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I lived in South Africa for thirteen and a half months in 1988 and 1989, first teaching in a small Baptist college in Cape Town and then studying for about three months at the University of Stellenbosch. Before I learned I would be going to South Africa, I knew two things about the country: the evils of apartheid and the courage of people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. As soon as I found out I would be living there for the next year, I immediately started reading all I could about the country's history and its current political climate. It was with both trepidation and excitement that I stepped off the plane at the D.F. Malan Airport (now renamed Cape Town International Airport) with my wife and baby daughter. I knew it would be an exciting time, but I didn't know that my year in the country would turn out to be the most educational and inspirational experience of my life.

Nelson Mandela was in jail on Robben Island when I arrived in Cape Town. On occasion when I was near the bay, I would look out at the island and wonder what kind of life he was living. There were no official news reports on Mandela, because the South African government prohibited any mention of Mandela in either the television media (which they completely controlled) or the print media (which they largely controlled). It was illegal to print any of Mandela's words, or those of other South African opponents of apartheid like Helen Joseph, Thabo Mbeki, or Joe Slovo. It was also illegal to publish any photos of Mandela more recent than 1962, when he was arrested and incarcerated.

For the rest of the story, read on below the fleur de kos

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Sat Apr 27, 2013 at 05:41 PM PDT

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Easter 5: Psalm 148

Proponents of string theory suggest that the earliest point in time might not have been the Big Bang some 13 to 15 billion years ago, as most astrophysicists believe. Instead, they say that string theory provides an alternative history of the universe, one that goes back beyond the Big Bang in possibly measurable ways. As science expands our knowledge of the universe, exhortations to the natural world to praise God may seem quaint to some people. Where are the heavens, where the angels dwell? Where are the highest heavens, which contain the sun, moon, and starts? Where are the waters above the heavens? What do we in the modern world mean when we talk about God as creator?

It is true that many have abandoned the idea of God, preferring to think of a universe based entirely on measurable scientific principles and observable data. A corollary of abandoning the idea of God is that the world no longer has any real meaning; it only has meaning that humans may arbitrarily assign to it. Other modern inhabitants of the world reject scientific principles such as the Big Bang theory and evolution, believing them to be contradictory to belief in God. These are not stupid people, any more than Galileo's antagonists, who refused to believe that the earth revolved around the sun, were stupid. The problem is not that they don't understand science; many don't, though the same can be said of many believers who accept the findings of modern science. No, the real problem is that they don't understand God.

I believe in the scientific principle that has given rise in the past century and a half to theories such as evolution, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang. I also believe in a God who somehow exists beyond the universe yet at the same time infuses the universe. My idea of God may not be the same as that of my more conservative brothers and sisters, but it is just as real. I don't reject scientific theories because they conflict with my theology. Instead, I hold a theology that is big enough to embrace science--all fields of science, whether biology, cosmology, physics, or whatever other area--while at the same time continuing to accept the existence, indeed the praiseworthiness, of God. When many Christians during the Middle Ages were wallowing in ignorance, Muslims were making great strides in mathematics and science, yet they continued to hold a strong belief in God. Modern Christians can be full citizens of the scientific, postmodern world, while at the same time joining with our Muslim neighbors in proclaiming Allahu Akhbar: God is great! We can also join the psalmist the psalmist, who says, "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven."

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Sat Apr 13, 2013 at 03:55 PM PDT

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Easter 3: John 21:1-19

This passage in John is one of several that is frequently misinterpreted because of faulty hermeneutical methodology. I'm talking specifically about the conversation between Jesus and Peter that takes place after breakfast, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks Peter three times, "Peter, do you love me?" and Peter responds each time, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Each time Jesus replies, "Feed my sheep," or some variant thereof. It is the variation that is the key to both the misunderstanding and the proper understanding of this passage.

The misunderstanding involves the use of two different Greek verbs for love, agapao and fileo. Of the six uses of the word translated "love" in English in this passage, Jesus uses agapao the first two times and fileo the third time, whereas Peter uses fileo all three times. I have heard innumerable sermons and Bible lessons that claim that agapao is a higher form of love, perhaps even an exclusively Christian form of love, and that Jesus is asking Peter whether or not he loves him is this exalted manner. Peter responds each time by using the weaker form of love, fileo, and he is hurt when Jesus switches to this verb in his third question.

There are at least four problems with this common interpretation. First, it makes no sense for Peter to be hurt because Jesus chose to use the same word that Peter himself was using to describe his love for Jesus. Obviously Peter thought it was a perfectly acceptable word. Second, Jesus and Peter would probably have been conversing in Aramaic, not Greek, so the distinction between the Greek verbs is a literary device. Third, an examination of the immediate context indicates the author's predilection for variation rather than repetition (viz., "feed my lambs," "shepherd my sheep," "feed my sheep"). Fourth, an examination of the use of the two verbs agapao and fileo in John reveals that they are used interchangeably. In particular, notice the following passages, all of which use fileo: "The father loves the Son" (5:20); "See how much he [Jesus] loved him [Lazarus]" (11:36); "The Father himself loves you" (16:27); "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (20:2; in contrast to other occurrences of this phrase, which use agapao).

Peter is upset, then, not because Jesus switches verbs, but because he asked him a third time whether he really loved him or not. Peter's threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus corresponds to his threefold denial of Jesus before the crucifixion. Peter's hurt feeling could be because he wonders whether Jesus will ever believe that he loves him, after his earlier failure, or it may be that the threefold repetition of the question simply reminds him of his earlier weakness. In either case, Jesus responds affirmingly. He seems to be saying, "Yes, Peter, I know that you love me, but maybe you yourself don't realize the depth of that love. I'm sending you out to tend my flock, and you will be faithful doing so, even to the point of death. But that's all in the future. Right now all I ask is that you follow me."

Sometimes we, like Peter, fail Jesus, and maybe we think that our sins are so great that God will never forgive us, or that we'll never be useful to God again. The beauty of this simple story is that regardless of our sins, God always stands ready to forgive us and welcome us back into the fold. As he had for Peter, Jesus has one simple question for us: "Do you love me?" If we answer yes, then he has a simple command: "Follow me."

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Sat Mar 23, 2013 at 04:46 PM PDT

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Palm Sunday: Luke 22:14-23:56

We are so accustomed to hearing a conflated version of the passion narrative that reading the narrative in just one gospel sounds strange. Yet even when we read from only one gospel, we still have the tendency to "read in" material from the other gospels. When we just read one gospel, any of them, we find a picture of the passion that is somewhat different than the harmonized picture with which we're so familiar.

Reading from Luke's gospel, we can see several ways in which Luke presents his distinct rendition of Jesus' death. The most obvious of these is that Luke takes great pains to craft his story in such a way that the Romans receive almost no blame for Jesus' crucifixion, while the Jews receive almost all the blame. While blaming the Jews rather than the Romans is common to the other gospels, Luke alone among the Synoptic Gospels omits any reference to the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus and giving him a crown of thorns (the Gospel of John is even more deferential to the Romans, particularly Pilate). Luke also has Pilate repeat three times his belief in Jesus' innocence. Luke alone mentions Pilate sending Jesus to Herod in an attempt to free him, or at least shift the burden of condemning Jesus to someone else. Finally, after Jesus dies, the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross acknowledges Jesus' innocence (as opposed to his comment in Matthew and Mark, "Surely this was the Son of God").

All these attempts to shield the Romans from guilt in Jesus' death make sense when one remembers that Luke is writing his gospel, as well as the book of Acts, for a certain Theophilus, who is probably a Roman official of some sort. Luke is aware that only the worst criminals suffered the fate of crucifixion, and he seems to have shaped his gospel the way he did in order to make it palatable to Roman citizens. Jesus, he stresses, was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused. Furthermore, the Romans played no major part in his death, which Luke blames on errant Jewish leaders.

I don't believe that the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts was prejudiced against Jews as a people; his close association with Paul mentioned several times in Acts supports this assertion. On the other hand, as a member of a persecuted minority, he clearly believes that the Romans were more likely to accept this new religion than the Jews were. Christians did suffer rejection and probably a measure of persecution by some Jews during the first century, as the testimony of Paul and the Jewish prayer identifying Christians as heretics show. It is not surprising for a group that feels itself persecuted to lash out verbally against those it perceives to be its persecutors, so Luke can hardly be blamed for his depiction of events. However, in the centuries that followed, after Christians outnumbered Jews and came to have much more power, particularly after the time of Constantine, many Christians misappropriated the passion narratives in all the gospels and used them as a license to persecute the Jews.

In today's world, where anti-Semitism is still so prevalent, how should we read Luke's passion narrative? I think we must do so honestly, acknowledging the hostility between Christians and Jews that is evident in it. We must read it with an understanding of history, and Christians must be especially cognizant of the fact that the persecution of Christians by Jews lasted a hundred years or less and affected only a relatively small number of people, whereas the persecution of Jews by Christians has gone on for almost two thousand years and has devastated the lives of millions. Finally, Christians must read Luke's passion narrative through the eyes of Jesus, who proclaimed from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." To follow the example of Christ, Christians today must make every effort to reconcile with their Jewish brothers and sisters, asking forgiveness for the sins we and our ancestors have committed against them and seeking ways in which we can walk together on our respective journeys of faith. And while we're at it, let's do the same for other groups Christians have wronged over the centuries who represent other faiths, as well as those who profess no faith at all.

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I got an email Wednesday from my university's communication department, asking if they could direct local reporters to me if they had any questions about the new pope. This was after the white smoke had emerged from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel but before the actual announcement had been made. I was already listening to the radio and watching live streaming video of Vatican TV, but if I wanted to be prepared for reporters' questions, I had to switch into overdrive to get as much information as I could as quickly as possible. I began looking at several different websites, including various predictions about likely candidates for pope (mostly useless, as it turned out), the list of the "Dirty Dozen" cardinals that SNAP didn't want to see become the next pope (the one they chose wasn't on the list), and, yes, various Wikipedia pages, including the one that contains the list of all previous popes.

Then came the announcement: taking the name Pope Francis, the new pope was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This information sent me scrambling to find out all I could about him, including a variety of news sites, Wikipedia English, and Wikipedia Spanish. (The English Wikipedia page on Pope Francis went live only a minute or two after the official announcement; obviously several such pages were built in anticipation of the revelation of the new pope's name, and it was a little sparse at first, with occasional typos, but I was still impressed with the concept of a crowd-sourced online encyclopedia: what a great resource!) I made copious notes, and sure enough, a couple of reporters did call me within a half hour or so, one wanting me to do a live interview that night on one of the local Spanish stations. Despite my somewhat limited Spanish communication skills (reading, no problem; listening and understanding, no problem; speaking on live TV and not sounding like an overeducated five-year-old, problem!), I survived, due in large measure to an excited and rather loquacious priest who took up most of the interview time (¡gracias!). Neither the phone interview nor the TV interview were extensive enough to let me address many of what I thought were the most significant issues concerning the new pope, so I decided to write a blog entry about the choice.

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Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 03:33 PM PST

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Lent 4: Joshua 5:9-12

"Violence"

A voice cries out in the night, a siren wails--
the city sleeps, but uneasily.
Beneath the façade of calm there is unrest.

The sun rises, it shines bright and clear in the blue sky.
It illumines the skyscrapers, the homes, the beaches,
the squalor of townships and squatter camps.
The majestic mountains and the quiet sea cry "Peace!"
but there is no peace--only violence.

It is not the noise of bombs or the marching of feet--
it is the hatred in the heart of the white man for the black,
and the black man for the white.
It is the violence of famine and disease in a land of plenty.

Where is the human dignity when you sleep on the bare earth
in a house of corrugated iron?
Are your dreams those of your oppressor:
wealth, ease, recognition?
Or do you dream of shelter from the cold,
shoes for your feet, food for your next meal?
Do you long for the day of wrath that is coming?

Violence begets violence--it spreads like a plague.
It cannot be halted, only slowed.
It will not be extinguished with more violence, only heightened.
Is peace simply the lack of bloodshed, or is it much more?

The sun moves across the sky and sets in the sea.
Darkness replaces light, and somehow, it seems appropriate.

I wrote this poem about twenty-five years ago while living in Cape Town, South Africa. Despite the relative calm of the city, violence--particularly institutional violence--was all around me. It was oppressive, and I knew it couldn't endure, but I worried that people would try to use violent means to overthrow the evil apartheid system. In fact, there were isolated instances of violence over the years by opponents of the system, though the number and magnitude of the violence paled in comparison with the violence of the all-white establishment. Then something miraculous happened. About the middle of 1989, that amazing year which saw the collapse of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, people took to the streets in Cape Town, then elsewhere in South Africa. Huge, peaceful demonstrations by citizens--black, white, coloured, and Indian alike--demanded an end to apartheid and the installation of truly representative government. The South African people emerged from centuries of slavery and asserted their rights as human beings.

In today's reading from Joshua, the Israelites have entered the promised land, and God tells them, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." Slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and institutionalized prejudice of all sorts are modern disgraces of oppression which hold too many people in bondage, both oppressed and oppressors.

The first step in rolling away the disgrace of oppression is to recognize and name the oppression for what it is, something that is preventing the full realization of an individual's or group's humanity. The second step is to begin to struggle against oppression, either from underneath (as a member of the oppressed class) or from above (as a member of the oppressing class) or from the outside (as one who sees the oppression of someone else and strives to remedy it; a warning: many of us consider ourselves outside observers of oppression, but it is often the case that we are in fact part of the system of oppression, and it is important that we realize that). Frederick Douglass, in his autobiographical account of his early life as a slave and his escape, says, "I was no longer content, therefore, to live with him or any other slaveholder. I began, with the commencement of the year, to prepare myself for a final struggle, which should decide my fate one way or the other." The third step is to join with others who are also struggling against injustice and become part of a movement for change. The longing to be free is innate in all people, and it is what God desires for all humankind. Once we roll away our own disgrace of Egypt, whatever it might be, we need to stand with others who are seeking to do the same.

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The following essay is the first I wrote for Progressive Theology ten years ago last month. The immediate cause of the essay was the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a true national tragedy, but looming on the horizon was the much greater international tragedy of the Iraq War, toward which the nation was lurching headlong without heed. As the ten-year anniversary of that disgrace approaches, I think it's appropriate to reflect again on how war and violence affects us as Americans, and how it affects others around the world, and ask ourselves the question: do we really care?

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Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 09:50 AM PST

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Lent 3: Luke 13:1-9

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people. Or to quote the immortal words of Forrest Gump, "Sh*t happens." Is there rhyme or reason to the events that transpire in the universe? Most materialists (in the philosophical sense of the word) would say no. Most people of faith would say yes, though they would disagree with one another about the details and the mechanisms of how divine reason plays itself out. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, many people continue to believe that if something bad happens to them or to someone else, it must be because they did something wrong. The responses of some people to Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami illustrate the point, but even a perfunctory glance at the scope of the people affected by these natural disasters, which included many innocent children among their victims, should disprove this persistent misperception. How, then, can we make sense of the seemingly senseless suffering that many endure in this world?

Today's gospel reading holds the two positions of the apparent randomness of events and divine providence in tension. When Jesus is told about two relatively recent events involving the deaths of people who didn't seem to deserve their fate (although Pilate might have disagreed about the first group--sometimes innocence is in the eye of the beholder), he denies that they were particularly deserving of their tragic fates, but he then pivots to warn his interlocutors of the necessity for right living.

So is there any correlation between right living and prosperity/happiness on the one hand and selfishness/self-serving living and hardship on the other hand? I think so, but the correlation is by no means exact. It's clear, for example, that although random tragedy can strike either camp with equal probability, those whose lives focus almost exclusively on themselves feel less satisfaction, in general, than those who strive for justice for all or who give their time and money to help others. Not only that, but when tragedy or misfortune do strike, as they inevitably do eventually to everyone, those who have fashioned their lives around themselves often find themselves without the human support that is such a help in getting through the difficult times of life. Many people also find themselves drawing strength in tough times from the faith that has sustained them through the highs and lows of their life. So is there meaning in life, order in the universe, and a divine plan that, though beyond our comprehension, is worked out through the glories, tragedies, and daily drudgery of life? I believe there is, and like so many others present and past, I find great comfort in it.

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Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:42 PM PST

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Lent 1: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Black History Month (a.k.a. African-American History month in the U.S., though it's also observed in Canada and the U.K.) is an annual celebration of illustrious and inspiring figures of African ancestry who changed their countries, and in many cases the world as well, for the better. Leading abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, leaders in the Civil Rights movement like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, scientists and inventors like George Washington Carver and Yohannes Haile-Selassie, authors like Maya Angelou and Henry Louis Gates, and many, many others have contributed their time, talents, and efforts to making the world a better place. Alex Haley's monumental best-seller Roots awoke in many African Americans a desire to learn about their ancestors, and it also aroused the desire in many people without African ancestry (other than the common African ancestry we all share dating back 50,000 to 100,000 years) to rediscover their own personal histories. The rise of genealogical websites and personalized DNA profiles makes the task of tracing one's ancestry somewhat easier today than in the past, and many people are taking advantage of the available tools. This increased interest in our ancestry raises interesting questions. What difference does it make who our ancestors were? Does knowing our ancestors change our perception of ourselves? In some ways we are all responsible for the people we become, but we are also all indebted, for better or worse, to those who went before us--whether our biological ancestors or not--for who we are today. Most people find it both interesting and beneficial to know something of their own personal history, and for many, identification with a particular historical tradition is an important part of their own self-identity.

Today's reading from Deuteronomy contains an ancient Israelite confession of faith, which begins, "My father was a wandering Aramean." This ancestor--Jacob, also known as Israel, the eponymous ancestor of the nation--is said to have taken his family to Egypt, where they endured hardship and escaped enslavement after several generations to enter into the promised land given them by God, a land flowing with milk and honey. The stories of Jacob and his family have provided Jews over the centuries with inspiration and a sense of identity. Particularly meaningful, in light of the suffering endured by many Jewish communities over the ages, is the memory that God has preserved the people over the course of time and delivered them from difficult circumstances down to the present, in remembrance of which the people bring tokens of thanksgiving to God.

Another important aspect of the passage, and one that is often overlooked, is found in the last verse, which says that when the people celebrate the bounty God has given them, they are to invite the Levites and resident aliens to celebrate with them. The Levites were descendants of Jacob's son Levi who had inherited the priesthood but no territory in the promised land, and the resident aliens were people of non-Israelite ancestry who lived among them. This verse reminds all of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of good families, good jobs, and good health to remember the poor, the homeless, and the undocumented who are our neighbors, who live, work, and die in our cities, and who contribute to the blessings we enjoy.

Black History Month tends to focus on famous people who made names for themselves by their contributions, but we need to remember that many other African Americans, whose names are largely or completely forgotten today, built the roads, bridges, schools, and cities we still use; they worked in the fields, shops, and restaurants that provided food for their neighbors; and they worked hard and paid taxes that were used to build the nation. And of course, the same could be said of people from every imaginable background. Remembering our ancestry is important, and it can give us a measure of pride in our identity with the past, but we always need to remember that we are part of a larger community, an international community, which includes people of both shared and diverging ancestries, all working together by the grace of God to build a world we can all live in side by side.

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Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 04:00 PM PST

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Transfiguration Sunday: Psalm 99

When U.S. military planners wanted a code name for the bombing of Afghanistan, the first one they proposed was Operation Infinite Justice. After a backlash from American Muslims, who noted their belief that only Allah can provide infinite justice, the military changed the name of the operation to Enduring Freedom. However, it's interesting to examine the original name for "the first battle in the war on terrorism." Leaving aside for the moment the notion that any temporal power could deliver justice that was infinite, I'd like to focus on the word "justice." What was the motivation behind the choice of that word? Undoubtedly it was the events of September 11, 2001. People often speak of bringing people to justice, when what they really mean is killing or imprisoning them. Many lawbreakers do need to be imprisoned, but what should we make of President Bush's words, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or justice to our enemies, justice will be done"? It is too often the case throughout history that those on one side of a conflict see their cause as completely just, and it is their enemies who need to be taught justice. Of course, it goes without saying that those on the other side of the conflict believe exactly the same thing. How can people of faith step back from such rhetoric and analyze conflict from a progressive, theological perspective?

Today's reading from Psalm 99 offers a solution. "Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob." The psalmist then proceeds to describe God's communication with God's people, including Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. The principle is clear: justice is God's concern, and it is God's decrees that set the standard for justice. The Old Testament unfortunately provides many counterexamples of the notion of a just and equitable God, for example, in the stories in which God orders the Israelites to slaughter the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, men, women, children, and even animals. However, in its noblest passages, the Old Testament also shows a more just God, one who tells God's followers not to kill, not to steal, and not to lie.

Warfare always breaks at least these three commandments. The killing of innocent civilians is labeled "collateral damage." The theft of land and goods is called "appropriation." Lies are referred to as "disinformation." As believers, we should indeed hope for infinite justice, but not the kind of false justice inflicted by national military forces, guerrilla fighters, or individual suicide bombers. Justice cannot be achieved by bombs or bullets. Justice can only be achieved through dialog, mutual respect, and a careful analysis of the existing and historical situation. Launching a mortar is easy; listening to the anguish of your adversaries is not. Dropping a bomb from a plane is easy; sacrificing a part of your dream so that those on the other side can realize part of their dream is not. Shooting a bullet at your enemy is easy; forgiving your enemy and reaching out a hand of friendship is not. Nations are ill-equipped to dispense justice, especially on other nations, not least because national self-interest always clouds one's judgment. Justice must be based on the values that people share: love of family, concern for the future, care of the land, and acknowledgement of the transcendent.

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Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 12:30 PM PST

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Epiphany 2: Isaiah 62:1-5

When the nation of Israel was established in 1948, many people around the world saw the events as the fulfillment of prophecy. Others believed that the Jewish people had been recompensed in some measure for the horrors they suffered under Adolf Hitler, and indeed under many other oppressors through the centuries. For the Palestinians whose land was confiscated and whose villages were destroyed, however, the state of Israel was an unmitigated disaster. Thus, the establishment of Israel as a nation was at best a mixed bag, with some positives (arguably) but even more negatives (indisputably).

How, then, can one interpret a passage such as today's reading from Isaiah, which begins, "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest"? The prophet (often called Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah) speaks to Jewish returnees who are living in their traditional homeland, which continues to suffer neglect and poverty. He voices God's promise to restore the fortunes of God's people so that the other nations will see Israel's renewal as a sign of divine blessing. I would argue that this prophecy was in fact fulfilled in large measure in the years that followed the Jews' return from Babylonian exile. They rebuilt the temple and eventually the city of Jerusalem itself. Yes, they continued to be under Persian hegemony until the time of the Maccabees, but their lot was generally good during this period.

More important than determining whether or not this prophecy was literally fulfilled--I think such a question is a hermeneutical distraction from examining the meaning of the prophecy in its historical context and in its present application--we must examine the issue of how (or whether) it can be applied in our current situation. To attempt to apply this prophecy, or any other, to the present state of Israel is a mistake. Today's nation of Israel is not the Israel of the Bible, any more than the modern nation of Italy is the Roman Empire of the New Testament. Instead, we should ask the question, of whom is God speaking? God is speaking of God's chosen people, and God has promised not to rest "until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch." The people whom God loves, who are called by God's name (cf. Isaiah 43:7), are the entire community of humankind. Thinking of "God's people" in narrow religious terms, or (even worse) in modern nationalistic terms, has led to wars, injustice, and acts of atrocity over the millennia that we who live in the nuclear age must cast aside before it is too late.

In an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise called "Chosen Realm," the Enterprise is captured by a group of people intent on taking the ship back to their home planet and annihilating their enemies, to whom they refer as heretics. The point of theological dissent? Whether "the makers" created the universe in nine or ten days! Over this point of difference, the factions had been fighting for centuries, and when the Enterprise finally reaches the planet, it has been destroyed in the interim by the two factions (die-hard Trekkies will recognize this as a remake of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" from the original series, which focused on racism rather than religion).

Before maniacs with access to nuclear arsenals begin to use nuclear weapons again on their enemies in the name of "preemption," let us strive to make the world a place that can honestly be called "My Delight Is in Her" and replace those who would lead us down the path of Desolation with those who have a keener insight into God's nature and will.

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Sat Jan 05, 2013 at 04:24 PM PST

Saturday Night Theologian

by Tod OL Mundo

The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6

We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision or beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we know only that there God dwells among men. - Envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, upon seeing Constantinople for the first time, 987 C.E.
An early Slavic chronicle says that Prince Vladimir, a descendant of the Viking rulers of Rus (Russia), decided it was time to abandon the paganism of his ancestors and adopt the religion of one of his powerful neighbors: Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or Islam. He sent envoys to the surrounding territories, and the emissaries who returned with the most glowing report were the ones sent to the city of Constantinople, the home of Orthodoxy. In contrast to the cities of the western Christians and the Slavic Muslims, Constantinople glistened with gold and silver, had architectural marvels like the church of Hagia Sophia, and exuded both wealth and power. Vladimir's conversion, it seems, was based more on an impression of what the Christian God (as worshiped in the East) promised to bring to himself and his kingdom than on his being convinced of the truth of the religion.

The prophet who composed the lines preserved in today's reading from Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during the time of Persian hegemony over Israel. The Jews who had returned with such high hopes from Babylonian exile had expected a quick restoration of their fortunes, but even though they had rebuilt the temple and begun work on restoring Jerusalem, the city was still a mere shadow of its former greatness. In contrast to the general malaise that permeated most of the populace, the prophet looked forward to a time when the fortunes of Jerusalem would be so great that people of other nations would be attracted to its splendor, as the Russian envoys were impressed by the glory of Constantinople. Wealth begets wealth, the prophet suggests, and foreign dignitaries would shower the already rich city with gifts such as gold and frankincense (cf. Matthew's narrative of the birth of Jesus). This prophetic vision of a glorious future was intended to encourage the faithful of Jerusalem and its surrounding towns and villages. Although Jerusalem never again became a city characterized by great wealth, it did become a city considered holy by the three Abrahamic faiths, and thus a destiny for pilgrims of those faiths from many nations.

When the British colonized the east coast of the North American continent, the new colonies were sometimes compared with Jerusalem, a city set on a hill that shines its light to all nations. After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation called the United States often saw themselves as especially blessed by God, perhaps more so than their ancestors in Europe. For proof, they pointed to the wealth in natural resources, in land, in agricultural products, and in commercial enterprises that characterized the country. After its successful forays into war--such as the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the two World Wars--from which the nation emerged wealthier and militarily more powerful than other nations, many people began to think that America must be the recipient of God's favor in a unique way, and the notion of American exceptionalism was born. Failure in Vietnam, successively deeper economic recessions, plummeting achievement in education, and rising infant mortality rates notwithstanding, many still hold fast to the idea that America is God's special nation, the lone superpower, the world's indispensable nation.

Hogwash! America is certainly rich and powerful, and it has the potential to be a force for tremendous good in the world, but it does not always make good on its potential. It continues to be the destiny of choice for many immigrants, but it has also borne the brunt of much criticism over its imperialist policies worldwide and its failure to care for its own citizens at home. No nation is perfect, but nations that want to see themselves as great must do a better job than the U.S. is currently doing in many areas: health care for all citizens (including mental health care), alleviation of poverty, elimination of discrimination of any sort, free or low cost education from pre-K through grad school, reduction of violence, substantially full employment, increased collaboration and decreased bellicosity in foreign policy, redirection of funding away from military programs and toward social programs, serious attention to environmental and climate issues, increased engagement in empowering ways with poor nations, and increased spending on science, technology, health, and the arts, just to name a few things.

If we truly care about being a nation that others praise as a light to the world, a focus on peace, justice, compassion, and innovation will be far more effective than our current emphasis on militarism, political control, and economic hegemony. Then we will truly be able to say that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.

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