, the Spirit who is in and around you and the Father who loves and guides you. 

Directing your attention to God,  separate yourself internally from any lies, distortions or catastrophic thinking (hopelessness). Know that God is with you and on your side. Ask him for help and direct your mind to the "fight" part of fight or flight using your body's readiness for survival to your advantage. What can you observe in the moment? Do you see any openings or useful pieces of information? Become fluid and adaptable without fixating on disturbing elements. Survival depends on you being able to see the changing landscape and being able to change accordingly. You can be adaptable because your stable core is Christ and this will free you to let go of the fear in some moments and get things done. This also means being open to the Spirit's work and voice and following what is said. It also means reading the room and your opponent if you are physically or metaphorically fighting. What are his or her eyes telegraphing of their movements? If you fixate on the hand or foot coming at you, you will get hit. Look for where the abuser is going and react accordingly and wisely. Can you move out of the way? Is there a door near by? If it is the room you are reading, what do you hear or see and when? I was able to deduce some key lies being spread about me on time simply by noting silences, pauses and an innuendo or two and figuring out the themes/common elements. I was then able to figure out I was in danger, what I could counter and what I had to let go and move around. 

If you are being manipulated or harmed covertly, do not be given over to desperate moves out of panic. Calculate, but do not hesitate. Move when there is a clear or more reasonable path (you may need to use other people's minds to help you see clearly). And for heaven's sake, do not tell the villain of the story you know all about their evil plan! Sure they may have been doing this forever, and you will feel better and dignified in the moment, but it is better to keep your cards close to your chest. You may be able to out step them since you know their game. Think of it as a game. If you know how they will attack, you can be prepared and turn their attack against you against them. If you tell them what you know, they will try something else. Also, note that if someone is exhibiting predatory behavior (habitual + targeted) you will not be able to reason with them or confront them in a healthy way. You are probably high in empathy and just want peace. They don't. Don't tell them anything. Move out of their way and protect yourself instead. 

Also, note that outwardly you are not allowed to be upset. Is this horribly dysfunctional? You bet. Unfortunately, as the victim, being upset only works against you. If you are visibly offended, hurt, angry or sad often the group will turn on you faster and the abusive person will only go further in for the kill. It's messed up, but mostly true. Be hurt and sad with people you trust outside of the situation and bring it to the Lord. For now, push it aside to process in a safe place. Seek counseling if you begin to have PTSD symptoms resulting from this drawn-out encounter. 

Eventually, you will get worn out and it will cost you some ground. It's ok. Regroup, and fight another day. Try and take control of the moment when you can, but be prepared to play the long game. Many people beat themselves up about not having snappy comebacks to give to abusive people. I had tons of snappy comebacks this last time around (these people were not difficult to outsmart even without my resorting to insults or equal meanness). It didn't matter, they just went behind my back. Still, I was regularly able to take control of the moment and buy time in the long run. My aim was not to feel better about myself, but to buy time. I played dumb (What? You are speaking "covertly" about me in front of me??? I have no idea!) and wrote down their behavior for my own analysis and in case I needed to connect it to evidence later. Your advantage over most abusive people will be your ability to plan ahead, predict behavior (because you have observed their trends/patterns of behavior) and think several steps ahead to the future.

Know the Board/Battle Field

In any good strategy game, it is key to know the playing field and terrain. Know what areas are open for you to move to safety, what you can avoid and what you cannot. Use your flexibility to bend what you can bend and move around what you cannot. Know what areas your opponent is not prepared to fight you and try to move him or her to that place. You may even be able to bait them to move their attacks with a fake weakness you create over weeks. They will figure it out eventually, but you will have bought time and gathered more information. Sometimes you can get your opponent to move to attack a fake weakness. This can function to confirm their intentions in that in-between time when you feel you may be insane and are not sure if something is even going on. It can also allow you some breathing time if they were continually attacking a point of agitation.  

But first, you have to realize you are being targeted in the first place. This is difficult because often you find out late in their game. A recent bout I had was difficult to detect because it thrived in a culture of jokes and pranks. It was fun. To start with, those that know me know I tend to take very little personally (even when folks are directly and intentionally insulting). For a long while, I just didn't care and did not read in any malicious intent. However, sometimes the first clues are subconscious. At other times, you just think you are dealing with some other dysfunctional behavior and don't read too much into it. Either way, I still recommend not jumping to conclusions, but looking for prolonged patterns of behavior. Still, if you have grown up in abuse sometimes it is difficult to realize you are in it, even if the person is physically harming you. It may help to just look at the behavior patterns and separate your judgment from it so you can at least see that something is occurring: maybe they fly into fits of rage several times a week and blame you for a messy house that they had a hand in.

Once you have a sense of what is going on, do not try and confront them yourself. Statistically, this seldom works. If you have others who will back you, great! In most of my encounters or in those friends I helped, this was not the case. Still, do not try and just avoid them, they have targeted you and will continue to come after you. And beware of giving the metaphorical Hitler more tiny countries to appease his power lust. They will just keep after you and take more. A relative had her bully constantly trying to take her vacation slot not because she wanted/needed it, but because she didn't want her target to have it knowing it meant a lot to her. It was another means of control. Expect lots of little power plays aimed at making you feel worthless and powerless. Be careful with granting these because they will keep advancing if you give in, but if you fight overtly you will appear petty and unreasonable. 

By virtue of being targeted, you are starting out at a disadvantage. Their object is to destroy you and your object is to survive. Here is the terrain advantage you can know they have going in: 1) They have the element of surprise. If it is not physical abuse or done by a person no one likes, chances are they are good at what they do. It has probably taken a while to figure out what has been going on unless you are a paranoid disordered person yourself with a thin skin who sees threats under every rock and in every corner.  2) They are attacking you and using unethical means to do so (you are in the position of defense and must remain ethical). 3) They have probably already gotten others on their "side" through gifts, smiles, flattery...etc. Hey, they survived this long without getting the boot. They probably have some sense. And the sad reality is, people usually believe the lie.

Knowing the basics of your position, try and sniff out an outline of your situation including any particulars available. Who is the instigator? This may be several people. They may be difficult to detect since the group will often follow the leader and also try and clobber you. Sometimes you can figure out who the leader is by looking to see who people are constantly trying to please. Don't obsess too much. Know who is friends with who and see if you can win anyone to your side if you are not already too deep in and completely ostracized. Is there anyone trying to help you behind the scenes? How much? Are they friends with the people after you? Are people telegraphing information with awkward silences, pauses, intonation, avoiding eye contact? Are you being iced out? If you are iced out you know that you are now "other" and will probably not receive any basic rights, protections or human contact from them. They all probably "know" you are a horrible person. Try for resources outside of the group icing you out. Avoidance of eye contact often means they are trying not to identify with/empathize with you (but not always). Note this as well and see if you can make eye contact so as to humanize yourself in their eyes. Is anyone trying to help you indirectly? If you find someone like this try and use the tools they throw your way, but cautiously.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses early in the process (you will get disoriented later). They targeted you for a reason, consciously put your talents and abilities toward your survival. They may have the advantage, but statistically, you are probably smarter and more skilled than they are, USE IT. They also feel threatened by your strengths and sometimes you can use them to scare your opponent into exposing information or their moves. Be careful not to antagonize because it will not end well for you. Also, don't get too confident. It is more difficult to defend ethically and survive than destroy unethically.

However, the strength of your opponent's position is often secrecy. They thrive in the shadows and in distortion. Your aim as someone trapped if they will not leave you alone: expose them. Sometimes you can make them overextend their evil behavior into visibility so that you can get the attention of sympathizers (not always, be careful with this one). This one is tricky and should only be tried if you already think fast on your feet and don't mind taking some hits. An advantage of this strategy is that if no one comes after you, no one gets harmed. It also has the advantage of being more a matter of movement/arrangement of what your targeter is already doing to you and does not involve much on your part other than anticipating where they will step and constructing safety nets for yourself that will simultaneously expose anyone who tries anything.

Also, research some key features of people who do these kinds of predatory behavior (ex: check out the Workplace Bullying Institute). A big weakness your opponent has is that even if intelligent, they are arrogant. Hence the super-villain telling the hero their evil plan or the Riddler giving Batman clues in the first place! Look for mess ups and openings to expose their behavior either in the form of a log, trail (maybe you can find others or there is a record somewhere) or concrete proof. Maybe they will get too bold one day and you can point out their behavior without appearing to directly confront them. It helps to play dumb while you do this. It will only work for so long so choose your moments. Wait and collect information until you have enough so that it is difficult for leadership or others (who may not help by the way) to refute what they are doing or make you out to be crazy or "sensitive."

Try and figure out if this has happened before and what moves the abusive person made. Often they are not terribly creative (just enough) and will do the same thing again. I helped a friend navigate out of being targeted for firing by someone who wanted her job by 1) helping her identify the instigator from the group 2) separating herself from their narrative and 3) identifying his tactic so that she could be prepared the next time around. And he did make the same move again! The first time he did not succeed in getting her fired but did get 2 people to quit in her name, turn her friend against her and embarrass her in front of her leadership (she was his boss). Next time around she hired people with qualities that would not easily turn on her and got in good with them. She was also successfully able to bring up concrete things to her supervisors about this person to get them annoyed with him as well (he really was a bad worker). Basically, she took steps the next round and he ended up getting the boot.

And there you have it, a sampling of what I have gleaned over the years. Again, note that I am not a professional and my advice should be taken with a grain of salt based more from experience and a theology background. My final advice for this post is again, try and leave if you can because if you are not a glutton for punishment, it is just not worth it. Still, if you are going to leave play the game before you can get out.

AQ

[P.S. This barely scratches the surface as I have already long ago anticipated possible recon & vetted what I share here.]

Resisting Evil: Pt. 1 "Forgiveness" Versus Stepping Out in Faith

Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
Yahweh of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Psalm 46:10-11

In my latest post titled Seeing Christ in The Dark I primarily reflected on how to live within and through the reality of evil in light of God's reality. One of my basic claims was that evil does not have meaning in itself, but does in the context of God's reality. God's reality fundamentally transforms our perceptions of the world and the evil around us. In this vein, I reflected on how the biblical world formed me through and in the midst of physical and psychological violence.

Now I turn to the topic of resisting evil within God's world. I approach this topic not from a triumphalist vantage point, but from the reality of having been crushed, unheard, and slandered to the extent that in my young heart I could not picture anything different in this life. But I also come as a beautiful work in progress by the crucified Christ who walks twisted paths with me. His life vivifies the present and, in him, anything is possible including the idealism this engenders.

Because God is with us, I encourage everyone to stand against evil to the degree they are able and be committed to suffering the consequences of it. And there most undoubtedly will be consequences. I also advocate a do or die attitude when it comes to standing up for yourseld and others making you a more formidable opponent. I like to think of it through the metaphor of my time in Judo class. In Judo practice you get slammed into the ground at high speeds constantly and you must keep getting up. Sometimes there is a sort of victory or defiance even in being committed to getting up when others would bury you or the person you wish to defend. 

However, a word of caution. "Resistance" can also take a variety of forms depending on one's place in the world. I have been in situations where I have had to simply exist in a social system or situations where I was constantly beaten down without any hope of coming out of it for years. The future was dark and bleak except for God entering into my situation and forming me in the process. I have also been in situations where I could overtly go against the grain. The Bible acknowledges both of these realities giving different directions on how to live in each (More on this in later posts). My general advice is to navigate the world skillfully (wisdom) and take a stand whenever you can and it makes sense to, committing yourself to the repercussions whether in the form of social ostracization, extreme stress or physical punishment. 

Additionally, for some, the conviction that one must resist evil may be functionally squelched in favor of a disposition where one always gives the benefit of the doubt to others--no matter what they actually do or who they hurt! This way of thinking tends towards putting huge burdens on victims to come around to the perpetrator's way of seeing things and tends to deny reality or sweep it under the rug (can't we all just get along?). Or, on the other end of the spectrum resistance is all-encompassing without space for other kingdom values. Whenever one feels slighted they think they must resist without mitigating it with the idea of turning the other cheek, not seeking revenge or even considering they themselves might be mistaken. As a general rule, I do my best not to assume malicious intent. If I see troubling patterns I take note but do not jump to conclusions. 

Now that I have introduced the general topic of discussion: resisting evil, I now turn (out of necessity) to that nagging imperative ever present in the evangelical consciousness when it comes to victims of crimes and slights alike--forgiveness. They may not know you well, but they know you must have a problem with it. What follows will be a consideration of what forgiveness is not, is and how one can resist evil by resisting shallow conceptions of it and by truly practicing it!

I. The Dark Side of Forgiveness (Narrowly Defined)

A. "Forgiveness" = Letting It Go?

Forgiveness, narrowly defined, is often weaponized against victims and those wronged. It is a tool that functions (whether intended or not) to silence and retain the status quo. It may not even truly be forgiveness the "teacher" is requiring of the person. In my direct experience, "forgiveness" equated with "letting it go" is often used as a tool to silence victims and often enables or embolden evil behavior (i.e. one can do whatever they want and be guaranteed the victim and everyone else's cooperation afterward). It also functions to prolong a victim's suffering and piles on unnecessary guilt. There must be something wrong with me because I am still devastated and angry.

Back when I was healing from physical abuse and warped perceptions, everyone would ask me over and over again if I had forgiven X. They assumed without evidence that: 1) I needed to forgive, 2) my primary need was to forgive, 3) I had this primary moral responsibility/burden because I was violated. They also assumed that because said abusive person and I had a highly shallow and distant relationship that it was evidence of my lack of forgiveness rather years of realization that said the person would continue to harm me and no meaningful relationship was possible. Somehow though, it was my "responsibility," having been abused over many years, to continually try and initiate unhealthy relationships.

"Have you forgiven him or her" is almost a knee jerk response in Evangelical circles. It is almost as though people can't help themselves. Even if they are savvy or compassionate enough to not make it the first thing that comes out of their mouth, it must come up! Now that I am 30 years old I know the drill. If something horrible happens to me I know to expect the following: 1) Someone will imply or directly tell me of my need to forgive, 2) I will have had it coming somehow even if the group denounces the action against me and 3) If I go against the grain or challenge the initial action it is very possible everyone else will turn on me for it. It is like walking through the airport at this point. You are in line, you see it coming and you start taking off your shoes, but not socks, take your laptop out of the bag and put it in its separate bin...etc. Basically, know what to expect and have a plan of attack.

If you are victimized, recognize this knee jerk response for what it is and move past it. Meaning, take a breath and understand it is their insecurity or weakness, not a reflection of your issues. If Jesus himself stood before them with holes in his hands and feet they would have asked him if he forgave his tormentors! If you are able, challenge it. If not, be polite, but do not internalize it. Having dealt with this evangelical characterization since childhood, I always know it will come up anytime I am significantly wronged or anytime I share my testimony involving abuse and am quite comfortable confronting it. It gets very easy over the years and usually the other person really just never thought of it from another angle before. They may not even know what to do when you calmly explain to them that you disagree with their definition of forgiveness and merely need to protect yourself from person X and harbor no ill will towards them.

Really, no one likes drama and in the aftermath, unfortunately, it is the victim alone who is often left to pick up the scattered pieces of themselves. When someone shares they have been raped, abused or bullied it causes tension and people do not always know what to do since something has occurred outside of acceptable limits creating disequilibrium. The victim who is still processing and navigating it is often treated as an additional and current disruption since the event already happened in the 30-second "past." And yet, they are living more vividly in the present than everyone else out of no choice of their own. Why can't the victim just "let it go?"

My advice from years of Bible study and personal encounters: Identify the reflex for jumping to "forgiveness" for what it is: Victim blaming. They see you or the person hurt as problematic or in need of moral guidance because they can't or do not wish to deal with the reality of what happened. Sometimes it is merely because they equate being "over something" with forgiveness and if you are angry, sad or unreconciled then you must not have forgiven and must need them to point it out to you. Sometimes they cannot imagine that one can go through what you did and easily pardon. Or perhaps cannot comprehend a full pardon within the tension of respecting oneself as loved by God and refusing to put yourself in harm's way again.

B. Resist their Paradigm

If you can, politely resist the requirement to forgive from the outside and all it entails (unless of course you have gone through an extended healing process and are still embittered and entertain vengeful thoughts). However, know that what you are doing is going against a narrative that says: because you were wronged, you have a moral responsibility and/or culpability. You are not responsible for having a good relationship with perpetrators and restitution is their job, not yours. Some of this surfaces in cases where women get severely battered by husbands (maybe their nose gets broken). They divorce him and yet are seen as the marriage covenant breakers rather than formalizing a covenant already broken (in the OT a woman whose life is threatened by neglect by her husband has grounds for a divorce). They are thought to be the ones in the wrong and are often told to go back and submit to the abuse or that they are obligated to get the relationship back on track--all couched in the rhetoric of forgiveness and wifely duty.

In the end, sometimes you may suffer more consequences by resisting their knee jerk reaction to assign you additional responsibility. Everyone in a group may try and gather around and pressure you to be in a relationship with an abuser and if you struggle with an anxiety disorder it means you may end up having to relive the moment some more because people keep bringing it up. Or, you could have to have your character smeared because you are now also "unforgiving and bitter." Maybe everyone will pity you because you do not recognize the error of your ways.

Maybe you have already forgiven the other person? Maybe you need to process the evil first so that it is named before you can forgive it? Maybe you are in flight or fight and just need to survive in the moment? At the end of the day, It's really not mostly anyone's business.  If you know you are in an unsafe context and there are no resources to protect you, you have a decision to make: do you say anything?

Whatever you chose, do not let "forgiveness" be weaponized. Challenge the paradigm outwardly if you are able. Or, at the very least, understand that forgiveness is your God-given birth right and is not to be equated with your silence, a fake smile, cheap substitute for healing or zen state of non-caring. Also, I recommend expecting and being ready for someone to bring up the issue of forgiveness. It will happen. It happened to me just recently after I almost finished this post. I was beginning to think no one was going to bring it up and was genuinely surprised. NOPE.

If you notice someone doing this to someone else, I suggest politely saying something like: "I understand you mean well [name], but there is no reason to think she struggles with forgiveness." Then quickly transition to acknowledging what the person wronged brought up and engage them on the subject matter rather than this other person's speculation about their character. If you can help redirect the conversation back where it should be, you will have resisted a victim blaming tendency and put the focus back where it needs to be: naming the sin and recovery for the one wronged. Of course, if the person wronged goes back to the issue of forgiveness that is a good thing and their choice. 

Finally, resist and do not accept apologies that are not genuine if you can survive without them. Sometimes people demand that you pretend their sin was other than it was in the form of apology. When you listen closely and their apology it may sound a lot like "you had it coming because of X," or "there are many different interpretations...I'm sorry you felt that way...etc." Don't do it! Don't accept the apology! We are taught as young children to reply, "I forgive you" when a playmate is insincere. I have heard many sincere and insincere apologies in life. I have stopped accepting insincere ones. Why? I belong to Christ and for their sake and recognizing my own value in God alone, I will not pretend. Forgive regardless of their insincerity again and again as many times as they wrong you, but if you can help it, do not play their game and pretend. Stand up straight and see them for who they are. The Bible has a lot to say on loving your enemies and praying for those who curse you even being overly generous towards them! Also be generous with the truth.

II. The Bright Side of Forgiveness: Forgiveness in God's World

Concretely, forgiveness is recognizing the sin, but not taking vengeance against the person(s) who did you wrong or harbor extended bitterness towards them. For example, there is a good friend of mine whose job was coveted by a wealthy coworker who conspired to get her fired and almost succeeded. He managed to turn all her other co-workers against her even a friend who became fixated on somehow finding "equal responsibility" since two people were involved. He even charmed those above her for a while. In the end, she managed out on top (sort of). She is still recovering from the horrific event, but God's reality is evident in her life because she had the opportunity on multiple occasions to sabotage one of the people who smeared her and she didn't--even as that person was still actively trying to sabotage her! That is God at work. Forgiveness does not equal "letting it go" or healing or reconciling, or trusting (except in God), but in acknowledging sin without holding it against the person. These other things may or may not follow from forgiveness along with time and a safe context.

Forgiveness may be given and then need to be given again if the other person wrongs you again or you find yourself falling back into patterns of bitterness or vengeful thoughts. In time, forgiveness, depending on the wrong and level of sanctification, may just become a state of being coming out of the overflow of your love for God and all he has done for you 70x7 regardless of a sincere apology. Jesus declared "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." God offered forgiveness to all of us through Jesus on the cross (while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly) while we rebelled against him...and yet we do not all accept the offer.

Desire goodwill, but do not be deluded. Where possible reflect God's society by being reconciled, and where impossible protect yourself and navigate your unique setting with wisdom identifying those who will continue to harm you and those who won't. For those who won't let God's kingdom reality be evident through you, hold no grudges as you protect yourself. Be patient with yourself when you do not show proper deference, but strive towards it none-the-less. Still, forgiveness does not bow the knee, it pardons on a personal level (not institutional/legal). In everyday life, this means avoiding trash talking those who have trash talked you wherever possible. It means acting generously towards those that wronged you whether it is in defending them when they need to be defended (and are in the right), or it means not taking those opportunities that present themselves to act in kind (doing so is a sin against God). It also means ignoring many small slights and giving freely where it does not involve funding their sin further.

III. The God of the Impossible

I love C.S. Lewis' description of this reality in The Great Divorce. In it, one could take a bus ride from hell into heaven, but without guarantee, one will like it or want to stay. In it, a man is indignant because he discovers in heaven his loved one and the murderer of that loved one getting on as the best of friends without any care. In heaven, it is a natural relationship, but truly bizarre from other vantage points. I love this description because it portrays our future (not necessarily present). I believe we can reflect this reality just a little bit by letting the love that God has kindled in us continue to grow so that our heart leans fully in this direction towards this future. Lean towards this reality, but do not pretend this reality. Life is a series of tears and broken pieces and sometimes there must be a crucifixion before the resurrection.

God is indeed the God of the impossible. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Because God has not held our wrong doing over our heads but has shown us his abundant love we can certainly show this towards others. Sometimes we are wronged significantly, and yet sometimes the other person acknowledges it fully, are horrified by their actions and pledge to never do it again. Recognize the manifestation of the Spirit wherever He is, even eagerly go looking for Him like someone in love. Know that We could easily be in this situation ourselves of needing forgiveness. This is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to move forward and restart new. This is one of those good things God has prepared ahead of time for you. Take it and be delighted with it! Do not feel superior because it is a gift from God to you. See Christ in them and be compelled with joy to be a small part of God's work in the world, being thankful. Act as though the wrong has never occurred where possible.

And sometimes all you can do is also refrain from evil. Forgive regardless of their insincerity again and again as many times as they wrong you, but if you can help it, do not play their game and pretend.

IV. Forgiveness Is Stepping Out In Faith

To forgive is to be vulnerable within the context of God's power. But in order to forgive one must oppose evil. Evil must be named for what it is and sometimes pardoned by one from a lowly position (the wronged). It means standing squarely against the powers of darkness, sanitized narratives, and those who believe violence requires violence and insults demand insults. It recognizes God's reality in the person doing evil and their potential in Christ. Often it means, though all appearance to the contrary, that you know God is present and at work reconciling the world. You can be a small part of it and represent his good will to others. This snatches power away from the perpetrator, evil within and from without and looks up to the Lord. It is the process of walking (as though a baby taking her first steps) through the waves and saying, "God, I am undividedly yours." It is being still in the midst of turmoil and acknowledging God is God.

Evil persists where it is not illuminated and exposed for what it is. In Ephesians, we are called children of the light. Be in close relationship with God and you just may be put in situations to expose evil. Evil that is exposed by the light, becomes light and this is a testament to God's power when you can expose it. Don't be surprised either if God acts on your behalf either! Once the night before I was compelled to pray for a situation by the Spirit and was told to step out in faith when I saw the icon of Peter meeting Jesus on the water. Bewildered I wrote in my journal: "I guess I will know what that means when the time comes???" The next day I had to make a difficult choice and saw it. It's enough to say events took a drastic turn. 

In line with my post on Seeing Christ in the Dark, I conceive of forgiveness and exposing evil as part of walking through evil, not in pushing it mentally away or ignoring its twisted reality or danger. It is our duty as believers to resist evil at every turn, illuminating it and exposing it for what it is according to our capacity. This is a worshipful endeavor that is part of our vocational calling to love and holiness representing God on earth. In this vein, forgiveness itself (though not exclusively) can also be an act of resistance against the powers that be. We belong to a different social and political system called the Kingdom of God that is breaking into our present and as such our priorities and dispositions must at times go against our context. They want us to be silent? We won't. They want us to take vengeance or turn the tables of power to our benefit? We refuse. As heirs of God's kingdom and image bearers representing God on earth we get to walk in forgiveness manifesting God's reality.

Forgiveness is a kingdom reality embedded in the reality of the transformative work of Christ in, around and through us. The world may require vengence or complacency, but we can step out in faith, joining Christ on the water despite the danger because we know who he is and who we are in him.

 

Until next time.

-AQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, watch your back!