Here we have one of the classic Advent themes associated with our preparations for the birth of Christ, but actually referring to John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry 30 years later. I want to suggest an unorthodox and creative way of interpreting this text, one perhaps more in-keeping with the current context. We are inclined to ask ourselves “whose are the voices?” and “where is the wilderness?” I will reverse these questions in order to throw some light upon the nature of vocation and the reasons for the apparent frustrations of it.
By D. Stephen Long
When I published my first book, which was on United Methodism and war, John Howard Yoder surprised me by blurbing it with the comment that it was interesting to see “non binding hortatory statements” taken seriously. When I first read that blurb I thought Yoder was incorrect. That book was a discussion of article XVI in the United Methodist Confession of Faith that says “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ.” This article has never been rescinded. I thought Yoder misunderstood the nature of our Wesleyan heritage. In the intervening time, I have come to see he was correct. Despite having the Book of Discipline, we are not a disciplined church when it comes to any ethical or doctrinal issue.
The vision of God’s kingdom espoused in Isaiah 61 seems more “not yet” than “already.” Jesus identified the first two verses as a prophecy regarding himself, the Messiah, when he read from this chapter in Luke 4. In spite of Christ’s commitment to the least of these, large segments of the Western church insist on spiritualizing Christ’s mission so that it focuses on poverty of spirit or spiritual blindness—an interpretive move that allows injustice to persist unabated and unthreatened by prophetic witness.
It is unfortunate that the mainstream evangelical church owes its political stance more to John Stuart Mill than to Jesus. The members of many churches worship American individualism and the free market more than the ethical responsibility for the “other,” as encouraged by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and ultimately Jesus himself. In On Liberty, Mill defends the rights of individuals to behave as sovereigns over themselves as long as others are not harmed. Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this perspective, and the government is viewed as an oppressive behemoth bent on snatching away private liberties. What is not mentioned is that our individual economic decisions are often destructive to the overall well-being of fellow citizens.
In my prior posting, I was concerned with elaborating the disciplinary position from which I take up the project of political theology. It is a part of the secular study of our political practices and beliefs. Accepting these limits, I placed myself within the same modernist tradition as liberal political theory.
There is a deeper point to be made about the symmetry between theory and practice in the modern age. Liberal political theory is committed to the idea that an adequate account must be one that is fully transparent to reason. Theory is to be built through discrete, rational steps from common premises that purport to be universal. Accordingly, it is hostile to any privileged claims made on the basis of a particular faith, including claims for the existence of God or a natural order. In a parallel fashion, the modern, political order is to be autochthonous. It is to rest on nothing outside of itself. This is not a claim about history, which knows no beginnings; rather, it describes a secular understanding of the origin and ground of the state. This is an important idea, for example, in the decolonization movement: a post-colonial state can create itself through an original founding act. It need not express a pre-existing national or ethnic identity.
The wilderness was not a place that good Romans went. In the view of Roman imperial cosmology, the wilderness was a place full of savage people to be subdued and conquered. The Augustus of Prima Porta statue, imaged here, shows precisely this view. The heavens come into alignment and the Gods look down in delight as the Parthian king surrenders to Rome. On either side, mourning barbarian women are curled in positions of submission. This is how Rome viewed the wilderness — the worlds of barbarian people and wild animals outside the boundaries of Roman control, and only fit into the Roman imagination once they had been subdued. This was the drama enacted regularly in the arena, where wild animals and foreign persons were slaughtered before adoring crowds.
It is certainly interesting to see a reflection of myself in the response of another discipline, even if I sometimes have trouble recognizing that image. Most useful will be for me to address the meaning of the gap between the two different political theological enterprises represented in this discussion. I will begin by making clear what the idea of a political theology contributes to my project. Following that, I will defend some of the contested theoretical premises of my work. Finally, I will take up the hardest question that emerges from this discussion: is it really the case that my political theological project is non-normative? If there is an implicit normative claim in my work, then the reviewers are right to ask not just whether I have got my description of American politics right, but whether the ethical direction of my work can be supported.
The telling feature of this interpretation (of Matthew 13: 24-30) is not that it is a passing allusion, but that it becomes a key mode for organising Lenin’s struggles with various opponents in the socialist movement. His interpretation is both close in spirit to the biblical parable and yet has its own twists. The similarities first: the crucial issue is discernment, separating the tares from the wheat, the former appearing in a negative register as one’s opponents and the latter belonging to one’s own side. Further, the tares must be pulled up or cut down, so that it becomes clear who is part of the wheat. And the task falls to the ‘reapers’, who come to scythe away the weeds for the sake of the wheat.
It’s easy to read this week’s gospel as a warning of doom and gloom. It begins, after all, with this strict admonition, “Be Alert!” (v 23), and ends with the equally forceful command, “Keep awake!” (v 37). It’s as though Jesus has just shouted, “Watch out!” and thrown a ball of flaming fire into the crowd. But, of course, there is no fiery ball and so the question naturally is, “Watch out for what?” Within the pericope itself, the obvious answer becomes the awesome image that Jesus paints in verse 26: “The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” And why should we be concerned? (Apart, of course, from the darkened moon and falling stars…) Because Jesus says the Son of Man is like a master returning and from there we write our own scripts of what wrath this master might bring. “Keep awake!” the Bible tells us, and we add, “Because if we sleep, we might be hit by that fiery ball!” And, indeed, for Matthew and Luke, who record this prediction as “a thief coming in the middle of the night,” rather than a master returning to his home, such fears may be warranted. But, for Mark, different dynamics are at play…