Thursday, January 13, 2011

Crossan's "God and Empire"

   We are seeking to understand -- probably in ways we have never considered  before -- the Christian faith.  If we paid attention in Sunday School and Confirmation, and can remember some of it, many of us have a vague idea that Jesus, whose mother never had sex, came to teach us how to live, died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, came back to life, and somehow went back up to heaven.  Our job on earth is to die (that we can do) and go to heaven (that may be in doubt).  We may also have been told 'way back when that God created the earth in seven days.
    All of which, or most of which, sounds pretty lame to many people who want to think rationally about their faith, the way they think about everything else that is important in life. 
   The Freedom from Religion folk recently polled their membership, asking what were their reasons for leaving religion behind.  Around 25% said that relgious claims made no [rational] sense; around 15% cited hypocrisy or bigotry among the faithful.  A smaller group said that reading skeptical authors made them skeptical, and a few said that reading the Bible was the last straw for them.  [Christian Century, January 11, 2011]  Our little group read one of those skeptics (Sam Harris), but not much yet of the Bible.  But a lot of us would say that many religious claims don't make much sense to us -- especially the traditional expressions of the faith as outlined above.
     And so we read John Dominic Crossan.  A scholar.  Who surely uses his reason, and a whole lot of historical and linguistic skills, to look at the biblical texts in very new ways.  Like Ellul, he sees the Jesus movement of the first century against the backdrop of the Roman Empire, and comes to very different conclusions (compared to traditional theology) about who Jesus was, why he came, and what his followers today should be doing.
   If you like reading history, then you'll like Crossan's God and Empire.  Below are some things I noted as I read the first two chapters in which he addresses "civilization" and its violent propensity, and then that violence as reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In Chapter Three he'll head into the Gospels, followed by Saint Paul . . .  and at last the very end, that wild and crazy book of Revelation.  

Chapter One
Four kinds of power of empire:  military, economic, political, and ideological.  Crossan adds the power of non-violent "persuasion and attraction."
911. Purpose of the terrorists was to help us deny our own ideology.

Roman Imperial Power
Rome thought of itself in transcendental terms - "divinely mandated to rule without limits of time or place." Cites the poetry of Virgil, Horace, Ovid to support this.  They believed that the gods run the world, and since Caesar ran the world then Caesar must be a god.

Crossan's main point:  in the first century terms like "Son of God," "Lord," "Savior of the world" were reserved for the Emperor.  When the followers of Jesus took those terms and applied them to the Jewish peasant Jesus, they committed high treason.  To say that Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar is not is to make a radical, revolutionary statement.

Further:  the ideology of Rome said, "Victory first, then peace.". But the Christians, following their Lord Jesus, said no, "Justice first, and peace will follow." This non-violence of the earliest Christians stood in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom of the first century - and the 21st too.

Empire and Civilization.  
Crossan then talks about the "normalcy" of violence even within "civilization."  He offers some definitions of "civilization," citing a group of scholars who talk about civilization as "cage" and as "trap."

"Violence is bred by injustice, poverty, inequality, and other violence. A full belly and a fair hearing won't stop a fanatic, but they will greatly reduce the number who become fanatics."

The world has yet to see a civilization without violence.  Is violence inevitable?  Crossan says No, that "normalcy is not destiny." To support that he cites the history of monastic communities across time.

At the end of Chapter One he says that monastic communities are a living witness that violence is NOT inevitable, that they are non-violent alternatives.  Also, that these coming few years will determine the fate of the world for many years to come - the 10,000 year experiment will stand or fall by what we do now.

The "ambiguity of divine power" - the rest of the book is about how the Bible views political, military, and ideological power.

Chapter Two:  The Ambiguity of Divine Power
Crossan will be looking first at the Genesis story of creation -- not as a historical account of origins, but as parables about God and humankind.

Traditional interpretation (the kind that fundamentalists, evangelicals, Catholics and many others would espouse) understands the story to be about human pride: simple disobedience of a command of God (don't eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil).  Crossan sees it as much more complex than that.

The two trees in the garden -- Moral Knowledge on the one hand, and Eternal Life on the other -- were reserved only for God. Humanity could have one or the other . . . but not both.  When Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden tree they forfeit the Garden -- not so much as punishment, but as consequence.  Armed with this new knowledge of Good and Evil they head out and . . .  there is the first act of violence, the killing of Able by his brother Cain.

The Flood Story shows a God who uses violence to cleanse a sinful world.  But does that violence (the killing of all humankind except one family) do any good? Crossan says No -- and thus begins the story of Abraham, a non-violent story of redemption. 

Crossan sees a big difference between Retributive and Distributive justice -- punishment/revenge versus equality distribution.  He cites a number of examples in the Old Testament to illustrate distributive justice: forbidding usury (loaning at interest), controlling collateral, freeing slaves, forgiving debts -- all built into the civil laws of the Jewish people in the Torah.

But there is also retributive justice -- a God who punishes, avenges.  Both retributive justice and distributive justice co-exists with one another in the biblical texts.  A violent God and a non-violent God is present, sometimes within the same chapter.  Are we supposed to embrace both Gods?  Crossan's thesis is that the Bible proposes a radically non-violent God "warring" against the normalcy of violent civilization.

He sees both a violent and a non-violent God in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  How does one choose?  By choosing the way of the Christ -- Jesus trumps all other views; he chose non-violence, and we as his followers must do the same.  See the last paragraph of Chapter Two.