It is no great observation that the United States is increasingly polarized. Whether it is social issues, politics, or the latest powerful man to be accused of sexual misconduct, our collective moral outrage is poked and inflamed each day. At the same time, there is for many a deep ignorance and misunderstanding of those who think differently. Back in 2008 Senator Obama’s remark about those who cling to “guns and religion” was an example of the same phenomenon we see today: making quick judgments about those whom we haven’t met and for whom we have no real understanding or sympathy. Just so you are clear, I am not paying party politics: Governor Romney made a similarly deplorable and ignorant remark in 2012 about “the 47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.” Today those with whom we disagree often are people who are not our neighbors. Sometimes they live thousands of miles away.
Having lived in places where the national caricature of the locals is strong, I have seen how pervasive this ignorance really is. I lived in Oklahoma for five years, a state where the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won a county was in 1996, and I now live in Monmouth County New Jersey, part of the outer reaches of metropolitan New York City, a bedroom community for many. Stereotypes of gun-toting Oklahomans abound, and we all know the caricature of New Yorkers as being abrasive, greedy, and socially liberal. Neither is really a very fair portrait. While many feel antagonism toward those across party lines or toward those in faraway places, my plea would not only be for understanding and real human sympathy but also for intercession. I cite Job as a model.
The Book of Job begins and ends with his priestly intercessions. In the prologue, we hear of how Job prays for his children after an evening of festivities: “And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually” (1:5). At the end of the book, after the Lord rebukes Job’s false comforters and commands them to present an offering for their sin, we similarly hear of how Job intercedes on their behalf: “Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him will I accept” (42:8).
That Job acts in this priestly manner is surprising. He is apparently not an Israelite, and probably, by most accounts, an Edomite, the rival nation of Israel descended from the patriarch Esau. The Lord calls this Edomite Job “my servant.” This simple phrase, repeated both at the beginning and the end of the book, hints at the whole mystery of God’s election. As Karl Barth argues in his Church Dogmatics, election is God’s free declaration in Christ that makes sinful men his servants. Job is thus a type of all those who have heard his declaration of God’s election in Christ.
The biblical Job figures significantly in the fourth part of Church Dogmatics, which is dedicated to the doctrine of reconciliation. Barth subdivides his treatment of the doctrine of reconciliation into three parts: justification, sanctification, and bearing witness. The first two are the expected classical Protestant categories, but Barth adds the third to talk about the responsibility of the Church and the individual Christian to bear witness to the truth of God, following the example of Christ, who is the true witness.
Barth connects these divisions with the threefold office of Christ: justification relates to Christ as priest, sanctification relates to Christ as king, and bearing witness relates to Christ as prophet. Barth also correlates the sin of man with these parts of the doctrine of reconciliation: the pride of man contrasts with God’s gracious justification; the sloth of man contrasts with God’s will to sanctify humanity, and the falsehood of man contrasts with the truth of God.
In the context of this third part of the true witness, Barth gives a fairly extensive interpretation of the Book of Job, arguing that Job is a type who points forward to Christ because he, like Christ, is a witness to the truth of God. Similarly, just as Christ the true witness confronts man in his falsehood, so Job, the witness of Yahweh, confronts the falsehood of his friends, whose main theological assertion appears to be that suffering is always the result of personal sin.
As I was reading this part of the Dogmatics recently, I was struck by one particular section of Barth’s exposition. He writes:
The last recorded act of Job is of a similar nature, for we read that he prayed for the three friends who unlike him had not spoken what was right concerning Yahweh but advocated the worst of all forms of falsehood, i.e. religious falsehood. And Yahweh accepted the intercession of Job on their behalf (42:9). It was as Job made this intercession, and Yahweh accepted it, that his own fortunes changed, and God gave him twice as much as he had had before (v.10). In everything we shall have to say about lying and liars, we must not forget that the true Witness does not merely unmask them but also effectually intercedes for them, and in so doing comes to share in a new, visible, divine blessing. (CD IV.3 p.386)
I was particularly struck by these words: “the true Witness does not merely unmask liars and lying but also effectually intercedes for them.” It would be too much to ask, I think, of our society at large to adopt such a policy, but why should Christians not feel this impulse? After all, Christ prayed for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The blessing that awaits those who intercede for liars and those who disseminate falsehood is that of community, as Job is reconciled to his friends, and the greatest persecutor of the Lord, Paul of Tarsus, becomes the Apostle and witness to the Gentiles. Those with whom you disagree may be deeply wrong, and Job shows that you can take up verbal swords with them. But you should also know that if you are a Christian, one whom God would call “my servant,” you should be prepared to hear him also command you to intercede for your political and social enemies.
Thank you for your essay. It did not evolve as I thought it would. I could not find the reconciliation that perhaps I need to inquire and act on the question posed to Jesus of who is my neighbor rather then who is my enemy. I am re-reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and I recalled this section which I paste here: “Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to… Read more »
Great quote from Thomas Merton. Thank you for sharing! And you’ve asked an excellent question, who is my neighbor?