I was reminded that the idea of eschatological reversal can be a powerful image in the promotion of justice if we believe that we already are, or that we should be moving towards the ultimate end that remedies current injustices.
I started teaching a course in Introduction to Christian Ethics a couple weeks ago for a class of graduate students who are pursuing their M.Div. and other Masters in religion degrees. We are spending some time talking about the use of Scripture in ethics, so I reviewed Richard Hays’ 1996 text The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. It got me thinking a lot about the role of eschatology in ethics. (Eschatology is the area of theology concerned with “last things,” like the end of the world, heaven, hell, death and eternal judgment.)
Often when we think of how eschatology motivates human decisions and behavior, we conceive of it in a negative way. Fear of going to hell as a motivator of “good” behavior is one classic formulation of this idea. Another version I remember discussing in an ecofeminist theology class was that belief in the coming end of the world can promote disinterest in taking care of the Earth, and perhaps even motivate people to anticipate its destruction. Some people who hope for the end of our Earth believe it ushers in a new Earth, a better world than the evil, corrupt, and fallen one we currently live in.
I have no intention of dismissing these critiques about the use of eschatology. I think we should be wary of such language and any tropes that try to get us to ignore or tolerate current suffering for hope of future benefit. (By “we”, I mean all of us who are interested in religion, but especially feminists and those concerned about the justification of oppression.) Yet in Hays’ discussion of the biblical texts of Luke and Acts, I was reminded that the idea of eschatological reversal can be a powerful image in the promotion of justice if we believe that we already are, or that we should be moving towards the ultimate end that remedies current injustices.
Hays writes,”The eschatological outpouring of the Spirit brings with it a pervasive reversal of fortunes for the powerful and the oppressed, as Mary foresees in her song at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel… Luke 1:52 – 53” (132). Luke carries this theme of reversal throughout the Beatitudes, the parables, and the acceptance of tax collectors and sinners into the kingdom of God. But Hays also describes Luke as using women characters in the narrative to demonstrate this reversal. He writes:
Women [are] fully rounded characters essential to the unfolding set of salvation history, characters whose personal response to God counts for everything. They are given voice in Luke’s story, reversing their conventional lowliness of status…. The roster of significant female characters in Luke – Acts is far longer than that of any other New Testament writing. This is not because Luke was consciously a feminist; the term is an anachronism when applied to a first-century writer. Rather, it is because the Spirit’s eschatological power of reversal was at work in the tradition that Luke knew, raising women to a status they had not formerly enjoyed. (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 132)
I don’t want to romanticize the text. One doesn’t have to believe in the inherent equality of men and women to believe that a reversal will (or should) occur. So perceptions about the innate inferiority of women could still remain implicit in an unchallenged. Also, more troubling, language of reversal still relies on a dualistic dichotomy in which the sexes remain entirely separate in status. And although popular opinion may claim it is so, feminists do not typically argue for the destruction of male power so that we can substitute female power that operates through the same modalities. We call for an imaginative reconstruction of power systems, based not on coercion and dominance, but respect and equality.
I think the concept of eschatological reversal allows for that kind of reconstruction. To make way for a just ordering of society, God’s work in setting the world right must depose the powerful and lift up the lowly (Hays, 132). A reversal need not be an extreme 180° turn. While it might feel like retributive justice for the power–mongers to be stripped of their dignity and placed in the positions of suffering that they created for the lowly, it dishonors the humanity of which they too share. A reversal can be the overturning of the expected. Can we imagine what it would feel like to expect that men and women are treated as equals? That the radical distinctions of class could be erased? Such ideas seem so utopian, but I believe this is the positive power of eschatological visions. If we believe in a radical reorientation of the world made possible by divine love, we just might be inclined to participate in bringing it about.
Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University, adjunct professor at Claremont Lincoln University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.