Simon Barrow

Giving birth to a new world

By Simon Barrow
December 21, 2006

What kind of alternative world is birthed for us in the nativity of Jesus? Back in 2004, iconoclastic biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan co-authored with Jonathan L. Reed a book called 'In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom'. BeliefNet's Deborah Caldwell interviewed him about this at the time, specifically in relation to the meaning of the nativity story. Among other things, he describes what was going on in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus' birth (the first couple of sentences are alarmingly contemporary in geopolitical terms) and then situates this in relation to the Gospel's alternative.

At the time, the prevailing belief was that in order to achieve peaceful civilization, you first secured victory. You capture a country, put it back on its feet, you build the economy, you build the roads, you build the whole infrastructure. As long as it doesn't rebel and it pays its taxes, you support it. So for example, if there's a major earthquake at Ephesus - there were earthquakes along that fault line all the time - you send a letter saying, "Dear Caesar, Saviour of the World, We Need Help." And if you're Caesar, you've got to furnish it. This is a very reciprocal game. So the opening word of Virgil's Aenead, which is the New Testament of Roman Imperial Theology, is "Arma (arms, weapons)." Off Actium, which is where this battle on the 2 September 31 B.C.E. took place, there's a huge inscription saying, "Having established victory in this place, I secured peace on land and sea," and it's signed, as it were, "Caesar, Son of God."

So the Romans would not ask if there's another way. But Paul is saying that there is another alternative. First, you establish justice, then you live in peace. It's an alternative programme based on the claim that God is just, that God is not violent, that God was revealed in Jesus, who was not violent. And there is an alternative lifestyle to this programme. It's taught and practiced by small groups from the bottom up, not from the top down like Roman Imperial Theology. Paul's programme advocates and announces a new theory of global justice.

And that's what Jesus also taught. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God stands against Empire Rule. And not because Romans are particularly cruel, nasty, and brutish, but because they represent normal civilization. Jesus believes in a just God who will stand against that civilization. "Kingdom of God" is Jesus' language: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth. Paul puts it in different language - he talks about the lordship of Christ, which speaks better to pagan Greeks. It's different language, but the point is that both ideas establish a counter to what was then considered "normal" civilization.

This quite succinctly explains why what we now call Christmas is about regime change at a very fundamental level, and why it calls forth a Beatitude community. To name Jesus "Son of God" and "Lord" is to challenge Caesar's mandate, just as to name him "King of the Jews" (which happens at his birth and mockingly at his death) is to challenge both the sovereignty of Herod - who had already been given that title - and the violent narratives of messiahship which formed a decisive part of the inherited expectation about a new-world-coming. The latter inscription has also come back to haunt Christendom for its crimes against the Jews, of course.

Where Crossan's account is weak is in his marginalisation of incarnation and resurrection, which he pretty much disposes of as variants of primitive redeemer myths. This seriously (fatally) weakens the resources made available in the Gospel. The heart of the Christian message is that God-in-Christ is reconciling the world. To live on the basis of this conviction is not to entertain some new esoteric formula. It is to look without flinching at the unreserved humanity of Jesus, and to come to see and experience this flesh as the unlimited commitment of God to what is not-god (creation ex nihilo). This is how God comes through to us, in the very fabric of what we are, rather than through some blind code, totalising ideology, infallible institution or unassailable proposition. That is central rather than incidental to the Gospel message.

The problem for modern thinkers about the Word-made-flesh goes roughly as follows: we assume we know what a human being is (with some justification) and we assume that we know what God is (with no justification at all, actually), so we therefore think we know that 'what flesh is' and 'what divinity is' must be two different orders of things lacking any intrinsic compatibility - like a circle and a square, to cite John Hick's analogy in The Metaphor of God Incarnate. That tends to propel us in two directions: either positing a God who improbably squares circles to benefit 'religious people' (while apparently ignoring more pressing worldly dilemmas for everybody else), or the assignation of Christ to the role of an encouraging but ultimately confounded anti-hero. But the premise of the choice is faulty. We do not know what God is in some essential or specifiable way. The God of the Bible remains utter mystery (“I shall be what I shall be”), and we have no means of stepping outside the circle of investigation to adjudicate the relation of divinity and humanity. This is where certain kinds of 'liberal' interpreters and certain kinds of 'conservative' interpreters go wrong. They try to claim to know more than is possible.

Actually, the fabric of the historic Christian claim about Jesus' filial relation to God works in the opposite direction to metaphysical speculation. Instead, it says something like this: "Everything you think you know about God is based on the assumption that God is like an eternal Emperor. Actually God is like this nobody, born into obscurity and murdered by an alliance of religious and political expediency. So don't look for gods in temples, in arcane theories, in esoteric practices, or via barrier-forming rules twisted towards the interests of clerical elites. Meet the God-beyond-your-imagining in the vulnerability of the flesh; risk the pain of personal and social transformation; join yourself to the risky continuance of Jesus' body in the world. Then you will begin to discover that what appears to be most conditioned and limited about earthly life actually shows us something unconditioned, unmanipulatable, utterly wonderful - life as gift, which is the energy of God in the world."

This, in turn, is the message embodied in the resurrection narrative - which is not some zombie ideology, not a piece of arbitrary trickery, but a way of saying that the God who is found unconditionally in the material (and, as Nicholas Lash adds, unpacking the surprising conclusion of orthodox Christianity, nowhere else) is in no way constrained by that, as we are, but goes on giving life in, though and beyond the flesh. This is how I tried to put it (badly, of course) in a sermon I gave in 2001:

When Christians announce, with Paul, that "God raised Jesus", what we are claiming is not that a part of Jesus survived death or that his atoms were reassembled in some magical way, but rather that the very power, presence and personality of the earthly Jesus was assumed and transformed within the endless creativity of the transcendent God – and then made available as a living reality to those who were already being transformed by him. In other words, the resurrection speaks of a new creation, a new order of being [beyond forensic description] which incorporates all that we have seen and discovered of love in this world, but much more beside. It is continuous with the best of what we have seen so far, but it is discontinuous in the sense that it is the work not of us, but of a God who goes on loving and creating beyond the death which we inevitably face. If we have been touched by God’s love, we will begin to know that it has no boundaries. It is either the most important thing in the universe, or it is nothing. As Paul says, with startling honesty: "If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins" – that is, to put it another way, you are still captive to that which imitates and embodies death rather than life.

So John Dominic Crossan is surely spot-on in positing Jesus' birth as an unwelcome irruption of peace in a world reassuringly at war, and in situating the Gospel in stark opposition to Empire rule in all its guises. But for this to find shape and meaning (other than as yet another piece of human hubris) we also need Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, just over a year before his execution by the Nazis: “It is not from avoiding death but from the resurrection of Christ that a new, purifying breeze can blow into the present world …. If even a few people were really to believe this, much would change. To live from the perspective of the resurrection: this is Easter.” (Tegel Prison, March 1944). It is also, in an odd, way, Christmas - where killable flesh proves capable of introducing us to uncontrollable life-giving.

Bonhoeffer continues his reflection on 30 April 1944, in words I have often found myself quoting: "The belief in resurrection is not the 'solution' to the problem of death. The 'beyond' of God is not the 'beyond' of our cognitive capacity. Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God's transcendence. God is 'beyond' our lives. The church is found not where human capacity fails, at the limits, but rather in the middle of the village." Or nowhere worth being at all. That’s the challenge of the Christ-child to the organizations that purport to speak for him.

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