Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Paul's Open Letter to the Empire

Arguably there are strong and disturbing similarities between what is happening in the United States today and the gradual transition of Rome from a republic in the sixth century BCE to an imperial order governed by an emperor in the first century BCE. During this long and turbulent history, strongmen rulers inspired personality cults; senatorial ineptness and personal avarice compromised democratic institutions; and, the demands of an expanding empire taxed both the resources and the will of the republic. It is not a foregone conclusion that our republic will suffer the same fate. Our democratic institutions and traditions may yet prevail over personality cults, the influence of dark money, the global reach of US militarism, and the threats posed by global warming. But the parallels are worrisome. I argue below that the resemblances between then and now make Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome especially timely.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, most likely written sometime between the year 54 and 58 CE, is often interpreted as a letter of self-introduction in which he set forth his theological positions. It is also read as a defense of Gentile Christianity against Judaizing influences. Yet another theory finds Paul offering a Christian theology of the state, sometimes referred to as the “two kingdoms” theory.
What all the above named schools of interpretation have in common is that they make Paul into a social conservative. They dull whatever political edge his counsel carries. As a result, the revolutionary Paul who endured numerous arrests, beatings, and imprisonments, and who was eventually executed by the state, is buried under a mound of theological tomes. Fortunately, today postcolonial biblical scholars are bringing us a more radical understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans as a message of glad tidings of good news to people who are oppressed. I am indebted to these scholars for today we need this radical Paul, who counsels resistance to the empire.
While the Romans generally tolerated religious diversity, the aristocracy long regarded Jews with suspicion and contempt. The lower classes resented the parasitic Roman tax policies that privileged Jews, and they blamed Jews for the high taxes they had to pay. Anti-Jewish propaganda circulated throughout the empire from the time of Augustus onward. Sometime between 41 and 53 CE, the emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome, in part because they rebelled against a tax he levied on them. Nero rescinded this policy when he became emperor in 54 CE. The Jews and Jewish Christians who returned to the city were very likely a wretched lot with great needs and meager resources. It may well be, as postcolonial scholars suggest, that this is the situation that necessitated Paul’s letter to the Romans. So understood, Paul was not writing to defend Gentiles against Judaizing influences, but just the opposite. He was encouraging a congregation that was threatened by external pressure and internal division to stay together. I argue below that an ethic of mutual obligation, literally an ethic of “one-anothering,” is one of the central themes of this letter and a core strategy of resistance to the empire.
Paul begins this letter by identifying himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . .” (Rom. 1: 1, RSV throughout). The translation “servant” is a bit misleading. A more accurate translation is “slave.” Paul calls himself a “slave of Jesus Christ,” thus defining not only his relationship with Jesus, but also his solidarity with the lowest class of people in Roman society. Noteworthy, too, is the word “gospel,” meaning “glad tidings.” “Gospel” is a term the Roman military used when sending the emperor glad tidings of victory from the front lines of battle. Paul’s use of the word “gospel” is, thus, a direct challenge to the militaristic “glad tidings” of the empire. Paul’s first sentence puts the Christian community on the front lines of struggle against the empire.
The contrast between the Way of Jesus and the way of the empire is sharpened by the claim that Jesus was “designated the Son of God . . . by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1: 4). Since Octavian, Rome’s first emperor, had been given the title “Augustus,” (Reverend/Highly Honored), the Roman imperium claimed that it had established a new world order, with itself as the only superpower. Octavian and those who followed were acclaimed “Saviors” of the world. Spires and temples honoring the emperor were erected in prominent places throughout the empire. But Paul charged that the empire was a culture of death, responsible for killing Jesus, who was raised from the dead by God. Those who “belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1: 6), belong to a culture of life. The difference between the Way of Jesus and the way of the empire is clear and unequivocal.
        Later, in Rom. 1: 18 - 32, Paul vividly describes the Roman culture of death as a culture that is ruled by “dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1: 26). Contrary to what is commonly alleged, in these verses Paul is neither launching into a diatribe disparaging human nature in general, nor condemning homosexuality as a sin. Rather he is denouncing the practice of turning human beings into sex slaves, and even more broadly he is condemning the practice of human trafficking sanctioned by imperial power and the aristocracy. He alleges that people who claim to be “wise,” are, in truth, “futile in the thinking,” because “they have exchanged to glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). Simply put, the sin of idolatry manifests itself in the disparagement of human dignity. Positively stated, the measure of a good society is not the wealth of the few, but the well-being of the many, especially slaves and the marginalized. A good society honors the image of God by protecting human dignity and nurturing healthy communities. A moral society promotes a culture of life for all people.
       Paul not only exposes the callous cruelty of the empire, he builds up communities of resistance by giving them encouragement and practical advice. We have to read passages like the following in this context: “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 37 - 39). Here, Paul is not denying the reality and power of the empire, but he is saying that a community rooted in the power of God’s love will find the strength to resist the pressures the empire brings to bear upon it.
Paul forthrightly addresses the theme of imperial power in Chapter 13, which I suggest it is best understood as a treatise in political realism. Christians in Rome would have remembered that Nero became the emperor after his mother fatally poisoned the emperor Claudius, and that Nero himself killed his own mother four years after he became emperor. They would also have remembered that Claudius had expelled Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome in the year 49. Therefore, the admonition to “pay taxes” (Rom. 13: 7) was more than a summons to good citizenship. Additionally, Paul may have anticipated future persecutions, which began in the year 68 with the Great Fire in Rome. At the very least, his message served to remind the congregation of the recent past and the power of the empire.
We might also surmise that Nero rescinded Claudius’s ban of Jews because it was politically expedient for him to have them in Rome. The presence of an unpopular religious minority provided a convenient “target” when Nero felt it was necessary to “fire up his base,” to use a contemporary phrase. Additionally, he may have anticipated that the return of the exiles would give him added leverage over both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
Paul’s response to this situation was to encourage a spirit and an ethic of “deep solidarity,” to use a phrase coined by Joerg Rieger, a postcolonial theologian. The following verse is one of many in which we find this ethic: “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13: 8). I believe that the ethic of mutual obligation, the ethic of “one-anothering,” was then and is now a core element of the good news that kept and keeps the community together. The concluding chapters, in which we find an appeal for funds for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15: 26), and recognition of fellow workers and prisoners in Chapter 16, is further evidence of the importance of the ethic of deep solidarity.
Before concluding this brief study of the letter to the Romans, I want to call attention to two additional passages. Paul boldly declares: “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1: 16). Roman society functioned on a system of honor and shame. Honor is a statement of worth and an affirmation of a person’s value to others. The dynamic of honor and shame structures social relationships and institutions. Thus, Paul’s statement, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” is a declaration of freedom from the Roman shaming culture of death. He is not ashamed to be a slave, because he is the slave of Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead by God.
         Lastly, I want to offer a reflection on the passage that is often called the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. We are “justified by . . . [God’s] grace as a gift . . . [through] faith in Jesus” (3: 23 - 26). There is a strong tendency in contemporary theology to reduce these words to a narrow framework of atomistic individualism and a personal belief in Jesus. But in the letter to the Romans faith in Jesus is evidenced by loyalty to and trust in members of the community of liberation who are opposed to the prevailing culture of death, and who are witnessing to a culture of life, a cultural of mutual obligation, a culture of “one-anothering.” Faith is made real through the practice of deep solidarity with members of the body of Christ.
Against all common sense, Paul had the temerity to tell Christians living in Rome in the first century that Pax Romana (the peace of Rome), was a culture of death to be resisted at all costs. The basis of resistance, he counseled, was the love of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which made possible the creation of a new order based on an ethic of mutual obligation.
      In these worrisome times, it is not a foregone conclusion that the republic of the United States will go the way of the Roman republic. Our democratic institutions and traditions may yet prevail. Likewise, it is not a certainty that Christian communities in the United States will have the wisdom and courage needed if we are to follow Paul’s wise counsel. But we know this simple truth. Creation is groaning in travail and standing on tiptoes of expectation (Rom. 8: 22), eager to see how followers of the Way of Jesus will answer the call.
Rev. David P. Hansen  

Friday, March 8, 2019

"How A Christian Overcomes Evil"

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a short essay that is not well known but profound in it's simplicity. It's titled, "How a Christian Overcomes Evil." Perhaps the essay is not well known because it starts with introspection, a recognition that evil is not just "out there" but "in me" as well. We are usually quite competent in recognizing the evil in others, seldom in ourselves. So the first step in overcoming evil for King is identifying that evil in me that is most in need of change. What is my greatest temptation; envy, pride, lust, greed? You can go through the seven cardinal sins and a dozen more to find your change challenge. After all, if we can't change ourselves, what makes us think we can change anything external to us? 

Of course one can't overcome a personal evil until it is recognized and admitted, brought into the light of day. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system for us to recognize the evil. 
           Apparently Michael Cohen didn't admit the water he was carrying for President Trump, "fixing" things, over ten years of their relationship, was all that terrible, until it was exposed to the light of a criminal investigation. Now, he says he wants to be truthful, especially as he sees the impact the evil in his life is having on his family. How many of us do things in the dark, that if exposed to the light, would hurt those we love?

Evil in us has to be recognized and faced before it can be changed. To start the change process, King would have us first trust in the grace of God. We probably can't do it alone. 

Then we might add an inventory to our evening routine. How did I do today? How often was the temptation to do my evil apparent and what was my response? Instead of counting sheep, we count successes and failures and will to do better. We work to turn "the predominant fault into it's opposite virtue." It's not a passive project to change but an active one.

        Then comes the heart of the matter. "Concentrate not on the eradication of evil, but on the cultivation of virtue." Again, "Evil is never to be attacked directly, but indirectly. Evil is not driven out, but crowded out."     When our children were young and tempted to do things they shouldn't, my response was usually to force them to do something different. I would attack the situation directly with the intention of driving the misbehavior out of them. That's what I learned from my father and I expect from his father before him. On the other hand, my wife was a master of distraction. She could identify something the children would rather do than what they were doing and draw their attention to it. She was able to replace the misbehavior with something better. She crowded out the evil with a seeming treat.

                It's simple, really, if often hard to implement. Our reliance on the power of force, coercion, intimidation, violence and war is so inbred, it's often difficult to see the alternative. We forget the ends don't justify the means; that the means often determine the ends. Hate doesn't get rid of hate, only love can do that. War doesn't make an end to war, only peace can do that.

One of the examples King uses in his essay comes out of Greek mythology. He describes the different responses of Ulysses and Orpheus to the temptations of the song of the Sirens, luring sailors to their deaths. Ulysses puts wax in the ears of his sailors and ties himself to the mast of the ship. Orpheus, the divine musician, instead of using wax and rope plays such beautiful music, the song of the Sirens falls flat. The temptation is replaced by something better. The evil is crowded out.  

King's essay has application in so many circumstances, from child rearing to international relations. How can a superpower with thousands of nuclear weapons, convince another country without them they are sinful? What moral authority does the U.S. have unless we get rid of our own? I read just this morning a request that the UK dispose of their nuclear weapons, a small number that do them little good, and become a broker with countries like North Korea and Iran to stay out of the nuclear club. We need to ask ourselves, how is it that one country with a nuclear sin has managed to create a whole club, that continues to grow and welcome new members? 

        There is, in King's words, an "expulsive power for good." In the days of the Cold War, everyday citizens were going to Russia to meet their complements in that country, person to person, farmer to farmer, teacher to teacher. Women in South Korea have been walking across the DMZ to North Korea, seeking to reunite families. Different NGO's bring young Israeli's and Palestinians together to help them recognize their commonalities and crowd out their differences. Muslims, Christians and Jews come together in dialogue around common concerns. Once we confess our fears of the other and replace them with human relationship, the picture of our world begins to shift. We can't leave it up to Presidents or Parliaments. We all need to do our own inventory and take the first step to replace the evils of our time with the joys that can drive them out, the joys of music, beauty and caring relationships. With God's help and the wisdom of folks like M.L. King, we can do it.  

Carl Kline 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Recognizing the Possibility of Common Ground

I cringed as I read the first letter in an online exchange, sharp in its tone and hurtful in its misunderstanding and characterization. Unexpectedly, differently, but equally pained, I cringed as I read the second letter, a response to the first. It too was sharp in its tone. I imagined how it would be hurtful to the writer of the first letter in its own perceived misunderstanding. I had expected to be soothed by the second letter, knowing that in principle I shared the views of its writer, knowing that we shared similar pain in response to the first letter. I hold the awareness, as well, that I too may be unfair in my critique and judgment.

Such a swirl of feelings in regard to conflict is good, helping us to take stock and consider the ways of our response in the face of difference and its expression. So we pause, even if after the fact, and ideally in the future before pressing send, to reflect on the dynamics within ourselves and in relation to the other. In that place of pause, the first challenge is to clarify the goal of our engaging with the other. That will determine the nature of our response.  Is the goal and reason for our response to vent and rage, to express our own hurt at another’s insensitivity? At times such response may seem needed for the sake of moving others. And yet, it will rarely move anyone who is not already of similar mind. That leads directly to the other possibility. Or, is our response meant to change the other, to move them from what seems to be an entrenched position by moral suasion and the power of sharing lived experience?

If the goal is to change others in order to create a more just and caring society, to bring the other along with us, then the first step is to find common ground wherein we might meet and seek a way forward together. It is the way of nonviolence expressed in the ordinary unfolding of our lives in relation to others. The goal, therefore, is not to demean and diminish the other, but to raise them up so that we might look directly into each other’s eyes. There are times, such as in the face of entrenched evil, or of explosive hate waiting to erupt, when the focus needs to be on those not yet involved in the struggle, whether for fear or apathy.             Our task then is to create allies with whom to counter evil, rather than to focus on the evildoers themselves. This was hardly the case in regard to the writer of the first letter. There was clearly common ground between the two writers, shared experience and shared language in regard to a common endeavor requiring great commitment by each. The common ground begged to be trod, a place where a meeting might have happened in which change might have been gently nurtured. For all of the nastiness in the exchange, there were surprisingly fine lines of difference between the letters, and ironies of similarity to be brought out, to be given shape and offered as loving challenge.

It is just such a fine line in the weekly Torah portion called Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17), that lies between Yosef and his brothers and speaks to the grammar of engagement. Yosef has risen to be viceroy of Egypt, second in power only to Pharaoh. Following seven years of plenty, in which, according to Yosef’s plan, the granaries of Egypt have been filled with grain, famine has now gripped the land and the entire region. Yosef’s brothers, sent by their father, have now come down into Egypt among the hungry masses seeking to buy food. In a dramatic moment when dreams from the past flood the screen as flashbacks, the brothers now in reality bow down to the viceroy, unbeknownst to them as the brother they had long ago thrown into a pit and given up for dead.

The Torah captures the tension of the moment and makes it our own, bringing us to ask what we would do. Is this to be a moment of revenge, of attacking the other in kind? Or is it to be a moment in which to pause and consider the way ahead, to reflect on what will allow for transformation and repair? We are told simply, when Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them. But he made himself a stranger to them (Gen. 42:7). The tension between recognizing and making himself unrecognized is held between two words that appear in the Hebrew in quick succession as one phrase, va’ya’kirem va’yit’na’ker/he recognized them, but he made himself unrecognizable to them.

In Hebrew, the words to recognize and not to recognize are formed of the same root, NaCHaR. That is how fine the line is between knowing and not knowing someone, between recognizing and not recognizing the other for who they are. Yosef puts forth a plan by which to test his brothers, by which to determine if indeed they have changed from who they were when they threw him into the pit. It is not for the sake of revenge, but for the sake of change, seeking to reweave the family bond with honesty and hope, allowing long estranged brothers to embrace once again.

Standing in the narrowly demarcated space, it is the fineness of the line between recognizing and not recognizing the other with which we are given to wrestle. It is the fineness of a line that we are given as a thread to weave into the fabric of our own lives and struggles with people. Speaking to fine lines of difference so easily magnified, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch looks at the grammar of engagement as it plays out between Yosef and his brothers. Of this phrase whose tension we inherit, va’ya’kirem va’yit’na’ker/he recognized them, but he made himself unrecognizable to them, Rabbi Hirsch writes, “Apparently two contradictory meanings of the one and the same root, NaCHaR: to recognize and to be strange to. But only apparently…. We only recognize an object by making it singular, separating it out from everything else. The more signs of difference we see in an object, the more specially do we recognize it….” Our differences can become, in effect, ways of singular connection, a bridge to common ground.

In the way that differences jump from a letter, from hurtful words both written and spoken, and in all the ways of our interactions with others, may we become attuned to reading between the lines and recognizing the possibility of common ground. In the very differences that so upset us in relation to another, may we see the possibility of recognition and reunion.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein