Brad Jersak Interview
Back in November I decided to e-mail a fellow who has played an integral role in my spiritual formation: Greg Boyd. He graciously agreed to an interview. This all occurred during the attack on Paris, so I particularly wanted to hear what he had to say about the event.
I decided I would contact another man who has been integral to my spiritual journey: Bradley Jersak. Brad’s book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut has been monumental in my understanding of Hell theology, and his blog has been a bridge to interacting with the patristic fathers and early church. Brad graciously agreed to an e-mail interview. To whet your appetite, what occurred was much more extensive than the Boyd interview, with many more topics covered.
If you are unfamiliar with Brad, here is a brief bio before you read:
Brad is the author of over a dozen books, including ‘Can You Hear Me? Tuning in to the God who speaks,’ ‘Kissing the Leper: Seeing Jesus in the Least of These,’ and ‘A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.’ He teaches New Testament and Patristics at Westminster Theological Centre (UK) and is Editor-in-Chief of CWR Magazine.
A more extensive bio can be found here.
Here is the interview in entirety. Be challenged, encouraged, and blessed:
- For those unfamiliar with you and your writings, how would you describe where you fit into the Christian tradition?
I currently straddle the charismatic-evangelical-anabaptist world (which are my roots and where I have worked as a pastor and now teacher) and the Christian Orthodox tradition (where I worship and serve in church).
- What does “orthodoxy” mean to you?
Orthodoxy as I understand it is adherence to what Jude called ‘the faith once delivered’ by Christ through the apostles to the church. This was summarized by the early church as belief in the revelation of Christ as summarized in
Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed, but also the faith practice prescribed by Christ, especially in his great commandments (i.e. love of God, neighbour, brother/sister and enemies).
- Are you a proponent of nonviolence? If so, what does that mean for you and how did you come to that conviction?
I am a proponent of Christ’s call to enemy-love and overcoming evil with good. This includes non-violence, but I am aware of other proponents of non-violence (such as Madonna) root their convictions elsewhere, sometimes in philosophies that I see as incongruent with Christian discipleship.
Ironically, while I spent 10 years as a pastor in the Mennonite church, I was initially very resistant to the Anabaptist call to non-violence and argued against the notion with my colleagues. But while watching Apocalypse Now for about the third time, I had an epiphany of the cruelty and naivety of trying to overcome evil with killing that led me back to the Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount became decisive for me at that point.
It begins with asking what ‘take up your cross’ looks like in practice … and that means the death of ego and the life of love. That is, the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount call us to the death and resurrection of Christ transposed into a daily program where I say no to the demands of my ego and yes to the self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love of Christ-in-me.
This includes being kind to the unkind, allowing love to overlook a multitude of offences, offering forgiveness where the offence hurts me and empathizing with those with whom we differ. Because some have purposed to act as enemies towards us (and me personally) OR because I find them particularly offensive, I also follow Christ’s command to pray for and bless my enemies. I do so by name, often simply praying, ‘Lord, show them the same mercy that I want for myself.’
- You write about the importance of being aware of our own biases in constructing our belief systems. Could you give a brief explanation as to why this is so important?
I’m a critical realist, which means that I do think there is a Reality beyond my own making. There are such ‘eternals’ as the good, love, beauty, justice and truth. These are not all merely relative. But the truth is that I relate to and participate in these eternals subjectively. That is, I have lenses. Being oblivious to one’s lenses or biases is dangerous, because we end up associating our perspective as the ‘objective truth.’ But if I can stay mindful of how my personal, familial and cultural opinions, temperament and influences interpret and even distort those eternals, then I’m less likely to confuse my perceptions with reality. This becomes more obvious when one realizes how differently they see the world now as compared to decades previous. If reality didn’t change, what did? I did. And I will continue to, so I’d better not develop idolatrous attachments to my own way of seeing things.
- Have you ever been discredited, marginalized from Christian communities, and/or labeled a heretic? If so, how have you dealt with that? What measures have you taken to not fall into an unhealthy expression of an “us” vs. “them” mentality?
Yes, some from my conservative evangelical heritage certainly labelled me a false teacher and heretic … strangely, they did so as I became more and more convinced of the Orthodox theology of the church fathers who actually defined orthodoxy vis-a-vis heresy! That is, the more I adhered to the theology of the historic church, the more I was dismissed by certain Evangelicals. They also took offence to my teachings on ‘listening prayer,’ which I drew directly from the great Christian contemplative (esp. the Ignatian exercises), which they mistook for ‘New Age.’
I have primarily dealt with it by tucking in under the wings of wise and respected spiritual mentors, submitting to their authority and receiving their correction so that I am directed by their wisdom and counsel, rather than simply reacting to the ‘haters.’
Oddly, overcoming an us-them mentality must start by recognizing a ‘them.’ That is, denying that there is a ‘them’ or pretending there are no ‘enemies,’ or acting as if part of me doesn’t ‘hate’ them is often a delay tactic in dealing with our own resentments. My biggest breakthrough came simply by acknowledging that so-and-so is my ‘enemy.’ Then I knew exactly what Christ wanted: love, bless and pray for ‘them.’ But I was led to pray first of all for those I know I have hurt and harmed through the years–some who have not been healed, haven’t forgiven me, and want nothing to do with me (and fair enough). By praying for that group of people first, by the time I get to my ‘enemies,’ I realize that I am a much worse offender and desperately in need of God’s mercy. How then can I withhold mercy from them? And thus I find myself at the foot of the Cross, with those I’ve harmed and those I’ve hated, and now there is no ‘them’–only ‘us all.’
- Could you expound on your understanding of the importance of having “blessed enemies?”
St John Chrysostom preached a sermon on the Beatitudes in the 4th century–so good it’s online to this day. Half the sermon is giving to blessing your enemies because you need them. That is, the crucifixion of the old self (or ego) is so ruthless because Christ does not intend to leave the process incomplete. You cannot come to your telos while still clinging to aspects of the old or false self. But here’s the problem: your family, friends and mentors can help you ‘die’ only so far. Parts of the ego (esp. pride that demands satisfaction and retaliation when insulted) require an enemy’s help–someone willing to do for us what our loved ones would be unwilling to do. Such as slap you in the face. This is what’s going on in the Sermon on the Mount: the systematic crucifixion of the ego … if my enemy slaps me (in many different ways) if I turn the other cheek, I am refusing the demands of the ego and it dies just a little bit more. In other words, my external enemy aids me in overcoming my internal enemy … I need their help! They become part of my salvation (journey).
- How do you think disciples should engage other disciples who disagree on pertinent issues?
If both parties agree to love one another and they trust the other’s heart, then disagreement can become dialogue and debate that is constructive. We may not even finally agree, but we could empathize with their reasons for holding their position and be able to express their point of view accurately, including its strongest points. Many of my closest friends and family disagree with me on multiple fronts (including areas where we see the other’s theology or practice as toxic), but our love for each other means we can accept that and even engage about it without conflict … or at least know when to set the disagreement aside for the sake of love.
However, there are those who feel disagreement warrants division (forgetting that the first heresy is actually schism!) and dis-fellowship and labeling. When such is the case, there comes a time when our inability to hear one another means not engaging over that disagreement, and if there’s no relationship other than the debate, allowing them the space of their difference without attacking. Luckily, the Lord will show them that I was right in the end anyway, he says tongue-in-cheek. But truly, in my convinced ‘rightness,’ we know that malice, resentment and bitterness is always wrong. So our prayers for enemies at that point are more about cleansing my own heart than somehow hoping to fix them.
- There is a Hindu proverb which says, “there is no one who knows everything/ there is no one who knows nothing.” What are the dangers of demonizing disciples of Christ who seek deeper understanding of Truth? An example our readers will probably be most familiar with is the Rob Bell controversy.
Demonizing others is a reaction and reactions lead to errors. The heat of the battle causes us to over-steer and we find ourselves swerving into the opposite ditch. For example, I was privy to the events of a meeting of pastors who gathered to discuss how to respond to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. One of the pastors was so upset he began to slam his fists on the table, weeping and shouting, ‘God is NOT love, God is NOT love!’ to the approval of his fellow pastors. In their demonization of Bell, they renounced the very nature of God revealed in 1 John … and were unable to see it.
Second, when we demonize others, we make it spiritually illegal to ask questions … which means we cut ourselves off from examining our belief systems for error or potential growth. In a culture that trains young people to become critical thinkers, this will produce a lot more ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ in the coming years. They see through it and leave … perhaps rightly so.
- As may be obvious, race relations are a pressing issue here in the U.S. Do you have any specific thoughts or insights about how to humbly and lovingly engage our brothers and sisters?
Behind racial hate you’ll find fear of the other, but perfect love drives out fear. If God’s love is being perfected in us, that will include developing relationships that cross our perceived in-out / us-them boundaries. Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is a good example. He appears to be breaking taboos when he speaks to a (1.) woman (alone), (2.) of another ethnic stream , (3.) of questionable reputation, (3.) an another religion. There’s no avoidance, no reproach. But he looks at how she might help him and how he might help her … and foresees even of a spiritual convergence in true worship beyond their different religious systems.
So maybe you’ve answered your own question: we ‘humbly and loving engage’ them as ‘brothers and sisters.’ Where there are race relation issues, we clearly haven’t done that yet.
- Similarly, homosexuality is another pertinent issue in the U.S. Non-traditional manifestations of sexuality are continually demonized. Do you have any specific thoughts or insights in regard to this matter?
As above, your questions are the answer: if we see the LGBT+ community as an enemy ‘them,’ Christ has told us exactly what to do: love, bless and pray until we see ourselves as a collective us at the foot of the cross.
Second, if we disagree, we need not demonize or attack the other (and this works both ways) thus swerving into the opposite ditch. On that note, a caution to ex-fundamentalists who have embraced the gay community: don’t merely switch from right-wing fundamentalism to left-wing fundamentalism. Don’t change sides of the aisle without changing your spirit. If we’re going to be inclusive, then we have to ponder how to love the fundamentalist other as well.
Finally, as you said, we need to learn to transcend the wearisome and unproductive battle by engaging humbly as brothers and sisters.
- I come from a tradition and generation of cynical, disillusioned Evangelicals. What advice would you give us?
I understand that. I battle it. I lose the battle sometimes. But now I’ll presume to speak as a spiritual father for a moment. Cynicism is easy and fashionable these days. It makes for great satire and biting critique. Cynicism often begins as prophetic insight that’s become disillusioned and weary of all the bullshit. That is, cynical people have almost always accurately seen something toxic–maybe God even opened their eyes to it. And maybe they addressed it and were rebuffed. Maybe nothing changes and despair starts to kick in. My sense is that the true prophet and the cynic share the same gift. But the calling of the prophet is to deposit hope while the cynic inevitably becomes a thief of hope. They see corruption and hypocrisy (as does the prophet), but can end up being the enemies of sincerity and authentic faith. Cynicism can become a default mode that, given permission, develops into contempt — a kind of prideful, looking-down-upon hatred that can even reject goodness as naive and is energized by negativity. In other words, cynicism is discernment that’s been co-opted by the ego. At that point, we can actually become agents of a pretty contagious and destructive disease in the world. Have you noticed that cynicism has gone viral?
So what to do? When you feel cynical, first affirm your God-given discernment. Then begin to wrestle it back from the ego by harnessing that discernment to identify something good in this world. A child, a flower, a laugh–maybe wonder is a key (cynicism hates wonder). Then affirm that good and ask, ‘How can I let this hope into my heart? And how can I deposit hope here?’
- Finally, how can Cairn University be praying for you and your community?
I guess my family, our health, our finances, our ministry, etc. all needs to come under the waterfall of God’s mercy. So if you think of us in prayer, you could picture that and simply pray, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with confidence that he’s into that.
Blessings to you Jacob and Cairn Uni!
Original article to be found here.