Sunday, 15 April 2007

Reclaiming the Political Jesus

I was asked to review A Prophet of God's Justice: Reclaiming the Political Jesus by Chris Marshall

The article was published in Stimulus in 2006. I found it somewhat verbose. It is frustrating to have to read excessive words where the information content does not justify it.

I found him vague on specifics at times and when he did discuss specific passages I thought his exegesis was inadequate. He tried to give an overview of the gospels but he was somewhat selective and he tended to read his own left leaning politics into scripture. I also think his underlying belief that everything Jesus said spoke into the culture of the day is faulty. He is suggesting that one has misread the bible unless he understands the culture it was spoken into. This thinking is saying that the bible is a high context document (that there are certain assumptions by the readers according to their customs and language). While this is generally true, the context is not so high that readers of scripture don't gain insight by what is written, and it is not so high that only historians understand what was meant. Further, what historians believe can be selective or coloured by their own theology.

Marshall also neglects large volumes of scripture. He favours words that are spoken by Jesus the man. Jesus as God is author of the entire bible. To use Jesus words to prove something, when he may or may not have been addressing the issue, to override other scripture that directly discusses the issue at hand is a poor interpretative technique. All scripture is given by God; Jesus words as a man should be given high (highest) priority, but if one's interpretation of themes of Jesus contradicts direct comments elsewhere about an issue it is a good clue that the interpretation may not have been the correct one. I also wonder if he has read Revelation? He will have, but he doesn't touch on Jesus words there, nor Jesus' words to the disciples in Acts.

Below I will discuss 3 passages from his essay.
... Jesus’ saying “my kingdom is not of this world” cannot be taken as an affirmation that God’s kingdom is a
purely spiritual reality unrelated to worldly realities. After all it was out of love for this world that God sent Christ into the world in the first place, in order that “through him the world might be saved” (John 3:16-17). The term “kingdom” here, as always in biblical tradition, has the active force of “rule” or “kingship” or “power” more than place or territory or realm, so that what Jesus is really saying is that his style of exercising kingly authority is unlike that of other kings. His kingship conforms, not to brutal coercive rule of Herod or Caesar or Caiaphas, but to the compassionate, healing rule of God. It does not rest on violent coercion but on loving persuasion. That is why in the second part of the verse, which is hardly ever quoted by conservative apologists, Jesus explains that “if my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews”. The thing that most differentiates Jesus’ kingship from worldly forms of kingship is its non-violence. (p. 11)
I find this interpretation questionable, it alone may be enough for me to disregard the article. I do not think that "kingdom" means style of kingship. Now Jesus does have a style of kingship that is different, but the word "kingdom" does not mean this. Daniel discusses the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, and the rock that destroys the previous kingdoms is likely the kingdom of God. And while God's subjects in this new kingdom live a different lifestyle and the kingdom is of a different nature (that is people called out of this world's system to live for Christ), to say there is no violence is incorrect. What about the parable when the nobleman goes away to get his coronation and returns to destroy his enemies who did not wish to see him made king? (Luk 19). We do not coerce men into the kingdom of God but it is a stretch to go from here to pacifism. What about Jesus comments about destroying the wicked that he makes in the book of Revelation? (Rev 2).

Jesus is not saying his followers are non-violent (they are, but that is not the issue here), he is merely comparing what followers of a leader would normally do with his situation. That they are not doing so now is not because they are part of a pacifist movement, rather that Jesus' kingdom is not an earthly kingdom in the same way that other kingdoms are.
How very different is the prevailing political landscape of global capitalist society today, which makes an idol of market forces, promotes consumerism as a means of political survival, and, while mouthing platitudes to the contrary, exacerbates the plight of the poor and dispossessed in pursuit of an ever-greater concentration of wealth and power. (p. 16)
It is interesting that he says this. I have become more capitalistic (and even more libertarian) as I have got older. Now there can be problems within capitalism, but one needs to ask whether this is as a result of the philosophy. Or is it that one sees these things in a society that is capitalist (or viewed as capitalist) and condemns them as fruits of capitalism society. Capitalism allows private property ownership, the rule of law, freedom of trade: it allows persons to provide goods or services in free exchange for whatever price the parties agree on. The early capitalists believed in thrift and hard work, both of which are very admirable. Money was reinvested hence "capital" rather than wasted on profligate living. Capitalist thinking came out of a Christian mindset; specifically: ownership, just courts, freedom and liberty. A capitalist system in a Christian society is materially beneficial for all. In a non-Christian society, it may have its downfalls, though I am uncertain if the downfalls are worse than other systems.

Does a capitalist society promote consumerism? Perhaps it does, and he is right that Christians should oppose that. However there are laws one could put in place that don't refute capitalism but limit the damage caused by the greedy. Examples would be restricting an individual's ability to indebt himself, limiting interest, limiting the power and exploitation from loan sharks, making bankruptcy more difficult.

"Exacerbates the plight of the poor." Well this is patently false. Compare the poor in capitalist societies versus any non-capitalist society. The poor are hugely better off materially. Their rights are upheld more, they are better able to escape being part of the poor, they have more liberty. I am not certain what current system Marshall thinks does better. Capitalism is definitely better than the nobility/ serfdom system it replaced. Certainly capitalist states could do better, but they are doing hugely better than oppressive regimes elsewhere. Why do we hear about the problems in the West? Because our freedom of expression allows us to dissent without fear of government oppression. Worse problems happen elsewhere but voices are silenced. And why are people immigrating to the West in numbers that far exceed the other way around?

"An ever greater concentration of wealth and power." That may be true on a national level, but that is because of the general wealth of the nation. In terms of within a country, the poor are not being sidelined in general. The problem with Marshall's approach is it suggests that everyone should have the same, regardless of how little that is. But that is just a problem with envy. I am happy to live in a country that allows everyone to own a house and fed their children, even if that means there are some in the country who are filthy rich.

Some of the large corporations that exist do so within capitalist societies, but are not consistent with it. They seek to obtain government favours and this should be opposed, but this is the antithesis of capitalism which seeks a level playing field and to remove special favours.

I do think there are very real problems with chasing wealth, and the bible warns that riches can remove our devotion to Christ. This is very important. And it is far better to be poor and fear God than to have plenty and ignore him. But a lot is related to the love of money, and that vice is not necessarily limited to the rich.

Anyway, the studies suggest that conservatives that he has so much trouble with are actually more generous! Is he suggesting that the government should be handing out money to the poor? I am not so certain of the wisdom of this.

And I am much more concerned with the power concentrated in the monster of the United Nations, and that can hardly be laid at the feet of the capitalists.
It is here that Jesus’ exorcisms carried an important political message. It was common in Jesus’ day for people to ascribe the abject suffering of God’s people under Roman rule to the activity of superhuman demonic forces standing behind their pagan oppressors and their indigenous quislings. One manifestation of this spiritual tyranny was the susceptibility of vulnerable individuals to demonic possession. When Jesus cast out demons, therefore, he was not only healing the victims of societal dysfunction; he was symbolically challenging and defeating the spiritual authorities standing behind foreign repression. (p. 19)
So does he believe there are demonic powers behind nation-states or not? Where does he get that demonic forces in individuals is related to being subject to a foreign power? Is he saying that the Israelites in Egypt had more demoniacs when they were worshipping Yahweh, than the time in Israel under Jeroboam II when they were free of foreign rulership but were worshipping foreign idols? I do not accept his proposition of increased demon possession under foreign domination without proof. And even if it were true, how is that at all related to Jesus casting out demons? This shows his power over the spirit world; a testimony to his divinity. This says nothing about whether or not he was opposed to Rome.

In conclusion, Jesus may have had thoughts about Rome, but I see his message more in alignment with Jesus saying something like:
The problem is yourself, it is sin. Join my kingdom and I will deliver you from sin's power.

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