Un-erasing Hebrews 12
A politician has recently written a bit of his own rhetoric over Hebrews 12. I don’t really care to talk about him too much. This is about something a lot bigger than him. However, I do want to talk about Hebrews 12, and the value of learning to listen and comprehend the words of others. Hebrews 11 and 12 is really worth reading carefully, thoughtfully, repeatedly, and all together at once. Here I’ll give you some background that can help you do that.
Scripture is routinely erased, even when it is in plain sight, by people slicing out a poetic phrase or two and using its cadences to lend a certain gravitas to their own junk. Surprisingly often, this junk is rather plainly rebuked by the text that is manipulated in this way. Also surprisingly often, this routinely happens even when people directly quote some scripture and then claim to explain what it means, while in fact just saying whatever was in their head as if it is what the text says. In the face of widespread practices like this, the simple act of trying to read something comes to feel subversive. But let’s not get this twisted: the routine subversions and corruptions of the Bible and its reading are what is subversive. To insist on actually reading and listening in the face of this sort of thing is restorative.
To get our heads around the kind of desecration and ridiculousness involved in the way people often use the Bible, we have to think of something that we actually value. Take our phones, for example. Now imagine a culture that doesn’t really understand or care about phones any more, but which uses smashed up screens and the remnants of chargers in its war rituals as symbols of power. In doing this they show some kind of memory that these things were once incredibly important and useful, even as they also demonstrate that they don’t understand whatever that was.
The routine subversion of the Bible demonstrates a pattern of bad faith engagement that is fundamentally corrupting, because it corrupts our most basic capacities for communication and comprehension. It exchanges the discipline listening and understanding for dismembered trophies, used to show nothing more than fierce allegiance to one’s clan.
So here are a few notes on Hebrews 11 and 12. Hebrews 12 begins with this:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
On encountering something like this it is good to ask, “What is the cloud of witnesses, and what do they have to do with perseverance and perfecting faith?” Don’t just guess! Look at the text to see if it answers your question. As it turns out, you can’t follow Hebrews 12 unless you look back at what it is referring to. If you do that, you’ll find that this is summing up a long list of heroes in Hebrews 11, people who are celebrated for their courageous perseverance in doing right and keeping their covenantal commitments, rooted in hope and trust. This list of brave deeds of faith is a powerful corrective to one of the most common forms of Biblical erasure in our culture: the replacement of the idea of active, brave, and risky faith with a notion of ‘faith’ as ‘belief’ which really just means ‘opinion.’ How often do we take ‘faith’ to mean little more than ‘belief’ or ‘opinion’? Anyone who reads Hebrews 11 will understand that faith is about a deeply rooted allegiance and faithfulness, grounded in love and trust, that necessarily corresponds to courageous action. Faith involves work.
A lot of Christian discourse, unfortunately, works hard to erase this idea of faith and replace it (for ancient political reasons, by the way) with the notion of having the right opinions or the right group membership marked out by those opinions. This little move of redefinition and erasure lies at the heart of a lot of bigger acts of subversion and erasure, and is itself emblematic of the entire process of smashing up the Bible and transforming it into nothing more than a clan marker. Instead, Hebrews illustrates for us a different idea: covenant faithfulness. It involves loyalty to a deep commitment or agreement, demonstrated in and though action, even when that loyalty is risky and costly.
Hebrew 11's demonstrations of covenant faithfulness lead us up to the faithfulness of Jesus, which Hebrews 12 discusses. There’s an important piece of background here. Jesus offers a new covenant (or a new exposition of some old covenants) in Luke 6 and Matthew 5–7. At the heart of this understanding of God’s covenanting activity, according to Jesus, is a God whose boundless grace and love invites us into lives of joyful solidarity with the poor, enemy love as a replacement for violence, and the reconciliation practices that can flourish when the hypocrisy of violence is replaced with the purity of enemy love. Jesus promises that those who behave this way will succeed in the end and build things that last, while those who don’t won’t. Jesus then demonstrates his own commitment and faithfulness by refusing to lay down his enemy love even in the face of brutal violence. He dies praying for the forgiveness of his killers, because they don’t know what they’re doing. Jesus doesn’t have opinions about enemy love. He practices what he preaches. He is faithful to his own covenant and teaching. Oddly enough, he also happens to have become by far the most successful and historically impactful movement builder in human history. So maybe there is something to the idea that this is how you build something that lasts after all. Even if they kill you.
With that crucial context (itself often erased in our culture) you’ll be ready to understand how Hebrews 12 involves (among other things) a celebration of the power of enemy love, as exemplified by the courageous faith of Jesus. Importantly, his own faith demonstrates just how deep and fundamental and unrestrained this commitment is. Where does it stop? At what point does Jesus invoke his right to self-defense and turn to attack his attackers? Who does he kill to protect his freedom? Nobody. His freedom isn’t that kind of freedom. His love doesn’t stop in the face of real and present dangers, let alone imagined or exaggerated ones.
This is a hard but liberating discipline. This is Christian faith.
Importantly, enemy love does not enable abuse. Understood and practiced in the way that Jesus demonstrates, it enables powerful, strategic and effective non-violent resistance. If you’re in an abusive relationship or situation, the first step should almost certainly be to get out of danger if you can, for your sake and even the sake of your abuser. The next step is to dismantle the structures of abuse as much as possible.
Enemy love never justifies the violence and abuse of the attackers. Just the opposite in fact. It constitutes the most absolute rebuke possible of violence itself. Those who faithfully follow this path do not only protect themselves from some particular act of violence through their own violence. Instead through their perseverance in faith, they work to fundamentally protect all of humanity from the scourge of violence itself by freeing humanity from its grip. In doing this, they also help free people from the grip of powerful actors, people who would use our fear of enemies to control and manipulate us toward their own ends.