Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Jesus at Harvard, Mormons at Waco?

In reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I can't help recalling the last occasion when I met Jesus for the first time--the last time I saw Jesus of Nazareth with new eyes, as a foreigner, someone I didn't already recognize. Six months ago I finished reading When Jesus Came to Harvard, in which Harvey Cox characterizes the Christ as a political operative. When Jesus teaches his Sermon on the Mount, Cox argues, it is with one eye on heaven and the other eye on Rome.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus teaches, "for they shall be called the kingdom of God" (Matthew 5:9). These words, Cox argues, "were a direct challenge to the ruling Roman ideology. . . . The empire's main claim to fame and legitimacy was that Rome and Rome alone was the peacemaker. It sustained the pax Romana under the magnanimous auspices of Caesar Augustus, a divine ruler. One of the imperial titles of the divine Augustus was that of 'peace-bringer'" (125). Similarly, Cox charges that another section of the Sermon on the Mount, urging disciples to be "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14) "was also a calculated mockery of Rome. In his In Catilinam, Cicero describes Rome as 'the light of the whole world.' Jesus takes bold issue with that claim. Now there was to be another light" (132). Cox reminds us that the word parable is a derivative of the Hebrew mashal, often defined as "story" but also "used at times to refer to taunts" (158). Cox's Jesus taunts when he teaches, and his preaching is explicitly political. The Jesus who came to Harvard valued difference and confrontation more than community.

More, even than in his sermons, Cox suggests that Jesus subverted Roman rule with his actions in "a king of roving street theater" used to "shake people up, to smack them on the head" (159). Cox reads Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem as a sort of coup:

"Seen in the light of a typical Roman military extravaganza, Jesus' entry was both a mockery and an insult, and it is impossible to believe that anyone misunderstood it. He was lampooning imperial authority by bouncing into town, not on a prancing horse--the symbol of the warrior--but on a donkey, the peasant's plodding beast of burden. He was not surrounded by armed legions, but by unarmed civilians. . . . who greeted him [with] an unambiguous political title. They called him Son of David, and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne that had been established in that city five hundred years before. They waved royal palms, the equivalent of 'Jesus for King' placards." (214)

This Jesus, the Jesus who came to Harvard for Cox's seminars on moral reasoning, was a political provocateur who undermined the established political order. He was also a complete stranger to me.

When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak of Jesus and politics, they tell stories that emphasize Christ's compliance with Roman rules and his obedience even to laws he disagreed with--as when he miraculously procured tax monies from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). The Mormon Jesus is a law-abiding citizen who disdains but never flaunts or disregards civil statutes, so Cox came as quite a surprise to me. After all, Mormons "believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12). The Church and its members don't subvert the state, they support it; even when Brigham Young brought the Church to the brink of battle in the Utah War, he did so believing that he was acting lawfully, in compliance with U.S. statutes. And when he received official orders relieving him of his duties as territorial governor, he abdicated his post and ended the conflict peacefully. Or, at least, this is the story that Mormons tell about themselves.

Mormons tell stories about themselves (including at a big screen near you!) which emphasize that which we have in common with the rest of America. We tell stories that highlight our participation in civil society. I think of Mormons as people who are like the general public in most respects.

Except . . . that's not the way that others view Mormons. And that wasn't the way that 19th century Mormons viewed themselves. In an essay comparing the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas (whose standoff with the FBI resulted in a terrible massacre) to 19th century Mormons, Malcolm Gladwell quotes R. Laurence Moore to remind us that in the nineteenth century,

"Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves 'said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.' In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith 'required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.'"

This story--about Mormons who wanted to emphasize their difference from other Americans--isn't one that the LDS Church has shared in recent years. (Although it would be good to remember, whenever you hear the line "O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell" in the Mormon hymn "Ye Elders of Israel," that Babylon was code for the United States that Brigham Young left for unincorporated Utah.) As a result, I don't think of Mormons as civic and social rebels throwing their difference in the teeth of others a la Waco anymore than I think of Jesus as a political provocateur. But . . . that may change.

Even as the LDS Church conducts the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign to emphasize those occupations, hobbies, and character traits its members share with the general population, messages in its semi-annual General Conference have increasingly acknowledged that church members should brace themselves for ideological confrontation in which Mormon difference is again emphasized, not minimized. In October 2013, Elder Robert D. Hales presaged a return to the social conflicts of the 19th century, when Mormon differences outweighed similarities: "In recent decades the Church has largely been spared the terrible misunderstandings and persecutions experienced by the early Saints. It will not always be so. The world is moving away from the Lord faster and farther than ever before." This is language emphasizing difference and predicting conflict--perhaps not the Waco-level conflict recounted by Gladwell, but conflict nonetheless--as a result. And Elder Jeffrey R. Holland only reinforced that message in April 2014, declaring to church members that "you will one day find yourself called upon to defend your faith or perhaps even endure some personal abuse simply because you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Public relations campaigns emphasize members' similarities with the general population, but the most recent internal messages to members have identified differences and stressed that those differences must be defended, even at the cost of personal suffering and social stigma.

It would be an overreach to suggest that this internal emphasis on embattled difference spurred Mormon rancher Cliven Bundy to his armed standoff with federal agents, and he is, after all, only one man. But most Seventh-Day Adventists didn't (don't) live in Waco, Texas; it only takes a few individuals with an exaggerated sense of religious difference to touch off the serial misunderstandings that lead to tragedy.

Meeting Jesus again for the first time, in a Harvard philosophy class, meant seeing the Savior as a political provocateur who valued difference and public confrontation rather than the preservation of community and submission to legal authority. I thought I knew who Jesus was; I thought I knew who Mormons were. But now I wonder whether outside observers see the gauntlet of intentional difference or bridge-spanning commonalities when they look at me and at other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What do you see when you see a Mormon?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Rab-shakeh v. Micah, or We're All Fence-Sitters

Rab-shakeh has long been my favorite Old Testament villain. When he shows up outside Jersualem to  threaten Hezekiah, King of Judah, he delivers a delightfully arrogant speech demanding immediate surrender. And because he speaks for the Assyrian army (which has just taken the kingdom of Israel into captivity), everyone knows that he can walk the walk. In fact, Hezekiah's military leaders are so worried that ordinary Jews within earshot of Rab-shakeh will flee to enemy lines that they plead, "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall" (2 Kgs. 18:26). Rab-shakeh is . . . not the sort of man to honor such a request: "Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?" (2 Kgs. 18:27).

Then, speaking in Hebrew so that all can understand, he offers the average Jew a chance to surrender and receive the protection of Assyria: "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me, and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern: until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey, that ye may live, and not die: and hearken not unto Hezekiah ,when he persuadeth you, saying, The Lord will deliver us" (2 Kgs. 18:31-32). Throw your lot in with the Assyrians, Rab-shakeh promises, and you'll never go hungry again!
But God provides a prophetic counterpoint to the seductive rhetoric of Rab-shakeh. When Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah who preached during the reign of Hezekiah (Micah 1:1), describes the millennium in what is his most famous prophecy, he speaks in response to Rab-shakeh's threats and promises. Micah describes the Second Coming, when the Messiah "shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not life up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree: and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it" (Micah 4:3-4). These promises, that the Messiah will cow imperial bullies like Assyria, that every man will eat of his own vine and fig tree, that no one will cause God's people to fear: these promises are offered in a direct response to Rab-shakeh in language that recalls Rab-shakeh's promises (especially the vine and fig tree).

Recognizing that Micah and Rab-shakeh are contemporaries, that they are making competing promises to the besieged inhabitants of Judah, completely changes the meaning of both accounts for me. The story of Rab-shakeh is not just that of a blaspheming bully who gets his in the end (although he does, along with 184,999 other Assyrians; just see 2 Kgs. 19:35); rather it's the story of those individual Jews on the wall who can hear Rab-shakeh's promise and have to weigh that promise against the promise of Micah. The story of Rab-shakeh, in other words, is a story of choice: do you trust in the immediate (and seemingly inevitable) victory of Rab-shakeh or do you trust in the divine deliverance and peace promised by Micah--who can't even guarantee that you'll still be alive to sit under your vine and fig tree when the Messiah comes?

It's the same choice that we face on a daily basis, albeit in different forms. What do we rely on for peace and prosperity? On worldly wisdom with a proven track record of delivering worldly wealth or on divine promises that admit we probably won't receive our reward until after this life? Rab-shakeh's offer must have seemed compelling, and I think that's why his blasphemous speech was left in the Bible, unredacted, because it's a reminder that no matter how persuasive and urgent a Rab-shakeh's promises may be, only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can be depended on to fulfill his promises. Temporal powers fail. Armies--like the Assyrian army--are surprisingly and unpredictably defeated. That's a hard lesson to remember as we--like those Jews--sit on the proverbial wall (fence) and struggle to decide whose side we're on, who to believe.

Just remember: Rab-shakeh's persuasive tongue didn't keep him from the destroying angel, and I imagine that any fence-sitting Jews who threw their lot in with the Assyrians also suffered the consequences. We all sit on the fence every day; the trick is to make sure that we make sure we find our way to the side of Micah and the prophets.