Tuesday, February 22, 2005


On persecution and prophecy

We went out of town for a brief and refreshing weekend getaway, and I returned to find that there are many blogs to read and little time to do it.

I also returned to find that my post on Dorothy Stang has been getting quite a few search engine hits. It also garnered the following comment, which I'm still trying to decipher:
I love Sis. Stang's passion for standing up for Christ, and interceded for her killers, she gained life where her real home is now! You should'nt weep for Sis. Stang, you should weep for yourselves, after a while her death will be a memory, and you will go on doing the things of the world, ex. defiling, and cohabiting yourselves with women, cursing others, speaking badly about others, having hatred and bitterness towards others, etc. A persons death is like a drug you get sad and depressed until sickness and later you find so-called joy in the things of the world, which will lead you to be perished. Get use to leaders being persecuted, and killed, for their purpose is to serve God, there will be more to come!!!!!!
I'm not sure how to identify the "yourselves" that I should be weeping for. I do cohabit myself with a woman -- my wife. I also confess that, far more often than I would like, I fall into habits of hatred and bitterness. And, alas, I also find many things in the world a source of real joy. Weep for me.

Behold, I started this post resolving not to be snarky, and look how poorly I've done already. But enough snarkiness. For lurking somewhere behind this comment, and appearing only faintly between the lines, I think there is a serious (and seriously wrong) idea, which deserves serious refutation. The idea is that the persecution of Christians is somehow inevitable. This explains the ominous exclamation at the end that we should just "get use[d] to leaders being persecuted," because "there will be more to come!!!!!!"

I suspect, although this is conjectural, that in recent years that idea has become increasingly prevalent among many American Christians, thanks to the success of books like the Left Behind series. From what I can tell, based on reliable second-hand reports, those books and countless others about the "end times" represent "persecution" as just another sign of the times. That Christians will be persecuted must be inevitable, according to this genre of very popular Christian writing, because it is one of the markers on the road to the world's annihilation. It has been foretold, and therefore it will be.

That's why The Rapture Index (via Positive Liberty) lists "Anti-Christian" persecution as just one of the various hash-marks on "the prophetic speedometer of end-time activity." (Added later: See also the similar way that persecution and prophecy are represented by The Great Separation. You'll be interested to note that, according to this site, many prophets are bloggers.)

But the use of the word "prophetic" to describe this view of persecution relies on a false conception about what "prophecy" is, at least according to the scriptural traditions out of which Christianity took shape. As Walter Brueggemann argues in his book, The Prophetic Imagination, "the dominant conservative misconception, evident in manifold bumper stickers, is that the prophet is a future-teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous), usually with specific reference to Jesus." In stark contrast, the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible, the tradition that would have mattered most to the writers of the New Testament, is "concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present."

The conservative Christian view of the prophet as "future-teller" disconnects the future from the present. For future-telling prophecy does not necessarily call for change in the present, any more than a fortune cookie telling me that I will have success in business would change the way I conduct business. Why would it call for change in the present, since it merely predicts that what will be will be, regardless of what happens here and now?

I once opened a cookie with the following fortune, bookended by two smiley faces: "A nice cake is waiting for you." I still have the fortune pinned to my bulletin board. But obviously I leave it there as a joke. As serious advice, it would be less than worthless. Does such a fortune admonish me to do anything in particular? Does it entail any particular ethical obligations on my part? No. The cake's there for me. There's nothing I have to do to get it, and there's nothing I can do to avoid it. It's just there, waiting.

What Brueggemann describes as the conservative misconception of prophecy is the theological equivalent of "A nice cake is waiting for you." Just substitute "crown" for "cake," and you have a perfect summary of the eschatology that is entailed by a one-dimensional view of the prophet as predictor. Of course, to round out that eschatology you would have to include a few other permutations. First, a horrible persecution is waiting for you. Then, a Rapture is waiting for you. Then, a climactic battle with the Antichrist is waiting for you. Finally, a nice crown is waiting for you. But it doesn't really matter, from a causal perspective, what order these fortunes come in. They are simply arranged chronologically and mostly arbitrarily, like tarot cards of the end times. On this misleading view of Christian eschatology, there is nothing to do but to wait for these fates that are waiting for us. The clock is ticking, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. At best you can merely devise ingenious ways of telling time.

The prophetic tradition with which Jesus identified, however, and with which his earliest followers were familiar, is starkly opposed to this picture of prophecy as a kind of static fatalism. Since I've quoted Brueggemann, I might as well recapitulate briefly the argument of his book. Brueggemann argues that the kind of prophecy envisioned in the Hebrew Bible always invoked the future as a way of indicting, and therefore changing, the present. The value of the prophetic tradition was its use of imaginative (and often frightening) visions of future possibilities as ways of compelling change in the here and now.

Sometimes those visions of the future may have appeared to take the form of simple future-telling. For example, a good thumbnail summary of the book of Jeremiah might begin: "A not-so-nice humble pie is waiting for you." But it would not end there. Rather, Jeremiah's prophecies always include a "because." Rather than obliterating the causal relationship between possible futures and the present, the prophet makes clear that the humble pie is waiting for you because (to loosely paraphrase) you went around whoring with other gods and taking advantage of your neighbors. Stop doing that, Jeremiah prophesies, and a nice cake will wait for you instead.

Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are represented within the corpus of biblical literature as persecuted people. And there's no wonder that they were persecuted. After all, there is no need to persecute a walking fortune cookie. Nothing sweeter, more sugary, or more harmless could be imagined, even if the fortune is less than glowing. But there is every reason to persecute a walking indictment of the way things are in the present.

A prophet who says "to the king and the queen mother: 'Take a lowly seat, for your beautiful crown has come down from your head'" is likely to be unpopular with the king and the queen mother. He is likely to be persecuted, however, if he goes on to say that the reason for this prophecy is because the king "builds his house by unrighteousnesss, and his upper rooms by injustice; [and] makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages." That kind of prophet is not just unpopular with the powers that be. He is dangerous to them because he is likely to be popular with those who have not been getting their wages.

In short, a prophet who merely foretells that the high and mighty will be brought down can be tolerated, because a fortune about the future does not entail any necessary change in the present. Everyone eventually is brought low by death, so foretelling this about a king does not change much of anything. But the prophet who connects that future with the way that the mighty are treating the lowly now can count on persecution from the people wearing crowns: "This man deserves the sentence of death."

Even these elliptical observations about prophets like Jeremiah show why it is no wonder that augury and sorcery are routinely portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as tools of kings, whereas genuine prophets are usually opposed to those in power. Mere "soothsaying" literally sooths those in power, for like any good fortune teller, a soothsayer tries to tell his client what he wants to hear. Real prophecy, on the other hand, discomforts those in power now. A truly prophetic vision of the future calls into question the arrangement of power in the present.

Okay, so what does all of this amateur theologizing (apologies, apologies) have to do with Dorothy Stang, or with the confusing comment someone left me about her? Well, to Christians who profess an interest in conforming themselves to biblical traditions, I want to suggest that certain ideas about prophecy and persecution, implicit in the comment, get the relevant biblical ideas wrong.

The comment, according to my reading of it, tells us that the fact that Stang was killed and that she was a Christian should not surprise us, because (here's where I'm interpolating into the comment) the Bible (or the Left Behind books) predicted these things would happen. Stang's death is not only unsurprising, on this view -- it also fails to change anything about the way we should behave in the here and now. Indeed, the comment bleakly offers no hope that anything will change: Stang's memory will fade, and everyone will go back to doing what they do. The best we can do is to get used to the idea of more "cake," so to speak, because there's more to come.

This bleak vision of Christian persecution, I've been arguing, stems from a mistaken view of prophecy, which holds that because the suffering of Christians has been foretold, it shall be. Period. Such a view actually empties Stang's death of any specific meaning, because it means that the particular reasons why she died -- the "because" of the prophecy -- matter very little. She was a Christian; Christians will be persecuted, inevitably; ergo, she was persecuted. Maybe the speedometer of end-time activity will tick up a notch or two, but that's about it.

In contrast to these views, represented obliquely by the comment, I've been working up to this point: The idea that Jesus had about prophecy, according to the gospels, was the kind of prophecy represented by figures like Jeremiah. Yes, he foretold that his followers would be persecuted, but they would be persecuted like the prophets. That is, they would be persecuted because they would represent, as Jesus and Jeremiah both did, a threat to the powers that were. Brueggemann writes:
The coming of Jesus meant the abrupt end of things as they were. Two texts are commonly cited as programmatic for the preaching of Jesus. In Mark 1:15 he announced the coming of the kingdom. But surely implicit in the announcement is the counterpart that present kingdoms will end and be displaced. In Luke 4:18-19 he announced that a new age was beginning, but that announcement carried in it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and benefited from their poverty. He addressed the captives (which means bonded slaves), but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.

His ministry carried out the threat implicit in these two fundamental announcements. The ministry of Jesus is, of course, criticism that leads to radical dismantling. And as is characteristic the guardians and profiteers of the present stability are acutely sensitive to any change that may question or challenge the present arrangement. Very early Jesus is correctly perceived as a clear and present danger to that order.
According to the gospels, Brueggemann is saying, Jesus was persecuted because of his perceived threat to the established social order, not as a result of some ineluctable prediction that he would be persecuted. Announcing a new kingdom in which those defined in the present as the least powerful (women, the poor, the enslaved, the socially outcast) would become the greatest -- well, that struck ruling kings as dangerous, and they decided, consequently, to execute him like a common criminal, mocking his pretensions to be a "king of the Jews." But if this story about Jesus' cross is correct, then when Jesus told his disciples that they would also be persecuted, he was not giving them a fortune cookie: "A cross is waiting for you." He was saying, essentially, that a cross would await them because they did as he did. Insofar as his disciples also spoke truth to power on behalf of the powerless, they would be persecuted.

What this means is that deaths like Stang's are not inevitable -- mere markers of the "end times." Stang's death was meaningful precisely because it was contingent, not inevitable. It should be meaningful to Christians because (as best we can tell) it was connected to her prophetic yet peaceful resistance to people who were defrauding the poor and flaunting the law. She was killed because she was trying to change the present, as any good prophet does.

So a Christian informed by the biblical account of prophecy won't simply accept an interpretation of her death that makes it unsurprising and unremarkable. Such a Christian will not just chalk another one up to the end times and buckle her seat belt for more to come. Rather, the Christian should see Stang's death as a meaningful case of Christian persecution only because she was behaving as a Christian. And she was only behaving as a Christian if, like the Christian's namesake, she was threatening the present by announcing a kingdom in which the poor are rich, the least are greatest, and the last are first.

The commenter who inspired this post left behind a URL to Persecution.com. It's a site all about the persecution of Christians. Oddly enough, however, its statement of faith includes no reference to the idea that Christian persecution might be connected to the kind of challenge that Jesus posed to power. It contains no statement about Christian ethics, or any implication that those ethics might be causally related to Christian persecution.

In reading the site, and in reflecting on the potential sources of this comment, I recalled and returned to this passage in John Howard Yoder's masterwork, The Politics of Jesus:
Christian thought is accustomed to conceiving of "persecution" as a ritual or "religious" matter independent of any immediate ethical import. Christians are made to suffer because they worship the true God; what has this to do ... with an attitude to government, to violence, war, conflict? Is not being persecuted for the faith quite independent of social ethics?

Such a dichotomy between the religious and the social must be imported into the [biblical] texts; it cannot be found there. The "cross" of Jesus was a political punishment; and when Christians are made to suffer by government it is usually because of the practical import of their faith, and the doubt they cast upon the rulers' claim to be "Benefactor."
By disconnecting a "statement of faith" from the "practical import" of that faith, sites like Persecution.com disconnect persecution from ethics, prophecy from the present, and the cross from the announcement of a different kingdom. A good case could be made, I've tried to argue here, that such a theology of persecution and prophecy would have to be imported into the Bible, because it cannot be found there. It tries to turn the narrative of prophetic figures like Jeremiah and Jesus into a series of unrelated fortune-cookie slips.

I would not have spent so long belaboring that point if I did not feel that this woefully incomplete theology of persecution has serious political consequences in a country where many Christians seem to be rejoicing about their newfound electoral power.

For one thing, a view of persecution as inevitable discourages Christians from engaging in any efforts to make the world a more equitable place to live. There is no ethics behind the "nice cake" view of eschatology, only certain destruction. As Fred Clark put it in a different context,
"At a very basic level, this worldview opposes and undermines any long-term thinking, any sustained effort to make the world a better place -- replacing the hope of redemption with a perverse longing for apocalypse." This worldview was not Stang's, clearly. It was precisely her "sustained effort to make the world a better place" that led to her death. So it should not marshalled as evidence to support a "perverse longing" for the world to perish. Christians, presumably like the God they worship, do not desire the destruction of the world, but instead its renovation.

Second, and more obviously, it should be clear that a conservative misconception about prophecy and persecution fits neatly with the assumption of many American evangelical Christians that there's nothing wrong with the people in power. On this view, there's nothing wrong if a presumably Christian president pursues war, ignores poverty, or tells lies. Instead of being Jeremiahs in the court of Bush, most visible evangelical leaders are playing the role of soothsayer to the king. And facing no objections from a government that they fail to criticize, many American Christians instead dwell on their persecution at the hands of secular prophets of gloom and doom. The distorted view of persecution that characterizes much American Christianity today therefore leads to this truly bizarre conclusion: Christians can both be in power and still be persecuted.

Dorothy Stang, I'd like to believe, recognized that a prophet can't have it both ways, and of the two ways, the cross points to only one.

Collective Improvisation:
I have a professional associate who is fond of saying, in effect, that if you're a Christian, the world will give you a cross -- that it is a vocation of pain. He would most likely characterize himself as liberal rather than evangelical or conservative. I believe that this might be something of an analogue of what you mention in your post, albeit one which is ideologically different. My response to him has been that there are a lot of different kinds of pain in the world, our task is to suffer the right kind of pain , which comes from being faithful, not from simply running to whatever pain-causing agent is nearest us. Now, of course, he's not from the "fortune cookie" school of Christianity, so he's not just chalking up another loss to the Beast, but I think his focus on one possible result of faithfulness, rather than the faithful act which elicits persecution, puts him closer to the folks you mention.

I think the conundrum you point out about (certain) Christians thinking they can both be in power and yet persecuted (presumably as a powerless minority) nicely describes the sort of identity crisis that many of them are going through, one which will require serious reflection and reconsideration. It would be "snarky" of me to say that I don't hold out much hope for this, but I don't. Not because such Christians are incapable of it -- although they provide rare enough examples -- but because the mood of our entire nation seems to militate against it. 

Posted by Jason Fout

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/23/2005 09:41:00 AM : Permalink  

Hi there,

Well I'd like to keep reading and rereading this post. Through my eyes, you were hitting the nail on the head. I love the way Brueggemann identifies the message of the Kingdom as displacing the present one and announcing a new age. A new one where Jesus is King. I think this post is quite prophetic in itself. Quoting from the entry, "A truly prophetic vision of the future calls into question the arrangement of power in the present." Are you not challenging American Christians (myself included)? Aren't we in need of present change? Can we cling to the way of the cross, yet seek dominance in power?

Thanks for this rattling message. Do you mind if I link this post and you as a blogger on my sidebar?

Christie G. 

Posted by Christie G

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/23/2005 11:02:00 AM : Permalink  

Jason, thanks for the thoughftul comment. I think you're right that the mistake of thinking pain has some kind of intrinsic spiritual significance is not limited to conservative Christians. I was remiss not to point that out. It's also possible, I think, for politically liberal Christians (I hate working with these blunt adjectives, but they'll do for now) to get prophecy wrong.

Brueggemann argues that if the conservative view of prophetic criticism focuses wholly on the future, the liberal view of prophecy tends to focus only on the present act of faithfulness, and neglects the imaginative hope for the future that real prophecy also provides. If one extreme focuses on the crown without the cross, the other focuses on the cross without the crown. But if we really believe that acts of faithfulness can bring about the alternative community that prophets envision, then we should hope that eventually the bearing of crosses now will obviate the need for crosses later.

Christie, Thanks for your generous words, and for the link on your blog. Oftentimes I think my critical voice makes it sound like the things I say are not also directed at me. But you can be sure reading people like Brueggemann rattles me, too, and the question of whether I can go the way of people like Dorothy Stang is one that challenges me more than I can really say. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/23/2005 07:49:00 PM : Permalink  

Your post was a well-reasoned and expressed thoughts that have been germinating in my own mind. Though I am from a tradition that highly emphasizes the the futuristic elements of prophecy, I've found the better professors I sit under in my seminary studies have not been remiss in reminding us that prophecy was always to effect change in the present. You mentioned persecution.com, an organization I am familiar with and have had a small involvement with. Though I have been uncomfortable also with their broad, non-doctrinal definition of Christian, I considered that perhaps such an approach is necessary for human-rights activism. After all, I support even the rights of non-Christians such as the Falun-Gong in China to practice their beliefs without persecution. But maybe a more nuanced activism is necessary. It would be interesting to flesh out an approach to supporting Christians under persecution that takes into account the issues you raised while addressing political realities. I'll be listening to what you have to say and you'll be in my sidebar. Blessings to you. 

Posted by Dogwood Blue

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/24/2005 02:35:00 AM : Permalink  

DB, Thanks so much for your comment. I don't want to reject categorically everything that Persecution.com stands for. I don't know much about the organization, so I'm skating on thin ice here.

I really just wanted to suggest that "statements of faith" used to identify Christians often leave out what the practical and ethical implications of that faith are. If those statements talk about the cross of Jesus, but not about the cross that Christians are supposed to take up in order to follow him, then that statement of faith is incomplete. So one of the problems I have with the Persecution.com statement is not that it's "non-doctrinal," but that it seems to me all-doctrine and no-practice.

I also join you absolutely in supporting the rights of non-Christians and Christians alike to be free from persecution. No one should be persecuted.

My point in this post was not to say that we should ever celebrate persecution or fail to oppose it. Far from it. Nonetheless, I think truly "prophetic" lives (in the Jesus or the Jeremiah or, perhaps, the Dorothy Stang sense) may often terminate in cross-like ways, simply because the kind of "kingdom" that Jesus talked about was one in which you lose your life to gain it. So if Christians find themselves persecuted for living "prophetically" (speaking for the speechless, opposing power on behalf of the powerless, announcing loyalty to a different kingdom, etc.), then they can find solace in Jesus' prediction that his disciples would be rejected as he was, that is, for the same reasons he was .

The danger, though, is that Christians might take solace in that prediction without actually living prophetically or doing the things that Jesus did. They might say, we're persecuted just because we wear his name, and because he said we would be. Often (but not always) these kinds of complaints, when examined more closely, turn out to be (a) really complaints about things that I don't think constitute the kind of persecution Jesus predicted, like bans on live nativity plays in public schools, or (b) legitimate complaints about real violations of human rights that no one, Christians or not, should suffer. So my main point was that not everything Christians today call "persecution" is really what Jesus or his contemporaries would have meant by the persecution of prophets.

None of these theological reflections should keep a Christian from joining anyone else in opposing the persecution of others, whether on account of their religious beliefs or for any other reason. Indeed, a "prophetic" life would always oppose the use of violence or other kinds of power to harm another person--no matter who they are, where they live, or what they believe. I'm completely with you on that one, and would be frightened of anyone who is not. I do worry, sometimes, that the "Rapture Ready" view of persecution as a sign of the end times makes Christians myopically focused on the persecution of Christians, and not on the persecution of other people. But I don't have enough information to know if this is the case with Persecution.com. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/25/2005 11:11:00 PM : Permalink  

Like another person before me, I’d like to point out that I re-read this post and have it minimized because I have to read it again. What a great expression. I haven’t been to church in over a year. Now I want to go, but when I get home, I’d like to put on some jazz.

Thanks for the cake! I knew it was waiting somewhere. ...and i did link to you on a post I just did about this lady.  

Posted by Steve

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/26/2005 04:20:00 PM : Permalink  

Thank you for the compelling post. Biblically, how do you justify your claim that Jesus's death was a consequence of the threat that his announcement of a new kingdom posed to those in positions of political, rather than religious, power? I know that the distinction is often fuzzed between the two (political, religious), and often rightly so. But as I read the gospels it seems to me undeniable that the gospel writers view Jesus's death primarily as religiously motivated. Jesus's offense was not political revolution but blasphemy. Jesus himself seems to try to dodge the political revolutionary label when he replies to Pilate in John 18.36, "My kingship is not of this world..." Now, of course, much of what Jesus says in Luke would suggest that his kingship was at least in part 'of this world.' I am simply not convinced that the political ruling authorities (e.g. Pilate, Caesar) saw Jesus as much of a political threat. I think he was fairly small potatoes to them. They were willing to do whatever was necessary to appease the Jews. This is borne out by the gospels as well as what small evidence we have from ancient historians, e.g. Josephus. Now perhaps Jesus' preaching and teaching was such that, had it continued, it would have posed a serious political threat. I think one could try that argument. But it seems to me a bit of a stretch, and one that is often made today especially since Yoder's equation of the religious with the political, to claim that Jesus was crucified because he represented a threat to political power structures. I worry that we then use this as a guiding assumption when reading the texts, with the result that we read in much more than is actually there.  

Posted by Jimmy

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/26/2005 11:47:00 PM : Permalink  

Jimmy, you raise some fair questions that I'm not sure I can fully answer in this space. (Sorry it's taken me a few days to have time to answer at all.) As it is, my response is already way too long long and rambling, but take it for what it's worth. I'm not trained as a biblical scholar, so I'm basically giving you my understanding of the admittedly selective material on these subjects that I've read:

First, when I say that Jesus represented a threat to the political powers in first-century Palestine, I don't simply mean the Romans. The gospels do not suggest that Jesus was opposed by all Jews, but rather that he was opposed by those most closely associated with Temple officialdom. And in the complicated local politics of the Augustan empire, some Jewish leaders (including both "kings," like Herod, and those referred to in the gospels as members of the Sanhedrin, an assembly that seems to have served both religious and political functions) thought it most politic to reach a practical detente with the Romans.

There is also some historical evidence to suggest that Temple sects, such as the party identified in the gospels as Sadduccees, were pseudo-aristocracies who were made wealthy by highly regressive taxes on the populace, and whose power was protected by the force of Roman legions stationed in the immediate vicinity of the Temple. All of this is a highly incomplete sketch of the politics surrounding the Temple and the priesthood in this period, but suffice it to say that even if you argued that Jesus only threatened Jewish leaders, this would not demonstrate in and of itself that his threat was purely "religious," rather than "political," or that those two words really were separable in first-century Palestine. Religious leaders were political leaders, and vice versa, and some of those leaders would have been just as uncomfortable as Romans about a popular prophet announcing a new kingdom in which things as usual would be overturned.

Second, it seems to me highly questionable, from a historical point of view, to argue that the Romans "were willing to do whatever was necessary to appease the Jews." We know from other evidence that Pilate often slaughtered Jews with impunity; indeed, there were people who approached Jesus even during his ministry to ask him about episodes of Romans mixing the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices. Whatever tentative and fragile accommodation some Temple officials may have been able to work out with Roman governors, we should have no illusions about the asymmetry of power between the Roman empire and the inhabitants of its occupied territories. Romans held all the cards in this game, and if their patrolling the Temple in some sense protected the Temple establishment, it also constantly reminded worshippers how easy it would have been for Romans to sweep into the Temple and do their worst.

So it won't do, on my view, to suggest that the Roman role in the crucifixion of Jesus was simply that of the willing executioner, directed by the whims of local leaders whom they already had in their back pockets. Remember that according to the gospels Pilate tried first to release Jesus, and he didn't change his mind simply because he suddenly became afraid of Jews, but because he was asked to consider what Caesar would think if he heard that Pilate had freed someone who was claiming to be a king. If Roman prelates feared anyone, it was their superiors back in Rome. They didn't fear the locals, unless the locals got out of hand and word got back to higher-ups that Pontus Whats-His-Name needed to be replaced. (This is, in fact, what eventually happened to Pilate.)

Couple this with the fact that various episodes of violent conflict had roiled the political waters of Palestine in the three centuries before the birth of Christianity. There was, first of all, the revolt of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic rulers they inherited from Alexander the Great, which preceded the ascendance of Romans in the region but would have been very much on their mind as they made policy decisions. Even more recently than the Maccabees, Judas the Galilean had led a revolt against the imposition of a Roman census (taken for tax purposes) around the time of Jesus' birth. The revolt was crushed, but the lesson, again, would have been learned. Galileans making Messianic claims about themselves needed to be taken seriously. They were not necessarily dismissed, in other words, as "small potatoes."

All of this is a woefully incomplete historical narrative, but it raises enough questions to wonder whether your narrative of Jesus' crucifixion is sufficiently complex to account for all of the political variables involved.

I think you are right, though, that if the Romans thought Jesus was a military revolutionary, like the Maccabees or Judas the Galilean, they were mistaken. But even the gospels seem to forgive them, so to speak, for making that mistake, since the disciples of Jesus themselves are constantly portrayed as being confused about Jesus' true intentions. Luke even has some of them asking in Acts 1 whether the resurrected Jesus now planned to restore the kingdom of Israel and kick some Roman butt.

Nonetheless, I believe it is true that Jesus never intended to kick Roman butt in the way that many Zealots of the day probably wished he had. Yet his preaching was sufficiently subversive to make some wonder, not least those Jewish leaders who (unlike the Zealots) had much lose by any disturbance to their fragile detente with Roman officialdom. In that sense, I would say that Jesus did pose a threat to the political powers that were, but not the kind of threat they imagined. They were wrong about the kind of threat he posed, but right to sense that Jesus' kingdom announcements were calling theirs into question in radical ways.

I don't see this story as fundamentally incompatible with the gospel accounts. Yes, Jesus said "my kingdom is not of this world," but since he also prayed, paradigmatically, that God's kingdom would come "on earth" as in heaven," I wonder whether the interpretation you give of his statement to Pilate is the right one. Read differently, Jesus' reference to "the world" in that case might have been to the pagan world, not an implausible interpretation when viewed alongside his warnings to the apostles that they would be rejected by "the world" just as "the world" rejected him.

I think, in short, that Jesus' posed a double-edged threat to the political powers of his day. His kingdom was not of "the world," as in the Roman idea of kingdom, since it was a kingdom in which the least would be greatest, and in which leaders would not lord over others, "as the Gentiles do," but instead would lead by serving. But neither was his vision of the kingdom palatable to Zealots, who essentially wanted the Roman kind of "kingdom" but with a son of David on the throne, or to Temple sects who believed it safest to accommodate the Romans as much as possible and help keep a restive and often revolutionary populace calm.

I grant that Jesus' peculiar claims about his being the Son of Man were evidently seen as blasphemous, according to the gospels. But again, I don't see the question as an either/or -- Jesus' claims that his kingdom was in fact God's kingdom could be seen as blasphemous and political threatening at the same time, especially since the disjunction we tend to make between religion and politics would have made little sense to Second Temple Jews.

As you can see, finally, I think understanding Jesus' crucifixion requires taking a broad historical perspective on the world into which Jesus was born. Focusing only on the perspective of the gospels is, from a historical point of view, potentially dangerous, especially since none of them appeared until well after the events they describe, when conflicts between early Christians and Jews might help explain the rhetorical emphasis they place on Jewish opposition to Jesus. What they do all agree about is that Jesus died on a cross, which means he died at the hands of the Romans, and I think the kind of stuff I'm saying here explains how that happened better than the claim that Romans had to appease Jewish leaders.

Sorry for the long-winded response! It's evidence that I appreciate your thoughtful question and will continue to give it thought. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/01/2005 10:07:00 PM : Permalink  

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