Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Importance of the Pronoun "I"

"And so it is the Lamb who is the lamp of the City that will appear at the end of human history. In recent years this profound truth has been denied form two different directions. It is one of the sad and puzzling facts about recent understandings of the person and work of Jesus Christ that those who profess a 'high Christology' have seemed to care very little about about a critical perspective on cultural patterns, and that those in the Christian community who have been very concerned about cultural issues have often operated with a 'low Christology.' The important error in each of these cases has to do with a failure to comprehend the implications of the fact that the Lamb is the lamp of the City.

This fact, then, must first of all be pointed to for the benefit of those who have professed to honor Jesus as the Lamb of God but who have paid little attention to the cultural dimensions of his atoning work. Some Christians have greatly emphasized the individual benefits of the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ. They have viewed the work of the Cross almost exclusively in terms of a transaction that took place to effect the salvation of individuals:

My sin – O the bliss of this glorious thought! –
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, it is well with my soul.

We ought not to belittle this important emphasis in any way. It is an emphasis that has come to be associated with an 'evangelical' type of faith; indeed, it expresses something of the very heart of the Protestant Reformation. Jesus died to cancel the debt of our individual sins, and the believer is justified by faith in this atoning sacrifice. Every person who trusts in Jesus as the one who has 'paid it all' can live in the confidence that he or she has been granted an everlasting pardon from the penalty of sin. The saved individual has every reason to cry out in joy and confidence, 'It is forevermore well with MY soul!'

The love of God which has reached humankind in a special way in the redemptive work of Jesus is an 'individualizing' love, addressed to unique persons. The salvation of one-of-a-kind men and women is an important element in the atoning work of the Lamb of God. Names will be written in the Lamb's Book of Life.

Some Christians have expressed suspicions about this emphasis on the salvation of individuals; some have even ridiculed those who have insisted that this is a central emphasis in the gospel. They have feared that a strong pattern of 'individualism' lurks just beneath the surface of 'I-centered' expressions of Christian faith.

We cannot deny that dangerous tendencies manifest themselves in this kind of piety. But a fear that the truth might be distorted must not lead us to relax our grip on the truth. As James Cone has pointed out in his important book, The Spirituals and the Blues, the pronoun 'I' had an important place in the piety of the black slaves in North America. But as Professor Cone also argues, it would be wrong to dismiss this piety as mere 'individualism.' The Christian slave in North America suffered from a degradation that is extremely difficult for many of us to imagine - a degradation resulting from a yoke forged by racist and imperialist forces that conspired to destroy the unique personhood of the black slave. But these attempts at destruction consistently failed - and the failure was never more obvious than when the forces of oppression encountered a slave who had appropriated the claims of the gospel in a personal way.

The Christian slave was able to withstand the onslaught of dehumanizing forces because of a trust in the liberating work of the Lamb of God. Stripped of all family and other communal bonds, rendered nameless by a system that treated the slave as a piece of flesh to be bought and sold at the whim of the oppressor, the slave took refuge in a relationship that all of the combined forces of hell could not destroy. As the black 'spiritual' describes this relationship: 'Look what a wonder that Jesus has done/King Jesus has died for me.'

There is nothing that is intrinsically inappropriate then, about an understanding of the gospel that strongly emphasizes the individualizing love of God. Indeed, properly understood, this emphasis can express a profound comprehension of the gospel" (When the Kings Come Marching In, pp. 105-08).

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