It seems clear to me that biblical texts reflect varying degrees of inspiration. Some texts simply perpetuate the status quo, even offering justifications for national exceptionalism, violence and the stratification of society. It’s difficult to find any positive benefit from such texts, other than showing us how people of faith can use their faith to justify their own prejudices and life-diminishing beliefs and practices.
But the beauty of our sacred scriptures is that there are other texts that critique, confront and challenge the status quo, offering a vision of healing and positive change. I call these scriptures break-out texts because in terms of our spiritual and moral evolution they advance the ball way down the field. Though every text is embedded in its own time and place, these break-out texts speak truth that transcends cultural and historical context.
A few weeks ago the Revised Common Lectionary gave us one of these break-out texts in Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7: “These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, who Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. … Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The word that the New Oxford Annotated Bible uses to describe this text is revolutionary. That is because this text seems to move far beyond where most of the people were at that stage in Israel’s religious evolution and development. Instead of the typical: “Israel is holy. Babylon is unholy. Therefore, come out and be separate from them. Don’t eat their food or adopt their customs.” Here we have a text that says to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon: “Live among them. Eat their food. Marry their sons and daughters. Pursue the well-being of the city and country where you dwell.” In other words, pray for and work toward the common good. This text is revolutionary because it moves us beyond religious exceptionalism, beyond religious elitism, beyond the dualism of in group/out group religion, and challenges us to pray and work for the common good.
Conservative, evangelical theology tends to diminish the importance of any strong or lasting commitment to the common good. At the core of conservative Christianity is the belief that salvation is basically deliverance from divine judgment in the future, and only through Christian faith (trust in Jesus) can a person be saved. This is the view of Christian exclusivism which divides the world between the saved and unsaved based on one’s faith in Jesus.
If one believes that it is only through faith in Jesus that a person can come to know God, then the need to convince others to believe in Jesus for salvation becomes a priority and the common good takes a backseat. Such a belief actually works against the common good because other religious faiths are deemed inferior and inadequate. There is very little common ground to build on.
On the other hand, a more inclusive view that allows for other mediators and means through which persons can come to know God, and a much broader understanding of salvation as healing, liberation and transformation tends to make the common good that is necessary for a just society central to faith.
Consider the following story told by former news commentator Peter Arnett. He tells about being in Israel in a small town on the West Bank when an explosion went off. The screams of the wounded seemed to be coming from all directions. A man emerged from this chaos, running up to him holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please, Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me,” he begged.
So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his arms was pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster? I’m losing her. I’m losing her.”
When they finally got to the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area, where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl had died.
The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh,Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”
The common good of society will become a priority when one realizes that we are all the daughters and sons of God by virtue of our humanity, and not by virtue of a particular religious faith. It’s a matter of living out our identity and reflecting the character of God by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
I am convinced that a progressive, inclusive Christian faith has the potential to empower people to work for the common good. When we regard all people as our sisters and brothers, as the daughters and sons of God, we will be more conscious of our responsibility to care for one another, regardless of how different we may be.
We must keep expanding our view of God and God’s relationship to the world, not just for our sakes, but for our world’s sake. Our world needs persons and communities of faith to lead the way in bringing diverse people and groups together to work for peace, fairness, equality and justice, and to promote beliefs and practices that will further the common good.