Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Speaking at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Birmingham, freshly inaugurated Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley offered the parishioners—and, after the media picked up the story, the country at large—his true feelings about his role as the state's chief executive: "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
Most likely, Gov. Bentley was referring to a passage that appears in Mark 3:35, where Jesus says, "Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother." Jesus’ words carry a most powerful passage, but one that Gov. Bentley is misapplying to 21st century American politics.
According to Bible scholars including the Jesus Seminar, Mark 3:35 most likely is an authentic teaching from the historical Jesus. Yet, this is a most difficult saying; Jesus' advice seems to violate the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s father and mother. How do we make sense of this enigmatic statement?
In my view, we need to understand the nature of discipleship set forth by the community responsible for the earliest canonical gospel, Mark. An overwhelming majority of biblical scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was written sometime around 70 C.E. (Common Era), when the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, Mark’s gospel is about life during wartime. How is one to survive if the Temple, priesthood, and land are destroyed? For Jews of this era, the answer was the rise of rabbinic Judaism. For the early Christians, many of whom were still worshiping as Jews, the answer was as simple as it is powerful: By understanding what God requires of them, according to the teachings of Jesus.
Most scholars agree that the author(s) of Mark (an originally unnamed gospel that was attributed to the apostle Paul's assistant, John Mark, in the second century C.E.) provided a specific theological interpretation of Jesus’ words. However, this interpretation may not have reflected the intent of the historical Jesus. It's crucial to remember that the gospel authors wrote about Jesus' life and teachings for specific audiences, to convince them to believe in him. Therefore, while the words of Mark 3:35 may truly be those of Jesus, the gospel writer chose the context and interpretation of the words to suit his purpose.
Today, with 2,000 years of Christian teaching behind us, the Markan requirements for discipleship seem basic and commonplace, but at the time of the gospel's writing were an entirely new thing in religion. According to Mark 1:1, a follower of Jesus is to understand that Jesus is the Anointed One (the Christ, or Messiah), and the “Son of God”—although how this terms is to be applied is a matter of much debate, given that Davidic kings also were understood to be “Sons of God” (cf. 2 Samuel 7:11b-16). When called, a follower is to respond immediately (Mark 1:18), and await the end times, which will occur within a generation (Mark 13:30).
However, a number of Scripture experts such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan don't view the historical Jesus as an eschatological prophet. Indeed, they don't think that Jesus proclaimed the end of this world at all. But they believe, as do I, that Jesus offered a radical new way to live and invited people to join him in a transformation of society. Part of this call is to understand the universal human nature that unites us all.
Let us be clear about what Jesus did in his lifetime. He healed paralytics (Mark 2:1-12); he ate with tax collectors and sinners (Mark2:15-17); argued that the law was made for man, not man for the law (Mark 2:23-28); drove demons out of the possessed, even when they were in Gentile territory (Mark 5:1-20); and even allowed himself to be touched by menstruating women (Mark 5:24-34). He violated nearly every law regulating the clean/unclean dichotomy that regulated the whole Jewish world.
Why did he do this? Because the essence of Jesus’ message is that we human beings inventcategories that keep us separated. We declare ourselves Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. These are not divine categories, but rather human inventions. We section ourselves off from one another, favoring the familiar over the foreign. And what is the fundamental category that most keeps us in a position of separation? That of the family. We seek to protect and serve our most immediate group, even when this involves ignoring the stranger and subjugating the neighbor.
So when Jesus proclaimed that “whoever does God’s will” are members of his family, he was attempting to shock those around him. This was not an unusual tactic for the Nazarene. Just as he described the kingdom of God to be like a mustard seed—remember that mustard is a weed that very few sowers would plant—and like leaven, a corrupting agent, Jesus sought to shake those around him from their usual paradigms and help them understand the radical nature of God and God's intentions are for us. Whoever reaches out to others, without first checking to make certain that they are “members of the club,” are Jesus' kin.
This is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but radical Jesus, brave and wild.
Theologically, Gov. Bentley's most upsetting point is his conclusion that Jesus was speaking about himself or the Holy Spirit when he redefined traditional family ties. According to The Birmingham News, the governor said, "If the Holy Spirit lives in you that makes you my brothers and sisters. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus, I want to be your brothers and sisters, too." This is not supported by any text in which Jesus speaks about a newly defined family (Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; or Luke 8:19-21). Jesus never said that those around him had to accept him specifically to be part of God's family. Christians certainly believe that Jesus performed God’s will, but the context of the teaching that Gov. Bentley quoted contains no requirement that one “accept Jesus.” Is the governor claiming that he has a better understanding of God’s will than did Jesus himself?
There is a further complication with Gov. Bentley’s statements. He continues: ''Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother." According to Trinitarian theology, God has a tripartite nature: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While Jesus speaks about each of these aspects at various points in the canonical gospels, only in Matthew 12:46-50 does Jesus speak about followers performing the will of God the Father in order to be part of “the family.” Consequently, the governor is incorrect in his exegesis: Any person who accepts God the Father will be his “brother or sister.” This means that other members of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, are also his siblings. Jews worship Yahweh, Jesus’ divine father. Muslims call God Allah, but claim a similar religious lineage as that of Jews and Christians through Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham by his servant, Hagar. Gov. Bentley's words suggest that he fails to understand even his own criteria.
As both a Christian biblical scholar and an American citizen, what troubles me most about Governor Bentley's remarks is the way he fast and loose with the American ideal of the separation of church and state. The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Over the nearly three centuries of America's existence, based on Thomas Jefferson's political thought on the separation of church and state in the Virginia Declaration, this right has been expanded to apply to government at all levels.
While every citizen has the right to speak at a house of worship and express his or her religious views, Gov. Bentley had not even been in office for 24 hours before making his incredibly divisive comments. He was elected to represent all citizens of Alabama, yet by declaring that some are his “brothers and sisters” and others are not, one can realistically wonder if there will be a slanted system of justice in his administration. According to a report in Talking Points Memo posted late on Jan. 19, Governor Bentley claimed that he was speaking as a private citizen when he made those remarks. However, he does not stop representing the people of the Yellowhammer State when he steps foot into a church. Just as he needs to be mindful of the religious verbiage he uses while in the governor’s mansion, he needs to be equally measured with what he says in a house of worship.
In fairness to Gov. Bentley, his office later released a statement that read, in part, "The governor clearly stated that he will be the governor of all Alabamians: Democrat, Republican and Independent, young, old, black and white, rich and poor. As stated in his [inaugural] address, Gov. Bentley believes his job is to make everyone's lives better." However, this statement does not line up with the rhetoric he used at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church.
As both an educator at a Catholic university and a seminarian, I have to be mindful of how I teach theology students. It is wholly inappropriate for me to favor those students whose own theology lines up with mine. It would be a punishable offense if I even suggested that those students who are Christian will have a closer relationship with me or will receive a higher grade. I believe that the governor of Alabama should be held to the same standard.
Ultimately, Bentley’s words do not square with what Jesus himself said. Jesus ministered to those who seemed most unlike himself, those whom society had seemed to discount and disregard. He ate with them, walked with them, prayed with them, and sought to bring them closer to God the Father. In the end, he showed these cast-offs that they were as loved by God as was Jesus himself. I do not gain any sense of this when I look over the transcripts of Gov. Bentley’s address.
I believe we need to face questions about a seeming religious double standard when it comes to faith statements made by politicians. Jewish and Muslim leaders in Alabama have expressed their unease with their new governor's remarks. Do we support free expression of religion when it is uttered by Jews and Christians, but find it wholly inappropriate when exercised by “others”?
For example, I wonder what the national discussion would be like if the U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), one of only two Muslim members of Congress, had made a statement about how his true brothers and sisters are those who recognize the prophet Mohammed as the final bearer of God’s word? What if U.S. Rep. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) had made a reference that her fellow Buddhist constituents would share a closer relationship with her than those who are not followers of the Buddha's teachings? Would Evangelical Christians like Gov. Bentley find these statements from practitioners of other religions acceptable? Would candidates who are as overtly religious as Gov. Bentley—albeit in a non-Judeo-Christian manner—be electable in the United States?
Unfortunately, I think that the answer is no. Far too many in the public sphere who claim to be Christians do not regard other religious systems as authentic. Recall, if you will, when Tiger Woods made his first public appearance after sex scandals threw him into the spotlight of moral judgment. Expressing contrition and humiliation concerning his actions, Woods said that his Buddhist faith was a boon to him as he battled through a dark night of the soul. Brit Hume, of Fox News, did not find this acceptable. “I don't think thatfaith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith…[he should] turn to the Christian faith and [he] can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world." Can one imagine if Tiger Woods were governor of a state, and made comments similar to those of Bentley? What would be the national narrative?
These questions need to be discussed thoroughly before we allow political leaders to invoke sectarian faith statements that make it seem as though their religious beliefs will color their performance in office. Yet we must also be aware of how many Evangelicals respond to their fellow Christians. President Obama’s own faith, which he nurtured at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, has been under attack since the 2008 presidential campaign. As a member of the same denomination, I find that more liberal and progressive expressions of Christian faith are seen as inauthentic by many in the so-called mainstream of Christianity. Governor Bentley’s recent words show me that, although we worship the same God, we have very different ideas about what Jesus taught regarding love and fellowship.