Martydom As Amnesia: Jesus & Martin Luther King Jr.

“His martyrdom has somehow muffled his message….
We deify him in death, but we demonized him in life.” – Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley has recently released a new book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Years, in which he argues that Dr. King’s death has overshadowed the subversive message that characterized the end of his career. In his last years, Martin Luther King Jr. came out strongly against the US war in Vietnam and called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The world saw his concerns expand beyond civil rights as he turned a sharply critical eye towards the “triple threat of racism, poverty, and militarism.” And almost everyone hated him for it.

I can’t help but wonder if the same thing has happened to Jesus. If somehow his martyrdom has muffled his message. If perhaps we have deified him in his death while forgetting that we demonized (and continue to demonize) him in his life.

The Western world revels in Jesus as a martyr and embraces him as a sacrifice for their sins. But when it comes to his message of radical care for the poor and unrelenting nonviolence, we want none of it. This is not unlike Jesus’ first-century audience, who were so threatened by his message that they killed him for it. Make no mistake about it: Jesus wasn’t killed because the Jewish & Roman leaders knew that God desired a spiritual sacrifice for sin, he was killed for challenging the religious and political status-quo of the day.

Racism, poverty, and militarism continue to be the “powers of our age.” Thus, I fear that today Jesus’ message would poll equally as low as it did in the first-century … and I’m more scared that perhaps even western “Christians” who love Jesus the martyr have still not come to terms with his actual message.

Did Mark’s Jesus HAVE to Die on a Cross?

Did Jesus, in the Gospel According to Saint Mark, have to die on a cross? Brian K. Blount, in his remarkable book Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrectiondoesn’t think so.

He argues that the real action of God through Jesus in Mark is the inauguration of God’s kingdom over and against the forces of the world. While his ministry and life does make suffering necessary and inevitable, he claims that:

“Theoretically speaking, God’s invasion could occur, and in fact does occur in Mark without a cross moment. To be sure, death is necessary – it is an obligatory prerequisite for resurrection – but death on a cross? Consider the narrative presentation. God’s invasion ignites in that striking moment when Jesus tears into the narrative world and engages John the Baptist at the Jordan. God’s invasion flares divine intent for the future when Jesus turns up missing from the tomb. If, theoretically speaking, Jesus had died from cancer, or old age, or a broken heart, the invasive realities of the incarnation and the empty womb would remain real and viable. The cross showcases more about us than it does about God. It confirms the deadness that writhes within us and fights desperately against the promise of future life that Jesus reveals in his present behavior. Given who humans are – the living dead – and who Jesus is, the representation of future life in the midst of a present age consumed by the influence and power of death, the cross becomes an apocalyptic inevitability. Because of us. Not because of God. Because of what we are. Not because of who God is. Who God is stands exposed the moment Jesus is revealed as God’s Son and God’s mission is revealed as Jesus’ ministry. Who God is stands clarified the moment the man in the empty tomb alleges that Jesus’ promise to rise from the dead and restart his ministry through his disciples was fulfilled. In Jesus’ coming, God is the one who breaks in on the powers of death who rule this present age. God is the one who offers a preview of future life to the living dead who populate this age in Jesus’ ministry. God is the one who raises up a working demonstration of that future life in Jesus’ empty tomb. In a desperate, futile attempt to counter all of these revelations of “life,” the living dead offer up a cross.”

Do you agree with Blount? What are your thoughts on this quote?

Michael F. Bird on Christians Who Fear Critical Scholarship

A witty (and terrifyingly accurate) description of the fear some Christians display towards critical biblical scholarship:

“There are those ardent Bible-believers who want to treat the Bible as if it fell down from heaven in 1611, written in ye aulde English, bound in pristine leather, with word of Jesus in red, Scofield’s notes, and charts of the end times. Such persons regard exploring topics like problems in Johannine chronology just as religiously affronting as worshiping a life-size golden statue of Barack Obama.”

- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, 68. (Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy – full review coming soon).

Four Lessons from Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133

1) God’s People Are Called to Live in True Community

“Born-Again” christians aren’t orphans – we are a part of a transtemporal and multinational community.

2) True Community is Good & Pleasant

The Christian life involves sacrifice and is only possible when you have a strong, faithful support system.

3) True Community Mediates God’s Presence & Creates a Transformed Life

Individuals are bad at creating and sustaining change. Christ-likeness develops over time and in the context of a close-knit community.

4) True Community is the Cornerstone of God’s Eternal Plan

Our Triune God, perfect community in himself, is drawing us (not as individuals, but as brothers and sisters) into his family for an eternity of joy.

Jesus the Interpreter: Divine Violence in the Old Testament

“We may perhaps be allowed to look forward to a new day, in which Jesus himself is acknowledged, in his own right, as a thinking, reflecting, creative and original theologian.” – NT Wright[1]

I am committed to non-violence because I am committed to Jesus.[2] As a non-violent Christian, I’m commonly asked some form of the following question: “How can you think that God is nonviolent or that his people must always act nonviolently when there are so many examples in the Old Testament of God acting violently or encouraging such behavior?”

It’s a good question and one of the biggest obstacles for most Christians when they consider adopting a non-violent ethic.[3] However, I’ve always thought that this is a question that can actually be punted to Jesus himself. That is to say, I believe a more illuminating form of the question would look like this:

How could Jesus think that God is nonviolent and expects his people to be nonviolent in light of the many Old Testament texts that seem to contradict this?

 Of course this question assumes two things:

  • First, that Jesus was familiar with the major stories & themes of the Old Testament (including those that depict God as violent and his people as acting violently in obedience to God’s commands.[4]
  • Second, that Jesus still believed & taught that God was nonviolent and likewise expected his followers to be nonviolent.[5]

If both of these assumptions are true,[6] we are faced with important questions: How did Jesus interpret these texts? What was his hermeneutical logic? And even more to the point, are Christians obligated to agree with his conclusions, even if we aren’t necessarily predisposed to agree with his interpretations?

We might not normally think of Jesus as a biblical interpreter or theologian, but we should. After all, he grew up in a religious environment surrounded by many different popular interpretations of his religious tradition. In this context, Jesus inherited, learned, formed, and communicated very specific beliefs about what God was like and what he expected of his people. In so doing, he also explicitly and forcefully rejected certain interpretations & expectations that were popular during his lifetime.

I have to imagine that Jesus was often confronted about his non-violent teachings, especially by the more revolutionary Jewish groups common during the first-century. In Matthew 5, he preemptively and explicitly rejects the Old Covenant law of retaliation in favor of a new, radical ethic of nonviolence. In Luke 6, Jesus tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” It’s not a stretch to picture Simon the Zealot disagreeing with Jesus’ assessment of the Father as a merciful enemy-lover. “Jesus, are you not aware that God commanded the slaughter of men, women, and children who stood against his people?” What would Jesus’ response be? Would he recant or qualify his statement? Or would he provide an alternate interpretation and assume that it is more authoritative than any other reading of the text that would lead to a different conclusion?

This problem is even more acute in an account in Luke 9 where Jesus rebukes his disciples for attempting to imitate a story from the Old Testament by calling down fire on their enemies in (cf. 2 Kings 1:9-12). I can imagine the disciples reminding Jesus of this beloved Old Testament story – what was his response? How did he read such texts and come to such different conclusions than many of his day (and our day)? I believe that these sorts of questions are some of the most important ones to be asked in any conversation about Jesus and violence.

Jason Micheli recently offered an excellent post attempting to answer a question of this nature: How did Jesus read Psalm 94 and it’s cry for vengeance against enemies while at the same time commanding and embodying a responsibility to love his enemies? Read his engaging post here: Jesus’ Enemy Loving Offensive. Jason’s attempt embodies the posture Christians should take when engaging Old Testament texts that seem to contradict Jesus’ own teachings and example.

I can’t help but think that Christians are making a fundamental mistake when we use the Old Testament to qualify or change the teachings of Christ. It strikes me as odd that we might imagine our interpretations of various Old Testament texts to be more authoritative than Christ’s. Did Jesus not know about these Old Testament texts? Did he misread them? Can we qualify correct Jesus’ teachings because we are better equipped to read the Tanakh?

My evaluation of the current conversation surrounding God & Old Testament violence is that we have lost our interpretative imagination under the weight of years of tradition and cultural influences. The Old Testament is not as clear on the issue of violence as one might think. There are plenty of ways to interpret the classic “texts of terror” in ways that lead logically to Jesus’ non-violence. Again, I suggest reading Jason Micheli’s enlightening post. Other options remain: perhaps we should acknowledge a multiplicity of voices in the Old Testament (some more peaceful, even promising a future of peace), perhaps a reading of the “texts of terror” in light of comparable ANE texts would reveal a fairly radical non-violent trajectory, or perhaps the point of the cumulative narrative of the Old Testament is that violence did not ultimately accomplish God’s Kingdom. These are just a few of the many possibilities for reading the Old Testament in a way congruous with Jesus’ life and teachings. But these are the types of readings that I believe Jesus forces us to explore.

 


[1] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 479.
[2] I find myself unable to avoid the conclusions that Jesus unequivocally commands his followers to act nonviolently and also personally modeled this nonviolent commitment with his own life. I’m also unable to ignore a theological conviction that the historic life of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is the clearest and most complete revelation of the character and will of the Triune God that humanity has ever been given. Thus I’m always a bit surprised to find that many Christians view my nonviolent stance as mistaken (at best) or heretical (at worst).
[3] I’ve found that it is, along with the violent passages in Revelation, one of the biggest obstacles for most Christians when considering a commitment to nonviolence. For the violence in Revelation, see these posts: Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll) and Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation.
[4] Jesus is surrounded by Jewish groups with a violent revolutionary bent and explicitly rebukes such desires. Even more telling is that Jesus’ own theological agenda seems to be one that would fit nicely with these traditions (see the revolutionary language of his mother in her famous song), yet he interprets the revolution as a spiritual one – a battle against Satan, not Rome. Again – see N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
[5] Jesus is as clear as possible: see Matthew 5:38-48.
[6] (I know of few who would doubt the first and have yet to see good evidence against the second).