Monthly Archives: January 2011

How to Produce an Egalitarian Man

 

Photo credit: New York Times Magazine

Professor John Stackhouse wants women to speak up (and so do I!):

Women have entrusted me with great gifts: their stories and theirfeelings about what they have been through and continue to encounter. My wife has told me of how people ignore her or interrupt her. Female friends, colleagues, and students have testified to the suffering they have endured—from conversational condescension to professional marginalization to marital oppression to actual sexual or physical abuse. We men will not change until we want to change, and one of the most powerful motives we will have for changing our minds is to alleviate the suffering of the women we admire and love—suffering that is obvious to women but often unseen by us men. I know it seems incredible to women that men can be so obtuse, but people of color will testify that we white North Americans are similarly obtuse about racism. Poor people will testify that we wealthy people are obtuse about financial differences. And tradespeople will testify that we professionals are obtuse about class distinctions.

We men usually don’t see how we dominate conversations, for instance. We figure that anyone who has something to say will just say it, so those silent women must not have anything to say—and, we sadly conclude, must not be all that bright or all that motivated. We don’t see how our feelings for women can take interactions that are supposed to be constructive and mutually beneficial, and divert them into erotic games that no one should have to play, and especially not in a work- or church-related context. We don’t see how we unconsciously disregard women’s abilities and interests, and because those decisions are unconscious, the women themselves will never know exactly what happened: They just somehow (again) won’t get the opportunity, or the honor, or the reward they actually deserve.

We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed. Yes, we can be told by other men to shape up, and that can help. Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.

I can say with absolute honesty that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate male feminist in these parts.  Making a theological commitment is one thing, but living that out is quite another, and it all-too-easy to fall into the patterns of this world when it comes to gender.

Just this morning in church I was so thankful for a dear friend of mine, a woman, calling me out on my critical and negative attitude toward the service.  Women of the world and in the Church: I need your voice, your insight, and your gifts in this world, but I am often too proud to admit it.  Forgive me.  Call me out when I need it—I’m trying my best, but I can’t do it without your help!


The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic

Cartoon credit: Signe Wilkinson, Philadelphia Daily News

For all our talk about the separation of church and state, religion and politics go notoriously hand-in-hand in these United States of America.  During the last presidential election cycle, religion was a major issue for no less than three of the candidates in the primaries: Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who demonstrated particular savvy with evangelicals, Mitt Romney, a member of what was, not too long ago, a little-known cult out of Utah, and, most famously, Barack Obama, whose close friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright sparked a storm of controversy.  Remember this?

We talk about God a lot in American politics.  But we don’t talk about Jesus much.

Why?

This seems like an obvious and pertinent question to me, and perhaps to many of you, too.  But Yoder is writing long before evangelicals like Shane Claiborne, for example, started insisting that we deal with this problem.  The Politics of Jesus is a groundbreaking work, simply for stating that Jesus has anything to say at all.

Now, thanks to Yoder, many would Jesus’ relevance for granted.  But before him, many theologians had distanced Jesus from contemporary ethics so far that to even bring him up in conversation might have seemed bizarre.  These theologians put forward and popularized what Yoder calls “mainstream ethics”, which most Americans probably still would agree with today.  Mainstream types cite multiple reasons that Jesus’ words shouldn’t be a factor in contemporary politics.  I’ll cite a few here:

  1. Eschatological.  Jesus assumed that the “end times” (the eschaton) would come relatively soon, and that society as he and his contemporaries knew it would soon come to an abrupt end.  His entire ethical system—of rejecting wealth, of non-retaliation, of radical generosity–was dependent on this assumption. But the end times didn’t come. Jesus was wrong. We need an ethic that can sustain societal structures, rather than one that assumes their imminent collapse.
  2. Sociological.  Jesus lived out his days in a rural, agrarian society where it was indeed possible to know and love each person that you encountered, like the Good Samaritan.  But the modern world is urbanized and industrialized, and it simply isn’t possible to create this kind of world anymore.  Should we really put every homeless person we encounter up for the night, or be expected to give generously to everyone who needs it?  There are too many people in the world, and not enough time in the day!
  3. Political.  Jesus and his early followers, in brief, weren’t in charge of anything.  They were a small minority group living under Roman occupation.  But since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians have found themselves not only a majority, but a ruling majority.  Problems of government and war and administration are now pertinent in a way that Jesus never considered, and this carries with it certain kinds of responsibilities that Jesus simply didn’t address.
  4. Theological.  Jesus didn’t come to start a revolution or inspire social change; he came in humility as a sacrifice of atonement.  Ultimately, it’s what Jesus did in the Crucifixion (and maybe the Resurrection) that matters, and not what he said or did beforehand.

Now, you and I, perhaps, can see the holes in some of these arguments right off the bat.  But these are the reasons mainstream ethicists (and Christian ones, at that!) say that Jesus is no starting point for the great ethical questions.

For mainstream folks, ethics begins not with the words of Jesus, but with a long, hard analysis of the realistic options given by the world around us.

Whether this ethic of natural law be encountered in the reformation form [ . . . ] or in the older catholic forms where “nature” is known in other ways, the structure of the argument is the same: it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.

Kind of a strange logic, isn’t it?  I mean, if you believe in the Incarnation—that is, if you believe that Jesus is God in the flesh—then you’d think that every word from the Word’s mouth would be held specially close to the Christian’s heart.  But, for whatever reason, it often isn’t.  We often forget.

With this in mind, Yoder sets out to do two things.  First, he wants to show that the life and ministry of Jesus is relevant to Christian social ethics.  Second, he will argue that Jesus’ ethical vision is not merely relevant, but, in fact, normative for all Christians, everywhere, at every time.

 

"Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you."

That’s a tall order.  Should the Christian response to 9/11 have been “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”?  Should American Christians offer hospitality and love to terrorists in their midst?  What about “do not resist an evildoer”?  Should we let those who would murder us do what they want?

How is such an ethic even achievable at all?


The Politics of Jesus: An Introduction

Guys, I’m starting this new thing which is pretty dorky, but I think you might like it.  I’m going to start blogging through gnarly theology books.  For two reasons.

  1. It’s a great way for me to keep reading and thinking deeply while making sure to digest carefully what a read.  The best way to make sure you understand something it to try to explain it to someone else.
  2. It’s a great way for you to be in-the-know on some of the big theological debates going on right now.  I’m convinced, personally, that theology matters, and I want to be someone who can aptly articulate it for other people who, perhaps, don’t have the time or energy to read on their own.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is politics.  I mean, as a Christian, should I vote when I know that the person I voted for will probably launch covert attacks to kill people overseas?  If I should vote, whom should I vote for?  If I shouldn’t, what should I do instead?  Should I support any wars?  Should I care for the poor with my ballot, or with my money, or with my hands, or all three?


My older cover is better

So.  In pursuit of answers to these kinds of questions, the book I’ve selected is John Howard Yoder‘s The Politics of Jesus.  Yoder is a devout Mennonite theologian, and this is the work he’s best-known for, so I’m excited to get started.

Here’s the blurb from the back:

The teachings and ministry of Jesus, the author of this new study of Christian social ethics believes, represent a coherent and relevant approach to the fundamental issues of Christian behavior in the world [ . . . ] The effect of the study is to support a specific kind of Christian pacifism and a theologically coherent radical attitude toward society; but its primary concern is to proclaim the full relevance of the incarnation for the social faithfulness of Jesus’ disciples—today as well as during New Testament times.”

What?  You mean Jesus meant for his followers to, um, follow his teachings? Well, we’ll see, Yoder.  We’ll see indeed.