Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Take a Parable Quiz

Good afternoon, fair readers. The very nice people over at Beliefnet.com--a really fantastic ecumenical religion web site--were so kind as to ask me to write a quiz for them on the parables of Jesus. If you'd like to take it, you can go here. Click here for more

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Luke 22: Christian Terrorism

Every time I have my New York friends convinced that Michigan isn't such a bad place to live, a bunch of people from my home state are arrested for plotting to kill police officers and bomb funeral processions.

Today, the New York Times reports that a Saturday night raid in Clayton, MI led to the arrest of eight individuals who were planning to assassinate a local police officer and then use insurgency-inspired IED's to wreak havoc on the officer's funeral procession. If the strategy had succeeded, they were going to retreat to defensive positions in the woods and fight a to-the-death battle with local law enforcement. Classy, huh? Here's a video posted on the group's web site:



Of course, my friends only think I'm crazier after they read first quote from the Times's coverage: "'In Michigan, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal to be in a militia', said Tom McDormett, a neighbor. He added: 'They would practice shooting, but that’s not a big deal. People do that all the time out here'."

For the record, it is a big deal if you are militia member in Michigan. I have hundreds of friends from home, and not one of them has joined an ad hoc paramilitary strike force with designs on bringing down the federal government. Well, except for my buddy Ralph ... and he's a really sweet guy. He volunteers at the local children's hospital between automatic weaponry classes.

However, the fearsome eightsome from Clayton is unique, as militias go. Though it calls police officers "foot soldiers" of an oppressive federal government, its members are apocalyptic Christians. They call themselves the "Hutaree," a neologism meaning "Christian warrior."

The Times reports that the Hutaree are inspired by events described in Revelation, the Biblical book that plays out a bloody end-times scenario in which righteous believers battle minions of the Antichrist before the apocalypse.

However, I checked out the Hutaree site this morning and was surprised to find that their philosophy is less inspired by Revelation than it is by the words of Jesus himself.

Of course, Jesus is best known as a proponent of non-violence, or perhaps more specifically, non-retaliation. Verses like Mattew 5:39--"if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also"--are said to have inspired the passive resistance strategies of Gandhi and, later, Martin Luther King.

However, as I tell my New Testament students time and again, this Christ is a hard character to pin down, and it seems as if the Hutaree are motivated by someone other than MLK's Jesus.

Just like the sites of Starbucks, the World Bank, and Wikipedia, the Hutaree web site features an "About Us" link--how thoughtful. (Apparently, the Michigan educational system taught them basic web design but neglected to teach them not to blow up hearses.) It reads, in part, "Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword."

Reading this, I immediately think not of Revelation, but of a later chapter in Matthew, when Jesus ominously intones, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father [...] and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household" (10:45). Here, Jesus seems to promise a frightening strife similar to the funeral attack planned by the Hutaree.

However, the Hutaree themselves have another passage in mind, Luke 22:35-38: "He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled'. They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords'. He replied, ‘It is enough'."

Here, Jesus seems to preach not only (self-defensive?) violence--buy a sword, or two--but "criminal" action against law enforcement agents. Indeed, to be "lawless" is to directly fulfill scriptural prophecy. Thus, in planning to take up arms against police agents, the Hutaree perhaps thought that they were preparing to carry out the divine command.

Once again, we arrive at the dangers of interpretive literalism--and at the perils of Biblical ignorance. Context, as always, is absolutely crucial. For Luke 22 does not demand that modern believers follow in the footsteps of the Hutaree.

The Luke author wrote his gospel to audiences living around 80 C.E., when Roman violence against Christians was on the rise. Indeed, those who first read Luke in the second half of the first century may have been considered "lawless." Thus Luke's Jesus is not advocating terrorist action against the government--in the first century, such action would have been suicidal. He may, however, be advising Christians of the dangers of active belief--and of the necessity for savvy self-defense. Remember, Jesus was crucified as an insurgent and a revolutionary, and his followers risked similar fates in treading his path.

At least in the United States, Christians face no such danger; indeed, our last three presidents have been remarkably open in professing their faith. Nonetheless, the Hutaree see the world differently, and they can find in the Bible words that support their skewed view.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Matthew 2: A Counterfeit Prophecy?

Having closely followed a year of wrangling on the health care debate, I've grown very used to representatives from both parties inventing evidence to support their claims--from Sarah Palin producing a photo-shopped image of a gun-toting "death panel" chasing down her grandmother ... to Nancy Pelosi producing a photo-shopped image of a gun-toting health insurance agent chasing down her grandmother.

But politicians aren't the only ones who trump up evidence to make a point. Gospel writers sometimes do too. And no evangelist is so guilty as Matthew.

Matthew is the New Testament writer most interested in proving that Jesus is the fulfillment of Hebrew Biblical messianic prophecy. He repeats some version of the phrase "This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet" as often as Roman Polanski pleads, "It was the seventies. Thirteen was the new twenty-one!"

Why does Matthew care? Well, for first-century Jews, it was not at all clear that Jesus was the messiah--literally "anointed one"--they were hoping for. The messiah was supposed to be a military leader and a righteous king, a descendant of David who would be a new David--who would throw off Roman tyranny and re-establish Israel's rightful place among the nations.

When Jesus does not claim for himself earthly rule--and then dies at the hands of imperial power--he proves to be something other than the messiah that the Jews expect. And it is the evangelists' task to argue otherwise.

None takes this job so seriously as Matthew, who calls Jesus "messiah" four times in just the first eighteen verses of his gospel. To support his counter-intuitive claim, he produces numerous passages of Messianic/prophetic speech from the Hebrew Bible and then argues that Jesus is their fulfillment.

Therefore, Matthew cites Isaiah's claim that the messiah will be born of a virgin (1:23). Who else is born of a virgin? Jesus. Boom.

Then, he quotes Micah, who decrees that the messiah will come from Bethlehem (2:5). Who else comes from Bethlehem? Jesus. Boom.

Later, he recalls Hosea's prophecy that the messiah must sojourn in Egypt (2:15). Who else sojourns in Egypt? Jesus. Boom.

Just a little further on, Matthew reminds us of a prophecy that women will cry for their dead children (2:18). Whose birth leads to a slaughter of children? Jesus's. Boom.

I could go on and on.

However, at one point during his prophecy binge, Matthew may overstep himself. After Jesus returns from Egypt, his parents are ordered in a dream to settle in Galilee, in the town of Nazareth. Matthew writes, "There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He will be called a Nazorean'" (2:23). Boom, right? Well, maybe not.

As the footnote in my NRSV Bible quietly states, "This citation has no known source." Matthew is breaking his pattern here. In earlier and later verses, he cleaves very closely to Tanakh. Yet this prophecy does not appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Some scholars suggest that Matthew is merely citing a lost document. There are likely many ancient scriptures that are unknown to us, and it is possible that Matthew uses an extra-Biblical prophecy to bolster his case.

On the other hand, the Tanakh as we now know it was a relatively stable entity by the time that Matthew was writing--around 75 or 80 C.E. Authoritative Jewish scripture was pretty much set, and he likely knew which texts were in and which texts were out. The rest of his gospel suggests as much.

Many scholars, then, argue that Matthew invents a prophecy here to fill in the last gap in the infancy narrative of Jesus. Birth, birthplace, babyhood, politics ... all seem perfectly predicted by Jewish scripture. Why not hometown too? Matthew, it seems, just cannot help himself, so he fabricates the last piece of the puzzle and slams it home.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Acts 2: This Church Is Communist

In my last two posts, I dealt with the still-raging debate over Glenn Beck's suggestion that his viewers leave churches that advocate "social justice." For Beck, the term is code for Communism (and to a lesser extent, I hope, Nazism). And Beck--true patriot that he is--hates those damn Reds.

However, the kerfuffle over "social justice" obscures a basic fact about the early church: it was a communist entity.

I'm not trying to be inflammatory here. I'm not suggesting that first-century Christian mission work was organized by a bunch of aspiring Lenin's, walking around Palestine with the Mark gospel in one hand and Mao's Little Red Book in the other. Nor am I suggesting that enemies of the early church were sent to Syrian gulags. I am suggesting, however, that early church leaders encourage shared ownership of property--the most basic tenet of communist economics.

Two chapters in Acts explain; first, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (2:44-46).

This trend is likely inspired by Jesus's repeated request that some new followers sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor (see Luke 18:22; Matthew 19:21). Further, the second half of this passage prefigures Marx's famous dictum from "The Critique of the Gotha Program," "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

A second section of Acts reiterates and strengthens the initial call: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (4:32).

From this passage, it seems as if early believers come very near the abolition of private property. Goods are owned by the group, not by individual members of the group. The rationale is simple: the men and women of the early church consider themselves "one heart and soul"; to acknowledge individual ownership is to break that sense of unity, and the group spirit is paramount.

Of course, group ownership demands fair distribution of goods. Soviet Communism did not fail because its basic principle was wrong: it failed--as do most experiments with communism--because those in charge of fair distribution exploited their power.

The early church faces similar challenges. Acts 6 opens with tension in the new commune: "Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [Greek speakers] complained against the Hebrews [Aramaic speakers] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food" (6:1).

Thus, the church's communist experiment seems ready to run aground. However, the twelve disciples save the day by doing what Moses does in Exodus and Jesus does in the gospels: they delegate. They select seven "men of good standing" (v. 3) to oversee the equitable distribution of property to those in need. One of these men in Stephen, a righteous man who is also the fledgling movement's first martyr (after Jesus, of course). For later Christians, Stephen and his cohorts are "deacons"--from the Greek diakonos (cf. 1 Timothy 8:13)--lay leaders assigned to do the church's administrative work; many modern churches still appoint deacons to fill similar roles.

The early church's experiment with communism doesn't really extend past the opening chapters of Acts, and early believers' decision to give up private property seems both voluntary and confined to the community around Jerusalem.

That being said, the church begins with a utopian economics, inspired by Jesus himself, that envisions a community without ravening greed or financial competition--a community of "one heart and soul." And what's so bad about that?
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Friday, March 12, 2010

Don't Go to Nazi Church: Follow-Up

Just in case you're wondering if I'm the only one angered by Glenn Beck's call for a mass exodus from "social justice" churches (see my earlier post), here's a spot from today's New York Times listing the crowd of religious groups lining up to castigate him. The Rev. Jim Wallis is calling for Christians to boycott Glenn Beck, and he's not alone. Leaders from liberal Protestant churches, conservative Catholic churches, ultra-conservative evangelical churches, and even Mormon temples are calling Glenn Beck's comments insensitive, uninformed, ignorant, and damaging.

Just remember, though ... you heard it here first. Click here for more

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Don't Go to Nazi Church: Glenn Beck and "Social Justice"

The ever-inflammatory Glenn Beck raised a lot of eyebrows last week when he encouraged his viewers to leave churches that preach "social justice." Politics Daily quotes Beck: "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

Holy buckets, right? But I know what you're about to ask ... code words for what? Three guesses ...

Homosexuality? No! Strike one.

MSNBC? High and on the outside .... the batter swings--no! Strike two.

Nazism and Communism? It's a hit! Back, back, back, back ... gone!

Here's Beck to explain:



What gets opportunistic media hounds like Beck riled up about the term "social justice" is that it sounds like "socialism." Here's Beck's logic: for some of its most progressive theorists, social justice means a top-down, hands-on approach to social reorganization that often involves federally sponsored programs like strengthening unions, implementing welfare aid, and increasing the minimum wage. And who else took a hands-on approach to social reorganization? The Communists and the Nazis! And who wants to go to Nazi Church? Not me!

Now, Beck is bringing us on an all-expenses-paid tour of la-la land here, but he's not totally off his rocker. Others offer saner critiques of the term "social justice." Nobel prize-winner Friedrich von Hayek was one. In a lecture reprinted in First Things, Michael Novak explains von Hayek's position: "Most who use the term, however, ascribe it not to individuals but to social systems. They use 'social justice' to denote a regulative principle of order; again, their focus is not virtue but power."

Novak and von Hayek make a defensible point: those who implement systems of social justice--and Nazis and Soviet Communists are irresponsible examples--could be tempted to abuse their power. But Novak pushes this argument too far: "most" people do not understand social justice as a "regulative principle of order" that focuses on the acquisition of "power." And Beck--in calling for a ban on "social justice" churches--shoves this line of reasoning into crazyland.

Von Hayek himself "recognized that at the end of the nineteenth century, when the term 'social justice' came to prominence, it was first used as an appeal to the ruling classes to attend to the needs of the new masses of uprooted peasants who had become urban workers."

The first people to use the phrase "social justice" understood it as coequal with charity--it was rich people helping peasants. Pope Benedict makes a similar claim in his first encyclical: "Charity is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace." (You can read the rest here.)

To repeat, for "most" social justice is just charity--aiding the poor and feeding the homeless. And you know who was a proponent of aiding the poor and feeding the homeless? Jesus. Here's the Christ himself in Matthew 5:42: "Give to everyone who begs from you." And Luke 18:22: "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

Put simply, many good-hearted churchgoers believe they are doing "social justice" when they give to the needy. Or donate to relief efforts in Haiti. Or sew clothes for children in Africa. Or build houses in New Orleans.

So when Beck urges churchgoers to avoid parishes that promote "social justice," he's quibbling in the most dangerous way. He's taking von Hayek's academic critique and blowing it way out of proportion for a popular audience--with potentially deadly results.

In the process, he may be scaring a lot of charitable individuals away from churches that need help right now. After all, Christian parishes--progressive and conservative alike--continue to be some of our most generous institutions, and the Nigeria's, Haiti's and Sudan's of the world aren't going away any time soon. Hence, charity--under any name--is direly needed.

So Glenn Beck should shut the hell up. Or at lest send a big fat check to Habitat for Humanity. I promise--I won't call it social justice.
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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Luke 19: The Gospel According to Gordon Gekko

Jesus, as every Sunday school student knows, often teaches in parables, homely little object lessons designed--we assume--to make his revolutionary teachings easier to understand.

Conventional wisdom, then, suggests that the meaning of Jesus's parables is transparent. Thus the story of the prodigal son is about forgiveness and parental love. And the story of Lazarus and the rich man is about the blessedness of poverty and the dangers of wealth. And the story of the lost sheep is about how Jesus pays special attention to those who are most in need.

However, not all Jesus's parables are so simple to decipher. Indeed, as I've mentioned in a previous post, Mark's Jesus describes parables as concealing meaning rather than revealing it: speaking to his disciples, he says, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand'" (Mark 4:11-12).

Said differently, the int-erpretation of Jesus's parables may not always be obvious--or even readily available. And some times, these odd stories seem to promote messages that are ethically dubious.

Many of the most difficult parables come in the gospel of Luke. Take, as just one example, Luke 19, commonly known as the parable of the talents, or the parable of the pounds. This is a financial fable in a gospel whose Jesus is supposedly devoted to those who are least financially able--the poor and outcast. And it is a troubling tale to read in times of economic hardship like our own.

In it, Jesus tells the story of a nobleman who leaves his home to seek "royal power" in a foreign land (19:12). In his absence, he leaves ten of his servants with a set amount of money, telling them to "do business with these until I come back" (19:13). When he gets back, he finds that some of his servants have invested the money and produced a return; a first multiplies the principle by ten, and a second multiplies it by five. These men are rewarded for their ambition with entire cities to govern.

However, a third servant merely returns the initial sum, saying, "Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow" (19:20). Though he protects his master's investment, this servant is punished, and his "pound" is given to the servant who produced the most capital.

For the standard reading of this parable, I turn--almost at random--to bible.org--whose authors understand Jesus's message in the following terms: "We should carefully note the outcome of faithful service, and of unfaithful service, in this parable. Faithful service led to increased responsibilities in the kingdom of heaven, and eternal joy in the presence of the Master, Jesus Christ. Unfaithful service led to condemnation, the removal of one’s stewardship, and an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness, away from the presence of our Lord."

Okay ... good effort, bible.org.

But is this parable really just about "faithful" versus "unfaithful" service? Is the third servant "unfaithful" because he saved his master's money? Perhaps this man merely misread the economic environment--if the nobleman were gone from August of 2009 and February of 2010, the third servant's conservative investment strategies would have bought him a huge bonus, right?

And is a tenfold return on investment really a sign of "faithfulness"--or "trustworthiness," in the NRSV translation? Couldn't it just as well be a sign of unscrupulous investing strategies? After all, Jesus does not tell us how the first and second servants thrived. In any economic climate, a ten-fold investment raises eyebrows. These are Bernie Madoff numbers here.

And it is possible, in first-century Palestine, that the first two servants resorted to usurious lending practices, charging ridiculous interest rates on loans. Indeed, they may have been the subprime barons of Samaria, for all we know. (Jesus passes no judgment on usurious lending in another parable in Luke 16:1-9.)

And why is trustworthiness read in financial terms? Indeed, it is Luke's Jesus who suggests that the poor are blessed, and who consigns rich men to hell simply for being rich (cf. Luke 16:19-31). And it is Jesus who claims, just chapters earlier, that "you cannot serve God and wealth" (16:13).

Further, why does the nobleman let stand the third servant's characterization of him as "a harsh man [who takes] what I did not deposit and [reaps] what I did not sow" (19:22)? Aren't we to assume that this departed nobleman is himself Jesus, who will leave shortly (in the crucifixion) only to return in judgment at the Parousia?

And doesn't it sound as if the moral of this troubling tale is not "faithfulness is rewarded," but "greed is good"? This sounds to me like the gospel of Gordon Gekko.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm completely off base here. I don't know why Jesus would advocate risky investments. I don't know why he would punish those who merely save their resources. But I do know that all of Jesus's parables do not have simple, straightforward meanings. And I do know that I often "listen" to his stories, though I do not "understand."
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