Looking for the New Spaces

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What Jesus proposes is that people begin to establish,
starting right now, new social relations that are free
from the Adamic logic of retribution, and this means refusing
to respond to the powerful with their own violent methods.
That is precisely how Jesus understands the reign of God:
God’s very ways of acting open up new spaces on earth,
starting from right now and from down below.

— Antonio González, God’s Reign and the End of Empires (Convivium Press, 2012, p. 119).

 

Jesus’ messianic strategy, according to Antonio González, was to overturn the logic of reciprocity and retribution that generates exploitation, enmity, and violence. His proclamation of the reign (basileia, empire) of God was a direct challenge to the power structures of his time, and it made him—like the prophets before him—a politically and socially destabilizing figure.

An especially destabilizing aspect of this strategy was his rejection of violence, for in the logic video slots types at PiggySlots of empire, violence is needed either to defeat or to defend the existing power structure. Today even Jesus’ followers, from political conservatives to advocates of liberation theology, generally dismiss the historical relevance of nonviolent strategies because they are so rarely “successful.”

But God’s reign has already commenced in history, says González, in the new spaces that God is opening up from right now and from down below. “It is already possible to behave within history according to the logic of God’s reign, and not according to the oppressors’ logic…. If faith means a clean break with the logic of retribution, then real faith will become present there where enemies are not confronted on their own aggressive terms, there where evil is not returned for evil, and there where oppressors are offered an opportunity for conversion” (315).

* * * * *

Unfortunately we don’t know in advance where God is opening up the new spaces. Maybe God wants us to step into them first, to make our own “there where.” Jesus grieved over his people’s failure to do that: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
Today the open spaces are hidden by our belief in war as an intrinsic, unchangeable human activity. President Barack Obama endorsed that belief in accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize: “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man…. We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”

Our unquestioning acceptance of war is a perverse form of religious piety, said biblical scholar Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers (1992, p. 13): “Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works…. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace.” He cited archaeological evidence that warfare only emerged with the rise of the Mesopotamian empires around 3,000 BCE. Before then, intergroup hostility was rare, “even after population density increased and agriculture and animal domestication were invented” (p. 36).

Evidence continues to mount in the natural and social sciences, against the inevitability of war. Evolutionary processes do not necessarily favor the trait of aggressiveness, says anthropologist Douglas Fry (Beyond War, 2007). Natural selection often rewards the emergence of pro-social traits, but that tendency is routinely discounted because it doesn’t fit the prevailing cultural beliefs about the warlike nature of humanity.

“We are not hardwired for war,” says science journalist John Horgan (The End of War, 2011). “War is not foisted on us by forces beyond our control, whether innate male aggression, competition for scarce resources, or entrenched cultural attitudes. Wars all begin with human decisions. Choices.”

Those secular voices are seldom echoed in contemporary theology; church leaders are reluctant to challenge traditional beliefs, not only about human nature but about the nature and the will of God. Some strands of the biblical tapestry portray a warlike God, others a God of love and mercy. In some strands, God acts violently but forbids human beings to do so: “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19). Some can only be interpreted in terms of their context, which is hard to make out after two thousand years: in a single chapter of Luke, Jesus both advised his disciples to buy a sword (22:36) and scolded the disciple who used one (22:51).

Most theologians cling to the traditional concept of an all-powerful God, fully in control of events. Others imagine God in Christ emptying himself, relinquishing his power in kenosis (Philippians 2:6-11). Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that God acts in Israel and in the world through human agents. Sometimes the agents exceed their mandate, not by necessity but by choice, and God sorrowfully accepts their choices.

Theologians of science often describe God’s power as the empowerment of God’s creatures, rather than as power over them. Instead of a ready-made creation, says John Polkinghorne, God made “a world in which creatures could ‘make themselves.’” God does not intervene frequently or coercively, says Ian Barbour, but “builds on the structures and activities already present, working with the powers of existing creatures rather than by overruling them.”

In González’ metaphor, God is opening up new spaces for us in history. It will not be easy to live in those spaces according to the logic of God’s reign, when the oppressors’ logic is so persuasive. It will not be easy to let go of our belief in the inevitability of war, or our need for a God who is always in control. We don’t even know where the spaces are, but the promise is that we’ll find them when we’re ready to step into them.

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Margaret Wilde
M.Div. degree from Union Theological Seminary; M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Antioch University; and D.Min. from Barry University. She has worked in community social action, human rights, conflict resolution, and peace-building, and teaches theology at Barry University.