Struggling with Divine Violence

November 5, 2015

Notes on How to Read the Bible and Still Be A Christian by John Dominic Crossan

Crossan ViolenceFrom ancient times until now, the deepest hopes and fears of human life have been vividly displayed and viciously fought in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. This ongoing struggle is the constant theme of the Bible and the matrix within which biblical writers described God, developed contrasting systems of governing the affairs of humankind, and portrayed conflicting visions of how ordinary people are to live out their lives. These ancient lands have taken on even greater urgency in recent decades as human power to destroy has increased, seemingly exponentially. Therefore, the urgency of determining how governments, politicians, religious leaders, business people, and ordinary people should act is becoming ever greater.

In his book How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan provides a way to understand this crisis, both in ancient times and in our own world that in so many ways differs from the historical circumstances of long ago. The book’s subtitle identifies its central theme: “Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation.”

At the center of the narrative is the contrast between two visions of how the world works: a vision of nonviolent distributive justice in which all people and creatures of the world have what they need and a vision of violent retributive justice in which power rules by command and punishment and terrible discrepancies develop between those in command and all others.

In Crossan’s reading of history, the normalcy of human civilization depends upon what he calls escalatory violence as the characteristic process by which all things in life are be ordered. This violence is understood to be justified and carried out by religious systems of thought and ritual. Historical experience makes it seem inevitable that visions of a nonviolent and peaceable kingdom are transformed by using violence to force conformity of most people to the dictates of normal civilization. Read more Struggling with Divine Violence

Stories that change the world

December 10, 2012

Crossan - ParableEarly in his academic career, John Dominic Crossan developed an interest in parables, which resulted in a book, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (published in 1973).

Four decades later, he continues these studies in The Power of Parable ((New York: HarperOne, 2012) in which he uses parable as the primary method for understanding the content and character of Jesus’s message. He then employs this literary form to develop master narratives for the four gospel accounts and inspire his critique of the ways that the gospel writers reshaped Jesus’s message in response to theological and political challenges they were encountering.

 Most of this review consists of a précis of Crossan’s book that I have prepared in order to understand and remember his thesis and the way he develops it. Before offering this personal summary, however, I want to indicate my general response to the book. Crossan shows how fiction and fact often are woven together, sometimes wittingly and often unwittingly, so that they can serve as metaphorical narratives.

Crossan’s analysis of one set of writings suggests a way to recognize a similar process in many other writings in academic history, secular literature, and religious literature. Although Crossan believes that the historicity of narratives is an important issue to be settled, he makes it possible for readers to suspend temporarily the need for historical validation of narratives in order to recognize their parabolic functions.
Not only does this approach help Christians understand the character and power of their religious tradition, but it also provides a way to understand literature that is outside of their experience, such as the Qur’an and Book of Mormon. To read more, click Crossan on Parables.

Reforming Worship: More at Stake Than Common Courtesy and Public Politeness

April 26, 2011

On Sunday mornings at our church in Indianapolis, I often noted the presence of two people who regularly attended worship. A man in his early sixties, dressed in an expensive, conservatively cut suit, was CEO of what was then the Allison Division of General Motors Corporation and a vice president of the parent company. Seated near by was a woman, dressed in casual discount store attire, who was an hourly wage earner in a nearby GM assembly plant.

During the week, they participated in the Indianapolis system of privilege and power in very different ways, but on Sundays (at least while they were in church) they came close to being equal. They could sit any place they wanted. Both had full access to the communion table. Each one was invited to contribute to the church’s ministry and mission “as they were able.” In meetings of the congregation, both could speak freely on the basis of their faith and convictions.

Even in that mildly progressive congregation, however, gender discrimination was still practiced which meant that the man could have served as elder while the woman would not yet have been granted that responsibility. In later years, this aspect of congregational practice was altered to accord more fully with Paul’s declaration that in the church barriers caused by race, gender, and social setting are set aside and all are equal before Christ and with one another (Galatians 3:28).

The tension between culture and Christian community is the central issue in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, which contains the New Testament’s most sustained exposition of worship. In their book In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed devote a long chapter to this discussion, using the title “Who and What Controls Your Banquet?” At the heart of Paul’s exposition, they write, are two visions of moral community and two theologies on which these visions are based. (To read more about these two theologies, check my column posted April 19, 2011.)

The two visions are labeled patronal and kenotic. The patronal vision was the defining form of Roman civilization. It maintained a highly stratified social structure and gave unswerving allegiance to the Roman system of military pacification as the basis for social cohesion. The divinized emperor was seated in splendor at the high point of the patronage system and he distributed power and privilege down the pyramid. It was a harsh “trickle down system” fully legitimated by the public rites and ceremonies which so integrated patriotism and religion that the two could not be distinguished from one another.

In Corinth, some of the highly placed were members of the church and they were imposing the customs from their public life on life in the church, thus preserving radical discontinuities between rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. Paul was passionately opposed to what they were doing.

Paul’s alternative to the patronal community imposed from the outside, according to Crossan and Reed, was the kenotic community that was the direct outgrowth of the life that Jesus had lived. It had came to its fullest expression in the meals Jesus had shared with his friends, especially in the meal they ate together on the night that he was betrayed. The foundational theology, eloquently expressed in one of the ancient church’s hymns (Philippians 2:6-11), was that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The church, Paul says, is the community of people who follow Jesus to the fullest extent that life allows.

While Paul conceded that highly placed Christians might continue their participation in the stratified and unjust systems of public life, these practices were not to continue when they were in the church. There, the basic principles of Christ were to be followed with scrupulous care.

To make his point, Paul restated a set of words that were basic to the life of the church where he had become a Christian (Antioch). We refer to them as “the words of institution” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). He also recommended practical changes in the order of worship for the church in Corinth.

As it works at accommodating worship to culture of our time, every congregation will do well to heed the warning with which Paul concludes his most direct discussion of worship. Crossan and Reed make the point this way: “Still the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, the central symbolism of Christianity’s divine responsibility for a shared earth, was fractured badly at Corinth, and Paul knew it. Those terminal warnings about illness and death, judgment and condemnation (11:27-34) indicate very clearly that much more was at stake than common courtesy and public politeness.”

Progressive Christians Reclaim the Lord’s Prayer

December 20, 2010

Every Sunday one short prayer, which in English begins “Our Father in heaven,” is said by worshipers in churches of almost every kind around the world. In many orders of worship, this prayer is part of the devotional beginning of the service and in others it is recited as the conclusion to the long prayer of praise and intercession. In most published orders for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, this prayer is the concluding portion of the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, providing a way for all of the worshiping congregation to join in this prayer at the climax of Christian worship.

In some progressive churches, however, this prayer is either omitted or modified. The problem is the way it begins, with the title that Jesus used as his ordinary way of addressing God: Our Father in heaven…” In a world when so many people have experienced abuse by their fathers, the objection goes, how can we ask them to use this title for God? They answer their own question by abandoning the prayer completely or by altering the address—“God our parent,” “Holy One,” or “Eternal Friend.”

Another course of action is implied in John Dominic Crossan’s book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. While he says very little about the liturgical use of this brief prayer from the lips of Jesus, he does provide a way to understand it so that its metaphoric language is redeemed and Progressive Christians can restore it to their public services of praise.

Early in the book, Crossan states his central claim: “What if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor yet a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is—as this book suggests—a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is—as this book suggests—a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?” (p. 2).

Near the end of the book (pp. 181-2), he summarizes the themes that he has explored in considerable detail.

1.     God the Father is to be understood as God the Householder of the World whose justice and righteousness mean that “it is only just and right that all who dwell together—in household or Household—have enough.”

2.     Made in the image of God, “we are to collaborate with God as appointed stewards of a world that we must maintain in justice and equity.”

3.     When Jesus is called the “Son” of God, the meaning is that he is “the Heir of God, the divine Householder of the World.”

4.     “Christians are called to collaborate with Christ as the Heir of God.” We are to participate in the kingdom of God understood as eschaton, as “the Great Divine Cleanup of the World.”

5.     The Abba prayer “is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world.”

In their worship and theology, progressive Christians have to decide whether to interpret God according to our human experience or to shape our human life according to our spiritual and theological experience. When Jesus prayed “Our Father,” was he praying to a glorified form of Joseph the carpenter? Is “Our Father in heaven” to be understood as my earthly father, or anybody’s earthly father, made into the standard of parental love?”

It ought to work the other way. In our prayers and systematic thought we come to understand what fatherliness really is. Even when our own life experience has been troubled or deficient, we can find some resolution in the one Father whose love is never tough but always gentle, who always reaches down, takes us by the hand, and helps us walk.

Most progressive Christians seem able to refer to the church as a family despite the fact that many families have been abusive, and we can gather at the table to eat together in Christ’s name even though some people go hungry or find their own little tables to be scenes of diminishment and despair. Progressive Christians can use Christ’s family and Christ’s table as examples for transformation of our own broken or diminished experience.

So too, if I understand Crossan, we can continue to crown our services of worship with the revolutionary prayer from the lips of Jesus, saying, “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come…”