Harper Lee & Mary Magdalene

Reality & Myth Embedded in Go Set a Watchman

Wittingly or otherwise, the 89 year-old author Harper Lee has set off a firestorm with the release of her first novel – Go Set a Watchman written in the mid-1950s but released 55 years after her second book To Kill a Mockingbird. This new release turns the story of family patriarch Atticus Finch inside out.

Instead of the color-blind attorney of To Kill a Mockingbird, we now see an older Mr. Finch with clear vestiges of continuing if not hardened racism. All coming at a time when a now 21st century America that we thought might be post-racist  is again experiencing repeated instances of violent interactions between law and order and the nation’s African-American communities.

The story is fascinating not only for the re-take on the fictional Mr. Finch as villain (or perhaps realist), not hero. It’s fascinating on another level as well – for the interplay between the fictional child Scout now (or Jean Louise as adult) and the author Ms. Lee. A real life tale of mystery, perhaps intrigue.

All of which brings to mind a similar tale from two thousand years back – that of Mary Magdalene, devotee of one Jesus of Nazareth.


The details including the timing of the two stories are worlds apart. Yet there are interesting similarities:

  • It is difficult to know where the real world of Harper Lee merges with or diverges from the fictional world of Scout/Jean Louise. Similarly, it can be challenging to separate the reality from the myth of Mary Magdalene. Was the Magdalene the prostitute whom Jesus saved from stoning or was she the well educated daughter of a prosperous family who was possessed (or mentally ill) till encountering Jesus?
  • The men in the respective stories are both larger than yet inextricably part of the world in which they live. Are they heroic, or with feet of clay? Is Atticus a racist, realist, or hero? Is the Jesus of the beatitudes the same as the wild man who berated Jewish leaders, rampaged through the temple mount, belittled a non-Jewish woman, and cursed a fig tree? Was the man at the tomb just the gardener – or a resurrected friend?
  • What is the relationship of the women to the larger than life men in these stories? At the end of the day, is Jean Louise disowning or accommodating the vile characteristics she sees in Atticus? For Mary, is she merely a devoted acolyte (and financial supporter) or also romantically attached to her savior? Could there be any truth to the persistent rumors that they may even have been married?
  • And while there may be sexual overtones, isn’t the real action all about gender politics? Jean Louise standing up to father and boy-friend – both respected community leaders? Mary taking on the post-resurrection skepticism of the male apostles?
  • Bottom line, is Jean Louise the new hero or is she overly self-righteous and unaccepting? Is Mary Magdalene saint or sinner?

The Meaning of Mary

For a bit more perspective, let’s dive a bit deeper into the story of Mary Magdalene. Most likely, she came from the town of Magdala on the southwest coast of the Sea of Galilee.

After Jesus reportedly healed her by exorcising seven demons, she became a devoted follower. Along with other well placed women, she also may well have helped finance the travels of the carpenter from the Nazareth village and his entourage of male disciples.

The Magdalene was a doer, most clearly evidenced by her initiative to attend to the grave of her master at the earliest opportunity after death and the intervening Sabbath. This is where she takes center stage.

After the initial grave site visits, the disciples apparently return to their homes. Only Mary stays around the tomb site, where she then has her encounter with the assumed gardener, actually Jesus.

So, it was to the Magdalene that a newly resurrected Jesus first appears, as recorded by John’s gospel saying: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The conflict between the women including Mary and the disciples can be found in the New Testament gospels – especially in the accounts of Mark and Luke indicating that their accounts were received by the eleven disciples as “idle tales.” It takes the fragmentary non-canonical manuscript of what is today known as the Gospel of Mary to offer a more detailed counterpoint to male-centric Christianity. For this, let’s travel back to the resurrection – this time as told by Mary.

Mary’s account begins mildly enough. Upon issuing a commandment to “preach the good news of the domain” (much as is recorded in the four gospels), Jesus leaves them. The disciples “were distressed and wept greatly”. It is at this point that Mary takes command:

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all and addressed her brothers: “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts by irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has joined us together and made us true beings.” When Mary said these things, she turned their minds toward the Good, and they began to ask about the words of the Savior.

Following this, Peter is reported as saying to Mary: “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard.” Mary then begins to “report to you as much as I remember that you don’t know.”

After speaking of the secrets of what she terms the seven Powers of Wrath, Mary falls silent. At this point, gender surfaces as the real issue:

“Andrew said: ‘Brothers, what is your opinion of what was just said? I for one don’t believe that the Savior said these things, because these opinions seem to be so different from his thought.’

After reflecting on these matters, Peter said, ‘Has the Savior spoken secretly to a woman and not openly so that we would all hear? Surely he did not wish to indicate that she is more worthy than we are?’

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining about this? Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’

It is Levi (Matthew) who finally comes to Mary’s defense, rebuking Peter for his “constant inclination to anger” and for “questioning the woman as if you were her adversary.” Mary carries the day, with Levi leaving to “announce the good news” of a resurrected savior.

A New Paradigm?

The Gospel of Mary (at least with the manuscript fragments as currently available) ends here. Clearly, this non-canonical (and deeply heretical) gospel provides the most open assessment of the tension between the sexes that appeared early in the history of the Christian movement.

From both New Testament and non-canonical sources, the weight of the evidence available is clear. Without the Magdalene to carry the message of resurrection, there would be no Christian church. For women, the message of this gospel also is one of hope; Mary prevails over the objections of other prominent male disciples.

For Jean Louise, Go Set a Watchman comes with reconciliation between father and daughter. After all the disagreement and hostility, Atticus tells his daughter: “I’m proud of you.” And he dismisses the harsh words spoken in the heat of the battle with the comment: “I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”

What is the legacy that Mary of two millennia past and Harper Lee of the 20th century have in common? It resides in the victory of a voice of justice, a woman’s voice that prevails over the male-centric voice of tradition, no matter whether right or wrong.

Neither succeeded in full. Mary Magdalene kept the nascent Christian movement together at a point when all was falling apart at the seems. But any hopes of keeping her man were lost in the process.

Harper Lee (aka Scout, Jean Louise) gains the recognition of Atticus that justice needs to prevail over continued segregation. But at the cost of a revolution – transitioned to a slow (perhaps unending) work in progress. As the sins of racism continue to haunt a nation known for freedom – even into this current 21st century.

These are tales of reality interwoven with myth. With Mary, the biblical and non-biblical evidence is clear that she brought the early disciples back together when they were ready to call it quits. But, just how special was the nature of her individual relationship that may have made all this possible?

With the contending works of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, we are left to ponder the inter-relationship of the author with the subject(s) of her stories. Who speaks for whom? Will the real 89-year old Harper Lee please tell us what we should really think?

Epilogue: Reality & Myth in Go Set a Watchman

We end on the note that Harper Lee’s first (and most recently published) book is titled from a passage in Isaiah 21:5-6 of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the directive to:

Prepare the table,
Set a watchman in the tower,
Eat and drink.
Arise, you princes,
Anoint the shield!

For thus has the Lord said to me:
Go, set a watchman,
Let him declare what he sees”

Obviously, Harper Lee has some affinity for the Hebrew Scriptures. So did Jesus, for whom Isaiah was clearly his most quoted source.

In the novel, the watchman (the declarer) is the grown-up Scout, Jean Louise. She calls her father and community to task – with a little help from her Uncle Jack. In the New Testament gospels, a case can be made for Mary Magdalene as the watchman who declares that the movement isn’t over but just getting started – with a little help from her risen savior.

And that’s it for now – for the rest of the story.


For a more complete account of Mary Magdalene’s role in the life and resurrection of her savior, click http://jesustheheresy.com/marymag.html

To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com.

Campaign Tips from Jesus 2016

In October 2012 – at the height of the last presidential campaign – we offered seven (7) campaign tips from none other than Jesus of Nazareth – God in human form. While it is yet early in the 2016 electoral campaign, now may be a good time to go back to re-learn what Jesus said and did – all in the context of the next installment of America’s quadrennial drama.

7 Tips From Jesus

At the outset, let’s put a potential objection to rest. Jesus ran with the objective of losing, not winning – of virtually guaranteeing his execution. For a non-elite coming from out of the center of Jewish action, he pulled it off masterfully. For today’s campaigners, whether the objective is conquest or defeat, do it masterfully. So here, forthwith, seven tips from the master:

1. Keep it simple

Jesus mastered the KISS principle. Consider his most famous campaign speech – the Sermon on the Mount. As recounted by the gospel of Matthew, the first words out of the Jesus’ mouth were “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Like today’s putative front-runner, Hillary Clinton, Jesus ran a values campaign – centered on addressing the social, economic and religious inequalities of his day. Perhaps unlike Mrs. Clinton, Jesus recognized that corrective action comes from within the person as well as from sources external to individual resources, evidenced by his statement that “the poor will always be with you.” Conversely, Republicans have yet to figure out how to coherently address the widening gap between the haves and the have nots – perhaps the underlying domestic flash-point of the 2016 campaign.

2. Tell stories

Jesus used stories (known as parables) to convey complex ideas in terms to which everyone could relate. Even if he skipped a lot of detail in the process. The parable of the prodigal son reflects a universal theme and offers a clear message of hope for the future. The moral of the story is that God the father is always on the lookout and ready to accept his wayward children back home, no questions asked. Always a second chance.

Our presidential aspirants need stories that are real, that resonate, and that offer a hope worth reaching to achieve in the next four years (eight at best). In the midst of this nation’s greatest turmoil, Abraham Lincoln was the premiere storyteller – often to the chagrin of those around him. But his words and his actions – enigmatic though they often were – resonate to this day.

3. Stay on message

But be prepared to flex. It seems that Jesus had a set of stump speeches which were repeated in town after town, but varied to fit the needs and interests of the local listeners. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount becomes Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s Jesus begins by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Jesus says yet more simply “Blessed are the poor.” Amazing how the meaning can shift so radically with the deletion (or addition) of just a couple of words!

The message on everyone’s minds is the future of the great American experiment known as Obamacare. Not likely to be repealed but gobbling up 50-100% more of the share of gross national product than occurs in most other western nations.

With the late June Supreme Court decision, the now worn Republican message of repeal falls flat – and everyone knows it. Democrats can savor the victory but in the absence of fixes to further increase coverage, increase transparency, and make this affordable for the nation, our ship may yet be sunk. The message needed is the “how to” of the fix – and why others should come along for the ride.

4. Don’t suffer fools

Jesus certainly wasted little time with on those who aimed to bring him down for reasons of their own personal gain. He went after the religious and social leaders of his day. He was unafraid of using tough language when required, for example, calling out the leaders of his Jewish world as follows: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?”

A little bit of Chris Christie or, God forbid, even Donald Trump comes through in the seemingly off-hand remarks of this 1st century savior. But Jesus also backed up his ad hominem personal attacks with substance. In the encounter noted above, he was criticizing the way in which the supposed leaders of his day emphasized trivialities rather than paying attention to “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

So, don’t be afraid to take the opposition to task. Be succinct in pointing out failures that are at odds with American values of justice and equality of opportunity. And take the blow-back in stride.

5. Go long

Even in advance of football season, most of us know what this means. Perhaps not as dramatic as the “hail Mary” pass, but sell the crowd on a vision for the long term. For Jesus, his kingdom was “not of this world.” The long bomb is the pass play into the kingdom of heaven.

Our candidates are more earthly bound, but the ability to clearly articulate how tomorrow can be better for us and our kids is pivotal to a successful campaign outcome. Seven years ago, Barack. Obama sold us on the “audacity of hope.” Before that, the great communicator Ronald Reagan used the metaphor of America as “shining city on a hill” to depict his vision for a country ever “stronger,” “freer” and “in good hands.”

Americans may yet yearn for a common vision, despite deep cynicism. The candidate who can communicate an authentic vision for this as-yet early 21st century period will stand out among the crowd. What will the vision be? Hard to tell but likely something akin to our nation as an ever more diverse and changing melting-pot, the rewards of work, and care for others at home and abroad.

6. Time the peak

Jesus had an incredible (if surprising) gift for timing. He know when and how to pull in a crowd and when and how to escape through a crowd unnoticed. He seemingly timed the climax of his career with a triumphal entry surrounded by the praises of the crowd into the streets of Jerusalem – only to be put to death a week later. That result could be viewed as disaster except that, for Jesus, death and resurrection were really the point of it all.

With a presidential race that looks for one party like a marathon and the other like a coronation, the trick is not too peak too soon and certainly not to peak too late. To get to the right place at the right time, humility helps. Picture Jesus’ masterful entry into the holy city on a donkey. Who on the D or R side of the field could pull this off?

7. Wrap it in love

As in 2012, if there is an Achilles heel for the current crop of candidates (whether the few on the Democratic side or the many on the Republican), this is it. The Democratic heir-apparent stands aloof; the Republican wanna be types are engaged but narrowly focused – like the horse that can see neither to the right nor the left.

Look to the example of Jesus. When arrested, Peter showed momentary bravery by slicing off the ear of the of the high priests servant. Jesus healed the ear. When crucified, Jesus prayed that God would “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And after resurrection, to whom did Jesus pay special attention? To Mary Magdalene who had ventured to attend him, to Peter who had betrayed him, to Thomas who doubted him.

Which of the 2016 crop will show this type of caring? Look for the candidate who will be gentle and magnanimous, sharp but patient, whether in victory or defeat.


To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com.

And the Walls Come Tumbling Down …

Greece has defaulted on its debt to capitalist democracy. And the U. S. Supreme Court has now effectively dismantled pivotal underpinnings of western civilization by declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

What does this all mean for those who call themselves Christians in this 21st century removed from the Christ’s sojourn on this earth? Four observations:

1) Going forward, marriage will be defined by cultural whims du jour, rather than by what were once perceived as moral absolutes. Hold on to your seat belt for the agendas of polygamy, marriage between blood relatives, adult-youth liaisons, relations with non-humans (from the animal to robotic kingdoms) to periodically surface – for freedom of choice and equal rights under the law. Some (perhaps most) won’t make it far in our lifetime; others may surprise.

2) This drift to moral relativism continues to be driven by global technology promising even more startling cultural and political transformation in the decades ahead. It all began with the “pill,” for the first time disconnecting sex from procreation. In the years ahead, it may become possible to order up the right partner doing the things loved most as sex slave ex machina. And child-birth will bear less and less relationship to parentage – whether from purchased embryos or cloning a la Dolly the ewe. Who will make the decisions of what is acceptable versus out-of-bounds? And, for how long?

3) Those who have persecuted in the name of Christ will now get a taste of their own medicine. Expect followers of the way to garner little respect through the turmoil ahead – for two reasons:
a) The biblical case against homosexuality is overstated. There is no record of Jesus having anything to say (pro or con) on the subject. However, he clearly railed against divorce – a vice practiced all too often by those professing Christianity as well as those of other persuasions.
b) Like some of other faiths, Christians have spent the better part of 1,700+/- years devouring their own. When there is no love between fellow travelers, what can one expect from those further from the fold?

4) Bottom, line, marriage has a future only to the degree that the product can be demonstrated superior in a marketplace of ever more diverse and often personally satisfying alternatives. Those who espouse the heterosexual way can retake competitive ground only by living lives that yield demonstrable benefits for marriage versus the myriad of other lifemode options now available and preferred. Frankly put, same sex lifestyles are those with the sizzle today. Heterosexual relationships increasingly feel old-school, dull, and dissatisfying. We’ll know marriage is on its way back when lifelong, monogamous heterosexuals again emerge as the heroes rather than the doormats of the show.

For a more in-depth biblical reflection on an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling of two years past on same-sex marriage, see https://jesustheheresy.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/reflections-on-the-u-s-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage/

And for a tour of our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com

What Price Predestination?

Predestination is the belief that God long ago chose who was destined for heaven and who would be damned to hell. The countervailing view is that of free will. Rather than being pre-picked by the divine, those that come to God do so of their own volition.

God may offer the initial invite (or call), the individual has the choice of whether to accept or not. And in those cases where the needy soul makes the first call (or plea) for mercy, God is ready to respond, much as the waiting father did in Jesus’ oh-so-real parable of the prodigal son.

In the modern church, tough topics like predestination versus free will are often avoided. Yet for nearly 2,000 years, this has been a hotly debated subject within Christendom. And like it or not, the correct answer carries with it enormous implications for human-kind. Even the non-religious, ranging up to luminaries like Albert Einstein, easily get swept into this vortex.

A Bit of History

The advocates for predestination boast a distinguished line-up of Christian giants of the faith – from Augustine in the 4th century to the early reformer John Wycliff in the 14th. Following Augustine’s lead, Catholics have generally fallen into the predestination trap.

With the reformation of the 16th century, the “protestants” quickly fell into two camps – those led by John Calvin who articulated the predestination doctrine and those coalesced by Jacob Arminius who advocated free will.

Denominations were formed or took positions on this question. Methodists led by the Wesley brothers took the Arminian position while the Presbyterians of Scotland followed in Calvin’s footsteps. Denominations like the Baptists have been a bit schizophrenic – with different groupings of Baptists on both sides of the question. While of different persuasion on many issues, Anglicans also have taken a middle road between Calvinism and Arminianism – arguing for what has been called the “election of some, promise to all.”

So, What Does the Bible Say?

Advocates of both positions come to the debate with quivers of arrows stocked from their favorite sets of scriptures. In the New Testament, the strongest purported advocate for predestination is undoubtedly Paul the apostle. Often cited in support of predestination is Paul’s statement in his letter to the Romans that those “whom he foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.”

What appears to be strong logic for predestination falls apart of closer inspection. Of primary importance, Paul’s argument begins with God’s foreknowledge which is followed by His predestination. Foreknowledge means awareness without direct intervention to force a particular outcome. In effect, God’s destination for the human soul comes on the heels of (and not before) his unguided knowledge of what course the individual will take – of his or her own volition. At its most extreme, God is simply rubber-stamping the free will choice of the individual.

This reading of Paul also certainly comports with what other New Testament writers have to say. For example, in his infamous encounter with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, Jesus makes it clear that “God sent not his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

“God does not play dice with the universe”

In the 17th century, the first great physicist Isaac Newton saw God as the master clockmaker who wound up the clock and then walked away from his creation. Newton’s universe ran like clockwork as a “pre-established harmony.”  In other words, all according a plan so pre-determined that the subsequent involvement of the creator was no longer required.

Two centuries later, Albert Einstein took physics one step further. His theory of relatively unlocked the nuclear age. Like Newton, Einstein’s universe was bound by unbreakable maxims, in this case the relationship between energy and matter as E=mc2.

Although avowedly atheistic, Einstein could not resist religious metaphors. His pre-destinationist bona fides were sealed with the comment that “God does not play dice with the universe.” No room for chance, certainly not for the exercise of free will.

This dogmatism was to prove the great mistake of the best physicist the world has ever known. Within a dozen years after his general theory of relatively in 1915, quantum physics was would be accepted at the Fifth Solvay conference. The great mystery of quantum physics arises because it deals in probabilities rather than deterministic causality. For example, quantum mechanics asserts a single subatomic particle can occupy numerous areas of space at one time – a concept Einstein couldn’t embrace because it so directly contravened the purity of the cause-effect relationship.

And the debate goes on. Is the universe, is man’s destiny, the product of randomness or intentionality?

So, What’s the Price?

We could go much further with the exploration of biblical and scientific views on predetermined causality versus free-will (or probabilistic) outcomes. But that’s not the point of this discussion. Rather, the objective is to get to the question of what one’s world views (in matters spiritual or material) mean for how we live out our lives day-by-day.

In other words, is there a price associated with predestination versus free-will perspective? If so, what is it?

This post argues that, yes, pre-destination comes at a price – that is both unnecessary and unduly costly in matters material and spiritual. Predestination:

  • Resigns the human world to fate, making it easier to ignore or accept war, violence, economic exploitation and suffering – with the philosophy that “what will be will be.”
  • Similarly negates the opportunity for intentional change to the natural universe – in matters ranging from real or perceived climate change to allowance for stochastic variation in natural outcomes, maybe even parallel universes.
  • Cheapens the human experience – our capacity to experience, to experience shame or pride as a result of intentional actions, and to affect humankind for this generation and those to come.
  • Creates a disincentive to prepare for the life hereafter – as the sole pre-destinationist focus is on a heavenly go/no go which has little to do with what one does for him/herself or others in throughout the bulk of this life.
  • Demeans God – who doesn’t need our robotized glorification but rather interaction with the creatures he created in his likeness. Even on those occasions where we bend his will or even change his mind.

Predestination, Purpose & Partnership

The biggest price of all is that the concept of predestination is diametrically opposed to what God intended as his relationship with human-kind. Rather than play the role of omnipotent puppeteer, God wants something different. Rather than dominance, God seeks partnership.

He gave humans dominion, even naming rights, over the world he created – starting with his first human/spirit creations in Adam and Eve. God even came to walk with them in the garden in the cool of the day, only to experience disappointment and frustration when they hid from his presence.

The form of the partnership has always been tailored made to the personality of the partner. God fought with and blessed Jacob. He let Moses argue with him, and then relented of his own rage. He raised prophets to be his spokespersons, some more willingly than others. He even found in David a man after his own heart.

With the introduction of Jesus, new forms of partnership would emerge. Jesus would let a pagan woman win a debate with him because of her “faith.” He found in John a beloved man who could partner in translating the mysteries of a nearly inexplicable kingdom. In Peter, he found a man willing to engage with more heart than intellect. In Nicodemus, a leader willing to listen and then advocate for the savior in the councils of Jewish authority. And in Paul, a man who would take and adapt the kingdom message to a broader Roman audience.

The partnership is not necessarily one of equal resources or authority. But it is bilateral – dependent on the actions not of just one conductor. But rather, on the conductor together with the consent plus talent of the full orchestra.

Maybe the apostle Paul puts it best in his letter to the as-yet unknown church at Rome, when he writes of our human  roles as “if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.”

We are adopted into the corporation of the heavenly family with rights of joint ownership, advice, even decision-making. What a way to go!


To check out our full web site, click http://www.jesustheheresy.com

Jesus & the Minimum Wage

In our last post, we looked forward to what may be the become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?

In these early months of 2015, there is growing evidence that job growth is finally beginning to be accompanied by wage gains, as well. This raises the question: Is wage growth the savior to remedy income inequality?

Increasing the size of the pie would seem to provide a pivotal solution: everyone now can get a bigger piece. But what happens if the larger pie is distributed even more in the direction of those who already have the largest slices?

An Alternative View

Our view is that growing the pie is an integral part of the answer – but likely does not go all the way to fixing the still widening gap between the haves and have-nots globally – especially in the U.S.A. Is is time to pay attention not only to the overall size of the economic pie – but also to the size of the slice each of us gets? Maybe so.

Two suggestions for consideration:

1. Nurture resurgent economic growth – of the right kind. The right kind of growth is that which puts more after tax dollars back in the hands of every American – with mid-to-lower income workers getting a getting a larger (not smaller) share of the economic pie. And which increases the productive capacity of the U.S. economy to support a better quality of life for rich, poor, and middle class.

2. Increase the minimum wage – by a lot. Based on American productivity gains, a fair share compensation to minimum wage workers would be in the range of $18-$19 per hour – an approximate $11 per hour gain above the current federal minimum.  Make the adjustment in bite-sized increments over the next 11 years – as a $1 increase each year. In the 12th year, make an adjustment for CPI changes that have accrued over the prior 11 years to reach full parity.

A Bit of Background

As a first take, this might seem like a jaw-dropping flight of fancy. But consider the stats.

To get back to where America was in the 1960s (in terms of buying power), the U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that the minimum wage today would need to be about $11 per hour – more than 50 % above the current federal minimum of $7.25.

The Obama Administration has proposed gradually increasing the current federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has estimated that 16.7 million American workers would be directly benefited by the Obama-proposed increase. Nearly 28 million would be directly and indirectly affected as a result of the ripple effect, also benefiting workers currently paid at just above minimum wage.

While a new floor of $11 per hour is certainly justified (much less $10.10) in terms of changed purchasing power, an even higher wage gain is supportable if wages are to fully reflect productivity gains in the U.S. economy since 1968 – the peak year to date for minimum wage purchasing power. In effect, productivity growth since then could support as much as an $11 per hour gain – to about $18.25 per hour.

A Proposal for Conservatives?

There is great debate about whether or to what extent a higher wage minimum might result in fewer jobs for entry-level and unskilled workers. More than doubling the minimum wage would undoubtedly spur greater labor-saving productivity enhancements while also bringing workers sidelined by unemployment, welfare and early retirement back into the labor market.

Replacing U.S. human capital with out-sourced, computer and robotic equivalents already represents a seemingly unstoppable driving market force. Aggressively increasing the wage minimum merely accelerates the time frame for this unavoidable day of reckoning.

As a global community, it is time to address the value of a human touch vis-a-vis an impersonal, robotized future. A new order of low-wage leisure versus productive endeavor. This is the type of values discussion that should productively engage both liberals and conservatives – as well as those in-between.

There also is an upside that those of a more conservative persuasion might embrace. Outcomes like greater buying power from more consumers with disposable income (with greater marginal propensity to consume, as well).  Reduced dependence on public assistance, greater incentive for workforce skills upgrading, for civil conduct, and for bolstering the great American Puritan work ethic.

So, What Would Jesus Say?

The frustrating thing about Jesus is that he does not come across as an economic ideologue. Not a feudalist or socialist.  Nor an advocate for either market or state capitalism. This is a man who values human and kingdom outcomes above philosophical principles. A friend of rich and poor alike – of haves and have-nots.

Second only to his command to love God is the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. And then there is Jesus’ observation that the laborer is worthy of his (or her) wages.

Global or Kingdom Economics?

Even if proposals for increasing the minimum wage made no economic sense (a proposition with which we do not agree), would there still be a higher and greater calling for proceeding? Does a fair and living wage for all workers make sense even if American or global GDP were to temporarily suffer?

In short, is this a case where the economy of God’s kingdom trumps global economics? Maybe so.


To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com

WWJD: Election 2016 & Income Inequality?

With his State of the Union address, President Obama is aiming to set the stage for what may become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?

And our slant on this question is that of the master of two millennia past, in short: What would Jesus do?

To answer this we need to address: a) the nature of the U.S. economic disparity today; b) the socioeconomic context of the Galilean and Judean economy of Jesus’ day; and c) Jesus’ views as to the nature of both the problem and the solution.

U.S. Economic Disparity

We begin with a simple premise, followed by a question and then a suggested framework for response.

The premise: U.S. economic inequality – the spread between the haves and the have nots – has increased every decade since the mid-1970s. Most noticeably, wages have declined in terms of consumer purchasing power, with no clear recovery yet in view.

Bottom line, the haves are taking more with the have nots getting even less. Even those formerly considered as middle class are having trouble staying in the game.

The question: Does this matter?

Framing a response: We suggest consideration of a Christian approach – framed by yet another question: WWJD – What would Jesus do?

Framing the answer begins with consideration of what reasonably can be gleaned about the Galilean economy of Jesus day – followed by a brief presentation of Jesus views and then translation to the U.S. socioeconomic landscape of 2015.

The Economy of Jesus’ Day

There is considerable debate about whether the Galilee of Jesus’ day was impoverished, prosperous, or somewhere in-between. Was there a big gap between the wealthy elites (Roman or Jewish) and the workers? Or was there a semblance of what we today would call middle class? The evidence:

  • After being essentially depopulated after the Assyrian conquest in 722 BC, the Galileee was subsequently repopulated largely by transplanted Judeans under the Maccabees starting about the 1st century BC – essentially a forerunner of modern era Israeli kibbutzim.
  • Under Herod Antipas (the provincial ruler through most of Jesus’ life), the economy of the Galilee grew rapidly after years of neglect in the reign of Herod the Great.
  • The economy of the Galilee flourished around such industries as fishing, olive oil and wine production, and also livestock grazing – all involving producers, merchants and traders as the “middle class” of the day.
  • Unlike Judea and Jerusalem, the Galilee also benefited economically by location on major trade routes between the Mediterranean and inland via Damascus.
  • And while the Jewish historian Josephus perhaps exaggerates, the Galilee of Jesus’ day had over 200 villages with a total population reportedly of up to 3 million.
  • Jewish settlers tended to locate in the more isolated agricultural and small village communities; the larger cities (including Galilean capitols at Sepphoris and then Tiberias) had a greater representation of Herodian, Roman and other Gentile presence.

In short, while the experience of the 1st century AD clearly suggests social and cultural stratification, there is also evidence of general economic prosperity, filtering down to include the less than politically well-connected. This view is further reinforced by the interactions of Jesus with all economic strata – from wealthy landowners to entrepreneurial types to laborers and the dispossessed.

Jesus’ Views

We now turn from historical context to more explicit consideration of Jesus views regarding matters of business, money, and economic inequality. Some quick hits:

  • The master clearly understood and empathized with the plight of those of limited or no means – attested perhaps best by his advice to a rich young man that the path to heaven involved sale of all he had, with distribution of the proceeds to the poor.
  • At the same time, Jesus is a realist – acknowledging that there will always be poverty and poor people in this earthly realm.
  • He urges individual responsibility – whether in telling the cripple to pick up his mat and walk, the physician to heal himself, or the note that the “workman is worthy of his meat.”
  • Despite popular rhetoric, he is a friend to rich as well as poor – think Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, unseemly rich tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus, and the coterie of well-to-do women who fund his ministry travels.
  • He is known to counsel fiscal restraint, with advice to “count the cost” before engaging in such endeavors as building a tower or going to war
  • And Jesus believes in paying everyone from the tax collector to the temple to himself evidenced by the statement to: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, give to God the things that are God’s, and give me what’s mine” (with italicized add-on from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas).

Fast Forward to 2015

So, looking at today’s issue of a smaller group of haves controlling more and the have nots (including those who once were middle class) controlling ever fewer resources, we come back to the question: What would Jesus do?

Unfortunately, Jesus is no policy wonk – whether on matters of doctrine or economics. There is no detailed campaign platform or legislative proposal to reference.

Instead, Jesus paints a big picture in bold but broad strokes. If he were here in earthly form again today, I suspect he would understand but critique the positions of both political parties:

  • Republicans would be chastized for ignoring or downplaying the sins of wealthy elites prospering on the backs of everyone else – for portraying reduced incomes as indicative solely of individual failure (essentially social Darwinism).
  • Democrats would be mocked for their ineffectiveness – even for offering cures that may be worse than the disease (including failure to reward individual initiative).

The Bottom Line

For Jesus, the bottom line is not a detailed policy prescription – that’s the job of us humans. Rather its about a set of principles to guide human action. Principles for framing policies that incent:

  • Work and wealth
  • Living wage jobs for those who can work and an effective safety net for those who can’t
  • Fair share requiring all to have skin in the game but with those able to bear more paying more
  • Seamless,efficient and customer-friendly administration

As always, the devil is in the details; God’s interest is in successful outcomes.

Jesus was known to refer to Antipas, the political ruler of his day, as “that fox.” Right now, there is a clear sense of the President and his Republican adversaries in the House and Senate slyly eyeing each other – waiting for their moment to pounce. Rather than slinking about, let’s hope (and pray) for some real business to get done between now and 2016.


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Faith vs Works: Not Either-Or but Both-And…

Does a ticket to the hereafter come by faith – a belief in God the Father and Jesus the Son? Or by works – doing the will of God?

In the first century AD, the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that we humans are “justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law.” Centuries later, Paul’s letter captured the fancy of a priestly Martin Luther who would declare that we are justified by “faith alone.”

None other than James (the brother of Jesus) countered Paul with the pointed observation that “faith without works is dead.” In the fourth century, Augustine taught that faith alone does not save. Rather, Catholic doctrine down through the centuries has been that faith must be accompanied works of love.

Who is right?
Paul or James?
Protestant reformers or the Roman Catholic church?

Faith or works?
Simple belief or adherence to the works of the law?

In this blog, we present the case that setting faith against works represents a false dichotomy. Rather than requiring an answer of either faith or works, the answer is both-and. In other words, the pathway to heaven depends on both faith and works – working hand-in-hand.

Consider our outline of the case … as follows.

What Would Jesus Say?

It is odd that much of the focus in this debate is on the views of apostolic leaders of an emergent church rather than on the one whose opinion really matters – Jesus of Nazareth. What would Jesus say?

Actually, what did Jesus say?

If one relies primarily on the Gospel of John, Paul wins. After all, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is where Jesus says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

And to a crowd, Jesus proclaims: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer a different perspective.

Matthew records Jesus at his most pungent:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew also records the response of Jesus to the rich man’s question: how to get eternal life? And it’s not about faith but works as Jesus directs the rich man to: “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Like Matthew, Luke’s Jesus preaches to “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High …”

Mark’s gospel is more equivocal; Mark can be found on both sides of the fence.

During the passion week, Mark’s Jesus compliments a scribe who echoes the importance to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Jesus comments: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Like fellow synoptics Matthew and Luke, here Mark appears to opt for the works side of the equation.

But Mark also offers echoes of John’s gospel as when Mark quotes Jesus offering that: “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

And longer (canonical but disputed) ending to Mark’s gospel outlines a more succinct path to salvation: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

By comparison, Matthew’s version of the Great Commission talks not about belief but the imperative to “make disciples.” And Luke’s version is that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” Again, no mention of the importance of faith or belief, but rather the act of repentance. 

Who’s on First?

Is the path to salvation, to eternal life, to a heavenly reward via faith or works? Which comes first?

The answer is neither and both.

The answer is not to be found only from Paul or James but from the direct words of Jesus.

Salvation is not by faith alone nor is it by works alone. Salvation depends on both faith and works – as inextricably linked.

Sometimes the works come first, as James notes for Rahab the harlot who was “justified by works” when she hid and abetted the escape of Israeli spies in Jericho.  And Rahab is rewarded not only with her life but as a direct ancestor of Jesus (as would be recorded by the genealogy of Matthew).

Sometimes faith may comes first, as Paul suggests for Abraham, noting Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

And sometimes, there are contending answers. While Paul contends that Abraham was justified by faith. James says it was by works and, in the end, “that by works faith was made perfect.”

Salvation, life after death with the creator. What gets us in the door? Faith and works – they’re inseparable,  two sides of the same coin.

Faith, then works. Or works, then faith. In God’s kingdom, it’s that opposites attract. Faith with works – from now to the end of the age.


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