Nancy Bean didn’t have a wish list for her birthday this year; she issued a birthday decree. All five Beans were to purchase a copy of Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith and read at least the first five chapters. We would then meet at our daughter Lydia’s home in Waco to discuss the book over birthday cake.
The discussion was loud, lively and long. Sons Adam and Amos suspected that Borg’s version of Christianity existed primarily inside his own head. Lydia gave the book thumbs up, but said she favored the more evangelical theology of NT Wright.
Marcus Borg is part of an emerging cadre of Christian intellectuals calling for a new understanding of Christian theology, spirituality and ethics. Anglican Bishop NT Wright, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, Roman Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan and the “emerging church” writer Brian McLaren have also contributed to this project.
They don’t agree on all points, of course, but Borg’s The Heart of Christianity comes as close to a consensus statement as you are likely to find. Conservative scholars may quibble with Borg’s assertion that the Bible is “a human product;” but, increasingly, leading Christian thinkers are being drawn to similar conclusions.
In the world of white American Protestantism, it is unusual to encounter accessible, practical theology that fires the heart and informs the head. (Black religion has often been a blessed exception to this rule.) Throughout most of the 20th century, evangelicals generally ceded the intellectual life to the liberal wing of the church and liberals had little to say about experiential spirituality. Academic theology consists primarily of in-house hair-splitting that is virtually indecipherable to the average layperson. Evangelicals churn out peppy best-sellers that are long on appeal and short on substance.
Mercifully, change is afoot. Borg’s The Heart of Christianity is a challenging read for the theologically uninitiated; but it is about as stripped down and straight forward as a book about Christianity can be without pandering to popular prejudice or oversimplifying the issues. After several chapters dedicated to the big subjects (faith, scripture, God and Jesus), Borg attempts to rehabilitate the phrase “born again”, then launches into a discussion of “Kingdom of God” ethics.
This is great stuff. Like the Christian scholars mentioned above, Borg is blind to the reality of mass incarceration. He can be forgiven this oversight. Middle class white people have no practical contact with the criminal justice system and no one (to my knowledge) has applied the emerging “New Christianity” consensus to our broken judicial system. But, as you will see in a moment, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination to connect the dots. Law professor (and former Assistant US Attorney) Mark Osler has taken a bold step in this direction with his Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment. If any theologians, pastors or biblical scholars have made similar contributions, I would love to read their work.
To whet your appetite, I leave you with a few brief excerpts from Borg’s chapter, “The Kingdom of God: The Heart of Justice”. I begin, oddly, with his conclusion, because it links his discussion of Christian ethics to the preceding chapter on spiritual renewal.
Seeing the political passion of the Bible calls us to a politically engaged spirituality. This phrase combines the two transformations, personal and political, at the center of the Christian vision of life as we see it in the Bible and in Jesus.
If we emphasize only one, we miss half of the biblical message, half of the gospel. The strength of much of conservative Christianity is that is has emphasized the first, personal transformation. Its weakness is that it has often neglected the Kingdom of God. The strength of much of liberal Christianity has been that it has often emphasized the second. Its weakness is that it has often neglected being born again. A politically engaged spirituality affirms both spiritual transformation and political transformation. The message of Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is about both. What we see in Jesus and the Bible answers our deepest personal longing, to be born again, and the world’s greatest need, the Kingdom of God.
A Neglected Emphasis: God’s Passion for Justice
The claim that the bible is political and that the God of the Bible is passionate about justice is surprising, even startling, to many Christians. We have often overlooked it; and when it is pointed out, we often resist seeing it. Reflecting about the reasons for our relative blindness is illuminating. Doing so may help us understand why this major stream of the Bible is unfamiliar to many Christians as well as to people outside the church.
One reason is the long period of time during which Christianity was the religion of the dominant culture. It began with the Roman emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century and lasted until recently. During these centuries, the “powers that be” were Christian. So long as the wedding of Christianity and dominant culture continued, Christians seldom engaged in radical criticism of the social order. Instead, personal salvation in the hereafter was the primary message, an emphasis that continues to this day in many parts of the church. This emphasis incidentally (or not so incidentally) mutes the political voices of the Bible, thereby domesticating its political passion.
Another reason is because of a common misunderstanding of “God’s justice.” Theologically, we have often seen its opposite as “God’s mercy.” “God’s justice” is understood as God’s deserved punishment of us for our sins, “God’s mercy” as God’s loving forgiveness of us in spite of our guilt. Given this choice, we would all prefer God’s mercy and hope to escape God’s justice. But seeing the opposite of justice as mercy distorts what the Bible means by justice. Most often in the Bible, the opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice. The issue is the shape of our life together as societies, not whether the mercy of God will supersede the justice of God in the final judgment.
In the United States in particular, there is yet another reason why we often miss the Bible’s passion for justice. Our culture is dominated by an ethos of individualism. It is our core cultural value: we are probably the most individualistic culture in human history. Of course, there is much that is good about individualism: the value it gives to individual lives, the importance of individual rights, individual choice and opportunity. It emphasizes freedom, and freedom is one of the gifts of God. But individualism as a core value leads to a way of seeing life that obscures the enormous effect of social systems on the lives of people.
. . . None of us is really self-made. We are also the product of many factors beyond our control. These include genetic inheritance, affecting both health and intelligence; the family into which we’re born and our upbringing; the quality of education we receive; and a whole host of “accidents” along life’s way—good breaks and bad breaks. To think we are primarily the product of our own individual effort is to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives.
Social systems are among the factors beyond the individual that deeply affect people’s lives. Seeing this is the key to understanding the Bible’s passion for justice. Social systems include political systems, economic systems, and systems of convention, by which I mean cultural attitudes and values enshrined in society. These can be, and often are, oppressive.
The issue is what is commonly called “systemic injustice”—sources of unnecessary human misery created by unjust political, economic, and social systems. Its opposite, of course, is “systemic justice,” also known as structural, social, substantive, or distributive justice. The test of the justice of systems is their impact on human lives. To what extent do they lead to human flourishing and to what extent to human suffering?
That is what the political passion of the Bible is about. Its major voices protest the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and empires that dominated their world. They do so in the name of God and on behalf of the victims—slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, exploited peasants in the time of the monarchy and again in the time of Jesus, and the most vulnerable in all times—widows, orphans, the poor, and the marginalized. And in the name of God, the major figures of the Bible advocate a very different vision of our life together.
. . . What is the story of Jesus most centrally about? The Kingdom of God. It is also the subject of many of Jesus’ parables and short sayings. And it is at the center of the best-known Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come.”
. . . “Kingdom of God” is a political term. Jesus could have spoken of the “family” of God or the “community” of God, but he chose to speak of the “kingdom” of God. And though we might speak of family politics or church politics, these terms are not intrinsically political. But “kingdom” is.
Moreover, the people to whom Jesus spoke lived in a world in which there were real kingdoms. Kingdoms were a present reality for them, not something “once upon a time.” . . . “Kingdom” referred to the political system under which they lived: the ancient domination system ruled by powerful and wealthy elites.
Thus when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, his hearers would have heard an immediate contrast. They lived under other kingdoms: the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Caesar. They knew what those kingdoms and life in them were like. And here was Jesus speaking of the Kingdom of God.
. . . So what is the political meaning of the Kingdom of God? In a sentence: it is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The Kingdom of god is about God’s justice in contrast to the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems of this world.
. . . Thus the Kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king. It is God’s dream as dreamed by the great figures of the Jewish tradition: Moses, the prophetic, and for those of us who are Christians, Jesus. It is a dream for the earth.
Jesus is Lord
“Jesus is Lord” is the most widespread early Christian formulation. It is central for Paul and for the rest of the New Testament. Like “Kingdom of God,”: it has a political meaning as well as a religious meaning.
The key to seeing its political meaning is realizing that “lord” was one of the titles of the Roman emperor: Caesar was called “lord.” To say “Jesus is Lord” is to say “Caesar is not Lord”. To affirm the lordship of Christ is to deny the lordship of Caesar.”
. . . Thus the familiar affirmation “Jesus is Lord,” now almost a Christian cliché, originally challenged the lordship of the empire. It still does. To use examples from more recent times, it is like Christians in Nazi Germany saying, “Jesus is mein Fuhrer”—and thus Hitler is not. Or in the United States, it would mean saying, “Jesus is my commander in chief”—and thus the president is not. The lordship of Christ versus the lordship of empire is the same contrast, the same opposition, that we see in the Kingdom of God versus the kingdoms of this world.
The Political Meaning of the Cross
. . . Jesus was executed by the empire. The domination system of his day killed him. Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. This is the political meaning of Good Friday: it is the domination system’s “no” to Jesus. This is the political meaning of Easter: Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and his vision, and God’s “no” to the domination system. As the book of Acts puts it in words addressed to the authorities, “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Jesus is Lord; the powers of this world are not.
Thus the cross is both personal and political. It embodies the path of personal transformation, of being born again by dying and rising with Christ; and it indicts the domination systems of this world. Good Friday and Easter have a political meaning, even as they are also more than political. Indeed, it is striking how much of our religious language was, in the first century, theo-political language. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.