Last Monday evening, I attended a talk by John Dominic (Dom) Crossan at Union Theological Seminary. The topic was Crossan’s recent book God & Empire and the evening was a preview to a consultation "New Testament and Roman Empire: Resistance and Reimagination," scheduled for April 2008. But it wasn’t that much of a preview of the more general scholarly conference upcoming in April – the evening belonged to Crossan. On the way in, I decided not to buy Crossan’s book, but after hearing him I decided to buy it.
In the epilogue to the book, Crossan has written:
I have spent the last thirty-five years thinking about earliest Christianity – from the historical Jesus, through the birth of Christianity, and on to the apostle Paul – and attempting to live within its visionary program for our world. Earliest Christianity arose within the Old Roman Empire, and America, we are told, is the New Roman Empire. Three questions are then obvious for anyone who is both Christian and American today:
How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in the American Empire?
But then another question appears beneath that one:
How is it possible to be a nonviolent Christian within a violent Christianity based on a violent Christian Bible?
Chapter 5 brought those two questions together into a third question:
How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in an American Empire facilitated by a violent Christian Bible?
In this book, I have attempted to answer that last question on the deepest level possible – on the level where the radicality of God‘s nonviolence constantly challenges the normalcy of civilization’s violence and where the normalcy of civilization constantly negates the radicality of God.
I have only barely begun to read God & Empire, but in his talk on Monday, Crossan pointed out that there are two strands in the Bible – the God of vengeance and the God of love, or to state it another way, the Gods of retributive justice and the God of distributive justice.. How do we choose between the two? Crossan provides a way forward through that thorny problem – a way that resonates with me.
In a recent comment on her blog, Wounded Bird, Grandmère Mimi wrote “In a sense, I think that I make my faith up as I go along. I am neither a theologian nor a Scripture scholar, therefore, I see mine as more of a simple faith.” I’m not a Bible scholar either nor am I a theologian except insofar as all of us are theologians if we think about God at all. But that’s a pretty significant exception – or maybe I mean we all have a theology, whether or not we consider ourselves theologians and especially whether or not we are members of the guild of theologians.
Our theology affects how we approach the world as well as how we approach the Bible. Mimi gives us an account of a faith journey from trying to achieve holiness – closeness to God – by pleasing God through “being good” to the recognition that holiness has nothing to do with “being good.” God’s presence in our lives in unconditional. There’s a good bit more to Mimi’s post and I recommend it.
Of course, not all “who profess and call themselves Christians” share the same vision of God. Mimi writes being “drawn more and more to reading the Gospels with closer attention to the words and actions of Jesus,” and of “another spiritual awakening that I believe has drawn me even closer to God, with a stronger desire to follow the way laid out by Our Lord Jesus Christ, sinner though I am.” I resonate strongly with that testimony.
To my mind, Dom Crossan, along with many other New Testament scholars, helps us to confirm that what we see in the words and actions of Jesus is really there – that this is a Way worth following. It is a Way that is profoundly counter-cultural – and if Dom Crossan is correct, it is counter to civilization. Crossan quotes Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress:
Civilizations are a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. Civilizations vary in their makeup but typically have towns, cities, governments, social classes, and specialized professions. All civilizations are cultures, or conglomerates of cultures, but not all cultures are civilizations.
Our culture is indeed a civilization – with domesticated plants, animals, and human beings and with towns, cities, governments, social classes and specialized professions. Our culture is institutionally both cruel and violent and our culture also sanctions cruelty and violence by individuals. I’m not going to expand on that – it’s obvious enough to me and I hope to you.
A few weeks back, on one of the comment threads at Father Jake’s, Luiz Coelho, The Wandering Christian, announced that he was taking a break in part because he was bothered by the tone of comments in recent threads there.
I think the rhetoric gets heated because of the pain of what we’re going through in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. As I write this, I am about forty five minutes away from the Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York, once the center of unabashed Anglo-Catholicism in my hometown, but now a center of neo-orthodoxy, pastored by Anne and Matt Kennedy. For those who don’t know, Matt Kennedy is a very talented blogger at Stand Firm – one of the websites of the self-styled reasserters. Matt Kennedy generally writes well, but I will say that he his writing seems to me to me to be too tendentious to be taken really seriously. I may expand on that last statement in a future post, and to be fair, I should say there are some on the “liberal” side who are also far too tendentious.
More on this later.
1 week ago