The Conservative, the Liberal, the One in the Middle

A tumultuous 2016 draws to a close. An uncertain 2017 lies ahead. Time to consider where we’ve been and where we may be going from the vantage point of the three who have defined this political year – radical conservative Donald Trump, the old liberal Bernie Sanders, and the one in the middle – the defeated presumptive front-runner Hillary Clinton.

And introduce three who define the religio-poltico shape of a much earlier era that still resonates today – conservative James brother to Jesus  of Nazareth, liberal Saul of Tarsus, and the war-horse in the middle – St. Peter of Capernaum.

What’s the Comparison?

Comparing three characters of biblical proportion with the trio that have dominated the political headlines of the last couple of years may seem a bit odd – perhaps forced. Bear with me and consider:

  • Of the leaders of the early Christian movement, Jesus’ brother James was a Johnny come lately. James criticizes his brother’s earthly ministry, yet somehow mysteriously ascends to leadership of the Jerusalem church as carefully alluded to by Luke the writer of the Acts of the Apostles. As later recounted by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, James climbed his way into but was then murdered by the establishment aristocracy. Mr. Trump similarly came out of nowhere to overturn the establishment of his party and the political correctness of the two coasts. A wealthy and privileged New Yorker, he yet remains an outsider scrapping his way to anointing as leader of the yet dominant nation on the globe. One difference: James fell to his antagonists while Donald (so far) has prevailed.
  • Yes, Paul was the liberal of his era – breaking the new found Christian movement free of its Jewish moorings. With a message that appealed to a Roman world hungry for authentic rather than tired and ineffectual spirituality. And like his modern counterpart Bernie Sanders, Paul pulled no punches – even advocating that those troublesome followers of James and Peter castrate themselves. The difference is that Paul’s message of a universal Christianity prevailed while Bernie’s socialist crusade has foundered – at least for now.
  • Then we have the front-runners who choked before getting to the finish line – tripping over flaws too big to ignore. As Jesus’ lead disciple, we know about Peter’s impetuous behavior – such as cutting off the ear of an officer come to arrest Jesus. There may have been worse – witness the demise of Ananias and Sapphira at the hands of Peter as the first leader of the post-resurrection church. In the fourth century, church leader John Chrysostom was forced to deny rumors that Peter may have had an active hand at least one of these deaths. While Hillary Clinton may not seem to be so openly brash, think throwing dishes at Bill Clinton over Monica and other trailer trash . Think Whitewater, conducting national business on a personal server, or maybe Vince Foster. Unending, whispered and not-so-whispered rumors.

Definitions

Before going further, it’s time to define the terms of engagement. Webster’s dictionary offers the following definitions for the terms liberal and conservative:

  • Liberal – “one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways …”
  • Conservative – “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society …”

In short, the conservative is ever glancing in the rear-view mirror; the liberal looks and acts forward. 

So, What are the Take-Aways?

At first blush, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the determination of whether the conservative, liberal or one in the middle will prevail. Fate seems so fickle, blown about by the moods of the moment combined with the quirks of the respective lead personalities:

  • The reactionary movement of the Donald has carried the day today – although the much earlier conservatism of James lost out despite the familial connection with the anointed one – the Savior.
  • The liberalizing and liberating New Testament theology of Saul (renamed Paul) prevailed because it played to the interests of the Roman populace for a more believable deity than the shopworn gods of the Greeks and Romans. Two millennia later, Bernie’s socialist ideals would play well to millennials feeling betrayed by their elders – but not enough to carry the day (at least not yet).
  • The losers then and now were the middle of the road types – a Peter who vacillated between adhering to Judaism versus opening to Gentiles and a Hillary who has wavered on issues ranging from global trade to support and then opposition to the Iraq war.
  • In ascendant periods, middle of the road types represent continuity combined with the aura of all boats rising together. Think Peter as lead disciple during Jesus’ ministry continuing forward for awhile as leader of the pack once his master had departed the earthly scene. In the U.S., think Eisenhower as the victorious WWII general leading a homogeneous nation during the period of American ascendancy in the 1950s. Or consider Hillary’s precursor in husband Bill as the New Democrat in the wake of the post-Soviet 1990s.

But in uncertain and troubled times, the mood swings to more extreme options. The only question is whether the populist conservative or liberal plays better to the temper of our times. For Christianity, liberality won out because it played to a much larger market – the whole Roman empire, not just one isolated province. In 2016, the reactionary (but not fully traditional) conservative solution won out because the populace found itself betrayed by the patronizing liberalism of two Obama administrations. As many working class Americans and millennials have perceived. the emperor is wearing no clothes.

In the End, Liberalism Wins

Does the example of Paul or that of Mr. Trump better represent likely long-term outcomes? For all of the arrogance and independent of any theological truth, the Pauls of this world always win out in the end. Inclusion beats parochial self-interest. Serving the common good is better politics than propping up the cultural and economic elites. And despite twists and turns along the way, the world of today is better than that of renaissance Europe,the Greco-Roman empires or even earlier civilizations whether on the scale of the Egyptians or nomadic tribes from Africa to the Americas.

For better or worse, there are two reasons why liberals inevitably beat out their more conservative counterparts:

  • The first reason is empirical. Despite jarring cyclical swings between liberality and retrenchment, the long-term march is upward – toward the ever-beckoning city on a hill. The world is a better place to live today than at any time in recorded human history. And so long as we survive our own suicidal tendencies, life 100 years from now will be even better than today.
  • The second reason is spiritual. The divine embodies the discordant mix of mercy and judgment. Individually and culturally, we are responsible for our actions. But in the end, mercy trumps judgment. And as Jesus would say: “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

If this view is correct, President-elect Trump’s victory may be short-lived. For us conservatives, now is the time for some thorough house-cleaning. Whether or not Mr. Trump is the man for the job remains to be seen.

Without fail, liberalism will live to again carry the day. This will happen when liberals regroup to again embrace rather than patronize the needs, the preferences, the aspirations of all humanity – not just the imperatives of like minded elites.

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The Bible & Same Sex Relationships

The U.S. Supreme Court has now heard oral arguments on two cases about same sex marriage. Rulings on both are expected by late June 2013.

For Christians and non-Christians, much of the debate swirls around competing perceptions of ethical, moral and religious values with respect to sex and marriage. Despite much talk about the religious angle, there is widespread confusion about what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) on this topic.

So, the question addressed by this blog is: What does the Bible have to say about same sex relationships and marriage? The answer may surprise.

While both the Old and New Testaments have something to say, what they say is not enough to make a strong biblical case either for or against same gay marriage.

There may be good reasons to either support or object to gay marriage. But the reasons will need to be found somewhere else than in God’s revealed word.

cropped-edh_0115.jpg

And about the headliner photo with this blog – a mosaic of Amazons (lesbians?) at Sepphoris – just four miles from Jesus hometown of Nazareth. Sepphoris was destroyed about the time of Jesus’ birth after an uprising following the death of Herod the Great. Sepphoris was rebuilt by son Antipas as the capitol city of Galilee while Jesus was growing up. Did Joseph the carpenter (and possibly his son as apprentice) contribute to the rebuilding? One can only speculate.

Old Testament Accounts. So here we go. The earliest clear biblical reference to an attempted same sex relationship occurs in Genesis as the first book of the Bible. A person named Lot is the nephew of a man named Abraham who happens to be the spiritual patriarch of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Lot is visited by two strangers (angels it appears) who arouse the sexual spirits of the men in the town of Sodom. They surround Lot’s house and call out: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”

In an effort to protect his guests, Lot offers up his two virgin daughters instead. In the end, the two male angels end up protecting Lot and his daughters but tell him to leave quickly as God will destroy the city.

Looking out to the Dead Sea from Masada ... Is Sodom out there somewhere?

Looking out to the Dead Sea from Masada … Is Sodom out there somewhere?

Today, the act of anal penetration is known by the name of Lot’s home town as sodomy. However, it is noted that the real sin of the men of Sodom was less about same sex intercourse and more about forcible intercourse, i.e., rape.

A similar and, in many ways, even more bizarre case of attempted same sex action replaced by a raped female substitute is recorded in Judges 19. There are also several instances of what appears to be male cultic prostitution reported in 1 Kings 14, 15 and 22 and in 2 Kings 23.

A more specific prohibition is given by Moses to Hebrew men in Leviticus 18: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. ‘Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.”

In Leviticus 20, this prohibition is repeated but with the additional sanction of death for violators. The same death penalty is also prescribed for those involved in adultery with another man’s wife, or for those who mate with an animal.

New Testament Testimony. Moving to the New Testament, the first thing to note is that Jesus is not recorded by any of the four gospels as having anything to say about same sex relations.

On matters of sexuality, what Jesus has to say is directed at heterosexuals. And his warnings are stern. He stipulates clearly that any man who even “looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If you think Jesus is kidding, the next words out of his mouth warn of judgment: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

In danger of hell-fire?! And all for just one longing gaze at a comely babe. Even pure-as-the-driven-snow former President Jimmy Carter stands condemned.

Jesus doesn’t stop there, but goes on to observe that “whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Well, that’s it for the roughly half of so-called American Christian adults who have divorced.

Admittedly, whether or not Jesus had ever desired or consummated sexual relations has long been a matter of some speculation at the margins of Christianity. The most persistent rumor (not without foundation) is that Jesus had a relationship with or perhaps even married Mary Magdalene. In recent years, this story was given added prominence by the Dan Brown novel The DaVinci Code.

An entirely different perspective in recent years has come about as a result of the supposed post-World War II discovery of a Secret Gospel of Mark suggesting a possible sexual relationship between Jesus and Lazarus. This fragmentary and disputed manuscript posits a same sex relationship between Jesus and Lazarus occurring in conjunction with the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. The account states that:

“Then Jesus went up and rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. He went right in where the young man was, stuck out his hand, grabbed him by the hand, and raised him up. The young man looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg to be with him. Then they left the tomb and went into the young man’s house. (Incidentally, he was rich). Six days later Jesus gave him an order; and when evening had come, the young man went to him, dressed only in a linen cloth. He spent that night with him, because Jesus taught him the mystery of God’s domain. From there <Jesus> got up and returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

The author of this text is tentatively identified as the second century Clement of Alexandria. This secret Gospel of Mark was reputedly discovered by Morton Smith, professor of ancient history at ColumbiaUniversity at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem in 1958. Unfortunately, the document has never been independently authenticated.

On to Paul. The one New Testament writer with definite opinions about homosexual activity is the Johnny-come-lately apostle Paul. In the opening paragraphs of his letter to the Romans, Paul goes on a rant about those whom God has given up to “vile passions,” stating that: “For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful…”

And to the denizens of Corinth, Paul writes about the unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God, boldly proclaiming that:

“Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”

And to Timothy who he was mentoring, Paul writes that:” the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.”

Note two things with both of these Pauline passages. First, homosexuality is identified as a sin on a par with such other acts as fornication and adultery. Gay relationships may be viewed by Paul as not desired but they are no worse than sexual issues common to a broad cross-section of straight society.

Second, Paul notes (in his Corinthian letter) that, while a flaw, these and other sins are all subject to sanctification (or being made right) through Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit. In short, the kingdom of God is not necessarily closed even to those whom Paul would regard as guilty of ungodly behavior, no matter what the issue.

Back to Paul. Was Paul reacting primarily from his Jewish tradition? Was he attempting to reflect what Christ had taught? Or was taking a more nuanced course – distinguishing between what Jesus directly taught and his own personal interpretation? The evidence suggests that the latter is the case.

What is fairly clear is that homosexual contact was generally not considered appropriate within 1st century Judaism – though diverse opinions abounded with regard to matters of human sexuality. For example, the 1st century BCE Jewish philosopher Hillel clearly disapproved of polygamy. In contrast, his more conservative counterpart Shammai approved.

Homosexual activity was widely known and practiced in the Roman world. Julius Caesar was as renowned for his dalliances with comely men (or boys) as for his liaison with Cleopatra. In his biography of the Caesar, Suetonius observes that “he was every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.”

Lesbian relationships were also the stuff of both myth and reality in the Greco-Roman world. Amazon women found their way into mosaics just a stone’s throw from Jesus boyhood home in Nazareth. And Paul the apostle –  a man of Jewish heritage and Roman citizenship – was sophisticated enough to be aware of both male and female homosexual relationships. Paul operated in multiple worlds.

By legend, Amazons mated with men only by necessity to maintain an all-female warrior race. This mosaic is also from Sepphoris (or Tzippori), a 1st century principal city of Galilee situated only 4 miles from Nazareth.

By legend, Amazons mated with men only by necessity to maintain an all-female warrior race. This mosaic is also from Sepphoris (or Tzippori), a 1st century principal city of Galilee situated only 4 miles from Nazareth.

So while Paul claimed that much of his Christian teaching came from direct divine utterances, he does not claim this for his views related to same sex relations. In fact, Paul clearly distances himself from the other apostolic leaders of the early church who relied on what they had heard directly from Jesus. In a letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “But from those who seemed to be something (like Church leaders James, Peter and John) —whatever they were, it makes no difference to me.”

In effect, Paul’s antipathy toward anything smacking of same sex contact appears to be rooted in: a) his own personal views rather than anything Jesus explicitly taught; and b) his personal practice based on a lifetime of asceticism that favored remaining celibate over marriage, and then marriage over homosexual behavior.

As he wrote to the church in Corinth: “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

What conclusions can we draw from this? Three are offered here:

  1. While same sex relationships may not be spoken of as favorably as those of the heterosexual variety by the Almighty, they clearly are not viewed any less favorably than other sexual activities – notably adultery and fornication – in which the majority of heterosexual and so-called American Christians have engaged. And there is evidence, particularly the testimony of Jesus, indicating that good old heterosexual issues like adultery were more pressing concerns to be addressed during his brief earthly ministry.
  2. Homosexuality is less the issue than the nature of the human-human relationship. Rape is rape – whether of the homosexual or heterosexual variety. The true nature of the crime committed by the Sodomites of old has been misrepresented. Forcible intercourse – whether attempted or actualized – is the true evil.
  3. There are undoubtedly arguments that can be made for and against gay marriage. But those arguments need to be made on grounds other than what is offered by Jewish and Christian scripture. Leave the Bible out of the gay marriage debate.

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