Theology and Politics and Philando Castile

castile-img_9359-jpgI live just a few miles away from where Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. On a daily basis, I shop in the suburb where Officer Yanez was employed. I drive by the very spot where Castile was killed at least a few times a month. The situation surrounding Castile is literally close to home, but that doesn’t give my contemplations any particular status or privilege. While Castile lived close by, our different experiences with racism put us on Mars and Venus. I peer at him as if through a telescope.

Theology and Politics

More than a few of the Christian blogs and commentators I’ve read on the topic of Castile and the acquittal of Yanez start with things like “I’m not going to get political”. That’s fine, I guess, as long as one thing is clear – all good theology is almost by necessity political. About this we should have no doubt.

But the fact of the matter is that most churches in the United States – and many of the ones I’ve been a part of – seem to give political discussions a wide berth, excepting a few issues (such as abortion). Maybe these churches are concerned about their tax exempt status, or of offending certain Republicans or Democrats in their congregation; maybe they reduce belief in Jesus to making only their lives better instead of changing the whole world. I’ve not put too much thought into why churches try to be apolitical.

Christian theology has been political from the beginning. The early Christians were persecuted precisely because they said that Jesus was Lord (kyrios christos) and that Caesar was not (kyrios kaesar). This was no mere theological statement. Saying “kyrios christos” had such profound political implication in Rome that the Roman authorities would kill any such Christian who would not worship Caesar as Lord. Let that sink in. Christian belief and practice was no mere theological statement.

Much of the political/theological conflict within the New Testament is lost on readers today, since we’re not familiar with the cult of emperor worship, but one example should suffice. Several years ago, as I was starting to come out of the bog of trying to make my faith apolitical, I came across something called the Priene Calendar Inscription. Surprisingly, Wikipedia does not have an article on it (though it’s briefly mentioned in another article on another kind of Priene Inscription), but it is a stone carving that dates to about 9 BCE, which was found on two tablets in Turkey in the late 1800s. The inscription is meant to honor Caesar Augustus as the savior of the world:

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him, which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

Almost immediately, scholars recognized parallels between this inscription and descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament, most specifically, Mark 1 (NRSV):

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The parallels are pretty clear:

Parallel Priene Calendar Text Mark’s Text
Is Personally Divine “…sending him as a savior…”

“…the god Augustus…”

“…Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”
Is the beginning of “good news” (aka “Gospel”) “…the beginning of the good tidings [good news] for the world that came by reason of him” “…the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”
Announced by supernatural authority “Since providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus…” “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…”

“…he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ”

There are a few others in there that I might have missed, but at the very least, the statement from the Priene Calendar, “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [good news] for the world that came by reason of him” is in direct opposition to the opening statement of Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Make no mistake, the earliest Christian theology was nothing short of a political challenge to those in power. I could also go on to talk about the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), and more, which are even clearer in their challenge to the powers that be. The bottom line is that any proper understanding of Christianity must come to terms with the reality that Christian theology is political.

And Philando Castile

In middle school I had a social studies teacher named Ms. Conover, who was tasked with teaching the motley 8th grade class about the American government. Ms. Conover is Japanese-American, and was put into one of the Japanese concentration camps during World War II. One of the things she emphasized in her class – for reasons I could never quite figure out – is that the United States adopted the philosophy that it was better for one hundred guilty people to go free than to unjustly convict one innocent person. To me, this seemed obvious. Years later, I was reading the novel “Frankenstein”. In that book, Victor Frankenstein has a cousin, Elizabeth, who has a friend, Justine, who is accused of committing a violent crime.  Justine is innocent, although there is circumstantial evidence against her, but the judges in the case are not the type to tolerate reasonable doubt. Elizabeth hopes that justice will prevail but is concerned that the judges will side against Justine as a precaution. Eventually, the court pressures Justine into a false confession. In a conversation with Elizabeth, Victor finally says,

‘My cousin,’ replied I, ‘it is decided as you may have expected; all judges had rather that ten innocent should suffer than that one guilty should escape…’

At that moment I realized why Ms. Conover hammered on that point. Letting the guilty go free is bad – it is injustice in itself. But causing the innocent to suffer is an even worse injustice. She knew this first hand.

A few days before the verdict was announced in the trial of Officer Yanez I told my wife that I would be shocked if he was convicted of anything. The bar for reasonable doubt when a law enforcement officer is on trial is pretty low. Yanez stated during the case, that he “feared for his life” when Castille started to retrieve his license and registration. Without solid video or audio evidence, what qualifies as justified fear for one’s life becomes incredibly subjective. When the verdict was announced and Yanez was cleared on all charges, people started saying that the system doesn’t work. But that’s not right. The system worked just like it was supposed to. The system is rigged to let the guilty go free rather than send a single innocent person to prison. And since we know that innocent people sometimes end up in prison, we can only imagine how many guilty people go free. Yanez, in my opinion, is just another in a long chain of the guilty going free.

This indeed WAS injustice. Even though it was purposeful, it was evil nonetheless. And evil is a question of identity. While “reasonable doubt” might make it easier to acquit than convict, the reality is that the US has had little trouble filling up its prisons. How can it be that we have such a large prison population, and yet those we think are obviously guilty walk free? Are we really the sort of people who buy into this flawed system? Is it really just? Are WE really just people? Who on earth are we, and what do we stand for?

We’re faced with an identity crisis.

This identity crisis causes us to imagine a different reality – a better reality – in which every person is treated with full human dignity and justice is always done. I particularly want to live in a reality in which I no longer peer at Philando Castile’s through a telescope. When we imagine new realities it causes our politics to intersect with our beliefs in deep ways – the systems that rule us need to be challenged, and they need to be transformed into something that provides us – both individually and corporately – with a better identity. We have a fundamental need to participate in something that we believe is good, so that we can be good.

This conflict  – the conflict between our imagined identities and reality, between our beliefs and the political systems under which we we live, between the good we want to do and what we actually do – will be continual, at least from the Christian perspective, but it is a conflict we we must never become apathetic towards. Not only should Christians, in particular, challenge the systems of government and authority anywhere we detect injustice, but we should also unite with those who have been hurt, oppressed, or have lost identity because of the evil of injustice. We should commiserate with the downtrodden and work against any system or ideology that dehumanizes.

This is an incredibly theological thing, and one that challenges us all to push into the political realm not as conquering kings, drunk on our own individual righteousness, freedoms, and rights; but as suffering servants who lay down our dignity for the other, whose identities have been defaced. That, I believe, is God’s work, too, and is therefore something that makes us good.

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Why I’m interested in creative interpretations of scripture

ink_blotI was talking with someone the other day and they asked what I do. This is a hard question for me, because I quit work almost a year ago to go to grad school. For 18 years I worked as an engineer, and, in I my mind, that’s still what I do. But in reality, I’m an unemployed, stay-at-home father and PhD student.

I sighed, and said, “I’m a PhD student.”

“What are you studying?”

“Theology.”

Awkward pause.

There are two types of people. Those who almost immediately say something supportive, and those who don’t know what to say at all. This person was clearly the later.

“How do you do research in theology?”

And so it goes.

Interactions like this have forced me to realize that many people view religion in general, and theology in particular, as ossified areas wherein there’s really nothing new to be discovered or explored. All that’s left is rehashing old discussions over and over again.

Of course I disagree with such a view. Theology has the opportunity to be as fresh and new as the people who are doing it, as they bring their fresh perspectives on science, politics, economics, sociology, art, religion, and scripture to bear on theology itself. In short, theology is ALWAYS reforming, which is as it should be.

“…everything theological has been for me marvelously new. I have first to discover everything for myself, and understand it, and make it my own. Right down to the present day, theology has continued to be for me a tremendous adventure, a journey of discovery into a, for me, unknown country, a voyage without the certainty of return, a path into the unknown with many surprises and not without disappointments. If I have a theological virtue at all, then it is one that has never hitherto been recognized as such: curiosity.

“I have never done theology in the form of a defense of ancient doctrines or ecclesial dogmas. It has always been a journey of exploration. Consequently, my way of thinking is experimental – an adventure of ideas – and my style of communication is to suggest. I do not defend any impersonal dogmas, but nor do I merely express my own personal opinion. I make suggestions within a community. So I write without any built-in safeguards, recklessly as some people think. My own positions are intended to be a challenge to other people to think for themselves – and of course they are a challenge to objective refutation too.”

— Jurgen Moltman, “The Coming of God”

That’s why I’m always interested in creative interpretations and innovative interpretations.

I’m also convinced that the authors of Christian scripture were creative in their interpretations. There’s not a person alive who hasn’t studied how the authors of the New Testament use the Old Testament scriptures and come away without scratching their heads. And in the Old Testament itself, from the creation stories (yes, there are more than one) to Job, Esther, Jonah, and the prophets, creative interpretations abound. Scripture was made out of creative impulses, and is itself meant to provoke its readers to creative interpretation of the world.

Christians throughout history have taken up this creative impulse in their interpretations. Nowhere in the Bible is the term “trinity” mentioned, and neither is your favorite “onmi” (e.g., omnipresent) or “dispensation” or “rapture” or “age of accountability”. Neither is “hell” (not to be confused with hades, sheol, Gehenna, or the grave), the “sinner’s prayer”, infant baptism, abortion, or scientific principles. But what IS mentioned are things like slavery, the lower status of women and gentiles, other gods, a multi-tiered cosmos, and plenty of rules about radical love, head coverings, eating shellfish, and how to ensure your wife hasn’t cheated on you.

For each of the things I’ve mentioned above, virtually everyone who even pretends to be interested in scripture has an interpretation that, at the end of the day, is creative in that their interpretation doesn’t necessarily follow from what the text is actually saying. And that’s okay. Otherwise, interpretation becomes a theological system that is, as Moltmann puts it, “starved out”.

So that’s why I spend time thinking about what it means for humans to be both evolved creatures, and also be the imago dei. That’s why I’m interested in the integration of psychology and theology. That’s why I listen quietly and think carefully about any politician’s use of God in their arguments. And on and on.

But that’s not to say that every interpretation holds water. Some are certainly more right than others, and are always evaluated within a community. But it is to say that going on the adventure is monumentally important for scripture and theology to be the living and breathing thing it has always wanted to be.