Friday, October 4, 2013

Jesus and the State of Faceless Men.

This is the third post in a spontaneous blog-conversation with my brother. We’ve been discussing a short passage in John’s Gospel (John 8:1-11). Both I and my brother feel this passage is poorly represented by its usual title of “Jesus and the Adulterous Woman”. 

After that we disagree on what the passage is about. It’s fascinating because we are reading the same words. We’re not even disagreeing over translations yet we still read very different things.

In this specific case I think our conflict is more confused than anything. The most important element of my interpretation is to read this story with a similar historical respect to what I use in an old post The Massacre of the Innocents. I’m resisting making a modern and middle class metaphor out of a 1st century reality by discussing stoning as if it were mere moralizing. After all stoning remains an actual reality in this century too. I know Simon appreciated the sentiments of “The Massacre of the Innocents” so I suspect we don’t have a broad argument with this approach here.

I think we’ve gotten confused because John 8:1-11 is a red flag within certain religious culture wars. Some Christians use this story as if it had a punch line in the phrase “sin no more” – a message to the woman which they turn into a very different message to them selves.  

The phrase “sin no more” is used as an example from Jesus to not be silent on naming sin. It even pops up in conversations about homosexuality (Here, for example in the second last red comment). It is treated as a justification for the line of “love the sinner but hate the sin”. The argument goes:
  1. Jesus did not just let the woman go but commanded her to “sin no more”.
  2. Therefore a Christian, while opposing violence against sinners, must also instruct people in what is their sin.

John 8:1-11 is not in my opinion a valid support for that position. To say it is you have to jump over most of the story for one thing. Nor does it need to be. If a Christian wants to bang on about other peoples sins they have biblical examples of Jesus doing just that, far clearer, at other times. Those sins are just most likely to be sins of selfishness, self-importance and hypocrisy (Luke12:13-21Luke 11:37-53).

Neither is John 8:1-11 however an argument against calling out others sin. It’s easy and tempting to use this story to promote a culture which silences any moralising. Many people have gotten used to translating “stoning” into any form of judgement – even a judging statement that has no power to harm behind it. Then it follows since none of us are without sin we shouldn’t “stone” others by saying anything about their wrong doing.

There are other verses that can make a biblical case for something like that position (Matt 7:1-5), but this story is not one. This is because this story involves the prevention of wrong doing. At the beginning of the story the woman is to be stoned, at the end she is not. In our consideration of how Jesus achieves this we shouldn’t ignore what is achieved. We can’t use this story as some sort of encouragement to ignore the moral actions of others and focus only on our own. That would be the result of a story in which Jesus told the men, “Don’t ask me about stoning her, do what you want,” or even where the Jewish men’s total religious freedom to follow their law was defended.

What I’ve just said merely reprises my previous comments. If you have read the two previous posts then you may think all I have to say is what this story is not. I’ve hesitated to express what I think it is actually teaching – and how that’s relevant to me – because it’s a big deal. It answers some questions I’ve grappled with for a long time –from an anarchist perspective in particular.

I hope you’ll tolerate a little back grounding to what I think this story teaches first.

The Kingdom of God.

The teachings of Jesus are the teachings of a Jewish teacher from the first century and as such they have to grapple with the greatest Jewish question of their time. The Jews were a conquered people. Much like today, the power of a civilization was seen as the proof of its religion and philosophy. How then could Israel, the Jewish nation, be God’s Kingdom on Earth, and yet under pagan rule?

The implications of pagan power (first the Greeks before the Christian Era and then the Romans) were many. Upon entering Jerusalem only sixty-three years before Jesus’ birth, the Roman army had massacred twelve thousand Jews with very few Roman losses. The Romans controlled the most important position of Jewish religion, the High priest of the Temple and the most important Jewish secular authority, the Jewish King. It was a total defeat.

Any Jewish movement in the first century had to speak to Roman power over the Jews. The obvious answer was that God’s Kingdom was a lie and the Jews were just one more people who could be conquered like any other. Jewish cultural survival depended on forming a philosophical resistance to that idea.

Some 1st century Jews would have remained committed to a physical empire as the only idea of a kingdom. There were certainly supporters of military rebellion. Recent history helped their case; the Greeks had not so long before been thrown off by a violent revolt. Israel had then returned its empire to its own historic height. In fact even today Hanukkah still celebrates the re-consecration of the temple by Jewish guerillas in the Maccabean revolt of 165BCE. By God’s will this had succeeded. Was God just waiting for Jewish courage to bring such a military victory against the Romans?

Others would have emphasised that to be God’s people meant to be faithful to his commands. Perhaps God would intervene for God’s own glory when their people kept their side of the covenant (agreement with God) or perhaps merely obedience was its own reward. Maybe the covenant defined the kingdom rather than borders and city walls. This view assured the Jewish nation’s resilience. After all if God’s kingdom was defined by the covenant, then a single faithful Jew (a contemporary Noah or an Abraham) could preserve it – even as temple and citadel were overrun.

Jesus was a part of this discussion. He also claimed that the capacity to be in God’s Kingdom was not distant in the future but immediately possible. In this regard he was in agreement with the covenant keepers.

Jesus recognized (along with others in his time) that lawyers twisted the laws of the covenant to make life harder for people. They hid injustice with it. Jesus wanted the law to be a tool for justice and ultimately subservient to the purpose it was meant to fulfill. In just one example he claimed that the Sabbath was made for peoples sake, not people for the Sabbath. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give workers a day of rest – but lawyers had turned it into an onerous obligation. (Luke 6:1-11) In naming this Jesus would have made both political allies and enemies of his peers.

Jesus may have seemed “soft on sin” for his friendships with sinners and his enjoyment of food and wine. (Luke 7:34). He certainly wasn't an ascetic. However he was far harder than the religious institutions of his time on specific sins like wealth, hypocrisy, and in-hospitality  Perhaps the biggest “sin” this teacher spoke about was choosing to ignore the suffering of others.(Matt 25:31-46, Luke 10:25-37)) Jesus was talking about a very high standard of collectivism and asked it of a conquered people who must have felt tempted to just look after their own individual survival.

Jesus also extolled a spirit of fearlessness. Rather than allowing poverty or persecution to cow him, this teacher told his followers to embrace both in the confidence that God provides. His movement proposed non-violent separation from Rome rather than violent conflict, but that separation was not physical. It was a renouncement of the values of Rome – both the pursuit of gross luxury and its glorification of military victory – for the embrace of poverty and the love of enemies. Jesus wanted the Jews to act as people of God even towards and among their pagan oppressors.

Dangerously, it seems Jesus’ followers referred to their teacher as a king and received him with messianic anticipation. Such claims were provocative to both the Jewish puppet king and to Roman power.  Consequently this Jewish teacher was brought to trial and executed by crucifixion around 33CE.

We have a reasonable record of Jesus’ ideas. He wrote nothing himself but within about forty to sixty years accounts of his life emerged which are fairly intact to this day. Those are the four Gospels of the Christian Bible. As ancient documents go they are well preserved.

The Gospels don’t read like texts of political philosophy in a modern sense. In an ancient sense though, they are deeply political. Any reference to the Jewish God is absolutely also a reference to the proper common purpose of the Jewish people. That purpose defines the nation. For the Jews of the 1st century redefining their nation was the most immediate task of any prophet.

The Definition of a State

A state is a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory. – Wikipedia on the State (polity)

The words state and a nation refer to two different things. A nation is a culturally homogeneous people. It is defined by a common language, religion and history.
A state however is a legal entity. The fundamental definition of a state is its claim to a special legal status and the moral/legal exemptions that come with it. If you or I did on our own time what our governments’ spies, soldiers or even police do we would be arrested (by those institutions) and incarcerated. Only the state can order our incarceration or even our assassination and it not be illegal.

Crucial to the state being able to exempt itself from its own rules is the anonymity of its functionaries. In fact anonymity isn’t quite the right word. It is more that a functionary of the state is no longer quite a person. This is because they are acting as the state; the state is not a person so neither can its actors be.

We can experience this whenever we ourselves belong to any kind of “chain of command”. We may no longer feel responsible for what we do – instead we are following orders or policy. Whether that feeling is legitimate or not is essentially the argument for or against the legitimate statehood of our organization.

Seen in this light there are lots of modern mini-states attempting to assert themselves. If you work at a fast food venue for example, then you are often reminded that your own identity isn’t required while you are an agent of the company. God forbid you should have an opinion about the food you’re serving. Many work environments operate on the same principles – any employee is ideally interchangeable. These “states” may seem silly up close – complete with their own flags, logos, songs and costume – but less so when you look at the size of some corporations. (The revenue of Exxon Mobil is larger than Bangladesh’s and Wal-Mart’s is larger than Norway’s. - link)

The ultimate expression of the moral exemption of the state and the non-personhood of its functionaries is when the state kills with impunity. The state is exempt from the moral rules which call killing murder.  The individuals who do the killing are not murderers.

Back to the Story

This is how the “scribes and Pharisees” came up to Jesus. They did not approach Jesus as persons out to commit murder. They approached Jesus as functionaries of the Jewish state. The law was clear – the woman must die – and whoever threw the stones was not responsible for her death when acting as an agent of the law.

To accept this was politically dangerous in the 1st century. Rome, not Israel was now the state. In 30CE Rome had explicitly forbidden the Jewish courts from pronouncing the death penalty. Rome claimed for itself “a monopoly of the legitimate use of force” within its territory. If you accepted Rome’s rule then the men who brought forward the women had no right to act as her executioners. If on the other hand you accepted the men could act according to the law, as functionaries of a Jewish state, then you opposed Roman rule (which Jesus would eventually get killed for even if it was a poor understanding of his views).

This wasn’t the only trap set for Jesus here. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts Jesus is put in a spot between supporting literal scriptural authority and respect for the sanctity of life which also can be drawn from scripture. But I think this question of who does Jesus support, Israel or Rome as the state, is the key one. Jesus was after all, known for this complicated idea of separatism that isn’t. The gospels demand an extreme repudiation of Roman values but reject isolationism. Where does Jesus stand therefore on this issue of whose law should be enforced?

For some people it would have been seen as a natural conclusion from Jesus’ teachings that the Jewish law must be enforced. The consequences of that would be arrest by the Romans and death but it would be a heroic death. To enforce God’s law in the midst of the Roman Empire would be suicidal. It would be a martyr’s death for the sake of the Jewish state.

What Jesus does in response is deeply radical. Jesus de-anonymises the men. In doing so Jesus denies them statehood. Jesus words are an invitation to the men to be people – not anonymous functionaries of a morally exempt state.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

These words have a powerful effect. They take us inside ourselves to the place where we are real. This is why I think this story does get translated to cover all manner of situations including any kind of judgment. We want to hear these words spoken to us. They are so refreshing in a paradoxical way. Although they accuse us of sin they return us something that serving the state can take away – ultimately they accuse us of our humanity.

The consequences of Jesus’ reaction.

Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God he is declaring is not a state. When these men come up desiring to act anonymously to complete the law I believe this is an act of kingdom definition. Jesus then defines the nation of Israel differently. He does this not only by refusing to accept the accusing men’s non-personhood. He does this by staying in person himself.

Neither will I condemn you too.”

This has particular meaning for “the church” that emerged after Jesus death. By “the church” I mean the community of Jesus’ followers across time and denominations. Based on certain biblical passages “the church”, used in this way, is seen as the inheritor of the mantle of Israel. This church is (ideally) the people of God, a nation in the sense that it is defined by a common history and culture (broadly), but has always had to exist inside hostile states and empires.

That hostility can be especially true when those states and empires have been nominally Christian. When the state takes the identity of Christian then it can become even more necessary that the sort of Christianity that rejects statehood will be persecuted. The latter is too thorny a prophet against the former. Regardless of that persecution I think this story should tell non-statist Christians that they are on the right track.

Non-statist does not simply mean that a Christian shouldn’t try to make a government’s use of force their own. A Christian should also resist the state-making tendencies in their own communities. The crucial element here is anonymity and special legal status. Christians need to reject the idea that actions by authorities are not in the same moral category as actions by “ordinary people”. Killing is killing no matter who does it.

In more general ways where even our employers may want us to become agents of their mini-states a Christian is never allowed to adopt a “just following orders” mentality. Christians are reminded in this story to always be people on their own spiritual journeys of overcoming sin; never faceless perpetrators of policy.

Taking this stance will lead to conflict with society. The state in times of war for example has no tolerance for non-combatants. Most industry, even in “peace” time relies on people who truncate their moral selves for their employers. Refusing to comply has historically brought people closer to the heart of state power; that spiraling towards the murderous center is reflected in Jesus’ own path to the crucifixion. The greatest gift of this story is the example Jesus gives about how to confront a state-mentality in others. Jesus invites the “scribes and Pharisees” to be fully human again.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This is exactly how peace work treats figures of authority. The soldier, the clerk, the lawmaker, the judge are all reminded of their full humanity. They are called by the peace activist to re-occupy their self-hood, their relationship with God and their own sins.

1 comment:

  1. Tony C, this apostate finds your interpretation of John 8:1-11 both humble(ing) and wonderful. Thank you.