A Liberal History

August 26, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 13     Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18     John 6:56-69

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Once upon a time there was a parish in Holland, where the people felt themselves strictly bound 
to obey all God’s commandments, including keeping the Sabbath day holy.


But one Sunday the place was so threatened by wind and waves 
that the dyke had to be strengthened 
if the inhabitants were to survive.


The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty.


Should he call out the people of the parish
 and set them to do the necessary work, if that meant profaning the Sabbath?


Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction 
in order to honour the Sabbath?


He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, 
and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.


The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will.
 God can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves.
 Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death.


The pastor tried one last argument: 
Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment
and declare the Sabbath was made for people, 
not people for the Sabbath?


Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: I have always been troubled, pastor, by something 
that I have never ventured to say publicly.


Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling
 that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal. [i]


Being a bit of a liberal myself I find myself in a little religious difficulty as well this morning. Theologically I’m between a rock and a hard place or perhaps between having to choose to talk about Joshua having a ceremony to celebrate God having brutally conquered the indigenous peoples of Canaan on behalf of the Hebrew tribes or Jesus talking about bread being his flesh and blood. Which, as an aside, does raise the question: Do vegetarians who read the Bible literally take communion? 


As this makes six straight weeks John has talked about bread, Joshua wins by default. But to do so requires a little background as what most of us remember about him begins and ends with Mahalia Jackson singing Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumblin’ down.


Joshua was Moses’ spiritual heir. It was given to him to take the Hebrew people into the Promised Land. The problem was the land was already taken. So the Book of Joshua recounts all the bloody battles Yahweh, their war god, won on their behalf, Jericho being the most famous. But there are a lot of problems with this book, not the least of them is there is no archaeological evidence that the invasion ever happening. I’ve been to Jericho, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, and there is no evidence that its walls ever came “tumblin’ down.” So whoever wrote the book, and scholars are uncertain as to whom, was a believer in the maxim, “some people make history, and some make it up.”


In the passage we hear today we are at the culmination of the book. The battles are won. The Land of Milk and Honey is theirs. Joshua, or someone putting words in his mouth, is recounting to the assembled tribes at Israel’s holiest site at that time, how Yahweh has saved Israel. It has been called Israel’s salvation history. Apparently he understood something that Winston Churchill understood later. Churchill is reputed to have said during World War II that history would deal gently with him because, in his words, “I intend to write it.” While the invasion of Canaan is an invention, Joshua’s words have become carved in history as well as the idea that when something is divinely ordained it is justified. It has been used to rally the troops for millennia. Joshua’s call to choose this day whom you will serve has been used over and over again in western history. It is a mind-set that produced Spanish and British imperialism, France’s de Gaulism, America’s Manifest Destiny and more recently the false notion of American “exceptionalism,” the Maori land wars and, in perhaps in its most dire example, Nazi Germany.


Salvation history is our collective perception of our mandate and destiny. It gives us a mission, but one based on fear — fear that requires us always to be on the physical attack for our own spiritual self-defence. It gives us an identity, but an identity based on the derogation of the worth of others — the same identity that Joshua gave the Israelites and that the Roman Emperor Constantine gave the Christians. Salvation history, thus, is also damnation history for other people. It makes us who “choose the Lord” special by making others of no value. By making us agents of morality and judgment, it justifies the destruction of others for being immoral and wrong. It is the same thinking that justifies discrimination against the gay and lesbian community. It is the same thinking that blames the poor for being poor. It is the same thinking that suggests that there is legitimate rape. It is the same thinking that justifies the privileges of being white or male or rich. It is the same thinking that defends Christians teaching Bible in Schools in a secular education system.


While I reject Joshua’s salvation history I do think his challenge to choose between life and death is as relevant today as it was in the early history of the Israelites. We need to save ourselves from our salvation history. The church today needs to claim a salvation history that builds our identity not on fearful exclusivity and superiority founded on blindly following self-serving portions of scripture or we will drown just as surely as that Dutch parish.


The good news is that that liberal Jesus, has already offered a new salvation history with a new mind-set, a new way to define our selves. He offered an understanding of salvation that was universal, not tribal. Salvation through nonviolence, not God’s might. Salvation based on love of neighbour, not their exploitation. His vision has often been stifled by the state it opposes and by the church that has sought to domesticate him. Had it become dominant the world’s history might have been quite different. Even so, his liberal ideas seeped through. Thank Jesus’ salvation history wherever the world is more democratic, slavery is less prevalent, children are valued, the environment is protected, women are less vulnerable, the hungry are fed, human rights are enshrined in law and people can marry whomever they love. This is the salvation history I choose this day, not the one of my ancestors.


[i] Kasemann, E. 1969. Jesus Means Freedom. GtB: London. SCM.

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