Thursday, February 25, 2010

images of church in society: Why we need salt not exodus

Exodus is a powerful and repeated Biblical motif. For Israel, and for many oppressed people’s through time, it has defined a profound liberation from bondage and a life of service in response to a God who led through perils to a new land.

But spatially, Exodus relies on a “going out.” The people are to leave behind what is bad.

Contrast the metaphor of exodus with the metaphor of salt and leaven, which work only by staying within. Salt needs meat, leaven needs dough and so the metaphor acts spatially, in a startlingly different way than Exodus. Rather than leave in order to become God’s community, we become God’s community from within, by digging in and staying put, by infiltration, rather than by separation and removal.

Marianne Sawicki suggests that this metaphor, of salt and leaven, was actually the dominant metaphor for the very early church.

“Jesus’ first followers knew that there was no escape, no place to get away from the civil war and personal evils confronting them. They had to figure out how to live in a landscape compromised by colonial oppressions. They would seek and find God’s kingdom precisely in the midst of that.” (Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus, 155)

She describes this as a “stealth operation” that looks for the Kingdom of God in the midst of (Roman) oppression. “It presumes that imperial structures will remain intact so that they can be infiltrated. This is a resistance that exploits the empire; it does not defeat, neutralize, kill, or escape from its host.” (162) She draws both on the parables and on the missionary text that is Luke 10, in which the disciples “indigenize themselves by attaching to the family that employs them.” (163)

This is a pattern of cultural immersion. It’s deliberate.

It’s also a pattern of cultural resistance. Salt not only preserves, it also corrodes. In other words using the metaphor of salt and leaven to understand ourselves as the church, allows “the gospel to be both corrosive and preservative like salt … to be infectious, expansive and profane like leaven.” (155) As a metaphor it still encourages the church as a contrast community, refusing to bless the culture.

Sawicki suggests that perhaps the church today – globalized, enmeshed in consumerism – might find the salt and leaven metaphor a most useful stance in relation to our world:

The kingdom of God is not free-standing. It has to be sought in the middle of something else … [it] can take the form of small-scale refusals to comply with the alleged inevitability of the pomps and glamours of middle-class life … the commuting lifestyle; so-called “life insurance” and retirement funds; careerism; the “soccer mom” syndrome and the overscheduling of adolescent activities; fast food; fashionable clothing … (174, 175)

It strikes me as a fantastically practical, deeply Biblical way for Christians to see ourselves in the world today.

Posted by steve at 02:27 PM


  1. I find the biblical motif of living in exile to be significant for those of us living in western contexts. It is indeed a motif of salt and leaven within society…
    Thanks – as so often – for sharing these thoughts.

    Comment by Andrew Dowsett — February 25, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

  2. I love Jeremiah 29:4-7

    This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

    Comment by Aaron — February 26, 2010 @ 7:49 am

  3. i’m a bit ambivalent about exile actually. yes it names something really important – that we are minority and can find God in minority. But it can evoke a longing for another place – So much of exile is interwoven with nehemiah and return and rebuilding and “next year Jerusalem” – that I think is contra to the salt and leaven image.


    Comment by steve — February 26, 2010 @ 7:52 am

  4. Hi Steve, you may be interested in reading one thought I had about this.

    I thought it would be better to make this comment on my own blog.

    Comment by Iain — February 26, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  5. Hey Steve,
    Thanks for contributing to my week of pondering these very things…. from a devotions about Jeremiah 28 [?] to my new small missional community’s trip to Tropfest Short Film Festival in Sydney… you see the monthly group I’m offering leadership to is called ‘Salt [Factory]’ and your thoughts will have me thinking for the next week… I’ve long reflected on the church of the 1970s to presents ability to offer ‘preservative’ in terms of the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out but we need to be part of bringing out what Petersen calls the ‘God flavours and colours’ in The Message… anyhow… thanks for the imagery… it’ll help me explain a few things to those ‘in’ what we’re doing, but not sure about it…

    Comment by Rob Hanks — February 26, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

  6. Exodus and Exile are two different things. Exodus was Israel leaving Egypt, a place that was not their home. Exile for them was leaving Israel, a place that was their home. The Exodus was a voluntary act, their Exile was not.

    Comment by Ingrid — February 27, 2010 @ 8:18 am

  7. You’re right Ingrid in terms of time lines. But much of the exilic literature used exodus imagery to make sense of what was happening,


    Comment by steve — February 27, 2010 @ 8:43 am

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