Just to show I’ve not completely dropped the theological ball while I’m off doing some computer work, I’ve been thinking on and off over the past few months about something I read recently which has shook up my view of theology.
Since Bible college I’ve generally seen the world and the Bible through the lens of liberation theology; between being taught by Paul “Pablo” Davies and reading many times through the great Big Book of Bosch, I guess there was no way of avoiding it. All Nations basically teaches you about God’s preferential option for the poor. I guess I’ve been an uncritically naive liberationist since then. I still believe it. But David Thompson’s introduction to theology in Asia in Christian Theology in Asia pointed out something I hadn’t seen before.
I don’t have the book to hand, so I can’t remember who it was that he quotes - I think it might have been C S Song - but they make the point that liberation theology tends to divorce the key message of liberation from its Biblical context.
For liberationists, the key passage is the Exodus narrative. God hears the cry of the oppressed people of Israel and delivers them from their bondage. We therefore believe, goes the liberationist argument, in a God who sides with the oppressed against their oppressors. It’s not a crazy idea, and you can find a lot of Biblical support for it, in the Law, particularly in the prophets and particularly particularly in the prophet Amos. But let’s think a bit more about Exodus.
The story we’ve presented so far is a very stereotyped, sanitized, Sunday School version of what happened. God delivered the people of Israel by first getting them out of the country and then, when they’re nice and safe, wiping out the Egyptian army. Is this anything other than revenge?
Even if you want to argue it was necessary to ensure the safety of the Israelite population, let’s remember what happens either site of this little pericope. On one side, God slaughters a large chunk of the Egyptian civilian population to punish a recalcitrant Pharaoh; on the other, He orders His people to invade and ethnically cleanse another country.
This is not a simple, black-and-white get-the-good-guys-out-of-trouble. For all the liberationist ideas of deconstructing the assumptions and biases underlying textual readings, they seem to have forgotten that this passage about how terrible the plight of the Hebrews was and how nasty the Egyptians were was written by the Hebrews, and if you bear that in mind, the picture looks a whole lot more murky.
It doesn’t seem quite right - and this is precisely the point that Song makes - to take away the message of liberation without taking away the message, which runs through the exact same text, of genocide and mass slaughter.
I don’t have any answers quite yet. I still believe that God is for the poor and oppressed. I don’t believe that God is out for revenge, but I can see that the poor and oppressed may be. I also know that a lot of very dodgy people these days justify their inappropriate actions by claiming that it’s God’s Divine Command, and so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it happened thousands of years ago too.