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The Politics of Scripture

Courageous Criticism of the Righteous Mind

It takes so little courage to become token protagonists of the truth—righteous minds defending unrighteous actions.

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew 21:33–46 (NRSV)

Sometimes the political challenge of Scripture is pretty clear and its applicability straightforward. At other times, however, the challenge of Scripture is to recognize and confront the opportunism with which we are prone to approach it.

Each of us is endowed with, as the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, puts it, a “righteous mind.” This comes with an up side and a down side. On the up side, it means we are emotionally attuned to care about a range of morally significant values, including the welfare of others, fairness, loyalty, respect, and purity or integrity. On the down side, the emotive power of these values means that we are almost always determined to see, and have others see, the good on our side. If we can’t find its evidence, we will invent it.

In politically fraught situations—and I can think of few situations in twenty-first century life that are not politically fraught—we will insist on seeing the good in ourselves, even at the expense of seeing it in others. When a righteous mind is in full flight, it may recruit Scripture as one more resource in its self-defense. Or, since a violent society teaches us that “offense is the best defense,” it may wield Scripture as just one more weapon in its cause. The winner takes it all.

Reading the Gospel of Matthew can be a lesson in recognizing the power of a righteous mind—I mean both the Gospel writer’s and our own—and in how to resist its impolitic importuning.

Haidt’s work is part of a new synthesis in social psychology. This new synthesis solves the so-called “problem of altruism” in human moral evolution. It shows that the problem is not really located in our evolutionary history, but rather in the overly reductive vision of its proponents. (Richard Dawkins’ enthrallment to the metaphor of “selfish” genes is perhaps the best-known instance).

With a less reductive view of human being, the natural selection of altruistic action is really no problem at all. Attend to just about any of our everyday interactions with our environment, and it is obvious to just about all of us: we are social organisms, through and through. We are always already “other-regarding.”We have precious individuality, of course. But we forge our individual identities in and through conditions which only our sociability affords.

The real problem in our moral psychology, then, is not how seemingly altruistic behavior could evolve out of selfishness hard-wired into our DNA. Rather, the problem is, how can a person, whose identity formation is driven by concern with how others in the social group regard them, grow into an individuality with sufficient self-regard to take personal moral responsibility?

This does not mean abandoning regard for others. That reduced notion of “taking personal responsibility” reflects the social environment of neoliberal political economy. In neoliberal thinking, individualism is everything. Common good—if there is such a thing—is a fortunate by-product of individuals treating others as instruments to a single-minded pursuit of their own self-interest. 

So, according to the neoliberal agenda, we ought to atomize the social bonds that restrain individuals, and unleash the power of their self-interest. The language of neoliberalism reflects this. For instance, “personal responsibility” comes to refer precisely to the power of an isolated individual to “do for himself” (almost always “himself”), without having to depend on anyone else. In this way, the term is abused—there is no other-regarding “response-ability” in that responsibility.

Furthermore, in that sense “personal responsibility” becomes a term with which to abuse people who, because of need or conviction, continue to channel their power into interpersonal ways of doing. They are said to lack “personal responsibility.” But really, I think, theirs is the richer, truer meaning of what it means to be personally responsible. Being personally responsible means achieving a virtuous capability to act as a morally responsive person in community. Not just one of the crowd. Not an Ayn Randian “heroic individual,” either. Rather, somebody: a person who is capable of contributing to the common good—as part of the crowd, yes, but also as a courageous critic.

Courageous critics—critics with heart—will not be cowed by doubts into the self-defensive stance of the righteous mind. Philosophically, they are pragmatists, not absolutists. Doubts give them motivation. And, not presuming to possess it in themselves, they seek for righteousness in the good of persons in community.

When besieged Jerusalem fell to the forces of Titus in 70CE, and the Temple was destroyed, a Jewish form of life disintegrated. This trauma is the backdrop to everything in the Gospel of Matthew. It is the basis of the narrative’s righteous-minded anger at any and all of its hero’s opponents.

The point of the Gospel’s narrative in its historical context is to project a future for Judaism through the person and works of its heroic lead character, “Jesus.” The extended episode in which this character tells the parable of the vineyard exemplifies that fact. It is one pitched battle in the narrative’s longer campaign to salvage and recreate Judaism. The parable is one diatribe in an extended rhetorical assault on “the chief priests” and that rotating cast of other figures who have stood or could yet stand—but, in Matthean imagination, only illegitimately—for a renewal of Jewish life on some basis other than the Christ of Matthew’s Gospel. These characters are, in Matthew’s story, fundamentally tokens of treachery.

The episode begins at 21:23. Jesus is teaching in the Temple. “The chief priests and the elders” come to contest his authority. How adroitly, then, Jesus turns the tables on them, much as he had upset the tables in the Temple the previous day and excited the anger of—that time—“the chief priests and the scribes” (21:12–16).

Now Jesus makes his opponents demonstrate the nature of their own authority. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (verse 25). “Which of the two sons did the will of his father?” (verse 31). “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants?” (verse 40). The cases are increasingly extreme, increasingly easy from the forensic point of view, but the judgments are hard. With each verdict, the opponents of Matthew’s Christ condemn themselves from their own mouths.

There are layers of irony here, which we would do well to understand.

Irony is achieved by a gap in levels of awareness at different levels of a story. In our scene, for example, the ideal Matthean audience understands the villainy of the “chief priests” and company better than those characters can. Consequently, the audience can judge them with a self-assurance to which—ironically—the characters can only pretend.

That power invested in the audience helps give the story its gripping, tragicomic atmosphere. Yet, the effect of this power on the audience may be deeply ambiguous.

The immediate irony—that the judgments the “chief priests” and company pass on the characters in the parables are really judgments against themselves—is easily grasped. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel has redacted the scene from Mark to intensify the obviousness. In Mark, Jesus answers his question, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” himself. In Matthew, the opponents deliver that judgment. Indeed, the whole Matthean narrative paints them as an unsubtle portrait in hypocrisy.

There is at least another layer of irony, though, that may elude the grasp of an audience. For the gap this time is not between different characters, or between characters and the audience, but within the audience’s awareness. The gap is a kind of lapse in attention, a sort of imaginative blankness, whereby the audience fails to notice or even ignores the difference between the characters as portrayed and the real people to whom they refer. This irony is volatile. Its effects have been cruel. If we indulge our naïveté about it, let our attention lapse, we allow that cruel history to carry on.

Here’s how it works. I have described the episode in Matthew as a pitched battle. But a pitched battle is a planned military encounter on a prearranged battleground. The scene portrayed is not like that. On the one hand, it seems a quite spontaneous affair: Jesus is occupied with teaching the people in the Temple when his opponents interrupt him. On the other hand, the long episode ends, not with honorable engagement in the open, but in the conspiracy to ambush Jesus (26:3–4).

The irony is, that plot, and all that precedes it, has been prearranged by the writer of the Gospel. If the audience will let lapse its attention to the difference between the plotted world in the story and the world they live in, then the wicked tenants of the parable—that is,  the “chief priests” and company of the Gospel—fuse imaginatively with whomever the audience identifies with those characters in their world. The result is a single set of indifferently interchangeable antagonists.

Living in a traumatic world which could not be narrated so neatly, we may empathize with the writer’s desire to achieve such close-knit coherence in their reimagining of it. However, for this ambition to succeed, the audience, too, must collude in the Matthean plot. They must both keep open and conceal the gap in their own awareness that permits the conflation.

Again, what the audience conceals is the distinct reality of the actual people, outside the text, who posed alternatives to the Matthean vision for the world. They see only Matthew’s caricatures in them. But those actual people surely were not provided notice of their conscription into—not to mention onto the wrong side of—Matthew’s battle in narrative form. Those actual people surely were not forewarned to prepare for the Gospel’s rhetorical assault against them.

So the suggestion at 21:45 is cruelly ironic, that, “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized he was speaking about them.” “They”—which is finally to say, whomever the audience might take to be represented by those characters—likely had no idea that “he”—the Jesus of Matthean imagination—was still speaking to them in the late first century, let alone about them. But their obliviousness is just the ironic emplotment of the audience’s own, complicit unconsciousness; it’s the gap where the audience let themselves be absorbed in the world as Matthew wishes it were.

Thus, those characters, chief priests, scribes, Pharisees and the rest, have continued to be, in the long history of interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew, mere tokens of treachery.

And, insofar as Christian imagination became more Matthean, so Christians could and did fuse themselves in their own (un)awareness with the messengers sent by the owner of the vineyard, even with his son. It takes so little courage thus to become token protagonists of the truth—righteous minds defending unrighteous actions.

The self-conscious Christianity of so many settler colonial societies reproduced the imaginative gap. Historically, settler-descendants like me have thought of ourselves as protagonists of truth in our national stories. For all their faults, so the story goes, our first generations did bring gospel and civilization to the peoples of our lands. They came, exhorting and teaching the people to bear fruit worthy of the Kingdoms of Heaven and Metropole.

Perhaps, though, the waning of settler colonial Christianity provides a chance to hear the parable of the vineyard with new ears—and grasp anew our implication in it.

To put it plainly: has it been, all along, that we, so far as we carry colonial consciousness, are the wicked tenants? 

Then how shall we aim to live now?

According to this pragmatic mode of criticism, our goal in interpreting the politics of Scripture should not be so much programmatic—to prescribe a utopian plan of action, as experimental—to project life-giving possibilities we could learn to inhabit, what the first generation of liberation theologians called proyectos históricos, historical projects.

So what might be an appropriate historical project for settler colonial descendants? Whatever its eventual shape, surely we should begin with becoming personally responsible to the first peoples, whom we cast as wicked tenants, whose tenures we obliterated. So it begins with the courage to let ourselves be criticized, rather than claim a scriptural mantle for ourselves.

If I am not mistaken, this approach to making scripture meaningful preserves the liberationist insight that reflective interpretation is a “second moment” in (self-)understanding, always already shaped by a “first moment,” the political situation of the present, and therefore rightfully subject to ideological clarification and correction.But also, if I am not mistaken, this approach avoids the residual dogmaticism found in some (most emphatically: notall) liberation theology. Juan Luis Segundo said that our ideologies should always come second to a faith that en-courages us (literally, “puts courage into us”) to learn how to learn, to be co-participants in a critical pedagogy. Perhaps, then, this pragmatic mode of criticism may be a useful instrument to teach ourselves, together, how to intervene in, without being captivated by winner-take-all politics, and its violent righteousness.

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