Trying not to throw the theological baby out with the bath water

I’m just a child of immigrants who doesn’t understand American clichés

I have to admit I’m not very familiar with many American clichés, and the one that titles this post was, up until recently, one of them. I never understood who would throw a baby out alongside of the bathwater, but I digress. The phrase basically means don’t get rid of the good stuff when you get rid of the bad stuff. And I think it’s a lesson for Deconstructionist[1] Christians, an avant-garde group of post-Evangelicals that seems to throw most of the baby out with the bath water when it comes to damaging ideas that has emerged from classical theology.

I noticed this the other day when my own theological study sort of “landed,” as I was listening to Andrew Yang’s message on Sunday (“On Forgiveness”). An issue I noticed is that sometimes those of us that are finally reconstructing our new faith don’t make much of a way for the uninitiated. I think Christians need to specialize in making a way for the next person. And so while making a way for ourselves is important, it’s also important to understand that not everyone’s journey involves deconstruction at all, let alone deconstruction in your fashion.

So there is a sort of lack of hospitality when we present our newfangled faith, and there is a lack of humility if we just decide to get rid of too much of what our forebears thought.

God forgave us, so we forgive others

Andrew was dealing with forgiveness, a perennial subject and a difficult one at that. For the Christian, forgiveness is the capstone of our faith. We are held together by the grace of God on us. “Grace upon grace,” as the writer of John 1 says. We receive grace and are redeemed right now. Unfortunately, the idea that we’re in need of grace seems to be a hard sell these days. And it usually is because, for some reason, in order to accept God’s grace, our pastors too often condemned us and judged us for being evil. It’s backward that our leaders often reinforce how terrible we are so that we can elevate how great God is.

And that reputation for Christians isn’t just one that Evangelicals received. Some theorize that a reason there are less young people in churches is because “many young Americans came to view religion as ‘judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical.’” So that judgment, so emphasized for that beautiful grace upon grace to be known, seems to have worked against its intent. And so rightfully, people rejected the hyperbolic condemnation because it only tells part of the story.

But the command that follows Jesus’ forgiveness, and his grace upon grace, is for us to do likewise. And so, it isn’t surprising that in Matthew 18, when Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone, Jesus responds with an astronomical number:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

But if we don’t receive the gift of God’s forgiveness, it can be hard to bestow it to others. We’re returning the favor, and not just being commanded to do something.

God doesn’t treat us equally, God meets us where we’re at

Forgiveness is only part of the story. Reconciliation, repentance, and restoration follow, that’s true. But it can be a bitter pill to swallow if we forget that we are also recipients of forgiveness.

I think it is essentially important to consider power when it comes to our relationships with one another. We aren’t all “equal” in the world’s eyes, and God meets us exactly where we’re at. Christians are often too quick to run to forgiveness when it comes to wrongdoing, and do not pause to consider power. This is why Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of Amber Guyger, his brother’s murderer, was so quickly celebrated by Christians, without considering its cost.

And so we need to intersect power into our conversations about forgiveness. That means we need to consider societal injustices that make these one-to-one dynamics more complicated. But we musn’t reduce ourselves to either an oppressor or the oppressed. Westerners tend to do this, overstating their own wrongdoing, and idealizing it, or, to use Edward Said’s term, “Orientalize[2]” the East as untouchably pure. I think Americans do this with indigenous people as much as metropole[3] Europeans do it with the periphery[4]. That sort of dehumanization of the East, or sub-Sarahan Africa or of indigenous people, does violence, and contributes in its own woke way to colonization.

So while we need to consider power, we cannot reduce one another to powerful and disempowered because we are neither one thing nor another. This is why Delores Williams, a black woman, didn’t find herself relating directly to James Cone’s black theology of liberation—because it left out women. We need to intersect power, which doesn’t just leave us with better theology, but a fuller humanity. And when we see ourselves, invariably, as oppressor and oppressed, we can then approach Jesus’ command to forgive others with new eyes, because we have concluded that our lives have been spared, despite dishonoring one another and God, as a result of God’s grace for us.

You want love more than you want justice

In his book “Exclusion and Embrace,” Miroslav Volf approaches this contradiction. He says that “God treats different people differently so that all will be treated justly… the justice which equalized and abstracts is an unjust justice!” But he goes on, “Justice is impossible in the order of calculating, equalizing, legalizing and universalizing actions. If you want justice and nothing but justice, you will inevitably get injustice. If you want justice without injustice, you must want love. A world of perfect justice is a world of love.”[5]

“Without the will to be embraced, justice is likely to be unjust.” If we insist on “justice,” we will feel unsatisfied. The reason that Jesus commands us to forgive is that his law is love, it is not justice. And when he does speak of justice, he’s speaking of a different sort of justice, a justice that is really about rectifying our situation and one another, about “making things right.”

The baby we threaten to throw out with the bath water here is that God has been dishonored. But, he does not return that dishonor to us. He elevates us as heirs, as family, as redeemed. And the reason God can do this is because God’s honor is fulfilled by Jesus’ sacrifice. This is why Anselm of Canterbury wrote,  “Why the God-Man?” Because he saw that an infinite sacrifice needed to be made for an infinite offense. If we see ourselves as infinitely offending God, than our very salvation becomes much more valuable. If we insist on not receiving the grace and keep living in condemnation, I think it will be very hard for us to extend forgiveness to others when they harm us.

But at the same time, if we never feel angry at injustice and wrongdoing and we just jump to forgiveness, I think we cheapen the grace. If we don’t ever feel wronged, then we aren’t really forgiving someone. You actually need to feel the pain before you can move on. And that means being too quick to forgive someone or ask for forgiveness can feel too flimsy, too weak, not full enough.

God feels angry, and so can you

A lot of people were wondering about what they should do with their anger after reading Matthew 18. I thought this was another example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Deconstructionists have gone to great lengths to remove any anger in the Bible, in Jesus, or in God, it seems to me. The retribution in the Old Testament is woefully misunderstood (more here), and any “atonement” theory that emphasizes anger seems to be done away with. And there is good reason for that, in my opinion. I think we are afraid that we’ll be victims of God’s anger instead of the ones being saved from it. God loves us, protects us, and cherishes us; when God expresses anger, it is for our sake, not for our punishment. God is angry when God’s children are hurt, abused, and neglected. God’s anger is a response to injustice. And the dishonoring that God feels because of that injustice causes him to endure all of the shame, all of the ridicule, and all of the harm on the cross. Jesus doesn’t die a glorious death. He dies a shameful death because he’s absorbing all of the shame, so we no longer have to. He is making things right.

And so we shouldn’t neuter God or God’s anger to the point of not being able to experience it on our own, especially when we see or experience injustice. And if we do, we shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t find our own, or we feel bad for when we do express it.

I think remembering the rich tradition of our faith isn’t just good for our minds, but for our actions today. Remembering God’s anger permits us to be angry when we experience injustice. But remembering God’s grace on us, invites us into a life of forgiveness too, one that we didn’t deserve, but we received anyway, grace upon grace.

[1] From Wikipedia, “Deconstruction is an approach to understanding the relationship between text and meaning. It was originated by the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), who conducted readings of texts looking for things that run counter to their intended meaning or structural unity. The purpose of deconstruction is to show that the usage of language in a given text, and language as a whole, is irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible.”

[2] “Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S.

[3] “Metropole is the homeland or central territory of a colonial empire.”

[4] More about so-called “periphery countries” here.

[5] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon Press, 1996), 222-223.

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