This question was put to me yesterday.
I teach the Old Testament, and I love it. Many Christians (but maybe mostly white ones like me) find it an awkward literature, because it seems so this-worldly. Family feuds and tribal conflicts, plagues and politics, displacement and community planning. Even its most exalted hopes for God’s future are still pretty earthy – not some beatific pulsar, but a matter of safe maternity, long life, security from dispossession, fulfilling labor, progeny, and, of course, the joyful company of Yahweh. See, for example, Isaiah 65.
This worldliness makes many Christians uncomfortable. We believe that God has a more consequential, spiritual objective. God seeks to rescue people from everlasting judgment on their mortal sinfulness. That is, God’s concern is fundamentally for the hereafter – and not the here.I will rejoice in Jerusalem,and delight in my people;no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,or the cry of distress.No more shall there be in itan infant that lives but a few days,or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.They shall not build and another inhabit;they shall not plant and another eat;for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.They shall not labour in vain,or bear children for calamity;for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well.
Because of this belief, most Christians would find it difficult to accept spiritual advice from someone who didn’t believe in the afterlife. ("Their priorities just wouldn’t be straight!") But this is what they do already whenever they consult the Old Testament. Late in his short life, the evangelical theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer read the Old Testament intensively. He was impressed by its this-worldliness.
Unlike the other oriental [sic!] religions, the faith of the Old Testament is not a religion of redemption…to the objection that a crucial importance is given in the Old Testament to redemption (to Egypt and later from Babylon, cf. Deutero-Isaiah) it may be answered that the redemptions referred to here are historical, i.e., on this side of death, whereas everywhere else the myths about redemption are concerned to overcome the barrier of death.Bonhoeffer is not disputing that the Old Testament – and the whole Christian Bible – witnesses to a God who is SAVIOR. What he claims is that God prosecutes the salvation of this world. This mortal world, in all its teeming particularity and its perennial injustice.
The Christian Bible tells varied stories of God’s struggle against chaos, sin, and death. This struggle does spill over into the hereafter, in that it concludes for the individual after death and for human history at the end of time. And its scope does eventually involve the entire cosmos. But this is not because the hereafter and the all are the center of God’s purpose. They are not. The heart of God is set on the local and particular. God loves Israel – and, in the Christian Bible, its epitome, the Jew Jesus of Nazareth. Specific episodes – Elijah feeding the widow of Zarephath, the healing of Na’aman the leper, the psalm’s celebration of rescue at sea and housing the homeless – aren’t instantiations of some larger abstraction. The encounters these stories remember were each in themselves the concrete epicenter of God’s life-giving will. They open onto other situations of deprivation and death because God passionately seeks life here and now just as he did then and there.
The same applies above all to Jesus, in whom God was singularly at work to heal myriad particular lives (Mary Magdalene, blind Bartimaeus, Lazarus, Zacchaeus) – and against whom the powers of death and injustice made their most aggressive effort, climaxing at Golgotha. Because the creative and life-giving God of Israel overcame death so uniquely in the resurrection of Jesus, every other specific, historical sin and injustice has changed. God triumphed in Jesus, where evil was at fullest reach. Since God seeks life here and now as he did then and there, not even the most horrific situation of violence or oppression or sin is without hope for God’s radical, ex nihilo salvation. If not now, then hereafter – not because God cares more for that which comes after but because God cares so doggedly for the here and now. For this world.
Our responsibility as Christians is to announce the resurrection of Jesus in each instance of deathliness that we encounter: that God acted thus, and God will act thusly here also – if not now, then at the end. In the meanwhile, while the full salvation of God tarries, we can lend our bodies and our energies to those places that stand in need of God’s healing. We will not accomplish their restoration; we are not God. But we can run ahead of God, so to speak – our own fallible efforts after life and justice can be a prayer, “come, Lord; come here.” They can mark out a site of expectation.
I care about Mike Brown because God cares about Mike Brown. Mike Brown was only the most recent and celebrated victim of our pervasive, brutal national sin: white supremacy and the dehumanization of American blacks (and other people of color!). The lineage of slave ships, the plantation economy, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, ghettoization, mass incarceration runs directly to Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014. As a Christian, I want to announce the resurrection here and now – that somehow the God who raised Jesus can also win life out of this bottomless evil. But while I wait, I will not be idle; nor will I stand against death only with theological generalities. I will speak of the specifics of racialized violence, white supremacy, militarization. Because God is savior of this world.