Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

My Debt to Jewish Thinkers

Reprinted from Levellers in 2007.


In previous posts, I have spelled out some of my major dialogue partners among liberal theologians and among conservative evangelicals.  But I have other influences, other dialogue partners, and some Jewish thinkers (theologians, philosophers, political theorists) are extremely important.  Christianity has a different relationship with Judaism than with any other faith. Judaism is both our mother and older sister. We began as a messianic movement among 1st C. Jews–one far more open to Gentile inclusion.  But soon we became a mostly Gentile religion and there was what James D. G. Dunn calls the “parting of the ways” between synagogue and church.  With the destruction of the temple, the Sadducee movement was finished.  With the final destruction of Jerusalem after Bar Kochba’s revolt, the Zealot movement, and violent nationalist strains of Judaism disappeared.  The Pharisee movement became normative, rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora.  But with the “parting of the ways,” and soon with Christian use of imperial power to persecute Jews, Christians lost sight of the Jewish nature of our faith–and much that developed since can only be considered pagan.   Christian pastors and theologians need Jewish dialogue partners–perhaps more than they need us.

People will rightly notice the absence of the major Jewish “Holocaust Theologians”: Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg. I have, of course, learned things from these worthies. But I have become convinced by “post-Holocaust Jewish theologians” such as Ellis and Goldberg, listed below, that the WAY Wiesel & Co. have placed the Shoah at the center of Jewish life has distorted the central moral dimensions of Judaism and led to uncritical support of everything the modern State of Israel does.  Some even contend that the gradual movement of many mainstream U.S. Jewish institutions from a center-left political stance to a center-right, or even neo-con, stance can be traced to these Holocaust theologians.  I do not know. And I certainly think Wiesel, Greenberg, and Rubenstein have written important works that both Jews and Christians need to engage. But MY thought has been more shaped by those Jewish thinkers listed below.

  • Martin Buber (1878-1965). I have been deeply influenced by Buber’s “communal existentialism,” especially his “I-Thou” dialogic principle. But I also have learned to appreciate Hasidism from Buber–and I confess that previous to reading some of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, I thought of the Hasidics as simply “Jewish fundamentalists” with little to teach modern people. Now, I see them as one effort to avoid assimilation–and contemporary Christians need desperately to find ways to avoid assimilation into the wider cultures of the world.  If Zionism has any redeeming qualities, it would have to be something like Buber’s “cultural Zionism” in which he worked from the beginning for Arab and Jew to share the Land of Promise.  Buber’s many writings can be found here.
  • Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great “public intellectuals” of the 20th C.  Born (in Warsaw, Poland) into a family in which both parents were descended from a long line of Orthodox rabbis, Heschel’s initial education was in a traditional Yeshiva, and was “ordained” a rabbi with an orthodox smicha. But Heschel felt himself compelled to interpret Judaism to the modern world and so earned a second ordination at a Reform seminary in Berlin while simultaneously earning a Ph.D. in philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Berlin.  A Holocaust refugee (almost all the rest of Heschel’s family perished in the death camps), Heschel came to the U.S. and taught first at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnatti ( a Reform school) before finding a better “fit” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (a Conservative institution where one could be both a historical critic and take halakah seriously).  At JTS, Heschel interacted with several Christian scholars at nearby Union Theological Seminary. He also became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement–once telling a group of Rabbis that if they wanted to hear the authentic voice of the Hebrew prophets in America, today, they would listen to Martin Luther King, Jr!   It was Heschel’s two-volume work, The Prophets, which first blew me away. I still consult it today as one of the best interpretations to the biblical prophets available.  Heschel captures well how the Hebrew prophets were both drunk with God and completely OUTRAGED over injustice.  Heschel also taught me how to appreciate the Sabbath and the hallowing of time–whereas the Christianity I knew as a child taught that all Sabbath keeping was simply “legalism.” Like Buber, Heschel had a mystic view of God coupled with a profound compassion for all humanity.  Daughter Susanna Heschel is a professor of religious studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist.  Find many of Heschel’s works here.
  • Geza Vermes (born 22 June 1924 in Hungary)  Vermes and his parents were all baptized into the Catholic Church when he was seven, but whether that was social climbing assimilation on his parents’ part (common among Middle and Upper class European Jews of that era), or genuine conversion, I do not know.  At any rate, it did not save his parents from dying in the Holocaust.  Vermes became a Catholic priest and was one of the first scholars to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and he wrote the first translation into English.  Something in his discoveries led him to leave the Catholic Church and reclaim his Jewish identity.  He moved to Britain and eventually became the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, a post he retained until his retirement in 1981.  Vermes has also been at the forefront of contemporary Jewish reclaimations of Jesus, beginning with his groundbreaking Jesus the Jew in 1973.  I don’t always agree with him, of course (I am a Christian, after all), but I greatly appreciate Vermes’ reconstructions of the Judaism(s) of the NT era and his placing of Jesus within such a context.  Vermes’ books are here.
  • Michael Walzer (b. 1935), who taught in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University, is one of the foremost political theorists in the U.S.  Walzer is a just war theorist and I am a convinced pacifist. Walzer has some blind spots concerning Israel and, initially (until they went overboard even in Walzer’s view), supported some of the Bush administration’s actions in the “war on terror.”  So, I obviously don’t just agree with all his views. But Walzer’s method of moral and political reasoning has greatly influenced me.  Some have noticed that I stand between Alasdair  MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout as a self-declared “democratic communitarian.” I learned that alternative stance from Walzer, especially in Thick and Thin: Moral Reasoning At Home and Abroad, The Company of CriticsInterpretation and Social Criticism and On Toleration.  I largely agree with his pluralistic account of “complex equality” in Spheres of Justice and share his commitment to a democratic socialism–in a nation without a viable democratic socialist party!  Walzer began his career as a rather assimilated Jew, but his work on particularist identity and universalist commitments led to his reclaiming increasingly more of his Jewish identity–something which first became very apparent in his Exodus and Revolution which showed how the revolutionary politics of the biblical exodus has influenced so many other “reiterations” of the narrative.  Now, Walzer is in the midst of editing a huge multi-volume work on “The Jewish Political Tradition”–a project that connects in spirit to my own identification with the radical free church democratic vision of the Levellers.  Walzer’s writings (through 2011) are found in his c.v. here.
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) is one of the leaders of the “Jewish Renewal Movement” in the U.S. which seeks to get beyond the way that U.S. Judaism has been divided into “denominations” (e.g., Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) while losing ever more young people to assimilation or conversion.  Waskow also began as a fairly assimilated Jew who was a historian and political activist throughout the 1960s.  In the wake of the conservative backlash of the Nixon era, Waskow began to see that radical social reform took deep spiritual roots and began to forge institutions and practices of Jewish renewal (while also participating in interfaith work with Christians and Muslims). In 1995, this process led to Waskow’s rabbinic ordination with a beit din composed of one Orthodox rabbi with Hassidic roots, one Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi, and one Jewish feminist theologian.  Waskow has been working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians since 1969 and is a former board member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Currently, he runs the Shalom Center and is a leading voice connecting worship to peacemaking.  Waskow has influenced me mainly through his example–seeing that reconciliation with enemies or partnerships with alien traditions cannot take place through watering down one’s own particularism, but only through rediscovery and and deep transformation of one’s own tradition.  See some of his major works here.
  • Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College.  Her Standing Again at Sinai was my introduction to Jewish feminism.  Because of it, I resist versions of Christian feminism which try to blame everything patriarchal on the Hebrew Scriptures and, Marcion-like, see the New Testament as a repudiation of all that came before. (This Marcionite tendency is also prevalent among some forms of Christian pacifism and I resist THAT, too.)
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner (b. 1943) is another former ’60s radical who combines spiritual depth and social passion.  Lerner, who has one Ph.D. in psychology and another in Jewish philosophy, studied under Heschel at JTS–but found the rest of his teachers disappointing.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beyt Tikkun in Berkely, CA, founder and editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish-inspired interfaith journal that is similar in political outlook to the Christian Sojourners), and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives which seeks to renew a spiritual Left in the U.S.  A strong defender of Israel’s right to exist, Lerner is also a strong defender of a Palestinian state, free and peacefully co-existing alongside Israel.  He has worked to end the estrangement in the U.S. between African-Americans and Jews (once a firm coalition), working with Cornel West to uproot Jewish anti-black racism and African-American anti-Semitism.  Unlike those listed above, I have met R. Lerner more than once and I always learn much from him–but not usually about Judaism, per se, I have to say. His writings (in addition to articles in Tikkun) are found here.
  • Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (b. 1949) was one of the earliest women in America to be ordained a rabbi, finally becoming ordained in 1981, the first woman ordained in the Jewish Renewal Movement.   Gottlieb is a co-founder of Congregation Nahalat Shalom in Albuquerque, NM, where she served for many years.  She is a major peace and justice activist, serving on the boards of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Rabbis for Human Rights, and founding the Jewish-Muslim-Christian peace walks. She also is the founder and Exec. Director of Interfaith Inventions, a daycamp for children and youth.  A master storyteller (Haggadah) who uses theatre arts in social transformation, Rabbi Gottlieb is also a leader in the recovery of the Hispanic Jewish heritage that came to the “New World” during the expulsions from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand and a student of Sephardic Jewish culture.  I met her first in 2002 at a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and got to know her better when she was a guest speaker at the 2006 meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  There, R. Gottlieb so impressed my youngest daughter, Miriam, that she wanted to become a rabbi! (Miriam was 6 at the time!)
  • Marc H. Ellis.(b. 1952), directs the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Waco, TX. Baylor is closely related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and this is the first Center for Jewish Studies at a confessionally Christian university–at least in the U.S.  Marc Ellis has been one of the strongest voices for Jewish-Palestinians reconciliation. Further, and more controversally, Ellis has contended in many books that the story of the Holocaust has been misused so that Jews see themselves as “eternal victims” and are unable to criticize an Israel that has power, even nuclear power.   Ellis helped me to see that the modern State of Israel has often functioned to warp normative Jewish thinking in a way analogous to the establishment of political power for Christians with the Constantinian settlement. (Ellis does NOT argue, as he has been accused, that Israel should cease to exist. One cannot turn back the clock without more bloodshed. He simply seeks to recover the moral center of Judaism that uncritical defense of a nation-state has warped.) Ellis has also been the Jewish theologian who interacts most with Christian liberation theologians.  Ellis’ many writings on Jewish and Christian topics are found here.
  • Update: As noted in the comments section (of Levellers where this was first published), Jonathan Marlowe reminded me of another major dialogue partner:  Rabbi Michael Goldberg, who  is another “nondenominational” rabbi. After receiving his ordination, he completed a Ph.D. at The Graduate Theological Union under one of my mentors, the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  R. Goldberg has become a major contributor to the “narrative theology” genre.  In his 1995 book, Why Should Jews Survive?, he echoes Marc Ellis’ contention that Holocaust-centered Judaism distorts the moral center of the faith.  In his Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight, Goldberg draws some contrasts between the Jewish “master story” (the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Sinai) and the Christian “master story” (Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection) which I understand, but cannot agree with, because he strips the Exodus from the Christian story and claims that the Christ event is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Exodus-Covenant.   This kind of interpretive disagreement may be irreconcilable–I cannot see how Goldberg could change his view without becoming a Christian and if I cannot see how any Christian could agree with his reading without abandoning Christian faith.  But Goldberg doesn’t pull punches and makes explicitly clear the fundamental disagreement between Christians and Jews.  Read Goldberg’s books.
  • Michael Wyschogrod (b. 1928) is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston and one of the first Jewish thinkers to attempt a systematic theology.  He is associated with the “Modern Orthodoxy” movement within Orthodox Judaism.  He has been called a “Jewish Barthian,” a term which caused Barth himself some amusement. As a philosophy major at City College of New York (B.A., 1949), he encountered the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard and this began his fascination with Christian theology. Wyschogrod earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1953 with a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger. His books are listed here.
  • Rabbi Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997), who died in the late ’90s, was a German Orthodox rabbi and also a scholar of the historical Jesus and a participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue.   He argued that God really raised Jesus from the dead and he was contemptuous of so-called Christian theologians who attempted to demythologize Christ’s resurrection.  However, even though Lapide agreed that the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Christ’s message, he did not agree that Jesus was the promised Messiah! (So much for some kinds of apologetics!) Lapide also entered into dialogue with Jürgen Moltmann concerning Jewish monotheism and Christian Trinitarianism. Lapide also wrote a major interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, showing its many roots and parallels in rabbinic thought.  Yet, Lapide thought Jesus actually went beyond the rabbis in calling not just for good treatment of enemies, but for the love of enemies–this was the radically new element in Jesus’ thought! But, said R. Lapide, if this is true, then it is clear that from about the 3rd C. until today, more of Jesus’ physical brothers and sisters (i.e., Jews) had come close to loving enemies than Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters (i.e., Christians)! The truth of that observation is profoundly embarrassing.  R. Lapide’s writings are here.

These Jewish thinkers in theology, biblical studies, philosophy, political activism, interfaith dialogue, and spiritual renewal have all been deep influences on my thought. I truly believe that all Christian theologians need to be in dialogue with specific Jewish thinkers–because in a Church that has been almost completely Gentile since before the end to of the 1st C., Jewish-Christian dialogue keeps us Gentile Christians from becoming pagan in our theology.



May 23, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Endangered Moderate Republicans

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

To the Radio Gasbag: THIS is How One Apologizes!

Ed Shultz’ Apology to Laura Ingraham


Ed Shultz, a liberal commentator on radio and on MSNBC, had called conservative radio host, Laura Ingraham (“Dr. Laura”) a “media slut.” That VERY DAY, he issued the above apology, called her and apologized personally, and was suspended without pay for one week. No weasel words. No, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” garbage. He called his own words “vile and inexcusable.” He said that he had embarassed his family and brought harm to his company. He took full responsibility and did not attempt to shift the blame. He didn’t wait until he started losing advertizers or after THREE DAYS of personal abuse for hours at a time. He admitted wrong, took responsibility, asked for forgiveness, and accepted consequences. That’s how it’s done, Gasbag.

Oh, and to conservative columnist, George Will, we liberals do, indeed, “police our own” and the above is only one example. (For another, look how fast Democrats called on Rep. Anthony Weiner to resign for sexting while Republicans continue to support Sen. David Vitter, who loves to dress up in diapers for prostitutes!)

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Radio Gasbags Don’t Get to Call Women “Sluts” and Then Think Fake Apologies Will Cut It!

I link to this article, “I’ve Spent Two Days Trying to Convince My 16 Year Old Daughter That She Is Not a Slut.”  The article says it all. A young girl is prescribed a low dosage hormone contraceptive for medical reasons, but after Rush Limbaugh attacks on women who use birth control, the “popular girls” at her high school accuse her of being a “slut,” and “whore” who just wants to have sex with the entire male population of the school.  Even if the daughter was on birth control for pregnancy prevention, it would be no one’s business outside of her family and whatever medical and spiritual guides they consult.  As a father of daughters, I am furious at the politicians and the media jerks who seek power and profit by degrading women. Read the article. Get mad. And remember those who would drag women into the mud. Do NOT forget!

Oh, and just in case, you think that Rush Gasbag’s lame “apology” (even Forbes called it a “non-apology apology”) to Ms. Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law School student who testified to Congress (after first being denied such testimony) on the need for insurance to cover contraception, here is a list of ALL the slander Rush heaped on her for 3 days! I hope she sues him for every penny he’s got!

March 4, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Hopes for a Post-Osama bin Laden World

It has taken me a week to process emotions enough to write anything about the killing of arch-terrorist and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 

First, I did not rejoice in his death and found the spontaneous celebrations unseemly–and the chants of “U-S-A,” “U-S-A” as if the country had just won a sporting event to be completely inappropriate.  As a Christian pacifist (“Christian” should automatically MEAN “pacifist,” but it hasn’t since Constantine’s shotgun marriage of church and empire, alas) I can rejoice in no one’s death.  I think it is very clear from Scripture that celebrating the death of one’s enemies is nothing short of sinful.  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17.  “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declare the LORD God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” Ezekiel 33:11.  “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matt. 5:43.  It hasn’t been easy for me to pray for Osama bin Laden these last 10 years, but Jesus gave me no alternative. I could pray for bin Laden or be disobedient to my Lord–there were no third options. 

Nor am I sure that the killing of bin Laden was strictly legal. It involved violating Pakistan’s sovereign territory without their knowledge or permission (which is usually considered an act of war!) and it appears that bin Laden was shot while unarmed and without a chance to surrender.  We are told that he “resisted capture,” but what can that mean for an unarmed man against heavily armed special ops crew?  I would much rather that he have been captured and put on trial–with the evidence of his many crimes (not just 9/11) displayed before the whole world.  New Testament scholar (and former Anglican bishop of Durham) N. T. Wright has callled this killing an example of America’s “Lone Ranger justice,” reminiscent of the old West rather than of respect for the rule of law among nations.  Too often American “exceptionalism” has us holding other nations to standards of international law that we think ourselves above.  It is a major reason why many even of our allies distrust us so.  Rowan Williams, theologian and Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has similar misgivings.  (See both reflections here.)

Yet, I must be honest and say clearly that I do not mourn Osama bin Laden’s passing, either. That may be sinful on my part. Perhaps I should mourn the death of any person, no matter how evil their actions. I do not rejoice–but I honestly do feel a sense of relief that he is gone.  Not relief in the sense of “now all threats are gone.” That is foolish. Al Qaeda could launch revenge plots–and one may have been thwarted already.  Violence tends to beget violence in a vicious cycle of death that can be stopped only by nonviolent love–as I realized so long ago when I became a conscientious objector and left the U.S. Army. (To paraphrase Clarence Jordan, Baptist “saint,” “Jesus was heading in one direction and I in the opposite. Yet I claimed to be his follower.”)  Nor do I feel relief in the sense of “closure” that pro-death penalty folks are always saying that murder victims’ loved ones will get by the execution of their killers. (The evidence that the death penalty gives such “closure” is fairly poor.  It seldom, if ever, works that way.)

But the image of Osama bin Laden–as a complex symbol used by many for many different ends–has been hanging over my nation (and others’) for more than a decade and its removal prompts my sense of relief.

Though I disagree with those who claim bin Laden’s killing is a positive good, I hope, with the logic of Romans 8:28 and Gen. 50:20, that God may bring good out of this event. Osama bin Laden’s death may be a “window of opportunity” for the West, and the U.S., and the global Christian Church, all to take new paths. (I would include Muslims, but the “Arab Spring” seems to suggest that many Muslims have already chosen new paths–paths that bin Laden, who so distorted Islam, hated.) Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, we have responded in ways that Osama bin Laden WANTED–we have responded on his terms.  His own videotaped messages outlined his strategy:  Not to defeat the U.S. or the rest of the West militarily, but ECONOMICALLY. He wanted us to spend so much money in useless wars that we would bankrupt ourselves–and he nearly succeeded.  Our national debt (which, at the end of the Clinton era, with the Clinton tax rates, was projected to be eliminated by 2012!) is now somewhere between $10.5 trillion and $14 trillion. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars account for between $4 trillion and $6 trillion of that debt. On top of that is the doubling of the (already huge) military budget these last 10 years, the creation of the huge Department of Homeland Security and the multiplication of spy agencies.  The price of oil was $23 a barrel before  9/11 and people worried that it would become $30 per barrel. Since 9/11 it has averaged $100 per barrel–generating enormous profits for the oil companies, but undermining everyone else’s budgets.

I don’t mean to count the changes in our society for the worse only in economic terms–but that is how bin Laden himself largely thought and expressed himself.  The violence of terrorist attacks was only calculated to do economic harm–and especially to get us to harm ourselves. 

B ut there has been other harm:  We have shifted away from the rule of law–with unlimited detentions of “unlawful combatants,” with torture, with warrantless wiretapping–including of our own citizens.  We have committed 2 wars –one on false pretenses. We have demonized Muslims, including Muslim Americans.  We have encouraged citizens to spy on one another and treat each other with suspicion.  We have militarized our very thought.

With bin Laden’s death can we try to recover and find a new path?  Al Qaeda is gone from Afghanistan (though the Taliban which gave them refuge–and took bin Laden’s money–is still there), but we have over 150,000 troops there. Can we declare victory and come home now? Pres. Obama’s own timeline for the Afghanistan surge was to begin withdrawal in July.  Dare we hope (and can we INSIST) that after 10 years, it is time to withdraw a MINIMUM of 1/3 of the troops home in July and try to have them all home by the end of 2012? We have withdrawn the “combat troops” from Iraq, but can we now remove the 50,000 troops which remain?

Can we cut the military budget in order to reinvest in education, infrastructure, and civilian jobs?

Can we try to end the demonization of Islam and Muslims?  Can we stop connecting immigration policy to terror now and remember that immigrants built this country and that we have no good future if we stop being a place that welcomes immigrants?

Can Christians remember that we are to be a people of love and peacemaking and forgiveness?

I pray that it will be so.

May 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Justice for the Poor and Peace on Earth: Luke’s Christmas Message

I have argued that the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth causes problems for one of Luke’s major themes: his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. But Luke is creative and addresses this problem by using his Infancy Narrative to stress other major emphases that will be repeated throughout his Gospel: Jesus and the in-breaking Kingdom of God will mean justice for the poor (we might call this the Jubilee theme) and peace on earth (inaugurated in the nonviolence of Jesus and his followers).

Luke really tells us of two miracle births: John the Baptizer’s and Jesus’. The two are compared which may indicate that Luke is also tackling a Baptizer movement (the author indicates in Acts that such a movement existed) by arguing that, great as John was, his mission was only to prepare the way for Jesus. The Annunciation to Zechariah (John’s father) says that Elizabeth, like Sarai/Sarah, will conceive though both parents are past the usual age for children. John will be a Nazarite (no strong drink or wine) and will be like Elijah in popular Jewish piety–preparing the way of the Lord. The Annunciation to Mary is modeled more on that to Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and Mary’s Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song at Samuel’s birth.

Compare and contrast: Because old age birth miracles have precedent, Zechariah’s skepticism is met as a sign of lack of faith and he is struck dumb. But Mary’s question (“How can this be, since I have never known a man?” I.e., Mary is a virgin. Ancient people did not have our biological knowledge, but they knew enough to know that sex was a necessary precursor to pregnancy!) is logical and not taken as a lack of faith–there is no punishment, but Elizabeth’s pregnancy is offered as a sign. John will have the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” but the Holy Spirit is the very agent of Jesus’ conception. John will be like Elijah, but Jesus will be given “the throne of his father David,” i.e., will be the Messiah.

In the Magnificat, Mary breaks forth out of the role of popular Christian piety over the centuries of a mild, beatific and humble woman to speak revolutionary words that would do justice to the Maccabees. God’s mercy on those who fear God; the proud are scattered, the mighty toppled from their thrones; those “of low degree” (including Mary) are exalted; the hungry are fed and the rich sent away empty. Liberation! Similar themes are given in Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus): About Jesus, Zechariah says: Horn of salvation (rescue, freedom from enemies) from the “House of his servant David.” Of John, Zechariah says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Salavation is described in both terms of freedom of oppression and in terms of “forgiveness of their sins.” Zechariah also believes John (and Jesus?) will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

In the Christmas story itself, the setting is that of imperial oppression. A forced census to aid in greater collection of tribute to imperial masters. Occupation. A forced journey in late pregnancy. Hospitality denied (no room at the inn)–a vulnerable birth in a stable with an animal’s feeding trough as a first cradle.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (low caste, representing the anawim, the “pious poor” of the land) is filled with these themes: Good News for ALL people (not just the elites), city of David (instant overtones of Messianic hope), Savior/Liberator, Messiah the Lord.

Modern translations have the hymn of the heavenly host as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased.” This is grammatically possible and based on ancient manuscript evidence. But Brad Young argues persuasively in Jesus the Jewish Theologian for the alternative reading, “and on earth peace, good will among men/people.” The promise of universal peace was too much a part of the Jewish messianic hope. Restricting that to a peace for the favored fits too much the watered down pietism of modern evangelicalism, not the Jewish hope that Luke saw Jesus fulfilling.

Luke’s visitation is not from wealthy foreign astrologers (the Magi), but from the Shepherds–the poor and outcast who then become the first evangelists, spreading the good news that they heard from the angels and saw in the stable.

Justice for the poor; peace on earth. No matter what our views on the historicity (or not) of the Virgin Birth, the true Christmas message in Luke is that God’s Revolution (“Kingdom of God”) has broken into history in Jesus and it will be radical good news for the poor and marginalized and oppressed and lead to universal peace. (It also includes repentance and forgiveness; we need to break from the world’s patterns of domination, violence, and greed–accept forgiveness and follow Jesus in a new path.) That’s a message we need today–and it is far too absent in many contemporary churches.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Matthew’s Birth & Infancy Narrative: Birth of the Anointed Deliverer!

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are, in my view, interwoven mixtures of historical accounts (“history remembered” in Marcus Borg’s terms) and mythical or metaphorical interpretations of those events. The Virgin Birth aside, it is not easy to separate out historical fact from what we might, with Robert Gundry, call the Evangelists’ midrash on these events. The visit of the Magi seems very unlikely historically, for instance, but King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents (all boy children two and under in Bethlehem) is completely in character: he killed several of his own sons and Bethlehem was small enough that such a slaughter could have totalled 10-15 kids, small enough to keep from imperial records. But if the slaughter of the innocents is “history remembered,” it needs a motivator and the visit of of the Magi is the only option given in our sources.

Or take Luke’s narrative: Empires, ancient and modern, conduct censuses of their occupied territories in order to more efficiently tax and oppress them. But, as E. P. Sanders points out, a census in which each man was sent back to his ancestral home town would disrupt the entire empire and surely be a source of controversy–and therefore likely to have been mentioned in secular histories of the day. But there is no such census mentioned, throwing doubt on the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. Further, why would Mary, so late in her pregnancy, accompany Joseph back to Bethlehem? Wouldn’t staying in Nazareth with relatives and midwives while Joseph took care of the census have made more sense? Yet, as Richard Cassidy, S.J. writes in his Jesus, Politics and Society, Luke’s knowledge of “Empire history” is extensive. He gives dates and times that he expects his, largely Gentile, audience to know and if his narrative were wildly inaccurate or implausible, it would undermine his apologetic/evangelistic purposes. A modern historian who is open to the miraculous, but is not pre-committed to historical inerrancy, must make difficult judgment calls–hemmed about with many a “maybe.”\

Fortunately, our task is easier. The strong theological themes of these stories are much easier to detect–and these themes are where the Evangelists themselves place their emphases.

Matthew’s Account (Chaps. 1-2): Written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience (perhaps in Syria?), throughout the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes–now amazingly open to Gentiles, too. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). More than any other New Testament writing, Matthew refers to Jesus as “Son of David,” a Messianic claim–and specifically a claim that Jesus is a King-Messiah and not the “priestly Messiah” of some Jewish hopes. Although Matthew’s account will re-define “Messiah” in ways that are nonviolent rather than military, there is no escaping the challenge in such claims to Roman rule–or the rule of client kings like the Herods. The opening line is revolutionary. (The Gospel will also present Jesus as a “new Moses” giving new Torah. Matthew’s narrative, as almost all commentaries mention, is structured around 5 major teaching blocks, paralleling the 5 Books of Moses.)
Next, Matthew uses a carefully crafted genealogy to prove his opening claim. Using some “fuzzy math,” Matthew concludes in 1:16-17, And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to the Messiah fourteen generations. 14–twice the holy number 7, shows completeness–even if Matthew has to skip some people and move others to get his numbers right. The point is that Jesus was born with the right lineage and just the right time to be the Messiah.
Now, anyone who has spent any time reading biblical genealogies knows that they seldom mention women. In that very patriarchal society women were seldom mentioned at all–men were seen as the actors in society and history. But Matthew’s genealogy includes 4 women (in addition to Jesus’ mother, Mary) who each played pivotal roles in Israel’s history. Why are these women named? There have been 4 major reasons given in church history and each has something to recommend it, in my view.

  1. The women were notorious sinners and foreshadowed Jesus’ role as savior of sinners. This was proposed as early as St. Jerome’s commentary on Matthew. Some have even seen this as a rebuttal to the ancient Jewish anti-Christian polemic that claimed Mary was an adulteress and Jesus her bastard son. But although this cannot be ruled out, I am not certain Matthew’s readers would have instantly understood these women as sinners: Tamar seduces her father-in-law as a pretended prostitute, but this is because her father-in-law refuses to follow the levirate marriage custom of giving her to another of his sons. Genesis portrays her actions as acts of faith that perpetuated her deceased husband’s lineage. Rahab had been a prostitute, but the book of Joshua understands her as a convert whose actions in hiding the Jewish spies in Jericho–though treasonous from the viewpoint of Jericho–are considered righteous. Ruth, Moabite convert to Judaism and grandmother to King David, certainly seems to have acted irregularly in “uncovering Boaz’ feet” in the fields, but this led him to become kinsman redeemer for Ruth and Naomi. So, once more, Matt.’s readers likely would NOT have seen Ruth as a sinner. Even Bathsheba, whom Matthew refers to as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” was not always condemned in rabbinic literature since her adulterous actions led to the birth of Solomon. (Of course, from our contemporary standpoint, Bathsheba would be seen as David’s rape victim–refusing the king was a death sentence!–rather than a seductress at all!) So, while this first reason for the women’s inclusion cannot be entirely dismissed (as Raymond Brown seems to), I don’t think this is the major reason.
  2. The women represented foreigners, thus foreshadowing the gospel mission to the Gentiles. This view was first popularized by Martin Luther. The Bible does identify Rahab as a Canaanite and seems to imply this about Tamar as well. Ruth is a Moabite and Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, even if her own nationality is never mentioned. Thus, Matthew not only indicates that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has Gentiles in his ancestry, but shows that Gentiles are involved in the heart of Israel’s redemptive history.
  3. There was something unusual, even scandalous, involving each woman’s pregnancy. Tamar’s pregnancy by Judah was certainly scandalous, though Judah pronounces her “more righteous” than he was in securing her dead husband’s lineage.We are not told the circumstances of Rahab’s marriage to Salmon, but the fact that she was a former Canaanite prostitute makes that marriage and subsequent pregnancy scandalous. We have already noted the irregularity behind Ruth’s union with Boaz and Bathsheba’s pregnancy by David (and the subsequent royal murder of Uriah) was more than scandalous for the prophet Nathan and the authors/editors of 2 Samuel. It is therefore quite probable that Matthew is preparing his readers for the scandal that Joseph is not Jesus’ father. However, Jane Schaberg’s contention that Matthew is thereby hinting that Jesus is illegitimate and that the Virigin Birth story should not be understood literally, doesn’t really work. Why would Matthew try to subvert his own narrative?
  4. Each of these women took an active role in furthering redemptive history and was thus seen as an agent of the Holy Spirit. This has much to recommend it: Tamar schemed to get the offspring for her deceased husband that Judah owed her under levirate marriage. Rahab’s bold initiative in hiding the Israelite spies in Jericho enabled Israel to enter the Promised Land. Ruth’s initiatives kept Naomi from starving, led Boaz to become their “kinsman redeemer,” and secured the emergence of the Davidic line. Bathsheba’s manipulations at the time of David’s death led to the succession by Solomon–a move not seen as positive by all biblical writers, but seen as God-blessed by the dominant Jewish piety of Matthew’s era. However, the problem with this proposal is that Mary’s role in redemptive history in agreeing to birth the Messiah is related not by Matthew but by Luke! Mary is entirely passive in Matthew’s account–and the heroic role goes to Joseph for agreeing (after a dream) to wed Mary and bear the shame of the scandal that she was pregnant before their wedding (but not before their betrothal–binding as marriage in Jewish law).

In the previous post, I already focused on the theological motifs of Messiahship in the angelic dream visitation to Joseph and in Matthew’s reworking of Isaiah’s prophecy. Originally the prophecy in Isaiah 7 was a sign to King Ahaz that he would soon not have to fear Assyrian invasion. Thus, the sign could not be the miracle birth of a far future Messiah. A young woman shall conceive and bear a son, named Immanuel, and before the kid is old enough to know right from wrong, he will “eat curds and honey” (i.e., have prosperity) because Assyria will be deserted. The young woman was most likely either Isaiah’s wife or the king’s. But Matthew deliberately uses the LXX Greek version of this story to make this a prediction of a future Virgin Birth. We would call this prooftexting. More generously, Matthew had a wider understanding of prophetic “fulfillment” than moderns and constantly saw Jesus’ life as mirroring previous patterns in Israel’s history.

For this same reason, Jesus must recreate Israel’s captivity in Egypt and subsequent Exodus. (“Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hos. 11:1 was originally a reference to God’s calling of Israel from Egyptian captivity.) The Visit of the Magi doesn’t just set up this refugee flight, however, but also signals a major Matthean theme: Jesus the Jewish Messiah is recognized by Gentiles and rejected by many Jews. It is also not sentimental: The salvation Jesus brings is a threat to empire (including client kings like Herod) and they resist it with violence–including the brutal slaughter of the innocents. (Which, once again, Matthew sees echoed in biblical literature–Jeremiah’s lament over Babylon’s treatment of Ramah in Jer. 31:5.)

This is long enough for today’s post. In Matthew’s perspective, the major point of Christmas is not the Virgin Birth, though he indicates that Mary was a virgin and even “creatively reworks” a prophecy of Isaiah to justify it. But the emphases in Matthew are Jesus’ as the rightful Davidid Messiah, and fulfillment of Israel’s story and hopes–with surprising recognition by Gentiles and violent opposition by empire–Jewish and Gentile. The scandalous nature of Jesus’ birth is foreshadowed by other births in his ancestry (and Israel’s history) as is the Gentile mission. Next, we’ll see Luke’s even more revolutionary themes.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Better Christmas Carols “The Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

December 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Better Carols # 3 “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?” by Willie Nelson

Written by Willie Nelson on 30 December 2003 as a protest against the invasion of Iraq.

There’s so many things going on in the world
Babies dying
Mothers crying
How much oil is one human life worth
And what ever happened to peace on earth

We believe everything that they tell us
They’re gonna’ kill us
So we gotta’ kill them first
But I remember a commandment
Thou shall not kill
How much is that soldier’s life worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

So I guess it’s just
Do unto others before they do it to you
Let’s just kill em’ all and let God sort em’ out
Is this what God wants us to do

(Repeat Bridge)
And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

Now you probably won’t hear this on your radio
Probably not on your local TV
But if there’s a time, and if you’re ever so inclined
You can always hear it from me
How much is one picker’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

But don’t confuse caring for weakness
You can’t put that label on me
The truth is my weapon of mass protection
And I believe truth sets you free

And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

R. I. P. G. McLeod “Mac” Bryan–Baptist Champion of Human Rights

G. McLeod Bryan, Emeritus Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University, who formerly taught philosophy and religion at Mercer University and Mars Hill College, died today.  “Mac” Bryan played a part in the U. S. Civil Rights movement, the Anti-Vietnam War and Anti-Nuclear weapons strands of the peace movement, and a supporting role in peace and human rights struggles around the world, including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. 

I don’t think I ever met “Mac” Bryan (perhaps once in the mid ’80s, before I knew who he was, but I may be misremembering), but everywhere I went among “peace and justice Baptists” from the U. S. South, I met his friends and students.  I have lost track of the number of “Mac Bryan” stories I’ve heard at meetings of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America or at reunions of people whose lives intersected Koinonia Partners in South Georgia or other intentional Christian communities across the South.  Many times when I’ve met Southern Baptists (or white Baptists who used to be Southern Baptist, or Christians in other traditions who used to be Southern Baptist) involved in ministry to prisoners, or the homeless, or working with Habitat for Humanity or Bread for the World, or working in some way for peace, justice, and human rights it would turn out that Mac Bryan had inspired them to get involved. (After all, Southern Baptists, a denomination born in defense of slavery and which was the strongest anti-Civil Rights denomination in the nation in the ’60s, is hardly known for the numbers of peace and justice activists it produces.)  Mac Bryan hasn’t been the only catalyst of an alternative way of being Baptist in the U.S. South, but he has certainly been a major one.

A brief obituary is found on the Wake Forest website.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, obituaries, Uncategorized | Leave a comment