Sunday, March 22, 2009
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Allow me to begin with a quote: “The normalcy of civilization is not an inevitability of human nature.”
Good one liner, right? Pretty countercultural stuff, with a kind of great revolutionary ring: we should not make claims that the way our culture works now is inevitable or natural. People can choose to act outside of society and it works just fine for them, so we know that society as a whole can also be changed. Examples: people who live non-violently, people who live purely on local produce and people who live monasteries in silence.
I didn’t pick up this departure from normalcy from some kind of hippie meeting. It was at my church, First United Methodist. And the quoted speaker is a respected (and controversial) theologian and Biblical historian, John Dominic Crossan. He is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of Christian scholars who are re-examining the life and times of Jesus to interpret his teachings in the modern church. He is the author or co-author of many books on the life and times of Jesus and the history of the Bible, including his newest book The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon. This book, like many of his others, was co-authored with Marcus Borg, another theologian and one of my favorite Christian authors. I studied Borg’s Heart of Christianity at my home church in Colorado during my junior year of high school, and had the privilege of hearing Borg speak that year. Crossan and Borg’s perceptions on the Bible as a revolutionary text—one that challenges us to act now according to Jesus's visions of social justice and equality—are why I became really interested in Christianity in the first place.
I love this side of my religion. The side that goes back to Jesus as a radical thinker who said that the immigrants should be welcomed, the poor should be fed, the prisoners visited, and that the untouchables and un-save-ables, of the day should be welcomed as equals and as friends. I love the Jesus who had little good to say about the established church, who was so intense in his challenge of the established order that he died for it.
John Dominic Crossan gave four lectures over the course of Saturday and Sunday on the topic of the apostle Paul. I wasn't able to attend the Saturday lectures, but today's event was so, so exciting. The lectures I attended were: “The Message of Paul: Paul & Justice” (subtitled “ Galatians 3:26-29 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus' Was that hyperbole or program?”), and “The Legacy of Paul: Paul & Gender.”
I love looking at the Bible with someone who has studied the context and original content of Biblical writings. As I am not myself any kind of authority on ancient Jewish and Roman culture, much of the Bible is lost on me without someone to explain. And without a scholar's help, Paul is a very difficult writer to understand. As Crossan told us, Paul wrote letters that were answering specific concerns and questions of Christian communities at the time. He was not writing to us as 21st century Christians: when we read Paul's letters we are literally reading other people's mail, and not mail that was set into any kind of understandable context.
Aside from this problem of reading letters without their contexts, scholars have decided that not all of the writings attributed to Paul were actually written by him. This was common during the time of Biblical writings: a leader's students would continue writing in their name after the leader's death out of respect and a desire to continue their message beyond that one person's life. But what is obvious when you read the letters of Paul is that not all Pauls thought the same.
The writer of Romans had a very different perspective on women then did the writer of “Paul's” letter to the Colossians. Crossan spoke about a “radical” Paul, and then a “conservative” Paul, and finally a “reactionary” Paul. Thus, in Philemon we have a strong condemnation of slavery: a commandment to free a Christian slave that would therefore have implications on the entire system of slavery in the Roman Empire. But later in Colossians slaves are instructed to obey their masters, and in Titus Paul does not even address the slaves directly, instructing the masters that their slaves should be subservient to them and to uphold the social order.
Again in these books there are varying perspectives on women. Paul's letter to the Romans was entrusted to a woman, whose responsibility it would be to read the letter aloud to Christian communities and to then explain the contents. But then we not only have an instruction for women to be subservient in Colossians, but the book of 1 Timothy contains the infamous instruction “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2:11-13).
Obviously this last passage has been used for generations and generations of churches to keep women in a place of subservience and submission, and it is a passage that plagues current women seeking to become clergy. But just as obviously this passage was not written by the same man who entrusted his letter to the Romans to a woman messenger.
John Dominic Crossan's interpretation of all of this is that the original Paul believed that all were equal in following Jesus. His statement about there being neither man nor woman, slave nor free, was not just something pretty to say: it was his culturally radical idea that, although people are different, there could be no hierarchy in the fellowship of Christians. This meant, for Paul, that there could be no Christian slaves held by Christian masters, and the question of women's place was not even worth a letter: it was simply a fact that in listing the respected Christian Roman leaders he included many women.
This interpretation of faith is one that demands a radical change in people's lives. Crossan speaks of grace as a free offering of a new spirit, faith as the acceptance of that offering, and then faith again as the changes we make in the world. It means a complete change: a rejection of the hierarchies of our world in order to care for the world, giving us the chance to bring about distributive justice that would make all people equal.
Crossan also spoke repeatedly to the violence in our world: the violence we do to each other and the violence to our world. Many images of God in the Bible essentially amount to a household: a well-run household being one in which everyone has enough, with people who need help getting it, and people working together. When this is applied to God, then Earth is God's household and we have done a poor job keeping things running smoothly. Basically, in this interpretation of the Bible, we're making God look bad, and getting closer to blowing ourselves up in the process.
I could write on and on about this event: about the idea of non-violence and non-compliance with the “normalcy” of society. I could talk about the idea of distributive justice and again about the idea that the world we are supposed to be working toward is one in which everyone gets the help they need and no one goes without. To hear some church leaders talk, the biggest issue facing the world today is homosexual priests. I don't think so. Crossan doesn't think so, and I find it hard to imagine Paul or Jesus thinking so as hierarchies continue to mean that the household of humanity is founded on degradation, lack, and desperation.
So that's my church message of the day: that the current state of the world is not operating on any kind of rational plan, and our household needs some work. I happen to be a Christian so imagine a Christian plan. But that's not really the only important thing here: what is important is that there are huge problems in our world, and that enough thoughtful, compassionate (and radical) people getting together at the same time can change the world for the better.