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.


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—

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.


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.


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.


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


…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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“The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ”: Correcting a Deadly Mistranslation to Advance the Reformation . . . and a Preview of Brian McLaren’s New Book

As we get ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 2017), it might be timely to significantly advance reform of Christ’s church, guided by correctly translating two crucial Reformation verses — Gal 2:16a and Rom 3:22a.

Galatians 2:16a

Greek: eidotes [de] hoti ou dikaioutai anthrōpos ex ergōn nomou ean mē dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, kai hēmeis eis Christon Iēsoun episteusamen…

NRSV: yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus…

Suggested alternate translation: yet we know that a person is made just not by religious practices but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. And we have come to trust in Messiah Jesus…

Romans 3:22a

Greek: dikaiosunē de theou dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou eis pantas tous pisteuontas…

NRSV: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…

Suggested alternate translation: God’s saving justice through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who trust…

Especially critical is the Greek phrase, “dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou.” Word-for-word in English from this Greek phrase yields: “through faith Jesus Christ.” What’s missing is not the word “in,” generally supplied in English translations. What’s missing is that the phrase in Greek is a genitive constructive, a phrase showing possession, most commonly rendered in English with an ’s — such as, “through Jesus Christ’s faith.” The problem in translating a Greek genitive construction is that there is no way to show conclusively whether it is ‘subjective’ or ‘objective.’

Here’s a brief Greek grammar lesson. In this particular case, the two options are:

Subjective: “through the faith of Jesus Christ,” or, “through Jesus Christ’s faith” — where Jesus Christ is the subject possessing faith(fulness);

Objective: “through [our] faith in Jesus Christ” — where Christ is the object of our faith, the faith believers possess.

The ultimate choice in translating this phrase comes from the theological context of what the translator thinks Paul is trying to say, and so the history of translation has varied with the theology of the translators. It is interesting that closer to the time of the Reformation, the early English translation in the King James Version chose the subjective option: “which is by faith of Jesus Christ.” But as the Reformation movement and Protestantism developed, we gradually moved to the situation today, in which all the major translations have chosen the objective option: “through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Contemporary biblical scholars are advocating that the pendulum swing back to the subjective option. I first encountered this critical option involving the translation of pisteōs Iēsou Christou in Charles B. Cousar’s A Theology of the Cross (Augsburg Fortress, 1990). Duke Divinity scholar Richard Hayes devoted a whole book to it with The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Eerdmans, 2002). The majority of recent Pauline scholars — including N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell — argue in favor of the subjective option. And they most often add the caveat of translating pistis toward the meaning of fidelity in a relationship — “trust,” “faithfulness” — and away from an emphasis on pistis, or “faith,” in the sense of mental states — “believe,” “beliefs.” Thus, a most clear rendering of the Greek into English is, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

By now, it is hoped the reader can see the critical importance of this translation debate. The Reformation/Protestant version of salvation turns on it. Is humankind saved, made just, through our faith in Jesus Christ? Or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ? (As Paul described it in Phil 2: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”) In short, should the emphasis of our salvation be on our believing certain things about Jesus? Or on Jesus’ faithfulness in bringing the Reign of God into the world through his death and resurrection? The answer from recent New Testament scholars resoundingly favors the latter.

And the difference could be essential to getting the Reformation back on track from its descending into a new form of conditional grace (which isn’t grace at all!), a “works righteousness,” based on what believers need to believe about Jesus. It is also time to get back on track with Jesus’ core message about the coming Reign of God, which is about heaven coming to earth, not believers going to heaven — which the Reformation failed to recover by favoring their arguably incorrect version of Paul’s message — off-the-mark because it tends to be disconnected from Jesus’ kingdom message and even opposed to simple obedience to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which sounds like “works righteousness” to a typical Protestant way of reading (see Bonhoeffer‘s Discipleship!).

Which brings me to the latest book by Brian McLaren, whom acclaimed church historian Phyllis Tickle praised as the “Martin Luther of Emergence” (Emergence Christianity, p. 99). This new book is titled The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian  and is due in September from Convergent Books. I’ve thus far spoken in terms of renewing the Reformation, but the unfaithfulness of the church’s ministry to the Way of Jesus the Messiah might call for a movement described by a stronger word than “reform.” “Emergence” of something more decidedly new out of the old has been proposed. In McLaren’s new book, he regularly uses two other words: “conversion” and the title word “migration.”

Among so many excellent, groundbreaking books by McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration may be his best and most important book yet. It is both more direct and honest about the magnitude of change needed for the church to move forward but also his most inspiringly hopeful writing in divining the signs of change already underway. Yes, the challenges before Christians are daunting — in line with the precarious situation of humanity as a whole. He holds nothing back on the gravity of this moment in human history, once again using the metaphor of the “suicide machine” for the unsustainability of our culture (as he did in Everything Must Change). Yet McLaren inspires the reader to see the goodness in the world and the signs of resurrection around us to cherish and build upon, that disciples of Jesus might answer the urgent call to participate in the ongoing life-project of the Spirit.

McLaren identifies three major pathways of migration, which we can use to round-off our discussion of the importance of correctly translating pisteōs Iēsou Christou as the “faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah” (using the three descriptions from the back book cover):

  • Spiritually, growing numbers of Christians are moving away from defining themselves by lists of beliefs and toward a way of life defined by love. The translation of pistis as faithfulness rather than belief is huge in this regard. We need to see ourselves less in terms of assenting to certain beliefs — its own form of “works righteousness” — and more in terms of being led by the Spirit to follow in Jesus’ faithful practices of love.
  • Theologically, believers are increasingly rejecting the image of God as a violent Supreme Being and embracing the image of God as the renewing Spirit at work in our world for the common good. When the emphasis is more on our faith as belief, aren’t we more inclined to make God over into our image, i.e., violent? Our increasingly violent history, even since the Reformation, would seem to bear that out — hence, the phrase “deadly mistranslation” in my title. When the emphasis is on Jesus’ faithful way of living God’s love in the world, on the other hand, don’t we have a better chance of finally being converted to St. John’s proclamation of God as love (1 John 4)? Of God as light, in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1)? And then to look for that Spirit of love bringing God’s power of life to places of suffering in this world and desiring to join in?
  • Missionally, the faithful are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion — spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for all of us. When what saves us is simply our beliefs about Jesus, it is easier to make salvation primarily about what happens to us after we die. Our correct beliefs grant us a ticket to heaven. When what saves us is Jesus’ fully human faithfulness to God’s way of love as the means of redeeming the powers of sin and evil in the world, it is more obvious that the matter of salvation isn’t primarily about going to heaven, but about heaven migrating to earth and empowering human beings to migrate into a new place of peace, shalom.

In short, McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration is timely for our observance and celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation — that we might get unstuck from our misplaced focus on belief and finally migrate to a way of life in following the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

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Easter as the Redemption of Human Culture

A central tenet of Mimetic Theory is to propose Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: the powers of sin and death deeply embedded within our cultures — and at the heart of our cultures, religion. As St. Paul came to see, religion/law was infected at its foundation with sacred violence.

Acts 10:34-43 — an option for Easter Sunday in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary — is a story of the Easter miracle of redeeming human culture — Jewish culture representing the very best. Peter is led to see the divisiveness at the heart of his own religion. Jewish culture/religion leads him to consider Gentiles as unclean and as outside God’s family. The nightmare of unkosher foods and the call to encounter Cornelius begins to give him the insight into the sacred violence. Baptism is the sacramental sign that God’s new culture, established with the resurrection, anticipates that our sinful cultural boundaries are beginning to be redeemed and transformed. Two thousand years later that process is still underway — with a long ways to go.

My sermon in 2016 attempts to situate our progress within that excruciatingly slow process of the redemption of our cultures. The centerpiece of the sermon is the story of a Down Syndrome young man being accepted among children of his age. I view the transformation of the place of differently-abled persons within our society to be a sign of the Easter redemption of our cultures. There are other transformations underway with regards to the oppression of women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons; but there’s still a long ways to go in that regard, too.

The sermon doesn’t even touch on what is the most important: the place of people living in poverty. (Gandhi: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”) My view is that we’ve made almost no progress in this regard. Increased charitable support of people in poverty might seem like progress. But I’ve come to view it as bordering on, if not crossing into, a sacrificial substitution for a real systemic solution that redeems our culture’s economic worshipping of scarcity as an ordering principle. Only a systemic transformation of our economics will lead us to true progress in healing the violence of poverty. See Paul Dumouchel‘s books (The Ambivalence of Scarcity and The Barren Sacrifice) for more on the sacred violence of Indifference, as propped up through the ideologies of Individualism and an Economics of Scarcity.

The 2016 sermon itself, “An Easter Miracle Story,” tells the wonderful story of Philip, “One Egg Was Empty,” by Harry Pritchett, Jr., from The Lutheran magazine (April, 1983), pp. 10-11. It is a story not just of one isolated miracle of a boy being “set free from the tomb of his differentness,” but the wider miracle of a whole class of people being set free. Philip is unlikely to have had the opportunity to be accepted by a group of children in previous generations and cultures, because he was likely to have been immediately institutionalized,  ‘quarantined’ in some fashion, or even killed (left to die). Philip’s miracle was allowed to happen by the even bigger miracle of a cultural transformation that nurtures differently-abled persons instead of abandoning them.

Background for this sermon, alluded to at the end, is finding ourselves in the midst of a similar transformation underway for LGBTQ persons. Culturally, we are still divided on what it means for our society to nurture and support them for who they are, as opposed to abandoning them to their ‘sin’ or some form of tolerance (including a begrudging tolerance disguised as ‘welcome’). The religious dimension to this issue — seeing ‘homosexuality’ as sin — confirms the thesis of this blog, that Easter reveals and begins to transform the sacred violence at the heart of religion. It explains why the cultural transformation is happening faster in the secularized culture that has been desacralized by the Gospel. It would be cause for celebration if the church could once again find itself to be a leader in joining God’s work of transformation. But the sad truth is that, to the extent that the church continues to be an unreformed vessel for the sacred violence of religion, God will continue to use other vessels like secularized culture, or the movements of nonviolent resistance to injustice started by the Hindu disciple of Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi.

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