Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Subversive Prayer" II - Decoding the "Our Father": Debts and Communities of Faith

I had intended to start by emphasizing the connection between the Jubilee system and these words of the prayer:

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." (Matthew 6:12)

"Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us." (Luke 11: 4)

Those who recite the prayer as "forgive us our trespasses" or "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" are missing the connection between the "Our Father" and the economically dangerous set of Sabbath Year and Jubilee commandments that require the recurrent forgiveness of debts -- real financial debts.

But a recent piece of news has deflected my attention to just one word, the first one, "Our". So, putting the debts on hold for the moment, I'll start at the beginning.

A religious polling outfit, the Barna Group, reported in April that most Christians don't think that church is all that important. The figure is rather startling: although 72% of Americans claim that they have made a "personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today", only 17% of US adults say yes to the statement that "a person's faith is meant to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church".

Only 18% agree that "spiritual maturity requires involvement in a community of faith". Even evangelicals and fundamentalists score only about 33% and 25% on those two questions.

So what's wrong with that? Faith is an individual thing, right? Well, yes -- in the USA -- but not in the Christian scriptures. There, the emphasis on community is basic, just as it is in Judaism and traditional Islam.

Which leads back to the "our" of "our Father".

When the Episcopalians, for example, revised their prayer book in 1979, one of the divisive issues was changing the beginning of the Nicene Creed from "I believe" back to the original Greek "We believe". There were those who objected to the "collectivist" implication of "we".

However, the operative metaphor in the Christian scriptures is a "we" -- "the body of Christ", composed of individual members who function as distinct but related parts of one body, with each being necessary for the effective working of the whole body.

And as I wrote earlier, this was in accordance with the Jewish view of salvation as being a national phenomenon. Of course, there was also salvation as individual "help in time of trouble", but that was still seen in the framework of the larger collectivity. And it was generally used as a metaphor for the whole people.

So, the point is that the model Christian prayer begins with an affirmation of "the community." And what's subversive about that? Well, by starting with the word "our", the prayer begins to challenge the basis of the society and culture in which Jesus lived.

This society and culture was family based. Aside from the tensions caused by Rome's domination, there was always an internal tension between the vision of the Jewish nation and the realities of extended family and clan (or lineage) loyalties and responsibilities. Jesus frequently challenged the limitations of this family system. Beginning the model prayer with "Our" was consistent with his emphasis on reaching out beyond the givens of his day by extending those family-type loyalties to everyone -- the unrelated and the outcast.

True to his use of paradox, "Our", followed by "Father", denied the specifics of "family values" and at the same time affirmed their value for everybody.

In our own day and country, the "our" is subversive of the dominant ideology of fragmented individualism. That ideology is so powerful that even those whom you'd expect to proclaim the importance of "the community of faith" in accordance with their own scriptures, blithely dismiss the spiritual signficance of their own churches.

Thanks to the Barna Group, we now have some numbers to show how this cultural commitment to individualism overrides the scriptural commitments of those who proclaim passionately held scriptural beliefs.

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