Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Quote On Christianity and "Empire," Plus Reflections

Sorry I've been mostly AWOL of late, breaking my blogging fast only on occasion, merely to post Obama video clips.

I've been reworking some of my theological and academic projects, and such work can't be broken down in a nice and neat way for this blog. This blog started as a response to my own (accidental) participation in the "culture wars," and the content here has reflected that. While I grew up an evangelical Christian, I also grew up a liberal Democrat, and that created and interesting dichotomy from which to write. Additionally, my brief experiences as a pastor, and especially the abuse I took from a congregation that led to my resignation from ministry (and nearly, for a time, to the dissolution of my marriage) motivated me to write out my peculiar theological take on hot-button social issues.

While I have yet another post on abortion and scripture (an exegesis of Exodus 21:12-27, focusing on verse 22) outlined and ready to go, I can't bring myself to write it, much less post it. Why? Frankly, I'm tired of that conversation. It isn't getting us anywhere.

Many of the conversations that have happened here over the years have been the same way. Though I've loved them, at their best they serve merely to provide some relatively safe arena in which those on the left and the right rehearse their best arguments. There's a place for that, no doubt. That place may even be here. But I simply haven't been able to get up for those conversations lately.

Neither have I been able to get up for conversations concerning the role and authority of scripture, or principles of Biblical interpretation. And while I still hold that religious language is principally metaphorical, and that faith is a condition of radical dependency and a commitment to a comprehensive way of life rather that the ability to articulate intellectual agreement with speculative propositions, there really are only so many blog posts I can squeeze out of that.

Meanwhile, I've been cruising toward graduation wondering what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Least importantly, but most pertinent to this conversation, I've been wondering how I'm going to spend my academic life. One of my advisers tells me that at some point I'm simply going to have to drop anchor somewhere. But where? That question, far more than any of the artificially hot-button social issues that comprise the so-called "culture wars" that I've been fighting in and commenting on, has been burning in my brain.

To wit, I've been working on two separate thesis ideas, with one question navigating the treacherous waters between them: Am a philosophic theologian, or a theological ethicist? Of course, both of those rest on contrived distinctions created in an academic climate that favors specialism to the detriment, I would argue, of authentic theology (that is, theology that refuses to be sequestered into its own little corner of the academy). But, in the meantime, my friend who counseled me to "drop anchor" is right. I probably can't learn everything about anything, but I certainly can't learn everything about everything.

So I'm trying to choose between an overtly philosophic thesis that uses, among others, William James, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead to speak to the relationship between religion and science, and an overtly ethical thesis that explores the history of Christian reflection on violence, especially revolutionary violence.

That overtly ethical thesis idea, you might guess, started with a post here on James Cone's defense of revolutionary violence. But as I study more, I'm beginning to notice that the way I've laid out the topic for myself, narrowly looking at Christian tools for resisting oppression and empire (which go hand in hand) especially concerning the moral permissibility of violence is flawed in two related ways: First, it is too limited, and second, it fails to understand the nuanced nature of empire and oppressive power differentials. Consider this quote (which made me jump up and down, and then run to the computer to break my unintentional blogging fast) by Joerg Rieger, from his essay "Christian Theology and Empires" from the book that he helped edit, Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians:

The fact that despite widespread initial support among the population some churches and bishops in the United States opposed this war [that is, the US invasion of Iraq - CB] might be seen as a sign that the empire can never completely control Christianity.

Yet this rejection of war is not enough because the methods of empire have changed dramatically. War is not the only problem and perhaps not even the primary one; war has not been particularly effective in recent history and many of its supporters have become disillusioned. The deeper problem has to do with more covert expressions of economic and cultural power which drive broad processes of globalization.

So what?

Broadly, this means that violence isn't the whole picture, and perhaps isn't even the biggest part of the picture. Violence is only one of many forms that coercive power manifests, and isn't always particularly effective. And any Christian ethic of resistance has to be concerned with much more than just the ethics of violence- whether it be criticizing oppression as a form of violence or reflecting on the moral permissibility of the oppressed responding violently to the violent oppression.

My task then, if I choose the theological ethics route, is to reflect on what tools Christian theological reflection has for responding to the complex phenomena of empire, oppression, and power differentials. The biggest tool, however, that I think Christian theological reflection (or any theological reflection - this claim is by no means limited to Christianity) has to offer is this: a prophetic refusal to allow the broad spectrum of human goods to be reduced purely to economics.

More on that later, as that is a rich sentence that needs to be unpacked.


OneSmallStep said...

**While I have yet another post on abortion and scripture (an exegesis of Exodus 21:12-27, focusing on verse 22) outlined and ready to go, I can't bring myself to write it, much less post it.**

I would be interested in a post on this verse, because from what I've read, the Hebrew states that if there's a struggle and the struggle results in the fetus dying, there's a monetary fine. Yet I'm seeing others use it in support of pro-life, in that if the fetus dies, then the person who started the struggle will also be put to death -- but isn't this reading only something that works in the Greek version? And doesn't Judaism teach a connection between an actual person and the first breath the baby has after departing the womb?

I realize that the verse isn't the point of your post, so feel free to not post on the Exodus verse. :) But given your knowledge of the topic, it would be neat to have something to reference other than Wikipedia and random websites.

Chuck said...

Neither have I been able to get up for conversations concerning the role and authority of scripture, or principles of Biblical interpretation...

I really wish you wrote more on this topic. As a former evangelical who now doubts the literal Adam and Eve, I find myself in a very uncomfortable place.

Sandalstraps said...


Your reading of the passage is roughly the same as mine - though I would be quick to add that while I am a former minister and am now a theology student (in my last year of a Masters of Arts in Religion program aiming to go from here to PhD studies) I am by no means an expert on anything, much less Biblical languages. Whenever I comment on Biblical languages, it should come with the disclaimer that my Baptist pastor grandfather always slipped into his sermons: "Language people tell me..."

Another point I would add is that the subject of abortion never arises in scripture. While I think that this verse in Exodus is the closest reference to abortion, in that it deals specifically with the legal implications of the termination of a pregnancy, here the pregnancy is not voluntarily terminated by the mother. So it still takes a little bit of creative exegesis to get this verse to speak to abortion.

But, yes, it does refuse to equate the legal (and thus moral, as there is no distinction made in this section of legal material between the legal and the moral) value of unborn life with that of fully human life. It then, coupled with the glaring absence of any other Biblical word on abortion (the oft-cited text from Jeremiah is addressed here) speaks against the prevailing evangelical argument that "Bible believing Christians," by virtue of their belief in the authority of scripture, must view abortion as in all or at least most cases morally impermissible.

I don't think that you can exegete the text and then say from that exegesis that abortion is perfectly OK. Neither do I think you can exegete that text (or any other) and then say from it that it is necessary the case that being pro-choice is un-Christian.

Thanks for the encouragement. I may do that post at some point in the future.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks as well to you for your encouragement.

I don't know of any reputable Bible scholar who thinks that Adam and Eve existed in history. That includes conservative evangelical scholars.

Growing up a conservative evangelical, I had a good friend whose father was (and still is) a Hebrew and Old Testament professor at one of the world's leading conservative evangelical seminaries. He (the professor) was the first to tell me that, based on the Hebrew text, there is no way there was a literal Adam and Eve. The text - he argued - simply doesn't read that way. It was the conservative in him, then, the part of him that considers the text itself strongly authoritative, that said that the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is mythological.

There is as far as I can tell, nothing theological at stake with the historicity of Adam and Eve. Even the Pauline archetypal understanding of Christ (as the new Adam) doesn't rest on the first Adam being a figure of history.

Chuck said...

What about the doctrine of Original Sin? Isn't that at stake?

Sandalstraps said...


That's a good question, and I tried to anticipate it a little bit in my comment on Paul's use of archetypal language.

While I'd love to offer my take on theological and ethical problems with the whole concept of original sin as it is often understood, this conversation is a bit more narrow. So instead I'll say, no, the theological concept of original sin does not depend on their being an original sinner.

Both the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden and the Christian (and decidedly not Jewish) doctrine of original sin are attempts to explain what is wrong with us. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is written in the language of myth. It was placed by the Torah editors where it was by no accident. It comes on the heels of God's declaring (in what Israel Knohl among other scholars of the Hebrew Bible describe as the Priestly creation myth) all of creation to be good. What is the logical question that follows such a declaration?

Probably something like: If creation is so good, why does shit happen?

Knohl (you can find a post on it on this blog somewhere - I'm getting ready to head out for class, and so can't look it up at the moment) sees even in Genesis 1 an attempt to answer that question, which is the crux of the problem of evil. But the editors of the Torah also wanted to stick in another story, another myth circulating around in ancient Israel, as an attempt to deal with the universally experienced fact that there is indeed something wrong with us, and something wrong with creation.

You don't need a historical figure (who, as the first human, couldn't have been observed by other humans, anyway) to understand the theological concept rooted in the myth - that human beings do not live up to their created potential for good.

What is essential to the Christian doctrine of original sin is the same: this universal experience of what we Christians call something like "fallenness." Its truth lies in our experience of fallenness, both in ourselves and in others, far more than in the historicity of a figure whose very name (which best translates "human") who is clearly mythic, and has been understood as such going back the the very origins (insofar as scholars can determine them) of the story.

That is to say, in my opinion, the mythic nature of the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden makes it an even more compelling theological vehicle, because as allegorical stand-ins for all of humanity, the characters speak to that universal experience of something having gone wrong in creation.

Troy said...


this is all very good, and I see you helping those earlier on the path than yourself, struggling with genuine difficulties. Even knowledge can be love, brother.

I have so been where onesmallstep and chuck are...and now I am just not there. I don't care what an ancient Hebrew sub-law says about the fetus...the opposition to abortion is based on a strict dualism that sees an eternal spirit invested into a human zygote at conception. I am very far from convinced about that, though I would like to give the fetus the benefit of the doubt, if I am pressed.

But to make abortion the central moral issue, ignoring issues which the prophets and the NT DO talk about, a lot, like the oppression of the worker and neglect for the poor and orphaned...something is wrong with that picture.

What you say about Genesis is very good, Chris, and is what I also believe. But why does shit happen? Better, why do we have Christmas music and leukemia in children? That I really do not know, and you know I don't know, as I've said it before.

I think your thesis ideas sound quite good. I am very proud of where you are at and what you are doing, and we must talk on the phone again (I have long since lost your number, or the phone it was in). I dropped that ball when second life took over my brain last spring...and regret it.

Much Love.


OneSmallStep said...


Thanks for your response. I'm often frustrated with the religious right's focus on abortion and homosexuality as the ... well, the anti-christ of all sins, when neither is given much focus in the Bible. The former is never mentioned once, and the latter -- much more was spoken about the poor/oppressed.

As it is, if you eliminate the causes behind poverty, you'd probably go far in reducing abortions. If you promote contraception and sex education, you'd come much closer to reaching a goal of no abortions.

Abortion doesn't occur in a vacuum. It's not a decision made in a vacuum, and yet -- and I know this is a generalization -- it does seem as though the pro-life side treats it as a vacuum. Make abortion illegal, and the problem is solved. Which is so far from the case, as we can see in countries where abortion is illegal.