Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Resurrection Narratives

One of the arguments against the belief that on the first Easter Jesus actually did rise from the dead is that the records of that alleged event (the New Testament gospels) were written much later, perhaps a hundred years or so after the event was supposed to have happened. The greater the temporal distance between the event and when it was written down, the thinking goes, the less reliable the written testimony is considered to be.

There are lots of reasons for rejecting this argument, but I came across one recently while reading Anglican theologian N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope that I don't remember ever hearing before, although I'm sure others have.

Wright points out that throughout the gospel narratives the authors constantly cite Old Testament precedents and prophecies and tie them to the life of Jesus. This indicates that some time had elapsed after Jesus' death during which the community of believers was able to reflect on the events of his life before those events were written down. This reading back into the Old Testament runs right up through the crucifixion narratives. Thus we may surmise that these stories about Jesus were put into the form we have them in today some time after Jesus' death.

But then a striking thing happens. Once the accounts move on to the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection there are no references to Old Testament sources, prophecies and fulfillments. Their absence strongly suggests, Wright maintains, that the accounts of the resurrection were written down or otherwise fixed even before the accounts of the rest of Jesus' life. It suggests, too, that the resurrection narratives were established soon after the event and before the community of disciples had the opportunity to search the texts for prophetic allusions and echoes.

Here is what Wright says:

This is all the more remarkable when we note that from as early as Paul, the common creedal formula declared that the resurrection, too, was "according to the scriptures," and Paul himself joins the rest of the early church in ransacking the psalms and prophets to find texts to explain what just happened and set it within, and as the climax to, the long story of God and Israel. Why do the gospel resurrection narratives not do the same? It would be easy for Matthew to refer to one or two scriptural prophecies that were being fulfilled, but he doesn't. John tells us that the disciples did not yet know the scriptural teaching that the Messiah would rise again, but he doesn't quote the texts he has in mind.

These accounts were fixed very early, it appears, and then later, when the gospels were being written, attached to those narratives in order to form a more complete picture of who Jesus was. If this is so, they should be granted a much greater reliability than some critics have been willing to give them.

Have a wonderful Resurrection Day.


Jesus for President

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (henceforth C&H) are, from everything I can tell, two wonderful young men deeply committed to living as consistently as possible with what they believe to be the Biblical mandates. The pair have co-authored a book titled Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (henceforth JfP), which I recently finished reading. Inspiring in places, their book is also informative, but as much as I admire C&H for the work they do and their determination to live out their convictions, I think their book is deeply flawed.

For C&H the ideal we should all strive for is to live pretty much like the Amish. The authors are deeply committed to pacifism, opposed to capitalism, and in favor of getting by with as little in the way of material goods as possible.

The book is published in a cut and paste format that makes it seem like the authors are trying too hard to be "edgy." Some pages have little contrast between the text and the paper which makes it very difficult for older folks to read (Does this betoken an insensitivity to old people?). In some places the type size is so small that I just gave up, but these are comparative quibbles.

My real complaint is with the content. Much of the first half of the book is a summary of the Biblical narrative, the most interesting part of which, perhaps, was their comparison of the triumphal processions of the Romans to Jesus' "triumphal" entry into Jerusalem (p.126f). I also benefited from their interpretation of Jesus' words about the gates of hell not prevailing against the church. I had always interpreted this text to mean that the forces of evil will not extinguish the church nor stop its work, but C&H put a different twist on the passage. They argue that the church is to storm hell (an unfortunate military metaphor, perhaps) and the gates of hell will not withstand the assault. I like it.

Notwithstanding such little gems, there was much more that I found uncongenial.

On page 95, for example, we find the authors oddly quoting with approval Woody Guthrie's quip that: "If Jesus preached in New York what He preached in Galilee, we'd lay Him in His grave again." I say "odd" because there are a lot of people preaching in New York pretty much what Jesus preached in Galilee, surely C&H believe they are, and no one is threatening to lay them in the grave, are they? So why recycle this quote?

The authors make a lot of other assertions for which they offer neither explanation nor support. For instance:

"[A]s we are liberated from the yoke of global capitalism our sisters and brothers in Guatemala, Liberia, Iraq and Sri Lanka will also be liberated....they, too, need to be liberated from the [American] empire's yoke of slavery (p.113), but in what sense are these people enslaved by the U.S.? The authors don't say. They, like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, are too busy getting on to the next provocation to answer questions about the last one.

C&H urge us to consider the Mosaic practices of abolition of interest, land redistribution, debt forgiveness, open borders, gleaning fields for the poor, caring for the elderly (presumably by the family), honest business practices, and helping one's enemies (p.151). Americans practice each of these (regrettably, in the case of open borders) except the first two so it's hard to see what their point is. It's hard to think them serious, moreover, when they propose the abolition of interest. How would people own a home or much of anything else were they not able to get credit, and what motivation does anyone have to loan money on credit if they cannot earn a profit from it? Even the Amish own their own homes.

They call free market capitalism a "filthy, rotten system," which Americans don't criticize because we believe it to be essential (p.153), but they never lay out a plausible alternative that would work for 300 million people. Nor do they really say why our system is filthy and rotten.

"How is it possible to support a president while also following Jesus?" they ask (p.166). "Jesus tells us to love our enemies, while the president says to kill them. Jesus admonishes us to forgive debts while the president praises capitalism and the economics of competition." We should follow the example of first century Christians, they advise, and go to the lions rather than kill our enemies.

We could spend a week's worth of posts analyzing these four sentences, but for the sake of brevity let me point out first that, as paradoxical as it sounds, killing someone is not necessarily incompatible with loving them. Second, it is only when a nation has a strong engine of wealth production that it is able to forgive debt. Largely under George Bush's leadership the U.S. has done more than any nation in history to help alleviate the economic misery of Africa, but C&H seem unaware of the fact. Third, by adjuring us to be willing to die rather than take another's life they seem to make an idol out of human life. Surely life is sacred, but suggesting that we should give our life to save that of our enemy seems to me to miss the point. The question is why we should sacrifice our children's lives rather than that of the ones who plot to murder them? Why is the murderer's life more valuable than that of our children?

They deplore that people hear proclamations from the pulpit urging us to "We will have no mercy on the evil-doers" (p.168), yet, though it may be that I don't get to enough different churches, I've never heard anything remotely like this in any church I've ever been in. Nor have I ever seen words like this attributed to any preacher with whom I am familiar. It's too bad they didn't footnote this.

Ronald Reagan defended the U.S. as a militant and unaccountable maverick in the world, they allege on page 172, but Reagan did no such thing. If anything Reagan was loath to use force around the world. When 200 Marines were killed in a bomb attack in Lebanon he pulled our troops out rather than risk a wider war and more bloodshed. C&H play off a left-wing stereotype of Reagan-as-gunslinging-cowboy that is historically unsupportable.

C&H also assert that the Puritans sought to establish a state based on power and violence (p.173), but they offer no support for this rather counterintuitive claim.

The authors hint darkly that Martin Luther King was killed by sinister forces and "not without reason" (p.179), implying an Oliver Stone caliber conspiracy, but the do no more than insinuate that the nefarious reason was that King spoke out against American "imperialism". No need to defend or explain accustaions everybody knows to be true, I guess. On the same page they criticize the U.S. for seizing lands "far and wide" as if they were taken by force from their original inhabitants. Yet their examples were Alaska (which we purchased), Puerto Rico (which is hardly "far" from the U.S.), Hawaii (which petitioned for statehood), Guam, and Guantanamo Bay (which we lease from Cuba).

They go on to fault the U.S. for selling weapons abroad (p.180) which are used to kill poor people, but it's not American weapons which are killing people in the third world. The weapons preferred by the murderous thugs around the globe, or at least most of them, are manufactured in Russia, eastern Europe, Iran, and China.

C&H repeatedly compare the U.S. to Rome and see us as the modern version of the Roman empire (see p. 182), but we have not waged a war of conquest, nor kept land taken in war, nor enslaved anyone for over a hundred and fifty years. This is not how empires behave. I would have liked for them to have fleshed out the sense in which they believe the U.S. is an empire.

As with Rome, they analogize, where war was "omnipresent, normative, nihilistically acceptable" (p.183), so too, with the U.S. This comparison, however, overlooks the fact that Rome waged war to conquer and rule. America's wars have been to defend and/or to liberate. Surely there's a significant difference.

The authors condemn our economic system for our alleged exploitation of cheap labor abroad (p.188), but they never explore the terrible predicament many foreign workers would be in if, in protest against their miserable working conditions, we were to stop buying their products. Once we boycotted their exports the penurious laborers would have no job at all. It's not the consumer who's responsible for the sad plight of the sweatshop worker, it's their own government whose economic policies stifle innovation, advancement, and wealth production.

The economic naivete of which JfP has more than a fair share is nowhere more evident than on page 189 where C&H urge us to "make poverty history" by "making affluence history." Nothing would plunge the entire earth into third world status quicker than the elimination of wealth. C&H seem to think that wealth is like air, of which there's a fixed amount and enough to go around for everyone if only some people weren't hogging it. Unfortunately, wealth is not like that. Wealth is produced by people motivated by the wish to be affluent. Take away the possibility of fulfilling that ambition and you take away the incentive to produce wealth. Take away the incentive and pretty soon everyone will be living at a subsistence level and writing books about how we could help the world's poor if only we weren't so poor ourselves.

We can't follow Jesus and buy from the master who oppresses his workers, JfP instructs (p.189), but, again, what happens to those workers in China and India when the master's business dries up because Americans following Jesus refuse to buy his merchandise? Is it following Jesus to deprive those workers of their only means of staving off starvation? C&H never seem to consider this question.

They also condemn our exploitation of migrant workers (p.190), but what is their solution? We can buy cheap tomatoes, they argue, only because the poor Honduran or Mexican laborers breaking their backs in the fields work for such a pittance. Well, yes, but these people come here to work because there are no jobs at all in their home countries. If their American employers raise their wages the price of tomatoes would also rise. More expensive tomatoes would result in fewer tomatoes being purchased and thus fewer workers would be needed to pick them. So they'd all go back home and sit around and contemplate how much better off they were picking tomatoes for peanuts.

On page 192 they make the puzzling claim that we (Americans) haven't advanced morally. I'm not sure what they're talking about, since we no longer have slavery, we're committed to equal rights for all citizens, we have a higher view of women than a century ago, we are at pains to follow just war theory both ad bellum and in bello, we are careful about degrading our natural environment, and so on. None of these things were the case in 1850 and only slavery was not the case as late as 1950. I agree with JfP that in some important respects we have indeed declined morally, but to say categorically that there has been no moral advance, as if we were still living in 1st century Rome, is to completely ignore our history.

The use of force is always wrong in the eyes of C&H, even in a place like Darfur. Saving the innocent, they argue, doesn't justify the use of violence. Peter, after all, was wrong to try to save Jesus' life with the sword. (p. 202). Well, yes, but Jesus' sacrificial death was intentional. It was for a cosmic purpose. What purpose is served by piously standing by while children are being slaughtered and enslaved by gangs of knuckledragging, doped up paramiltaries? Why is the life of a Sudanese Janjaweed more sacred than the lives of the millions of children they are systematically starving, butchering or selling into slavery?

On page 203 C&H construct for us an absolutely incoherent argument for pacifism. As near as I can make it out the attempt to kill Hitler was wrong because it failed. Not only that, but it was the fault of those who tried to kill Hitler that the Fuehrer went on to kill six million Jews. Presumably, if they hadn't attempted to assassinate him he never would have launched the holocaust. That, at least, is what the authors appear to be saying.

They also claim that violence "inevitably" ends in misery and suicide (p. 204), and as evidence they cite the cases of Judas, Nero, various school killers, and the 9/11 terrorists. This is an interesting argument. Find a half dozen examples of violent men who committed suicide and then claim that violence inevitably leads to self-destruction. This is what rhetoricians call an illicit process: Because some mass murderers kill themselves therefore suicide is the inevitable fate of all violent men.

People who resort to violence, they maintain, feel the image of God dying inside them, and this leads to despair and self-murder. But if the death of the imago dei leads one to kill oneself why then do not militant atheists have sky-high suicide rates?

The U.S. retaliation for 9/11 is blamed in JfP for the deaths of 654,965 innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq (p. 281), but not only is this number greatly inflated (see here and here) it gives the impression that these deaths were all at the hands of coalition forces when, in fact, most of them were the result of Taliban and al Qaeda terrorism.

They insist that we falsely think that we can effectively change the course of history through force (p.284), but I don't know why we should think this a false belief. The Revolutionary War certainly changed the course of history, as did the Civil War. World War II ended one of the worst tyrannies in history, and the threat of force during the cold war ended another. The war in Afghanistan brought a halt to the cruel reign of the Taliban and liberated 25 million people while the invasion of Iraq concluded the horrors Saddam Hussein and his twisted offspring had inflicted on the Iraqi people and their neighbors and liberated 25 million more of the world's wretched. All of these wars altered the subsequent history of our nation and of the world, and I would argue that the world is, on balance, a much better place because of them.

C&H plead that Jesus, who should be our example in such things, didn't take charge by force (p.285). True enough, but then Jesus didn't really take charge at all. He didn't come to take charge, he came to die. When he does finally take control of this world, if the testimony of John the Evangelist is any indication, it will indeed be by force.

On page 288 the authors endorse excommunication for Christians who have chosen to live in ways which have hurt themselves or others. Again, they fail to address the tough questions: Suppose a brother decides to be a policeman or join the military, should he be excommunicated? Suppose he manages, or just works for, a store like Wal-Mart which some believe to exploit workers overseas, should he be excommunicated? What if he works for a corporation or an industry which produces environmental pollutants, like the steel or coal industry. Or suppose he works for the gaming industry or as a restaurateur, encouraging people to spend more money than they should on entertainment and food. What then? There are no answers to questions like these in the pages of JfP.

There's much not to like about the authors' social activism as well. They boast of prevailing in a legal struggle to secure for the homeless the right to sprawl on sidewalks, sleep in public parks, and in general use public spaces as their personal latrine (p. 294). The resources spent on fighting for these rights in court, however, may have been better spent securing appropriate shelter for these sad people. Instead their actions guaranteed that the quality of life for everyone else who uses public streets and facilities would be degraded.

On page 299 they inexplicably imply that Harriet Tubman was the subject of the movie Hotel Rwanda.

Despite having condemned market capitalism throughout the book they rejoice (p. 312) in how they were able to use money that had been earned in the stock market to help an indigent friend get medical care, but they fail to see the irony of that. The best way to raise people out of poverty is to produce a society that generates wealth. Two sources of hope to which the poor cling is that someone with resources will help them or that some employer will be able to give them a job. To abjure the greatest wealth generator in the history of the world, free markets, and live like monks is to insure that neither of those hopes will ever be realized. An impoverished United States would mean that billions of poor people throughout the world would be consigned to utter hopelessness. To take one example, if everyone in this country lived like C&H suggest, how would the victims of the Indonesian tsunami have ever found relief from their misery? Who would have come to their aid? Haiti?

There's more to say about Jesus for President, but perhaps you get the picture. The book is not a well-reasoned argument for abandoning contemporary American life and embracing the simple life-style of the Amish. Rather it's 355 pages of bumper stickers - empty assertions in which we are urged to place our confidence but for which few good reasons are provided us for so doing.