Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Different Kind of Kingdom—Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollonare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, is one of the most unforgettable churches I have had the pleasure of visiting in my lifetime. It is known for its massive and intricate mosaic work along the nave of the building which features scenes from the gospels depicting the life and works of Jesus. Along these walls, you may find an image of Jesus feeding the disciples here, the raising of Lazarus there, Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount in yet another corner of the church. In each image, the colored stones have been painstakingly placed to produce a familiar image of the one we call “Christ,” “Messiah,” or “the Anointed One.” But there’s something you may notice about how Jesus is depicted in each of these scenes. You might say that these familiar mosaic stories feature a very unfamiliar Christ. The Jesus in all of these images is young, clean-shaven, dressed humbly, and looks for the most part kind of wimpy. The Jesus found here is a very human figure—looking at these mosaics, we are reminded that Jesus was a man—a man who felt sympathy for the hungry, who experienced grief over the death of a friend, and whose very human conviction compels him to preach to Galilean peasants.

            But if you look up from these images into the nave—the main part—of the basilica sanctuary, you are confronted with an enormous depiction of a very different Jesus. Here, Christ is shown in expensive robes, with a full beard and a wide-eyed, serious stare. He sits upon a throne of fire—probably a reference to the Daniel passage we read earlier[1]—and is surrounded by attending angels. With his right hand he makes the symbol of wisdom, knowledge, or teaching. This image is known as the Christos Pantokrator. Pantokrator is a Greek word that’s often translated as “Almighty,” but it literally means “one who holds all things.” So Christos Pantokrator—“Christ, the holder of all things.” This Christ is one that we are often more familiar with from church—the Jesus of Authority, the all-powerful Word (Logos) of God. He seems a far cry from the Jesus of the other mosaics, with their worldly focus and their very human savior. There’s something else that is important about this Pantokrator image, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The Basilica uses these magnificent pieces of art to convey a message that has seen echoes throughout history in cathedrals and on billboards, from the words of brilliant baroque chamber choirs to cheesy Christian pop song lyrics: Jesus is Lord.
But wait…did we miss something? When did the Jesus who healed the sick and proclaimed freedom for the oppressed become the Jesus of the creeds—the one who sits at the right hand of God, the one whom the Nicene creed says will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose reign will have no end? In other words, when did we go from the clean-shaven to the bearded Jesus?
And what does it mean when we say that this Jesus who spent his time with prostitutes and tax collectors, who cast out demons and cared for the poor (and who remained poor himself)—what does it mean to say that this Jesus is Lord? What does it mean to say that Jesus reigns? And where is this reign of God? What does it look like?
In this week’s Gospel passage, we find Pontius Pilate asking the very same question.
            By the time of the first century, Roman emperors (also called Caesars) were thought to be gods. While on earth, they were called “Son of God,” and upon their death, it was believed that they rose up into the sky and took their seat at the right hand of god. People greeted one another on the street by saying, “Caesar is Lord,” and at the time of Christ, “one of [Caesar’s] popular propaganda slogans was ‘there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar.’” [2] Does this sound familiar yet? As the Roman Empire grew, Rome even sent out regular announcements of Caesar’s victories in battle as they brought about the “Pax Romana,” or “Roman Peace” by the sword, moving from land to land, colonizing countries—like Israel—and forcing them to pay tribute to the Empire. These royal announcements were known as euangelia. In Greek, euangelia is where we get the term “Good News,” or “Gospel.” Cities that bowed to Caesar as their Lord and their God were known as ekklesias, where we get the English word “church.” So in the first century, for someone to say “Jesus is Lord” was to directly defy the authority of Caesar. To claim “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. To call the Gospel of Jesus Christ “Good News” is to invalidate what the Empire considered “Good News.” People who did not bow to Caesar, well, they were the ones who were crucified. Anyone who did not give in to the dominant empire was considered a threat to the reign of Caesar—especially one who was called “King.”  
So Pilate has reason for serious concern when this “King of the Jews” is brought before him. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. And Jesus responds, “My kingdom, my reign, is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my reign is not from here, does not derive its power from earthly political authority.” The kingship, the reign, of Christ mocks the established order of the Empire of Caesar.
Pilate asks Jesus a second time: “So you are a king, then?” And Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the Truth.”
So what does it mean to be a part of the Reign of God? What does it mean to call Jesus “Lord”? It means (at least) two things:
1) We—the Church, the Body of Christ—are to be a people “set apart,” as the Hebrew Bible says. Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne calls the Church the “peculiar people of God.” We echo the conviction of Jesus when we proclaim, “My kingdom is not from this world.” The Church is supposed to be different. Here we stand at the intersection between an election cycle winding down and the consumer-based Christmas season beginning to take off. This past election season, I have seen so many people who claim to be Christians (on the left and the right) advocating one politician over the other as if either a Republican or a Democratic candidate could actually be chosen by God to lead the United States—in reality, this is the folly of a nation that worships Caesar—neither one of our candidates was or ever will be Christ the King. We are called to be set apart. A peculiar people who say, “Our reign is not from this world.” To refuse to lend voice and value to political campaigns and the toxic political speech of our age is to deny Caesar his power. Our reign is not from this world. Money and rampant consumerism—the driving desire to buy and have more “stuff”—may also be a Caesar that keeps us tied down to this world. I saw a poster image on Facebook the other day that said “Black Friday: Because only in America do people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” I always encourage people not to take part in Black Friday activities, preferring instead to observe Buy Nothing Day, in which some people participate on Black Friday to avoid the competitive buying unleashed each year by retail stores across the country. While our culture says more, more, more, we hear the voice of Jesus in the Gospels saying “Less. Less. Our reign is not from this world. Consider the lilies of the field that neither work their lives away nor spin, yet God clothes them in beauty. Consider the birds of the air, who don’t store up food for themselves in barns, and yet God feeds them. If someone takes your outer garment, give them your underwear, too! Give to all who ask of you. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek.” The Way of Christ the King is not the way of more, but the subtle way of enough. Go to Wal-Mart any time during the Christmas season and see how many of these teachings are broken by shoppers clamoring to get a good deal. Our reign is not from this world.
2) The second thing that it means to proclaim that Jesus is Lord is that we—like Christ, whom we confess as King—are to bear witness to the Truth in this world. It is not enough to stand at a distance and judge what we perceive to be against the Kingdom of God or the teachings of Jesus. We are to be active witnesses giving testimony to Truth in this world that confesses the Lordship of Caesar. We have seen the consequences of Jesus’s reign: the sick were healed, the lepers cleansed, and the dead were raised. Unfortunately, to live under the reign of a different King will also get you crucified. That is the very real consequence of the reign of God breaking into this world. It is the same today as it was for Jesus: when the reign of God comes, the established order—in our case, the greed, consumerism, pride, and violence of our culture that we ourselves are guilty of participating in—the established order views this reign of God as a threat. And that’s how people end up on crosses. But we cannot refuse to engage our culture in dialogue. Instead of participating in Black Friday sales, why not instead spend the day in fasting and prayer for our culture that places higher value on “things” than on people and relationships? Instead of picking a political candidate and claiming that “This is the Son of God,” why don’t we observe election day as some of my friends in the Church did: with both Democrats and Republicans joining in the Eucharist meal to recognize that regardless of the outcome of the election, we nevertheless remain a peculiar people set apart by God, and that we do not place our hope in partisan politics but in the very resurrected Son of Man? Our reign is not from this world.
This leads us back to that mosaic of Christos Pantokrator. In the image of the Christ who holds all things, who is surrounded and worshiped by angels and who sits on a throne of fire to judge the nations—if you look closely, you’ll find that the throne of this Jesus rests firmly not upon the clouds or the stars of the heavens, but upon the green earth itself, bursting forth with flowers. It is important to make the distinction that while we proclaim, “Our reign is not from this world,” our living in and bringing about the Kingdom of God is very much in this world, just as we are promised in Scripture that Christ will return to establish the Reign of God on earth. We better get comfy here, because we ain’t leavin’. The change comes with us.
As we rush headlong into the Advent season, let us remember that. The Reign of God is not of this world, but its reality is very much in this world. It is found among those peculiar people who go against the grain of our culture, who testify to the truth. People like Jesus—who lived in poverty, was crucified by society, and yet who remains the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We confess this truth, and the Christos Pantokrator, the “Christ who holds all things,” will continue to hold us, as well.

[1] Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14. It appears that the artist is using the throne of flames to recall the image of the Ancient-of-Days.
[2] Rob Bell, NOOMA 15: 'You', DVD, (Grandville, MI: Flannel, 2007).

Monday, November 19, 2012

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Homosexuality, and the Irresponsible Exegesis of Scripture

File this one under "Johnny-Come-Lately" for me. This story is a bit old, and I'm just now coming around to writing about it.

Near the end of May this year, CNN's BeliefNet Blog published an editorial by Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, entitled, "My Take: The Bible Condemns A Lot, But Here's Why We Focus On Homosexuality." In this piece, Mohler presents a frequent objection to the fundamentalist interpretation of scripture over the issue of homosexuality; he then refutes this objection and mounts a less-than-convincing counter-argument of his own, citing selected snippets from the Pauline epistles and even (ironically) a quote extracted from a discourse on marital divorce in the ethical teachings of Jesus.

I would typically not even resort to responding to this kind of fundamentalist silliness—I am not a fundamentalist, and therefore quite simply do not view faith or scripture in the same way as Mohler. Personal beliefs on homosexuality aside, there is no need for fruitless debate between two people who by definition see the role of the Bible in completely different ways; two cars traveling on different streets three blocks apart will never meet. However, Dr. Mohler's haphazard treatment of scripture in his editorial left me scratching my head, and I have felt compelled to address him on his own terms.

A common argument for Christian acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ individuals is that the so-called "clobber passages" which supposedly condemn homosexuality are found primarily in the Hebrew Bible, among other laws that have since become passé or culturally obsolete. Laying aside for a moment the fact that these scriptures are actually quite few in number, as well as the fact that the homosexual/trans* identity as we know it did not even exist until well into the 20th century, the point is, nevertheless, that Christians do not continue to abide by the commands to abstain from eating shellfish or pork, planting two different crops side-by-side, or wearing clothes of two different fabrics. This argument was made (in)famous by its appearance in an episode of the spectacularly written Aaron Sorkin political drama, The West Wing:

The above claim is the first argument with which Mohler takes issue in his essay.

"An honest consideration of the Bible," Mohler says, "reveals that most of the biblical laws people point to in asking this question, such as laws against eating shellfish or wearing mixed fabrics, are part of the holiness code assigned to Israel in the Old Testament." He then proceeds to cite Peter's vision in Acts 10 as evidence that Christians are no longer bound by the dietary restrictions of the holiness code. In the Acts passage, a hungry Peter sees a sheet descending from the sky with ritually unclean animals on it, accompanied by a disembodied voice commanding the disciple to "Get up; kill and eat." Peter vehemently refuses on the grounds of the Jewish holiness tradition, at which point the voice commands a second time, and then a third. Each time, Peter refuses. Finally, the sheet is whisked away into the heavens, and the voice responds, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." To Mohler, this is enough evidence to disregard the above argument.

"In other words," he says, "there is no kosher code for Christians. Christians are not concerned with eating kosher foods and avoiding all others. That part of the law is no longer binding, and Christians can enjoy shrimp and pork with no injury to conscience."

This seems a solid enough interpretation, until one considers the fact that the story does not end here. What Mohler claims to be a conclusion reached by any "honest consideration of the Bible" is in fact a gross distortion and misrepresentation of the text.

Much of the theological narrative of The Acts of the Apostles is directly aimed at bringing and accepting Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews, outsiders, foreigners) into the Church, an emerging community of Jewish believers centered on the religious teachings of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. This context sets the backdrop for reading and properly interpreting Acts 10. Immediately following his vision, Peter is contacted by a Gentile in Caesarea Maritima named Cornelius, who requests that Peter come visit him at his home. By the time Peter arrives, it appears that he has finally worked out the meaning of his strange vision mentioned above:

And as [Peter] talked with [Cornelius], he went in[to the house] and found that many had assembled. And he said to them, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

Peter's vision is not about food at all—it is about people. Mohler has here missed the mark quite dramatically. Somehow, Dr. Mohler—who holds a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology—has overlooked the story's own self-explanation, and therefore broken the number one rule of biblical exegesis: If you're going to read the Bible, read the Bible. Mohler's interpretation of this passage not only does violence to the text itself by ascribing such a simplistic meaning to a complicated text (does he really think that this story was included in the Acts account for no other reason than to grant Christians the ability to chow down on shrimp and bacon?), but it also ironically opens the door to a more solid argument against the fundamentalist approach to homosexuality—that is, Christians are not called to pronounce the rejection/uncleanliness of individuals, but are to love and accept all with humility and divine reverence.

I would expect such a glaring and irresponsible exegetical error from a freshman undergrad Bible student—but from the president of the largest Christian seminary in the world? Something is amiss.

Furthermore, Mohler's interpretation addresses only the food-based portion of the argument. Several more questions remain, even without fully reading the Acts story: What about wearing clothes of two different fabrics, or planting two different crops next to one another? If Peter's vision was indeed intended as a lukewarm rescission of Jewish kosher law, how then does Mohler explain our lack of adherence to these non-food-related laws?

Such is the problem with the fundamentalist approach to scripture—in their tyrannical quest to accept the unilateral truth of the "whole Bible," fundamentalists are quite often led to the scriptural cherry-picking that they so fearfully and publicly decry.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Working Together for Deliverance: Greek Verbs in Philippians 2:12-18

12W”ste, ajgaphtoiv mou, kaqw;V pavntote uJphkouvsate, mh; wJV ejn th÷Æ parousiva÷ mou movnon ajlla; nuæn pollwÆ/ maÆllon ejn thÆ÷ ajpousiva/ mou, meta; fovbou kai; trovmou th;n eJautwÆn swthrivan katergavzesqe` 13qeo;V gavr ejstin oJ ejnergwÆn ejn uJmiæn kai; to; qevlein kai; to; ejnergeiæn uJpe;r thÆV eujdokivaV. 14pavnta poieiæte cwri;V goggusmwÆn kai; dialogismwÆn, 15i”na gevnhsqe a[memptoi kai; ajkevraioi, tevkna qeouÆ a[mwma mevson geneaÆV soliaÆV kai; diestrammevnhV, ejn oiflV faivnesqe wJV fwsthÆreV ejn kovsmw/, 16lovgon zwhÆV ejpevconteV, eijV kauvchma ejmoi; eijV hJmevran CristouÆ, o”ti oujk eijV keno;n e[dramon oujde; eijV keno;n ejkopivasa. 17ajlla eij kai; spevndomai ejpi; thÆ/ qusiva/ kai; leitourgiva/ thÆV pivstewV uJmwÆn, caivrw kai; sugcaivrw paÆsin uJmiæn` 18to; de; aujto; kai; uJmeiæV caivrete kai; sugcaivretev moi.

12So then, my loved ones—just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but also much more now in my going away[1]—with reverence and humility continue together in bringing to fruition your own deliverance, 13for the one working vigorously among you is God, [compelling you] to desire and to work energetically above and beyond God’s good purpose. 14Do everything without grumbling and disputing, 15in order that you may become blameless and innocent, untarnished children of God within your own corrupt generation, in which you are shining as light-bearers in the cosmos. 16In your holding onto the Word of Life, I may boast on the day of Messiah that I neither ran nor labored in vain. 17Moreover, if I pour out my life as a sacrifice upon the service of your faith, I can be glad and rejoice in you all. 18But you likewise should be glad and rejoice with me.

The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi contains a clear and recurrent dual theme: the necessity for obedience and harmony among the Christian community. In keeping with this thesis, Paul recites a hymn about Christ, highlighting the Messiah’s own obedience to God, inferring that the Philippian congregation should go and do likewise. So intent is Paul on conveying this message of collective submission that he molds his very language to carry his meaning for him, even going so far as to invent completely new words (suvmyucoi—“same spirited ones”—v.2) to describe the shared Christian experience in which he is urging the church to continue to take part. In vv.12-18, his various use of the imperative, subjunctive, and indicative moods paired with the second-person plural (“you all”) verb form emphasizes at times the hortatory nature of his letter and the possible outcome of his instructions, while his use of the aorist tense implies that the church has indeed already been working on these teachings for some time. The second-person plural imperative in particular is often lost in English translations, and along with it Paul’s rhetorical exhortation to communality. In what follows, I will examine the grammatical and syntactical properties of five keys verbs that Paul uses in vv.12-18 as hortatory tools, displaying with his very word choices a pastoral instruction of cooperation and obedience, that the Church in Philippi might become “luminaries in the cosmos,” shining out among their own crooked generation.
uJphkouvsate (v.12)
Paul’s penchant for run-on sentences often creates problems for translators of the Greek text. Such is the case with v.12, which contains a series of clauses that stretches to the end of the following verse. With no punctuation to divide the clauses, discerning just what exactly Paul is exhorting his audience to do can be a tricky undertaking. However, there are outward indicators of meaning in the sentence structure (syntax) of the verse, which I will discuss below. The primary grammatical question raised by efforts to translate the first verb that appears in this passage (uJphkouvsate, from uJpakouvw, “to hear and obey”) is whether it should be treated as an aorist active verb in the indicative or imperative mood.[2] If the verb is in fact a second-person plural aorist active indicative verb, then the verse should read something like what I have translated above. However, if the verb is imperative, it might be translated like this:
So then, my loved ones, continue to obey just as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence but also much more now in my going away. With reverence and humility continue together in bringing to fruition your own deliverance.
Note the improved sentence structure and different punctuation; as an imperative, uJphkouvsate breaks v.12 into two distinct exhortations. However, though an imperative would indeed provide for clearer translation, this is unlikely to be the case. If Paul had intended to use uJphkouvsate as a command to continue in the same obedience that the Church in Philippi had already been practicing, an imperfect (continuous past event) or perfect/imperative combination (past event with continuing effects into the present) would perhaps have been better suited to the task, rather than a simple complexive aorist, which merely “reports” that the Church was obedient sometime before the present.[3] In either instance, the general connotation of the verse remains the same. However, the kaqw;V pavntote phrase which introduces the verb suggests that Paul is in fact referencing a past action in conjunction with an imperative verb to be found later in v.12. If this is the case, then uJphkouvsate must surely be in the indicative mood. The aorist indicates that the Philippians have always obeyed, and in light of that obedience provides them with further instruction in the immediately following clause.
katergavzesqe (v.12)
Having acknowledged the obedience of the Philippian Church, Paul now suggests that they put their obedience to work. Rather than a form of e[rgon—a common word for work involving manual labor—the author here uses the verb katergavzesqe, “work out”. This second-person plural verb is in the imperative mood, indicating that the focus of the exhortation is cooperation toward a given communal purpose rather than a call for individual personal responsibility for salvation.[4] The present tense and deponent voice of the verb reinforce the fact that this work is an ongoing, unfinished process, but one that nonetheless does involve an ultimate completion.[5] The Philippian community is instructed to simply carry to conclusion a divine work that already existed among them from an undetermined point in the past.[6] 
Syntactically, katergavzesqe is modified with the qualifying phrase meta; fovbou kai; trovmou, which defines the manner in which the Philippian community is to “work out” their deliverance. Often translated fear and trembling, this phrase is a common idiom that appears frequently among the letters of Paul; however, in context, reverence and humility or humility and concern might be more appropriate renderings.[7] It is unlikely that swterivan here refers to ultimate individual salvation, but rather indicates the goal that Paul is trying to impart with his exhortation to “continue working out”: cooperative deliverance into a communal spiritual health.[8] The fact that the reflexive pronoun modifying katergavzesqe is plural (eJautwÆn, “yourselves”) reinforces the cooperative and dependent nature of the swterivan to which Paul is referring. Finally, it should be reiterated that Paul intends the two verbs in this verse to work in tandem; the grouping of the present imperative katergavzesqe with the aorist indicative uJphkouvsate suggests a continuation of work that has already begun out of sincere obedience to both God and to Paul.[9]
ejnergeiæn (v.13)
Paired with the articular participle ejnergwÆn, the present active articular infinitive verb to; ejnergeiæn (“to work enthusiastically”) depicts God—“The Great Energizer”[10]—in turn working among the congregation at Philippi, providing the motivation to work above and beyond thÆV ejudokivaV (“the good purpose”). The present tense of both the participle and the infinitive stresses yet again the ongoing nature of this work currently being performed within, among, and by the Philippians. The fact that ejnergeiæn appears side-by-side with another articular infinitive—to; qevlein (“to will/desire”)—conjoined by a double kai; suggests a strong both/and quality to the phrase. Paul is emphasizing that both the energy and the will that drives the obedience and cooperation of the Philippians has in fact been instilled among them by God, “the one who works vigorously.”[11] The exhortation given by imperative in v.12 is strengthened by Paul’s present assertion that God is already at work. 
gevnhsqe (v.15)
As v.15 begins a i{na clause, it is no surprise that a verb in the subjunctive mood is soon to follow.[12] The Philippians are to continue their work energetically, “without grumbling or disputing,” so that they might become (gevnhsqe—second-person plural, aorist deponent subjunctive) innocent and blameless, living up to the standard of Jesus that Paul has already recounted to them in the earlier Christ hymn in vv.6-11. The subjunctive mood suggests a possible outcome of the work that they have been instructed to carry out: if the Philippians continue together in bringing to completion their own communal deliverance, then the expected result is that the congregation might become blameless and innocent.
faivnesqe (v.15)
What, then, is the outcome of these continuous actions of obedience, working toward cooperative deliverance, and striving for blamelessness? Paul suggests that the result of the Philippians’ faithfulness is that they shine or are shining (faivnesqe—second-person plural, present middle/passive indicative) as torchbearers, or luminaries (fwsthÆreV), even within their own corrupt generation—a possible reference to Dan. 12:3.[13] The voice of faivnesqe could indicate a variety of interpretations, including being or becoming visible, though shining— semantically the most powerful extent of light-giving—is ultimately preferable.[14]
Hawthorne correctly notes that it is possible to interpret this verb as an imperative—ie., you must shine—inferring that the role and responsibility of the church is in fact that of the torch-bearer.[15] However, Hawthorne’s commentary tends to over-inflate the passage with imperatives, which effectively devalues any one particular exhortation over another, and thereby deprives the passage of a single, centralized locus. Rather, faivnesqe should be interpreted as an indicative that recalls the v.12 imperative to continue working, as well as the command to do all things (pavnta poieiæte) without grumbling or disputing in v.14.[16] Paul suggests their shining is the direct result of the church’s ongoing pursuit of the spiritual wholeness that God has already germinated within their community. In their obedience, they are like the very stars themselves, casting light into the darkness of the moral cosmos.
            As the possibility of his own death grows increasingly imminent, Paul urges the congregation at Philippi to continue in their obedient work and to do all things without the grumbling and disputing that generates discord within communal life. The imperative to keep working takes on particular importance, as the Philippians can see in Paul’s current situation the very serious consequences of obedience to Christ. As a result of their work, Paul reminds them in his use of the present active indicative verb faivnesqe that they are bringing the light of humility and mutual submission into the darkness of conceit and empty self-flattery that has already fallen upon their own crooked generation. To help them along, Paul has put his own life forth as a sacrifice, devoting himself to their spiritual upbringing, so that he might boast of their obedience on the day of the Messiah. It is in their growth and maturity that Paul takes comfort, leaving the church with one final imperative: rejoice (caivrete) with me.

[1] parousiva and ajpousiva: Traditionally rendered “presence” and “absence.” Here, however, is it possible that Paul is juxtaposing a reference to a previous visit to the Church in Philippi with his “going away”—that is, his impending martyrdom? Translated this way, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to continue in their obedience to God even as Paul himself appears to be facing death for his own obedience to Christ. Paul’s suggestion of pouring himself out as a drink sacrifice in v.17 lends particular gravity to this interpretation.
[2] For arguments that uJphkouvsate is indicative, see Jerry L. Sumney, Philippians: A Greek Student's Intermediate Reader (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 52; For imperative, see Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 43 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 98.
[3] Peter T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary On the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 276.
[4] Ibid, 278.
[5] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, 98.
[6] Bonnie B. Thurston, “Philippians.” In Philippians and Philemon, by Bonnie B. Thurston and Judith M. Ryan. Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 98.
[7] John Reumann, Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 386.
[8] See Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, 98-99, and Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, 277.
[9] See Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, 275, and Jerry L. Sumney, Philippians, 52. Exactly who the object of the Philippians’ obedience might be is unclear. However, it is generally accepted that Paul is referring to their obedience to both God and himself (cf. Bonnie B. Thurston, “Philippians,” 93).
[10] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, 100.
[11] Jerry L. Sumney, Philippians, 53.
[12] Ibid, 55.
[13] Bonnie B. Thurston, “Philippians,” 95.                    
[14] Jerry L. Sumney, Philippians, 55.
[15] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, 103.
[16] John Reumann, Philippians, 413.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Red, Blue, or Purple? Voting the Christian Conscience: A Case of Moral Perplexity

This week, a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest in Scranton, Pennsylvania, reported on his Facebook page that a group known as the Pennsylvania Pastors Network has recently been making automated phone calls to voters all over the state, urging them to “vote biblically” in the upcoming Presidential election. The implied message of this request was that true Christian discernment would ultimately lead to a conservative vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Putting aside the fact that democracy and voting (as we know it) exists nowhere in the Bible, as well as the irony of conservative Christians pleading with voters to elect a Mormon, I am puzzled by what the PPN could actually mean by their appeal. As a Christian myself, my personal ethics are based upon the teachings of Jesus and the religious and social tradition offered by the Hebrew Bible. I am particularly concerned by how our nation treats the poor, as well as the manner in which we carry out social, economic, and punitive justice. The question, “How would Jesus vote?” has become worthy of serious consideration in this election. I am unsure of which Bible the PPN may be referring to, but the Bible I read offers little help when it comes to choosing the President of the United States, in part because the ethical demands of scripture go far beyond that which any political candidate may be willing or able to fulfill as a holder of public office. When seriously weighing the ethical options of my role in the democratic process, I appear to be faced with four major options of how to use (or not use) my vote in the upcoming election. I will attempt to list each of these options below, briefly offering the benefits and drawbacks of each option (when applicable) to better elucidate why I consider participating in the upcoming election to be a particularly difficult moral decision.

1) Vote for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.
            This is my least likely option. So many of my conservative friends who are voting for Romney in this election are doing so almost explicitly because Romney is not Obama
. I do not feel that this is a viable way of ethical decision-making, nor is it a wise method for voting potential leaders into office. Additionally, I have tremendous misgivings about the federal budget plan proposed by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. I share nothing in common with Ryan’s Randian political philosophy, as I believe in the ethical teachings of Jesus which find their power within philosophical and theological understandings of altruism—that is, against Ayn Rand’s objectivism, I find serious concern for one’s neighbor to be the ultimate deciding factor in how I make moral choices, whether this involves grocery shopping for myself or cooking meals for the homeless. The Romney/Ryan budget would cut SNAPS (“food stamps”) benefits by $133 billion, making it more difficult for struggling families to attain basic necessities. Also under the proposed Romney/Ryan budget, Pell Grant subsidies would be drastically cut, which means that many students from lower-income families would be unable to pursue higher education. I see no semblance of divine justice (in the Jesus sense of the word) in this option.

2) Vote for the incumbent Democratic President, Barack Obama.
            The sitting President has instituted programs that have increased job growth and contributed greatly to social spending programs that have raised the quality of life for many low-income Americans. Additionally, Obama has passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has extended health care benefits to millions of Americans (including myself) who would have otherwise been unable to afford even the most basic healthcare for themselves.
Yet under Barack Obama, our national debt has grown by more than $5.3 trillion dollars, our violent political conflicts have expanded to include at least three other countries in which we have yet to officially declare war, gun rights have been extended to allow concealed weapons in public places such as national parks, nothing has been done to lower the gluttonous defense budget (which currently accounts for roughly 60% of all federal discretionary spending, and has doubled since 2001), and counter-terrorism drone strikes—what the Department of Defense refers to as “pre-emptive defense,” if such a thing exists—have quadrupled under Obama since the Bush administration, possibly killing hundreds of civilians in the process. My conviction as a Christian will not allow me to vote for a national leader who allows such violent attacks to persist. Furthermore, while I am tempted to vote for Obama because he appears to me to be the “lesser of two evils” in this election, it should be pointed out that if it is irresponsible to vote for Romney because Romney is not Obama, then it is equally irresponsible to vote for Obama merely because Obama is not Romney. Voting for the lesser of two evils is—in my estimation—still a vote for an evil.

3) Vote for a third-party candidate.
            A few days ago I took an online poll that paired my political beliefs with those of 2012 Presidential candidates, including lesser-known third-party candidates, based upon statements made by each of the contenders for this year’s election. I was surprised to find that I held most of my views in common with Green Party candidate Jill Stein, followed closely by Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Anderson’s appearance was no surprise—I have been following the development of the Justice Party for some time now, and have found that my personal ethics and political values line up with this group quite nicely.
            Voting for a third-party candidate would allow me to vote for the person whom I feel is best suited to lead our country according to my personal value system—that is, voting for Stein or Anderson (who is only a write-in candidate in my state) would give me the opportunity to “vote my conscience.” However, there is no possible chance of a third-party candidate actually winning a U.S. election. Voting my conscience, while taking a personal stand, would be a merely symbolic action, since choosing to cast my ballot for neither the Democratic nor Republican candidate would be largely ineffective for the actual election. In essence, a third-party candidate vote is a vote for the ultimate winner of the election—for better or worse. 

4) Do not vote.
            Emma Goldman supposedly once famously said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Most U.S citizens, however, would reject this position. Yet Christians have a powerful history of non-participation in the democratic voting process for moral purposes. Dorothy Day is perhaps the greatest American witness to non-voting as a matter of Christian conscience; though she once participated in a hunger strike and picketed the White House in support of women’s suffrage, Day herself never voted. With Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker Movement, she became a catalyst for change without ever casting a ballot, proving that positive moral influence can indeed come from Christian non-participation in the political system.
The argument might be made that regardless of who wins this election, either of the two principal candidates will make use of drone warfare, that both have spent a criminally disproportionate amount of money relative to the average citizen’s paycheck on their campaigns while many in our nation starve, and that voting for a third-party candidate would essentially be casting a vote for the ultimate winner of the election. The logical final choice, therefore, would be nonparticipation. After all, when the Israelites petitioned Samuel and Yahweh for a king so that they could be “like other nations” (1 Samuel 8), the response from God is that God wants to be our authority. And Peter, when cornered by the High Priest of Israel in Acts 5:29 for his participation in teaching the crowds the good news about Jesus, responds, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” Perhaps the most viable political option for Christians is the non-political one. Rather than participation in the system that has alienated and disenfranchised so many of our poorest citizens, perhaps Christians should instead be instigators, following in the footsteps of Jesus by using our political imaginations to circumvent authority and continue the subversive work of Christ.
Yet even this stance is unsatisfactory. If casting a ballot for a third-party candidate is “wasting” the vote, is nonparticipation not just as equally wasteful? While I do not necessarily agree with those who would assert that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain, I still cannot bring myself to disregard the fact that the right to vote (especially for minorities and women) is a hard-won privilege, and that while many are indeed crushed by the gears and cogs of the political machine, many more still have benefited from much-needed aid dispensed by that very machine. 

            Is the lesser of two evils, as Joseph Fletcher once suggested, ultimately the good? I don’t think so. Being forced to choose between two candidates, neither of whose policies appears to me to be ethically compatible with the teachings of Jesus, does not seem like a decision that offers freedom. If I cast a vote for one of the primary candidates, they win and proceed to further engage the United States in violent military conflict with other nations or irresponsibly manage our federal budget, I will feel responsible for that action. Yet if I do not vote, or cast my vote for a third-party candidate, I am denying myself the opportunity to have my vote make a difference. Am I giving too much weight to one vote, overestimating the power of a single citizen’s opinions and convictions? Perhaps. But it remains a difficult ethical decision for me, and the election is coming up soon. One way or another, I will be making a choice of utmost moral concern.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sharpening My Interests

As I move forward with my seminary education, I have noticed that my research methods are becoming a bit more efficient, and I have grown more comfortable with writing much and writing often. This is a good thing! One problem that I have had my entire life and across multiple areas of interest, however, is that of narrowing my attention to a specific field or specialty. I am convinced that this will continue to be one of my greatest challenges as I begin to write my thesis and afterward pursue PhD studies. However, I am making small steps in what I believe is the right direction.
Recently, I’ve had a series of encounters with the Greek text of Mark 4:1-9, the so-called Parable of the Sower. About two weeks ago, I was asked to translate this passage as an assignment for my Intermediate Greek course. A few days later, I received an email update from an online journal I signed up for months earlier. The update mentioned that a new article by Steven E. Runge had been posted to the site regarding “relative saliency and information structure” in the Greek text of Mark’s Parable of the Sower. Later that same week, before I began my translation work, I checked out Ched Myers’s book, Binding the Strong Man, and it immediately fell open (due to a break in the spine) to a discussion on Mark 4:1-9 in the context of first century Palestinian agrarian peasantry. This strange string of coincidences has piqued my interest in the ubiquitous text that almost every Christian has heard since childhood. But looking at Mark’s interpretation of the parable left me with lots of questions. For one thing, Mark’s interpretation doesn’t make much since. The sower remains unidentified, though what he is sowing appears alternatively to be “the word” (which needs defining within the Markan context) and, later in the parable, people. The people in the explanation, however, are equated with both the seed and the land the seed is broadcast upon. Clearly, the words that Mark places in Jesus’s mouth as an explanation of the parable in vv.13-20 do not share the nuanced Greek of the original parable. Who is the sower? White, middle-class Americans have typically interpreted this character as Jesus. But Myers points out that this is problematic—Jesus himself was speaking to farmers. Those with ears to hear the parable would have thought, He's talking about me. Furthermore, the spiritualization of the parable is troublesome, too. Instead, perhaps Jesus is suggesting that there is a certain inevitability to the Reign of God—that despite some falling upon the rocks, despite some falling into shallow soil, etc., when the seeds are broadcast and the earth is tilled (plowing occurred after sowing in first century Palestine), the Reign of God will burst forth into existence, providing 30...60...100 times more than enough to feed the starving farmers. The Parable of the Sower is really The Parable of the Bountiful Harvest.
Additionally, I have also been giving a lot of my attention lately to political and social deconstruction of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. This has been inspired by my long-term interest in how to interpret through a modern (or postmodern) lens those Gospel passages that describe Jesus’s acts of exorcism. The demon(s) that plague the Gerasene Demoniac are the only named demonic entity (aside from Beelzebul) in all four Gospels. My assumption is that this story has much more to do with Jesus metaphorically “casting out” the Romans (i.e. “Legion”) from their imposed authority over the Judeans than it does with any supernatural ability to spook the devil out of people. Yet if this episode can be explained as a political metaphor, how then should the other “lesser” exorcisms of Christ be interpreted? This is a puzzling question to me. I have been reading a recent thesis that attempts to reconcile a political/social reading of the text with a psychoanalytical reading, but the author’s weak execution and conclusions have left me less than impressed. I have also been reading Ched Myers’s thoughts on the same story; Myers relies very much on Joachim Jeramias’s social interpretive strategies, but still stops short of making any definitive claims about the text. I am also interested in comparing Mark’s use of the Gerasene Demoniac story with other Hellenistic tales of demonic possession (if such accounts exist). From what I have gathered thus far (which is admittedly limited), no such comprehensive comparative studies exist.
These two texts (and the Gospel of Mark in general) have helped me to narrow my field of interest, which I think is a step in the right direction toward choosing a viable thesis topic. The texts may change with time—nothing is set in stone yet—but I am enthusiastic about finally acquiring the ability to sharpen my educational focus—an ability that I have struggled to attain my whole life.