Glynn Cardy 27th August 2023
In 2008 the book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity traded love of this world for crucifixion and empire” was published. It is a big title, and it is a big book, written by two big names in the academic world of progressive feminist theology: Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.
It is also a book about a big idea – namely that for most of the first millennium of Christian history salvation was not primarily something that Jesus did on a cross in order to free us to ascend to a heavenly paradise, but rather salvation was something we do with Jesus in caring for, creating justice, and healing, here in this earthly paradise. Salvation and paradise are here and now, about grace, gratitude, and commitment to this world.
Our reading today, the saving of baby Moses, is a memorable one. How much is fact and how much is fiction is a moot point. But the story of trying to survive an oppressive murderous regime is one that is familiar in many times and places. It is a story of fear, of commitment to life, of bravery, and finding hope.
Of the story’s women three were Egyptians and two were Israelites, and thus on different sides of the ethnic/political divide. Of these women two were midwives, one a princess, and two were servants or slaves, and thus on different ends of class divides. All took enormous risks to save a child. Not a child they knew would become the great Moses. But a slave child. A nobody. Who had been consigned by his race and gender to death.
One way of reading this story is seeing this land of Egypt as a paradise in waiting. Like you can see the land of Aotearoa. And every land. It is waiting for the day when the language and actions of fear and suspicion that drive prejudice, racism, hatred, and oppression are no more. It is waiting for the day when the language and actions of the heart, that tells us to reach across divides, to love thy neighbour, and to protect the vulnerable, are in the ascendancy. It is waiting for the day when the ways of oppression are superseded by the ways of inclusive love. And every baby, every child, be they rich or poor, Egyptian or Israelite, Māori, Pākehā or Pasifika, be safe, be valued, be loved, and survive and thrive. This is a vision of salvation, of what we work towards, what we look for, and what we rejoice in.
The other vision of salvation is where Jesus does all the work by suffering and dying on a cross (we just have to believe it all), and paradise is a place you go to (if you believe enough) when you die.
Brock and Parker, like many feminist theologians, do not believe that the torture and murder of Jesus saves anyone. This ‘Jesus died to save us’ idea sanctifies violence on our behalf and requires us to be grateful for harm done to another. This in turn creates profound ethical confusion about violence. Some versions of this idea suggest that Jesus died voluntarily and he is therefore a model of self-sacrificing love that Christians should imitate. Such an idea condones tolerating abuse and violence. It is dangerous and destructive theology.
Rather Brock and Parker, not unlike our preaching at St Luke’s, focus on the life of Jesus and his movement and tell stories of how loving communities save people for flourishing in earthly life. Like five courageous women saving a baby, who in turn (in the mythology of Israel) was instrumental in saving a people.
Following the work of Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (a noted religious art historian), Brock and Parker found there were no images in churches of Jesus dead on a cross until the tenth century, and the change was to do with a shift in Christology in Western Europe. Instead, the pre-10th century images that can be found in churches in places like Rome, Ravenna, and Istanbul, were images of escape from danger or persecution and iconographies of paradise. Ravenna was where Greek, Latin, Christian, and barbarian cultures were connected East and West. Its 5th and 6th century churches depict Arian, Orthodox, and Gothic forms of Christianity focused on paradise. Some of the best-preserved mosaics depict paradise with green meadows, flowers and trees, lush fruit, and rivers (including the Jordan). Deer drank from the rivers, sheep grazed in the meadows, birds perched on trees, and cherubs swam, sailed, windsurfed, and rode swans in the Jordan. A vibrant Christ was depicted either on a throne, or perched on a blue globe of the earth, or immersed naked in water being baptized by John. The divine hand of blessing often peeked out from the clouds. A dead or suffering Jesus was nowhere to be found.
John Delumeau’s “A History of Paradise” explains how in this time paradise, based on Genesis 2’s ‘Garden of Eden’ was understood as a special place on this earth for humans to thrive. While it was also in the afterlife, paradise was not just a postmortem realm. Augustine of Hippo (5th century) called the world ‘a smiling place’ and asserted that the seeds of the paradise garden and spiritual transformation were hidden within the whole earth at the beginning and that they awaited the light of justice and mercy to bloom. Augustine’s church literally bought people out of slavery, which is a concrete this-worldly understanding of justice and salvation. Can you hear the echoes of the Moses liberation story? The echoes of Wilberforce? The echoes of King? The echoes of those trying to right the wrongs of colonisation?
Another important finding of Brock and Parker is that Christians employed paradise ideas to resist empires that falsely claimed to provide the gifts of paradise to humanity. Paradise was the measure by which empires were judged. Was the empire providing and working towards a land that was lush, humans and creatures that were happy and thrived, or were empires instead working towards embellishing their power and privilege at the expense of the poor. Some leaders, like Cyril of Jerusalem, made pragmatic use of Roman’s patronage while also teaching that Christ in time would destroy the Roman Empire. During a famine Cyril sold Rome’s gifts to the Jerusalem church in order to feed the hungry, but when the emperor heard of this Cyril was deposed.
Paradise also shaped the meaning of Christian salvation. Rather than sinners being saved from eternal punishment through Jesus’ sacrificial death, humanity was restored to the image of God through the incarnation and paradise was reopened through the resurrection. Ephrem of Syria frequently used the image of a tarnished mirror to describe humanity’s plight before Christ restored humanity’s luminosity. To this day, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that salvation is a transfiguration of the world, a restored vision of life on earth, reverencing the sacredness of life here and now, rather than salvation being some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card that transports you off to and off the planet heaven while earth perishes.
So, the teaching and understanding was that we are in paradise now. And that paradise must be cared for and maintained by the cultivation of ethical virtues and life-sustaining spiritual practices such as generosity (not hoarding), prudence (not wastefulness), communal discipline (not personal desire), and mutual assistance (not individualism). The sort of values and practices that our wounded earth today is crying out for. Our first millennium ancestors seemed to understand that living well required wisdom, community, and a willingness to take moral responsibility for our failures.
This idea of paradise, noticing the sacred here and now, with traces everywhere, with its grace reaching out to us, invites curiosity (invites the sciences), invites an openness to beauty (invites the arts), invites us to see beyond the walls of church, of culture, of class, to find illumination and knowledge in all sorts of surprising, strange, and serendipitous places. Even amongst our enemies (note the Moses story).
Protestants have long assumed the primacy of written texts for understanding Christianity. But for 1500 years such texts were for an elite few. Before the printing press most of the faithful learned about Christianity through communal liturgy, through instruction, and through the art and icons that surrounded them when they met. It was a rich and powerful visual, sensual, and ritual world. And its why today many of us are nurtured on Sunday mornings here not by hearing the Bible read, or even expounded, but by the aesthetics of this building, the art that surrounds us, the grace of music, the poetry of liturgy, and the company of one another. These are our ‘texts’ too. Just as the worlds outside – the struggles and the joys, the fears and the hopes – are ‘texts’ too – or better, invitations inviting us to see, to notice, to give thanks for, and to work towards improving.
Let’s return again to our bible story. The princess came to bathe by the river. But there she noticed. She had ‘eyes to see.’ At that point she made a decision to not ‘walk on by’ and pretend all was well. Instead, she sent an attendant to fetch the basket, knowing full well there would be implications. And she took pity on the child. It can be a powerful word ‘pity’. At that point she made another decision. Rather than protect the baby by other means – say sending him and his family down country (it wouldn’t have been too hard to work out who is sister, then mother was) – the princess decided to invite this slave baby, of a race her father saw as a threat, into her household. She not only has pity, she makes a statement. She exhibits ethical virtues, ethical grace. She wants the world to be different and she is prepared to risk her privilege to try and make it so. She wants to build paradise in this land. She wants to save not only her people. In so doing this Egyptian foreigner of a foreign religion becomes a new mother of Israel, like Sarah and Rachel and others before and since.