“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 12

The Jews are a uniquely trampled-upon people.

They are history’s sufferers-in-chief. As one global empire after another sought to control the land of Judea—the strategic land bridge between Africa, Europe, and Asia—it was the Jewish people who suffered most. Owing to their position as the world’s perpetual underdog, the Jews became champions of social justice and consummate visionaries of a world beyond the imaginary capacity of what the Apostle Paul called the “principalities and powers.”

If you got nothing else from this series, I hope you see that the project of that rabbinic Jew from Galilee we know as Jesus was not to position us for where we go when we die, but to fulfill the Jewish dream of how good societies are arranged while we live. The gospel is about broad human flourishing, and it cannot be explained divorced from the global empires that subjugated the people who wrote the Bible.

To make my case, I’ve taken you all over the Bible and stressed the earthy significance of recurring literary signifiers like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Messiah,” “Son of Man,” “King of the Jews,” and even “Armageddon.” I’ve tried to articulate the great power in the more humble, ordinary, and even boring parts of the Bible (think Ruth). And I’ve tried to give necessary context to understand parts of the Bible that might be lost on readers who aren’t ancient middle eastern Hebrew slaves.

 

Critical to the motivations of those who wrote the Jewish Bible is the question: what do we need to do so that we quit being destroyed and conquered and losing everything we have to the self-centered ambitions of these global empires?

Over many centuries, various movements and developments within Judaism answered that question differently. These responses often found their inspiration in the literary and cultural achievements of their neighbors and, in particular, the various empires who subjugated them. You see this within the Old Testament: The writer of Deuteronomy had different ideas on this question than the writer of Ruth; the writer of Nahum had different ideas on this question than the writer of Jonah; the writer of Leviticus had different ideas on this question than the writer of Psalm c40 v6. Some streams of thought emphasized that Yahweh would come to the defense of the Jews only if they maintained fidelity to the temple regulations and sacrifices. Others emphasized social justice and explicitly downplayed the importance of the temple. Others sought to exclude foreigners from the assembly, while others welcomed foreigners. Some thought that the Jews would have to take up the sword in a final apocalyptic battle.

And these different lines of Jewish thought continued to develop and evolve between the Old and New Testament.

Which gets me back to the Jewish-Roman War that started this obnoxiously long series of essays—the war that was principally responsible for the fact that we have the written story of Jesus. This was a tax revolt. It was humiliating enough that the Romans had conquered and subjugated Israel; it was unbearable that they forced the Jews to pay the imperial tax that supported the very military that kept them subjugated. It was taxation without representation, so they did what Americans celebrate every July.

They revolted.

Mark tells the story of some Pharisees and Herodians who wanted to trap Jesus. If they could have caught him instructing his disciples not to pay the imperial tax, they could have haled him before Pilate and had him executed. So, they asked him,

“Rabbi, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

I have no doubt that, before you read this series, you knew Jesus’s clever response. It was indeed clever.

“Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

If you grew up as I did, you probably understand Jesus’s words as a neat way of saying something that in substance is not super remarkable: Pay your taxes and follow laws. I agree that Christianity is not a religion of lawlessness, but if that is the bare amount you got from this story, you really missed its subtle enduring power. Jesus was too good at what he did to ever say something so one dimensional as “follow laws.”

It turns out, Jesus took this question about taxes and laid out one of the essential tenets of his whole ministry: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This sentence is Jesus’s answer to the whole Jewish project of how to the defeat the empire. It is where the whole Bible had been heading since it began in Eden. And this powerful, yet brilliantly sneaky quote is made all the more interesting by the fact that Mark places it within a dispute about taxes—the very thing that led to the war that led to the devastation that led to the Gospel of Mark in the first place. When the story was read aloud for the first time after the war, I promise you they got it. It’s a simple line. It’s a clever line. But it is a heavy line, and I love it.

Because when you start to think about what belongs to Caesar, all you have to do is start looking around.

In Part 11, I wrote about the Iron Triangle of Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas. I wrote about the mutually beneficial relationship of the concentrated economic powers, war powers, and religious powers. If you read Jesus’s command for all it’s worth, at the heart of the Jesus movement is his followers giving that system away. Rabbi Jesus tells us to give back our systems that advance a small few at the expense of many. He tells us to give back to Caesar our desire to inflict violence back on those who harm us. His teaching reflects what should be too obvious by now: that the world isn’t made peaceful by blowing up bad people. He tells us to give back our religious systems that merely reinforce Caesar’s triangle. Those things aren’t God’s. They are Caesar’s.

Imagine surviving a war and hearing that for the first time.

Like EVERYTHING in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s response to the question is a prophetic critique of both sides of the war. On the one hand, Mark clearly portrayed Jesus as condemning the Jew’s violent tax revolt. That message would not have been missed. But on the other hand, if you place the story within the stories of the people who survived the war, Jesus’s response to the Pharisees was a message of hope: If you will give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, you will finally be rid of CaesarYou will be rid of the thing for which you started and lost in war.

Have I ever told you that the Bible is sharp?

And it speaks loudly to those who today might consider themselves part of the “Resistance.” It speaks loudly to those who see a world gone wrong and dream about a world made right. Imagine if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that African Americans take to the streets with clubs. Imagine if when Nelson Mandela in 1990 left Victor Verster Prison, he declared to the large crowd that black Africans must arm themselves with machetes and fight back against apartheid?

That would have been the pursuit of justice by the very reviled system already mastered by the powerful. It wouldn’t have gotten rid of the ways of Caesar, but only perpetuated them. In perhaps more tangible terms, it would have been a human disaster. It would have been the story of suffering I told you in Part 1.

But, instead, Rev. Dr. King Jr. and Mandela’s deputy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, knew their Hebrew prophets and knew the prophetic tradition out of which came Jesus the Messiah. The struggle for civil rights remains unfinished, but millions of people today are far better off because these leaders were brave enough to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Every movement that is courageous enough to see beyond the present power structure must also be brave enough to see beyond the present means of obtaining power. Those movements that embrace violence in its various forms always end poorly. You could say, “those movements that live by the sword die by the sword.” When you open your Bible and read somewhere that Jesus forgave people of their sins, the big story was not that they would be pure enough on some future judgment day so they could hang out in the clouds with his dad. The big story is that Jesus had broken down the thing that separated people.

You are reading about the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Jesus’s first words of the new world of his resurrection were “Peace be with you.”

The followers of Christ are to be a peaceable people. In the second century, it was their peaceable nature that made the Jesus Movement explode with new followers. Giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and instead being a peacemaker is how we tangibly realize the imaginative literary painting at the end of Revelation when Heaven comes down to Earth. It is how we win.

Blessed, then, are the peacemakers.

….

When I started this project, I expected about six parts. This being part twelve, I hope this wasn’t terrible. Nevertheless, I’m ready to call it and move on to the next thing.

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“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 2

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of PeaceOf the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

Isaiah c9

We American Evangelical Christians have problems with the Bible. They remind me of our problems last year with #BlackLivesMatter and this weekend with #TakeTheKnee.

Every time we hear those words, what we really hear is “only black lives matter.” With an assist from Breitbart (which still features a section on its website entitled “Black Crime”) and from Fox News (which capably blows up the television screens of white America every night with every black person it can find whom it can use to fit its narrative), we proudly and arrogantly understand those movements to mean that black people don’t want to work hard or follow the rules like white people do. We puff ourselves up and imagine them hating us and essentially wanting to burn down our way of life. We imagine the same things that Christian slave owners imagined a hundred and sixty years ago and that Christian parents of children in desegregated schools imagined sixty years ago.

However, every other person in the universe hears something that is nowhere to be found in the wildest imaginations of white people. They see blacks incarcerated at stunningly higher rates than whites. They see blacks consistently charged more harshly than whites for the same crimes. They see qualified blacks less likely to get job interviews. They see hard-working blacks struggle to escape poverty. They see hard work reward mostly whites and poor choices punish mostly blacks.

And it is out of that struggle and injustice that they clearly hear the cry that “black lives matter too.” What everyone but white people soberly observes is that the American system treats black lives as if they don’t matter.

This—by the way—is the vacuousness and irrelevance of white, suburban America every time it thinks itself so enlightened when it angrily shouts “All Lives Matter.” No, duh.

And this is being out-of-touch. This is life on top.

At number one.

Privilege.

This is the people of Rome as they sneered at the Israelites whom they conquered in war. If you listen, you can hear the citizens of Rome complaining that “they should have just followed the law.”

And it’s exactly how we read the Bible in 2017.

When we read the Bible we have to make choices about what it means. When we in White America make our choices, we have to realize that our interests are aligned with Pharaoh, with Nebuchadnezzar, and with Caesar. We have the materials. The resources. The access. We are at the top of the system. Hard work more consistently rewards us than it does others. And there are some ways of reading the Bible that ask us to risk, if not sometimes give up, those things.

So we spiritualize everything in the Bible.

We interpret everything in a way that circumvents God’s deep care for the systems of earth that work to the detriment of its most oppressed and vulnerable. We miss everything it says about social justice. About peace. About poverty.

And that includes politics.

If you ask a modern evangelical Christian to articulate Jesus’s role as the “Messiah”, they would state roughly as follows: People’s sins separate them from God. Jesus came to die on a cross as a sacrifice for people’s sins so they can be pure enough to enter Heaven with God when they die.

If you ask what the purpose of life on Earth is, it is to do whatever—according to their denomination’s interpretation—is necessary to receive the benefits of that sacrifice. Otherwise, the Earth and what happens on it to its most vulnerable people isn’t really that important. At some point, it will simply go away.

I am a white evangelical Christian, and evangelical Christianity has devastated my soul this year.

(I say this not ignorant of the few reasons for my black readers having any sympathy for my “plight”)

Every time our government has used some vulnerable minority group—Muslims, young immigrants, blacks, transsexuals, gays, lesbians, or whomever else—as a political pawn, the church has been absolutely nowhere.

Absolutely. Nowhere.

“Jesus wasn’t concerned with fixing all the problems of his day,” I’ve heard in more sermons than I can count. “After all, this world is going to go away and what really matters is where your soul goes on Judgment Day.”

And I watch as the church of America says “Amen.”

Let me repeat. Caesar would have loved this theology. Nebuchadnezzar would have loved it. Pharaoh would have loved it. A faith that is only concerned for “my” salvation has no space for “group sin” as is articulated so often throughout the Bible.

It’s a faith with no concern for systems.

For social justice.

For peace.

For the environment.

For politics.

And it is completely foreign to the way of Jesus, the Messiah.

(though it was quite convenient for slave owners during the Civil War and segregationists a hundred years later in Little Rock, Arkansas)

As non-white Americans face greater discrimination and segregation, as the world edges closer to nuclear war, as our polar ice caps melt beyond repair, we sing gnostic songs like “This World Is Not My Home” and “I’ll Fly Away” because we’ve embraced the Gospel of Caesar—a gospel that is oblivious and unconcerned with justice and peace in this world. Our Gospel is a comfort to the powerful and little help for the oppressed.

We’ve ignored what the prophets of the vulnerable nation of Israel were concerned with when they envisioned the “Meshiakh”—a liberating figure on whom would rest the government. Guys, the freaking government. Isaiah actually uses that word!!

Not some invisible place in the sky.

But, now.

Here.

In this world.

Among these people.

With our problems.

With our systems.

With our economics.

With our government.

A judge who would make things right where they are wrong. Real things.

Suffering.

War.

Discrimination.

Nationalism.

Starvation.

Empire.

Poverty.

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Isaiah c2

 

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
  the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the EARTH will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah c9

These statements of hope from the Hebrew prophets are universally known and embraced by everyone in the world (even among non-Christians)—but white Evangelical Christians. Frankly, these statements aren’t relevant to our spiritual theology of being saved so we can leave this world and not burn for eternity in fire wherever we end up.

Listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and you’ll find a man who was fluent in the Hebrew prophets. I wonder why.

In one scene, Jesus comes to Jerusalem—a place fomenting with violent, rebellious imagination—and this is what we read.

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls.They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.

When Jesus talks about “what would bring you peace”, he’s not talking about the “Sweet By and By”. He’s talking about war. Jesus knew that Jerusalem’s belief in peace through violence and warfare would be its undoing. As our nation edges closer to atomic war, if we want to hear the message of Rabbi Yeshua, we need to place ourselves in the shoes of the poor Yitzhak ben Abba, whose story I told you in the last installment.

He brings me to the book of Mark, one sentence of which I quoted in that installment. Mark was the first time the story of Jesus, the Messiah, was written, which is amazing considering that Jesus had died forty years earlier. That said, I find it no accident that whoever wrote that book found it most relevant to tell the story of Jesus right after Israel’s devastating war with Rome—while the Roman military propaganda machine was announcing “gospels” of Israel’s destruction throughout the empire.

Mark uses the word “gospel” way more times than any other book of the Bible, but it doesn’t talk very much at all about the afterlife. What it does talk about is a valley outside of Jerusalem, called “Gehenna”, where thousands of dead Israelite bodies were buried and burned up after their devastating war.

However, in keeping with our reflex to spiritualize everything in the Bible, we usually translate the name of this valley “Hell.”

You and I confess that Jesus is the son of God—God in the flesh. Among the people to whom Jesus came to Earth and identified, the Jews, the statements of hope we just read in Isaiah and the other prophets were their sacred expectations of the Messiah. These were Jesus’s prophets. These were his texts of the Messiah.

And nowhere in the book of Mark are these Messianic expectations disturbed.

Nowhere does any book of the Bible take away from the Messiah’s work in making the world—this world—better.

Where Mark defies Hebrew (and Roman) expectations is its loud and radical statement that the world will not be made better through war and violence. Jesus was the Prince of Peace. Not peace from Hell.

Peace from Gehenna.

Notice how Mark uses the symbols of peace from Rome and Israel in his opening statement.

“The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”

In so making this statement, the Gospels take aim in no uncertain terms at both sides of the conflict—the Empire of Rome and the rebels of Israel. Unfortunately, our modern-day lives of comfort prevent us from hearing the political messages of the Bible—literally from its first page until its final page. Please understand how crazily political and subversive this statement was.

When the early church said “Jesus is Lord” the message they heard was “and Caesar is not.”

 

Part 3