Today is the official U.S. holiday for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 January 1929-04 April 1968) who was assassinated 40 years ago this coming April. In the generation which has passed in the meantime, King has been tamed: turned into “the Dreamer.” Though more biographies and studies of his life and work have been written than with any other African-American leader (itself a disservice to the hundreds of leaders and thousands of forgotten participants in the so-called “Civil Rights” movement), few Americans know anything about King other than the first 4 words of his most famous speech, “I have a dream,” delivered as the climax of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Almost no one could summarize much of the contents of that dream–beyond vagaries like “racial harmony.” So, although its rhetoric is among the most stirring political speeches in the English language, count me among those who call for a moratorium on the Dream Speech–and, more importantly, a moratorium on the icon of “King the Dreamer.” A part of my Ph.D. dissertation was on King and I have written one slim book on the civil rights movement, so I know what I am talking about when I say: The Real Martin Luther King, Jr. was far more radical than the icon–and it is the radical King whom we need to recover today.
King’s vision for U.S. society was always more than simply racial “integration.” He knew the system as it was then and is now was/is unjust and that Black assimilation into such a system would just make things worse. He ALWAYS wanted to change the system beyond just ending the legal segregation–as important as that was. But in the years following the Dream Speech, the radical dimensions of King’s vision became more pronounced:
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a class warrior against an unjust economic system. Although he rejected many of the answers of Marxism, he found much of Marx’s critique of capitalism valid. Increasingly, he called himself a democratic socialist–of the kind he had found in Scandinavia when he journeyed to Oslo, Norway in 1964 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (King’s Nobel Acceptance Speech should be required reading in all U.S. high schools.) He wanted American to turn from materialism (what he called a “thing oriented society”) to a person-centered society–a move that he called a “revolution of values.” During his last year of life, King was planning a different kind of March on Washington, as part of a massive “Poor People’s Campaign” that would unite African-Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans, and poor whites (especially from Appalachia and Mississippi–America’s 3rd World, then and now) and demand the kinds of changes that would abolish poverty–though he knew it would cost a huge amount of money. King himself took only $1 per year as salary for leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a modest salary as a pastor. He donated most of his speaking fees to the SCLC. He divided up his Nobel Prize money between the 4 largest civil rights organizations–and his wife, Corretta, had to demand that he set aside a small amount in a fund for his kids’ education. He constantly linked the fortunes of African-Americans with the strength of the Labor movement. When he was assassinated in Memphis on 04 April 1968, he was helping out a campaign for the rights of city garbage workers.
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to peacemaking. As his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” essay makes clear (you can find it reprinted as a chapter in Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and in his book of sermons, Strength to Love (1965) ), he was not always a pacifist–not in his youth and early education. And he began working with Gandhian nonviolence as a mere tactic in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but was prepared to use violent self-defense in his personal life. But this soon changed, under the influence of reading Gandhi and from pacifist interpretations of Jesus mediated to King by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (especially the white Methodist preacher Glenn Smiley and the African American Quaker Bayard Rustin). Most people never understood this: They expected that King, as a good American and as one who wanted the alliance of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in passing civil rights legislation, would support the U.S. war effort in Vietnam–or, at least remain silent. He tried the latter. In the early days, Corretta spoke out far more against Vietnam than Martin did. (She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom since her days at Antioch College, long before meeting Martin.) When he did speak out, many other civil rights leaders told him to be quiet and he tried to obey–until he could silence his conscience no longer and on 04 April 1967 (one year before his death) gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church in NY. In that speech King said that he could never again tell young men in gangs to stop their violence if he didn’t confront the greatest purveyor of violence in the world–“my own government.” This lost him Johnson’s friendship and support and led J. Edgar Hoover to call King “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
The real King, unlike one of his daughters, was not homophobic. He did not speak out on gay rights–no one did in those days–but he knew that one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin, was gay. After his death and the rise of the modern gay rights movement, Corretta Scott King championed it bravely.
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a complete contrast to Malcolm X or the later Black Power movement. Yes, King criticized the Black Power movement, but his criticism was not total and he sought to remain in dialogue with its leaders like Stokely Carmichael. His chapter on black empowerment in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? criticizes the violent rhetoric and the separatism of the Black Power movement, but praises its emphasis on black self-sufficiency and Black Pride.
But the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was also no plastic saint. The icon is dangerous not only because it is tamed, but also because it makes King seem perfect–and thus an impossible standard for movement leaders. But the real King, despite his many sterling qualities, was human and flawed, as are we all.:
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a chain smoker, though he kept it mostly off camera. He tried often to quit and failed. (This is somewhat more tolerated by Black Baptists in their pastors than by white Baptists, but it was still considered a major failing in many parts of Baptist life.)
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a faithful husband, but had several extramarital affairs–short and longterm. We know of these mostly because the FBI bugged his hotel rooms and tried to use the tapes of him having sex to extort or scare both him and Corretta. But, sadly, friends and associates mostly tried to cover this up or apologize for it, rather than confront King as friends who were concerned about his marriage. He needed a community of accountability and didn’t have one.
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sexist who was always trying to keep Corretta from being an equal partner in both their marriage and in the movement. This was typical of most men of this pre-feminist era–indeed, the modern women’s movement can be traced to the dissents by the women, black and white, who were demeaned in the struggle for racial equality.
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was subject to depression and to doubts about himself, about God and his faith, and about the movement and his role in it. The confident face he showed to the world did not always reflect his doubts and struggles and wrestlings with himself and God.
The real Martin Luther King, Jr. could be high-handed, even dictatorial, in the way he ran the SCLC. Other organizations, especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC, pronounced “SNICK”) and their advisor, Ella Baker, dissented from this personality-driven approach to mass movements. The SNCC students often mocked King as “De Lawd,” and Baker’s slogan was “Strong People Don’t Need Strong Leaders.”
I think we need Martin Luther King, Jr. today as much or more than when he was taken from us 40 years ago. (He would have turned 79 last Tuesday.) But we don’t need King the tamed and perfect icon, King the Dreamer. We need the real, radical Martin King–both because our society needs this radical critique and much bolder vision, and because we need to develop new leaders without expecting that they will be either without flaws or always popular. And we need to recover King in context: in the context of many others working for freedom and justice and peace–and some losing their lives for it.
We honor King’s memory not by taming it, but by letting it challenge us in all its radical fullness–and by taking up where King left off. We honor King best by rolling up our sleeves and getting into the risky work of justice and peacemaking.
On 18 July 1918, Nelson Mandela was born in the village of Qunu in the Transkei, South Africa. Born to African royalty, Mandela (a Methodist Christian) studied and practiced law, joined the African National Congress during its Gandhian nonviolence stage, and later came to lead this central organization in the struggle against apartheid(racial separation) in South Africa. After the Sharpesville massacre (1961) of unarmed students, Mandela led the ANC to abandon its commitment to Gandhian nonviolence and take up arms in a campaign of sabotage and guerrilla warfare (terrorism was rejected). On 05 August 1962, Mandela was arrested and tried for treason and spent the next 27 years in prison where he was often tortured. In 1990, the ANC was unbanned, Mandela was released from prison, and in 1994 became the 11th President of the Republic of South Africa–the first non-white president and the first to be elected in free and fair elections open to all races.
This amazing contemporary leader is not without his faults. He is now married for the third time and has been a largely absentee father. His autobiography is painfully honest about what his dedication to the freedom struggle has cost in family life. As a Christian pacifist, I criticize his abandonment of Gandhian nonviolence during the anti-apartheid struggle–and I am persuaded that ANC’s choice to resort to sabotage and guerrilla warfare did NOT speed up the end of apartheid and may have even delayed that end. Nevertheless, it must be said that Mandela is one of the few revolutionaries who maintained his ideals once in power and continues to grow and stretch as very public moral leader.
Mandela has been honored with over 100 awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Although he himself engaged only in sabotage, he has admitted that not only the white government, but also the ANC, committed human rights violations during the years of struggle, especially the 1980s. He has sharply rebuked those who have tried to have statements in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission removed which have given evidence of ANC human rights violations. Since leaving the presidency of South Africa, Mandela has led the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and has become a champion of the environment–and one of the most vocal of global leaders in strong opposition to the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush.
From Mandela’s closing remarks at his trial for treason:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
UPDATE: Note, all (polite) comments are welcome, but some visitors to this blog from Africa seem to have the mistaken idea that this is a good place to send birthday greetings to Mr. Mandela. As far as I know, Mr. Mandela does not read this blog and is unlikely to see any birthday greetings you leave here. You would do better to send those personal wishes here. Thanks for stopping by anyway.
The theme at this year’s summer conference (“peace camp”) of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America is “As the Powers Fall: Sustaining Our Faith and One Another as Empire Crumbles.” [Berea College, Berea, KY 23-28 July 2007–I can’t wait!]. I was asked to prepare an annotated bibliography on the themes of “the Powers” and “Empire” as a resource for the conference, marked as to level of difficulty and/or amount of background needed. I share my results with all of you and, since the bibliography is hardly exhaustive, invite additions as well as other feedback. (P.S., I will not be able to blog from the conference, this year, but I will be taking many notes and photos and, as with last year, will share them on this blog afterward.)
An Annotated Bibliography on “The Powers” and “Empire” for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White, Ph.D.
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.
I. The Powers
Throughout the New Testament, but especially in the Pauline epistles, there is a range of terminology referring to the spiritual dimensions of organized power, e.g., powers,authorities, principalities, thrones, dominions, angels, demons (the latter two terms may have other meanings, but when qualified as “the angel of” a church, etc. or the “demon of” a particular city or kingdom, they definitely refer to the spiritual dimensions of an organized power), aeons, etc. They are often referred to collectively as “The Powers and Authorities,” or “The Principalities and Powers,” or simply “The Powers.” They refer to (the spiritual dimensions of) governments, economic systems, the institutional dimensions of religion, ideologies (“isms” such as capitalism, communism, communitarianism, authoritarianism, individualism, creationism, Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, etc. as well as democracy, theocracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, etc.), systems, culturally dominant philosophies, etc.–semi-personal forces that shape, even rule, human life.
#Arnold, Clinton E. Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters. InterVarsity Press, 1992. Argues, against the consensus, that the “principalities and powers” refer only to occult, demonic, beings.
#Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christ and Power. Trans. from the Dutch by John Howard Yoder. Herald Press, 1962. The Dutch original was the work which began the modern study of the Powers.
+Caird, G. B. (1917-1984) Principalities and Powers: A Study in Pauline Theology. Clarendon Press, 1956. This was one of the most thorough early studies. Written by an Anglican pacifist N.T. scholar.
+Carr, Wesley. Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning, and Development of the Pauline Phrase hai Archai kai hai Exousiai. Cambridge University Press, 1981. A revision of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, University of Sheffield, 1974.
*Davenport, Gene L. Powers and Principalities. Pilgrim Press, 2003. A brief introduction for beginners in the field.
#Ellul, Jacques(1912-1994). The New Demons. Translated form the French by C. Edward Hopkins. Seabury Press, 1975. A political theology based on the new work by Berkhof, Caird and others on The Powers. This theme became interwoven into all Ellul’s work, but this is the most accessible account.
*Gingerich, Ray C. and Ted Grimsrud, ed., Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System. Fortress Press, 2006. Builds on the work especially of Walter Wink. Includes two essays by BPFNA’s own Glen H. Stassen.
*Stringfellow, William.(1928-1985). An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Word Books, 1973. A non-technical interpretation of the Book of Revelation as a political theology. Two chapters on The Powers. The “Babylon” passages of Revelation are read as applying to the U.S. scene that Stringfellow knew so well. Walter Wink was deeply influenced by Stringfellow.
+Wink, Walter. Cracking the Gnostic Code: The Powers in Gnosticism. Scholars’ Press, 1993. A nice contrast between the function of “Powers” language in the Gnostic writings and the canonical NT ones. This work will make you glad that the Gnostic writings are NOT part of the N.T. canon.
+__________. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992. The 3rd volume of Wink’s original “The Powers” series. This is a full-blown political theology from the perspective of the work he has done on The Powers theme.
+____________. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Fortress Press, 1984. This is the most serious exegetical work on this theme throughout the New Testament since Berkhof’s original work. This is the first volume in Wink’s trilogy “The Powers.”
*___________. The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. Doubleday, 1998. This is a popularizing digest of Wink’s “The Powers” trilogy designed for the non-specialist.
+___________. Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence. Fortress Press, 1986. Second volume of Wink’s “The Powers” series, this begins his theological reflections on the biblical work done in the first book.
*____________. When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations. Fortress Press, 1998. A popular look at practical peacemaking that is informed by Wink’s work on The Powers.
+Yoder, John Howard(1929-1997). The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd edition. Revised and Expanded. Eerdmans, 1994. Original edition, 1972. Chapters 8-10, but especially chapter 8, “Christ and Power.”
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.
#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.
Be sure to check out Kim Fabricius’ 10 Propositions on Political Theology over at Ben Myers’ blog, Faith and Theology. They are excellent. As are many of the comments. They are worth pondering as we continue through Holy Week, reliving Judas’ betrayal (a political act trying to force Jesus’ hand to becoming a violent revolutionary–and siding with the Powers and Authorities of oppression to do such coercion!) and Peter’s denial (disappointed that Jesus surrendered to the authorities and even healed the dude Peter was trying to behead) tomorrow, and the political show trial and execution on Friday. And the U.S. Supreme Court dropped the ball, allowing the Gitmo Gulag to continue and show trials with confessions obtained by torture. Where is the voice of the church, now?
Also, GOOD NEWS: The 15 British sailors have been released from Iranian captivity unharmed! Rejoice!
Pius Ncube, Catholic Archbishop of Zimbabwe, has called for Zimbabwean Christians to take the lead in nonviolent resistance to the brutal rule of President Robert Mugabe, the revolutionary leader who has undermined the democracy he created in 1979 and instituted a brutal dictatorship. The Archbishop’s call came soon after the latest beating and jailing of the leader of Zimbabwe’s political opposition. He volunteered to be on the frontlines of such nonviolent confrontation with the army and police and called for Zimbabweans to put away fear and follow the example of other nations who had faced dictators with unarmed faith and determination. A spokesperson for Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF Party has replied that Archbishop Ncube is “an inveterate liar” and a tool of British and American interests.
Let us keep the people of Zimbabwe in prayer as we hope the churches, of all denominations, respond positively to the Archbishop’s courageous call.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.