Second in a Series exploring the relationship between one’s theological framework and political viewpoint …
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“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein
In the first commentary in this series (If Jesus Ran for President) it was suggested that behind anyone’s religious beliefs and practice – as well as their political point of view, and freedom to express that view in the polling booth – there is an underlying theological – or cosmological, if you prefer — worldview that shapes the way we express both. It is that vantage point, with our own set of biases, with which we regard the sum of one’s highest values, or ultimate concern. If that all sounds like too many big words, try this:
When one hears the word ‘politics’ these days, there are descriptive terms that often quickly follow: dysfunctional, divisive, obstructive, uncompromising, gridlock.
When one hears the word ‘religion’ these days, there are other terms that often comet to mind: arcane, out of touch, reactive, dangerous, radical extremism.
In contrast to all this — and in the midst of the hotly contested political debate well underway — the American public recently witnessed the media frenzy surrounding the papal visit to our country; where both the public throngs and politicians alike were beset by a sole figure who beckoned us to rise above partisanship and parochial sectarianism to still seek common ground for a “common good.”
Randy is a friend and a contemplative with whom I share ongoing dialogue. He helps keep my all-too-rational mind in some semblance of balance with that other, intuitive, mystical dimension to our human experience. Recently, he offered a useful observation, as we reflected on what impact the papal visit could have on our common life; lest we simply remain mired in the typical muck of political mud-slinging and religion bashing:
“The real challenge we humans have is to engage continuously in open inquiry, reflection, dialogue and engagement with each other. We all have a tendency to grasp and hold onto fixed identities, opinions, and relationships. We turn something that is dynamic, creative and ever growing into a fixed idol; and at times expend considerable energy, time, and material treasure defending these idols.”
It seems to me Randy’s observation could aptly be said of both today’s political arena, as well as unavoidable encroachment of things deemed “religious” that pervades our common life.
In the first of this series of commentaries, we began to explore how Jesus likewise found himself inescapably embroiled in both the religious and political machinations of his day. It leads the imagination to wonder, like Francis, had he the opportunity to address a joint session of our Congress today, what might he have to say? From the earliest pre-Christian movement that first hear his message and observed his manner of life, in what ways might he be like, or unlike, St. Peter’s successor, who is the figurehead of so much of that religion that subsequently emerged?
Jesus Before Congress
Earlier this year the Prime Minister of Israel addressed a joint session of Congress. Last week, Pope Francis did the same. Many believed the former had a political ax to grind, and the latter a pastoral message with some political points to preach.
For many modern day Christians, Francis embodies many of the teachings and much of the life-style of the Galilean sage. Unless one believes in the highly speculative Second Coming, Jesus will likely never have the chance to follow Bebe and Francis, addressing our political leaders. But if we were to draw from the earliest available records, what Jesus might have to say to our elected government officials, one might begin by comparing and contrasting his message to those two other foreign leaders that preceded him earlier this year.
As a Jew from Israel, who was well accustomed to all the endless bickering and bitter fighting between nations states in the Middle East, one could speculate on what his speech might be about, compared with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu imploring our elected officials to do everything it could to undermine and reject the international coalition’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Problematic, however, would be those pesky sayings considered most authentic to the historical Jesus about loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek.
Instead, it might be easier to compare what we believe to have been the most likely remarks of that first century Galilean Jewish sage to the words and actions of Pope Francis and his visit this last week.
Francis’ arrival to the U.S., for instance, was preceded by a visit to a region of our hemisphere considered a third world country, at best. He was not only greeted by throngs of the economically dispossessed in Cuba whom he embraced without hesitation, but those long-standing adversarial leaders, as well; having been responsible for the secret back-door negotiations establishing diplomatic relationships between Cuba and the U.S. “Blessed are the poor,” and “blessed are the peacemakers” are sayings attributed to Jesus that come to mind. (Mt. 5)
When Francis touched down on U.S. soil in his chartered jet, the motorcade that ferried him between visits to the White House and a homeless shelter, the Capitol building and an inner-city school, the United Nation’s General Assembly and a correctional facility was not in a shiny stretch limo, but a sub-compact, dark grey Fiat. With thousands upon thousands of cheering people lining the route into the cities, I could not help but think of Jesus’ legendary procession into Jerusalem similarly on “a donkey, the foal of an ass.”
In what could only be described as a veritable love feast with both the media and public, causing security nightmares charged with the Pope’s safety, and traffic gridlock everywhere he went, Jesus’ popularity was similarly depicted in the gospel’s portrayal of his comings and goings; though whatever security detail Jesus had typically fled at the first sign of trouble.
It has been noted by numerous commentators this past week, Francis and the Church he leads and represents, has plenty of admirers and detractors. Anyone, it seems, can find plenty of things to like or dislike about his positions on all the hot button political issues of the day; from those views considered conservative and backward by some (abortion rights, same-sex marriage or even the role of women in the Catholic universe), to overt liberal leanings by others (climate change, the abolition of capital punishment, gun control, immigration, the gospel imperative to care for the poor, the alien and refugee, and a thinly-veiled attack on capitalism).
One could certainly observe the similarities between Jesus and one who would be a follower 2,000 years later are certainly evident in this Christian leader that presumes his power and authority from the line of apostolic succession of the original Simon Peter. The non-judgmental, disarming simplicity of Francis, who nonetheless is not backwards in speaking his mind before the powers that be, certainly has echoes of the sage from Galilee.
Absent from the secular media coverage and pundits banter seemed to be any mention of the Catholic Church’s dogma on papal infallibility; where, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (out of his position and authority) he cannot err. Francis’ authority is instead described as a kind of Christ-based moral authority, and his power resides in his winsome personality as a nuanced tactician.
Good thing, perhaps, since the basis of papal authority in the first place stems from the passage in Matthew’s gospel; where the keys to the Kingdom (of God) on earth is entrusted to a character portrayed to be as equally fickle as he is faithful. And further, as many modern biblical scholars contend, the whole “Peter the rock” credentials are the product of the early emerging Christian church community’s search for hierarchical legitimacy.
Jesus, in sharp contrast, never enjoyed such ecclesiastical power and position, but quite the opposite, of course. And therein lies only one of the differences between Francis historical visit and the central message of the historical Jesus.
Francis got the biggest response from those in Congress when he referred to the Golden Rule, with spontaneous applause breaking out before he could complete the brief maxim.
“Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” the pope said. “This rule points us in a clear direction: Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities that we seek for “ourselves. Let us help others to grow as we would like to be helped ourselves.”
While only one of the major news networks reported the source of Francis’ remarks as Matthew’s gospel, it was in fact only one variation from numerous previous sources that had simply reiterated a well known lesson for ethical behavior in the ancient world. It’s also one of the reasons a number of biblical scholars give that line attributed to Jesus a dubious designation.
Jesus may well have uttered some version of the Golden Rule. It was undoubtedly familiar to him and a common teaching among his contemporaries. Hillel the Elder, the great Jewish leader who pre-dates the years generally estimated to be Jesus lifespan, most notably included in his sayings, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
The reason some scholars are not wholly convinced this maxim is something Jesus would have readily embraced and reiterated is because of what they see as a potential inconsistency with it, in relation to other teachings of Jesus they believe to be more authentically original.
“The possible flaw is this,” writes biblical scholars, Robert Funk and Roy Hoover: “Does the injunction in the Golden Rule veil a calculating egoism? Does it suggest that one should not go beyond self-interest?”
From those sayings generally considered most authentic, when Jesus suggests one turn and offer the other cheek after being struck on the first, or walk a second mile if pressed into service for the first mile, or offering one’s shirt as well after losing one’s coat, or loving your enemies and those who do you harm, and not just returning the same degree of charity your friends express towards you … can you imagine the kind of reception he would get if he were to address a joint session of Congress with such outlandish ideas.
When Jesus suggests one turn and offer the other cheek after being struck on the first … can you imagine the kind of reception he would get if he were to address a joint session of Congress with such an outlandish idea?
As someone who was not a Christian himself, I don’t know what the historical Jesus would have thought of the Pope’s speech to Congress. I like to think he would have liked the man, and welcomed his words. But I wonder if he would have thought they were a bit too tempered, if not timid.
The Problem with Jesus
In a Washington Post editorial, columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote,
“I am not a Christian. But … the words and actions of Pope Francis have reminded me what I, as an outsider, have always admired deeply about Christianity, that its central message is simple and powerful: Be nice to the poor. … Jesus has specific advice on how to handle the poor. Treat them as you would Christ himself.”
Commentators have taken Francis’s speeches and sayings and attacked him or claimed him as a Marxist, a unionist and a radical environmentalist. (I think) he is simply reminding each of us that we have a moral obligation to be kind and generous to the poor and disadvantaged — especially if we have been fortunate. If you have a problem with this message, you have a problem not with Pope Francis, but with Jesus Christ.”
Zacharia asserts we live in a meritocratic society. I understand this to mean ours is a society of exceptional good fortune, which tends to measure achievement and resulting success in terms of power and position; and, consequently, of which the poor and disenfranchised are consistently not inheritors of this bit of heaven on earth. As such, there is an implicit factor to the reciprocal relationship in any form of the Golden Rule. It is both exclusionary, in this sense, as well as limiting.
The early Christian movement that emerged following the removal of the historical figure who was its precursor, drew upon something more ambitious and demanding. “Master, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, an alien or prisoner in our midst, and we neglected you?” the early tradition asked of itself. (Matthew 25:31ff.)
Whether the non-Christian newspaper columnist intended to say it or not with his own scriptural reference (above) or not, the implication suggests the message supersedes any Golden Rule. Do to others, not as you would have them do to you, but as you would do for one whom you would esteem and regard as the Anointed (your Christ).
If Congress were addressed by such a One, with such a message, would those who represent us respond with a standing ovation, or stampede the exits?
© 2015 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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