Christ and the Vilified Other (My Address to Christ at the Checkpoint)


Last week Peri and I attended Christ at the Checkpoint in Bethlehem — a biennial evangelical conference sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College. Peri has posted some of her musings regarding the conference, which I encourage you to read. I would also encourage you to read the Christ at the Checkpoint Manifesto.

I’m sharing the address I presented at the conference on Christ and the Vilified Other. This is not a transcript; neither is it a manuscript (I don’t speak from a manuscript). But this is very close in substance to what I said at the conference. I can only hope it will be as well-received here as it was in Bethlehem.


Christ and the Vilified Other
Brian Zahnd

Let me begin by talking about the land, the Holy Land, the land of the Bible. Geography played a significant role in shaping ancient Hebrew ethics and theology. Situated between the northern and southern superpowers of the ancient Near East, Israel lived under constant threat of invasion and occupation from these economic and military empires.

(In my writing and preaching I frequently reference empire. Allow me to give a definition. Empires are rich, powerful nations that believe they have a divine right to rule other nations and a manifest destiny to shape history. The Bible gives a sustained critique of empire from Genesis to Revelation — particularly in Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, the Gospels, Acts, and especially Revelation. Empires are an enemy of God’s purposes because what they claim for themselves — a manifest destiny to shape history and a divine right to rule other nations — is the very thing God has promised to his Son.)

Living in the shadow of the northern empires of Assyria and Babylon and the southern empire of Egypt, ancient Israel was extremely vulnerable to the expansionist policies of those powerful empires. The biblical history of Israel was a long narrative of threat and oppression. From this acute sense of vulnerability, Israel developed a keen concept of neighborly justice. One reason the Old Testament talks so much about neighborly justice is because the Hebrew people so often suffered from unneighborly injustice. When you’re the top dog you don’t think so earnestly about justice, but if you’re on the bottom you have a different perspective. There’s a reason Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. are probably the two best examples of American prophets. Their prophetic edges were sharpened on the cruel flints of slavery and segregation. The Hebrew prophetic tradition developed in the crucible of enduring threat, invasion, and oppression from Gentile empires. In this crucible of suffering a theology of justice was forged, but it also produced the slag of vengeance expectation.

Following Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judea, the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, and the forced deportation of Jews to Babylon in 587 BC, Isaiah of the Exile penned these words.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God.
–Isaiah 61:1, 2

The Jewish people had been forced into exile in the foreign land of Babylon — they were the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. But the poet-prophet envisioned a coming Jubilee of liberation, restoration, and divine favor. When that day comes the poor will hear good news, the captives will be liberated, and the prisoners will be set free as God inaugurates a season of divine favor. Naturally this prophecy became a primary text shaping Messianic expectations.

Along with an anticipation of a Jubilee of liberation, Isaiah also prophesies that when the Lord’s anointed comes he will exact vengeance on Gentiles — Isaiah sees divine vengeance against Gentile enemies as the apex of God’s saving work. The biblical theme of vengeance recurs regularly throughout the Psalms and the Prophets.

But retaliatory vengeance is not the only lens in the Old Testament for viewing Gentiles. There are also stories that seem to undermine vengeful thinking, subtexts that subvert retaliatory desire. In 1 Kings 17 we find the story of the widow of Zarephath. During a famine God sent the Hebrew prophet Elijah to the land of Sidon, where a Gentile woman was given the miracle of a flour barrel that was never empty and a jar of oil that never ran out. This Gentile widow survived the famine through a miracle given by a Jewish prophet. This isn’t just a nice story about God’s supernatural provision. This is a subversive text about God’s love for Israel’s enemies!

In 2 Kings 5 the subtext of divine kindness bestowed upon Israel’s enemies is pushed further when Elijah’s successor, Elisha, heals the Gentile Naaman of leprosy. But Naaman wasn’t just any Gentile; he was the general of the dreaded Syrian army that had been threatening Israel. It’s one thing to make a Gentile widow a sympathetic figure in a Jewish story, but it’s another thing to do that with a Syrian general. Imagine an Israeli story where God heals a Hamas general and you’ll get some idea of what is going on with this story. Yet this is the genius of biblical subtexts. Because the story is skillfully told, the Jewish reader is seduced into sympathy for the Syrian general; the reader can’t help but feel happy for Naaman. Of course, once you start feeling sympathy for Syrian generals, you might have to rethink Syrians altogether.

In these two stories Gentiles are made human and sympathetic figures. The Jewish reader doesn’t want God’s vengeance to fall upon these two Gentiles. Instead of thinking Gentiles deserve to be punished by divinely orchestrated famine, the reader rejoices that the widow of Zarephath receives mercy from God. Instead of seeing Naaman as a two-dimensional villain deserving divine retribution, the reader sees Naaman as a real human being in need of God’s kindness. In telling these two stories, the Hebrew Bible subverts any lust for vengeance. Because we hear their stories, these two “enemies of God” are no longer viewed as enemies. For what is an enemy? An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard. So the Bible supplies us with subtext stories to subvert our assumptions about enemies. Some of the best parts of the Bible are found in the subtexts. And as we will see, the Old Testament stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper, with their subversion of vengeance, made a big impression on Jesus.

In Luke 4 Jesus returned to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth where he was invited to read from the Scriptures.

“And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
–Luke 4:16–21

Did you catch what happened? Do you see what Jesus did? While reading from the familiar passage of Isaiah 61, Jesus stopped midsentence and rolled up the scroll! It would be like someone singing the national anthem and ending with O’er the land of the free… Everybody would be waiting for and the home of the brave. Jesus didn’t finish the line. Jesus omitted the bit about “the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus edited Isaiah!

In announcing that God’s jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon was arriving with what he was doing, Jesus omitted any reference to God exacting vengeance on Israel’s enemies. In claiming that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in their hearing, Jesus is claiming to be Jubilee in person. But the scandalous suggestion is that this Jubilee is to be for everybody, even Israel’s enemies. Jesus has edited out vengeance, and this gives us a key to how Jesus read the Old Testament. And lest we think that Jesus’ omission of “the day of vengeance” was simply an oversight or meaningless, consider what Jesus says to the hometown crowd in the synagogue following his edited reading of Isaiah.

“The truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” –Luke 4:25–27

Jesus is announcing the arrival of the Lord’s favor, but he is emphasizing that it is favor for everybody, even for Sidonians and Syrians, even for Israel’s enemies! Jesus takes the implicit subtexts of mercy and makes them his explicit primary text. Jesus is making clear that in bringing the Jubilee of God he is bringing it for everybody! How was this message of God’s inclusive favor received in Nazareth? Not well, not well at all. Initially Jesus’ hometown “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But as soon as Jesus made it clear that he was closing the book on vengeance, that he would not endorse the idea of divine retribution on Israel’s enemies, the crowd turned viciously against Jesus.

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” –Luke 4:28–30

Jesus refused to read Isaiah’s vision of vengeance in the synagogue, just as he would refuse to be a violent, vengeful Messiah in the model of King David and Judah Maccabee. And that ignited the rage of the crowd. It’s amazing just how angry some people can become if you try to take away their religion of revenge. As long as Jesus announced that it was the time of God’s favor, the crowd spoke well of him. But as soon as he made it clear that God’s favor is for everyone, as soon as Jubilee was made inclusive and not exclusive, they tried to throw him off a cliff. Because Nazareth anticipated a violent and vengeful Messiah, they failed to recognize Messiah when he came to town.

Until we are captivated by the radical mercy of God extended to all, we will cling to the texts of vengeance as cherished texts. To keep Jesus at the center of our gospel mission we must remember this incident at Nazareth. If we long for vengeance to come upon those we identify as vilified others, Jesus passes through our midst and goes away. The spirit of Christ is the holy spirit — the spirit of advocacy. The unholy spirit is the spirit of accusation — the spirit of the satan. The spirit of Christ is absent from us when we vilify and scapegoat others.

Blaming a scapegoat is the satanic way of achieving unity. We unite around our common vilification of a nefarious “them.” We project our collective fear, loathing, anxiety, and rage upon a scapegoat. It’s emotionally cathartic and highly effective in achieving temporary unity within a community. It’s also satanic.

Throughout church history the Jewish people have been the default scapegoat for Christian communities. The long sordid history of Christian-sponsored slander and vilification, persecutions and pogroms against Jewish communities is perhaps the most shameful stain upon the church. The satanic spirit of accusation at work in the church has been most pronounced in Christian anti-Semitism.

Following the Holocaust, American evangelicals (and especially charismatics) led the way in repenting for historic Christian anti-Semitism. American evangelicals began cultivating respectful and healing conversations with Jewish communities. American evangelicals began to rediscover and celebrate the Jewish roots of their Christian faith. Beginning in the 1970s, Jewish-styled worship music, Jewish prayer shawls, and Jewish shofars were common in charismatic churches. I regard all of this as a beautiful and necessary act of repentance.

But instead of repenting of scapegoating altogether, too often American evangelicals simply found new scapegoats — and repeatedly it’s been Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Peri and I have been leading Christian pilgrim tours to Israel for over twenty years. It’s a labor of love. We love introducing people to the land of the Bible; we love taking Christians to the holy sites where Jesus lived his life, worked his miracles, preached his sermons — to the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised. Our pilgrimages are primarily devotional in nature. But in more recent years we have also introduced our pilgrims to the people of the land — the historic Christian communities that have been in the land since the day of Pentecost. Along with introducing our pilgrims to the archeological stones, we also introduce them to the living stones — Palestinian Christians.

Most American evangelicals assume Israelis have a divine right to all the land and that Palestinians have little or no legitimate grievances. They can’t help it. It’s what they’ve been taught. But when we have a Palestinian evangelical Christian speak to our group there is a predictable result. Every time our pilgrims meet Palestinians Christians, they change their mind in less than an hour. Last March after a Palestinian faculty member from Bethlehem Bible College addressed our group, one member of the group said to me, “I always thought Palestinians were the bad guys — terrorists. Now I’m going to have to rethink some things. It’s a whole lot more complicated than I thought.” Indeed it is.

But why do American evangelicals have a default position of regarding Palestinians as vilified others? Because it’s the message they receive via American Christian mass media — the internet echo-chambers, Christian talk radio, Christian television, and Fox News.

What should I say about this?

I could talk about the theological deficiencies that lead to carte blanche vilification of Palestinians.

I could talk about how covenant membership in the body of Messiah is determined, not by ethnicity, circumcision, and Torah observance, but by faith, baptism, and obedience to Jesus as Messiah.

I could talk about how in Christ the chosen people is the human race and the holy land is the whole earth.

I could talk about the theological disaster that is dispensational eschatology.

But I can also concede all these theological errors (and they are errors!) and say something else. I can say something to American evangelicals that is rather pointed and challenging. And as one who has lived, labored, and loved among American evangelicals for nearly six decades, I’ve earned the right to say it. So…

To American evangelicals I want to say this: In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Christians are not called to take Israel’s side, Christians are called to imitate Israel’s Messiah. If you hold to a theology that forces you to vilify Palestinians; and if this hostile attitude causes you to excuse political policies that in other circumstances you would deem as injustice; and if as a result of your theology and politics you are unwilling to humbly listen to and learn from your Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ, then you need to know that you are driving the spirit of Christ out of your midst and your movement is being animated by an unholy spirit. Nevertheless, if you are categorically committed to viewing Palestinians as enemies, then at least act toward Palestinians as Jesus taught you to act toward your enemies: Love them, bless them, and do good to them. For love alone is the Jesus way. According to our Lord, the biblical test case for love of God is love of neighbor, and the biblical test case for love of neighbor is love of enemy.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy,
O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.