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Jesus Against Christianity

The biblical deity Yahweh has a deep history going back to the habiru, which is a generic term used in reference to a migratory population of nomadic tribes that swept down from the north into the Fertile Crescent roughly between 1800 and 1100 BCE. These northern invaders were resisted as outlaws by the settled cities and agricultural villages they flooded into, and at least in Egypt during the rule of Ramses IV some were taken into slavery.

Egypt

Yahweh was the patron deity of habiru (Hebrews) who inhabited mountains of the Sinai peninsula. His specialty was violence. In exchange for the obedience, sacrifice, and worship of his devotees, Yahweh provided protection and victory in their raids. Over time a number of neighboring habiru formed a federation that would eventually cross into Canaan and take possession of the land. On the way, many indigenous peoples and innocent citizens would be slaughtered or displaced, fulfilling a destiny promised to the invaders by their god.

Whether you are an invader or a native, your response in encountering “the other” tends to be very different. When religion grows out of the conditions of diversity, people work intentionally to build rapport, accommodate each other, and form cooperative relationships. In such regions, religion itself will be a rather pluralistic phenomenon, with perhaps many deities represented across a geographical region – an example being the ancient Indus Valley where “Hinduism” has flourished for millenniums.

But when religion comes in from outside a cultural context, bringing with it alien values and imperatives, the confrontation with difference is typically aggressive, invasive, and violent. Either “the other” will need to be converted – that is, bent into agreement with the invading orthodoxy – or subjugated (which can include oppression, exploitation, marginalization or extermination). Even though dialogue and cooperation may be possible, the prevailing impulse is either/or, in-or-out, good versus evil. The irony is that “good” in this case is identified with invasion, conversion, and violence in the name of god.

Most people are unfamiliar with this backstory to the religion of the Bible and its patron deity. As Judaism – taking its name from a southern tribe (Judah) of the federation that “settled” Canaan and held the first capital city (ancient Salem, renamed Jerusalem) – advanced its international presence, a mythology evolved to help establish this presence inside the arena of regional empires. The myth cycles of Creation, Covenant, and Conquest reconstructed history in a way that elevated Yahweh to supremacy and designated his people (the community telling these stories) as chosen and special.

                                                                                  

What interests me is the extent to which this invader mentality (with its imperative to move in and then displace or destroy the other) got encoded into the Bible and became a driving impulse of Western culture. Some important recent authors (Walter Wink, John Howard Yoder, William Herzog, and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer among them) have named this impulse “redemptive violence” – the use of violence as Yahweh’s preferred means of bringing about human salvation. The important extension of this code, of course, is that Yahweh’s preference motivates and justifies the violent behavior of his devotees.

fist

As Yahweh’s career progressed with the establishment of Christianity, this impulse continued to drive Western expansion – first in the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles, then under the administration of Constantine, and later into the missionary excursions and New World migration of the Americas. As it went on, this impulse also grew more violent, until with the English colonists and European settlers an entire native civilization was all but wiped out in the name of Manifest Destiny (our god-given right to possession).

It’s also important to understand that a patron deity (such as Yahweh) serves a dual role in the psychological development of his or her people. Firstly the deity is a projection of what concerns the security and ongoing survival of his tribe. In this way, our god validates and reinforces our present identity. God hates his enemies and therefore so must I – although the projection is really working the other way around: I hate my enemies and therefore so does my god.

The second role of the patron deity is to represent in ideal what is still only dormant (or latent) in his devotees. As a general trajectory across the world’s cultures, deities tend to develop in the direction of mercy, grace, compassion, and benevolence. That is to say, the ideal of a liberated and morally enlightened humanity is “forecasted” (projected into the future) in the narrative depiction of the deity. In the Bible, for instance, we can observe the gradual maturation and softening of Yahweh into a more loving and universally generous god.

As the literary character of Yahweh was evolving, he increasingly took on an “ambivalent” or schizoid nature. One moment he could reach out in tenderness, and in the next with merciless wrath. By the time of Jesus, this bipolar tendency had inspired various sects and divisions within Judaism. It seems that Yahweh could turn any which way he was needed. His benevolent side was perhaps his dominant function, but he also possessed a stern and violent shadow.

In some traditions this shadow was split off into a malevolent and diabolical counterpart (Satan), while in others it was reconciled as something of a reluctant obligation in god to condemn sinners. God had made the rules, humans disobeyed the rules, and Yahweh was constrained by his own morality to destroy those who failed or refused to repent.

What did Jesus have to say about it?

                                                                               

Because the First Voice of the historical Jesus is buried beneath and tangled into later Christian mythology, it’s not easy to tease out the “red letter” thread of his original gospel. But once you catch hold of it, the power of his message begins to resonate with certain sayings, stories and primitive recollections in the Gospels. The force of it can be summarized as “unconditional forgiveness,” or loving the enemy, and it runs in direct opposition to redemptive violence throughout.

open hand

As I have tried to expound on this radical message of Jesus in other posts (e.g., “Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World“), I’ll just make a few remarks on it here. Basically, Jesus advised that the only way into a human future of freedom, community, and lasting peace is to “let go” of (literally forgive) our neighbor’s guilt. The “good news” (gospel) according to Jesus is that God has already done this for us: nothing is holding us back but our own attachments to shame, fairness, proper reckoning, and moral satisfaction.

There is sufficient textual evidence to suggest that Jesus did more than merely accentuate Yahweh’s “good side” over his violent propensities – his right hand over his left, as it were. Instead he proclaimed, and lived out as if it were true, that God has only love for all people. The only way to love our enemies is to forgive, which is to let go of what you have against them by moral rights (their guilt) and return good for evil. This is why the qualifier “unconditional” is so critical to an accurate understanding of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on the power of love.

As it happened, his revolution was short-lived. The code of redemptive violence was so deeply insinuated into the cultural DNA of the Bible that his followers soon reconstructed his death (and for the most part disregarded his life and teachings) into a transaction of vicarious suffering for the sake of our salvation. By dying on the cross, he was supposed to have paid the penalty for sin and satisfied Yahweh’s need for retribution. His torture and death, in other words, were necessary to the final solution.

Christianity, as it continued to develop and expand its empire, eventually became the embodiment of what Jesus had sought to transcend and leave behind.

The Judeo-Christian West has a long record of redemptive violence. I read recently that one out of five adult Americans today are either incarcerated, awaiting trial, or on probation. The most charitable nation on earth also has the largest percentage of its population in prisons. The religion that has the most to say about love and how “God is love” is also the most outspoken about retribution and people getting what they deserve.

If the revolution intended by Jesus has any hope of taking hold on a large scale, more people will need to see the irreconcilable contradiction between Christianity’s current message of salvation and his original gospel. It’s not enough to simply lay fresh tile on a faulty foundation. We need the courage to call redemptive violence when we see it in ourselves and in each other, but we need even more courage to extinguish this impulse and make a way for love instead.

 

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Unconditional Forgiveness and the Bankruptcy of Retribution

Recently I’ve been exploring the topic of forgiveness and how Jesus’ teaching on the topic moved the West beyond theism with respect to human morality. The gist of my argument is that Jesus clarified forgiveness of the enemy as the only way through the impasse of retribution, vengeance, and redemptive violence – the latter term referring to a “solution” which requires someone to suffer for sin before things can be made right.

In the early days, Yahweh (tribal deity of the Hebrews) was rather violence-prone and bloodthirsty, taking life as satisfaction for disobedience and iniquity. There are even hints in the Bible that Yahweh took some time to get past his need for the blood dedication (sacrifice) of human firstborns – an advance, certainly, toward a more enlightened morality.

During the intervening centuries Yahweh developed the ability to look upon outsiders with compassion and even forgive sinners … up to a point. While his human devotees – especially some of the prophets – were envisioning what the world would be like if Yahweh simply “let go” of his need for vengeance and appeasement, dreaming of the day, with Jeremiah, when god would forgive without the prerequisite of repentance, Yahweh just couldn’t let go of his reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.

By the time of Jesus, then, there were at least two strands of theological development vying for the hearts and minds of true believers. The dominant strand insisted that god is holy and just and simply cannot tolerate disobedience. If the sinner refuses to repent, then god has no choice but to reject and condemn. If this sounds like a limitation on god’s power and love, the orthodox tradition resolved the question by saying that god had set up reality in the very beginning according to the balancing principle of retribution.

Similar to the oriental notion of karma, this principle simply says that “you get what you deserve” – maybe not right away, but eventually things are going to be made right. Yahweh’s so-called obligation is indeed reluctant – he doesn’t necessarily want to destroy sinners, but still he must abide by his own rules. The idea that there is something higher than god putting limits on divine (and human) freedom was an essential linchpin of orthodox morality, and remains so to this day.

The other tradition, definitely a minority report by comparison, was less mechanistic and more romantic – concerned less about keeping “the system” intact than promoting the dream of a nonviolent reconciliation of sinners to god. What if the god who led our nation out of captivity is also at work in other nations, providing for human liberation and prosperity in ways peculiar to their historical conditions? So dreamed the prophet Amos (see Amos 9:7).

Later on, Jeremiah looked forward to a time when god would set aside the rules, accomplish a radical preemptive forgiveness, and put the knowledge of his will in the hearts of people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In that day there will no longer be a need for sacrificial priests, ranting preachers, or Sunday school teachers. The mechanism and official procedure for our human repentance to god – practically the entire religious establishment – would be transcended and left behind.

But of course it had to remain just a dream, for the simple reason that its progress into reality would have entailed too much revamping of orthodox religion and its incumbent deity. In fact, if god really is – not just in our dreams but in reality – for all people, and ready to forgive without repentance in order to get everything moving forward into freedom and true community, then much would need to change. Most importantly, the old god – the author, supervisor and executioner of retributive morality – would have to go.

Now, that’s something terrifying to consider, especially when just about every feature of your identity is drawn from your identification with this god. If you go forward with it, some explanation will be in order as to why for so long you used god in the justification of your superiority over others, of your bigotry and violence against unbelievers and people differently oriented in the world.

broken chain

Will you admit that you had it wrong back then? That you were advancing your own agenda and not god’s? Or will you finally realize and honestly confess that god is not an objective, absolute, and unchanging reality as you once believed?

Such are the questions that begin exploring the cultural terrain of post-theism. As we go along, it becomes easier to stay open to the idea that god is a representation in mythology, the central metaphor of the mystery that supports our existence and inspires our faith. It’s not necessary to defend the validity of earlier encounters with god as literal events, actual interventions of a deity who exists separate and apart from us. To say that such scriptural accounts are just more mythology does not diminish their meaning. Indeed it becomes possible once again to appreciate this meaning in proper context, as part of the Great Story of our spiritual awakening as a species.

What Jesus did was “simply” but bravely step into reality without the satisfaction and security in knowing that people get what they deserve. He realized forgiveness as the power to let go and move on – not away from one’s enemy but back into relationship. Taking hold of the retributive reflex before it compels an act of retaliation and vengeance provides just a moment for reconsideration, but a moment is all that is needed.

Jesus believed that waiting for our enemy to see the light and plead our forgiveness is not something that will help us forward into reconciliation, community and genuine peace on this planet. Instead, forgiveness needs to come first, it must be preemptive and unconditional, not waiting around for the conditions to be right or the risk to go away.

Bringing love back into the face of hatred – that is to say, not energizing it with matching countermeasures but responding with kindness and benevolent strength – will result in the aggression eventually spending itself into bankruptcy. It may take some time, and many will get exploited or consumed along the way, but the Day is coming when the true enemy (ignorance, conviction, hatred and violence) and its many human incarnations will simply collapse out of exhaustion.

Finally the seed will break open and New Life will spring forth.

If we are to follow Jesus in this way of radical forgiveness, something needs to be done about the tribal deity of Christian orthodoxy. Tragically, this same orthodoxy took Jesus hostage in the opening centuries of establishment, re-making him into the savior who rescued the world from god by dying on a cross and satisfying the conditions against our forgiveness.

To its credit, the orthodoxy got it half right. Jesus did rescue us from god.

 
 

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Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World

In my defense of a new humanism, I made the case that Western consciousness shifted into a post-theistic morality with the radical teachings of Jesus. Where the motivation to do what is right had been conditioned by a powerful external incentive – approval, inclusion, divine favor and final salvation (or the opposite if you break the rules) – Jesus opened a new way.open_prison_door

The incumbent deity (Yahweh) had come out of a mythological background of a small near-eastern tribal confederation of nomadic invaders who managed the conquest of agricultural settlements in the land of Canaan. As a warrior god, Yahweh possessed little tolerance for diplomacy and compromise. But to his credit, over time he did start to soften up a bit, balancing wrath with mercy, vengeance with compassion, retribution with forgiveness.

Yahweh’s war box (the ark of the covenant), which had been carried at the front lines of Israel’s army, giving them a supernatural advantage over the indigenous farmers they massacred, was already lost in the misty hinterland of folklore and legend by Jesus’ time. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s accent on purity and obedience was still strong, and it resounded in the religion that remembered and worshiped him.

Let’s be clear: Yahweh was capable of forgiveness. As long as certain steps were taken – that is to say, insofar as particular conditions were met and satisfied by the repentant sinner – Yahweh could be persuaded to let the poor soul back into his good graces. There was a limit to this generosity on Yahweh’s part, of course, and repentance needed to happen first. God is no sucker.

Already 600 years or so before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had fantasized a day when god would simply drop the charges against humanity and enter a new relationship with his people. The knowledge of his will would transcend instruction and be grasped intuitively, written on their hearts. Fortunately for Jeremiah, he didn’t put a date on this future New World.

What would inspire someone, even god, to just “let go” (forgive) and rip up the rap sheet on sinners? What purpose could this serve? Why violate the Rule that had set the rules in the first place? Isn’t that tantamount to throwing out everything – responsibility, accountability, decency and fairness – upon which the moral order depends? So it seemed. And so Jeremiah’s little nightmare about unconditional forgiveness and the beginning of a New Age was rolled up, tucked away, and forgotten.

But the seed was planted. Once an “impossible” virtue like compassion for outsiders, charity for strangers, or mercy for those who just might be getting what they deserve – once the virtue is projected into the collective consciousness, it is just like a seed. It may sit there, covered by dirt and “forgotten” under the urgencies and concerns of daily life for many, many years. Decades or even centuries. But there it is nonetheless, waiting for the conditions to be right.

In Jesus’ time, the conditions were right. But just as important as a generally favorable milieu is the individual who is sufficiently inspired, courageous, and “morally reckless” to announce the moment of awakening and risk everything for its actualization.

16 When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20)

As Luke tells the story, Jesus made the announcement as part of a sabbath sermon. In that day, a member of the synagogue might walk up to the front of the room, be handed a scroll of scripture, read the passage and offer an interpretation. In this case, Jesus opened up the prophecy today known as Third Isaiah, likely written just after the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon (post 538 BCE).

The “year of the Lord’s favor” was another mythic reference, going “back” to the ancestral past when the people of Israel celebrated a Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years – after seven cycles of seven years – all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and lost property was returned to its original and rightful owners.

Jubilee was an archetype of the New Beginning, the clean slate, a fresh chance to start again. It’s what the human spirit longs for. But it never made the transition from mythic event to actual occasion. For practical considerations alone, no society could survive such a radical shake-up of its economy as Jubilee represented. It was what we call an ideal.

In Isaiah’s original, the last phrase read by Jesus is actually part of a couplet that finishes with “and the day of vengeance of our god.” Isaiah’s fantasy, then, was of a time when Yahweh’s favor on his people would be realized and his judgment meted out on their enemies at last. There was still hell to pay.

We need to imagine the force of shock that must have seized the congregation when Jesus, after leading his audience along the lyrical rhythm of this well-known and much-loved passage, suddenly stopped short of full circle, rolled up the scroll, and sat down. In their minds that last line was screaming for validation, but Jesus denied it permission.

What he did next was even more scandalous. He looked up at the congregation and declared, “This vision is being fulfilled today, right here and right now.” Today is Jubilee. All debts are forgiven, the prison doors have been thrown open and everyone is free. A new age has begun and a new order is in effect starting today.

In his evangelistic campaign across Galilee, Jesus called this new age and new order the “kingdom of god.” It’s coming up out of the dirt, he said. It shows up around the corner, in the messiness of life, from the least likely of places.

Not long afterwards, when Christian orthodoxy did a make-over on Jesus and turned him into god, this radical challenge to conventional morality would be neutralized. Of course! Who else but Jesus – very god in the flesh – could manage such a feat? For the sake of our salvation he interceded for us, securing god’s favor and saving us from his wrath. By dying in our place, paying the penalty for our transgressions, and taking upon himself god’s judgment against sin, Jesus is our salvation.

The old game is still in effect, however. If you refuse to “believe in Jesus as your personal lord and savior,” your destination in the afterlife won’t be pleasant. At all. Jesus managed to turn god towards you; now you must turn to god by accepting Jesus as your savior. For those who don’t, “the day of vengeance of our god” awaits. Whew! Nothing’s really changed.

As Matthew tells the story, the disciple Peter approached Jesus one day with a question. “According to the rules, god expects me to forgive my enemy three times” (a number that represents perfection). “What do you think? Should I forgive my enemy as many as seven times?”

Perhaps in his desire to impress Jesus with his above-and-beyond righteousness (doubling the old rule and adding one more for effect), Peter was looking for that surprised admiration that any student craves from the teacher. See him standing there, puffed up and plucking proudly at his suspenders.

Jesus replied: “Why are you counting? Forgiveness is not a response to an acceptable repentance. It must come first and never keep a tab. Let go of your anger and your hurt will heal. Extinguish the insatiable flame of vengeance and you will be free. It’s time for you to be strong and take the initiative: Stop tracking offenses and don’t wait for your enemies to repent. Let go, open up with love, and just see what happens.”

If your god keeps a record of sins, hates his enemies, and can’t wait to make them suffer – or perhaps is bound by a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners and unbelievers – then it’s time to leave that god behind and step into a brave new world.

There, the seed is planted … again.

 
 

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