Wisdom Poured Out Like Water, a new publication co-edited by ETS faculty member James Waddell

Wisdom poured out like water

I have a new publication as co-editor that has just been released, Wisdom Poured Out Like Water: Studies on Jewish and Christian Antiquity in Honor of Gabriele Boccaccini, Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 38 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018). The book is co-edited by the late J. Harold Ellens (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), Isaac de Oliveira (Bradley University), Jason von Ehrenkrook (U. Mass. Boston), James Waddell (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), and Jason Zurawski (U. of Groningen), all former Ph.D. students of Professor Gabriele Boccaccini of the Department of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan. The volume is published by De Gruyter and is now available. Volumes like this are usually priced for library purchases. To soften the blow of the cost of the entire volume for individuals, specific contributions to the volume are also available for purchase on the De Gruyter web site. My article is titled, “‘I Have Been Born Among You’: Jesus, Jews, and Christians in the Second Century.” Click here to read my contribution to this volume.

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The rule of the uber-rich by Chris Hedges

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I mentioned last week in an article I wrote about the historic roots of the troubling marriage between conservative evangelicals and conservative politics today that some prophetic voices have sounded the alarm that our democracy is already dead, and that what we now have purely and simply is an American plutocracy. Chris Hedges writes (from his first-hand experience of living among them) an article about the predilections of the uber-rich. Hedges observes that when they govern, it is not from the perspective of public service, but an insatiable sociopathic desire to serve themselves while they destroy the norms of society. This is an important read, in order to understand better the present socio-economic context we are living in and what we need to do to address it.

Politics and Religion, The Devil and Mephistopheles

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Do you ever wonder how American politics has become so polarized? Certainly, American politics has been contentious in other periods of our history when our nation faced many dangerous and complicated challenges—the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights. Political polarization today has taken a dramatic turn in the last 40 years, an entire generation of American politics with discernable outlines of a trajectory that in large part involves the relationship between politics and religion.

In the ancient world religious myth was used by rulers to coerce their subjects into complying with their wishes. Because religious myth made claims for the divine ancestry of the ruling classes, to resist the will of the ruling class was to resist the will of the gods and such resistance left one open to the terrors of divine punishment, usually and swiftly meted out by the ruling classes themselves. Consequently, the laws and commands of the ancient ruling elite were treated as divine law with citizens in subjected (forced) compliance.

This was generally true of the ancient East Asian cultures where dense populations experienced strident competition for material resources and warranted the development of religious traditions grounded in the desire to encourage ethical behavior toward one’s fellow human being. Karma came to be defined as an impersonal force driving the inescapable (and just) consequences of one’s actions toward others.

Karl Marx’s famous position on religion as the opiate of the masses was due in large part to his criticisms of the exploitative nature of Western capitalism and Christianity. Marx observed that Christianity could be engaged in such a way as to assuage one’s conscience in a world where exploiting one’s fellow human being through the colonial and capitalist practices of empire were justified in the name of a God who forgave even the most egregious of sins.

Saul of Tarsus, whom Christian scriptures describe as having been called by God to be Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, was implicated in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. And if God can forgive a murderer, well God will certainly forgive my exploitation of my workers. After all, I pay them enough to have food and shelter. What more do they need? And religious folks, through the preaching of the gospel of the assuaged conscience, allow themselves to be lulled into complacency regarding human exploitation, both in terms of the exploiter and the exploited.

But religion, specifically conservative evangelicalism, transformed itself in the mid-twentieth century. The transformation found its way from Marx’s benignly patent but maliciously latent opiate of the masses to a more weaponized form of Christianity bent on storming the halls of power.

For centuries many conservatives viewed their relationship to political involvement as one of avoiding the corruption and impurity of the world. Withdrawal and self-preservation, by and large, was one of the hallmarks of conservative Christianity going back to Ulrich Zwingli’s social pacifism and his active resistance to Christians participating in state sanctioned war. Zwingli met his end in the meat grinder of war when his political enemies captured him, and then quartered and burned his body—the takeaway being, when you speak truth to power, those in power are aggressively invested in the violent suppression of their critics. Take as a clear example the recent Saudi Arabian scandal with the torture and bodily dismemberment of one of the royal family’s most strident critics, Jamal Khashoggi, and the morally ambivalent connections to US foreign trade and politics, cited explicitly by our current president.

In today’s context the weaponization of Christianity began in the 1970s and ’80s in response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. For twentieth-century conservative evangelicals the Roe v. Wade decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back of resistance to public engagement with political power. The world had become so corrupt that it was now time to do something. Sitting on the sidelines of the political arena was no longer a tolerable proposition.

Conservative theologians like Francis Schaeffer called for American evangelicals to take charge of their own destiny, essentially to make a complete transformation in the way they viewed their relationship to politics, to become one of engagement rather than withdrawal for the sake of preserving Christian purity.

The evangelical community embraced the call and quickly developed an appetite for consuming books like Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live (1976) and A Christian Manifesto (1981), or Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World (1979), or Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? (1980). Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977) offered one of the more chilling prospects for the Christian right’s designs to take over the legislative branch of American governance, in order to apply literal interpretations of biblical law to American culture, including literal observance of Levitical prescriptions for punishments of legal offense. Bahnsen’s book is touted as a virtual tour de force of logic among conservative evangelicals still today. The recent 2017 book by Michael Medved, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, suggests the strength and tenacity of this conservative alliance of politics and religion.

All of this problematically ignores the evidence that the founding leaders of our nation were not all Christians and that they intentionally sought to base our constitution and laws on European humanist philosophy, not Judaeo-Christian foundational teachings. It also ignores the intent of our nation’s founding leaders to provide a high wall of separation between the church and the state, in order to protect religious freedoms for everyone, not just conservative evangelicals.

Prominent evangelical pastors led the way. Figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson wrote their own books, legitimizing for masses of evangelicals an entirely new market of literature for the newly enlightened. Falwell and Robertson (and many more evangelicals) even ran for political office, but it was not for local offices. They went straight for the top, signaling for all that this was really an authoritarian movement directed from the top down.

Early on in the collaboration of the “religious right” with Neoconservatives the political rhetoric shifted. When Newt Gingrich ascended to the position of Speaker of the House in 1995 he no longer referred to his colleagues across the aisle as political opponents. Gingrich shifted the discourse by referring to his House colleagues as enemies. I remember it clearly. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of the shift then, even though it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Nearly 25 years later and the results of the extreme ideological trajectory Gingrich advanced are clear, and clearly alarming.

What we saw unfolding before our eyes was an alliance of Neoconservative pols and evangelicals, both conservative yet both with slightly different ends in mind. The Neocons willingly embraced the public identification with conservative Christianity mainly because they viewed evangelicals as a powerful voting block for keeping conservative pols in power. Neocons, however, were more interested in economic and corporate deregulation, as well as advancing Ronald Reagan’s union busting agenda already firmly entrenched systemically and rhetorically in the 1980s, all of which has had a profoundly negative impact on the diminishment of the livelihoods of American workers who receive only a small fraction of the value that their labor contributes to the vast economic wealth and prosperity enjoyed by American corporations.

These are the same corporations who today horde trillions in wealth, while they vigorously and defiantly refuse to contribute to the public good by withholding their tax contributions from society (public schools, health care, infrastructure, pensions, Social Security, etc., etc.). Noblesse oblige is dead. Exclusionary definitions of “patriotism” were bandied about as part of the rhetorical scheme, having an exclusionary force that also found a home among conservative evangelicals who viewed America as an exclusively Christian nation at the heart of God’s plan for the world.

Conservative evangelicals were more interested in the culture wars as this was being framed by evangelical theologians and advanced in the caustic rhetoric of conservative pols. Family values was an open rallying cry. Abortion and homosexuality were natural social issues for conservative Christians who read their Bibles as prohibiting such evils, and the appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s was taken as confirmation of God’s judgement against the Gay community. Conservative pols had little interest in such things except to use them as rhetorical wedge issues during election years, further weaponizing the church in their schemes to achieve and maintain even more political power.

Over the years the distinction between political and religious conservatism became blurred to the point of non-distinction. Conservative evangelicals whose political interests were almost solely focused on social issues paradoxically and energetically embraced the conservative Neoliberal political agenda—corporate deregulation, worker suppression, systemic racism, environmental exploitation, gerrymandering, voter suppression, xenophobia, unrestrained support for the military industrial complex under the guise of “patriotism” driven by the premise that it’s better to destroy the lives of people of color “over there” than to have to fight them in the “homeland”—and this is essentially due to the effect of corporate Neoliberal propaganda overshadowing the biblical text evangelicals so vigorously claim defines them.

Instead of embracing and identifying with the poor (economically marginalized) as the New Testament demands, conservative Christians have rationalized the adoption of Neoliberal narratives. These narratives demand that we judge the poor; they are in a position of having to receive assistance because of their own laziness. “Those who will not work shall not eat” is the rallying cry. These narratives hold the poor in contempt for endangering our economy, rather than corporations who aggressively craft policies to be voted as legislation, in order to increase their bottom line via legalized exploitation of their workers.

Progressive political and social pressures only recently forced Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos to raise his workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bezos did not willingly do this. The pressure has been there before. But what seems to have brought the pressure to the breaking point has been the growing awareness of the intolerable and obscene extreme of wealth disparity and the brutal impoverishment of America’s middle class. Have we finally reached the tipping point?

Neoliberal policies favoring corporate rather than public interests have become the norm. The expanded influx of money for political campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists since the 1980s has rendered distinctions between conservatives and liberals virtually irrelevant as liberals willingly embraced this shift in the system, with excuses like, “if we don’t do it, our political opponents surely will; we have to play on a level playing field.” And it has remained so to this day. The Clintons exemplify this shift among the Neoliberal left and establishment Democrats, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from their conservative Neoliberal counterparts on the right.

Religion has taken a back seat to politics as we have conditioned ourselves to view our religious sensibilities and convictions through the lens of our politics rather than the other way around. When faced with a moral challenge in our public discourse, it is immediately and cynically dismissed as political gamesmanship. As I write this the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice to the Supreme Court is a done deal. And yet a proper legal vetting of the moral claims against Kavanagh’s character and fitness for the highest court in the land were forestalled by a cynical political ideology of elite white male privilege that is no longer grounded in the rule of law we value as Americans.

We find ourselves today in a world of cognitive dissonance, where those who claim to follow the teachings of Christ have abandoned those teachings, if not entirely then certainly in large part, in order to fight for the agenda of the political party they embraced decades ago, and have blindly rationalized their willingness to engage in ends-justifies-the-means politics. In July 2016 Pew Research indicated that more registered voters who were white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016 than supported Romney in 2012. Political compromise, which was once the bread and butter of getting things done legislatively, has now been replaced by refusal to compromise politically, no doubt a transference of conservative evangelical theology onto conservative politics.

Could this be viewed as one of the unintended consequences of the Neoconservative and evangelical marriage that took place in the 1980s? Unintended, but not necessarily unforeseeable? This is the only explanation that makes sense to me when I see so many evangelical Christians (not all of them, but so many of them) assert their loyalty to a political party and its leaders whose actions and policies are so antithetical to the gospel message of hope and restoration in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.

The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus feeding the hungry (SNAP?), healing the sick (universal healthcare?), teaching those who were open to what he had to say (public education?). The gospels are also filled with episodes where Jesus confronted those who were in power. He did not collaborate with the powerful. Jesus confronted the religious leaders in power.

Why did Jesus confront the religious authorities in power? Because these leaders collaborated with the Romans who imposed social and economic systems that were so exploitative and so oppressive that they had most of the population living hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, scratching and clawing a living where it was already near impossible to eke out one’s daily bread. As one New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said, “there were the haves and the have nots.” And the haves were not willingly disposed to give anything of material substance to the have nots. That sounds disturbingly more and more like a description of the America we live in today.

The gospels are replete with Jesus’ criticisms of obscene wealth and unrestrained greed. And this is to say nothing at all about the numerous criticisms of the same in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Jesus tells the man who wanted to join Jesus and his followers: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

To those who say social justice is evil, and not surprisingly there are many conservative Christians who say this, my response to them is this: social justice is an inescapable consequence of believing the gospel.

There are two ways of looking at the gospel, and they are not incompatible with each other. It is a both-and, not an either-or. We read the gospel as the early church’s message of God’s grace in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. It is certainly sine qua non for a Christian, but that’s not all there is to it.

It is when we read the New Testament as if this is the only aspect of the gospel, it is then that we fall into the trap of the gospel of the assuaged conscience. It is the kind of distortion of Christianity that drove Karl Marx’s criticisms in the nineteenth century and still drives criticisms of Christianity today.

My response to this kind of distortion of the gospel and Christianity is that there is another aspect of the gospel, and this includes the concept of social justice. The gospel opens our hearts to be transformed in the ways we act, to receive Jesus’s ethical teachings and his actions as examples for Christians to follow. This is the dual foci in the New Testament where Jesus tells us to love God AND love our neighbor.

Marx claimed that for earlier expressions of historic “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, the bourgeoisie has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” Conservative pols in America today, committed in their service to corporate economic policies, stridently engage us in a culture war by employing a now weaponized segment of conservative evangelical Christians who don’t realize they are being used. Clinging to the brutality of their naked aggression to exploit, conservative corporate pols do not yield willingly. Rather than collaborate with those who walk the halls of power, we must confront them repeatedly with the truth of the gospel in all that the gospel has to say to us.

As unrestrained greed tears at the fabric of our society and as naked aggressions to power with a militarized police force secure corporate interests, our nation moves daily closer to corporate control of every branch of our government and the alarming prospect of an inverted fascist state. Some prophetic voices have said that we are already there. As politically protected greed and aggression rear their ugly head in every generation, history repeats itself and we must never lose heart. Never lose heart. And always, always pay attention to what they say and how they say it, but especially pay attention to what they do.

We use our voice to speak the truth, even if the powers are violently inclined to suppress it. We speak of something greater than ourselves. And we are not afraid. We the people are not afraid.

James Waddell is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan

The reception of Paul the Jew in Colossians

From the Introduction … “In June 2014, the Third Nangeroni Meeting of the Enoch Seminar, titled ‘Re-Reading Paul as a Second Temple Jewish Author,’ was held at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology in Rome. Scholars of Second Temple Judaism and Pauline studies gathered together to discuss Paul afresh as a Jewish thinker. A select number of the proceedings from that meeting were subsequently edited by Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia and published in Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism (Fortress 2016). During the final session of the Third Nangeroni Meeting, participants discussed how the topic of Paul might be pursued in future venues sponsored by the Enoch Seminar. A number of participants voiced support for Isaac W. Oliver’s proposal of a conference that would center on the reception of Paul. More specifically, the conference would focus on the reception of Paul during the first two centuries that related to Paul’s Jewishness as well as his views on Judaism with the hope that such an examination might enrich our understanding of the complex, diverse nature of early Christian-Jewish relations. The plan materialized two years later, when the Seventh Nangeroni Meeting, ‘The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew,’ transpired from June 26, 2016, to June 30, 2016, in the same welcoming halls of the Waldensian School of Theology in Rome.”

The proceedings of this seminar are about to be published as The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew: Text, Narrative and Reception History. Isaac W. Oliver and Gabriele Boccaccini, editors. The Library of Second Temple Studies 92. Lester Grabbe, editor. London: Bloomsbury T.&T. Clark, 2018. My own contribution to this volume is titled “The Shadow and the Substance: Early Reception of Paul the Jew in the Letter to the Colossians” (75–87). The intent of the seminar (and the soon-to-be published volume), according to Boccaccini, is to present the definitive go-to research on the reception of Paul. It was an honor for me to be invited to participate.

Liturgy wars the RC way.

The following was brought to my attention this afternoon.

Pope Francis rebukes Cardinal Sarah on liturgy.

The argument of the Pope’s defense of Vatican II’s empowerment of the church’s use of indigenous language translations of liturgical texts approaches the argument the Lutherans used in the sixteenth century for local congregational authority to order rites and ceremonies in liturgy. It’s clearly not the same, but it’s similar.

The cheapening of American public discourse … and its consequences

What do Noam Chomsky, Colin Kaepernick, and our family dog, Callie, all have in common?

Last night in the wee hours of the morning my wife woke me to help her take care of a sick dog. Callie is a rescue dog, who is more than a little neurotic. We’ve figured out some of the things that really bother her … loud noises, thunder, which she associates with rain, which she associates with wind. Calm sunny days are good days. Last night she woke up sick, and we aren’t sure why. Eventually I was able to calm her down to the point that she got in bed next to me; she then commenced hopping in and out of bed until she was tired enough that she finally fell asleep.

In the meantime, I found an old video from 1990, Noam Chomsky talking about peace, the media, and propaganda. Chomsky made the observation that in every single media reference to America and peace (in particular peace processes that were being engaged around the world), the media never presented America in any way against peace, especially when the American government was aggressively engaged in pursuing “American interests” overseas. Chomsky observed how the terms “peace” and “American interests” became virtually synonymous. (The “contemporary” counterpoint to the propaganda position is the excruciatingly painful reality of the Vietnam War and how the American propaganda machine sometimes succeeded, but mostly failed in its mission to convince the American public of the rightness of that war. You may recall that Chomsky wrote about that too.)

Chomsky has repeatedly demonstrated how media propaganda is harmful (and in today’s experience actually deadly) to our democracy. More than thirty years ago now Chomsky pointed out how media propaganda is designed out of a collaboration between media and government officials to promote wartime ideology. The hard reality today is that government is more and more becoming the enforcement arm of a media propaganda machine owned, operated, and directed by huge corporate interests. (This, by the way, is a phenomenon known as inverted Fascism. Please inform yourself about inverted Fascism. It is aggressively assaulting our democracy, and we are in present danger of losing our democracy because of it.)

I think older Americans, my parents’ generation, are more vulnerable to this, because they don’t understand the concept of propaganda or media manipulation, and they simply expect that what they hear on “the news” is “objective truth.” They frequent news outlets that most reflect their “American and religious values,” innocently not realizing that the corporate interests are manipulating them through their chosen “news outlet” to think and act (and vote!) not in their own interests, but in the interests of the powerful corporation.

This is just as true for my age-peers, those of us in our middle years, baby boomers who have cynically and opportunistically embraced participation in the corporate propaganda system, because too many of us think powerful corporations are too powerful to resist, or too many of us have become willing to soil ourselves with the manipulative lies, just to make a little (or a lot of!) money. I am mostly disgusted with my age-peers for willingly engaging in systems that are harmful to our democracy, all the while promoting the lie that just the opposite is true.

I hold out hope for the younger generation, that of our children, the all-too-disingenuously-maligned millennials. These are some of the hardest working, non-judgmental Americans in the history of our country. I know lots of them, lots of them, and I know this to be true. The divisive, self-serving rhetoric about “participation trophies” is a sad reflection of the hard-bitten cynicism of self-soiled, corrupted baby boomers, who like bullies on the playground attack the next generation in order to mask their own culpability for making life harder for everybody else. What has my generation done to lighten the burden of debt we are piling on the backs of our millennial children? Offer tax cuts to billionaires? While the working class may get a few hundred dollars a year for a “tax cut”? Less than a dollar a day? I’m choking on my breakfast I’m laughing so hard. But I refuse to be forced into a state of paralyzed cynicism. I look at the thoroughly grounded idealism and activism of our millennial children and I am inspired.

I’ve digressed a bit, and there is a point in all this. These are thoughts stirred in me by the Chomsky video from 1990, as I was also trying to figure out what was eating our neurotic rescue dog, Callie.

There’s something that should be eating away at all of us, and that’s the cheapening of American public discourse. In part cheapening the discourse keeps us divided, and that’s exactly where the corporate system wants to keep us. Divided and distracted from what they’re really up to.

Social media, and I use it a lot, is probably the most obvious example of the cheapening of American public discourse. I use it a lot because I like to stay connected with people who live some distance from me, or who I don’t get to see often because I work so much. Social media is mostly emotion driven. Lots of emojis. Did I choose the right one? I don’t see one that fits what I’m “feeling” right now. I’m a little curious as to why ALL CAPS haven’t been replaced by red letters to express anger. But I suppose in a world where we’ve been manipulated to think only in terms of black and white, that’s no surprise.

I’m thinking in particular of those (manipulators) who call for national unity and patriotism, yet they engage in tactics (and language) that are designed to divide one group against another. (NRA?!)

By now pretty much everyone is aware of the (manufactured) “controversy” of athletes kneeling for the national anthem at the beginning of NFL football games. The act of kneeling for the national anthem has reached into our society, even to the level of high school athletes kneeling for the national anthem.

It began with Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sitting on the bench for the national anthem at a 2016 preseason game. After a genuine conversation with a veteran who suggested Kaepernick kneel instead of sit for the anthem, Kaepernick began to kneel. Kneeling has a long (even ancient) history as a display of reverence and respect. Hundreds of NFL athletes have followed Kaepernick’s lead, with the intent to draw attention to the civil injustice of police brutality against African American citizens.

In Kapernick’s own words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

This is what the conversation should be about.

Instead of accepting at face value Kaepernick’s reason for kneeling during the national anthem, a number of corporate media outlets cheapened the discourse by manipulating the narrative to make it about Kaepernick disrespecting the flag and disrespecting American troops serving in the military.

It’s the cheapening of the discourse. It’s the aggressive manipulation of the discourse. Rather than having a conversation about what these kneeling athletes are actually trying to say with their non-violent disobedience, we let rhetoric crafted by corporate owned media outlets manipulate our emotions. And the result is that we are divided and distracted from the issue the kneeling athletes are trying to bring to our attention.

We love our neurotic rescue dog, Callie. Maybe someday we’ll get to the bottom of all the stuff that’s eating her, and we will learn how to make life better for her.

And I look forward to the day when corporate media manipulation will eat at all of us, when we will all (hopefully sooner than later) understand how powerful corporate interests manipulate our thoughts and actions to keep us divided and distracted, and then we will learn how to stop listening to divisive rhetoric and start listening to each other. Elevate the discourse. Talk about the issues that really matter. Love your fellow human being.

“… let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s justice.”   — James 1.19–20

The Ongoing Legacy of Hate and the Willful Misuse of the Bible

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The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia is disturbing. It is more than disturbing. It is deeply disturbing. The “Alt Right” is a recently coined moniker of extreme racists. It is used by extremists (and indiscriminately used by the media in general), in order to make an old ideology of white (Eurocentric heritage) racial superiority more palatable to a population who are genuinely (and willfully) ignorant of their own racist orientation.

“Alt Right” is an easier, gentler way of referring to this insidious movement, because it makes what they stand for sound less insidious. After all, it’s okay to be conservative, on the “right” politically, right? So a seemingly harmless moniker makes it all the more acceptable to have individuals with extremist racist ideologies in the cabinet of the office of President of the United States, like Steve (Brietbart) Bannon and Stephen Miller, both of whom have an open history of racist activism.

Without throwing a single fist, racism itself is a form of violence. Racism is a form of social violence in that racism divides on the basis of a person’s skin color or a person’s community of origin (the ultimate expression of conservative identity politics). Racism is a form of political violence by suppressing the voting rights of people of color. Racism is a form of economic violence by systemically engineering fewer opportunities for people of color, by making it harder to get loans for businesses, home purchases in specific locations (the presently active gentrification of Detroit), and on and on.

The violence that we are witnessing in Charlottesville is only one form of violence. It is indeed egregious. The other forms of racial violence may not be as egregious, but they are just as harmful. This is the first point I want to make.

There is another. And I think it is just as, if not more, problematic. Many of the Alt Right claim to have religious convictions. They identify themselves as Christians. (Disclaimer, if you want to know my own perspective, see the about tab on this blog.) They use the Bible to justify their hate.

I’ve included a photograph in this post that shows an African-American police officer protecting Alt Right protesters in Charlottesville. Irony of ironies, right? (This was originally posted by Shaun King on facebook.) The obvious contrast is the KKK protester with his red hood and regalia you can see just over the police officer’s right shoulder.

What is not as immediately obvious is the sign carried by the protester holding the “Confederate flag” (not here being used as a symbol of heritage, but for this group a symbol of racist hatred). Do you see the sign? It has written on it, “JEWS ARE SATAN’S CHILDREN … JOHN 8:31-47 … JOHN 10:22-33.” Those are the only two that I can make out with certainty. It looks like the next one may be “LUKE 12:11,” so I will look at that one, too.

For those who are sympathetic with the Alt Right and are still reading this (I hope) and for anyone else reading, let’s look at John 8.31-47. The first principle of reading any text, especially (especially!) biblical texts, is to read everything in context. The context has Jesus in the temple precincts (beginning of chapter 8). A group of Scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. After deftly handling these religious authorities with “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The basic lesson Jesus taught the religious authorities was not to judge others. Now, I don’t want to get into a longer discussion of the authenticity of this text, since it is not in the earliest manuscripts of John, but I essentially agree with Raymond Brown that this is fully in line with the spirit of John’s gospel, and should not be dismissed as a later tradition without any merit.

This is followed by Jesus addressing the Pharisees with “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8.12). When the Pharisees challenged Jesus’ claim, Jesus expanded on the issue of human judgment. “You judge according to the flesh. I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he who sent me” (8.16). Jesus said to them, “the Father who sent me bears witness to me.” The Pharisees then asked Jesus, “Where is your Father?” Jesus said, “You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also” (8.18-19). The exchange is clearly between Jesus and the Pharisees. And Jesus has made a clear contrast between his judgment and the judgment of the Pharisees, continuing the problem at issue in the previous context.

In the next section (8.21-30), Jesus said to them, “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come” (8.21). The response to this is interesting. “Then said the Jews, ‘Will he kill himself, since he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?'” (8.22). Jesus then replied to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (8.22). Without going into the many details of Johannine theology, this is a typical representation of the kind of dichotomy or binary contrast that appears all over the place in the Johannine literature (Gospel of John, 1, 2 & 3 John, Revelation) … light / darkness, above / below, of the world / not of the world. And here Jesus has specifically applied it to “the Jews.” More to say about “the Jews” shortly.

John 8.31-47. This is the (clipped out of context) citation on the sign. Here Jesus and “the Jews” have an exchange about who their father really is. They claimed to be children of Abraham. Jesus said if that were true, they would believe in him. Since they do not believe in him and seek to do violence against him, they are children of the devil (hence the hateful claim on the sign). So who are these “Jews” referred to in this text and its context?

The author of John’s gospel makes it clear. In John 1.19, “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask” John the baptizer, “Who are you?” In John 1.24 the author makes it clear, “Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.”

The point to make here is that the sign in the photo is intended to use this context as religious conviction that all “Jews” are condemned by God for not believing in Jesus. But in John’s gospel the term “Jews” and “Pharisees” are used interchangeably. Jesus was himself a Jew. (So was Paul, by the way.) Alt Right (racist) individuals who claim Christian identity by waving hateful signs with biblical citations quoted out of context do the very thing Jesus condemned his Pharisaic opponents for in the very text they cite. Jesus referred to them as children of the devil for planning to commit violence against him. The irony is excruciating. This is what happens when hatred for others weighs so heavily on your heart that it brings you to misread (and misuse) your own “scriptures.” In Romans 11 Paul warned Gentiles (wild olive branches) not to boast against the natural branches who have been cut off the olive tree, and that God is just as capable of grafting the natural branches back into the olive tree.

Shall we do this again? John 10.22-33. This is also cited on the sign. And it requires that we use both chapters 9 and 10 for context. John 9 is the well known narrative about the man born blind who was caste out of the synagogue by “the Jews,” who were also the Pharisees (9.13, 15, 16, 18). This point is fairly easy to make, since it is the same as what I wrote above regarding the first citation and its context. It is not referring to “all” Jews; only Pharisees. On to chapter 10.

In John 10, Jesus continues his engagement with the Pharisees, the religious authorities who in chapter 8 threatened to kill him. In chapter 10 Jesus used the well-known metaphor of a shepherd with his sheep, a common metaphor in Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, with reference to faithful and unfaithful religious leadership, sometimes applied to kings, sometimes to priests. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber, but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep” (10.1-2). This is the well-known “I am the door for the sheep” passage. Jesus is not talking about sheep. He was talking to the Pharisees about legitimate religious leadership. Jesus is that. The Pharisees are not. It is a misuse of this passage to make it about sheep. It is not.

The passage cited on the sign, John 10.22-33, has “the Jews” in the temple gathered around Jesus to ask him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I told you, and you do not believe.” Same story as above. This is not about sheep. This is about shepherds and leadership.

Luke 12:11? A single verse. Really? A blatant violation of the context rule. Red card that man! I’m not going to spend much time with this one. This is what we have … “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; …” So the misuse here is that this saying of Jesus is intended to gin up fear of “Jews” who will persecute Christians for believing in Jesus. In fact, this passage reflects a post-70 CE environment of chaos and confusion about 15-20 years after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple. There was an intense struggle between different Jewish groups in the years immediately following 70 CE over who would win out as the definers of Judaism. History teaches us that by the end of the first century CE it was the Pharisees who won out in that struggle, as the early church became less Jewish and more Gentile in its make up.

It is the ultimate expression of religious identity politics in the late first-century parting of the ways between “Judaism” and what eventually came to be known as “Christianity.” The early church was an internal reform movement within Judaism. It was not immediately known as “Christianity.” In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul knew the term “Christianity.” As Jews they believed that God had chosen the Jewish people. How to live as Jews in a right relationship with God and your neighbor was a key issue for both Jesus and Paul. For Paul, the Gentiles were included. The Pharisees would have none of it, and eventually they developed into Rabbinic Judaism (with its own historic and ideological diversities).

Pauline inclusivity is a key issue also in Luke, which ironically was cited on the racially hate-filled sign. Racial justice was one of the central issues in Luke. The Good Samaritan is not about helping your neighbor mow his yard or a stranger change a flat tire. It’s a story about racial justice. Read it in its context.

Protest and Civil Disobedience

Protest and civil disobedience is very much a part of the fabric of American culture. Abolition. Women’s rights. Civil rights. This is one way we exercise our right of free speech, a right secured for every American in the adoption of the First Amendment to our Constitution. And while we are not without our very own historic protest events where violence was part of the message and the response to the message, non-violent civil disobedience is especially valued by Americans, as exemplified by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the participants in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the years following the 2008 economic meltdown, I watched with perplexity as Americans stayed home while citizens of other countries around the world took to the streets to defend their basic human rights in the face of the most cruel economic austerity policies passed by their conservative governments. In the United States there were occasional protests here and there, as issues heated and spiked tensions. In 2010 I was a humanities professor at a public university in Ohio and I attended a protest in the banking district of the city. To my surprise, it did not have the muscle I expected to see, and as I watched bank employees leave the building for lunch, what I saw on many of their faces ranged from banal amusement to glares of superiority and disgust. There was no sense of acknowledgment that they were recipients of an important message.

The protests of the last couple days give me hope for our divided nation. It gives me hope because I see people energized to respond to a human crisis. On the other hand, I am disgusted by the flip side of this motivation.

The flip side of what is motivating our protest is the disgusting cause of the crisis. A poorly vetted (if vetted at all) executive order signed by our president, Donald J. Trump. The executive order banned travel to the United States for 218 million Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries, none of which have a history of immigrants (or travelers) perpetrating violent acts on American soil. The vetting of the executive order should have included the head of the National Security Council and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Trump has given his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon and his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus seats on the NSC, while dismissing the director of national intelligence and the chair of the joint cheifs of staff. From disgusting to deeply disturbing. The president does not listen to or even tolerate dissenting voices among his closest advisers.

The signing of this executive order gives the impression that it was done without the kind of circumspection that is demanded of its subject. We should all be reminded of the shallow understanding of the Bush administration who crafted propaganda to lead our country to war in Iraq. What they willfully refused to understand were the complexities of the relationships between Sunni and Shi’a cultures in the Middle East, and the powder keg they were rushing to ignite with a blow torch.

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid to protest and engage in civil disobedience, to stand up to shallow leadership that seeks to control us with fear.

From a Christian perspective we are commanded by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 25) to embrace the refugee. And this is given in a context of an ethical imperative that has one eye on the present with the other eye on a future and final apocalyptic accounting that God will have with those who claim to have faith, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” Matthew writes Jesus’s words:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (RSV, Matt. 25.34-45)

We are also urged in the Johannine tradition to embrace God’s culture of love.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (RSV, 1 John 4.7-8)

Fear is also explicitly spoken to as a vice to be overcome, not to be succumbed to, but to be overcome.

16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because he first loved us. 20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (RSV, 1 John 4.16-21)

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid, and do not allow themselves to be manipulated by the talk of fear.

Guns, racism, and people like you and me

We sit in the comfort of our homes and we watch video recordings of arrests that end in death. Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, so many, too many to name. And now Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. It happens more often than mainstream media report. Sometimes the event is recorded and the evidence is clear, sometimes not so clear. And we draw our separate conclusions based on partial evidence filled in by our individual emotional contexts, predictable conclusions that continue to exacerbate an already polarized culture.

I am an academic, someone who tries to look at social problems from as many intellectual angles as I can possibly master. I am also a parish pastor, an experience that has grounded me for the last 25 years in lives challenged by struggle, suffering, loss, and pain. Several years ago the husband of a member of my parish was shot point blank in the back of the head during a dispute over the sale of a gun, in his own home. It was a senseless act of violence committed by someone who held little value for human life. It was a horrific experience of pain and loss for the murdered man’s family.

Members of my own family and friends disagree with me about guns. I grew up in a rural Midwestern context where the legal sport of hunting birds and small game animals is a substantial part of our way of life. I must disclose now that I stopped hunting decades ago, but I have no qualms about the legally regulated practice of hunting. My disagreement with family and friends has always been about the idea of unregulated gun ownership. They argue the slippery slope, the camel’s nose in the door of the tent. I argue compromise and the willingness to give up some extreme freedoms (that used to reside on the edges of our experience) to enjoy other freedoms that can be characterized as more commonly shared experiences (that now are viewed as too limiting).

I remember a conversation I had with one of my brothers and some cousins. It was shortly after President Ronald Reagan signed into law a ban on fully automatic assault rifles. The trajectory of the conversation was predictable. They argued that there should be no regulations against gun ownership. I argued that if there ought to be no regulations then we should be able to own tanks and cannons and other high caliber automatic weapons (a hypothetical suggestion that is today in part a reality, at least the high caliber automatic weapons part). My memory is that they conceded the point. They, of course, probably remember it differently. Today the argument sounds simplistic, but we’re talking about 1987, almost thirty years ago.

The issue of gun regulation and the freedom to own assault rifles has morphed dramatically since 1987. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, both in terms of the expansion of gun ownership and the growing numbers of victims of gun violence. The assault weapons ban was lifted in 2004. Since then, “13 of the 26 worst mass shootings [in U.S. history] occurred between 2005 and 2014 (after the expiration of the assault weapons ban).”

The problem is not just with assault rifles. Handgun deregulation has reached a near fever pitch, to the point where 25 states have legalized concealed carry without a permit, the kind of insanity that makes me long for 1987 again.

It’s no wonder that law enforcement officials are living on the edge. And this is not an apology for non-prosecution of police officers who shoot first and ask questions later. This is a complicated issue, as President Obama has said; “it makes the job of law enforcement harder.” How does it make their job harder? The combination of racial profiling for criminal arrests and our exacerbated fixation with gun deregulation is a vicious, brutally violent cycle.

The systemic racism embedded in our subconscious emotional responses that fill in the gaps of partial evidence is a socially constructed paradigm that we need to face together and overcome together. Our subconscious emotional responses that we rely on to fill in the gaps of narratives that are only partially constructed by video recordings of violent acts are themselves conditioned by our own individual contexts, and we have to be honest about that.

We need to rise above our self-serving, stultified arguments hardened by fears stoked in contexts of ignorance and profit-making corporate narratives. We have to be honest with ourselves about the ugly realities of racism that have twisted and distorted our own experiences, our personal stories, constructing barriers of hatred, nurturing fears, that limit our lives together as members of the human race. We need to have this conversation. We need to listen more and talk less.

The insatiable American appetite for wealth and power and its fascist underpinnings

This came through my inbox via Naked Capitalism this morning and I could not pass up the opportunity to share. It is a must read as so many of the conservative persuasion decry the loss of liberty (religious liberty in particular), while they fail to see the real reasons for this loss. We think the loss of liberty is the result of moral dissolution and we rail against the beast with an indignation of superiority. But every instance of what are claimed to be the moral failures of our society is given a narrative of prejudice that is carefully orchestrated to divide. Division renders our population powerless. And every divisive narrative that we embrace is another nail in the coffin of our democracy, another brick in the wall of our growing fascist corporate state.