Dr. Raj Nadella is the Samuel A. Cartledge associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. His research and teaching interests include Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Studies and Postcolonial Readings of the New Testament, especially the parables of Jesus. His research focuses on New Testament perspectives on issues of economic justice and their ethical and theological implications for the church and society today. His first book, Dialogue Not Dogma: Many Voices in the Gospel of Luke was published in 2010. Dr. Nadella is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Posts By This Author
‘It Is Midnight in the Social Order’
RARELY DO YOU see powerful people advocate for the benefit of others outside their “own” political or economic group. There is a tendency on the part of the elite to leverage their privilege for their own benefit while disguising it as public good, as the concept of “elite capture” has exposed. And the state is often complicit in reinforcing policies and practices that concentrate resources into the hands of those who already have enough. In a 1962 sermon titled “A Knock at Midnight” (see Luke 11:5-6), Martin Luther King Jr. diagnosed the state of the nation and church saying, “It is midnight in the social order.” He urged the church to respond to the oppressed who “knock on the door,” even when it’s inconvenient. “How often has the church left [people] disappointed at midnight, while it slept quietly in a chamber of pious irrelevancy,” preached King.
Despite decreasing numbers, the U.S. church wields enormous political and economic power. This month’s readings showcase people — the powerful and the not so powerful — who exercise their agency for the good of those who seemingly have little to offer in return. The texts highlight the church’s moral and theological imperative to employ its power to open the door to the ones who desperately knock. Will the church that gathers in the name of Jesus ignore the state’s complicity in oppressive structures or will it act as the “conscience of the state,” as Dr. King urged? Does the church privilege its own comfort or does it attend to the vulnerable, even at the risk of its own interests? King concluded, “the greatest challenge facing the church today is to keep the bread fresh and remain a Friend to [humanity] at midnight.”
What Change Would You Make?
THE CENTRAL CHARACTER in Octavia Butler’s short story “The Book of Martha” lives at a time of heightened human oppression and environmental crisis. Martha encounters God, who invites her to help remedy the situation, to make sure “that people treat one another better and treat their environment more sensibly.” Martha’s fear leads her to believe that such an encounter with God was a dream, more likely a nightmare. She insists that it is impossible for her to affect change and asks God to fix things. God replies, “What change would you want to make if you could make only one? Think of one important change.” Perhaps this is a question for all of us.
Martha’s encounter with God turns into something beautiful and allows her to see new possibilities to change the world. Her eventual move toward facilitating the kind of world she envisioned is made possible by her belief in her own agency — her ability to generate novel ideas and take measurable steps to realize them.
Too often justice is described in terms that are broad and abstract. The realization of justice requires concrete steps. Sometimes we despair when we fail to accomplish substantive change, despite our sacrifices and work. This is part of the human condition. But we are also called to actively hope and then take the steps that are ours to take. An alternative reality is possible when we allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s presence working in earlier models of liberation. We are invited to think creatively together about what is possible and pursue it passionately.
A Year of Transformative Leadership
THERE IS A saying in Telugu, my mother tongue: “The fence has devoured the garden.” I find it a useful phrase in this year when the United States embarks on a federal election cycle that will test the strength of our democratic institutions and may well damage their integrity. The same leaders entrusted with the power to safeguard the interests of the people (“the fence”) have instead undermined them. Growing economic inequality continues to dehumanize individuals and entire communities. Women, Black, brown, refugee, and LGBTQ people increasingly feel at risk in light of recent court rulings. Leaders expected to provide vision in times of crisis, whose mission is to “protect the garden” of democracy and civil life, appear to be actively “devouring” it. And accountability has been in short supply.
How do we facilitate transformative changes that allow individuals and communities, especially those at the margins, to realize their dreams and flourish? At a time when scriptures (such as Romans 13) are used to prescribe uncritical loyalty to authorities, what are some strategies for holding those authorities accountable? This month’s texts invite us to identify and nurture leaders who can see things differently, offer a generative vision, and undertake radical changes. They exhort us to empower a new generation of leaders who are working collaboratively and serving the people with integrity, and who privilege the interests of the community over their own.
Jesus Wants You to Be Skeptical of the System
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center offers some interesting data about economic inequality in the United States. In 1982, the top one percent of families took in 10.8 percent of all the pretax income. The bottom 90 percent got 64.7 percent. By 2012, it was 22.5 percent for the top one percent and 49.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. In a more disturbing trend the top one percent owned 35 of all the personal wealth in 2010. The bottom fifty percent owned just five percent.
Reorienting Ourselves to the Earth
The accelerated pace of climate change deterioration in recent decades is highlighted in the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was released in December 2013. This report highlights the alarming rates of carbon emissions in recent years and the massive disruptions to the nature that occur as a result. It warns that the disruptions could affect all areas of life and endanger the world’s food supply itself. The worst is yet to come. All this might sound a bit apocalyptic.
Acts 2:14-32 posits a similar scenario. Luke’s Peter predicts the signs that will occur in the last days (vv. 19-20). The Sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood. There will be blood and fire and smoky mist. Joel 3, Luke’s source text behind these verses, was intended as a warning about potential disturbances in the natural order. Joel posits such calamities as consequences of human wickedness and calls on the people to alter their ways. Peter warns that such last days are about to arrive. They will be marked by disturbances in the natural order and terrible signs that will precede the day of the Lord. Interestingly, people in Jerusalem have already witnessed such (un)natural phenomena during the death of Jesus (Luke 23:44-45).
Acts 2 parallels the account of disruptions in the nature with the account about the death of Jesus (2:19-24).
On Scripture: Fear and Wisdom In The Immigration Debate
They have many labels. Undocumented immigrants. Illegal Immigrants. Illegal Aliens. Wetbacks. Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, recently suggested that most of them are “drug mules.” Some have even called them “terrorists.” But few are known by their real names or treated as people with real lives.
Most of them live at the edges of the society, under inhumane and dangerous conditions, often separated from their loved ones. For some it may be a choice. However, a vast majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are driven to such extremes by factors beyond their control — political crisis, drug-related violence, famine, or eviction from their own homes at gunpoint. Theirs is a story of displacement, of being forced to flee their homes and take risks few would under normal circumstances. They are victims, not the offenders they are often made out to be. Still, for many, it is a story of being treated by the border security as violent criminals, being stripped of their clothes and dignity and separated from their families and traumatized in detention centers. It is also a story of ostracizing and exploitation by parts of the society. The labels and stereotypes about them “otherize” them in ways that prevent their full participation in the society. Injustices like these are the reason why NETWORK’s Nuns On The Bus have been touring across the country speaking out for immigration reform.