What Shall We Overcome?

Racism, the Imbalance of Power, and the Response of the Prophetic Voice

King in Selma“They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power …”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking to 25,000 civil rights marchers, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 25, 1965

 

I’m writing these comments at a particular moment in time. And yet, unlike a week-old newspaper, the themes and issues have a persistently endless quality about them that just won’t seem to go away. The annual observance of Black History Month has just concluded.  And in a few days, our nation’s first black president will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, by standing on a bridge named after a Confederate general and reputed early Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Edmund W. Pettus.

In the last few years we have witnessed a resurgence of racial strife, as the recurrent curse of our American story. Names and phrases like Trayvon hoodies, Ferguson and “I can’t breathe” have become protest chants. Hands raised high overhead are no longer accompanied with shouts of “Hallelujah,” but rather, “Don’t shoot.”

Equipping law enforcement personnel with body cams is now recommended to record whatever transpires, after the fact. And all the while, political forces work to dismantle, disempower, disenfranchise and discourage voting rights in our democratic society.  One citizen, one vote, one voice is a constitutional principle that seems challenged and tested, once again.

It took a half-century to elapse after those two marches from Selma, Alabama in 1965, for a docu-drama retelling that story gets an Oscar nomination. And the anthem, Glory wins Best Original Song at the Academy Awards:

One day, when the glory comes

It will be ours, it will be ours

Oh, one day, when the war is won

We will be sure, we will be here sure

Oh, glory, glory, glory.

 One fine, glorious day it shall come, the singer sings; just as both the ancient prophets and the prophets of our own age once proclaimed. It understandably leaves us wondering when that day will come?

But perhaps it is not so much a matter of when we shall overcome, but the ever-present what? And in the naming of the what, we might also ask where is the echo of the prophet’s voice in all of this?

Read the fuller commentary here.

 

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Je Suis Jésus

Satire and Blasphemy in the Teaching of a Galilean Sage

“Christ before the High Priest,” Gerrit van Honthorst (1617)

“Christ before the High Priest,”
Gerrit van Honthorst (1617)

“You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death.”  Mark 14.64

Radical religious extremists with a distorted view of Islam commit horrific acts of terror, executing the staff of a small satirical French publication. The satirists had dared to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoon caricature; all the while lampooning those misbegotten adherents who in turn regard such irreverent acts as blasphemous.

The Western world reacts with outrage and defiance to such an affront. World leaders join a million person protest and unity march through the streets of Paris, chanting “Je Suis Charlie,” in defense of freedom of speech, and on behalf of the publication’s name.

While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, more profound underlying questions remain. While anti-blasphemy laws are common in Muslim countries, countless other “secular” countries have laws against the defamation of religion. Once the dust settles and more thoughtful discussion ensues, one might ask what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression?

This commentary does not attempt to answer this larger question. It does, however, consider Jesus’ use of what was deemed blasphemous satire, it’s intended purpose, and well-known consequences.

You can read more of this commentary here.

 

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Taking the “Christ” Out of Christmas

Celebrating the Holy Nativity of Jesus

Adoration” by Gentile da Fabriano  Tempera on panel, 1453

Adoration” by Gentile da Fabriano
Tempera on panel, 1453

 

Now when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord – as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “ Every male that opens the womb is to be considered holy to the lord.”  Luke 2:22

The other day a bumper sticker caught my eye which read, “We still call it Christmas.” I took it to mean the annual plea by so-called true believers in the birth of a divine being in human form for us all to remember “the reasons for the season.”  The orthodox Christian doctrine of the incarnation (lit. “in the flesh”) is the annual observance of Jesus’ birth being one and the same as a godhead taking human form in a cultic (that is culture-shaped) celebration generically referred to as “Christ’s Mass.”

The challenge for a progressive Christian who has moved beyond such notions as virgin births and gods disguised in human form come to save us from ourselves is to remember that it is as much a historical development, as it is a theological one. That is, the attribution of a “Christ” title accorded a very human Jesus constitutes the imaginations — if not machinations — of an early Church; consisting of very human, second-generation followers of a 1st century Galilean peasant sage and itinerant preacher. And who all but drowned out the authentic voice of the one who was once born and dwelt among humankind.

Such an assertion is simply based on the fact the historical Jesus never self-identified as the “anointed one,” the Christ.

As such, if one were to remove the Christ-title from the various birth narratives of those secondary traditions of this religious movement, what would remain of the “Christmas story” that has become as prevalently assumed, as it has been unexamined? If we took the Christ out of Christmas, what might remain of that still, small voice?

This question is explored here.

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Defining Progressive Christianity

An Open-Ended “Creed” for a Progressive Christian

Right: Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Above: Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

I have often said so-called “progressive Christianity” is a notion forever in search of its own elusive definition; and that’s as good a way of explaining it as we may be able to find.  We live in a post-modern world that considers the age of Enlightenment to be a post-facto reality. As such, “progressive” thinking in an age of Reason has pushed the boundaries of nearly every facet of life, except one: those ‘traditional’ or ‘orthodox’ beliefs, based on certain creeds, doctrines and dogma that still dominate what it presumably means to be “Christian.” It hardly needs to be said that it is also why so many one-time believers have outgrown their one-time faith. Calling them merely “lapsed” is misleading. So much has elapsed in the world we have all come to know and take for granted, that the once-dominant Church — — despite all its denominational varieties — has fast become a post-modern relic.  Yet any critical examination of how Christian scriptures developed and how the history of the tradition evolved will quickly demonstrate how it has always been in a constant state of flux, or – if you like — “progression.”  It was only when it stopped and got stuck that we traded in the tent for a temple, and snuffed the life out of a movement that is progressive by its very nature. What then would constitute an honest statement of belief for at least this “progressive Christian?”

You can read more Here.

 

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Exhuming Jonah, and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Above: Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by 19th C French Artist, Gustave Doré

Above: Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by 19th C French Artist, Gustave Doré

Every Sunday School student learns the fantastic story of Jonah and the Whale. The miraculous regurgitation of the reluctant prophet after three days in the leviathan’s belly is a whopping tale as big as any fish tale ever told. He changes his tune and high tails it to the great city of Ninevah with his prophetic message of repentance.

There is only a passing reference in the king’s response, with regard to Ninevah’s great offense; and the wickedness from which they must mend their ways to avoid total annihilation: “By the decree of the king and his nobles … all shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

Of all the hotspots flooding the news and erupting in so many corners of our global village, one headline in particular caught my attention not so long ago. The news article came from Mosul, Iraq and was entitled, “Historic Tomb of Jonah Destroyed by Isis Militants.”

A photograph showed the explosion and subsequent rubble of a Sunni Mosque which was alleged to be the burial site of the Prophet Younis, the Arabic name for Jonah. Though ISIS claims to adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, they have nonetheless blown up or bulldozed any Sunni shrine they deem “un-Islamic.” Go figure.

Well, that’s more than a little ironic, I thought to myself. God regurgitated Jonah from an early grave, only to have some fervent believers go and blow up his purported final resting place. What, once upon a time, God apparently could not do – or was not willing to do – was not a problem for some of God’s children hell-bent on advancing some twisted ideological agenda through means of violent force.

If one finds the mythic tale of Jonah and the whale too much to swallow, more incredible perhaps is what the people of ancient Ninevah presumably managed to pull off.  You can read about it here.

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Embracing Resurrection as a Way of Life

“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting

“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting

A Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage: The Sermon on the Mount, Part IV of IV Parts

A pdf copy of this commentary to print and read is here.

Recently one Sunday morning, I awoke in the pre-dawn hours, as the lingering shadows were just beginning their retreat, and the likelihood of another glorious spring day seemed like a good bet.

Then I remembered it was Easter Day for Western Christendom, and I quickly began to recall so many years of liturgical practice in my own personal past that comprised this observance; leading the faithful in procession into an empty, darkened sanctuary, and then banishing the darkness with light, and song, a jig and shouts of “Alleluia!”

Like the last faded echo, the absence of whatever had gone before and was no more could mean only one thing. Things which were “cast down were being raised up,” as one lovely old prayer once put it, “and things which had grown old were being made new.” (Book of Common Prayer, p.540)

There were no hocus-pocus notions of resuscitation or reincarnation, as far as I was concerned; though some among us undoubtedly still believed in the magic of immortality. But those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way — and nonetheless survived by nothing less than happenstance or grace to discover a gospel of second chances — knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.

Those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way …   knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.

But on this particular morning I’d rise with the prodding sunlight, and Germaine and I would resume a weekly ritual that has become as routine as any meaningful liturgical practice. Piling the dog into the station wagon, we’d head out for a 3-mile trek around the Lafayette Reservoir.

Falling in line, we would join the parade of all the other 2-legged and 4-legged congregants on the circular path. Some were amblers, some hikers, and others serious joggers. It is as if everyone proceeds in his or her own way, and at their own pace, with one’s own journey, along the shared path. We’d greet others with a nod, a smile, and the usual greeting.  “Good morning to you,” one would say. “And also with you” – or something like it — would be the customary reply. There would be new faces and critters, but also others that have become familiar only because of the shared experience we repeat each week, separately and together. Somehow, it all seemed vaguely reminiscent; as if I’d done it all my life …

And besides, today was Easter Day. Again. It was the “pagan” festival of Estre, the ancient Anglo-Saxon (or Teutonic) goddess who represents the rebirth and renewal associated with the spring equinox.  Little wonder then that budding nature, eggs and bunnies, an Easter parade in some fashion or other, and the empty tomb of former things should all get jumbled together.

Of course, so-called mainline orthodox Christianity co-opted yet another pagan rite early on in its own tradition to make it all out to be something more; just as it had usurped what is aptly now referred to by some as the “voiceprint” of the wisdom tradition that preceded it in the teachings of a human Jesus.

In Paul’s earliest writings he shows little interest in that historical figure. The Christian faith quickly became a confessional religion about yet another dying-and-rising savior god. The various gospel traditions that included the teachings of the earthly Jesus were all written retrospectively. It is as if you are only meant to read all the parables, aphorisms and quips backwards; and in light of the numerous variations of a resurrection narrative that is hardly persuasive if you want to talk about any hereafter.

“The resurrection belief is the first overlay on the preceding wisdom tradition (of Jesus),” says David Galston. “The birth of Christian theology is the silencing of (the historical) Jesus.”

 Wisdom (i.e. teachings) is the foundation of the historical Jesus, not as fact but as voiceprint. What began as a lifestyle became, with remarkable speed, the worshipping of a Lord … What is necessary is to return to the school of Jesus, where Jesus is not confessed, not called Lord, and not even regarded as divine. To bring a silenced Jesus back to life – wisdom’s version of resurrection – means to initiate students in the lifestyle of the school. It means building a community th at addresses and solves the problems of our times on our own terms. It means extending the momentum of the teacher and the contours of his wisdom into the context of today. [from, “Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity”]

This commentary is the last of a 4-part series on the ethical teachings of Jesus from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It explores how we might, in fact, resurrect the voiceprint of this pre-Christian sage. We’ll work with what we’ve got; a gospel tradition that took the teachings of a human Jesus, and further encumbered them with confessional creeds about the man. Like sifting wheat from chaff, we’ll seek to discern both the pre-gospel voice of Jesus, and an adaptable momentum that might still propel us forward to a more meaningful understanding of our own particular time and place.

If there is still an Easter procession for the progressive Christian, this just may be it. You can read more here.

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“Jesus, and the Ultimate “Selfie”

The Ethical Teachings of a Galilean Sage: Commentary on The Sermon on the Mount. PART III of IV Parts

hidden treasure engraving

“Heaven’s imperial rule is like treasure hidden in a field.”  Mt.1344, and Instead gather your nest egg in heaven, where neither moth nor insect eats away and where no robbers break in or steal. As you know, what you treasure is your heart’s full measure.” Mt.6:20-21

When the gospel writer we know as Matthew composed his compilation of Jesus sayings from available source material in an oral tradition to which he had access, the parable of the treasure hidden in a field must have seemed to fit with his characterization of the itinerant Galilean sage he’d heard so much about. Despite the likelihood Jesus himself never came across such good fortune, Matthew’s early faith community of Jesus-Jews were probably wrestling with what to do with some small degree of modest affluence that they eked out for themselves in the harsh economic conditions of Roman imperial rule.

The parable of hidden treasure was akin to the extreme unlikelihood of winning the lottery. It’s never going to happen, but everyone dreams about what they’d do differently if they did.  In the face of such extreme unlikelihood, the parable prods one to “measure what you treasure.”  And it seems an obvious and universal theme in every age that we treasure financial wealth, and all it can bring.  It can trump almost anything else.

The matter of one’s true self is one of the questions with which we began this series on the Jesus Ethic found in that compilation of teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7) with the so-called beatitudes, originally meant to convey comfort and reassurance to those who found themselves on the margins of society and at the very bottom of the economic system.  Those who first heard Jesus’ words constituted those “invisibles,” which societies typically prefer to remain out of sight and out of mind.

But more so, when you look at the sum total of Jesus’ teachings, and particularly the collection of parables, there is either an overt or underlying theme to nearly all of them that has to do with the question of wealth and poverty.

Moreover, Jesus didn’t seem to care about a kind of economic justice that was compensatory, reciprocal (measure for measure), or bore strict adherence to any set of rules. The “imperial reign of God” that he was forever going on and on about had to do with sufficiency or adequacy for all; measured with reckless abandonment when it came to generosity and compassion, and over and against obligation and what is merely fair.  And it usually starts with removing ourselves from the center of our universe.

As with so many of the parable, so too in the Sermon on the Mount that began with the assurances of blessing to the poor and the disenfranchised – and after a summary of instructions certain other matters regarding fractures in human relationships – Jesus returns to these matters of economic justice, charity and earthly possessions.  The injunction to “measure your treasure” is an introspective journey, however, that requires more depth perception than the average “Selfie.”

The Selfie phenom is hardly a new invention since the invention of the flip lens on your hand-held device. But it certainly is a craze that reflects the fact we seem to be enamored with the idea of a reflection of ourselves just about everywhere you turn.  Of course self-reflection on a deeper level has been around for a long, long time.

Jesus’ teachings to “turn the other cheek” and “love one’s enemies” was an invitation to an inward journey of the self; and a call to reclaim our true human nature. The proscription to wrestle with how we measure what we treasure would appear to be part of the same journey. How we might actually undertake such a task will be considered in Part IV of this 4-part series.

Meanwhile, you can read an extended version of this commentary here.

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Jesus: The Ethical Teachings of a Social Deviant

Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage: The Sermon on the Mount, Part II

“Sermon on the Mount” – Hungarian artist Kalroly Ferenczy, Budapest, 1896

“Sermon on the Mount” – Hungarian artist Kalroly Ferenczy, Budapest, 1896

 

“Don’t react violently.”  “Turn the other cheek.” And, “Love your enemies.” – Matthew 5:39,44

Recently, crowds took to the streets from Kiev, to Bangkok and Caracas. Then again, the social world order seems to erupt in chaos and violence on a regular basis.  Regimes hold on to political power at all costs, while those who are more often than not economically oppressed – as opposed to just ideologically of a different mindset — demonstrate and confront government forces with little more than their willingness to stand in opposition; and, in hopes outside forces might be willing to join their struggle, and match entrenched power with equal force by those others who have their own national interests at stake.

If all that seems like pure political commentary, consider this: The socio-political landscape in first century Palestine, CE, wasn’t much different. The practical means by which the imbalance of power was wielded by some over others may have been rather primitive by today’s technological standards; but the end game was the same.

And, in the context of the Matthean texts commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, the itinerant Jewish peasant teacher and sage who would long be remembered as uttering such impractical non-sense as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy,” was the same historical figure that was executed as an insurrectionist, not a “resurrectionist.”  As I’ve put it bluntly elsewhere, Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but because of them.

Clearly, the earliest legends of what Jesus said and did that would subsequently be recorded in what became known to us as evangelion (the good news of the canonical and non-canonical gospels) sought a way to somehow explain away his suffering and death as a divinely orchestrated redemptive act. An entire theological proposition about expiation and atonement subsequently arose to dominate religious beliefs systems within the Christian faith tradition.

But the historical Jesus who lived and died in the midst of such chaos and violence would have never imagined such a theological extrapolation be applied to himself. He had no messianic complex; despite the title that would subsequently be accorded him as “the Christ;” and with the subsequent words attributed to him as the one and only salvific son of God. Despite what would become a core tenet of orthodox Christianity, his life and death was not an apocalyptic in-breaking of some other-worldly Divine; interceding to set things right and offer personal salvation to right believers.

Instead, his ethical teachings such as those recorded in that collection of wisdom sayings, aphorisms and parables known to us as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), comprised a worldview that deviated so radically from what was taken to be the accepted norm of conventional thinking and routine religious posturing that it was – and remains – at odds with what we all too willingly concede to be  “just the way things are” when it comes to “human nature.

In this regard, not only was Jesus a true social deviant to the normal ways human beings have long been accustomed to thinking and acting – dismissing our actions as just human nature — but his teachings reveal to us an alternate view of a fuller humanity of which we are presumably capable.

What Jesus’ teachings actually propose is a complete deviation from what is all too readily assumed and accepted to be the default condition of what constitutes who we are as human beings; as well as the kind of world we shape for ourselves as a result of this misbegotten default view of human nature.  The wisdom teaching of the Galilean sage is a direct refutation of the accepted norms of conventional wisdom about the way things are; and not just naïve and wistful thinking about the way we all wished they could be.

To read a fuller commentary on Jesus’ deviant behavior, go here.

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Rich Man, Poor Man: The Bigger Message of a Jesus Ethic

“A Bigger Message” by renowned contemporary artist, David Hockney, is a re-imagined rendering of the original Claude Lorrain’s 17th C. painting entitled, "Sermon on the Mount"

“A Bigger Message” by renowned contemporary artist, David Hockney, is a re-imagined rendering of the original Claude Lorrain’s 17th C. painting entitled, “Sermon on the Mount”

First in a 4-Part Series on the Sermon on the Mount

We live in an age where income inequality is no longer a gap, but a chasm. And the situation is no longer described as unfair or unjust, but untenable and dangerous.  While religious zealots of all sorts continue to contort over personal morality, the deeper issue has to do with ethical behavior. What, for instance, constitutes a ‘Jesus ethic?’

Biblical scholars generally consider those teachings attributed to Jesus in that part of Matthew’s gospel, commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, with the corollary being the Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6), as likely comprising much of what can be considered most authentically and historically the real deal.

But reaching back as close as we can to who the historical Jesus may have been is not the end of it. At the heart of it, a Jesus ethic itself has little concern with what you believe about the man, but what you do about the message.

This commentary begins a new series for those of us who might consider ourselves progressive Christians, but who still find ourselves economically better off than the vast majority of the world’s people; asking how might we authentically and honestly engage this ethic?  What is the “bigger message?”

You can read more here

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The Holy Nativity of a Human Jesus

De-mystifying the deification of a human birth, and restoring the full humanity of a remarkable life

One of thousands of depictions of the Nativity of Jesus. The full cast of characters, some winged, some with haloes. But does it portray an event any more miraculous than one every parent of every newborn has experienced?

One of thousands of depictions of the Nativity of Jesus. The full cast of characters, some winged, some with haloes. But does it portray an event any more miraculous than one every parent of every newborn has experienced?

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  Isaiah 11:6

The holiday shopping season had barely begun this last year when a giant warehouse retailer that sells everything from tires to tortellini, caskets to fine cabernets, scrambled to do damage control at their Simi Valley location; when some of the Bibles they were selling to holiday shoppers in their book section were mistakenly labeled as “fiction.”  Costco immediately repented of their venial sin, but blamed the distributor for the unintentional faux pas, as well.

“Of course it’s fiction!” was my spontaneous retort to the onscreen newscaster delivering the retail disaster on the morning news. “Well, at least part of it is pure fiction,” I muttered to myself, since the reporter didn’t seem to be listening.

The compilation of hundreds of numerous and variant texts deemed sacred to various folks and bound together as the Holy Bible is part fiction, part poetry, part prophecy, part myth and legend, part history or historical narrative, with a little mail correspondence thrown in. And all with plenty of redactive and editorial license taken by those entrusted over the centuries such writings were collected, in order to pass along some vestige of what might have been anything close to “original.”    And, nowhere is there more pure fiction than the multiple and varied imaginative accounts of Jesus’ birth.

If we remember that gospels are neither intended to be biographies of an historical figure, nor even a dependable historical record, we can readily label the multiple accounts of the “first” Christmas as fanciful fiction.  Then we can instead proceed to ask what the gospel writers may have had in mind when conjuring up such wonderful tales.

The key question is why the birth of a very human Jesus — with the teachings he gave us, and the life he exemplified for us — wasn’t sufficiently holy, and something sacred enough to be joyfully welcomed?  And how elevating Jesus to godlike status not only denies him his full humanity, but convolutes our greater capacity to embrace the fuller meaning of the man, as well. Read more here.

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