“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.”

Losing my civic religion

One of the most frightening things about the God of Genesis is his generosity. He blessed Abraham, rightly remembered for his faith, less often remembered for sending his mistress and the child of their union into the desert to die at the behest of his jealous wife. He blessed Abraham to father descendants who would outnumber the stars in the sky, and the blessing persists even as Abraham repudiates his own offspring: the angel of the Lord comes to Hagar as she, used, lonely, and afraid, is being tormented by the sight of her dying son, and shows them a well from which they can drink. Isaac becomes Abraham’s heir, but Ishmael comes to prosper in his own right, rejected by his father but still marked by a blessing that is intractable and persistent.

Isaac fathers Jacob and Esau, and the enmity between brothers that began in his family line with Cain and Abel manifests itself again. In this generation Esau is the one favored by his father, but Jacob, in an act of devilry that highlights for me the discrete nature of the Abrahamic blessing, tricks his father into blessing him instead. When Esau discovers Jacob’s deception he begs his father to bless him in cries so plaintive that I feel like I am witnessing what should be a family’s scene of private grief, and ought to look away: “Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.”

Indeed, his father has only one blessing. Esau will have his own descendants, and they will multiply in their own manifestation of the Abrahamic blessing, but the blessing that came from Isaac now belongs to Jacob and his descendants alone. The God of Genesis blesses and gives the power to bless, and rather than being vaguely powerful incantations with indeterminate results, these blessings are gifts that are consequential for their recipients, and once given, cannot be taken away.

Once Esau comes to this same realization he plots to kill his brother, who runs away to his uncle. En route to Laban’s house Jacob will have the transformative encounter with the Lord for which he is often remembered, in which he has a vision of a ladder extending to heaven with angels marching up and down, leading him to pledge himself to the Lord and likely become a better man for it. I’d like to pause at this point in the story though, for what I find almost as impressive as the generosity of the Lord in this book is the behavior of its people. These men are assholes. There is no way around it. I’ve known some ill behaved people in my time and I’ve yet to meet a father who deliberately sends his mistress and son into a wilderness as a way to be rid of them. The horrific behavior of Abraham and his offspring serves as a foil for the God who is blessing them. Even when faced with their capacity for cruelty, even knowing that they may wield the blessings they are given in ways that do not reflect the Divine nature, the Lord gives to them nonetheless.

The horrific behavior of Abraham and his offspring serves as a foil for the God who is blessing them. Even when faced with their capacity for cruelty, even knowing that they may wield the blessings they are given in ways that do not reflect the Divine nature, the Lord gives to them nonetheless.

Isn’t this the opposite of meritocracy? Of respectability politics? Of any system of thought that centers human deservedness as the impetus or justification for goodness in the world? Only God is good here, and his goodness is the force that carries the Old Testament narrative. Too many of the characters would have killed each other off or set the stage for their own demise without his intervening hand.  This whole story runs on deus ex machina.

Every culture has its origin story, and America’s origin story runs somewhat counter to the one I just described. Depending on how you were educated there may be some variance in the particulars, but here is the gist of the story: our forefathers cast off the yoke of European monarchy and created a government by the people and for the people, which treats its citizens justly and rewards each person according to their efforts. Like the Genesis story, this origin story helps explain who gets what, and why. The logic here is pretty simple. Those who take ownership of their circumstances make something of their lives; conversely, those who are passive rightfully end up with nothing. I think this story has roots in civic religion, not the Bible, but it was cited with such conviction in the Christian circles I grew up in that it informed my faith as much as any orthodoxy.

In the past two years I’ve taken a closer look at my faith and the role American civic religion has played in shaping it. For people who grew up in evangelical churches, you may be familiar with conversations around Christianity and syncretism, for example looking at how Confucian cultures may yield a Christianity that focuses disproportionately on deference to elders to the detriment of other practices of faith, or how polytheistic cultures may simply add Jesus to a pantheon of other gods after recognizing his divinity. I grew up with these conversations not realizing that American Christianity just as prone to syncretism as any other branch of the church. For some of you this was obvious a long time ago. It was not obvious to me. Only eight years ago, as I began reading accounts of Christians from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, did I begin seriously examining where my faith was rooted in Scripture, and where it was rooted in capitalism and nationalism bolstered by a handful of de-contextualized Bible verses. The relationship between the evangelical church and the Trump administration, and the strange fruit this relationship has produced, has made this self-examination more painful, and more urgent.

This brings me back to the book of Genesis. One of the most fervent prayers I’ve prayed in the past two years can be summarized as “Lord, I have so many conflicting thoughts about poverty and injustice, and I don’t know how to respond to the need I see around me. Please show me your way.”

If God subscribes to the American narratives of deservedness then the poor are lost. Poor Americans are poor because they didn’t make good use of a system that could have rewarded them, and there is nothing more to be said. Genesis is full of meanings that challenge this idea - even a brief study of the story of Hagar raises questions about what a servant woman can do when her mistress and master demand that she carry the master’s child, and how she can protect herself and her son once they are cast out in a society where women and fatherless children have no standing of their own. And even if you believe Hagar got what was coming to her, then the Lord’s intervention raises questions about why a woman of her standing should become mother to a house that grows powerful in its own right, for Ishmael establishes his own family and they multiply.

I think God is not stupid, and in this situation he understands how human society would respond to Hagar, understands the bind she is in, and understands that she is destitute not by her own doing. Clearly Hagar has agency; who knows, maybe there is an element of her own decision making that landed her here, but even so, God responds to her with mercy and gives to her with a generosity that offends the sensibilities I was raised with. She has nothing and every person in her world seems to agree that this is as it should be, since no one lifts a finger on her behalf. Except the Lord.

You know what else offends me? All the other people in these stories. The amount of backbiting between family members in Genesis has me drafting emails to my Christian therapist, wondering if I need some deliverance prayer after reading the Bible. I’m not sure these people should have had children if they were going to raise fratricidal maniacs, much less received a generational blessing that would cause their line to propagate indefinitely. And again the Lord offends me, not only showing overwhelming kindness to Abraham’s line but choosing to usher his Son into the world through Abraham’s descendants. Later, through Paul’s writing in the book of Romans, the Lord commends Abraham for simply believing him, and says this was counted to him as righteousness.

I think this is the beginning of God’s answer to my prayers about poverty. The Lord’s ethic - in the Old Testament, no less - seems to be demonstrated in an active torrent of giving that is not abated by man’s deservedness. I think this is a demonstration of his holiness, his otherness, and his complete sovereignty and sufficiency. He needs nothing apart from himself to instigate his acts of goodness. They originate from within him. He is so utterly good that when we stand before him, we cannot be anything more than humble recipients of his love. It subsumes our values systems and our stories about who should receive what, and leaves us with the bare fact of the goodness that radiates from him, endowing us with blessings we did not earn.

The Lord’s ethic - in the Old Testament, no less - seems to be demonstrated in an active torrent of giving that is not abated by man’s deservedness.

I am challenged by this, to say the least. I am sure the Lord will have more to say to me about how to pair generosity with wisdom. I don’t want to give foolishly, and that is one of the main concerns that holds me back. This also, however, makes me think about Ryan Longfield, the pastor of my local church, who said once that he operates out of assuming the best of everyone and giving accordingly. He said - I am paraphrasing here - that we can be found foolish for either thinking too highly or thinking too little of those around us, and he prefers to err on the side of thinking highly. His thoughts echo what I see of the Lord’s thoughts in Genesis. He must think something of these vengeful, homicidal men that I do not, know something about the future of these divided families that I do not, for he gives to them when I would have chosen to withhold.

If I am serious about asking the Lord to sift my allegiances and determine which are tied to him and which are tied to my culture, I have a long road ahead. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I want to walk this road to its end. All I can say at this point is - God, I surrender my insistence on determining who is deserving and who is not. I surrender my loyalties to my culture, my nation, and my subjective experiences that would cause me to elevate man’s perspective above yours. You are the God of generations, whose goodness has and continues to endure. Teach me to abide in your goodness, and to give as you give, to give as I have been given to. In Jesus’ name, amen.

I love the Church, and at times it breaks my heart

In adulthood, rereading the stories of my youth