Lisa Sharon Harper, Chief Church Engagement Officer at Sojourners, recently release The Very Good Gospel. She spoke to RLC about her new book, which has been brewing in Lisa’s soul and life for many years.
The terminology “thin” and “thick” gospel lays some of the groundwork for your book. Explain these terms for us.
Miroslav Volf talks about the difference between thin and thick faith. He says that it’s thin faith that laid the groundwork for things like the Holocaust, slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, and many types of evil. Many of the justifications of these evils have a “faith” basis, but it’s a faith that skims the surface and doesn’t go deep. A thick faith asks deeper questions about the Scriptures: what is the original language or the Scriptures? What would the original hearers have heard? When you ask these questions, you see that the entire Bible was written by oppressed people in an oppressed context. This makes you read the Bible differently.
Thin faith makes people adjust the Bible’s meaning to their location and context. It’s a kind of faith that creates memes. Basing our public ethic on memes instead of plumbing the depths of the original context is dangerous. Thin faith can be easily manipulated and used as a political or social tool.
For two millennia people who were members of the ruling class have interpreted the Bible. How could they possibly identify with the people of Israel? The Israelites, the writers of our Scriptures, were conquered and colonized in a land that was not their own. I realized, as an African American woman, I actually have heightened capacity to comprehend the oppression of the writers and their subjects in scripture. I come from a similar context– an oppressed people.
Shalom has become a pretty popular term for Christians in the past 10 years. Most people know of it as “peace” or even more broadly as “wholeness.” But what is really at the heart of Biblical shalom?
The clearest picture of shalom we get in scripture is Genesis 1. God looks around at creation and says ‘this is very good’. The goodness is actually located between the things (the land, the sky, humanity, animals), not in the things themselves. The word “tov, ” Hebrew for good, describes each of these creations and actually serves as a connector of breath. The 7th time it is used with an additional word “tov me’od” which we translate “very good.” A better translation is forceful, vehement, or overflowing good. The relationships between all of creation were forcefully good. Violently good. What were those relationships? Humanity & God. Man & Woman. Humanity & Creation. Creation & systems that governed us. Humanity with self. These were good and worked to bless each other. There was no cursing in Genesis 1.
The “very goodness” of creation is about the connection between things.
What does very goodness look like? Very goodness is to be created in the image of God and to be called to exercise dominion over creation.
For the priests who wrote these Scriptures, we must remember that they were coming out of exile. For them to declare that everyone is made in the image of God is completely subversive. Babylonians said only Kings and Queens were made in the image of God. But these priests wrote Genesis 1 in order to establish a new manner of rule, in light of their former oppression. They declared that they were going to rule in a way that protects, serves and empowers all humanity and to make sure all of those are empowered, protected and served to exercise dominion.
Every single person is created with inherent dignity and the call to exercise dominion, from our Uber driver to a homeless woman. What does this say about our housing policy? About the way we structure our world? How will the people live together?
We have set up law that codifies the lie that some people were created to exercise dominion and others were not. Part of the work of understanding shalom is knowing that when Jesus said “repent and believe the Gospel” he meant “repent the lie that said you were not created in image of God and you have no dominion.” Jesus said, “I have come to set the prisoner free, ” so let’s be free of those lies.
What implications does it hold for us that in creation God did not banish the darkness with the creation of light, and in fact created sea monsters?
In this world we have a picture of what paradise is: everything is glowing and happiness and everything is bright. But in Genesis 1 we have light AND darkness. God created the sea and the sea monster. For Hebrews, the place of greatest fear and chaos was the sea. The Hebrews named God as the creator of something that they feared. But God speaks and says, “let there be light!” God limited – put boundaries on – the darkness.
So in this life there is no promise that there will be no pain. The promise we get is that God limits the pain.
The light comes because God.
When I think about the things that make me want to despair – the loneliness of singlehood, racism that continually tells people their lives are valued less – I only have hope because God is. God limits the darkness.
I am ok with sea monsters living in my world because God is.
This election cycle has been ugly, and will likely get even uglier. How can Christians work towards shalom in this political climate?
I think there are a couple things we have to do. First, we must recognize that we are not electing a Messiah. We will never have a perfect Presidential candidate. We’re not trying to elect the person with a perfect policy platform. Second, we must ask the question how would Jesus vote and who would Jesus vote for? My criteria are Matthew 25. Jesus makes it clear in this text: These are the policies he cares about. He wants to make sure we understand that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, are not side issues. They are central to our faith—even our salvation. Jesus says “I am the least of these.” How is it possible not to love these people on every level of life: in our hearts, through our actions, through our votes and still love Jesus? It is not.
Matthew 25 was Jesus’ very last sermon before going to the cross. He was really asking the questions of how are we address the inequity of distribution of water, of food, of housing.
The Very Good Gospel takes us through major areas in which we desperately see our need for Shalom: International relations, race, broken families, climate change, etc. In our nation today, where do you feel the deepest longing for Shalom?
This makes me ask another question: what makes me weak? The answer is race, this terrible social construct. I want to repair all that race has broken in our world. Race is one manifestation of supremacy; gender is another, class is another. My heart cries for the repair of everything that the constructs of race, misogyny, and class have broken.
I want the lives and families that have been broken by these lies to be repaired—and the systems and structures that perpetuate this distruction to be dismantled and transformed into sources of life.I want our money to reflect the equal inherit dignity of all people. I want every person, at least to have enough to flourish.
I think that we also see the political and social constructs manifest differently in other places in the world. In Europe it is evident in the refugee crisis. People in genuine need are being turned away at national borders because of their ethnicity. And in an effort to secure power amongst a shifting demographic, the leadership of several European nations is calling on citizens to cast off their ethnic and national identities and to assume White identity instead.
I dream of the day when the constructs of race and other-ism will be abolished. I dream of the world we will build together—a world that understands the inherit capacity and dignity of all people and prepares them to steward the world.
Read an excerpt of The Very Good Gospel here.