Esau McCaulley – Jesus, peacemaker and public witness

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An excerpt from one of our most anticipated books for the fall (check out our full list of expected books soon!)

Reading while black:
African American biblical interpretation as an exercise in hope

Esau McCaulley

Paperback: IVP Books, September 1, 2020
Pre-order now! (Amazon)

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Esau McCaulley was recently invited to contribute to the NY Times as an author of opinions on religion and culture. Here is an excerpt from this book by Esau McCaulley, which gives a good taste of what's coming in the book!

Jesus, peacemaker,
and public testimony
Esau McCaulley

The most famous speech by Jesus, known in history as the Sermon on the Mount, is recorded in Matthew 5-7. The situation in the mountains reflects the legislation on Sinai. Just as the law was directed to life in the promised land, the words of Jesus are directed to life in the kingdom of God. Jesus is the greater Moses because he does not simply repeat what he hears from God. He speaks of himself as the divine king. If there is a place where the Christian can go to testify in a world divided and torn by sin, this is the right place. I want to focus on what Jesus says about the desire for justice and the work of justice towards his disciples.

We opened our reflection on the Church's political witness with King's activities in Birmingham. His justification for his presence was simply that "injustice is here". He continues to quote biblical characters that have been moved to help those in need. This leads to the question: Why did Paul, Isaiah or Amos care about justice?

In two of his Beatitudes, Jesus explains what underpins the actions of Paul, Isaiah, and MLK. He says: “Blessed are those who mourn because they will be comforted. . . . Blessed are those who starve and thirst for justice, because they will be fulfilled ”(Mt 5: 4, 6, my translation). Mourning means feeling sad about the state of the world. Mourning is worry. It is an act of rebellion against one's own sins and the sins of the world.

A theology of grief allowed Rev. Dr. King to look at the suffering of the people of Birmingham and refuse to turn away. Grief challenges all of us to recognize our complicity in the suffering of others. We don't just mourn the sins of the world. We mourn our own greed, desires and desires that allow us to take advantage of others. Sin is more than exploitation, but certainly not less. A theology of grief never allows us the privilege of apathy. We can never put the interests of our families or our country above the suffering of the world.

Grief is the intuition that things are not right – that more is possible. Thinking that more is possible is an act of political resistance in a world where we want to believe that consumption is all there is. Our politicians respond to our wishes in order to convince us that utopia is possible here and that they alone can take care of it.

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The second bliss at the center of our considerations goes beyond the suspicions that arise in our grief. It expresses our hope: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, because they will be fulfilled." Hunger and thirst for justice are nothing less than the constant longing for God to come and put things right . It is a vision of just society that was founded by God and that does not fluctuate in the face of evidence to the contrary. Grief is not enough. We have to have a vision for something else. Justice is that difference. Jesus therefore calls for a reconfiguration of the imagination, in which we recognize that the options that the world offers us are not all there is. There remains a better way and this better way is the Kingdom of God. He wants us to see that his kingdom is something that is at least a foretaste, even if we are waiting for it to be completed. Starving for justice means hoping that the things that make us grieve will not get the last word.

What does all this have to do with the Church's public witness? Jesus asks us to see the brokenness in society and to formulate an alternative vision of how we could live. This does not mean that we believe that we can build the kingdom on earth before its second coming. It means that we see society as what it is: less than the kingdom. We let the world know that we can see the cracks in the facade.

This call for hunger for justice in the context of Jesus sitting on a mountain must be understood as a messianic word:

Because a child was born for us
a son who was given to us;
Authority rests on his shoulders;
and his name is
Wonderful counselor, mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority will continue to grow
and there will be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will build and maintain it with justice and justice
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isa 9: 6-7)

The messianic son of David, representing God's will, would be known to create justice on earth. Starving for justice in a messianic context means longing for God to establish his just rule over the earth through his chosen king. Justice or justice is then inevitably political. The hunger for justice is hunger for the kingdom.

The two beatitudes discussed above articulate the desire for justice. The last bliss considered is where Jesus gives us the practices of righteousness. Matthew 5: 9 says, "Blessed are the peacemakers because they are called the sons of God." Why make peace and how do we get there? Jesus calls his people to be peacemakers because the kingdom of the Messiah is a kingdom of peace.

Isaiah envisions a kingdom in which hostility between nations (Isaiah 9: 7) and the order created will be removed (Is 11: 1-9). Calling God's people for peace-building therefore means beginning to end the hostility that marks the reign of the Messiah. To claim that Jesus provides for an end to personal hostility and neglects ethnic or national hostility does not do justice to the Kingdom theology that underpins the entire sermon. Then what does peace building mean and what does this have to do with the political testimony of the Church? Biblical peace building is the end of hostilities between nations and individuals as a sign of God's breaking kingdom. The peacebuilding evaluates the claims of conflict groups and judges who is right and who is wrong.

Peace building cannot be separated from clarifying the truth. The Church's testimony does not simply include denouncing the excesses on both sides and establishing moral equivalents. It's about calling justice by name. If the Church in the United States wants to be on the side of peace, it must be honest about what this country has done to and continues to do to black and brown. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the place of justice. Housing discrimination must be named. Unequal punishments and unfair police work must be mentioned. Sexism and the abuse and marketing of the black female body must end. Otherwise, all peace is wrong and not biblical. Beyond naming, there must be a vision for eliminating injustice and restoring relationships. The call to be a peacemaker is a call to the church to enter the chaotic world of politics and to point out a better way of being human.

This peacebuilding could be corporate, deal with hostile ethnic groups and nations, or it could be personal. If it is corporate, we testify to the universal rule of Jesus. If it is interpersonal, we testify of the work that God has done in our hearts. These things don't have to be put in competition.

The most interesting thing about this peacebuilding is that it is not believed that the hostile are believers. Jesus does not say make peace between Christians, but make peace. He doesn't say making peace by making them Christians, but peace. Why? Because peace building can be evangelistic. Through our efforts to bring peace, we are showing the world the kind of king and kingdom that we represent. The result of our peace building is to introduce people to the kingdom. Therefore, the work of justice, when understood as a direct testimony to the Kingdom of God, is evangelistic from start to finish. It is part (not the whole) of God's work to reconcile all things with themselves.

Taken by Reading while black: African American biblical interpretation as an exercise in hope by Esau McCaulley. Copyright © 2020 by Esau McCaulley. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. Reprinted here with kind permission.


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