Looking for a Job: Job Creators

job

Read this if you don’t know Job. 

Now that’s settled, and we can commence to begin. 

From a young age, I’ve loved love.

My mother likes to tell a story about my earliest attempts at flirting. At a kindergarten parent-teacher conference, the teacher said I was a bright, sweet kid but that it would behoove my parents to teach me how to tie my shoelaces. My mother responded, “Aaron has known how to tie his shoes for a year!” The teacher responded, “Huh. He’s always asking the little girls in class to do it for him.”

Flash-forward to the age of eleven; I had a little girlfriend living next door, but despite our close proximity we spoke on the phone. Real phones, you know? The kind with a rotary dial, an extra long extension cord like Lloyd Dobbler used when he called Diane Court; the kind of phone you could use as a murder weapon. One day I was in my parent’s room, sitting on the bed, chatting her up and I said, “I love you.” My mother overheard it, and when I hung up the phone she came in and said, “Aaron, I’m glad that you have a special friend. But I don’t think you should say you love her; you’re too young to really know what love is.” This was before Forrest Gump, so despite the perfect set-up I was not able to respond, “I’m not a smart man, mama, but I know what love is.” I think I stomped into my room, pushed play on my Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet tape, and sang “Living On a Prayer” as though it was about me and my beloved. We were misunderstood. We would run off together and we would make it, dammit, by our pluck and love.

I mean, we were already halfway there.

Of course, Mom was right. I didn’t know what love is. It took a perspective shift, like learning how to love my schizophrenic brother without needing anything in return. It’s about loving a person when you don’t particularly like them. Love is messy, gritty, painful. It is not ideal. Not all the time, anyway.

So we look at Job. Job so certain. Confident that he is blameless. Sure that justice has been denied him, that he is owed better, that he has been given short shrift and now is the time of reckoning. Time to square the accounts. And Job has filled himself with the sort of indignation that is righteous. He has God in a corner, God on the ropes. It’s going to be a hell of a show.

Until Job is given a perspective shift. God’s words from the whirlwind are crushing. Defeating. It almost makes us want to look away, it gets so uncomfortable. We shift in our seats because Job is getting his ass handed to him. And, frankly, if I have to take this literally I really don’t like this God. This God feels hostile. Unloving. Diffident.

But there is a great deal of truth in this story even if the facts are in dispute. When we mistake the part for the whole, when we allow ourselves to go off half-cocked because we are certain we are the moral arbiters of the world, when we think we know a person’s motives, or heart, or sense of self, when we project onto others the ways we think we have been wronged, but then are given new information, we stop short. What is this dark magic? It is almost like we have new eyes, really. Because that’s what happens when we have a shift in thinking. We see things differently. We enter more fully into the complexity of human experiences and relationships.

People often ask me if I believe in an interventionist God. A God who controls or influences history, and I am generally hesitant to give a quick answer. Not that I don’t have one. You might have gathered by now that I like to talk. A lot. And write. A lot. That’s part of the bipolar. But when it comes to God I’ve learned to slow down. It makes me a bad Calvinist, but I don’t believe that everything is already decided and we are merely meat puppets acting out a divine drama. But I do believe that God’s spirit animates us and flows through our lives, that we experience it, in part, through love. And through the people whom God places in our lives. Through the situations that arise, requiring us to navigate them with some sort of discernible principle.

In our nation, right now, we are facing a fundamental choice about who we are as Americans, as Christians (for some of us), as citizens, as human beings. Choices about how we view the world and each other. In many ways, history is calling for all of us to use our lives as testimonies regarding how we understand Jesus Christ. God is calling us to account for what we think about justice. Just like with Job. We Christians testify that through Christ, we see anew. Through the model of Jesus, we have a definitive example of how to live. How to be in relationship with others. How to discern God’s priorities and make them our own.

We have a choice. We can be certain we understand justice and that wrong has been done to us, that we have been robbed of things that are rightfully ours, or we can take God’s view. The larger view. The longer view. The view that shows the totality of love, justice, compassion, mercy, and grace. Or we can rage and rail until we are red-faced, tilting at windmills. We can continue to allow mechanisms and structures to be Job creators; manufacturers of persons who are so blinded by their own certainty, they lose nuance. Perspective. The ability to be transformed and shaped. The supporters of this vision are looking to create more Jobs. The question is, will we let them?

God gave us free will and Jesus. The rest is up to us.

Looking for a Job: God’s Nationalism

book_of_Job-570x377

I’ve written previously on deciding to move to the Narrative Lectionary, which has included a series on 2 Corinthians and Job. Job is always a tough one; it is a long book, with the most complicated poetry in the Tanakh; there are vast differences in hermeneutical positioning; and it has some unsettling details, such as God and Satan wagering and individual human life seeming not to matter (like how Job’s children are “replaced” at the end with new kids). Job is one of those texts that requires a big commitment from both pastor and congregation if a sermon series is going to work.

There are so many great books and articles about Job that even a half-assed literature review would take months to compile. So, I have given some links above that provide a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious go at Jobian theory; personally, I recommend Gustavo Gutierrez‘s seminal work On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of Innocents, which presents the biblical narrative as being the foundation of liberation theology. One of my best memories from early in graduate school–I think I was 24 or so–is of studying the text under the guidance of a Jesuit priest who was instrumental in my coming to Jesus Christ in the wake of my brother’s suicide. Job is a text that I have been wrestling with on and off for about fifteen years. And the recent world events have once again confirmed the contention that God is still speaking through the scriptures.

A little history is necessary, and you’ll forgive me for not providing links to every historical point I make; if anyone questions something or would like some citations, I can provide those in comments or IM. But in the main, being able to make claims about history is why I have accrued these degrees over the years, and seeing that this is a blog and not a dissertation, I’m going to forego the bibliography except to say that this is a great place to start.

If you look at the covenant between God and the people as mediated by Moses, the covenant is not with individuals. It is with a community; a community that will become a theocracy under the leadership of the kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Scriptures are divided as to the wisdom of a monarchy. Of course, with the death of Solomon in 922 BCE we see a split in the kingdoms, with the Omri and Jehu Dynasties operating up north, and the Davidic line continuing down south. Rival fiefdoms impact subsequent theologies. Nationalism reigns. Then the North falls to the Assyrians around 721 BCE; the South hangs on until the Babylonians destroy the First Jerusalem Temple c.587/6 BCE, which begins the Diaspora, ending the period often known as Classical Judaism.

What faces the people during this time are fundamental questions: Who are we outside of the land, the Temple, and the Davidic line? Who are we when these are taken away? How do we know God? How do we know ourselves? Who are we? The answer that emerges is: We are a People of the Book.

So we have to ask, was it false sense of nationalism that did in the people? Is there anything to suggest that a faulty understanding of community can pollute the individual life? 

Let’s resume the history. The Babylonians are defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who enacts a much more benign and enlightened formed of occupation. Cyrus allows for those in exile to return to their homeland; Cyrus gives them money to build another Temple, and promises religious freedom (pay your taxes; always pay your taxes); but Cyrus reasons that peace will more likely prevail if people are allowed to keep their languages, customs, religions, and traditions. The problem becomes, a lot of people living in exile did not want to return. They have intermarried; converted; have no memories or attachments to Hebrew culture. So those that do return are among the more religious and devout. And in return for his kindness, Cyrus is declared a messiah (anointed one) in Hebrew scripture.

Until this time, individuality didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way that it exists today. God’s concern was with the survival of the community; and the theology that develops is one in which the community is punished corporately for individual sin. (See, for example, the defeat at Ai as a result of the sin of Achan.) We can see it as a cycle that runs from the Book of Joshua through II Kings. The people turn to other gods; Hashem raises up an enemy; the people cry out, and God takes pity upon them; God raises up a shofet (temporary, charismatic leader or judge) who establishes peace throughout their lifetime; the leader dies, and the cycle repeats.

The human person, therefore, is a microcosm of the macrocosm. How so? Well, what is wrong within our own lives can be explained with the same interpretative lens. Physical or mental disability? Sin. Poverty or poor social standing? Sin. Notice how in the Book of Job, all the comforters essential offer the same advice? “Repent!” And Job remains insistent that he has done no wrong, which we are listener/readers in the story know to be true. God kinda allows God’s self to be pulled into a grotesque wager that has odious consequences for Job and those around him. Job challenges the notion that he deserves punishment because he is without sin, and Job is right.

Generally, I think, it is our instinct to side with Job. We feel his righteous indignation. This God who wagers and seems almost as insecure as a current presidential nominee is not a God with whom I am comfortable being in relationship. Job’s question are our questions. Job’s defiance our defiance. But what if we are being led down the garden path?

Let’s take a step back and really look at what is going on. It is understandable why, but Job is pretty focused on himself. He keeps saying that he does not deserve what is happening to him because he is not a sinner. We can argue all day long about how this can be true, as every person but Jesus (for us Christians) is a sinner, but the narrative is clear: Job is pious in every way. He is God’s pride and joy. So we should take that for what it is meant to be: a statement regarding the relationship between calamity and sin. Maybe the point of the book is not Job’s innocent suffering, but rather it is about our continuing belief that sin and punishment are related. We see the effect, personal disaster or catastrophe, and we assume that it is deserved because of a sinful cause; if we see destruction in our own lives and maintain that we are sinless, we begin to point at others we believe to be deserving of punishment but are left unscathed. This is the foundation of the theodicy question: why do bad things happen to good people. Or, perhaps even more puzzling, why do good things happen to a hate-filled, orange umpaloompa who can’t rub two brain cells together?

Believe me, believe me. It’s puzzling.

What if the Book of Job is about tearing down bad theology? Maybe Job’s piety arises because he believes he is rewarded for it. And maybe the authors of the Job text are setting forth a corrective to theologies that do a great deal to separate people, to make us afraid of one another, that embolden our judgments and mute our compassion. Because if someone deserves what they are getting, are we really motivated to help them in times of need?

In chapter 14, Job cries out that even the cut down tree has a hope of rebirth and resurrection, but the human person does not. The best for which we can hope is Sheol and the soothing darkness of eternal death. A belief in an afterlife and/or bodily or spiritual resurrection has not yet taken root in Judaism at this point; the Book of Job is part of that. Job’s use of imagery is part of a long tradition in Hebrew writings to employ tree metaphors in connection with messianic figures. God will act for the survivial of the corporate body, for the community, for the covenant people. Job demands justice and hope for himself. He argues for the dignity of the individual. And he is criticizing, I think, the nationalism that had overtaken people’s compassion and sense of connectedness.

We will discuss the ending of Job next week, but for right now let us wrestle with this: maybe God promises to stay with communities because we are most fully human when we are in relationship with one another? But God will not support those communities that place their identity into nationalism. And perhaps God is asking us to pull down those structures and systems that keep people out of relationships? Systems that keep people from affirming one another where they are instead of trying to convince them that they deserve their pain. Perhaps when we ask God why there is not justice and equality, God asks us the same thing. Maybe God is saying, I gave you everything you need to understand what is important. What have my prophets said unto you? What outrages have I sublimated out of love for you? Why do you keep hurting each other? Why do you mistake the nation for the community?

We are living at a time in which a politician is promising that he is the only one who can save us. He wants to build walls both literal and metaphorical. He promises that he is our voice. Our redeemer. When Job says, “I know my redeemer lives” we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? If God is our redeemer, how is God operating in our lives? What has God given to use individually that we can contribute to the larger community? What are the fruits of the Spirit that allow us to comprehend the ways in which persons are deemed “others.”

We Christians should be very wary when a person promises to be imbued with the unique ability to save us. Because we kinda already have that covered pretty well. Like, full coverage with zero deductible covered. What comes with that assurance, though, is the responsibility to speak truth to power, to set ourselves against signs and symbols that deny persons their full humanity and dignity. And we should understand that God calls us to be in relationships. We cannot be concerned with ourselves more than we are with others; we are intimately connected. All as part of God’s plan.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.