The Most Important Passage in the Bible

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)

I nominate Matthew 5:38-48 as the most important passage in Scripture for our time. It conveys the element in Jesus’ teaches ministry which most distinguishes him in human history. Has there ever been anyone else prior to Jesus to teach that perfect love reaches out to include even enemies?

It is also implies the theology that stands out as transcendent to the default theology of human evolution. The latter is the god of our tribe, our nation, our group — the god-on-our-side. But a God who teaches to love even enemies pushes humankind toward experiencing God anew as the God who embraces all human beings — the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Paul the Apostle extends this theology to make God’s action in Jesus the Messiah to be about making peace, in what I consider a close second as the most important Scripture for our time:

For [the Messiah] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace… (Eph. 2:14-15)

There is no longer us and them; there is only us. And we meet a God for all, no longer any god-on-our-side. This dawning peace brings “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” to its logical conclusion.

From the perspective of Mimetic Theory, isn’t this the crucial pivot point of our human evolution? We evolved with the Scapegoat Mechanism at the foundation of all our human cultures, meaning that all our cultures are structured on an us-them basis and then justified by the god-on-our-side. Paul in Romans 5:12-21 maps this pivot in the typology of the First Anthropos, Adam, and the Second Anthropos, the Messiah. One is formed in disobedience and the second opens the possibility of obedience: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). What constitutes obedience? The Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:38-48. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Love your enemies.

This points to the anthropological and theological revolution which has yet to take place. Christendom lapsed back into the god-on-our-side of empire, and Christians are still struggling to recover. Many American Christians, especially white Christians, are eager to embrace the nationalistic message of a Donald Trump, in which everything is deeply structured in terms of an us-and-them. Following Donald Trump precludes following Jesus the Messiah in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. Elements of our situation are eerily similar to the nationalism of the Nazi movement, and Luther Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found that his go-to text in the face of rising Nazism was the Sermon on the Mount (see one of the few books he was able to publish before being martyred by the Nazis, Discipleship.)

An irony of history, one that follows the paradox of a Crucified Messiah (an outsider to everyone’s culture!), is that first significant glimpses in our time of obedience to Jesus’ teaching came through a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi. In my last blog on these pages (“Have a Courageous New Year”), I even suggested that God sent Gandhi with perfect timing. At the very moment in history when human beings created weapons capable of self-annihilation, God sent us a man who could, in obedience to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, give us a nonviolent way of waging war. It is a way of waging war “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It is a way of war that seeks not to defeat human enemies but to turn enemies into friends. As Rev. Dr. William Barber II puts it, “A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle” (The Third Reconstruction, p. 93).

I offer these reflections on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A, the only Sunday in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary that takes Matthew 5:38-48 as its Gospel Reading. If I were to propose one change to the RCL it would be to find a way to use this passage on a more regular basis. Acts 10:34-43 — the very important opening of Peter’s sermon in the home of Cornelius — is used four times in the RCL — the Baptism of Our Lord A, and all three years on Easter Day. We need to find another day to use Matthew 5:38-48 in a similar fashion. And the shortcoming of the RCL on this score is accentuated by the fact that the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A is skipped over more often than not. It’s appearance relies on having a date for Easter that is late (at least three Sundays into April). In recent years, for example, there was a 21-year gap between appearances! — 1990 to 2011 — the intervening five cycles of Year A falling when Easter was too early. (Strangely, Easter has been late enough the last three cycles of Year A — 2011, 2014, 2017.) In any case, I leave you with my webpage for Epiphany 7A, as well as my sermon on this text which echoes this blog (especially making use of Brian McLaren’s treatment of the passage in The Secret Message of Jesus), “The Most Important Passage in the Bible.”

Happy Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany! May God in Jesus Christ make us perfect in love!

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Have a Courageous New Year! —Belatedly

A Challenge to Girardian Peacemakers to ‘Up Our Game’

trump-in-the-twilight-zoneI’ve been working on this blog for more than a month. It began with my struggle to muster the customary “Happy New Year!” this year. Under the shadow of Donald Trump as president, I don’t have normal expectations for a happy 2017. It feels like we are entering the Twilight Zone.

And if it is a time of anxiety for many white males like myself, I can’t imagine what it is like for the millions of people in the myriad groups of folks who were disrespected, degraded, and further marginalized throughout Trump’s lengthy campaign — and thus far in his presidency. It is on behalf of all those folks that — if it’s not too late, a month in — I wish us a Courageous New Year. As we stand together against the kind of hatred and disrespect Trump has marshaled, the good that can come this year is for peace and justice advocates to find ways of uniting in meaningful peacemaking activities as never before. In short, we need determination to ‘up our game.’

‘Upping our game’ as practitioners of Mimetic Theory is what has led to a longer roll-out of this blog. I find myself in the beginning processes of trying to re-evaluate elements of Mimetic Theory as we’ve attempted to articulate and live them thus far. This can be a dangerous comparison, but my experience the last several months might be similar to what Bonhoeffer was feeling in the 30’s, asking, ‘Is my theology up to the task of standing in the shadow of increasing Powers of authoritarianism and imperialistic oppression?’ As a person who has been and continues to be convinced of the world-changing potential of Mimetic Theory, I’m nevertheless pondering whether there are elements of it that need strengthening and further elaborating in order to meet the test of a time when the Powers are looming large.

Here’s the bottom line of my gathering struggle: Mimetic Theory is a wholistic anthropology that gives us tools of understanding and access to what is human in all its dimensions, ranging from the personal/interdividual dimensions of our relationships all the way to the institutional and cultural dimension of human relations. It is a theory that dares to hypothesize as to what generates human culture — all the transcendent realities (e.g., religion, government, economics) which those relations found and undergird. But this past month it has seemed clear to me (and I value the feedback of colleagues on this) that the center of the current state of Mimetic Theory tends to fall more toward the interdividual side of the spectrum. And if we are to stand in nonviolent engagement with the Powers that represent the cultural side of the spectrum, do we need to pay more attention to that cultural dimension of our anthropology?

wink-engaging-the-powersI find myself, for example, going back to the work of Walter Wink on the Powers, who helped found COV&R in the early years but then gradually decreased his participation. Did he sense a weakness in Mimetic Theory when it came to the Powers? One of the highlights often pointed to in Girard’s work is that the importance of personal conversion is present right from the beginning, anchoring his first book (see “The Conclusion” of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). But have we ever seen much represented in Girard’s work in terms of the ‘conversion’ or transformation of human reality in the cultural dimension? He speaks apocalyptically of the Scapegoating Mechanism as being exposed and losing its effectiveness, but does he ever speak in terms of its being redeemed? Wink, by contrast, sums up his overall thesis of his Powers trilogy:

The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers are being redeemed.
(Engaging the Powers, p. 10)

girard-battling-to-the-endI think that Girard’s Battling to the End provides a good illustration of what I’m talking about. He is analyzing the Scapegoating Mechanism as revealed in modern militarism but he is decidedly doing so, using Carl von Clausewitz’s On War as his guide, on the level of interpersonal dynamics, and not on the level of the Scapegoating Mechanism. He uses Clausewitz’s analogy of the duel to unpack the dynamics of history in terms of an escalation of mimetic desire between nations and cultures. An underlying assumption seems to be that this is legitimate because the Gospel has crippled the Scapegoating Mechanism with the result that interpersonal forms of conflict take over. The Scapegoating Mechanism is no longer a major part of the analysis except in noting the apocalyptic effects of its demise.

So what can we do, what can we hope, in the face of such threatening forces in human history? It seems that there is nothing we can do beyond personal conversion. If Battling to the End is not the place where Girard gives us something beyond that, then I don’t know where else to look. (And I’ve read more than 90% of his corpus.) It would seem that our best hope is to model someone like Friedrich Hölderlin — in short, not much basis for hope.

With Walter Wink’s approach to the Powers in mind, on the other hand, it becomes more obvious who is missing from Battling to the End. When the possibilities for conversion expand beyond the personal to the cultural, when we allow for ‘redeeming the Powers,’ the obvious person who should be in a book about the modern history of war is Mahatma Gandhi. In the age-old chronicle of human warfare, he is the one person who truly brings new insight, not Clausewitz. In my opinion, the absence of Gandhi in Battling to the End is glaring indeed. Girard is giving us a sketch of modern warfare coming to an escalation to extremes. But because he isn’t looking for redemption on the level of the Scapegoat Mechanism, he misses the person I believe God has sent us just in the nick of time — the moment at which our technology presents us with the reality of self-destruction. Girard sees the matter only on the interpersonal level, so his only solution to this dire situation is that humanity undergoes personal conversion enough to cease fighting. But with Gandhi it’s not a matter of ceasing to fight — not as long as the Powers continue to destroy and oppress. It is a matter of ‘fighting’ in such a different way that it becomes something different than any previously human way of fighting. It is Jesus’s Third Way. It is not ceasing to ‘fight’ in terms of the Powers continuing to threaten the most vulnerable and the need of peacemakers to stand in the breach. Our call is closer to ‘fighting’ than it is to running away, or not showing up. But the ‘fighting’ is an engaging of the Powers armed only with love, forgiveness, and nonviolence — a willingness to be harmed along with a steadfast commitment not to do harm. The enemy is not flesh and blood (Eph. 6). It is the Powers. And love of enemies means that one’s actions bear the hope of redeeming even the Powers.

So I pray a courageous New Year for all those who anticipate the damage that a Donald Trump presidency is likely to inflict on the vulnerable. We have already seen it, less than three weeks in, with many of his Executive Orders. And for those of us who are guided by Mimetic Theory, I believe it involves a both-and. By all means, we must avail ourselves of all the practices which orient our ongoing personal conversions to compassion, forgiveness, and a pledge to nonviolence. But I believe we need to ‘up our game’ when it comes to understanding the Powers and imaginatively finding ways of engaging them in the hope of cultural conversion. (God’s Culture has arrived in Jesus the Messiah!) The most vulnerable among us depend on us to find that Third Way, the way of doing battle with the Powers in loving self-sacrifice.

barber-the-third-reconstructionFor those of you who know me, you know that I believe the overriding manifestation of the Powers in our American setting is White Supremacist Racism. So my reading and spiritual preparations for action will be heavy on that issue as a guide to engaging the Powers. One of the books I’ve read this first month of 2017 is by a leader of the Moral Mondays fusion coalition in North Carolina, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear, by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. I give the last word to Rev. Dr. Barber:

The greatest threat to our coalition was not the power of our opposition. They could threaten us. They could hurt us. They might, in their blind hubris, even try to kill some of us. But they could not, in the end, deny us. Because ours was a moral struggle, we knew we would win if we didn’t give up.

The only question was how long the fight would go on — which was why the greatest threat to our coalition was the temptation to forget what we had learned about our identity. A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 93-95)


Brief Addendum: I believe that another essential guide to understanding the task of engaging the Powers is to build on Brian Zahnd‘s brilliant reading of Matthew 25:31-46 in A Farewell to Mars. For more on this, see my webpage on this passage, Christ the King Sunday A.

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Christmas and Becoming Human

The significance of the Christmas season of celebration took on new clarity for me in encountering a quote from the influential New Testament scholar Walter Wink (who was also among the founders of the Girardian ‘guild’, the Colloquium on Violence & Religion). His body of work climaxed in a very real sense with a distinctively anthropological turn to his overall reading of Scripture with his book The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man. And then his autobiography followed suit: Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human. I offer you this Wink quote as the essence of what we celebrate at Christmas:

“And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, p. 102; and a parallel in The Human Being, p. 26)

In short, Jesus alone is Human Being. You and I are Human Becoming more than Human Being.

I also propose that this constitutes a startling and concise statement of the importance of Mimetic Theory, as helping to bridge the gap between the Christian anthropological revelation and the human sciences’ ability to guide us into more broadly and deeply understanding what it means to become human.

(For more, see my webpage for Christmas; and this sermon from John Davies in 2015, “Becoming Human: The Shepherds’ Instinct, the Magis’ Hunch,” offered with these reflections in mind.)

The notion of ‘becoming human’ presumes an ongoing conversion process, which in turn implies practices that continually open us to conversion. Join us for our 2016 Theology & Peace Annual Conference, “Embracing WE-CENTRICITY: PRACTICES that NURTURE the COMMON GOOD,” as we explore and nurture such practices.

Theology & Peace wishes you a Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Bill Fried’s Powerful Reflection on the 2016 Theology & Peace Conference: People & Policing

img_1149I attended the Chicago Theology and Peace Conference prepared to videotape people of faith on criminal justice and drug policy. Having never even heard of René Girard, I was not prepared for the remarkable extent to which his mimetic theory illuminates—virtually prophesizes—current drug policy.

Though James Warren’s remarkable book, Compassion or Apocalypse, never mentions the War on Drugs, I’ll use—and stretch—a sampling of text (in italics) that highlights the mimetic foundations of drug prohibition, itself the single most powerful obstacle to self realization in minority communities.

The romantic lie

What we commonly refer to as “identification” is really a form of mimesis. What I call my “self” is anything but self-contained. It is not that I have no self, but I am not self-possessed. I am permeable.

This claim is a forceful rebuke to our overemphasis on the myth of the rugged (or deeply flawed) individual or group. It reminds us not to focus overmuch, for example, on the “culture of poverty” when analyzing rates of incarceration among certain populations. There is nothing inherent in Italian, African, or Latin cultures that predicts the rise of their street gangs over the years. It is the prohibitionist script—the motivations and opportunities created by the policy of prohibition—that sets the stage upon which they act.

Change the script and watch the behavior change, but I get ahead of myself…

The scapegoat mechanism

Through the scapegoat mechanism people transfer blame onto the victim who became the monstrous embodiment of the chaos of a non-differentiated world.

The scapegoat mechanism begins with the illusion of the need to kill the monster, and ends with the propagation of myths…the whole thing is a shared, group delusion.

A central Girardian claim is that culture and social peace were initially created by acts of very human violence, a lynch mob targeting individuals or groups, creating an us/them division. The targets were essentially arbitrary, though it is historically predictable that they be identifiable, different, vulnerable. James’s book underscores the unthinking, escalating, herd mentality of this process and the larger than life qualities attributed to the scapegoat who must be seen as a threat to the established order in order to justify mob violence.

This cynical, almost one-dimensional view needn’t carry the weight of explaining all things human to be strikingly relevant to the War on Drugs. Indeed the history of all hitherto existing drug prohibitions fits with hardly a murmur of protest into this frame.

Threat to the established order? Think of recent revelations about the anti-black, anti-protestor motivation for Nixon’s drug policy, which compliments our historic turns against Mexican and Chinese citizens by criminalizing the drugs they were associated with. Who they were and what drug they were said to be using was inherently unimportant. What was not critical was that they were identifiable, isolatable, vulnerable. They were them, not us. They served a purpose when their labor was needed. They served a purpose after it was needed.

Larger than life? Think of the stunning things said about people under the influence. Think of the term, “Drug Lord.”

Threat to hierarchy and differentiation? Think of the gentle, long-haired male hippie to reviled for being so hard to “tell apart” from the female. Think of the sharing.

Forbidden fruit? By erecting a prohibition it becomes an obstacle that becomes a model suggesting the very thing it seeks to prohibit. It exerts a powerful fascination, which invokes an inflamed desire to perform the banned act. Think of youthful fascination for drugs even their parents are not allowed to use.

Mimetic rivalry? There are always at least two beings who posses each other reciprocally, each of them the other’s scandal, each the other’s demon. Think of Hank and Walt in Breaking Bad. Think of drug taskforce warriors and drug dealers, circling one another, mutually obsessed, mutually destructive, endlessly escalating, endlessly violent. Endlessly co-dependent.

Myth

The scapegoat mechanism begins with the illusion of the need to kill the monster and ends with the propagation of myth.

Girard calls myths persecution texts written from the point of view of the persecutors, based on something real which it distorts. Think of endless TV drug busts with stern, arms crossed cops and prosecutors behind a mass of guns, drugs, and money. Over and over, the myth of “cleaning” up the street. Again and again, the real damage done by these raids and the treadmill of incarceration is dressed up in antiseptic, mythic garb—
concealed.

Think of reefer madness, which continues with modification to this day: IQ points said to drop; schizophrenia said to be caused; gateways said to open. Stunningly bad science that only can be propagated by ideologues with something to hide.

Think of the countless movies and TV shows that identify any and all drug use as evil and destructive, and those selling those drugs as deserving of our collective rage. Think of the one-sided violence of over 50,000 SWAT raids each year retold in mythic form as heroic efforts against an infinitely armed, infinitely evil foe.

Reform

The substitution of animals for human victims was a major step in human history.

James points to various substitutions for human sacrifice; body parts, money, animals, as civilizing movements away from the worst of the ancient sacred. But he points out that while they modify its most egregious features, they didn’t fundamentally challenge the underlying violent sacred.

These reforms are echoed today by local reform efforts that trim but don’t fully eliminate punitive, punishing drug enforcement powers. There is, for example, the growing movement to help the opioid addict combined with a renewed determination to hunt opioid sellers. This actually hurts the addicted, as was the case with Prohibition, where it was not illegal to buy or drink, but it was illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol, with disastrous results.

Partial reforms are humanely motivated but ultimately inadequate. As James puts it, One cannot fight mimetic rivalry piecemeal. One cannot simply cut off its tail one must resolutely crust its head.

Revolution

Christ’s whole ministry was a revelation of people’s bondage to mimetic desire, and a demonstration of the way out

Once the gospel penetrated a culture, it inaugurated a more or less permanent, more or less acute sacrificial crisis because it revealed the victimary mechanisms and violence upon which the sacrificial rituals, myth, and taboos of the society were based.

Ancient societies, not unlike us, were like fish oblivious to the existence of water. Up to a point there were always sacrifices and angry gods to placate. Up to a point there has always been a drug war and punishing laws to fear.

James notes that the ancient system could not withstand illumination, hence the power of the Gospels to reveal the fetishizing of the Temple and the human, not divine, roots of violence. They gave voice to the innocent victim, even while on the cross. Similarly, drug reformers today open the curtain on an approach that cannot withstand rational, humane scrutiny.

The subsequent revolution includes liberation from slavishly following obscene restrictions: back then, Jews punished for marrying gentiles; today, people jailed for naughty plants. Back then, liberation from a wrathful, violent god; today, liberation from SWAT teams and a punishing court system. Then and now, it means being at one with the weakest among us—the victims of scapegoating.

Saul had read the Scripture with violent eyes as many others did. One can appreciate the blinding shock it must have been to be struck suddenly with the epiphany that exactly the reverse was true, that he was actually a persecutor.

This resonates strongly with our former cops, judges, and prosecutors who indeed had the scale fall from their eyes as they saw the light and repented. Their inescapable mission forevermore is to spread the gospel of legalized regulation, of ending the unthinking, blunt force oppression brought about by drug policies based on fear and scapegoating. He is not talking about a more perfect achievement of the same kind of righteousness, but a righteousness of a completely different quality, a transformation of the heart.

Conclusion

Sometimes the disease contains within it the seeds of its own cure. Our mirror neurons—the physiological unpinning of our ability to identify with others—has helped turn people against the War on Drugs. Suddenly—and it sadly needed the victims to change color and geographic location—we can identify with the addicted, those we recently dismissed as worthless, evil, “other.” Suddenly we can feel their pain.

And, paraphrasing James, we are on the “wrong” side of history to no longer feel their pain. We need to be one with the policy changes, as we are one with victims of this ancient, violent approach to drug use and misuse. We need to end this servitude in a joyous manner as we transform the unthinkable into commonsense, humane policy.

I don’t normally talk like this, but I really did feel blessed to be at the conference, to read James’ book, and to interview so many delightful, intelligent, and righteous (but never self righteous) folk.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Bill Fried

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The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry

As I read this Sunday’s Gospel of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), I’m also reading and digesting N.T. Wright‘s brand new book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Based on a thorough reading of Scripture, Wright consistently critiques on three fronts the popular reading of the cross in recent generations of Christianity:

  • A Platonized goal, or eschatology (doctrine of end-times): that the cross’s goal is to enable believer’s souls to “go to heaven.” A properly Jewish eschatology reads the cross and resurrection as the launching of the New Creation, or heaven coming to earth.
  • A moralizing view of sin, or anthropology (doctrine of being human): that the cross addresses the problem of sin as the breaking of moral codes. A closer reading of scripture sees the problem of sin as much deeper: idolatry. Human beings worship other gods/powers of this world and give up their vocation of being “image-bearers” of the Creator.
  • A paganized version of the solution, or soteriology (doctrine of salvation): that the cross is appeasing the wrath of God for human sin (as breaking the moral code). A Jewish-Christian reading of scripture reveals a God who faithfully forgives sin and rescues God’s people in a New Exodus.

Wright does the church a great service in reading scripture to give us this desperately needed three-fold correction in our theology of the cross — and making it thoroughly grounded in reading the Bible.

But I’ve been mulling over what I see as a major misstep in his reading — one that I think is informed by this Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. In a 400-page book that reads all of Scripture for these themes, he devotes by far the largest chunk, 92 pages, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans alone. And I believe he commits a huge error by resisting Douglas Campbell‘s thesis of Paul having represented the views of a Jewish-Christian opponent within Romans, most notable in Romans 1:18-32. (For more on Campbell’s thesis see “Nuechterlein on Reading Romans 1-3 in a New Way.”)

Instead of taking Romans 1:18-32 as Paul voicing the view of a Jewish-Christian opponent (including Paul’s former self as a Pharisee!), Wright reads this passage as the quintessential description of human idolatry — as precisely the correct, robust picture of sin that Wright proposes. And the corollary, I believe, to this grave misstep is to virtually ignore in his reading the pivotal nature of the verses that immediately follow 1:18-32:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (NRSV Romans 2:1-2)

I propose that St. Paul gives us in Romans 1:18–3:26 a theologically argued version of the picture in Jesus’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 portrays a Pharisee focusing on someone else’s sin — namely, a Jewish perspective on Gentile idolatry. It is a picture of focusing on someone else’s sin and missing one’s own. Paul in Romans is trying to get to the thesis that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). To do that he has to expose his own previous sin of idolatry which was to violently (the “wrath” in Rom. 2:5) judge the idolatry of others. (See also Nuechterlein on the “Wrath of God” in Romans.) Isn’t this Jesus’s same move in this parable: in contrasting positions of someone focusing on the sin of others vs. someone who recognizes one’s own sin? But Paul extending it within the framework of “all falling short” and needing God’s grace? By resisting Campbell’s thesis about Romans 1:18-32 and ignoring the pivot of Romans 2:1-2, I believe that Wright has missed the full, deeper picture of human idolatry.

And it thus falls short of fully confronting the sacred violence done in the name of focusing on the sin of others. Specifically, in the case of holding onto Romans 1:18-32 as Paul’s own view of idolatry, it leaves open the idolatrous sacred violence of heterosexism — the heterosexual majority suppressing the freedom of LGBTQ persons to flourish and be who God created them to be. Reading this passage as Paul’s own view holds onto verses 26-27 as proof-texting against alleged ‘homosexual sin.’ And for someone like Wright it even comes within a deeper analysis of sin as idolatry, not simply the breaking of moral codes.

But I’m proposing that Wright’s reading misses the pivot Paul is making by exposing the idolatry of making an idol out of someone else’s sin, and so he misses the deeper truth about human sin as idolatry. Wright is correct to understand the Jewish insight into sin as idolatry. But then he misses Paul’s insight into what form Jewish idolatry takes. A Jewish person’s idolatry is different from that of a Gentile’s precisely because it sees sin as idolatry. A Jewish person could often boast that they were righteous by virtue of avoiding Gentile idolatry (hence, Paul’s theme against certain kinds of boasting in this portion of Romans).

As formerly a Pharisee who lived out his anti-idolatry in persecution of the church, Paul did not miss his own former idolatry. In order to expound the view of all people falling into sin, Paul has to go to extra lengths to expose the idolatry of the typical devout Jew, whose devotion manifests itself precisely in being against Gentile idolatry. So he speaks the position of a Jewish Christian railing against Gentile idolatry in 1:18-32 and then makes the pivot in 2:1-2 that that railing is its own form of idolatry — the idolatry of judging other people’s sins.

In our modern context, we are coming to allow for LGBTQ brothers and sisters to judge for themselves whether their sexual identity is sinful idolatry or a manifestation of the diversity in God’s wonderful Creation. As they choose the latter expression of their identity, for others to continue to judge it as sinful idolatry continues the sacred violence that the Gospel exposes as satanic accusation — in short, one of the Powers that Wright so eloquently speaks against. Many Christians are finally coming to name one of the Powers as “heterosexism.” Rather than speaking against ‘homosexual sin’ in Romans 1:26-27, the wider passage of Romans 1:18–3:26 can be read in today’s context as exposing the Powers, and precisely including “heterosexism” as one of those Powers. It flips the reading to see an out-of-context prooftexting of 1:26-27 as an instance of the deadly Powers that work themselves out as judgment and wrath against one another.

To tie a bow on these reflections I point to a particularly apropos moment in the corpus of Mimetic Theory: Sandor Goodhart‘s reading of the Book of Jonah in his book Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (ch. 5, pp. 139-67). I suggest that it has the same structure as my reading of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector and Romans 1:18–3:26, but that it also gives us wonderful language to name it. Goodhart proposes that if Jewish Torah is quintessentially the “law of anti-idolatry,” then the story of Jonah gives us the Jewish prophetic reading of Torah in Jonah as the “idolatry of the law of anti-idolatry,” or more simply, the idolatry of anti-idolatry. I highly recommend reading Goodhart’s essay.

I don’t want to conclude these reflections without making clear my highest recommendation for Wright’s new book. I have a major bone to pick with it (and a renewed invitation for Bishop Wright to complete his elaboration of biblical anthropology by reading the work of René Girard), but the overall importance of The Day the Revolution Began for the church’s theology of the cross is immense. In addition to the threefold critique of popular readings of the cross sketched above, the last two chapters (Part IV,  “The Revolution Continues”) brilliantly describe our “cruciform mission.” Ours, as disciples of Jesus, is the vocation of participating with God in the furthering of New Creation. The Powers continue to put up a fight, which means that this vocation will continue to come precisely through suffering (which our consumerist lifestyle resists). But the suffering can be endured for the joy of knowing that the complete and final victory will belong to God’s Power of Love. Love wins!

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ANNOUNCING OUR 10th ANNIVERSARY CONFERENCE!

Embracing WE-CENTRICITY: PRACTICES that NURTURE the COMMON GOOD.

interdependenceHow do we TRANSCEND political rivalry and polarizing rhetoric? Join us as we EXPLORE SPIRITUAL PRACTICES that HEAL division and distrust.

MAY 22-25, 2017 TECHNY TOWERS, CHICAGO

…every time we relate to other people, we automatically inhabit a we-centric space, within which we exploit a series of implicit certainties about the other. This implicit and pre-theoritical, but at the same time contentful state enables us to directly understand what the other person is doing, why he or she is doing it, and how he or she feels about a specific situation.

~ Vittorio Gallese, “The Two Sides of Mimesis,” Mimesis and Science, 100.

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“You also must be ready”: An Urgent Call to White Friends to Join the Fight Against Racism

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
— Luke 12:40

This Sunday’s Gospel is one of many in the Synoptic Gospels with an apocalyptic feel to it, ringing out a sense of urgency. We are warned to “be ready”; “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit”; your master may come “during the middle of the night,” like ‘the thief breaking into your house.’ Why such a sense of urgency?

One answer has been to suggest that the early church, if not Jesus himself, expected the “second coming” of Christ to come soon, ushering in the climactic moment of God’s reign. And so, two thousand years later, we conclude that they were wrong. That hasn’t happened yet. But neither has it slowed down the predictions that the second coming is just around the corner — divining cryptic signs from books of the Bible like Daniel and Revelation to warn us of coming rapture.

More common in Christian circles has been to reinterpret this urgency in terms of the ‘moment of truth’ when each person dies — which could come at any moment, so one needs to be ready. Christ will come to you at that moment to judge if you were faithful. So you need to turn your life over to Jesus Christ in faith now, in order that you may be certain to go to heaven upon that sudden arrival of your death. The alternative is eternal torture in hell — which definitely does compel a sense of urgency!

The most recent generation of scholars, led by N.T. Wright, are suggesting another way of reading these passages — one I believe to be more faithful to Jesus’ message and ministry. Jesus, if not the early church, was talking about the sudden arrival of God in the world through the unexpected death and resurrection of God’s Messiah. The Messiah was about to bring the inauguration of God’s way of peace into the world. Luke’s Jesus puts the urgency involved most poignantly upon his arrival to Jerusalem, weeping over the city, and saying,

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

“This day.” The Son of Man was arriving right then and there for the climactic moment, and his people, including the disciples, were clueless. The urgency involved recognizing the about-to-happen “visitation from God” with the true way of peace. And the consequences of not recognizing it would be the next round of world-changing violence — in this particular instance, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, forever altering the Jewish way of life.

This places Jesus much more in line with the prophets like Isaiah, whose prophecies were about a similar urgency for repenting and trusting in God’s way of peace to avoid the next round of world-changing violence (“world” not necessarily in the sense of global but in the sense of their world, their way of life) — in that instance, things like destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians. Mark sets the tone in the Synoptic Gospels by using the call of Isaiah as a guiding metaphor, quoting the part about God’s people having eyes unseeing and ears unhearing when explaining the use of parables (Mark 4:12, referencing Isa. 6:9-10), and then structuring much of his Gospel around Jesus trying to heal deafness and blindness, calling would-be disciples to “Listen!” and “Watch!” And the reader of Isaiah keeps in mind what comes next, after the quoted verses:

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isa. 6:11-13)

2700 years after Isaiah and 2000 years after the coming of the Son of Man, how many times has this prophecy come true? How many times have human beings laid waste to our cities, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God”? How many more times must it come true before we see and listen?

And, most importantly, what are the current realities we face which threaten the next round of world-changing violence, and thus an urgency of response by disciples of Jesus to live God’s way of peace?

There are many answers to choose from, unfortunately, but I’m going to suggest one: take on the formidable power of racism that has plagued our Euro-American culture for 400 years. It is at the root of so many of our problems, including terrorism. Recent events point to the possibility of our cities being laid waste again, like many of them in the late 1960’s, and it could be worse this time around. And the solution must go beyond white people calling for people of color not to resort to violence — which is highly convenient for us to do, since we don’t have to directly suffer the violence of racist systems that continue to oppress people of color (though we white folks might wake up to the indirect suffering the evil of racism causes us, too). The only solution that will move us forward is for white people to get serious about recognizing the enormity of the 400 year-old monster of racism. Jesus is issuing an urgent call for us to act, to bear fruit (or be cut down like the unfruitful fig tree — cut down by our own violence), to respond to the coming of God’s way of peace into the world by being peacemakers ourselves, true children of God (Matt. 5:9).

What can we do — especially us white people? I will suggest several steps:

  • Read and learn more about racism. This is more important than you might think, because the talk about racism in the media is so largely uninformed. Two books that I find particularly enlightening for today’s challenges are: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The latter gives extremely helpful insight into how our present challenges have a 400-year history of racism becoming deeply embedded in our culture.
  • Reach out and build relationships across ‘color-lines.’ This is necessary on many fronts, but it is especially helpful for white people to be open to, and to ask for, help on seeing what we typically cannot see. Don’t know what “white privilege” is? Ask a friend of color, and s/he will be able to tell you.
  • At the same time, building relationships across color-lines is only the start. It can never bring about by itself the systemic change that needs to happen. For a more immediate explanation on why this is the case, see my recent sermon, “Exposing and Working to Heal the Sin of Racism.”
  • Most importantly, my highest recommendation is to seek antiracism training for the institutions and systems that you inhabit. There is nothing quite like the training offered by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training (producers of the video used in my sermon). I urge you to contact them today! “You also must be ready…” The time to respond is now.
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