book review: Forgiveness and Justice

Forgiveness and Justice are incompatible, right?  Forgiving someone means foregoing justice, doesn’t it?  Isn’t just cognitively impossible to think of pursuing justice and forgiving at the same time?  That’s how the popular thinking goes … but that’s not biblical thinking at all.
 
Lamentation (and even anger) at injustice, the seeking of justice, and the practice of forgiveness are all closely intertwined.  W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) included in his book Souls of Black Folk a chapter entitled “Songs of Sorrow.”  In one place he astutely notes that such songs of sorrow (such as the “Negro Spirituals”) offer hope, “a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”
 
Bryan Maier has written an excellent study that explores this relationship between lament for wrongs suffered and hope for justice.  We can’t over-recommend his Forgiveness and Justice:  A Christian Approach (2017).  At just 160 pages, it’s a fairly quick read.
 
There’s nearly a cottage industry of books on forgiveness.  Most contemporary teachings on forgiveness follow one of five models (though there are others) —
  • therapeutic forgiveness (the victim should forgive for the sake of the victim’s well-being, the state of unforgiveness only causes further injury to the victim, and may cause the victim to risk damnation),
  • forensic forgiveness (forgiveness as a transaction — the cancelling of debt, granting clemency from deserved punishment),
  • relational forgiveness (transactional forgiveness plus possible reconciliation of a ruptured relationship),
  • unilateral forgiveness (forgiveness is a one-sided action, all on the side of the victim, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator repents), or
  • dispositional forgiveness (having a forgiving or conciliatory spirit).
All of these have some merit but tend to either try to say too much or too little.
Offering an alternative (and more robustly biblical) course, Maier lays out three boundaries delimiting forgiveness.
  • “Boundary #1: Forgiveness Is a Response to a Moral Violation”
    • “Forgiveness, in order to make sense, must presuppose that an offense has been committed; otherwise there would be nothing to forgive.”  Forgiveness is only required when there has been a moral violation, an offense that is inherently unrighteous/unjust.
  • “Boundary #2: Forgiveness Is Not a Cognitive Reframe”
    • This cognitive behaviorism may have its place, within appropriate limits, to offer a fresh perspective — life has handed me a bunch of lemons?  No problem, I’ll just make lemonade!  Clearly, perception does shape behavior.  Changing our perception can help us not to get stuck in resentment.
    • But forgiveness is something different.  Defining forgiveness in this way can blur the lines of reality, foster gaslighting, and confuse such concepts as
      • condoning, excusing, justifying, and showing mercy.
    •  Often cognitive reframing can ultimately call evil, good — see, God can bring good out of that situation, so what happened to you was really good after all!, and you should praise God for this abuse!  (NB:  We — Joshua and Ruth — have both, separately, heard this type of thing many times over the years.)
    • As a result, this type of focus ultimately makes victims more vulnerable to future acts of injustice and harm.
  • “Boundary #3: Forgiveness Is More Than Empathy”
    • Maier notes that “many forgiveness authors suggest some kind of empathy with the perpetrator as a means of ameliorating the resentment” which a victim feels as a result of the moral violation he or she suffered.  Of course we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  But we must also recognize that “that if the victim’s sin cancels out the sin of the perpetrator, then the whole basis for justice collapses. If we are always guilty in some kind of morally equivalent way, then we can never charge our offenders.  If a victim must be totally free of any sinful behaviors or thoughts before the offender can be addressed, justice would never occur.  In the classic passage on confronting a brother (Matt. 18:15–20), the victim’s sin (which we know is present from the rest of Scripture) is never mentioned.”
Maier then outlines “four contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness,” asking a series of questions that we must answer to reach a biblical definition of forgiveness on the foundation of the three boundaries listed above.
  • “How does God forgive?”
  • “How does healing relate to forgiveness?”
  • “Is forgiveness primarily self-centered or other-centered?”
  • “Is forgiveness active or passive?”
After examining (in chapter 3) the relationship between resentment and repentance, he explores each of those four questions.  Reminiscent of Bonhoeffer’s discussion of “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship, Maier explains the hidden costs of the “cheap forgiveness” that many in the Church insist upon.  With cheap forgiveness, because the offender has neither confessed for repented, “there is no agreement that what was done was wrong” and the victim remains unsafe, and the true reconciliation is impossible.  It is appropriate to address ongoing resentment harbored by a victim once the offender has confessed and demonstrated signs of repentance, including where necessary some type of restitution to restore justice.  And so, because “trust is the basis of true unilateral healing for victims,” if such “resentment poses a barrier to genuine forgiveness,” this should be dealt with.  But often “resentment is merely an appropriate emotional reaction to sin yet to be addressed.”  In such circumstances, “healing can only come by means of some assurance that one day justice will be complete and final.”  This is not a desire for revenge and vengeance borne out of bitterness and rancorous resentment, but a godly and natural desire for justice and righteousness.
 
Our scholar friends will recall that both the Old Testament Hebrew root צדק (tz-d-q) and the New Testament Greek rootδικ (-dik-) are inclusive of our English ideas of “righteousness” and “justice.”  There is no justice in the midst of unrighteousness, and no righteousness in injustice.
 
Of course, it is worth mentioning that it was after Israel named their daughters “Miriam”, or themselves “Mara” — names that mean “bitter” or “bitterness” — that God sent savior-redeemers (Moses, Boaz, and ultimately Jesus).  God in God’s wisdom acted salvifically after God’s people recognized their bitter lot.
 
Maier has chapters on “authentic repentance”, “trusting God for justice”, “results of forgiveness”, and “forgiveness and justice in counseling.”  Here is his exposition of what the simple statement “I forgive you” should mean:
Because of your repentance and the facts that the price for your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin, I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship.
 
We (Ruth and Joshua) recommend this book — Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach — to any pastor, preacher, counselor, or missionary in any context.  It’s practical, theologically robust but in everyday language, and firmly grounded in Scripture.
 
For that matter, we recommend it to anyone
  • who struggles with forgiveness,
  • who struggles with justice,
  • who is passionate about justice, or
  • or who is passionate about forgiveness.
We guess that covers most of us.
 
 
 
Note:  We have this book in paper and in Kindle (it’s also available for Nook).  We didn’t include page numbers as I (Joshua) was referring for the quotes to the digital copy, which sadly doesn’t include “real” page numbers.  Bryan Maier’s Forgiveness and Justice is available from Christian Book Distributors, Joseph Beth, BooksAMillion, Barnes & Noble, or wherever fine books are sold.
 
 
 

love and action

Proverbs are delightful. They offer a window into a culture.  I especially enjoy pairs of proverbs which seem contradictory. One of my favorite pairs is found in Proverbs 26.4-5.  I’ll quote in Hebrew for our nerdy friends (and because Hebrew fonts just look cool) and in English.
 
אַל־תַּ֣עַן כְּ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לּ֥וֹ גַם־אָֽתָּה׃
עֲנֵ֣ה כְ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֖ה חָכָ֣ם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃
 
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation. (NET)
 
 
A few months ago, I learned a similar pair of proverbs in Maa:
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
.
For those interested in such things, here’s the IPA phonetic pronunciation:
Ɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
Mɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
.
Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
.
(My list of Maa pronouns includes over 200. This, of course, does not count the innumerable constructions which are possible through the use of pronominal prefixes and infixes. But Maa doesn’t distinguish between he/she/it — “ninye” does triple duty.  In these proverbs, ninye isn’t used.  Instead, pronominal prefixes/infixes indicate both subject and object.)
.
The initial verb in each of these proverbs is interesting; ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki is literally “it is reached” or “it is arrived at.” Idiomatically it is “maybe” or “perhaps”. The pronominal 3rd person prefix ɛ- is replaced with mɛ- in the second one. Depending on tone, this is either negative or subjunctive; here it is negative. Thus ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki introduces something that is conceivably possible whereas mɛbáɨ́kɨ / mebaiki indicates that what follows is inconceivable and impossible.
.
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret. Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
.
Within human relationships, it is quite imaginable that we profess love for someone and yet there is no actual demonstration of love.  We say “we love you” but don’t help the supposed beloved, and in fact we often harm instead (whether by sin of commission or sin of omission).
.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
.
Thus our actions (or inactions) will belie our words.  “The proof is in the pudding,” as the old English proverb states.
.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”
Show me your faith without works
and I will show you faith by my works.”

(James 2.18, NET)
.
Love does no harm to its neighbor.
Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Romans 13.10 NIV-1984)
.
If we claim to love while either actively harming or simply refusing to assist, our actions prove that we do not, in fact love.
.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It is not possible to love in merely word or sentiment.  Love helps those who are loved.
.
Beloved, let us love one another.
(1 John 4.7)
.
.

Lenana’s Oreteti

Lenana was a well-known Laibon (oloiboni, “ritual expert”) of the Maasai, b. sometime between 1860 and 1870 (he was circumcised in 1882, perhaps at the age of nineteen? … traditionally, Maasai did not keep track of their birthdates, but only of when they were circumcized) and dying in 1911.  The name Lenana means “of the gentleness.”  An important Maasai leader during the colonialization of East Africa by Great Britain, he is better known among the Maasai themselves by the other form of his name, Olonana (“he of gentleness”).

Lenana is a fairly common Maasai boy’s name. I’ve not heard (though I don’t know everything) of anyone else named Ololana, though.

The term, as an adjective, is a term of endearment —
Li alashe lai lenana is “O my brother of tenderness
Lo ltau lai lelana is “O my heart of tenderness, the dynamic equivalent of “Sweetheart in English.  I (Joshua) often address Ruth with the short form, lo ltau lai (O my heart!).

I probably hear the adjective more often than the name.  For “sweetheart” more literally, you could say oltau lemelok (or lo ltau lemelok in the vocative).

The feminine equivalent of lenana (pronounced, by the way, like LAY-NAH-NAH, for English-speakers) is nanana.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard it, though.  Namelok ([feminine thing or person] which-is-sweet) is more common as an adjective for females.

It is said that upon his death, Olonana’s corpse was secretly moved from his homestead (enkang) in Kiserian to this site, where his body was accorded the rare privilege of burial, marked by planting an oreteti sapling. (Historically, corpses were laid out on the ground and hyenas come to eat the body at night.  Burial is a rare salutatory honor in traditional Maa culture.) The oreteti is a sacred tree of ceremonial significance in Maasai culture. Oreteti trees are places of sanctuary and holiness.

Oreteti refers to fig trees:  ficus natalensis, ficus sycomorus, ficus gnaphalocarpa, ficus mucosa.  It is one of four types of trees considered sacred or holy by the Maasai.  Note the smooth green leaves (even in the dry season), and also that there are no thorns.

Lenana’s Oreteti:
(click pictures for a larger images)

This oreteti tree is now nearly 110 years old, and is an important landmark — geographically and culturally. The Oreteti AIC (Africa Inland Church) congregation has its building a short walk down the mountain from here, taking its name from this tree.

(Photos taken on 1 October 2019.  I was meeting with Benson ole Kurraru, the pastor of Oreteti AIC.  He also oversees AIC church planting and ministerial training in the Olalaiser area of Kajiado county.)

Language is Fun

Maa (the language of the Maasai people) is delightfully reflexive.  For any of our friends who are language nerds, here’s a grammatical excursus.

Where English has simply “of“, Maa has six different prepositions.
o
e
lo
le
oo
loo
So “o” indicates that what follows is grammatically masculine, “e” indicates that what follows is grammatically feminine, “oo” indicates that what follows is plural (without reference to grammatical gender), the prefix “L” indicates that what precedes is grammatically masculine, and the absence of the prefix “L” indicates that what precedes is grammatically feminine.

Are you confused yet?

Here are a few examples.
entito (daughter, girl) and enkitok (women, wives) are, naturally, grammatically feminine. (The plural forms are, respectively, intoyie and inkituaak.)  Note that the initial vowels will be dropped when following one of the prepositions for “of.” Thus
entito e nkitok (the daughter of the woman)
intoyie e nkitok (the daughters of the woman)
entito oo nkituaak (the girl of the women)
intoyie oo nkituaak (the daughters of the women).

olayioni (boy, son) and olpayian (man, elder, husband) are, of course, grammatically masculine. (The plural forms are, respectively, ilayiok and ilpayiani.)  Thus
olayioni lo lpayian (the son of the man)
ilayiok lo lpayian (the sons of the man)
olayioni loo lpayiani (the boy of the men)
ilayiok loo lpayiani (the sons of the men)
entito o lpayian (the daughter of the man)
intoyie o lpayian (the daughters of the man)
intoyie oo lpayiani (the girls of the men)
olayioni le nkitok (the son of the woman)
ilayiok le nkitok (the sons of the woman)
olayioni loo nkituaak (the boy of the women)
ilayiok loo nkituaak (the sons of the women)

It’s actually quite logical and therefore simpler than you may think.

But here’s something that threw me for a loop back in 2007 when we were just learning.

Followers of Jesus” is ilasujak le Yesu. “Followers of the Lord” is ilasujak lo Laitoriani. Again, the “le” and “lo” are equivalent to the English preposition “of.”

To review:
LO” and “LE” —
• the -L- indicates that what precedes (in this case ilasujak / followers) is grammatically masculine (the absence of this consonant indicates that what precedes is grammatically feminine — thus “inkasujak e Yesu” is “the [female] followers of Jesus“);
• the -O- indicates that what follows (in this case Olaitoriani / the Lord; the initial -o- of the noun drops off for linguistic reasons) is grammatically masculine; and
• the -E- indicates that what follows (in this case Yesu / Jesus) is grammatically feminine.

Wait.  What?  Jesus is feminine, a woman?!

Nope, of course not.

But the Maa word for “name” — enkarna — is grammatically feminine. Thus as a class, in Maa *all personal names* are *grammatically* feminine, even though there is no confusion in the language between male and female names. (For example: Nashipai is a female name, Enchipai is the male equivalent; Lemayian is a male name, Namayian is the female counterpart.)

Both male names and female names are *grammatically* feminine.  Thus “ilasujak lo Yesu” (or for that matter, “illasujak lo Joshua“) is just grammatical nonsense.  It must be “ilasujak le Yesu” (or “le Joshua“) to be correct.  No Maasai thinks that Jesus is a female or feminine, just as I am male and masculine.

Thus while I am an olpayian, my children (inkera) could be referred to as either:
inkera o lpayian (the son of the man), OR as
inkera e Lemayian (the children of Lemayian).

(Lemayian, “the one of blessing,” is my Maasai name.)

This was a great puzzlement for me before I figured out what was going on. Because enkarna (name) happens to be grammatically feminine, all personal names are grammatically feminine, irrespective of the masculinity or femininity of the subject of the name.

theologizing

«Εἰ θεολόγος εἶ, προσεύξῃ ἀληθῶς,
καὶ εἰ άληθῶς προσεύξῃ, θεολόγος εἶ
— Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός
.
“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.
And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” 
Evagrios of Pontus (345–399)
On Prayer 61 (the translation in The Philokalia, vol. 1)
.
I’m forever grateful to Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) for introducing me to this text of Evagrios.  Too often “Theology” (Θεολογία / Theologia) means, in practice, “academic language about God which is hard to understand.”  But Theodore and Evagrios were among the first to teach me that a theologian is one who speaks (or writes) well about God BECAUSE he or she is in the habit of speaking well WITH God.  Our theology, our God-talk, should proceed from our talks with God.  Our theorizing should rather be contemplation (θεωρία / theoria; Latin:  contemplatio) of whom God has reveled Godself to be in our own stories and (crucially) in the stories handed down to us in the Scriptures.
.
(On that last point, just so no one misses it:  if not grounded in the texts of Scripture, our contemplation is not Christian contemplation, our prayer is not Christian prayer, and our theology is not Christian theology.)  
.
“Theology” (or at least, good theology) is never academic speculation clothed in what Ruth calls “Emperor’s New Clothes” language. Theology is speaking well about God which arises out of our having well-spent time speaking with God. 
.
It is worth noting that the Church has only granted the title “Theologian” to three individuals.  In the first two centuries of the Church, only one person ranked the title “The Theologian” — John the Evangelist (the Apostle who wrote the Gospel and the Letters).  It wasn’t until the Nicene period that anyone else ranked the title:  Gregory Nazianzen (Γρηγόριος ὁ Ναζιανζηνός; c. 329-390), the writer of hymns and theological poetry.  Next was Symeon the New Theologian (Συμεὼν ὁ Νέος Θεολόγος; 949–1022).  Each of these men spoke well about God because they had spoken well with God, and their discourses fleshed out their conversions to Christ within their particular cultural contexts.
.
Theologizing is the attempt — by individuals or communities — to make sense of the conversion (turning to Christ) of social life, family life, and intellectual life, within a given cultural and linguistic context.  Andrew F. Walls notes that “Theology does not arise from the study or the library even if it can be prosecuted there.  It arises from Christian life and activity, from the need to make Christian choices, to think in a Christian way.”*
.
As christians, we are not proselytes but converts; the harsh words of Jesus about proselytization (Matthew 23.15) are not for nothing. The Jerusalem Council made it clear that Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish to follow Jesus (nor do Jews have to become Goyim who eat pork to follow Jesus; Africans don’t have to become American, etc.). Christian conversion is the “turning to Christ what is already there.”**
.
Conversion has at least three categories in which we must turn to Christ what is there:  family life, social life, and intellectual life.  In this process, of course some new things will be picked up as necessary and some old things will be dropped as incompatible with the Gospel — but many things will be retained. Those things which are retained are reoriented and redirected toward Jesus.
.
Theologizing is the natural result of processing conversion of these areas — family life, social life, and intellectual life — and arises out of time spent with God. Fancy academic jargon is not theology, even if it is often (mistakenly) called that. “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” 
.
I will add a corollary for my preacher friends: “and if you become a theologian, you will preach truly.”
 .
.
———————–
———————–
.
* Andrew F. Walls, Crossing Cultural Frontiers:  Studies in the History of World Christianity (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2017), 74.
** Another phrase of Professor Walls, whose writings I highly recommend
.
 

Why your brand matters …

Branding is important.  This is why Madison Avenue (the global center of the advertising industry in New York City) is a center of influence and of wealth.  This is why the hosting television network charges millions of dollars for a thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl (the championship game of professional american football).  A cowboy in America’s Old West — or a Maasai olchekut even today — could identify the owner of the herd with a mere at a glance at a cow’s branding mark.

(Note:  the Maa word olchekut is usually translated as “shepherd” but is used of cowherds and goatherds as well.)

Branding can work for weal or for woe.  If a Maasai teen-aged boy so much as flinches when he is circumcised, he is branded as a coward for the rest of his life.  In the 1985 film Back to the Future, George McFly suffered the effects his whole life of having been branded as a weakling as a youth, until his son Marty altered the present by changing the past.  Currently nearly half of Americans are horrified at the prospect of their country being branded as “Trump Nation.”  Yet nearly half of Americans were terrified at the possibility of their country being branded by the “progressivism” of another Clinton presidential administration.  Branding matters.

Countries in Africa (including Kenya) are often branded as backwards, undeveloped, and primitive.  This is often done by NGOs and even by missions agencies as they are seeking financial support for various developmental projects.  Sadly, this branding often first creates and then perpetuates a cycle of dependency.  But this is often done by comparing the poorest of those in the slums with those comfortably middle-class (economically speaking) from suburbs and cities in the West.

Many of you have seen pictures of endemic poverty in African slums in Nairobi (Kenya), Lagos (Nigeria), or Johannesburg (South Africa) and been told “this is Africa.”  Others have seen the perpetual corruption and impunity of dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and been told “this is Africa.”  Those of you at least our age remember the popular song “We Are the World” and pictures of emaciated Ethiopian children with the swollen bellies of starvation and think “this is Africa.”  Still others hear “Africa” and think only of stories of genocide (e.g., Rwanda in 1994), perpetual civil wars (e.g., Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC; formerly called Zaïre), Boko Haram’s atrocities against christians (mostly in Nigeria), social unrest and violent atrocities after a contested election (e.g., here in Kenya after the December 2007 election), or even just of “zoo animals.”

But how many Americans would like the USA to be characterized, branded, only by images of Old West gunfighters, or urban rioters, or the terrible morals in so many Hollywood movies, or the ostentatious conspicuous consumption of wealthy celebrities, or the gruesome practices of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, or by the divisiveness of “the other side” during the 2016 elections?  Most Americans would protest, “that is not my America.”  And so for those of you who do not live in Africa, we invite you to take a second look with new eyes at the various countries of this continent.

It is as important to celebrate glorious success as it is to bring needs to light.  So when we host visitors here in Kenya, we want them to see the rich texture and vibrancy of Kenyan life.  We’ll visit a church in the Kibera slum, talk with successful Nairobi entrepreneurs and artisans, swing by a world-class Nairobi shopping mall, sit with small-town church members in their large stone church building, and drink tea in a remotely rural Maasai hut.

Here is one example of positive branding for Kenya.  It’s a music video / commercial for Safaricom, the largest telecom and micro-finance service provider in East Africa.  It is a celebration of Kenyan life, culture, and people.  Like the best advertising, it is not pushing a product so much as celebrating a vision for life.  I invite you to watch and listen to this short video (less than two minutes).  The lyrics (in kiSwahili) and translation (in English) follow below.  This is the Kenya we know and love.  These are the Kenyans with whom we partner.  Yes, there is still need, which this branding doesn’t depict.  But in this season of America’s Thanksgiving, celebrate with us the greatness of Kenya’s people.

UNGAANA, PENDANA
 ….. LET’S UNITE, LET’S LOVE

Kitu gani chatuunganisha,
….. What is it that unites us,
Mume kwa mke, ndugu na dada,
…. husband to wife, brother and sister
Marafiki tunaowajali,
…..  friends whom we care about,
Washiriki hata makazini,
….. colleagues with whom we work?

Jambo la muhimu,
Kwa hamu na gamu,
Twatumaini taifa,
Libebalo
ndoto, zote zetu
 ….. The most important thing is
 ….. earnest anticipation of
….. a nation which carries
….. all of our dreams.

Ungaana (ungaana), Pendana (pendana)
….. Let’s unite together (let’s unite),
…..
Let’s love each other (let’s love)
Tumeungana twaonekana,
….. We have united, we have seen that
Tuko huru tuko sawa,
….. We are free, we are equal

Ungaana (ungaana), Pendana (pendana)
….. Let’s unite together (let’s unite),
…..
Let’s love each other (let’s love)
Dunia ijue tuko sawa,
….. Let the world know that we are equal
Twaunganisha ndoto zeta
….. We bring together our dreams

Ungaana kwa upendo
….. Let us unite together in love
Ungaana kwa upendo
…. Let us unite together in love
Ni Upendo watuunganisha,
…..  It is love which unites us
Mume kwa mke, ndugu na dada
….. Husband to wife, brother and sister.

 

 

 

the corruption of scoundrels

“Now the sons of Eli were worthless men.  They did not know the LORD.”
(1 Samuel 2.12, ESV)

The word here translated as “worthless men” is בְלִיָּעַל (beliyya’al). Other major english translations render it as “wicked men” or “scoundrels.”  I’m currently enjoying a “Through the Bible” podcast in the NKJV.  Listening this week, I was struck by its translation of this verse:

“Now the sons of Eli were corrupt; they did not know the LORD.”

We know that corruption is rampant.  Here in Kenya, most of the paved road nearest to our house isn’t really paved at all.  A mere half an inch (or less) of asphalt on dirt doesn’t last long between the heavy truck traffic and the heavier rains.  But there are some folks with nice, big houses that were paid for with funds intended for the roads.  Meanwhile in American politics, the two current presidential front-runners both have a long history of benefiting from and fostering corruption.

While it is easy to become frustrated with the corruption that daily has a negative impact on us, this verse clearly reminds me that politics isn’t the answer.

Corruption is simply the symptom.  The illness is not knowing Yahweh.

healed waters

כֹּֽה־אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה רִפִּ֨אתִי֙ לַמַּ֣יִם הָאֵ֔לֶּה 

“… Thus says YHWH, ‘I have healed these waters’. …” (2 Kings 2.21)  This little snippet is so rich. The city, Jericho, was “well-situated” but the water brought death and the land would not produce food. Do you know the back story? Joshua had cursed the place. After the walls of Jericho collapsed and the city was destroyed, Joshua cursed it.  If any would rebuild the city, it would cost him his firstborn and his youngest son (Joshua 6.26).  Later, this is exactly what happened (see 1 Kings 16.34).  Apparently, this curse also affected the land itself with its springs.

(Note:  Many bibles translate this verse as “I have purified the water,” which was also certainly the case.  But the verb used is R-F-‘, which is the primary word in hebrew for the healing of something sick.)

So we see clearly that curses have power. But curses do not have the last word. Blessings have more power than curses. This particular curse had been effective for generations – perhaps 500–600 years or so from the time of the curse to the time of the city’s rebuilding, and then another generation until this story begins.  But now someone had a hope for something different. So folks from the city sought out God by seeking out his prophet Elisha. And the curse on land and water was broken. “Until this day,” the writer testifies, “that water remains pure,” it “remains healed” (2 Kings 2.22).  That was true when 1 & 2 Kings was written. But now, thousands of years (thousands!) after the healing of the water, even today the water in that corner of Israel is good.  Read 2 Kings  2.19–22 for the whole story.

Blessings have more power than curses. God is the Healer who holds healing and purification in his hands. There are many curses – spoken curses, curses through witchcraft, ancestral curses, spiritual strongholds of bondage, addictions, corruption of all sorts, deliberate partnerships with sin, curses received along with abuse. Those curses have not been without their hurtful impact. But blessings have more power than curses. Curses can be broken and nullified, replaced with blessing and healing.  

Blessings have more power.

Welcoming the Hyena

Here is, in english, an example of the types of parables we use in our teaching.  This one has two versions, one to be told to men and boys and another to be told to women and girls.  It was written specifically for the context of Maasai culture, but would be understood throughout East African cultures.

(Cultural note:  The “club” referred to is a war club, known in Maa as an orinka and in kiSwahili as a rungu.  Maasai shepherds and warriors are like the Benjaminites of Judges 20.16 and are said “not to miss.”  They often throw them at hyenas to protect their flocks and herds.)

.

As told to the guys

Once there was a hyena which decided it was easier to catch baby goats and baby sheep than to chase the stronger and faster wild animals.  It caused a lot of problems by eating from the flocks!  The shepherds would always chase it away just by throwing a club at it and it would flee.  But it kept sneaking back to eat the young animals that would stray into the bush.  So some warriors decided to chase it in order to kill it with their spears.

The hyena was terrified of the warriors!  Because most of the people were not in the villages at that time, the hyena ran into a village to hide.  There was an honored old man, sitting under a tree beside his house!  The hyena asked him to let him hide in his house.  The old man refused.  But the hyena begged him, promising that he would bring him meat if he hid him and protected him from the warriors and shepherds.  Now that man liked to eat meat.  He said to himself that “it would be nice to eat meat without killing one of my own goats!”  So he told the hyena to go inside the house to hide, as his wife was in the bush gathering firewood.  When those tracking the hyena came to his village, they asked that man whether he had seen the hyena.  He was thinking about the meat the hyena had promised to bring, so he lied and said that he had not seen it.  So those people left.

Then that man went into the house to tell the hyena that it was safe for him to come out and go on its way.  But the hyena said, “I am hungry and am craving meat.  So I will eat your leg!”  And that is just what the hyena did.

.

As told to the ladies

Once there was a hyena which decided it was easier to catch baby goats and baby sheep than to chase the stronger and faster wild animals.  It caused a lot of problems by eating from the flocks!  The shepherds would always chase it away just by throwing a club at it and it would flee.  But it kept sneaking back to eat the young animals that would stray into the bush.  So some warriors decided to chase it in order to kill it with their spears.

The hyena was terrified of the warriors!  Because most of the people were not in the villages at that time, the hyena ran into a village to hide.  There was a woman, repairing the roof of her house!  The hyena asked her to let him hide in her house.  The woman refused.  But the hyena begged her, promising that he would bring her some meat if she hid him and protected him from the warriors and shepherds.  That woman said to herself that “my husband would praise me if I give him meat without decreasing the numbers of his flock!”  So she told the hyena to enter the house to hide.  When those tracking the hyena came to her village, they asked that woman whether she had seen the hyena.  She was thinking about the meat which the hyena had promised to bring, so she lied and said that she had not seen it.  So those people left.

Then that woman went into the house to tell the hyena that it was safe for him to come out and go on its way.  But the hyena said, “I am hungry and am craving meat.  So I will eat your leg!”  And that is just what the hyena did.

“My Father is Alive” – an approach to stewardship

Cross-cultural life & work are exhilarating.  Asking what it means, practically speaking, to live with Jesus from the view point of a different language and culture can open your eyes to the teachings of Scripture in new and profound ways.  We have found this to be especially true as we have struggled with culturally relevant and biblically faithful ways to teach stewardship.

In many western contexts, teaching on stewardship can be summarized like this:

That stuff you think you own?  It’s not really yours; it’s God’s.  So treat “your” resources accordingly.

This approach captures part – but not all – of the biblical teaching on stewardship.  But in East African contexts, as soon as you say “it’s not really yours” you’ve lost your audience and thrown in the towel.  The Maasai have a proverb that explains this:  The cow says, “don’t lend me.  Just give me away.”  This is because the cow knows that if it is lent, it will not be well cared for.  Only when there is ownership is there also proper stewardship.  We also see this in the teaching of Jesus in John 10.12-13.

The hired hand, who is not a shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and flees.  So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them.  He runs away because he is only a hired hand and has no concern for the sheep.

Only when you can say “it is mine” or “it is ours” can stewardship be faithfully practiced.  There is another Maasai proverb that emphasizes this:  All things which their owners care for endure.  The twofold implication (which is clear in the Maa) is that only owners properly care for possessions and only proper stewardship enables things to last.

There is a place to teach that stewardship is the management of someone else’s resources.  (See, for example, Matthew 25.14-3.)  But it is also necessary to recognize we are the recipients of God’s gifts.  What God has given you is now yours.

ORE TINIATA MENYE, MIMURATA
Another Maasai cultural proverb suggests an alternative approach to the traditional western interpretation.  Now if you have a father, it observes, you’re not really circumcised.  For many tribes in East Africa, including the Maasai, boys are ritually circumcised during adolescence.  This event marks a major transition.  No longer a boy, the circumcised male is now a warrior and a man.  So the proverb is saying that if your father is still alive, it is as if you are still a boy.  Culturally, if your father is alive, it’s as though you are still a youth.

Why is this?  Because you show natural respect for your old father.  You honor him by consulting with him before you so much as a sell a goat to obtain school fees for your children.  Are you 60 and a grandfather?  If your dad is still alive, you will consult with him before you sell a goat to obtain school fees for your grandchildren. 

Traditionally this is NOT abusive patriarchy.  It is not just that the old man remains the nominal head of the extended family.  Rather, he is recognized to have wisdom.  He can guide the younger generations in the best way forward.  Being past the point of self-seeking desire, he has a broader perspective about what is best for the whole family.  The primary interest of the old man is in the well-being of his whole family.  So he will advise them accordingly.  He receives enkanyit (proper respect and honor) and gives in return counsel and blessing.

(Western cultures used to practice something similar.  We called it “filial piety.”)

For those of us who follow Jesus, we know that our Father Papa God is alive.  This does not mean we are not responsible adults.  It DOES mean we should invite God into the process as we consider the management of our resources.

That stuff you own?  It really is yours.  But your Father in heaven is very much alive.  Will you consult with him about how you use your resources?

.

.

.

[Updated September 2018:  We just learned the second proverb mentioned above.]

.