Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On the Anti-Imperial Abraham and “Unchristian” Christians

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I have been thinking a lot about Abraham lately. In fact, I just finished up an essay on “Abraham and Empire in Galatians” for a forthcoming book (which won’t be out for more than a year). I found myself noticing how often Abraham is mentioned in relationship with powerful kings and cities (Babel, Haran, Ur, Pharaoh, Abimelech, Melchizedek, Chedorlaomer and his allies, etc.) and how he is described in ways that make him look like both an “imperial” figure and an “anti-imperial” figure. By “imperial” I mean those texts that speak of God’s promises to give him a great name and international influence. By “anti-imperial” I mean those texts that suggest a lack of interest in gaining and/or using power to his personal advantage and at the expense of others. Generally speaking he is as far from an oppressive figure as can be found.
Those constructing the tower of Babel were hoping to build one culturally homogenous city-state by which they could “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Abraham shows no sign of any such ambition but God promises him “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). When there is conflict with Lot and his men, Abraham takes an open-handed approach and allows Lot to choose the land he prefers (Gen.13:8-12). Abraham rescues Lot and defeats Chedorlaomer and his allied kings in battle but shows no interest in keeping the spoils of war or establishing rule or dominion over the lands of the defeated kings (Gen. 14).
He is also tied to the promises of land and posterity which come to be associated with the hope of redemption and liberation from oppressive powers. A look at the references to Abraham in the psalms and prophets will show how often he is mentioned in conjunction with expressions of hope for redemption (often hope for redemption from oppressive foreign nations): Psa. 47:9; 105:6-9, 42; Isa. 29:22; 41:8; 51:2; 63:16; Jer. 33:26; Ezek. 33:24; Micah 7:20.
It is remarkable to note how often Abraham is associated with rescue and liberation from oppressive powers in the New Testament as well. In the opening of the Gospel of Matthew Abraham is mentioned as one of the four key turning points in the history of Israel, along with David, the Babylonian exile and the Messiah (suggesting the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and David and the coming of the Messiah will bring Israel’s experience of exile to an end). In the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke references to Abraham are very explicitly tied to hope for rescue from enemies and from oppressive circumstances (read Luke 1:55 and 1:73 in their near contexts). In Luke 13:11-17 Jesus brings deliverance to “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” (v. 11). He describes the woman as “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years” and what he had done as setting her “free from this bondage” (v. 16).
I encourage you to take some time to read passages that mention Abraham and consider whether or not it might be related to the theme of liberation/freedom from oppression of one kind or another and, if so, how that should inform the behavior and thinking of anyone who recognizes it.
Unfortunately, as David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons demonstrate in their book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity-- and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007), Christians are perceived by others as (among other things) people who are all too eager to impose their views and convictions on the rest of the world. In my view that reputation has been earned. We have spent much of the last thirty years watching our influence on the surrounding culture wane as we have sought to win our battles in the legal and political realms. As we have applied our pressure on the power structures of our society we have lost the hearts and minds of those who actually decide what takes place within those structures – our neighbors, co-workers and other (voting) fellow citizens. This is not to argue that we should remove ourselves from political and legal arenas, but to suggest we need to focus much more attention on winning hearts and minds at the grass-roots level and that might start by adopting a more Abrahamic approach, one in which our commitment to bring the freedom and liberation from oppression with which the promises to Abraham are associated in Scripture comes to be recognized as a key to what it means to seek to bring blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). Jesus Christ (“the son of Abraham”; Matt. 1:1) demonstrated just that kind of commitment to the power of self-sacrificing love spent for good of others. It was a self-sacrificing love that was a threat to the powers of the day, but was usually perceived as a generous, non-threatening love by the grass roots, and through it the early church (and the church through most of its history) proved to be more effective at winning those hearts and minds which American Christians have been losing as of late.

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