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God Isn't the Problem

by Berry Friesen (August 30, 2015

The past four posts have identified aspects of Jesus’ life that contrasted with the conventional wisdom of Second Temple Judaism.

1. Jesus did not regard collaboration with the Roman Empire as an opportunity, but as a kind of death.

2. His perspective on the empire was not only a response to how the Romans did empire, but reflected his radical critique of kings and other structures of hierarchical authority.

3. With his contemporaries, Jesus believed YHWH had miraculously saved the Jewish people through their ordeal of defeat and exile in Babylon.  But Jesus didn’t think YHWH did this because the Jews were special; instead, YHWH had saved them for the purpose of sharing the wisdom of YHWH with the world.

4. For Jesus, salvation was a way of life, not a status one acquired or was given.

To these four observations, we now add a fifth:  in his assessment of the human predicament, Jesus did not regard God as part of the problem.

This is important because so much religious reflection assumes God is an inscrutable, remote and even arbitrary presence who somehow must be appeased.  One such variation focuses on personal questions:  “Does God love me?”  “How do I win God’s favor?”  “How do I get God to forgive me for what I have done?”   Another variation asks why God doesn’t act to address life’s injustice, the suffering many endure and the apparent ascendency of evil.

Especially among the most devout stream of Second Temple Judaism (the Pharisees), this assumption prompted an emphasis on religious piety and ritualistic purity as the way to merit God’s mercy and blessing.
Here are four quotes from Jesus in which he speaks very differently of the one he called “Father.”

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11)?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:44-45).

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they” (Matt. 6:26)?

“But while he was still far off, [the prodigal son’s] father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
In short, Jesus regarded God’s love, favor and mercy as a given.  What was much in doubt then—as it is now—was human willingness to live according to God’s compassionate, forgiving and evil-resisting way.  Would people embrace that way of life as their salvation?  

A Way, Not a Status

by Berry Friesen (August 25, 2015)

When religious people in North America describe themselves as “saved,” they generally mean they have acquired a special metaphysical status:  God regards them as righteous and thus entitled to live eternally, just as God does.

In my previous post, I suggested this status-based understanding of salvation has similarities to the view of Jesus’ contemporaries.  According to Second Temple Judaism, God had shown favor to the Jewish people by saving them from certain death and extinction in Babylon.  So long as the Jewish people maintained their ritualized purity and symbolic separation from the pagan world, their eternal existence as God’s chosen would be ensured.

In contrast, Jesus regarded salvation as a way, not a status.  It is a life of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil.  What makes it special is that it is the way by which the ever gracious and forgiving YHWH is saving the world.

To which most Christians respond, “Well, that can’t be right.  The world doesn’t operate by compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil; it operates by calculated selfishness, retribution and the threat of violence.  But I do want God’s favor—I do want to live forever like God—so there must be a metaphysical way to understand who Jesus was and the status he confers.  That’s the kind of salvation I’m interested in.”

Salvation-as-a-way has additional vulnerabilities (beyond being radically out-of-step with conventional wisdom).  It has an attention-drawing quality that almost ensures people will notice.  And insofar as the exercise of compassion, forgiveness and resistance to evil draws public attention, one’s life takes on political overtones that suggest a marching to a different drummer.

Of course, Jesus often spoke of “taking up the cross” and a salvation that is demanding is clearly what he had in mind.  But the proponents of salvation-as-a-status have found ways to incorporate this aspect.    Second Temple Judaism did it with its emphasis on purity and separation and some modern Christians still follow that approach.  Others achieve a demanding religion by emphasizing detailed theological constructs.

Turning YHWH’s salvation into something metaphysical, invisible and private has a long history.  Nearly everyone rejected the message of the Hebrew prophets, for example.  It wasn’t that people hated caring for the widows and the orphans.  What angered them was the vulnerability that the prophets demanded, the living without the protection of wealth, hierarchy and the favor of a king.

So is salvation–as-a-way largely a matter of ethics?  No, not in a moralistic way; it’s not about winning YHWH’s favor, nor about acquiring any special status.  It’s all about being part of YHWH’s way of saving the world from the destructive path it’s on, a path defined by predatory capitalism, accelerating climate change and endless war.  It’s a path leading toward the massive depopulation of the Earth and a political order in which the elite carry on through a toxic mix of religion, surveillance, deception and violence.

During the last year of his life in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor, repeatedly wrote about a religionless Christianity.   I think he was writing about this difference between salvation-as-a-status and salvation-as-a-way.  Here is an excerpt from one of his reflections.

“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man--not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”

Jonah Back From the Dead

by Berry Friesen (August 18, 2015)

Jesus reportedly thought of himself as a Jonah, a man people had listened to after he came back the dead.

You will recall the story of Jonah; he went overboard into the Mediterranean during a terrible storm.  Saved from drowning by a fish that swallowed him alive and then spit him out on dry land, Jonah next showed up 600 miles to the east, in Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, preaching a message of YHWH’s judgment and the possibility of change.

The story tells us the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah.

After Jesus cured a man of deafness and blindness, the religious bystanders said Jesus was a sorcerer, empowered by the devil.   In response, Jesus said this:  “Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).

In the initial telling of the Jonah-story, Jonah personified the Judeans, people conquered by the Babylonian Empire, then enslaved and exiled 600 miles to the east along the Euphrates River.  They were done for, finished as a culture and religion.  But miraculously they survived and prospered, spreading into Persia and even returning to Jerusalem where they rebuilt a temple to YHWH.  Their continued existence as a people was a sign of YHWH’s grace and good purposes for humanity.

The spirit of Second Temple Judaism celebrated this miracle of Jewish survival as a sign of YHWH’s eternal election.  It exhorted Jews to respond in gratitude through demanding religious rituals and impossibly pure living.

Jesus understood the miracle of Jewish deliverance differently; he knew Jonah had been brought back from the dead in order to move Israel’s enemies to repentance. Thus, he regarded the miraculous survival of Judaism not as a possession to be hoarded, but as a calling and mission.  YHWH’s intention was that the whole world should be saved (John 3:17).

Much of contemporary Christianity has the spirit of Second Temple Judaism.  It celebrates YHWH’s salvation as a possession for the piously pure. The calling and mission that Jesus died for—to save Earth and its peoples—has been twisted into an act of metaphysical magic that appeased an angry god and provided the elect with an egotistical immortality.

One wonders, what would Christianity look like if it moved the metaphysics and the immortality to the back burner and simply followed Jesus and continued his mission?

Making Our Stand

by Berry Friesen (August 12, 2015)

In my last post, I said Jesus regarded the Roman Empire to be a fraud and pretender that had no legitimate authority.

It’s tempting to follow up with a post that shows the US-led empire is similarly fraudulent, pretending to be our savior, but actually taking us ever closer to destruction.  Examples are not hard to find.

Yet such a discussion would miss an important point.  I doubt that Jesus regarded the Roman Empire as the agent of death because of uniquely bad behavior. More likely, he viewed it as just another domination system that brought the worst out of people: violence, fear, injustice, deceit.

If so—and if we aspire to follow Jesus—then our urgent task is not to catalogue the empire’s sins, but to honestly encounter the Bible’s insistence that the people of YHWH always resist the empire, no matter what its name and how it rules.

In recent years, I have spent much time and energy detailing the fraud and deceit of the US-led empire.   People of all stripes love to think the USA is an exceptional nation, an indispensable force for global peace and prosperity.  Generally, I attempt to dislodge this fanciful view with the facts:  the ambitions of al-Qaeda do not explain the spectacular success of the 9/11 attacks, “faulty intelligence” does not explain the US war of aggression against Iraq, “humanitarian emergency” does not explain the violent dismemberment of Libya and Syria, “pro-democracy demonstrators” do not explain the violent rebellion that overthrew the elected government of the Ukraine.

Without disparaging this painstaking work of telling the truth, I rarely sense the effort is making headway; the empire’s ability to manipulate events and manufacture morally-compelling propaganda simply charges on, leaving facts in the dust.  For example, just two years ago, President Obama abandoned his plan to send the US Air Force into Syria because alternative media poked holes in his propaganda and public opposition mounted. Yet this past week, he sent the U.S. Air Force into Syria with hardly a peep of protest. Few people seem to remember that this is a replay from two years ago.

In moments like this, I find encouragement in Jesus’ response to imperial power.  And I remember how important it is to acknowledge the prophetic tradition in which Jesus stood, a tradition that rejected illusions of benevolent rule from one end of the Bible (Genesis/Exodus) to the other (Revelation).  All those other stories about Israel’s kings, all those other accounts of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s cozy relationships with the emperor, are included to remind us of what is certain to fail, what is certain to lead to death.

In short, the Bible is the best ground on which to make our stand against the current empire.  When last did you hear a preacher say so?

The Opportunities of Empire

by Berry Friesen (August 8, 2015)

The most common attitude toward the empire is opportunistic.  An empire collects such immense power and wealth in one network of influence.  The scraps off its table are more than enough to make a man rich. Think of how that can be turned to one’s advantage!

This attitude prevailed throughout the era known as Second Temple Judaism.  It began with the decree of Persian king, Cyrus, ordering the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem dedicated to YHWH.  It continued with King Darius’ resounding affirmation of Cyrus’ decree, with the extraordinary political authority King Artaxerxes granted Ezra to rule Jerusalem and its surrounding area, with the strategic collaboration between Artaxerxes and Nehemiah.

During the final decades of this era, when Jesus lived in Palestine, opportunism remained the conventional stance.  We see this in the Jerusalem elite who leveraged their relationships with Roman officials into control of temple operations and the purchase of lands, fishing rights and “tax farming” agreements that enabled them to collect taxes on behalf of the empire.

Second Temple Judaism was the era in which every First Testament text was finalized, when a firm Jewish identity emerged, when Judaism itself took shape as a monotheistic faith with a strong ethical base rooted in the Law of Moses.  It was the era of the Jewish miracle, when the exiled Hebrews overcame the humiliation of slavery and the overwhelming power of imperial assimilation and emerged stronger than ever culturally. A major challenge in reading the First Testament is recognizing how its texts were shaped by the imperial collaboration that prevailed throughout this era.

In our own time, a similar attitude prevails among Christians.  Think of the prominence acquired by Billy Graham, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis because of their access to U.S. presidents.  Think of the prestige acquired by any project that has an office in Washington, D.C. or Manhattan borough of New York City.   Most people today believe the empire is an asset to be exploited. Why not?

With this context in view, the behavior of Jesus is striking in its difference.  He avoided Roman towns and apart from a visit to Jerusalem as a child stayed away from that city until the final week of his life.  His way—his kingdom—did not view the empire as an opportunity.

In fact, Jesus actively countered such thinking.  “Beware of the yeast of Herod,” he instructed his disciples.  When politically powerful Jews sought him out for conversation, Jesus often responded with confrontational rhetoric.  His reputation as a tax resistor followed him to his death and was apparently well-earned.  Even under threat of death, he refused to recognize Pilate’s vaunted authority.

What do we make of this?  It’s clear that Jesus deliberately rejected the collaboration and opportunism that conventional wisdom credited with preserving the Jewish people.  What did Jesus know about the empire that so many in his time and ours do not know?

The short answer is that he regarded the empire as the agent of death.  We see this in the story of the man who lived among the tombs of the Gadara, mutilating himself and driven to madness by demonic spirits named Legion.  "Legion" is a term with double meaning, referring both to a multitude (around 6,000) and to the Roman military occupation. After Jesus exorcised the evil spirits from the man, they made their home within a herd of pigs that immediately drowned themselves in the sea (Mark 5:1-20).

Jesus called Jerusalem’s scribes and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27) and predicted Jerusalem’s destruction (Matt. 24:1-28).

No, he never took up arms against the empire, nor did he encourage others to do so. Instead, his way—his kingdom—struck at the very core of the empire by treating it as a fraud and pretender. It had no legitimate authority to be exploited, no life-giving opportunities to be leveraged.

What would it look like today to follow Jesus in his attitude toward the empire?

Love Amid the Bleakness

by Berry Friesen (August 4, 2015)

How does one live amid unrelenting bleakness?

Ian Welsh, the futurist whose work I quoted in my last blog, says that because of water depletion and climate change, “agriculture is going to fail.  Period.  Right now hunger is due to distribution issues: we grow more than enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t care about feeding everyone.  In twenty to thirty years this will not be the case: we will just not have enough food.  Water will be as precious as hydrocarbons . . . Expect much of the world not just to be hungry, but thirsty.”

As for the social sphere, Welsh’s view is just as dystopian.   We are approaching “an unprecedented panopticon state, one in which various technologies will conspire to make it so that individuals are tracked nearly 24/7, not just online but physically.”  Governments are doing this, of course, but so are private companies through technologies that link our online interests, consumer purchases, cell phone networks and physical movements.  

My last blog post suggested one response to such unrelenting bleakness:  a new ideology, which my co-author and I think can be found through a careful and critical reading of the Bible.  

Another response, one that is complementary and yet more demanding, is suggested by our friend, Norman Lowry, prisoner KN9758 at Dallas State Correctional Institution in northern Pennsylvania.  

Norm is serving a seven-year sentence for trespass at a U.S. army recruiting office in Lancaster, my home town.  His first offense was causing physical damage to recruiters’ vehicles sitting in the parking lot; his second offense was blocking the door to the recruiters’ office.  When he blocked the office entrance a second time, a local judge imposed the harshest sentence he could—seven years.

Within the walls of his prison, Norm lives as if it is the place where God wants him to be.Thus, he refuses to accept offers for early release that are conditioned upon his promise to stop protesting U.S. militarism.  

Why would God want him to live in prison?  Because, Norm says, people there don’t understand how God loves them and wants them to experience the abundant life Jesus lived.  (You can learn more about Norm and his understanding of his calling here, in his own words.) 

Norm is a living witness to that love and that life.   “What could be better?” he asks.

As I see it, Norman’s prison is a microcosm of our world.  It is defined by an ideology that imprisons many so that a few can get rich, that claims overwhelming violence is the sign of the righteous, that finds purpose for living by creating a pecking order and then humiliating the damned. 

There, amid an ideology that leads inexorably toward estrangement and death, Norm is a living witness to another way.  Were it not for the witness of Jesus, I would say Norm is crazy. Yes, I really would.   

Yet as Earth’s dystopian future descends on us, as our inability to escape its iron laws becomes painfully clear, what will you and I do?  The deceptive illusions of wealth, of violence, of humiliating hierarchy will remain, no matter the bleakness.  So will bearing witness to the love of God and living the abundant life of Jesus.  

In his choice, Norm has found comrades there in Dallas prison.  So will we as we walk the way of Jesus.