Levellers

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

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount II

Sorry it took so long to get to this entry, Gentle Readers.  I was interrupted by the move.. 

I argued that Jesus does not teach impossibly hard ideals in the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the New Moses typology in Matthew’s Gospel (Jesus goes up on a high mountain to deliver the new teachings), this is not “new law” in the sense of new burdens, harder rules to keep.  It is, as I argued in the section on the Beatitudes, grace–the delivering love and empowering grace which enables faithful discipleship.  The Beatitudes describe the virtues, the character traits, of disciples living into the Kingdom/Rule of God which Jesus brings.  We aren’t burdened with this “hard teaching” as a way to earn divine favor, but are invited into the adventure and joy of the in-breaking Rule of God.

After the Beatitudes, the Sermon can be diagrammed as 14 (twice the holy number 7) triadic statements in which the first part of the statement gives a traditional moral rule or principle (all but one of them drawn from the First Testament), the second part describes the “cycles of bondage” or “mechanisms of enslaving sin” that keep us from following that moral rule or principle, and the third part (Jesus’ commands) shows the process of deliverance out of those sinful cycles of bondage.  In this exposition, I am closely following my teacher, Glen H. Stassen and will also draw from the work of NT theologian Walter Wink.  (See Stassen’s full exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount here which reproduces an article he first published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.)

Now, scholars have often been misled at this point.  They haven’t seen 14 Triads, but 7 antisthenes or contrast statements (“You have heard it said of old/But I say unto you.”) But this view sets Jesus in opposition to the First Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that were his own Bible and the Bible of the earliest Christians.  But that cannot be right because Jesus constantly affirms the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed, in the very Sermon on the Mount, he rebukes those who would claim that he comes to replace the Torah or Law instead of fulfilling it (Matt. 5:17-19).  Also, in the phrases following Jesus’ “but I say to you” refrain there are no commands–no imperatives.  What follows instead are participles and gerunds–i.e., forms of speech showing continuous or ongoing action (the cycles of bondage).  The commands, the Greek imperatives, come later–showing the way of deliverance.  So, we have a three part structure in which Jesus does not contrast the traditional Jewish teaching, but rather affirms it, shows why it is often hard to keep, and then shows a way of deliverance than goes beyond the older teaching but does not contradict it.  The following chart shows the entire pattern from Matt. 5:21-7:12.

THE FOURTEEN TRIADS OF THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT 

 TRADITIONAL               RIGHTEOUSNESS              VICIOUS     CYCLE                  TRANSFORMING                    INITIATIVE  
         
1. You shall not kill   Being angry,or saying, You fool!   Go, be reconciled
              
2.  You shall not commit adultery    Looking with lust   Remove the cause of temptation (cf. Mk 9:43ff.)
         
3. Whoever divorces,give a certificate   Divorcing involves you in adultery   (Be reconciled: I Cor 7:11)
         
4. You shall not swear falsely   Swearing by anything involves you in a false claim   Let your yes be yes, andyour no be no
         
5. Eye for eye,tooth for tooth   Violently/revengefully resisting by evil means   Turn the other cheek; Give your tunic and cloak; Go the Second mile; Give to beggar & borrower
         
6. Love neighbor & hate enemy   If you love those who love you, what more is that than the Gentiles do?   Love enemies, pray for your persecutors; be all-inclusive as your Father in heaven is
              
7. When you give alms,   blowing a trumpet like hypocrites   but give in secret, and your Father will reward you
         
8. When you pray,   making a show like the hypocrites   but pray in secret, and your Father will reward you
         
9. When you pray,   babbling like Gentiles, thinking the wordiness will be heard   Therefore pray like this: Our Father….
         
10. When you fast,   appearing gloomy to others,like the hypocrites   but dress with joy, and your Father will reward you
         
11. Do not pile up treasures on earth (cf. Luke 12:16-31)     Where moth & rust destroy, and thieves enter & steal    But pile up treasuresin heaven
             
12. No one can serve two masters   Serving God & wealth, worrying about food & clothes   But seek first God’s reign and God’s justice/righteousness
         
13. Do not judge, lest you be judged   By the measure with which you judge, you’ll be judged   First take the log out of your own eye
         
14. Do not give holy things to dogs, nor pearls to pigs   They will trample themand tear you to pieces   Give your trust in prayer to your Father in Heaven

The items in bold show places where Jesus’ teaching is paralleled elsewhere–in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, in Luke 12, in Mark. There are also partial echoes in Paul’s writings, in the Epistle to James, and even in Revelation.  These echoes are seldom in the sections describing the cycles of bondage (which some have viewed as impossible teachings or new rules) but either in the first section (reaffirming the Hebrew Scriptures) or in the third section (describing the way of deliverance and new life)–thus showing where Jesus was heard to place his emphasis.  

In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “You have heard of old “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you “Don’t be angry.”  Who could never be angry?  Jesus was moved with anger (at the way that ritual rules harmed the sick) when he healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 1:41) and he demonstrated anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (an incident we will revisit later in this series).  Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t ever lust.”  Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Whoever divorces must give a certificate,” but I say to you, “Never divorce.” 

Instead, Jesus says, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you that nursing anger (the Greek is the verb for holding onto –the way some people treasure grudges) and calling people “Fool!” leads to judgment. ” So, how to get out of this bondage to anger than leads to various forms of judgment and sin–including, often enough, killing? Here comes Jesus’ gracious command! “If your brother has something against you GO TO HIM and seek to be reconciled.”  This is so important it must take precedence even over worshipping God (leave your sacrifice and go).  Now, THAT we can do!  We cannot guarantee that the brother will want to make peace (Jesus’ audience would surely have remembered Cain and Abel).  But we don’t have to wait for him to come to us.  We can take the initiative, no matter who was at fault. We can seek to repair the breach in fellowship (“brother” was probably also heard by Matthew’s readers as referring to “fellow church members”) instead of nursing our anger or calling names or congratulating ourselves on our self-righteousness.

And nations can do this, too.  One government offends another.  Can we ask that a government not be angry? No, but we can ask that it not nurse that anger or refuse to speak to the enemy nation or congratulate itself on its own righteousness.  We can ask that one government go to the other and seek to make peace.  After all, when you speak of the grievance between you it may include hard words of truth that the other might not want to hear–so we should be prepared to hear such ourselves.  Will this guarantee peace? Of course, not! But REFUSING to speak almost always guarantees strife and war–vicious cycles of violence and judgment.

Likewise, we avoid committing adultery by removing the causes of temptation that lead us to lust.  Here, Jesus uses typical Hebrew hyperbole.  We should not literally pluck out our eyes (I can lust with both eyes closed) or cut off our hands (I can lust without any hands!).  But we should remove ourselves from temptation.  If working late nights with a beautiful colleague alone is tempting you to break your wedding vows, then don’t work with that one alone–always meet where there is plenty of light and crowds.  If you have to, get another job.  Don’t troll the internet for pornographic sites.  Don’t do things which are likely to lead to your lusting (“committing adultery in your heart”) which will all too often lead to actual adultery.  Walk away from the conditions or people or contexts which tempt you.

In order to keep this post brief enough, we will skip several of these to go to another that bears directly on our topic of Christian pacifism.  The 5th Triad (5:38-42) gives the traditional teaching, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even in the First Testament, the intent of this rule was to limit revenge.  The common pattern in the ancient world, and today, is for unlimited revenge.  You take my eye, I take both your eyes. You take my tooth, I just may take your life. You take my life, my brother wipes out your family.  This is the “morality” of the Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. It is the “morality” of street gangs–and of most nations during wartime.  To this, the Hebrew Scriptures tried to place a break:  All you may take in revenge for a lost eye is the enemy’s eye.  All you may take for a tooth is the enemy’s tooth.  But Jesus knows this is not sufficient.  If we seek revenge, we get caught in escalating cycles of vengeance and violence.

Now, most English Bibles are not helpful here.  Verse 39 is usually translated as “Do not resist evil” (KJV) or “Do not resist an evildoer” (NIV).  The first is ridiculous. Jesus resisted evil every time he cast out demons or confronted the Scribes and Pharisees.  “Resist the Devil,” we are told, “and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7).  The NIV translation is grammatically possible, (taking ponero as a substantitive dative) but it doesn’t fit much with Jesus’ own actions, either.  As Clarence Jordan and others have noticed, ponero is most likely an instrumental and so should be translated as either with evil or by evil means.  Further, as Walter Wink’s exhaustive search of secular Greek shows, antistemai doesn’t mean any kind of resistance, but VIOLENT resistance–it is the term used for rebellions and armed insurrections.  So, 5:39 should be translated something like, “You have heard it said of old, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you “Do not resist violently or by evil means.”  Rather, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. . .

Now, many people read the Sermon at this point to be teaching a “doormat” approach to life.  In fact, in popular speech, “turn the other cheek,” is code for “let people abuse you–even invite their abuse.”  Even many who see a positive dimension to these teachings often view them as “surrending one’s rights” for the sake of God’s Rule.  Instead, I follow the work of New Testament theologian Walter Wink in seeing Jesus’ transforming initiatives here as teaching nonviolent resistance to evil, a “third way,” other than surrender or violence.  Wink urges the reader to pay close attention both to the language of the text and to the historical and cultural background in first-century Palestine.  “If someone strikes you on the right cheek. . .”  In Jesus’ culture the left hand was reserved for “unclean” acts (it was an age before toilet paper) and the cultural taboo against touching someone with the left hand was very strong.  In fact, one could be fined heavily for touching someone with the left hand.  So, we are to imagine that the striker used his right hand.  But the only way to strike the right cheek with the right hand is to use the back of the hand.  So,  this is not a punch, but a backhanded slap across the face.  But this immediately tells the audience that this is not a fight between equals, but the abuse of a social inferior by a social superior.  One does not backhand someone except to humiliate him or her, to publicly put the inferior in his or her “place.”  Equals do not backhand each other.  Masters backhand slaves or servants; the rich backhand the poor; abusive husbands backhand wives; tyrannical fathers backhand children (maybe even an adult or nearly adult son who is being deeply humiliated).  In such a situation, the social inferior usually does not dare to strike back. The rich man who backhands his servant has guards or can get them.  The wife, in a culture where divorce can only be initiated by the husband and where restraining orders for domestic abusers are unheard of, must live in the home.  Does the inferior nurse resentment and plot revenge in the night? Does s/he instead simply “take it” and cooperate with her or his own oppression and self destruction? No, Jesus says, “turn to him the left cheek also!”  But the social superior cannot backhand the left cheek without using the taboo left hand–which would humiliate the oppressor and leave him open to court action!  If he strikes with the right hand, he has to punch the inferior, which involves treating him as an equal!”  In “turning the other cheek,” the abused person refuses to be a victim, but also refuses violence and revenge. Instead, the “victim” confronts the abuser with her or his full humanity and demands to be treated as an equal–inviting repentance from the abuser.  If the humiliating slap was public, the tables have been turned.  Like the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement, the abused one is told by Jesus to refuse to cooperate with evil or to respond with violence–a way of deliverance from the cycle of abuse–culturally specific–is demonstrated.

Jesus’ next example of this “third way” involves corrupt law courts.  “If anyone would sue you for your coat. . .”  The basic attire in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, as it had been for centuries, was two long robe-like garments, a lightweight inner robe and a thicker, heavier, outer robe.  If someone was so poor (homeless) that they needed a loan and had no other collateral, the Law of Moses, allowed the lender to take the outer garment in pledge.  But, the outer garment or cloak had to be given back at every sundown because, of course, the poor man would need to sleep in it. Without it, he could die of exposure in the desert air.  But courts can become corrupt and side with the rich against the poor.  Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had condemned those whose corruption was so great they were copulating on “garments taken in pledge,” (Amos 2:8). This may have been hyperbole, but it shows the prophet’s anger at the abuse of the poor and the rejection of the protections for the poor in the Law of Moses.

Jesus shows similar anger at the courts of his day who were letting lenders actually sue homeless people for their outer garments–in effect condemning them to death by exposure!  So, Jesus says, “give to him your tunic also.” In other words, strip butt naked in the courtroom!  Now, remember, that while Jewish society had strong nudity taboos, the shame fell mostly on those VIEWING the nudity rather than on the nude person.  Thus, drunken Noah’s curse on son Ham and grandson Canaan for laughing at his drunken, naked old body. And thus, the faithful sons walk backward to cover Noah. (Gen. 9:20-27).  So, Jesus is again advocating a nonviolent protest that could shame the court (literally EXPOSING its lack of justice) and of the lender! (Jesus’ original hearers were probably dying of laughter at the imagined scene.) Of course, this move probably would result in getting the nude protester thrown in jail, but he would at least not die of exposure.  And it probably would result in some new rule against nudity in court or something. Jesus is not giving hard and fast rules, but trying to teach a METHOD of confronting evil and oppression without violence.  Thus, he is also inviting his hearers to use their own liberated, sanctified, imaginations to think of continuous similar examples in ever-knew situations as one lives the Third Way of the in-breaking Kingdom in the midst of this still-Fallen, often oppressive, world order.

Jesus’ third example comes from the Roman occupation of Palestine–which, like all occupying armies, was hated by the locals.  But Rome was a smart empire that liked to limit the times it needed to use the Legions to suppress local uprisings.  So, Roman law had limits placed on the oppressive actions of the occupying troops and strict penalties (usually death) for breaking them.  One of those rules allowed for any Roman soldier to grab any local in a conquered territory and force him to carry a burden, such as the soldier’s pack, for the soldier.  (When Jesus is crucified, this is what happens to Simon the Cyrene, who is forced to carry Jesus’ cross.  See Mark 15:21) But the local could be forced to carry such a burden only one mile.  After that, the soldier had to take back the burden or get another carrier.  The Roman roads were marked throughout the empire with mile markers for many reasons, but they made it easy to check that this rule was carried out.

Now, even though this was limited, naturally locals hated ANY forced labor by occupying troops. It reminded them that they were not free. Specifically in Palestine, it reminded faithful Jews that the Holy Land was occupied by godless, pagan, Gentiles who could, like Egypt of old, treat God’s people as slaves any time they felt like it.  Imagine the anger, the resentment that could build up, the cycles of bondage to violence that could result. (Note to American readers: Then imagine how the local Iraqi or Afghan people, EVEN IF THEY FIRST WELCOMED THE U.S. TROOPS as an alternative to Saddam or to the Taliban, respectively, feel about the occupying troops. The longer those troops stay, no matter how noble they believe their mission, the more hated they will be.  Think how the average American would feel if foreign occupying troops paraded down our cities and towns!  Back to Scripture.)

In that situation, many Jews associated with the resistance movement (later called Zealots) advocated assassination of Roman soldiers.  By contrast, the Herodian puppet government and the Sadducees and Temple elites, urged cooperating with the Romans no matter what they did.  Jesus does neither. Instead, he says, go a second mile.  The enemy soldier wonders what’s going on. Is this Jew trying to get him in trouble with his commander? Is he leading him into an ambush? Is he insulting his strength, saying that the mighty soldier is too weak to carry his own pack?  Imagine him begging to get his pack back or ridiculously knocking down the pack carrier to take it back! On the other hand, the second mile, provides the pack carrier time to confront the soldier with the injustice of forced labor and of the occupation at all. It gives time to sow seeds of repentance and peacemaking. At any rate, the pack carrier is transformed from a forced laborer–an object–into a volunteer–a free moral agent.  Here is the pattern. Jesus teaches not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent, creative, transforming, resistance to evil that can deliver both oppressors and oppressed from cycles of destructive anger and revenge.

 The 6th triadic statement reinforces our theme.  The traditional teaching is to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:9) and, in Jesus’ day, many interpreted that to mean also “hate your enemy.”  There is no command to hate enemies in the First Testament.  But that is how the command to neighbor love was understood in Jesus’ day–Love your fellow Israelite.  Much as contemporary Americans seem to think they are to love only other Americans (or only “REAL” Americans) and hate people in other countries–a view surprisingly found in many U.S. churches!  The second section, the mechanism of bondage, is given as a rhetorical question, “If you love only those who love you, what more are you doing than the Gentiles?” Even the pagans have THAT much morality! By giving this as a rhetorical question, Jesus calls into question the supposed moral superiority of God’s people and reminds them of how often they have failed to be a “light for the nations,” and fell under God’s judgment. He invites them to remember the destructive cycles just described as the results of just loving those who love you.

The way of deliverance is to love your enemies. (This command of Jesus, to love enemies, is quoted throughout the New Testament and throughout early Christian literature. Nothing else Jesus said was remembered by the early church as being so central as this command.) And Jesus tells how one is to love enemies: praying for them.  This will show that one is “perfect” (i.e., perfect in compassion) as God is–giving rain and sun to both the just and unjust. 

Here is the heart of Christian pacifism because one cannot love an enemy by killing him or her.  Notice how practical Jesus is–he assumes his hearers, including his disciples, will have enemies.  This is not pie in the sky naivete.  Too many Christians think they are too “nice” to have enemies.  Jesus is more hard-headed and practical.  He often is matter of fact about how following him will give one enemies.  But the key to Christian living is how one deals with enemies–loving them and praying for them.  Working to make peace.  One may have to confront their evil actions as the previous triadic teaching showed.  One may need to confront massive evil with massive nonviolent direct action. But one must hold out hope for the repentance of the enemy, for their conversion.  One must not respond with violence that continues the cycle of revenge.

We’ll stop here for this post.  The biblical case for Christian pacifism, for gospel nonviolence, is much broader, but nowhere is it clearer.  This is the heart of God’s call in Jesus to a new life, a new way of life, which shows a new pattern to the world.  The church, as the disciple community of Jesus, is to be the first fruits of the in-breaking Rule of God–and this is what that fruit looks like.  The heart of Christian living is love of enemies.

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November 6, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, ethics, Jesus, love of enemies, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 17 Comments

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Pt. 1

 The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded.  For our purposes, it does not matter whether or not Jesus gave the Sermon at one point or whether Matthew has arranged various of Jesus’ teachings into this current form, as many scholars believe. (A wandering preacher would most likely repeat many teachings in different forms before different audiences.) Many have believed that Jesus’ here gives incredibly hard teachings–counsels of perfection–that only saints can live (the Medieval Catholic view) or that no one can fulfill and which drive us to the sheer grace of God (Reformer Martin Luther’s view).  I contend (with others) to the contrary that the Sermon is full of grace and shows us the God’s gracious way of deliverance from bondage to mechanisms of sin.  (I will give a small bibliography on the Sermon on the Mount in a separate blog posting, but I will say that I am drawing strongly from the work of Walter Wink and Glen H. Stassen for much of what follows.)

First, to help us see the empowering joy of the Sermon on the Mount, we need a better definition of grace.  Too often we understand grace only in terms of forgiveness, of “God’s unmerited favor on sinners.” But grace is not only forgiveness, but empowerment to follow God. Grace enables our faith to be lived out in faithfulness.  Of course, we are never perfectly faithful. We fail and need forgiveness.  But to use that as an excuse for continuing in disobedience is simply wrong–and leads us back into the bondage from which Jesus delivers us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler, ran an underground seminary for anti-Nazi pastors, was marginally involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, and whose work to smuggle some Jews out of Germany led to his arrest and execution, called this kind of thinking “cheap grace.”  He contrasted that with the costly grace of the gospel.  Likewise Miraslov Volf, a theologian from war torn Croatia, says that to accept the comfort of the Crucified One while rejecting his Way to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology in place of the gospel.  So, let us approach the Sermon on the Mount prepared to hear it as a Word of empowering grace, delivering us from the mechanisms of bondage to various patterns of sin, enabling us as Christ followers to live by a new pattern, a way of life profoundly different from the world-system we know.

The Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 3-12).  The Sermon is given to Jesus’ disciples/followers and to crowds who are potential followers.  The crowds are not just any non-believers, but are those who have heard of Jesus (maybe even heard him directly) and are interested. They may even be half convinced that he is the Messiah, God’s agent for the redemption of Israel.  In presenting it in his Gospel, Matthew is saying that the Sermon is to be of continuing guidance for his Christian community–and the Church’s decision to include it in the New Testament is their recognition that Jesus continues to intend this Sermon to guide disciples and potential disciples, now.

The Sermon begins with words of grace, of blessing for those who are citizens of the Kingdom or Rule that Jesus brings.  Building on themes from Isaiah 61, these “beatitudes” are not commands or rules.  They proclaim God’s blessing or joy on those who display the grace filled virtues of the inbreaking Rule of God.  Because the characteristic of joy is so strong, Glen Stassen translates the beatitudes this way:

Joyful are the humble poor who know their need of God, for theirs is the very Reign of God.

Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.

Joyful are those whose wills are surrended to God, for they will inherit the earth.

Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.

Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.

Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.

Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Joyful are those who suffer because of working for restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.

Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God.  For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.

 

The “poor in Spirit,” are called simply the physical poor in Luke 6:20 (which we’ll examine more fully in our chapter on Luke) and are contrasted with those who are “rich now.”  So, who does Jesus bless, the poor or the poor in spirit?  The problem disappears when we realize that Jesus is referring to Isa. 61.  The anawim in Hebrew are traditionally the “humble poor.”  They are economically poor but they also, perhaps because of their poverty, realize their need of God. The rich often believe they have no need of help from God or anyone.  They trust in their riches.  But if you are poor, one lost paycheck can lead to hunger; one serious illness can lead to foreclosure and homelessness. One divorce (perhaps even against one will), one catastrophe, is enough to turn their lives from barely liveable to disastrous.  So, many poor more naturally turn to God.  Luke emphasizes the Old Testament theme of God’s care and protection for the economically poor (e.g., Ex. 22:25-27; 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15:7-11; 2 Sam. 22:28; Ps. 72:2, 4, 12; Isa. 26:6, 49:13, 66:2; Zeph. 3:12).  Matthew does not exclude this, but he puts the emphasis on their empty hand of faith before God.

The 3rd Beatitude is usually translated “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake,” but the same Greek word (dikaiosune) means both righteousness and justice.  And today’s English tends to mean by “righteousness” what the Bible means by “self-righteousness.” They make it about ourselves, about a personal quality of righteousness.  But Jesus wants disciples to be other directed, to seek to set right what is wrong.  He wants us to hunger and thirst for the kind of healing  justice that tends the wounds of individuals and societies. 

I skip the details of the other Beatitudes for brevity’s sake.  I note that they all fit together.  Life in the Jesus Way is characterized by poverty of spirit (knowing one’s need of God), by mourning/grieving the things that grieve the heart of God–so much that we are moved to action; by  wills completely surrendered to God.  The Jesus Way people hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful (practicing compassion in action), by purity of heart, by suffering for the sake of justice, by being persecuted for the sake of Jesus (just as the prophets were persecuted).  In this pattern are the peacemakers–not the warmakers–who are called the children of God.  Again, at this point, there are no commands.  The Beatitude does not command us to be peacemakers in order to earn status as God’s children.  Rather, Jesus’ followers are God’s children and joyfully make peace because they are God’s children.  In describing this vision in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not heaping burdens upon his listeners and potential followers, but describing a vision of JOY and INVITING us to participate.  This is the pattern of participation–a pattern that includes joyful peacemaking. 

Of course, while all of us disciples and would-be disciples want to live a pattern of life like this, full of joy displaying the joyous virtues of the Way of Jesus, but we also know that we often find ourselves trapped in other, more destructive patterns.  In our next installment we will see how the main body of the Sermon address these forms of bondage in 14 Triads that present a traditional moral teaching, describes the mechanism of bondage that make holding to that teaching nearly impossible, and then presents transforming initiatives–Jesus’ new commands that show us the way out of the destructive cycles that bind us–empowering grace, indeed.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, ethics, Jesus, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 12 Comments

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism III: Ways People Evade Jesus

There are numerous ways that Christians claim that Jesus is Lord, but still manage to evade his teachings and examples as claims on their lives as disciples.  I was first alerted to this by John Howard Yoder, who describes many of these evasions early in his The Politics of Jesus.  Later, my teacher, Glen Stassen presented a similar lengthy list of ways people evade taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. (Since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded in the Gospels, how we treat it is a strong indication of how we’ll treat Jesus altogether.)  If we name and describe (briefly) the various ways we dodge Jesus (while swearing loyalty to him), it will help us avoid falling into the same traps.

  1. The Dispensationalist Dodge:  Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were not meant for the “Church Age,” but for the future Kingdom of God.  My disagreements with Dispensationalism, even “progressive Dispensationalism,” are legion, but now is not the time to rehearse them.  Suffice it to say that I find it extremely unlikely that when the Kingdom or Rule of God comes in all fullness that we we will still have enemies to love, that anyone will backhand us on the right cheek, sue us for our cloaks, or any occupying troops will force us to carry any packs even one mile.  In the fullness of God’s Rule (whether in heaven or on earth), will we still have relationship problems that require us to stop our worship, go to our sister or brother and talk to them, seeking peace?  All these teachings seem very much for this world.  And at the end of the Sermon, Jesus tells the parable of the houseowner who built his house on rock (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice) versus the one who built his house on sand (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and doesn’t practice them.) The idea that Jesus never intended his teachings to be for the “Church age” is falsified by the very words of Jesus in the text.
  2. The “Preterist” Dodge: Jesus expected the Rule or Kingdom of God to Come either in his lifetime or shortly after–and his teachings were only meant to be an “interim ethic.”  He did expect his disciples to practice his teachings, but they are so heroic that they could never be practiced for long–and the ongoing centuries required a different ethic for the Church.  This view was made popular by the New Testament scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus.  Schweitzer had much right, but this seems off.  Why would the ongoing centuries make Jesus’ ethic less normative?  It is true that many Christian pacifist movements throughout the history of the Church had, at least initially, a heightened eschatological feeling, but the resurrection and the Holy Spirit give an empowering grace for Jesus’ ethic.  When Schweitzer later adopted his own spirituality of “reverence for life,” I wonder that it did not lead him to reconsider his “interim ethic” view.
  3. The public/private split dodge.  Jesus’ teachings are only for individual Christians in their private lives, but if they hold a public office requiring violence (e.g., soldier, judge, executioner, head of government) they must be governed by some other ethic.  This dodge was a favorite of the Reformer, Martin Luther and many Lutherans (and others) since then.  The problem with this is that there is no evidence for this in the New Testament texts.  Nowhere do we find Jesus saying, “In your private lives, if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also, but as a member of the Sanhedrin it’s okay to condemn people to death.”  The problem with such “two kingdom” thinking was shown most graphically in the German Third Reich–with many Christians reserving their Christian behavior for private lives, but as guards or doctors at death camps they used a different morality.  We cannot limit Christ’s lordship to the church; Christ is cosmic lord and if that is still hidden in the world (to finally be revealed at the End–Phil. 2), it is to be manifest throughout all aspects of the lives of Christians.
  4. The “inner attitudes” dodge.  This one was popular with John Calvin.  Jesus’ teachings are about our inner attitudes more than about our outer actions.  We can love our enemies even if, in war, or execution of criminals, we must kill them.  There are attitudinal dimensions to Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus wants us to renounce the nursing of anger and holding grudges rather than just avoiding killing people. But Jesus has plenty of instruction for actions, too. He tells us that we love our enemies by praying for them, seeking to do them good, stopping our worship to make peace.  We confront those who backhand us (an act of humiliation) by turning the other cheek, so that they are forced to acknowledge our human dignity; we confront those who who would sue us poor for the very coat on our backs by stripping naked in the court of (in)justice; we react to the occupation troops who force us to carry their packs one mile, by carrying them two miles.  None of those commands are simply about our inner attitudes.
  5. There is the dodge that simply ignores Jesus’ teachings and example because, supposedly, the only that counts is Jesus’ atoning death.  Historically, one strand of Lutheranism took this view–even concentrating on justification to the exclusion of sanctification. (I’ll never forget how stunned I was when one Lutheran theologian defined sanctification as “getting used to your justification!”) But this view is becoming more popular with a broad range of American evangelicals–especially the resurgent 5-point Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention.   But this makes Jesus into a cipher–so that he was just marking time until the crucifixion.  It also reduces the cross and resurrection into a divine transaction–not asking what the human motives of the Romans and their Jewish puppet leaders were for killing Jesus (something this series will discuss).  While it is true that the Apostle Paul could say that he determined to know nothing “but Christ Jesus and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2  ), but even Paul could paraphrase Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Romans 12) and was quick to say that Christ was also an example for his disciples.  The Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan mocked this view by saying that American Christians “will worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do the first thing He says!”  The debate in the ’90s among some American evangelicals over whether or not Jesus could be someone’s savior without also being Lord gets into this, too.  The answer is clear:  Jesus called out disciples, that is followers and in the Great Commission commanded them to make disciples from among all the nations and part of that disciple making would be “teaching them to practice all things that I have taught you.” (Matt. 28:18-20).  Following Jesus’ example and teachings is not an optional add on to Christian salvation–but part of the very definition of the term “Christian.”

There are other evasions, other dodges, but these are the most common, especially among lay Christians.  Readers can bring up others in comments.  Naming and rebutting these dodges, these ways we evade Jesus’ claims even while calling him “Lord, Lord!” puts us on guard against the evasive tendencies of our own unfaithful hearts.  For, as John Calvin rightly noted, the human heart is an idol factory.  We seek to root out these evasions and to be able to take Jesus’ teachings seriously as describing a distinct way of life for Christians who embody a foretaste of inbreaking Rule of God.

October 14, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, Jesus, Kingdom of God, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, violence | 10 Comments

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism I: Getting Started

   We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism.  To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem.  First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture.  There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case.  This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.

Second, this is a biblical case.  Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members.  Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters.  Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon.  Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church.  But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.

For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity.  I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal:  understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.

Defining some key terms in this study: 

  • Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ.  “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.].  So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up.  “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims  that Jesus Christ makes on their lives.  It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
  • Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.”  Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study.  But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence.  For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Artsed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).  Update:  Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right.  But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc.  Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil.  Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong.  We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong.  The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism.  There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear.  Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.”  But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
  • As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion.  Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion.  Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires.  Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence.  If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.”  However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent.  Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
  • These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important.  Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children.  That is not so.  Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome.  Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car.  I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm.  So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
  • Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue.  Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent.  Nor are intentions everything:  If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence.  The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
  • Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence.  It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent.  Examples of such practices include:  strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc.  We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
  • Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence.  These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
  • Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.”  In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking.  For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter).  (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention.  See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross:  Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005).  This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
  • Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice).  This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles.  Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking.  I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.

I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow.  The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions:  “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.

October 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, convictions, death penalty, discipleship, ethics, Hebrew Bible/O.T., Jesus, just peacemaking, just war theory, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, theology, violence, war | 20 Comments

Outline: The Biblical Basis of Christian Pacifism

We have more posts to come in the Economic Justice Primer, but I think this series on Christian pacifism will start this weekend. I have written on this blog of my pacifism in terms of testimony of my conversion to that view and brief explanations of my version.I have interviewed many people in the blog ring, Christian Peace Bloggers, and some of those interviews were reprinted here.  I have also written on Just War Theory and the practices of Just Peacemaking.  But I have never laid out a full biblical defense of Christian pacifism. I started to as a debate with a Just War Theorist, but he suddenly quit blogging and the series never materialized.  So, it is long overdue. With constructive criticism from you, my Gentle Readers (there must be a dozen or so of you by now), I may turn it into a small book geared for those with no theological training, rather than for scholars, pastors, or seminarians.  Here is the outline as I now envision it–although my experience with previous series has shown that I may need to adjust in light of your comments.

  1. Prologue: The Bible and the Christian Life. 

                 a. Why Start with Jesus?

                 b. The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

       2.  Jesus’ Teachings and Example on Peacemaking and Nonviolence

              a. The Sermon on the Mount:  Matt. 5-7

               b. How the Sermon on the Mount fits the Rest of Matthew’s Gospel (5 teaching blocks; Jesus’ actions in Matthew; The Judgment of the Nations; The OT in Matthew: Moses and Isaiah; The Great Commission and Pacifism)

                c. Binding the Strong Man:  Mark’s Gospel Structured Around Two Campaigns of Nonviolent Direct Action

                 d. The Politics of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (The Nativity Stories: The Coming of the Prince of Peace; The Nazareth Sermon–Jesus Platform; The Sermon on the Plain: Luke 6; The Parable in Luke; The Passion of the Peaceful Messiah)

                 e. The Acts of the Holy Spirit:  The Peacemaking Missionaries of the Earliest Church

                  f. Becoming Children of God: Johannine Faith and Nonviolent Liberation

       3. The Pacifism of Paul the Apostle (including Deutero-Pauline Letters)

                  a.  Paul’s Peaceful Actions in Acts and His Epistles

                   b.  Paul’s Cosmic Christology and His Soteriology of Peace

          4.  Pacifism in the Book of Hebrews

           5.  The Practical Pacifism of James

           6.  Violence and Nonviolence in the Revelation to John at Patmos

Looking Back:  New Testament “Problem Texts” for Christian Pacifism:  (Roman soldiers as Christian converts; The “two swords” at the Last Supper and in Gethsemane; Jesus’ Anger in the Temple; Paul’s admiration of soldiers; Romans 13; Revelation 20)

            7.  The Old Testament Paves the Way to NT Pacifism I:  Peaceful Creation, Violent Fall, God’s Response

             8.  The Old Testament Paves the Way II: Violence and Nonviolence in the Patriarchal Narratives

             9.  The Old Testament Paves the Way III: Exodus and Torah; The Failure of  Judges and the Monarchy

             10.  The Old Testament Paves the Way IV: Breakthrough Scenes in the Former Prophets

              11.  The Old Testament Paves the Way V: The Latter Prophets (Jeremiah as War Resister; The Exile and Israel’s New Mission)

Excursis II: Remembering to Read the Old Testament as Jesus and the Early Church Did.

Excursis III:  The Problem of “Holy War” in the OT, Especially Joshua & Judges.

Excursis IV:  Christian Pacifism Was Normative for the First Four Centuries of the Church. The Challenge of Constantine and Imperial Christianity.

Summing Up and Loose Ends from Reader’s Questions.

Suggestions as to how I could better organize this at the beginning of this process?

September 29, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, empire, nonviolence, pacifism | 10 Comments

My Personal “Canon Within the Canon”

I think it was the German Lutheran New Testament scholar (Neutestamentler) Ernst Kaesemann who coined the term “canon within the canon.”  For him, it was a normative concept referring to biblical books which not only functioned with more authority in the Church, but SHOULD have more authority than other biblical books.  Being Lutheran, I think Kaesemann’s “canon within the canon” centered around Romans and Galatians, Mark, Luke, and John (Matthew would have been seen as “too Jewish”) and definitely relegated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to lower status.  I am not sure what functioned as his canon within the canon in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.

Many have objected to Kaesemann’s phrase:  not just those inerrantists for whom every word of scripture is on the same level of authority (“flat Bible” types), but those for whom the early Church’s canonical choices are seen as guided by the Holy Spirit.  But no matter how we view “canon within the canon” as a normative concept, I think it undeniable that it is an apt term for the way different parts of Scripture function for different individuals and groups.  I think it safe to say that NO ONE, not even those who have repeatedly read the Bible from cover to cover (I come from a tradition where it is common to do this annually), are even equally familiar with all parts of Scripture.  If you are from a Christian family, go to your parents’ family Bible and see the places where it falls open naturally.  It doesn’t take long to figure out which parts of  Scripture are a pastor’s favorite. (One advantage of lectionary preaching is that it helps to prevent preachers from falling into the habit of “preaching their hobby horses.”  Lectio continua, the practice of preaching through biblical books from beginning to end, also works against this.  When I still had regular responsibility for preaching the Word, I would use the Common Lectionary–without telling my small Baptist congregation that this is what I was doing!–from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, and then preach lectio continua through 2-3 books during “ordinary time,” i.e., Trinity Sunday until Advent again.)

My friend and former teacher, David Kling, has an excellent book, The Bible in History:  How the Texts Have Shaped the Times , which shows how particular texts have shaped different denominations and traditions in the Church through the centuries.  I reviewed that wonderful book here.  One of the many strengths of Richard B. Hays’ excellent work on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, is the section where he examines the actual use of Scripture by several theologians and Christian ethicists, including from which texts they actually quote.  A similar section, using different scholars, is found in Jeffrey Siker’s Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth Century Portraits.

So, we see that each of us has a functioning canon that is smaller than the Church’s canon–whether one uses the Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant canons.   It is, no doubt, helpful to try to expand one’s functioning canon. But we should be honest about which books are the “hermeneutical center” for our personal take on faith and discipleship.

Here is mine.  Because of the Anabaptist shape of my faith, I begin with the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  I really dislike Billy Graham’s advice to new Christians to start with the Gospel of John.  The Fourth Gospel is very deep and subtle theology cloaked in deceptively simple Greek which translates into deceptively simple English. Although I disagree with those who think that John has a docetic Christology (this is where we get the very word “incarnation!”), or is anti-semitic, I think that Christians who have not first learned to the reading skills and vision of the Synoptics are not ready for John–and can misread it in very dangerous ways.

Then comes the book of James, the Acts of the Apostles, and, from Paul’s letters: Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians.  I confess to not much liking the Pastoral Epistles, even though I believe conservatives interpret them wrong.  I like the journey shape to life and faith encouraged by Hebrews, but I am uncomfortable with the Philo/Hellenistic form of Judaism in its background and imagery.

No one first exposed to the Book of Revelation by horrid dispensationalist TV preachers, as I was, will ever be fully comfortable with it.  I have learned to see Revelation very differently, as a handbook of nonviolence for a persecuted church (see here and here), but it will never be my favorite.  I must confess that I almost entirely neglect 2 Thessalonians, and the “catholic” epistles ( I and II Peter, I, II, and III John, Jude).

From the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament, I confess to a special lifelong love affair with the prophets.  As best we can tell from the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus himself especially loved the prophets, especially Isaiah, my favorite.  I also deeply love Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Joel.  Daniel is listed with the prophetic books in Christian canons, but with the Writings in the Jewish canon which I think is better since it is not prophetic, but apocalyptic literature.  I must confess to largely neglecting Daniel.

From the Torah or Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), I love Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, although I struggle with the triumphalist war theology that at least one voice in Deuteronomy pushes.  Like most Christians, I neglect Leviticus and Numbers, except for the Jubilee theme of Leviticus 25.

From the “historical books” or “former prophets,” I like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings., and Nehemiah.  I am learning to see things of value in Joshua and Judges, but they are so very bloody that they are a trial to read.  I have to struggle to keep from being put to sleep by the boring way that 1 & 2 Chronicles are narrated.  From “the Writings,” I love Ruth, Esther, Job, the Psalms, Song of Songs, and Lamentations.  I really dislike the class bias of much of the Proverbs and the depressing tone of Ecclesiastes and hate the purity/taboo rigidity promoted by Ezra (though this is also in Nehemiah).

That’s my rag-tag “canon within the canon.” It is larger than it once was and I am seeking to enlarge it, though I will never lose the Synoptic Gospels and the Prophets as my hermeneutical center. 

What’s yours and why?

June 7, 2009 Posted by | authority, Bible, Biblical exegesis | 10 Comments

A Brief Bibliography on Christianity vs. Empire

Key: Items marked with an asterisk (” *”) are introductory or for beginners in these fields of study.  Those marked with the number sign (“#”) are of intermediate difficulty.  Items marked with a plus sign (“+”) are more difficult or presume background knowledge in biblical studies, theology, and/or political theory.

The theme of “empire” has become widespread in recent biblical and theological studies, as well as recent political studies.  Political theorists debate whether or not the U.S. is an empire (remember that Rome was called an empire in its colonies long before that language was used back in Italy, where the trappings of the earlier republic were kept for some time), whether globalized capitalism forms a new kind of empire, and related matters.  For brevity’s sake, I am including only biblical and theological works, although they may reflect on contemporary issues.  In general, the anti-imperialist tone of the biblical writings has become newly emphasized in these studies.

#Avram, Wes, ed., Anxious About Empire:  Theological Essays on the New Global Realities. Brazos, 2004.  These are collected papers from a conference held in light of the unveiling of the “Bush Doctrine” in 2002 which proclaimed that the U.S. would tolerate no military or economic rivals and would launch “preemptive wars” against any and all perceived threats.  Most of the contributors are quite critical of this doctrine, but political ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School, once a liberal just war theorist, has become a vocal apologist for the Bush administration and the “war on terrorism.”

 

*Carter, Warren.  The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide.  Abingdon Press, 2006.  This is an excellent place to begin exploring the recent biblical works on this theme.

 

#___________. Matthew and Empire:  Initial Explorations. Trinity Press International, 2001.

 

+Cassidy, Richard J.  Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament: New Perspectives.  Crossroad, 2001.  A good introduction from a brilliant Catholic New Testament scholar who is also a peace and justice activist.

 

+___________.  Jesus, Politics, and Society:  A Study of Luke’s Gospel.  Orbis Books, 1978.

 

#____________.  John’s Gospel in New Perspective:  Christology and the Realities of Roman Power.  Orbis Books, 1992.

 

*____________.  Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles.  Orbis Books, 1987.

 

*Crossan, John Dominic.  God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.  A popular-level book with rather sweeping conclusions, some of which may outrun the exegetical evidence.

 

#Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan L. Reed.  In Search of Paul:  How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom:  A New Vision of Paul’s Words and World.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.

 

#Cullmann, Oscar (1902-1999).  The State in the New Testament.  Scribner’s, 1956.  Contrasts the vision of the state as “God’s instrument to you for good” in Romans 13 with the vision of the state as demonic “beast from the sea” in Revelation 13 and says that discernment as to when the state is more in line with Romans 13 or Revelation 13 is a major Christian task.

 

+Griffith, Lee.  The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God. Eerdmans, 2002. This is a difficult, but very important book. Griffith had already completed much of the book prior to 9/11. That terrorist attack and the U.S. response simply reinforced most of these conclusions.

 

*Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer,  Unveiling Empire:  Reading Revelation Then and Now.  Orbis Books, 1999.  This is a serious study of the Book of Revelation, but written in the easy-to-read style of all of Howard-Brook’s works.

 

*Howard-Brook, Wes and Sharon Ringe, eds.  The New Testament:  Introducing the Way of Discipleship.  Orbis Books, 2002.  This is an excellent introduction to the New Testament from biblical scholars committed to radical discipleship and nonviolence.  Two chapters deal especially with our theme:  “Paul’s Letters:  God’s Justice Against Empire,” by Neil Elliott and “Revelation: Claiming the Victory Jesus Won Over Empire” by Wes Howard-Brook.

 

#Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.  Fortress Press, 2003.  Glen Stassen warns that some of Horsley’s biblical exegesis in this book doesn’t seem very careful.  What is certain is that Horsley has changed his mind considerably since his earlier work, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Harper & Row,  1987.  In that earlier work, Horsley argued that Jesus dealt almost exclusively with Palestinian village society and that his teachings on nonviolence and enemy love did not address the question of Rome.  Horsley has had a rather large change of heart in this regard.

 

*____________, ed. . Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Trinity Press International, 1997.

 

*Horsley, Richard A. and Neil Asher Silberman.  The Message and the Kingdom:  How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World.  Putnam, 1997.

 

+Horsley, Richard A., ed., Paul and Politics:  Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl.  Trinity Press International, 2000.  Includes several scholarly essays on the theme of empire.

 

+____________., ed.  Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. Trinity Press International, 2004.  A collection of very deep scholarly essays.

 

#Keller, Catherine.  God and Power:  Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys.  Fortress, 2005. Keller is a feminist historical theologian who has co-written and co-edited works with the more famous Rosemary Radford Ruether.  While I share her negative attitude toward the normal idea of apocalyptic writings, I argue that the only biblical examples, Daniel and Revelation, use the genre of apocalypse to subvert the usual expectations.  I would not want to be “counter-apocalyptic” in the sense of counter-Daniel or counter-Revelation.

 

*Laarman, Peter, ed.  Getting on Message: Challenging the Religious Right from the Heart of the Gospel.  Beacon Press, 2006.  See the chapter, “Easter Faith and Empire: Recovering the Prophetic Tradition on the Emmaus Road.” by Ched Myers.

 

# Northcutt, Michael B. An Angel Directs the Storm:  Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire.  I. B. Taurus, 2004.

 

+Phillips, Kevin P.  American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.  Viking, 2006.  The author is a former political strategist for the U.S. Republican party who has become alarmed at the direction of his party and the nation.

 

+Sugirtharajah, R.S.  The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  A difficult, but rewarding, study from the viewpoint of a liberation theologian from India.

 

+Stringfellow, William (1928-1985).  Conscience and Obedience:  The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming.  Word Books, 1977.  A popularization of the work of Oscar Cullman on the state and application to the U.S. that Stringfellow knew in the ’60s and ’70s.

 

#Taylor, Mark Lewis.  Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right:  Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire.  Fortress Press, 2005. Very important reflections from a contemporary theologian. Medium difficulty.

 

+Thompson, Leonard.  The Book of Revelation:  Apocalypse and Empire.  Oxford University Press, 1990.  Difficult, but rewarding reading.

 

+Wengst, Klaus K.  The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ.  Fortress, 1987.  This is an important and very careful study of the contrast between the kind of peacemaking that Jesus taught and the “peace through strength” policies of empire, whether Rome’s or Napolean’s or Britain’s, or the Soviet Union’s,  or the de facto “empire of bases” of the contemporary USA. 

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, books, empire | 5 Comments

Romans 13

For far too much of Christian history, the majority of the Church universal has interpreted Romans 13 as a blueprint for social and political conformity–even blind obedience to the governing authorities.  The worst example of this kind of interpretation was when the German churches used Romans 13 to counsel obedience to the Hitler regime.  Although the majority of biblical scholars have long since rejected this kind of reading of the text, it is still quite popular in preaching, especially, but not solely in North American Christianity.

Thom Stark has done a brilliant expose of the fallacies of this kind of interpretation and an exposition of alternative readings.  Here is the index to his entire series on his blog, previously called Semper Reformanda, now Jesus Politics. (This reminds me that I need to clean up and update my blog-roll. If you’d like me to link to your site, let me know. )

August 3, 2008 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, blogs, liberal theology, theology | 5 Comments

Index of Posts on GLBT Persons in the Church: A Case for Full Inclusion

  1. Terms and Presuppositions.
  2. Use of Scripture in Moral Discernment
  3. Range of Christian Views on “Homosexuality.”
  4. The Sodom Story
  5. Two Texts from the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus.
  6. Addendum: Pro-GLBT “Over-readings” of Biblical Texts.
  7. Two Brief Texts from Paul (with major issues in translation).
  8. Romans 1:18-2:1.
  9. Addendum 2: DVD Review of For the Bible Tells Me So.
  10. Richard Hays’ Argument, A.
  11. Richard Hays’ Argument, B.
  12. Matt. 19:11-12: A Positive Word from Jesus?
  13. Addendum: Loose Ends.
  14. Sexual Orientation: Science.
  15. Identifying Threats
  16. Acts 10: Gentile Inclusion
  17. Loose Ends 2.
  18. Final” Post: Toward a Single-Standard Sexual Ethic for All Christians.

July 14, 2008 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, ethics, GLBT issues | 5 Comments

Index of Posts on Creation and Evolution

  1. Introduction and Outline
  2. Working Bibliography on Related Matters
  3. Creation Stories:Gen. 2:4b-25
  4. Creation Stories: Gen. 1:1-2:4a.
  5. Creation Psalms.
  6. Creation in Job.
  7. Creation in the New Testament.
  8. The Nature of Scientific Inquiry
  9. PBS Nova Special on Evolution and “Intelligent Design.” (This is TV at its best. Every church should order a copy and watch it as a way to start discussion.)

This series is clearly incomplete. I have several more steps in the argument, but got sidetracked (especially by the U.S. elections–oops!).

July 14, 2008 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, science & faith, theology | Comments Off on Index of Posts on Creation and Evolution