“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.”

Advertisements

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 1

It’s a summer day in Caesarea, the great Roman port city in Northern Israel. Weaving in and around your fingers is a Denarius—a coin you specifically remember earning years ago—and, in recent years, the only coin you’ve owned more than a day. It’s a rarity, so you’ve kept it. It’s also the only tangible memory from your previous life.

On the front is a picture of Augustus Caesar. On the back are the words DIVVS IVLIVS (“Divine Julius”) and a picture of Julius ascending among the gods as a comet. Augustus, who called himself “the Son of God”, died long ago, and you’re not completely sure which new son of Jupiter currently sits on the throne in Italy. You’ve never been to Rome, so coins have long been your only glimpse into its happenings.

If this were a normal summer, you would be at the completion of the barley harvest and enjoying a time of relative rest as the Jewish holiday of Shavuot approached. The year is 74 AD, and the rest you enjoyed after the harvest in all the summers you’ve known since childhood has been replaced with despair.

In fact, despair is all you’ve know for years.

Your name is Yitzhak ben Abba, and work on a farm just North of Jerusalem was life since your teen years. You had been lucky not just to have work, but to work on this farm. The landowner was one of the best to work for as far as you knew. Your friends in your village seem to have always had a worse time with their employment. No doubt, times have been tough for as long as you could remember, but at least you could always count on the luxury of a fair day’s work for one Denarius.

But, since the year 67, lack of work has been only one of your problems. On this afternoon, as you stare numbly at your coin, you hear it announced that Rome has just completed its war with Israel—the culmination of eight years of devastation. Frankly, everything you ever knew and thought you could count on has been destroyed in that time. At one time, you had a wife, a son, a mother, and had even a few sheep.

But no more.

Your first memory of the war happened seven years ago when a worn-out teenage boy from Jotapata in Galilee arrived in your village. He had obviously been on the run for several days. You will never forget the exhaustion in his voice and the fear in his eyes. This boy had seen the look of Hell.

Apparently, the Roman general Vespasian had laid siege to the elevated town, and this boy had gotten out in time. Of course, his story brought dread to the whole countryside. Were the Romans concerned only with Jotapata, or all of Judea? Might the Romans ever come here? Can Jotapata defend itself? If Jotapata succeeds, might the Roman army give up and turn back to Syria?

Months later, you let out a great sigh of relief when you heard that the general Joseph ben Matiyahu, now named “Flavius Josephus”, had successfully held off a massive bombardment up the steep rise to the town. This was good news. Surely the Romans would give up. The village threw a party.

Months later, the Roman army crushed Jotapata.

And several legions of Roman soldiers were marching due south.

In your direction.

Vespasian’s strategy was to route out rebels throughout the countryside and then stage a final showdown at Jerusalem. This left you with two bad choices: Either remain in the village and almost surely be crucified as a rebel (you’ve witnessed multiple crucifixions in your lifetime) or take your chances within the walls of Jerusalem, just like the residents of Jotapata had already attempted and failed.

So, you and your family fled south to Jerusalem.

That was years ago, and here in Caesarea you are still haunted by the choice. At least death would have ended you and your family’s suffering on a cross within an afternoon.

But the Roman siege—then led by Vespasian’s successor, Titus—of Jerusalem lasted forever.

And life trapped within those walls was as saturated in misery as humanity had ever known. Homelessness, banditry, malnutrition, starvation, treachery, fear, sleeplessness, cold, rain, disease, and ceaseless death. Factions of Jews fought each other within the walls over who would be in charge of this or that. Over who would get to eat this or that.

Sometimes the “this or that” were people.

Your nation was under attack from the mightiest military power in the history of the world, but the Romans could do little that the Israelites weren’t already doing to themselves.

Finally, five legions of Roman soldiers breached the wall.

You escaped with your life but little else. Your mother had already died from malnutrition. There was nowhere to bury her. Your son died during the fighting in a fire. Your wife was stabbed multiple times.

Her killer, too, is dead.

You saw people sliced open, children thrown hundreds of feet down onto rocks and burst open, women raped. You’ve smelled thousands of rotting carcasses. In fact, hundreds of thousands died within those walls.

You haven’t slept well in years.

And that brings you here to this day in Caesarea. You sit in the shade of the mighty Roman aqueduct—a technological marvel of this day—along with several homeless and your one companion-coin. The shade protects you during the hot of the midday before you go out to beg at the ports in the later evening.

Every once in a while someone will drop a coin into your bag.

More often than not someone will call you “Sikarion!” (“terrorist”).

Within a short distance of your spot is an arena. It’s close enough that you can hear the sound of its gladiatorial games. Today, as if Yahweh personally dumped a handful of salt in your already gaping wounds, the Romans are re-enacting the war you regret to have survived. Just a few hundred yards from where you sit, Jews with whom you had shared scraps of food in Jerusalem are being hacked beyond recognition.

To the sound of cheering.

Deafening cheering.

And drunken shouts of “Pax Romana!” The joy of the crowd. The laughing. The happy fathers with their happy sons.

With every eruption, your stomach feels like you had just swallowed a stone. You feel the pain of the man or woman being slaughtered because you were slaughtered too. With every cheer, you relive another day of the war.

And now the crowd goes quiet, except for one voice. An announcement. Something called a “Euengelian” You ask one of the men huddled up near you what that means. “Good news”, you are told. This “Gospel” announcement is that the mighty Roman Empire, with the help of the gods, has finished off its final campaign in the war against the barbarian Judaites in Masada, the mountain city in Southern Israel. The world is at peace again.

“Pax Romana!” cheers the crowd in unison. “Euengelian!” cheers the crowd next. You can imagine the gospel being announced at hundreds of arenas throughout the empire. Thousands and thousands of families cheering to the news that the world was now safe from people like you.

You just want to die.

In this arena would be fine.

It’s the late afternoon now and you have transitioned from the aqueduct to the coast again, where you sit in a kind of trance. Would this be my last day? Would Yahweh have mercy on me in the life to come? And then your trance is broken. A fairly well-to-do woman and two male personal assistants has approached you and your companions on the port. She offers bread and a message from a “Rabbi Yeshua.”

You’ve heard that he was a controversial rabbi who died four decades ago on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem, but its hard to know what is or isn’t true about him. To this date, nobody as far as you know, has ever written down his story.

Until today.

The Yeshua Movement, or “the Way” as you’ve heard it called, remains a distinct minority in Judea. And it’s not clear exactly what Rabbi Yeshua even taught that made him so controversial. Today, however, you get to hear what all the fuss is about. She has a parchment scroll to read. The language of the freshly finished ink is Greek, but the woman has said she would translate it for us into Aramaic.

You haven’t eaten normal food in months, and yet, as she opens up her scroll, your imagination is fully invested in what’s inside. You’ve even forgotten about your bread.

She begins.  You can feel in your bones the warmth of the words in the scroll before she even reads them, and the first line brings feeling to your body that you haven’t known since your childhood.

The beginning of the Good News about Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

She pauses and looks up, her face revealing determination, even . . . defiance.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post stated that Jesus had died “centuries” earlier instead of “decades.” Writing is hard.