Friday, October 26, 2007

One Jesus for the Poor and Another for the Rich: Is This a Problem for Moltmann?

This post comes out a discussion we had yesterday on Jurgen Moltmann's The Way of Jesus Christ in my Contemporary Theology class.

In his section on "The Messianic Perspective," Moltmann wrestles with Buber's understanding of the distinction between the "Messiah" and the "Son of Man" within the tradition of Jewish Messianic expectation, and uses that as an entry point to discuss his understanding of the role of Jesus as the Christ in a post-Holocaust world. Here Moltmann is interested in asserting the universal nature of Jesus' role as the Christ without totally trampling Judaism, or articulating some abhorrent concept of supercessionism. In this his attempt is, I think, admirable. He is wrestling with his own beliefs about Jesus in light of the problem of Jewish-Christian relations, which in light of the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (which culminated in the Holocaust) is necessary for any responsible Christian theologian.

However, some of what he says greatly troubled students in my class. Interestingly, the two lines on which we spent most of our time is discussion - while they set up his attempt to understand Jesus in a way that is sensitive to what he calls "the Jewish 'no'" to Jesus as the Christ - don't explicitly have to do with Jewish-Christian relations. Instead, they have to do with the kinds of social and material conditions that he sees as the concern of the "Kingdom of God." In these lines many of my fellow student heard Moltmann articulating what we might call a "multiple Jesus theory" - that is, that Jesus is not the same person for different people:

The same Christ Jesus is not the same for everyone, because people are different. He has one profile for the poor and another for the rich, one profile for the sick and another for the healthy.

While this should be read in the immediate context of Moltmann's concern for understanding differences between Christians and Jews concerning both Messianic hope and the meaning and significance of Jesus (the line that follows these two lines is, after all, "Accordingly, this same Christ Jesus has one particular profile for Jews and another for Gentiles,"), and while Moltmann's wading into the turbulent waters of Jewish-Christian relations in light of Christian claims about Jesus, it is no accident that Moltmann articulates a difference not only between Jesus' profile for Jews and Gentiles, but also between his profile for the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy.

To this one could add any number of other divisions: black and white, gay and straight, first world and two-thirds world, etc.

That Jesus is not seen the same way by different people is obvious. Jesus looks very different in an Evangelical church than in a Mainline church. Jesus looks very different in a black church than a white church. Jesus looks very different in Asia than he does in Europe.

And, not only does Jesus look different, he has very different concerns. The message and meaning of Jesus varies dramatically from setting to setting, at least in terms of how it is received and understood. But, if this is all that Moltmann means, he is articulating something painfully obvious, without offering any real guidance for how faithful Christians should respond to this situation.

After all, the white Jesus is not just cosmetically different from the black Jesus: he has a totally different ethical, theological, and political agenda. The poor Jesus is not just cosmetically different from the rich Jesus: again, he has a totally different ethical, theological and political agenda. Not only is Jesus' ministry - his message and meaning - different in different settings, Jesus is used differently by different groups of Christians.

The maleness of the human Jesus has been used by many churches throughout Christian history to deny ordination to women. If Jesus is a man, and if it is not accidental (as these churches might claim) that Jesus is a man, then how can women represent Christ, who is essentially (rather than accidentally) male? Similarly, in the American context the normative image of Jesus as white has been used to deny both the full humanity blacks, as well as their participation in the imago Dei. Jesus' concern in many Evangelical churches for personal salvation rather than political and systemic transformation has been used to justify an ethos that looks to an honest reader of the Gospels very little like the ethos of Jesus.

But if it is simply a plain fact - without any value or significance - that Jesus is different for different people, how can anyone's reading of Jesus be used to call anyone else's reading of Jesus into question? If Jesus is so amorphous in nature that he is in fact a different person for different people, can anyone call the white Jesus, or the rich Jesus, or the gay-bashing Jesus, or even the gun-toting Jesus an idolatrous creation by a corrupt people crafting their own Jesus to baptize their prejudices and call them "good"?

These were the very valid concerns of many in class yesterday as we discussed Moltmann's own reading of Jesus and its Christological implications. I can't claim to be an expert on Moltmann, and I certainly shared some of the concerns of those in the room who thought that Moltmann's apparent positing of multiple Jesuses (spell check is going to love my pluralizing "Jesus"!) doesn't leave much room for a prophetic critique of the misuses of Jesus through history. This is, after all, one of the main problems with postmodernism. If there is no grand meta-narrative, no universally valid truth-claim (and I agree that there isn't) by what means can one mediate between competing narratives or truth-claims?

And when these narratives or claims concern Jesus - who has been used by some many different kinds of people in so many varying ways, both good and bad - the situation is even more urgent.

But I think that there is a quite charitable and even helpful way to read Moltmann's articulation of different profiles for Jesus among different kinds of people. While of course this claim can be a valueless claim that legitimates the use of Jesus by some groups to abuse and marginalize others, it can also be a powerfully prophetic claim that acknowledges the different needs of and demands on different groups of people.

This is perhaps most obvious in Moltmann's articulation of a difference between Jesus' profile among the rich and the poor. While this can be used to state the obvious - that the Jesus of the rich in infinitely less concerned with economic justice than the Jesus of the poor - it can also be used in a very different way. One could easily say, as I hear Moltmann saying by his inclusion of God's concern for the poor in his later articulation of the Kingdom of God, that the Jesus of the rich and the Jesus of the poor differ not in their essential nature, but in their message to and demands on their respective communities.

That is to say that, perhaps to say that Jesus has a different profile among the rich than among the poor is not just to state the historical fact that among the rich Jesus' concern for economic justice is minimalized; but rather, it is to say that to the rich Jesus has a very different message and a very different call than he does to the poor. It could mean something more like this.

To the rich, Jesus says: "Anyone who would come after me must take up their cross and follow me."

And to the poor, Jesus says: "Come to me, all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

These are very different messages to very different communities, but they are both liberative. The poor, those on the margins of society, do not have to be invited to take up their cross. They are crucified daily. And so from Jesus they receive a very different message, a very different invitation. Rather than being invited into suffering, they are invited into comfort. But those who are comfortable in the midst of this fallen world, so characterized by injustice and inequity, they are invited to the cross.

This invitation to the cross is a liberating invitation, because it frees the rich from their slavery to money, it frees the powerful from their slavery to oppressing. This is because, ultimately, the rich, the powerful, the oppressor, is held every bit as captive as the poor, the powerless, the one under the thumb of the worldly powers. To wield power over others, to idolize wealth and to justify oppression, is to be estranged from God and from one's own true nature. This as much as the plight of the poor, is within the realm of God's concern.

But this situation demands a different cure. And so to the rich Jesus appears one way, and to the poor another, because rich and poor, sick and healthy, black and white, gay and straight, all have different needs. But the same Jesus who has so many profiles appears to all and offers reconciliation to all, even if that appearance and that reconciliation looks different for each.

This is at least one viable way to read Moltmann here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Day in the Life of a Theology Student

So, you may have noticed I haven't blogged in a while. About that...

Much of it is my own fault, a product of innate laziness and a lack of motivation to wade into the murky waters of the blogosphere. (I know, that's a mixed metaphor. Get over it!) After all, the relative anonymity of the Internet often brings out the worst elements in us. We type the sorts of things most of us would never say to another person, because here we're not really interacting with persons, just with words on a screen. And while the general conversational nastiness of the medium hasn't made its way here in a while, it still depresses somewhat my desire to put my best (or even fourth- or fifth-best) thought out here to be picked apart by the small-minded bullies (faith-based and otherwise) of blogdom.

Also, I've been exploring my creative side a little bit. I've picked up a new mandolin, and have been playing it for the last few months. And now it looks like I'll be getting a violin, my first musical love. I played violin for 11 years (from age 7 to 18), but quit after I graduated high school. While my parents never made me play, I still felt the pressure that came from their approval. I felt like if I didn't play, I would somehow disappoint them. That sucked all of the joy out of music for me, though it is no one's fault but my own.

This past summer, however, I felt like I could live without music any longer, and since then I've devoted most of my free time to cultivating whatever musical ability there is left in me. Which, biologically speaking at least, should be a great deal, since my identical twin brother is one hell of a musician. Consequently I don't have nearly as much of what little free time I ever had, and so have been less than faithful with this blog.

Today, however, I thought I'd drop by and give you at least a tiny glimpse of the chaos that is my life at the moment. Balancing family, school, church, and now music, is getting complicated. So, here's what I have to do today:

1. Write FOUR papers. (Fortunately they are short ones, just 3-4 pages each.)

2. Make a lesson plan for the Wednesday evening Forum at church, which is part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. For the lesson I'm putting together a brief discussion on Christian views on violence (quick overviews of pacifism and Just War theory) and then screening the HBO documentary Ghost of Abu Ghraib, before leading a discussion on the ethics (or lack thereof) of torture. This is what passes for fun for me right now.

3. Do some general maintenance around the house while Sami and Adam are gone today. For those of you with any mechanical skills, what I'm doing will seem quite simple. I'm fixing an antique lamp (nothing wrong with the wiring, just the body) and hanging up three new sets of blinds to replace the (cheap) ones that our cats have torn up. But as I am, well... mechanically challenged (read "inept"), this may be the hardest thing I'll do today.

So far I've got one set of blinds up, written one of the four papers, outlined two more papers, and located the sources I'll use for the fourth paper, and almost fixed the lamp (it is all in one piece now, but is sitting crooked). Not bad.

When I blog again, I'll write down some of the Adam stories I've been collecting between my ears. I've also been wanting to post some of my observations of how the text of Philemon speaks to oppression, and also on differences between the way that white and black Christians see Moses. But for now, I'm back to work.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Young White Evangelical Protestants Turning Away From President Bush (But What Does it Mean?)

Taking a break from writing a paper this morning, I saw a link to this study by the Pew Forum at Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood's blog, the Bible Belt Blogger. It notes the precipitous drop in President Bush's approval rating among young (18-29 years old) white evangelical Protestants:

In 2002 (at the height of his popularity among all voters) Bush's approval rating among young white evangelicals was a whopping 87%, compared to a still incredible 67% approval rate with the total population.

In 2007, however, only 45% of young white evangelicals approve of president Bush. While that is still considerably stronger than his approval rating among the entire population (33%), it is significant to note that not even a majority of those who were once his strongest supporters approve of the Bush presidency.

But, the important question to ask - and the question I can't answer - is this:

What does this mean?

What it doesn't seem to mean, at least according to the Pew Forum, is that young white evangelicals are growing more liberal. A disturbing number of the population to which I nominally belong (60%) still believe that it was right for the US to invade Iraq. An even more disturbing number, given that we all claim allegiance to one who was unjustly executed by the state, (72%) favor capital punishment. While those numbers are not compared to numbers from 2002 (when Bush was at the height of his popularity among both young white evangelical Protestants and the general population), they are compared to the numbers for all Americans between 18 and 29. And, no surprise, only 56% of young Americans (compared to 72% of young white evangelicals) favor the death penalty, and only 41% of young Americans (compared to 60% of young white evangelicals) think that it was right to invade Iraq.

Abortion is a separate issue, because it can easily be made part of a comprehensive pro-life philosophy that opposes wars and state-sanctioned killings. However, it was also a part of the Pew Forum's study, and no surprise, young white evangelicals differ from their peers on it, too. 70%, according to the Pew Forum, believe that it should be "more difficult for a woman to get an abortion," compared to just 39% for young Americans in general.

The study did not, as far as I could tell, ask questions about the actual prosecution of the war in Iraq, nor did it seem to ask about other important issues for young white evangelicals, such as global climate change. It is possible that many young white evangelicals disapprove of president Bush for these reasons - the war is going badly, and the natural environment is becoming more important for young white evangelicals shaped by a kind of "stewardship" theology. And, of course, there are many, many more reasons to oppose the Bush presidency, stemming from corruption, incompetence, and cronyism (and boy, aren't those three related!).

So, I'm not sure what to make of these numbers. While, as a liberal Democrat who takes my faith seriously, I hope that they signal a seismic political shift; as a rational human being I just don't see the numbers reflecting that. Rather, I think the numbers simply reflect what a bad president George W. Bush has been. Even the bulk of his base has left him.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Interesting Links

In the spirit of "Mondays are for blogging," this morning I'm doing something "bloggy": posting links to a few articles and op-ed pieces I've found interesting:

Here is an op-ed piece by "Amir," an Iranian gay man who ushers us into the experience of Iran's "invisible" gay population, whose existence Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so famously and ludicrously denied. This was originally a special for the Washington Post, but I found it in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Here is an article by Canadian writer, writing here for the Christian Science Monitor, on the political debate in Canada on public funding for religious schools.

On an infinitely more trivial note, here is a fun profile of a band I like a little (or a whole stinking lot!) the Arcade Fire found in the LEO, Louisville's alternative news weekly, in honor of their visit to our fair city.

I'm still working on separate posts on Philemon and "the binding of Isaac," which I hope to post at some far too speculative date in the future. Today, however, I have to get ready for the two tests I have tomorrow, while also working on the paper I have due Wednesday (looking at "white privilege/power" within the framework of the language of "principalities and powers" in the New Testament). So, I've got my plate pretty full, and I suspect that if I do any more blog-related activities today, they will be as trivial as this post.