Pete Buttigieg & Fake “Good News” About Jesus’ Poverty

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: SIR 3:2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5; COL 3: 12-21;NT 2: 13-15, 19-23

Last week Pete Buttigieg annoyed white Evangelicals by calling attention to Jesus’ poverty.

As reported in The Washington Post, his Christmas tweet read: “Today I join millions around the world celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

In response, many mostly white evangelicals went apoplectic.  “Jesus was not poor,” they countered. “And he certainly was not one of those despicable refugees. At his birth, his parents were simply obeying imperial law by returning to Joseph’s town of origin.  Bethlehem just happened to have all its rooms filled with similar obedient taxpayers. So even though Joseph and Mary were quite capable of paying, their hotel bill, they had to accept an overnight stay in a smelly, rodent-infested stable. Which of us wouldn’t do the same?”

__________

The next day, when we discussed the controversy over breakfast, my daughter asked, “What’s the big deal? Why do those people care so much?”

I answered, “It’s because if Jesus was poor and a refugee from state violence, the whole anti-poor, anti-refugee program of the Republican Party is nullified at least from the standpoint of faith.” It means for instance that:

  • When they support Donald Trump’s exclusion of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border, Republicans are really excluding the modern-day equivalents of Jesus, his mother and father as depicted in today’s Gospel selection. There, the Jewish King Herod’s planned slaughter of innocent babies drives Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt with their new son. In other words, the Holy Family sought refugee status in Egypt.
  • Republicans are refusing to recognize Jesus’ later specific identification with such emigrants, when in the clearest representation of final judgment (MT 25), he says, “Whatever you do to the least of the brethren (i.e. the hungry, thirsty, immigrants (“strangers”), the sick and imprisoned), you do to me.” Those words absolutely identify Jesus with the categories of people just mentioned – all of them impoverished.
  • Jesus advised his followers that they themselves must become poor (MT 19:21).  He’s remembered as telling them “. . . sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” (Would Jesus recommend poverty to his followers and remain un-poor himself?)
  • The earliest Christian communities took literally Jesus’ injunction about becoming poor. In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “There were no needy ones among them, because those who owned lands or houses would sell their property, bring the proceeds from the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet for distribution to anyone as he had need.” That is, the earliest Christians’ desire to follow Jesus drove them to imitate his lowly social status.
  • Jesus described his entire mission as directed towards the poor. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Even more, as economist Michael Hudson points out in his monumental And Forgive Them Their Debts, Jesus’ programmatic reference to the “year of the Lord’s favor” points to the Jewish Jubilee Year. “Jubilee” was the biblically mandated period when all debts were to be forgiven and land returned to its original (mostly poor) owners. Hudson points out that such debt forgiveness was practiced throughout the ancient mid-east. It was more general than a biblical mandate.

According to Hudson, when new leaders acceded to the throne, they created a clean slate. All debts were forgiven. The corresponding legislation in the Book of Deuteronomy had Israel following suit.

Jesus’ “Good News” to the poor was that (following Deuteronomy) their debts needed forgiveness. Inevitably, that demand was understood by all concerned (especially by Rome’s imperialists and their puppet clients in Jerusalem’s temple) as a highly threatening call to social justice. (Can you see how that understanding of Jesus’ Good News Gospel would be similarly threatening to Republicans while at the same time encouraging Democrats seeking relief for debt -crushed students?)

As I told my daughter, that’s why it’s important to evangelical Trumpists that Jesus not be a poor man himself, that he not be an advocate for the poor, or that he not be a refugee. The contrary calls everything Republicans stand for into question. It makes Donald Trump, his exclusion of refugees, and his baby jails eerily similar to King Herod as depicted in today’s final reading.

__________

But everything I’ve said so far overlooks an even deeper point that I developed in my Christmas reflections last Wednesday. My point there was that the “infancy narratives” (found only in Luke and Matthew) constitute what biblical scholars for the last century and more have recognized as Midrash and Haggadah. That is, following rabbinic tradition, these accounts represent fictional stories based on readings of the Jewish Testament and intended to make a theological point.

And in the case of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s seeking refugee status in Egypt, Matthew’s theological point for his specifically Jewish audience (vs. Luke’s gentile readers) is that Jesus is the New Israel. As such, he relives his people’s early history. [And that entire history from its very beginning (and repeated in its occupation of Palestine in 1948) is that of a refugee people – refugees from Pharaoh’s enslavement to Hitler’s genocide and ubiquitous anti-Semitism.] We might even say that the Jewish Testament’s very message (reiterated in the case of Jesus) is that REFUGEES ARE GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE.

Put otherwise, the story of the Holy Family’s “Flight into Egypt” is far more than a rabbinic riff on Moses’s escape from the slaughter of Hebrew children under the Egyptian pharaoh 1200 years earlier. It actually has Jesus:

  • Begin is life, like the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in “The Promised Land”
  • Go down into Egypt to escape disaster
  • Leave Egypt
  • Spend 40 days in the desert (recapitulating Israel’s 40 years there)
  • Like Moses, dispense a New Law (i.e. the Beatitudes)
  • Precisely on a mountain (the analogue of Mt Zion) — as opposed to Luke’s location of the same teaching “on a plain.”

In summary, and in the context of Mayor Pete’s observation about Jesus’ poverty and refugee status, the point made in today’s Gospel reading is not the relatively superficial one that Jesus was poor. By all accounts he was.

No, it’s the much deeper theological point that the earliest Christian believers (like Matthew) identified Jesus with an entire people whose very essence was their refugee status. They were enslaved, had no possessions at all, had no liberty, were completely despised by their captors, and were victims of imperialism, infanticide and even genocide.

And yet this man rejected and executed by empire ended up (according to early Christian faith) destined to rule the entire cosmos.

Could any message be more revolutionary or encouraging to the world’s refugees, immigrants, poor, victims of slavery and genocide? It’s that the future belongs to them; the world belongs to them. In God’s eyes, borders are irrelevant. God is on their side. History is on their side. They have nothing to lose but their chains!

Thanks, Mayor Pete, for starting a dialog that in this election year might help Christians recognize and embrace the real Jesus and his implications for today’s problems of poverty, state-sponsored violence, immigration, and debt.

Evidently, they are not implications Republicans care to entertain.

The Christmas Story: Fact or Fiction?

Grandchildren are wonderful. And so are Christmas pageants.

Last Sunday, just minutes before the curtain went up on our church’s annual play, one of the shepherds (my seven-year-old grandson Orlando) approached me with an urgent question seemingly from out of the blue. “What’s the evidence (he used that word) that Jesus ever lived? How do we know,” he asked, “that he existed at all? Huh? Huh? Where’s the evidence?”

Caught off guard, I replied, “Well, that’s complicated. I suppose we have as much evidence as for any figures from the ancient past. How do we know, for instance, that Julius Caesar ever existed?”

With that, Orlando ran off to tend the sheep.

But of course, my answer – except for the first part about complications – was completely inadequate. It revealed how we elders have dodged sharp questions from our children and grandchildren long enough. We’ve not been honest with them in answering burning queries concerning the very meaning of life and the nature of the sources we claim to be inspired. As a result, we’ve driven them away into a world that is consequently (as Caitlin Johnstone has so delicately put it) completely F**ked. That is, we’ve filled their minds with fictions that pretend to explain the world but that won’t finally hold water.

Let’s face it: we don’t have nearly the evidence for Jesus’ existence that we have for Caesar’s. And there’s good reason for that hard reality – reason that cuts to the very heart of so many questions about figures from yesteryear and even about our contemporaries. It’s the reason we need “people’s histories” like Howard Zinn’s.

Fact is, we never know much about poor people from any historical period (including our own). And Jesus left no direct record. He wrote nothing. Possibly he was illiterate.

Moreover, the record-keepers of Jesus time (and the Romans were exquisite about records – that and building roads and killing people) just weren’t interested in the nobodies they ruled, especially in marginal provinces like Israel – and especially from towns like Nazareth, a true nowheresville.

Yes, the Romans kept records about their puppet kings and temple collaborators. But even those flunkies weren’t interested in the others, much less about the innumerable insurgents they routinely offered for execution with the special process Rome reserved for terrorists –  crucifixion.

Despite the impression we get from the Christian Gospels (which were written long after the fact) the whole world wasn’t watching Jesus’ trial and execution, much less his birth. No, there probably wasn’t any trial at all. And Jesus’ body was likely thrown into a common grave after it was consumed by buzzards and dogs.

So, actually, my response to Orlando’s question (if he were capable of understanding it) should have been: “If you’re asking about the birth of Jesus and the story you’re about to perform on stage . . . No, we don’t have any evidence that it happened in the way you’ll portray it.

“In fact, the story you’re enacting probably didn’t take place at all. Most likely, there were no angels or shepherds, magi or guiding star.

“I say that because only Luke and Matthew tell stories like that. They’re not found in Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) nor in John, the last one of the four. This means that Mark and John either didn’t know of what scholars call “the infancy narratives” (including the virgin birth) or they didn’t think the tales important enough to include. And if the Christmas stories actually occurred, neither of those possibilities is very likely.

“You see, the infancy narratives are what scholars call Midrashim or Aggadah — interpretative parables based on ancient Jewish texts like Isaiah 7:14, which reads: ‘a virgin (actually a young girl) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The stories are invented to make a theological point – in this case, that from the beginning Jesus embodied a special manifestation of Israel’s God, Yahweh.”

Personally, I remember when I was first introduced to Midrashim and Aggadah – when I was much older than my seven-year-old grandson. That was something like 55 years ago, when at about 24 years of age, I was beginning my seminary study of ancient biblical texts. I still remember my shock at learning that the story of the Wisemen was Midrashic fiction. What? No magi? No star? No gold, frankincense and myrrh? My mind quickly raced ahead. What then about Jesus’ resurrection? Could that be Midrash too? I was deeply threatened and devastated.

And it took me a long time to come to terms with the faith-implications I saw so clearly then. However, that was the beginning of my ability to think critically even about the most threatening questions I could imagine. There is nothing, I concluded, that cannot be asked. Truth is truth; we can’t be afraid of it, no matter where it leads. God (however we might imagine him or her or It) cannot be contradicted by truth. (But all that’s another story.)

Of course, Orlando wouldn’t be able to understand any of this. And at this point, he doesn’t care. Instead, he’s just learned about historical “evidence” and is testing out that idea. But some day, he may be interested – as most readers are at this point. He’ll wake up some day (as I did much later in life) with adult questions. But because our churches and elders who know better, treat adults as children, he’ll end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But what is the baby we’re talking about?  It’s the point-of-faith conveyed in all the infancy narratives. It’s that “God” or History or Life Itself is for everyone – not just for the analogues of Rome and its Temple mannequins.

No, God is present in unwed teenage mothers. God appears in babies born in smelly rat-infested hovels. God’s there in immigrants and refugees fleeing genocidal tyrants like Herod. God is present on death row – in tortured insurgents and victims of capital punishment. And some of them (like Jesus himself, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day and Malcolm) are more alive and influential today than ever they were when they walked the earth. Resurrection is real.

The Jesus stories convey all these things. Yes, all those supporting stories – including the infancy narratives – are true.

Some of them might even have happened.

Waking Up To the Real Nature of the Bible (Personal Reflections Pt. X)

Merk

I don’t exactly remember what I thought about the Bible before beginning its formal study the year after receiving my B.A. in Philosophy (1961),

Ironically, although I had been in the seminary all those years (since 1954) the formal study of “religion” hadn’t at all been central in. the curriculum.

Yes, we attended Mass every day (and twice on Sundays). And there were all those daily chapel activities and devotions: morning and evening prayer, afternoon rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament before and after meals, nightly Benediction, conferences by the seminary spiritual director, etc. There were also those inspirational readings I mentioned accompanying breakfast and lunch in the “refectory.”

But formal study pretty much concentrated on languages (Latin, Greek, and French) and normal secular studies associated with high school, on the one hand, and on the other, college courses associated with a Philosophy Major.

So by the time I began the formal four year (and post-grad) theological curriculum (1962) my understanding of such matters, including the Bible was fairly uninformed. I’m sure I thought the Bible was the very word of God valid for all time.

That began to change with exposure to the teachings of Fathers Eamonn O’Doherty and Jack Moriarity, both of whom introduced us to modern scripture scholarship which emphasized the history behind the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. They introduced us to form criticism and redaction criticism as well.

Form criticism made us aware that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. Literary forms found there include myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, miracle stories, birth accounts, letters, apocalypse, annals of kings, law, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, etc.  None of that, really, is history as we understand it. And if we read poetry, for instance, as if it were history we’ll commit huge interpretational errors.

Just realizing that can change one’s entire approach to the Bible. It did mine.

I remember sitting each day for classes in “Old” and “New” Testament in our aula maxima on the second floor or our Major Seminary on 1200 Brush Hill Road in Milton, MA. The entire student body – those about to be ordained, and the three classes behind them – took those classes together. There were probably sixty of us. So I found myself edified (and intimidated) by the good students among my elders whose questions and observations always seemed so sage, perceptive, and sometimes daring.

For a long time, I pretty much kept quiet. But the wheels were whirring at top speed inside my head. For a biblical literalist like me, it was all hard to swallow

For instance, I recall the day during our study of the Gospel of Luke that the penny dropped for me that the Three Wise Men never existed. It was all a “midrash,” we were told, on the part of the gospel’s author (whose real identity remains unknown). Midrashim, it turns out, are usually fictional stories meant to elucidate particular biblical texts or beliefs.

“Say what?” I thought. “The next thing you’ll be telling me is that the resurrection never happened.”

Well, that day never came – from the actual teachings of my Scripture Profs. But it sure did for me. So I remember one day screwing up the courage to ask Father Eamonn about it in class. I asked, “Is it possible, Father, that gospel stories about what’s called the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus were also simply creations of the early Christian community to reflect their gradually dawning consciousness that Jesus’ words were true: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me’ and ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst?’ In other words, might the resurrection, like the tale of the Three Wise Men also be a midrash?”

I awaited Father O’Doherty’s answer with bated breath. Perhaps my question wasn’t clear enough, I feared.

Well, the question was clear enough. Father O’Doherty paused a few moments. Then he responded: “No,” he said. And that was the end of it! He moved on.

Now that might give you the impression that Father Eamonn wasn’t a good teacher. Quite the contrary. I’m confident in saying that nearly all of my peers recall him as their most influential Prof during our four years of theological training. I agree with them. Eamonn imparted to us not only essential facts about the Bible, but an entire approach that stuck with us all.

In my case, his classes provided me better than any other a firm basis for what I would learn in Rome during my doctoral studies there (1967-’72). – and for what I internalized subsequently as I continued my studies with liberation theologians in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the  developing world. Of course, I’ll have more to say about that later.

But for now, I must tell you about Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. Again, it proved extremely effective. However, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find in the best treatises on pedagogy.

The other day, I was looking at the basic primary source text we used in his New Testament classes.  It’s Augustinus Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (pictured above). It’s the entire New Testament in its original language, Greek on one side of the page and Latin on the other. Originally published in 1948, its footnotes are filled with scholarly critical apparati. – mostly pointing up and evaluating variant readings of the Greek texts. I[n itself, that’s interesting. We were actually dealing with texts very close to the originals (none of which, it turns out, have survived. Instead all we have are copies of copies of bad copies. But that’s another story.)]

Besides the text itself, what was even more interesting to me were my notes in the margins of each page. Each was jam-packed with cursive scribblings in my smallest possible handwriting – so small, in fact, that I needed a magnifying glass to review some of them last week.

And that was evidence of Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. It involved (1) his lecturing to us each day reading mostly from his notes, (2) our transcribing notes as fast as we could, pausing occasionally for someone to ask questions, (3) Our transferring those notes into the margins of the relevant texts during out study periods, and (4) Recopying those detailed marginal notes onto exam papers in response to our teacher’s exam questions.

To me, in retrospect, that sounds pretty much like what the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, excoriated as “Banking Education” – where teachers make deposits into the “accounts” of students who subsequently make withdrawals at exam time to purchase good grades.

But here’s the funny part: it worked! Father Eamonn wasn’t a particularly dynamic teacher. But what he taught us was so interesting and well-organized that we learned important lessons from a process that seems like pure regurgitation. Put that in your pedagogical pipe and smoke it!

Ask any of my peers. All of us love Eamonn. And we remain grateful to him to this day.

(Next Week: a full account of what I learned about the Bible over the years – in two dozen points)