Sunday, January 7, 2007

Portrait of Jesus as a nonviolent political subversive

One of the things I love about Marcus Borg is his quiet understatement. Nowhere in his recent book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, does he shout off the page, "Jesus is divine!" or "Accept Jesus as your personal savior ...or else!" As a matter of fact, the most sensational words of the whole book are featured in its subtitle: "a religious revolutionary." Which makes me suspect that, like so many of the words attributed to Jesus but actually added by others, Borg has his editors to thank for the book's subtitle.

The most categoric statement concerning Jesus in the entire work is: "Jesus is the decisive revelation of God--of God's character and passion" (p. 303). Borg declaring that "Jesus is the Decider"? Anyway, more comments about the passion of God and of Jesus in a later blog....

As for Borg's method, he interprets the Gospel stories --with emphasis on the Synoptics-- using the historical-critical method also used by John Dominic Crossan and many other biblical scholars. Or, as Borg prefers to call it, "the historical metaphorical" method. In his latest work he expands on the statement he made in
The Heart of Christianity: "Stories can be true without being literally and factually true."

I really have trouble fathoming why many Christians today insist on taking every word of the Gospels as literal, concrete fact. As Borg demonstrates, such literalness actually diminishes the import of the Good News. "It does not matter to me whether the tomb was empty," says the author. I don't know if any of you have attended a traditional Sunday service at a "mainline" church recently, but can you imagine what would happen if the preacher made a statement like that?

What Borg tries to hammer home -- but always with the gentlest of mallets-- is that
metaphor means more, not less when it comes to understanding the message conveyed by the Gospels. For instance, the Nativity stories, he explains, "directly challenge a central claim of Roman imperial theology," namely the claims that Caesar Augustus was the "Son of God," God incarnate, and "Savior of the World" (as Roman coins of the period proclaimed). That says much more to me about what the Gospel writers thought about God's attitude toward the Roman domination system --and what the Gospels have to say to us today about current political domination systems in general-- than insisting on the fact that there were really angels who appeared and spoke to shepherds.

And when a Gospel writer puts the words, "Truly this man was God's son!" into the mouth of a Roman soldier --whether "Mark" actually heard a centurion say this or not-- is like a playwright putting a revolutionary, in-your-face declaration into the mouth of his protagonist. It's as though, if you will, an American interrogator declared that some poor, no-account Muslim who died of privations and torture at Guantánamo had lived a more "Christian" life than _____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite authority figure who claims to speak for God).

(For a disconcerting real-life example of the above, watch this video.)

Think about it. Which statement is more revolutionary: "Jesus died for your sins" or "Jesus' death and resurrection (however you wish to conceptualize it) constitute God's judgment on the domination systems of our time?" Which is the more powerful interpretation of the Gospels, the factual one (empty tomb, angel, glorified body) or the metaphorical one?

Or, to put it another way, which statement do you think is more likely to get the speaker attacked (=crucified) if shouted in a crowded theater ... or from a pulpit?

I was surprised to read interpretations of some of the parables as well as language like "domination system," both of which I had encountered in books written by Walter Wink (The Powers trilogy, The Powers That Be) but did not remember particularly well as figuring in other works of Borg.(Reviewing The Heart of Christianity, I do find much on the domination system.) From the notes at the end of book, Borg and Wink seem to be indebted to Parables as Subversive Speech by
William R. Herzog. I'll have to peruse that one as soon as I get the chance.

Borg in his gentle, understated, self-effacing way presents a very subversive Jesus for those of us who, though we may deplore it, are part of one of the major domination systems of our time. (See excerpt of Robert Jensen's Citizens of the Empire.) You have to read carefully to find this author's in-your-face statements. One of them occurs on p.298:

"Given this long tradition of Christian teaching about war, why were the streets of America not thronged with millions of Christians in the months leading up to the war [with Iraq] saying, 'We must not do this-- it violates all Christian teaching about the conditions under which we may go to war'? The most persuasive answer is because of the imperial captivity of much of the church in the United States."
Good heavens, Mr. Borg! Whatever are you implying??

Which leads me to something I've been wondering about quite a bit: unless Christianity is subversive, is it really being true to the message of Jesus? Or: Can Christianity be the official religion of the empire and still be Good News to the poor, the captives?


  1. is American interrogator declared that some poor, no-account Muslim who died of privations and torture at Guantánamo had lived a more "Christian" life than _____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite authority figure who claims to speak for God).

    OK! I choose Pat Robertson. How about you? :)

    Can Christianity be the official religion of the empire and still be Good News to the poor, the captives?


    Re. Walter Wink - it's my understanding that he is now a Quaker.

    Re. Borg - I haven't read this latest. I have too many other books that I want to read first, but thanks for your thoughts about this. I was wondering what people were thinking about it.

  2. Hi Joe,

    >>OK! I choose Pat Robertson.

    Good choice!

    >> How about you? :)

    Oh ... I prefer to let them fight over the honor :-)

    >>Can Christianity be the official >>religion of the empire and still >>be Good News to the poor, the >>captives?


    That's a pretty definitive answer...what happens to religions once they get institutionalized? How does a religion keeps its message alive?

    How can some people claim to follow Jesus and be waiting for him to come and slay all the infidels (i.e., people who don't think the way they do), while others claim to follow him and call for nonviolent dialog?

    >> Walter Wink - it's my >>understanding that he is now a >>Quaker.

    WOW! Thanks for the tip! I went and searched a bit, and it does seem that he's now a member of meeting in southern MA.

    Frankly, I'm surprised that I didn't find any reviews of Borg's book yet.

    So how are you doing?


  3. I am currently about two thirds of the way through Borg's most recent book on Jesus. I try to read everything of his I can get my hands on. He is the best voice of progressive Christianity that I can think of, and he is indeed often gentle and understated in the way he expresses himself. He doesn't hit conservative Christianity over the head with a hammer--he doesn't need to. The power of his progressive vision speaks for itself.

  4. Hi Mystical,

    Borg made it possible for me to continue to think of myself as a Christian....

    Although I do read a bit in the sacred writings of other traditions, I keep coming back to the Gospels and other New Testament books, because I find so much inspiration in them. However, I do not --make that cannot-- assent anymore to most of the traditional doctrines concerning Jesus and the (institutional) Church.

    Borg's interpretation of the Gospels and of Jesus as a Spirit-filled healer, prophet, and teacher who points us to God is something that I can confidently confess.

    Borg notes on p. 307 of Jesus: "The first title I suggested for this book was An Emerging Jesus for an Emerging Christianity." I understand better the concepts of "emerging Church" and "emerging Christianity" thanks to his books.

    I keep asking myself: What would happen if we really took Jesus' teachings seriously??? For instance, in The Heart of Christianity he quotes bishop Dom Helder Camara, "When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist."

    Those of us who ask why there is war ...get called a lot of things :-)

    Thanks for stopping by. Keep on seeking!


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