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. 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.