Saturday, September 28, 2013

Do We Really Need Another Historical Jesus Book?

          About two months ago, you may have seen floating around the web a FOX News interview of Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion who also happens to be Muslim. Aslan put out a book this year titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The interview made a stir because the poorly informed Fox News host couldn't seem to fathom the idea that a Muslim could possibly have anything good to say about Jesus. She apparently doesn't know that Jesus (known as Issa in Islam) is considered a revered prophet by Muslims and receives quite a bit of favorable attention in the Qur'an. Yet, as Aslan patiently makes clear repeatedly in the interview, his book isn't a Muslim perspective of Jesus but an attempt by a religion scholar to understand the person Jesus using the tools of historical investigation. The host was woefully ignorant, but her poor excuse for an interview did have the unintended result of giving the book all kinds of publicity which sent it to number one on the NY Times non-fiction bestsellers list.
            If I must pick sides, I'm on Aslan's side against a silly TV host who believes all Muslims are anti-Christian and hell bent on destroying America, but what I didn't care for were Aslan's protestations of objectivity. In the Fox interview and elsewhere, Aslan declared that he was an objective scholar who examined the historical figure of Jesus using the objective tools of historical research. He should know better. I believe that he attempted to use a particular methodology to write about Jesus and that point of view is different from his religious views, however, critiques of historical scholarship-especially of historical scholarship of religion-have pointed out for a couple of generations now that no such objectivity exists for anyone. Historical data requires interpretation and the interpreter's own culture, biases, philosophical presuppositions, etc. shape her or his interpretations.
            Think of recent historical figures, such as Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger or Franklin Roosevelt, what an historian writes about one of these presidents depends in large part on that scholar's political views. Similarly, a biography of the Buddha, Muhammad or Joseph Smith may be shaped by a scholar's particular education, social status, religious leanings and culture. An undergraduate philosophy major learns this lesson the first time she is assigned to read Michel Foucault.
            The myth of objectivity does not mean, however, that all scholarly works are equally valid or invalid. There are more and less responsible historians. The best ones admit their own biases (at least as much as they are self-aware) and make efforts to consider the perspectives of others who do not share them. The best ones also seek to compile evidence including evidence that does not necessarily support their perspective. The truly best historians admit when they reach the limits of historical evidence and move beyond it into hypothesis and conjecture.
            The fact that a scholar has a particular point of view-if he or she admits it-can lead to some fascinating discussions and even revisions of thinking about history. Consider a history of Manifest Destiny in the United States written from the perspective of Native Americans rather than European Americans. Similarly, one of the best books on the historical person of Jesus I have read was written by Amy-Jill Levine, a practicing Jew, who critiques Christian religious scholars for anti-Jewish bias when writing about the life of Jesus. I would have liked to have heard Aslan speak about how his own perspective as a Muslim influences his scholarship on Jesus. What would a Muslim see in the New Testament's portrayals of Jesus or the culture of first century Palestine that a Christian might miss? It's too bad that conversation didn't happen.
            I haven't read Aslan's book and I probably never will, not because I'm offended he's a Muslim (I'm not) nor because it is a bad book (I have no idea if it is), but rather because I grew tired years ago of reading books claiming to reveal the "true" Jesus of history as compared to the Jesus of the church. As I write these words, I just walked over to my bookshelf where I counted 58 historical Jesus books from the early 1800's to the present. In each of them, the writer claims to provide the "real" Jesus. My couple of shelves of Jesus books is just a drop in the bucket of historical Jesus books written since the late 1700's. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he showed that the previous century's scholarly works about Jesus revealed more about their authors than about Jesus. Ironically, Schweitzer didn't apply his criticism to his own picture of Jesus which looked a lot like Friedrich Nietzche's "superman." Nonetheless, Schweitzer's point is well taken towards all of the historical Jesus books written before and after him.
            The problem with any attempt to provide a "true" or "objective" view of the person Jesus apart from the writings of the New Testament is that there really isn't anything else to go on. Other than a few brief mentions of Jesus and his followers by ancient historians that tell us little, there are no sources other than the New Testament. Paul, who never met Jesus prior to his death, wrote around twenty years after Jesus died and says little about his teachings or actions apart from his death. The Gospels were written 40+ years after Jesus' death, and although it is extremely likely they contain words and deeds that come from eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry, scholars do not agree on which ones definitively go back to Jesus and which ones are the additions of later editors. Scholars, like those in the publicity-seeking Jesus Seminar, claim to have definitive answers about what Jesus "really" said and did, but an examination of their process for making such determinations reveals that they, like all historical Jesus scholars before them, end up with a Jesus who looks pretty much like their own presuppositions.
            Don't get me wrong, I think historical research very much matters for our understanding of the teachings and actions of Jesus. An understanding of first century Judaism helps us understand who the Samaritans were and why Jesus' parable of "The Good Samaritan" would have been scandalous to his hearers. An understanding of the patriarchal culture in the ancient Mediterranean world helps us understand the forgiving father in the parable of "The Prodigal Son" as a powerful example of grace. An understanding of the Roman dominance of first century Palestine helps to explain why Jesus was put to death on a cross. Context matters and shapes our reading of the New Testament, but ultimately historical research cannot tell us objectively or definitively who the person Jesus was. We are left to make up our own minds based on our own biased readings of the New Testament and what biased scholars tell us about the world Jesus lived in.   
            When I went to seminary, I was taught that the writings of the Jesus Seminar revealed the identity of Jesus to an extent never before revealed. My esteem for the Historical Jesus scholars of the 1990's was shattered however, when I went to do doctoral work in New Testament. Then I learned that claims about the historical Jesus in the 1990's were essentially the same ones made in the 1890's and the 1790's-Jesus was a non-miracle working prophet who happened to share the politics of highly educated Caucasian people.
            In the end, I have to admit that who I think Jesus was is in large part dependent upon who I believe Jesus is. My own faith claims and what I choose to believe are my own experiences of God along with my culture, education, politics, family upbringing, etc. determine the claims I make about the person Jesus was. That belief has changed over my lifetime and will certainly change more in the future. (For example, whether or not I believe God intervenes in the natural world and if so how I believe that happens determines whether or not I believe Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead.) My belief about who Jesus was is informed by what I know of the context in which Jesus lived, but it is also informed by the context that I live in.
            I'm glad to be a minister who has the privilege of serving a church where our beliefs about Jesus do not have to align completely. Instead, we get to share our journeys with one another, including our distinct understandings of who Jesus was and our beliefs about who Jesus is to us now.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What's the Peace with Justice Answer in Syria?

           It's tempting to tune out all of the discussion regarding whether or not to bomb Syria in response to the Assad regime's brutal use of chemical weapons on its own people. It's a complex situation and as Americans we are used to Presidents launching cruise missiles and drone strikes whenever they feel like it without giving us input into whether or not we should do so. Why not change the channel and go about our lives? Well, one good reason not to do so is because you are a part of CCCUCC which has declared itself a Peace with Justice church. Turning a blind eye to another military intervention in the Middle East is not an option if you say you believe in Peace with Justice.
            The Syria dilemma surely has to do with peace, yet simply saying no to military force is not enough. It leaves aside the issue of justice for the hundreds killed by chemical weapons, the millions made refugees by the Syrian civil war and the hundreds of thousands killed so far in the conflict. This is such a confusing situation that President Obama has found an ally in John Boehner in supporting a military strike, while Sara Palin, Pope Francis, Noam Chomsky, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Family Research Council and the United Church of Christ all oppose the use of military force in Syria. Strange bedfellows indeed! (I seem to recall many of the Evangelical Christians who oppose Obama's plan to bomb Syria supporting Bush's wars back in the day. Have they changed their minds about the morality of war or do they just hate Obama that much?)
          Personally, I like this president and I want to believe that he is different from his predecessors, more deliberative and cautious about the use of military force, but I am cynical enough to believe that anyone in the White House, no matter his or her party, can be seduced by the trappings of power and a misguided confidence in US military power. Even though I agree with many of his political positions such agreement does not mean blind trust, and my devotion to Jesus Christ must come before any and all political beliefs.
          I would love to believe that launching some cruise missiles would somehow equal justice for those killed by the Assad regime's chemical weapons. The victims deserve justice. Yet, the likelihood of the actual perpetrators feeling the blow of a US military strike is low; much more likely is the possibility that innocent civilians will pay with their lives for a US strike adding to the devastating body count in Syria. The Assad regime, like many rogue governments, has entrenched its high value targets in the midst of its civilian population. Killing them, even unintentionally, gives the Assad regime a propaganda tool that changes the conversation from its atrocities to the actions of the US. It inflames anti-US beliefs in the volatile Middle East, and most of all it moves us further away from and not closer to an international condemnation of the Assad regime's brutality.
          We have been down this road before-a US administration declares it has solid intelligence of a foreign government's hostile actions-remember the Gulf of Tonkin or the WMD's of Iraq? How many times must this occur before we learn that "rock solid evidence" may very well not be so definitive? As Americans, we like to think that we fight on the side of morality, but our foreign policy over the last seventy years has been about our perceived self-interest and not about justice. Michael Shank wrote this week in The Washington Post about those in Washington who argue that the world is watching and waiting for the US to act on the side of morality. "They are not expecting America to act nobly now, as they know how that has worked out.  They watched America unseat democratic leaders in Iran, support military autocracies in Egypt for decades, turn a blind eye to religious fundamentalism and gender oppression in Saudi Arabia, create and sponsor a violent mujahideen [sic] movement in Pakistan, and more. If we truly want to lead, and regain the world's respect, correcting our inconsistencies would be a start." Similarly Henry Allen, also in The Washington Post, wrote that our wars fought supposedly on the side of what is moral have largely been disastrous. "Since World War II, says Allen, "we have failed to win any land war that lasted more than a week: Korea (a stalemate), Vietnam, little ones like Lebanon and Somalia, bigger ones like Iraq and Afghanistan....all intended to be good wars, saving people from themselves." Despite what we tell ourselves as a nation, we aren't very good at deciding when to use military force or understanding the unforeseen consequences of such actions. Most of all, we aren't very good at justifying the morality of our use of military force. The same seems true of the situation in Syria now.
          Our decisions about an attack on Syria should be based on more than just a consideration of the weaknesses of American foreign policy and its use of military force; in the end our decisions should be based upon our church's commitment to be a Peace with Justice church as we seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ. Christians who subscribe to "Just War" theory argue military action is permissible when certain conditions are met; not the least of these conditions is that war must be a last resort used only when all other options have been exhausted. In the case of Syria, can we really say that there are no other options besides violent ones? Furthermore, believers in "Just War" theory and outright Christian pacifists all believe that violence should not be used when such use increases rather than decreases the likelihood of further violence and suffering. In the case of Syria which is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis of casualties and refugees, a military intervention by the US seems unlikely to change the calculus on the ground and very likely to make things worse. Neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian rebels who now include large numbers of Islamist extremists are good options for governing the Syrian people. Furthermore, the possibility that Syria will become a hot war between the Sunni Muslim governments of the Gulf like Saudi Arabia and the Shiite government of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon is terrifying to consider.
          Most of all, if we truly want to be a Peace with Justice church and follow Jesus' declaration that we are to be peacemakers, our opinion about a military strike in Syria must only be a starting point rather than an end point in our thinking about the use of military force in the world. What do the complicated realities of the Syrian civil war reveal about our nation's foreign policy? For decades we have allied ourselves with military dictatorships throughout the world that oppress their own people while giving lip service to human rights. We continue to strike a devil's bargain with nations like Saudi Arabia who promote extremist forms of religious violence, oppress women and do not give their people a say in their own destiny so that we can have cheaper fossil fuels which destroy our environment. We continue to ignore the long-term consequences of short-term alliances with thugs and despots. Our "allies" in one generation morph into our enemies in the next generation. We supported Saddam Hussein's brutal repression of his people because we shared the same enemy in Iran, but a decade later we would begin over 20 years of armed military engagement with Iraq. We supported the Mujahidin against the Soviets in Afghanistan only to later fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If we wish to avoid creating today our enemies of tomorrow, it is time that people of faith consider the limitations of violence and commit to a different way that honors the interconnectedness of humanity.
          When CCCUCC made a "Peace with Justice Covenant" in 2007, our church declared the following:

We seek to be faithful to God's call to be peacemakers. We seek to advocate for peace and Justice through our faith, following the example of Christ. We seek to engage all of the world's peace-loving religions to advocate peace and justice for all humanity by:

  • Promoting human interdependence through economic, social, and political justice throughout the world; 

  • Loving and enjoying life in all its diversity;

  • Working for a sustainable earth and proper use of God's earthly gifts;
  • Challenging the values of our age that threaten peace and justice; and,
  • Answering anger and resentment by seeking an equitable distribution of resources.
With God's help, and with the gifts of courage and caring which God has given us, we will answer Jesus' call to work towards becoming a peacemaking community. Through this covenant, we commit to:
  • Train ourselves, through spiritual discipline, in non-violence;
  • Seek knowledge about issues related to peace and justice;
  • Work for a world free of war, mistrust, and hatred;
  • Weave Peace with Justice principles into all aspects of our church life including worship, education, relationships with one another, and joint advocacy;
  • Embark on a journey of Peace with Justice through an extraordinary commitment to advocacy and change
Now is a good time for us to reconsider our commitment to be a Peace with Justice church.

Grace and Peace,

P.S.  Here are some other statements on the proposed military strike on Syria that are worth reading: