Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/26 Post

At the risk of romanticizing the lone prophet, I do have qualms about community when it comes to spiritual breakthroughs and revolutions. To borrow from my teacher Ellis Rivkin, one of the premier historians of Judaism, I can see how communities replicate past forms and innovate within them, but I don’t see them mutating into new ones. Mutation or revolution comes from the genius (or madness) of the lone prophet.

Rabbinic Judaism was a mutation. There is nothing in Judaism prior to the Pharisees that would lead one to imagine that God gave a second Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Once the mutation took hold and created a community the community’s job was to replicate the early teachings of the mutation and innovate from them.

The question now becomes: Was Jesus a replication, innovation, or mutation? If we say he was a “corrective,” then we can argue he was an innovation, proving our point by citing Jesus’ own teachings about the chief commandments in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love YHVH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is simply quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and while his understanding of these commandments may be innovative, he is not teaching anything radically new. Yet I cannot help but think there is more to Jesus’ teaching than this.

I think that what makes Jesus a mutation rather than an innovation is his open table.

The original Table of God was the altar upon which the priests performed the sacrificial slaughter demanded by God. The Pharisees introduced a new table, the dinner table if you will, as an alternative place of meeting: “Rabbi Shimon (ben Netanel) teaches, If three eat together and share no Torah, theirs is a feast for idols. Hence it says, “Without God, all tables are full of vomit and filth,” (Isaiah 28:8). But if three eat together and share Torah, theirs is a feast with God. Hence it says, “And he said to me, ‘This is God’s table.’” (Ezekiel 41:22) (Pirke Avot 3:4).

Jesus didn’t invent the idea of God’s Table, but he did radically depart from the traditional guest list, and that was his mutation. But I may be quibbling over words, for I can certainly see how one might argue that this is innovative rather than mutative.

Your assertion that “all of us already sit at that table,” however, is clearly a mutation. This is far more radical than saying that all of us are invited to sit at that table. Mother Wisdom in the Hebrew Book of Proverbs (chapter 8) invites everyone to Her table, and I can see how the Christian Church in all its forms does the same, but to say we are already at the table is to say something else entirely.

If we are all at the table then creed, faith, religious preference, etc. neither preference nor prejudice one from sitting at God’s table. The notion that some are in and others are out, the core teaching of almost all religions, is dismissed as bigoted fantasy. We are all in.

I think you are clarifying the heart of Jesus’ mutation: we are all already at God’s Table. You don’t have to earn a place at the table. You only have to realize you are already there. So much for heaven and hell; so much for the saved and the damned. There are only the full and the hungry, and being one or the other depends solely on one’s capacity to stop and smell the pot roast.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mike: response to Rami's 8/26 Post

With regard to the two Torahs, I'm aware of the Oral Torah, which Christian commentators often label the oral tradition or oral law. Most often they note it as a major point of difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees. I don't think I knew (though with age, memory is less certain than in the past)that the earliest versions of the Mishnah "espoused teachings without reference to earlier sources."

If I understand you correctly, you think a key difference between Jesus and the Pharisees was that "the rabbis operated within a large community of scholar-saints who challenged one another's teachings in order to separate truth from mere opinion, while Jesus appears to make his teachings without benefit of colleagues." Jesus, at the very least, may have seen himself as part of a prophetic tradition, the lone voice challenging the consensus of the community. From later Christian perspective, of course, he spoke a corrective word from God. On a personal note, given your qualms about the limits of community, I wonder how you feel about the contrast you've noted.

Let's turn back to "neighbor" and the first century division between Judaism and Christianity. The division was well under way before the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century and an established fact well before the start of the second century. In the end the core issue boiled down to something along the following lines. Could a gentile become a full-fledged member of the community without becoming first a Jew (circumcision, food laws, etc).

Paul took the position that gentiles could do so. Others within the broader community disagreed. Peter seems ultimately to have agreed with Paul in theory and occasional practice, even as he found it difficult to handle the resultant pressure. James, along with the leadership in the Jerusalem church, ultimately chose to pursue a moderate course, which is essence exempted gentiles from most Jewish practices, though keeping in place certain food restrictions connected with idolatry. In short, the three apostles had to contend with a culture war.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship posited sharp and clear divisions between two camps within Christianity. As it turns out, the situation was considerably more complicated. Tensions, though, were quite real. Toward the end of his life, Paul recognized the reality of the division. By the time Revelation was written (almost certainly in last decade of the first century), the division appears to have been deep and virtually complete.

All that is to say that I suspect the war of liberation against the Roman occupation may have put nails in the coffin but little more.

"One table" or "God's Table" is the metaphor and reality with which we must come to grips. You state the matter well. The truth of the matter, I think, is that all of us already sit at that table. At the risk of understating the matter, I think table manners are the challenge. Somehow we must learn to believe and act as if it's a common table, rather than one we can or dare to claim exclusively for ourselves (and others we may like).

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/25 Post

Actually I can’t recall a single instance where Jesus cites prior rabbinic sources. This doesn’t mean he didn’t do so, only that those who wrote the Gospels chose not to include those citations if in fact he made them— anything to separate Jesus from his Jewish heritage and promote him as a unique teacher and Son of God.

As for the Pharisees being scandalized, I would say it is, in a strange and intriguing way, the case of the pot calling the kettle black.

While it became customary to honor one’s teachers by citing their names, the rabbis cited in the Mishnah, the earliest codification of rabbinic teaching, did exactly what Jesus did, i.e. they espoused teachings without reference to earlier sources. Later rabbinic commentators on the Mishnah were careful to find links between the Mishnah and the much older Torah, but the Mishnaic teachers themselves claimed an authority separate from the Written Torah, asserting (without any outside corroboration) that God gave two Torahs on Mount Sinai. The Written Torah that was placed into the hands of the Priests, and the Oral Torah, the key to understanding the Written Torah properly, was passed down through Joshua, the Elders, and the Prophets, to the Pharisaic sages themselves.

The early rabbis believed that they embodied the Torah, and that their teachings were Torah. Jesus did the same. The difference, and it is a huge one, is that the rabbis operated within a large community of scholar-saints who challenged one another’s teachings in order to separate truth from mere opinion, while Jesus appears to make his teachings without the benefit of colleagues.

I can see how for many that bold assertion of his own authority was as scandalous to the Pharisees as their bold assertion of authority was to the Sadducees for whom only the Written Torah was authentic revelation.

Regarding the word “neighbor,” I also think it is the great issue of our time. I’m not so sure it was the issue that drove the wedge between Jews and Jewish Christians in the late first century, however.

The battle between the Gentile Christianity of Paul and the Jewish Christianity of Peter and James could certainly be seen as a battle over “neighbor,” but with regard to the larger Jewish world I suspect that the real divide came with the refusal of Jewish Christians to join with their fellow Jews in their war of liberation against Roman occupation.

Believing as they did that Jesus was to return within their lifetimes, entering into a bloody war with Rome made no sense to followers of Jesus. And it is not hard to imagine that early Christians who were being persecuted by Rome were more than happy to have the Romans preoccupied with some other people for a while. So I think it was more a matter of “you’re with us or your against us.”

Yet Jesus’ widening of the concept of “neighbor” was revolutionary. His was an open table fellowship that in our day needs to be broadened even more.

Controlling access to Jesus’ table is part of the politics of religion, but broadening our understanding of “neighbor” to include not only all human beings but all beings in general is essential for the survival of our species.

If we understood that all life was our “neighbor,” that the earth in all her diversity was our “neighbor,” that the cosmos itself is our “neighbor,” we would live on this planet in a way that honored the sacredness of life in all its forms. It is because we have defined “neighbor” too narrowly that we are on the brink of destroying the one table that sustains us.

Perhaps we should start a movement called “God’s Table” that promotes a deep ecological neighborliness (using the word “ecological” in the sense that all beings are interdependent), and that would foster peace among people and between people and the planet. That is a table at which I would be honored to sit.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 8/20 Post

To summarize: you place Jesus squarely within the framework of the first-century Pharisaic movement.

A notable segment of Christian scholars has taken a similar approach over the past few decades. At first, they worked primarily with rabbinic materials from later centuries, a very useful exercise though they sometimes fell into the trap of anachronism. If memory serves, Pauline scholars led the charge. Later, other scholars applied similar methods to Jesus studies. I think the approach has yielded good fruits, provided we keep in mind that first-century Pharisees cannot be simply equated with later rabbis.

I find myself in sympathy with the approach, not least because it redresses an old tendency among some Christians to insist on radical discontinuity between first century Judaism and Jesus. To my mind, in terms of Christian theology, the Incarnation requires Christians to assume the full humanity of Jesus. To be human is to be immersed in one's birth culture. Whatever else we may choose to say about Jesus, he was a first century Jew.

That being said, Jesus took the available resources of his culture (Torah, methods, etc.) and used them creatively. You point out that this has been the approach of the rabbis over the centuries, and I agree. From time to time,though, Jesus appears to have been criticized for not citing sources (i.e. other teachers, etc.). Christian commentators frequently note this and conclude Jesus claimed a kind of autonomous authority that scandalized Pharisees. I would be interested in your take on the matter.

I agree strongly that one of the major dividing points between Jesus and most others had to do with "neighbor." The division carried over into the early Christian movement. In my opinion, it drove the late first century divide between Judaism and emerging Christianity. Modern Christianity continues the debate within itself--just who can be considered a neighbor and treated accordingly.

In my opinion, the question of neighbor is the great issue of our time. How we view and treat one another is the filter through which all theology must be strained.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/20 Post

This is a fascinating teaching of Jesus, and one that raises several questions for me.

First, why would Jesus have to defend himself against the slanderous claim that he came to abolish Torah (what the NRSV calls “the law and the prophets”)? Could it be that his interpretation of Torah was that radical? I think it was.

The phrase “Torah and Prophets” in Jesus’ day is equivalent to “God and country” in our own day. Both phrases refer to the political and religious status quo. Jesus challenged people to question the status quo, and those who would defend it would naturally claim that he was seeking to overthrow it.

Rather than defend himself Jesus could have said something like, “OK, you’re right. If Torah and Prophets means what you say it means, then I am calling for their abolition.” But to do so would be to abdicate the basic memes of his civilization, something Jesus refused to do. He insisted on using the very Torah his opponents use, but interpreted it in new ways. This is why he says he has come to “fulfill” the Torah rather than abolish it. He has come to reveal its deeper meanings. In this Jesus is a classic Pharisee, for interpreting Scripture and finding new meanings in ancient text is at the heart of the Pharisaic experiment in Judaism.

This interpretation is bolstered by Jesus’ next sentence: For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

From similar phrases by other rabbis, we know that the letter Jesus refers to is the yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the stroke of a letter is the dagesh, the tiny dot placed in the center of certain letters to change their sound from soft to hard (the letter bet/b has the dot; drop it and you have the letter vet/v). Why mention these things? Because for the rabbis of his day (and ours) interpreting each letter and each stroke was one of the ways they found new meanings in the Torah. Jesus isn’t denying Torah, only offering new interpretations of Torah.

Then Jesus says something even more mysterious: Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

What is so wild in this saying is that both the breakers of the commandments and their keepers get into the Kingdom of Heaven! While their places differ, neither is denied entry. How painfully ironic that Jesus, unlike so many who claim him as Lord and Savior, rejects no one when it comes to the Kingdom! And yet if this is so, what are we to make of the final teaching of our text: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?

The confusion is removed when we realize that there is no equation between keeping the ritual commandments and righteousness. One can be very mindful of ritual and totally thoughtless in one’s dealings with other people and living things. Jesus is saying that entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is based on acts of righteousness rather than ritual or creedal purity. Once you’re in, your place is then determined by how well you kept the commandments, but getting in has nothing to do with ritual and everything to do with ethics.

This again is totally in alignment with Pharisaic teaching. True, the Pharisees were rigorous in their keeping of the law, but it was just and compassionate dealings with one’s neighbor that mattered most. Where Jesus and the Pharisees split is over their definitions of "neighbor." The Pharisees were not ready to accept the leper, the tax collector, the Samaritan, the Roman, or women at their table. Jesus was. This was his greatness and his genius.

It is a terrible shame that Pharisee and Pharisaic has become pejorative terms. The Pharisees were the liberals of their day, doing with Torah and the Prophets exactly what Jesus did: remaking them in their own image, according to their own understanding of what is good and just. I believe Jesus, like Paul, was trained by Pharisees, though I suspect he was of the School of Hillel (liberal and focused on compassion), while Paul was of the competing School of Shammai (conservative and focused on rules). The fact that the Gospels show the Pharisees challenging Jesus only bolsters my argument: This is exactly what rabbis do with one another. Our entire system is based on argument, questioning, challenging, and dialogue. But we only do this with fellow Pharisees/Rabbis. When the Pharisees challenge Jesus there are acknowledging him as part of the Pharisaic community.

All Jews today adhere to or deviate from Pharisaic Judaism. Not that Judaism is unchanged since Jesus’ time. Pharisaic or what we now call rabbinic Judaism is a method of reading, interpreting, and recasting Scripture that filters the ancient text through the imagination of the sages to reflect the zeitgeist of their age. This is what rabbis have done for thousands of years, and why Judaism continues to be a living and therefore evolving religious civilization.

OK, I have gone on quite long. Now back to you.

Mike: The Law, Matthew 5:17-20

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-20) (NRSV)

With these words, Jesus moves into the body of the Sermon on the Mount. He appears to stake out a position, possibly a claim. Most of the remainder of the chapter provides illustrates how he applies the claim to specific situations (see 5:21-47).

Christian commentators generally note that Jesus continues to deal with the kingdom of heaven. In this section, he speaks of its connection to the law and the prophets. Whatever may be said (and people at different places on the Christian theological specrum indeed have said many and varied things), Jesus did not intend to abolish the law and the prophets. Instead, he claims to "fulfill them."

That's interesting, if for no other reason, because few Christians since the late first or early second century CE have thought it neccesary to observe dietary, ceremonial, or civil laws found in the Hebrew Bible. For the most part, they argue that all such laws were "fulfilled" in some way via Jesus' sacrificial death. Most then go on to insist that the "moral" law (personal behavior, etc.) remains in force, now and forever. Personally, I'm not particularly enamored of this approach. It feels more like a philosopher's approach to truth (slicing something into various parts and applying labels) than the wholistic approach to life, which I believe typical of the Hebrew Bible and of Jesus.

I try to take the phrase "the law and the prophets" seriously. Both the law and the teachings of the prophets had to do with making a life pleasing to God and hence good for the individual, the community and even the larger world. Perhaps the best way to read "but to fulfill" might be "but to enflesh" or "but to make clear in all their radicality." The remainder of the section and chapter makes clear that Jesus thought the law and prophets called for something more than most people (in his view) thought.

At the very least, Jesus raised the bar. While they have often gotten bad press among Christians, the Pharisees seem to have been generally well regarded by many first century Jews. In short, many if not most everyday Jews would have seen a Pharisee's brand of righteousness as something to be emulated or at least admired as a high standard. Verse 20, I think, would have come as a bit of a shock to Jesus' audience.

What might such righteousness look like in practice. Jesus will give particular examples in the succeeding paragraphs of Matthew 5.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/14 Post

You are right, of course, to pull us out of a 21st century understanding of salt, so let me add a few more nuances to the salt reference of which Jesus’ Jewish followers would certainly be aware.

In Exodus (30:35-38) we learn that salt is an essential ingredient in the incense God ordains be placed in the Tent of Meeting, and in Leviticus (2:13) we are told that we are to include salt with our grain offerings to God. So salt reminds us of both the capacity to meet God and the gratitude that is our natural response to that meeting. But more than either of these references, when Bible-steeped Jews hear about salt they immediately think of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26).

The rabbinic commentary on Lot’s wife extant in Jesus’ time challenges the idea that being turned into a pillar of salt was a punishment. Lot’s wife “sinned” because her love for her daughters overwhelmed her fear of God. Would God punish a mother because of motherly love? The ancient rabbis say, "no." They tell us that by being turned into a pillar of salt Lot's wife gave life to animals from miles around who came to lick her and live, for without the salt she provided they would die. By day’s end she was totally consumed, and by dawn’s light she was restored. Is this not a wonderful parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus and Communion?

I would suggest that being the “salt of the earth” means giving all we are for the well-being of others. This is so in sync with Jesus saying, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Matthew 16:25). This is also analogous to the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva, the enlightened sage who refuses to leave this world for Nirvana (the Buddhist “heaven”) until the last and the least have preceded her there.

Regarding the rest of this text, I assume that Jesus’ followers, the vast majority of whom were Jews, would hear his reference to hill and light, and immediately think of the prophet Isaiah who said God’s House will shall be established on a mountain top “above all hills, and all nations shall come unto it,” (Isaiah 2:2) and that Israel shall be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) opening the blind eye, and freeing those imprisoned in the dungeon and in darkness (Isaiah 42:7). This opening of the blind eye and freeing those entrapped in darkness may be the “good works” to which Jesus points in clear contradiction to those who claim works has no place in Christianity.

While there are many substantial differences between Judaism and Christianity, there seem to be few between Judaism and Jesus.

This is all I have to offer regarding this text, but I cannot read your closing comment without hearing a voice of anguish. I may be projecting my own view of things, but when you say “Jesus is not commissioning an army, creating a school of theology, tying his hopes to politics, or fashioning an institution” I cannot help but let out my own sigh of great sadness, for isn’t this exactly what has happened to his teaching?

My only hope is in those individual hearts and minds, those Bodhisattvas of every faith and none, who, devoted to justice and compassion, are set loose upon the world to open blind eyes, soften hardened hearts, and free those imprisoned in fear and darkness, and, by so doing, become the night beacons that show us the way to a new world.

Mike: Salt & Light, 8-14-08

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:13-14) (NRSV)

Jesus moves now to the role his followers are to play in human society: salt and light.

Most Americans tend to think of salt as a seasoning. In the ancient world, salt was used primarily as a preservative. Those listening to Jesus speak would have heard him saying, "You are the preservative of the world." Translations generally fail to capture Jesus' intent when he speaks of salt losing its flavor. In the Greek, it's clear Jesus had contamination in mind. A good paraphrase would be: "But if salt has become adulterated with other materials, it loses it's ability to preserve."

Verse 14 introduces the metaphor of light. Jesus provides two images: a city set on hill, and a lamp lit inside a dwelling. In order to appreciate the metaphor, most of us have to imagine a world in which night time was really dark. Street lights, office lights, traffic lights, light spilling through the windows of homes, light reflected from our great cities--it's hard to find genuine darkness these days. Ask amateur astronomers, if you doubt me!

The first century world, though, knew darkness. When the sun went down, and clouds covered the sky, and you were in the wilderness, pitch darkness engulfed you. Darkness was frightening precisely because it was thick, you could not see, and anything might be "out there." A traveler in the wild would have been grateful even for the dim, reflected light of a distant city. No one would have placed a bushel basket over a lit lamp, but instead would have hastened to place it on a lampstand and so bring light to a small room.

Light and salt were vital to life in the first century. Jesus now places his followers in a similar category: well-lived, their words and deeds and attitudes will prove crucial to others and to human society.

The preceding beatitudes provide the heart of what it means to live life well. Later in the sermon, Jesus will add depth and breadth to his teachings, but the core of the matter is the beatitudes.

The Christian life, or the life of anyone who follows Jesus, cannot be solely private. In essence, Jesus commissions his followers to plunge into but not lose themselves in the life of society. Their mission is to preserve the way of God among humans by walking such a path themselves, to illumine the way of God by their lives.

Salt works quietly and unseen, light lessens or banishes darkness without fanfare. Jesus is not commissioning an army, creating a school of theology, tying his hopes to politics, or fashioning an institution. Instead, he is trying to mold the hearts and minds of individuals, set them loose in culture, and inspire them to live true to his intentions. Jesus appears content to hope in the efficacy of such an approach.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/12 Post

To be honest, Mike, I could talk about this kind of thing forever, and I have no doubt there would be a huge audience for that conversation. Whether we are talking about Christianity or Judaism (or any other religion) there are so many concepts that people have a difficult time understanding, and I suspect many of them would be enthralled, engaged, and helped by being able to participate in the kind of conversation you and I are having. But, that is way beyond the scope of this dialogue.

I think we have raised the issues that needed raising, and should get back to our text. So, when you are ready....

Mike: Response to Rami's 8/12 Post

The resurrection, and it's various implications, provoked tension within the early Christian movement, both while it was contained within first century Judaism and later as it spread and came in contact with ancient religions and philosophies. Within early Christianity, for example, some came to see it as the means through which God elevated Jesus to the status of unique Son of God and Lord. Others, who eventually became the majority, saw the resurrection as confirmation of the Son's preexistence as a member of eventually came to be called the Trinity. Obviously, I've oversimplified a complicated story, but my only point is that historically the resurrection tends to generate rather intense debates.

With regard to science, my hunch is that we may be misunderstanding one another. When I say the resurrection is beyond the scope of science, I mean something quite specific: the classic scientific method. The scientific method, as you know, requires the formulation of theories. Theories must be subject to experimental test. Furthermore the results of such a test must be repeatable in order for the theory to be accepted. The resurrection, on these terms, is not available for scientific verification.

The most we might do is state that the content of current knowledge makes such an event unlikely to the nth degree. Even here a bit of caution is in order. A given theory may be overturned or revised by new data and new experiments. In some cases, perhaps most often in physics, we sometimes find that new theories and experiments require that we expand our picture of the universe to accommodate realties that do not seem to mesh well (think of the classic problems posed by a universe that seems to make room for Newtonian, Einsteinean, and quantum physics).

So, for example, Einstein's understanding of the universe cannot allow for instantaneous communication between twin particles separated by enormous distances (the old speed of light limit). As it turns out, though, quantum theory plus experimentation confirms that at the quantum level, reality works that way. Why? After decades of multiple theories, it seems to me no one quite knows why. At this point in time, we simply know Einstein's theories work at the macro level and quantum physics theories work at the quantum level. As one writer put it (more or less): It turns out that the more we discover about the universe, the weirder it becomes.

I do not believe the current state of science encourages a return to the "God of the gaps" approach, but I do think it encourages a rediscovery of humility before the mystery of reality. As a result, I tend to treat science as an extremely useful tool among several tools I use to understand and make sense of the universe, including human life.

Being a theist, my worldview posits God the Creator who remains at work within and from outside his creation. We, of course, differ with one another at this point. Given my perspective, I do not so much "take refuge in God" as assume God may work in ways beyond my current comprehension. The resurrection falls into that category. By the way, such an assumption does not stop me from trying to expand our understanding of how the universe works. In fact, it rather pushes me to try to learn more.

All of the above is quite general, but it seemed to me that our conversation required it.

Changing gears, some Christians would argue vigorously that the resurrection understood as an event within history changes the entire equation of history, serving notice to the "powers" that they may not claim it as their realm and that their days are numbered. Those who take such an approach believe that any other approach to the resurrection robs it of such power.

I do not agree. I've known too many people who take the approach you advocate and who are empowered by it to follow the way of Jesus. My hunch is that God makes good use of either approach to advance his way in the world. Personally, I find the two approaches enrich one another as they play out in my mind, heart and imagination.

If you like, we can continue this particular conversation. Otherwise, I'll move on to the next portion of the Sermon on the Mount.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/11 Post

I am curious about the idea that resurrection is beyond science. If we say Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, we are speaking biologically rather than metaphorically or mythically or symbolically. We are making a scientific claim that is absolutely within the realm of biology.

Just how did that happen? Did Jesus’ cells regenerate? What would have happened to his brain function after three days without oxygen? I’m not being factious here. I am taking this quite seriously. Even if it was a unique event, though I am unsure as to the criteria we would use to credit the Christian story and while simultaneously discrediting the other resurrection stories, even then we are still making a claim about a physical body, and that puts it clearly in the realm of science.

Given that all we know about biology makes the resurrection of the dead after three days physically impossible, the only answer I can come up with is this, “It was a miraculous act of God.” But all that really says is, “Given the nature of human biology, I don’t know how it could happen, but since I want to believe it happened I will take refuge in God.” God doesn’t answer the question, but only allows us to stop asking it.

I guess this is what you mean by it all boiling down to “individual decision.” I think I understand that idea, but, since you and I clearly decide differently, I wonder by what criteria we each make our respective decisions. My criteria are a blend of reason, science, and the fact that my formative years were steeped in denial of Jesus as anything but a Jew like myself. I am willing to question this last element of my conditioned thinking, but I am having a hard time with the first two.

When you opt to speak in theological language, however, I am right there with you. The story of the resurrection is a narrative affirming that the Powers then and now can not defeat the way of God, the way of nonviolent confrontation in the pursuit of justice, compassion, humility, love, and peace. This is deep magic, requiring an alchemical transformation of the human ego from fear to love. And that to me is what religion is: not science but alchemy. Not the literal transformation of lead into gold which, like the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus violate the laws of physics, but the psycho-spiritual transformation of the alienated and fearful ego into the integrated, loving, and courageous Self.

As for the resurrection being a delusion, hoax, or mistake, I did not mean to imply this at all. I find these options offensive, reductionist, and shallow. This is like people who say to me, as one who does not believe Jesus is the Christ, “Then you must believe he was a liar.” How shallow that thinking is. Either Jesus is a literalist or a liar? Are these really the only options people of faith are offered? When these people read “I and the Father are one,” they read it as if Jesus were a mathematician rather than a prophet and a poet. That is so sad, and speaks poorly of their religious education.

What I intended to ask you was this, Why do we need the resurrection to hallow anything? Why aren’t the life, teaching, and forgiveness-filled death of Jesus enough? Why isn’t the mythic understanding of the resurrection, the notion that the Way of the Jesus transcends the death of Jesus and any who follow him, enough?

I realize this is taking us very far off topic, and you may choose to ignore all this and get back to our text, but I find your answers so interesting that I just want to hear more.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 8/11 Post

There you go again, posing good questions! Of course, by now I should know better than to drop a loaded term into a sentence. Your sharp eyes miss nothing!

Before I try to answer the question you pose at the end of your post, I think it best to address the matter of "literal" and "myth." "Myth," to my way of thinking, is a story that captures a key truth or insight into reality and/or human nature. Scientific reality has to do with theories which are capable of being verified in some manner, not just once but repeatedly. Both myth and science deal with truth, so to speak. Unfortunately, we do not yet know how or if the two methods and their conclusions can be unified. To use an analogy, we're in a quandary similar to that faced by modern physics when it attempts to create a unified theory of everything.

The resurrection of Jesus, at the very least, is one of the great myths. Taken as metaphor or parable, it provides many a modern Christian with insights and motivation enough to sustain viable faith. Naturally, as myth the entire matter falls outside the scope of science.

The same is true, if the resurrection was a one-time event. Whether "myth" or "fact," the scientific method is not designed to investigate or assess the resurrection.

So...when all is said and done, one's approach to the resurrection boils down to individual decision.

My personal decision is to accept the resurrection as a unique event. With that as my starting point, I see the resurrection as God's validation of Jesus (his teachings, actions, way of life, etc.), hence my use of the term "hallowed." To use theological language, all the "powers" could not kill the way of God, stuff it into the grave, and make it stay there. The way of agape love triumphs, when all is said and done. As Aslan once said, this is "deep magic," and the witch does not understand it. Winters come, but they can not hold forever. Now, I'm slipping into literary talk, which is to say drawing on the resource of various sub-created myths, all of which spring from the story of the resurrection.

Would it make a difference to me if the resurrection could be proven beyond doubt to be nothing more than a delusion, a hoax, or a mistake? I suppose the honest answer is: "I don't know." I doubt that it would, mostly because the power of the story long ago gripped my imagination and began to shape my living. I choose to think it would continue to do so.

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/9 Post

I do have one question. You said that the resurrection "hallowed" the satyagraha of Jesus. That caused me to wonder: If there were no resurrection, how would your love of Jesus and your commitment to his teachings change?

As you know I take the resurrection as myth, meaning it is a parable articulating deep truth but not in the context of literal, scientifically provable fact. Given what we know about science and the nature of the universe, if Jesus were literally lifted into heaven, body and soul, even if traveling close to the speed of light, he would not yet have escaped the universe, let alone reach heaven. So I don't take this literally, and find meaning it beyond the literal.

Anyway, my question isn't why or how you understand the resurrection (though that too is an interesting question), but rather if the resurrection never happened, how and why your approach to Jesus and his teachings might change?

If you would like to tackle that, great. And then let's move on.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mike: Reply to Rami's 8-7 Response

Once again, we find ourselves in substantial agreement on a number of points.

For the sake of brevity, I'll just say I agree substantially with your first two points regarding the final beatitude. I think you may underestimate tensions experienced by Jesus within his own lifetime. His own family, for example, appears to have harbored significant doubts about his ministry, not to mention his sanity. Still, we're on the same page.

Your "fifth option" argument is on target, insofar as it goes. Some of the New Testament scholars we've mentioned in earlier posts certainly take similar positions. Collaboration, "ghetto," complete withdrawal, and jihad were the options espoused and practiced by the groups you identify. I often wonder what everyday folk thought about it all. Jesus' nonviolent approach, coupled with his insistence on the acceptance of the suffering it would bring, challenged these more normative options.

From my perspective, the resurrection hallowed Jesus' version of satyagraha, in effect stamping it as "approved by God" and thus making it both universal and for all times.

Assuming you're ready, we'll now move on and take up the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/7 Post

I agree that Jesus was speaking to individuals. In the end, while I understand the need for community and organized movements, I place my hope in individuals. If we do not transform our selves as selves there is no hope for transforming society. The individual transformation for which I hope is one that leads us out of the narrow mind of cults, creeds, tribes, etc., and into the spacious mind awake to the One God/Reality giving rise to one world, one humanity, and one moral code—justice and compassion for all beings.

OK, on to the final Beatitude: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The key issue for me in this Beatitude is Jesus’ saying, “on my account.” Why would people be persecuted because of Jesus?

The answer I hear most often is that followers of Jesus, then and now, in ancient Israel and in contemporary America, are persecuted because they are pro-life, pro-gun, pro-God, anti-gay, and (according to a couple of my acquaintances) anti-dancing. To impose 21st century culture war values on 1st century Jewish society is, however, both silly and anachronistic, and I won’t say any more about it.

The second reason I can imagine for people being persecuted on Jesus’ account has to do with Jewish life in Matthew’s time. When the Gospel of Matthew was written Jesus had been dead for decades. The early church was emerging and competing with the Pharisees for the loyalty of the Jews. As the rabbis saw it, Jewish Christians were a threat to their power, their authority, and the foundation of Jewish society as they saw it, namely the legal rulings of the rabbis themselves.

In this context it is not hard to imagine families being torn apart, with some members siding with Jesus and others with the rabbis. Since Peter, James and the other Jewish Christians continued to attend and preach in the synagogue, conflict between mainstream Jews and Jewish Christians was probably both common and heated.

But this wasn’t going on in Jesus’ own day. If we are going to take our text seriously, we either have to assume that it was written by Matthew and therefore reflects the situation of his day, or that Jesus was thinking of something else entirely. For argument’s sake, I opt for the latter.

The Jews of Jesus’ day had four basic options when dealing with the socio-economic-political-religious tenor of their day. They could follow the path of the Sadducees and collaborate with Rome; they could follow the Pharisees and seek to create their own society within the occupation; they could follow the Qumran model, opt out of Jewish and Roman society altogether, and take up a pure and pious life in the desert, or they could follow the Zealots and take up jihad against Rome.

Jesus, I believe, offered a fifth way: nonviolent engagement with Rome, Sadducees, and Pharisee and on behalf of the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised. He challenged the corruption of the Priesthood and the Sacrificial System, the immorality of the courts, the unjust and brutal occupation by Rome, and the violence preached by those who would wage holy war (in fact, i.e. the Zealots, or in fantasy, i.e. the Qumran community) against Rome.

We have already talked about the politics of “turning the other cheek,” and “walking the second mile,” and it is to this that I am referring. Jesus, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King who modeled themselves after him, believed in the power of what Gandhi called satyagraha, nonviolent truth force, and in the power of prophetic theater to effect social change. He trusted that even the hardest heart, if forced to look at itself honestly, would eventually soften. And his way was to confront that heart with the pain and suffering it caused others.

Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus says, “One who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. One who finds his life will lose it, and one who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39). Imagine what would have happened if the Jews had done just that. What if tens of thousands of Jews presented themselves for crucifixion along with Jesus? Would Rome have slaughtered them all?

As brutal as the regime was, history shows that it had its limits. The mass act of prophetic theater with thousands upon thousands of Jews walking nonviolently to be crucified on Golgotha would have overwhelmed the system of intimidation and caused a revolution that might have changed everything. This is exactly what Christians did when powerfully and nonviolently (at least on their part) stood for execution in the Roman coliseum. And, it can be argued, their display of faith grew the movement and gained it respect.

Of course Rome had crucified thousands before (I love the movie Spartacus), but never an entire society. Crucifixion was a tool of intimidation, but if everyone picked up her or his cross and volunteered to die upon it, there would be no more intimidation left in it. If you are not afraid to die, you are at last fearless enough to live.

The same nonviolent acts of Satyagraha on the part of the Palestinian people would, by the way, put an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and end to settlement expansion, an end to the building of the “security wall,” and an end to the rationalization for continued Israeli occupation altogether. While the Muslims of India had their “Muslim Gandhi,” the Pashtun leader Badshah Kahn, the Palestinians have yet to find theirs.

In any case, satyagraha is, it think, what Jesus had in mind. If you are persecuted because you take up your cross and challenge the system of oppression that brutalizes the poor, the powerless, the sick, and the disenfranchised then you are worthy of standing “with the prophets who were before you.”

Jesus was a revolutionary of the highest order. He was among the best Judaism had to offer. How sad Jews ignore him, Christians spiritualize him, and so few of us truly dare to follow him. And how ironic that those who do are so often condemned by the very people who claim to know and love him the most.

• • •
Can it be that we are finished with this conversation? It seemed to go by so quickly. It was an honor and a blessing to do this with you, Mike. The final thoughts are yours.

Mike: Response to Rami's 8/7 Post

Elijah lamented his fate, claiming to be the only one who had remained faithful to God in all of Israel? God corrected Elijah. There were a few more left, some thousands in fact. Elijah did not know them. They, apparently, had not sought out Elijah. He, though, was not alone. Even in a time when enormous governmental and cultural pressures pushed most people toward idolatry, a significant minority remained faithful.

That kind of story is the only answer I can provide to your question ("How do we hold to the truth," etc.). Some always have, some do so even now, and some always will. When all is said and done, evil wins the field for only a day, and even then it's victory is never complete.

I might add that John's Revelation is not about the end of the world per se but instead about the possibilty of faithfulness under the most trying circumstances. The living faithful in Revelation, by the way, are never called into battle. Their only job is to remain faithful to Jesus. The final defeat of evil is left to God. Of course, faithfulness might, in fact will, lead to trouble. One's witness, though, does not involve might and arms but instead a willingness to suffer and even die for the sake of fidelity to the Lord.

Mao said all power comes from the muzzle of a gun. I say that's but one kind of power, and far from the most effective over the long term. The power of love coupled with a willingness to suffer the consequences startles us. It may change us, and it always has within it the potential to change everything. This, of course, amounts to a faith statement. So be it. It's the one I choose to believe.

It's a faith statement that keeps cropping up, though. Jesus certainly thought so. Augustine, in his better moments, does the same. St. Francis makes this the ordering center of his life and work. Paul starts to get it, especially as he ages and reflects more deeply on the intent of Jesus. The perspective lies at the heart of some of the most loved contemporary literature. You'll find it in Tolkein. It seems to me to at the heart of much of what E. B. White had to say. As for the Harry Potter stories, the power of love relative to that of almost unthinkable, unstoppable evil is the central question addressed.

Finally, I think love takes root and grows in individuals. Jesus, indeed, directed his teaching, his way of life, at individuals. His community will be composed of individuals, each one of whom makes (and remakes, over and over) the decision to accept the love of God and to become in due measure an living embodiment of that love. All else--theology, actions, institutions, corporate worship, ethics, etc--becomes a running commentary or expression of this central reality.

There, well, both of us have had quite a run over the past few posts. Let me know if you are ready to press on.

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/4 Post

I found what you're saying very helpful. Your second point raised a few things on which I'd like to hear your take.

You said, "The challenge for those of us within Christianity who oppose such perversion is how to stand against it without taking up its weapons: slander, double-talk, fear, hatred, violence and the like."

This is the challenge for all of us who oppose the hatred that passes for holiness and patriotism in our time. How do we stand against it? How do we not get infected by the fear when the airwaves are dripping with it? How do we hold to truth when the government has mastered Orwellian Newspeak that makes the very idea of truth questionable? And, how do we not take up arms when militarism seems to have replaced diplomacy around the world?

I don't think Jesus ever expected there to be such a thing as a Holy Roman Empire or a Christian Nation. Judaism and the Hebrew Bible is replete with rules of war and a warrior God who deploys human troops, but Jesus came at a time of Jewish political and military impotence, and pointed us in a new and different direction. I cannot imagine Jesus teaching a doctrine of "Just War." And John of Patmos' global holocaust in his Book of Revelation, based as it is on the apocalyptic fantasies of the equally impotent Qumran Jews and their War Between the Sons of the Light and the Sons of Darkness, is anathema to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Are those of us who follow Jesus (and I would count myself in that group as long as it is Jesus we are following and not the Christ for whom I admit no connection whatsoever) supposed to be conscientious objectors, pacifists, anti-war prophets?

Just imagine what might happen if all Christians suddenly said "no" to war. First, Israel would be attacked from all sides. Second, unless John Hagee is correct and the certain destruction of Israel would trigger the End Times and the Second Coming of Christ, Israel would blow itself up in a nuclear Massada that would decimate the Middle East with nuclear fallout and mass death that would make the region uninhabitable for centuries.

Oil production would plummet, and, unless T. Boone Pickens has his windmill farms up and running by then, the world goes dark, cold, and still in a few years at best. Food production falls, transportation of goods on a national scale (let alone a global one) is reduced to a trickle, and I don't get to use up my Frequent Flyer Miles on American Airlines. All of a sudden we are all living in Colonial Williamsburg except I don't own a cow, let alone know how to milk one.

The only thing that will keep America from being conquered by Communists or Muslims is the fact that by the time this happens China and Dubai will already own most of the country, so why bother?

OK, I'm having fun, but what do we do with the nonviolence at the heart of Jesus' teaching? It seems to have gone the way of nonviolence in India, and for the same reason: maybe community when it reaches a certain size cannot function without violence. Maybe Mao is write when he says that all power comes from the muzzle of a gun. Maybe you cannot overestimate the human passion for violence. After all we are the descendants of Cain not Abel.

I think the author of the Cain and Abel story believed this to be true. After murdering his brother, Cain goes off to found the first city. The Bible is telling us that once we humans move beyond simple agriculturally based communities we are doomed to murder and, as we organize into larger and larger groups, mass murder. Did Jesus see this and deliberately aim his teaching at individuals rather than at kings and nations as did the earlier prophets and the later Muhammad? Is this why he used agricultural metaphors rather than urban ones when trying to explain God and godliness?

I love to hear your thoughts on this, and while meeting to talk over Mexican food is always welcome, unless our readers come with us, you had better post something as well.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 8/1 Post

"Rant" is too strong a term. My guess is that the recent tragedy in Knoxville, Tennessee, your long-standing concerns, and the escalation of hate and fear filled political rhetoric during the election season combined to fuel your composition. In any case, every thing you wrote deserves serious response.

(1) "Why repeat the idea twice in succession?" I might suggest parallelism is at work here, but how could one know for certain? Persecution is the linkage between the two sayings. How can persecution ever be considered "blessed?" I think our two previous posts answer the question, and that we are in essential agreement.

(2) Jesus and righteousness go together in the Christian tradition. In some sense, for us, he is the righteousness of God made manifest in a genuine human life. The one speaking the beatitudes is the embodiment of those beatitudes. To be persecuted for pursuing the kind of righteousness defined by the beatitudes is to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus, at least to a Christian.

To pervert the person or teachings of Jesus in support of hate or fear-driven agendas is the worst kind of heresy (and I do not use the term lightly or easily). From my perspective as a Christian, to do so involves the same kind of evil as is involved in taking the Lord's name in vain. And, yes, this may well be the greatest visible sin of the Christian movement in America at this time.

The challenge for those of us within Christianity who oppose such perversion is how to stand against it without taking up its weapons: slander, double-talk, fear, hatred, violence and the like. After all, we follow Jesus (however poorly), and he refused to allow his disciples to take up arms in his defense or to advance his cause.

(3) I come back to the beatitudes and to your point about a "behaviorally measurable definition of righteousness." I agree with you that we can find it in the texts before us. We're also forced to consider the matter of the inner life, attitudes and motivations and such. Much of the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount fleshes out the attitudes and behaviors called for by the beatitudes.

As you hint, the problem comes at the point of application. Grey areas become evident, humility or even confusion driven doubts emerge--it's much harder to follow Jesus than many a Sunday School suggests!

At its best, community (whether the community of a few trusted friends or a larger one) has something to offer at this point. Community, whatever else it may do, thrusts us into ongoing conversations with one another. Our ideas and attitudes and actions may be challenged, affirmed, broken or refined. Communities, of course, can become clans or mobs. This possiblity does not negate their potential to serve a crucibles of reflective righteousness.

Well...enough. This is a discussion I would love to have face to face, perhaps over Mexican food.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 8/1 Post

The juxtaposition of these last two Beatitudes is interesting. In the first, Jesus blesses those who are persecuted “for righteousness sake.” In the second, he blesses those who are persecuted for his sake, “on my account.” Are we to assume that these are the same thing? That is, is being for Jesus the same as being for righteousness? And if he is saying that, why repeat the idea twice in succession?

I suggest that Jesus does not mean to associate himself with righteousness, and that he is talking about two different things in these two Beatitudes. And I think we can see that in the wording of the text.

Jesus says, blessed are those who are persecuted “on my account” rather than “on account of my torah or teaching.” This suggests that Jesus is not equating himself with righteousness, but with something separate from, though not necessarily opposed to righteousness. What that something is, I will take up a bit latter. Right now let’s focus on the issue of righteousness.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The idea here is that you can tell a lot about people by the enemies they make. Do people hate you because you are wicked or because you are righteous? Do they despise you because you stand up for the weak and powerless, or because you oppress the weak and powerless? Jesus is saying, as you yourself seem to be saying Mike, that if we live the Beatitudes we will live righteously and in opposition to the much of the general society and its unrighteousness. And, again as you just said, this was certainly so in 1st century Rome, and no less so in 21st century America.

There is in our time and our culture, and in so many other cultures, plenty of injustice and evil to go around. The question Jesus is posing is this: Whose side are you on?

Some people, I know, would rather than take sides, and find talk of sides to be part of the problem. But I see such talk as unavoidable. We have to take sides. We are either on the side of justice or injustice, the side of righteousness or unrighteousness, the side of love or the side of hate.

What becomes challenging is that when you go to choose sides you find that the lines are not so clearly drawn as my rhetoric would suggest. People on both sides claim to be on the side of justice, righteousness, and love. But how can this be?

The problem with this kind of thinking is that fine words can be manipulated to justify any evil we wish. Once we are convinced that we are on the side of righteousness we can excuse all kinds of evil in the name of Jesus. This is painfully evident in the preaching and pronouncements of so many who claim, I would say falsely, to be righteous followers of Jesus. The vitriol that pours forth from so many pulpits (of many faiths) regarding “the other,” whether that other be liberals, conservatives, lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, and transgendered people, women, Hispanics, blacks, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants-not-of-our-denomination is frightening. And it is all done, again falsely, in the name of righteousness.

So what worries about this Beatitude and many who claim to uphold it is something that did not come up earlier: the way the idea of righteousness can be used to create, fuel, and grow a vicious “us versus them” culture war that, in the name of Christ, perverts the very nature of Jesus’ teaching.

What we need is a clear and behaviorally measurable definition of righteousness, and I think we can easily find it in the texts we have been discussing, as well as others from the Prophets of the Bible to the Qur’an. To be considered righteous one must be living a life that is defined by compassion, justice, humility, peace, patience, love, etc. And these can be further defined by specific behaviors also lauded in many religions.

Without a behavior definition as a safeguard, righteousness simply gets confused with self-righteousness, and Jesus is forced to bless and offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who are so filled with anger and fear as to be poster children for the Kingdom of Hate.

I feel this happening all around the United States today. Humility and doubt are banished, and people are taking up extremist positions in the name of righteousness that cannot help but lead to the desecration and destruction of the 18th century enlightenment values upon which this country was founded and which are its very raison d’etre.

I feel that I am on a rant. Obviously, this Beatitude struck a cord with me. I want to comment and the last text, but I’ll stop here for a moment and invinte you to jump back into the conversation.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mike: The Final Beatitudes

As you suggest, I'll not respond in length to your previous post other than to say we share similar feelings and are in agreement.

Let's combine the final two beatitudes.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12) (NRSV).

If we embrace the beatitudes, in the process opening ourselves to the active rule of God, the focus of our lives shifts. A modern Christian might put it this way: "My life's center has shifted, so that I now want to live in accordance with God's will, as seen in the life and ministry of Jesus." We start to live "in the kingdom of God" in the present moment, while awaiting the fullness of the kingdom. Past, present and future meet in us.

Tension results. When we try to walk through life playing by a different set of rules than prevailing culture (whether that of first century Rome, 21st century America, or even the tiniest subculture--think of one's own family system), trouble ensues. The combined beatitudes mention three examples: persecution, ridicule and slander. Such assaults threaten one's inclusion in a culture, reputation, self-esteem, economic well being, and possibly life.

Where's the blessing or genuine happiness in such a state? We have to be careful at this point. If we experience trouble because we have embraced and are being changed by immersion in the presence and will of God as described in the preceding beatitudes, such trouble verifies we're on the right track. It means we're in the company of the prophets and Jesus. That's good to know.

The danger is that we may well confuse being opposed with being "right." Many a fundamentalist Christian in America has been taught to view opposition as proof positive of his or her personal righteousness. I've known my share of Christian pastors who have bought into the idea that those who differ with them are "of the world and the devil." Such a worldview tends to reinforce self-righteousness, self-centeredness not God-centeredness. People who buy into the mindset often adopt one of two strategies in dealing with opposition: fight or flight. Both do violence to community and violate the peace-making intent of Jesus.

On the other hand, a healthy willingness to suffer without resorting to violence or escape may well be a mark of a Beatitudes person. Beatitudes persons do not seek suffering, but they are willing to endure it if need be in order to live now in the kingdom of God. Martin Luther King, to my mind, exemplifies such suffering. So does an Anglo pastor of that era in south Georgia who willingly lost his position because he refused to endorse segregation or racism. I suspect there are many women and men who lose out on career advancement because they are committed to the kingdom of God. The two of us probably could generate a long list of persons we've known who fit the bill.

I like the realism of the combined beatitudes. Becoming a kingdom of God person is the right and best thing to do with our lives, but it's seldom easy or "safe."