The Diggers

ON THE MORNING of April 1, 1649, Gerrard Winstanley arose to obey a direct command from the Holy Spirit. He traveled the Surrey countryside in England until he reached St. George’s Hill, a heath that had been Crown property for centuries. Summoning the full extent of his courage, he plunged a spade into the ground and began digging.

But Winstanley wasn’t the only man in England who heard the Lord. William Everard experienced God in a vision, and there in the shrubground he joined Winstanley. Yet still the operation grew. In defiance of all likelihood or explanation, nearby men and women soon came out from their lodgings and joined the program. They cleared the shrubbery, its leathery yellows, pinks, and purples, to expose a modest expanse of ground on which they tilled, dug rows, sowed seed, and placed manure. The swiftness and spontaneity of their communion was as dumbstriking as it was perilous, but in their favor was King Charles I’s head having just been chopped off.

Before there was an American Revolution or French Revolution or Russian Revolution, there was the English Civil War of the 1640s. Charles I had been the most recent stubborn personality to test the Crown against the convulsing powers of Heaven and Earth. For Charles I and his Stuart predecessor, King James I, the divine right of kings was as clear as any doctrine provided within the elegant certainty of the four corners of Holy Scripture. In the books of the kings of Israel, God had always personally chosen its kings. The psalmist referred to kings as gods. Peter the apostle, writing his first epistle from Jerusalem, commanded all Christians to honor the king. His companion, the apostle to the gentiles, went even further. Paul, writing from house arrest in Nero’s shadow, not only echoed Peter but also placed the sword of God’s wrath in the king’s sovereign hand and commanded Christians to obey his every form of levy — taxes, duties, customs, and tributes. So absolute was his authority that even Jesus admitted to Pilate’s power over him having been granted from God.

To question the king, let alone to defy or fix any obstacle before his unchecked power as God’s vessel of righteousness — be it the law, the courts, the Church, the Magna Carta, or the petulant Members of Parliament — was to elevate one’s station above that of Christ the crucified Lord. It was blasphemy. So determined was Charles I to prove his divine sovereignty over Parliament that for nearly a decade he fought an all-out civil war against them at a cost of nearly two hundred thousand lives and hundreds of thousands more livelihoods, including that of Winstanley.

But it was no matter now. With the death of the king at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, radical reformers grew wild through the permafrost of the Norman conquest. None of them, though, were as radical as Winstanley. The fury and glory of God were rattling the ground anew as in the presence of Moses at Sinai, but this new law of freedom was written on the heart. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Guide of All Truth, a new perspective, one in opposition to the prerogative of kings, descended like tongues of fire on him and his fellow Diggers. “Many things were revealed to me which I never read in any books, nor heard from the mouth of any flesh,” Winstanley wrote.

Anticipating opposition, Winstanley published multiple works, one directed to Oliver Cromwell and another directed to Parliament. “In the beginning of time, God made the Earth,” he wrote. “Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.” Before there were kings, “the Earth was a common treasury for all.”

That the earth was a common treasury for all was incompatible with the class distinctions inherent in the divine right of kings. Yet it too found support in Scripture, provided one was brave enough to find it. The same Bible that at times seemed to sanction the sovereign place of the king at other times spoke to the contrary. Did not the first king of Israel obtain his station only because the people disobeyed God? Did Christ not teach that it was not the righteous but the pagans who would lord it over one another? Did Christ not teach that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Was not the example from the Acts of the Apostles that the believers hold all things in common? Did not all people in the beginning descend from a common source? From these points, Winstanley and Everard argued that humanity needed to return to this divine state of equality. Or, as Mary the mother of Jesus broke out in song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant. . . .

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”

Winstanley took his doctrine to St. George’s Hill with same confidence that Charles I took the divine right of kings to his execution. The Diggers, as their detractors called them, prepared the ground for an abundant harvest of righteousness, corn, beans, and carrots. And word of the enterprise spread. Before long, other Digger colonies rose up throughout the English countryside. In Cobham, for example, eleven acres were cleared out and six common houses were constructed.

Unfortunately for the Diggers, neighboring landlords wanted the land too, but even more important than the land was that their tenants not have it or even think about having it. Oliver Cromwell, victor of the English Civil War, understood the stakes: “What is the purport of [the Diggers] but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.” Cut them to pieces they did. Armed men were dispatched to quickly end them. They were beaten and their lodgings, rows, crops, tools, and books were destroyed. Within a year, all Digger communities in England had been wiped out. A number of Diggers were indicted at the Surrey quarter sessions and imprisoned.

William Everard was arrested for his blasphemous opinions “as to deny God, and Christ, and Scriptures.” Of course, by “Scriptures” what was really meant was one particular reading of them. Everard’s arrest prompted Gerrard Winstanley to publish Truth Lifting up the Head above Scandals, in which he argued that Scripture, on which traditionally authority rested, was unsafe because there were no undisputed texts, translations, or interpretations. Winstanley concluded that authority should be based in the Spirit. “All people carried the spirit, and thus their own authority, within them,” he wrote.

In September 1650, Winstanley was arrested and charged on suspicion of being a “Sorcerer or Witch.” He was sentenced to insanity and was sent to Bethel Hospital, where it is believed he died in March 1659. However, prior to his death, he had become involved in a burgeoning movement of friends who were said to quake and tremble at the Word of the Lord.

THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS permit no formal clergy, and congregants sit in silence until the the Spirit moves them to speak. The Quakers, as they are more commonly known, assent to the priesthood of all believers — or, as they say, obedience to one’s “inner light.” In 1676, Alice Curwen obeyed her inner light after hearing God tell her to leave her meetings in Baycliff, England and travel to the New World. Conditions for the Quakers there were as perilous as on St. George’s Hill. Four members of the Society of Friends in Boston had been just been condemned to lynching. Quakers were imprisoned, beaten, and had their property confiscated. So great was the danger that her husband disputed that the voice she heard was God’s. Nevertheless, she obeyed her inner light rather than her husband and became a Quaker preacher in Barbados, which King James I had made part of the British Empire just decades prior.

Barbados was a titanic exporter of sugar and importer of slave labor. For the benefit of properly sweetened cakes and pastries in London, the bodies of men, women, and children from Africa were seized and shackled by the tens of thousands for months’ long journeys across the Atlantic to plantations where any lingering trace of humanity that — against all odds — may have endured the dark and sickening hull of the vessel would fully and finally be stripped away by the Barbados Slave Code of 1661. A white slave master could punish his slave however he saw fit if doing so seemed beneficial to the operation. That was the law.

By the time Curwen arrived on the island, there were between fifteen and twenty enslaved persons for each free person. Upon seeing the cruelty, she came to understand the purpose of her sojourn more clearly. The first words of Jesus’s first sermon came to her: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Curwen preached that it was intolerable that her fellow Quakers permit these words to be read aloud in the presence of slave masters, but forbid their hearing among those whom they had enslaved. Even as the Quakers preached for simplicity and against all sorts of hierarchies, they had their blind spots. And so, she demanded of her Friends that they live up to their own ideals — that they permit all persons to the table of the Lord. As she preached in 1677: “I am persuaded, that if they whom thou call’st thy Slaves, be Upright-hearted to God, the Lord God Almighty will set them Free in a way that thou knowest not.”

For Curwen, fidelity to the light within her meant advocating a universal message of freedom. To that end, she spent her time on the island advocating against the Slave Code, which came at the eventual cost of imprisonment. Like Winstanley, she never lived to see the fruits of her labor, but her words and passion continued on.

BENJAMIN LAY stood barely above four feet, though his severely hunched back rendered him even shorter. He likened himself to “little David,” the shepherd boy who slew Goliath. Like Curwen, Lay was a Quaker who had moved from England to Barbados and obeyed the light within him at great personal cost.

In the years that ensued after Curwen preached against Barbados’s taskmasters, the island became even more impossibly cruel. Lay was working there as a shopkeeper when he witnessed an enslaved man kill himself rather than submit to another round of whipping under the Barbados Slave Code, a sight that haunted him for the rest of his life. Though not formally educated, Lay was a student of the previous century’s resistance movements, including the Diggers.

In several written works, which Benjamin Franklin helped him publish, Lay lamented how enslaved people would “plow, sow, thresh, winnow, split Rails, cut Wood, clear Land, make Ditches and Fences, fodder Cattle, run and fetch up the Horses,” for the “lazy Ungodly bellies” of their masters — his fellow Friends. Even worse, when their owners would pass away, they would be left to “proud, Dainty, Lazy, Scornful, Tyrannical and often beggarly Children for them to Domineer.” Such persons he called “the spawn of Satan.”

“‘Every good tree bringeth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.’ Is there any eviler fruit in the world than slave-keeping — anything more devilish? It is of the very nature of hell itself, and is the belly of hell. A good tree cannot bring forth such curse evil fruit as slave-trading.”

And he took these words with him on the sojourner’s road; Benjamin Lay would not permit any meetinghouse in America to enjoy peace. As his fellow congregants sat in their contemplative silence, Lay stood up and cast blistering judgments on them for their indifference to or even participation in the abominable slave trade. He conjured up images of the dark abyss, the lake of fire, and the teeth of the dragon that would feed on the unrighteous who were cast down there. After he was kicked out of every meetinghouse in Barbados, he moved to New Jersey. After he was kicked out of every meetinghouse in New Jersey, he moved to Pennsylvania. Each time, of course, shaking the dust off himself as a testimony against them.

Benjamin Lay soon came to realize that one of the chief obstacles to abolition was in fact Holy Scripture. Any time he engaged in one of his imprecatory theatrics, it wouldn’t be long before someone in the congregation would point out its failure to cast damnation on the slave trade and the notable instances in which it even seemed to condone it.

Lay had none of it. On one occasion, he entered a meetinghouse in New Jersey dressed in a large coat. Before the meeting began, he had placed an animal bladder full of red fruit juice within a hidden compartment he had cut out within his large Bible. When his turn came to speak, the four-foot man raised the Bible above his head, pulled out a sword from inside his coat, and stabbed the Bible. The congregation went into shock as what appeared to be blood shot out and splattered everyone nearby. As the chaos continued around him, Lay sat back down in calm, contemplative Quaker silence and waited to be expelled once again.

The point, which he inherited from Winstanley and Curwen, was clear. As the prophet Jeremiah had spoken to the remnant of Israel thousands of years before, the only reliable doctrine was that which the Holy Spirit had written directly on the hearts of humanity. During his ministry, Jesus placed only one limit on the authority and regulation of the Holy Spirit — like the wind, “it blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it is going.” Of course, that is no limit at all. The very scriptures upon which his opponents relied to justify the status quo themselves declared the Holy Spirit to be a wild thing, and above the Spirit, there was no authority on Earth or in Heaven.

On one occasion, after another of his eccentric displays of guerrilla theater in a Quaker meeting, he was picked up and tossed outside to a thundering rainstorm. Undaunted, he lay down in the mud directly in front of the door, thus requiring that each person who wished to leave step over his body. On the occasion, he stood in the freezing cold without a coat outside the gateway to the meetinghouse. He took one of his shoes off, placed it directly in the snow, and stood there in definance. When the exasperated congregants urged him to take his foot out of the snow, he replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.” Lay was a wild man possessed by a wild Spirit that, like the wind, blew wherever it would.

But, like Winstanley and Curwen, he too was an exile. After finally being absolutely renounced by the Religious Society of Friends, he retired to the Pennsylvania countryside where he lived the rest of his days in a cave. He became a vegetarian and ate only that which he personally grew from his own labor. He also made his own clothes. Because he believed that the divine presence of God was in all living creatures, he determined to avoid anything that depended on exploiting others.

By 1757, Lay had reached the age of 75, and his health began to decline. He had witnessed no progress in the cause for which he had dedicated nearly the entirety of his adult life.

Nearly two thousand years before the thought of forming a commune on St. George’s Hill had occurred in the wildest imaginations of anyone, an anonymous writer told of a group of forty-eight Christians who were condemned to torture and death at the beginning of games in the Roman amphitheater of Lyon in what is today France. Among their number was a slave girl named Blandina. When the ancient writer, Eusebius, used this letter to write about this event in his own history of the church, he wrote about her more than anyone else who was tortured that day.

Rome’s cruel society stratified itself sharply and explicitly by classes of persons, and its economy was completely dependent on slave labor. Roman slavery consisted of all races, genders, and ages. A judge could order a person into slavery to satisfy an unpaid debt or as punishment for a crime. Slavery was also a product of Rome’s war economy. Slave dealers would follow the army, and soldiers would sell enemy combatants to them, who would then sell them in one of Rome’s astoundingly large slave markets.

In contrast, the early Christian movement, which Nero had outlawed during his reign, was a radically egalitarian and anti-killing movement. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, within the church “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As such, the early church consisted in large part of enslaved persons, and the upper classes of Roman society viewed them with intense derision. The Roman philosopher, Celsus, wrote that their number consisted primarily of “foolish and low individuals, persons devoid of perception, slaves, and women.”

Rome delegated to local governors the task of punishing those who had been found guilty of the crime of acknowledging Christ as lord rather than acknowledging the emperor as such. During the reign of Trajan, Governor Pliny asked Trajan to instruct him how to conduct the trial of a Christian slave woman who was a deaconess in a local church. Trajan instructed Pliny to have her tortured and, unless she cursed Christ and made an incense offering before a bust of the emperor, condemned to death.

Such was the fate of many early Christians, each of whom lived their days trapped beneath the weight of the Roman superstate. As a tiny group of outlaws that possessed no political power within the totalizing authority of Roman civilization, the debates they considered most relevant were different than the ones we might wish they had had. Instead of debating the morality of slavery, an institution over which they had no power, their earliest debates centered on the nature of Christ—specifically whether he really had a body or whether he just appeared to have one. To some, the idea that the God who created all the cosmos could come to Earth and suffer at the hands of the Romans and their gods was embarrassing.

Nevertheless, the orthodox view that developed over the course of three centuries was that Christ their lord had a real body and in it suffered real pain on a Roman cross and in his resurrection continued to suffer with them in the Roman arena. In their baptism and in their communion, they joined the body of the church and the body of Christ, a body in which the suffering of one would be felt by all. Christ was not above suffering, but went down with them into the depths of it. From this lens, it should not be surprising that they took Jesus’s teaching quite literally about the judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous: Whatever you did unto the least of these, you did unto me.

And so, when the body of Blandina was seared in a fiery hot cage, all for the entertainment of a cheering crowd, the anonymous individual from Lyon wrote that her fellow martyrs in the arena observed her face transfigure until she took on that of the crucified Christ.

Benjamin Lay was in what would ultimately be his deathbed, when a visitor brought him news. Having long been permanently expelled from Quaker meetinghouses, he had been living a life of solitude. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Spirit that decades prior had inspired him to stab a Bible continued to blow in the Quaker communities, inspiring the children of the men and women who had rejected him. And children, by default, are wiser than their parents.

While he was in solitude, a new generation had risen up to carry on his work. Notably among them were John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, and John Cooper. These new reformers successfully convinced the Society of Friends to undertake an internal purification in order to appease the wrath of God. Specifically, what they committed themselves to was the abolition of slavery. Upon hearing the news, Lay remained silent for a while. He had not run his life aimlessly, nor fought like a boxer beating the air. He had run the race for an eternal prize, beaten his body and made it a slave for an eternal crown. But his efforts had been frustrated at every turn and left him all alone. “I can now die in peace,” he whispered. His death came just months later.

In subsequent decades, the Quakers outlawed slavery within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Their work was instrumental to Parliament’s abolishing slavery within the British Empire. They petitioned George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to outlaw slavery within the United States. While they did not succeed with them, they were some of the most active participants in the Underground Railroad, much to the displeasure of Washington and Jefferson.

We take for granted the categorical immorality of slavery, but for thousands of years almost no one took this for granted. People understood slavery to be a natural and unavoidable thing like an illness or bad weather. Students of the Bible were as blind to its immorality as anyone else. To my mind, this is why the radical work of Winstanley, Curwen, and Lay must continue — even as an act of religious faith. As previous generations struggled with old conceptions and categories of freedom and unfreedom, new generations will need to struggle with new ones. In the absence of that struggle, we will confuse immoral causes of unfreedom with nature. Even worse, we will use the Bible, even in good faith, as cover for our actions.

In particular, if the Church — particularly the white church of America — wants to be serious about the gospel that sets the oppressed free, it will require more rigorous thinking on issues of power dynamics. In other words, what is freedom without the power to exercise it? Are you free when a major health event plunges you and your family into financial insolvency? Are people of all races free to obtain employment without the power of anti-discrimination laws? They certainly weren’t for a century. Are you free when a disability prevents you from entering most buildings? What about children whose cognitive developments have been stunted by industrial chemicals that contaminate their drinking water? The polluters enjoy great freedom, but do the children who live downstream from the polluters? Are you free to demand fair compensation from a large employer in the absence of the power of workers to collectively bargain? Are you free to eat healthier food when doing so means you will miss a utility bill? Is that a real choice? Are you free to start a business when leaving your employment will discontinue the health insurance upon which you rely? Is that a real choice? Are we free when Wall Street is free? Are you free when the education on which your profession depends requires that you go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt? When you finish school, do you really have the power to chart your own course? Does the freedom to vote carry real power when politicians choose their voters? Is the freedom to vote meaningful to a single parent who cannot wait in line at the polling station for six hours? Freedom and power are not different things.

In the absence of a new generation of Diggers, our descendants will look back on us and wonder how we could be so immoral.

I’m Going to Take a Pretty Long Break From Blogging

A few weeks ago, I decided I was done blogging. Then I decided I wasn’t done blogging. Then I decided again that I was done. And then I thought maybe I wasn’t. You get the idea, but here’s the thing: I got this post to publication because I really think I’ve reached some kind of a threshold.

Obviously it wouldn’t be responsible to declare once and for all that I’m done blogging. It shouldn’t be hard to understand why. Starting in January of 2017, I’ve published thirty-seven essays.

Yeah, thirty-seven.

And—you should already know this—they were long essays! And dense essays! But you need to understand it’s only just now that I realized this. It’s gone by so fast I had no clue until recently. Each time—for better or worse—you saw that I’d updated this blog, I promise you weeks to months had gone into it. And it wasn’t like I was bored and needed a hobby. I really wasn’t bored.

I was angry.

Quietly angry, but intensely angry. My styling of anger goes mostly undetected. It’s less likely to manifest as a sudden burst of rage than as four or five months of producing a twelve-part series. I don’t know what that says about me except that when you methodically stick to something with that much passion for so long … you can’t just promise everyone that you’re done now. For me, the very act of stopping will require at least as much discipline as producing. Still, I’ve concluded it would be best to take a pretty long break from blogging, and that is my plan.

Three things to say.

First, if you’re one of my few readers—and I’m very thankful for you!—by now I think you’ve gotten the point. You don’t need this blog anymore. Because, if nothing else, these essays aren’t creative. Each one—and I mean this—is merely a work of translation. Other people have done the hard work behind the ideas I present, and I simply try to make their ideas accessible. I walk a tightrope of presenting them to evangelical fundamentalists—who share my belief in Christ, but have terribly misguided ideas about his purpose—and to secularists—whose values I often believe are much closer to Christ’s values, but who have no idea why their efforts lead nowhere. But other than that, there isn’t much else to all of this, and you’ve got it by now. Go read James Cone or Walter Brueggemann if you really need more. They did the real hard work.

Second, I’m proud of my writings, but they’ve accomplished little. The Americans who most frequently quote the Bible still overwhelmingly support our national policy to mistreat immigrants, still fear religious minorities, still put their faith in only a bigger military, still ignore how our changing climate will destroy communities all over the world, and still privilege the voices of our most rich, powerful, male, and white. Rest assured Christian fundamentalists—this blog has been no threat to you.

Third, it’s time to work on other things now. In particular, I’ve been stabbing around at my first fiction novel for more than a year, and I want to prioritize that. The finished project will probably not be published, but this one is for me. It’s for my mental health. Every one of you, while you have the time, should learn the fundamentals of some discipline and do something with it. You should dare to see something that isn’t yet here.

And that pretty much captures it—this blog requires a lot of work for a small number of readers who by now know what I want known, and I want to do things for me now. I’m not done blogging, but I’m going to take a pretty long break from it.

And I will pay WordPress the required $8 annual fee to keep this stupid and regretful domain name.

Stop Calling Judaism “Legalistic”

These are the laws, rulings and teachings that God gave to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai through Moses.

Leviticus c26

For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish rabbis have been telling a brash and ingenious story. The story—called a midrash—expounds upon the biblical story found in the book of Numbers where Moses overlooked the promised land from atop a mountain. A good way to think of midrash is it’s like fan fiction, but for the Bible.

In this story, Moses sees God decorating some of the Hebrew letters in a scroll of the Torah. Apparently the decorative choices are important. Some letters are adorned with various crowns and thorns, but others aren’t. And Moses wants to know the meaning behind these crowns and thorns.

Importantly, when this story was first told, Rabbi Akiva and subsequent rabbis had been in the process of remaking Judaism after Rome had destroyed its temple in Jerusalem. Because so much Jewish law and identity as described in the Bible assumes the existence of a temple, the temple’s destruction put Judaism—let alone its faithful adherents— in existential crisis. The temple was foundational to everything, and if Judaism was to survive nothing short of remaking the ground would do.

Fortunately, Judaism was ready. Built into the very mechanisms of Judaism’s ritual and repetition were also mechanisms for dynamic and liberal change. This work required debate, creativity, and inspiration. And to argue what and how and why certain changes needed to be made, Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis took liberty to draw inspiration from anywhere.

Including how certain Hebrew letters in the words of the Torah were traditionally decorated with crowns and thorns (because who would ever be interested in a crown and thorns placed over a word?)

As the story goes, Moses asks God why he doesn’t just explain the meaning of the decorations to him right then and there, and God responds, “A person called Akiva will appear a few generations from now, and he will explain each thorn on these letters and generate mountains of laws from them.” Moses asks to see him, so God instructs Moses to “walk backward.” In a bit of literary flourish, Moses walks backward . . . and into the future.

(You thought Back to the Future was just an 80s movie, didn’t you?)

There, he finds himself positioned to view a classroom in which Rabbi Akiva is teaching his students the law of Moses. What’s funny about the scene is that as the rabbi argues a point about the law in front of the class, Moses—Israel’s lawgiver—has no clue what he is talking about. He even becomes distressed, thinking he must have missed something while up on Mount Sinai. But when a student in the classroom asks Akiva how he arrived at the point he was advancing, he replies that God had given Moses this law on Mount Sinai, and Moses, we are told, finds great comfort in this answer.

I share this endearing and whimsical story because every time I’m forced to be in a place and someone in that place is given a captive audience and that person uses that place to teach that captive audience about the Old Testament and when they talk about the Old Testament they carelessly fling around Judaism as legalistic and stuck in tradition,

I

seriously

just

want

to

puke.

I could have shared many other of rabbinic Judaism’s great midrashic tales, but I chose the story about time-traveling Moses because it goes against the grain of so many of fundamentalist Christianity’s most deeply held assumptions. Contrary to most modern Christian thought, Judaism is a religion of audacious innovation, liberal use of the Bible, and willingness to evolve from what would seem to be a text’s “original intent.” I think this story captures the spirit of that.

Of course Judaism has rules.

Lots of rules.

And rituals.

And debates about its rules.

And about its rituals.

But fundamentalist Christianity adds a poison to these otherwise neutral qualities. Jewish legalism is assumed to be stuck looking backward. It is assumed to be caught up in inflexible standards that, once given, never change. Where there are problems, it is assumed that the problem lies in straying from something from long ago. I hope to convey how radically different Judaism is to these irresponsible caricatures.

For example, the text of the book of Deuteronomy commands that a rebellious child be stoned—no questions asked, no exceptions given. And because, ironically, fundamentalist Christianity is the very thing that it projects onto Judaism, such people will speak real words and those words will actually communicate that at one time it was God’s plan to kill children. That is in contrast to the rabbis. Despite the command being perfectly clear to any neutral reader, the rabbis categorically denied that God permitted this practice. Instead, they explained that the reason God placed that command in the Torah was . . . wait for it . . . to teach people how to interpret the Torah well so as to prevent it from ever happening.

Notice the hilarious degree of audacity (or if you will, chutzpah). But also notice the method. The rabbis never censored the Bible. They never struck the command out of the Bible. They just worked the Bible and worked tradition in whatever way was required to produce a just outcome. Because for all the Judaic innovation that has happened over the centuries, all Judaic innovation begins with the text of the Bible. Remember, for Moses to go forward, he first had to go backward.

But forward they went, nevertheless.

The rabbis claimed that the Bible gave them the authority to interpret, amplify, modify and even occasionally abrogate parts of the Torah. Ever since the canon of the Old Testament closed, Judaism has evolved with the times to such an extent that the Old Testament text is a very bad way to understand Judaism. Many people smarter than me argue that this was true even before the New Testament was written.

You may be wondering what in the world—let alone the Bible—the rabbis latched onto in order to claim this.

Go back to the verse I quoted at the top. In the book of Leviticus, the text says that God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the rabbis paid special attention to that word “gave.” If God had given the law of Moses as a gift, the law was no longer God’s; it was humankind’s. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a gift. And since it was humankind’s, humankind had the authority to do what it wanted with it.

In another story, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are in a rabbinic academy debating a point of the law, and all the rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer. Then the voice of God enters the room and tells everyone that actually only Rabbi Eliezer has interpreted the law correctly. However—and, again, contrary to the reflexes of each and every fundamentalist Christian—the story says that the rabbis basically tell God to butt out and go back to Heaven. They even quote to God Deuteronomy c30 v12-14, which says that the Torah is not in Heaven, but is on the Earth.

Perhaps the best way to put it comes in the styling of a certain Rabbi you may have heard of—the law was made for humankind, not humankind for the law.

As someone who grew up zealous for only the most fundamentalist version of Christianity you could imagine, everything I just shared remains shocking to me. I know it in my head, but I struggle to believe it in my heart. Real Judaism and the straw version of Judaism I was taught are not close. As one can see from these stories, God has a high view of humankind and its capacity for ruling the world.

(You also get this from the Beatitudes).

But what I read on the Facebook walls and Instagram stories of people who grew up like I did are expressions humanity’s inability to govern ourselves. We are fallen and need an unchanging standard because our emotions and feelings will otherwise get the better of us. And I can already hear the pushback. If this is what Judaism is like, thinks the fundamentalist, then clearly this is what Jesus came down to Earth to correct.

I disagree.

First, Judaism was creating midrash long before the New Testament was written, and the people who wrote the New Testament used lots of it. The New Testament is full of rabbinic inventions that are not found in the Old Testament. I agree with those people who say that the Old Testament is a bad way of understanding the Judaism that is presented in the New Testament. You need to be aware of Judaism’s innovations to read the New Testament well.

Second, the New Testament writers engaged in some wild midrash themselves. They were perfectly willing to play fast and loose with the original intent Old Testament text if it furthered the point they were advancing. Notice the way Matthew c2 v14-15 works a magic trick on Hosea c11 v1. I’ve written a lot on this topic. Click anywhere on this blog and I think you’ll see that Matthew was not a one-and-done phenomenon.

Finally—and this is important—the New Testament writers went to great lengths to explain that Rabbi Jesus gave the church the same liberal authority that the rabbis had claimed. His statement “I’m giving you the keys to the kingdom. Whatever you bind on Earth is bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on Earth is loosed in Heaven,” is but one example of this. Jesus never intended that the Bible would stand for anything less than broad human flourishing.

Yet the modern churchgoer equates worship of God with perfect fidelity to the Bible. I think that’s wrong—specifically, I think it trades worship of God for worship of a text—but that is an honest position you can take. However, if that is your position, you must stop calling Judaism “legalistic.”

Hagar, Prophetess to Trump’s America

When the Hebrew people were released from a half century of slavery in Babylon, they came back to the land of Judah. Having seen the great power of the ancient world for the lie that it really was, they took their collective trauma and channeled it into creating a society and a literary vocabulary through which oppressed people the world over would for thousands of years express their hope and pain. To distinguish themselves from their former oppressors, the Hebrews told and wrote down great stories. These stories imagined things that no one had imagined before.

And I want to talk about one of them.

This story begins with a man named Abram. Abram is a resident of the land of Babylon (an important detail to people who’d just been liberated from that land). Abram is wealthy. He owns flocks and herds and he owns slaves. Whoever first told the story probably was owned by a man like this man.

But then God speaks to Abram.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your family and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

Genesis c12

Take a moment to appreciate the gravity of what this storyteller is arguing. To be a great nation had a formula. To be a great nation was to rule like Babylon. To administer like Babylon. To think like Babylon. It was to accumulate power and exploit those with less power. And this author comes along and tells the freed slaves that there is a way of being a great nation that they haven’t seen yet.

Abram leaves his former home but soon is presented with a conflict. Pay attention to this conflict because it is the same great conflict at the heart of the entire Bible—between the limited imagination of imperial, great-power thinking and the expanded, faith-based imagination of what the Bible will later call the “kingdom of God.” As the storyteller explains, God has promised Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, which is nice, but his wife, Sarai, is incapable of becoming pregnant. And Abram reasons that you can’t be the father of a nation if you can’t produce offspring.

So the story tells us that Abram resorts to the same thing that the first hearers of the story had just experienced in Babylon—Abram exploits one of his family slaves and conceives of a son through her. Once she has conceived, however, she is no longer useful to Abram and Sarai. Worse, she has just taken Sarai’s place of honor in this time when women’s value to society came from birthing children. The slave girl’s body has been exploited, but when she is no longer useful Sarai despises her and treats her harshly. The slave girl flees into the wilderness, where she cries out to God. Any Babylonian listening so far would praise Abram and Sarai for having prudently administered the resources of their estate, but this storyteller is not interested in blessing the Babylonian taskmasters.

First, the storyteller doesn’t want us to think of the slaves as a category, but as people. We are told the slave girl’s name. It is Ha’Gar. We are told her son’s name. It is Yishma’el. They are people and they have names and, as I will explain shortly, those names mean a lot.

Next, Ha’Gar is weeping in the wilderness when God tells her that her cry is heard. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of many”) and commands him to accept Ha’Gar and Ishmael as full members of his household. And to fulfill his promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation, he causes Sarai to have a son after all. It is through this son that the nation of Abraham will become great. Let’s go back to the storyteller.

What is he telling us?

He is telling us what we should be thinking about when we think about what makes nations great. This storyteller wants the former slaves to imagine a society built not on exploiting other people’s bodies, but on hearing the cries of society’s most powerless. Abram would not get his great nation by using a slave, but by having faith in a power that Babylon could not comprehend.

And this should get your attention: when the Hebrew former slaves eventually formed their legal system, their imaginations were clearly influenced by the storyteller of Abram and Ha’Gar.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and Ha’Gar: I am the Lord your God.

When Ha’Gar resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress Ha’Gar. Ha’Gar who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love Ha’Gar as yourself. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus c19

Ha’Gar is a Hebrew word that means “the alien.”

By the time that all the Bible men in my formative years had given me all their Bible knowledge, I never was taught this. Actually, what I got from these Christian soldiers was the opposite.

When Donald Trump spent the whole of President Obama’s time in office accusing him of a being a secret Muslim born in Kenya, the people who taught me from the Bible for three decades did not form a prophetic witness against the president for his race-bating and xenophobia.

They said “finally, a man who tells it like it is.”

When Donald Trump announced that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” my wise elders did not call on our president to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

They saturated their Facebook walls in the most unaccountable conspiracy theories about Islam.

When Trump signed his first travel ban, Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States, and he said “We all know what that means”, my earliest tutors of the Word did not leave the White House and shake the dust off their sandals.

They worshipped and sang “Make America Like Babylon Again.”

This matters. Because this weekend, the rhetoric of the murderer in New Zealand was not very different from the email chains that having been circulating in our churches for decades. They are the messages of Babylon but clothed in the cover of the Bible. They are messages of manufactured fear disguised as “truth telling.” And as this man who peddled in this same online ecosystem pronounced death on the bodies of fifty sons of Ishmael in New Zealand, God heard the voices of those we despised and treated harshly.

Yishma’el means “heard by God.”

The Islamic faith traces its origins to Ishmael, and among the billion people who adhere to this great Abrahamic tradition, there is less than about a tenth of one percent who read their text and hear the call to violence. Language that can be heard as a call to violence is in the Koran if one wants to find it there, just as language that can be heard as a call to violence is in the Bible if one—like the killer in New Zealand—wants to find it there. But, like most Christians, Islamic adherents don’t hear a call to violence. They are humans just like you and me.

So when you participate in speech that categorically dehumanizes the billions of adherents of any one of the great Abrahamic traditions—as if their Abrahamic tradition has troubling scriptures, but yours doesn’t—you lay the groundwork for the very terrorism that consumes your imagination. And Jesus Christ prophesies hand-in-hand with Ha’Gar that our destruction is near.

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was Ha’Gar and you did not invite me in.

Matthew c25

Reading the Bible with Caesar

While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the rulers, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the rulers were disturbed when they heard this.

Acts c17

Every person who reads the Bible must interpret the Bible. If you want to tell me how you “just read the Bible for what it says”, I will smile and ask about all the property you sold to give to the poor.

When liberal Christians (or as I prefer, “Christians”) talk about how we interpret the Bible, we commonly use a shorthand, “reading with Jesus.” Implicit in this phrase is an admission that some parts of the Bible are on their face horrific, and we need a standard by which to determine what things we hold and what things we let go. We acknowledge the literary tradition through which the ancient Hebrew people distinguished and preserved their ethnic and national identity, and we preserve them—warts and all—because they are foundational to understanding Jesus’s colorful and subversive teachings as a Jewish rabbi. However, we also hold that the many, many, many parts of the Bible are not equals and anything that contradicts what Jesus taught takes a backseat.

I like the phrase, “reading with Jesus,” but I also have problems with it. For one thing, it’s too safe. It doesn’t offend the sorts of people who need to be offended. It continues a tendency of progressive Christians to try and sound to fundamentalists like we have a lot in common—when really we don’t at all. If I write something on here and it doesn’t fill my inbox with the rants of angry, right-wing, conservative, fundamentalist Christians, I usually feel like I’ve just wasted a whole lot of time.

More importantly, because it’s just a shorthand, it doesn’t actually mean anything unless you’re familiar with the intellectual giants whose work it summarizes. When I lived in Evangelical Fundamentalist World— and was made to believe that Tim Keller, Francis Chan, and Lee Strobel had important things to say—the phrase Reading with Jesus would have done nothing to stretch my imagination. I would have “read the Bible with Jesus” and then just remained one of the millions of believers who are of no concern to the “principalities and powers”—those against whom the Bible demonstrates its greatest and most timeless literary genius. This is no accident. It’s the result of billions of dollars that have shaped the readings of the people who taught the people who taught the people who taught your Vacation Bible School. The Gospel of John screams this at you when the post-resurrection Jesus resembled a gardner rather than a messianic warrior, and the writer tells you that no one recognized him.

To avoid reading our own biases into the Bible and calling it Reading with Jesus, we need to do the work of creating a defensible reference point, and I wrote this essay because there’s a simple but intellectually rigorous framework for doing that work.

Before you read the Bible with Jesus, you need to read the Bible with Caesar.

Sit across the table with Augustus. Hike through the forest with Domitian. Invite Nebuchadnezzar to your Bible study group. Go on a retreat led by Pharaoh. Meditate with Alexander the Great. Listen to the prayers of Nero and Caligula. Ask each of these powerful men how they would like you to read the Bible.

And then do the opposite.

Because in the four decades before Jesus was born, the Roman Senate and the court poets referred to Augustus Caesar as the Son of God and Our Lord and Savior. Throughout his empire, he established propaganda centers for the imperial gods called churches. When his army brutally occupied a new territory he announced his victory through messages that were called Gospels. The words son of God, savior, Lord, gospel, and church are Bible words that will always carry some degree of mystery and artistry. But if you asked Jesus what he meant by them in any concrete sense, he could point to the Roman empire and say “well definitely not that.”

Christians used these words in rebellion. To say Jesus is Lord was dangerous and unpatriotic, because it unmistakably communicated and Caesar is not. To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus was to deny the Gospel of Rome. The rebelliousness of the church was the same rebelliousness inherent in the Jewish religion—a religion that came into being on the underside of economic, religious, and violent power. To read with Jesus means to read about the world turning upside down, and the Caesars never want that.

So, with all this as a backdrop, lets talk about that. How would Caesar want you to read the Bible? If you’re an American, the answer is: probably how you already do.

Don’t Let It Be Too Political

The Bible concerns itself with structural economic justice from beginning to end, but discuss this ultra-biblical topic with any Christian fundamentalist and you will reflexively be warned that we shouldn’t let the Bible get too political. This is not the voice of Jesus, but of Caesar.

When you read the Bible in opposition to Caesar, Jesus’s well-known Beatitudes are rightly recognized as the constitution of the kingdom of God. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of Heaven” his message was not that it is good for you to be poor in spirit, so you can go to Heaven. His message was that in the “kingdom” (or government) of God, which was coming down to Earth, those who had lost all hope under the weight of Caesar would now find blessing. The government of God was for them. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are those who mourn”, his message was not that it is bad to be happy. His message was that in the government of God, those upon whom Caesar’s power had trampled would find comfort. You cannot put Jesus in the context of his Jewish literary tradition and read it any other way.

For Jesus’s favorite self designation was the “Son of Man”, a phrase that came from the centuries-old Jewish Book of Daniel. In the story, Daniel sees a vision of all of the world’s empires—which he sees as “beasts”—and they are stripped of their power and worship “one like a son of man.” Nobody in the story dies and goes to Heaven. Nobody leaves the Earth. In Daniel’s vision, the kingdom of Heaven comes to them. And Jesus changed that tradition in no way. As he said further in his kingdom constitution, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

And I could just keep going. After the story of the Hebrews being freed from Egypt and from being just a source of cheap labor for Pharaoh’s great projects (how can you say this isn’t political???), they go out into the wilderness and God gives them a legal code that contains one welfare program after another. What’s striking to me about almost all of the Torah is how little of it would apply to all but the most wealthy of its adherents. And to take it further, God required that all of the Torah’s welfare programs benefit Israel’s immigrants.

Whether it was Pharaoh and his magicians being overcome by a nomadic shepherd and his staff, or the King in Nineveh hearing the worst sermon in the whole Bible and repenting in sackcloth and ashes, or King Nebuchadnezzar boasting about his power before losing his mind like a wild animal, the writers of the Jewish canon loved to tell incongruent and subversive stories that in various ways showed God humiliating the seeming invincibility of the world’s oppressive systems. The resurrection of Jesus after being killed by the execution device of the Roman empire comes straight out of this tradition. The Apostle Paul expressed this when he wrote “and having disarmed the powers and authorities, Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

We Americans have been scripted to read our Bibles and not think about what they mean for our systems. We apply our Bibles to what we do individually, but leave our systems intact. The American system for allocating resources is competition. You get things by being a winner (or by being born to the winners). We conceptualize most things in terms of what is mine and what is yours. Our identities consist of neat boundaries that protect my actions from having anything to do with you or anyone else. We don’t talk about “walking with the Lord” in any context other than our own private moral conduct. Private moral conduct is good, but if your nation’s systems do not bless the least among it, your nation has not inherited the kingdom of God. In the same way, a personal relationship with God is good, and I hope you have one, but Caesar would love for you to keep it there. He would love it if at the end of your Bible study, you, like Caiaphas, proclaim “we have no king but Caesar.”

Make It Only About Spiritual Things

The Bible is a spiritual book, and Caesar would love to keep it that way. But never does the Bible situate the spiritual world in one place and the physical in another. In the Bible, these two realms are always in direct contact.

In the creation poem of Genesis c1, the spirit of God was there in the creation and God called it good.

In the story of Jesus’s baptism, the spirit of God came on the body of Jesus right before Luke used a genealogy to argue that Jesus was recreating the same world that God called good (go read that genealogy in Luke c4 again).

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn’t instruct them to pray that we would all—as Plato taught—leave the Earth for some airy spiritual paradise in Heaven. He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom in Heaven come to the sweat and soil of the Earth.

In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Moses brought the Israelites out of Pharoah’s economic system of slavery, and into the wilderness where they saw the “glory of the Lord.” And what was that glory?

Bread.

Not just bread, but freedom from Pharaoh’s system of cheap labor. Bread from outside the imaginations that Pharaoh sought to control. Bread that reduced his power to nothing.

Real spirituality concerns itself with tangible things. Like bread. Like segregated school districts. Access to healthcare. Affordable housing. Carbon emissions. Employment discrimination. Consumer protection. Rehabilitation for those who commit crimes. Peacemaking.

But a spirituality that sings songs on Sundays and then just floats off into the clouds is no threat to Caesar or Pharaoh, and it is how they will teach you to read the Bible. They are thrilled when they profit from systems that exploit vulnerable people and then the Christians come and tell everyone to just focus on getting to Heaven.

Make It All About the Afterlife

Speaking of Heaven, Rome did not persecute the early Christians because of anything having to do with the afterlife. This comes as a surprise to the modern fundamentalist Christian, but Rome allowed the people it subjugated to continue their religious traditions. In fact, Rome was famous for adopting the gods of people it conquered. As long as you worshipped the Caesars and the important gods of the empire, the Roman authorities did not care that you also worshipped another god or gods. The Romans especially did not have a well-developed theology of an afterlife, so people were completely free to preach about that.

(Almost none of your Bible is concerned with the afterlife either, but I’ve already written on this.)

I find it compelling then that, in spite of this religious tolerance, Rome found adherents of Judaism and Christianity so especially threatening. When Christians were identified, they were imprisoned and hauled into arenas to be mauled by wild animals. The Roman state depended on exploiting vulnerable people, but the Christians preached a different way of seeing the world. They acknowledged no distinction between slave and senator. They would not participate in any government ministry that required killing people.

Here’s a letter from the Governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century:

This is what I have done with those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I asked them whether they were Christians or not. If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed. . . .

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do. . . .

There are among them every age, of every rank, and of both sexes.

Nowhere in this letter, or in Trajan’s response, or in anything the Roman ever wrote about the Christians, does the topic of the afterlife come up. For this reason, Caesar would love for you to make the Bible an instruction manual to get to Heaven after you die. What he will not tolerate is you turning the world upside down. For that he will take your life.

And if Caesar wants to take your life, you’re probably reading the Bible with Jesus.