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The David-and-Solomon Distraction

by Berry Friesen (March 29, 2015)

Recently, I again viewed The Bible’s Buried Secrets, Nova’s video exploration—first broadcast in 2008—of the origins of the Israelites, Jewish monotheism and the Bible.  It is a skillfully assembled production that reflects recent archeological research.  I found it well worth the two hours of viewing time.

It states there is no archeological evidence of a mass exodus by the Israelites from Egypt.

But there is archeological evidence that the Israelites emerged from Canaanite serfs and peasants who gained their freedom during a period when Canaanite city-states atrophied and declined.  This hypothesis suggests some of these have-nots settled in the nearly empty hills of Canaan; later, they were joined by a small group of former slaves who had escaped from Egypt. Over time, this motley mix developed a distinct identity related to their worship of a god who opposed imperial power and called for simplicity, an egalitarian social structure and autonomous, inter-dependent communities. As signs of their separation from other Canaanites, they adopted a pork-free diet and the practice of circumcision.

When we read the second book of the Bible, Exodus, we find a story that reflects similar values.  It includes a strong critique of empire, YHWH coming down to the top of Mt. Sinai to speak to all the people, criticism of fancy alters made with cut stones and practical rules for a just society (see pages 60-61, 69-70 and 72-77 in If Not Empire, What?).

But then The Bible’s Buried Secrets moves into the David-and-Solomon controversy. Did they really exist as kings?  If so, how large was their kingdom and how grand their monuments?  These questions consume over a quarter of the Nova production and completely eclipse any further consideration of the egalitarian social and political vision that gave birth to the Israelites.

This is the same error many people make today when they read the First Testament. They miss the fact that the David-and-Solomon story (whether true or not) betrays the original vision of the Israelites.  And so they forget that YHWH, god of the Hebrews, is not a god of empire and kings, but of servants and slaves.

We say in pages 99-108 that we think David and Solomon existed, but that their kingdom did not amount to much.  Also, we say that the David-and-Solomon story was imperial propaganda.

I expect we will lose some potential readers on that point alone.

Why take the risk of upsetting people in this way?  It does not seem wise until we reflect on the fact that the grandeur of the David-and-Solomon story led Israel into a distorted understanding of YHWH and a form of political organization that failed them completely.

To avoid their fate, we need to get back to the anti-imperial god described by the authors of Exodus, the biblical prophets, Jesus and the early Christian leaders.  Taking on the David-and-Solomon story is a promising way to begin.

On Taking the Name of Jesus in Vain

by John K. Stoner (March 25, 2015)

In this blog I'm following up Berry's blog of March 21, "The Faith of Jesus."

What I'm calling "taking the name of Jesus in vain" is the practice of Christianity in America, which presumes to make faith in Jesus compatible with the war policies of the nation.

This business of making Jesus compatible with violence is as American as apple pie, and as wrong as slavery.

I am appalled by all efforts to make war morally justifiable, but I am incensed beyond words by efforts to make Jesus a supporter of the diabolical human institution of war. I call this, without hesitation or reservation, taking the name of Jesus in vain.

But the reality of "Christianity" in American history, and a vast segment of its current character, is that faith in Jesus has been deemed compatible with participation in slavery…oops, pardon the slip, I meant to say, war.

But maybe it was a useful slip, since war and slavery are twin sisters, and you can just as well develop a just slavery theory as a just war theory. People have done it.

All of this is a total denial of the faith of Jesus, who believed that God is saving the world by nonviolent love. That was the faith of Jesus.

So you can believe in redemption by war, or redemption by Jesus. But not both at once or both together.

That's what we're saying in our book. We'd like to hear what you think, but ideally, after, not before, you've read it!

The Faith of Jesus

by Berry Friesen (March 21, 2015)

Typically, the church calls us to have faith in Jesus.  Our book calls us to the faith of Jesus.

The change of “in” to “of” is rooted in scholarly discussions of the writings of the Apostle Paul in two of his letters (Romans 3 and Galatians 2).  These passages are critical within the Christian faith because they describe how one becomes righteous in God’s eyes.

Traditionally, the Greek texts in question have been translated as “faith in Jesus,” but debate among scholars during recent decades has suggested “faith of Jesus” is the more accurate translation.  I first encountered this nuance a dozen years ago in the writings of Doug Harink, a Canadian theologian.

What difference does this make?  For a follower of Jesus, very little.

But for those who have faith in Jesus as the head of the Christian religion, it can make a very big difference.  That religion often consists of abstract, metaphysical beliefs related to the Trinity, life after death, and getting on the right side of divine judgment.  The faith of Jesus takes matters in a very different direction, away from metaphysics and toward how we understand God to be saving the world.

As we state in our book, “Jesus accepted the defeat and humiliation of a Roman cross because he trusted YHWH’s promise to bring new life out of his death.  Even as he faced execution, Jesus remained convinced that compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance would save the world, not domination, vengeance and bloodshed.  This is the faith of Jesus” (page 271; see also 236-238).

Thus, the turn of the phrase gets us oriented to what Jesus believed about God in relation to this life we all are living.  Do we believe what Jesus believed?

If we imagine ourselves in the sandals of the first followers of Jesus, we can readily see they didn’t start with a set of metaphysical beliefs.  Instead, they put their trust in this man and the way he expressed his faith. Today, speaking of the faith of Jesus gets us closer to their choice.

Does this transform faith into human effort and achievement?  No, there is no list of rules that follows affirmation of the faith of Jesus.  It simply means we also believe the compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil characterizing Jesus’ life will save the world, not the things the empire tries to sell us.  The implications will be lived out in myriad ways.

Inevitably, a second question follows:  can a person who does not claim the Christian religion have the faith of Jesus?  We think so.  While this creates difficulty for organized Christianity, it opens wonderful opportunities for inter-faith dialogue.

That Annoying Word--Empire

by Berry Friesen (March 17, 2015)

Across the library of texts we know as the Bible, we find authors who identified the reigning empire as the builder of the road to slavery, violence and death.  This point of view is not unanimous; indeed, early in the Second Temple era, the Persian Empire was described as YHWH’s servant.  Yet “empire” is a concern in most of the texts.  By surveying each book of the entire Bible, If Not Empire, What? helps readers assess how seriously the Bible regards empire’s threat.

“Empire” is a provocative term.  It harks back to ancient times very different from our own.  Now, some critics say, creative energy comes from too many different directions for any single power to assert control.  To suggest otherwise is to venture perilously close to a conspiratorial mindset.

Some also hold the view that the USA is exceptional and indispensable.  Thus, the violent and oppressive implications of the word “empire” simply do not apply and should not be used when discussing the global “coalition of the willing” the US government has assembled by virtue of its moral standing.

In chapter 6 of our book, we follow Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh in identifying the capacity to define how the world works to be a key attribute of an empire.

The US-led empire has such a capacity because of its overwhelming military power positioned for ready use all around the globe, because of its economic power, because the U.S. dollar is the primary currency of global trade and because it maintains constant surveillance of the entire globe via its satellites and “Five Eyes” digital monitoring.

And lest we forget, because the US-led empire has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use brutal and overwhelming violence in the form of nuclear attacks (Japan), chemical attacks (Vietnam, Iran), violence against civilians (Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Yemen),  cross-border invasions that violate international law (Iraq), conspiracies to effect regime change (Iran, Cuba, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela), industrial sabotage (Iran), terrorism (Greece, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Algeria, Syria, Ukraine) and trade sanctions (Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Venezuela).

The control employers, institutions, all governments and some families assert over their members may reflect the imperial worldview, but it is not indicative of “empire” because it does not stigmatize and foreclose nearly all other choices.  An empire is so vast, so multi-faceted in its power and so infused with moral authority that it can claim to provide the only legitimate and defensible account of how the world works.  It is god-like in this ability.

The fact that there remains active opposition to the US-led coalition does not mean it is not an empire. When we assume past empires extinguished all opposition, we exaggerate for the sake of convenience.

Many whose understanding of faith has been shaped by the Christian religion object to our emphasis on “the empire” for an additional reason.  They see it as a distraction from the core message of the Bible, which they describe as our broken relationships with God and one another.  John Stoner and I respond to this criticism in an article recently published by the Mennonite World Review. I won’t repeat the content of that article; instead, I encourage interested readers to read the article here.

Others find incomprehensible the notion that the world does not have to function by imperial rules. Violence and exploitation are the foundation of the world, right?  Leonard Cohen captured this sentiment in the refrain to his song, The Future: “When they said, ‘repent, repent,’ I wonder what they meant.”  The world is what it is—“red in tooth and claw”—so don’t tell me I’m supposed to pretend otherwise.

Yet on balance (though not unanimously), the biblical writers do ask us to repent, to turn from a path that assumes violence and exploitation are necessary and important elements of life.  Though another way is nearly unimaginable, the Hebrew prophets attempted to describe it, Jesus gave us a vivid and unforgettable glimpse and his followers fleshed it out even more.

The empires of this world want us to believe that violence and threats of violence are an important and  necessary part of life.  Jesus showed us the deceitfulness of that worldview.  For more about how he did that, see chapter 19 of our book, especially pages 236-238.

What Kind of Power?

By Berry Friesen (March 13, 2015)

Among those likely to embrace a political reading of the Bible are dominionists, Zionists, Wahhabi Muslims, sundry power- trippers eager to use religion for personal gain, and violent revolutionaries.

We don’t agree with any of those perspectives because each seeks the kind of power that demands compliance, punishes the unpersuaded, and regards the threat of violence as the guarantor of its authority. That’s not the kind of power we see in Jesus or his followers.

The Bible describes Jesus’ power as the capacity to attract an audience, unmask deception, speak with authority and inspire people to repent and align their lives with God’s truth. His exercise of this power was often passionate, sometimes confrontational and always grounded in a First Testament, Jewish understanding of righteousness and justice.  The healing of physical, emotional and spiritual wounds was another aspect of his power and seemed to merge with his ability to imagine and inspire another way to run the world.

Most importantly, Jesus’ kind of power reflected humility and a willingness to suffer loss, including his own death at the hands of those who held conventional power.  Chapter 19 of If Not Empire, What? focuses on this radical difference.

The Second Testament is unabashed in claiming Jesus’ kind of power will multiply and spread.  The prophecy of Joel—fulfilled so remarkably at Pentecost—is the clearest example with its proclamation of the Spirit’s abundance poured out “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).  It resulted in the formation of a new community known for its communal ethos, generosity, subversive rhetoric and willingness to confront the authorities.  

Biblical writers were well aware of the kind of oppressive power that coerces, humiliates, steals and destroys. They understood it to be part of what they called “the power of sin.” But what most distressed biblical writers was the way the oppressed came to embrace the worldview of their oppressors and thereby legitimize and empower those oppressors.

Thus, we see in the writings of the Apostle Paul (chapter 22 of If Not Empire, What?) an emphasis on a new worldview, new social identity and ethic, and a repudiation of the assumption that the coercive power of the empire inevitably rules the world.

So does a political reading of the Bible support the seizure of coercive power?  No, not at all. Instead, it points to the faith of Jesus, a faith that compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance are the way God wants the world to be run.

Reading the Bible Politically

By Berry Friesen (March 10, 2015)

It’s very important to read the Bible with its political context in mind.  That’s one of the reasons we wrote If Not Empire, What?

The earliest biblical texts described Israel’s attempt to organize itself according to the imperial model.  That failed disastrously.  Later texts, written during and after the trauma of exile, described how the Jews recovered some features of statehood by combining centralized religious rigor with a stance of collaboration vis-à-vis the empires that seemed to rule Earth.

Jesus lived during this era of collaboration and was a critic of it.  He described an alternative—a Kingdom of God—that drew upon the power and resilience of common people hungry for righteousness and committed to making peace (see Matt: 5:1-12). Though his alternative was radical, Jesus’ worldview was thoroughly Jewish.  Thus, his understanding of “salvation” was grounded in history (not metaphysics) and his understanding of “a good society” was rooted in the Law of Moses.

Jesus conveyed little respect for the accommodations Jewish religious leaders had made with the empire.  Apparently, he regarded the Romans as a demonic force, one that brought horrific violence into the lives of the people it ruled (see Mark 5:1-20). Jesus refused to answer the questions of Pilate, the Roman governor.  Though there were important Roman towns near the places where Jesus lived and circulated (Sepphoris, Tiberius, Caesarea Philippi), it seems Jesus never went there.

Jesus specifically warned his disciples against “the yeast of the Herodians” (Mark 8:15), which we take to mean the collaborators’ way of sucking up to empire and turning its methods to one’s own advantage.  Twenty years after Jesus was executed, his followers had to decide whether to admit Gentiles into their Jewish movement.  They answered with a “yes” so long as the Jesus-following Gentiles also renounced the suck-up behavior of collaboration with empire (see pages 255-261 of If Not Empire).

No, Jesus did not shun Roman officials or Jewish collaborators.  In Capernaum, Jesus praised the faith of a Roman centurion, saying he had found such “in no one in Israel” (Matt. 8:8-10).  Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector and presumably a collaborator with the Romans, to be a disciple.   And Jesus accepted support from Joanna, the wife of a key official from the court of King Herod (Luke 8:3).

Yet Herod saw Jesus as the political threat that he was and wanted him killed.  Jesus responded defiantly to the news that Herod was hunting him, calling Herod  “that fox” and promising to continue his work of healing and opening people’s eyes to the deceitfulness and death of Herod’s way of serving and feeding off of imperial power (Luke 13:31-33).

The gospel accounts portray Jesus as fully aware that his presence in Jerusalem would create a dangerous political crisis.  Indeed, by the street theater of his arrival, his disruption of temple operations and his encouragement of the rumor that he was a tax resister, Jesus made certain the climactic encounters would be framed on his own terms. To the end, Jesus remained steadfast, confident that the One he called “Father” would use human faithfulness to change the world.

Certainly we need to ask whether the world actually changed because of the way Jesus lived and died.  Most people—including most who identify as Christian—say “no, the world did not change, but a new religion was born, one that promised a sure salvation in another and better world than the one Jesus came to save.”  Yet that is not how the early leaders of the Jesus-movement—James, Peter, Paul, Priscilla—viewed the matter.  As they saw it, Jesus had exposed the illegitimacy of empire and changed the direction of history.

From that conversation a second political discussion will naturally flow:  whether people of faith should be collaborating with the US-led empire now ruling the world.  If Jesus rejected that approach, why do so many Christians follow it today?

Jesus Saves? Saves What?

by John K. Stoner (March 4, 2015)

I made a placard for a demonstration once that read "War Wastes, Jesus Saves." I wanted to make the point that whatever Jesus is doing, it's the opposite of what war is doing. Don't know if it worked.

You've seen the highway signs, "Jesus Saves."

So I ask, what does Jesus save?

Fundamentalist Christians say that Jesus saves souls for heaven. They claim to base this on the Bible, using John 3:16 "For God so loved that world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

But the fundamentalist interpretation of this verse is belied by the next verse, John 3:17: "For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."

This says that God's project through Jesus is to save the world, not just some souls. The Greek for world is "cosmos," which means "the whole thing,"

We discuss God's will to save the world in EMPIRE, pp. 243ff. Have you ever thought of the resurrection of Lazarus as a parable of God's will for every person here and now to overcome the grip of the world's obsession with and propaganda of death?

Have a look. Share your thoughts with us, use the Contact Form button.