Monday, October 29, 2007

Love Plays on the Offense

In one of Aesop’s fables, a mighty tree boasts to a little reed, “Who shall pluck me by the roots?” Straightaway a powerful wind blows and uproots the tree, and the little reed, able to sway in the wind, remains in place. The moral: there is an upside to not standing out. Glancing at the Beatitudes opening the Sermon on the Mount, we might evince a similar moral at play in Christ’s words “the meek shall inherit the earth”.

However, is this the same Jesus who once praised John the Baptist for his fatal criticism of Herod Antipas’s adulterous dealings? (For this stance, John’s head was cut off and brought to Herod’s court on a platter). Before the masses, Jesus ironically contrasted the teaching style of their conformist religious leaders with that of John the Baptist’s by asking, “Who did you seek out in the wilderness, a reed swayed by the wind?”[1]

Jesus owned an uneasy style for a moralist of his time (above is not his only stiff maneuver on Aesop). The Sermon on the Mount, both in our time and his audience’s, stands out among his unnerving strings of sayings. Still, a habit in our day is to regard Christ’s estimation of poverty and humility, and especially his saying to “offer the other cheek”, as prompts to passivity. (Is it an accident that the cantankerous philosopher Nietzsche regarded Christ’s call to love one’s neighbor as so much saccharine egalitarianism?) But to an audience under the thumb of Roman oppression, the tack of love carried a certain revolutionary zing. Jesus made that clear by giving ingenious expression to the Torah’s extreme valuation of human dignity.

From the starting blocks of the Law, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount elevates the worth of common-folk humanity to heretofore-unknown majestic heights. Every thinker who has ever read the Sermon has noted Jesus ratcheting up our responsibility to the precepts of the Law. Actually, he is pumping at the lever of human dignity. Using his poetic, Eastern homiletic style, he elbows out human presumptions about the awkward aloofness of God. God clothes the grass with the “lilies of the field” (a Hebraism), but He wraps the children of God in greater finery. Here, the sublimity of Solomon’s raiment is appraised as far inferior to the splendor of human flesh (I’m not kidding!). With Jesus, the wheeling swallows are evidence of God’s relentless decency. In this manner, Christ brings pungent questions to his audience’s trust in the guileless fatherhood of God. He draws attention to the bad habits of hypocrisy, self-advancement and gentile fatalism and worriment to undermine God’s life-giving overtures. Along the way, he drops some stunners – for example: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”.[2] In other words, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds”, as the New English Bible perfectly translates this.

Such moral insights remain unparalleled in the history of ethical discourse (we saunter along throughout our days in the West unaware how indebted we are to this sermon of firsts). Christ’s sayings once provoked an Israeli scholar of Early Rabbinics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to remark, “These are at once simple and profound, na├»ve and full of paradox, tempestuous and yet calm. Can anyone plumb their depths?”[3] Another scholar I met in Jerusalem, an expert in the 900 some parables that appear in ancient Jewish literature, remarked that the parables of Jesus easily rise to the foreground of her studies (and, implicitly, her Orthodox Jewish experience). According to her, Yeshua seems to have no peer in Rabbinic history in his homiletic effectiveness with the parable form, namely to draw out the ethical dimensions of the Torah and frame a multi-faceted response to it.

In fine Rabbinic fashion then, Jesus concludes his Sermon with a call to urgent authenticity by telling the parable of the two house builders (perhaps also a thump number on Aesop above). In the parable, “doing” (in addition to “hearing”) invokes the unshakable stance of the Kingdom of God against a violent world. Christ invites his hearers to dare the goodness of God by bringing their new outlook to bear on human activity (living life without setting limits to one’s goodness, apparently, opens up the opposing equivalent of Pandora’s box – the storehouses of God’s exuberant goodness). One can understand here the total punch of the Sermon: what follows the Beatitudes in the next three chapters is a well-built elaboration on the estimation of humility, God-trust and authenticity to aggravate “certainties” in the face of indifference, brutality and the mundane rewards of convention. This is no mere sentimental teaching. Jesus, after all, identifies the mourners, the broken-spirited and those who hunger and thirst for justice (Ts’dakah) not as victims. From God’s vantage, they are the overcomers. Understood this way, the Beatitudes suddenly become unnerving – you might even say that they are Christ’s clarion call to engage the fight. There is no succor here for “supporting the burden of existence” (as Nietzsche claimed) except to encounter it brazenly.

Like a mythic haze, or an arcane poem, the strong, overcoming aspect of Christ’s message seems to have remained only ephemerally present or obscured in the mounds and valleys of Christian history, except in the blaze of a saint’s life here and there (as with the life of St. Francis). A young Indian lawyer and civil-rights activist in South Africa finally rediscovered the strong aspect of Christ’s message only a little over a century ago. To change the course of human events through nonviolent resistance and appealing to the humanity and reason of one’s overlords (interestingly, with their own sacred text providing the ironic inspiration: “Do not resist an evil person”[4]) was an insight that had evaded Western intellectuals up to that time. Drawing inspiration from the Sermon on Mount, this non-Christian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, did not consider his political tactic of nonviolence as the weapon of the weak. In fact, he argued for its distinction from the misleading labels of “passive resistance” or (minority) “suffrage”. He called it instead “truth-force” (or “love-force”): the unblinking insistence on truth in patiently dispelling your opponents’ false constructs of life. Gandhi had understood that, with Jesus, love played on the offense. Only until the mid-twentieth century, and only in reflection of the life and thought of Gandhi after the emancipation of the Indian subcontinent, did the West recover an understanding of the strong aspect of Christ’s message. Through the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., who adopted Gandhi’s lessons in another civil rights movement, the love-force of Jesus was nudged back to the foreground of Christian history.

With easy conviction, I believe that Jesus was smiling at the Gandhis of history, both renown and unnamed, when he first uttered the Beatitudes. Nietzsche had assumed that only the pitiless Superman would transform history this devastatingly, and the last place Nietzsche would have looked for the kernel of that transformative power was in the words of the Sermon of the Mount. But today, our backs stiffen when we encounter pairs of drinking fountains labeled “white” and “colored” in museum displays. Our head shakes uncomprehendingly at that salt and pepper reality less than 50 years ago when this kind of daily degradation of human dignity was a certainty of human existence. So strong has been that overcoming, the mammoth in the natural history section seems as hoary as these relics.

[1] Matthew 11:7
[2] Matthew 5:48
[3] David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007), p. 30.
[4] Mathew 5:39

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The beauty of perserverence...Excerpt from Tamara's book!

Following is an excerpt from Tamara's book on our trip from Rome to Jerusalem (in Summer 2005). IVP is publishing the book sometime next year I believe. This excerpt is taken from the chapter on our visit to the island of Patmos, where John composed the book of Revelation. Although the version below will probably be shortened for the book (it takes up too many pages currently), Tamara is encouraging me to pitch my Patmos teaching to a magazine or something. I'd appreciate any ideas/advice as to how I could convert the material to a magazine article. I think better understanding the setting of the writing of Revelation would be very beneficial nowadays (esp. in regard to the "Left-Behind" madness). What do you think? ;-)


A stonewall becomes our bench. The three of us sit side-by-side, as our legs dangle above a terrain that plunges toward the sea. Eric tells us that the apocalyptic book of Revelation is one of tragedy and hope.

“Embedded in the storyline,” Eric declares, “is the tale of the Church's survival. This was one of the deadliest periods of persecution that the Church had ever faced. Had the Revelation never been written, in fact, the Church might have compromised its basic tenets in an effort to survive, and perhaps would not have survived as we know it…

“Unfortunately Revelation has been often misinterpreted and even at times used to promote hatred instead of hope. The early Church Fathers read it with Anti-Semitic overtones. But to really understand the impact of Revelation and its meaning you have to dig a little into its historical context.”

“So, why were Christians in such distress? And, why was John banished to Patmos anyway?” I ask with an urgent tone.

“In short,…beauty.”

“How is this a story of beauty?” I wick my head.

“We can call this a case of 'beauty from ashes'. This story has everything do with the surprising success of a humiliated and defeated people, the Jews…

“After the destruction of Jerusalem and the defeat of the Jewish nation at the hands of Titus in 70 CE, a very interesting thing happened. Droves of gentiles around the Empire became fascinated with Judaism, and by extension, Christianity. The nobility the Jews exhibited to persevere in their desire to be under the dominion of no man but one—and only one—god must have been compelling. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, for instance, admired the gallantry displayed by the Jewish resistance in Galilee—he was enamored with the ability of their ancient monotheistic faith to inspire uncompromising steadfastness in the direst circumstances. Regardless, so many gentiles appeared to be converting to Judaism and Christianity that toward the end of the first century the Roman Emperor Domitian began a serious crack down on Christian and Jewish proselytism. He used the tax system to attempt to crush Christians in particular, who were gaining adherents throughout the provinces and threatening the patronage of the local cults, especially in Asia Minor. Domitian also persecuted scores of high-ranking officials in the Roman population who were converting to Judaism and offending Roman sensibilities regarding Roman tradition, especially in respect to worship of the gods and deceased Roman emperors—who, as you know, were honored as gods in that age.”

“Was Domitian worried that no one would end up worshipping him?” Krista asks.

We all laugh. “Actually, Domitian did have a god-complex,” remarks Eric. “In fact, he killed some Stoic senators who had refused to address him as 'Lord and God'. Domitian called it 'atheism', you see, when folks refused to call him by those titles! But even to Romans, addressing a living emperor by such words was unprecedented – kind of a case of picking up the mantle too soon…He once,” says Eric with a smirk, “introduced his wife to the Senate as someone fortunate to visit his 'divine couch'.”

Krista guffaws, “I wonder if she ever visited his ‘divine couch’ again…”

“Ha!”, Eric almost rolls over, “…Well, guess who assassinated Domitian in the year 96? His wife’s house steward…so if that’s one indication.”

There’s no question in Krista’s mind and mine that Domitian’s wife was behind the deicide of Domitian.

“Well…I have to agree with you then,” says Eric still laughing merrily.

“But back (cough) to our story,” Eric tries to compose himself, “…leading up to Domitian’s fateful end. As you can (hu-hughhh) probably imagine, when gentiles converted to Judaism or Christianity life became quite tricky with an emperor who thought he was a deity, for, after all, the first two of the ten commandments bar idolatry and were held to be absolutely obligatory on both Jews and Christians. They might have respectfully bowed to an emperor but not to a god!

“But converts, in general, faced many cultural pressures to continue honoring pagan deities, especially the landed gentry who often held many civic offices and needed to officiate or participate in civic ceremonies, which always included some sort of homage to pagan deities in those days, if not to the emperor. Many aristocratic converts to Judaism and Christianity therefore seemed to disappear from public life…which was held as misanthropic, arrogant and impious by lots of folks once their absence became noted. The only strategy that the converts had, you see, to remain faithful to their adopted faith was to keep cooking up excuses for missing public ceremonies and to try to keep as low a profile as they could. Unfortunately, some Christian groups began teaching that it was OK to participate in civic ceremonies or guild rites (which also typically honored patron gods and goddesses) so long as one honored God in secret. According to these groups what really mattered was the spiritual devotion, not the externals. One of these groups is the 'Nicolatians' mentioned very derisively in Revelation.

“Now, the Romans had always granted the Jews the right to abstain from idolatry, but slowly and surely, this right began accruing a price. Following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, the Emperor Vespasian required the Jews to pay a privilege tax, called the fiscus Iudaicus, and other smaller taxes that guaranteed exemptions from religious and civic duties. Unfortunately, the Christian converts and 'God-fearers' (sympathizers of the Jewish faith) were not always guaranteed exemption by Roman law, even if they paid the fiscus Iudaicus in an attempt to do so. They had to first become full proselytes—for males, this meant circumcision. Circumcision and payment of the tax were assumed by the authorities to be the only valid way to gain exemption from idolatrous civic duties. But it was very unclear if Christian converts and God-fearers, who typically were not circumcised, needed to pay the tax of the fiscus Iudaicus, and for various reasons most simply kept low key and avoided payment of the tax.

“So eventually, in the early 90's, Domitian began a crack down on tax-evading converts, God-fearers and undercover Jews—Jews who had kept their faith secret in order to avoid enriching the Emperor by paying the humiliating fiscus Iudaicus. He demanded that all people who practiced or adopted any kind of Jewish religious practice (and that would include the Christians), whether openly or secretly, to be liable to the fiscus Iudaicus—and, if they were not born Jewish, they were not off the hook for observing civic duties and paying homage to the pagan cults! Furthermore, it they failed to come forward and continued to attempt to hide their identity, the state would hold their properties subject to confiscation upon exposure. In other words, Domitian just sardonically crystallized the predicament the converts were in, but this time, he also gave the tax policy enforcement teeth. Domitian thereupon began to reward informants who exposed tax evaders by granting prosecuting informants part of the proceeds of confiscated properties. As a consequence, many busybodies suddenly found a lucrative trade and many tax evaders began to pay off these informants to avoid prosecution. Blackmail thus grew to rampant proportions.

“Still, the high-ranking Roman converts or Jewish sympathizers remained a burr in the saddle of the Emperor, since, as Roman noblemen, Domitian could not use the tax policy to get at them. So, in the year 95, it all came to a head. Domitian banned secret conversion to Judaism and outright conversion to Christianity, declaring them 'impiety' (or 'atheism'), capital offenses. To make a good show of it, Domitian even executed his own kinsman Flavius Clemens, a nephew of Vespasian. Clemens and his wife Domitilla, who was Domitian's own niece, had apparently been found 'drifting towards Jewish customs'. Domitian executed Clemens on charges of impiety and banished Domitilla from Rome, probably intending to strike fear thus into the hearts of the Roman aristocracy. We cannot rule out, however, that other shady motivations may have been at play. Domitian probably rightly suspected Clemens for maneuvering political will against his draconian tax policies, and had perhaps even sensed his kinsman as a conspirator in a power play for the throne. It appears that Domitian declared conversion an ‘impiety’ in order to conveniently take care of Clemens and other of Clemens’s sympathizers…Such ruthless acts were not unknown for Roman emperors, especially paranoid ones like Domitian. Indeed, the historical record, especially Domitian’s assassination, hints that Clemens was offed for primarily political exigencies and was not an actual convert but merely accused as one for aiding the converts…

“Regardless, it was a dark day for converts and God-fearers when Clemens was executed, as they were now no longer with a prominent champion in the imperial family. For aristocrats, 'impeity' was missing civic ceremonies or failing to address the Emperor as 'Lord and God', and for all others, 'impeity' was hiding one's religious identity, which was proven by demonstrating that the accused had failed to pay the required taxes, namely the fiscus Iudaicus…

“Now, John, being Jewish, had probably always paid the fiscus Iudaicus, and so was probably off the hook for the charge of impiety. However, since he was one of the key evangelists in the Church, Domitian had him exiled to Patmos in 95 CE, right around the time conversion was outlawed. John was probably sent to the island shortly after Clemens was executed, and he might have already witnessed some of the travails his brethren were now facing in the mainland. Clemens's death opened the floodgates of prosecution cases against Christian and Jewish tax-evaders. Many of John’s exposed Christian brothers and sisters were now losing their properties and were going to trial for immanent execution. Jewish tax-evaders had it easier, since declaration of the Jewish faith could not easily be used to demonstrate impiety, as Judaism was an allowed practice in the Empire. But since Christian conversion was outlawed, Christians would have had to seek protection from the Jewish community to help avoid charges of impiety. Most synagogues did their best to protect tax-evaders, since it was a Jewish ethic to honor and treat any gentile who refused to participate in idolatry as if he or she were a member of the Jewish people, following the teaching of the late and beloved Rabbi, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai, the most respected teacher to survive the Judean revolt. But, unfortunately, some of the Jews or gentile God-fearers were being blackmailed to expose tax-evaders, particularly at Smyrna and at Philadelphia. More than likely, it was God-fearers or covert Jews (who hid their Jewish identity to avoid paying exemption taxes) who were exposing fellow tax evaders, to get themselves off the hook for impiety charges by proving their loyalty to the Emperor thus…

“That's one of the saddest chapters in history to me,” Eric sighs, “From that point on, the relationship between the Synagogue and the Church would begin to rip apart. The frictions Domitian inflicted on the Jewish community—which up to that point, however marginally, had always included the Christians—became the wedge that drove apart the Synagogue and the Church. The travail and hard feelings that resulted from the cooperation of few synagogues leading to the exposure of Christians seem to have left a deep wound in the Church that never healed. The next generation of Christian leadership, sadly, slid into Anti-Semitic apologetics as a result. Hardly more Anti-Semitic sentiments are found in the works of Christian theologians than in the writings of some of the second century fathers of Asia Minor, such as Melito of Sardis. Revelation may have contributed to the tone, since it contains harsh language against the traitorous synagogues; however, this tone is not unwarranted! One of the greatest sins in Judaism – if not the greatest – is to betray your fellow Jew (or God-fearer – a potential Jew) to the authorities. This is considered an 'unforgivable sin' in Judaism. We must read the polemic against Jewish/God-fearer traitors in Revelation as an inner Jewish debate to keep the book in its context…

“It's just so sad to me…”, Eric pauses and looks down at the slopes below us, “…that history has not remembered the more numerous and noble synagogues around the Empire that must have risked much to sequester Christians in their communities from Domitian's sword.”

I try to imagine how John must have felt as exile in Patmos when he found himself alone in that cave. Was he heartbroken and perhaps afraid knowing that the future of the Church and the bond with his Jewish people was in tremendous jeopardy? Was this what he was praying about when Jesus suddenly appeared to him?

I notice that Eric is also lost in thought. We all sit on the cliff edge silently for a moment. Suddenly, Eric looks back up at the sea, and his face brightens slightly. “But,…as I said, this is a story of beauty from ashes. I am convinced that Revelation is not only fit to be the last book in our Scriptures…but perhaps should be appreciated much more for the beauty in history it represents, and I'm not just talking about the end of the world…

“Asia Minor, what is now Turkey 30 miles that way,” Eric points toward the open sea to our right, “was the most populous, cosmopolitan region in the Empire. More people dwelled in Asia Minor, in fact, than in Italy and Egypt combined. It was actually the heart of the Roman Empire, and the wealth of the Empire flowed through this region of crossroads…call it the Roman version of the 'Midwest'. It was here where Christianity transformed from a sectarian Jewish movement into a full-blown world movement. Had the jolt of hope and encouragement and promises of the message of Revelation never arrived to Asia Minor, I have many reasons to doubt that the Church would have persevered so steadfastly through the grueling second and third centuries of its history … or spread around the world so amazingly.”

“But if it was such a straight-forward message of encouragement,” I ask, “why was it written in such an obtuse way?”

“As you know,” Eric answers, “the Revelation is actually a letter meant to be circulated around all of the churches of Asia Minor (not just the ones mentioned in the seven letters to the angels at the beginning). So some have posited that it was written symbolically to make the message unintelligible to authorities who might have intercepted a copy of the letter. I, however, believe that the distinctly holy language of John's Revelation and descriptions of God and His throne room would have made it highly unlikely that a Jew would have ever written down or copied its words. The language was simply too holy to write down. To have a 'copy', a reader would have had to memorize it. In other words, the letter was transmitted by word of mouth…the couriers themselves were the 'letter'. The text itself hints that it should be transmitted by word of mouth when an angel commands John to eat the scroll of the vision in Rev. 10:10. Besides, if John was worried about prying Roman eyes, then the letter is a very thinly veiled rant against the Emperor indeed. I think any official with a slight bit of intelligence would have seen what it was about.”

“So why did John write that way?”

“A clue is found in the text. Its pervasive Semitisms and poor Greek diction suggests that the language it was originally circulating in was Hebrew, which would have definitely made it a very holy message indeed, but one that is also very particularly aimed at well-learned Jewish sages. The esoteric and holy material would have been familiar to Jewish 'heads of wisdom' who had the Hebrew Scriptures committed to memory. These folks were typically well-trained in advanced memorization techniques…

“Revelation is actually written in a way that makes it extremely easy to memorize…it is full of memory aids. One aid is the vivid imagery, which carries implicit and double-meanings a well-learned Jew would find poignant and prominent and would be able to unpack for his congregation. Another is the pervasive Scriptural symbolism and references, especially to the Prophets—books very important to Jews facing difficult times and that would have been known by rote in those days. But probably most importantly, Revelation is extra-ORRR-dinarily structured to facilitate rapid memorization! I have read many ancient apocalypses and none has quite the same kind of sophisticated literary framework that I can evince throughout the book. It is actually quite artistic. Revelation uses the same literary patterns but tweaks and plays with them to also make each section independently noteworthy in its own special, memorable way—kinda like a purposefully changing composition, much like a Jazz composition, in fact…quite beautiful, but I digress. To get to the point, Tam, it would have probably only taken a couple of hearings of Revelation for a well-trained Jewish scholar to recognize the familiar structures—such as the seven-day creation structure of Genesis 1-2 that figures largely throughout the book—and have the entire message committed to memory through these structural handles. That may sound fantastic and improbable to us, but the ancients were masters at memorization. After all, writing was at a premium in those days and the easiest way to 'copy' something at the least expense (monetarily and time-wise) was to memorize it. In other words, Revelation is a message that was intended to disseminate with blazing speed - to get to the largest audience possible in the fastest way available. It is an urgent letter."