“But, Chris, the Bible Is Not Political”: Part 3

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

This was Queen Elizabeth’s famous remark about William Shakespeare’s Richard II as she clearly observed many of her popular stereotypes humorously reflected in the play’s title character. Importantly, her observation spoke to a truth common to many if not all of Shakespeare’s histories. Their power is most richly experienced when viewed beyond just “history” and more as commentary on his present day. That is to say, Shakespeare was less interested in “accurately” depicting his subject characters and more in crafting stories tailored to his observations of 16th and 17th century England and the house of Tudor.

The iconic Queen Elizabeth was both successful as the monarch of England and yet frequently criticized for lacking decisiveness. So, Richard II was depicted strikingly with similar indecisiveness. Sometimes the complicated political nature of Elizabeth’s day required making concessions that arguably lacked principal. This too was how Richard II was depicted. Elizabeth was accused of murdering Amy Dudley, the wife of Lord Robert Dudley, but never ended up marrying him, despite their courtship. Correspondingly, Richard II’s indecisiveness made him look guilty in the death that is the central problem within the plot.

Of course, criticizing Elizabeth I for excessive caution was wildly unfair. Elizabeth I was the product of both a complicated political climate and quiet years observing the hasty mistakes of her Tudor predecessors. Mary was completely decisive, but lead England into religious, economic, and military disaster. On the other had, Elizabeth I made caution work for her. By the end of her reign, England was the dominant political and military force of a fractured European continent. So, when she was accused of being indecisive—usually on account of her sex—the Bard of Avon whipped up a play that depicted a man with exaggerated versions of her supposed flaws without—unlike Elizabeth I—any accomplishments to show for it. Fun stuff.

I tell you this because Bible history and Shakespeare history have a lot in common.

The Old Testament history you find in Genesis and Exodus is less videotaped history as it is commentary on life in Israel after war with Babylon. The book of Daniel, the last-written book of the Old Testament, is less the “true” story of Daniel in Babylon and more commentary on life in Israel in the 2nd century under the abuses under Antiochus IV that ultimately lead to the Maccabean Revolt. You could say I’ve written about this at length.

But this creative use of “history” doesn’t end with the Old Testament.

The story of Jesus was not told in written form until immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. Not surprisingly then, it reflects and speaks to the most important things that people were thinking after losing everything in that war. Jesus’s story and stories are tailored to speak to its time and agony. This means that our cultural and temporal distance from the Bible require us to retrain how we read it.

The Bible is mostly the product of war.

War is the subtext of virtually its every subversive word.

Including the angry Gospel of Mark.

In the fifth chapter of Mark, Jesus encounters a man said to be possessed by demons—so many that they would later enter two thousand pigs—and these demons apparently gave him great strength and made him terrorizing in the countryside. In fact, the story tells us that “no one was strong enough to subdue him.” However, when Jesus encounters him in the region of Gadara (modern-day Jordan), this all-powerful man immediately kneels down before Jesus.

We make this a spiritual story.

But, to those who lived through the terror of Rome’s War on Terror, the message was far less a spiritual one, but a tangible one. They had just experienced the relentless power of the Roman legion, a force that no one on Earth was strong enough to subdue. No one had the audacity to claim they were greater than the Roman military. But this story not only depicts this all-powerful being kneeling before Jesus, but begging—yes begging—to enter a herd of Judaism’s most famously unclean animal, pigs, and descend down a lake to their death.

Oh.

And—did I mention?—the man’s name is “Legion”.

Haha.

Guys.

That one is a dead giveaway.

Last, but not least, Gadara (or the “region of the Gerasenes”) was where a diplomatic mission was sent to the Roman general, Vespasian, as he was destroying the countryside around Jerusalem before his later siege. The details aren’t clear, but, apparently, they made some show of allegiance to the empire in order to protect their investment.

Josephus tells us in The Wars of the Jews as follows:

However, [Vespasian] was obliged first to overthrow what remained elsewhere, and to leave nothing outside of Jerusalem behind him that might interrupt him in that siege. Accordingly, he marched against Gadara, the metropolis of Perea, which was a place of strength, and entered that city on the fourth day of the month of Dystros for the men of power had sent an embassy to him, without the knowledge of the seditious, to treat for conditions of surrender; which they did out of the desire they had of peace, and for saving their effects, because many of the citizens of Gadara were rich men.

Just in case the reader might think this story about anything other than Rome, Mark tells us in his story that when the men of the region lost their huge investment, they pleaded with Jesus to leave their region.

What do you think Mark saying about those who pledge allegiance to the empire?

Does he think you can pledge allegiance to the empire and to Jesus?

Does he think war-making and “fire and fury” makes the world safer?

I simply cannot accept that Mark—after the bitter destruction Israel had experienced at the hands of Rome—told this story with any other motivation than to say that the way of Rome was dying to the way of Jesus. That Jesus was greater than Caesar. That war destroys those it conquers as well as the conquerers.

Again, we fundamentalists spiritualize everything in the Bible, and we do so to the benefit of only one man, Caesar. This is unfortunate. The “miracle of the swine” is a dangerous story about quite visible empire, not a fun story about some amorphous devil.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare. I can imagine the powerful Romans—whose understanding of the world was tethered to the might and security of their Empire—listening to the story about Legion and asking themselves:

I am Legion, know ye not that?

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4 thoughts on ““But, Chris, the Bible Is Not Political”: Part 3

  1. Joe Littlejohn says:

    Hi Chris,

    Perhaps for very different reasons, I agree with your assessment that the modern church has a faulty understanding of the Messiah. For many, it is mainly about the future life…about forgiveness. I couldn’t agree with you more when you observe that the Bible is dripping with politics. From the beginning God has upended nations. He has sent other nations to conquer and destroy. It is all bloody and violent and God does not distance himself from the suffering that is caused by such events. He has blood on his hands.

    And, many of his judgments are directly related to the things you pointed out…He hates oppression, exploitation and ruthlessness. He hates the rich and privileged who arrogantly dominate the poor, the fatherless and the widow. He hates arrogance and racism and nationalism. He wants His children to oppose oppression. And, as you pointed out, the so-called church has often been silent or even complicit when facing these things.

    Perhaps here is where we partially differ: I agree that the Messiah is making things right. It is how this is occurring that might be different.

    You quoted this from a Messianic text: “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”

    I could add Psalm 2: “You are My Son…ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance…You shall break them with a rod of iron, you shall shatter them like earthenware.”

    Or, Rev. 19: “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.

    What these Messianic descriptions have in common is that, as the ruling Messiah, he doesn’t just improve the water supply or provide food or rescue the exploited. He slays the wicked…He breaks them with a rod of iron…He wages war…He strikes down the nations….He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God.

    This is the Messiah putting things right. As a judge, he can’t pass judgment in favor of the oppressed without dealing harshly with the oppressor.

    We might also differ (in some ways) in identifying the wicked which he is slaying. The wicked are the racists, the wicked are the exploiters, the wicked are the unrepentant, the wicked are the power mongers, the wicked are those who reject Jesus as the Messiah (most of the planet), the wicked are the swindlers, the wicked are the unrepentant gays and lesbians (of which you spoke). The wicked are you and I before our repentance toward Christ and the gift of salvation.

    Of course, this kind of language (slaying, breaking them with a rod of iron, waging war, striking down) is messy. It is bloody and violent. On the ground it means war, disease, famine, poverty, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, oppressive rulers, etc.

    The thing is….only one group is on the right side…only one group is not wicked. That is the group that acknowledges their sinfulness and who turn to Christ in repentance. They were counted among the wicked but, because of the cross, they are no longer enemies. The rest are enemies….enemies that too will eventually be struck down, shattered, and slain if they don’t humble themselves. He mercifully lets them taste their impending destruction by the many things they suffer. This is in hopes of their repentance and their salvation. He does not desire their destruction but if they persist as unrepentant enemies, this is what they will face. This is what we faced.

    Agreed, we do need to repent of racism and bigotry. We do need to help relieve suffering. But, the greatest need that people have is, they need to turn to the Messiah in repentance. This, I believe, must be at the heart of our Messianic message.

  2. Joe Littlejohn says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for engaging. Iron sharpens iron. As my brother often says, “It does not say…puffy soft cotton balls sharpen each other.” Iron clashes.

    I was highlighting an aspect of the Messianic work that you quoted. Namely, “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” This has to look like something from the street level. As a judge, he can’t pass judgment in favor of the oppressed without dealing with the oppressor. This, in part, is how the Messiah putting things right.

    You asked, “Is it your position that God sees sin in the world and sends war, disease, famine, poverty, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and oppressive rulers?” The short answer (that can be easily caricatured) is “yes”.

    I could give numerous texts to support my conclusion but I will limit it to a few. It has been my experience that if a few texts fail to strike a chord then it is unlikely that piling more on top will lead to any other result.

    So, here we go (using the words you asked about):

    WAR AND OPPRESSIVE RULERS
    “The Lord gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies around them, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went, the hand of the LORD was against them for evil, as the LORD had spoken and as the LORD had sworn to them, so that they were severely distressed.”
    “The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand, a nation of fierce countenance who will have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young.”

    FAMINE
    “The LORD has called for a famine, and it will even come on the land for seven years.”
    “The Lord will send the sword (war), the famine and the pestilence upon them until they are destroyed.”
    “The LORD will make the rain of your land powder and dust.”

    DISEASE
    “The LORD will smite you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with fiery heat and with the sword (war) and with blight and with mildew (crop failure). The LORD will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed.

    STORMS/WINDS…HURRICANES/TORNADOES
    “The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea.”
    “Praise the LORD… Fire (lightening) and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, that FULFILL HIS word.”
    “For to the snow the Lord says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour., From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world.”

    As I said, these sentiments can be corroborated in many places in Scripture. This is just a sampling. It is not an insignificant matter that He uses such things to gain the attention of people. His desire is for their good. His desire is for their eyes to be on the eternal things. He disciplines so that people can turn. But, if there is no repentance, there will be destruction (and I don’t mean a forever torturous burning) but a destruction. That which was formerly constructed will be destructed.

    • I agree that you can find verses out of the Old Testament to support the idea that God sees sin in the world and sends calamity. But have you considered whether Jesus would agree that the Old Testament is the full revelation of the nature of God? For example, have you considered when Jesus read from Isaiah c61 when in the synagogue in Nazareth?

      Read Jesus’s reading closely. You will notice that Jesus cuts off Isaiah mid-sentence at a very specific and very interesting point. You might think it coincidental or accidental. Ask yourself then what the purpose of Jesus’s mentions of Elijah and Elisha were about if not to reinforce the fact that Jesus was disagreeing with that point from Isaiah, that the “day of vengeance of our God” was coming.

      Ask yourself whether Jesus demonstrated an inclination to sending calamity on sinners.

      If you agree that he doesn’t demonstrate that inclination, and in fact demonstrates the opposite, ask yourself then what is the meaning behind the following:

      Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

      Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

      God is exactly like Jesus and always has been.

      “The law came from Moses. Grace and TRUTH came from Jesus Christ.” John c1 v17

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