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.