This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Voting With Jesus.

I saw on Facebook someone purporting to be a Christian saying she would vote this year based on candidates’ policies (as opposed to personality and character, I suppose, or political expediency).  Specifically, she said she would vote for candidates that advocated for low taxes, less regulation, a stronger military, freedom of religion, and support for Israel, and against abortion, “open borders,” and a “Living Constitution.”

It seems to me that the criteria for determining the “Christian" character of public policy have to be the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, as we have them in the New Testament.  How do this person’s views on policies stack up with what Jesus himself actually says and does?  Let’s see.

  1. Taxes.  The Lord expresses frustration over the crushing tax burden laid in his time on poor people and workers.  They were financing not only their own oppression by the Romans, but the expensive lifestyle and monumental projects of local leaders.  But Jesus also proclaims “the acceptable year of the Lord,” a reference to the Jubilee laid out in Leviticus 25, which is about a radical downward redistribution of wealth.  His attitude towards the rich is consistently and highly critical.  He lives according to the motto that everything belongs to God (Psalm 24:1).  Can we infer from all this that Jesus would have accepted higher taxes on the wealthy if it meant more aid for the needy?  That would be completely within character for him.     
  2. Regulation.  In our time, people complain about regulation because they favor letting the market do as it pleases.  But when Jesus is advised to rely on the market to feed over 5000 hungry people, he rejects that option.  When the establishment turned the holy Temple into a marketplace, he is incensed.  Jesus understands that markets are modes of economic oppression and inequality because they inherently privilege the rich.  His ministry, on the contrary, indicates a preference for policies that create wholeness and equality.  He also sees God’s creation as a theater of God’s glory, full of living signs of God’s Presence.  He does not tolerate the kind of depredations wrought by an economic system based on greed and inequality.  Would he advocate for regulation?  Much of the Torah is a regulatory regime designed to prevent the Israelites from falling into an authoritarian, oligarchical polity like they one of which they experienced the business end in Egypt as slaves.  Jesus would have people’s behavior regulated by God’s Word and will.  He would curb the capricious liberties taken by the powerful against the weak.  If regulation means protecting workers, the poor, women, strangers, and creation, Jesus is all for it.      
  3. A stronger military.  The Lord Jesus rejects the kind of coercive State power exerted by the military when the devil offered it to him.  He and his people knew the military mainly as its victims.  In his Sermon on the Mount he gives advice about how to deal with oppressive occupation soldiers.  It was Jewish Temple police who arrested him, and Roman militarized police who killed him.  Bearing in mind that the U.S. military is by far the strongest in history, with spending far, far greater than any other nation, more indeed than the next 10 or so combined, it is frankly and obviously impossible to imagine Jesus advocating for an even stronger U.S. military.
  4. Freedom of religion.  Jesus lived in a context where Judaism was the official religion of his country and non-Jews were looked down on.  At the same time, the Roman Empire recognized a wide variety of religions, as long as they all worshiped the Emperor.  Jesus makes a point of ministering to and lifting up Samaritans, who were considered heretics.  He also heals several non-Jews.  He complains, sometimes bitterly, about religious rules being given the force of civil law; so he would certainly not have wanted his teachings enforced that way.  Jesus would have no part of any supposed “freedom” of some to impose their religion on others.  Would the One who heals all use his religion to deny health care (or even a cake) to someone?  Hardly.  
  5. Support for Israel.  Jesus endures a situation of colonialism, ministering to its victims.  He certainly does not advocate violence in any case.  But it is far easier to see Jesus sympathizing and siding with indigenous people like the Palestinians than with the settlers and soldiers who are using violence to take away their land and lives.  It was Jesus’ opponents who were so apoplectic about preserving the Jewish State of his own time.  They saw him undermining their nation and religion.  It’s why they killed him.  So, no, I don’t see Jesus supporting any regime oppressing its neighbors.  And he, like the prophets, would be particularly critical if Jews, who supposedly know better because they have the words of the Torah and prophets, fall into these behaviors. It is impossible to believe he would have supported a colonialist, oppressive State, even (or especially) were it technically “Jewish” in character.
  6. Abortion.  Jesus says exactly nothing about abortion.  It is safe to assume he would have been against it as an act of violence.  However, he also receives women as equals and empathizes with and heals their pain.  Since he doesn’t generally advocate inflicting coercive, heartless, and punitive laws on suffering people, it is hard to believe he would call for criminalization here.  Jewish belief is that human life begins with breath.  As with everything, the Lord is about humility, forgiveness, gentleness, wisdom, compassion, and life.
  7. Open borders.  Jesus does not advocate for stronger national borders, or borders at all.  He himself wanders across local borders all the time.  He lived in the larger context of the Roman Empire, of course.  Implied by the fear of “open borders” is a racist hatred of “illegal” foreigners and immigrants.  Yet Jesus’ birth is welcomed by an entourage of enemy, “heathen,” foreigners.  And he understands the demands of Scripture that strangers be welcomed and cared for.  So it is hard not to believe that open borders would be fine with him.  
  8. A “Living Constitution”.  The closest thing to the Constitution that Jesus knows is the Torah which guides Jewish life.  Neither he nor the early Church understand the Torah in a rigid, legalistic, literal way.  Indeed, his enemies thought he was dangerously lax in his Torah observance.  He repeatedly says in his Sermon on the Mount that his teaching overrides the literal sense of the Torah.  In reality, he makes the Torah more strict and more spiritual at the same time.  This is how he enacts a “living Torah.”  He wants Torah observance to express its Spirit, which is deeper than its mere letter.  Translating this to how we approach the U.S. Constitution is a stretch.  On the one hand, we have always talked about equality, liberty, and community as the spirit of the Constitution.  It our best, we have seen these characteristics emerge in our polity in broadening and creative ways.  On the other hand, it could be argued that the document was carefully designed to privilege white, male property owners and weights the system in favor of them and the States that practiced slavery.  So-called “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution focus on the letter of the law, which continues the implementation of these dictates, which frankly contradict the accepted spirit of the document.  Jesus most certainly does not approve of a polity that privileges people with money and power, which is what Constitutional originalism does.  If a “Living Constitution” approach is about applying the deeper spirit of the Constitution to contemporary issues and problems, then it is hard to see Jesus having a problem with it.

We may vote according to our consciences.  But we should be very careful about calling our advocacy of certain policies “Christian.”  Only Jesus gets to determine that.  And Jesus doesn’t necessarily see things the way we do.


It seems obvious, but I think Christians should base their political and economic views on the life and teachings of Jesus.


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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Originalism.

As I write this, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate is examining a nominee to the Supreme Court.  She is known to hold to the legal philosophy called “originalism.” Briefly put, this approach interprets the Constitution based on the original meaning intended by the authors.

We don’t call it by this name, but a kind of originalism is an important aspect of biblical interpretation as well.  We too seek to understand and apply, as far as we are able, the original intention and meaning of the authors of the Bible.  This is important in biblical studies because the authors are the prophets and saints who founded and defined the Hebrew and Christian traditions.  They have authority based on their sanctity, their unique witness to God’s work, and the acceptance of their writings by the Church over time.  With regard to the New Testament, they come from the first or second generation of people who knew Jesus of Nazareth, directly or indirectly.  Through them and their writings we see the revelation of God, which is to say ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.


While we recognize that the authors of biblical texts were human and therefore historically conditioned, what they witness to, however imperfectly, is the emergence of the Eternal in our world.  So there is a sense in which a kind of  originalism has to be a central component of any interpretation of the Bible.  But it can’t be the end, as if articulating what the authors may have meant in their own time is all we have to say.  Interpretation necessarily includes the further step of applying what we have learned to our own lives and situation.  The Bible, because it is the unique and authoritative witness to God’s Word, is indeed a living text, not a dead letter.  God is life. 


But the U.S. Constitution is different.  The framers of that document were not concerned with or relying on divine revelation.  They hammered out the Constitution by means of compromise, power, personality, and political necessity and expediency.  They were not concerned with the communication of God’s will on God’s terms; they were forging a workable, sustainable State.  The Constitution was not intended as a witness to God’s saving work in the world.  Indeed, God does not come up at all.  Neither is Scripture referred to.  The framers wanted to create a political system that reflected the philosophies of the so-called Enlightenment.  These are what they themselves reference.  


In biblical interpretation, an originalist approach reminds us that the Bible was written by the descendants of liberated Israelite slaves explicitly to prevent any degradation back into a system like the one they escaped, which was dominated by Pharaoh and an oppressive ruling class.  The writers of the Bible are consistent in their lifting up of the poor and marginalized, and their political system is initially decentralized, egalitarian, and theocratic.  It is designed to mitigate and reduce the power of the strong and wealthy, even applying a periodic redistribution of wealth downward.  Biblical originalism means realizing that the text is a thorough critique and rejection of Empire.


Originalism in interpreting the U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, means attachment to the values and beliefs of a group of white, propertied, 18th century men, many of whom owned slaves.  In other words, it was heavily influenced by people who had more in common with Pharaoh than with the Israelites.  They showed scant interest in the concerns of the poor or marginalized, or of women, indigenous people, or slaves.  The fact that they designed a system which preserved the privilege and power of people like them should not be surprising.  In the ostensive interest of unity, they included features intended to skew legal and political processes in favor of States that allowed slavery.  It was biased toward white, male, property owners.  Indeed, in many States these were the only people allowed to vote.


So the first reason why Christians cannot abide constitutional originalism is that it intentionally privileges the perspective of the exact opposite class of people to those lifted up in the Bible, and expresses therefore the exact opposite policies and practices. 


Legal originalism is presented as an alternative against the understanding called the “Living Constitution.”  Indeed, Living Constitution theory holds that the meaning of the text shifts according to the contemporary interpretive context.    


In biblical interpretation, we do not believe we have to, or even can, choose only one of these two alternatives: faithfulness to the original authors or the view that the Bible is a living text.  Rather we understand both to be essential.  The original words, intentions, and contexts of the authors are important, and they pertain to every age.  This universal relevance is rooted in the subject matter of the Bible, which is God, who, as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of everything, is never irrelevant.  By the Spirit, God is always speaking in and through God’s Word and Spirit.  The word for this work of interaction and balance between original text and contemporary situation is hermeneutics.


The whole point of biblical interpretation is to see the continued life and relevance of the Bible in today’s world.  But the point of legal originalism is to impose on people today the vision, values, mentality, and habits of a few propertied white men from 1789.  This is a form of idolatry.  It leads to legal decisions that privilege property over people, and one class over others.      


Originalist legal philosophy therefore militates against the life and teachings of Jesus Christ which reveal a continual expansion of blessing and goodness to include more and more people in God’s family.      


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Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Split.

In a recent Sunday New York Times there was an article purporting to explain why so many Christians support the current occupant of the White House.  It turns out that these people have a rosily distorted memory of the old regime of White Christian America.  They long for a return to the days where there was, apparently, no crime, and no annoying Gay or Trans people always in your face; when Black people stayed in their literal and social place, there were no Hispanics around at all, the Bible was read in school, everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and saluted the flag, there was no abortion, no extra-marital sex, women stayed home, the police were respected, veterans revered, churches were full, and America was on top of the world.  Among other things.  That’s they way they “remember” it, or how it was told to them by their parents and grandparents.  That is the great America that the current occupant of the White House promised to restore.

While this may come as an interesting eye-opener to readers of the New York Times, it was old news to me.  I grew up in and then worked in the Presbyterian Church for over half a century.  When I started in ministry, I thought my job had to do with helping people follow Jesus Christ.  But I quickly discovered that many of my congregants assumed my job was to somehow bring back the glory days of the 1950’s.  I was supposed to go out and haul back to church the people who stopped coming.  At the very least I was expected to share, articulate, and encourage their denial, bargaining, anger, hatred, paranoia, and scapegoating over the loss of those apparently wonderful days.  In my first church, I was eventually informed that I did not teach what they were used to being taught.  The understanding that some had of Christianity was different from mine, and had, as far as I could see, nothing to do with Jesus Christ at all, except using his name. 


Their Christianity was about patriotism, policing others’ sexual morality, stopping change, rugged individualism, and not drinking beer.  None of these are things with which Jesus is concerned in the New Testament.  (Except that he does appear to have been more a wine guy.)  The only change they seemed to appreciate was when the State decided to construct a new prison nearby.  That was popular.  I lasted less than three years there.         


It turns out that Christianity has always had a split between two versions of the faith.  One is the popular, egocentric, conformist, conventional, patriotic, privileged, rules-based, controlling religion of people who benefit from and support the establishment, which is to say the Empire of the time.  The other is people seeking to follow Jesus Christ.


We see this split in Jesus’ ministry, where he was continually sniped at and conspired against by the guardians and keepers of the establishment religion of his own time.  Those respectable religious people eventually connived with the Roman government to have him executed.  The things Jesus was doing and saying: like including all sorts of people in his group, performing healings and exorcisms, breaking many of the establishment’s complicated rules, offering people forgiveness and a new lifestyle in community, questioning basic social pillars like the family, were deeply threatening and offensive to the religious leaders, whom Jesus called “hypocrites.”


We see this split in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where his mixed community of Jesus-followers is existentially threatened by an invasion of privileged, establishment, rules-based, conformist, conventional religious leaders.  They required circumcision and Torah-keeping as a way for Gentiles to become officially Jewish, which they considered a prerequisite for being Christian.  That way they would stay safely within the Roman system.  Since that was the system that crucified Jesus, we can see why Paul got so apoplectic about this.


We see this split in the Book of Revelation, where John identifies and criticizes those who cave in to the lure of fitting into and accepting the benefits of Roman culture.  He spends most of his book graphically describing the imminent gruesome collapse of that system, warning Christians that if they participate in it, they will perish with it.


And so on into Church history.  There has been this division between those who want to uphold, defend, feed, and benefit from the establishment religion and culture, and those who seek to follow Jesus Christ.


These two ways have never been compatible, as much as we might like to imagine that we can follow Jesus somehow and still be loyal to whatever may be the prevailing nation, economy, civilization, religion, or moral regime.  Jesus says we cannot serve both God and what human authorities define as wealth.  There is simply no compromise between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.


Jesus says to seek first the Kingdom of God.  He does not say to seek first to restore some imaginary idyllic past.  He does not say to seek first “success” as the world defines it.  He does not say to seek first money, fame, and power.  He does not say to seek first what is good for America, or white people, or families, or property owners, or men.  He says to seek first the Kingdom of God.


The Kingdom of God is not White Christian America.  It is the life of compassion and justice, non-violence and humility, equality and forgiveness, simplicity and inclusion, honesty and community that Jesus demonstrated.  The Kingdom of God is about reversal that turns the world’s standards upside down so that the poor, hungry, sick, powerless, and excluded get what they need, and the rich, in the words of Jesus’ mother, are sent away empty.      


In the days of that supposed greatness of White Christian America, we still had overt racial segregation, oppression, and lynchings.  Violence against Gay people was routine and written into laws and even psychology textbooks.  The options for women were severely limited.  America was propping up and installing brutal dictators all over the world, even to the point of teaching torture.  Our national wealth was being sunk into an insane nuclear arms race.  There was abortion, and it often meant the death or maiming of women.  There was adultery, but it was okay for men.  And we were beginning to enslave ourselves to large corporations.  We were not even conscious of what we were doing to our own health (everybody smoked, seatbelts didn’t even exist) or to the planet.


White Christian America squatted on stolen land.  It profited from the labor and resources of others.  It remains blissfully unconscious of how severely the system is tilted in their favor, giving them all kinds of advantages.  Now that there has been a slight movements towards leveling the playing field, some wail like petulant children about all they are “losing.”  They even convince themselves they are persecuted for their Christian faith, which is not true.  There is not one thing for which White Christian America is supposedly “under attack” that is a matter of discipleship of Jesus Christ.  


All they are losing is status, privilege, control, and the right to impose their own agenda, which they equate with the gospel, on others.  Is there someplace in the gospels where Jesus instructs his disciples not to bake wedding cakes for Gay people?  Or to deny contraceptives in employee health care plans?  Is this even good evangelism?  Or just bitter, hateful anger about loss of influence?  And it makes Jesus and Christianity look oppressive, thus feeding into the very narrative they are resisting.  


The only antidote to such attitudes, I found, was to bring people to an encounter with the actual Jesus Christ we find in Scripture.  I am not going to say that even this had much of a direct effect, or that I was particularly proficient at it.  But occasionally the good news would get through to people.  Mostly I hope I was planting seeds.


And occasionally those seeds would germinate in people’s experience in the larger world.  They would encounter Gays, immigrants, African-Americans, poor people, and others they had assumed were the enemy, often in their own families.  I am hoping that some exposure to what Jesus actually did and taught prepared them to accept and love these “others.”


And that is what Jesus is about: loving and accepting those deemed as others, and bringing them into the family of God.  


I am not going to say that there isn’t a lot wrong with the way the world is headed.  Capitulation to and compromise with our contemporary culture is often as harmful as idealizing the 1950’s.  But through it all the only question in the hearts of Christians needs to be, “How do we follow Jesus here and now?”

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