Wednesday, August 29, 2018
It was not uncommon in the ancient world for rulers to be deified. In the case of the Roman empire deceased emperors were often elevated to divine status and temples built in their honor. Cities, particularly in the east, would vie for the right to promote a cult of the emperor as a way of currying favor in Rome and bringing in revenue. Eventually residents of the Roman Empire would be required to make offerings to the “genius” or spirit of the living emperor. Most people in the Roman world saw this as a political act, rather like standing for the national anthem, and were outraged that Christians refused to perform what they considered an ordinary civic duty. In John’s Revelation he describes a beast (some scholars think he is alluding to Nero) who had recovered from a fatal wound: “The beast is given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies” (Rev. 13:5). The Beast comes to dominate the world and moves against God’s people. A bit later John describes another beast who encourages the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast: “It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the first beast. . . . It also forced people, great and small . . . to receive a mark on their right hands and their foreheads, so they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark” (Rev. 13:14,16). Some scholars think this second beast is an allusion to the imperial priesthood who promoted the cult of the emperor and the mark an allusion to the requirement that citizens participate in the imperial cult in order to do business in Roman cities. John did not see this as a “civic duty” but nothing short of idolatry.
Let me hasten to say that I do not think John’s Revelation is “prediction” in the normal sense of the term. I do not believe that Revelation 13 is referring to a “beast” yet to come who will dominate the entire world. I rather think that Revelation is a prophetic reflection on the threat of the Roman Empire to the emerging church and the dangers of compromise with its seductive power. Its enduring significance is that it speaks to the threat the state has always represented for the church (and always will). The state will consistently offer its power to the church only at the price of the church’s integrity and faithfulness to God--as the last 1500 years of church history has made abundantly clear. John’s Revelation continues to be powerful, not because it is predicting the future, but because it is interpreting the present. And this brings me to Donald Trump.
Evangelicals famously voted for Donald Trump in droves. And they have continued to support him regardless of his frequent violations of the law and common decency. It doesn’t seem to matter to many, if not most, Evangelicals that he lies constantly, cheated on his wives, paid off his sexual partners, posts cruel tweets, and in general is the poster boy for what Paul calls “the acts of the sinful nature”—sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy (see Galatians 5:19,20). I can recall the sonorous condemnations of Bill Clinton for his sexual misbehaviors back in the 90s by many of the very same people who are today continuing in their enthusiasm for Trump. So, why is this? I would suggest that a considerable portion of the Evangelical world has always been a cult of America. Christianity in the Evangelical world has frequently been identified with “American values”. Many of the American values touted by American Evangelicals would be shared by most Americans, even other American Christians. But Evangelicals often include values that appear to have little or nothing to do with Christian faith per se. It is not clear that support for market capitalism and a strong military, opposition to welfare programs and fears of big government are particularly Christian. These values, which are certainly debatable by reasonable people, are often accompanied by values that clearly are not Christian: nativism, racism and misogyny—to name a few. In short, today’s Evangelicalism is a form of religious nationalism, where is it not always clear where the nationalism ends and the religion begins.
In Donald Trump these Evangelicals have found their president—their “dream president”, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. put it. Many have noted that Trump’s following resembles a cult. I would suggest it resembles nothing so much as the imperial cult—a cult that has seduced a large swath of the Evangelical world. Falwell, Franklin Graham, and all the others are now the new high priests of the cult of Trump. In order to sustain their bigoted forms of nationalism, in order to indulge their fears of the “other” (Muslims, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, “liberals”, etc.), in order have access to the so-called halls of power, they will evidently compromise their faith and integrity to sustain the beast’s approval. In one of his letters to the seven churches John has the risen Christ say to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Indeed.
Monday, August 20, 2018
Why We Need More Disputes in Christianity
Jewish scholar Shaye J. D. Cohen suggested in a seminal article that the destruction of the temple brought about a radical change in the structure of what would become Judaism. Before the Romans reduced the temple to rubble in 70 C. E. Cohen argues that the Jewish religion had become “sectarian.” He dates the rise of sectarianism from the centuries of Greek influence and especially from the era of the Jewish Hasmonean kings. At the center of the sectarian conflict was the temple itself. Various groups emerged with very different ideas about the temple, its organization, leadership, and ritual. We know from Josephus’ works and from the writings of various sectarians, including those from Qumran, that deep divisions within Jewish society could be traced to arguments over the temple. Who should be high priest? How should the high priest be appointed and by whom? What rituals should be followed and how should they be carried out? What should the purity practices entail? What calendar should be followed? And what should be done about the domination of Israel by the Gentiles and the consequent “foreign” influences on the thinking and practices of both the political and religious leadership of the Jewish people? When the Jewish war broke out it in 66 C.E., it was not just a war against Rome. It was a vicious civil war. While the Romans were preparing to storm Jerusalem, the rebels were killing off their enemies within the city, including the recent high priests. Three factions fought it out in the city, weakening themselves as well as their opponents until it was too late.
In the aftermath of Roman victory, a group of rabbis gathered to consider how to prevent such suicidal sectarian strife. Those early rabbis, calledtannaim, had to articulate a new way to be Jewish—a way that did not require a temple or sacrifices to follow and obey the God of Israel. A key part of this according to Cohen was moving Judaism from being a community of sectariansto a community of disputants. All of these rabbis were committed to the “oral Torah”, the stream of tradition that sought to interpret and apply the “written Torah” to the ever-changing situations of Jews both in and beyond the land of Israel. But the traditions and the sages did not always agree on how in particular cases that should be done. There were significant differences between the followers of great sages of the past—like Hillel and Shammai. How could these differences be adjudicated without leading to the destructive factionalism that had almost destroyed the Jewish people?
The genius of those early rabbis was to leave room for dispute—more than that,
to encouragedispute. The circles of disciples that would become the rabbinic academies became circles of argument and disputation. The rabbis and their disciples would argue fiercely defending their various viewpoints. To this day, if you visit a traditional Jewish beit midrash (house of learning)you will find students arguing vociferously with each other. In one I visited in Jerusalem the cacophony was such that I wondered how they could even hear each other! Both the Mishnah and the later Talmudpreserve the arguments and conflicts of the sages. Even if a ruling of a particular sage was not accepted, neither the sage nor his ruling was eliminated. The losing arguments and the winning arguments are often recorded side by side. Who knew? Perhaps the “losing” view would be needed in a subsequent era when Israel’s situation had changed.
Moving from a sectarian society to a disputation society saved Judaism. It did not fragment into increasingly smaller and paranoid groups in the following centuries—as it could have done. With very view exceptions it remained united under the banner of what we would now call rabbinic Judaism well into the modern era. Even today, as great as the differences are between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, most religious Jews are loath to reject the Jewishness of other Jews, however greatly they disagree with the way they practice their Judaism.
This is perhaps an overlong introduction to the point I want to make. Almost from the very beginning, Christianity has been a sectarian community, rather than a community of dispute. As early as the second century its leaders were identifying and marginalizing “heretics”, thereby creating alternative and competing sects. Unlike emerging Judaism, the Christian Church eventually gained political power and used the power of the state to enforce conformity, burning the occasional heretic to make a point. Throughout the history of the church theologians who went too far in their speculations could find themselves facing a grim-faced tribunal of bishops who could deprive them of their livelihoods if not their lives. The Reformation challenged the authority of both church and state in the west, but clearly did not end the sectarianism, but rather enhanced it! The various Protestant bodies were as eager to identify and persecute “heretics” as their fiercest Catholic brethren (and I use the term advisedly).
I am not sanguine that Christianity can travel the same road as the early rabbis. I fear that our sectarianism, our eagerness to condemn our opponents and destroy our dissidents is too deeply engrained. But sectarianism is destroying us just as surely as it nearly destroyed Judaism. Everywhere I see vicious attempts to assure conformity by silencing dissent. This often occurs through the efforts of denominational enforcers. But it also, and perhaps more often occurs through the vicious public humiliation of those who dare to raise questions about the current received wisdom. Witness the attacks within the Evangelical world on any public figure who dares, however gently, to raise questions about or express a desire for a conversations concerning the role of women or human sexuality (especially homosexuality) or Black Lives Matter. Evangelical “leaders” seem terrified of any conversation that challenges the views of conservative churches and powerful donors. At all costs, it seems, these dissidents must be silenced or shunned, and the conversations ended before they are begun.
We should not be trying to end these disputations but encouraging them—bringing them into the open. As we engage in these difficult discussions, we need to acknowledge that our opponents are trying to follow Jesus, just as we are—even if we disagree with them. We should not brand them as heretics to be shamed, silenced, and driven out. In my experience, I would hasten to say, this is often as difficult for people on the “left” as people on the “right”. I am aware that his is a tall order since it is against all of our Christian instincts to demonize our opponents. And, as I witnessed this summer in Minneapolis, our impulse to eliminate problematic people and avoid difficult conversations is strong. But if we continue in our sectarian ways, we will destroy ourselves. And perhaps that is not a bad thing. Perhaps in the wake of the coming destruction, as occurred after the destruction of the temple, something new, and heathier, will rise from the ashes. Perhaps we will actually learn to follow Jesus in love and hope rather than trying to destroy individuals and communities trying to do exactly that.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Nathan and the Donald: A modern fable
That Nathan the prophet came to see me today. A total loser. He dumped a load of fake news about me killing some guy named Uriah (what kind of a name is Uriah anyway) and having sex with his wife Bathsheba. Total fake news. I didn’t have anything to do with Uriah getting killed. I guess he just wasn’t a good enough solider. A total loser. As for Bathsheba, well she is a total babe, but I never had sex with her. Anyone who thinks so needs to talk to my lawyer—he’s the one in the ostrich coat (or is that the other guy?). Anyway, I didn’t have sex with that woman and the kid’s not mine and nobody can prove it. It’s all fake news made up by 17 angry Saulites who haven’t gotten over their man losing the kingdom. And he did lose, hugely! You should have seen the crowd at my coronation. It was huge! So don’t go on to me about baby lambs and repentance. Don’t threaten me with divine punishment! I tell you those prophets are the enemies of the people. We need to find a way to shut them down and stop all their fake news. And you know what, I’ll bet this Uriah was a problem anyway. He was a Hittite for crying out loud. He was probably from one of those violent Hittite gangs coming over the border. You know what they are like. We need to deport all those Hittites back to Hitia or wherever they are from. So, just to make it clear, I don’t need to make any little sacrifices and sing any sad songs. Your favorite King has done nothing wrong and you can’t prove it anyway. But out of kindness to Bathsheba, I did hire her to work in the palace with me. So what if her husband was a Hittite. He probably seduced her anyway. You know how those Hittites are. Well, I’ve got to get back to work for the people of Israel. Don’t worry about anything those prophets say, they’re all liars anyway.
Thursday, August 2, 2018
The Authoritarian Seduction of the Church
We are in an authoritarian moment. Around the world autocratic, nationalistic leaders offer simple, appealing solutions to complex challenges. The President of the United States openly admires a blood-stained autocrat in Russia and makes autocratic noises of his own. And facing questions of race, gender, and sexuality, many local churches and denominations are being drawn to ecclesial forms of authoritarianism. It is easy to see the appeal. Strong leaders patrolling strong boundaries make the world less threatening, less bewildering. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is bad. There are enemies of the people and there are friends of the people. And autocratic leaders tell you what is right and good and point out the enemies. To do this, of course, leaders stoke fears of the “other”, whether it is the racial other, the political other, the sexual other, or an imaginary other. To preserve control authoritarian leaders foment anger and make threats. If the “others” know what is good for them they will keep their heads down or get out of town.
The church has always struggled with authoritarianism. Over time a scattered, diverse, group of communities with a charismatic leadership model morphed into a highly structured organization dominated by appointed leaders and strict rules. Through a liberal use of excommunication and heresy trials the hold of the popes and bishops was consolidated to the point that Cyprian was able to say, “There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.” The Bishops were to enforce conformity, discipline their clergy, and instruct the laity on their roles and expectations. Everyone was to obey their “superior.” This is not to say there was no opposition to the dominance of the hierarchy. There were “heretics” and schismatics aplenty. But in the end, they often ended up destroyed, exiled, or compromised. The Reformation brought some much-needed light and air into the rigid structures of the church—at some considerable cost. But then the reformation churches went on to create their own authoritarian structures—often using elaborate “confessions” to assure conformity.
But authoritarianism does not produce healthy, free, and engaged communities. It feeds on fear and rules through silence. Rather than a flowing stream of new ideas it becomes a stagnant pool of stifling conformity. “Freedom” is reduced to moving carefully within a narrowly prescribed set of boundaries. Conversations are limited to safe and trivial topics. An authoritarian church may appear healthy, but it is being consumed by spiritual rot at its very core. The Spirit blows where it will and often produces something that is messy, exciting, open, free and terrifying to those who would control the conversation. An authoritarian church is deeply concerned with hanging on to money, power, influence, and numbers. It placates the powerful, threatens minorities, and bullies anyone who puts peace and quiet at risk. In an authoritarian church (or a church moving in that direction):
Autocrats replace leaders
Silence replaces conversation
Fear replaces faith
Legislating replaces learning
Rules replace guidelines
Secrecy replaces openness.
In an autocratic church:
You conform or leave
You can raise no real questions
You must stifle your convictions
You find closed doors and closed hearts.
Among Evangelicals especially Paul is “the” apostle. And yet he was a trouble maker. He drove both the Jewish leadership and the emerging leadership of the Jesus followers crazy. Wherever he went he created controversy and incited riots. He was not afraid to think new and radical thoughts. He was not afraid to reframe the older ways of thinking about God and the world. He was the apostle of freedom. It drove him to distraction when his converts would fearfully revert from the freedom of the gospel to the authoritarian comfort of rules and conformity. “You foolish Galatians,” he wrote to one early group of Jesus followers: “Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1) And later in the letter he would rail at them: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The thin gruel of ecclesial authoritarianism is not likely to upset your stomach. But it is boring, tasteless, and offers no nourishment. Dear friends, resist it with your life.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
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