Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blogging Sacrilege, chapter 6: How to Win

I don't have to be an oppressive, insecure, offensive fundie to be a Christian. There's a way to follow God in the way of Jesus and win the world with the original message of Good News.
I hope to show that this is why Jesus calls us to meekness in this Beatitude: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5)
Jesus the humble and meek, who climbed down out of heaven to come and build a home in our neighborhood, is the answer for both the conflict in the Middle East and the wars fighting within every human heart. Jesus wants his people, his apprentices, to win--to see people changed and converted to his ways--but the methods of winning are just as important as the win itself, because they can't be separated. We win with meekness.
(Hugh Halter, Sacrilege)
A month or so ago I finished Anathea Portier-Young's Apocalypse Against Empire. As part of a larger project contextualizing Jewish apocalyptic writing, Portier-Young provides an approachable yet deeply insightful and precise analysis of life in Jerusalem under imperial Seleucid rule during the years preceding the Maccabean rebellion. I turned over the last page of the volume with a list authors to chase down and my understanding of the literary and cultural context into which Jesus stepped some a century or more later radically redefined.

The fifth chapter of Apocalypse Against Empire, "Seleucid State Terror,"did much of the heavy-lifting in reshaping my understanding of Jesus' context. Portier-Young systematically reviews the archaeological evidence for and the cultural meaning of state sponsored massacres, murders in the home, abductions (for the slave market), and plundering of the temple. Against the backdrop of subjugated Jewish identity Portier-Young establishes in chapter 3, "Interaction and Identity in Seleucid Judea: 188-173 BCE,"this litany of state-sponsored violence (physical and otherwise) begins to help me understand the way in which Jesus' contemporaries--under the oppressive rule of another empire--may have understood themselves, their history, and their oppressors.

Enter Jesus. Jesus proclaiming good news from God about a new kingdom arriving. Jesus disrupting social structures that separated the honorable working poor from beggars, bandits, and those who survived outside the official market in goods and services. In healing the sick, purifying the unclean, exorcising the demonized, Jesus brought the outcasts back into the company of good and honest society.

Without a doubt, Jesus sparked hopes that God was finally going to intervene and set up a utopian society, one in which God truly dwelled in Zion and all the (oppressing) nations came and brought tribute to Jerusalem. (We have no doubt about this because John's Gospel confirms in 6.15).

The first few lines of Jesus' kick-off sermon initially seem to confirm this: "Blessed are the poor"--"Amen!" the people thought, "it's time the good and godly poor were visited by God's blessed intervention on their behalf. Maybe this new kingdom will involve less imperial taxation."  Jesus continues, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." And again the people think, "Amen! We've mourned the ruin of David's kingdom for nearly six hundred years. Now Herod presumptuously builds another stand-in temple for us, but what we long for is God to return and set up God's own temple. God, do, come and comfort your people!"

But just as Jesus' followers reach for the pitchforks and scythes to follow their new leader to the seat of power up in Jerusaelm, Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

I'm on board with the grounds of Halter's thesis for this chapter. In his words, "the methods of winning are just as important as the win itself." Halter's argument in chapter six turns on the assumed ground that our lives should imitate Jesus' life, our methods should look like his. (This makes my convinced Anabaptist heart go pitter-patter.)

Still, I'm not sure Jesus' speaks most directly to evangelism in the third beatitude. So, once again, Halter and I part ways.

On the one hand, something like evangelism is in view in the context. What's the first thing Jesus does after announcing the good news of the kingdom's impending arrival (4.17)? He' calls a community around him and promises them, "I will send you out to fish for people" (4.19). In another translation, "I will make you fishers of men."

This statement has prooftexted innumerable impassioned apologies for evangelism from the pulpit. I may have even led a Bible study or two springing from this text to the need to be missionaries in our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. However, I suspect that Jesus' call to his first followers stands less in the background of the third beatitude than the account of his testing in the desert that precedes it.

I'm unashamedly following John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus here. One of the recurring themes in The Politics of Jesus is Jesus' refusal of the "Zealot option," that is, his refusal to set things right for God's people by force. Yoder, in tracing Jesus' mission from the announcement of his birth to his resurrection, describes Jesus' final testing in Gethsemane:
Here is now the last opportunity. As Satan had come thrice in the desert, so the real option of Zealot-like kingship comes the third time in the public ministry. . . . Once more, now clearly for the last time, the option of the crusade beckons. Once more Jesus sees this option as a real temptation. Once more he rejects it. (57)
Inheriting the land (probably a better translation than earth) would be quite the promise to Jesus' Jewish followers who now lived only marginally better than slaves as tenant farmers in their ancestral land, tenants for either egregiously rich elite aristocratic landowners or for the imperial governors and lords. Receiving once more than land--a promise given to the ancient Israelites just after they had been famously delivered from the harsh Egyptian empire--this was the great hope, part and parcel of the hope of God's return to and deliverance of God's people.

But Jesus disavows the peasant revolt, disabuses his followers of temptations to the Zealot option of armed revolt. The meek, the gentle, the submissive receive the land. How can this be other than through a direct act of God?

Returning to Halter, we do well to ask what this means for how Jesus' followers today live in relation to their neighbors. If we are the community that is "sent out to fish for people," what does meekness, the rejection of violence, mean for our witness?

And here, amid his backdoor wars over Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, Halter gets it right. We testify to Jesus' good news best through our meekness. Our rejection of violence (and Jesus takes this to the ultimate level a little later in Mt 5.38-43), our radical dependence on not our own strategies but God to provide for us in terms of safety, honor, and livelihood, is our strongest witness to the Kingdom Jesus proclaims.

Halter concludes,
When Jesus called his followers to be witnesses, he was asking them to allow their lives to tell the story of his life. [I might add, culminating in his obedient crucifixion and then his resurrection.] He wanted their actions, their community, their values, their love and kindness, and their visible transformation to be the most powerful way to communicate God's heart to the world.
I think Halter's right on here.

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