Going Deeper

By: Joe Morris Doss

At the Threshold has noted previously that strategic decisions were made and acted upon by a determined and focused group of wealthy Americans as the Conservative Movement gained ascendancy. Most of these people were not active members of a Christian church, and even fewer had strong feelings for any one of the several faith communities. Yet, they invested heavily in the church. They did so for purely political purposes. Readers of modern historical material about activities such as are documented in Dark Money (Jane Mayer) and Thy Kingdom Come (Randall Balmer) will not find this surprising.

One of the important strategic goals was to convince the public, through manipulation of the media, that Christianity is politically conservative by its very nature and limited in scope to private matters of personal moral behavior, individual “spirituality,” and otherworldly aspirations. For those reasons, it was asserted, Christians support liberal causes only as the church becomes captured by a secular agenda, e.g. the “gay agenda,” the “feminists agenda,” etc. In such a light, the proper public role of the church should be to support laws and policies that will suit the views of its most conservative Christians and impose laws that they consider “God’s will” for human society.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote an April 30 op-ed in which the accepted assumptions that identify Christianity with conservative political positions are exemplified. Speaking at an evangelical seminary he had no compunction about addressing his audience as though he was speaking for all of Christianity. Thomas lamented the failures of Christian influence in American government, noting the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as an example of the secularization of society, and compared the situation of the present day church to that of the early church, “when it was the target of persecution.”

That Christians seem to be losing ground in what has erroneously been called the “culture wars” may not be a bad thing. It might force them to re-think their primary calling, which is to a kingdom “not of this world.”

This Christian vision is narrow and shallow. If it is taken as the vision of the church there can be little wonder that we have lost the imagination of society.

In striking contrast, on the morning that I read this opinion I next picked up an excerpt from Belief in God in An Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. (All quotes and references are taken from Part 5.) The author is a world-renown physicist who is also a noted philosopher and theologian. As a student of the physical makeup of the universe Polkinghorne is not to be turned away from interest in creation – its physicality, its order, and its purposes. From the very beginning in the first century the church courageously opened its mind in search of the full truth being revealed to them in the Jesus story. It certainly refused to ignore God’s design and commitment to creation.

This is not the place or the occasion for a sufficiently in-depth theological exploration, but perhaps some rudimentary sketching will offer a hint for why I found the comparison of the two essays so arresting. Polkinghorne is aware not only that transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience, but that today we realize how mortality characterizes the whole universe itself.

“Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world.”

The author links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe and offers his studied hope that both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life.

“I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.”

Polkinghorne perceives a deep yearning, an intuition of hope within the human spirit, that is expressed by no less than the atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, in his cosmic fancy that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim.

“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII, s. 389, as quoted here.)

If we consider profound Christian hope and thus the role of the church in politics, we must reach into such deep and complex issues and, yes, we must consider even the “end things,” how it is all to turn out if God’s will is to be fulfilled. Only God can take from death the last word and if the human intuition of hope – that all will be well and that the world makes ultimate sense – depends on God. But, as frightening as it may be, God has made us agents of the divine will.

What Polkinghorne has to say as a profoundly modern Christian thinker sounds to me like solid Pauline scripture, surprised not that the whole world is in the process, groaning in travail though it may be, of coming to the new birth in which there shall be justice and peace – shalom – but that each of us is loved by God as though every one of us is a whole cosmos. This is a  Christian vision that can charge the people of the earth with energy and a passion for justice.


This is a first in a series of posts about Christian hymns in relation to poverty and human suffering.

By Joe Morris Doss

Christians sing what we claim to believe, and our song is offered as prayer and praise. This makes it a call to action for the church. The act of singing, in any context, is an action that joins and reintegrates thought and feeling. Things mean differently because we sing them and we mean them differently because we sing them repeatedly over time. These axioms are as true for a community as they are for individuals. Christian song shapes and forms us as Christians and as a church.

In light of the effect of singing on Christian belief, prayer, and action, the question regarding why the church sings little about poverty is important, deep and reaching. Indeed, the question must come to grips with the way our paucity of singing about it has shaped the church – how we think, feel, believe and act in the face of poverty.

Basically, we ignore poverty as one of the great problems of human society and limit ourselves to offerings of succor to individuals or specified groups.

Of course, we could turn the question-and-answer around to say that we don’t sing about poverty because we don’t believe it is a moral failure of our society – and thus of the church. If poverty is something that happens to particular individuals, the church’s role is to offer help to the poor to whom our members can reach out at a personal level – often part of a programmatic ministry that congregations term “outreach.” Most likely, the interplay between the effect of failing to sing about the reality and the limited Christian response to poverty is a dialectical dynamic of cause and effect.

Wait a minute! The most famous of all Christian songs is aimed straight at what God would have us do about human society and especially about poverty. The annunciation “Song of Mary” proclaims the reason for the coming of the Christ in no uncertain terms. Mary’s song declares that the nature of God and the will of God for human society have become apparent, and in her song she paints the picture.

First the creator of heaven and earth has chosen the “lowly” – not of the “high-born” possessing wealth, power, privilege, or social standing: “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Then,


His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the
powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our forebears,
to Abraham and to his children forever.


The truth is that while this is our most famous songs, and certainly one of our most often uttered, the words regarding social justice are ignored or trivialized. The song is employed for a piety that is narrowly individualistic and targeted at a certain appreciation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “God-bearer.”

Notice that it has usually been called “The Magnificat” – a title that focuses the entire song on Mary, instead of on the mission of her son on behalf of creation, human society, and kingdom. It is not used by Christians as a hymn but as a canticle within a liturgical context (e.g. the season of Advent) that defines it within the particular context and which does not point to its call to action within human society. When the words that address the grand issues are sung, they seem to be taken metaphorically in some unexamined and simplistically pietistic sense.

Wait another minute! There is an earlier song that stands among the most famous and telling within the Jewish, and, therefore, the Christian, tradition. Like Mary, the mother of Samuel raised her voice to sing in thanksgiving for the promise of an unexpected son. He became the last judge and the first prophet. The declarations of Hannah and Mary are obviously connected.

Hannah’s song defined the mission of Samuel, and Mary seemed to know that, in many ways subtle and blatant, Hannah’s was a song in preparation for her own. The Christian understanding of scripture recognizes that Samuel’s role and his mission was directly connected to, and in preparation for, that of Jesus. In this way it can be said that the Song of Hannah anticipates and is completed by the Song of Mary.

On just cursory examination, Hannah’s and Mary’s seem to be the same song – at least fundamentally. With this observation, it becomes apparent that the coming of the child to Mary is to complete the most profound hopes of the Jewish vision for shalom and for God’s action in history. Note the similarities and parallels between the visions regarding God’s plan for human society within the two songs:


Hannah: “My heart exults in the Lord!”
Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord”


Hannah: “My triumph song is lifted by my God.”
Mary: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”


Hannah: “My mouth is stretched over my enemies because I rejoice in my victory.”
Mary: “…my Savior …has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from this day all generations will call me blessed”


Hannah: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, nor any rock to be compared to our God.”
Mary: “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”


Hannah: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is knowing and weighs all actions.”
Mary: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”


Hannah: “The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered”
Mary: “He has shown strength with his arm”


Hannah: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the weak are armored in strength….He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap to give them a seat with noblemen, bequeathing them a place of honor.”
Mary: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”


Hannah: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry now are well fed”
Mary: “…he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”


Hannah: “…the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world. He guards the way of his faithful ones”
Mary: “He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forebears, to Abraham and to his children forever.”


If we grasp the connection between these two songs we will better understand the failure of the church to sing them as demands for justice and, in particular, for overcoming the inequities and suffering caused by poverty. In their songs we hear the message of the prophets and of the Christ together: if there is no justice there is no God, but only idols of the illusory wealth, status, privilege and power people think will satisfy their humanity, but which leads only to sin.

Mary and Hannah sing praise for God’s favor to the humble and lowly. Unexpectedly, God has sided with the poor and the weak; unexpectedly God has overthrown the rich and hushed the proud; unexpectedly, protection and mercy is in store for the faithful who “fear” God, while the wicked will be cut off; unexpectedly, the hungry will be fed while the rich are sent away empty.

In other words, Hannah and then Mary conclude, the world will be treated the way God treated Israel in the exodus experience and as God called it to be his servant community. In other words, Mary is saying, the prophets were right after all: the future shall accord with promises made to the first ancestors and there shall be justice at last.

Luke most intentionally begins his Gospel with a pattern of surprising reversals by God. As has been demonstrated in Hannah’s Song this is not a new pattern. It calls for a new order of society under God’s reign and that new order will be a reversal of the familiar pattern. This pattern of reversals which is established will continue through the cross and resurrection, a pattern of dying and rising which borders on tragedy and on comedy – a divine play transcending ordinary human wisdom and power.

Joe Morris Doss is the President of At the Threshold, an international and ecumenical organization fostering the transformation of the Christian Church. Bishop Doss served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. An attorney with a background in civil rights, he enjoys a national reputation in and out of the church, primarily as an advocate for justice, and in particular as a champion of minorities, women, and children.


At The Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues this week. Today’s piece ponders the two opposing forms of legal and biblical interpretation. 

Part 3 of a 10-part series

Legal Interpretation:
The tools for interpretation of the law, especially in constitutional law, have developed down through the centuries. This process of shaping the ways interpretation can be considered legitimate long predates the American Constitution. In theory, no “school” should necessarily be the captive of the left or the right on the political spectrum, however that range is defined; in theory, none should prejudice any position that can be taken in a controversy that is in play. We will explain the application of each method for interpretation of constitutional law and then apply each to the way scripture gets interpreted. We will narrow these approaches to six. (These are not exhaustive; there are other options such as the theories of Jurgen Habermas, but these are sufficiently comprehensive.) But these six techniques divide respectively into two fundamentally different perspectives: the first half share the desire to base interpretations in objectivity and the second, in more subjective criteria.

The first three modes lean toward objectivism as described in these phrases: “objective interpretation” or “consentual interpretation” or “formal interpretation.” The terms, “formalism” and “consentualism” are variations on the assumption that only what has been formally consented to can be constitutional law. From this perspective, the primary question for the strict constructionist is the legitimate source of the law in question. For example, violation of human rights may or may not be considered wrong but throughout most of history international law recognized the right of a sovereign state to violate the rights of its citizens, as long as the violations were properly founded in the law of the land in accord with its procedures and processes. If the authority is legitimate and the law is formally consented to by that authority, whatever the form of government, then it is constitutional law. More recently, after the long struggle between totalitarian communism and facism over against parliamentary democracy, the source of law is increasingly open to question and to international interference.

From another angle, critics tend to speak disparagingly of the first three objectivist modes in terms of rigid legalism. In this view, legal truth, by and large, follows arbitrary rules without necessary relation to any particular content and thus is abstract and unrealistic. The objectivist view, by and large, is of the law as a hard and fast and defined reality in and of itself, that must be left inviolate above the vagaries, concerns, or realities from the outside and of the moment. The most obvious example is that interpretation and application of the law should be as independent as possible from politics and popular opinion.

The second group of three methods (1) leans toward a more subjective interpretation and (2) considers itself more sensitive to the actual effect it has on the moral order it seeks to uphold, to restore when violated, and to reconcile when differences arise between states and parties. This school of interpretation does not feel that the law is a perfectly independent reality that can remain above what is actually going on, to exist and judge apart from the fray. Critics regard these subjectivist modalities of interpretation as unduly dependent on politics or the exigencies of the time and place. From another perspective they are viewed as reliant on variations of some sort of “natural law” (although not in the sense that scholastic theology defined the term.) They are criticized for identifying something outside of the existing and formulated body of law that “naturally” validates the law in question, something that at once transcends concrete instances of law yet remains so fundamental that it must be allowed to govern.  Read More…


At The Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues. Today’s piece ponders the context of the bible, the build up to good news, and the continual re-interpretation of scripture forced by the need to correct positions wrongfully taken by church and society.

Part 2 of a 10-part series

The story of God’s people is a continuing one that must be taken up by each generation. The scriptures relate the story from the beginning of creation and the spread of sin though to the redemption in Christ Jesus and the establishment of his church.

The Bible is a library of separate books with a baffling variety of literary forms, composed by numerous and different kinds of authors over many centuries. Some of the writings are quite ancient; some of the earliest are versions of a prehistoric oral history. Various editors and redactors have re-written, edited and re-edited, or supplemented much of the material as each generation made its contribution.

Even so, from the very outset the scriptures are headed somewhere. They contain a particular logic and share a common aim. The logic and the aim reveal certain grand themes about God’s will for human life. From time to time such pervasive themes get articulated specifically, as in Jesus’ Summary of the Law. Each of the books has to be read and interpreted within the context of the general themes and the conclusions at which the aim is taken. Nothing can be read out of that context, and certainly nothing can be used against the aims and purposes of the scriptures.

According to Christians, the whole of scripture is aimed at the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is definitive of the entire story of the people of God. From the first words scripture is going somewhere, and it arrives. Good news. Read More…