Saturday, November 27, 2004

New Crossan Book

John Dominic Crossan, considered by many the foremost scholar of the historical Jesus (and who is, in my opinion, clearly the most brilliant historical Jesus scholar), has written a new book about Paul called In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom.

I will be ordering the book myself, and I recommend it to you as well. Paul is a frustrating character for many progressive Christians -- myself included -- and I am anxious to hear what Crossan has discovered.

While you're waiting for your book to arrive, please listen to this profound and moving NPR interview with Crossan. In it, Crossan discusses his new Paul book, the recent election and the Republican's unjustified claims to Christianity, and his own faith.


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

What is going on here?

More of the same, that's what...

Naked woman on Monday Night Football intro a week ago? Gasp! A whole week's worth of newsworthy commentary.

11.2 percent of all American families struggling to feed themselves? Ho-hum, no biggie - barely even reported.

Well, at least Bob Herbert had something to say about it in his opinion column this week in the NY Times:
"These are dismal statistics for a country as well-to-do as the United States. But we don't hear much about them because hunger is associated with poverty, and poverty is not even close to becoming part of our national conversation. Swift boats, yes. Sex scenes on "Monday Night Football," most definitely. The struggle of millions of Americans to feed themselves? Oh no. Let's not go there.

What does that tell you about American values?"

Has the political discourse really become just like the religious discourse in modern Christian churches? Lots of talk of sexual taboo, marriage, and homosexuals, but hardly nothing about poverty, hunger, or the greed that prevents us from doing something about it -- all endorsed specifically or implicitly by ministers from the pulpit each Sunday morning.

Conclusion? Step One towards a more progressive America: more progressive churches.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Supreme Court Scolds Texas Criminal Court

My final installment on divorce is coming -- probably this weekend. In the meantime, I want to begin to make good on our promise that this blog would provide a social gospel perspective on law.

Earlier this week the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Texas man. The sentence had been affirmed by Texas's highest criminal court -- The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The defendant's sentence was based on an unfair jury instruction (which didn't allow the jury to adequately consider "mitigating factors") that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found unconstitutional. In fact, the law was so clear and the defendant's sentencing hearing so clearly unfair, that our moderate Supreme Court (actually conservative on criminal justice issues) decided the case in the inmates favor without even hearing oral arguments on the issue - scolding the Texas Court for its insubordination in permitting a jury instruction which the Supreme Court has "unequivocally rejected."

The Supreme Court, which only has the time to hear about 100 cases a year, has spent its valuable time having to overturn numerous Texas death sentences in the past few years (last year overturning a conviction from my own home town of Texarkana) -- all the while expressing its frustration with Texas Courts that refuse to apply objectively the law of capital punishment.

What is wrong with the Texas Courts?

The first thing to understand is that the judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are elected. This means that they must answer to an electorate that is much more concerned with being "tough on crime" with the fairness of criminal trials.

So the question of what's wrong with the Texas Courts is really a question of what's wrong with Texans? Texas judges are just doing what they have to to get elected. Reversing death sentences because someone's trial was unfair is seen as being "soft" on crime. If they want to stay in office, they can't get that image.

Texas boasts one of the most avowedly Christian populations in the nation. I find it unbelievable that such a Christian population is comfortable -- not just with state-sponsored killing -- but with the application of state-sponsored killing without sufficient procedural safeguards to ensure that it is fairly applied to only the guilty and most culpable. Such staunch support for the death penalty, indeed, for its irrational application, can only be explained by a deep demand for social vengeance, a social vengeance which is profoundly inconsistent with Jesus' message of love and redemption.

The Supreme Court of the United States, with its limited resources, can not ensure against irrationality and excessive vengeance in the Texas criminal justice systems. This responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Texans, Texas Christians in particular, who elect the state and local judges responsible for assuring that the system of criminal justice lives up to its name.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Don't judge a book by its cover!

Where to begin!??! There's a host of lessons to be garnished from this story: a long-time University janitor left the school $2.3 million upon his death - the school's largest ever donation.

Admirable? Surely, but the bigger question is why?

Because he gave up so much money? Sure, but didn't Jesus command us to not store up our treasures on earth in the first place?

For humbly doing a job that, all too often, others would - and most at least unconsciously - look down upon? Without a doubt. But you know what makes this story great? The janitor did have the means to live a life apart from "the least of these," but - at least in terms of his employment - he chose not to. Instead, he and his late wife lived frugally, patching his pants and turning the colors on his shirts.

Now had he been doing all that to save up some cash for a big cruise, or a big inheritance to his kids, most could agree that would have been pretty selfish. But is that what he did with all that money? Nope, he endowed a bunch of scholarships at a school he cared a lot about. Amazing. Rest in Peace, Genesio.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Tangent on Divorce

Like many other Christians, I believe that the institution of marriage is fundamental. I do not, however, believe that gay rights, civil unions and gay marriage are threats to the sanctity of this institution. Consider this article in today's New York Times, noting that Massachusetts -- home of gay marriage and bane to the religious rights -- has the lowest divorce rate in the nation. And states that voted overwhelmingly to prohibit gay marriage, like Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas, have the highest divorce rates. Indeed, Arkansas has more than twice as many divorces per 1000 people as Massachusetts.


On Divorce, Part III

Why did Jesus teach what he did about divorce and how does it fit into the context of his larger message? I believe that it is impossible to gain a complete understanding of Jesus' teachings on divorce without considering them in context. I believe that context will show us that Jesus' teachings on divorce were much less about sex than many Christians suppose them to be.

As we have discussed many times before, a critical part of Jesus' message was his call for us to serve the vulnerable and less fortunate. We see this clearly in the parable in which Jesus equates serving the Lord with serving "the least of these." We see it in Jesus' healing of the sick. We see it in Jesus' emphasis on giving to the poor. We see it in his rejection of the religious and racial subordination of his day in his parable of the Good Samaritan. And in his concern for children and assertion that "the Kingdom of Heaven" belongs to them.

Now consider these teachings in light of women's position in Jesus' society. According to an article published by "Call to Action," a group of progressive Catholics, the status of Palestinian women was among "the poorest in the world in Jesus' day." Although men had the right to divorce their wives, women could not divorce their husbands. Perhaps more importantly, Palestinian women had virtually no property rights or inheritance rights. To be divorced -- to be removed from the household on which their livelihood depended -- was disastrous.

When Jesus' teachings against divorce are seen against these two backdrops -- his own emphasis on helping the vulnerable and the status of women in Jesus' day -- they take on an entirely different light. We should Jesus' injunctions against divorce more as protections for women and children -- for the vulnerable -- than as teachings about sexual morality (at least as that phrase is used today). The rejection of divorce was a rejection of a devastating, unilateral power that powerful men had over vulnerable women and children. It was a rejection of gender inequality.

Even more fundamentally, since divorce dealt a ruinous blow to a woman, a man's divorcing his wife was deeply irreconcilable with Jesus' overarching command that we love our neighbor. (Note: if you hear an interpretation of Jesus' teachings that cannot be traced back to this fundamental, be suspicious!)

So, if we understand Jesus' teachings on divorce in this way, how do we go about applying them in our own, very different society?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

In response to "Show me an inconsistency in the Bible."

A week or so ago, I had a rather long discussion (read: argument) with some dear friends about all things religious. I promised them a follow-up email as soon as I took the chance (I just did), and have decided to share parts of it with you in the blogosphere. I promised this email in response to a friend's demand to point out to him any inconsisency in the Bible, something he seemingly did not beleive to be possible. Because I was flustered and didn't defend my point well at the time, I promised an email follow-up. Here goes...

Flashback to last week. The point that I was trying to make - and which I didn't do a very good job of at the time - had to do with the very nature of the Bible (or any book) and it's interpretation. We all agreed that the Bible can be (and is often) interpreted in drastically different ways, leading to pretty different creeds, faiths, and worldviews. My bigger point was that as a book of words, the Bible means nothing absent interpretations of those words. Because practically every word - especially ones translated many times and from different languages - can have multiple meanings, I believe the inherent shortcomings of the written word make it impossible to point out to everyone's satisfaction that one passage is inconsistent with another. Why? Because, like everything, people will interpret things in the way they want to or are predisposed into doing. I remember saying something like "there's no logical inconsistencies in the Bible like X = Y, and X = A, and A does not equal Y" that everyone can agree are inconsistencies. Thus when someone challenged me to point out an inconsistency in the Bible, I couldn't do it. In summary, why couldn't I point one out? Because the inherent shortcoming of words on paper empower people's interpretations to be as varied as they are clever. Thus, believing that the Bible has no inconsistencies is one interpretation of the Bible. I can't point out an inconsistency in someone's interpretation if their interpretation is that there are no inconsistencies. [For a few excerpts that I think are at least on their face most clearly interpreted as inconsistent, see our post “On Divorce, I.”]

My overarching point was that believing in the interpretation that there are no inconsistencies in the Bible is not fundamental to having a Christian faith or seeking God through Jesus, and that I believe such an interpretation at times puts you at odds with Jesus' message... but that is a whole n'other discussion.

Second, I remember saying something last Friday to the effect of "I am spending a lot of CitiBank's money learning about textual interpretation." I hope I didn't come off as "I'm better than you because I've spent a lot of money studying these things." That was certainly not my point. In fact, it was the antithesis of my point, which was actually that I think the message of the Bible is so clear that one need not have advanced degrees or some threshold level of intelligene to intuit and understand it. I believe God's message is open to all equally - smart, dumb, illiterate, educated, etc. - and that causes me to doubt any interpretation that seems to suggest that you need a lot of tools, knowledge, or skill to find the true message. I don't believe God puts such hurdles in between us and Him ---- I believe those hurdles, at least ones not in our selfish (fallen) human nature, have been put there by men through time to serve their own ends.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

On Divorce, Part II

So what were Jesus' teachings on divorce? We can't simply point to one passage in a Gospel because these are inconsistent. So lets take it piece by piece:

First, we can say for certain that (1) Jesus, in general, strongly disapproved of divorce. He wanted to toughen up the existing regime -- to extend the earlier rules. Mosaic law permitted divorce where the husband gave the wife a certificate of divorce. All of the passages, inconsistent as they are, advocate a ratcheting up of the rules.

Second, I believe we can, with analysis, conclude that (2) Jesus probably didn't permit infidelity as an exception. This is where our historical/logical approach comes into play. Biblical scholarship has long held that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. This means that Mark is the earlier, more original text. Thus, where there's a conflict between Matthew and Mark, I tend to prefer the latter. There's an additional reason to prefer Mark's "no infidelity exception" rule. Biblical scholars have long argued that, where two sayings are in conflict, the more radical saying is most likely to be accurate. This is because the Gospels were written by Christian apologists and advocates, and, consequently, unpopular provisions tended to get watered down over time. This is seen in other contexts, e.g., where Luke's "blessed are the poor" turns into Matthews "blessed are the poor in spirit." A rule which urged husbands to stay with adulterous wives would certainly be radical, and my guess is that Matthew just couldn't stomach it.

Third, we can conclude, by overruling Matthew's lone, derivative account with both Luke and the more fundamental Markan account, that (3) Jesus expressed a special concern with divorce when combined with remarriage.

This is the easy part. Among the knottier problems is the gender issue. Does the disapproval of divorce apply to both men and women? My next post will explore why Jesus taught what he did about divorce and how it fits into the larger context of his message. The gender issues will be explored in that context. In addition, bringing in the context of Jesus' other teachings will flesh out, extend and qualify these generalities....

Stay tuned....

On Divorce, Part I

In this four-part series, I intend to give my lay interpretation of Jesus' teachings on divorce. Each post will address the following questions, respectively (1-2) what did Jesus teach about divorce? (3) why did Jesus teach what he did about divorce and how do we understand these teachings in the larger context of His message? (4) how do we apply Jesus' teachings about divorce today?

As I examine text relating to the first question, remember that I have phrased the question advisedly. The purpose of citing the Bible is not to show the Bible's teachings on divorce. Rather, the Bible is cited as evidence of what Jesus taught.

Matthew, Mark and Luke each have passages on divorce:

Matthew 5:32
“I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (See also 19:9, “except for unchastity.”)

Mark 10:11-12
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Luke 16:18
"Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

How do we make sense of these texts? When placed side-by-side, their inconsistencies become apparent.

Start with Mark. Jesus' statements against divorce in this text are (1) completely gender-symmetrical and (2) appear dependent upon remarriage (i.e., only one who divorces and marries another commits adultery). Compare Matthew, where there is no divorce prohibition for women at all. (Nor is there such a prohibition for women in Luke.) Moreover, in Matthew, divorce = adultery regardless of whether the divorcer remarries.

Now start with Matthew. This is a male-only prohibition with a huge exception. Divorce for infidelity is apparently perfectly permissible. Neither Mark nor Luke contain an exception for "unchastity."

There are many more inconsistencies between these texts (e.g., in Matthew divorce makes her an adultress whereas in Luke adultery makes him an adulterer), but I think you get the idea.

For fun, ask an intelligent Southern Baptist the following questions:
(1) whether a woman may divorce her husband and then remarry without herself committing adultery?
(2) whether a man's divorcing his wife because she is abusive to him is permissible if he remains single?
(3) whether it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife for unchastity and remarry?
Key:
(1) Matthew: YES Mark: no Luke: YES
(2) Matthew: no Mark: YES Luke: YES
(3) Matthew: YES Mark: no Luke: no.

Is there a way out of this quagmire? Yes, but it requires abandoning Biblical inerrancy and adopting a historical and logical approach. Stay tuned this weekend as I humbly try to dig us out of this mess!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Stay Tuned

Yes, we're still here. Both of us are studying for a big professional exam at the moment. As soon as I get some time, I intend to do a multi-post social gospel assessment of Jesus' teachings on divorce. It'll be fun, so stay tuned.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Election Perspective II.

Off the cuff and from the heart, so I hope I don't lose anyone out there.

A comment on our last post suggested that a great many Americans no longer vote with their pocketbooks. How true. For many of those people, it is a different book that they think they are voting with - the Bible.

I wish that I could say that that was a good thing, or even a Christian thing to do. But as we have said on this blog numerous times, worshipping the Bible - or more accurately, how certain biased ministers and preachers claim to interpret and teach it - does not necessarily mean that you are following in Jesus' footsteps. Sometimes, it can even mean just the opposite.

What saddens me the most isn't that "Christians" in America cannot grasp the fact that EVERYTHING is a moral issue (not just abortion and gay marriage, but war, taxes, poverty, criniminal justice, etc etc), nor that ingenius Republican strategists have convinced them that the only Christian vote is a Republican one. The part that saddens me the most is that the Democratic Party failed to get in touch with the America that DESPRETELY NEEDS THEM to stand up for their needs.

In many ways, poor American Christians don't have anyone to vote for. Told time and time against that abortion is the litmus test, in their minds they face the seemingly all-too-Christian choice of voting a Christian prinicple or voting with their own economic self-interest. Thinking that they are making a Christian sacrifice, they vote their religion. How can we blame these people? We cannot. We can only blame a 2 party system in which no one represents their interests.

Interesting numbers from the exit polls

Consider these numbers from CNN's exit polling data:

Kerry carried:
  • 72% of minority voters.
  • 88% of African-American voters.
  • 63% of voters making less than $15,000 per year.
  • 55% of voters making less than $50,000 per year.
  • 64% of voters in a household that lost a job.

Can a Republican party that carried only the votes of the powerful really be the party of Christianity?



Thoughts about the Republican triumph

I feel as if I have been both vindicated and devastated by the results of this election.

Vindicated:

The warning sirens we blared on this site concerning the importance of the religious vote and about the Democrats’ inability to win without it have been verified. The media has been telling us for months that this would be an election about jobs and terrorism. Yet exit polls told us, however, that this election was really about religion and moral values. More voters cited moral values as the most important factor influencing their decision than any other. Kerry did not articulate clearly, early or often enough a prophetic moral vision. Kerry repeatedly pointed out Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. He repeatedly cited his own plan to ensure health care for all Americans. He did not, however, frequently track his opposition to Bush’s measures or his support for his own plans back to first principles. This was a case of too many facts, too many scattered ideas and too few well-articulated moral absolutes. He saw the trees and missed the forest.

Devastated:

I do not believe the Kingdom of God has been served by this election. The Bush victory represents a frightening setback for rather than “good news” for the poor and oppressed in this country. The wealthy and powerful rather than the meek have inherited our country for the time being. And as a law student I know that Bush’s appointments to the Supreme Court will carry influence for years to come. They are not something that can simply be rolled back like his tax cuts. I am troubled too, of course, about our place in the world. What would Jesus think about the dominating, bellicose stance we have adopted and which was ratified by last nights results?

I am not only troubled about the future of the Kingdom of God in this country but also by my fellow Christian’s failure to cut through the right’s “values smokescreen.” The politics of dominance are not reconcilable with Christian values. Why can’t we figure this out?

In short, I know two things:

(1) God isn’t going anywhere: if the Democrats continue to cede the religious vote to the Republicans, and if they let their party be dominated by secular pragmatists, they will continue to face devastating defeats.

(2) Jesus’ clear mandate that we serve poor and oppressed isn’t going anywhere: if we continue to let ourselves be duped by the narrow vision of Christian values offered to us by the right, and if we ignore the Republicans’ horrific records on social programs and social justice, the Kingdom of God will continue to retreat in this country.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Thoughts on the election results coming tomorrow. Promise. Sleep now.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Small Sacrifices for the Common Good

A non-partisan note on the election:

I am hearing reports of lines hours long. NPR says that some people actually slept at polling places so that they could be assured of being able to vote before having to go to work.

As one who often finds myself taking pot-shots at modern American society, I just want to say that I am proud of the American people today.

Law and economics scholars have repeatedly informed us that the act of voting is not in a voter's "rational self-interest." In everyday language, there ain't much in it for the voter personally. No one vote has ever decided a national election. Consequently, some L&E scholars have gone as far as to call voting "irrational."

But I prefer to think of voting as heroic. We vote because it is our social responsibility and for the common good -- in spite of the fact that it isn't in our selfish interest. Just as individual acts of selfishness create great social sins in the aggregate, individual acts of self-sacrifice create justice in the aggregate. Our voting has the potential to produce just and responsive government.

In my often-pessismistic stance, I hope I always remember that today the American people gave more thought to their country than to their own time or comfot.