Why I'm So Political

Essay by Rev. Mark Sandlin on 27 July 2017 3 Comments

It surprises me just a little bit how frequently I get asked about my very visible participation in politics. The truth is while some might assume that as a minister I probably start my day off with prayer and/or a devotion, I start my day with about an hour of reading through the news and scheduling the stories I find the most important or engaging on various social media outlets. Probably the most notable of those outlets is The Christian Left. As you might imagine the name “The Christian Left” provokes plenty of negative responses, everything from “isn't that an oxymoron” to “they call the organization that because all the REAL Christians have LEFT it.”

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My grandchildren have started attending a conservative private school because of the large sizes of the classes in the public schools. Their parents have recently become concerned because of the introduction of the Devil in the curriculum of that school at the first and third grade levels where our grandchildren are students. Their questions are: "When did the concept of the Devil get introduced into the pre-Christian world? How is the Devil to be interpreted in several Bible stories? Why did the culture at that time accept the image of the Devil? Why do conservatives today not get beyond the personal Devil image? How can evil be explained without using the idea of a real Devil?


Dear Betty, I can’t respond fully to all the questions, but let me share some thoughts. The pre-Christian world is a mighty big place, so I’m going to focus on the origin of what is called the satan in the Jewish tradition. An excellent book, by the way, is that of Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

Pagels points out that in the 6th century BCE, “when Israelite writers excoriated their fellow Jews in mythological terms, the images they chose were usually not the animalistic or monstrous ones they regularly applied to their foreign enemies.” Rather, they “most often identified their Jewish enemies with an exalted, if treacherous, member of the divine court whom they called the satan. The satan is not an animal or monster but one of God’s angels, a being of superior intelligence and status…” She goes on to say “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants – a messenger, or angel…. In Hebrew, the angels were often called ‘sons of God’, and were envisioned as the hierarchical ranks of a great army, or the staff of a royal court.”

Contrary to popular mythology and fundamentalist theology, “In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character.” Later Christianity would anthropomorphize this adversarial role which would enable it to create a dualistic world view where God would be contending against the Devil. This dualism, which was a projection of our own internal struggles with the adversarial quality of our own instinctual drives and emotions, would also be disowned and projected onto human adversaries, whom we would claim were under the control of this satanic character.

As Pagels helps us to understand, the root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary.” (The Greek term diabolos, later translated as ‘devil,’ literally means ‘one who throws something across one’s path.)” In truth, life is continually throwing things in our path, challenging the plans and desires we have. In the Hebrew scriptures, “the satan’s presence in a story could help account for unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune.” When the obstacle prevented someone from a costly or even fatal mistake, it was praised as gift from God, as in the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers.

As human beings, we find it very difficult to own as our own the parts of ourselves we have split off into our unconscious as little children, because they threatened our sense of safety and survival in our family system – often, because they were judged morally as wrong and shameful and thus we resorted to repressing them to avoid the sense of debilitating guilt. In time, we also learned to project these unwanted parts of ourselves onto others, thus providing a justification for our judgment of them.
For myself, evil is most fruitfully understood as the experienced absence of the presence of goodness. There is no thing or no character responsible for evil. Evil arises from the dispossessed, disowned, unconscious qualities of our own human soul. As an unconscious force, we are blind to its effect on our perception of reality; and so evil distorts and contorts and can destroy our lives. Our spiritual response is not to further judge and disown, but to understand the truth of the unconscious obstacle, whatever it is, and learn to grow from the experience.

There are also times in our lives when someone is so constricted and cut-off from conscious awareness of who they truly are, that they threaten the integrity of ourselves or others. The response is not to demonize that person/nation/group, but to stop them from carrying out their destructive behavior with the least amount of force possible. In effect, ironically, we need to be the satan, or messenger, obstructing their damaging path.

~ Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

"The Passion of the Christ" Mel Gibson's Film and Biblical Scholarship


There are some aspects of the gospels' passion narratives that Mel Gibson seems not to know. That is surprising since they are commonplace in the world of New Testament scholarship. First, in the earliest narrative of the Passion of Jesus (Mark 14:17- 15:47), a poignant but little noticed fact is registered. Mark informs his readers that when Jesus was arrested, "They (the disciples) all forsook him and fled." Let me make certain that those words are heard; 'All' of his disciples forsook him and fled. So authentic and real was this memory of apostolic desertion that a powerful need arose to exonerate the disciples for this undeniable behavior. A text from the book of Zechariah (13:7) that reads, "strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" filled this requirement. These words were quoted often in the gospels (see Mk. 14: 27, Mt. 26: 31, and Jno.16: 32) to show that the disciples were bound to fulfill the scriptures, and thus had no choice. We are told that Peter tried to hang around incognito until his cover was blown then, denying that he had ever known Jesus, Peter also disappeared. The fact is that Jesus died alone. There were no disciples who witnessed his death. The passion of Jesus was something he endured alone! Who then created the passion narratives?

Once this realization sinks in a second question arises: Where did the gospel writers get the details that are woven so beautifully into the story of the crucifixion? Who wrote them down if there were no eyewitnesses? Who was there to recall the dialogue between Jesus and the chief priests, Jesus and Pilate, Jesus and the soldiers, Jesus and the crowd, Jesus and the penitent thief? Who would have known about Joseph getting permission from Pilate to bury Jesus in a new tomb in Joseph's lovely garden? Who was there to record the earthquake, the darkness at noon, the cry of dereliction, the abuse and taunting of the crowd? Since Jesus died alone, those questions must be raised.

The only conclusion to which we can possibly arrive becomes so obvious. The story of the passion of Jesus is not remembered history. It was created by the second, perhaps even the third generation of the Christian Church to aid them in the liturgical function of recalling the meaning of the one who had been crucified. If that essential premise can be embraced, then the question becomes where did these early Christians get the content to create the liturgy of "The Lord's Passion!" The simple answer is that they got it directly out of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The gospels are Jewish books shaped by the Jewish Scriptures. This is as true of the story of the crucifixion as it is of any part of the Jesus story. So intimate is the connection between these biblical sources and the Passion Narrative that conservative Christians have claimed that the ancient Jewish Scriptures were divinely-inspired prophecies that Jesus, by virtue of his divine nature, had miraculously fulfilled. The truth is exactly the opposite. The story of Jesus' passion was written with these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures in front of the authors and the story of Jesus was crafted to comply with these various Jewish expectations. It was not the other way around.

So central is this insight to cracking the stifling literalism that surrounds the story of Jesus in popular religious circles, that it requires a full exposure. I begin by concentrating on the passion narrative in Mark's Gospel since it was foundational and was largely incorporated into both Matthew and Luke's narratives, while John heightened the story time after time. A close reading of Mark's account of the crucifixion will reveal that it is designed to go from 6:00 p.m. on Thursday to 6:00 p.m. on Friday, thereby creating a 24-hour liturgical vigil. One can see the divisions at 14:17-31, 14: 32-42, 14: 43-65, 14:66-72, 15: 1-20, 15:21-32, 15:33-39 and 15: 40-47. The hours are actually marked in verses17 and 37-41 of chapter 14 and in verses 1, 25, 33, 34, and 42 of chapter 15. Note also that the betrayal is made to occur at midnight, so that the darkest deed in human history can occur at the darkest moment of the night. It serves the drama needs of the liturgy not the facts of history.

Most Christians are also unaware that the Palm Sunday procession in Mark is again not history but is taken directly out of the Jewish liturgy of Sukkoth, a fall harvest festival of eight days duration. In the liturgical observance of Sukkoth, worshipers marched around the Temple or synagogue waving a 'lulab,' a bunch of leafy branches made up of willow, myrtle and palm, in their right hands. As they marched, they shouted the words of Psalm 118, "Hosanna! which is translated "Save us" and Blessed is he who enters (comes) in the name of the Lord (vs. 25 and 26)." That ought to sound familiar. This Palm Sunday idea introduced by Mark is based on a text (Zechariah 9:9-11), which reads: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your King comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey and the foal of a donkey." Zechariah's narrative has been adapted as the vehicle through which to tell the Jesus story. When the story of the cross unfolds, this pattern of adapting Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures continues. We tend to forget that Paul, before any gospel was written had observed that, "Christ died ---- in accordance with the scriptures (I Cor. 15:3)." The only scriptures Paul knew were what we today call the Old Testament.

The details of the story of the cross are quite familiar since worshipers have read and relived them for 2000 years. Jesus is given over into the hands of wicked people. He is silent before Pilate and his accusers. He is mocked and abused. His clothing is divided among the soldiers. They cast lots to determine who would get what. He is crucified between two bandits or thieves. The crowd passing by derided him. His fellow victims taunt him and he cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" He is buried in the private tomb of a rich man named Joseph. What is not familiar to worshippers, however, are the accounts from the Hebrew Bible that Christians have adapted through which the story of Jesus can be told. We are not reading history when we read the passion story from the gospels; we are participating in the interpretative liturgy through which Jesus was rooted in the scriptures of his people and to interpret him as the fulfillment of Jewish expectations.

The passion story of Jesus is actually based on two primary sources in the Old Testament. I will deal with one of them, Psalm 22, this week. That Psalm opens with the cry of dereliction, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" These words were quite deliberately placed onto the lips of Jesus by Mark. Psalm 22 goes on to say, "All who see me, mock at me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; he committed his cause to God, let God deliver him (Ps. 22:7-8). Surely Mark had this Psalm in front of him when he wrote, "Those who pass by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "Aha, you who would destroy the Temple . . . save yourself" (Mk. 15:29ff). Matthew made the connection even more overt by adding, "He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he wants him." (Mt. 27:43).

Psalm 22 continues by saying, "I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint." (v. 14). This verse and the phrase "I can count all my bones," near the end of this Psalm (verse 17), gave rise to the tradition that the bones of Jesus were not broken. John once again develops the story more fully (Jno. 19:31-37), by augmenting his narrative with a reference to another Psalm (34:20), where the psalmist adds, "He keeps all his bones, not one of them was broken." These words revealed the growing liturgical identity between Jesus and the sacrificial lamb of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the Yom Kippur liturgy, the sacrificial lamb had to be physically perfect, no scratches, blemishes or broken bones. Only the blood of the perfect lamb of God could cleanse the people from their sins.

The theme of thirst is also found in Psalm 22 (v.15) where the psalmist writes, "My strength is dried up like a potsherd and my tongue cleaves to my jaws: thou dost lay me in the dust of death." This idea was incorporated by Mark into the Passion Narrative when Jesus is given wine mingled with myrrh to drink prior to the crucifixion. He declines. Later the Fourth Gospel heightens the thirst theme by having Jesus actually cry, "I thirst!" John says, he was given a sponge filled with vinegar to drink. To buttress this story John quotes another Psalm (69:21), where it is written, "for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." After this, John has Jesus say, "It is finished," before he breathes his last (Jno. 19:28-30).

Psalm 22 further says, "They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots (v.18)." Mark says of Jesus, "They divided his garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take." The dependence on this text is more obvious when the Fourth Gospel describes the scene even more graphically by turning one piece of Jesus' clothing into a seamless robe for which literal dice are rolled to award possession. Can anyone seriously doubt that Psalm 22 was a major source employed in the creation of the details of the passion story of Jesus in order to shape the worship life of the early Christian Church? We are not dealing in the gospel story with the literal history of the final events in the life of Jesus as Mel Gibson and so many, not very well informed, Christians seem to think. We are dealing with a liturgical attempt to lead the second and third generation of Christians to meditate during Holy Week on who it was who was crucified and what the ultimate meaning of his life is.

The second source for the content of the passion is Isaiah 53, to which I shall turn in next week's column.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published March 10, 2004




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