LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, a prisoner under arrest for treason faced his judge. The judge asked him about his beliefs and his political aspirations. “You can accuse me of wanting to be a ruler,” the prisoner replied, “but all I can say is that I came into this world to testify to the truth.” The judge was deeply scornful. “What is truth?” he said, and turned on his heel and walked away.
If you were working for a great empire, as was this judge and governor, you would be far more concerned about power than about truth. In fact, later in the trial, the judge reminded his prisoner that he had the power to release or execute him. The judge cared more about enhancing his own power and reputation in the empire than about meting out justice. The life of a powerless prisoner, along with the concept of truth, was expendable.
Today, truth itself may be expendable in the United States. A few years ago, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to describe that reality. But in the power struggle of our recent presidential election and the resulting shift in leadership, truth is becoming more and more squishy. Thus the Oxford English Dictionary added a stronger word in 2016: “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As Oxford’s usage example puts it, “in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.” No doubt the fake news we have seen and heard on social media is sure to continue.
On Nov. 28 Dylann Roof announced that he will represent himself during his upcoming trial, and his attorneys will serve only as his stand-by counsel, reports CBS Channel 5 News from Charleston, S.C. Roof made this announcement during the trial’s jury qualification process. Roof is accused of fatally shooting nine African-American parishioners in their church — the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — after they met for a bible study.
IN THIS NEW LITURGICAL YEAR, the lectionary’s gospel readings are drawn from the book of Matthew, a story of the Messiah’s return. Matthew was a Jewish follower of Jesus living in the aftermath of the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule. The revolt, which lasted from 66 to 70 C.E., was not successful and ended with the Roman burning of Jerusalem and its temple, the very center of the Jewish world. One era of Jewish history ended, another opened up.
For some Jews, the destruction of the temple fueled their struggle against Rome, and they continued their hopeless revolt. For others—the successors of the Pharisees who led the early rabbinic movement—the fall of Jerusalem prompted them to craft a new Judaism based on the Book, instead of the temple. But Matthew’s gospel, the story of Jesus’ life and his collected teachings, offers a third option, based neither on revolt nor rabbinic tradition.
Roman reprisals after the uprising included the “Fiscus Judaicus”—a punitive tax levied on all Jews, male and female, free and slave, throughout the empire. The proceeds supported the Jupiter temple in Rome, dedicated to the deity that Rome considered responsible for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Humiliation was piled upon profound loss, inspiring virulent Jewish nationalism and rebellions around the Mediterranean basin. But all of the rebellions—led by Jews in Libya, Cyrene, Cyprus, and Egypt—were ruthlessly shut down by the Roman army. A final Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem gave the Emperor Hadrian an excuse to initiate a full-scale assault on Jerusalem and the villages of Judea. The results were decisive: The territory was depopulated and failed to recover.
Writing as a Jewish Christian, Matthew offered an alternative to this nationalist violence: the nonretaliatory teaching of Jesus. For instance, in his account of the temptations in the desert, Matthew concludes with Satan testing Jesus with a vision of the world’s kingdoms. “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). Here is a vision of empire, introduced into the imaginations of the time by the military success of Rome. But instead, Matthew shows Jesus, the Messiah-king, rejecting the option of empire, while linking that choice to another—servitude to Satan.
Hosea 11:1-11, by the force of prophetic imagination, takes us inside the troubled interiority of God. It does not, however, start there. It begins, rather, with an external encounter between God and God’s people, Israel. The poetry is cast in the imagery of “father-son,” with God cast as father and Israel cast as son. (It could as well have been cast as “mother-daughter,” but that would not happen in that ancient patriarchal society). The imagery of “father-son” was operative in Israelite imagination since God’s first declaration, “Israel is my first born son” (Exodus 4:22). Status as first-born son carries with it immense entitlement, but also inescapable responsibility to uphold the honor of the father and the family.
Was it Jesus who said, “No greater love has anyone than this, to sit through a school board meeting?”
No, actually that was me. I whispered it to my wife as we sat together for several hours at a recent meeting of our local school board. On the agenda that evening was the adoption of a proposed district-wide gender expansive policy to protect transgendered and gender non-conforming students and bring the district in line with the U.S. Department of Education's directive on Title IX and recent legal precedent.
If we were to go by the titles of books about leadership, we might be tempted to imagine that good leadership is a matter of following the right set of instructions. And this might work if we could all agree what good leadership is. The roiling presidential season just might suggest otherwise.
God’s call of Elijah was an invitation to a beautiful divine/human partnership of faithfulness and faithful service. It was based on a three-point contract: HO-GO-LO.
“HO” indicates that God had to get his attention. It was important for Elijah to know who was calling him, to whom he was accountable, under whose guidance he was to serve and upon whom he could depend for direction, protection, and provisions.
I love Saint Mark. I truly do. But if the apostles were in a line-up and we threw Mark in there with them, I wouldn’t be able to tell him from second Judas. Frankly I wouldn’t be able to identify half of them. At this point, some folks have likely paused to Google, “there were two Judases!?"
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center offers some interesting data about economic inequality in the United States. In 1982, the top one percent of families took in 10.8 percent of all the pretax income. The bottom 90 percent got 64.7 percent. By 2012, it was 22.5 percent for the top one percent and 49.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. In a more disturbing trend the top one percent owned 35 of all the personal wealth in 2010. The bottom fifty percent owned just five percent.
Have you ever read scripture from an agrarian perspective? We tend to read scripture with an anthropocentric perspective, but what if we read it with the land and animals in mind first? In her book An Agrarian Approach to Scripture, Ellen Davis invites us to consider reading Scripture with the land and animals at the forefront.
The presidential race has invited all kinds of rash predictions. “If that candidate gets elected, it will be a disaster.” “If that candidate is president, I will move to Canada.” In each case, the prediction of a future disaster is supposed to convince us to act differently in the present. “The election of a certain candidate would be so awful, that we must stop it. Or I’ll move to Canada.” Key parts of our political discourse are predictions of a dire future if a certain candidate is elected.
Recently, a friend emailed me that their twenty-three-year-old son had attempted suicide. The young man had been found fairly quickly, but due to the nature of his attempt and his severe depression, he is now in a hospital's psychiatric ward. My friend asked, “How did it get so bad and I didn't know?” She is trying to process guilt and anxiety about what might have happened. Her son is getting the help he needs, but it’s a long journey back to health and wholeness for the entire family.
The story of Jesus’ passion and death has stirred my imagination since I was a child. In an act of profound mystery, Jesus walks towards the conflict swirling around him. Jesus accepts his arrest and does not raise his voice. His willingness to embrace the consequences of truth-telling leaves him silent in the face of his accusers. His judges repeatedly say they can find no fault in this man, but the people want more. They want someone to blame.
There is a story in our family lore that during a contentious presidential campaign a few decades ago my father refused to drive his mother, my grandmother, to the polling station on election day. She was voting for the opposing candidate and he didn’t want her to cancel out his vote. Though contentious at the time, it is a story that still evokes laughter in our family each time it is retold. And don’t worry — grandma eventually got a friend to drive her to the polls.
In this season of Lent, Isaiah 55:1-9 may be a sobering text for us. In this election season amid shrill or buoyant rhetoric, we may not notice that there are real choices to be made — even as Jews in ancient Babylon were confronted with real choices of a most elemental kind.
My wife and I are beginning to start the process of buying a house for the first time. For better or for worse, we have become regular viewers of HGTV’s line of television shows that target would-be home consumers just like us. There’s Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, Property Brothers, Love It or List It, and…boy, could I go on. On the one hand these shows give us an interesting entree into what’s possible when it comes to buying and renovating a house. They may expand our vision so we don’t get stuck on things like existing wallpaper, old carpet, or hideous paint color. But, as I’ve come to understand the (very predictable) arc of these shows, I’m also struck by their danger. They’re basically “Keeping Up with the Joneses” on steroids.
I must confess that I am an African-American woman, a Christian woman, a woman who believes there is more than one path to God. Working in the Black Lives Matter movement with people of many faiths, I get a little fidgety when I hear the words “confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead.” I think, “Hey, what about my Jewish friend Stef? She is not confessing the Lord-ship of Yeshua/Jesus. What about my friend Hussein? Is he not saved?” I just don’t like it.
The gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus comes at a time when we desperately need its powerful message of encouragement. Our nation is in the midst of an epidemic of what I call “a degenerative discouragement syndrome”. The news cycle enumerates a list of issues and concerns which seem to resist remediation or repair.