Sunday, October 26, 2014

Deeds Beyond Words

We are told that what really drew crowds to Jesus of Nazareth were not his words, but his wondrous deeds. But what did he do that got him noticed? People usually pay no heed to words.

So far, we have gotten a taste of many of the key moral challenges Jesus of Nazareth is said to have tossed out. There is much more out there for anyone who wishes to explore. Certainly, he does not come across like your average clergyman pounding the pulpit about sins of the flesh and coming to church.

That is startling, so startling that churches and clergymen for centuries have done their best to hide Jesus from people, lest they figure out the flim-flam by the professionals of religion.

Jesus did simple things. It is said that the sick and the lame came to him to be healed; he even rose someone from the dead. I will not deal with whether the accounts were accurate, enough ink has been spilled on that one.

Rather, I would like to consider a more overarching question: Can we, living in an empirical age of science, accept the idea of miracles? Here is my answer: Yes.

The phenomenon of a miracle involves divine intervention in a human action that defies all known explanation.

Now granted, when Jesus healed, it is possible that he was using arcane knowledge not known to the hoi polloi (Gr. for “the many”). To the extent that this is true, the healings were not miraculous.

It is also possible that there was some self-delusion, some psychological effect, operating in the minds of the healed. We know that we use a small proportion of our actual mental powers.

But stop to consider the rising of Lazarus, smelling from days of being dead and buried, and propose that there were no tricks.

We are left with a deed that is inexplicable, cannot be replicated and that the observers and storytellers attributed to the hand of God.

Is there any scientific empirical way of detecting whether the hand of God intervened or of negating that it did? No.

Therefore, we are left with the possibility that miracles can, and perhaps have and do, happen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On turning the other cheek: a discussion

What would Jesus’ response have been to Hitler and the Final Solution? How can we love Hitler, Goerhing, Goebbels, and others in that regime who carried out this plan? If Britain, the United States, and France had nullified Germanys payment of reparations from World War I after the invasion of Poland, would that have done anything?

Thus writes a reader in response to the post on Jesus’ teaching on murder, revenge and enemies (click here to review).

We interrupt the Story of the Faith series to provide some responses.

While it may seem that fighting the Nazis, as Churchill put it “on the seas and oceans ... in the air ... on the beaches ... on the landing grounds ... in the fields and in the streets ... [and] in the hills beaches” is, or was, the only possible response, we don’t actually know that this is true. Nothing that seriously follows the teachings of the Galilean was tried.

But let’s imagine that all Jews, Communists, gays, Roma, along with pacifist Catholics and Bonhofferian Lutherans — in brief , everyone who in good conscience disagreed with the Nazis and everyone who was hated by them — had stood up and gone to PrinzAlbrechtStrasse, the HQ of the Gestapo, all at once, saying, “arrest me and liquidate me.”

Indeed, Mohandas Ghandi tried precisely this in colonial South Africa. He convinced all the Indians living in South Africa to violate the racial laws, sitting in the seats for whites and so forth. At first they were all arrested, but soon enough the Brits found themselves with jails filled to the brim and still more lawbreakers to process.

The Brits gave in. They invented the “colored” designation for Indians and other South Asians, which extended distinctive rights between those of Europeans and Africans. This persisted through the Apartheid period after independence.

Some in the former British North America may argue that the Brits were more civilized than the Germans. Were they?

The Brits invented the concentration camp (in Africa, in fact, during the Boer War, when Churchill himself was there). Racial classifications? As we have seen, the Brits beat the Germans at that, too. The Brits even had their own Hitler, a fellow named Oliver Cromwell, who simply did not possess the technology of Hitler to enforce his all-encompassing dictatorship, which even decreed how and to whom one should pray. Ask the Irish about the civilized British since Cromwell.

Lastly, the firebombing of entire urban population centers in Germany, a tactic devised by an RAF officer known as “Bomber” Harris, was no less of a mass murder than anything the Nazis did. It may have been revenge, but who said revenge was a high moral value? Not the Bible (Deut 35:32, also Romans 12:19).

So, really, who’s to say that a massive turning of the cheek at the Nazis might not have stopped them dead in their tracks, overwhelmed by love? To echo Chesterton, it wasn’t tried.

As to Hitler, Göhring, Göbbels and the rest, taken as individuals, they were surely humanly appealing in some way.

Strip off the considerable propaganda about them. Adolf Hitler was a battered, frustrated artist who undoubtedly felt very unloved. Hermann Göhring became drug addicted from excess morphine given to him as a wounded soldier; surely, his excesses and his blindness to the pain of others had something to do with his particular psychological handicap. Joseph Göbbels was a club-footed ugly little man who surely suffered terrible indignities before he became the Nazi propaganda chief; he was reputedly a very kind and soft-hearted father.

Could we not love the divine spark that they had in them, as we have? Could we not empathize with their pain and attempt to offer better palliatives than leadership of an insane regime? Could we not, even in the Nuremburg docket (only Göring was alive by then and he cheated the hangman by hanging himself), see what wretches they were and offer therapy and kindness to show them the path to The Way (a name given to the Christian life by early believers)?

This is not an impossible and unthinkable set of propositions, if we take the sayings of Jesus seriously. Such thinking might have changed history.

Certainly, at Versailles after World War I, the Allies (pushed by the French, whose troops were verifiably the most prone to deserting in battle) were overly harsh with Germany, pushing them into a corner out of which another war seemed the only way out. President Wilson didn't think reparations were the way to go.

After the Second War, the lesson was learned. Not a penny was demanded from Germany by the Allies. The proposed Morgenthau plan to starve and deindustrialize occupied West Germany back to the Middle Ages was disregarded; by the late 1940s the U.S. generals were pleading for generous aid. Hence the Marshall Plan.

Clearly, the Versailles Treaty was a huge and very un-Christian mistake.

Beyond that, we need to consider whether actually heeding the words of the Galilean is not merely the nice thing to do. Is it not possible that, if they truly represent divine advice, norms such as turning the other cheek are good and practical instructions for making the world the Creator gave us simply work well?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sex, Sex, Sex

Let’s round out the Sermon on the Mount with the affirmation that—contrary to what many church folks would have you believe—Jesus had nothing to say about abortion, homosexuality, masturbation or premarital sex. But he had a lot to say about hipocrisy.

Indeed, if one were to go by what people get told in churches—and Republican meetings that style themselves as quasi-religious—one would think that Christian morality consisted almost entirely about sex rules. But that’s not what the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament suggest at all.

In the two topic areas that are most closely related to sexual behavior—adultery and divorce—Jesus once again sets everything upside down for people looking for easy versions of what religious conservatives have accustomed us to think of as “family values.”

When Jesus turns to adultery in this discourse, he specifically refers to the commandment in Ex. 20:13 and Deut. 5:17:  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

In our time, we call “adultery” the sexual relations between a married person and someone, married or not, who is not the adulterer's spouse; the misdeed refers to disloyalty, disrespect for a vow, disrespect of the spouse, and so forth. Adultery in our time is a matter of sex and psyche. In biblical times, however, adultery was preeminently a matter of property and honor.

Adultery attached primarily to the married woman: she was her husband’s property, but most importantly the vessel of future heirs. Recall that until the 19th century, when the ovum was discovered, it was thought that the sperm was a “little man” containing the entire human being, hence the sin of “spilling seed.” As a consequence, women were thought to be mere vessels.

Moreover, before paternity tests were possible, the only reliable source of lineage was through the mother; this is the reason a Jew is classically defined as the child of a Jewish woman, regardless of the father. For these reasons Lev. 18:20 says “Thou shalt not lie with thy neighbor’s wife, nor be defiled with mingling of seed.” Biblical adultery was sexual relations with a married woman and it was wrong because it imperiled the lineage, property and honor of the husband.

You have heard ... but now I say. This is the classic form of Jesus’ presentation. As we saw with murder in the last post, Jesus now goes to the root of the matter: the lustful gaze and desire. Pluck out your eyes, cut off your hand, he advises in a rhetorical flight.

Here Jesus is a feminist. In modern feminist language, what he’s pointing out as wrong is men treating women as sexual objects. The implicit theology could suggest that all women are wives, perhaps as potential mothers of God’s heirs. The deepest one can draw from this well is a moral theology of male intentions. Men are asked to look into their own hearts.

Nothing is said about women’s intentions or behavior. To Jesus the main point is that women are simply not property.

Likewise with divorce.

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce” in Matt. 5:31 is a loose paraphrase of Deut. 24:1 in a passage (1-4) that is really about the re-marriage of divorced and serially re-married spouses. Once again, divorce in biblical Jewish law and divorce today are not the same thing.

At the time of Jesus, there were two prevailing schools of rabbinical thinking concerning divorce: that of Shammai, who permitted divorce for adultery; and that of Hillel, who permitted divorce for the love of another woman or even for bad cooking (do keep in mind the importance of dietary law, or kashrut). The rabbinical question is when could a man divorce a woman. Jewish law only allowed men to divorce women; only Roman law allowed women to divorce men, as well. Jesus almost certainly would not have been addressing Roman law.

Jesus’ answer is quoted saying that a man who divorces his wife is effectively forcing her to commit adultery.

Then there’s an exception appended for what is sometimes translated as “fornication” (in Greek porneia), but more likely is concubinage; that is, if the woman goes to live with another man, she may be divorced. This legal splitting of hairs, however, seems incongruent with the radical responses so far and may reflect the views of the apostles rather than of Jesus.

Fine, but why would a woman be “made to commit adultery”? What is adultery, committed by a man or woman, that it should be so feared?
Again, we are contending with Jesus the Feminist. The economic relations between men and women were such that, merely to survive, a woman would have to woo another man if she were divorced, making of herself into a sex object. What are we to make of this in an age in which sisterhood aims to be powerful?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Murder, Revenge, Enemies

Even though we have laid out Jesus' all-encompassing greater command, it is worth considering several of the instances of his adjudications of Jewish norms that various onlookers brought to his attention.


The prohibition in Exodus, "Thou shalt not kill," is expanded in Matt. 5:21-22 to cover any injury of one person to another in any form, even calling someone else a "raca" (fool). When I first heard this explained, the phrased used was "killing the spirit," or how insults have a way of diminishing and snuffing the life of another in an unseen way.

Today we hear often about the lifelong ramifications of a loss of self-esteem. Consider how many adult lives are sadder and more miserable for taunting received in the schoolyard. In the movie "Back to the Future" the protagonist's father grows up to be a milquetoast accountant living in a decrepit little box of a house, never quite living up to his dreams. In the background lurks Biff, the bully who taunted him into submission. The protagonist goes to the past and provides his father a way to defeat the bully, win the girl and, back in the future, to be a successful man for whom Biff works as a flunkie.

Let's up the ante.

Remember comedian Lenny Bruce? He has one routine in which he repeated the infamous "n-word," the racial taunt. He says it again and again for about thirty times. Then he stops. Finally, he says that if President Kennedy (who was alive and in the White House at the time) would just get on television and do what he just did, no child would go home crying because he was called that on his way from school.

Who's to say that Jesus's now-archaic "raca" wasn't equivalent to a racial taunt or the many parts of anatomy used to humiliate.

Revenge or Self-Defense

Here comes "the other cheek."

An eye for an eye was a Near Eastern custom. However, when Hammurabi proposed it about two millenia before Jesus tackled it, the idea was progressive compared to "honor" codes that exacted disproportional retribution in response injury or wrong doing. Hammurabi's point was that if your neighbor took an eye, you could take the neighbor's eye but no more; this was better than taking both legs as well.

Yet Jesus rejects it, along with the principle of self-defense.

In an expansion reminiscent of his response on murder, he offers that if someone takes an eye, give the other: he does exactly the same math with cheeks, miles, clothing and money. The intent is inescapable. Not only are his listeners supposed to avoid retribution, but no resistance must be raised against what is seen as evil.

Ghandi applied this principle, albeit in Hindu clothing, in his successful campaign to free his country from British rule in the 1940s. He called it "satyagraha," a term that combines three notions: "satya," or openness, honesty and fairness; "ahimsa," the refusal to inflict injury upon others; and "tapasya," a willingness to self-sacrifice.

"Love does not burn others, it burns itself," Ghandi wrote. "A satyagrahi will joyfully suffer even unto death. It follows, therefore, that a civil resister, whilst he will strain every nerve to compass the end of the existing rule, will do no intentional injury in thought, word or deed to the person of a single Englishman."

Imagine if on Sept. 12, 2001, U.S. Air Force planes had flown to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was hiding, and dropped, instead of bombs, parachuted crates with medical supplies, toys for children, books, clothes and food!

Carrying it further, Jesus commands: "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you" (5:44).

Love Osama and ISIS. Don't just shower them with gifts. Love them.

Love the nagging wife or abusive husband. Love the parent who berates you. Love the president who lies to you. Love the other political party no matter how wrong.

This is the stuff that makes liars of almost all followers of Jesus. Few, if any, believe, much less practice this. Admittedly, it's not easy.