Category: The Politics of Scripture

Last month’s presidential election was characterized by unprecedented rancor and bitterness. With the election over and Obama still in office, the partisan posturing has shifted to the “fiscal cliff” debate and the prognosis that huge spending cuts and an increase in taxes could send the American economy into a tailspin. The issue seems to have changed, but the political climate has not. Even worse than the puerile behavior of elected officials is the level of acrimony displayed by American citizens toward those who disagree with their political affiliation…

For three weeks now, I have been listening to Mary’s Magnificat sung as a part of the mid-week evening prayer service in my congregation. Last week, I leaned over to my five-year-old and told her, “This is the story of Jesus’ Mommy when she was pregnant with him.” Rereading a paper that I wrote on this text in college, I critiqued an over spiritualization of these words that are “a vivid proclamation of God’s eternal justice and intention to uplift the weak and lowly in a ministry of love…a call to social action on behalf of humanity.” Now, as I sit with the text, I can only say that it is all of this and more…

This is what is at the heart of the story. John comes preaching a message of the kingdom in the strongest possible terms—You brood of vipers! As part of his message, to which people seem to be responding, is that they need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That is, don’t just sit there saying you did wrong. Get up and show that you understand by doing something different. And of all the people who might have grasped this message, low and behold, its those nasty tax collectors, the worst people imaginable, who come and ask what they should do to show they really mean what they say about having been transformed. Which is to say, that the narrative presents the very embodiment of a social outsider, confronting the epitome of the empire in the form of the tax collector, who is fundamentally transformed by the encounter.

God chose to speak through a wild man known as John the Baptizer who dressed in animal skins, ate wild honey, and probably had the most unruly hair. The biblical description of his dress and style resembled the prophet Elijah found early in Second Kings. Why then do we ignore God’s trend of speaking through those who diverge from the status quo?

Hope is not drawn from the world-that-is. Hope is grounded in perceptions of the world-that-ought-to-be. It arises from the power of the world-that-ought-to-be. For Christians, the world-that-ought-to-be is the eschatological Kingdom of God. It is expected in the future, in God’s time. But, it is also in the present, which is God’s time. The Kingdom is a perpetual possibility, even as its realization must be perpetually deferred in its fullness.

It is a challenge to reflect on politics and advent together. As advent emerges and we begin to anticipate the emergence of God’s presence into the world anew, as we expect the child who taught peace and preached liberation for the poor and oppressed, I cast my eyes on the political landscape and struggle to glimpse what might be breaking forth with new life. Perhaps this is a problem with how we conceptualize the birth of Jesus, as a grand cosmic event, an episode of a preordained salvation history, the inauguration of a new kingdom of peace on earth. There is another element to this extraordinary story, its ordinariness. Jesus is born in a Galilean backwater, to an unwed teen mother, lost in a crowd of travelers. Jeremiah prophesied to his ancient community about a time when justice and righteousness will emerge into history. We still await the fulfillment of this prophesy. But refracting this vision through the circumstances of Jesus’ birth will perhaps teach us to look for this hope in unexpected places…

Increasingly in liturgical circles it is becoming politically incorrect to talk about the “kingship” of Christ. Such a term now brings with it all the baggage of patriarchal interpretations of the biblical text. It calls to mind the exploitation brought about by colonial powers, abuses of power at the hands of politicians, and perhaps every abuse of power—abuses which represent heinous tragedy and sin. However, while we lament such abuse it is important to remember that power, in political terms, is itself neutral. It is a gift given by God in creation, which when wielded in the hands of human beings can be used for either selfish or selfless purposes (usually with correspondingly negative or positive results). Unfortunately, too often we as human beings struggle to monopolize power for our own sakes and consequently abuses occur…

What should be read as a text which presents God as the champion of and in solidarity with the oppressed, can all too quickly be read as presenting God as the Santa Claus at the mall promising you everything you want. But that’s not what this text is about.

What makes for a good neighborhood? This is a question that American society has been struggling with in different ways for some time now. On one level, a response to this question might have something to do with a residential street dotted with beautiful lawns, white picket fences surrounding lovely homes, low crime rates, good real estate values, and maybe children playing in safety. On another level, however, the neighborhood can be a metaphor for the larger society. The question of what makes for a good American society is a much more divisive issue. It has been the source of rancorous disagreement throughout the election season. On this, and any political issue, election rhetoric becomes a contest of stories, a battle between narratives. Each party works to craft a persuasive narrative that can account for the present situation and also lift up its own vision of America’s future. At the same time, the narrative must offer bleak warnings about the dangerous values and vision of the other party. In the midst of such rancor, it can be a challenge to find a gracious vision of what the good neighborhood looks like. This week’s Old Testament lection from the second half of Ruth, however, can help us go a long way toward finding that gracious narrative. As last week’s post by Timothy Simpson pointed out, there is a lot more to the story of Ruth than usually meets the eye. It may not be typical to think of this story as embodying a vision for the good neighborhood, but the book is making some bold claims about precisely that…

This makes the book of Ruth a deeply political subject, which is very different from much of the popular appropriation of the book, which emphasizes the relationships first between Ruth and Naomi, and then Ruth and Boaz. These are important pastorally, but there is still much left to learn from the book that goes beyond these narrow concerns…

In contemporary Western society we like to pride ourselves on having done away with what we would term ‘archaic’ systems, such as slavery. And so, when we hear such a system mentioned or even alluded to in a text like John 8:31-36, it is easy to write Jesus’ words off as anachronistic to our more ‘civilized’ approach. If we’re among the majority of such Westerners who know of no slavery in our ancestral background (or, if we do, whose ancestors were the slaveholders), then we may be tempted to object with Jesus’ disciples:

“‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’” (8:33)

The first disciples resisted Jesus’ slave imagery, but not without irony. After all, the children of Abraham with whom they identify are the same children of Jacob who traveled to Egypt and were made slaves. Moses and Aaron led their ancestors through the wilderness so that they—the disciples, all the Jews, and by extension believers today—are children of the exodus; children for whom the reality of slavery is very real and near. And yet they resist this, practicing a form of selective amnesia rather than think of themselves as slaves.