Liberation Theology: the Answer to Tom Paine’s Prayers?

A recent OpEdNews article entitled “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right” adopted the following lead, “The fact that the religious left and the religious right can both use the Bible to back up their opposing agendas shows us that the Bible is meaningless.”

I found the essay interesting, especially since it quotes me as a liberation theologian advocating a “Jesus for the left” position that (in my brother-author’s opinion) is no more well-founded than the “Jesus for the right” view. Both are simply matters of bias, he held. Each side merely chooses biblical texts that support its prejudices while ignoring problematic ones that contradict them. The left likes socialism and selects accordingly. The right opposes socialism and does the same thing.

As his remedy, my dialog partner argued for:

  • Reason not the Bible
  • Deism not religion
  • Thomas Paine not Jesus

This Article

What follows here attempts a largely appreciative response to my friend’s argument. In fact, I and most liberation theologians and biblical scholars agree with Paine’s critique of pre-Enlightenment religions founded on the naïve approaches to the Bible enumerated in the article under review.

Nonetheless, I found my friend’s critique did not go far enough. His equation of Jesus- for-the-left with Jesus-for-the-right remains mired in Thomas Paine’s pre-modern approach to biblical texts.

I wish it had gone further. 

I mean my friend’s piece ignored the fact that “Jesus for the left” theology takes seriously relevant discoveries in archeology, history, ancient languages, and in texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It wrestles with developments in literary analysis and critical studies involving recognition of diverse literary forms. It does the detective work of redaction criticism that traces down the historical and political reasons for editors’ changes in scrolls over centuries of revision with its additions, omissions, contradictions, and errors.

In other words, Jesus-for-the-left scholarship is founded on scientific method and advances unknown to Thomas Paine and other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, they are also largely ignored by Jesus-for-the-right advocates who as a result remain vulnerable to the criticisms of Paine and my brother author.

Without getting too far into the weeds of modern biblical scholarship, let me show what I mean by first expressing appreciation for Paine’s critique of religion, by secondly illustrating the advances in biblical science since Paine, and thirdly by reflecting on liberation theology as a politically powerful alternative to Paine’s 18th century Deism.

Paine’s Criticism  

A great deal of Thomas Paine’s criticism of traditional religion as understood before the Enlightenment was spot on. That approach to the Bible was unscientific. It understood the Bible as a single book inspired by a single author (viz., God). Before the advent of modern biblical scholarship, the Bible’s interpreters tended to read texts literally as though they were all infallible statements of historical fact. This led to the inanities and contradictions Paine struggled against and which my dialog partner rightly lampooned.

So, as a seeker of truth, Paine could write with reason:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by … any church that I know of . . . All national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. . . Whenever we read the obscene stories . . . with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. . .The Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world. . . The fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation, by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty.”

Harsh words, no?

However, I don’t know a single liberation theologian who would argue with Paine’s criticism. In fact, it is a principal purpose of liberation theology to free humans from what Paine rightly calls the terror and enslavement of religious forms meant to consolidate the power and profit of the professionally religious. Liberation scholars do so by basing their approach to the Bible on the discoveries of modern scientific scholarship.

Paine would have welcomed both their commitment to science and the revolutionary implications of their work.

Biblical Science

The discoveries in question are myriad and complex.

At the simplest level though, they tell us that what we call “The Bible” (The Book) is not a book at all, but a collection of books – an entire library written by different authors at different times, under vastly different circumstances, and for different and often contradictory purposes involving what we call today “class struggle.” No wonder then that we often find an upper-class God supporting the royal classes with their debaucheries, exploitation of the poor, and bloody wars all fought (as they are today) in the name of their deity.

All of that becomes even more complicated when we realize most of the literary forms within the Bible are far from history as we understand it. Yes, there are “Annals of Kings” (like Saul, David, and Solomon). But those represent the work of court historians whose job was to glorify their employers, not to tell the truth; all of them must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides such “histories” the Bible also contains myth, legend, debate, and fiction. There are letters. There are ancient laws that seem superstitious and ludicrous to moderns. There is poetry and song. There are birth stories and miracle accounts that all follow predetermined patterns. There are prophetic texts and wisdom literature including proverbs, jokes, and plays on words. And then there’s that strange literary form called “apocalypse” which, scholars tell us, was a form of resistance literature written in code during times of foreign occupation and oppression. If all of these are read as history, as statements of fact, or as somehow predicting the future, it’s easy to see how misunderstandings result.

What’s more, virtually all biblical scholars (even the most politically conservative like Josef Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI) tell us that the Bible’s basic story is that of the formation of the Jewish people. And that account, the scholars say, begins not in Eden, but in Egypt and the deliverance of slaves from bondage there. It’s a story of liberation. All the rest is commentary.

The rest is also an account of the struggle between the poor and oppressed on the one hand against the royalty, generals, priests, and scribes on the other who consistently tried to wrest away from the poor a God the privileged wanted to support the elites’ status quo. It was a struggle between the establishment and the prophets who defended the poor as God’s favorites. What we find in the Bible then is a “battle of gods,” a kind of theogony.

According to the scholars I’m referring to, Jesus appeared in the Jewish prophetic tradition. He was a poor man himself – a prophet, a mystic, a storyteller, a healer, a social critic, an opponent of oppression by priests, kings, and emperors. And the one certain thing we know about him was that he offended the Establishment (Rome and its temple and court collaborators) to such an extent that they arrested, tortured, and killed him. Significantly, they used a form of execution reserved for rebels, revolutionaries, and terrorists.

Yes, Jesus was on the side of the poor and oppressed. But close examination of texts shows that even the evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) often altered the Master’s radical pronouncements to suit their own more conservative purposes. Scholars like those in the famous Jesus Seminar have developed criteria for (tentatively) separating the wheat of Jesus’ own words from the chaff of his editors. Liberation theologians avail themselves of such scholarship.  

Alternative to Deism

So, if it’s all so complicated, why not just pitch it all in favor of Paine’s reason and Deism which conceptualizes God as the Great Watchmaker in the sky who set the world spinning according to its own rules and hasn’t been heard from since? Why not just reason everything out abstractly?

To my mind, the answer is because we are human beings. And humans need stories. Perhaps some, like my dialog partner find abstract reason and an even more abstract concept of God more inspiring and helpful. If so, good on them.

But I repeat: most of the rest of us need stories. In fact, many like Nesrine Malik hold that with everything falling apart in our world, we need more not fewer stories.

My reply is that we already have the stories we need. And the ones found in the Bible are shared across the western world and by Islam. We all know those tales. They can bring us together and shed a penetrating transcendent light on issues that plague our world just as they did those of Jews living under foreign imperialism – including Jesus and the early Christians under Rome.

When those issues are confronted in the face of the liberating God of the Exodus or of Jesus and his pronouncements about God’s Kingdom, they can generate the power to move people to revolutionary action.

The experience inspired by liberation theology in Latin America during ‘70s and ‘80s is proof enough of that. Without liberation theology one cannot explain the Nicaraguan revolution, nor similar movements in El Salvador, Brazil, or Argentina. One cannot explain the pink tide that subsequently swept all of Latin America including the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez.

What I’m saying is that liberation theology provides a scientifically based revolutionary potential that Tom Paine would have admired.

(However, it must also be acknowledged that without liberation theology, one cannot explain the rise of the religious right in America and elsewhere in the world. Its Jesus-for-the-right was instrumentalized for reactionary purposes by the Reagan administration precisely to combat liberation theology which was seen by the CIA and State Department as a threat to U.S. national security.

That is, besides inspiring social activism, liberation theology evoked the exact type of persecution and martyrdom suffered by the early church under Rome. Such parallels say a great deal about liberation theology’s authenticity.)    

Conclusion

I hope it is evident from the foregoing that I very much respect what my friend wrote in “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right”. However, I worry about its call to surrender religion and spirituality to right-wing forces. To my mind, there is no more powerful or important ground to defend.

Like the Constitution and American history, spirituality has always been and remains contested terrain. The fact that the left and right have differing interpretations and narratives by no means proves anything about “meaninglessness.”

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The struggle over history’s versions, over the Constitution’s interpretations, and especially over biblical texts only serves to illustrate their importance and the need to approach them with the scientific spirit of Thomas Paine.

Had he been exposed to modern biblical science, I believe Paine would have embraced liberation theology. He may have seen it as his counterpart, Noam Chomsky does in the film clip at the head of this essay. Paine may even have accepted liberation theology as the answer to his prayers.

Easter Reflection: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:3A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by  name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 100) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Fratelli Tutti supplies the details.

Christmas Reflection: “Oh, Come Let Us Ignore Him”

Every year at this time, the entire Christian world of more than 2.5 billion people pauses to observe the birth of a martyred Jewish construction worker about 2000 years ago. In America, we tirelessly observe this winter festival with increasing intensity from about Halloween, through Thanksgiving, and the entire month of December – for two solid months.

All during that time, our radio airwaves, and every shop we enter repeat the familiar songs and hymns we’ve come to associate with Christmas. Many of the carols celebrate “the newborn king.” Some even issue the invitation, “Oh, come let us adore him” – as God. Only occasionally (as in the “Little Drummer Boy”) is there the slightest hint that Jesus was “a poor boy too.” But that insight is quickly obscured by that same song’s four references to Jesus as “king.”

However, Jesus’ unmistakable poverty, his conception out of wedlock, his homelessness at birth, his status as asylum-seeker and immigrant in Egypt (MT 2:13-18), his social location in the working class, his association with Zealot insurrectionists (MT 10:4; MK 3:18; LK 6:15; ACTS 1:13), and the fact that he ended up a victim of torture and capital punishment at the hands of empire reveal far more about Yeshua than those popular sentimental Christmas jungles and hymns about a “newborn king.”

But even if we take those latter glorifications seriously, they unwittingly communicate a revolutionary message that the Christmas season completely ignores – one that finds important application to our troubled times.

I’m referring to the fact that calling the impoverished Yeshua “king” turns upside down reigning conceptions about the One some call “God,” and about the people divinely designated to rule the world.

Such references unconsciously point to the truth of Jesus’ words that the “meek” or (better put), the lowly, the humble, the unpretentious, those without public power, the despised and discarded, the gentle and non-violent, are (in God’s eyes) the ones divinely destined to “have the earth for their possession” (Psalm 37: 11; Matthew 5:5). History belongs to them. Despite appearances, it is on their side.

What else can it mean that we call “king” a brown or black homeless child born in a barn and who will remain poor, deep in political trouble all his life and will finish on death row? What else can it mean that such a one was selected to be (according to Christian faith) the ultimate revelation of life’s meaning.

On this Christmas Day 2021, all such considerations should send us to look for God in today’s people and places Yeshua was so deeply a part of. Christmas reflections on the historical Yeshua should find him living in those tents that now dot all our big cities. He’s sleeping under some bridge in DC or NYC. He’s dodging drive-by bullets on Chicago’s South Side and shivering in the cold on the Tijuana border. He’s walking his last mile after his appeal for a stay of execution has been ignored by Trump’s SCOTUS packed with “pro-life” Catholics. His appeal is ignored by governors opening gifts with their lily-white children and filling their bellies with turkey and all the trimmings, after singing “Silent Night” with misty eyes in their heretical megachurch based on prosperity gospel lies.

In the face of all that, the proper hymn to sing is “Oh, come let us ignore him.” Yes, ignore that white supremacist, Jesus. And instead, let us adore the real Yeshua in that filthy, stinking barn. He’s there sharing a roof with the rats and beasts with whom our police forces equate those whose neighborhoods and barrios their militarized platoons occupy as enemy terrain.

If we were to find Yeshua in those unlikely places, how different our interminable Christmas season would be. Yes, suppose Americans (and the world’s other two billion Christians) spent two months each year giving serious reflection to Jesus’ social circumstances as presented in the biblical texts that scholars call “the infancy narratives.”

Doing so would change “the season” to one of national repentance, instead of the orgy of “Christmas shopping” for those who already have more than they need. We’d double down on support for Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. We’d organize to spend the season (any beyond) doing everything possible to eliminate the specific elements that plagued the life of Yeshua — namely:

  • Identification of “God” with scepters, armies, priests, and “power over”
  • Royalty of all kinds
  • Poverty
  • Homelessness
  • Persecution of asylum seekers
  • And immigrants
  • Imperialism in all its expressions
  • Honoring imperial military service as though it were heroic (It’s not!)
  • Infanticide (today by drone instead of sword)
  • Wars invariably waged against the world’s poor
  • Torture of those same impoverished souls
  • Capital punishment of the poor [never (please note) the rich]
  • Etc.

In other words, historical reflection would cause us to embrace the one whose life and rejection by organized religion and the imperial state reveal the true social location of divine incarnation.

As for the Jesus of our hymns, carols, and Christmas jingles, “Oh (please!), come let us ignore him.”

P.S. We might replace the ignored one’s hymns with Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ:”

Too Much Christ, Not Enough Jesus

Recently, a friend (also a former priest) allowed me to read a master’s dissertation he wrote while in Rome 40 years ago. As a 34-year-old Kiltegan missionary with experience in Africa, my friend (now in his early 70s) was exploring the meaning of the term “conversion.” It was a query, I suspect, sparked by his personal struggle with questions raised by his own discomfort with missionary work aimed at converting “pagan” Africans to Christianity.

Reading my friend’s dissertation recalled my own similar struggles as a member of the Catholic missionary group, the Society of St. Columban. Like the Kiltegans, the Columbans emerged from Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. My group’s original work was converting Chinese rather than Africans. As I was completing my graduate studies in Rome, I too had my own doubts about the Columbans’ project.

So, for me reading my friend’s work was a trip down memory lane. His thesis addressed the work of theologians I remember admiring during the late 1960s.

I’m talking about the revered thinkers Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and a lesser-known Jesuit theologian, William Lynch. I recall so well puzzling over their dense prose as it tried to make sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the light of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Who was Jesus, they asked, and what was his relationship to the “modern world?” As I said, my friend’s question to them was about their understanding of the term “conversion?”

Lonergan’s, Rahner’s, and Lynch’s answers to such questions revealed their developed world perspectives. Lonergan was a Canadian; Rahner a German; Lynch, an American. All three were heavily influenced by existentialist and Heideggerian philosophy that at the time contrasted so refreshingly with the Thomistic approach of pre-conciliar theology that heavily relied on Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastic philosophy. 

However, I (and theologians in general, including, I presume, my friend) have long since moved beyond the impenetrable, abstract, thought of the three theologians in question. Influenced by Jesus scholarship and by liberation theology, the reflections of today’s scholars are much more biblically and historically grounded – much more reliant on concrete social analysis than on existential speculation.

Let me try to show what I mean.

Lonergan, Rahner & Lynch

Without venturing too far into the deeper weeds of their relevant speculations, here’s how Lonergan, Rahner and Lynch approach the question of conversion:

  • Lonergan: Conversion is acceptance of truth rather than the world’s falsehoods. Its end point is awakening from an uncomprehending slumber. Its heightened consciousness yields a changed attitude towards the problem of evil, which is ultimately theological before the world’s otherwise incomprehensible tragedies. Conversion emerges from one’s unique experience of God which is analogous to falling in love. It is not rational; it is not dependent on argument. Conversion simply happens as a gift from God to one inexplicably grasped by the reality of Christ crucified, dead, and risen.
  • Rahner: Conversion is the owning of one’s human nature which is absolute openness (potentia obedientialis) to ultimate reality (aka “God”). Conversion is the process of becoming receptive to what the world discloses about itself against the backdrop of the Ground of Being.  That receptivity is modeled in the person of Jesus the Christ.  
  • Lynch: Conversion represents a radically changed way of experiencing the world. The world of the convert revolves around a different center than it does for the unconverted. He or she perceives and embraces the fact that all of creation is driven by eros – by the basic life-force that informs everything that is. For Lynch, Jesus understood that fact and because of living its truth, represents the ultimate version of humanity. He reveals to human beings who they are.

All these insights are profound and helpful to academics seeking a deeper understanding of the term conversion. And, as I earlier indicated, I once found them to represent the apex of theological reflection. I agreed, that (1) human beings are basically asleep to life’s deeper dimensions, (2) conversion entails awakening and (3) finally embracing a shared human nature as fundamental openness to Ultimate Reality that some call “God.” (3) Accepting that reality involves perceiving the Life Force (eros) that informs and unites all of creation. (4) Such perception gives the lives of the converted a new center not shared by “the world,” but (5) embodied instead in the person of Jesus the Christ crucified, dead, and resurrected.

That’s what I once believed. But that was before I encountered Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology. It was before (precisely as a Global South advocate) I took seriously the imperative to change the world rather than explain it to intellectuals.

Jesus Scholarship & Liberation Theology

Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology agree that conversion involves awakening to a reality other than that generally accepted by “the wisdom of the world.” But it understands awakening as development of class consciousness. Theological awakening moves the center of reflection from imperial locations such as Rome, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. to the peripheries of neo-colonies and the slums of Sao Paulo, Managua, and Mexico City.  

For liberation theologians, reality is not fundamentally theological or philosophical, but historical, economic, political, and social. It has been created by phenomena that Raul Peck says summarize the last 500 years of western history. Three words, he tells us, encapsulate it all – civilization (i.e., white supremacy), colonialism, and extermination. Those terms and the bloodstained reality they represent rather than abstract theological speculation, summarize the real problem of evil. That problem is concrete, material, and historical, not primarily theological. It is not mysterious, philosophical, or even theological.

Accordingly, liberation theology’s reflections start with the real world of endemic poverty, climate change, and threat of nuclear war. Closer to home, they begin in biblical circles where poor slum dwellers ask why there’s no electricity or plumbing – why their children are threatened by gang members and drug dealers. Only as a second step does theological reflection enter the picture. In reading the Gospels, the poor (not developed world theologians) discover the fact that Jesus and his community faced problems similar to their own. In the process, they find new relevance in the narratives of Jesus’ words and deeds.

This leads to a third step in liberation theology’s “hermeneutical circle” – planning to address community problems and to the identification and assignment of specific tasks to members of the reflection group in question. Will we demonstrate in front of city hall? Who will contact the mayor? What about community policing?

Answering and acting on questions like those represent the third step in liberation theology’s circle of interpretation. They are a form of reinsertion into community life. That reengagement then begins the circle’s dynamic all over again.

In summary then, liberation theology begins with social analysis that defines the context of those who (regardless of their attitudes towards theology) would not merely understand the world but are intent on transforming it in the direction of social justice. That by the way is the purpose of liberation theology itself – highlighting the specifically biblical stories whose power can change the world. Accordingly, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the standpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed who are committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

And this is where Jesus enters the reflective process in ways that traditional theologians (even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch) end up avoiding. For liberation theologians, Jesus is not merely crucified, dead, and risen. He also had a life (traditional theology’s “excluded middle”) including actual words and deeds before the eventuation of those culminating events.

In other words, Jesus is not primarily the transcendent Universal Christ. He is an historical figure who (as William Lynch correctly has it) relocates the center of the world and history. However, as just seen, he moves that center from the privileged terrain of Rome or the United States to their imperialized provinces and colonies. For liberation theology, kings and emperors are not the center of history, but people like the construction worker from Nazareth. That’s the astounding revelation of Jesus. It turns one’s understanding of the world upside-down.

Put still otherwise, (according to biblical stories whether considered historical or fictional) Jesus represents God’s unlooked-for incarnation in the earth’s wretched. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, an infant refugee from infanticide, an asylum seeker in Egypt, an excommunicate from his religious tribe, a friend of drunks and street walkers, and a victim of torture and capital punishment precisely for opposing Rome’s colonial control of Palestine.

Conclusion   

Yes, I remember admiring the likes of Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch. But they no longer speak to me. Their abstract words, tortured existential questions, and impenetrable grammar obscure the salvific reality so easily accessible and fascinating in the character of Jesus belonging to the Gospel stories – and to those impoverished and oppressed by what bell hooks calls the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately, however, the world and its theologians have always been reluctant to recognize that figure for what he was. The change he requires is too drastic. It would mean taking sides with the wretched of the earth.

Instead, theologians even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch have preferred to focus on Christ crucified, dead and resurrected without the biblical narrative of the construction worker’s words and deeds that stand 180 degrees opposite truths taken for granted in the world’s imperial centers.

But it is precisely that down-to-earth Jesus that our world today needs more than an abstract Universal Christ. Conversion to that despised and rejected messiah means rejecting identification with empire’s pretensions and goals. It means taking to the streets with the  Sunrise and Black Lives Matter movements. It means running the risk of sharing with Jesus his own fate as a victim of arrest, torture, and even capital punishment.

That’s what Jesus meant by urging his followers to take up the cross and follow him.  

Jesus Repudiates Machismo Not Divorce

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalms. 128:1-6; Hebrews, 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16 

I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.

However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.

What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.

By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.

First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.

To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men.  The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world.  In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.

Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.

So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.

And what was that practice?

In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.

Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much time talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.

In their book Another God Is PossibleMaria and Ignacio Lopez Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”

Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.

Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.

Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.

So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.

Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.

My “Sermon” @ My New Church — on Liberation Theology

For a couple of years now my pastor (Carter Via) at our newly-adopted non-denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church (THCC) has tried to find an opening for me to speak about liberation theology during one of our Sunday services. But Covid-19 as well as Peggy’s and my three months in Florida this winter made it difficult to arrange.

However, now that most of us are vaccinated, we’re back to in-person Sunday worship services. So, my opportunity to speak came over the Memorial Day weekend. The holiday made it possible for many members of my family to attend.

To illustrate liberation theology’s approach to the Bible, I selected for my remarks the strange story of The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac that appears in the Gospel of Mark 5:1-20. It was read beautifully by our co-pastor (Jennifer McCleery).

Carter had asked me not only to explain liberation theology, but my personal journey towards accepting its approach to the following of Jesus.

What follows is the church service. If you watch the entire thing, it may give you an idea of why Peggy and I find ourselves drawn to this particular church community. Otherwise, of course, you can simply move the cursor to the point where my remarks begin (around the 22 minute mark). Find the link immediately below. Scroll down to the second video viewer.

https://www.talmadgehill.org/sunday-morning-live

My Fight with Richard Rohr

I’m going to pick a little fight here with Richard Rohr, a man I truly admire and whose credentials make disagreement with him rather audacious. After all, he’s a best-selling author of more than 30 books, and is considered one of our great contemporary spiritual teachers. But bear with me anyhow.

My bone of contention with Fr. Rohr is his domestication of the historical Jesus. The Franciscan friar’s emphasis on Jesus as the “Universal Christ” ends up transforming the Master from a politically revolutionary figure into a spiritual teacher who in his time, it seems to me, would have had zero appeal to his intended audience. Certainly, he would have represented no threat at all to the Roman Empire that eventually executed him as a terrorist insurgent.

The distinction I’ll make is important for believers today living in the belly of the beast that proudly claims to succeed Rome as the world’s hegemon. That succession makes it a matter of urgency for Jesus’ disciples to determine our political stance toward issues like climate chaos, military budgets, nuclear stockpile updates, regime changes, interference in foreign elections, and identification of official enemies.

Should we be politically engaged as resisters to empire? Or is our task confined to tending our own gardens and reforming our own lives and behavior to more resemble Jesus meek and mild? Father Rohr, it seems to me, errs by emphasizing the latter position.

Let me develop that point by first expressing my appreciation for Richard Rohr. I’ll then look at his depoliticization of Jesus compared with what we know about the Jesus of history. Finally, I’ll offer some practical conclusions.  

Fr. Rohr and Me

I truly admire Richard Rohr. In fact, I identify with him. He’s just a bit younger than me and completely shares my intensely Catholic background.

Like me, he was raised at a time when we Catholics believed we possessed the whole truth. Protestants were the enemy and, we were convinced, on the road to hell.

Though he entered the seminary a bit later than me (beginning with college rather than with high school), his formative years were entirely shaped by the church. Like mine, his priestly world of certainty was shaken to its core after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to open the church to the world.

Suddenly Protestants became our “separated brothers and sisters in the faith.” Non-Christian religions were validated as authentic responses to a universal religious impulse. The task all religions shared became understanding, serving, and sanctifying the world.

Richard Rohr stands prominent among those who embraced the mandate of Vatican II and who remained faithful to its call despite a rightward shift in the church following a long period of retrenchment and rejection of Vatican II’s principles by the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Through it all, Richard Rohr not only remained faithful to the Council’s principles. He has continued its progressive shift by reinterpreting in insightful, common sense ways traditional Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity and Jesus as Universal Christ.

Rohr has even treated liberation theology with sensitive respect. That’s the Marxist-influenced movement that emerged in the Catholic Church when Global South churches were invited to apply Council insights in the former colonies.

The result was reflection on the following of Christ shaped by the experience of the poor and oppressed intent on improving their collective lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

Liberation theology recovers the relevance of the historical Jesus who was a Jew preaching reformed Judaism to other Jews. The center of his message was the Kingdom of God which every Jew of his time understood as the reconstitution of King David’s reign with its 12 tribes intact.

Rohr, Jesus and Rome

Nevertheless, Fr. Rohr is very gingerly, almost apologetic in his endorsement of liberation theology’s emphasis on the Jesus of history. And when he searches the Christian Testament, he finds forgiveness rather than prophetic judgment and revolutionary fervor.

All of this comes out in a YouTube video on Ragamuffin TV entitled “Jesus and Empire.” There, Fr. Richard emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness not only of individuals, but, as he puts it, of “social constructs.” He forgives Judaism for being legalistic. He forgives Romans for being oppressive. He forgives life for being absurd to the point of making his own execution necessary.

Generally according to Fr. Rohr, Jesus’ way of resistance was simple refusal to participate in the Roman system of oppression, while advocating complete nonviolence. Specifically, Rohr says:

  • Far from advocating the violent expulsion of Rome from the Holy Land, Jesus’ approach was “sort of Nonviolence 101.”
  • Jesus is telling us to “clean our own cups” before even thinking about judging or attacking others. Don’t make the problem “out there” or you’ll never get beyond it,” was his teaching. Other people are not the problem; it’s you that has to change.
  • [Although Fr. Rohr does admit with a chuckle that Jesus had some “pretty harsh things to say” about the pharisees – e.g., calling them “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 3:27) and pronouncing harsh “woes” for the rich, well-fed and apparently happy (Luke 6: 24-25), while apparently condemning to eternal flame those failing to recognize him in the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46).]
  • It’s also significant that none of the gospels even mentions the town of Sepphoris, the bustling Roman regional capital just 9 miles down the road from Nazareth. Such silence again indicates that Jesus refused to participate in the Roman system. The implication is “O.K., that’s what the Romans are about; but I’m not going to get you into an anti-Roman frenzy.”
  • Jesus goes further. He even shows friendship with Romans. He cures a centurion’s servant at a distance without chastising the officer for oppressing the Jewish people (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
  • According to two Gospel accounts, it was a Roman soldier who first acknowledged Jesus’ divinity, “Indeed, this man was the son of God” (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 37).
  • Fr. Richard sums up Jesus’ attitude towards Rome as “damning with faint praise.” Or rather, he ignored the “stupid” Roman system in favor of building a better one, viz., the Kingdom of God. It was, “Hey, guys, let’s do it better and I’m going to give you the rituals, teachings and keys to how to accomplish that. But let’s not be negative ‘anti people;’ let’s be for something.”
  • The “something” to be for was simple living – rather like Wendell Berry’s concentration of his creative efforts on just one piece of land. After all, small is truly beautiful.
  • In summary, Jesus embodied the Universal Christ – the life principle that comprises our True Self that unifies the entire human race and all of creation. In opposing others, you are really opposing yourself, because the other is yourself (Matthew 7:12).

The Historical Jesus

My gentle fight with Richard Rohr turns on many of the points just listed, but principally on his understanding of that understanding of “Christ.”

Take those points already reviewed:

  • For starters, Jesus’ attitude towards violence is far more complicated than Fr. Rohr allows. Without going into detail, he’s remembered as saying some disturbing things on this subject. For instance:
    1. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:49).
    2. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
    3. “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
    4. Additionally, on the day of his arrest, the leader of Jesus’ group was armed and had no compunction about using his weapon against the arresting police (John 18:10).
    5. Then, there’s the fact that all lists of Jesus’ apostles contain “Simon the Zealot.” [In Jesus’ day, those called Zealots were committed (often violent) revolutionaries.]
    6. Finally, there’s Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” and the perplexing use of force involved there (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16).
  • The fact is that the entire concept of non-violence is a modern one. No one in Jesus’ day thought that a power as mighty as Rome could somehow be defeated without some sort of muscular resistance. Granted, Jesus might have rejected that avenue. But he nowhere explains that alternative.
  • As for Sepphoris and Gospel silence about it. . . The Gospels are silent about the entirety of Jesus’ life as a construction worker – and everything else about him after the historically questionable “infancy narratives” found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does this mean that Jesus boycotted human life in general?
  • Regarding Jesus’ contacts with Roman soldiers, it’s a quite common occurrence, of course, during any war or occupation for soldiers to be “converted” to local ways and wisdom and even to reject the whole colonial project.
  • Finally, a message of “Don’t judge the Romans and reform yourselves instead,” would have garnered Jesus zero followers among his peasant listeners. And instead of killing Jesus as an insurgent, the Romans would have likely ignored or approved of him.

Then, of course there are the many elements in the Christian Testament that indicate Jesus’ opposition to Rome. For instance, apart from the provocative statements above:

  • Jesus was born in Galilee which was by all accounts a hotbed of anti-imperial rebellion.
  • His mother is remembered as composing a revolutionary song that celebrated “putting down the mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:46-55).
  • She and Joseph gave all of their sons revolutionary names: Yeshua (Joshua), Simon, Joseph, James (Jacob), and Judas.
  • Jesus’ basic proclamation that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God had as its inevitable corollary the ushering out of Roman occupation. To Roman ears, that claim was unequivocally treasonous.
  • The same was true of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ.”  They were anti-imperial, revolutionary titles.
  • In Jesus’ context, there was no practical distinction between the Roman Empire and Jesus’ Jewish archenemies belonging to the “scribal establishment” and including the Temple priesthood. Its high priests were virtual employees of the empire. By attacking them, Jesus was attacking Rome.
  • Similarly, Jesus’ statements against and interactions with Galilee’s king, Herod Antipas involved the Roman empire (Matthew 2: 6-18; 14: 1-12; Luke 13: 32; 23: 6-12). Herod too served at Rome’s pleasure
  • At one point, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus’ identifying a band of terrifying demons with the hated Roman Legions and with polluting pigs. Afterwards, he causes the pigs to drown “in the sea” – a phrase deliberately recalling the fate of Egyptian troops perishing in the Red Sea while pursuing the Hebrew founding fathers and mothers (Mark 5: 1-17).
  • Above all, after applying their torture, the Romans crucified Jesus using a form of execution reserved for insurgents against imperial authority. That is, Rome treated Jesus as an anti-imperial bandit.
  • On his cross, the titulus or statement of Jesus’ crime read specifically, “King of the Jews” – an ipso facto anti-imperial claim.  

Fr. Rohr’s Universal Christ

Fr. Rohr ignores all of that. More particularly, however, the meaning that he gives the term “Christ” was definitely not the understanding of the historical Jesus nor of anyone in his audiences.

Rather, Fr. Rohr’s use of the term comes from Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met the historical Jesus and shows little interest in him. It also derives from the ahistorical Gospel of John which nearly four generations after his death transforms Jesus into an anti-Jewish mystic.

Other key sources for Rohr’s Universal Christ are the highly symbolic Book of Revelation which barely made it into the Christian canon along with the so-called “gnostic gospels” most of which were written centuries after the death of Jesus.

By way of contrast and as described for instance by Reza Aslan, “Christ” meant one thing and one thing only for Jesus and his contemporaries. The Christ was the promised Messiah who would be (1) a descendant of King David, (2) who would restore David’s royal line and the 12 tribes of Israel, and (3) expel foreign occupiers from Judah’s Holy Land. That’s it. There was simply no other understanding of that term in Jesus’ context. Again, Jesus did not take pains to explain any other interpretation.

To repeat: along with the dozens of others claiming messiahship in his day, Jesus called the ushering in of Davidic sovereignty the “Kingdom of God.” But that necessarily entailed opposition to Roman occupiers. As I said, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom necessarily entailed the ushering out from Israel the Roman kingdom – the occupation forces that shaped every aspect of life in first century Palestine.

Clearly, the occupiers understood that. For them, the concept of God’s Reign was treasonous. So, every man who claimed to be the agent of David’s kingdom restoration (and again, there were dozens if not hundreds of them in Jesus’ world) suffered crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners. The ones so crucified all claimed to be messiahs or Christs, i.e., God’s anointed.

Conclusion

None of what I’ve written here is meant to diminish the status of Fr. Richard Rohr as the great spiritual teacher and inspirational author he is.  Much less is it intended to denigrate the spiritual value of the Universal Christ concept.

As reflected in Rohr’s most basic sources (Paul of Tarsus, John’s Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the Gnostic Gospels) – as well as in strains belonging to all the world’s Great Religions – the idea of a Life Force unifying all of creation is not merely valid; its practical recognition is essential for the survival of our species and planet.

As acknowledged by Fr. Richard, the Universal Christ also has important political implications. If we truly recognize that reality, we’ll indeed see that our neighbors actually are ourselves – and so is every other element in creation.

Instead, what’s argued here is that Fr. Rohr’s explicit diminution of Jesus’ anti-imperial stance  is inadequate for Christians living in the belly of the beast that has so proudly and arrogantly identified itself as Rome’s contemporary successor.

That beast currently threatens life on our planet in ways undreamt of by previous imperial iterations no matter how depraved. It has literally set the globe ablaze. Its endless wars immiserate populations everywhere. It recognizes no finally valid international law. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any country on earth. Its nuclear policy portends endless winter.

In dire circumstances like those, Fr. Rohr’s Gospel of endless forgiveness and of cleaning one’s own cup (while personally helpful) is simply insufficient as the response of Christians to the unprecedented threat our own country represents in these truly apocalyptic times.

Something else is needed.

We need a burning sense of urgency. We need to open our eyes. We need to resist our own country as the greatest existential threat human history has ever experienced.

And that means first of all rejecting indoctrination and knee-jerk patriotic denial that typically characterizes Christian communities. It also entails the transformation of local churches into something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church where entire congregations unite specifically as communities of resistance sponsoring direct action that only communities (vs. individuals) can prosecute successfully. For instance, in our case:

  • Joining street-level acts of resistance to empire at every opportunity
  • Sponsoring specifically anti-imperial education programs
  • Lending each other community support in collectively refusing to pay war taxes
  • Counselling young people against entering the military
  • Political campaigning for peace candidates
  • Divesting from and boycotting key economic engines of the U.S. economy like Amazon and Wal-Mart
  • Forming or joining local credit unions

But above all, in our churches we must escape contentment with cleaning our own cup or tending our own garden as a somehow adequate response to our extraordinary times.

Such uncontroversial spiritual solipsism may let us off the hook. But it was not the way of the historical Jesus.

Jesus Is Not God!

Forensic archeologists say that the historical Jesus looked like this. He was not white and stood about 5 feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds.

Last night we had another meeting of our church’s Lenten series discussing controverted questions of faith. So far, we’ve discussed (1) miracles, (2) healing, (3) Jesus and the poor, (4) the tension between American and Christian identities, and (5) what happens after death. Next week, we’ll address the question of resurrection. It’s all been interesting and at times quite inspiring to interact with more than a dozen gifted and earnest fellow seekers in a very admirable faith community.

However (if you recall), a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to lead the session on Jesus and the Poor, I got “hooked” into defending (at inappropriate length) the centrality of the biblical “preferential option for the poor” as the heart of Christianity. The one who hooked me is a very friendly, intelligent, articulate, and sincere church member whose faith convictions are undeniably robust. I admire him greatly.  

Nevertheless, during last evening’s meeting, it almost happened again. I mean, I was tempted to respond that same interlocutor rather than biting my tongue regarding a revisitation of our topic of two weeks ago about Jesus’ identity. (Remember, last night’s topic was to be what happens after death.)

Instead, my friend in the evening’s opening remark said something like the following: “We’re supposed to be Christians here discussing our faith. But the readings we’ve shared not only this week but two weeks ago, depart quite radically from central Christian beliefs. For instance, this evening’s reading is by Marcus Borg who sees Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. In this, he agrees with Judaism and Islam both of which of course honor Jesus – but as a mere religious genius, not as the Christ or as God. Christian faith on the other hand holds emphatically that Jesus is God, that he is indeed the expected Christ (Messiah). Without those beliefs, you’re simply not a Christian.”

As I said, I had other ideas, but bit my tongue.

However, here’s what I wanted to say in response (but thankfully did not):

Jesus is not God

Following the great Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is not God. Instead, I believe that God is Jesus.

The distinction is not merely semantic. Saying that “Jesus is God” presumes that we know what the term “God” means. But that term, of course, has always been entirely problematic. What exactly is content? Answers to that query are legendarily diverse.

The problem is not only perennial, but in the case of Jesus is compounded by the ironic fact that the identification of Jesus as “God” took place under the aegis of the Roman Empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The irony stemmed from the fact that the Council was summoned by the Constantine, the emperor of Rome which had executed the prophet Jesus as an insurgent.

So, Constantine’s own problem was how to transform a rebel against Rome into a God (Deus was the Latin term) not only acceptable to, but supportive of his empire. His conundrum was how to transform Jesus into the son of a God whom worshippers of Zeus could understand.

[By the way, I hope you can see the significance of the similarity in terms Deus and Zeus. Its single consonant variation suggests that the Romans (who knew nothing of the Jewish God, Yahweh) couldn’t help but transform God into a thunder-bold throwing Zeus and Jesus into Zeus’ favorite son Apollo. In practice, no other understandings were possible for them!]

With all of this in mind, remember that Nicaea’s mandate was to answer questions like the following about the identity of Jesus:

  • Was he simply a man, a prophet?
  • Was he simply a god?
  • Was he a man who became a god?
  • Was he a god pretending to be a man?

In Constantine’s 4th century, there were “heresies” that represented each of these viewpoints.

But Nicaea’s answer to such questions was different. It stated that: Jesus was a divine being who was fully Deus/Zeus and fully man as well. The Council however left it for future theologians to explain exactly how that combination was possible.

[In my opinion, no one ever successfully did that. Marcus Borg, I think, came closest by holding that Jesus was fully human before his “resurrection” (however we might interpret that term) and fully God afterwards.]

In any case, throughout history Christians themselves have in practice resolved the fully God/fully human dilemma by emphasizing Jesus’ God dimension while neglecting almost entirely his humanity. Practically speaking, Christians have never truly endorsed Jesus’ humanity.

God Is Jesus

And that’s where the importance of holding that “God is Jesus” surfaces. On the one hand, the formulation recognizes the problematic nature of the term “God.” On the other, it resolves the dilemma by pointing to the Jesus of history to reveal the meaning of the term Deus. Look at the human Jesus, it says, and you’ll better understand the meaning of the word God.

And what do we find when we look at Jesus while bracketing official understandings of God as Zeus and Jesus as Apollo? The answer is entirely surprising and turns official theologies on their heads.

As revealed in Jesus, God shows up as the champion not of imperial majesties, but of slaves escaped from those same imperial majesties. More specifically, God’s embodiment (incarnation) is found in a man actually oppressed, not championed by empire. He is a peasant, the son of an unwed teenage mother, a refugee in Egypt, an enemy of the religious establishment, the leader of a poor people’s movement, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

According to Christian faith, that’s who Jesus is; that’s who God is – found in the poor, the oppressed, in the torture chamber, on death row. . .

The fact that God chose to reveal God’s self as such is what is meant by the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Jesus is the Christ

All of this is intimately linked with my church friend’s insistence that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.  Here too we must remember that “Christ” is not a Roman term; it is entirely Jewish and has specific Jewish meaning impossible to understand apart from its cultural context.

As Jesus-scholar, Reza Aslan, reminds us, the term “Christ” had one meaning and one meaning only for Jews: the Christ was (1) a descendent of Judah’s King David who would (2) reestablish David’s kingdom (3) in a once again sovereign state. And reestablishing sovereignty necessarily meant disestablishing Rome’s kingdom which occupied 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived.

Of course, the Romans understood that. Consequently, they executed Jesus precisely as an insurgent – along with the untold others in the same historical period who made the same messianic claim. Such was the point of the titulus, “King of the Jews” that the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate insisted be displayed over Jesus’ head as he hung dying on his cross – the instrument of torture and death reserved for insurgents against the Roman empire (John 19:22). The titulus proclaimed the charges against the executed. Jesus’ crime was proclaiming himself “King of the Jews.”

So, historically speaking, claiming that Jesus is the Christ or messiah is a highly political statement. It signifies belief in Jesus as the quintessential opponent of empire and its inevitable oppression of God’s chosen – the poor and oppressed.

Conclusion

I’m glad I didn’t try to say all of that at last night’s meeting. Still, I’m happy for the evocation of such thoughts by my brother in faith at our Talmadge Hill Community Church.

It all reminded me of what I first learned at a memorable lecture by Passionist scripture scholar, Barnabas Ahern back in 1965 (when I was just 25 years old). Ahern’s topic was the historical Jesus. He inspired me to confront the fact that christians (myself included) tend to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is God, while at the same time paying only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. Ever since then, I resolved to avoid that mistake myself.

In fact, I was so impressed by what Fr. Ahern said that the very next day I wrote out from memory the scholar’s entire talk which has since then played a central role in driving me to internalize modern scripture scholarship about the humanity of the historical Jesus.

It has led me to Roger Haight’s formulation that Jesus is not God, but God is Jesus.

With Reza Aslan’s help, I’ve also come to grasp the revolutionary meaning the terms “Christ” and “Messiah” must have had for 1st century Jews. Then writers such as Marcus Borg have helped me understand the post-resurrection process by which the human Jesus himself appropriated his divine nature – human before his resurrection, divine afterwards.

And that entire sequence of lessons has immeasurably enriched my own faith and enabled me to share their insights.

Thank you, my brothers and teachers Barnabas, Roger, Reza and Marcus.

I Go Overboard in Explaining How the Judeo-Christian Tradition = God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

[This is a second reflection on a pair of Zoom experiences I had last Monday. I reported the first here – some comments I made at a meeting of the Y’s Men of Westport. What I said and my insistence on saying it had me wondering about my role in the world during this third stage of my life. How much should I say? To what extent should I just shut up?

Today, I’m reporting on a Zoom meeting later that same day. It had me co-leading a Lenten discussion at our new church in Westport, CT. It was our third pre-Easter session devoted to examining controversial topics connected with our faith. Two weeks earlier, we had discussed miracles, their nature and possibility. A week later, the topic was healing. The topic last Monday was the question of “Jesus for the poor.”

Because of my interest in liberation theology and its signature “preferential option for the poor,” one of our two pastors had invited me to co-lead the discussion with him.

With the pastor’s consent, here’s the way I approached it.]

Introduction

The question of Jesus and poverty is fundamentally a religious question. And religion, of course, is a language. It marries words and concepts to a fundamentally ineffable (beyond words) experience that is open to all people. When that experience occurs in China, it comes out as Buddhism or Confucianism; when it happens in India, it’s expressed as Hinduism; when it happens in Arabia, it takes the form of Islam.

When the religious impulse finds words among the world’s poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective lives, it is expressed as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yes, I mean that: the biblical tradition (virtually alone among the world’s great literature) thematically reflects the religious consciousness of awakened and impoverished victims of imperialism.  

More specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition found its origin among slaves in pharaonic Egypt. Those slaves formed a people (called Hebrews or “rebels”) who retained their worship of a God favoring ex-slaves, widows, orphans, and resident foreigners throughout their history of domination by empires of various sorts – under Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.

The Tradition’s Foundational Story

That fact becomes clear when we consider the basic biblical story. According to virtually all mainstream scripture scholars, that narrative begins not with Adam and Eve in the garden, but with the liberation of a motley group of slaves of various ethnic identities. The story told to give them a sense of national unity runs as follows:

Jesus the Christ

Here it is important to note that Jesus appeared precisely in the prophetic tradition. His message represented a defense of the poor. This is abundantly clear from the program he articulated in Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel:

Jesus’ program represented a reversal of the world’s values. Everything in God’s kingdom would be turned upside-down. According to Luke’s “Beatitudes,” the poor would be blessed, so would the hungry and thirsty along with those suffering persecutions. Meanwhile the rich would be condemned. “Woe to you rich,” Jesus is remembered as saying, “you’ve had your reward.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will soon be weeping.” In other words, Jesus’ understanding of God’s future entailed a complete reversal of the world’s social arrangement. As he put it, “The first would be last and the last would be first” (MT 20:16).

What’s more, the early Christian community’s interpretation of Jesus’ message underlined the entire tradition’s “preferential option for the poor.” In the first Christians’ efforts to follow the Master, they actually sold what they had and gave it to the poor. That way of life is reflected in three important passages from the Acts of the Apostles:

Jesus Romanized

With all of that in mind, you can see why the Christian message was so popular with slaves, the poor, with social outcasts. You can see how it inspired revolts as it spread throughout the Roman Empire. You can also understand why Rome became alarmed and famously ended up sponsoring all those persecutions which iconically fed so many Christians to lions and other beasts in the Colosseum. However, it was all to no avail – as Christianity continued to spread like wildfire.

So, at the beginning of the 4th century of our era, the emperor Constantine decided to co-op Christianity. But to do so, the new religion’s basic narrative had to be changed. It became Romanized and was effectively transformed into a Roman mystery cult.

Mystery cults worshipped gods like Mithra (whose feast day btw was Dec. 25th), Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother God. Their stories had the god descend from heaven, die, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven from which s/he offered life everlasting to believers who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

In Christian form, the narrative supporting such belief was best expressed by St. Augustine in the 5th century. Drawing on stories in the book of Genesis and on statements found in Pauline writings, this is the story with which Augustine shaped and captivated Christian belief for the next 1500 years: 

 

Notice here how the story abstracts not only from the histories of Judea and Israel, but from Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God and its Great Reversal in the here and now. Instead, everything is mythologized.

And that brings us to our discussion questions:

For Discussion

  1. What are your questions about the information in these slides?
  2. What surprised you about that information?
  3. What (if anything) do you find questionable or unacceptable about it?
  4. What are the implications of this approach to the bible and Jesus for your own faith?
  5. What are the implications of this approach for the Talmadge Hill Community Church?

My 1st & 2nd Mistakes

Of course, anyone reading what I’ve just presented can see that my first mistake was speaking too long and presenting too many new ideas for a 90-minute discussion. (My face is still bright red.)

My second mistake was even worse.

The slides I just presented had been shared beforehand with our group of about 20. And one member had done his homework. After expressing appreciation for my work, he went on to list in detail his points of disagreement. He began with his belief that the foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition was indeed found in Genesis, not Exodus. He went on to say that my presentation overlooked the crucial fact that Jesus is divine, the very Son of God, and that his words about poverty were meant to be taken in a spiritual rather than in a material sense.

In response, I should have kept silent. And if I chose to respond, I should have said, “I really appreciate your taking the time to express so well and clearly the most important points of the Augustinian story. What you’ve done sets us up perfectly for comparing the two basic biblical stories we’ve just reviewed. Does anyone else in the group have similar or different thoughts from the ones just expressed?”

That’s what I should have said.

However, instead (and forgetting all I’ve learned from 40 years of teaching this stuff) I attempted to respond point-by-point to the issues my friend had so well summarized.

Mine was such a bad decision that at one point, the pastor had to cut me off to give other people a chance. (As I said, my face is still a vivid crimson.)

Conclusion

I didn’t sleep well Monday night. I couldn’t help thinking, “When will I ever learn?” I even thought, “I’m getting too old to do this sort of thing. I think my days of teaching, public speaking, and playing leadership roles in church might be over. I’ve got to learn to say less and to stop trying to convince others about what I’ve learned over all my years of studying and dialoguing with Global South scholars. It’s all counterproductive.”

The next morning, however, things appeared a bit less dire. I received telephone calls of encouragement from the co-leading pastor and some others. Emails tried to console me. (But all of that almost made matters worse. It made me think, “They’re just trying to make me feel good. It must have been more awful than I thought.”)

The problem is that I still feel so passionate about rescuing the Jesus tradition from the irrelevance of its domestication by Augustine and subsequent theologians.

In a world of globalized poverty and exploitation, the life, words and teachings of the historical Jesus are too powerful to keep silent about. I’m just going to learn from this sobering, uncomfortable lesson and move on.

This is about something much bigger than my mistakes as a teacher.

If That’s Religion, Good Riddance!

Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.

That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.

Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.

The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.

I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.

Let me explain.

Religion’s Sudden Decline

Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.

What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.

That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.

All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.

For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:

  • Large families
  • That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
  • That they stay at home and care for their offspring
  • That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality

However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.

And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.

Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)

However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.

To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.

The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.  

Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.

Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.

Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.  

In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.

Liberation Theology

All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.

In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.

Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.

Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.

Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.

More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.

For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.

In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.

In the first place, the prophets opposed the creation of royalty at all (1 Samuel 8). In the second place, their social criticism advocated the interests of those widows, orphans and strangers (https://www.openbible.info/topics/widows_and_orphans). In the third place, they suffered the predictable consequences experienced by all (then and since) who speak truth to the patriarchy. They were ostracized, exiled, imprisoned, assassinated or formally executed https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Killing-Prophets

Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.

All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.

And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).      

Conclusion

Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?

More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?

For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:

  • First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran. To ignore this truism is to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
  • Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
  • And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.