THE ETHIC OF JESUS & THE PLIGHT OF THE PALESTINIANS

Palestine Sun Bird Christians have a revelation of Israel. What is needed is a revelation of the plight of the Palestinians. In the previous post we considered why the political theology of Christian Zionism can be used to support a terribly disturbing political militancy against the Palestinian population in the Middle East, a population that includes Palestinian Christians. This alone should give American Christians pause. Do they want to endorse a theology of brother against brother? Further, Palestinian Christians of all denominations in Palestine stand united against the theology, which they consider a “false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation” (from: The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism).

God’s call to “love, justice, and reconciliation” is, of course, central to the entire biblical narrative. It is such a huge area human responsibility – the subject of countless books and seminary courses, for example – that we cannot possibly delve into it here, in a short blog post. But let’s look at it in its most concentrated form, in the ethic of Jesus in the Gospels, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. (You may want to see the posts on Jesus’ way of reasoning as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine, for I am trying to think from within that way here.) And let’s make it practical.

When Jesus called peacemakers blessed, when he emphasized turning the other cheek, when he commanded love of enemies, when he required sheathed swords of those who would follow him –  Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice. That is, he was throwing down the gauntlet to us at the deepest depths of our being.

The one whom the New Testament calls the wisdom – not the theology – of God was challenging his listeners at the core of their being: What do you want to live by? he was in essence asking them. Do you want to feed off of the desires in you that can alienate, hate, make enemies, fuel violence? Or do you want to live by my gospel-shaped wisdom, by inner motivations of love and reconciliation? What interests you, an ontology of violence or an ontology of peace?

Jesus’ ethic challenges the heart because it is deeply personal and utterly practical. True, no one lives consistent with it, but those who accept Jesus at his word must make a start and keep going. Many of us today, however, have restricted the ethic of Jesus to his audiences in ancient Palestine. We keep it filed “back there,” in that historical period. After all, it might get rather uncomfortable for us if we try to live it today, as individuals and churches, toward the peoples of Palestine.

Let’s think just about Jesus’ peacemakers, or peaceworkers. Christian Zionism as a theology of war opposes this norm of the ethic of Jesus. Peacemaking is about reconciliation, and reconciliation may be the most fundamental characteristic of the gospel of Jesus. I imagine Jesus asking: What are you doing to help reconciliation move forward between the Palestinians and the Jews in the Middle East?

Let Us Beat Our Swords into PloughsharesPeople go to war against enemies. I do not see how anyone who supports Christian Zionism as a war theology is not counting the Palestinians as hated enemies. I imagine Jesus asking comfortable American supporters of Christian Zionism: What did the Palestinians ever do to you? Can you pick up a gun against them? No? Then why are you in league with a theology that is on that trajectory?

Even if they were personal enemies, turning the other cheek is part of an ethic that calls its followers to eschew a traditional principle of self-defense and then to go further and love enemies. We may want to rationalize it away – it’s an exaggeration, it’s impractical, it was for another time – yet there it is in the ethic of Jesus. I imagine Jesus asking Christian Zionists: What are you doing about loving the Palestinians?

Maybe you can’t go this far, yet, on the path of self-sacrificing love. But you can make a start by choosing to stop mentally supporting a theology of war. Loving actions will eventually follow that decision. In the meantime, a huge step has been taken.

Turning from Christian Zionism is not about hurting Israel or bringing a curse on you. It is about leveling the playing field, raising the Palestinian issue on a level with Israel. The ethic of Jesus calls for showing the same kind of impartiality to friends and enemies that God shows all to all peoples everywhere in his distribution of sun and rain. With this posture we give further witness to our lives as followers of Jesus. To love one’s enemies is to express in the worst of conditions the best of the love of the Father in heaven.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image of the Palestinian Sun Bird by David King (permission via Creative Commons)

CHRISTIAN ZIONISM: A THEOLOGY OF WAR?

little drummer girlI remember what unbolted me from being held to some aberrant views of the Middle East. It was the power of a good story well told. I’m talking about John LeCarré’s The Little Drummer Girl. This was in the early 1990s. I had asked a literary friend to recommend just one seriously intelligent contemporary storyteller. I was, you see, in a novel-slump. At the time, nothing but the classics were working for me. Where was the power of a good contemporary story?

Ever read John LeCarré? my friend asked. No. Where should I start? Try The Perfect Spy. I did. I was hooked and began reading LeCarré regularly (thank you David). Sometime around then I read Drummer Girl. The novel, first published in 1983, opened my eyes to the Jewish – Palestinian conflict in a way that nonfiction had never done. That troubling story was so masterfully told that I knew there had to be a good deal of truth behind it. I felt compelled to find out what that was, so I set out on a path of research that unexpectedly faced me with a lot of difficult choices.

Central to them was this one. I could either keep believing ideas about the Middle East that I was beginning to see were bogus or I could ditch them. You might say, Well, Charles, what was the problem? We should always ditch our faulty beliefs. But it’s not always so easy as flipping a switch, is it? I had picked up those ideas over the years from the American media and, in the interest of full disclosure, from some Christian pulpits and books as well. I had trusted those sources, especially the latter one, and it was hard to admit they could have been wrong. Besides, what would friends think of me, or colleagues, or people at work, if I could no longer agree with such popularly held views?

This blog is not the place to take you through an exploration of the jungle of my mind to show you why I eventually ditched faulty ideas I held about the Middle East. (I admit that there may be more to go.) I just want to do two things here. One is to acknowledge that it was the power of a good story well told, The Little Drummer Girl, that set me on that path. Having now done that, I want to say a few words about the political theology of Christian Zionism. This was an idea about America and the Middle East I had been flirting with, but eventually left to other lovers.

Christian Zionism is hugely popular in many American churches and institutions, even though it is most likely that the ordinary person in the pew – those not part of the leadership – have never heard of the phrase “Christian Zionism.” Or if they have heard it, they probably know little, if anything, about it as a political theology. To them, it is most likely just a way to “support Israel,” such as through good works programs and monetary donations.

Popre Francis Dome of the RockTo hastily simplify here, the theology is comprised chiefly of a variety of Old Testament verses from the prophets and from God’s promises to Abraham. These verses are used by pastors, ministers, and other Christian leaders to argue that the modern state of Israel absolutely must get all the support it can from the United States and that Christians faithful to the biblical narrative will support this effort. The linchpin used to defend the theology is Genesis 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.

A great debate among Evangelicals has been whether the theology is biblical. Stephen Sizer’s book Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon?, published by IVP, is the most definitive critical engagement with the theology that I know of. Anyone interested a very detailed history of the theology, and its religious and political implications, should read it. We could spend many posts unpacking all the existing pros and cons. Instead, after having done an extensive amount of research, here is the conclusion I came to:

Christian Zionism can easily become a theology of violence and war, and as such it has no space for diplomacy and negotiations to bring peace in the Middle East.

This was tough to admit, and it may be even tougher for Christians and churches that support Israel with good works projects. The problem is not in good works – where they are good works indeed.

The problem is in the theology when it tries to become a foreign policy, for there is a terribly disturbing political militancy at work in theology of Christian Zionism, and ordinary Christian supporters of Israel may not be aware of this or of its looming, tragic implications. That is, the theology is always on the lookout for signs that history is nearing Armageddon.

The most dramatic of these signs to date, according to the theology, has been the return of the Jews to their biblical homeland. The next major turning-point event would be the second coming of Christ. So the history of the world, again, according to the theology, is currently experiencing the time between these two events.

The question must then be asked: What, according to the theology, needs to be occurring during this in-between period? Since conflict and war in the Middle East need to be increasing preceding the second coming of Christ exist, the modern state of Israel and its neighbors need to be at war with each other, leading up to Armageddon. In the next post I will explain why I believe followers of Jesus should steer clear of this foreign policy.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

IN AND OUT OF LOVE WITH THEOLOGY

wisdom traditionI have a love-hate relationship with theology. I understand its importance, but I’ve seen and experienced too many ways in which it has be used to injure rather than to heal. For instance, people may treat the Bible as if it were a book of theology. Or they may fold up life, and their own lives, and that of others too, to fit inside their theology. I’ve witnessed others, and I’ve been guilty of this too, hauling out theological views like Job’s counselors – as if they answered the mysteries of life’s irregularities, human suffering, theodicy, and the sovereignty of God.

More personally still, it’s probably due to being born a wisdom guy. Hey, I couldn’t help that. You’ll have to take that up with my Maker. Also, wisdom has a family resemblance closer to philosophy than to theology, and my interests and reading have always been strongly more inclined to the former. You may imagine, then, how much I felt confirmed in my existence the day I discovered that a prominent meaning of “philosophy” is “love of wisdom” (in Greek, philos refers to “love” and sophia to “wisdom”).

I don’t want to push wisdom and theology into a dichotomy, nor do I mean that the two disciplines don’t influence each other. But I do find some distinctions helpful, which I share here because this is, after all, a blog dedicated to wisdom and to what may be called the diplomacy of wisdom.

For one thing, whereas wisdom is an agency for motivating diverse peoples to build cooperative and peaceable relations, a theology, because it falls within the purview of a particular religious community, unites only those who believe its particular dogmas. And some theologies make enemies of believers of different religious traditions.

Also, when confronted by a problem, whereas theology tends to bring ready-made answers to the discussion, as did Job’s friends, wisdom tends to arrive with questions seeking insight, as we noted in recent posts. I like the way Abraham Joshua Heschel put the distinction: “Theology starts with dogmas, philosophy begins with problems. Philosophy sees the problem first, theology has the answer in advance” (God in Search of Man, 4).

Further, theological studies (like traditional apologetics) make wide the gulf of dissimilarities between different religions and the peoples who hold to them; wisdom seeks to bring even different religious people together on common ground for mutual good. Immediately we see a great problem that theology presents to the diplomatic corps. Theology in its dogmatic role and wisdom in its diplomatic role have contrasting starting points when approaching problems of international relations and foreign policy.

I have been known to joke with Christian friends that you won’t find the word “theology” in the Bible, but you will find “wisdom” hundreds of times. Scripture explains that God founded the world on wisdom, and it advises us not only to seek wisdom but that wisdom is more precious than gems, silver, and gold, and that nothing we desire can compare with her (Proverbs 3:14-15; 4:5-7). Further, according to the Bible, and as we are considering on this blog, it is in the historic wisdom tradition that we find tremendous resources for discovering how to ease adversarial tensions, prevent violence and wars, and build more cooperative peaceable foreign relations.

The differences between theology and wisdom that I am suggesting come into sharp relief if we consider how some Christians approach the problem of peace in the Middle East. Rather than taking their cues from the biblical emphasis on wisdom, they have relied on a theology called Christian Zionism. In the next post I want us to look at how serious a category mistake that is.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

“WAR/NO MORE TROUBLE” playing for change

diplomacy or warWhen a war is being waged, diplomacy gets shushed in the corridors of power and marginalized by the media. Wars running concurrently intensify the quietism. When those wars are running a long time – the war on terrorism, the war about Iraq, the war in Afghanistan – one may be forgiven for concluding that diplomacy has been completely scrubbed from the nation’s lexicon. Sans diplomacy, the next logical step would be perpetual war. Although there are ideologues in America subtly arguing for that next step, there has been a great sense of relief across America the past few years to see diplomacy making a resurgence in Washington.

Rumors of wars will continue, and more wars will occur, but those who are discerning that this is a time for peace, and may it be a long time, please God, are wiser than those who want war. Rather than me rambling for a few more minutes on this, jump to this song, “War/No More Trouble.” A brilliant production, musically and lyrically. Enjoy. And be inspired.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 3 of 3

wisdom and insightAbraham Joshua Heschel was a seminal rabbinic figure in twentieth century religious studies and also a serious civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Heschel personally encountered many outrageous events and experiences as a civil rights activist in the America south during the 1950s and 1960s. As well, Heschel had also faced tragic experiences in Nazi Germany until he escaped.

I call attention to this part of the good rabbi’s personal narrative because in these current posts we are talking about insight, especially the insight that comes from asking questions about events and experiences that are new to us or exceptional. We ask the questions, especially why, because we want to know in a special way. “What’s that all about?” we wonder. In other words, we want insight.

Over many decades Heschel encountered the kinds of events and experiences that no doubt deeply challenged and at times changed his thinking and doing, as they would anyone seeking insight. I have wondered if the deeply challenging personal experiences of his life were not in the back of his mind when he wrote in The Prophets:

“Insight first requires much intellectual dismantling and dislocation.” For he then adds that the process “begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight – upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew” (xxv).

For his part, the theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Creative Word, speaks of a “great brooding” process (71-73). It is a process of discovery, of seeing anew. In this process we are

“in touch with a mystery that cannot be too closely shepherded, as in the Torah, or protested against, as in the prophets. There is here a not-knowing, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned, and a respect for not knowing that must be honored and not crowded. This way does not seek conclusions for immediate resolutions. It works at a different pace because it understands that its secrets cannot be forced” (71).

Wisdom and insight, he continues, are found in the kind of engagement with events and experiences in the world that entail

“fascination, imagination, patience, attentiveness to detail, and finally, observation of the regularities which seem to govern. Wisdom is found in the experience of the specific, concrete experiences which individuals discern for themselves. . . . That is where wisdom shall be found – in the stuff of life, the world, our experience. . . . It holds for the patient, diligent observer what needs to be known” (72-73).

Intellectual dismantling and dislocation. Great brooding. Discerning what is not evident. A sense of surprise at seeing anew. Such is both the cost and the yield to the people seeking what the wisdom literature calls “understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Sadiq Alam (permission via Creative Commons)

WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 2 of 3

It has been said that the first lesson of history is that we don’t learn from it. Perhaps the second lesson is Mark Twain’s witticism that history may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. In any case, one of the things I am assuming on this blog is that with the agency of wisdom there is an ineluctable sense both of the timeless and of the timely. We have considered the former here. In this post I want us to consider the latter in terms of history, especially as wisdom engages with the practical, everyday purposes in human activity. That is, she lives and moves and has her being where people interact and events are manifested. There, wisdom desires the present to write the future by learning wisely from the past.

wisdom insightInsight is vital to the process of wise historical development, and thus to gaining wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible insight is as inseparable from wisdom as a river is from water. The word “insight” denotes the kind of perceiving, discerning, or understanding that comes through focused observation and learning from history. It is often indicated by the word bina. Proverbs 1:2, for example, explains that the proverbs of Solomon are good for attaining bina (insight) and hokma (wisdom). Proverbs 4:5 reads: Get bina, get hokma, and verse seven reads: Hokma is supreme; therefore get hokma. Though it cost all you have, get bina.” Proverbs 2:2-3, 5:1, 21:30, and other passages in the wisdom literature also insist on this marriage of wisdom and insight.

What I want to call attention to is that we gain wisdom from insight about learned lessons. Much, if not most, of the wisdom writings that we have today, whether of Egypt, Israel, or elsewhere from the old-world Middle East, originated in an oral tradition that resulted from the sages lengthy investigations into creation/nature and human relationships and experience. From this in-depth research, the sages (wisdom teachers) gained insight about creational laws (laws of nature, to some), about patterns of human behavior,and about historical developments.

By “using their powers of observation and the ability to think rationally,” writes Leo Perdue, “the sages sought to understand God, social institutions, and the moral life through their reflections on creation and human experience, including their own” (In Search of Wisdom; 76). For our gaining of wisdom, then, insight, we may conclude, with its depths of discernment, takes effort; it is not usually gained though leisurely thinking.

From their studied observations, the sages gained insight into the regularities of life and the act-consequence connection. Simply stated: What you sow, you reap. Over time, such insights were developed into wisdom instruction on a wide variety of topics, such as as are found in the book of Proverbs: gaining further knowledge about the created order of things; cultivating moral conduct, prudent behavior, and virtue; recognizing principles for living well; understanding the outcomes (foolish or wise) not only of an individual’s but also of a government’s choices; and recognizing contrasts, as between the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, the good and the bad.

Insight about such matters in the book of Proverbs is often artfully crafted in pithy sayings of wisdom, such as maxims, epigrams, adages, or proverbs, intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable, and every now and then delivering a graphic kick; e.g., Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion; food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel; righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (Proverbs 11:22; 20:17; 14:34).

The sages also honestly accounted for the hard facts of life’s irregularities and contradictions. For instance, Proverbs indicate that a crook may prosper, that a good person may suffer, that a bad person may rule, that a person with wisdom may not act wisely, and so forth. The entire book of Job, in fact, we could say, is about when the rules don’t apply.

In the next post we will discuss what has been called the “great brooding” process that is necessary for insight to emerge and to help us to gain wisdom.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by archer 10 Dennis (permission via Creative Commons)