Biblical studies since the 1930s have found freedom to discover dimensions of the witness of these ancient texts that had not been brought to light by the scholastic epoch’s way of putting the question.
Because our age asks questions about power and the social shape of truth, it also finds in canonical documents elements that speak to those questions. Earlier interpretations did not find such elements, because they did not ask these questions.
One particular subcase of this postcritical reorientation is called biblical realism. This movement has brought about a paradigm shift in Bible reading, so that traditional dualist approaches—which separated outward from inward or human from divine or temporal from spiritual—have given way to more holistic styles of reading. This holistic reunion of the physical and the social with the psychical and mental correlates culturally with the passing of the age of establishment and a renewed acceptance of the social agenda as a properly religious concern. The gospel of Jesus becomes a social ethic, not only a spiritual one.
So these new readings of scripture are both partly provoked by and partly an answer to the new questions of our day. Here are listed some simple examples from contemporary biblical literature:
1. Jesus’s ministry is now recognized much more widely as having intrinsic—not only incidental—dimensions of social challenge and power.
2. The Pauline cosmology of principalities and powers is widely recognized as having both transcendent and earthly dimensions.
3. The apocalyptic language of the New Testament is increasingly seen as proclamation and engagement rather than mere escapism.
4. Although the documentary and archaeological basis is slim, scholars are increasingly concerned to clarify the social style and setting of the writers of scripture as making a large difference for the meaning of their words.
These changes all point in the same direction: they encourage us to expect that issues to which the scriptures speak, saying things that we might not have heard before with the same clarity. This change disconnects our search for some of the traditionally polarized debates about inerrancy or the choice between political action and evangelism. As those debates are set aside, the capacity of the text to speak on topics of war, peace and revolution increases qualitatively.
The Politics of Jesus
When we go to the Bible story, and specifically to Jesus, we are not simply asking, in the broadest way, what the Bible says about violence, loving the enemy, or Caesar, but rather about what the biblical story in general and the New Testament story in particular say to the structural question, is Jesus politically relevant? Does Jesus agree, do the Gospel writers agree, do the apostles agree, that the duality between guilty responsibility (use of violence) and irrelevant purity (nonresistance), which dominates recent debate, is the way to interpret Jesus?
Jesus faced four options. In his time real people were taking each of these four positions:
1. The Zealots wanted a righteous insurgency and revolution (defensive violence).
2. The Dead Sea sects, for the sake of faithfulness, accepted distance from the mainstream society and ran their own culture. This positions is not irrelevant; it sacrifices immediate relevance, and it abandons control. Yet the Dead Sea community claimed that religious withdrawal is a spiritually and morally relevant position, and also a base from which to care about the wider society (social separatism).
3. Pharisees were like the Dead Sea sects in separating themselves from wider society, but they did so within the wider society (in the world but not of the world) rather than by emigrating physically. They emigrated culturally, by defining a lifestyle that kept them from being fully involved in and polluted by the presence of the Roman army with its idolatry and brutality (cultural separatism).
4. The Sadducees and the Herodians represented a strategy of responsible involvement. They made the best of a bad deal. They were not traitors to their national identity, as the Zealots thought they were; they saved Jewish national identity (political bipartisanship or collaboration with outsiders).
In terms of what some people would call radicality, the scale stretches from the Zealots, who were the National Liberation Front of their time, to the Qumran communities representing the withdrawal option, through the Pharisees who were in society but separate, to the elitist establishmentarian position of the Herodians and Sadducees (enjoying the privilege of political enfranchisement or “equality under the law” with Romans). Herod was a puppet king. The Sadducees took their name from Zadok the high priest. The Sanhedrin was the Sadducees’ body, which had to work with the Romans in order to keep the temple going.
Among these options, what did Jesus do? The biblical text gives us no indication that Jesus was tempted to be a Sadducee. This is so despite the fact that most Christians over the centuries, especially after Constantine, have been attracted to the Herodian/Sadducee option to which Jesus was least attracted. He was not tempted, at least not after his baptism, to be a desert sectarian or purist. He was close to the Pharisees; they were the good guys, close enough for him to debate with them. He shared their desire to follow the law, to develop a personal worthiness as just and righteous individuals. But he condemned their desire to increase the demands of the law (Tradition of the Elders) and he criticized their neglect of the weightier things of the law (Jubilee—of mercy, compassion and charity).
Jesus was most like the Zealots ideologically. He was with them in condemning the present system. He was with them in his call for others to follow him and risk their lives. He was close to them in his utter independence from the calculating shrewd strategies for survival or even strategies for effectiveness. Yet the Zealots were at one point like the Romans: they believed that might makes right. They believed that the morally right position needs to be implemented by superior violence, and that God will bless that course. That was Jesus’s temptation. He was tempted to be a Zealot. Yet he rejected that temptation, not because the Zealots were too radical, but because the Zealots were not radical enough. They were too much like the Romans in believing that the sword was the solution. If we see that the Zealot option was a temptation for Jesus, and if we see that his rejection of it was crucial to his definition of his ministry, then we see that the whole key to the new order is its noncoerciveness. The meaning of the kingdom that Jesus talked about is crucially defined by its noncoerciveness.
The cross was the result of the fact that Jesus’s new regime was a kingdom: he talked about it in political terms, in connection with righteousness, decision making, money, power, offenders, and all the other things that politics deals with. Yet it was noncoercive. So the way he lived it was to die for it, and he told his disciples that they would have to do the same. And if the new order is characterized by noncoerciveness, then the community that bears this order will have to be a voluntary community. And that community will therefore have to be, for the time being, a minority community.
So then we have a fifth option. This option is what is called the church. Church is a minority group living by a different style. In the Greek of the time, the word ekklesia was not a religious term. It was a political, secular term. It meant “town meeting” or “assembly” or “organization”: a group of people gathered to do business of public concern through common consent. Jesus created this assembly directly, by gathering people around him during his earthly ministry, by calling apostles, seventy, deacons, teachers and priests. He created it indirectly, because his message after the Resurrection produced that new kind of body within society through missionary work (a new political responsibility called discipleship).
Jesus as Public Figure
Jesus is a public figure. He uses political language. The authorities perceive him as a political threat and put him to death because of it. We can discuss what share the Jews and Romans had in his death. But it is clear, hypocritically or honestly, that the legal basis for his crucifixion in the Roman record book was the charge that he was an insurrectionist. That charge is the reason for an inscription on the cross, reported in all four Gospels (“King of the Jews”). We may still debate whether there was falseness in the accusation or in other details about the process, but that accusation was the political ground for his execution.
Jesus as Teacher
What ideas help make sense of Jesus’s new stance in society? This new way of being political, through being the “other” community, embodies alternative political options and expresses and implies new ideas. One element is certainly the proclamation of the kingdom as a new age in world history. The kingdom is at hand. The Beatitudes say, “The kingdom is at hand, so good for you!” They are not simply a series of virtue statements; they do not say, “You ought to be as a peacemaker, because God likes peacemakers.” Instead they say, “The kingdom is here: blessed are the humble, the meek, the peacemakers, the gentle, the forgiving, the charitable and the merciful, because in the kingdom these are the people who are at home.” Certainly one assumption of the ethic of Jesus is that the new age has come; it is at hand.
Another characteristic of Jesus’s ethic is a strengthened sense of the presence of the Father in our life. God is described as father, not simply as judge or providential sovereign. God is a loving, suffering father who loves the evil people as much as he loves the good. Jesus often tells us to be like himself. But Matthew 5 is the only place where Jesus says we will be like the Father—when we love our enemies. To be righteous and just is to fall short of that love for the Father which is perfect. To perfect love, one must also love (be charitable towards, forgiving of and merciful to) one’s neighbor (both enemy and friend). Another obvious theme in Matthew 5 and 6 is the fulfillment of the law. The law is not set aside. It is rounded out, intensified. A disciple must not only do the right thing, but for the right reason. His beliefs and feelings must be congruent with his actions. Greater limitations on the use of coercion, force and sexual misconduct are applied thereby eliminating any previous concessions afforded under the Law of Moses.
Jesus as Model
So we have Jesus as public figure and Jesus as teacher. But Jesus is also pattern. We do not have one frozen model for thinking about the life of the believer in relationship to Jesus. This fundamental stance works itself out in many different styles. Jesus is our model in many ways having to do with death and suffering. That suffering is not for its own sake but is the cost of the kind of involvement in the world that he represented and to which he calls us.
Right and Left Collectivist Understandings
Perhaps we can understand the significance of these perspectives on Jesus and ethics better if we compare them with the views of the Protestant liberals and of the Niebuhrian neoconservatives. Our views of Jesus are products of the world in which we read him. How was Jesus understood in the 1920s and 1930s?
First, recall that the Puritan heritage dominated the Protestant mainstream of America. Puritanism believed that God’s will could find effective implementation in society through the privileged position of Christians (Herod/Sadducees).
Second, this heritage reinforces certain assumptions about the way ethics has to work. Immanuel Kant gave the label categorical imperative to a way of reasoning. Anyone has the right to state as a moral imperative something it would be good for everybody to do. That principle breaks down into several other assumptions:
1. A first assumption is that ethics is for everybody, so an ethical statement should be tested by asking what would happen if everybody did it. Can everybody do it, or is it too heroic for everybody to reach?
2. A second question is, if everybody did it, how would it work? If everybody in this country were a conscientious objector, what would happen if the Russians landed on the shores of California? The question, what would happen if everybody did it, is a question of social calculation, which was not Kant’s first point (we are not dealing with political effectiveness and the calculation of causes and effects, rather morality).
3. A third question is, can we ask it of everybody? Is it fitting to ask it of everybody? It is assumed that Christian morality had a claim on everybody, even on those who had not accepted the Christian faith (how much of a person’s agency is to be respected knowing that the Gospel is for everyone whether they are covenanted to live it or not).
Third, recall our old friend Constantine, who stands as a symbol for the notion that Christianity is especially for the person who makes decisions for society from a position of power and authority (overwhelming force, either directly or indirectly). That person may be the emperor of the fourth century or John D. Rockefeller, respectively (the most powerful man in America in the 1920s). The top person is a model for our asking what would be right and wrong. The lawgiver is the most politically powerful person in society.
Liberal Christians in the 1920s and 1930s combined all three of these elements: the Puritan assumption that society in its present power structure is usable for good, the Kantian assumption that ethics is for everybody, and the Constantinian assumption that especially the top person is the model of ethical liberation.
Jesus Does Not Fit These Assumptions
What problems does this set of assumptions make for reading Jesus? What do we find in Jesus if we read him with these questions in mind?
It turns out that Jesus does not fit the Kantian mold. He is not interested in commending his ethic as though it were for everybody. He commends it to all who will hear and does not force it upon those who can’t, don’t or won’t. He is not interested in asking whether everybody can do what he teaches, or whether they will do it, or what would happen if they all did. He just does not ask those questions. He derives his ethical teaching from somewhere else, and therefore he does not have to filter it through that question.
Jesus has no special place for rulers. He makes none of the special concessions, found in just war theory or a crusade theory, for people God has placed in positions of power. If he says anything special about rulers, it is that their claims to being moral are especially dubious.
Jesus has a similar attitude to the Puritan notion that truth is what works. That is a logical secularization of a Puritan assumption. If God is in charge and if God’s people are given the responsibility to make the world run well, then it will, at least to some extent. When that notion is secularized, we get the idea that the good is what prospers, what works and survives. We cannot find that view in Jesus either. He does not promise that the good will prosper. Instead he seems to place his own ministry and that of the disciples in the context of the suffering servant whose “prospering” in Isaiah 52 and 53 is precisely that he did not. He died. His disciples died. His church can be said to have “prospered” only in its apostasy. It was only the power of God that gave Jesus some dignity in and after his death.
Another element in the American Puritan vision is the trust that “the people,” the democratic process, will be an instrument of God for good. Correcting old royalist visions of Puritanism, the parliamentarian vision said that it is through the process of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that good will be done, that God’s will would be done. Yet Jesus does not give us confidence in “the people” either. He does give us a certain bias in favor of the poor and downtrodden—though not as uniquely good—over against the rest of society who oppresses them. They are in some sense bearers of God’s concern, but not as a counter-Constantine. Democracy, then, is not a solution to the Constantinian (establishmentarian) question, rather a reinforcement of the problem.
The challenge that Jesus puts to the whole mainstream of Western culture is so total, so global, that we can understand why the West had to develop a different Jesus, a modernized Jesus, whose import for ethics would be more compatible with America. It does not matter whether scholars could show historically some relation between this Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels. Whatever is discovered about Jesus in the ancient context does not really matter to the liberal Christian emphasis. Its Jesus has to fit this modern optimism about the do-ability of God’s will and the usability of the political structures of our society to do it (a form of Stoicism or of Epicureanism that never questions whether the state is evil, rather assumes participation in state to be God’s will).
Reinhold Niebuhr cut through this approach from one end. He charged that modern humanism claims to be liberal in the sense of being open to all truth, but it refuses to see the sinfulness of the political structures, evils that we can perceive empirically. Thus Niebuhr used liberalism’s epistemology, respect for facts and social data, to undercut liberalism. He related this critique of liberalism to the Jesus of the liberals by saying that their Jesus of love is up off the scale. Theirs is the political Jesus, the Jesus of love who does not take account of structured evil (institutions are never evil, only the men composing them).
Reinhold Niebuhr took account of structured evil (some institutions are built on sin and are unnatural to man) and, instead of rejecting it, he posited the theories of choosing the lesser of two evils and of political effectiveness through necessary evil. Niebuhr did not question the evil of political structure, rather that the atonement of Christ facilitated the use of necessary evil (the political structure) to bring about God’s purposes. Early on Niebuhr took to Marxism but eventually aligned with Trotsky. He was part of the pacifist movement only briefly and eventually founded the neoconservative ethic. Even Obama claims Niebuhr as his favorite theologian. The political philosophy of Niebuhr can easily be shown to be illogical and defying of all common sense. Here are a list of questions demonstrating the fallacy of Niebuhr’s positions as they pertain to the most recent presidential election:
1. Is a vote for no one the same as a vote for someone?
2. Is a vote for no one the same as a vote for the majority?
3. Is a non-vote a vote for democrats or for republicans?
4. Is it possible to know the majority before an election is determined?
5. If the purpose of voting is to make certain the lesser evil most likely to win actually wins, does this mean one should have voted Jesus in the primaries and only Barabbas in the election?
6. If the purpose of voting is to vote for the person most likely to win, and knowing that the republican party is split, does this mean one should have voted for Barabbas in the election?
7. If one voted for Jesus, does it mean one threw one’s vote away because he lost?
8. How is a non-vote for evil, lesser or otherwise, the same as an apathetic vote for evil?
The goal of Niebuhrianism is not so much to reduce evil as it is to employ the same or greater and necessary evil means towards a relatively more noble cause in the name of effectiveness.
We discover that the Jesus of the Gospels is not simply different from the Jesus of the liberal optimism that Niebuhr attacked. Jesus also differs from Niebuhr’s ethic of “responsibility through effectiveness” by being a much more consciously political figure—in his statements, public action, formal teaching and organization of the church—than Niebuhr was willing to admit. Therefore the Jesus of our story represents an option Niebuhr did not have on his scale (not only that the political structure is evil, but that it has been superseded by the church as “necessary means” for carrying out God’s purposes; a new schoolmaster). Remember that for Niebuhr the violence question was not just one compartment of a large spectrum of ethical issues. It was the key to his entire theology. So the encounter between Niebuhr’s critique of the pacifism he knew and the critique of Niebuhr by the Jesus of the New Testament witness, is also a specimen of a total theological encounter, not limited to the question of how seriously to take one text about loving the enemy.
What About Texts?
We are talking about a structure question (government). Most of our problems with the New Testament (nonresistance), with Niebuhr’s Jesus (aristocratic republicanism) over against the Protestant Jesus (people’s democracy) and the historical Jesus (church) and any other Jesus (market economics and of private property), are not questions about particular texts. We have been looking at Jesus as global phenomenon in the first century—as teacher, politician, model, founder, and fulfiller of the Jewish hope—and at how that first century phenomenon relates to Niebuhr’s question, since it has become the classic way of stating the question for our time (What about effectiveness?).
Central to Niebuhr’s rejection of the Jesus of the New Testament as a model for our ethics is his conviction that the ethics of Jesus would be ineffective (Niebuhr lacked faith in the missionary effort alone to be effective in preparing society for Christ’s coming). But the longer we look at the question of effectiveness, the less we trust the question. Do we mean short-range effectiveness (direct methods) or long-range effectiveness (roundabout methods)? Do we mean guaranteeing a certain result or just contributing to a statistical mix in which the chances of a desired outcome may increase (and by how much)? The opposition between an ethic that “cares only about faithfulness” regardless the cost or outcome, and another that is “purely pragmatic” is a caricature. Nobody really will stay on one end or the other of this spectrum for long.
The person who says, “you must give up some of your scriptures in order to be effective,” is still saying that the goal for which you should sacrifice scruples in order to be effective is in principle a good goal. So the argument that takes the clothing of principles versus effectiveness really means this principle versus that principle. It really means that to give up other scruples is so overriding in importance that those other things are less important. That is an ethic of principles. The question is, which principles are you willing to give up for which other principles in order to be effective?
So I am increasingly convinced that the debate between the effectiveness ethic and the principle ethic is a false debate. It is a debate between effectiveness being the ends or effectiveness being the means. The debate has to be retranslated into this goal versus that goal. Then it has to be retranslated into who is in charge. By then it is clear that it is not after all a clean philosophical issue between two kinds of reasoning. The means, whether they be evangelical or political, either will or will not justify principle.
Why Not Effectiveness?
One of the reasons that effectiveness reasoning is itself confusing is that it assumes a system-immanent causal matrix. If there is such a thing as resurrection, or if the resurrection is in some sense a model for the believer’s life, which is said in some of our passages (Colossians 3), then we have to look at the available options in the conviction that there are more options than a greater-evil option and a lesser-evil option. There is the right option because to sacrifice principles for effectiveness is to die nonetheless. The question then changes between the lesser of evils (the ends justifying the means) and becomes a choice between right and wrong (to lose one’s life or to save it). To formulate the question clearly: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if in the process he loses his soul? There is a resurrection, but this is no justification to kill for the gospel. Instead, only a man of insufficient faith in the resurrection or of morality is unwilling to die for the gospel.
The present meaning of resurrection for ethics is that we are never boxed in. As believers, we are not to be calculating on the basis of the assumption that we are boxed into a world in which there are no new options. Many “saving” events in history were unforeseeable, unplanned, but they happened. The resurrection was an impossible unforeseeable new option, and it happened. We do not know what happened in such a way that we could take it to the American Medical Association and show them what shape the corpse is in now. We cannot show them how resurrection works with modern, scientific, causal models. Yet we are committed to confessing as relevant for our ethics that there is a power in history that reaches beyond the boxes in which we find ourselves. So one more reason that the cross is meaningful is that even though it fails, it does not fail if there is a resurrection.