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 Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
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.
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.
“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 the environment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”