12th Assembly 2009

The whole story of the Bible

Cato Lecturer Dr Daniel Smith Christopher challenged the Uniting Church to listen to the voice of God through the Old Testament scriptures.

The triennial Cato Lecture was delivered at the 12th Assembly of the Uniting Church on Saturday evening .

Lecturer Dr Daniel Smith Christopher urged Christians to put themselves in the place of exile, saying it offered new insights into how to be faithful to God’s calling.

“Learning to be exiles, rather than chaplains to Caesar is not weakness. It is a new kind of strength. This is well known to the Indigenous among us. They have known exile for some time.”

“I believe we desperately need to learn to be exiles. That is the whole story of the Bible,” he said

Dr Smith Christopher, a Quaker, is Professor in Theological Studies and Director of Peace Studies at the Catholic Loyola Marymount University in the USA. His lecture was entitled “Overboard with Jonah; Over the Line with Ezra: Biblical Themes for the Church in Exile.”

“We say we are a biblical people. But in what way?” he challenged the Sydney gathering. “How does the Old Testament continue in some positive and productive manner to be a source for Christians?”

Dr Smith Christopher said the challenge of the Old Testament was that the writings it contained, come to us from a different time, a different place and completely different language.”

“The more we learn about the Old Testament texts the more difficult it seems to be. Doing biblical theology is difficult and complex. But that should not be the end of the discussion. That should be the beginning.”

Dr Smith Christopher rejected the popular theological position which used Bible stories about David and Solomon from the period of Israel’s monarchy as the basis for monarchy, militarism and conquest.

He agreed with John Howard Yoder, one of the 20th Century’s best known pacifists, that the obsession with the monarchy in the western Christian tradition — from the period of the Roman Empire through to the American economic and military empire today — drew comfort from a certain reading of the Old Testament.

But this was never God’s intention for God’s people. This is clear, he said, from the life and ministry of Jesus.

“The Anabaptists taught me to read One Samuel, chapter eight,” Mr Smith Christopher said. ‘He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
“The monarchy was to all intents and purposes a re-enslavement of the people of Israel. I believe the scriptures are clear; the experiment with worldly and military power was a failure for the Israelites. It is a dead end in the Bible.”

Dr Smith Christopher said that when Jesus was referred to as the “new David” by colonisers and militarists, their emphasis was on the second word — David — rather than the first word — new.

“The first word implies radical change, not continuity,” he insisted.

Nor does Smith Christopher believe the alternative reading of the Old Testament by liberation theologians is appropriate today.

“Liberation theology clearly shifted the focus back to the exodus,” he said. “This became the paradigm event. God is a god of liberation. This theology leads God’s people to a promised land.”

But Dr Smith Christopher told the gathering that he, “had nagging doubts about both biblical paradigms”.

“Monarchy is a dead end. But exodus has problems too. Both suffer from the phenomenon that we are reading only part of the story. The Bible does not leave us in the promised land, having removed the inconvenient former residents.

“In fact, I would argue, the Bible narrative leaves us in exile, both at home and in diaspora.”

He referred to the devastation of Jerusalem in 587 by King Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the Israelites as the watershed event in biblical history.

“So it should be for us a theological watershed. If the biblical story is deeply impacted by exile, then biblical theology must take this seriously.”

He read the story of Jonah who was called to be a messenger to the former enemy. But he didn’t want to be a light to the enemy. He wanted their destruction.

Jonah, Dr Smith Christopher claimed, represents Israel, called to a new radical engagement in the world.

“Are we ready to go into the world with Jonah?” he challenged.

He then referred to the stories of Ezra to balance the call to Jonah.

“We must heed Ezra’s warning, ‘Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget our identity.’

“We cannot afford to think like Babylon. We cannot afford to think like Rome. We must be the church; we must be strong as the people of God. Like Daniel, we must know when to refuse the king’s food and wine.

“When any state acts irresponsibly, we must refuse the king’s food and wine. When the state mistreats foreigners or outcasts, we must refuse the king’s food and wine.

“We must seek the peace of the city where we have been sent. We need an Ezra-like commitment in education committees. We need Jonah-like courage in our outreach.

“Then we will be able to offer water to all thirsty lands.”

The Cato lecture is enabled by an endowment by Fred Cato, a Methodist businessman who died in 1935.