Monday, October 26, 2015

God loves us, but do we love God?

Jesus and his friend
Perhaps the central theological affirmation about God in the Christian tradition, after the affirmation that he is incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, is this: God is love (1 John 4.8). Indeed, this is emphasized greatly especially in some circles, for a number of reasons. Among these reasons is the laudable concern that ordinary Christians, cognizant of their own disposition to sin and to fall short of the standards of righteousness, might not despair that God is ready to destroy them at any moment. Far from it! God loves you as a parent loves her children, and so wants your development and your growth, not your destruction: For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God (Ezek 18.32).

Yet I worry at times that the constant affirmation of God's love for even the worst sinners can be taken advantage of by the spiritually immature. Some persons might hear again and again that God loves them, and this provides a comfort for them when they will inevitably do some wrong. Yet constantly to seek assurance that the other person loves us when we will do something we know is wrong seems like a short distance from engaging in an abusive relationship with the other. It is close to abusive and disrespectful regularly to seek assurance that the other person, whom we will wrong, still loves us.

The question becomes: do we reciprocate this love? In fact, to love God is a commandment. Notice how Jesus answers the question regarding which of the commandments of the Torah is the greatest:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment (Mt 22.34-8).

It seems strange that we be commanded to love God. Isn't love something we engage in freely? Is it right to demand that people love God?

These questions are right on the money. The presupposition is that we don't need to be told to love God; either we will or we won't. Yet the fact that we have such a command tells us that there is need for it. But what might that need be?

To command that we love God tells us first that God is lovable. You can't be commanded to love someone who is not lovable, just as you can't be commanded to do something which impossible. So we infer from the reality of the commandment that God is lovable. And in fact the Bible goes out of its way to demonstrate to us that God is eminently lovable, that everything worth loving is found in God. Among other things, I point to this line in John's first letter:

... if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.1-2).

Notice what John says here: not that Christ's death is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, but that Christ himself, the person, is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The suggestion, as I understand it, is that to atone for the sins of the whole world at great cost to himself defines the very person Jesus Christ -- that is his life, his existence, his personality, his personally chosen identity. This is how Jesus Christ understands himself and how he understands his life: a continuous advocacy on behalf of sinners, even at great cost to himself.

Knowing that God is like this, how can we do anything but love him? How can you do anything but love the person who has made it the purpose of his life to ensure that things go well for you, to save you if you are in trouble, and do everything he can to ensure that you enjoy eternal life? Such a person can be reasonably met with no other response than love. But the bible teaches us that Jesus Christ reveals God's character to us, because he is God incarnate. Jesus' life is God's life! No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1.18).

Yet if we are commanded to love God, it must also be because we have to be told this. In fact, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is closely related to the first one: And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mt 22.39). John connects obedience to God's commands with love for God: whoever obeys [God's] word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection (1 John 2.5). And what else are God's commands except commandments to love other persons as we love ourselves? The implication is clear: if we do not love God, we will not obey his commandments, which means we will not love others nor treat them as we should.

God commands us to love him because he knows that this is the only hope for the world. Only if people love God, and therefore love the people that he has made with the same divine love that he has for them, will there be hope of salvation for the human race. So he commands us to love him, because otherwise we won't do it, and therefore neither will we treat other persons with love.

Indeed, the bible suggests that our natural disposition is to hate God and to be suspicious of him. Consider the example of the Hebrews: after the miracles of the exodus, and after God's numerous provisions in the desert, they come upon the land promised to them only to find that it is inhabited by very powerful and stronger nations than they. The conclusion they naturally come to is: It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us (Deut 1.27). After all the demonstrations of God's favor and mercy, they are convinced that he is out to kill them!

God commands us to love him because we are naturally disposed not to. And if we do not love God, if we are convinced that we are alone in the world and we have to look out for number one at all costs, we will not love other persons, either. Instead we will mistreat them and abuse them for our own ends. So God commands us to love him, because he is perfectly lovable, he wants only our good, and realizing this, we will learn to love others as we should, as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jesus Christ is only salvation

It's been a little while since I've posted anything here, so I thought I would rectify that with some meditations on this verse from 1 John:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

What I wish to focus on here is John's language regarding Christ. He doesn't say that Christ's death is the atonement for our sins. Rather, he says that Jesus himself is the atonement for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. The suggestion is that the very personal existence of the Godman Jesus Christ is advocacy for the salvation of the whole world! That is Christ's life summed up: atonement and intercession on behalf of the world.

As Joseph Ratzinger has said, "Jesus Christ is only salvation." His concern is not the damnation of the world, nor the demonstration of his glory through the rightful rejection of some antecedently chosen or overlooked reprobates. Far from it! His very life is an advocacy for the salvation of ὁ ὅλος ὁ κόσμος, the whole world. If we are not saved, it is because we have rejected Christ's offer and work of salvation, which was the very substance and essence of his life.

Why is it so important that we think about Christ in this way? I think we can see why if we take a look at the next verses John writes:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

Here as everywhere else in the letter, John motivates obedience in his audience -- not by a threat, not by a warning about dire impending doom, but through an appeal to love. Perfect obedience means perfect love of God; apart from loving God, we might say, it is impossible to please him and to obey his commandments. On the other hand, if you love God, which is here equated with knowing him, then you will naturally and obviously obey his commandments.

But how can we love God, if we are not sure that he is for us? How can I love Jesus Christ, if I am not convinced that he loves me? I think John saw this clearly, and therefore his presentation of God is unanimously and always a positive and "friendly" one: God is love, God is for us, Jesus Christ is the atonement for our sins, he is ready to forgive us for anything, and so on.

This is why it is so important to know and think of Jesus Christ as salvation: it may be impossible to love him, and therefore to obey him, otherwise.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Aferim! (2015)

Aferim! (2015) is a recent Romanian movie which has been well received. It is about a sort of policeman from early-mid 19th century Wallachia who is hired by a nobleman to find a runaway slave, Garfin, who had slept with the nobleman's wife. The policeman brings along his son, with whom he has various discussions about life, about the world, about history, about what it means to be a man, and about what the future holds. It touches on themes of hypocrisy, racism, patriarchy, and social injustice.

I think this movie is more meaningful if you are Romanian than if not. Particularly familiar to Romanians will be the miserably pessimistic attitude which the policeman Constantin expresses: there's nothing you can do about injustice or about the disappointments of life; that's just the way things are, and as he says towards the end of the film, We live the way we have to, not the way we want to. At another point he muses: Oh, deceitful world! You first appear sweet, but afterwards are bitter. That is the kind of stereotypical pessimism that Romanian folk wisdom embodies. Romanians are generally not the bright, hopeful optimists you might find among Americans; they always think of the worst, expect the worst, have to make due with the worst.

The film very obviously is concerned with social injustices of 19th century Romania (which obviously stretch back to earlier times, as well). Gypsies are treated more or less like garbage, and they function as slaves for richer Romanian noblemen. They are sold in markets. Interestingly, one of the Orthodox priests from the film justifies the slavery on more or less the same grounds proposed by Americans during the same time of history: God's curse on Ham means that the gypsies, being darker skinned than Romanians, are only good for being controlled and owned like slaves. At the end of the film, the runaway slave Garfin is publicly castrated by the nobleman, even though the nobleman's wife admits that the adultery was entirely her own fault and the gypsy slave bore no guilt. The nobleman then demands that the slave be taken to the market pantless, so that everyone may see he is emasculated, and be sold.

One thing about the film which is particularly powerful is the clear class differences which obtain among people in the movie: peasants look like peasants, gypsies like gypsies, noblemen like noblemen, priests and monks like priests and monks, etc. Each class is easily distinguished by dress and appearance, as well as by speech and by stereotype. The noblemen wear ridiculous outfits with enormous headwear and multicolored robes in order to distinguish themselves from the villagers and peasants, who typically wear simple white tops with work pants and a belt and fur hat. This is a society in which every person has his own place: the noblemen above the peasants, the peasants above the gypsies, and the gypsies below everyone else.

Constantin and his son discuss what it means to be a man all throughout the film. To Constantin, being a man means: fighting, having sex with prostitutes and performing, being tough, killing, etc. Later on, the nobleman's wife complains to Constantin that he had beaten her very badly. His response was: he, being the man, has the right to beat his wife if she has done wrong -- although gently, with meekness, as our Christian law requires. This is another refrain of the film: the utter hypocrisy of a society which claims to be Christian and yet tolerates and even justifies such absurd inequalities and evils. The priests are all hysterical characters and drunks, who propagate absurdities to the parishioners and defend ethnic stereotypes, reinforcing racism and xenophobia in the Christian Romanian community rather than love and kindness. Interestingly, Constantin and his son happen across a priest in an open field whose wagon had broken down, and he offers to help him, since they are good samaritans. But later in the film, when they happen across a crashed wagon surrounded by naked, dead bodies, Constantin demands that they flee. When his son notes that one of the men was still breathing, Constantin refuses the opportunity actually to be a good samaritan, instead saying, "May God rest him in peace," out of fear that bandits would attack them as well.

Constantin is a hypocrite as well. When his son suggests that they let Garfin go before arriving at the nobleman's home, since the gypsy slave had done nothing wrong and would be punished unjustly, Constantin insists that he cannot go back on his word. His whole life he had done nothing wrong and had never committed an injustice against anyone. Yet he says this sleeping in an inn, in a small town where that same night he solicited a prostitute and admitted to his son to having enjoyed the company of multiple women beyond his wife.

The impression you would get of Romanians watching this film is not particularly favorable: they are absurd, self-justifying hypocrites, pessimists who accept the injustices of the world as immutable, yet somehow holding out for a better future despite not putting any effort towards reform. Things don't have to remain this way, however. This is precisely the sort of film which previous generations of Romanians would not have made and would not have appreciated. The very fact of this film's production inspires hope for a better future.

The word "aferim!" comes from Turkish, and it means bravo! Various characters congratulate one another with this phrase when what they have done or said is hardly praiseworthy. Certainly the director deserves a sincere aferim! for having made this film, which may yet enlighten many Romanians.

I think as a film, it is capable of being enjoyed by persons of any ethnicity. Certainly Americans (especially black Americans) will find much of its presentation of the treatment of gypsies profoundly similar to the treatment of African slaves in the colonies and in the United States. Still, as I've noted, there are certain things which you will only pick up if you are Romanian yourself.