Thursday, June 01, 2006

More on the politics of Jesus

Several fellow bloggers were a bit miffed at me for posting a quote from Marcus Borg a few days ago.

While my post was not intended as an endorsement of any and everything Borg has ever written, I suppose I understand the concerns of the more Evangelical folks.

My only point of my post was to direct attention to the "political" nature of the words of Jesus as reported by those who narrated his life and work.

Of course, Borg and his company are not the first to note the clearly social and political implications of what Jesus said and did.

I remember discovering the work of the late John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) many years ago. His words made a lot of sense to me when I was working in downtown New Orleans and they translated well to suburban North Dallas.

I also need to admit that my entire journey has been shaped by the writings of Catholic Liberation Theologians, led by Gustavo Gutierrez (A Theology of Liberation) and the work of the powerful and prophetic Protestant, African American scholar James Cone (Black Liberation Theology) with whom I studied one summer in New Orleans thirty years ago.

Time gets away from a fellow, doesn't it?

Setting aside these now almost "ancient" voices, I turn to post-modern, emergent church guru, Brian McLaren. His latest book, The Secret Message of Jesus, is a page-turner.

I thought what he has to say might go down better with many of my guests here.

For most of my life, I was like an American pastor I heard about when I was visiting London in 2004.

This American-born pastor was being interviewed on British television. The interviewer asked why so many Christians in America unquestioningly supported the U. S. war in Iraq, when that foreign policy (the interviewer felt) was so clearly against the teachings of Jesus. The American pastor seemed surprised and a little offended, so the interviewer explained, "Jesus talked about peace and reconciliation, turning the other cheek, walking the second mile, that sort of thing. How do you reconcile that with your war?" The pastor hesitated a moment and then replied, "Well, the teachings of Jesus are personal. They have nothing to do with politics and foreign policy." When I heard this story, a chill crept up my neck as I remembered saying similar things myself many years ago. Whatever you think about war in general and Iraq in particular, questions abut the public dimensions of Jesus' teachings are worth asking.

I've become convinced that although Jesus' message was personal, it was not private. I've been convinced that it has everything to do withi public matters in general and politics in particular--including economics and aid, personal empowerment and choice, foreign policy and war. The fact is, Jesus called his message good news, itself a public term that evoked the political announcements of the Roman emperors. When they would win an important military victory, they would send out messengers to announce good news. Caesar Augustus, for example, who ruled the empire from 27 BC to AD14, articulated his good news in the is inscription found in Myra, Lycia: "Divine Augustus Caesar, sone of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world, has brought you peace."

I've become convinced that if the good news of Jesus were carried in a newspaper today, it wouldn't be hidden in the religion section (although it would no doubt cause a ruckus there). It would be a major story in every section, form world news (What is the path to peace, and how are we responding to our neighbors in need?) to national and local news (How are we treating children, poor people, minorities, the last, the lost, the least? How are we treating our enemies?), in the lifestyle section (Are we loving our neighbors and throwing good parties to bring people together?), the food section (Do our diets reflect concern for God's planet and our poor neighbors, and have we invited any of them over for dinner lately?), the entertainment and sports sections (What is the point of our entertainment, and what values are we strengthening in sports?), and even the business section (Are we serving the wrong master: money rather than God?).

In my religious upbringing, I was not taught the public and political dimensions of Jesus' message--only the personal, private dimensions. Yes, Jesus loved me and wanted me to be good to my little brother and obedient to my parents. But Jesus' idea that God loves my nation's enemies, and so our foreign policies should reflect that love--that idea never crossed my mind. At some point, though, I began to get a hint that I was missing something. At that same moment, I think I began to catch a faint scent of the secret message of Jesus.

[From The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Brian D. McLaren, pages 9-11.]


Janet said...

I've read Borg. Though I don't agree with everything he says and though he kinda shook me a little bit, he made me think about Christian issues in a different light. Why are we so scared to open our minds to other possibilities that we haven't considered before? Why are we scared to challenge and question our Christian beliefs...beliefs that different men created (depending on which denomination you subscribe to) based on a book whose chapters were also chosen by men? The ruckus with the The DaVinci Code is the same thing.

Christianity is part of my life. The scholars who connect scripture with life speak to me a lot more than the ones who simply think Christianity is about evangelism. I want to be challenged...not just read the Bible with my already-established beliefs in order to justify my actions.

Bill said...

In his review at New Wineskins Wade Hodges concludes with this: If enough people discover this secret message of Jesus and start taking it seriously, it really could change everything. May it be so!

JBS said...

I like Borg's stuff on the kingdom of God and the way he describes the ethic of Jesus in more public terms. What doesn't make sense to me is how he can aspouse a skepticism about the identity of Jesus as articulated in Christian history and then rely on history to construct the "real Jesus." The Jesus Seminar's pursuit of the "historical Jesus" relies on history to debunk history. And yet, I think Borg has substantive things to say about the teaching/ethic of Jesus and I think he is a helpful conversation partner in helping deconstruct other false constructions of Jesus at work in contemporary American.

Thanks for the McLaren quote. If the American church ever redisovers Jesus, watch out!

Anonymous said...

The more I read your blog the more I think you sound like a Marxist. I hope I'm wrong.

RC said...


You really do generate a lot of discussion, but I wish more people would jump in. JBS articulated well my concern about Borg. As was shown with your post today there are many people miles from Borg who has many of his some concerns. Over the years I have seen so many people who finally see their way from mindless legalism only to be taken in by the extremes of the other side. It has been a long time since I worked through Liberation Theology. Correct me if I am wrong, but didn't the author call for the violent overthrow of corrupt governments? I ask only because my memory fails me. Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:55 pm, I think that Marx had a lot more in common with Christ than you might like to think.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." (The Communist Manifesto, Chap. 1)

Larry James said...

Well, where to begin? At times the comments here really surprise me.

No, I am not a Marxist. Though most people who object to Marx have never read his writings.

And no, Gutierrez did not advocate violence at all. What some extreme factions chose to do in Latin America in the 1980s had nothing to do with him or his leadership. I could say much more about this, but enough for now.

Finally, as to swinging from legalism to the "other extreme," in my case that is not what is going on. I don't think I ever embraced legalism. I could give a number of examples from my childhood when I remember arguing over some of the "important doctrines" of the denomination of my heritage. My ministry in that church pretty much bore that out. Some of you who endured it may need to comment!

Thanks for your posts, all.

Anonymous said...

Larry, some of the comments left here surprise me too!

The one about you being a Marxist reminds me of a quote attributed to several people across the years. It goes something like this:

"When I gave the hungry bread, they called me a saint. When I asked why they needed bread, they called me a Communist."

How can a moderate position of simple questioning be judged as so radical? Is there not a middle ground between the extremes of our day? Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

I understand that many Christians are critical of Borg. In fact, many of my close friends are. (BTW, I am no biblical scholar and understand the place for the argument made by JBS.) For me, Borg's words are inspiring and full of hope. Christianity has become so irrevelant to me. There is so much more to Christianity than my personal salvation. The ideas he presents in The Heart of Christianity give meaning to the Bible and my life as a Christian in this very complex world. They allow me to be a Christian and have a brain. Borg is able to articulate so well what I have been feeling about the inconsistencies in the message from the modern day evangelical church and the message in the Bible.
The McLaren quote was great. I think I'll put that on my summer reading list.

RC said...

I really can use correct grammar. I just don't proof read well. I hate to post something and then go back and see a major goof up. I guess I need to go back and read again Liberation Theology. I didn't realize that it had been over 25 years ago. I for one never even entertained the thought of you being a Marxist. What I do think is that you are probably a liberal Democrat. I know I should let you speak for yourself, but that is just my guess. I have a lot I am thinking about right now, but I will wait for a post that deal more directly with my thoughts before I jump in.

Larry James said...

RC, thanks for your post.

It gives me a chance to clarify the point of posting Borg and McLaren in the first place. The issue here, as well as my intent, has/had nothing to do with partisan politics. Rather, I was trying to establish the social implications for today and for the people of God of the message of Jesus, the OT law, the poety, the wisdom literture and the prophets of Israel.

No secular party can contain the whole of these truths. What is missing today is a total response by people of faith to the pain of the world. Poverty, injustice, starvation, and the lack of housing, healthcare, living wages, etc. are all issues of concern to the truth I discover in the text of scripture.

Yesterday I read a note on the Internet that I hope is not true. The story reported on the development of a new Christian video game that is based on the Left Behind novels. In the game Christians kill those who don't accept Jesus as a part of the pre-Rapture tribulation or something absurd like that.

Lots of Christians believe in the political implications of Jesus as they understand him. I think they are reading a different Bible than I. This is the kind of political implications I had in mind--way beyond any human political party of our day.