Social Justice and Miracles

I’m still working through thinking about something that Brian McLaren said in response to a question last night. As I menioned in my previous post, my friend Joel asked something along the lines of, “Why do charismatic Christians–who want to pray for physical healing–and Christians who work for social justice usually not connect with each other very well? Why can’t we do both?”

First off, a little background. I’ve been a part of the Vineyard movement of churches for about 5 years now. There’s a variety of reasons why I wound up with this particular motley crew of Christians, but one of the big things that attracted me to the Vineyard was that people there wanted to experience the life and power of stuff that happened in the Bible. You know, healings and prophecy and that stuff that Jesus and the early followers did that we too easily say “that was then, this is now” to.

On the other hand, I’ve been increasingly challenged by Christian voices for social justice over the past few years. I blame this primarily on the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard, my family of Jesus followers for a few years who had the audacity to plant themselves in the midst of one of the poorest, most broken neighborhoods in Canada: Winnipeg’s North End.

So, here’s the essence of Brian’s answer as I remember it. He essentially said that the root of our problem lies in our modern separation of the natural and supernatural realms. This is not the biblical worldview where miracles would be taken as a matter of course. The biblical worldview wouldn’t ask, “do miracles happen?” but rather, “what do these signs of God’s intervention mean?” So, although one of our modern obsessions when we read the Gospels’s miraculous accounts is whether or not a miracle happened, the appropriate question to ask is, “what is God communicating through this?”

Once you see this, the miracle stories in the Gospels could take on a whole new light. They actually appear to primarily be speaking about issues of social justice. Interpreting them symbolically does not mean that you disbelieve that the miracles did not occur. That is an anachronistic reading that incorrectly injects our categories of thinking on the biblical narrative. Allow me to demonstrate this symbolic hermeneutic to the following passage about the Garasene demoniac:

When [the demoniac] saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. (Mark 5:6-13, NRSV)

A quick interpretation would easily see the demons’ calling themselves “Legion” is actually identifying them with the Roman occupiers. Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs, which everybody knows do not belong in Israel. One can then interpret this sign and wonder to say: God is interested in delivering his people from the tormenting Roman occupiers. They have no place in Israel.

That pretty much concludes the gist of what Brian had to say. What helped me tremendously is that I am challenged by these kinds of symbolic interpretations but I have often felt like they were denying that the miracles had actually happened. I know see how captive my thinking has been to a wrong way of thinking. It’s not either-or; it’s both. The divide is only as large as Western, dualistic philosophy has made it.

So, the social justice-ers are wrong if they think that their labors exclude the necessity of God’s direct involvement in ways that may defy explanation. Sure, setting up a rehab centre for addicts is great, but God healing their addiction is great too. Why not pursue both as manifestations of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven?

Likewise, charismatics are wrong in being so focused on the “supernatural” that they lose out on the “natural.” There are no such things. There is a visible and an invisible realm perhaps, but they are both real and created and loved by God. We do not really love people if we pray for their healing but fail to ask why they’re sick. Too many charismatics are just out for the thrill-factor of having God “show up” and fail to remember that God wants us involved in loving people in the real world. If miracles were enough for God’s kingdom to come, then I don’t think that the Incarnation would have been necessary.

This has been a really helpful evolution for me in my thinking about how I want to be faithful to live out my faith in every biblical way. Maybe now I sould go back and reread Ched Myers’ commentary on Mark. It interprets the Gospel in just such a symbolic way and shows just how politically subversive Jesus was.

10 responses to “Social Justice and Miracles”

  1. I’ll definitely be reading Ched Myers again when I’m back for Christmas – the first try left me scratching my head.

    One thing that came to mind as I was reading was:

    One of my profs thinks to himself, when he’s reading the Gospels, that there must have been many authentic stories of Jesus floating around that the Gospel writers could pick from, so why did they pick this one?

    It’s an interesting way of asking the right kind of exegetical questions.

  2. hey matt, i had a few moments to read your blog entry and was amazed because i just had a two hour conversation about this very topic at the oak hammok marsh with my dad and nathan. we were triggered by the environmental desolation we are in and realized how significant science is to helping us change. i tried to communicate my desire to see “the healing of the land” take place in a miraculous way. the conversation took many twists and turns. thanks for breaking this down a bit!

  3. Tony M: Thanks man, I’m just mostly repeating what others have said.

    Cam: Yeah, Ched Myers is pretty confusing shite, but I bet you’ll rip through it after being Regent-ified. ;)

    I really like your prof’s question. It says that there’s something more important about the story than the story itself.

    Maria: I don’t think that this question is ever far from us WCV’ers. I’m pumped to hear that this is something that you’re mulling over too!

  4. Just thought I’d pop in and say “Hi Matt”.

    We haven’t met but I saw another mennonite name on Alex McManus’s blog and had to check you out!

    Then you mention WCV and the world gets even smaller. I live a few blocks away, work at a church 5 minutes away, and have many friends from WCV.

    Heck… we’re probably related!

    Anyway, appreciate this particular post. I often wrestle with this stuff.

    nooc (Greg Dyck)

  5. Hey Greg

    Thanks for coming by! I don’t live in Winnipeg at the moment, but that’s still where my heart is. I’m in St. Stephen, NB at the moment, attending SSU.

    The world does grow exceedingly small in this online age… Who do you know at WCV? I looked at your pics on your blog and I don’t believe that we’ve met.

  6. Hey man,

    If you have a moment, can you clarify something. You said: “but I have often felt like they were denying that the miracles had actually happened. I know see how captive my thinking has been to a wrong way of thinking. It’s not either-or; it’s both. The divide is only as large as Western, dualistic philosophy has made it.”

    Can you hammer this out some more? I’m just not following – are you saying that the miracles acutally happened, or that it doesn’t matter… or both…?


  7. Hey Mack

    Thanks for asking, this is a great topic. I can easily see how my writing could leave you confused there.

    What I’m really getting at in this is that a symbolic interpretation of these miraculous passages has nothing to do with whether or not the miracle actually happened or not. This used to really bug me, because when I’d read commentators who employed a symbolic interpretation, I thought that they were inherently saying that they didn’t think that the miracle had actually happened.

    As for me, I do believe that the miracles actually happened more or less like recorded in the Gospels. But the Gospels are not trying to argue for the validity of miracles: that’s something that we do today. In the ancient world-view, miracles were assumed to be real. What really mattered to them is what they meant.

    Like my friend Cam said above, there were probably many more miraculous stories about Jesus circulating when these Gospel accounts were recorded. Why did the Gospel authors choose to include the stories that they did? They must say something more than just that Jesus was a miracle-worker, since that would not have been a large claim in the ancient world.

    So, to wrap it up, I was trying to say that my thinking was captive to dualistic philosophy when I approach the text trying to decide whether or not the miracles actually happened. Those who argue against miracles or argue for miracles are both captive to dualistic philosophy. One denies that the supernatural exists (or at least that if it exists, it does not exert any real influence on the natural world), while the latter tries to argue that the supernatural does influence the natural realm.

    I’ve now realized that neither side of this argument is the biblical worldview. A truly biblical worldview thinks of all of Creation living, moving and having its being within God. His Being penetrates all things and sustains all things. There is only one part of this world: that which God has made and is sustaining. There may be parts of it that we can’t touch or see, but all of Creation is in Him.

    Does that make things any more clear?

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