Text: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:5-25; Mark 4:3-8; John 3:1-17
The church sign can be easily read by anyone driving by: “You can’t be a devoted follower of Jesus unless you are part of a local church.” Does the church that posts this sign not trust the people with Jesus’s message? What is the meaning of “incarnation” if not “embodiment” by individual persons of the spirit of the Christ? Is the “Body of Christ” for members only?
The Apostle Paul created the metaphor of the “Body of Christ” as the community of followers. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he explains the meaning of the ritually-shared meal: “The cup of God’s gracious benefits that we consecrate means that we are involved in the blood of the Anointed, doesn’t it? The bread that we break means that we are involved in the body of the Anointed, doesn’t it? That there is one loaf means that we who are many constitute one body, because we all partake of the one loaf.”* In Romans 12:5 he says, “Just as each of us has one body with many parts that do not all have the same function, so although there are many of us, we are the Anointed’s body, interrelated with one another.”
Paul’s letters might seem obsessed with how individual bodies are used and abused in the ongoing struggle between “sin” as conventional society defines it and ushering in the reign of God. But when “sin” means the “corrupting seduction of power” as in The Authentic Letters of Paul we move beyond individual bodily wrongdoing. Paul writes:
For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by seductive corruption and death. For by sending God’s own “son” – a participant like us, in an earthly life attended by seductive corruption – to deal with that corrupting power . . . [we] live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to God’s purposes and power. . . . (Romans 8:2-6)*
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is not particularly concerned about bodies. In the story of Jesus’s last supper with his disciples he does say “Take some [bread]; this is my body!” But these words likely were a liturgy of remembrance practiced among the early followers of the Way, and not specifically said by Jesus on any particular occasion. Talk in Matthew and Luke about how it’s better to lose one of your “members” than your whole body; or how the eye is the lamp of the body and when it is clear, “your whole body will be flooded with light” were conventional wisdom, not unique to Jesus. What was unique to Jesus was the certainty that we don’t need to worry about our bodies, what we eat, or drink, or wear.
Jesus’s conversation with the pharisee Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is best understood as commentary on who Jesus was, not a pronouncement by Jesus about himself. Those beloved words in 3:16-17 are a testimony to the profound experience of the people in John’s community. In the face of opposition from the prevailing culture around him, the writer stands up and lobs his grenade: “This is how God loved the world:” he begins, “God gave up an only son, so that every one who believes in him will not be lost but have real life.” Then he warms up: “After all, God sent this son into the world not to condemn the world but to rescue the world through him.” Finally the bomb explodes: “This is the verdict: Light came into the world but people loved darkness instead of light. Their actions were evil, weren’t they? All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed. But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God.” Nicodemus came in the dark of night to encounter the light offered by Jesus.
By the time John gets done with him, the pharisee is pretty well discredited, whether the words are attributed to Jesus or not. Nicodemus seems to be deliberately dense. When he doesn’t get the double meaning of the Jewish word, ruach (spirit, wind), Jesus’s mocking question is devastating: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” This story is a set-up for a continuing polemic between the writer of John’s gospel and diaspora Jews in second-century Syria. Rome had destroyed the Temple and changed the Jewish religion forever, and then along came the followers of Jesus’s Way, wanting to overturn Torah. This was not an esoteric debate about the nature of the Godhead.
Fifty years earlier, the Apostle Paul had written to the community in Rome (Romans 8:9b-17): “If anyone does not have the spirit that was in the Anointed, that one is not one of his. . . For all who are led by the power and purpose of God are the children of God . . . and if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with the Anointed. . . .” Paul was talking about Covenant. Whenever anyone (Paul’s “all”) joins Jesus in the relationship with God that is so close as to be the same as a father, we are then children of God, and heirs of God. What do we inherit? Not a strip of real estate in the Middle East; the heirs of God, brothers and sisters of the Christ, inherit the realm/kingdom of God, where distributive justice rules.
The caveat is that we “suffer” with Jesus, but not the “suffering” of persecution for religious belief, as conventionally understood. Paul is saying suffering is what happens when we participate with the spirit of Christ in restoring/reclaiming God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion; when we attempt to live in radical abandonment of self-interest and fail. Mark’s Jesus agrees: Like the seed that falls on good soil or poor soil or hostile soil, sometimes what happens is that even if by extraordinary commitment we succeed in achieving that radical abandonment of self-interest, the systems of retribution inherent in Empire – “the seductive corruption of power” – intervene.
Nicodemus should have understood that the spirit of the Christ is like the wind. It blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or upon whom it will descend. The “children of God” are not some superior race, attending churches on Sunday. They are whoever joins the program – Christian or non-Christian; people “of the book” or not. Does God’s rule of non-violent, distributive justice-compassion hold sway? No. “But if we are hoping for what we do not see, then we are eagerly looking forward to it through our own perseverance” (Romans 8:25).
“Very truly, I tell you,” John’s Jesus says, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” These words apply to the Church today, not to those who decline to believe the story, or who dismiss as irrelevant the intellectual theological debate. Jesus’s authority and inclusiveness are in sharp contrast to the belief system the “body of Christ” has offered through those churches that find the language on that sign to be necessary. Instead of a sustainable way of life and the restoration of nonviolent, distributive justice-compassion in Covenant with God’s rule, the Church too often has complied with the violent, retributive injustice that seems to be the norm for organized civilizations.
Eco-theologian Michael Dowd speaks of the Body of Life – an interdependent web that includes all life forms – and calls for “an entirely new role within the body of Life” (Thank God for Evolution, New York, Viking, 2008). The Dalai Lama teaches that “phenomena depend on other factors for their existence, they are not independent. This . . . emptiness of inherent existence is their own ultimate truth.” (How to Practice – the Way to a Meaningful Life, Atria Books, 2002). The embodiment of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – the incarnation, the personification of God’s kingdom – is anyone who participates in the struggle to actualize it here and now.
Creating and supporting unjust systems is far easier than ushering in the kingdom of God. The fig tree cannot give fruit out of season; the leaders of the Temple collaborate with the oppressors; the eyes and ears of the people are closed. Still the call is there for those who can hear it and have the courage to respond. The Holy Spirit is the seed that is left in the ground after the tree has been uprooted and burned. That same spirit falls on all varieties of ground, takes root where it can, rides on the wind, blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or where it will go next.
The best kept secret is the identity of the body of Christ.
*Sources for quotations:
The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010)
The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010)
[Excerpt from Theology of Exile Volume I: The Year of Luke]
Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
In the midst of the liturgical progression from Epiphany to Lent, tradition calls the church back to the mundane details of Jesus’ infancy. Luke’s Chapter 2 fills in the story from birth to circumcision to presentation as the first-born son to the coming-of-age of a gifted religious leader anointed by God. In The First Christmas (HarperOne, 2007), Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that Luke’s purpose was to set up the birth of the Jewish Messiah as a counter to the birth of the Roman Caesar – also hailed as the “Savior, Redeemer, Son of God.” The scene in the temple in Jerusalem confirms the child Jesus as the expected one who would redeem Israel from bondage to imperial injustice and oppression.
Luke’s story is grounded in the mandate in Leviticus 12, which requires the mother to follow specific rites of purification, 40 days after giving birth. But the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary seem to overturn Luke’s references to Leviticus 12 by bringing in verses out of context from the prophet Malachi. The result is that Malachi’s messenger is assumed by supercessionary Christian tradition to be John the Baptist, who is sent from God to announce the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple. That Lord (Jesus) “will purify the descendants of Levi. . . . Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord.” Why? Here a subtle, unquestioned, antisemitism seeps through. The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem are now pleasing to God because the people have been purified of the old, Jewish religion.
In Malachi’s own context, the sons of Levi have been purified by the Lord through a process that burns away faithlessness to God’s covenant. God’s covenant is not about belief. God’s covenant is about active, distributive, justice-compassion. If the liturgist does not stop at Malachi 3:4, but reads on to verse 5, God’s judgment is made clear: “I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
The tradition of the Presentation of the Lord dates from the fourth century, and by the time the Revised Common Lectionary was put together, the emphasis of Malachi on the coming of the Lord’s justice was overtaken by the theology of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. The language has deviated from salvation as liberation from injustice to salvation as freedom from the fear of death and the “one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” The writer of Hebrews, a sermon written about the same time as Luke was writing his gospel and his sequel, the Book of Acts, pulls together much of the Hebrew scriptures and uses them to develop a particular Christology, which has little if anything to do with God’s Covenant of distributive justice-compassion, or with Luke’s subversive suggestion that Jesus the Christ came to establish God’s rule in opposition to the empire of Rome. Instead, again, verses are taken out of context to emphasize tradition. The writer is in the midst of setting up an argument that Jesus became the mediator between people and God – the High Priest. In order to achieve that position, Jesus had to first experience “the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). Because of that suffering, he was purified, and achieved the position as High Priest so that he could “make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” with his own body and blood. The ultimate sin, according to this writer, is unbelief in Jesus as the High Priest of God – the refusal of the people to accept the “better covenant, enacted through better promises” (Heb. 8:6-7) – more subtle antisemitism.
The festival of the Presentation of the Lord, also called “Candlemas,” may have begun as a celebration of the revelation of light, even rebirth from the darkness of political oppression to liberation and covenant with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, but the Hebrews passage casts the pall of substitutionary atonement over the festivities. Given the vagaries of the Christian liturgical calendar, which has to deal with the moon-based movable feast called Easter, the verses from Hebrews 2:14-18 perhaps serve to remind the people of the coming season of Lent.
The organizers of Christian tradition were masters of the appropriation of local cultural myth and metaphor. The Christ was nearly immediately defined as “the light of the world” (John 1:1-6). Luke’s Simeon sings what became known in Catholic liturgy as the nunc dimitis: “Now let they servant depart in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to all Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The date for the presentation has varied, depending on when Jesus’ birth was supposed to have occurred. Once December 25 was agreed upon (as opposed to January 6), February 2 became the day.
February 2 is the time in the Planet’s yearly orbit around the sun, halfway between solstice and equinox (15 degrees Aquarius), when, in the northern hemisphere, the light noticeably changes from the darkness of winter to the increasing brightness of spring. In northern agricultural life, this time of year brings the first births of livestock, and milk and eggs once again become available, if not plentiful. The Celtic Goddess of Wisdom, Bride (“breed”), in charge of poetry, smithcraft, and healing, became the Christian saint Brigid, who was reputed to have been the wet nurse for the baby Jesus. Brigid’s feast day is February 1, which conveniently appropriates the old pre-Christian festival celebrating rebirth and the increasing light (Imbolc). Milk and milk products (cheeses, butter) are on the menu for the feast. The festival mass for this day is called Candlemas. As the light returns to the world, the Christ is revealed. (Punxatawny Phil is hardly the final bastardization of sacred metaphor.)
This festival can be reclaimed, using the metaphors of justice-compassion from Malachi, Psalm 24, and Luke. The prophet Malachi challenges the leaders of the people to take care of the oppressed; the writer of the psalm says that those who are authorized to “ascend the hill of the Lord” and come into the temple are those “with clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false.” Old Simeon says he can die in peace, now that he has seen the one who will be a light to all the world. Anna speaks “about the child to all who were waiting for the liberation of Jerusalem.”
The festival can be reclaimed using the metaphors of the natural world, the ultimate wisdom of the created universe, in which no being is denied the abundance assured by God’s Covenant of distributive justice-compassion, with a Eucharist of milk and honey, bread and wine.
One: Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and those who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without price, for our God calls us away from oppression and greed to a realm of justice and love [pour wine].
God calls us away from famine and poverty to an abundance of milk and honey. [pour milk]
Wisdom orders all things well: First the grain, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear [break bread].
To inherit Wisdom is as sweet as the honeycomb [pour honey into a bowl];
Wisdom has set her table. She calls from the highest places, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Come, for all has been made ready.”
[All are invited to come to the table, dip bread into milk, honey or wine. Take as many pieces of bread as is desired. Some may wish to feed one another.]
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
In Matthew’s midrash of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus tours all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, curing all kinds of diseases, and proclaiming that God’s kingdom has come. The verses in Chapter 4 selected by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday after the Epiphany are the preface to Matthew 5:1 through 7:29, the great Sermon on the Mount. Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, and invites his disciples to leave their nets and become “fishers for people,” traditionally interpreted to mean saving souls from hell. But John Dominic Crossan, points out that Jesus could have brought his message anywhere in Roman occupied Judea. Why Galilee? Why Capernaum? Perhaps because Herod Antipas had built a commercial fishing operation on the shores of the lake, in direct competition with the local fishermen such as Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the others. Roman imperial foreign policy, “Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” (Crossan, God and Empire, p. 102), had predictable results: namely rampant unemployment, poverty, and deprivation. What used to be freely fished from the lake now was only available at high prices from the markets. Fishing boats that had been in fishing families for generations now were taxed as franchises. Perhaps the phrase survives in the tradition because Jesus said it as a bitter joke. In the systemic injustice brought about by imperial, commercial interests,“people” are the only things left to be fished for.
It is a parable for twenty-first century Appalachia. Instead of “Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” we have state subsidization of multinational corporations for economic exploitation. West Virginia’s gas, coal, and timber wealth is controlled by out-of-state commodity interests, which are limited by weak or non-existent state regulations that often benefit those who are able to pay their way around them. Case in point: The “debtor in possession” agreement protecting Freedom Industries from financial responsibility for the chemical spill that now pollutes the Ohio River from Wheeling to the Mississippi is the same J. Clifford Forrest who filed the original Chapter 11 for the company (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1/18/14).
In the first century, the Apostle Paul read the riot act to the hapless Corinthian house church, which had fallen into the usual factions and disagreements that every organization falls into. Paul’s sarcasm is scathing: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” They have apparently forgotten what Paul taught them about the saving grace of the risen Christ. They have reverted to the hierarchical Roman social system of patronage, and are fighting over who owes what to whom and why, and who deserves to sit at the head table, and who will get the best food. Some of them have even begun eating their meal before coming to participate in the sacramental communal meal because they don’t want to associate with people who are beneath them in the Roman social hierarchy. Piety in the form of proper behavior is clearly the order of the day.
West Virginia’s status as a poster-child for Appalachian systemic injustice was further illustrated by the New York Times of January 21, 2014 (“Law’s Expanded Medicaid Coverage Brings a Surge in Sign-Ups”). Sabrina Tavernise describes the mind-set of the people of Mingo and McDowell counties in southern West Virginia, where the Freedom Industries chemical spill polluted the water supply: “Lack of economic opportunity, low levels of education and the resulting despair have driven a raging drug epidemic and created a kind of fatalism.” She quotes Lavetta Hutchinson, a nurse in McDowell County who said, “People think they are going to live as long as they are going to live, and there’s nothing they can do to change it. They don’t see the value of prevention.” They hate President Obama and his “Obamacare” plan; they refuse to apply for health insurance in the West Virginia exchanges, but when offered permanent eligibility for Medicaid, they sign up. A caveat, however, according to Tavernise, “it remains to be seen how Medicaid coverage will work once millions more people across the country are in the system. Low reimbursement rates discourage specialists from taking Medicaid patients.”
Indeed, “people” are the only life forms left to be fished for. But it is tough going, convincing the people that it is when they lose their life and livelihood that they will truly find it. That teaching has been reduced to a New Age self-help mantra (“follow your bliss”), often masquerading as Christian piety: “God has a plan for you.” Tavernise reports that a woman at a recent enrollment event used “biblical terms to disparage Mr. Obama as an existential threat to the nation . . . [The volunteer assistant thought to himself,] This man is not the Antichrist. He just wants you to have health insurance.” Meanwhile, life expectancy for men in McDowell County, “a remote patch of mountains dotted by coal mines and forests logged for timber . . . is 64 years – the lowest in the country, and even lower than Pakistan. Rates of smoking and diabetes are nearly double the national average, and almost half the men are obese.”
Jesus’s first words in the version of the Sermon on the Mount from the sayings gospel of Thomas are, “Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s domain.” Thomas is largely assumed to be without the gloss of late first-century Christian interpretation, which assumes that the poor “in spirit” are the ones Jesus was talking about. But Jesus said the poor, who have nothing that the conventional, imperial world deems of value, own the kingdom of God – just like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. In the twenty-first century, the earth that the poor and disenfranchised should inherit has become a commodity to be exploited. West Virginia land use rules do not assign mineral rights to land owners. Frackers claim ownership of marcellus shale mineral wealth right from under the people who have owned the land for generations; surface coal mining destroys the mountains, the streams, and the valleys, and trumps all environmental regulation from potable water to clean air statewide.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) took on the role of victim in the Elk River chemical spill (The New York Times, 1/18/14): “You feel like everyone’s turned against you,” he complained, “outsiders” want the energy and chemicals that come from West Virginia while demonizing the industries that created them. “People say ‘not in my backyard.’ But in West Virginia we’re willing to do the heavy lifting.” Poor brave West Virginia – doing all that hard work with no regard for the health and safety of workers, citizens, and the land itself. Governor Tomblin promised to “never back down from the EPA.” “Montani semper liberi!” Manchin declared: “Mountaineers are always free.” Free to live in poverty; free to work for minimum wage; free to die. Coal and chemical industries employ 4% of West Virginians; Walmart is the top employer; West Virginia ranked 49th in median household income in 2009.
This is freedom?
The first century Corinthians had decided that the message of the cross is foolishness. Paul says it’s only foolishness to those who are not being saved. But the “saved” are not the fittest, the richest, the smartest who deny others access to the means of survival: food, clothing, shelter, even the work required to earn them. In 1 Cor. 1:17, Paul says that he was not sent to baptize people, but to proclaim the gospel so that “the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” The power of the cross is not saving people from hell. The power of the cross is in the radical denial of self-interest that overthrows social systems of patronage that have strayed far from Jesus’s experience of God’s kingdom as a seamless fabric that supports and sustains all of life.
Freddy won’t put down his pistol; He likes the way it feels; He likes the power that it gives him; Power that feels real. He likes to look down at his hand and feel the cold blue steel. (“Loretta’s Ballad,” Doug & Telisha Williams, from “Ghost of the Knoxville Girl,” No Evil Records, 2009.)
Beyond the stats, beyond the grief, beyond the finger-pointing, beyond the “culture wars” lies the solution to eleven thousand deaths by gunfire per year in the United States; nineteen mass shootings during the Obama presidency, not counting the back-to-back killings of people in groups of twelve, first at the Navy Yard complex in Washington, D.C. followed a few days later by a massacre in a Chicago park. As Bob Dylan wrote in 1962 about peace, war, and freedom, “how many deaths will it take ’til he knows that too many people have died?” In a secular society, where premodern, ancestral scriptures are misunderstood and ignored, Dylan’s questions are prophetic: Continue reading Guns, Fear, and Power
To the Editor
The Journal, Martinsburg, West Virginia
Re: “Red Flags: Health is not a concern for pro-choice advocates” Sunday September 8, 2013
Your header is certainly a red flag – voices of moderation need not apply. It is time for folks on both sides of the abortion wars to cut the inflammatory words and look at facts – not “your facts” or “my facts,” but facts – as in verifiable information.
Perhaps the writer of this editorial made the same mistake I did when I first learned of Attorney General Morrisey’s demand that abortion clinics conform to licensing and inspections and state medical oversight. Delegate Skinner (D-Jefferson) also weighed in with a similar-sounding demand. But Delegate Skinner is investigating “crisis pregnancy centers.” Crisis pregnancy centers provide no medical procedures, and are neither licensed nor regulated by the state medical board. Women’s health clinics that provide abortions (of which there are two in West Virginia: The Women’s Health Center and Kanawha Surgicenter) are not the same as non-licensed, non-regulated “crisis pregnancy centers.” So we are not talking here about licensed, regulated, medical clinics providing medical procedures – including abortions – to women. We are talking about unlicensed, counseling centers providing information.
“Pro-choice advocates” are indeed well beyond merely being “concerned” about women’s access to affordable, safe, medically-supervised and licensed health care. We are genuinely alarmed at the misinformation that endangers women’s health at all levels – not just abortion, but safe, affordable birth control, and other health care needs such as mamograms, ovarian cancer screenings, well-woman care, and – yes – live, healthy, full-term births. We are also deeply involved in the continuing dialogue about supporting children after they are born with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education.
Throwing your “red flag” in the face of reasonable people in West Virginia – conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, independent and libertarian – is not helpful. Was this an honest mistake? If so, the Journal staff should pay more attention to the gathering of facts before publishing opinion. If not, if the editorial was a deliberate act of misinformation, then the Journal has betrayed the public trust.
Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 2:1-24, 12:14-21; Mark 3:31-35
John Dominic Crossan defines the Bible as the story of humanity’s continuing struggle to beat God. From Genesis to Revelation, God constantly lays out what the covenantal rules are and what the consequences will be for not keeping our side of the bargain. “Constantly” is the definitive adverb here. God is nothing if not “constant,” keeping God’s part as the rain continues to fall (or not) on the just and unjust and gravity maintains its hold on solar and planetary systems. The party that “constantly” cheats, equivocates, and outright ignores the rules is us. Continue reading Syria, Obama, and the Mark of Cain
Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.Many stones can form an arch; singly none, singly none. And by union what we will can be accomplished still: Drops of water turn a mill; singly none singly none.
In Where Have All the Flowers Gone? A Singer’s Stories Songs Seeds & Robberies Pete Seeger reports that the words to this iconic union anthem were printed in the preamble to the constitution of an early coal miner’s union. In 1948, Pete set the words to an Irish tune from the 1840s, “The Praties they grow small.” Looking back over the past 50 years to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (“The Great March on Washington”) while progress seems to have been made, for 245 years (716 if we start with Magna Carta in 1297) the struggle for human rights – meaning equality under the law, and access to food, clothing, shelter, and education for all – has been raging, and shows no signs of abating any time soon.
★ The earliest recorded labor strike in the Americas occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction.
★ The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers.
★ President Andrew Johnson formally declared the end of the U.S. Civil War on August 20, 1866.
★ The 14th Amendment was adopted July 9, 1868. The Equal Protection Clause requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction, and was the grounds for the Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
★ The 15th Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
★ The 19th Amendment, ratified August 18, 1920, prohibits any United States citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex.
★ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly December 10, 1948 (never ratified by the United States Congress).
★ The Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted July 2, 1964, outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women; ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public (“public accommodations”).
★ Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law by President Johnson August 6, 1965.
★ In Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), decided simultaneously with a companion case, Doe v. Bolton, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, but that right must be balanced against the state’s two legitimate interests in regulating abortions: protecting prenatal life and protecting women’s health. Arguing that these state interests became stronger over the course of a pregnancy, the Court resolved this balancing test by tying state regulation of abortion to the trimester of pregnancy. The Court later rejected Roe’s trimester framework, while affirming Roe’s central holding that a person has a right to abortion until viability. The Roe decision defined “viable” as being “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid,” adding that viability “is usually placed at about 7 months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.”
States’ rights vs. federal power has been the struggle in the United States since the debate over the Constitution in 1775. Today instead of marching to Washington for federal redress of grievances, the battle must be joined state-by-state because all possible versions of what constitutes the public good are under siege by state legislatures: women’s reproductive justice; the right of all people to vote in free and fair elections without jerrymandering; fair wages; safe working conditions; affordable housing; affordable health care; sustainable energy policy; distributive economics; restorative justice (distributive justice-compassion); access to public education; public safety (including international political issues as well as global climate change).
The list is eye-glazingly long. Nevertheless, your careful attention to the specific items on the list that you want to impact is needed now. So pick one. And above all, get your ID, Register, and Vote in 2014.
State by State the longest list can be done, can be done. The hardest cases can be won, can be won. With coalition what we will can be accomplished still. The Arc toward justice in concert builds – singly none, singly none.
A Google search for “Zealot Aslan” reveals 2,350,000 results in less than 35 seconds. Page two contains a run-down of the many scholars who either hate the book or shrug it off. Personally, I read it because I was gratified by Dr. Aslan’s skewering of Fox News reporter Lauren Green, who tried and failed to re-ignite the crusades of the 14th century by questioning Aslan’s motives for writing the book in the first place: Why would a Muslim care about who Jesus might have been, and how dare that person presume to be an expert?
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a professional scholar of religion. I never went to seminary; I don’t have a teaching post at any institute of higher learning. However – much like Dr. Aslan – I do have an academic Doctor of Ministry in Creation Spirituality, from the former University of Creation Spirituality, founded by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. I have pursued an independent study of the work of Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong – among others. I am an Associate of the Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar); See, e.g., my commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary: Vol I The Year of Luke now available on Amazon.com; Volume II, the Year of Matthew, available September 1, 2013.
So I can do theology with the big boys. But a writer without real scholarly portfolio who wants to be taken seriously has to comply with some academic standards. First, s/he must document the way along whatever path s/he wishes to follow. However, documentation is not proof-texting – and proof-texting (cherry-picking quotations out of context) is what Dr. Aslan engages in throughout, despite his claim to the contrary. His innovative presentation of scholarly argument without footnote references to specific text, which constitutes the second half of the book, would never pass a dissertation committee worth its salt. Perhaps he thinks that most folks won’t bother to read the notes, because of his riveting, highly creative, story-telling.
A second academic requirement, if a non-professional scholar is going to engage in serious debate, is to lay out the opposing argument, then refute it. But as Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California, writes in his review of Aslan’s book: “Reza Aslan runs the argument off its rails.” The Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar (and other projects – specifically on the Apostle Paul, Luke-Acts, and the origins of Christianity) has been the “industry standard” since 1985. Yet, Aslan ignores it all except for a brief, sneering reference to The Five Gospels (“And of course there are those scholars who reject nearly all of the Son of Man sayings as inauthentic” notes p. 254); and brief mention of John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. In clear opposition to Aslan’s thesis, Crossan has shown that Jesus taught a nonviolent, subtle, yet highly subversive day-by-day shift in the paradigm from violent imperial injustice to nonviolent distributive justice-compassion. Aslan shamelessly uses Crossan’s work out of context to bolster his own idea that Jesus was engaged in a violent attempt to overthrow the Roman Empire and establish an equally violent and unjust political “kingdom of God” in its place.
A third pitfall for wanna-bee Biblical scholars – and indeed for anyone engaged in research, whether scientific or academic – is to assume that we are free of the influence of our own time, place, and circumstances. Dr. Aslan says he accepted conservative, evangelical Christian teaching and theology at age 15, then returned to his native Islam as an adult. “[T]he sudden realization that . . . the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions . . . left me confused and spiritually unmoored . .. I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying” (Author’s Note p. xix). Unfortunately, that same anger at this “costly forgery” laid the groundwork for Aslan’s violent Zealot. He at once relies on the supposed historicity of the (late first-century) synoptic Gospels while dismissing them as self-serving fiction, and claims the much later Gospel of John as definitive, even though “As with everything else in the gospels . . . factual accuracy was irrelevant” (p. 154).
Then there is Paul. The Apostle Paul is both praised and blamed by Biblical scholars (including Westar Institute scholars) for the existence of world-wide, orthodox Christianity today. I wonder why Aslan would spend so much time attacking Paul and attempting to set up Jesus’s brother James as the true inheritor of Jesus’s supposed failed, violent “kingdom.” James the Just was most interested in defending the poor and defenseless, according to Aslan. How James managed to develop that spirituality as opposed to his brother Jesus’s purported blood lust is also a question that Aslan does not consider. Are we to infer that the wrong son of a tekton was credited with the nonviolent “preferential option for the poor” that has managed to survive church politics for two thousand years?
The Book of Acts is not history remembered; it is a continuation of Luke’s novel of the life and teachings of Jesus, post-Easter – as any seminary student will tell you (let alone a simple scan of any Bible’s explanatory notes), and Aslan himself acknowledges. Nevertheless, Aslan accepts Luke’s opinions over Paul’s own letters. Why a scholar would throw out someone’s personal correspondence because the life that correspondence reveals contradicts accepted tradition boggles the mind. Worse, Aslan gives equal weight to all the letters attributed to Paul, whether authentically his or not. Probably because of his own bias against Westar Institute scholarship, Aslan ignores John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (Harper San Francisco, 2004); Richard I. Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts (Polebridge Press 2008); and The Authentic Letters of Paul – A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning (by Lane McGaughy, Daryl D. Schmidt, Roy W. Hoover, and Arthur J. Dewey, Polebridge 2011). But serious consideration of these carefully researched studies would have scuttled the second half of Aslan’s book, thereby reducing it to a curious pamphlet – which would have attracted little attention, even from Fox News.
Aslan needs to rethink his dissertation. Grade: Incomplete.
The Year of Luke (Theology from Exile: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity)
The Year of Luke is the first in a series of commentaries on biblical scripture found in the three-year cycle of Christian liturgical readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Instead of interpreting these readings as a precursor of messianic salvation from Hell, culminating in the exclusive Body of Christ and the imperial violence of the Church Triumphant, postmodern exiles from the premodern orthodoxy of the Christian church can begin to realize the radicality in Jesus’ original message, and join the struggle to find the courage to live it out in Covenant, non-violence, justice-compassion, and the deep peace that passes all understanding.
Here is what Arthur J. Dewey, New Testament scholar and specialist on the historical Jesus, says about The Year of Luke:
“I appreciate your use of recent critical works (especially the Jesus Seminar entries and the work of Crossan, as well as the Authentic Letters of Paul, and even my commentary). You get a lot out of them. Your use of ‘the kenotic’ theme is well done. I also like very much that you see that some texts can correct or at least unbalance others, especially when a text from the Hebrew Scriptures liberates a NT text. Good work!
I do wish many pastors and preachers would sit down with your words and wisdom.”