Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Three Deaths and a Campaign Announcement

If you follow U.S. politics and have anything CLOSE to my progressive commitments, you have to feel sorry for former Sen. John Edwards (D-SC). He chooses what should be the perfect setting and timing for his formal announcement as a candidate for the Democratic Nomination for President in ’08: Wanting to emphasize a campaign against poverty and for peacemaking, he chooses to announce in New Orleans–a city that symbolizes the malign neglect of the poor by the current administration and whose rebuilding has been hindered by the war in Iraq. Then he chooses the perfect timing to announce: Friday, 29 December–end of what is usually the slowest news week of the year. Brilliant.

But events just didn’t cooperate. Between the deaths and funerals of singer James Brown and former president Gerald Ford and Iraq’s execution of Saddam Hussein, Edwards’ announcement was all but drowned out. He drew good crowds in New Orleans and in his quick trips to Iowa and New Hampshire (early primary states in U.S. presidential elections), and the print media covered him well. But clips from his announcement and subsequent trips should have been played repeatedly on all the major news networks–giving him a powerful megaphone prior to the announcements of presumed Democratic “heavyweights” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). But I didn’t see ANY coverage in the networks or 24-hr cable news stations. The deaths of the famous and notorious drowned him out.

And that’s too bad. Because, although I wasn’t all that impressed with Edwards in ’04 (especially after he became John Kerry’s echo–I mean running mate), I have been very impressed since then. He was one of the first big name Democrats in the senate to renounce his vote for the the ’04 “authorization to use force” that gave a veneer of legitimacy to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Hillary still won’t even call her vote for the same “a mistake.”

Edwards created a think-tank on poverty and he has become far more knowledgeable about foreign policy and more aggressive in defending international law, human rights, and peace. He has boldly called for universal health care (not just universal availability of insurance)–long a dream of progressives. But now that health care is the largest labor cost of business and is one of the problems of the airline and auto industries, Edwards could get support for this long overdue social safety net from both business and labor.

Edwards’ message–economic justice, ending poverty, the U.S. rejoining the international community (instead of trying to command its obedience) and reestablishing human rights and peacemaking, repealing the absurd tax giveaways to the richest at the cost of everyone else–is one that needs to be heard and should find a hearing in today’s USA. Now, if only Edwards can get that message out.

This may turn out to be an interesting primary season for the Democrats–the 2 announced candidates, Kucinich (D-OH) and Edwards (D-SC) are both more progressive than media darling Hillary Clinton. Have times begun to change from our long slide from democracy to plutocratic oligarchy? One can only hope.

December 31, 2006 Posted by | peace, politics, poverty | 1 Comment

Saddam Hussein’s Execution: No Cause to Rejoice.

I joined with others here in asking the church universal back in November to condemn Saddam Hussein’s sentence of death. Now that it is too late to save his life, I still hope that Christians (and Muslims and others, but my first concern is with those of my own faith) everywhere will condemn the execution. Not because we find Saddam Hussein “worthy” of mercy (whatever that would mean), but because the death penalty is ALWAYS wrong. God alone can create human persons and give them life. To take that life away is to usurp the sovereignty of God. Jesus commanded us to imitate God’s mercy and forbade us to imitate God’s wrath or judgment.
By keeping the worst offenders alive, we bear witness to the infinite worth of all human life–no exceptions.

President Bush claims that this execution is a step in the right direction for Iraq. How? Sure, he was guilty of crimes against humanity–but taking his life didn’t bring any of his victims back to life. And the specific crimes for which Saddam was tried involved the use of chemical weapons sold to him by the U.S. in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They remain unindicted co-conspirators. Saddam’s Baathist party came to power in Iraq with the help of the CIA. Executing this one man is the classic scapegoat: a multitude of others’ sins are hidden by being placed on one man. Except that unlike the biblical scapegoat, this man WAS guilty–just not by himself.

Saddam’s execution, like all executions, participates in the myth of redemptive violence–a false myth, a lie. Prison sentences are imperfect balances of justice and mercy, but, at least, by refusing to kill the killers, we unmask the lie of redemptive violence and expose it. We tell the truth that ALL human life is of infinite worth. That truth was hidden by Saddam’s execution. His execution and the rejoicing by many all over the world, including the U.S. president, repeated the lie.

Speak out Christians. Speak loudly churches and church organizations. Tell the truth. Expose the lie. Not for Saddam’s sake (he believed the lie of redemptive violence as deeply as anyone and lived by it), but for ours–for the world’s sake. For the sake of the truth of the gospel, churches must renounce “justified” violence, including support for the death penalty. Let our pulpits speak the truth–now, today.

December 31, 2006 Posted by | death penalty | 3 Comments

A Tribute to James Brown

James Brown (1933-2006) changed music in the U.S. as profoundly as anyone. The “Godfather of Soul,” and the “Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness,” he pushed soul and R & B/rock from a concentration on melody to hard-driving rhythym. No one minded that his harsh vocals could be difficult to hear correctly. The power of his voice was in his passion–a passion which had him dancing and sweating all over the stage. It blew you away.

A man of contradictions, he could belt out the veritable anthem of black pride (“Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud!”) while wearing a pompadour instead of an Afro–and then turn around and vote for Richard Nixon! Born into poverty, raised in a brothel, he never quite shook off his demons–and the drugs and other self-destructive behavior clearly shortened his life.

But he embodied a more hopeful era and outlook for all that. Sure, some of his sung attitudes were anachronistic even when he composed them (e.g., “It’s a Man’s World.”). But the absolute contempt for women in much of modern rap is entirely missing–There are no “bitches” or “hos” in Brown’s lyrics. And his self-destructive behavior with drugs was not celebrated. Nor did he celebrate violence. Passion (on many levels), and sometimes anger came through his music, but never hate–and always hope. The generation that first made his music their own took all that powerful energy and tried to reshape a world into one that cared more for others–and that stopped rather than started wars.

I hope he found peace and I hope his passionate hopeful music lives on and inspires new generations.

December 31, 2006 Posted by | music | Comments Off on A Tribute to James Brown

GLBT Persons in Church: Case for Full Inclusion, 2

In my first post on this topic, I tried to clarify some terms and presuppositions. READ THAT FIRST–especially before writing angry comments. This post will prepare us to read the (few) biblical texts related to this topic (or which have been used in speaking of this topic). We’ll actually get to particular texts next time. First, we need to talk about how to read Scripture in moral discernment–in deciding ethical issues.

There is an important 2-point minimal consensus in Christian ethics (identified by Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen) on the relation of Scripture to normative Christian ethics:

  1. Biblical ethics is not and CANNOT BE identical with contemporary Christian ethics.
  2. To be authentically “Christian,” all contemporary Christian moral judgments MUST relate to Scripture in some fashion.

Now, this is a VERY minimal consensus and many of us, myself included, would like to say far more. But first, let’s examine why this consensus exists. The first statement will be far from obvious to many and the second to others.

Biblical ethics is not and CANNOT BE identical with contemporary Christian ethics. Really? Why not? Several reasons which I list in no particular order.

  • First, the biblical writers and communities did not confront many of the moral issues and historical forces which shape our lives today: e.g., genetic engineering, global warming, cloning, nuclear weaponry, civilian nuclear energy, etc., etc. Although same-sex pairings and actions were known, I am arguing that they did not confront “homosexuality” as we understand it today.
  • This leads to a second reason: sometimes a moral issue remains much the same in its basic outline, but the context is so altered that the biblical response no longer applies. E.g., On almost every page from Genesis to Revelation is a deep concern for poverty and hunger, but the causes of hunger in our day are less to weather eccentricities than to hunger as a constructed human reality. Practices of gleaning will hardly help today’s urban poor. The basic moral issue is the same, but the altered context will demand an alteration in the character of response, too.
  • On some issues the Bible has plenty to say, but says numerous different things: e.g., on war and peace (with continuities, but also sharp differences between on Old and New Testaments) or on the relationship of women and men (with some texts stressing equality and others prescribing female subordination). Which biblical texts should be prioritized over others?
  • On some issues the wider shape of biblical faith points in a different direction than specific biblical texts. The classic example here is slavery. Nowhere in Scripture is slavery as such completely condemned (the closest is the book of Philemon). Even the jubilee legislation of Leviticus–which demands freeing Hebrew slaves every 50 years still allows for permanently enslaving non-Hebrews. A slave’s death was not considered as morally bad as a free person’s death. Even though biblical slavery was not based on the concept of “race,” the 19th C. movement to abolish slavery had a hard time because the conservatives seemed to have the stronger biblical case. (In fact, I would argue that most American evangelicals and Southern Baptists never changed the way they approached scripture. They abandoned slavery because they lost a war, not because they learned to read the Bible in such a way as they saw it as evil.)

But the second point of the consensus is equally important. Christian ethics cannot simply forged apart from reflection on Scripture. This collection of texts forms our identity narrative–it tells us who we are by telling us who we have been. It tells the tales of our ancestors in faith and their experiences in history with God: How they encountered God and responded, sometimes faithfully and sometimes not. We call these texts “Scripture,” and claim it as our “canon,” or “rule of faith.” We believe in some mysterious way that God speaks in and through these very human words (in a way different from whatever other writings, etc. in which we may hear God)–so that the community of faith can hear in them the Word of God. Christian ethics is not CHRISTIAN apart from Scripture.

No one, of course, derives their moral conclusions ONLY from Scripture–not even, maybe especially not even, those who think they do so. We approach texts from within various traditions that make up the Christian Tradition. My own (ana)Baptist faith has often made negative comments about “human traditions”–believing that no confession of faith, creed, or theological document (or person like the pope) is infallible or unable to be questioned or revised. I hold to that view, strongly. But that does not mean that we stand outside any traditions–no one does. And the more familiar we are with our own and other traditions, the more we can see where they are helpful in illuminating biblical insights–or where they distort and lead to misreadings.

Our own experiences also shape the way we read Scripture. We approach texts and moral issues with particular loyalties and vested interests.

Reason and the human sciences while providing no moral voice of their own can also help us. After all the first question to ask in moral discernment is not “What must I/we do?” but “What is going on?” (H. Richard Niebuhr) and “What is God doing in this context?” (Paul Lehmann). (Lehmann’s general answer, “God is in the world working to make and keep human life human” is a good one, but fails the ecological test–it is too anthropocentric.)

One of the strengths of the critical methods of biblical interpretation is that they serve initially to distance the text from ourselves–to show us how ancient and strange and different the world of the biblical writers was from ours. That may seem alienating, but we too often assume we know the answer to moral or theological issues before we even ask the questions. We have to make sure we are not hearing echoes of our own voices–our child rearing, our Sunday School lessons, what we heard said about gays or lesbians (to take our current issue as illustrative) in locker rooms or on the playground, etc. To discern the voice of God in Scripture and in the living church today, we first have to screen out other voices and look at these ancient texts with new eyes.

So, with these preliminary thoughts in mind, I will in my next post in this series begin to examine the texts in Scripture that have been used in the debate over “homosexuality.” I will begin with the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis 19–with a glance at a parallel story in Lev. 19. From there we will examine a pair of laws in Leviticus. Before leaving the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, we will glance back at the creation stories in Gen. 1-2 (I will explain later why we do not begin there) and note some general things on sexuality found in the Song of Songs. Then, in the New Testament, we examine 2 common “vice lists” in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) before turning to Rom.1-2, the most extended discussion of same-sex matters, the only place lesbianism (female homosexuality) is specifically discussed alongside male-male actions (there are hints of female-female eroticism in Ruth, but nothing conclusive). Rom. 1& 2 is also the only place where much in the way of theological reasoning is given on this issue. There are good reasons why many consider it to be the key text in the debate. Finally, before leaving biblical exegesis for reflections on other sources of information (Tradition, science, and experience), we will examine an obscure saying of Jesus that some new studies suggest may have been a positive word for people we today would call gays and lesbians. (This will be very tentative because of its newness–it has not been widely tested in academic debate.) My final post on the topic will move from Scripture to contemporary church in theological reasoning. [This outline is open to revision as necessary.]

I expect much interaction–and many to disagree. I understand that. I took 10 years of wrestling with this issue before coming to a position on full inclusion. My own strong commitment to biblical authority kept me wrestling with texts (like Jacob with the stranger/angel at the river Jabbok) long after my experiences with meeting gay and lesbian Christians was pushing my heart toward full inclusion. I had no desire to jump on some politically correct bandwagon. If you are cautious in reading my arguments, I fully understand. I ask only an open mind and heart–and to keep reading and wrestling and praying long after this series is done. I will give sources for further reading for those interested.

If you already know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about this issue, why bother reading this series? I welcome constructive criticism. Please point out any errors I am making. But if you are not reading with an open mind, why bother to read at all? The Bible is not really authoritative for us, no matter how much we claim otherwise, if we are not prepared to hear a different Word in and through its pages than the one we already believe beforehand.

December 30, 2006 Posted by | Bible, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 18 Comments

A Progressive Democrat Pays Tribute to Gerald Ford.

I was only 12 years old in 1974 when Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) became the 38th President of the United States. Although I followed national and international politics even then, I knew nothing about his career as a U. S. Representative. Only one thing mattered to the young man I was: Ford wasn’t Richard M. Nixon. He had to be an improvement. But then, he pardoned Nixon. whom I, with all the self-righteousness of an adolescent, desperately wanted to spend the rest of his life in jail. So, I had little appreciation for Ford at the time.

With hindsight and the maturity that supposedly comes with middle age, I am prepared to be kinder to Ford on this first day of his funeral proceedings. In my view, he was the last decent Republican president of the 20th C. I now think that his pardon of Nixon, at least for the Watergate crimes, did allow the nation to heal. I am grateful to that and have been for some years. Until the George W. Bush administration (reign of terror), I even credited the U.S. public with having learned from that era that no one is above the law. We worked, after all, to stop similar abuses of power during the Iran-Contra crimes of Ronald Reagan –though he himself escaped. But lately, I wonder if all many people learned was “don’t get caught,” and always have someone prepared to pardon you. But that isn’t Ford’s fault. At great personal cost, he did what he needed to do to heal the nation.

Even more important, Ford ended the Vietnam war in 1975. When he took office, he announced “our long national nightmare is over,” referring to Watergate. But Vietnam was a much longer nightmare, beginning in 1945 when the British and the U.S. toppled the new (and, at the time, non-Communist–Ho first wanted to model Vietnam’s proposed constitution after the U.S. one and his initial declaration of independence drew on French and U.S. precedents) independent government of Ho Chi Minh to return Vietnam to France as a colony. (Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey, head of the OSS mission in Vietnam, was the first U.S. casualty of the Vietnam War, dying in 1945.) Ford had neither started this debacle (Truman was president when it began), nor increased it as had Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon–a bi-partisan policy of imperialist tragedy. Three decades later, Gerald R. Ford had the courage to end this horrible war.
In general, neither Republicans nor Democrats have been appreciative enough of Ford’s role in ending the Vietnam War. Democrats have been divided into hawks who thought LBJ was right in his war policies and doves who emphasized that JFK had been seriously thinking of getting the U.S. out when he was shot and that Bobby Kennedy would have ended the war in ’68 had he not been shot and then gone on to defeat Nixon. Peace activists have, rightly, emphasized the role of citizens in forcing the government to end the war. Republicans, including those members of Ford’s cabinet (Cheney, & Rumsfeld, especially) who have continuously been recycled into various GOP administrations ever since, have ridiculed Ford as the “only U.S. president to lose a war.” (Is that claim even true? George Washington was involved in losing wars with the Native American nations prior to becoming head of the Continental Army in the U.S. Revolution. And in the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson fought to a draw and the Canadians pushed invading U.S. troops back across the border.)[Update: As John of the Locusts and Honey blog reminded me, Jefferson sought to stop the British impression of U.S. citizens to work on British ships by means of an embargo. War didn’t break out until after James Madison became president.]
It seems to me that the GOP should have been far more grateful to Ford. Okay, he lost a presidency that he received without ever being elected to Jimmy Carter in 1976. He probably saved the Republican Party. Without Ford’s efforts in healing the nation from Watergate, removing most of Nixon’s appointees from the cabinet, and, especially, ending the Vietnam war, it is unlikely that the GOP could have elected anyone to high office for decades. Now, that might not have been a bad thing, from my perspective, but Republicans ought to be far more grateful.
Ford addressed the Southern Baptist Convention in 1975 and this lifelong Episcopalian celebrated the Baptist dedication to church-state separation. Who could have known that both the Republican Party and the Southern Baptists would abandon that commitment within a few years.
His was the last Republican presidency that was dedicated to decency, didn’t play to religious fanaticism, worked for bi-partisan solutions to problems, and was dedicated to supporting the United Nations. Although considered more conservative than his VP Nelson Rockefeller, Ford really exemplified many of the traits that we associate with the term “Rockefeller Republicans.” (He regretted to his dying day caving to conservative pressures to drop Rockefeller from the ticket when he ran for election in ’76. His VP running mate, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, would later run for president himself, with no more success.)
After losing to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford and Carter became friends. And the two ex-presidents have done much good together, with Ford playing a major role on the board of the Carter Center in helping it to be truly bi-partisan as Ford raised funds from GOP donors.
In all, I think that most of us underappreciated Ford at the time and many do so still. He may have been one of the last humble public servants: he made his own breakfast, cleaned up the carpet after his dog made a mess, laughed along with Chevy Chase at the Ford clumsiness which launched Chase’s career. He stood by his wife, Betty, in her struggles with breast cancer (she was one of the earliest “public women” to admit to having had a mastectomy–in our very breast-obsessed culture) and with addiction to alcohol and pain pills. The Betty Ford Clinic has since saved many from similar addictions.
Ford will never be one of my heroes. I think if he had won the presidency in his own right, he would have continued the Republican favoritism of business interests over common people–but probably not the ultra-harsh economic policies that began in Reagan’s era. Ford will never be on any list of my 100 most admired politicians. But maybe he was the right person for the Oval Office for the time–and certainly he brought more honor to that office than either his predecessor or any of the GOP presidents since. GOP partisans who wish to rebuild their party after the November “thumpin’,” (which, if the Dems don’t totally screw up, will continue in ’08–especially if we are still in Iraq) would do well to look to Ford as one of their models for a new kind of GOP politician–but I doubt they will.

December 29, 2006 Posted by | politics | 1 Comment

Justice for the Poor & Peace on Earth: Luke’s Christmas Message

I have argued that the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth causes problems for one of Luke’s major themes: his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. But Luke is creative and addresses this problem by using his Infancy Narrative to stress other major emphases that will be repeated throughout his Gospel: Jesus and the in-breaking Kingdom of God will mean justice for the poor (we might call this the Jubilee theme) and peace on earth (inaugurated in the nonviolence of Jesus and his followers).

Luke really tells us of two miracle births: John the Baptizer’s and Jesus’. The two are compared which may indicate that Luke is also tackling a Baptizer movement (the author indicates in Acts that such a movement existed) by arguing that, great as John was, his mission was only to prepare the way for Jesus. The Annunciation to Zechariah (John’s father) says that Elizabeth, like Sarai/Sarah, will conceive though both parents are past the usual age for children. John will be a Nazarite (no strong drink or wine) and will be like Elijah in popular Jewish piety–preparing the way of the Lord. The Annunciation to Mary is modeled more on that to Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and Mary’s Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song at Samuel’s birth.

Compare and contrast: Because old age birth miracles have precedent, Zechariah’s skepticism is met as a sign of lack of faith and he is struck dumb. But Mary’s question (“How can this be, since I have never known a man?” I.e., Mary is a virgin. Ancient people did not have our biological knowledge, but they knew enough to know that sex was a necessary precursor to pregnancy!) is logical and not taken as a lack of faith–there is no punishment, but Elizabeth’s pregnancy is offered as a sign. John will have the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” but the Holy Spirit is the very agent of Jesus’ conception. John will be like Elijah, but Jesus will be given “the throne of his father David,” i.e., will be the Messiah.

In the Magnificat, Mary breaks forth out of the role of popular Christian piety over the centuries of a mild, beatific and humble woman to speak revolutionary words that would do justice to the Maccabees. God’s mercy on those who fear God; the proud are scattered, the mighty toppled from their thrones; those “of low degree” (including Mary) are exalted; the hungry are fed and the rich sent away empty. Liberation! Similar themes are given in Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus): About Jesus, Zechariah says: Horn of salvation (rescue, freedom from enemies) from the “House of his servant David.” Of John, Zechariah says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Salavation is described in both terms of freedom of oppression and in terms of “forgiveness of their sins.” Zechariah also believes John (and Jesus?) will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

In the Christmas story itself, the setting is that of imperial oppression. A forced census to aid in greater collection of tribute to imperial masters. Occupation. A forced journey in late pregnancy. Hospitality denied (no room at the inn)–a vulnerable birth in a stable with an animal’s feeding trough as a first cradle.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (low caste, representing the anawim, the “pious poor” of the land) is filled with these themes: Good News for ALL people (not just the elites), city of David (instant overtones of Messianic hope), Savior/Liberator, Messiah the Lord.

Modern translations have the hymn of the heavenly host as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased.” This is grammatically possible and based on ancient manuscript evidence. But Brad Young argues persuasively in Jesus the Jewish Theologian for the alternative reading, “and on earth peace, good will among men/people.” The promise of universal peace was too much a part of the Jewish messianic hope. Restricting that to a peace for the favored fits too much the watered down pietism of modern evangelicalism, not the Jewish hope that Luke saw Jesus fulfilling.

Luke’s visitation is not from wealthy foreign astrologers (the Magi), but from the Shepherds–the poor and outcast who then become the first evangelists, spreading the good news that they heard from the angels and saw in the stable.

Justice for the poor; peace on earth. No matter what our views on the historicity (or not) of the Virgin Birth, the true Christmas message in Luke is that God’s Revolution (“Kingdom of God”) has broken into history in Jesus and it will be radical good news for the poor and marginalized and oppressed and lead to universal peace. (It also includes repentance and forgiveness; we need to break from the world’s patterns of domination, violence, and greed–accept forgiveness and follow Jesus in a new path.) That’s a message we need today–and it is far too absent in many contemporary churches.

December 26, 2006 Posted by | Christmas, liberation, peace | 8 Comments

So, This is Christmas: Theological Emphases in the Gospel Infancy Narratives

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are, in my view, interwoven mixtures of historical accounts (“history remembered” in Marcus Borg’s terms) and mythical or metaphorical interpretations of those events. The Virgin Birth aside, it is not easy to separate out historical fact from what we might, with Robert Gundry, call the Evangelists’ midrash on these events. The visit of the Magi seems very unlikely historically, for instance, but King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents (all boy children two and under in Bethlehem) is completely in character: he killed several of his own sons and Bethlehem was small enough that such a slaughter could have totalled 10-15 kids, small enough to keep from imperial records. But if the slaughter of the innocents is “history remembered,” it needs a motivator and the visit of of the Magi is the only option given in our sources.

Or take Luke’s narrative: Empires, ancient and modern, conduct censuses of their occupied territories in order to more efficiently tax and oppress them. But, as E. P. Sanders points out, a census in which each man was sent back to his ancestral home town would disrupt the entire empire and surely be a source of controversy–and therefore likely to have been mentioned in secular histories of the day. But there is no such census mentioned, throwing doubt on the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. Further, why would Mary, so late in her pregnancy, accompany Joseph back to Bethlehem? Wouldn’t staying in Nazareth with relatives and midwives while Joseph took care of the census have made more sense? Yet, as Richard Cassidy, S.J. writes in his Jesus, Politics and Society, Luke’s knowledge of “Empire history” is extensive. He gives dates and times that he expects his, largely Gentile, audience to know and if his narrative were wildly inaccurate or implausible, it would undermine his apologetic/evangelistic purposes. A modern historian who is open to the miraculous, but is not pre-committed to historical inerrancy, must make difficult judgment calls–hemmed about with many a “maybe.”\

Fortunately, our task is easier. The strong theological themes of these stories are much easier to detect–and these themes are where the Evangelists themselves place their emphases.

Matthew’s Account (Chaps. 1-2): Written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience (perhaps in Syria?), throughout the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes–now amazingly open to Gentiles, too. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). More than any other New Testament writing, Matthew refers to Jesus as “Son of David,” a Messianic claim–and specifically a claim that Jesus is a King-Messiah and not the “priestly Messiah” of some Jewish hopes. Although Matthew’s account will re-define “Messiah” in ways that are nonviolent rather than military, there is no escaping the challenge in such claims to Roman rule–or the rule of client kings like the Herods. The opening line is revolutionary. (The Gospel will also present Jesus as a “new Moses” giving new Torah. Matthew’s narrative, as almost all commentaries mention, is structured around 5 major teaching blocks, paralleling the 5 Books of Moses.)
Next, Matthew uses a carefully crafted genealogy to prove his opening claim. Using some “fuzzy math,” Matthew concludes in 1:16-17, And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to the Messiah fourteen generations. 14–twice the holy number 7, shows completeness–even if Matthew has to skip some people and move others to get his numbers right. The point is that Jesus was born with the right lineage and just the right time to be the Messiah.
Now, anyone who has spent any time reading biblical genealogies knows that they seldom mention women. In that very patriarchal society women were seldom mentioned at all–men were seen as the actors in society and history. But Matthew’s genealogy includes 4 women (in addition to Jesus’ mother, Mary) who each played pivotal roles in Israel’s history. Why are these women named? There have been 4 major reasons given in church history and each has something to recommend it, in my view.

  1. The women were notorious sinners and foreshadowed Jesus’ role as savior of sinners. This was proposed as early as St. Jerome’s commentary on Matthew. Some have even seen this as a rebuttal to the ancient Jewish anti-Christian polemic that claimed Mary was an adulteress and Jesus her bastard son. But although this cannot be ruled out, I am not certain Matthew’s readers would have instantly understood these women as sinners: Tamar seduces her father-in-law as a pretended prostitute, but this is because her father-in-law refuses to follow the levirate marriage custom of giving her to another of his sons. Genesis portrays her actions as acts of faith that perpetuated her deceased husband’s lineage. Rahab had been a prostitute, but the book of Joshua understands her as a convert whose actions in hiding the Jewish spies in Jericho–though treasonous from the viewpoint of Jericho–are considered righteous. Ruth, Moabite convert to Judaism and grandmother to King David, certainly seems to have acted irregularly in “uncovering Boaz’ feet” in the fields, but this led him to become kinsman redeemer for Ruth and Naomi. So, once more, Matt.’s readers likely would NOT have seen Ruth as a sinner. Even Bathsheba, whom Matthew refers to as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” was not always condemned in rabbinic literature since her adulterous actions led to the birth of Solomon. (Of course, from our contemporary standpoint, Bathsheba would be seen as David’s rape victim–refusing the king was a death sentence!–rather than a seductress at all!) So, while this first reason for the women’s inclusion cannot be entirely dismissed (as Raymond Brown seems to), I don’t think this is the major reason.
  2. The women represented foreigners, thus foreshadowing the gospel mission to the Gentiles. This view was first popularized by Martin Luther. The Bible does identify Rahab as a Canaanite and seems to imply this about Tamar as well. Ruth is a Moabite and Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, even if her own nationality is never mentioned. Thus, Matthew not only indicates that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has Gentiles in his ancestry, but shows that Gentiles are involved in the heart of Israel’s redemptive history.
  3. There was something unusual, even scandalous, involving each woman’s pregnancy. Tamar’s pregnancy by Judah was certainly scandalous, though Judah pronounces her “more righteous” than he was in securing her dead husband’s lineage.We are not told the circumstances of Rahab’s marriage to Salmon, but the fact that she was a former Canaanite prostitute makes that marriage and subsequent pregnancy scandalous. We have already noted the irregularity behind Ruth’s union with Boaz and Bathsheba’s pregnancy by David (and the subsequent royal murder of Uriah) was more than scandalous for the prophet Nathan and the authors/editors of 2 Samuel. It is therefore quite probable that Matthew is preparing his readers for the scandal that Joseph is not Jesus’ father. However, Jane Schaberg’s contention that Matthew is thereby hinting that Jesus is illegitimate and that the Virigin Birth story should not be understood literally, doesn’t really work. Why would Matthew try to subvert his own narrative?
  4. Each of these women took an active role in furthering redemptive history and was thus seen as an agent of the Holy Spirit. This has much to recommend it: Tamar schemed to get the offspring for her deceased husband that Judah owed her under levirate marriage. Rahab’s bold initiative in hiding the Israelite spies in Jericho enabled Israel to enter the Promised Land. Ruth’s initiatives kept Naomi from starving, led Boaz to become their “kinsman redeemer,” and secured the emergence of the Davidic line. Bathsheba’s manipulations at the time of David’s death led to the succession by Solomon–a move not seen as positive by all biblical writers, but seen as God-blessed by the dominant Jewish piety of Matthew’s era. However, the problem with this proposal is that Mary’s role in redemptive history in agreeing to birth the Messiah is related not by Matthew but by Luke! Mary is entirely passive in Matthew’s account–and the heroic role goes to Joseph for agreeing (after a dream) to wed Mary and bear the shame of the scandal that she was pregnant before their wedding (but not before their betrothal–binding as marriage in Jewish law).

In yesterday’s post, I already focused on the theological motifs of Messiahship in the angelic dream visitation to Joseph and in Matthew’s reworking of Isaiah’s prophecy. Originally the prophecy in Isaiah 7 was a sign to King Ahaz that he would soon not have to fear Assyrian invasion. Thus, the sign could not be the miracle birth of a far future Messiah. A young woman shall conceive and bear a son, named Immanuel, and before the kid is old enough to know right from wrong, he will “eat curds and honey” (i.e., have prosperity) because Assyria will be deserted. The young woman was most likely either Isaiah’s wife or the king’s. But Matthew deliberately uses the LXX Greek version of this story to make this a prediction of a future Virgin Birth. We would call this prooftexting. More generously, Matthew had a wider understanding of prophetic “fulfillment” than moderns and constantly saw Jesus’ life as mirroring previous patterns in Israel’s history.

For this same reason, Jesus must recreate Israel’s captivity in Egypt and subsequent Exodus. (“Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hos. 11:1 was originally a reference to God’s calling of Israel from Egyptian captivity.) The Visit of the Magi doesn’t just set up this refugee flight, however, but also signals a major Matthean theme: Jesus the Jewish Messiah is recognized by Gentiles and rejected by many Jews. It is also not sentimental: The salvation Jesus brings is a threat to empire (including client kings like Herod) and they resist it with violence–including the brutal slaughter of the innocents. (Which, once again, Matthew sees echoed in biblical literature–Jeremiah’s lament over Babylon’s treatment of Ramah in Jer. 31:5.)

This is long enough for today’s post. In Matthew’s perspective, the major point of Christmas is not the Virgin Birth, though he indicates that Mary was a virgin and even “creatively reworks” a prophecy of Isaiah to justify it. But the emphases in Matthew are Jesus’ as the rightful Davidid Messiah, and fulfillment of Israel’s story and hopes–with surprising recognition by Gentiles and violent opposition by empire–Jewish and Gentile. The scandalous nature of Jesus’ birth is foreshadowed by other births in his ancestry (and Israel’s history) as is the Gentile mission. Tomorrow, we’ll see Luke’s even more revolutionary themes.

December 25, 2006 Posted by | Christmas, liberation, messiah | 1 Comment

Daily Christian Peace Quote #7

I was sent of God to stand to witness against all violence and the works of darkness, and to turn people from darkness to light, and to bring them from the causes of war and fighting to the peaceable gospel. George Fox, Founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in a letter to Oliver Cromwell explaining why he was refusing Cromwell’s offer of a commission in his New Model Army.

December 25, 2006 Posted by | pacifism | Comments Off on Daily Christian Peace Quote #7

A Historical-Critical Affirmation of the Virgin Birth

There have been many good theological reflections on the Virgin Birth on blogs, recently. Darrell Pursifal has posted an excellent series trying to pin down the when of Jesus’ birth. D.W. Congdon has been reviewing major figures in church history on the Virgin Birth. Peter Lumpkin posted an original poem on the Incarnation. And so it goes.

This has prompted me to write two [update: three] reflections. Today, Christmas Eve in my part of the globe (Louisville, KY), I want to affirm my belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus as an actual historical event and to give a historical critical argument in its favor–an argument that might prove persuasive to those, myself included, who do not hold to biblical “inerrancy.” I don’t think the focus of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke is on this point, so, tomorrow, I will blog on the wider themes that I think ARE stressed in the Gospel accounts.

First, some things I DON’T BELIEVE:

  1. I don’t believe in these Christmas card depictions of Mary having apparently the easiest birth ever in history–no pain, no blood, no sweat, with a smile that seems to say, “Well, that was easy.”
  2. I don’t believe that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried! If he hadn’t, his parents would have wondered if something was wrong. Jesus was fully human and behaved like any other infant. The docetic heresy that he only seemed human is very popular in our churches.
  3. I don’t believe Jesus glowed or had a halo. (The punch line of an old Doonesbury had a children’s Christmas pageant in which “the part of baby Jesus is played by a 100 watt light bulb!”)
  4. I don’t believe in the “swingshift Trinity” of the Modalist heresy which has Jesus keeping the planets in orbit from his crib!
  5. I don’t believe in shepherds and Magi both showing up on the same night. Matthew clearly has the Magi arrive 2 years after Jesus was born with the Holy Family now living in a house in Bethlehem. [Update: Darrell Pursifal’s reconstructed chronology attempts to place this visit in the same year as Jesus’ birth, but still sees them as 2 separate events.]
  6. I don’t believe the Virgin Birth is a “fundamental of the faith.” Nonsense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth. It is not necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to believe in the Incarnation or Christ’s pre-existence. John’s Gospel and some hymns in Paul’s letters indicate Christ’s pre-existence without ever mentioning virgin birth. We get our very WORD “incarnation” from the prologue to John’s Gospel without ever a mention of the Virgin Birth. Although some later theologians say the Virgin Birth guarantees Jesus’ sinlessness, the New Testament never makes that connection–and doesn’t promote a belief in the biological transmission of sin.
  7. Karl Barth said that the Virgin Birth was a necessary doctrine because it was the sign of the Incarnation in the way that the empty tomb was the sign of the Resurrection. But sign to whom? Unlike the empty tomb accounts, no one saw the Virginal conception of Mary. We have her word for it. I am not doubting Mary’s virginity as we will see, but since this is not a public event, it cannot be a sign of the incarnation. Had God chosen to do so, God could have used ordinary biological means for Incarnating the Son. However, Barth is onto something. I do believe that we have these birth narratives to indicate to those of us who already believe in the Incarnation that God initiated everything–that Jesus did not become the Son of God, but that in him God became human!
  8. As the Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, points out in his massive, The Birth of the Messiah, the term “Virgin Birth” is shorthand. What we really affirm is that the Jewish maiden, Miriam (“Mary”), conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse–that she did not experience sexual intercourse until after Jesus’ birth. This affirmation of her Virginal Conception of Jesus is in contrast to Medieval doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity (claiming that her hymen remained unbroken before, after, and DURING, delivery!!!) or the strange Christology promoted by the Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman (and, to the great embarrassment of modern Mennonites, eventually accepted by Menno Simons) that Jesus did not receive any physical characteristics from Mary, passing through her body “like water through a pipe!” I don’t believe any of that!

If it turns out that I am wrong, that, as some ancient documents hold, Jesus was the product of Mary’s rape by a Roman soldier (Jesus ben Pantera) or, alternatively, that Joseph and Mary “jumped the gun” on the wedding ceremony (Jewish betrothals were considered to be already legally binding marriages), nothing central to my faith will have been touched. I may have to make some adjustments in my view of how much of Scripture is historical narrative, but that’s all. If the birth narratives in the Gospels are purely symbolic, as many hold, I can live with it. But, as a matter of fact, that is not MY view: I believe the virgin birth to be literal, historical fact. Because I believe the Resurrection is literal, historical, fact, I believe in a God whose relation to the world allows for miracles. So, nothing in my worldview prevents belief in the Virgin Birth. A God that created this cosmos (yes, using evolutionary and other natural processes, but STILL) and can raise the dead would have no trouble with a pathenogenetic conception in a species (Homo sapiens) where that is usually impossible.

But if the Virgin Birth is neither theologically necessary, nor impossible, what case can be made for its historical truth? A fairly strong one, I think, if one is open to the possibility in the first place.

Notice that the Virgin Birth causes problems for the theologies of both Matthew and Luke. Matthew wants to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah: A Davidic figure. His genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) is designed to prove (a) that Jesus is a direct descendant of David (as well as Abraham) and (b) through some fuzzy math that God has prepared exactly the time for Jesus to appear as Messiah. But there is a problem. For Matthew’s genealogical point to work perfectly, it should conclude, ” and Jacob begat Joseph, and Joseph begat Jesus.” But it doesn’t! It says, “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah.” But that undermines Matthew’s entire case. Why would Matthew create problems for himself and his theological point? With Mark as a guide, he could have skipped even having a birth narrative. There is no compelling reason for Matthew to include a virgin birth apologetically and every reason for him to leave it out. But he doesn’t. The tradition of such a birth must be firmly entrenched in the sources (other than Mark and “Q,” the hypothetical source of much of Jesus’ sayings) that Matthew is using. He MUST include it even though it hurts the case he is trying to make for Jesus as Davidic Messiah.

So, Matthew makes the best of things: He includes women in his genealogy who all have scandal attached to them to prepare readers for the scandal that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He relates the Virgin Birth indirectly through the angelic dream to Joseph and connects it with Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) about a young woman (Hebrew almah, “a young woman of marriageable age”) already pregnant. (Originally, the sign was probably a reference to the prophet’s wife or the king’s since Isaiah said that before the child would know right from wrong, the Assyrian threat would be removed.) Matthew does “creative exegesis” to turn this into a prediction of the Messiah’s Virgin Birth. Then, he makes sure that the readers know that Joseph has gone through the Jewish form of adoption (“and he called his name ‘Jesus'”) in order, once more, to validate his genealogical case for Jesus’ messiahship.

Luke also has theological problems because of the Virgin Birth. Of all the canonical Gospels, Luke is most at pains to stress Jesus’ full humanity–e.g., 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans.” That is, Jesus developed normally–intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. Luke’s Jesus, even more than Mark’s or Matthew’s (and FAR more than John’s), gets tired, hungry, careworn, etc. Luke isn’t denying Jesus’ divinity (he uses the label “Son of God” more than the other Synoptics), but stressing that this divinity is only shown through the very real humanity of Jesus. So, why would Luke start his Gospel with a Virgin Birth–something that points out Jesus’ difference from other humans? Again, it is very unlikely that Luke would create such problems for himself. He could only include this if it was indelibly part of the sources he was using–he had to be convinced it was true. Again, Luke uses this for his own purposes: comparing Jesus’ birth with John the Baptizer’s; emphasizing liberation themes and peacemaking themes, and Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginalized. (More on this tomorrow.) But, surely, it would have helped Luke’s theology if he could have ignored the Virgin Birth.

The principle of the “harder reading,” in text criticism is that copyists do not change things to make matters more difficult. So, deciding between different variants otherwise well attested, textual critics tend to go with the “harder reading.” Similarly, authors do not introduce elements that weaken their very purposes for writing–unless they have no choice. I argue that Matthew and Luke HAD to include the Virgin Birth because their sources were absolutely convinced of its truth–and so were they.

The two accounts are very different and not wholly harmonizable: Luke’s narrative, which has the Holy Family returning to Nazareth after Jesus’ circumcision and dedication in the Temple (Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem when there aren’t roadblocks between the two!) eight days after birth, doesn’t seem to have room for Matthew’s narrative in which the Holy Family is still living in Bethlehem two years later when the Magi come and they need to escape to Egypt. One account is of forced travel by a Roman census, birth in a stable, visitation by shepherds (the lowest of the low; like contemporary migrant workers in status), angelic announcements and shepherd evangelizing; the other is of visitation by wealthy foreign astrologers, mysterious dreams and stars, death squads sent out by Herod, and a refugee flight to the Jewish colony in Egypt. Nor are the 2 genealogies easily harmonized. Nevertheless, as Raymond Brown notes, there are 11 points of commonality between these two different traditions:

  1. Both Infancy Narratives indicate that the parents are to be Mary and Joseph, legally betrothed, but who have not yet begun to live together or have sexual relations (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1: 27, 34).
  2. Joseph is a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32; 2:4).
  3. There is an angelic announcement of the future miracle birth ( Matt. 1: 20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
  4. Mary’s conception of Jesus is not through human intercourse (Matt. 1:20, 23, 25; Luke 1:34).
  5. The conception is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1: 18,20; Luke 1:35).
  6. The angel commands the child to be named “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).
  7. An angel states that Jesus is to be “savior” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11).
  8. The birth (not the conception) of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together(Matt. 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
  9. The birthplace is Bethlehem (although Matthew gives no explanation for why the couple is there–and they appear to have moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem!) (Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
  10. The birth is chronologically related to the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5).
  11. The child is reared at Nazareth (Matt. 2:23; Luke 2:39).

That’s an impressive list of commonalities for two such divergent narratives and argues strongly for a historical core.

Does this “prove” the Virgin Birth? No. And, as I said, I do not believe this is a core or “fundamental” doctrine and I do believe that the focus of the Gospels is elsewhere. But these considerations, coupled with my firm belief that God is quite capable of such a miracle, lead me to affirm that, in all probability, the virgin birth of Jesus is historically true.

Tomorrow: the deeper meaning of the Gospel Infancy Narratives.

December 24, 2006 Posted by | Christmas, virgin birth | 19 Comments

Fmr. First Lady Ordained as Baptist Deacon

As early as 1611, some Baptist confessions of faith permitted women deacons and we have evidence of women deacons as early as the 1630s. Baptists have also had women preachers from early in our history, but female deacons have been more widespread, though always controversial. Still, since the assault on any form of women’s leadership by the so-called “conservative resurgence” (i.e., the Fundamentalist Takeover) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptists in the U.S. South have created a global impression that women are forbidden these offices by all Baptists. That makes the following press release even bigger news. MLW-W

December 20, 2006
Rosalynn Carter ordained as deacon by Plains church
By John Pierce
PLAINS, Ga. — Former First Lady Rosalynn Smith Carter was ordained as a deacon Dec. 10 by Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. Though raised a Methodist, Mrs. Carter, 79, has been active in Baptist congregations since her marriage to former President Jimmy Carter, a longtime Baptist deacon, more than 60 years ago.

“It was a wonderful experience,” said Mrs. Carter of the Sunday evening ordination service. “I’m just kind of overwhelmed about being elected a deacon at the church.”

Mrs. Carter said being a deacon will open new opportunities for leadership and in caring for the church families assigned to her.

“I’m looking forward to being more involved in the affairs of the church, the decision making,” said Mrs. Carter. “We have a great church and a wonderful ministry.”

Mrs. Carter has long been involved in behind-the-scenes ministries such as working with children and delivering meals to families in need, said Maranatha pastor Jeff Summers.

“She is very shy and doesn’t like the spotlight,” said Summers, “but people have seen her leadership and compassion.”

The Carters are well known for their involvement in the small, rural congregation that welcomes thousands of worldwide visitors each year to attend the Sunday school class taught by President Carter.

Maranatha is among a growing number of Baptist churches to include women as deacons — a laity role noted for its service to the congregation. Mrs. Carter is the second woman elected as a deacon at Maranatha. The first was Sue Askerzada in 2003.

In December 2005, Jessica Summers, a graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology who assists her husband with the church’s ministries, became the first woman ordained to ministry by the church.

The issue of women in church leadership continues to be debated in many Baptist congregations and organizations. Most churches aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention do not ordain women as ministers or deacons.

The SBC revised its Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement in 2000 to include stated opposition to women as pastors. Some related agencies and associations have expanded that restriction to apply to women in other leadership roles such as female chaplains and, in one case, to a church’s associate pastor.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and American Baptist Churches, USA, are more affirming of women in church leadership. [Blogger’s note: This is also true of many other Baptist groups such as the Alliance of Baptists, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland; La Fraternidad Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba, etc.] However, Baptist polity, particularly the concept of local church autonomy, gives each congregation the freedom to call out and ordain its ministers and deacons without interference from any other church body.

“I’m encouraged,” said Mrs. Carter of the growing inclusion of women in all aspects of church leadership. “In our church, it has slowly evolved.” Since her election as a deacon, Mrs. Carter said she has been searching the Bible to learn more about being a servant of the church. Women like Phoebe, she noted, were called to places of service in the early church.

“It’s obvious that women were always included,” said Mrs. Carter. “Jesus, I think, set an example for having women in leadership roles.” As for her own term as a deacon, she added: “I’m looking forward to it.”
(John Pierce is executive editor of Baptists Today, an autonomous, national news journal based in Macon, Ga.)

December 23, 2006 Posted by | Baptists | 5 Comments