I Am One With The Force

It’s All Saints. Depending on your perspective on saints it’s a commemoration of the lives of great servants of God from the past, or of all the people of God from all time, or something in between.

Rogue One is perhaps not the most obviously All Saints-themed film in the box, but I was rewatching it over the weekend and struck by the martyrological (if that’s even a word) perspective of the film.

Unlike just about any other film the Disney Corporation have ever had a hand in (since Disney bought the rights to Star Wars prior to The Force Awakens coming out), or to be frank, any American movie whatsoever, in Rogue One there isn’t a single major character from among the good guys (ie one with more than a single scene) that is alive at the end of the film. Everyone dies.

And yet the events of the film constitute a victory and a source of hope for the scattered Rebel Alliance.

Staring death in the face and seeing victory. This is sounding like what astonished the pagans so much about the early Church.

The mental connection finished forming in my head as we sang “A Mighty Fortress” at my church on Sunday. Martin Luther’s famous hymn is nearly inevitable in a traditional-type Protestant church on Reformation Sunday, but the hymn doesn’t really theologise much over the sola Scriptura, sola fide basis of what became the Protestant Reformation. Still, it’s the words of the hymn that tie in with what I want to talk about, not the fact that Martin Luther wrote it.

The lyric in question is in the third or fourth verse. I confess it’s not a hymn I’m intimately acquainted with from my growing-up; there are few Lutherans in Britain, my Baptist church didn’t really sing it, and the few times I’ve heard it at all in my home coutry it was with a different translation of the original German lyrics. Anyway, the third or fourth verse. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His Kingdom is forever”.

Rogue One seems to have drunk deeply from that same metaphysical well. Everybody dies, but hope prevails, bigger than any one life or person.

Every character has their part to play in the story of getting the Death Star plans to the Alliance, and only once that part is accomplished can they die.

Lena Erso gets cut down by Director Krennic’s elite Death Troopers, removing the possibility of her being used as a hostage to ensure her husband Galen’s obedience to the Empire, but not before she makes sure that Jyn gets away.

Saw Gerrera, the big black dude with the breather mask raises young Jyn Erso, and he’s the one to which Galen sends the message, by way of the pilot Bodhi Rook. He dies in the Empire’s test attack on Jedha, but only after Jyn Erso has seen her father’s message.

Galen himself dies at the Imperial research station on Eadu, but only after allowing Cassian Andor to redeem his imperiled soul by refraining from assassinating him as per his secret orders. Chirrût Imwe, the awesome blind near-Jedi ninja warrior, has his parts to play, his deeds to do, and only once they are accomplished is he allowed to die, but I want to talk about him more later. Bodhi Rook makes the connection with the besieging Rebel fleet in order to let them know what’s going on at the surface, then, the crucial information passed, he dies. Admiral Raddus has his part masterminding the Rebel attack on Scarif and in particular in disabling the planetary shield by slamming a paralysed Star Destroyer into it so that the transmission can be sent. His ship’s disabled and boarded, and presumably destroyed, but the plans gets out on the Rebel blockade runner Tantive-IV, famous from the opening scenes of A New Hope. Even the brave nameless Rebel soldier fulfils his last and arguably most important duty in passing the copy of the stolen plans into the departing blockade runner before being killed by Darth Vader. Everyone dies, but not until their heroic task is complete.

Not that I want to appear morbid or anything, but this is the same sort of heroic mindset I try to have in my approach to serving Christ. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “I sincerely hope and eagerly expect that whether by life or by death I will glorify God…”

The late ’80s/early ’90s film The Blues Brothers expressed this immortal-until-my-task-is-accomplished setup with the memorable phrase “we’re on a mission from God”.

There’s a lot that’s theologically questionable about that film, but in a sense they did get that much right. We’re on a mission from God for the establishment of His Kingdom in the earth as the waters cover the sea, and in His economy He will not let either the lives or the deaths of His servants go to waste. And just like Chirrût Imwe from Rogue One, both our lives and our deaths have impact and meaning; they are not lost. We are not faceless stormtrooper mooks who can be gunned down in job lots without significance.

Chirrût is probably my favourite character from the whole of Rogue One (with Jyn Erso a close second because I love strong female characters). Mr. “I-am-one-with-the-Force-and-the-Force-is-with-me”, he’s our first in-universe glimpse of a class of people who were presumably quite common in the Old Republic: non-Jedi who nonetheless believe in the Force.

Chirrût Imwe’s approach to the Force is essentially religious, and amazingly for Disney and Hollywood, it’s religious done with respect and even positive approval toward those who are ‘religious’ (ie people of faith) in real life. This is probably the closest equivalence we’ve yet seen in the Star Wars universe for the Force being God in disguise. Chirrût doesn’t use or manipulate the Force; he has faith in it and acts accordingly.

Where Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Darth Vader’s Force is a neutral and impersonal supernatural substance functioning as a sort of wellspring of power to be used for whatever the one doing the manipulating decides, Chirrût’s Force is perceived as almost having a will of its own; it would almost be more accurate to say that the Force uses Chirrût than the other way around.

It’s a deep visual irony that it’s the character who looks most East Asian who has the most Western, Christian theology of the whole Star Wars cycle, but this is what we have here. And the fact that he’s a blind super-ninja is just icing on the cake. He has a leg up on learning the lesson that Luke so struggled with early on: trust not in what is seen, but in what is unseen. Don’t anticipate with your eyes; feel the Force.

Chirrût Imwe has multiple tasks in supporting the main arc of the story, but two of his most important tasks are the two that prove to be his final acts: the switching-on of the data console that let Bodhi Rook make contact with Admiral Raddus’ Rebel fleet, and the redemption of Baze Malbus.

The first of these he accomplishes by walking through a hail of blaster fire to a data console you can’t see, without even another person to get you started in the right direction. Technically I suppose that’s possible if he’s merely using sensitivity to the Force in place of sight, but it looks far more like the Force has a will of its own and wants the Rebels to get the plans.

The film has far too many leaps of probability to make sense any other way; Rogue One constitutes a sort of baptising of the standard Star Wars cosmology and reinterpretation of the universe along more overtly Christian lines.

With this in mind, Chirrût’s mantra of “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” is a statement of faith.

How does Chirrût do the remarkable things he does? Not through any innate power of his own – he’s blind and not very muscly – or personal godliness – in a sort of Star Wars sense of being a Force-user – but through being “one with the Force”, in tune with the senses and abilities and will of the Force itself.

And only flowing out of his oneness with the Force is the Force “with him”, that is, manifestly present with power to aid. The Force is in charge, and Rogue One is a picture of what this sometimes looks like in practice.

This is way more Christian than Yoda. This is faith, more or less. The follower of Jesus’ relationship to her (or his) Lord.

I’m not saying that God is completely focused on His goal to the point that as soon as our part in that is done we’re “Bantha fodder”, as Jabba the Hutt so charmingly put it. I’m saying that there’s a real sense in which it doesn’t very much matter whether we live or die. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also”. All the things of this physical world that we cling to aren’t actually eternal. At the end of the day, only His Kingdom is forever.

The other main task of Chirrût Imwe is the redemption of his disillusioned colleague Baze Malbus, the really awesome black guy with the laser machine gun.

Baze is introduced to us as a former guardian of the Kyber temple, like Chirrût, but one who no longer believes in the Force like Chirrût does. Maybe the apparent victories of the Dark Side did it; maybe it was just the long slow grind of life in the evil galaxy-spanning Empire. Whatever, he maintains his disillusionment right up until Chirrût’s death.

It’s strange for us in the modern Western world to think of a death being “fruitful”, but it’s the right word here. Chirrût Imwe might have gone on and become a leader or soldier in the Rebellion, maybe even helping to shape Luke’s destiny, but maybe it was only by Chirrût losing his life that Baze Malbus’ faith could be restored.

Just like our God, this version of the Force seems to care about its followers. We who are followers of Christ know that death is not the end and that God really is the Lord of the Universe and sovereign over all powers and dominions. Whether this film’s version of the Force could ever be said to love, or to be Love, is not something I would like to speculate on, but Rogue One does seem to give a pretty good picture of how martyrdom works in God’s unfathomable economy. We don’t always get it, down here at ground level. So much of the time death looks like a waste; people taken out before their time, cut short from what might have been. I can’t and won’t pretend that there are easy answers for those of us who remain, nor that it would stop hurting if only we understood it from God’s point of view. But I have faith that there is a purpose beyond my sight. In the paraple universe of Star Wars, however, Chirrût Imwe lives and dies as a martyr, a witness to the power of God in the disguise of the Force. Blind yet able to see more clearly than any, shorn of his purpose as a temple guardian but having more innate sense of true purpose than any three other characters together, dying yet conquering, his faith brightens his world and brings hope to what would otherwise be a dark tale, and ends up bringing hope to the galaxy.

You never know what small deeds of yours will suddenly weigh heavy in the scales and tip the balance of the world. This is part of why we are instructed as believers in Jesus to “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of (that is, according to the authority and character of) the Lord Jesus…”, moment by moment depending on His Holy Spirit.

That’s how I want to live. The martyr’s crown wouldn’t scare me, if that’s what my Lord has ahead of me. I’m not foolish enough to seek it out, mind; I’ve got a family and I’m not looking to die. But I trust my Saviour to know what’s best, and I do hope that I fully trust that whether by life of by death I will glorify Him.

My other blog, the LEGO one, features as my latest post a model of a Roman gladiator under the title “Morituri te Salutant“: “We who are about to die salute you”. I wouldn’t want that as my epitaph, but in a sense it’s how I choose to live. This mortal life in the flesh is nice, but not as important as following Jesus. Let them kill the body if that’s what has to happen. I’m in the Kingdom still, abiding forever. To coin a phrase, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”.

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Attitude of Gratitude

Having spent the last couple of weeks at work having to deal with a new hire who seems to have cornered the market on griping and complaining, I feel a strong need to blog on some positive, uplifting topic.

I don’t want to bad-mouth anyone unnecessarily, but honestly, this guy could complain for his country at international competition level.

Thankfulness being the opposite of moaning and complaining, I thought I’d get a head start on Thanksgiving and write something with a theme of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Gratitude isn’t the easiest subject to talk about. It’s a virtue which is almost entirely found in its expression, but actually talking about it isn’t easy. There’s not that much to say.

Linguistically, the word “gratitude” is related to the word “grace”. This makes sense, because gratitude is both an expression of and a response to grace.

Grace itself is a linguistic cognate of our word gratis, meaning free, not to be paid for. Again, this is entirely appropriate. Gratitude is the appropriate response to getting something gratis, and a thankful attitude sets us free from the heaviness of a negative, bitter, complaining spirit.

It was largely the negative, complaining spirit of the Israelites that got them into so much trouble in their wanderings in the wilderness: complaining about not having water, then complaining that the water was bitter, then complaining that there was no food, then complaining about the miraculous honey-flavoured manna that God provided day after day, then complaining that the promised land was full of giants, then finally complaining the lie that the good land of promise wasn’t good at all.

An attitude of complaint focuses on the problem, and on self. This sucks. If only this were different. I don’t like it. I deserve better. Moan moan whine whine.

Gratitude is the opposite because it takes our eyes off of ourselves and how bad we have it and our poor-little-me pity party, and refocuses them on a good God and what He’s done for us. Even on a human level, it’s changing the focus from what’s been done to you to what’s been done for you. There is reason for happiness, and it’s because someone else has done something. I am not the sole architect of my happiness in a hostile world that’s out to get me.

Gratitude is intrinsically other-centred. Gratitude to God is intrinsically theocentric. It’s hard to maintain a self-centred attitude if you are looking for ways to express thankfulness. It requires a mindset that says “God has done something wonderful for me”.

In searching for reasons for gratitude, I begin at the Cross. My Saviour gave His life for me, affirming my value as a child of God created in His image and setting me free from sin and death. He has made me righteous in His sight, rescued me from the power of the evil one and caused His Spirit to dwell within me. Seriously, how cool is that?

I have a wonderful, beautiful wife whom I love dearly and who has the incredible but strange taste to fall deeply in love with me. I have three awesome, clever, powerful kids.

Unlike many in this country I have a job. I have a roof over my head – and I actually own it, too – and food on the table.

I live in a country in which no-one is restricting my freedom or denying me access to government services or throwing stones at my children because of what I believe. I can openly worship the Lord Jesus Christ without fear or sanction.

I’m healthy – again, unlike many in this country. I’m not on medication for diabetes or heart arrhythmia or obesity or anything. I don’t have any chronic health issues.

Truly I have much to be thankful for.

Counting my blessings is only half of thankfulness, though. The other half is the recognition that Someone did this. I didn’t build this life and array of blessings with my own two hands; it was given to me. On my own I can’t even turn one hair of my head black or white, nor more critically can I stop them falling out. God did all this for me. He’s the Author of life generally, but in the specific He’s the Author of my life. He saved me when I couldn’t save myself, gave me the abilities and talents I now use to earn my bread, brought me to Himself and declared my worth by dying for me.

Thankfulness seems almost a small response somehow, but it’s really all that’s required. Life as a follower of Jesus is effectively, to quote the alien toys from Toy Story 2: “You have saved our lives, we are eternally grateful”.

Strangelove 2017

Quit Worrying And Love The Gun?

In my 12 years of living in America, few things have made me feel my foreignness quite so much as the Second Amendment and its surrounding gun culture.

My birth nation the United Kingdom doesn’t have anything like an equivalent of the Second Amendment, and firearms, while not actually outlawed, are far less prevalent in society. Guns are so proportionally few in number, in fact, that most of our police officers are routinely unarmed apart from a (currently nightstick-style) truncheon, as they have been since the founding of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police force in the Victorian era.

It’s something I often use as an example when people here in Texas ask me about the land of my birth. “Is it very different over there?” they ask, and one of the things I’m likely to bring up is “well, carrying a concealed weapon is a crime, and even most of our police don’t have guns”. Some people here in Texas seem not to know what to do with this information. “If the police aren’t armed, who has the guns?” one man asked, apparently expecting me to say “the criminals” or something. He really didn’t know how to handle the idea that guns aren’t endemic and that we wouldn’t generally consider owning firearms a right.

Obviously, I’ve struggled long and hard with that sort of bafflement operating in reverse. The insane rate of gun deaths in America. The Second Amendment itself. The fact that even after the deadliest mass shooting in US history the government is unable to pass even rudimentary commonsense legislation restricting some of the more lethal hardware available, or to close the loophole in the law allowing people to avoid background checks when acquiring a gun through private sale.

It doesn’t take a genius to wonder whether America’s gun violence problems are directly connected to America’s Second Amendment to its Constitution.
If you’re going to tell people they have a right to juggle with chainsaws, you shouldn’t be surprised if hospitals are constantly having to patch up those who are less than expert at it. It does sort of beg the question of
why, though, and I’ve struggled for a long time to come to some sort of understanding of what the purpose and reasoning behind the Second Amendment are.

Various not entirely helpful theories are propounded by gun rights advocates. “The Second guarantees the First” is a common bumper-sticker justification for the Amendment, putting forth the idea that the right of individual citizens to bear arms is what stops the government from infringing on the rights listed in the First Amendment: freedom of conscience, of speech, of movement and of association.

While it’s in some ways an attractive theory, especially given the notoriously suspicious general American attitude to authority and government, to me it falls flat, in part because I am a foreigner. My native country has never felt the need to tell its citizens they have a right to go armed, neither has any other developed nation of which I’m aware. If the right of citizens to bear arms is what holds governments back from tyranny, we ought to see a far higher incidence of tyranny among non-American nations, with them scoring far lower on the international freedom indices used to compare the amount of freedom possessed by citizens across national borders. Whereas in fact some developed nations with extremely restrictive gun laws continually score higher than the United States in political freedoms granted their citizens.

Some people put forth the idea that it’s the knowledge that US citizens own 30% of the world’s guns in just 3% of the world’s population that restrains other countries from attacking. I’m not sure why these people have such a low opinion of what’s generally acknowledged as the world’s most powerful military – certainly the most technological – but apparently we can’t guarantee that the US military could successfully hold off an invasion. This sort of Red Dawn fantasy was a little ridiculous when that film came out during the Cold War, and it doesn’t seem any more sensible to me today in 2017.

It is a little more in line with what my considered reading of the Second Amendment suggests that the framers of the Constitution believed it was for, though.

Of necessity I’ve had to become familiar with the text of the Amendment, such that I can now quote it verbatim: “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed”.

I’ve gone through various interpretations and failures to understand this phrasing, including investigating to find out what on earth a militia is and what it has to do with anything. I don’t want to reprise the whole development of my thought on the matter here, but my understanding of a militia is that it was a type of 17th- and 18th-Century temporary military unit composed of farmboys and hunters and basically anyone who had a weapon and hadn’t been press-ganged already. In Europe, militia were notorious for their general indiscipline, battlefield cowardice and off-field brutality. If you were using militia, it was because you had nothing else

And yet in America, the idea of militia dovetailed with the Founding Fathers’ concept of the citizen-soldier who would take up arms in defence of nation and family and then return once more to their fields to take up the plough.

It certainly seems as though the colonists didn’t want a permanent standing army. I guess their experiences with the sorts of British Redcoats that the French would later nickname “les Goddamns” made them so suspicious of armies that they wanted no truck with any of it. They wanted a militia, not an army. Soldiers with nothing to do only lend themselves to oppression.

In this context the Second Amendment makes perfect sense. If your national defence is resting on militia, it’s a borderline treasonable offence to take away the weapons that make a militia possible.

It does rather make the Second Amendment the obsolete artifact of history that I always suspected it was, though.

Why there’s still a Second Amendment today, when there’s an entire permanent US military on which America spends more money than some countries’ entire GDP, seems like merely the inherent conservatism of Americans and their reverence for and reluctance to re-examine the basic provisions of their Constitution.

The fact that the people have apparently a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to own killing weapons doesn’t necessarily make it a given that a majority of people are going to, though. There are all sorts of quaint, archaic laws on the books, not only in the UK where I grew up but all over the world including America, banning and permitting all manner of improbabilities, but the mere fact that they’re on the books doesn’t mean anyone’s really paying attention to them.

No, to answer this we turn to the other imponderable of American culture: as a gun-owning friend once put it, “Americans, we love our guns”.

It’s taken me even longer to assimilate this truth than it took to come to an understanding of what the Second Amendment thinks it’s for. “We love our guns”.

I could recognise easily enough that it did in fact seem to be the case. One only has to look at the numbers. But it made no sense to me, particularly the staunchly pro-gun stance of many Christians. How could anyone who follows the Prince of Peace want anything to do with promoting the ownership of weapons whose primary purpose is to kill?

Obviously they must be ignorant. Or brainwashed by the gun manufacturers’ NRA mouthpiece. Or just supporting gun rights because it’s a conservative cause and American Christianity has become overwhelmingly identified with the political Right.

I suspect that this may be more than a little unfair. I still struggle with the idea that a genuine Bible-believing Christian might feel justified, in certain circumstances, in taking the life of another person when Christ died for them just like He died for me, but I recognise that I seem to be in a distinct minority holding that view here in America.

The scary thing is that my gun-loving friend was right. Americans really do love their guns, and it’s not necessarily because of stereotypical Yank cultural ignorance or personal bloodyminded stupidity.

I’m coming to the conclusion that gun advocates really don’t see guns in the same way, that the gun has a dramatically different symbolic value to most people in the United States than it does for me.

To me, a gun is a killing weapon, end of story. Gun rights advocates, at least in my experience, like to bring up the fact that the police define a car as a deadly weapon, or that you can kill someone with a length of steel pipe or a hammer, or that the 9/11 terrorists killed so many not with a gun but with an aeroplane. It’s not the gun, they claim, it’s what it’s used for.

Whether this doesn’t imply that US society as a whole is sick and violent is a question I choose to leave open right now, but in my mind there’s a difference between a car, which is intended as a means of transport to get from point A to point B but which occasionally gets abused as a weapon, and a gun, whose entire purpose is to shoot a bullet at a target and to kill what it shoots. There can be reasonable uses of this killing capability, for example hunting to feed one’s family, but at the end of the day a gun is made to do one thing: to kill.

More, guns make it easy to kill. You can kill someone with a knife, but you have to be much closer to them and use a lot more effort. In my thinking the ability to kill with the crook of a finger is a terrible power to wield, one that I wouldn’t trust myself with. To place that power in the hands of the meanest, most prejudiced and violent knuckle-dragging troglodyte seems like inviting horror.

I’m not trying to say that all gun owners are prejudiced knuckle-draggers, but by their nature as instruments of violence, guns would seem to attract the violent and appeal to the base killing instinct. A person who is peaceable and placid by nature would seem to have less inherent interest in acquiring a firearm.

Guns, to me, are by their very nature death-dealing devices of inherent designed potential for violence, and it’s this perspective that’s stymied me for so long in assimilating “we love our guns”. How could any rational, reasonable person possibly love a tool of violence and death?

It’s possible, even likely, that I’m being a little double-minded in this, because I have a thing for swords. Objectively, a sword is at least as much a tool of violence and death, but in my defence it’s not a current tool of violence and death, so that in the modern gunpowder age a sword is more or less a prop, a decoration, an anachronism owned for its symbolic value rather than its cutting-edge (sorry) killing technology.

To me, swords are symbolically associated with knighthood and the Mediaeval code of chivalry, with its virtues of honour, integrity, faith and the protection of the weak. Only a very distant secondarily are they a functional weapon, unlike the gun, which is purely and simply a functional weapon and has absolutely no mystique or positive symbolic value to me at all. Indeed, it almost stands in opposition to the sword as a symbol of the coarser, less spiritual and refined values of the modern age.

Is it possible that other people might imbue the gun with positive symbolic value? That ownership of a gun might for some be less about owning a death-dealing weapon and more about some intangible value like personal liberty or self-reliance?

Well, duh.

Of course other people of other cultures place different significance on things. Though the idea’s usually found in reference to “primitive” cultures, I suspect most cultures actually have certain totem objects imbued with strong symbolic value, like the British Crown Jewels or the American bald eagle.

The situation is complicated in the case of guns because the gun is a currently-employed killing weapon and has all of those associations as well, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that for the people about whom I most wonder at their enthusiasm for firearms ownership, the gun isn’t merely a killing device; it has a symbolic meaning that’s completely outside my ken.

Commentators on the gun issue in America frequently use words and phrases like “freedom”, “independence”, “self-reliance”, “rugged ability to take care of things oneself”. In the past, this might as well have been Martian for all it touched me. Not only do I not associate the gun with any of that, but I don’t even consider some of those to be important. Or even virtues.

Yeah, I’m a foreigner. Did you expect me to be an American with this accent?

Independence isn’t that important to me on a personal level. I’m more into the idea of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation. The “rugged self-reliance” that takes care of business without needing anyone else seems almost psychologically unbalanced and basically futile: macho posturing that more often than not creates a big problem whenever it tries to solve a small one. If guns are symbolic of this, count me basically uninterested.

I guess the gun-rights advocates are right, at least in my personal case. I really don’t share your values. In my case it actually does make me unAmerican, but there seem to be plenty of people in the States that are at least as nonplussed by the apparent love of the gun as I am. The people who, after a horrific mass shooting like Las Vegas, reopen the historically futile debate over firearms with calls for tighter regulation of these intrinsically dangerous weapons. The people who fight against the depressing knowledge that there will be another mass shooting just as bad as this last one if not worse.  The people who advocate for what I’d describe as rational and reasonable legal control.

Because a gun isn’t just a symbol of rugged individualism. It’s a deadly weapon, by its very nature an instrument of violent death. The dichotomy of this dual nature as both weapon and symbol is a pretty good summary of the American gun debate. And “Americans, we love our guns” finally seems to have an answer for why? that makes an ounce of sense.

Americans probably don’t love guns because they are twisted closet-sociopaths who love violence and death, though you could certainly make a case that the USA as a whole is fairly violence-obsessed. It just might be that there are important symbolic values for many Americans connected with owning a gun, and that they love guns because guns represent a value they cherish.

I’m probably never going to personally love guns. Neither they nor their ownership hold positive symbolic value to me, and even the values I’m told are associated with them are mostly not ones I place particular emphasis on. Freedom is good, for instance, but my freedom is necessarily limited by law, morality, courtesy and the common freedoms of everyone else. My self-image and identity aren’t bound up in owning a weapon. At least, not this weapon; I’d still love to get a broadsword. But even there, I’m quite able to live my life without one.

As a Christian, I question whether our self-image and identity ought to be so wrapped up in weapon ownership rather than Christ, but when I can lay down forever my desire to have a sword, then I can frame the identity-marker of gun possession as possible idolatry. I question whether the values expressed in the symbology of the gun are ones we ought to be promoting as Christians, but that’s not quite the same issue.

I don’t think I’ll ever see the Second Amendment as anything more than a historical artifact or ever really share in this great American obsession, but perhaps in finally grasping the value and symbolic aspects of the issue I can better understand that chimerical and seemingly unnatural beast, the Christian gun-rights advocate.  Or even just the gun rights advocate, no matter the rest of their functioning belief system.

Come to the Dark Side (we have logic)

There’s a theory in much of the evangelical church in the United States that political liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. Talking to some people (especially where I live in Texas) you get the impression that it’s our Christian duty to support the free-market laissez-faire capitalism promoted by God’s chosen agent on Earth, the Republican Party of the USA.

I apologise for the facetious tone, but that’s often how it comes across. Most of the people I know here who believe in Jesus honestly think that being a political liberal as a Christian is either succumbing to the Dark Side or serving two masters, and that right-wing economic policy is somehow intrinsically godly.

If you’re a capitalist on the ruthless Ferengi-like American model, you’re perceived as a good Christian. If you’re a known liberal, fellow-believers sometimes assume you’re a pagan and want to share the Gospel with you.

Interestingly, that statement about serving two masters and the impossibility thereof was made by Jesus in the context of Mammon, the desire for and worship of wealth and the only false god Jesus ever directly named. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me this is sounding like capitalism’s worship at the altar of gain far more than anything left-leaning.

I don’t believe that the Bible prescribes any economic system as inherently Christian or God-favoured, but with the assumption among so many US Christians that “left-leaning follower of Jesus” is an oxymoron, I thought I’d take a critical look at some of the Right’s assumptions in the light of Scripture.

Personally, I find the right-wing notion that the way to relieve poverty is to slap poor people about the face and yell at them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be at best a little humanistic, preaching a “gospel” of self-effort and economic self-salvation that has more in common with Islam or Atheism than with Biblical Christianity. It’s no wonder so many struggle with the theology of grace alone; their right-leaning bootstrap economics both reinforces and is reinforced by the soteriological idea that you have to earn it.

By Republican ideology, it’s your own fault if you’re poor. If you were motivated enough or worked hard enough or invested enough or saved enough, you’d be a wealthy entrepreneur the way God intended. So the best way to help you is to cut off all support from the outside so that you’re forced to rely on your own resources to pull yourself up.

Even discounting the complete ignoring of the idea of systemic injustice and a system that benefits the already-wealthy, I fail to see what human self-effort has to do with the Good News about Jesus Christ. The point of the entire Bible, Old Testament as well as New, is that we can’t do it ourselves. Because of sin, we don’t have the internal resources in ourselves, and whereas all other religions are basically God or prophet slapping us around the face and yelling at us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, Christianity is the story of a God Who stoops down to become like us, in order that He might make us like Him.

In this sense the Gospel is fundamentally leftist; opposed to the Satanic notion that we can bootstrap ourselves into righteousness.

Furthermore, the Scripture lists our internal disposition to sin as only one of our problems. There’s an evil world-system under its false god the Devil, keeping people divided in prejudice and hate, in bondage to oppression and injustice. Satan loves prejudice because God looks at the heart rather than the outward things. He loves injustice and oppression because God is just and the way of God is freedom from oppression. Systemic injustice is characteristic of what we expect to see in a sin-dominated world, and it is our duty and privilege as followers of the One who died to set us free to fight injustice, battle prejudice and work toward the uprooting of systemic evil, much as William Wilberforce worked to outlaw the slave trade.

The battle won’t be finally won until the return of the King, but we still have to seek His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth now as it is in heaven.

As far as I can tell, capitalism is always on the side of the rich. By right-wing ideology they’ve earned their place at the top, and we should desire to emulate them.

By contrast, the Bible portrays God as almost always on the side of the poor and the weak: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He has sent away empty”. “Not many of you were rich, not many of you were of noble birth”. All those psalms that talk about how good the wicked seem to have it now and God’s impending judgment on them for acquiring wealth sinfully. All those proverbs warning the rich to remember compassion and not put their trust in riches; all those other proverbs pointing out that just because you’re wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because God blessed you. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20f) is practically Das Kapital for followers of Jesus, and declares woes to the rich and those that have everything now. The Kingdom of God is at hand! With economic justice for all.

Scripture warns that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Capitalism declares that the love of money is an unalloyed good and promotes industry and enterprise. We need to be careful here. Biblical Christianity doesn’t have a place for the sanctification of greed for material gain.

Jesus was born to a couple so poor they could only afford the very least sacrifice for a firstborn required by the Law. One of the signs of the Kingdom that John the Baptist was told by the Lord to look for was that the Gospel is preached to the poor. James warns the early church not to idolise the rich or show partiality to them. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”.

And yet with all this, American Christians nearly universally fawn on business-owners, elect millionnaires to high office (often seemingly simply because they are “successful” – at least in acquiring wealth), and favour policies to take money from the poor and give it to the rich (because they’re presumed to be “job creators”). Exactly the opposite of what Luke’s Beatitudes tell us should happen as the Kingdom comes.

The early church under the leadership of the Apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit instituted a communistic-like system in which each one contributed according to his ability and each one partook according to his need. This may be communism without the atheistic and state-dominated elements, but it is communism of a sort, just like an Israeli kibbutz.

No-one is saying that there isn’t a temptation on the economic and political Left to look to the state (or the government, or one’s fellow human beings) to do for you what only God can, but isn’t there just as much of a temptation on the Right to think that we can pull ourselves up to righteousness, that we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-Saviour? The Right isn’t necessarily any more Christian than the Left is, nor is the Left necessarily any less Christian than the Right. Both are human constructs invented by fallen men. God’s Kingdom, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, is not a matter of Left and Right, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that you can’t lean to the right and follow Jesus, but I am saying that it’s at least equally possible for one’s faith to influence one’s politics in a left-leaning direction.

In fact, I’d say there might be more that the Left have closer to God’s way right now than the Right. Concern for the poor, wage equality for women, proper stewardship of God’s world. International relations based on diplomacy and peacemaking rather than threat and military might. Even the desire to allow illegal immigrants some sort of amnesty seems more in line with Jesus’ concern for the woman caught in adultery as a person as opposed to the Pharisees’ heartless legalism and political games with a life at stake.

Like someone who came here illegally, the woman wasn’t an innocent party; she’d been caught in the act. The Law was clear, and she’s on the wrong side of it.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily an exact parallel in all respects, but the conservative tendency to exalt law at the expense of people strikes me as rather Pharisaic.

I’m not fully comfortable with all the positions taken by the American Left on everything, but political morality is far more than the one-dimensional issue of whether or not you favour legal abortion that so many Evangelicals seem to treat it as.

So I put this out there as a deliberate challenge to the assumption that right-wing politics is synonymous with righteousness and the way of God and that the Left is intrinsically opposed to Christ. I’ve been deliberately provocative at some points simply to shake up the false idea that Right=moral, Left=immoral. I hope it provokes thought rather than offence for the sake of it.

I look forward to the day when followers of Jesus can rise above their political differences and recognise all who put their trust in Him as sisters and brothers.

…And A New Earth

One of the last ideas communicated by the book of Revelation is the creation of “new heavens and a new Earth”, free from the corruption of sin and evil. We’re treated to the image of Zion, the celestial New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, the nations streaming to it, the kings of the world bringing their glory into it. No more crying, no death, no mourning. The tree of life bringing forth its fruit in twelvefold season, its leaves employed for healing the nations. No longer any curse.

But what is it actually like?

Human beings are an active and dynamic creation of God, and even in the very beginning before the Fall were given tasks to do. The painful toil of futility and frustration is the curse of the Fall (along with domination and despair in relationships), but work itself is good, and relationships are good. Human beings would get bored without something to do. So what do we do in the eternal Kingdom? If there’s something to do, if there’s work, what work is there and what is it like?

This is where all of our traditional images of heaven and perfection fall down. All that sitting on clouds playing harps, or strolling about a garden doing nothing… It looks sort of boring. Even the massive worship meeting before the Throne day and night seems in our humanness like it would wear a bit thin after a while. What do people in the new heavens and the new earth actually do?

Bear in mind that this is extremely speculative, but I thought I might try to take a look at what might be, in a world without the taint of sin…

~~~

One of the roots of our contemporary issue with the traditional images of paradise restored is that almost invariably they date to a time when work for nearly everyone literally meant exhausting and painful physical labour. When God says to Adam in Genesis 3 that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread”, that was the literal truth. When your life is a choice to work like a slave in the fields or to go hungry, is it any wonder that heaven was depicted as rest and ease?

Our contemporary world’s expression of painful toil is somewhat different. Shorter on the backbreaking physicality of toil, perhaps, but probably longer on futility and frustration. I ask you, is there much that’s more mind-numbingly futile than data entry or tollbooth-manning or parking attendanthood or any of the other yawnsome mental gruntwork jobs we’ve invented?

If work is going to be restored to its pre-Fall grandeur, it’s going to partake of the characteristics of those original tasks: it’s going to be real, significant, worthwhile, connected and engaging.

In other words, it’s going to become art; it’s going to become worship.

The original commission given to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”. They were placed in a beautiful garden as their home, to work it and take care of it, but their mandate was as broad as the whole earth, as challenging and significant as subduing the wild cosmos, and as connected and interpersonal and fun as being fruitful and multiplying, and as intimately in tune with the Lord as walking with Him in the cool of the day.

I’m not certain, but I think one of the important casualties will be the compulsive aspect of work.

No more workaholics, but that’s not really what I’m referring to here. No; what I mean is that no-one will be forced into a job of work, either by other people or by the simple circumstance of needing to earn their daily bread. We’ll be creatures of perfect generosity and without the dark self-centredness that would take advantage of that. It really will be ok. Besides, with the curse of futility and frustration – thorns and thistles when you try to grow grain and grapes – over and done, work will be glorious and significant.

With no sin to pervert hearts and give rise to hostile or criminal behaviour, there will be no need for soldiers or policemen or security guards, when the curse of the Fall is overturned the growing of food will be as simple as reaching out one’s hand to reap the bounty of the new creation, and when the lion lays down with the lamb there will be no need to guard our livestock from predators, but there’s still a lot of human activity and work left open.

There will presumably still be rain and snow and winds and heat, so there will still be a need for houses and other buildings. I’m in luck; my job of construction continues into the New Earth. I’m not going to become unemployed.

But what will vanish is all of the petty tyrannies of “and you’re going to build it this way, because I said so and I’m in charge”, all the untrustworthiness and lack of scruple in cheating and “how much can we get away with?” and sheer blind stupid.

There won’t be any more generic McMansions or buildings so ugly that today they’d win design awards. Every building a work of art, harmonious, well-situated and well-built, with the drains and the plumbing working properly and no stupid petty annoyances like staircases that are just that much too steep or kitchen counters that are too small for all the stuff you want to put on them, or cabinets designed for people 3″ taller than you are.

We’ll build for beauty, but it’ll be a livable beauty maximising function as well as looks. And our public buildings even more so.

With perfected bodies there’s some question over whether we’ll need doctors or medical practitioners. No disease, infirmity or old age will be in a position to affect us, but perhaps there might still be the possibility of accidents? I’m withdrawing judgment on that, but most of the mess of our contemporary pharmaceutical industry with its dubious lists of side-effects and its profiteering from other people’s pain will look very different if it exists at all.

But we’ll still need to eat, and we’ll still presumably need shelter (hence buildings) and we’ll still presumably need clothes at least occasionally.

Without the capacity of the heart to lust or to feel ashamed, nudity loses its status as a morally-questionable state, but if cold and heat and precipitation continue, it’s conceivable we might need clothing to make the bearing of environmental conditions more commodious.

If there are clothes in the new heavens and the new earth (beyond the white robes which might be literal or symbolic) I can’t imagine that they’d be uncomfortable or ill-fitting or be sold only in unflattering shades and cuts simply because that’s the fashion. Entirely probably there will be a lot more individuality and variation in what is worn and what is available to be worn, and just as with buildings, they’ll be created as if each one is a work of art, without the shoddy workmanship or second-rate materials of so much of our contemporary mass-production.

And we’ll still want to travel and get places. If you’re going to live forever and so are the people you’re going to see, in a sense it doesn’t matter that it’s going to take you years to walk from Brabant to Beijing, but I’m sure there are going to be instances in which time really is of the essence and we just have to get there quickly.

There’s that Divine teleportation of Philip the deacon after he baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, travelling over 40 miles by being carried by the Spirit to “appear” at Azotus, but we have no way of knowing whether that will be something we can all access at will (our human wills being perfectly synched to the Divine Will) or whether it was a special act of God for a special purpose.

It’s possible we’ll all be footbound or using Philip Airways, but human beings are vastly more creative than that, and any moyorcyclist will tell you there’s a very real pleasure to be derived from a machine and the open road, and I don’t think the Lord is against that pleasure.

I can’t really see that there wouldn’t be the opportunity of all sorts of modes of transportation, if only for the joy of their operation. Bicycles and trains and motorbikes and cars and trucks on the land, gliders and aeroplanes and dirigibles and helicopters and things we haven’t even invented yet in the air.

I can’t imagine that they’d be polluting, so fitted with clean-burning engines that ought to be no problem for immortal scientists and engineers with Divinely-guided faculties to work out and make efficient.

And the roads! No potholes, for a start! I cannot imagine that the penny-pinching, good-enough attitudes that allow such things here would continue there. When we build roads and railways, we’ll build them properly with good materials, and they’ll be designed for the loads we know they’re going to get, not for the cheapest we can get away with. In the New Jerusalem, gold is a paving material; I don’t believe cost is an issue here.

Rockets? Spaceships? Travel to other planets and other stars? I have no clue, but why not? Maybe “fill the earth” doesn’t just mean the Earth, but the cosmos?

Boats – well, there’s that troubling statement that “there was no longer any sea”, but lakes and rivers still put forth the possibility of boats. Besides, I personally believe that statement’s more than a little symbolic. Jews were even worse sailors than the Romans were, and “the sea” was viewed as a tumultuous, deadly, evil place. It stood for chaos, anarchy, trouble in the world. No more of that. No more national and international chaos out of which demagogues and dictators arise and which evil people use to propel themselves to power. One Kingdom, belonging to the Lord.

This leads directly on to the question of social and political arrangements.

We know that Jesus Christ shall reign on the earth, and we with Him, but over whom, and how in practice?

Frankly, my imagination fails here, and I can no more speculate on what Heavenly political/administrative arrangements will look like than I can conceive what the colour green smells like. Without the fallen craving of power for its own sake, without evil and sin to be restrained or injustice to be combated, how will we be governed if not by general goodwill?

And yet administration is listed as one of the spiritual gifts, so we can anticipate that there might still be a need for some sort of formal human governance.

Similarly, the new earth’s economic system is beyond my personal imagining? Perfect communism with a population that actually works responsibly and with one another’s best interests at heart? It’s possible, despite the assumed equivalence of right-wing political economics with the way of God that’s currently fashionable in America.

Or some sort of Divine capitalism with business owners who always have both the will and the ability to do the right thing by their customers, their employees and their investors, who won’t take advantage or game the system. Much as those of us toward the Left might not want to admit it, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s not capitalism (or communism, purely in economic terms) in and of itself that’s corrupt and anti-God, it’s the darkness in our hearts that it lets loose and enables that is the problem. No more darkness, no more problem.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. This false choice between providing jobs for one’s citizens and not despoiling the planet will be gone. We’ll work out ways to nurture and tend God’s green earth while we do our regular work. We won’t need to choose between affordable and green.

I know that God is concerned about economic issues – there’s more in the Bible about money than there is about preaching – but my imagination simply fails. Can we own anything if “the Earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it”? Will there be such a thing as money or trade?

I suppose so, given its prominence in the Scriptures, but it won’t look anything like the current contemporary abortion.  And it’s entirely possible there won’t be.  There’s enough else in the Bible that’s just instructions for how to live in a fallen world, after all.

And what of the sciences? I don’t believe they’ll be allowed to languish. Those who study the Creation and its physical underpinnings will be truly “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, and we won’t have any issues about funding or tenure or academic rivalries or deliberate distortions for gain by others, nor yet the dull predation of an ignorant media more concerned with spin and headlines than with the truth of the matter.

Heh, even advertisers will be telling the whole truth, and if their profession survives that stroke then more power to them!

All of this is not to step aside from the very important truth that the new cosmos is Theocentric. I’ve approached the idea of the new heavens and the new earth from a rather humanistic (small “h”, in its old sense of “concerned with the human”) perspective, but one aspect of our society, particularly our Western society, that will have to change is the Humanistic (capital “H”) notion that man is both the measure and end of all things.

God is on the Throne, visibly and acknowledgedly. Our lives will be spent before His face in the contemplation and worship of Him.  This is clear and unquestioned in the Scriptures.

But what is worship? What does it mean to live life coram Deo – before the face of God?

The old monastic communities had at least this much right: labore est orare, to work is to pray. And our modern worship-leaders have rightly reminded us time and again that what happens when we get together in our church buildings every Sunday is not worship – or rather, not the whole of worship. Worship is a heart-response to the Lord God, and it’s no accident that the Hebrew word for it is related to a word meaning “to come towards to kiss”. And that can and should be happening as much in our daily work and interactions with colleagues and friends as it does in our corporate singing on the Lord’s Day.

We don’t see and experience that but here and there, now and then in this world, but then…? Then we shall be before His face day and night, with no veils between us and the Majestic One, knowing fully even as we are fully known.

But even the great multitude before the Throne and the Lamb is not the whole of worship. There will be those who, before the Throne and face of God, build buildings or write poems and stories and music or prepare and serve delicious food or run and jump, sail boats, pilot aircraft or make new scientific discoveries.

These things are part of the image of God as Creator, and I simply refuse to believe that we will be less in touch with that image there than we are here.

Finished

It’s Labor Day weekend here in America.

Most countries that acknowledge a Labour Day-type holiday do so on 1st May, but that was way too Communist for the United States when the holiday was established, and I have a suspicion that these days most Americans don’t even know it’s any different overseas.

A day celebrating labour – work and workers – is quite appropriate to the latent workaholism of US culture; indeed, the minor irony is that it’s celebrated with a day off.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans love the idea of hard work. “Working hard or hardly working?” my father-in-law will sometimes greet people; smugly boasting that you’re hardly working is not considered a normal reply.

In a lot of ways this is an excellent trait. The present administration notwithstanding, Americans normally excel at getting things done, and laziness is far from common due to its status as perhaps the cardinal cultural sin. It’s easy to forget in these days just how revolutionary the American Dream really was: with hard work and initiative anyone can rise to the top; you don’t need the titles, breeding or aristocratic patronage of the old autocracies of Europe. Amazing!

However, when it comes to the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and not by works, this cultural predilection can work against the understanding of the truth.

I comment almost every time my church starts a new published Bible study about the high profile always given to the matter of grace and works and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To me it seems a little odd; this is such a basic Christian doctrine that is it really necessary to rehash it every single time? We’re saved by grace, through faith. We understand. We understood last time.

It strikes me today, though, that perhaps I haven’t given the writers enough credit for knowing their audience.

My British-born cultural mindset gives far less pre-eminence to the idea of hard work. I’d never heard “Working hard or hardly working?” as a greeting or even a serious question before I came to the States, and the cultural acclaim given to entrepreneurs and businesspeople is something that just leaves me cold. Yes, yes, well done and all that. But not everyone can be an entrepreneur or be fortunate enough that their venture succeeds, so what about the rest of us?

In short, just because I don’t feel I need to rehash grace and works again doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who might. This central tenet of American culture is working directly against the notion of grace. It’s rather like my instinctive “how is that fair?” question over God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau. My own culture’s valuing of fair play and justice is baffled by the apparently arbitrary, unfair-seeming choice.

Americans value hard work, and the idea of receiving something as a gift and not being expected to work like an ox to make up the debt strikes at that. But such is the truth. It really is a free gift, not something you have to repay, not something you can repay.

I’m told that the only time the Bible ever tells us to “strive”, it’s “Strive to enter His rest”. And a lot of Americans aren’t very good at rest.

With the US’ excellence at getting things done and acclaim for those that do, however, I wonder whether you Americans might not have a greater appreciation, once you stop trying to earn it, of the effectiveness of Jesus’ finished work.

Here is a Man whose life-work really did get it done. He did the job, he put an end to the power and guilt of sin. He brought many sons to glory, as the song puts it. He destroyed the power of the devil, and snatched the keys of death and hell. He accomplished the task for which He came into the world: reconciliation between holy God and sin-stained humanity.

The work is finished. The book of Hebrews says that “having provided purification from sins He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”. Secure in the knowledge of a job well done, He kicked back and put His feet up. It’s done. He completed the work.

So let’s hear it for getting it done.

The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.