Thursday, July 5, 2018

Do not misrepresent your sources (part 2) or Get to know your sources!

Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu

In early May I blogged about people misrepresenting their sources. in that instance, I pointed out that people were misrepresenting views of Thomas Jefferson. 

I concluded with this admonition: 
As I tell my students, check (and recheck) your sources very carefully and do not--intentionally or unintentionally--misrepresent them.
Currently I am working on revising and adding to my 2000 book, What Are They Saying about the Parables? In the process, I am reading published reviews of recent books on the parables written by scholars and am finding errors about primary sources that should never happen.

Caveat: Everyone makes mistakes, of course. I can easily point to ones in my own books.

Some scholars who write about the Historical Jesus, for example, appear to depend upon secondary literature when they write about such classic works as David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined or Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus (which should happen less now that Fortress published an English edition of the first complete edition--there were some significant changes in his 1913 revision, such as the famous "wheel of the world" quote). See my WATSA Historical Jesus? if you are interested in that discussion.

The same thing happens in parable scholarship, of course, especially when people write about Adolf Jülicher's untranslated Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. 

A trivial example: I read two reviews, one of Ernest van Eck's The Parables of Jesus the Galilean and one of Klyne Snodgrass's Stories with Intent. Both of the reviews took the authors to task for getting the wrong publication dates wrong for Jülicher's works on the parables (there are also misunderstandings of Jülicher's positions, but this example is the easiest to explain).

I will not name the reviewers--I am sure that I am guilty sometimes of such errors, so humility in critiquing others is a good idea--but one of them really chides the author/proofreader for getting this "wrong."

As I point out in both WATSA Parables? and The Parables after Jesus, the dates of differ Jülicher's works differ, because of a revision and new edition with a second volume. Thus it is more likely that Eck and Snodgrass have different dates because they are referencing different editions of Jülicher's works.

Here is how I explain it in The Parables after Jesus:

Adolf Jülicher was born in Falkenberg, Germany, in 1857. He attended the University of Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in 1880, and then served as a Lutheran pastor at Rummelsburg. He also worked as a private lecturer (Privatdozent) in Berlin, and during that time wrote the first volume of his seminal work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (The Parables of Jesus), which was published in 1886. As a result, Jülicher was invited to join the faculty at the University of Marburg, where he remained until he retired in 1923 (the famed New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann was one of his students).
Die Gleichnisreden Jesu is the most famous and influential scholarly book on the parables ever written, and it inaugurated a new era in the modern research of the parables. The first volume of the work discusses interpretative issues, and the second volume, published along with a revised first volume in 1888–1889, gives detailed interpretations of all the parables found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Although many of Jülicher’s categories have been superseded by subsequent interpreters, some of his discussions still influence current debates (for much of the following, see Gowler 2000 and the sources listed there).

Here is the version of Jülicher's work that I checked out of Pitts Theology Library for my own reading/research:

Jülicher, Adolf. 1963. Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Would the Trump Administration Separate Jesus from Mary and Joseph?

Over two weeks ago I wrote this essay that just appeared in the History News Network (the above photo appeared in the essay). Much has happened since then--a father's suicide after being separated from his son, the Trump's administration's apparent consideration of "tent cities/prison camps" for these children, and so forth--and the policy has become even more horrific in the past two and a half weeks since I wrote the piece.

The essay had to be cut for publication, so I will place the full draft that I first submitted on this blog. The essay includes a brief discussion of the parable of the Sheep and Goats (near the end), for those who come hear to read about the reception history of the parables):

If you prefer the (much) shorter version, just click on the link above.


Would the Trump Administration Separate Jesus from Mary and Joseph?

The family escaped in the dead of night. Like countless other immigrants, they lived in a country oppressed by a ruthless and murderous ruler, and they feared for the safety of their young child. So they fled under cover of darkness and traveled hundreds of miles to a distant country where they would be safe.

This family, the story goes, was fortunate. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped from Herod the Great and found refuge in Egypt, although many others in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were killed on Herod’s orders.

Last year a woman and her seven year-old daughter, fearing violence, fled the Congo, presented themselves at the U.S. border, and officially sought asylum. Even though officials determined that asylum might be granted, the mother and her child were forcibly separated by immigration agents. The woman was detained in San Diego, and her daughter, screaming and traumatized, was taken to a facility in Chicago. 

This story and numerous other stories of children being separated from their parentsforeshadow what is now official government policy: All people who cross the border illegallywill be prosecuted. This change means that parents who arrive with children are detained in jail, including ones seeking asylum, and their children—even those who are eighteen months and perhaps younger—are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The stench of this policybegins at the top, as is evident from Donald Trump’s statements, such as the ones in the announcement of his candidacyfor president. Trump found an eager partner in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recently announced this new “zero tolerance policy”: “If you cross the southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you . . . . If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.” 

This hostile approach to immigration is justified throughout the administration, such as chief of staff John Kellywho bemoaned the ability of these “overwhelmingly rural people” to “assimilate”:  “They don't speak English. They don't integrate well, they don't have skills.” Kelly supported the policy to separate family members as a “tough deterrent” and infamously declared: “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

So far the Trump administration’s approach to immigration has significant support among Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center pollindicated that only 26% of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) believe that the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees. In contrast, almost three times as many Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (74%) believe that the United States has such a responsibility.  

A core constituency of the Republican party, white evangelical Protestants, reflects the differences of opinion on immigration between Republicans and Democrats. According to Pew:

By more than two-to-one (68% to 25%), white evangelical Protestants say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees. Other religious groups are more likely to say the U.S. does have this responsibility. And opinions among religiously unaffiliated adults are nearly the reverse of those of white evangelical Protestants: 65% say the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while just 31% say it does not.

These anti-immigrant sentiments have a long history in the United States, but they stand in stark contrast with one of the greatest landmarks in the United States, the Statue of Liberty. Since its dedication in 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood in New York Harbor. It faces southeast so that ships, entering the harbor, can see her as a welcoming symbolfor immigrants and others coming to the United States.

Emma Lazarus wrote the Petrarchan sonnet, “The New Colossus,” in 1883 to help raise funds for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands, and, in 1903, a plaque with the poem inscribed on it was placed inside the pedestal. Even though people such as White House adviser Stephen Miller attempt to undermine the importance of the sonnet, its connections to the Statue of Liberty’s symbolism are clear: 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Most people quote the part of the sonnet that speaks of the tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to speak about the greatness of the United States and the value of diversity. Yet just as important is the sonnet’s radical statement about hospitalitythat contrasts the welcoming “Mother of Exiles” symbolism of the Statue of Liberty from the “conquering limbs” symbolism of the statue of Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world that stood in the harbor of ancient Rhodes.

Lazarus’s sonnet also reminds us that although many Christians believe the Gospel of Matthew’s story about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt is unique, that story is similar to thousands of other stories of immigrants fleeing for their lives and livelihoods. In all of these cases the fundamental issue is that of hospitality to fellow human beings.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, as “strangers” (immigrants) in Egypt received hospitality and later return to Israel after Herod the Great died (although they settled in Galilee). Matthew is also the only Gospel to include Jesus’s famous parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), a story that declares that giving hospitality to those in need, such as strangers/immigrants like Jesus was in Egypt, is the same as giving hospitality to Jesus himself. This parable also teaches that God will judge human beings on their hospitality, how they treat the “least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, stranger/immigrant, sick, ill-clothed, and imprisoned. Since some scholars—incorrectly, in my view—interpret the “least of these” as being Christians, it is important to note that the critical importance of these acts of hospitality is found throughout the teachings of Jesus—such as extending hospitality to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” 

Hospitality, of course, is not exclusively a Christian virtue (e.g., in the ancient world such acts of hospitality are called “deeds of lovingkindness in Jewish rabbinical traditions, and they are among the virtues in classical philosophy), but the dichotomy between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of white evangelical Christians about immigration is striking.

The good news is that a number of Christians, including some evangelical Christian leaders, are challenging other Christians to consider what Jesus actually said and did before reaching any political conclusions

Because “how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ,” Christians must oppose “attacks on immigrants and refugees” and “cutting services and programs for the poor” accompanied by tax cuts “for the rich.”

To date there is little evidence that white evangelical supporters of Donald Trump can be persuaded to change their minds by any appeal to the teachings of Jesus. Hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder. But one key element in this policy of separating children from their parents may make a difference. As Jonathan Chait argues, the “emotional power of the stories of families torn apart by Trump’s policy has an unknown, but vast, potential.” 

The first step would be to understand that these asylum seekers and other immigrants—who are demonized as “criminals” or even “animals” by those seeking to rationalize this policy—are fellow human beings. The next step would be honest discussions of our immigration policies and to what extent the United States should practice the virtue of hospitality. There are more humane options, as Ali Noorani suggests, such as using discretion in prosecuting immigration cases (families are separated when adults are prosecuted), providing legal counsel for children, alternatives to detention in facilities, and, when detention is deemed necessary, providing more humane conditions.

Will the horrific policy of separating children from their parents cause many white evangelicals and others to change their minds about immigration policies in general? As the anti-immigrant president they support says when he does not know or want to give the answer, “We’ll see what happens.” 

In the meantime those who have a shred of humanity should fight this inhumane policy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

WATSA Parables? 20th Anniversary Revised and Expanded Edition coming soon!

Soon to be Revised and Expanded!

I am delighted to announce that yesterday I started working on the 20th anniversary revised and expanded edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables? 

It is great to be working with Paulist Press again (I also published WATSA Historical Jesus? with Paulist).

I turned in my final manuscript for WATSA Parables?  in November 1998. I remember that date because I found the files on a 3 1/2 inch floppy disk (marked "final" with the date on it) in a storage room in our basement and had to obtain an external floppy disk drive so I could transfer the files to my laptop (it's been a few years since I've had a computer with a floppy drive).

Many, many important studies in the parables have appeared since WATSA Parables? was first published (2000). Arland Hultgren's The Parables of Jesus, in fact, came out the same year, and the first edition of Klyn Snodgrass's monumental Stories with Intent was published in 2008, with a second edition appearing in 2018 (with a new chapter on recent scholarship). So it's a good time to bring the book up to date, especially since it is still being used as a textbook in classes on the parables.

In addition to expanding the seven extant chapters, I am adding at least one chapter, tentatively entitled, "What do Parables Want?" More about that chapter later, but it will include recent Reception History works on the parables, selected ethical responses, and some books about preaching the parables.

So this is my third book in a row that focuses on the parables:

Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables (co-edited with Kipton Jensen) comes out August 23, 2018.

The Parables After Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia was published in 2017.

I have some thoughts about my next book project after I finish this one, and it may also have some connections to the parables. We'll see.

Monday, May 21, 2018

President Carter, Christopher Rowland, William Barber, and Liz Theoharis: Counterparts to the Four Horsemen of Evangelical Hypocrisy (Part 2)

Chris Rowland, President Carter, Mrs. Carter, David Gowler

The above photo is of three of my heroes (the three on the left!).

This blog post may seem at first to be an amalgamation of basically unrelated thoughts and events. It is not, as I hope will become clear by the end.

Part I: Chris Rowland
I want to dedicate this post to my mentor, friend, and colleague, Christopher Rowland, Dean Ireland’s Professor in the Exegesis of Holy Scripture (emeritus) of Oxford University. 

Today (Monday, 21 May) is his birthday. Happy birthday, Chris! Wish I could be there to help you and Catherine celebrate.

I first met Chris thirty-one years ago when I studied with him for a few months at Jesus College, Cambridge University, and he has become one of my dearest friends. I have learned from his intellectual brilliance, I and many others have benefited from his kind and generous heart, and I admire how he never let anyone be on the margins; he never permitted anyone’s voice to be silenced. In his own, brilliant self-effacing way, he fostered an environment of dialogic polyphony.

Chris also is also a groundbreaking scholar in apocalypticism, reception history, liberation theology, radical Christianity, grassroots movements that encourage all voices to be heard, and many other areas.

I was honored to be the co-editor, along with Zoë Bennett, of Chris’s first (of three!) Festschrift: Radical Christian Voices and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2012).

A few years ago, Chris and I co-taught a course, Portraits of Jesus, at Oxford College of Emory University. Chris lived on the Atlanta campus of Emory University--near where I live--and we would drive out to Oxford to teach the class. 

During his time in Atlanta, the first thing on Chris’s wish list was to drive to Plains, Georgia, to see President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School.

We left very, very early in the morning (hint: you really need to get there early; sometimes hundreds of people--Sunday before last it was 200 out of 700--have to be turned away), but even still we initially were seated in the overflow room, where people who don’t get into the sanctuary get to watch President Carter teach Sunday School on TV (in a room right off the sanctuary). Here is a photo Chris took when President Carter came to visit the people in the overflow room.

Photo by Chris Rowland

As it turned out, Chris and I were the last two people who got to enter the sanctuary to listen to President Carter (we had to move after Sunday School ended and when the church service started, because our seats were reserved for the Carters and the Secret Service agents). Here is a photo Chris took of President Carter in action teaching Sunday School in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church:  

Photo by Chris Rowland

After the service, President and Mrs. Carter went outside and patiently stood for photos with everyone who attended church that day; that’s when the photo at the top was taken. It was a great day.

Okay; I know you want to see it again:

Part II: The Revd. Dr. William Barber, the Revd. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Poor People’s Campaign

When I wrote the article for Salon, “The Four Horsemen of evangelical hypocrisy: How they whitewashed Donald Trump,” I wanted to end the article on a positive, hopeful note—but the word count limit was my enemy, and I had to cut a number of things (including reasons why I focused on white evangelicals), so that positive ending was one of the things that had to go.

In that original ending, I highlighted an example of evangelical Christians who, in my reading of Jesus’s teachings, are coming much closer to following what Jesus would want us to do: the Revd. Dr. William Barber, the Revd. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Poor People’s Campaign that they are currently leading.

This campaign is a renewal of the one started by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968:
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America. They invited people who had been divided to stand together against the “triplets of evil”—militarism, racism, and economic injustice—to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. They sought to build a broad, fusion coalition that would audit America. Together, they would demand an accounting of promissory notes that had been returned marked “insufficient funds.” Today that effort is still incomplete. 
I also recommend the excellent book by Liz Theoharis, Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans, 2017). A summary:

Jesus’s words “the poor you will always have with you” are regularly used to suggest that ending poverty is impossible, that poverty is a result of moral failures, and that the poor themselves have no role in changing their situation. In this book Liz Theoharis examines both the biblical text and the lived reality of the poor to show how that passage is taken out of context, distorted, and politicized to justify theories about the inevitability of inequality. 

As I wrote in Fortune:
In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some politicians today still cite sayings of Jesus as evidence that he would approve of their neglect of the poor. John 12:8 is the most common example: “You always have the poor with you …” Left out of that (mis)interpretation is the fact that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from Jewish Scripture that makes the opposite point: The continual existence of the poor serves as the fundamental reason for God’s command to assist them, to give “liberally and ungrudgingly”: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (See Deuteronomy 15:1-11).

Part III: President Jimmy Carter

Then, the day after the Salon article appeared, last Saturday, the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher gave the commencement address at Liberty University. It is remarkable that the invitation was extended, but, given the speaker’s record, it was not remarkable that the invitation was accepted.

Jerry Falwell, Jr, the current president of Liberty University invited former President Jimmy Carter to give the keynote address. Falwell’s father played a large role in President Carter’s “involuntary retirement” (as President Carter likes to call it) by the 1980 presidential election. 

remember how unfairly the elder Falwell attacked the fellow evangelical Christian (and fellow Baptist) Carter. The reasons were less about Roe v Wade and more about Brown v Board of Education (especially the tax status of private Christian schools that discriminated).

In his introduction of President Carter last Saturday, Jerry Falwell, Jr, indirectly lamented the role that his father and others played in attacking President Carter in the late 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., “It saddens me today to think that so many conservative Christians attacked and demeaned Jimmy Carter in the 1970s for quoting Jesus Christ to a secular magazine”). He also said, "I pray that more men and women aspire to serve in public office with such courage."

Falwell then said, “The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person and give my political support to a person. Policies are important, but candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today”

I found that statement hopeful but other aspects of Falwell's 10-11 minute introduction not as hopeful (e.g., his discussion on the Hyde Act and other concerns).

Falwell made clear in his lengthy introduction--at about the 10-minute point, President Carter asked, "Can I say a few words now?"--where he agreed and disagreed with President Carter.

Here are some quotes from Falwell that I typed out from a video of the event:
Becky and I attended the opening of the Billy Graham Library in 2007 about one month after my father’s death.  And I remember commenting to Becky then, that of the four former presidents speaking that day, Jimmy Carter sounded more like one of us than the rest.
At the same time many good Christians disagree about what the role of government should be in helping the poor. Jesus never said whether it was Caesar’s job to help those in need or not, but he made it clear that it is our job.  As president he did support government programs to help the poor, but he also spent the last few decades swinging a hammer himself, building housing and supporting the poor through his foundation. I am proud that Christians are uniting here today on issues where they agree rather than fighting over issues where they disagree. 

President Carter's Speech:

In much of his speech, President Carter sought to stress the common ground that they as evangelical Christians shared. I was expecting a little more "Daniel in the lion's den" at points, but overall people were gracious.

President Carter spoke a little about his life history, his mission trips, 36 years (and continuing) as an Emory University professor, the world of the Carter Center to promote peace and champion human rights, its work to eradicate many diseases (e.g., the Guinea worm: When they started there were 3½ million cases in 21 countries. Last month were were 3 cases in Chad).

He spoke about the many crises the world faces, such as discrimination against women, the great disparity in wealth between the richest people and the rest of us (e.g., 8 people control more wealth than 3½ billion people, half the world’s population), the rising prison population, the increasing racial, partisan and religious divisions), and the threat of nuclear war. 
In the face of nuclear war that could end all humankind, Carter said that promoting agape love is even more important.

Here are some quotes from the speech:
Need to learn how to do good for one another and to get along with our potential enemies instead of how we can prevail in combat. In other words, just follow the mandates of the Prince of Peace. Learn to live with even our enemies in peace. It’s what Jesus taught, and it will be our only chance for survival in the future.

I'm glad to say that our common faith in worshiping Jesus Christ is slowly bringing us back together.

One of the things we have to learn is how to get along, to do good for one another, in other words, just following the mandates of the Prince of Peace. We don't need enemies to fight, nor do we need "inferior" people whom we can dominate.  
We are one (quoting Galatians 3:28): "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male or female, there is neither slave nor master, for ye are all one, all one, in Christ Jesus.

Even now some of us are still struggling to accept the fact that all people are equals in the eyes of God.

The end of his speech implicitly challenged the "Two Kingdoms" theology of Falwell and others (e.g., whether some of the commands of Jesus pertain to governments as well as individuals). President Carter says they do (I may not have typed all of the words correctly here from the video):

There are attributes of a superpower that go beyond military strength. It’s the same as those of a person.

Our nation should be known as a champion of peace 

Our nation should be known as a champion of equality

Our nation should be known as a champion of human rights

We also should be admired for our generosity for other people in need and other moral values.

In other words, for those principles that never change. There is no reason in the world why the U.S cannot epitomize these high virtues.

As a Christian, I believe the ultimate fate of human beings will be good, with God’s love prevailing.  
 Use three gifts that God gives us: life, freedom and in effect a guarantee that every single one of us will have enough talent and enough opportunity to live a completely successful life. As judged by God. 
 We decide the kind of person we choose to be:

We decide whether we tell the truth or benefit from telling lies. We’re the ones who decide, do I hate or am I filled with love? We’re the ones who decide, do I think only about myself, or do I care for others? We ourselves make these decisions and no one else. There are no limits to our ambition as a human being and we have available to us, every one of us, constant contact with God in heaven. 

 I know this was a very long post--I should have broken it up into three parts. 

My main point is that, with people like President Carter, Rosalynn Carter, William Barber, Liz Theoharis, Chris Rowland, and countless others, there is still hope.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Four Horsemen of Evangelical Hypocrisy and Some Counterparts (Part 1)

Tony Perkins; Robert Jeffress; Franklin Graham; Jerry Falwell, Jr. (AP/Getty/Salon)

This post has limited connections to interpretations of the parables of Jesus (one reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan), but I want to write a two-part post about an article I had published on Salon on Friday: “The Four Horsemen of evangelical hypocrisy: How they whitewashed Donald Trump.” 

This first post is about the article; the second post will be about a couple examples of evangelicals who I believe are actively trying to follow Jesus's message and are coming closer, in my view, to what Jesus believed and taught. The Salon article originally had a positive postscript, but I had to cut it because of the essay's length (~1200 word limit). 

In the Salon article I connect Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech (June 1, 1950) against McCarthyism, the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem this week, and the hypocritical support of Donald Trump by white evangelical leaders:
This week’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is another reminder that Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech, an early denunciation of the evils of McCarthyism in the 1950s, still remains politically relevant, particularly to the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump. Smith decried the lack of leadership that she believed could result in “national suicide” and urged her Republican colleagues to maintain their political integrity and intellectual honesty: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Smith’s speech alludes to the “Four Horsemen” of Revelation 6:1-8. In its biblical context, these horsemen serve as apocalyptic images of God’s judgment awaiting humankind in the end times. Her four horsemen, though, are human-inspired pestilences damaging both the Republican Party and the United States.

Then I use the biblical context and Smith’s “Four Horseman” context to talk about how white evangelical leaders (and their followers) have whitewashed and enabled Trump. For the Four Horsemen enablers, I select Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr,  Robert Jeffress, and Tony Perkins:
Smith’s biblical imagery makes the speech especially applicable to a certain subset of the Republican Party — white evangelical Christians who support a president whose life exemplifies everything Jesus’ teachings oppose. But for some white evangelicals, the ends justify the means. For example, since many of them believe that the restoration of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital is one of the factors leading to the end of the world as portrayed in the Book of Revelation, it is no accident that two white evangelical pastors offered prayers at the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem.
Donald Trump rode to political victory on all four horses of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear — but his white evangelical enablers provide religious rationalizations for all of them.
After I discuss how Graham, Falwell, Jeffress, and Perkins defend Donald Trump. I look at some aspects of what all four have in common. One common thread is the "Two Kingdoms" idea, such as when Jeffress argues that individuals are called upon to act as Good Samaritans, not governments.
All four white evangelical leaders distinguish between the obligations of Christians to follow Jesus’ teachings and the political obligations of governments. As Falwell argued: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome — he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.” Likewise, Jeffress insisted, in defense of Trump’s 2017 “refugee ban,” that “the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.
Jesus was an eschatological Jewish prophet who proclaimed, in some sense, the restoration of Israel. As such, he is similar to the prophet Amos, a poor, marginalized outsider who calls for justice and righteousness and proclaims the judgment of God against an entire nation because of social injustice, judicial and economic corruption, and religious arrogance. 
Jesus, an impoverished first-century artisan — not an adviser to the emperor — also spoke prophetic words of judgment against the oppressors of his people. Even his famous “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” statement is a classic example of non-elite resistance against an extractive taxation system that transferred wealth from the majority of people in the Roman Empire to the ruling elites. Since the denarius coin that Jesus referenced would have been inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus,” Jesus is in fact suggesting, “Give that blasphemous coin back to that blasphemous emperor.”
The defenses of Trump by these white evangelicals are incredible. Falwell, for example, compares Trump not only to King David—which I debunk in the article—but he also compares Trump’s actions in Washington DC to Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (which I cut from the final version because, again, my word count was way over):
Are there any of the Ten Commandments that Donald Trump hasn’t broken? These white evangelical leaders have excused all sorts of behavior they allegedly believe is sinful, such as lying and adultery; their code of ethics has proved to be flexible, not biblical. They have turned from the ethics of the Ten Commandments to the idolatrous political allure of the Golden Calf, an idol made by the Israelites while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments.
These white evangelicals, by rendering to Caesar what is God’s, have not only lost their integrity; they have lost their credibility as religious leaders. Their hypocrisy, their worship of political power and money, damages the cause in which they claim to believe and betrays the teachings of the person they claim to worship. Whatever political advantages they gain will be short-lived. As Amanda Marcotte writes, “the Christian right may be winning elections in the short term, but it’s also driving people out of the pews, which is likely to lead to long-term defeat.”
What happens when you render unto Caesar that which is God’s? To paraphrase another saying of Jesus: You may gain the whole world, but you lose your soul. 
The nation’s nightmare of McCarthyism lasted four years after Sen. Smith’s speech, and its demise is often credited, among other things, to Joseph Welch's famous rebuke to McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The answer to that question about white evangelicals is that — in stark contrast to Margaret Chase Smith — they do not.
 As I promised, in my next post I will write about some very positive and important things happening with some Christian evangelicals.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Eye of a Needle is NOT a Gate

In a recent commentary for Fortune, I included the following:
Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle).
I added the word "sewing" because I did not have the space to explain that when the Gospel texts said, "a needle," they meant a sewing needle (Hobart argued it was a physician's needle in Luke, but Cadbury put the "Lukan physician's language" theory to rest).

The editor(s) of Fortune removed my citation of the biblical texts (Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) in this instance and for all the other biblical references, so in the numerous comments by readers of the essay who responded to the article, several observed that I had made a mistake or that my knowledge of the Biblical context was incorrect. For example (taken from the Yahoo! Finance page, where it was also posted online):
I agree with Mr. Gowler's assessment, except for one thing. The "eye of the needle" was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem...a little gate. For a camel to pass through, it had to be unburdened and had to stoop down a little. In other words, hold on to your possessions and your pride, and you'll never get through. As far as Mr. Ryan having a problem with the poor carpenter's son from Nazareth, I am in complete agreement.

Other commenters were more caustic about my alleged lack of knowledge of this gate in Jerusalem.

It's interesting how these misconceptions persist, and these domestications of Jesus's words--efforts to tame his radical message--all derive from interpreters' unease with this shocking, hyperbolic statement. 

There is no evidence that the saying refers to a gate, including a particular gate in Jerusalem. That arose sometime, most likely, in the middle ages (I remember the version about this mythical gate that I heard from a pulpit growing up is that the camel actually had to pass through the Jerusalem gate on its knees).

If you change one letter in the Greek word (an eta to an iota) that would change the word "needle" to "rope" or "ship's cable," and some scribes evidently made that change in a few manuscripts (e.g., S, 1010, f13), and Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and a few others favored that view. 

Others claim that the Aramaic word "behind" the Greek word meant a thick rope or a ship's cable (e.g., Lamsa, Gospel Light, 115-116). Others suggest that the word actually means a "large wooden beam" (noted but rejected by Ibn al-Tayyib).

One of the better studies of this saying is in Kenneth Bailey's Through Peasant Eyes, 165-166, and he convincingly makes the argument that this needle is indeed a needle. He also points out that there is a later rabbinic saying in the Talmud (probably dependent) that speaks of the impossibility of "an elephant going through the eye of a needle" (an elephant being the largest animal in Babylonia; Ber. 55b; there also is a comparative text in the Qur'an: Sura 7:40). 

One can also point to the analogous saying of Jesus about straining the gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24) for a similar hyperbolic, impossible task.

The text speaks about something that is impossible for human beings; that rules out a gate where a camel's burden needed to be unloaded before it could pass through.

Many interpreters point to this passage as an example of Jesus's "peasant humor"--it is impossible for the largest animal in the area to pass through such a small aperture--but told from a deadly serious perspective, from a prophet similar to Amos, a "voice from below" who cried out against the injustices of the wealthy of his day. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Do not misrepresent your sources (Day of Prayer edition)

Thomas Jefferson: Quote Him Correctly!

A follow-up comment in reference to my article in The Washington Post (May 3, 2018) about the National Day of Prayer (using Roger Williams's discussion of the wheat and tares parable).

In the course of my research for the essay, I carefully read through the web pages of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

To my surprise, I discovered that they quote Thomas Jefferson as apparently being in favor of the government proclaiming Days of Prayer.

Here is the quote that is displayed prominently on their website:
"Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it." —Thomas Jefferson, 1808
Based on what I know about Jefferson and his thinking about religious liberty and the separation of church and state, I was immediately suspicious. I then went to the primary source for that quote, a Jan. 23, 1808, letter Jefferson wrote to the Rev. Samuel Miller:

Here is the paragraph in which that quote is found (emphasis mine):
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
Since the sentence just before the quote used by the website of the National Day of Prayer Task Force used to "support" the National Day of Prayer directly states Jefferson's opposition to the practice, it seems to me that this misrepresentation is deliberate.

Jefferson clearly states his opposition to proclaiming days of prayer, and I believe the great Christian minister Roger Williams would as well (and James Madison also came to believe it was wrong).

As I tell my students, check (and recheck) your sources very carefully and do not--intentionally or unintentionally--misrepresent them.

Do not misrepresent your sources (part 2) or Get to know your sources!

Adolf Jülicher,  Die Gleichnisreden Jesu In early May I blogged about people misrepresentin...