Faith Column: Three steps forward, two steps back
Life itself — and scripture too — is invariably three steps forward and two steps back. It often gets us to the point where we think we are headed (the correct direction, so we think), then it loses it or doubts it. In reading the biblical texts, it mirrors our own human consciousness and journey. In order to see or establish a point of comparison on which to evaluate where the “three steps forward,” are going, we need to look back in time and see just where we are headed. In other words, we need to have history to tell us where we are, the benchmarks. The “three steps forward” texts — which seem to be towards mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust, gives us the guidelines or ability to guard against the “two steps backward” texts which are usually about vengeance on enemies, a supposed divine wrath, law over grace, a picture of a vengeful God. We just hate to go backwards for it may point out our flaws oftentimes, and the course corrections we need to make. This often times requires giving up our titles, positions of stature, our right or wrongs, practice a ritual in a certain way, belong to the right group, and finally come down to a position of powerlessness. This is transformation of both the self and history. Perspective is gained by taking two steps backwards and taking a second look at the journey.
A deep understanding of scripture cannot happen until we’ve also experienced God actively and lovingly working in our own lives. Without it, I think scripture interpretation can often become lethal and egocentric, a false power from one’s own point of view. Paul says, “The written letters bring death, but the spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
The Hebrew Bible was the only Bible Jesus used. In my studies and training, I notice that he seems to clearly understand how to connect the “three steps forward” golden thread. He never quotes negative verses. The “two steps backward” texts which he doesn’t quote are numbers (ritualistic and legalistic), and Joshua or Judges (full of sanctified violence). He doesn’t quote from his own scriptures when they are punitive, imperialistic (“My country and religion are the ‘best’!”), classist, or exclusionary. He always taught inclusiveness of “all” peoples, no matter their race, color, economic condition, imprisoned, set the down-trodden free, etc. I notice he chooses very selectively only positive quotes from Leviticus (19:18) and Isaiah 61 (in Luke 4:18-19). He omits deliberately I think, the last line — “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2b). He never taught a God of vengeance at all — he was always compassionate, nonviolent, and inclusive of outsiders. Jesus teaches that God’s justice is restorative and not retributive. The Creator always welcomes home the sinner, the lost ones (Lost Son Luke 15:11-24).
There are plenty of hateful versus or dark passages to confirm hateful and cynical people’s view of a narrow life. Loving, positive people can find plenty of loving versus to call them into an ever greater love of life. How we begin our day is invariably how we end it unless we’re willing to take two steps backward and do some critical self-evaluation, and quit blaming others for our perceived problems. Let’s do our own “house cleaning” first.
Sometimes life is meant to be lived “backwards” in order to understand its forward direction.
F. Neil Folks
Chaplain, Ministerial Alliance
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