Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mike: Matthew 6:7-13

The Sermon on the Mount runs through Matthew 7:28. We'll probably skip direct commentary on 6:16-18, since it replicates the matters we've already covered when dealing with 6:1-6 (we can deal with the matter when we edit our materials).

All of which leads us to take up the Lord's Prayer, Matthew 6:7-13. The text (NRSV)reads as follows.

"When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."

Fairly early in the church's history, a doxology was added: "For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours,forever. Amen."

The prayer assumes God desires to hear our prayers, that it is right and sane to pray, and that good prayer connects us with the great matters of God. God does not have to be persuaded to listen, nor do our prayers inform God. Instead, in ways roughly analogous to a human parent, God already knows our deepest needs. Prayer helps form us, freeing us from the illusion of false needs and teaching us to see clearly what we really need.

And what is it we really need? We need to grow into a healthy relationship with this distant yet very near God. Our yearning must be reoriented, so that we long for God's rule to become fully effective in us and the broader life of the world. We must be freed from all desire for more than we need and become content to have "daily bread." We need to acknowledge our debts (or trespasses) and ask forgiveness, even as we also become the kind of people who extend forgiveness to others. Pride must be subdued and humility put in its place as we increasingly recognize our limits and cease from boasting. All such developments come to pass over time, as we embrace the practice of prayer.

Such prayer requires both words and silence, action and waiting, speaking and listening. Ideally, it becomes our mode of life, so that all other things are subsumed in prayer. The Lord's Prayer may help both the individual and a congregation take steps in this direction.

Obviously, there is much to unpack in the phrases of the prayer, but I thought it best to start our discussion with a summary statement.

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/29 Post

I admire your consistency, Mike. Your comment, "We don't merge with God but choose instead to love and serve God, without whom we are incomplete," reminds of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna who said, “I love sugar, I don’t want to be sugar” when arguing for the fundamental otherness of God.

On the topic of literacy and interpretations of the Bible, it is fascinating that people continue to find new meanings in the text. With the exception of Christian Fundamentalists, whom I take to be biblical literalists, most Christians and Jews find the Bible quite malleable. For me there is no final meaning to the Bible. If there were it would be a dead text. It lives because I can allow my reading to reflect my life. We don’t read the Bible as must as read our reflection in the Bible.

Which brings me back to our project. I am not quite certain where in the text you plan to stop. So if there is more, please lets move on.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 12/23 Post

For the most part, I think you have described the differences in the two viewpoints quite well. I want to nuance one or two items. First, from my perspective a self is a soul, a unity. Second, the concept of self/soul may be, and often is, linked to punishment and reward. Such linkage, though, is not a given. Finally, you write "We don't merge with God; we realize that we are never other than God." I might write: "We don't merge with God but choose instead to love and serve God, without whom we are incomplete."

Turning to the matter of the Protestant Reformation, literacy and literalism, we need to be careful not to overstate the state of literacy in Luther's time. General literacy, of course, was not achieved for quite some time. Readers, though, were scattered throughout the population, and the easy availability of printed material enabled them to read aloud to large groups. Luther's translation of the scriptures into German accelerated the growth of literacy.

You are correct: Protestants attempted to focus on the meaning of the text. "Literal" probably is not the best term to describe most of their efforts. They, instead, sought what many of them would have called the "plain" meaning of the text. To put it another way, they sought the simplest interpretation of any given text and thus produced interpretations ranging from the literal to the allegorical.
As literacy grew, individuals produced an often bewildering variety of interpretations. Some branches on the ever-growing Protestant tree succumbed to the "literal only" approach.

I think you are on to something important with your suggestion that the availability of the Bible was so exciting that many could not imagine needing anything else. Most such persons became part of what historians usually call "The Radical Reformation." Over time, a majority of Protestants discovered the value of paying attention as well to interpretive tradition, experience and the quiet voice of Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/22 Post

We often have slightly different takes on things, and our notion of “self” may be one of them.

You know that I spent ten years studying and practicing Zen Buddhism, and I admit that my understanding of “self” is colored by my experience in that setting. The “self” in the Buddhist context is a transient manifestation of equally transient conditions. It is often trapped in ignorance—literally ignoring the greater Reality of which it is a part, and insisting that it is separate and eternal in its own right. Maintaining the delusion of separation and permanence leads the “self” to live a life fueled by anger, greed, arrogance, and fear.

This idea of an eternal and separate self is essential to mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without it, there is no soul and no eternal reward and punishment. My experience with meditation and other contemplative practices, as well as my reading of the world’s great mystics leads to me deny the existence of individual selves and souls as well as eternal reward and punishment.

I like the analogy of the ocean and the wave. The “self” is like the foam on the peak of the wave. It is a natural phenomenon, part of what it is to be a wave, but it insists that it is other than the wave and even more other than the ocean. The foam is the ego so desperately clinging to the illusion of its own separateness that it lives a life of alienation and needless suffering.

The wave is the truer self, or soul if you like. It too can be deceived into imagining it is other than the ocean, and when it does it feeds and is fed by the delusional fear of the foaming false self.

The ocean is Reality itself, God in my use of the term. It is not other than the wave or the foam, but it is infinitely greater than them.

The gift of enlightenment or salvation or awakening is the realization that foam, wave, and ocean are one. It isn’t that we live without a self or ego, but that we live without the false notion that we are separate from the wave and the ocean. We don’t merge with God; we realize that we are never other than God.

Regarding “your Father who is in secret,” I was afraid that the Greek original might not support my take on the English translation, but your mentioning of the Protestant Reformation raises another question for me.

Part of Martin Luther’s revolution rested on universal literacy and the technology of Guttenberg that allowed the average person to own her or his own Bible. I wonder if the miracle of literacy and the capacity to read what the Bible actually says rather than having to accept the interpretations offered by the Church led Protestants to focus on the literal meaning of the text. Being able to read what the Bible actually says was so important, so new, and so revolutionary that they couldn’t imagine needing anything else. Literacy and literalism may have gone hand in hand, and, at least in the beginning, necessarily so.

As for mystics and their maps—absolutely. All words are signs. The question is whether or not they point to something other them selves. We all agree that the word “unicorn” points to a white horse with a spiral horn in the center of its forehead, but we might well disagree as to whether such a being actually exists or ever exited. For the mystic, all words are self-referential, referring only to themselves. Only silence—deep, transformative silence—takes us beyond the map of words to encounter the territory of the real as it is in and of itself.

Merry Christmas, Mike.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 12/16 Post

Thanks for drawing attention to Csikszentmihalyi's description of the "flow state." His language captures the matter nicely!

Thinking back over the course of our ongoing conversation, I think we may differ in our visions for the self. You speak of a state in which "self is gone," and you view such an end as desirable. From my perspective each "self" is a creation of God, made not to merge with God but to enjoy God and be enjoyed by God. The problem is that the "selves" tend to go rogue. That is, we focus on ourselves, enter into competition with other selves, seek power over others, and attempt to reduce or eliminate God. To put it another way, we try to take the place of God rather than the place we were created to occupy.

The ideal for the self, from my perspective, is to see, acknowledge, and willingly embrace what one was created to be. When we do so, we cease to compete with others. We start to "enjoy" ourselves, others and God. We take up work for which we are suited. To borrow a New Testament image, we come home and find it the best of all possible states in which to live.

Interestingly, though, I think both our approaches may lead to the same kind of behavior toward ourselves and others.

Turning toward the phrase "your Father who is in secret," my only point was that I do not think the biblical text in question can support the weight of your inquiry. That being said, I'm all for a round of give and take over speculative matters!

For example, the four levels of biblical interpretation you mention remind me of the multiple levels of interpretation posited by some patristic and many medieval Christian bishops and scholars. I'll not go into detail at this point, other to stress how most taught that one needed to be introduced to the perspectives and skills needed to move through the various levels. The Protestant Reformation tended to discount this approach.

Some Christian Gnostics, of course, appear to have taught that a secret knowledge necessary to fully understand the scriptures was handed down from teacher to teacher. Gnosticism was a minority movement within broader ancient Christianity, though versions of it crop up throughout history.

The latter two possibilities you suggest find parallels in Christian mysticism. In all cases (I think), a given mystic would have acknowledged that even his or her own words were but a map, not the real God found in secret.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/15 Post

Wow! I love the idea that heaven is a condition rather than a reward. This places it outside of time: heaven is not a place we go to, but a condition we awaken to here and now. This is what Jesus may have meant (and to my mind should have meant and must have meant) when he said, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). This is comparable to the Pure Land of Shin Buddhism and Nirvana in Zen Buddhism. Both are states of mind, conditions of being, to which we awaken, rather than places to which we go. Going implies time and distance, awakening is either there or it isn’t. You can’t be a little awake, at least not in this context.

As for selflessness I agree that it is very difficult to act without considering what’s in it for me, but I would say that when we are totally present to the moment, when we are fully awake to the Kingdom within and among us (to blend the King James and NRSV translations) we do in fact act without self.

We can get a glimpse of this in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his marvelous study Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience calls the “flow state.” In this state time stops, self-consciousness fades, and we act effortlessly and joyously. Living the Kingdom of Heaven is living seamlessly with the Now, acting in accord with the moment in such a way as to help manifest the potential for love present in each moment. I suspect this is how Jesus is trying to teach us to live in the Sermon on the Mount. I wish organized religion devoted itself to teaching this as well, each using its won language and all pointing toward the same way of life.

You do mention some reward for selflessness, but to me selflessness is the reward, for with the ending of self arises the oneness of God, woman, man, and nature that is true Reality. If this is how Jesus recast the rabbinic ideal of lishmah—yasher koach! May his power increase!

You also seem to pit selflessness against self-reliance, linking the former to those “who depend upon God for all they truly need.” I wonder if there isn’t still a bit of self-hovering around those who depend on God. Indeed the very fact that they posit a God other then themselves suggests that they are not entirely selfless. True selflessness means that there is no egoic “I” at all: “Not I but Jesus in me,” as Paul might put it. In a sense when the self is gone so is the Other, not that God is absent when the self is absent, but God is all there is and hence there is no room for any other.

My original question dealt with Jesus’ phrase “your Father who is in secret.” It is such an odd phrase (I assume the Greek says this as well) that it demands parsing, though you opted not to do so. So let me try some ideas off the top of my head.

Try this: In Jesus’ day the rabbis spoke of four levels of biblical interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the homiletical, and the mystical. This last is called “sod,” which is the Hebrew word for “secret.” While the first three levels are taught public, the fourth is hidden, only revealed by master to student, or by God. Could Jesus be referring to sod? Could he be saying something like, “your God who is revealed only in the secret teachings of Torah”?

Or try this: Jesus wants us to practice and pray in secret and it is in secret that God is found. Could it be that God is found only when we withdraw from self (a paradox for who is the I that withdraws?); only, in fact, when we end the self and dwell in the greater reality out of which the self emerges?

Or this: A secret is unknown. Perhaps that is where God dwells: in and as the unknown. All that is known, all our ideas about God and godliness, are like a map that we mistake for the territory. The map is an approximation, not the thing itself. The religious worship the map, indeed insist that the map is God and do their best to keep themselves and others from seeing and walking the territory directly. Jesus is calling us to put the map aside and engage with God directly. Since God is the unknown and unknowable, God is found in secret, in mystery, outside the fixed notions and behaviors of the pious. Jesus may be saying that only when we step beyond the known and allow ourselves to confront the unknown do we discover the Unknowable One beyond all thought and theory.

Obviously I am guessing here. Any thoughts?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 12/13 Post

Let's start by admitting that most Christians in any given era buy into the idea of rewards. Christians debate the nature, extent and timing of such rewards. That being said, many Christians in any given era teach the highest standard involves becoming the kind of person who practices righteousness without thought of reward. Fuzzy thinking, biblical illiteracy, unexamined religious traditions, and human nature often combine to complicate the picture.

That being said, I see the matter as follows.

(1) Jesus did not teach that heaven is a reward. Heaven is a condition, potentially experienced at any moment and potentially eternal. Heaven is to live in right relationship with God in each instant. Heaven is the kind of life God intended for humanity.

(2) It is incredibly difficult for any of us to undertake acts of righteousness without weighing the possible benefits to ourselves. Such benefits may include the approval of others. More subtly, we may fall into the trap of praising ourselves, of basing our sense of worth on the number or quality of our righteous works. Both approaches are highly self-concious, and both push us to do good things for the sake of a reward.

(3) In the passage, Jesus teaches his followers not to let one hand know what the other is doing. The core idea seems to be that his disciples are to be unselfconcious. In such a state, they may do good things without thought of any reward. They become so immersed in life with God that they no longer pay attention to the response of others or even themselves to their good works. Ideally, they become selfless.

(4) Jesus adds a surprise: God rewards the selfless. Such people will not expect a reward. They will be surprised by it, and are apt to try to give it away to someone else. They are like those who respond (paraphrased): "When did we see you in trouble, Jesus, and help you." They do not serve for the sake of any reward but instead do so because such service is part and parcel of their identity, an identity shaped by their growing intimacy with God. If this is true, I do not think Jesus abandoned the rabbinic standard of lishmah so much as he recast it.

With all of the above in mind, I tend to look upon the Christians you describe as people who have taken a first step. God has spoken to them, calling them to himself. Bound by culture (usually many layers of culture), they hear and interpret the call in terms of the life they know. There is no shame in starting from where one is, and God loves us more than enough to come and find us where we are (that's one implication of Incarnation, by the way). First steps, though, should never be last steps. As we follow Jesus, all of us should grow in our capacity for selflessness. Selflessness, of course, is only possible for those who depend upon God for all they actually need.

Finally, I think I understand the facination of the phrase "your Father who is in secret." How could any mystic not focus on it? In the case of the passage, though, I think it wise not to read too much into matter. The essential idea is that "God knows." God knows what it is like to work quietly and unobserved, and God sees all that is done in secret, including quiet deeds of righteousness. The more deeply we move into relationship with such a God, the more we adopt God's mode of operation.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/10 Post

I agree with your take on this passage, Mike, but I am troubled by Jesus’ linking of piety (I think a better translation from the Greek would be ‘righteousness’), charity, and prayer to heavenly reward.

While the rabbis of Jesus’ day did speak of heavenly rewards, they argued that the highest good was doing good for its own sake. The term they used (and which we continue to use) is lishmah, doing something for its own sake, simply because it is right. I don’t understand why Jesus would opt for a lesser standard than his contemporaries, especially when, as we have seen, he is not averse to demanding a higher standard than his rabbinic colleagues when he feels it necessary to do so.

I don’t want to make more of this than we should, but I have often been surprised in discussions with devout Christians when the issue of lishmah is raised (by me) and dismissed (by them). I have been told on numerous occasions that it is the purpose of faith to insure that the faithful escape eternal damnation in hell. “If there were no hell,” I have been told on numerous occasions, “there would be no reason to be a Christian.”

If these were the random thoughts of a few uninformed lay people, I would simply chalk it up to ignorance. Unfortunately I hear this kind of thing over and over from supposedly educated clergy. It is hard to dismiss as misinformation. The notion of doing good in order to earn a reward seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ message here, and hence at the heart of contemporary Christianity as well (or at least a certain kind of contemporary Christianity).

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that Judaism is free of such thinking. It isn’t. The essence of the Jewish relationship with God is covenantal, contractual: we will do “x” and God will do “y.” But the rabbis of Jesus’ day did try to lift the people beyond this quid pro quo level of theology with the idea of lishmah, doing right for its own sake.

So here are a couple of questions to which I would ask you to respond: 1) Do you think the need of many Christians to link piety to reward stems from this teaching of Jesus? and 2) Why do you think Jesus didn’t push for the higher rabbinic standard of lishmah?

On a separate matter, I am quite taken with Jesus’ advice regarding prayer: that we shut ourselves in our room and pray to our Father “who is in secret”. As you noted, it isn’t hard to see how those who challenge the value of community worship would hold up this teaching to argue against such prayer, and, as I am sure you agree, it isn’t a matter or either/or. There is a place for public worship as well as for private prayer and meditation.

But what intrigues me is the phrase “your Father who is in secret”. I have no idea what this means. I would love some insight into this and would very much like to hear how you understand it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 2/12 Post

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that others may praise them. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not pray like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that others may see them. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-6) (NRSV)

Jesus focuses again on motivations. He uses two examples: almsgiving and prayer.

As I understand the matter, first century Jews regarded giving alms to the poor, whether directly or as part of synagogue worship, as an act of piety. It was the right thing to do. Jesus accepts both the practice and its purpose. His quarrel does not lie with the poor, or with those who use a well-established means to help them. Instead, Jesus takes issue with those who use the institution not to honor God or help others but to win applause for themselves.

In like fashion, Jesus does not have a problem with public prayers per se. He objects to those who use public prayers to win praise.

The hypocrisy, in both cases, lies in claiming to do something for the sake of others or in honor of God, while actually giving or praying in order to enhance one's reputation.

Far better, Jesus maintains, to give alms and pray in private. The poor will receive aid and God will be honored. The giver/prayer will be insulated from the temptation to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

I've known many who misuse the passage to discourage public prayer of any kind, providing relief to the poor, or being held accountable in any way for what they do by way of prayer or almsgiving. Such applications abuse the passage and miss Jesus' point--namely, that we are to seek to become selfless, utterly unselfconscious, in all things, including prayer and almsgiving. Insomuch as we do so, we become more nearly like God.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/2 Post

Christianity has no monopoly on circular reasoning. Ask any Jew about the notion that we are the Chosen People. How do we know God chose us? It is written in the Torah. Who wrote the Torah? We did. Duh. Even if your answer to the second question is "God wrote the Torah" the follow up question, "Who says God wrote the Torah?" ends up in the same place. Jews say God wrote the Torah. Even Christians and Muslims who also claim the Torah is divine revelation base their claims on the Jews.

One cannot escape the fact that in the end it is the individual who decides what is true or false for her or himself. Given the fact that we have no objective way of determining this, our conclusions should be drenched with humility.

Anyway, back to our text?

Mike: Response to Rami's 11/26 Post

The student's response is a classic example of circular reasoning, to put the most charitable interpretation on the matter. It is another example of the church's failure to teach people how to think well. Circular reasoning employed in the service of religious tribalism strengthens bigotry and fuels religious wars, both private and large-scale.

"Jesus is Lord" is the earliest known Christian confession of faith. What we do with it matters. In the early church, the statement was not used as a weapon or to divide. Instead, the confession marked one's personal commitment to try to follow Jesus. Most also regarded it as descriptive of their experience of God through "the risen Christ." It was a declaration of identity and intention. To put it another way, the confession amounted to a person saying: "This is who I am--someone for whom Jesus is the center of my life."

Those who take such an approach usually find themselves walking a road that leads to deepening humility, appreciation for the image of God in all others, and sacrifice for the good of others. The way is narrow, though, and too few walk it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 11/26 Post

Just a quick comment on "Jesus is Lord."

This came up in my comparative religion class at Middle Tennessee State. We were discussing the Koran, and a very devout and fundamentalist Christian student responded to the question, "How do we know which Holy Scripture is the true Holy Scripture" with the following:

"Since Jesus is Lord and Savior the Old Testament is true because it predicts the coming of Jesus, and the New Testament is true because it affirms that Jesus is Lord, but the Koran is false because it does not affirm Jesus is Lord."

This is the kind of hubris that breaks my heart and feeds the darkest ignorance. I know for a fact that I could have gotten the same kind of response from Muslims and Jews, so this isn't about Christianity. It is about the way we approach religion and spirituality.

I am grateful to have a friend like you with whom to talk about these things.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 11/25 Post

Well, when you put that way (nicely phrased, by the way), I do not think we disagree on the outcome of transformation by God. You wrote: "This is what I take transformation to be about: not a willed surrender to a fixed way of being, but a surrender of the will as a prelude to a new and unprecedented way of being more fully filled with God and godliness. This transformation cannot be an act of the conditioned will, and must be the result of grace--the surrender of the will to God by God." We agree. Once again, we've bumped up against the limits of written conversation. Thanks for unpacking the matter.

As for Christians and anti-Semitism, I hope I did not overstate the case. The mindset the two of us bring to interpreting scriptures remains a minority mindset at the present time. I dare hope it is growing in influence and that it will be the majority mindset in the near future.

Humility coupled with love is the ultimate value for a God-oriented person. It's a safeguard (not infallible, but useful) against using texts to coerce others to accept our own agendas.

Yes, if we accept the idea that we must assign different values to various portions of scripture, we also must recognize that anyone can elevate a given text according to his or her personal perspective.

Classic convictions of our respective faith traditions may help guide us. For example, the earliest Christian confession of faith is "Jesus is Lord." That core confession draws us to pay attention first to the stories of Jesus, to try to understand and love and follow Jesus. This tends to lead us to judge other scriptures on the basis of Jesus. Christians who start with Revelation, violence-supportive Hebrew scriptures, or even the writings of Paul miss the mark. Jesus, from a Christian perspective, is the Great Corrective or Standard. It is possible to read Christian history as the story of how we Christians forget this is so, only to rediscover it.

Enjoy Thanksgiving. We'll pick up with the conversation next week.

Rami: Response to Mike's 11/24 Post

I was surprised to hear that you think we differ regarding “transformation by the power of God.” This must be due to the way I word things, because I do indeed believe in this transformative power. Here is how I understand the matter.

Basing my understanding of God on Exodus 3:14 where God reveals the Name Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I shall be what I shall be, I take creativity to be an essential attribute of God.

God is forever surprising Him/Her/Itself by manifesting new and unprecedented ways of being. I think this is why God uses the process of evolution: evolution is nothing if not the on-going experiment with new and surprising life forms. I think the aim of evolution is the eventual manifestation of a level of consciousness that not can be surprised, but knows what surprise it, and sees it all around. On this planet at this time that life form is human. We are the way God gets the world to say, “Wow!”

We participate in the creativity of God when we, too, step out of our conditioned selves to be in the world in new and unique ways. This is what I take transformation to be about: not a willed surrender to a fixed way of being, but a surrender of the will as a prelude to a new and unprecedented way of being more fully filled with God and godliness. This transformation cannot be an act of the conditioned will, and must be the result of grace—the surrender of the will to God by God.

I am certainly pleased to hear that anti-Semitism is on the wane in Christianity, and also intrigued by your notion that we can assign different values to different texts in the Bible. I agree with both points, and find the second vital to salvaging biblical religion from god-sanctioned violence. The problem is that anyone can elevate any text at the expense of any other.

For example, I value those teachings of the Bible, Jewish and Christian, that speak to universal justice and compassion, and devalue those that do not. But I know Christians who value the Book of Revelation over the Sermon on the Mount, and posit a very violent Christianity that seems absolutely at odds with Jesus as I read him. And I know Jews who read the entire Torah in light of God’s promise of the Holy Land, and use that promise to excuse terrible injustice against Palestinians. And then there is the historical case of Baptists (for example) splitting over slavery in pre-Civil War times. Some cited Scripture to prove slavery is God-sanctioned and other quoted different Scripture to prove it is not. So we are left with people using Scripture and God to promote their own agendas.

This is why, for me, the ultimate value in religion and theology is “humility.” A classic Jewish commentary on Micah 6:8 (“walk humbly with your God) asks why does the Torah say “your God” rather than simply “God.” The answer is that each of us has our own idea of “God” whose purpose is to serve our egoic desires. It is this “God” with whom we have to walk humbly, recognizing that “my god” isn’t God, but only my understanding of God. You are right that we “cannot rid ourselves of theology,” but we can recognize it for what it is: me creating god in my own image for my own ends.

Last thought: focusing on the stories of Jesus. I couldn’t agree more. The stories about Jesus and the stories/parables Jesus tells are timeless and vital to anyone seeking to explore the deepest/highest aspects of spiritual transformation. I would couple these with the Islamic stories of Mullah Nasrudin, Hasidic tales, the Taoist stories written by Chuang Tzu, and a few others to create a world story bible of universal wisdom.

I will have to mull that project over for a while. In the meantime, Mike, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and deeply transformative Advent.

Mike: Response to Rami's 11/19 Post

Actually, I think we're very nearly agreed about our capacity to separate feelings from actions. Confrontation versus controlling, raising questions, learning to see new possibilities, the opportunity for new feelings to develop, the realization that all life is interdependent--we're on the same page. We differ, I think, in that I harbor an additional hope: transformation by the power of God. The difference, of course, roots in our individual understanding of God.

Anti-Semitism is the core sin of the Christian movement. You're right. It's embedded in the background perspective of Christianity's scriptures, and Christians (across the centuries)bear responsiblity for failing to deal with the matter. Refreshingly, many Christian scholars now take the historical context of the New Testament's development seriously. The "Emergent Church" movement does as well. Over the next few decades, I expect such a perspective to become the majority viewpoint among American Christians.

Our discussion of "the dark side" of God seems to have two different threads. On the one hand, the bible stories you mention depict God as the source of various evils, always in the service of some so-called larger purpose. If we read the Bible as a flat text, that is with all parts having the same value and validity, we have no choice but to assign responsibility to God.

The alternative is to assign greater and corrective value to some texts. Many of us in Christianity insist on evaluating all biblical texts in light of what we think we know of God as revealed in Jesus. On that basis, we reject any theology that requires God to endorse genocide, murder, and the like.

All of which to leads to another point, one you put well: "...God and theology are not the same thing." You're right.

We cannot rid ourselves of theology. So long as we think and feel, we will construct theologies. That being said, Christians would do well to focus on the stories of Jesus. When we do so, we find most classic theologies challenged at many points. The example you cite (the significance of the cross) is a prime example. When I take Jesus seriously, I see in the cross and resurrection a declaration of God's boundless love for all people, a love which cannot ultimately be defeated. When we see, admit and accept this love, we are increasingly free to attempt to practice such love ourselves.

We've covered a great deal of ground in a few short paragraphs. If there's more to be said, have at it. Otherwise I'll plunge into the next text.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 11/18 Post

It looks that we will never agree on our capacity to separate feelings from actions. I suspect you mean something far more profound than I do in this regard. Just imagine how much worse the world would be if people acted on every feeling that arose in their psyches. It is bad enough as it is. Nevertheless, I am very much in favor of “confronting our feelings” rather than controlling them. To confront our feelings inevitably leads to questioning them, and questioning them leaves open the possibility that they are inappropriate or that if we based our behavior on them our behavior would be inappropriate. This requires a high level of self-awareness.

And with that level of awareness comes the opportunity for new feelings. When we operate from the reptilian brain we are all about sex, war, and food. Regardless of what or whom we meet we are going to mate with it, battle it, or eat it. But this is a low level of human functioning. The higher mammalian brain calls us to love, altruism, caring, and compassion. When this brain dominates our feelings are elevated. And when we operate form the highest brain justice and righteousness also come into play. As we move from lower to higher brain functioning we expand our sense of “neighbor” and community.

I think there is an even higher “soul sense” that biologists cannot find that lifts us into the realization that all life is interdependent, and that to love my neighbor as my self is to realize that my neighbor includes all life, sentient and otherwise. I believe that Jesus and other God-realized prophets call us to this level of spiritual awakening.

Just a quick comment on Christian anti-Semitism. The Gospels, like all books sacred or otherwise, have an agenda, and, given the history of their time, part of that agenda was to paint the Jews as the enemies of Jesus even to the extent of blaming them rather than the Romans for his murder. The fact that this kind of thinking continues is an indictment of Christian education; a reluctance to read their sacred texts in the context of history. This is changing with the scholarship of people like Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong, and Dominic Crossan, but it is a slow process.

To be a Christian and an anti-Semite is to attack Jesus’ mother, brothers, the apostles and Jesus himself. But for too many Christians the realization that Jesus was a Jew and that his religion was Judaism is a shock, and perhaps too much to bear.

The notion that God has a dark side is difficult for many people to understand, let alone accept. Even your reference to Paul sidesteps the issue, though I am in full agreement with your notion that both rah and tov must die in the resurrected self.

Few of us doubt that people have a dark side, but that is only half of what I am saying. God has a dark side. It comes out in the Book of Job, in the Flood story, in God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate God’s power, and in all the acts of God-sanctioned murder and genocide in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Revelation.

In my classes at MTSU when the subject of God’s love comes up students want to argue that God is love and that love is absolute. But then what do we do with the notion that if not for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross God would condemn all humankind once again? And what do we make of the notion of God condemning the vast majority of humanity (and most Christians by some accounts) to eternal damnation. I would never do such a thing. Can it be that I am more loving than God?

I doubt it. What I offer my students is the notion that God and theology are not the same thing. If God is love, religions are not. Religions and theologies reflect the agendas and biases of their all too human creators. I don’t believe Jesus called us to religion, but to God, and the God he spoke of in his parables is not the damning brutal God of so many theologians.

My opinion is this: we have too many priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, and swamis and not enough God.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 11/13 Post

Interesting, isn't it, how we are driven toward certain questions, whether we're dealing with the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, or the body of the Sermon on the Mount? At least three resurface in your post: the matter of feelings, Jesus' creative use of existing themes in the Judaism of his time, and the light and dark sides of God.

Let's start with feelings. As I've noted at other times, I deeply appreciate the possible distinction between how we feel and how we act. We can choose to act lovingly toward enemies, regardless of our feelings. Doing so, though, still requires that we recognize and confront our feelings and judge hatred (and its kin)wanting. Over the long haul, I'm not convinced we can maintain a separation between feelings and actions. Jesus, in my opinion,recognized this reality. In "good Jewish fashion," he began with actions, but it seems clear from the tone and content of the Sermon of the Mount that he also dared hope feelings could be transformed as well.

Both of us probably could provide (or find)testimonies from those who have experienced such transformation. To my mind, such accounts matter. They strongly suggest our feelings can change, or be changed. Jesus' vision moves beyond the question of controlling our feelings. He seems to call us to yearn for new and better ones. This particular topic gets caught up in the larger Christian dream of a life made new by God.

As to Jesus' creative use of Jewish themes, I think we are in full agreement. The very idea makes some Christians uncomfortable. A few probably harbor a bit of antisemitism. Most, though, are guilty only of muddled thinking, the kind that insists Jesus's perspective and teachings must stand alone, divorced from historical setting or precedent. Such thinking ignores the implications of the Incarnation, to put it gently.

The light and dark sides of God--now there's a matter that has deep roots in Jewish history and interesting outbreaks in Christianity's story. We've played with Yetzer haTov and Yetzer haRah in previous posts. Christian scholars began to wrestle with the topic as they became better acquainted with rabbinic writings. Some Christians speak in terms how light must always cast a shadow. Personally, I think the concept lies in back of the Apostle Paul's confession that he does not always do what he wills to do, not to mention his insistance that the "fleshly person" must die that the "spiritual person" might live.

We may be close to a functional agreement on what to do with our two natures. You write, "Maybe we can understand Jesus' command to be perfect to be a call to recognize our dual nature and place rah in the service of tov, just as God softens His judgment with His compassion." From my perspective, rah and tov both must die in favor of a "resurrected" and unified self, characterized by grace and strength and genuine wisdom, by a new life devoted to the worship and service of God.

These, of course, are deep matters. I am not certain I've yet found the language to express them well. Ah, yes...that's one of the purposes behind our conversation!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 11/13 Post

There is no doubt that this is a challenging teaching. Let me go into it slowly, beginning with the notion of “hate”.

As you said, Mike, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t enjoin us to hate our enemies, but I doubt Jesus has the Bible in mind here. He is living under brutal Roman oppression, and may well be addressing the hatred Jews have of their Roman occupiers. Translating his teaching into our time would be as if Jesus were calling us to love the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

And then there is the question of Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” And John 12: 25, “Those who love their life, lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In these passages Jesus seems to be obligating his followers to hatred. How are we to understand this?

Then there is the notion of “love”. Is Jesus talking about feeling loving toward our enemies? Or, in good Jewish fashion, is he talking about acting lovingly toward them? For example, Exodus 23:4 commands that if you find your enemy’s ox or donkey you have to return the animal to him or her regardless of how you feel about the person. Since we cannot control our feelings— indeed by the time we recognize that we have feelings that might need controlling we have already felt them— there is no point in commanding certain feelings. But we can control our behavior. Hence Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”

But I may be too narrow in my thinking. Proverbs 24:17-18 does seem to speak to feelings: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles,” so maybe there is a way to control our feelings even if I can’t find one.

And then there is “pray for those who persecute you.” This, too, is found in the Torah Jesus learned. Moses prays for Pharaoh five times (see Exodus 8:24-27, for example); Job prayed for his enemies (Job 42:9), David prayed for Saul (I Samuel 24:12), and Jeremiah urges the Hebrew people to pray for the Babylonians (Jeremiah 29:7).

My point here is simply that Jesus is not inventing a new way of living, but rather gathering threads from his Jewish culture to weave a new Judaism bearing his special emphasis.

It is Jesus’ last admonition—“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—that I find the most challenging. You are taking this to be “mature” or “complete,” by which I guess you mean something like “be consistent in your loving actions toward your enemies, as God is consistent when He shines the sun upon the good and the evil alike.”

If this is what Jesus means, then I think we can all work toward this level of moral consistency. But what if he does mean something more? What if, as you say, “perfect” means “complete,” and “complete” means “whole,” and “whole” means inclusive of opposites?

God seems to have a light and dark side. He can be loving and wrathful. The mere fact that there is a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden suggests that there must be some evil to know. Where could that come from if not God? God is the source of all reality, and reality is comprised of opposites: up and down, in and out, right and wrong, good and evil, mercy and judgment, etc.

Being made in the image and likeness of God, we, too, have these opposites embedded in us. To be perfect, whole, complete, is to recognize what Judaism calls our Yetzer haTov and Yetzer haRah, our innate capacity for good and evil respectively. According to the rabbis both capacities are necessary for human life and flourishing. Evil, rooted in concern for the self, is the yeast that motivates us to marry, raise a family, and run a business. It is called “evil” because if taken to extremes, that is if left untempered by our capacity for good, it can lead to terrible abuses in marriage, family rearing, and business practices.

Similarly the capacity for good is rooted in selflessness, and, unless balanced by the capacity for self-focus, leads to loss of self and failure to achieve anything of value to regarding oneself or one’s community. To be a successful human each inclination must be yoked to the other. In effect, the Yetzer haRah is the energy for doing, and the Yetzer haTov is the direction that insures our doing is for the good.

Maybe we can understand Jesus’ command to be perfect to be a call to recognize our dual nature and place rah in service of tov, just as God softens His judgment with His compassion.

Mike: Matthew 5:43-47

"You have head that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-47) (NRSV)

The test of true religion is how we act toward those who hate or harm us, or whom we have been taught to treat as enemies.

"You shall love your neighbor" is drawn from Leviticus 19:18. "Hate your enemy" presents a problem. To the best of my knowledge, this specific language is not found in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, any number of passages acknowledge the existence of such feelings. Going beyond texts, I think it reasonable to conclude many a parent taught their children to observe both maxims. Frankly, it's human nature.

Which, of course, is Jesus' point: "What more are you doing than others? For someone of the Christian tradition, the injunction to love and pray for even enemies narrows our options. At the very least, if we take Jesus seriously we're forced to examine our typical reactions.

Rami, I took this matter seriously even as a child. The rural school I attended featured serious divisions among the students. To be frank,all students had friends and enemies. Your enemies could (and usually did) hurt you, not only in terms of shunning and teasing but sometimes to the point of physical violence. Naturally, we were tempted to buy into the system, choose our side, and go to war.

I wanted to do so, but each time I started down that road I stumbled over this teaching of Jesus. Sometimes I got up, shook the dust from my sneakers, and plunged into the fray. More often, though, I chose not to hurt "my enemies." Worse, I felt compelled to try to help at least some of them in the ways available to me: a kind word, a bit of help with homework, choosing them for a sports team, and the like. To put it mildly, such behavior was not well received by my "friends." I wish I could honestly say that all the teachings of Jesus took hold so strongly during my youth!

Looking back, I now know I was being granted a taste of the loneliness which comes to any of us who depart from the norm.

The scripture passage teaches that those who follow Jesus' injunction may "be perfect" even as God is perfect. A better translation might be "mature" or perhaps even "complete." Love in action, without regard for the categories of friend and enemy, completes a follower of Jesus. In our better moments we remember this is so. Too often, we forget.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 11/10 Post

This is what makes our dialogue so much fun! We agree just enough to be able to speak meaningfully to one another, and disagree just enough to be able to learn constructively from one another. I agree with everything you said. So let's move on!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's November 4 Post

We, indeed, are in substantial agreement. As for your suggested additions and revisions, here's a brief response.

1. Agreed. Let's expand the maxim to include all creation.

2. I chose the term "flirt" with considerable intention. The sexual/relational connotations rest on insights from some of the prophets.

3. We differ a bit on the matter of pacifism. Insofar as I can tell, pacifism (which is a logical component of nonviolence)is the ideal of Jesus. When we take up weapons, we fall short of the ideal. I forsee no possibility of the ideal being realized at the corporate level, though individuals may on occasion attain it. The ideal, though, pushes us to make violence a last resort rather than a preemptive or first response.

4. We agree.

5. We agree.

6. Upon reflection, I think you are correct! The one caution I would urge is that we be careful not to indulge in self-righteousness when evaluating other's response to evil.

7. We agree.

8. We agree.

As for the remainder of your interesting post, as you know we hold different assumptions. From my perspective, all scriptures must be read and evaluated in light of what we believe we know about Jesus. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible texts you mention, my assumption drives me to at least two conclusions. First, the teachings and actions of Jesus make it impossible for me to maintain that God sanctions such violence. Second, I tend to think much of the Bible is a record of how humans apprehend or misapprehend God. God, to my way of thinking, gets a great deal of bad press, taking the blame for decisions made by humans, all of whom were conditioned by the culture(s) of their day.

Both of us, I think, argue that violence is part of the human heritage, ingrained in us both by genetics and culture. Controlling our violence is commendable. Transforming our natures, or from my perspective experiencing such transformation in partnership with God, remains a legitimate hope.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 11/3 Post

I don't have a complimentary list, Mike, and I find yours very helpful. So let me just work with that.

1. That which dehumanizes you or others is evil. This is a fine definition as far as it goes, but I would like to go beyond the anthropocentric and that anything that debases life is evil. Now we can include human acts of animal cruelty and environmental degradation as acts of evil as well.

2. Do not flirt with such evil or pretend it can be accommodated or tamed. I love your choice of verb. To “flirt” has a sexual connotation that may indeed be apropos, though we would have to flesh it out (yes, pun intended).

3. Never take up the weapons of evil to resist evil. Are weapons used in defense of oneself and one’s people evil? I admit to not being a pacifist, so this idea is a difficult one for me to accept.

4. Accept the necessity of personal suffering. There is a cost for resisting evil. If we are not willing to pay it, we cannot succeed.

5. Embrace humility. Humility is the antidote to pride, and pride is the fuel of much evil. I love the prophet Micah’s insight: “walk humbly with your God, (Micah 6:8). Why “your God” rather than just “God”? Because, so say the rabbis, each of us has our own idea of God and none of us has the whole of God, so Micah is telling us to be humble about our faith and our certainty.

6. Do not presume to judge how others respond to evil; be content to live out your vision. I have no problem with making judgments, and I believe there are evil responses to evil (torturing of prisoners, even terrorists, being one example). So I would argue that if we have a standard for resisting evil we should use it to measure the quality of other resistant movements as well.

7. Do not, in your mind or deeds or words, dehumanize your oppressors--treat them as you wish they treated others. This is one application of your first principle, and I wholeheartedly agree. There is an interesting documentary on the dehumanizing propaganda of the Japanese, Germans, and Americans during WWII. The Nazis dehumanized whole groups: Jews, Gypsies, Americans; the Americans did the same with its racist anti-Japanese cartoons; but the Japanese themselves limited their attacks to the Allied leadership and not all Americans or Europeans. Dehumanizing groups is the first step to annihilating them.

8. Make nonviolent resistance to evil a life's work. I agree. One who is only occasionally nonviolent is not nonviolent at all. Nonviolence isn’t a tactic.

• • •

So we are in substantial agreement regarding your list, but let’s not stop here. We are assuming that nonviolence is indeed the ideal, but why make that assumption? Especially when dealing with a sacred text that has God sanctioning the most horrendous acts of genocide.

God seems to have no problem with violence as long as it is done at His behest. God’s destruction of all land-based life outside the Ark (Genesis 6-9); God’s promise to drive out the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites (Joshua 3:10); God’s sanctioning the murder of all the men, women, children, and animals of Jericho (Joshua 6:21); God’s command to commit genocide against the people of Amalek (1 Samuel 15;1-3); and the murder of all nonbelievers in the Book of Revelation make it clear that God is not a God of nonviolence. Can Jesus’ single teaching that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword (Matthew 26:52) turn the tide against the Murderous God of the Bible?

Since I believe the Bible is of human origin, reflecting the best and worst of what we humans are capable, I would argue (nonviolently of course) that violence is part of our DNA, and that seeking to impose nonviolence on instinctually violent creatures such as ourselves is itself an act of violence.

The question for me is this: Can we transform ourselves rather than simply control ourselves when it comes to violence? Can we literally change our minds and hence our responses? Can we, to use New Testament terminology, put on the mind of Christ, (1 Corinthians 2:5; 2:16)?

I think we can. When we cultivate a capacity for contemplative self-observation; when we can look at our capacity for violence without reacting; then we can be free from this instinct and be in the world in a new way.

Short of this truly revolutionary step, I think we can rely on the Golden Rule and refrain from doing unto others what is abhorrent to ourselves.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mike: Reply to Rami's 10/21 Posting

Your post put me to thinking about guidelines for those who embrace a "nonviolent way to resist an unjust system of oppression." I think, as you might imagine, that one resists not only systems but individuals. Here's a first draft of my list.

1. That which dehumanizes you or others is evil. No so-called necessity, philosophical or political difference, or vision of society can justify dehumanization.

2. Do not flirt with such evil or pretend it can be accommodated or tamed. Many have tried such approaches and failed. Inevitably, those who do so wind up supporting or ignoring evil for the sake of some supposed long-term good.

3. Never take up the weapons of evil to resist evil. Do no violence. Remember that the weapons we use may ultimately define or redefine us.

4. Accept the necessity of personal suffering. You may be hit, arrested, imprisoned, exiled, or killed. Suffering is the price you pay for nonviolent resistance to evil.

5. Embrace humility. Nothing is stranger than a pride-filled nonviolent prophet.

6. Do not presume to judge how others respond to evil; be content to live out your vision.

7. Do not, in your mind or deeds or words, dehumanize your oppressors--treat them as you wish they treated others.

8. Make nonviolent resistance to evil a life's work--occasional nonviolence accomplishes little.

Well, it's a start. Do you have a list?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 10/21 Post

Yes, Jesus is too radical to be tamed! God is too radical to be tamed! I often think religion is about taming God, and that is what troubles me the most about it. So let’s take a look at some of Jesus’ radicalism.

If we are to understand Jesus' teachings on "turning the left cheek," "going the extra mile," and "giving one's cloak" we have to see them in the context of his situation.

Striking a person backhand on the right cheek was the way Roman soldiers debased the Jews: striking them as one might strike a dog. Slapping a person open handed on the left cheek, though a sign of anger, was also an affirmation of human equality. Jesus is saying, “Do not resist the evil of the backhanded slap, but dare the oppressor to strike you as an equal.” This puts the Roman soldier in the morally awkward position of having to elevate your status from subhuman to human, walk away, or beat you senseless despite the fact that you did not threaten the soldier with bodily harm. In any of these three cases the soldier loses, and the seeds of moral discontinuity are planted in both the soldier and those who witness the soldier’s dilemma.

The same is true of carrying a soldier’s gear the “extra mile.” Roman law allowed soldiers to grab Jews off the street and treat them as pack animals for up to one mile. Jesus is saying, “Do not resist the insult of being treated as a pack animal. Rather, when your service is up, insist upon carrying the gear as a free human being.” This act of generosity again puts the soldier in a morally untenable situation. He cannot force you to carry his pack, and has to force you to return it to him. Even if he again chooses to beat you senseless the rationale for his actions—that you wished to help him carry his gear—makes his action and the system that supports it appear more and more immoral.

In both cases the person following Jesus’ challenge places him or herself in danger of being beaten, but the beating is morally unjustifiable even by the soldier doing the beating. You are not endangering the soldier, so he cannot claim self-defense. You are simply refusing to accept his assumption that you are less than him. This is so very important: Jesus is challenging us to resist our own dehumanization as well as to cease dehumanizing others. This challenge is no less relevant today than 2000 years ago.

Jesus’ reference to the cloak shifts his concern from Roman occupation to the corrupt courts run by the Roman collaborating Jewish establishment. The courts are enforcing a system of injustice that keeps the majority of the population impoverished. The Bible speaks of everyone sitting unafraid under her vine and her fig tree (Micah 4:4), but in Jesus day most people had been robbed of their ancestral lands and reduced to tenant farming on land owned by absentee landlords. Poverty and injustice were rampant. The system had lost its moral foundation, and greed rather than godliness was its watchword.

Jesus is saying, “If they take your outer garment because you cannot pay whatever monies the unjust system says you owe, give them your undergarment as well. Walk out of the courthouse naked.” In a culture that finds nakedness more than a little troubling, this act of defiance makes a clear yet nonviolent statement about the corrupt nature of the legal system. “Look what the system is doing to us!” such an act says. “Look how we are violated!” The outrage such political theater would engender could lead to a revolution. Jesus didn’t have to raise an army to frighten the Romans and their collaborators. He only had to revive the prophetic spirit.

All of this is glorious prophetic theater. Jesus knows, contra the Zealots, that the people cannot rise up and defeat the Romans militarily. (They will try a few decades later, resulting in an exile lasting for almost 2000 years.) He also knows that collaboration ala the Sadducees is immoral. But he is equally unhappy with the passive withdrawal of the Essenes and limited cooperation of the Pharisees. Jesus wants to engage Rome, to take on the unjust system that oppresses his people, and do so nonviolently. Jesus is a prophet speaking truth to power.

The sad thing for me, and it seems to be true for you as well, Mike, is that this legacy of prophetic nonviolence taught by Jesus has been largely abandoned (albeit with notable exceptions) since Constantine when the Church was co-opted by Roman imperialism. And today, for so many self-proclaimed Christians Jesus is the lord of hatred, fear, anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, and racism.

Of course, every religion has its extremists, and Christianity is not different than Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism in this regard. All of its sickens me, even as it breaks my heart. Religion is so easily co–opted by power. Wherever Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism become state religions, the prophetic call for justice fades and the clerics become puppets of politicians proclaiming holy what is clearly unholy.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ call to “resist not evil”? I cannot imagine he meant us to take this as a sign of passivity. “Resist not evil” cannot mean that we are to ignore the commandment to “not stand idle while our neighbor bleeds,” (Leviticus 19:16), and place our faith in some private afterlife salvation. Rather he is urging us to find a nonviolent way to resist an unjust system of oppression. This is what Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the Sermon on the Mount. This is what we have to see ourselves. See, and then enact.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 10/15 Post

Never underestimate the human capacity and willingness to make religion the servant and prop of power. If I understand you, we agree on this point.

Love God and love your neighbor is the heart of the matter and the goal of the Christian life. Unfortunately, the human heart is deceptive. We can go round and round about why this so: origninal sin, cultural conditioning, genetics, and the like. I prefer simply to deal with the reality of the condition. Bound by our out of balance self-centeredness and self-protectiveness, we find it almost impossible to fully love (which is to trust) God. We, for the most part, also seem unable to love others in healthy ways or to extend such love beyond rather narrow groupings.

Jesus, I think, envisioned a revolution in human nature and behavior, one grounded in individual response to his message (and Christians would add, his person). In fact, we can read Christian history as an ongoing series of mini-revolutions, in which this vision of Jesus reemerges in counterpoint to institutional Christianity.

Jesus is too radical to be tamed by the church or the state, though both try mightily.

I await your promised second installment!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 10/14 Post

I think your analysis of our differences is true to a great degree. Judaism is a corporate enterprise. It does not recognize the separation of religion and state. The Torah, both Written and Oral, is a legal and ethical code for both individuals and the state, addressing all aspects of personal and corporate life.

The Gospels, on the other hand, are not concerned with the details of politics or economics. Jesus is talking about a revolution of the individual. He may have thought that to change the whole we must begin with the parts (I myself agree with this), or he may have believed the endtimes were upon him and that history and the vehicles of history such as the state were coming to an end so there was no need to speak to these entities. Or he may have felt that nothing could be or needed to be added to the Hebrew prophets and their centuries-long call for social, political, and religious revolution. Whatever his reasoning, one is hard pressed to run a country or an economy or even a world religion based on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.

This was probably a nonissue until the Conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the eventual transformation of Roman Empire into the no less oppressive Holy Roman Empire. The more power the Catholic Church accrued the less Christian it became. Martin Luther's Reformation was a return to Jesus, but this simply resulted in a plethora of Jesuses each supporting the ideology of the state or group that worshipped him. When we go back to the original texts of the New Testament and just try and understand Jesus as his original listeners may have understood him, we are engaged in a very dangerous and revolutionary act, for what we find and hear is not the Jesus of this or that denomination or political party, shaped to sanctioned to their policies, but the real Jesus demanding a revolution of the heart.

When President Bush II said Jesus was the philosopher who influenced him the most, no one asked him where Jesus actually influences his policies. Bumper stickers asking “Who Would Jesus Bomb” show just how absurd it is to use Jesus to justify the brutality of the state. To put it bluntly: in a country driven by greed and addicted to oil, and so trapped in the politics of hate, fear, and xenophobia, Jesus is a very troubling role model. So we are offered a number of faux-Jesuses instead: the Jesus of the Prosperity Gospel, for example, who wants everyone to be rich (camels and needles be damned), and the Warrior Jesus where the Prince of Peace sanctions the ways of war, and the Jesus who hates homosexuals, Jews, blacks, and Democrats.

It seems to be that much of Christianity in the United States, like Islam in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, and Judaism in Israel has been highjacked by those who use religion only to solidify their own power. This is why we need to go pack to the prophets of justice and compassion in each of these traditions and reclaim the true revelation they all share: to love God and to love our neighbor.

What I hope isn't getting lost in our conversation is just how radical the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount truly are.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mike: Brief Response to Rami's 10/13 Post

Some time back, I think, we briefly discussed how our respective traditions may incline us to approach interpreting texts differently. In a nutshell, my tradition tends to focus on the personal and a big picture, your tradition encourages a greater focus on the corporate and particulars. To my mind, our differences enrich our conversation.

Given your focus on how an "eye for an eye" applied only to the courts, I wonder if you may underestimate the importance of "popular" interpretation and application. I suspect any number of people absorbed the concept and went on to apply it to interpersonal relationships. From spouses, to parents, to clans, to the world of commerce, I suspect individuals justified various forms of revenge on the basis of the maxim. Turning to politics, I can not help but think the Zealots embraced the phrase as part of their justification for violent resistance to the Romans. Well...you get my point. Insofar as I determine, such sayings become not only law but folklore, and their influence as folklore may or may not bear much relationship to their intended meaning.

I have no doubt that you are correct: the court system of the day was corrupt, and Jesus certainly called on his followers to take a different approach to justice. At the same time, though, I think Jesus sought to address and reform personal habits of the mind, heart and hands.

Rami: Response to Mike's 10/13 Post

There is so much to say about this amazing teaching. Let me divide my response into two parts: “An eye for an eye”, and “Do not resist an evildoer”, Jesus’ program for nonviolent resistance to injustice. I will post each separately and invite your comments as we go along.

The phrase “An eye for an eye” originally comes from Exodus 21:23-27, where a person who has taken the eye of another in a fight is required to forfeit his own eye as compensation. This is called reciprocal justice, lex talionis, and can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi. By the time of Jesus lex talionis was understood in financial terms, with the guilty party paying a fine sufficient to cover damages, pain, medical expenses, incapacitation, and mental anguish.

Your reference to Deuteronomy 19:16-21 deals with a more direct form of lex talionis where conspirators testifying falsely in court are punished by having done to them what they planned to do to their intended victim. Deuteronomy also mentions the case of a woman coming to the aid of her husband in a fight by grabbing the genitals of her husband’s opponent. The Torah says “you shall cut off her hand; show no mercy” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). This severe reaction to “hitting below the belt” most likely reflects Iron Age fears about women touching men’s genitalia, but by the time of Jesus this case was understood to refer to a woman who was going to kill her husband’s attacker rather than incapacitate him. Cutting off her hand was thought to be a lesser punishment, taking into account her passion to save her husband, when she might have been liable to capital punishment as a would-be murderer.

In each of these cases, however, we are talking about official justice carried out by the courts, and not acts of individual violence or revenge. Even the one exception to this rule found in Numbers involves the courts.

In Numbers 35:9-30 a person charged with manslaughter is obligated by the court to flee to a “city of refuge” to await trial. No one can touch him as long as he remains in the city. If he leaves the city, however, and is killed by a relative of the original victim, no penalty is accrued because the accused is now considered an escapee in violation of the court order to remain in the city of refuge. The idea behind this ruling is, in a world without prisons, to scare the accused into staying in the city of refuge until his trial. Notice that this only applies to manslaughter, killing without forethought or intent. Murder, intentional killing, is punishable by death, and no city of refuge applies. But in every case the court must establish guilt and carry out the sentence.

In other words, even in biblical times “an eye for an eye” was not about private revenge but court-based justice. Private revenge was already outlawed in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Given all of this it is challenging to figure out what Jesus intends with his attack on “an eye for an eye.” He cannot be referring to private revenge, because “an eye for an eye” doesn’t refer to private revenge but to court sanctioned punishment. So is he attacking the court system itself?

Maybe. Given the morally corrosive nature of Roman occupation, it is not hard to imagine that the justice system, like the High Priesthood, was in the pocket of Rome. Justice may simply be for sale, and the people to whom Jesus addresses his message are not those with the wherewithal to buy it.

I suggest that we are dealing with a call to abandon the corrupt courts, and find a new way to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:8).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mike: Matthew 5:38-42

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (Matthew 5:38-42)

Jesus starts by alluding to Deuteronomy 19:21 and 21:24. In its earliest context, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" reined in revenge. It forbade exacting vengeance beyond the hurt one suffered. The concept continues to influence us today, being the core principle upon which most western concepts of justice rest.

That being said, the saying also often lends a tone of legitimacy to those who want revenge. Left unchallenged or unmodified, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" may (and does) fuel endless cycles of retaliation. It may restrict the scope of violence, but it cannot end violence.

Jesus calls for a kind of nonviolent resistance. His examples are drawn from his historical context. Striking someone on the right cheek with the back of one's right hand was a well-known way to insult another. It invited a similar response. Jesus called his followers to refuse to play the game. In similar fashion, an opponent might take advantage of his power or a corrupt justice system to take one's inner garment. If so, confound them by giving up one's outer cloak as well. A Roman soldier might legally compel one to carry his military equipment for a mile. Jesus instructed his followers to go an extra mile willingly. His focus in is on actions taken. Break the patterns of violence and resentment. Go beyond what the law or custom require. To put it mildly, his words probably did not set well with the majority of an occupied population.

The final injunction to give and lend to all who ask does not fit easily with the preceding verses. Had I been editing the materials that became Matthew's Gospel, I probably would have placed the verse in chapter 6, perhaps in the vicinity of verses 2 and 3. Still, I think it fair to say that Matthew links the saying to the previous ones because of their shared extremeness.

Following the way of Jesus is risky by normal standards. At best, your reputation may well be called into question. You'll certainly frustrate friends and fellow "tribe" members, when you refuse to respond to violence with violence. You may wind up broke (the nightmare of most western Christians)! Your time may be consumed. Certainly, you may suffer physical harm, and perhaps even death.

Jesus operates out of a vision: the cycle of violence and self-protectiveness can only be broken if we refuse to play by its rules. He clearly believes he speaks for God in this matter.

I think it best not to seek to explain away Jesus' radical position. His followers may choose other responses to violence, but I believe when we do so we should acknowledge we have departed from the strict way of Jesus.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 10/3 Post

Whenever talk of idolatry comes up I always go back to the work of Erich Fromm, especially To Have or To Be. Fromm speaks of two ways of living: having and being. The former is all about acquiring from a place of scarcity. The latter is about living with and in the abundance of the moment.

In the having mode God becomes an idol, "something that we ourselves make and project our own powers into, thus impoverishing ourselves. We then submit to our creation and by our submission we are in touch with ourselves in an alienated form. While I can have the idol because it is a thing, by my submission to it, it, simultaneously, has me." (Fromm)

Having and being had is the great sin. The God of the prophets cannot be had, and therefore cannot have you. The God of the prophets is the opposite of an idol. From the second of the Ten Commandments to Jesus (who I understand to be among the greatest of prophets), any god that can be imaged is not the eternal God."

The prophets’ challenge is to accept the freedom of uncertainly, insecurity, and not-knowing. Their way is the way of radical freedom, and they know that failure to be free can only result in enslavement to self and selfishness, and eventually exile from all that is meaningful and joyous in life.

A life of having is a life of being had. A life of being is a life of freedom. The “having life” is authoritarian and based on the false notion that you are other than the One Who Is. Alienated from God, you are forced to search for salvation, your sense of wholeness, by submitting yourself to externals. The “being life” is liberating and rooted in your unity with God as the One Who Is all things. Finding refuge in God, you are free from externals, you lack nothing, need little, and fear no one. I think Jesus and the Way of Jesus is a life of being rather than having.

Mike: Response to Rami's 10/1 Post

Thanks for your overview of the "anti-oath" movement of Jesus' day. It's helpful. One of the guidelines I offer students of the New Testament goes like this: "Always remember, the words had to mean something to those who first heard them. Seek for that meaning. Find it, if possible. Build your interpretion and application of texts on such a base." Some listen, some don't!

Turning to some of the matters you raise, like you I sometimes wish we could find a better term than "kingdom" for use in contemporary America. I'm not sure "the vision of God" and "vision people" suffice. In Christian theology, for the most part, "kingdom people" are those who live (or try to live)in constant awareness of the rule of God. There is a living God at work, both generally in all creation and specifically with individuals. I suspect our different views on the nature of God are at work here.

Personally, I prefer to use "the way of Jesus." The phrase (for me) implies choosing a life direction centered in and guided by Jesus. All elements of life come into play: the mind, the emotions, self-care, caring for others, worship, daily "bread," work, play, rest, and the like. As you know well, "people of the way" probably was the earliest self-description Christians employed. I think they were onto to something important.

With regard to swearing an oath of fidelity to Caeser, I think you've identified an often overlooked yet highly probable possiblity. By the last decade of the first century, such an oath figured into persecution of Christians in Asia Minor. Insofar as I know, we do not have recorded incidents prior to that time. I am intrigued by your reference to "a general Pharisaic refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Caesar" and would like to know more about the probable dating.

The larger issue, of course, is idolatry. When we place our ultimate trust in a system, a person, an ideology or any thing other than God, we divert from "the way." We may run off the road and into a ditch or wind up traveling another road, if we stay fixated on the diversion. My hunch is that all economic systems (to stay with the matter you suggest)hold the potential to divert us. The same is true of what we might call professional recreation, the entertainment industry, or even our personal avocations.

Living on "the way" requires one's attention, to put it gently.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 9/29 Post

I love this teaching of Jesus, and I too think it is central to the lives of “kingdom people” though, as an American I wish we could find a better term than “kingdom” to refer to those striving to live God’s vision of a just and compassionate world. How about "the vision of God" rather than the "kingdom of God," and “vision people” rather than "kingdom people"?

And you are right to cite Leviticus 19:2 and Numbers 30:2. We should, given the nature of this dialogue, also mention the third commandment against taking God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) and the ninth commandment against swearing false witness against one’s neighbor (Exodus 20:16). It is clear, I think, that biblical Judaism has no problem with swearing oaths if done so with integrity. But by the time of Jesus an anti-oath movement was well under way.

Here is a passage from the Book of Enoch written by a contemporary of Philo some decades before Matthew: “I promise you, my children, that I will not swear by a single oath; neither by heaven nor by earth, nor by anything else made by God. God said, ‘There is no swearing in me, nor injustice, but truth.’ If there is no truth in men, let them swear by a word—Yea, yea, or Nay, nay.” (49: 1-2)

Enoch seems to understand “yea, yea” and “nay, nay” as oaths, as do the rabbis in the Talmud (Shavuot 36a). Jesus’ brother James may be trying to explain Jesus’ teaching in light of the rabbinic notion that “yea yea” and “nay nay” are also oaths when he says, “But above all my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No” (James 5: 10-14). In this rendering of the teaching the double “yes” and “no” are not formulae as in the rabbis’ thinking but simply a way of saying, “Say what you mean, and do what you say.” If this is what Jesus meant then there is no conflict with the rabbis of his day.

Philo also argues against taking oaths, “That being who is the most beautiful, and the most beneficial to human life, and suitable to rational nature, swears not, because truth on every point is so innate within him that his bare word is accounted an oath,” (On the Decalogue 17, M. 2).

In Ecclesiasticus (the Wisdom of Ben Sirach) we find something similar, “Accustom not your mouth to swearing. Neither habituate yourself to using the name of the Holy One,” (23: 9-11). The Essenes, too, protested against the taking of oaths, claiming that their word was stronger than any oath, and arguing that swearing an oath was worse than perjury (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 2. 8, 6-7).

Given all of this we can see that Jesus’ position was not unique to him, and that he is simply taking sides in an ongoing Jewish debate on swearing oaths. But why this is so important? It could be that people were using the oaths and invoking the Name of God in support of lies, and Philo, Sirach, the Essenes, Jesus, and James are calling people to a higher level of integrity and honesty. This is important, but somewhat prosaic.

Looking for something more challenging, we should note that in Jesus’ day swearing an oath of fidelity to Caesar was a major concern. Josephus in his Antiquities (15:368, and 17:42) tells of two cases when the Jews refused to take oaths to Rome. The first was a combined effort of both Pharisaic schools and the Essenes who refused to swear a loyalty oath to Herod. The second was a general Pharisaic refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Caesar. Rome responded with uncharacteristic restraint, fining the offenders rather than killing them.

Maybe Jesus is using the oath issue with Rome in mind, making his teaching yet another act of nonviolent resistance to Roman occupation. By refusing to take oaths one essentially denies the absolutist claims of the object of the oath, in this case Caesar. When Quakers refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States they are resisting the temptation of many patriots to equate God and country. Since to most Romans Caesar was God, not taking oaths was a way of affirming political atheism.

The question for me is, How does this translate into living the “vision of God” today? Certainly being honest and avoiding spin is part of it, but there must be something more. I wonder if our money, with the phrase “In God We Trust” printed on it is a kind of idol, and that participating in the American economic system is a betrayal of the vision of God? I really don’t know, but I would love to hear from you on this.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mike: Matthew 5:33-37

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let you word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Jesus continues to illustrate kingdom life, turning to the matter of oaths.

Leviticus 19:2 and Numbers 30:2 prohibit swearing falsely, that is purporting to tell the truth while in fact doing otherwise, whether by outright lying or shading the truth. In the time of Jesus, it appears many folk believed oaths came in varying degrees of seriousness. For example, one might say, "Be it on my own head, if what I say is not true" or "As heaven is my witness, this is true." Such oaths were felt to be less binding than an oath sworn in the name of God.

Jesus says that kingdom people will not use such tactics for two reasons. First, anything we might call as witness to our oaths belongs to God. Invoking such things effectively involves God in our oath, and any attempt to act as if God is not involved is futile. Second, kingdom people should not need oaths. Living in the presence of God, they practice integrity. They do not need an oath to strengthen their own commitment to speak truth or keep their word.

A few commentators attempt to restrict the teaching's application to formal settings, such as the courtroom. Like most Christian commentators I think it applies to all arenas of life, but most especially to giving and keeping one's word and speaking truth in ways appropriate to a given setting.

Of course, I cannot help but think of the passage when I listen to partisans "spin" the words of a political candidate. For example, I watched the entire first debate between the presidential candidates. Each explained his particular approach to diplomatic conversations with leaders of rogue states. One used the term "precondition" to describe his own approach; the other chose the term "preparation." Try as I might, after listening to their explanations of their chosen terms, I could discern little difference in the mechanics of each candidates approach (tone and style, perhaps, are different matters).

Immediately after the close of the debate, political pundits of various persuasions began to "spin the discussion." Most attempted to persuade me (and other viewers) that there was a considerable difference between the two candidates on this matter. To put it gently, the commentators had to shade the truth in order to make the attempt. Most of them, no doubt, have Christian or Jewish affiliations. I was struck, yet again, by how hard it is to take control of our tongues and speak with integrity rather than to use words to serve a particular ideology or party affiliation.

Lest I seem to pick only on political operatives, Baptist preachers have a mixed record at best. For example, the New Testament clearly records two approaches to baptism: one follows personal confession of Jesus as Savior and Lord, the other is administered to entire "families" (perhaps including household servants)when the head of a household becomes a Christian. Baptist preachers, for the most part, "spin" their discussion of the matter to make it sound as if the New Testament presents only one option, namely the one we practice. Again, it's awfully hard not to shade the truth to serve one's own position or felt needs.

One more word: Some Christians use this passage to argue that we must have a clear position on all matters or that we can never change our minds. In other words, they believe it wrong to admit to grey areas, or that one does not know the right answer, or to change one's position in light of new evidence. If ever you say "yes" to a position, it ought to remain your position and so the argument goes. Nothing could be farther from the intention of Jesus. His call for radical truthfulness requires we admit when we do not know, recognize the reality of ambiguity, and declare that we have changed our minds when we have done so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 9/23 Post

This is fascinating, Mike, even if only to the two of us.

Judaism, rooting itself in God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) is decidedly pro-marriage.

The Shulchan Aruch, the basic code of Jewish law says, “Every person is obligated to marry in order to fulfill the duty of procreation, and whoever is not engaged in propagating the species is accounted as a murderer, diminishing the Divine Image and causing the presence of God to depart from Israel (Even ha-‘Ezer 1:1). And the Talmud tells us that “One who has no spouse is less than human,” (Yevamot 67a); and that “One who dwells without a spouse dwells without joy, without blessing, without good, and without happiness,” (Yevamot 62b). And while the primary purpose of marriage was to have and raise children, the rabbis urged that sexual activity within marriage has its own value and should continue beyond the childbearing years.

The Shulchan Aruch also tells us that the ancient rabbis ruled that High Priests and judges in capital crimes must be married (Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 53:9), though I can’t tell if they ruled this way in order to make the judges more or less compassionate toward the accused.

Perhaps the most interesting teaching on marriage is that only a married man could study the deeper mysteries of the Torah (women were not allowed to study this at all until modern times). The rationale here was that these mysteries use sexual imagery and one needed the grounding of a sexual partner to keep from being overwhelmed by the poetry of the teachings. We see this is the case of many medieval Catholic mystics as well (especially nuns) who speak of their love of Jesus in very sexual terms. Sex may be so central to humanity that we cannot imagine the Divine without invoke the sexual.

While celibacy is not limited to Christianity (Hinduism too honors celibacy), and while I am pleased to hear that the early church removed the stigma Judaism placed on eunuchs, celibacy is still one of the clearest differences between our two traditions.

On to the next teaching?

Mike: Response to Rami's 9/22 Post

Thanks for the excellent overview of the Pharisaic debate and it's possible application to Matthew 19:3ff. Your description of the matter accords well with that of many modern Christian scholars.

That being said, let's spend a little time on the matters of marriage, celibacy and "eunuch's for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."

With regard to marriage, Jesus teaches that the dissolution of a marriage should never be taken lightly. I think we have to admit the School of Hillel's position potentially lent itself to such an abuse. Whatever else we might conclude, Jesus' position brings a dose of sobriety to the matter.

In the first century context, Jesus' teaching represents a large step forward for women, in that he appears to treat both male and female as equals even as he reins in supposed male perogatives.

What about the exception clause? Some manuscripts do not include it, though the consensus of textual scholars appears to be that it belongs in the original text. Let's assume this to be the case. The followers of Jesus began to wrestle with the teaching within the first generation of the movement. We see this is the response of the disciples. We also find Paul (1 Corinthians 7)suggesting a believing spouse is not to be held accountable if an unbelieving spouse seeks divorce. In the past century of so, many Christians have concluded that spouse or child abuse should be added to the list of exception clauses. In the West, at least, most Christians recognize that when all efforts at reconciliation have been exhausted, divorce may become the only realistic option available to one. Here, I think, we see the living church and the Spirit of God working to interpret the teachings of Jesus in settings quite different from the first century world.

To summarize, it seems to me that Jesus taught that marriage is meant to be an unbreakable union, that both partners bear responsibility for the success of the union, that it must not be lightly ended, and that divorce entails considerable consequences. At the same time, Jesus teachings on the grace of God, coupled with the writings of Paul and subsequent developments in Christian thinking, make it clear that forgiveness and a new beginning are always possible.

Now, with regard to "eunuchs" for the kingdom of heaven, a small segment with the early church (second century and following) took the matter quite literally. This has never been the interpretation of most Christians. Most ancient and modern commentators argue Jesus taught that a minority of people might be gifted to embrace celibacy, so that they might focus solely on knowing and serving God. To put it another way, the strongly pro-marriage Jesus made space in his world-view for kingdom-dedicated singles.

Western Christianity, in my opinion, misapplied the teaching when it made celibacy a requirement for the priesthood and often devalued the spiritual possibilities within marriage. On the other hand, Protestant Christianity, in reaction to medieval excesses, went too far in the other direction, in effect creating a religious culture that is often uncomfortable with celibant Christians.

Jesus took a different tack. He taught if we enter into marriage, we then are called to do all in our power to make it work well. In much the same manner, if we choose celibacy, we are do so in order to devote ourselves the kingdom of heaven. In either case, we should make decisions in light of our particular gifts.

One last thought: the account of Philip and the Eunuch (Acts 8:26ff)demonstrates that the primitive church attempted to remove the stigma attached to eunuchs. With his baptism, the eunuch was admitted to the church with all the responsiblities and rights of any other person. At the very least, Jesus' teaching opened the door into the Christian community for such persons.

OK, Rami. I've written a more length than is usual for me. Back to you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 9/16 Post

This is a tough teaching. Is Jesus denying the option of divorce? It doesn’t sound like it. If Jesus wanted to outlaw divorce he could have simply said, “But I say to you, you shall not divorce.” He didn’t say this, but instead claims that a divorced woman is still bound to her husband so that she cannot remarry without committing adultery, which we know is a capital offense.

Two rival schools dominated rabbinic thought in Jesus’ time: the conservative school of Shammai and the more liberal school of Hillel. More often than not, Jesus follows the position of Hillel, but in this case he sides with Shammai who argues against divorce in all cases but that of sexual misconduct.

The Pharisaic debate focuses on Deuteronomy 24:1 where divorce is allowed if a man finds “something objectionable” regarding his wife. The question is, What is objectionable? For Hillel is could be almost anything, for Shammai it refers only to sexual misconduct.

Jesus is drawn into this debate in Matthew 19:3 where the Pharisees ask him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” The key phrase is “for any cause.” The Pharisees of Hillel’s school say a man can divorce “for any cause,” while the Pharisees of Shammai’s school say only the one cause, sexual misconduct. The Pharisees are asking Jesus to identify with one school or the other. Jesus, again, sides with Shammai. The difference between these two teachings (Matthew 5 and 19) is that in the first he focuses on the woman, in the second on the man saying that any man who divorces his wife (except in the case of sexual misconduct) and marries another woman is himself an adulterer.

The two teachings together are consistent and fair: both the woman and the man become adulterers if either remarries after divorce. But Jesus goes even further in his second teaching arguing that, “What therefore God has joined together, let no one separate,” (Matthew 19:6). Here Jesus sounds like he is opposed to divorce under any circumstances, perhaps taking up the teaching of God in Malachi, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Malachi 2:16). When the Pharisees ask him why then, if divorce is to be outlawed completely, God allows it in the case of sexual misconduct, Jesus says God is bowing to human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8).

Given that Jesus generally sides with the School of Hillel in matters of Jewish law, even his disciples are shocked by his pro-Shammai stringency. They say to him, “'If such is the case of man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can,’” (Matthew 19:10-12).

Jesus is not anti-marriage, but he is uniquely pro-eunuch. In Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 we are told that eunuchs cannot marry, become priests, or legislators. My holding up the eunuch as his ideal, Jesus is calling his followers to opt out of the social, religious, and legal systems that define the Judaism of his day. Jesus is calling to an elect that can achieve a status above householder, priest, and rabbi. This is an incredibly radical and new idea that reaches far beyond the issue of mere celibacy that troubled the apostles.

While I am intrigued by this hint of a higher state, and why Jesus chooses the term eunuch to reflect it, I admit to not knowing what to make of this call to become a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven. I would love to hear your take on this, Mike.