Dawning of Christ-Consciousness: From Separation to Union

Essay by Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D. on 25 January 2018 25 Comments

What is happening in the human soul when someone, such as the President of the United Sates, refers to the predominately black countries of Africa and that of Haiti with dehumanizing racist rhetoric? What is happening in the human soul when political leaders seek simplistic solutions to cultural shifts in the erection of walls? What is happening in the human soul when the U.S. President fails to condemn neo-Nazi violent demonstrations?

Please login with your account to read this essay.
 

Question

I don't understand why, for centuries the BIBLE has been and IS the inspired word of GOD. Now, for some reason, a few (and not chosen few) think it is just a storybook. It is their fault that the United Methodist church is breaking up. The BIBLE is clear on what GOD thinks of homosexuality. If you notice, the churches that are growing are not mainline liberal churches but fundamental Bible-believing churches. I was raised a Protestant Methodist.

Answer

Dear JP,

Wow, growing up in the Methodist Protestant Church makes you a member of a unique and particularly tenacious group of Southerners! I understand this is a group that walked out of the 1939 Methodist merger bringing together denominations that had split over slavery 100 years prior. Your MPC ancestors were (and I believe still are) convinced that the Bible is infallible and inerrant (which is demonstrably NOT the case). It did, however, help them make a Biblical case for slavery (and the “attacks of the Abolitionists,” who “would disturb the settled order of Providence, and dissolve the connection between master and slave, that has been recognized by the great Governor of the Universe).

My guess is that the MPC probably doesn't support slavery any more (at least publicly), but back in the day, they made the same argument for slavery that I think you’re making for opposing basic civil rights for non-heterosexuals: the “settled order” “recognized by the great Governor of the Universe." I hope we can agree that God's "settled order" was wrong about slavery. According to the Bible, God's "settled order" also included the advocacy of genocide, women as property, and rampant xenophobia. I’d like to be able to say that these ideas are no longer considered acceptable, but like zombies, they don’t want to die. Sadly, the've been given new credence by President Trump (who doesn’t understand why, “if we’ve got the nukes, why we can’t use them”, brags about grabbing women by the genitals, and dismisses whole countries as “shitholes.”) So, far from being embarrassing chapters we’d rather forget, we’ve still got to contend with people who think genocide, misogyny, and xenophobia are OK, but homosexuality is bad.

It begs the question: What is it about the issue of homosexuality that makes people get all upset? What is it about basic civil rights for all Americans that causes people to resort to getting God involved in opposition? That's a strategy that hasn't worked out too well for God over the years. Breaking news: "God is against basic human rights." Yikes.

Look, I don’t have an answer – and neither do the poor sots who’ve been tasked with trying to keep the United Methodist denomination from breaking up over the next year or so. It goes right back to the slaveholder vs. abolitionist playbook: anti-LGBTQ advocates clinging to disreputable Bible-passages vs. those convinced that all human beings are of sacred worth (despite what a few passages in the Bible say).

You may not believe it, but I have deep respect for the Bible. I've spent my entire adult life studying it. And I'm here to tell you (as evidently one of the "not chosen") that it is indeed a storybook -- but not "just" a storybook. It contains the stories of people who have spent their whole lives wrestling with and interpreting the meaning of life. It is not inerrant. It is not historical. Its books contain stories -- stories with way more meaning than mere history. Our job is to interpret those stories for a new generation, not simply try to conform to old ways of thinking.

One of the books I recommend to people who are wrestling with some of the things it sounds like you're wrestling with is Bishop John Shelby Spong's "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism." He, too, grew up in a Southern fundamentalist denomination and has since come to a different understanding of the Bible and his faith. If you get it and read it, I'd love to correspond with you about any questions you have.

Wrestling with new ideas is never easy – especially when they seem to threaten a comfortable, established way of looking at the world. To paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick (a Baptist, BTW), “The enemy of Christianity isn’t change, but stagnation.” To celebrate and encourage the cessation of change will continue to drive young and old alike out of what’s left of the church.

But, if we embrace the core values of justice and compassion expressed in the Bible, we are compelled to stand with the oppressed and voiceless, accommodating the reality that the Spirit is flexing with our evolving humanity. For me, clinging to values that exclude and disrespect others is made even worse when they’re justified by out-of-context Biblical proof texting. It’s theological malpractice.

Read Jack’s book. Go sit in a quiet place and ask yourself, will God really love me more because I hate the right people? I’ll leave it to you.

Committed to change,

David

PS: Just to be clear, I doubt the MPC is growing (I think there are only a few dozen MPCs left, scattered across the Confederacy). And as a matter of fact, it's a myth that "fundamental Bible believing churches" are growing like crazy. Everybody's losing members -- even those wildly liberal Southern Baptists have lost a million members in the last 10 years. If you want more statistics, you can find them on the web.

__________________________________________________

Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Connection between the Crucifixion and the Passover, Part I

Spong

The symbols of Christmas have been stored away. In Christian churches we are in the poorly defined season of Epiphany, waiting for Lent to appear on the horizon. Supermarket advertisements of seafood dishes for the Lenten diet announce Lent's arrival, but little attention is paid to it until its last week when the climax of the Christian story is relived. Holy Week includes the celebrations of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Psychologically, we are moving from the cheering crowds of Palm Sunday to the jeering crowds of Good Friday.

In the biblical narrative these final events in Jesus' life are set against the background of the Jewish observance of the Passover, which provides a clue into how the earliest Christians came to understand the meaning of Jesus' death. Whether that placement is a matter of history or is instead an interpretive liturgy is the place I want to begin this week in a series of columns that will attempt to re-interpret the founding moments in the Christian story.

Both the Passover and Holy Week celebrate death and the birth of new life and in the process, call those observing these rites to new beginnings. Both the Passover and the Passion Narrative speak of a deliverance from bondage. Passover's bondage was slavery in Egypt. Holy Week's bondage was the 'bondage of sin.' Passover related a death and resurrection experience of a nation at the Red Sea; Holy Week a death and resurrection experience of an individual. In later Christian practice, the waters of baptism, in which we are said to enter Christ's death become, when we are raised from those waters in a symbolic resurrection, the gateway to eternal life. In this manner the liturgies of Passover, Eucharist and Baptism came to be united. From as far back as our written Christian sources go the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus were set in the context of the Jewish Passover. The Passover was located in the calendar at that moment of early spring when, at least in the northern hemisphere, tiny shoots of green living things are breaking through the crust of an apparently dead 'Mother earth.' When the passion narrative of Jesus was linked to Passover this time became attached to the story of his death and resurrection.

In an earlier book, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" I assumed the historicity of that connection, but further study through the years has challenged this. I am now convinced that liturgical pressure and not remembered history forced the two events together. I also now believe that it was the difficulty in making sense of the death of Jesus that caused the early Christians to identify the cross with the Passover and that this in turn provided the theological lynchpin needed to understand Jesus' death as being related to salvation. This insight has caused me to rearrange in a radical way the time line of the gospels. The first step is to separate the cross from the Passover. The second step, and perhaps far more important one, is to recognize that the experience of resurrection has to be separated from the day of crucifixion not by three days, but by perhaps as long as six months to a year. That time frame would put an end to that late developing tendency to think that the resurrection has anything to do with a resuscitated body. If I can demonstrate the truth of these two possibilities then I can show that there is a different way to look at the story of the cross and to explore anew the meaning of Easter.

To open the first timeline it is essential to know exactly what the Bible says. Mark, the first written gospel (70-75 C.E.), assumes that the meal on the night before the crucifixion is the Passover meal. He portrays Jesus (14:13ff) as sending disciples in search of a man who will lead them to a large furnished upper room, where they can prepare for the celebration. Mark then chronicles in intimate detail the final twenty-four hours in Jesus' earthly life.
This stylized narrative begins in Mark 14:17 when the evangelist notes that "when it was evening," that is around 6:00 pm, the disciples gathered with Jesus for the Passover meal. That meal usually lasted for three hours or until 9:00 pm when it ended with the singing of a hymn and departure. Mark then describes seven other episodes, each of which is another three-hour segment as that fateful night unfolded. We are told that Jesus and his disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Peter, James and John could not watch with him one, two or three hours. It was now midnight. The act of betrayal is thus set at the darkest point of the night. The arrested Jesus is then dragged before the Chief priests for a trial that presumably lasted until 3:00 a. m. One quickly doubts the historicity of this episode since the Torah forbade Jewish authorities from sitting in judgment at night. Liturgy, however, can ignore that historical detail.

In the watch of the night between 3:00 and 6:00 a. m., known as "cockcrow," Mark tells us the story of Peter's threefold denial, one for each hour I would suggest. At the crowing of the cock it is now 6:00 am and Mark's text tells us right on cue (15:1) that "as soon as it was morning" the Council of the Jews led Jesus away to Pilate. This new three-hour segment includes the stories of Barabbas, the lashing of Jesus and the crown of thorns. Mark then informs us (15:25) that it was the "third hour" or 9:00 am when they crucified him. When the sixth hour came (15:33) Mark said that darkness covered the earth until the ninth hour or 3:00 p.m., when Jesus cried with a loud voice, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and breathed his last. From 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Mark suggests that they have time to remove his body from the cross and to bury him fittingly in Joseph's tomb. It is thus obvious that the earliest version of the crucifixion story is liturgically shaped to be a twenty-four vigil, divided into eight segments and was constructed not to tell believers what actually happened but to lead them into a remembrance of who Jesus was and the role he played in the drama of their salvation.

That conclusion is heightened by the realization that almost all of the content that Mark uses to develop his story of how Jesus died, comes not from eyewitnesses but from two primary sources in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures: Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. From Psalm 22, Mark draws the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." He described the crowd at the cross using the words of this Psalm (v.7,8). Next he tells the story of Jesus' thirst again using the words of this Psalm (v. 14,15). Then he relates the account of the soldiers dividing his garments based on this Psalm (v.18). This is clearly not remembered history. In Isaiah 53 a portrait is drawn of one called the Servant or the Suffering Servant of the Lord. Isaiah says this Servant figure "was numbered with the transgressors" (v. 12). From that line, Mark created the story of the two thieves crucified one on each side of him. Isaiah says that the Servant figure was "with a rich man in his death" (v.9), so Mark created the story of a ruler of the Jews, Joseph of Arimathea, who made his new tomb in a garden available to receive the body of Jesus. Isaiah notes that the Servant made intercession for the transgressors (v. 12), so the stage is set for Luke to expand Mark's narrative by supplying the words of Jesus' intercession for the soldiers, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Mark has noted earlier (15:50) that when Jesus was arrested, "all of his disciples forsook him and fled," which means that we must embrace the fact that Jesus died alone. There were no eyewitnesses to record the details of Jesus' final hours so Mark's biblical account cannot be history. It is interpretive material, highly stylized and presented in a liturgical format. This clearly acknowledged data destabilizes all the claims for the historicity of the final events in Jesus' life other than the fact that the Romans executed him. Once we open this door, the possibility that the entire story of the Jesus' Passion is interpretive material, not historical memory, demands new attention.

Before moving to additional data supporting this conclusion, I need to note that in Mark, Matthew and Luke we do not have three separate accounts of the death of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke have Mark's gospel in front of them as they write. While they both edit Mark and add to his narrative here and there, they accepted Mark's basic framework and time line. The Last Supper in all three of these gospels is the Passover meal, suggesting that the crucifixion occurred on the day following the Passover. Matthew adds an earthquake at the time of the crucifixion, and puts a temple guard around the tomb. Luke adds the story of one of the thieves being penitent (Lk 23:39-43) and gives the women, watching from afar, a bigger role. However, these are not independent corroborations of the Passover connection. Matthew copied into his gospel about 90% of Mark's content while Luke copied about 50%. Mark was the one who put the crucifixion and the Passover together. Matthew and Luke accepted that placement.

Finally, we note that the Fourth Gospel, John, is an independent source. John refers to a final meal that is characterized by a foot-washing ceremony but it is clearly not the Passover meal. John then is free to connect the crucifixion itself with the moment the Paschal Lamb is slaughtered. This meant that for John the Passover celebration would have occurred after sundown on the day Jesus was crucified. The timing is different but the connection between the death of Jesus and the Passover is no less real. In all four Gospels the story of the crucifixion is shaped by images from the Passover.

Does it make any real difference if the Passover observance was not the historical context during which the crucifixion occurred? I think it does for it breaks open the literalism of the past and drives us to explain how the two came to be related. That in turn provides a doorway into the primitive understanding of the Christ experience. We have only just begun, so stay tuned.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published February 2, 2005

 

Comments

 

25 thoughts on “Dawning of Christ-Consciousness: From Separation to Union

Leave a Reply

Cancel