28 April 2008

Theology vs. Politics in Response to Rev. Wright

Joan Walsh and many other political pundits are on-target for the political impact of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's public comments on Senator Obama's Presidential campaign.

But the political analysis of Rev. Wright's comments show a gaping hole in religious literacy when it comes to liberation theology and its roots within the teachings of Jesus.

Most folks have heard the beatitude "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" in Luke 6:20 so long that they don't see the harsh politically-tinged social justice message in this Bible verse.

John Dominic Crossan (the former Catholic priest and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar) writes about this in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Crossan's exegesis of this verse takes us to a very uncomfortable place. The following quote is from Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, page 62:
Now what on earth does that mean, especially if one does not spiritualize it away, as Matthew immediately did, into "poor in spirit" -- that is, spiritually humble or religiously obediant? Did Jesus really think that bums and beggers were actually blessed by God, as if all destitute were nice people and all the aristocrats were correspondingly evil?

If, however, we think not just of personal or individual evil but of social, structural, or systemic injustice -- that is, of precisely the imperial situation in which Jesus and his fellow peasants found themselves -- then the saying becomes literally, terribly, and permanently true. In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system's own evil operation. A contemporary equivalent: only the homeless are innocent. That is a terrifying aphorism against society because, like the aphorisms against the family, it focuses on not just on personal or individual abuse of power but on such abuse in its systemic or structural possibilities -- and there, in contrast to the former level, none of our hands are innocent or our consciences are particularly clear.
Now in terms of a modern-day preacher saying "God damn America" like Rev. Wright did, it does not make sense from a personal or individual point of view.

But it does make sense when viewed an anti-oppressive liberation theology lens when applied to the very real and very ordinary systemic injustices our country has committed and continues to commit today.

It's probably fortunate for John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama that Jesus isn't alive today to be a personal friend.

Otherwise, they would have to explain their connection to this crazy preacher who is so anti-American in his sermons.


Joel Monka said...

I have always considered that interpretation pure fertilizer. Jesus didn't speak of class struggle, or guilt by association- he spoke to individuals about individual action. Many of those he approved of and used in parables were land owners- which renders any reading of "only the homeless are innocent" nonsensical. The only way one can come to the conclusion that this was the meaning of those words is by working backwards- assuming the Marxist dialectic and then try to find a way back to that conclusion through scripture, rather than starting from scripture, then seeing where it leads.

Mystical Seeker said...

Social justice has a long history in Judaism. Just look at the ancient Hebrew prophets, whose messages were intimiately connected to politics and to social justice issues. The famous quote from Amos ("let justice flow like water") is one way that this was epitomized, but many of the other great prophets in that tradition were also involved with this issue. So I see Jesus's social justice message as being a continuation of a long tradition that preceded him.

Jesus's program stood counter to that of the Roman Empire. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus would be far too radical for the likes of Obama, Clinton, or McCain.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- you may be right about this interpretation. But you may also be reacting to the stinging social justice impact of this interpretation. Perhaps the original Jesus was more "Marxist" than many of us would care to admit?

Mystical Seeker -- you are right about Jesus' social justice prophetic witness statements being rooted in Judaism.

Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson (UCC minister and World Council of Churches President for North America & Moderator -- US Conference) says the following about Rev. Wright's comments:

"'If you think that's bad, you oughta read the original Jeremiah,' said Bernice Powell Jackson, UCC clergywoman and World Council of Churches president for North America, referring to the biblical Old Testament prophet in a talk at a teach-in Monday afternoon, part of the Proctor conference events.

'We haven't done a good job in the United States teaching the difference between patriotism and nationalism in religion,' Powell Jackson said."