Guest post by Mark Buchanan. Mark is a Presbyterian Pastor specializing in multicultural ministry in the Los Angeles area. He has been an enthusiastic student of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology since encountering Dr. Moltmann while a seminarian at Princeton Seminary. He writes using engaging real life stories to illustrate and bring to life the central tenets of Dr. Moltmann’s theology. He currently resides in Pasadena, California with his wife and children.
Note from Ben: I had the pleasure of meeting Mark at the Karl Barth Conference and am looking forward to his book – Embraced: Many Stories, One Destiny – which comes out this Fall from Wipf and Stock. Stay tuned here for more info about his book… but for now, enjoy this guest post!
In his lecture at the Barth Conference in Princeton, Jürgen Moltmann contrasted Barth’s doctrine of the election of grace to the contemporary teachings and practices of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He noted that one perspective led to an opportunity for eternal life while the other led to death. This drew to mind an encounter I had in 1979 while traveling from Mashhad, Iran to Tehran by train.
As the train departed a man dressed in the traditional white garb of a Moslem cleric along with his assistant entered the compartment where a companion and I were seated. Taking his seat next to me the man gruffly addressed his assistant in Arabic. While I did not understand what was being said, their tone expressed displeasure. When abrupt hand gestures accentuated their words, I began to feel uneasy. When I turned to look at the man seated next to me the hood of his garment drawn tightly over his head shrouded his face. Obviously our presence in the overnight compartment was more than an inconvenience, apparently it was an offense. As fear began to rise in me I leaned forward intent upon making eye contact. As I did I saw that the socket of his left eye was exposed covered only by darkened flesh. Yet what truly startled me was not the blindness of his left eye, but the hatefulness that was emanating from his right. Piercing through my gaze a paralyzing power penetrated me. Instinctually I glanced away. It was as if an evil intent had entered me, taken me under its command and made me an observer of what was about to take place. In that moment, I could feel myself battling a spirit of resignation.
Inwardly I struggled to stay connected to my body and as I did I intentionally repositioned myself on the cushion we shared. Casting off the weight that seemingly tied me down, I readied my self for what was coming next. Seconds felt like minutes and minutes like hours. The sound of the ever increasing speed of the train seemed only to provide cover for the violence that I feared would soon be waged upon us. Yet in the end, the opposite was true. The din of the fast moving train obscured the footsteps of an approaching porter. Entering the compartment he sensed the danger immediately. Speaking only a few words he vigorously motioned for me and my companion to stand up and to exit the compartment. Dropping the unseen chains that bound us, we fled in haste.
Research shows that Omar Abdel-Rahman, the convicted mastermind of the bombing of the World Trade Center taught at an Islamic seminary in Mashhad, Iran in 1979. Known as the Blind Sheik, Oman Abdel-Rahman today resides in a prison in North Carolina. In The Ethics of Hope Moltmann boldly addresses what he called the rise of “a frightening ‘religion of death’”. He quotes the words of another Taliban leader, Mohammed Omar, “Your young people love life; our young people love death (pg. 45, Ethics of Hope).” In this book Moltmann contends that God’s life-giving love reigns over death both in a time of future fulfillment and in the life of the world today. This contention has ethical potentialities. God’s reign provides hope for the future and a partnership with God in the travail of this world.
At the conference, Moltmann affirmed Barth’s assertion that God’s “Yes” to humanity is the election of grace that grants salvation to all people. Yet at the conference what was largely left unaddressed was how this election is carried out, not just as a future reality but in this world today as God confronts sin, evil and death. This lack of ethical specificity leaves us asking some important questions. Are Christians simply to imitate here and now what God promises to do later? How does God’s “Yes” empower us to respond to evil we see in the world today? Does God’s “Yes” assure Omar Abdel-Rahman that he too can look forward to sharing a future with you, me, Barth and Moltmann?
At the conference I was grateful for the seminars led by younger scholars whose lectures focused more narrowly on different aspects of Barth’s theology. I was particularly grateful for the lecture given by Marjorie Corbman, entitled “Not Sinners but Sufferers: Ridicule of the Demons and the Liberation of Sufferers in CD 64.3”. Corbman directed attention to what she called a balanced understanding “of the variability of Barth’s terminology”. This balance enables Barth’s readers to recognize that in addition to sin, Christ’s suffering and death defeats the nothingness that aggressively threatens God’s creation and the evil that causes misery in the world. Barth writes, “He [Christ} not only forgives sins of men; He also removes the source of suffering (pg. 315, CD,IV/2)” and sets people free who are “’possessed by nothingness in one or other of its different forms (pg. 158,CD,IV/2).”
By identifying evil as the source of suffering in the world, our attention is rightly drawn to the power of God’s own suffering to effectively prevail against evil and to initiate a release from the debilitating effects of suffering. Moltmann identifies this ability to overcome evil in the triune God’s willingness to surrender himself as Christ dies both to sin and to the evil that causes suffering. In addition he recognizes that the crucified and risen Christ partners with the Holy Spirit to make room in himself both for sinners and the travail of all of creation. By bearing sinners and indwelling the imperfection of creation, the Spirit of Jesus Christ carries forward all that suffers separation from God. Moltmann recognizes this holding and indwelling to be Christ’s messianic mission in the world which continues until the day when all things will be united in God (Chapter 3, pgs. 94-102, 145-149, The Way of Jesus Christ).
While Moltmann recognizes that the conquest of the power of death and the experience of eternal life are reserved for a future time, he also recognizes that other activities of God can be experienced here and now. He writes, “What can actually be experienced is the immediate lordship of God in the liberating of those who have been bound, and the healing of the sick, in the expulsion of devils and the raising up of the humiliated (pg. 97, The Way of Jesus Christ)”. The way forward described here is “the way of Jesus Christ” that Moltmann so graciously invites his readers to join him in walking (pg. 33-34, The Way of Jesus Christ).
In his book, The Way Of Jesus Christ, Moltmann’s “narrative Christology” tells a story that holds open the opportunity that every person’s story can be included in God’s life giving story. While systematic theologians define the boundaries and erect the necessary barriers to guide understanding, narrative theology points the direction hope-filled people are to walk. When human language and reasoning cease to adequately describe the liberating activity of God in Christ, the stories of those drawn into God’s redemptive involvement illustrates the way willing travelers are to walk.
On a recent visit to New York City I was drawn to return to the pools at ground zero to contemplate the memory of those who lost their lives on 9/11. In doing so, I noticed that with a little effort visitors can touch the water that continuously flows over the edge of a raised shelf that runs along the entire circumference of each of the pools. On the back side of this shelf the names of the departed are written. At first it is difficult to put into perspective the massive size of the pools as they each are a foot print of the tower which once rose above them. Yet soon the visitor’s attention is drawn to the water flowing over the shelf as it seemingly individuates into tiny glistening droplets commemorating the light of life in every one who lost their life. In following a single sparkle as it descends down the massive wall to the pool below one sees and hears the rushing waters rumble and roar as the tiny droplets merge and surge together as a single voice of remembrance.
Yet the descent of droplets falling into the dark waters below is not all that speaks to the heart or beckons the soul. The waters that fill this grand basin have not finished their journey. They surface and dive in a different way from when they began their fateful journey. Now they flow as one, yet in my mind’s eye they are droplets none the same, holding on to their identities in the midst of their new union. Connected to each other on a common journey, each one is gently drawn by a power emanating from a new boundary, from a corresponding open rectangle in the center of the grand pool of commemoration. Like a great gathering, the remembered are drawn by a power that fills up the emptiness of death and beckons all to come near to this inner descent.
If only the nothingness of death awaited every droplet as it fell, then the pool of darkness that we see below would be all there is. But beyond the finality of this descent the nothingness of death is filled with justice, the restoration of wrongs and life. What was before a rectangle of death now becomes a rectangle of life.
To participate in such a descent we need only to reach over the shelf and touch the water and be beckoned and drawn into the flow of God’s love from death to life. As we release ourselves to an inner descent, suspended in the Holy Spirit on the edge of eternal life, we recognize that we have not been left alone to imitate what God will do later. What God will bring to completion later God has begun to do in us, uniting us through himself with the suffering and the dead. Our union with Christ’s death and resurrection is a part of God’s final defeat of evil and a part of the opportunity every person is given to be re-made. Suspended on the edge of eternity, the gift of God in us as God draws all things into himself, strengthens us to stand against the interests of the few and for the eternal life of the whole. God’s election of grace in Christ provides entrance to all people into Christ’s death and resurrection so that all who willingly touch the renewing waters and travel over the inner descent will be lifted up changed and a part of the new creation. And yes, suspended on the edge of eternity, we look for Omar Abdel-Rahman to be next to us united with us as death turns into the everlasting life of God and the new creation bursts forth.