Author: Kurt Struckmeyer (Page 1 of 5)

the judgment of Jesus

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

—Jesus, according to Matthew

 

I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.

moral choices

Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.

The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.

The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.

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the complicity of moderates in Nazi Germany

This blog post is a follow-up to a previous post, “the complicity of moderates.” It apparently offended a small number of self-disclosed moderates on Facebook who felt that my intention was to shame them. That was not my intention. Some claimed that they actually took stands as needed, but then their stand would have been necessarily toward one extreme or another, to the right or to the left, because there is no clearly defined middle way to respond to evil.

As a response, I will use an example from my first book.[1] It has to do with the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, a nation of about 60 million people. In the early 1930s, two-thirds of the population was Protestant (about 40 million members) and the remaining third was Roman Catholic (about 20 million). Less than 1 percent (600,000) were Jewish.

Because the modern state of Germany was created from of a number of small independent principalities and kingdoms in the late nineteenth century, the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches of Germany remained separated as 28 independent regional bodies reflecting their origins as small state-sponsored churches (Landeskirchen) with the local ruler as head. In 1922, they formed a loose federation to participate jointly in mission activities, but they did not come together as one unified church until April 1933 when the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) was created under the direction of Adolf Hitler.

Only months earlier, in January 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) had appointed Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as Chancellor of Germany. When Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and president and became the nation’s dictator. Many Christians in Germany openly welcomed Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party to power as a historic moment of Christ’s work on earth for and through the Aryan Volk (German for people).

As it rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazi message was that in spite of their God-given destiny, the nation was threatened from within by the insidious presence of Communists, Jews, and liberals in their midst. Hitler told the nation that their duty was to purify themselves of these influences to prepare for their divine vocation as God’s anointed nation. His message was that he would make Germany great again.

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the complicity of moderates

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

 

I wish you were either hot or cold; if I had my way you’d be one way or the other, all the way, but you lukewarm types, you passionless types, you make me want to vomit.[1]

—John of Patmos, speaking for God (late first century)

 

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

—Edmund Burke (1770)

The well-known quote attributed to statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) perfectly describes the role played by moderates and political independents in any society—good people who do nothing to stop the triumph of evil.

The persistence of evil in a nation is more due to the inaction and inattention of political and religious moderates than it is to the actions of dedicated white supremacists and authoritarian politicians. Throughout history, those who consider themselves moderates, centrists, and independents have, by their silence, been complicit with the rule of autocrats and evil regimes. Whether they realize it or not, they are often collaborators with tyrants and despots. They have historically allowed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, war, poverty, and oppression to flourish by their self-centered lack of attention and action.

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) wrote:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.

Today, political moderates and centrists like to portray themselves as common-sense people who keep an open mind on issues, are willing to listen to different viewpoints, think for themselves, and are not extreme in their beliefs. These are the so-called independent voters who do not strongly affiliate with either major party or their ideologies. They often feel themselves to be above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us.

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Compassion in action: charity, service, and justice

Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word compassion is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning to suffer with. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.

True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action. Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers, even if that person is culturally defined as the enemy.

Marcus Borg (1942–2015) has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” The Pharisees represented a theology of holiness, according to Borg, which was based on holiness as a defining characteristic of God: “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Jesus proclaimed a theology of compassion based on an alternative characterization of God’s essence: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) These differing theologies led them to different ways of living.

compassionate action

Compassionate action usually takes three forms: charity, service, and justice. Although some would include service under the first category, charity more specifically involves gifts of money, clothing, food, or other material goods, but does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Charity is important, but writing a check to a worthy does not really change us in a fundamental way. Although charitable giving demonstrates a generous nature, we often remain distant from those we seek to help. Service, however, involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can be an immensely transformative experience that can change us from our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Perhaps it is the only thing that will. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service often becomes a very humbling experience.

Charity and service are both personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering in the world. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) said:

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.

Justice is focused on transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the political means of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and service on the one hand and justice on the other is this: charity and service seek to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006) has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.” Still, all three of these are necessary components of what German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described as righteous action in the world. Together, righteous action and contemplative prayer would form the essence of a  “religionless Christianity” in our day.

Our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

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the politics of Jesus

Part 1: the politics of the domination system

The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to the polis.” Polis literally means ‘city’ in Greek. It can also mean ‘citizenship’ and ‘body of citizens.’ Pete Seeger once said that politics happens whenever we bring people together.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote an eight-volume book called Politiká, a dissertation on governing and governments. In his case, he was concerned with the Greek city-state. He saw politics as our “social relations involving authority or power.” Aristotle classified a number of real and theoretical states according to their constitutions. On one side stand the true (or good) constitutions, which aim for the common good, and on the other side the perverted (or deviant) ones, considered such because they aim for the well-being of only a part of the city.

Here are his opening lines: “Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community (in Greek, koinônia, pronounced koy-nohn-EE-ah) and that every community (koinônia) is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community (koinônia) aims at some good, and the community (koinônia) which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority.”

Politics has to do with how we structure our life together as a society—either for the sake of the common good or for the sake of a privileged few. This includes our overarching economic system, taxation policies, governing budgets, the rights of citizens, social justice, and human equality.

When we discuss the politics of Jesus, we must first understand the political structures of first-century Roman Palestine, which was an occupied province of the Roman Empire. Rather than Aristotle’s city-state organized for the common good, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the vast majority. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by Herod Antipas. After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning ‘the ruling few’) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome. Continue reading

the kingdom of God: an introduction

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)

The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of Godbasileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.

As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.

Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)

Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world. Continue reading

the death of Jesus

Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:25–27

 

the cost of discipleship

To further his movement for social and economic justice, Jesus had gathered a core team of 82 disciples, with twelve in a leadership role. He had sent the remaining 70 out in pairs to the villages of Galilee to share meals, heal, and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God.[1]

Jesus told his disciples that following him was going to be extremely difficult, even dangerous. His words about hating family are strange—words we would rather not hear, words we would like to go away. They are difficult to comprehend from a man who consistently preached love over hate.

In joining the Jesus movement, the disciples had entered what is known as a “fictive family,” not related by blood but through bonds of love for one another as sisters and brothers. In the traditional culture of ancient Israel, individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, particularly their parents. Jesus prioritized the creation of the kingdom of God over the pulls of family responsibility, commending his disciples for cutting their ties—leaving home, livelihood, and family behind. He knew this would be a difficult decision and a challenging test. These were strong words meant to open people’s eyes to the reality of what Jesus was about, what he was proposing, and where he was going.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.[2]

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by common people under Roman rule. It was a time of decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

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Jesus, Justice, and the Law

 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)

Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)

Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.

During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.

There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.

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the weight of a snowflake

When you become discouraged by the seeming immensity of the task before us, remember this little fable about a conversation between two birds—a dove and a chickadee.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a chickadee asked a wild dove. “Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer. “In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the chickadee said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything else to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch—nothing more than nothing, as you say—the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the chickadee flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace and justice to come about in the world.”

follow Jesus: a hymn

Music: “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)” by Chris Rice

 

Hear the call of Jesus
Stirring in your heart
A voice of love that calls to you today
So follow Jesus
Follow Jesus
Follow Jesus with love

In a land of plenty
Children cry in need
Stir up your love to feed them every day
So feed the hungry
Feed the hungry
Feed the hungry with love

Living without shelter
Lost and all alone
Stir up your love to house the homeless ones
So house the homeless
House the homeless
House the homeless with love

Standing on your doorstep
Not a friend in sight
Stir up your love to welcome strangers in
So welcome strangers
Welcome strangers
Welcome strangers with love

Listen to their voices
All around the world
Stir up your love to serve all those in need
Go serve the needy
Serve the needy
Serve the needy with love

Call upon this nation
Brothers, sisters all
Stir up your love for justice in our world
And work for justice
Work for justice
Work for justice with love

Go, follow Jesus
Follow Jesus
Follow Jesus with love

 

 

© 2015 Kurt Struckmeyer

For more background on this hymn see a previous post titled “writing new lyrics

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