“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)

a social prophet

What kind of religion did Jesus proclaim? Was he just the teacher of beautiful and inspiring timeless truths? Was he merely a proponent of love and compassion who was harmless to the state and the status quo of economic oppression? Was his mission solely to forgive the sins of individuals, and even to sacrifice his life for their redemption in some sort of cosmic bargain with God? All of these things and more have been said about Jesus.

However, we have been painting a picture of Jesus as one who assumed the messianic mantle of a social prophet. Historically, the Hebrew prophets were people called by God to speak to the wealthy and powerful leaders of the nation about God’s demand for a just society. It was a risky role calling on the leaders of a domination society to change. Yet, the prophets believed they spoke for God. Thus their message was social, political, economic and religious.

If Jesus truly saw himself as a social prophet, then he would have embraced the religious ideas of Isaiah, Amos, and Micah—that the truest form of religion is social justice. Justice, the prophets believed, is the manifestation of a faithful life in response to God.

four questions

It is said that every theology begins with a series of questions. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says that there are four key questions he would ask of every Christian about his or her faith. He believes that the answers to the last three questions will flow directly from the answer to the first one.

  • What is the character of your God?
  • What is the content of your faith?
  • What is the function of your church?
  • What is the purpose of your worship?

what is the character of your God?

What is your God like? Is your God angry or compassionate? Does your God punish sinners or welcome them in as beloved children? Does your God directly intervene in world affiars and personal lives, or does your God quietly watch human life from a distance? Is your God a person, a presence, or an experience? Is your God a separate being or is your God part of the fabric of everything that exists? The answer to this question will determine the content of your religion.

biblical images of God

God by MichelangeloThe ancient Jewish and Christian communities who created the Old and New Testaments of the Bible reveal many different images of God in their stories:

  • a God of life and creation
  • a God of destruction and global genocide
  • a God of liberation and salvation
  • a God of wrath and anger
  • a God of laws and requirements
  • a God of war and ethnic cleansing
  • a God of justice and protector of the poor
  • a God of holiness and otherness
  • a God of nearness and tenderness
  • a God of faithfulness and longsuffering
  • a God of graciousness and generosity
  • a God of condemnation and damnation
  • a God of comfort and compassion
  • a God of acceptance and forgiveness
  • a God of violent retribution
  • a God of peace and love

a personality disorder?

All of these images of God are biblical. Because of this, some critics claim that God has a serious personality disorder.

These wide-ranging images cannot with any honesty or integrity be seen as different aspects of the same God. They are not descriptions of a single God with changing moods, or varied behavior reflecting good and bad days. And despite the fact that many Christians want to believe that God is “the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” these images cannot by any stretch of the imagination be integrated or blended together.

Some claim that the differences can be explained because the God of the Old Testament is angry and judgmental while the God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving. But anyone who reads the Bible with open eyes and a critical mind soon finds that both images of God exist side-by-side in both parts of the Bible.

These images represent very different perceptions of God’s character by different biblical writers at different times in history. Sometimes, these images were shaped by the dominant culture of the time or by the political objectives of the nation’s leaders. At other times, these images were shaped by prophetic men and women who called their nation to restore peace and social justice. Most images of God were and are shaped by the believers themselves.

Baylor religion survey

"Freedom to Worship" by Norman RockwellIn 2005, the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion conducted a major study of the religious beliefs of the American population. Polls had shown that 96% of Americans said they believed in God. Baylor researchers wanted to know just what kind of God people believed in. Previous research had never probed very deeply into the question. So the Baylor Religion Survey began to ask questions to determine how people would describe the God they believed in.

In a national random sampling conducted by the Gallup organization, a mailed questionnaire was completed by 1,721 respondents and covered various facets of American religion and spirituality. Analysis of responses to the nearly 400 questions painted an initial portrait of American religious life in the early 21st century.

four different Gods

After sifting the data, the researchers defined four different Gods based on two variables:

  • God’s engagement with the world—the extent to which individuals believe that God is directly involved in personal and worldly affairs
  • God’s anger with the world—the extent to which individuals believe that God is angered by human sins and tends toward punishing, severe and wrathful characteristics

The four different characters of God are:

  • an authoritarian God—engaged with the world and angry with humanity
  • a benevolent God—engaged but not angry
  • a critical God—not engaged with the world but angry with humanity
  • a distant God—not engaged and not angry

an authoritarian God

Baylor found that 31.4% of Americans believe in an Authoritarian God. They generally think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their individual decision-making and is ultimately responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry over human sin and is ready and willing to mete out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

a benevolent God

Like believers in the Authoritarian God, the 24.4% of the population who believe in a Benevolent God tend to think that God is very active in our daily lives. But these individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals. These believers are more likely to see God’s hand only in the miracles of life and not in the disasters.

a critical God

Believers in a Critical God represent 23.0% of Americans. They feel that God is largely absent from direct influence in daily life and does not interact on the world stage. Nevertheless, this God still observes the world and views the current state of humanity unfavorably. These individuals feel that that although divine justice is not meted out on earth, God’s displeasure will be felt in another life.

a distant God

Only 10.0% of believers believe in a Distant God. They believe that God is not active in the world, but is not especially angry either. These individuals tend to think about God as a cosmic creative force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not hold clear judgmental opinions about our individual activities or world events.

the American religious landscape

The region of the country one lives in seems significantly related to the four images of God. Southerners tend towards an Authoritarian God. Midwesterners tend towards a Benevolent God. Easterners disproportionately tend towards belief in a Critical God and West Coasters tend towards belief in a Distant God.

So in the South and Midwest, God is seen as interventionist, while on the East and West coasts, God is distant. And in the East and South, God is viewed as very angry, while in the Midwest and West, God is not.

In addition, 5.2% of Americans believe there is no God. These atheists are certain that God does not exist. Nevertheless, atheists may still hold very strong perspectives concerning the morality of human behavior and ideals of social order, but have no place for the supernatural in their worldview.

The authors of the Baylor study believe that these four personalities of God are probably better descriptors of the American religious landscape than labels like conservative and liberal or Protestant and Catholic.

an interventionist God

God the creator by MichelangeloAccording to the Baylor study, nearly 56% of the American people see God as an all-powerful interventionist. This is the predominant view among those who hold a traditional conservative theology. They believe that God not only intervenes, but takes sides. Many believe that God favors the United States of America in a divinely appointed role among nations.

The biblical narrative is certainly on the side of an interventionist God. We read in the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—that God fashioned the universe with a creative word and personally shaped humanity with his hands. God banished Adam and Eve from paradise and then destroyed all life on earth in a genocidal flood. Later, God heard the cries of the oppressed Hebrew slaves and rescued them from bondage in Egypt. God led the Hebrew people throgh the wilderness with pillars of fire and smoke to the land of Canaan, where God directed them to slaughter the current inhabitants—men, women and children. Still later, God acted with judgment by sending the invading armies of Assyria and Babylonia to destroy the farms and homes of the Hebrew people and carry them away into captivity and exile. God once again acted with compassion to rescue a faithful remnant by using the king of Persia as an agent to release them from captivity. And on and on it goes in the biblical narrative. The Hebrew Bible is filled with images of an interventionist God acting to shape, rescue and discipline his chosen people.

God’s will

Job and his friendsThis image of an interventionist God who acts in history is also seen by many today as a God who is active in the intimate details of the lives of individuals—leading and directing them in a pre-ordained path. Many people believe that the things that happen to us in life are a result of God’s will. They believe that life’s blessings and life’s disasters are all a part of God’s plan and, in some people’s minds, God’s justice. This is based on the assumption that if God is all-powerful, then God is not only in charge of the big picture, but God also directs every detail of life on earth and has a unique plan for every human life.

When good things happen to us, it is easy to point to God as the benefactor. When major and minor miracles occur, we give thanks to God. But the flip side is that when bad things happen, God must also be held responsible as the author of those events, because we are frequently told by some Christians that everything is part of God’s plan. An all-powerful God cannot be credited with good things without also taking responsibility for bad things.

The problem is that an all-powerful God seems so arbitrary and unjust. Apparently, on occasion God will intervene in human life to heal and rescue specific individuals. But more frequently God does not. Some people experience miraculous cures from disease, but most others don’t. Some are spared in traffic accidents, but many others tragically die. Some lives are uneventful, but others are beset by tragedy. The fundamental belief that God rewards good and punishes evil is challenged by the reality of every day life.

responsible for good and bad?

If one’s theology claims that God is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on earth, then God must be held accountable for everything that happens including natural disasters and terrorist acts. God either causes or allows evil to happen.

Following the logic of the existence of a divine plan, God’s will must be at work when babies die in their cribs or when people contract cancer. God’s plan for each person must be responsible when people are mugged in our city streets or abused in their homes. God’s hand must be found in car crashes, cross burnings and concentration camps. God acting in history must cause wars to occur and lead certain nations to victory over others. In other words, this theology that God is all-powerful and in charge must eventually place the blame on God and God’s will for all the evil and suffering in the world.

If all this is true—if God really wills these things to happen, causes them to happen, or even allows them to happen—we begin to wonder why. This leads many people to believe that when bad things happen, God is punishing them. They look within themselves for fault. They review their lives for some sin or transgression that has angered God.  Most people don’t have to look very far. But when bad things happen to good people, particularly innocent children, we then become confused. Why would God do that? Our only answer is that “God acts in mysterious ways.” We propose that there must be a good reason, but understanding it is well beyond our capabilities. It is an wholly insufficent answer to the question.

is God all-powerful?

The only way to get God off the hook for evil and suffering is to admit that God is not all-powerful. God can be loving and just, but God cannot be loving, just and all-powerful. If God is not all-powerful, God is probably not an interventionist either.

This leads us to the non-interventionist concept of God. God may have set things in motion, but what happens in daily life is nearly always the result of choice and chance. When nations rise and fall, God has no hand in it. A non-interventionist God is no longer seen as the author of history, and we must ultimately conclude that God was never really active in history, even in the biblical narrative of the Hebrew people.

For many Christians, God simply seems absent and uninterested.

a distant and disinterested God

About one-third of the population see God as distant and removed from life’s events, with either a benevolent or critical attitude about what is going on.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes this viewpoint in her book Leaving Church, in which she relates her experiences at a small Episcopal church in rural Georgia.

Barbara Brown TaylorOn my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left. They still read about him in the Bible and sang about him in hymns. They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them. They waited for messages from him that did not arrive. They prepared their hearts for meetings that never happened. They listened to other Christians speak as if God showed up every night for supper, leaving them to wonder what they had done wrong to make God go off and start another family.

the God at the heart of popular Christianity

Overwhelmingly, the idea of God as all-powerful is at the heart of popular Christianity today. A powerful God who can give us what we want is at the foundation of most people’s intercessory prayer life. Popular Christianity repeatedly claims, “God answers prayer.” Then, when God does not deliver, we experience another crisis of faith. The proponents of the omnipotent God then give us the standard caveats: sometimes God’s answer is “No,” while at other times we need to realize that God works in a different time frame than humanity—“God’s time.”

supernatural theism

All of this thinking is rooted in a supernatural theistic image of God. Supernatural theism is the most common view of God in the Western world and is the term that has come to be used to describe the traditional belief in God in the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Theism is a belief in the existence of at least one god—nothing more, nothing less. Theism does not depend upon how the term ‘god’ is defined or upon how many gods one believes in or upon how one arrives at a particular belief. Theism and theist are general terms which cover a lot of different beliefs and people.

The term supernatural refers to something that is above, beyond, or transcendent to the natural world — it is not a part of or dependent upon nature or any natural laws. The supernatural is also commonly conceived of as being better, higher, or more pure than the natural world.

The term “supernatural theism” thus implies a God who exists beyond the natural world, a creator who lives somewhere beyond the universe, a being separate from us and our existence. Some people believe that God is actively involved with creation, orchestrating human events; others believe that since the time of creation, God has left the world alone and does not interfere. In either case, the God of supernatural theism is transcendent, meaning God is fully independent of and outside the material universe. This transcendence allows God to be omnipresent (present everywhere at once), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful).

This image of God is quite ancient. It is similar to the Greek view of Zeus, the Roman view of Jupiter, and the Norse view of Odin. These powerful male Gods controlled events on earth. They had to be treated very carefully, like a cranky boss. They were easily angered and were capable of very capricious acts of violence toward human beings. There are images of God in both the Old and New Testaments similar to these pagan gods—a vengeful, arbitrary and violent God.

a panentheistic image of God

Many scholars today now speak about a panentheistic God—a God who is present in all things—in nature and in humanity. This is different from pantheism, which means that everything (pan) is God (theos). Panentheism means that everything is in God and that God is in everything. This means that God is not out there somewhere, but is right here, part of the fabric of our lives.

In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg states, “I realized that God does not refer to a supernatural being “out there”…. Rather, I began to see the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us.“

This image of God allows us to speak of God in new ways, including a God that does not direct events, but who instead experiences events with us.

imitating God

What does God want of us? How are we to live?

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says that Jesus’ message speaks of a way of life grounded in an imitatio dei—an imitation of God. The imitation of God brings together an image of God and a corresponding ethos (a distinguishing set of beliefs and behavior). It describes what God is like and how we are to live.

holiness or compassion?

Two different responses to these questions are encountered in the gospels. The Pharisees represent one way of understanding God and Jesus represents another. When asked, “What is God like?” the Pharisees answered, “holy,” while Jesus answered, “compassionate.” When asked, “What does God want of us?” the Pharisees answered, “holiness,” while Jesus answered, “compassion.” Those answers determined two different approaches to religious life.

Marcus BorgThe Pharisees were essentially good, religious people. Their ambition was to follow the laws of the Hebrew Bible and keep them perfectly. “Be holy as Yahweh is holy,” was the phrase that summed up their religious practice. This objective forced them to focus on external behavior in their attempt to be like God, to imitate God.

Holiness was understood to mean “separation from everything unclean.” Holiness thus meant the same as purity. The ethos of purity produced a society structured around a purity system.

The way of holiness or purity can also be called the way of religion in our churches today. Many Christian churches profess a holiness religion. Although they focus on God’s forgiveness, they also focus on right or proper behavior and actions. Many churches today exclude people from leadership who don’t conform to their rigid requirements of holiness.

the God of Jesus

Marcus Borg has said:

“For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God. “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate,” (Luke 6:36) was the response of Jesus. For Jesus compassion was not simply an individual virtue, but a social and political paradigm expressing his alternative vision of human life in community, a vision of life embodied in the movement that came into existence around him.”

a politics of compassion

Borg has described the Pharisees’ position as a “politics of holiness” and Jesus’ position as a “politics of compassion.” It is in the conflict between these two imitatio deis—between holiness and compassion as qualities of God to be embodied in community—that Borg sees the central conflict in the ministry of Jesus: between two different social visions. The dominant social vision in Hebrew society was centered in holiness; the alternative social vision of Jesus was centered in compassion.

According to Borg, it is only when we appreciate this dimension of Jesus’ emphasis upon compassion that we realize how radical his message and vision were. For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community. Compassion for Jesus was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant paradigm of his social world and advocated instead what might be called a politics of compassion.

a religion of compassion

Jesus by RembrandtThe religion of Jesus, like that of the prophets before him was manifested in everyday life, in his politics, his economics, his social life. It was a religion of compassion which flowed seamlessly into a politics of compassion. For Jesus it was impossible to separate the two.

We are told in the gospels that compassion was the motivator for Jesus’ actions. What made Jesus unique was the unrestrained compassion he felt for the poor and the oppressed.

“He was moved with compassion because they were distressed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9: 36)

We are told that compassion was the fire that fueled his healing miracles:

“He was moved with compassion for the crowds and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14: 14).

Feeding the hungry crowds: “I have compassion for these people; they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat.” (Matthew 15:32)

In the healing of two blind men: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.” (Matthew 20:34)

In the healing of a leper: “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” (Mark 1:41)

Raising the dead son of a widow: Jesus “saw her and his heart went out to her…Then he went up and touched the coffin.” (Luke 7:13)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Blessed are the compassionate, for they will be shown compassion.” (Matthew 5:7)

What’s more, compassion is expressed in his parables. What made the loving father in the parable different was the excess of love and compassion he felt for his prodigal son. (Luke 15:20)

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus tells us that the Samaritan:

  • Felt compassion for the man left half dead on the roadside
  • Was moved to the point of action
  • Became personally involved
  • Was interrupted and inconvenienced
  • Took a personal risk
  • Willingly covered the man’s expenses as he recovered

a religion of charity and justice

Compassion takes two forms in life: charity and justice. The word charity is derived from caritas, Latin for love. It is the personal form of compassion. Its objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering. Justice on the other hand seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. It is about transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassion. It is the social and political form of caring for the least of these.

The story is often told about townspeople along a river who began to see people floating downstream in distress, drowning, near death. With great compassion, they would throw out lifelines, row out in boats, and swim out to rescue the victims from drowning. The incidences, at first isolated, began to increase. Always, the townspeople would respond. Over time, they began to improve and expand their lifesaving abilities. Finally, one day, someone from the town suggested that they would better utilize their resources by going upstream to find out why people were falling in, or who was throwing them in, and try to prevent it.

This is the difference between charity and justice. Charity seeks to heal the wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

William Sloane Coffin has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.”

Both charity and justice are needed in our world. Jesus called for both. He embodied both. The question is do we favor charity over justice? In an unjust world, only the first response—charity—is acceptable to those in power. The work of faith-based charities is often lauded by government until they try to influence government policies to change the status quo.

Dom Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop from the poor Brazilian region of Recife said in the 1960s, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”

John Dominic Crossan once said, “Charity gets you canonized; justice gets you crucified.”

That is exactly where the religion of Jesus led him.



meals and miracles