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”

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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Thanks for Nothing: A Commentary for Thanksgiving in an Age of Anxietry

Consider amber waves of grain as wild lilies of the field.

Consider amber waves of grain as wild lilies of the field.

American retailers have essentially pre-announced that the annual Thanksgiving observance — when we presumably pause to gratefully remember everything we have — has been cancelled so bargain shoppers can get an even earlier jump-start on their holiday shopping for all the things we don’t have yet.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world a typhoon of record proportion hit landfall only a few weeks ago; nearly wiping an island nation off the face of the earth, and leaving those who survived with virtually nothing. Then last week an unseasonable swarm of twisters flattened whole towns across the Midwest. By comparison, it all makes the plight of those first pilgrims facing the harsh realities of their first wintry Thanksgiving in a brave new world look like a walk in the park.

And, all the while, the airwaves and media have been filled with docu-dramas and documentaries commemorating the half-century mark of those events that shattered an age of relative innocence for those of us old enough to remember it; ushering in an age of extraordinary upheaval and anxiety, starting with what social critics and historians alike attribute to the assassination of JFK.   Juxtaposed and taken together, these events represent an age of anxiety hasn’t really abated much in the last fifty years.

Jesus masterfully taught in the philosophical tradition known as Jewish cynicism, with such parabolic tales and quaint-sounding imagery as the “lilies of the field.” And he did so at a time and age that – while seemingly ancient to our modern way of thinking – may not have been all that different from our own anxious age. Consider then our fretful, misbegotten ways, the peculiar gift of nothingness, and the wild lilies of the fields. Read more here.

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“Christian” A-theism Series, Part III: Jesus, My Imaginary Friend

Jamie's JesusA progressive Christian can explore new possibilities to be found in pushing beyond the constraints of theism and a-theism; and the blunt and limited question of believing or not believing in a “theistic” notion of “God.” Folks typically fashion our notion of anything we deem sacred “Oneness” in anthropomorphic terms, so we can more easily relate to the idea, as expressed with the limitations of our human language and experience. The Christian then proceeds to incarnate that God notion with a Christology in which Jesus is historically construed as a co-eternal mediator and – peculiarly – a substitutionary sacrifice.

But for those progressives for whom such a construct is no longer viable or credible, it can be asked what might still be found amidst the theological rubble in a post-modern – even post-deconstructionist – age? Indeed, what may have been there from the start of the entire imaginative process; known in the earliest days of a pre-“Christian” movement, known simply as the Way (of Jesus)? As near as we might be able to discern it with our own creative and interpretive imaginations, what resemblance might it bear to the “voice-print” of an extraordinarily imaginative character we might want to befriend?

In the post-modern quest for a historical Jesus, some now hypothesize we may be dealing with a composite figure; while others even argue Jesus was only a fictional character, a contrivance for socio-political purposes.  But even if one were reluctant to embrace the factual premise there was at least one such itinerant Galilean peasant sage that existed in the early part of the first century CE, one can hardly ignore the multi-faceted movement that subsequently arose as a result of such a figure, imaginary or not. Every subsequent individual orator, writer, or their collective early faith community then employed their own active, creative and interpretive imaginations to configure, or reconfigure, whoever, or whatever, that original figure may have been.  

It is precisely our own interpretive imagination that draws us into the same sacred activity that is so central to the life and teaching of the Jesus character so consistently portrayed in what so many biblical scholars believe are the most authentic words of that historical figure (or figures). If nothing else, it seems clearly apparent that the Jesus character portrayed in so many of the tales and teachings with which “he” is credited, is clearly that of a social visionary with the most active and creative imagination. His ethical teachings and whacky parables routinely upturn conventional wisdom and common assumptions.

Who – except perhaps in their wildest imagination — would turn the other cheek, walk a second mile, give without measure, or forgive without counting the cost to one’s own self? Or reconsider what imaginative nonsense is found in the storylines of the lost sheep, the prodigal’s unwarranted gift of grace, the “good” Samaritan’s unstinting compassion. Can you imagine such a thing? Every injunction how to treat others, give to others, care for others, forgive others, arises out of the act of imagining the way things could be, or ought to be, instead of the way things are. 

Every similitude this Jesus character offers when he gives us another pithy saying about how the “reign of God is like this,” or “like that,” strikes a resonating chord for those who might have eyes to see and ears to hear. In short, every image of that other “kingdom” is borne out of an extraordinary imagination, by a character that may have either been the most imaginative character that ever lived, or we could ever imagine.  Read more.

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A Pessimist for Peace, and the Question of a “Just” War

Dante & Virgil in “The Barque of Dante” – Delacroix (1798-1863)

Dante & Virgil in “The Barque of Dante” – Delacroix (1798-1863)

“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” – Dante (1265-1321)

On their way to Hell, Dante and his guide Virgil in “The Inferno” encounter a collection of dead souls whose ultimate fate remains undetermined because they had equivocated at a time of great moral crisis when they were alive.  They are castigated as the worst of sinners, repulsed by both God and Satan. They are consequently condemned to a fate of eternal equivocation that is presumably worse than the certitude of damnation, or the blessed rest of everlasting peace.

Now our nation is currently embroiled in a contentious debate over the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and what should be the appropriate response by the U.S. and the international community.   Is there a moral imperative to act? If so, how?  What is the justification for a violent response to a deplorable, unjust and violent act?

An inconvenient truth is that the mere threat of armed force has prompted diplomatic negotiations for a peaceful settlement; where the staggering casualty count in a bloody civil war and the plight of over a million refugees have previously failed to bring the warring parties to their senses. How do “peace-loving” nations confront the evils of war, without we ourselves becoming the evil we deplore? And finally, for those of us who identify with a religious tradition of some sort, what do we have to say to our human family as a people of faith?

As a person of faith, I neither fear, nor believe, in a heaven nor hell. I fear equivocation in a time of great moral crisis such as we face today. Though I am not a pacifist, I believe in non-violent resistance, and remain a pessimist for peace; preferring to stake my bets on the possible futility of peace as preferable to the utter futility of a cycle of violence that all but pre-empts the possibility of anything else. Read more here.

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“Christian” A-theism, Part II: What Language Shall I Borrow?

"Pantocrator" Christ with orb - Artist: El Greco, 1600 CE National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

“Pantocrator” Christ with orb – Artist: El Greco, 1600 CE
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Part One in this series considered the notion of “God,” or “gods,” as the single most elusive idea the human imagination has ever concocted or tried to fathom. But we typically constrain ourselves, thinking only in theistic terms; and fashion our notion of “God” in an anthropomorphic image so we can more easily relate to the idea. We ascribe to such a being all kinds of desirable characteristics that might comprise this composite character. The Christian then proceeds to incarnate that idea with a Christology in which Jesus is typically construed as mediator and chief negotiator; to the extent such a savior is willing to atone for all our wretchedness and secure our own immortality in another existence. It’s all pretty fanciful stuff. But for those progressives for whom such a construct is no longer viable or credible, it is not simply a question of what remains amidst the theological rubble, but what more, or other, might yet be discovered? As such, we ask how we might speak of such things. What language might we use? Read more here.

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“Christian” A-theism, Part I: The God I Don’t Believe In

"Hand of God Giving Life to Adam" - Michelangelo’s fanciful imagination at work in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512

“Hand of God Giving Life to Adam” – Michelangelo’s fanciful imagination at work in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512

The atheist and the theist both want to ask the same basic question: Do you believe in God or not? But often it seems they are not interested in going much deeper than that. The oft-repeated response a famous preacher once gave to a religious skeptic went, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Chances are I don’t believe in that kind of God either.”

When it comes a notion of “God,” or “gods,” that may be the single most elusive idea the human imagination has ever concocted or tried to fathom. Lord knows we try! The Bible claims we are created in God’s image, and the post-modern rationalist suggests just the reverse. That is, God is conveniently created in our own idea of what kind of god is either believable or unbelievable, take your pick. We fashion the idea of “God” in anthropomorphic terms so we can more easily relate to the idea; and then ascribe to such a being all kinds of desirable characteristics that might comprise this composite character.

As a self-described progressive Christian, I do not hold to much of the assertions and assumptions of an orthodox and theistic god-ology in my own faith tradition that has historically attempted to explain the inexplicable with dogma, doctrine or a contradictory apologetic that has so consistently failed the test of human reason or relevance.

Yet beyond all our human ideas about what we may believe or not believe, is there anything else, anything more, anything other thanwhat religious types may claim without proof, or rational types may poo-poo as having no reasonable basis in fact?

Read more here.

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Unalienable Rights, and the Question of a “Christian” Conscience

A Commentary for the Annual Observance of Independence Day, 2013

 

An artist’s stylized retrospective of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson “Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776” – Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

An artist’s stylized retrospective of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson “Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776” – Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These grand words are etched in the American consciousness, and serve as a preamble of sorts to the Constitution’s subsequent ideal goal of “a more perfect union.”  With the recent split Supreme Court decisions over voting rights and marriage equality, along with and passage of an immigration reform bill in the Senate that naysayers declare is DOA in the House of Representatives, it would appear that while progress has been made, we clearly remain a work in progress, as well.

As we prepare to celebrate our Independence Day holiday this year the fireworks have been set off a little early with the debate over the intelligence surveillance practices of the so-called Patriot Act by a government that was established of, by and for the people.  Call them heroes or traitors, whistleblowers or hack-tivists, there are also a growing number of anti-authoritarian tech geeks who claim to be motivated less by notoriety than a certain principled conscience to which they claim to have pledged a higher allegiance.

So, what is the nature of “natural” or “divinely-bestowed” rights? What of human conscience, earthly authority, and more? And – for those of us who might consider ourselves both a red-blooded American and Christian of one sort or other — what might constitute a “Christian” conscience, based on a Jesus life-ethic?

You can explore this question further Here.

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THE BODY POLITIC OF GOD, Part II

"Whore of Babylon & the Seven-headed Beast" - 19th Century Russian engraving.

“Whore of Babylon & the Seven-headed Beast” – 19th Century Russian engraving.

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, ʻHallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.ʼ  Once more they said, ʻHallelujah! (Rev.19-1-3)

Who Is the Whore of Babylon?

A typical interpretation when reading the Book of Revelation is John’s attempt to answer the interminable question: How exactly will God, once and for all, set things right?  When will the “sorrow and weeping be no more,” and the “tear wiped from every eye?”  After reinterpreting over and over again the imminent end that has been repeatedly put on indefinite hold, it merely begs the question, why the postponement?

When Revelation is instead understood to be political commentary spun in the form of a fantastic allegorical tale that can be reinterpreted and applied again and again in each succeeding age, the usefulness of this bizarre book may have more to do with asking some different questions.

First, who is the Whore of Babylon in our day and age, and all  she represents? For John, exiled on the island of Patmos because of Roman persecution of early believers, it was the Empire.   But two biblical scholars, Wes Howard Brook and Anthony Gwyther, have suggested more generically that the “whore of Babylon” represents God’s judgment on “all human attempts to displace God from the center of reality in favor of human power arrangements.”  So what is that for us?

Writer/preacher Robin Meyer’s is convinced our whore is greed; and if so, perhaps we have all have seduced. Such a case can be easily prosecuted.

If that sounds like a political opinion, consider it is also a central motif in the entire biblical narrative. It also lies at the heart of the gospel message, and the best of what the Christian faith tradition may still have to offer us.

Perhaps the seduction has existed ever since Christianity became an established religion subservient to the Empire, instead of a movement and way of life once shown us by the peasant rabbi from Nazareth who saved his harshest judgments  – call it political rhetoric, if you will — for church and state.

How can we be so easily seduced? And have the words and life of the Galilean sage been lost to our better selves; even from the time John had his nightmarish vision to our own succumbing today? You can read more about these ideas  Here.

 

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THE BODY POLITIC OF GOD, Part I: The Book of Revelation, and the Tree of Life

Tree of Life jpeg

“Tree of Life,” from the Stoclet Frieze, Brussels
artist: Gustav Klimt, 1862-1918

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,… Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more.  (Rev.21-22)

The last book of the Bible, that bizarre and nightmarish Book of Revelation, is often found to be most popular among those religious nut jobs who are constantly interpreting the universal themes found in the battle of good and evil as signs of some certain apocalyptic end time; and differentiating the tribes of those who will be saved from those who will be lost, left behind and damned. Okay, everyone is entitled to their own religious and political points of view, right?

However, given the obvious fact such end-time predictions have been re-scheduled over and over again for nearly two thousand years (so far), we might better consider those recurrent, universal themes to be found in this allegorical tale; and look with fresh eyes and see Revelation as more about this world of ours that continues to self-implode upon itself over and over again. And, because we are inescapably political beings, it’s all about religion and politics.

How might we be open to being encountered in another, revelatory view of the polis in which we all inextricably dwell?  This introduces a two-part commentary based in part on Elaine Pagel’s newest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation; and in light of the latest terrorist attacks in Boston, unending bombings elsewhere, and general global violence among our tribal warring factions in such desperate need for a fruitful “tree of life for the healing of the nations.”  Here.

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