Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Place, God's World, and the Common Good

A while back I purchased a book, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today by Craig G. Bartholomew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). “Place” is a theme of great personal interest to me and the subject of one of my study books (published by Upper Room Books). I set Bartholomew’s book aside on the figurative “to read” pile and am just now getting back to it.

My eye lit upon another area of interest, both within and outside the theme of “place,” which is the nature of believing citizenship---the subject of another of my study books. Bartholomew develops this theme well within the context of “place” in Paul’s letters. He notes that the private home as meeting place was “the central place of the early Pauline churches” (p. 133). On the other hand, the household did not define the church and, in important ways, the church challenged the family hierarchical structures of the Roman era (p. 133).

Nevertheless, the church did draw certain boundaries between itself and the culture. Drawing upon the work of Wayne Meeks, Bartholomew notes that the early church worked hard to establish norms, principals, and actions that formed a new social identity----one in which persons belonged to one another as part of God’s family. Because the church was so negligible as a social force and entity among other cultural institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul did not undertake “a major social critique” of Roman institutions (p. 134). Furthermore, Paul’s theology of the Torah and his ideas of God’s covenant people focuses his concern to build up Christ’s body within the household churches of the Empire, rather than leading to a prophetic critique of the culture (pp 135-137).

On the other hand, Paul’s theology of the Land gives us a lead-in to a possible theology of Christian citizenship. In the Old Testament, faith was a national religion located within a promised Land, but Paul understood Christ as ushering a new age, the former theology of the Land was not possible any longer (p. 138). Rather, Paul “redraws the boundaries of the redefined people of God in relation to the state” because he does not draw a dualism between scrual and sacred. For instance, writes Bartholomew, Paul calls governing authorities as instruments of God (Romans 13:1-7), and his instructions for Christian behavior in Romans 12:9-21 do not compartmentalize the lives of Roman Christians from the social communities in which they live (p. 138).

Bartholomew notes that the extent of Christian involvement in citizenship matters in Paul's time is debated by scholars (p. 139). But he quotes J.D.G. Dunn, “[Paul] takes it for granted that Christians will live out their daily lives and wider relationships motivated by the same love as in their relationships with fellow believers” (p. 138). Furthermore, Paul’s theology of the Land suggests a theology of place in which the whole world which God loves (including, of course, all the world’s creatures and citizens) are the broadened place of Christ’s redeeming activity.

Bartholomew’s discussion reminded me of an article I enjoyed by Victor Paul Furnish, “Uncommon Love and the Common Good: Christians as Citizens in the letters of Paul” (in Dennis McCann’s and Patrick Miller’s In Search of the Common Good, New York: T. & T. Clark, 2005, pp. 58-87.). Furnish addresses several New Testament texts about community and the common good. He notes that Paul does not use an alternate word like paroikoi (“resident aliens”) or parepidêmoi (“transients”) to refer to Christians, and in fact does not use those terms elsewhere in his letters, although we do find them in 1 Peter 2:11 and Heb. 11:13 (67-68). Thus, the image of "resident aliens" is not the only available Pauline term to discuss Christians’ role in the world.

Instead, Furnish provides several Pauline texts that support a concern for the common good. Passages like 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Cor. 15:22, and Rom. 5:18 point to an inclusiveness of God’s saving purpose. Furthermore, he argues, Paul does not call Christians to disengage from society but rather to life their faith within society, as in for instance 1 Cor. 5:10 and 7:24). In Philippians 1:27-28, Paul uses the word politeuesthai, meaning “to be, or to live as a citizen.”(67)  Since Paul does not elsewhere use this word, Furnish maintains that Paul is advising his people to be “upstanding citizens” as they live as Christians in a Roman society.

Through his article, Furnish discusses other scriptures, including Philippians 4:5a (“Let your gentleness be known to all people”), Philippians 4:8-9 (a list of virtues that imply public conduct), Galatians 6:9-10 (an admonition to do good for all at every possible opportunity), Romans 12:14-21 (ways to live peacefully with all people), and Romans 13:1-78 (being good citizens).

Furnish clarifies that his study does not imply that Paul called his congregations to participate in conversations about the common good. As Bartholomew notes, this really wasn’t possible in Paul’s culture anyway. But the dilemma remains (as it does for Hauerwas and Willimon in their book about resident aliens): what are the church's practical solutions and activities that can arise from these New Testament teachings? Furnish suggests that Paul’s teachings about God’s deep love, shown to use in Jesus Christ, does encourage a concern for the social common good and Christians‘ participation in public and private discourage about the common good. To add Furnish's ideas to Bartholomews, God's love of the whole world makes the world the place where Christians seek to express that love amid the issues and concerns of society.

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