Apologies up front: this is longer than blogs I read and I’m sure I’ve transgressed blog etiquette.
Please don’t read this as an attempt to say “I’m right” or “I’ve arrived.” Do I think my views on the issues I’ll discuss are valid and thought out? Of course, however I hope not to the extent that I kill loving debate and honest conversation. To the extent that we meditate on Scripture and allow it to change us we all share the same goal. I share the same struggle as you in attempting to live out the truth of what I say I believe. Boil it all down and I’m just a guy trying to follow.
The Road that Led to “Today”
To say that in September of 2003 was when my life changed may seem may seem a little dramatic but because I remember the moment so clearly I can think of no better way to phrase it.
I will try to be succinct but a little backstory may be helpful. I had been raised in a Fundamentalist Baptist tradition but in seminary I grew to understand that much of what I had been taught and was being taught could not really be supported by Scripture. Linda and I moved to Dallas, TX so I could continue my education and we moved into a conservative but Evangelical church world, in many ways much different from how I grew up. However one basic issue did not change with my move from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism: both taught that preaching the Gospel was specifically, better yet, only related to confession of sin and accepting Jesus so you went to heaven when you died. We called this salvation; preaching the Gospel was synonymous with preaching salvation. Anything else the Bible spoke about was ancillary, not essential to the Gospel message. In other words, any act the Bible commanded was part of sanctification, a process that kicked in at the “moment” of salvation but we stressed that these were two very separate concepts. In both church worlds sanctification was primarily related to issues of personal holiness. In all my years attending church, Bible College and seminary I can’t remember ever hearing preaching or teaching on the issue of justice, except perhaps as a personal application but never a corporate or collective application. This section may seem disjointed but hopefully will be become more coherent as the story unfolds.
Back to September 2003…during this time I had been restudying the Minor Prophets in preparation for a series I was going to teach in our church. I picked up the September issue of National Geographic and it contained an article on modern day slavery. I distinctly remember being amazed since when I heard slavery I thought American slavery and that ended (at least legally) in 1865. It truly was a “light bulb” moment. Since I am a reader I started reading books on modern day slavery and injustice. I started to make connections between my study of the prophetic books and the injustice on which much of the world’s economic prosperity is built. I wondered how I could have grown up and attended Bible preaching churches for my entire life and never heard a sermon on injustice. One OT scholar who was particularly helpful to me in seeing how injustice is pervasive in America was Walter Brueggemann.
An anecdote to demonstrate how the sin of injustice is not part of our thinking: Over the next couple years I was able to teach various groups on the Minor Prophets or Isaiah and I always began with this question to be discussed in small groups. What three sins are mentioned the most in the prophetic books? Not one group ever mentioned injustice. I also began to notice that when the prophets spoke of the glorious future that awaited Israel they almost always included not only forgiveness of sin but the also reversal of injustice and poverty.
Fast forward to our two years in China. I was given a two year leave of absence from my job and we moved to Chengdu, China in the summer of 2005 returning in the summer of 2007. I had the opportunity to teach some Chinese house church groups and was involved in the leadership of our international fellowship. However I also had many hours to study and write and finish my teaching notes for most of the OT. For much of my reading I focused on Jesus and the gospels. I had been an OT guy in seminary and almost all of my teaching had been on OT books. As it relates to the issue of injustice, it is easy to see how important the issue of injustice was to the OT but didn’t Jesus just come to save us from our sins? As I began to reread the gospels and study all Jesus’ talk of the kingdom of God/heaven began to make more sense when understood in their OT context. Jesus claimed that everything the OT looked forward to was to be understood in light of his coming. The gospel of the OT claimed that when Yahweh intervened in Israel’s history shalom would finally be realized. Shalom is an OT word that does not have a good one word translation into English but it contains the ideas of peace, justice, prosperity, long life, forgiveness of sin. In other words, when Yahweh intervenes he will bring life as it is supposed to be. So when Jesus appeared on the scene and started preaching the arrival of the kingdom he wasn’t just preaching to challenge his listeners to repent of sin although that was certainly included. It dawned on me that I lived in a church world that had reduced the full message of the Gospel down to simply one aspect…salvation from sin. Again, this is certainly an important element of the Gospel but it is not the Gospel from a biblical point of view (N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight’s books were very helpful). From an American church history perspective I know part of the reason for this was the overreaction to what became known as the Social Gospel that became influential around the turn of the 20th century.
Another issue that crystallized for me during our two years in China was a growing belief that Christianity in America seemed more American than Christian; in other words we struggle to be Christians first and Americans second. Certainly every culture creates its own version of Christianity but America is relatively unique in its belief that it once was and perhaps still is a Christian nation. For too many Christians this creates the unwitting assumption that American values in many ways are Christian. This influences our view of war, capitalism, patriotism and consumerism just to mention a few. One of the cautions you are taught in understanding the Bible is that there is no such thing as an objective reading of Scripture. Everyone reads through a lens. Mine is white, American, male, moneyed, privileged majority (as opposed to a minority group), fundamentalist/evangelical church tradition to name of the few of the most prominent. So while I can never be totally objective it does help to be self aware of the lenses through which you are reading and it is beneficial to read others who don’t share all the same lenses. As you become more aware of the diverse ways in reading Scripture it helps you to wrestle with your views. Before we moved I had become increasingly aware of much of this but living in another country highlights the difference.
After we returned from China I began teaching once again in our local church but at the same time becoming increasingly frustrated with my Evangelical church world. The frustrations were primarily twofold. American evangelical Christianity, especially how it was expressed in right wing politics (not that I think the left wing is correct) and our reduction of the gospel to salvation from sin. However I noticed something in the evangelical publishing world. More and more books were being published on justice, environmental issues, the unique distortions of the faith that characterized American evangelical Christianity, the meaning of the gospel, etc. Fortunately for me I have many people in my life that I could voice my frustrations to. As much as I was frustrated with my evangelical world part of my frustration was directed inward. How do I practice my faith in a meaningful way in light of how my views on issues have changed? How do I teach in our church without being divisive or demeaning but also challenge assumptions about American evangelical Christianity?
Fast forward to our move to Richmond VA in September 2014. In the past year or so in MN I had begun to revisit my love of history with focused reading on the history of Christianity in America. I focused on two issues. 1. American Christianity and slavery/civil rights as well as the injustices perpetrated on the indigenous tribal groups and minority immigrant groups. 2. American Christianity and its wholehearted support of America’s foreign wars. My studying spurred some book or dissertation ideas and I wrote to an American history prof at Notre Dame who used to teach at Wheaton. He encouraged me that my topic was well worth researching for a book or dissertation and he recommended I contact a prof at Union Seminary in Richmond. I started thinking I would love to enroll in the PhD program at Union in the church history department. As it turned out the history prof at Union left for another school last summer and the PhD program was not taking applicants because it was considering cutting the program due to economics.
Turning the page…since that opportunity was closed to me I decided to return to my study of Jesus’ message of the kingdom and how it relates to our understanding of the gospel. Since we moved here I had written a bible study on justice as well as a 30 day devotional on justice for a Richmond non-profit. In both I tied the issue of justice to the OT and then linked it to the preaching/teaching of Jesus. In other words I attempted to demonstrate that a full understanding of the gospel must by necessity include justice since that is an integral part of the kingdom vision not only of the OT but of Jesus as well.
The main reason I am writing this “story” is what has transpired in the past month. It seems as though God is using the various threads of my studying over the past decade and weaving them together into an exciting opportunity. Three specific encounters in the past month have encouraged me to see how God is moving me towards an opportunity that unites my passions, gifts and understanding of the full gospel.
1. About a month ago our church had a guest speaker, a Bishop D’Souza from India. Because of my hearing problems I could not understand everything but I caught enough. His life changed when he “converted” from his partial understanding of the gospel to a full understanding of the gospel. He had started working with Dalit in India, a population of up to 300 million who have lived in virtual slavery in India’s culture for centuries because they are “untouchable.” It dawned on him that Jesus did not come preaching a “go to heaven when you die” gospel but a gospel that touched all aspects of life. His text was Jesus’ statement at the beginning of his ministry quoting from Isaiah 61: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. His organization, Good Shepherd ministries, now has around 3500 Dalit churches and he actively works in India for recognition of their human rights.
2. This past week I was reading a commentary by a German Lutheran scholar, Ulrich Luz, on Matthew 8-20. He was commenting on Jesus’ parables of the kingdom and I’ll quote him at length since his comments were the impetus for me to pursue teaching in India. “Suffering people are able to conceive powerful images of health, justice, fullness, life, and of the kingdom of God. In the comfortable sitting room one cannot understand the hope for the kingdom of God…for many in the Western world it is only the active com-passion with people in true need that makes it possible for us to have such images. One cannot do justice to Matthean texts when one stands outside them.” Italics are the Luz’s. This became my devotional reading for the day. I got so excited I brought the commentary out into the next room and shared with Linda what it seemed to be God was moving in me to pursue.
3. Based on events 1 & 2 I shared with Linda that I felt God stirring me in a desire to pursue teaching opportunities in India with the Dalit. I sent an email to Bishop D’Souza’s US office in Virginia Beach as well as an email to an OT professor, Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson, that Jenny had while attending North Park University. In today’s world of social media Jenny had connected us on Facebook since we shared common interests. Dr. Johnson emailed me back the same day. Here is what he wrote: Dear Dan:
This is very exciting indeed, and it nice to hear that you all are doing well.
I am getting ready to fly to India to teach a seminar, and participate in the Board of Studies of a PhD program at SHIATS. Perhaps, you would like to enroll in the program?
I am including, David Phillips and his wife Diana. David heads up the Rural Education program of SHIATS University. They are coming up with very exciting work. Perhaps, you can kill two birds in one throw- complete your PhD, and teach in the Rural Education program?
Prof. Boaz Johnson
I went online and here is the description of the university’s goals. The prospect of getting a PhD and teaching at this school that aligns so closely with my beliefs is hard to put into words but I’ll settle for incredibly exciting.
The Sam Higginbottom Institute of Agriculture, Technology & Sciences is a united endeavor of the Christian community in India for promoting rural life and development in conformity with the Christian vision of human kind and the creation. The Institute is held in trust as a common ecumenical heritage by the Christian Churches and Christian Organizations of the country. It seeks to be a national centre of professional excellence in education and service to the people with the participation of students and faculty members from all over India. The University upholds and strives to achieve the following:
a) Responsible stewardship of the environment and its resources,
b) Sustainable development,
c) Linkage of learning and Research to the needs and life of the people,
d) Justice to the minorities, and other weaker sections of the Society, especially to women and the rural poor,
e) Holistic formation of the human person in, with and through the community for leadership instilled by Christian values,
f) National Unity and communal harmony,
g) International fellowship and cooperation in the educational and developmental ministry in the service of the LORD JESUS CHRIST.
In all of the above, the University helps the young and old without coercion or compulsion to deepen their commitment to a life of service as exemplified in JESUS CHRIST; by means of presentation of the Gospel through teaching, worship and witness in accordance with the Christian belief.
So our plan is that I will find out if I can get admitted into their PhD program and what the residence requirements are. I will also pursue the possibility of beginning to teach in their rural education program that is being developed. Linda would also be able to teach ESL as she has done for the past almost 10 years now. The University is located in the city of Allahabad in Northern India on the Ganges River. Once Hannah graduates we would start a yearly teaching stint of approximately 4-6 weeks. We’re excited for what the future holds and pressing forward in the present.