Sundays in Mark (34) 10:46-52 Bartimaeus the blind man

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the gosepl of Mark. This week, the account of Jesus meeting Bartimaeus, the blind beggar.

The journey south to Jerusalem brings Jesus and the disciples to the city of Jericho, a large crowd in their wake. Our familiarity with what happens can cloud its remarkable content.

An insignificant beggar outside the city is the one who truly ‘sees’ who Jesus is (Jesus’ identity being a constant theme in Mark). The restoration of his sight is literal but also an indication of his ‘spiritual insight’.

But it is Bartimaeus who identifies Jesus as the Son of David – a Messianic title. He knows Jesus is the one in whom the hopes of Israel rest. It is Bartimaeus who confidently trusts that Jesus can heal him, he knows Jesus is empowered by God. It is Bartimaeus who enthusiastically follows the Messiah up the ascent through the Judean wilderness towards Jerusalem and all that awaited there.


What is left unexplained is how Bartimaeus ‘saw’ what others were blind to. The response of the Messiah is to welcome a marginalised, poor, insignificant and apparently annoying distraction as one of his followers. Such is the surprising grace of God, a grace that extends to you and to me.

Blind Bartimaeus Receives His Sight

46Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

48Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

49Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

51“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

52“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

James Davison Hunter on Yoder, Hauerwas and co

In his important and big book on Christianity and culture To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late Modern World James Davison Hunter turns his attention to the neo-Anabaptists.

This will be a longer post on what is a significant chapter.

The main difference, he says, between Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists is their attitude to the state. The former seek to use and transform it to aid justice, the latter have an innate distrust of political power. Similarities are an intense dislike of the Christian Right and a highly sceptical view of Western capitalism.

Neo-Anabaptism has its roots in radical Reformation, the rejection of hierarchy and of the structures of Christendom, and the vision of authentic Christian communities. If the Anabaptist tradition is still found in Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites etc, the neo-Anabaptist movement is wider – drawing theologically on Anabaptism’s vision for how to engage the wider 21st world.

Two names best known names [to me anyway :)] are the late John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

And let me nail my colours to the wall here – I have great sympathy for the Anabaptist tradition and huge admiration for contemporary exponents like Stanley Hauerwas. I find him a truly prophetic voice; an authentic voice; an honest voice; an inspiring counter-cultural voice who articulates the deeply subversive nature of what it means to follow Jesus in late Western culture. You don’t have to agree with all he says to see that we need prophets like him.

Hunter is right to say that it is not that neo-Anabaptists have no interest in changing the world, but that they have a fundamentally different vision for how to do so.

Main characteristics:

1. Constantinian Error: While Jesus announced and inaugurated the upside-down-Kingdom of God, the story of the church since Constantine has been anything but radical – one where it supports and has been too often corrupted by the status quo. Rather than being radical it became conservative, power-obsessed, wealthy; a custodian of a civil religion while simultaneously losing its prophetic voice to fight for the weak and the vulnerable.

And this submission of the church to the state is nowhere seen more starkly than in the story of capitalism. So dominant has capitalism become, the state’s role and even existence depends on propping it up. [This is right – have you noticed it is our patriotic job to be good consumers so as to help the Irish state survive?].

Capitalism oppresses the poor; panders to greed and selfishness; destroys the environment; leads to a global financial crisis; promotes an insatiable desire for more; replaces God with things as the chief goal of desire. And the American church is up to its neck in sanctifying capitalism. Thus says Hauerwas, ‘God is killing Protestantism and perhaps the church in America, and we deserve it.’

2. The identity of Jesus: big important neo-Anabaptist themes revolve around Jesus. Authentic Christianity will be marked by

the way of the suffering servant who gives up his life for others

the rejection of force and coercion

– a Jesus-like challenge to the political and spiritual powers of the day. The concept of ‘powers and principalities’ is important here. Governments have overstepped their mark, becoming an end in themselves, demanding wholehearted allegiance. Yoder says that the spiritual grip of the powers must be broken. Jesus defeated the powers, his followers are to be free from their grip. Such a calling is communal – when the church is fulfilling its calling it will bear the brunt of the hostility and disdain of the world. The Christian response is one of forgiveness and peace.

a free church that embodies authentic Christian community as a counter-culture to the world. That refuses to endorse and participate in the power structures of the world and is therefore committed to non-violence.

3. The church versus the world

Flowing from this is a strong antithesis between church and world. The present world order is broken, rebellious and violent. Over against this the church is to be the visible foretaste of the kingdom, marked by baptism, Eucharist, preaching, forgiveness, service, peace, justice, love. Hence Hauerwas and his ‘Resident Aliens’ theme. The first and greatest task of the church is to be the church.

So to Hunter’s critique.

His main gripe is that neo-Anabaptism, in a strange parallel to both the Left and Right, still frames its vision in a deeply political way. Discipleship to Jesus is equated with social non-conformity. The very identity of the movement is drawn from opposition to the Christian Right, to the State, to capitalism. The vision for the church is framed against that of the sinful world. It is a ‘passive-aggressive ecclesiology’ – one which depends on the status of the church as a marginal minority community fighting democratic capitalism.

And in tone, the movement is negative. Negative about the world, negative about the failures of the church and its compromises with Christendom, negative about the idolatry of the Christian Right and so on. Hunter uses words like ‘anger, disparagement and negation’ as well as a ‘relentless hostility to all that is not God’. Shane Claiborne gets a mention as an example of the perfectionist, pietistic and separatist tendencies within neo-Anabaptism. In this way, Hunter concludes, neo-Anabaptist joins the ‘politics of negation’ that so dominate American contemporary culture.

Yoder when alive rejected such criticisms, as does Hauerwas today. The church living as an alternative community living a different way of life poses ‘a fundamental challenge to the way of the world’. Far with being pietistic and separatist, such a way of life is deeply political and is radically engaged with culture as it offers a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

We’ll get to Hunter’s own proposal for what he calls ‘faithful presence’ in the next post.

So is this a fair summary and critique of neo-Anabaptism?  Do you agree with its main themes? Why?

My tuppence worth: it seems to me that Hunter is not so much dissenting from any of the three key themes described above, but from the tone and political focus of the movement. It also seems unpersuasive to criticise a movement for being shaped by what it opposes. All theology is contextual, all reform movements are by definition seeking to change the status quo.

James Davison Hunter on the American Christian Left

If the Christian Right is motivated by a vision of ‘recovering’ Christian America, the Christian left is energised by the dream of equality and justice. So says James Davision Hunter is his important book To Change the World: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world.

Hunter traces the various trajectories of the broadly Christian left – inspired by big biblical themes of justice, mercy, peace, and equality finding expression in the Social Gospel movement, the World Council of Churches, ecumenical bodies, Liberation Theology in Latin American and most of the major mainline denominations in the States.

As these have faded in influence, the interesting thing is that it has been evangelical progressives who have provided the impetus, energy and vision of the Christian left. Think Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Brian McLaren and many others.

The big concerns as sketched by Hunter are:

– justice for the weak, marginalised, disadvantaged, the poor and assessing public policy in terms of its impact in these areas

– poverty as a deeply spiritual issue

– opposition to the Christian Right and the ‘seduction’ or ‘hijack’ or even ‘bastardization’ of Christianity to the political ‘pro-rich’ agendas of the Republican Party. According to Sojourners, the Christian Right have compromised authentic Christian faith to the degree that it has been ‘co-opted by militarism and nationalism.’

– The real threat to Christianity in America is not a liberal conspiracy, but the Christians buying into the secular aspirations and addictions of the American dream.

– An agenda of the Left is to reclaim a genuinely Christian perspective on faith and national life and so influence public policy towards justice and concern for the poor.

– As Hunter remarks – this is just as ‘political’ a strategy as that of the Right and shares a same basic ‘will to power’ if with reverse priorities. Just as the Right is allied with the Republicans, so Hunter says

‘there is little in the actions and writings of the larger Christian Left that would be objectionable to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.’

– Both Right and Left, argues Hunter, are mirror images of each other. Wallis has no hesitation is outlining detailed policies supported by a raft of biblical texts. The issue is not so much whether the Bible has relevant things to say about public policy (it does), but that Wallis and others are working for a form of ‘civil religion’ that assumes that America is or should be a ‘righeous’ nation.

– The message is very different, the means very similiar. Personally I think he downplays the fact that the Christian Left is strongly ‘Other-focused’ not self-protective.

But if Hunter is right that both sides are seeking political power to effect their visions of America,  I wonder which end of the spectrum you feel most at home with and why?

If neither you may be closer to the next perspective the Hunter critques, the neo-Anabaptists. Come back soon for that post 🙂

Living together in post-Christendom Ireland

I’ve been thinking a bit about church, state and post-Christendom Ireland over the last few weeks. As Christendom Ireland continues to unravel there seem to be a couple of opposing trends developing that could end up mirroring the culture wars in the USA.

1. One is to exclude religion from the Irish Public Square

Such has been the horror associated with a church exercising freely given and virtually unlimited, religious, social and political power, that many people in modern Ireland are convinced that ‘religion is bad for you’ and are determined to construct a society free from its ‘negative influence’. There is a fear of religion’s ‘totalising tendencies’ and subsequent limitation of individual freedom. Recent Irish history, and the sadly chequered history of Christianity itself, gives real weight to these fears.

But this impulse easily shifts into an intolerant political liberalism that seeks to remove religious voices from public debate. In other words you end up with the oxymoron of mono-pluralism. It is a contradictory, exclusionist and inconsistent form of tolerance and pluralism that only ‘allows’ as ‘legitimate’ voices that it agrees with.

2. Another is to fight to retain as much of the legacy of Christendom as possible

Some Christian conservatives seem to want or expect the state to protect the legacy of Christendom through a combination of political lobbying – hoping (in vain I would say) that the strong traditional Catholic morality of the Constitution can be protected and somehow shape contemporary culture – and through painting a picture of a fearful future in which Christians are marginalised and their values undermined.

So what is an alternative to what might become an increasingly bitter conflict between political liberals and relgious conservatives in Ireland?

Seems to me that we have not yet really begun to have a mature discussion about what a civil society might look like in the wake of the collapse of Catholic Ireland. A society in which Christians, atheists, secularists, agnostics, those of other religions and so on can all live together.

Such a society needs to be able to tolerate real difference [for example secularists not trying to silence or ‘outlaw’ Christians from sharing their faith OR Christians not insisting the state should reflect Christian morality].

In other words we need to see the law, not as a weapon to exclude and defeat enemies, but as a minimum that can order our lives together.

Comments, as ever, welcome!

Bird’s Eye View of Paul (18) Paul’s ethics

Chapter 9 of Michael Bird’s excellent book on Paul is on the apostle’s ethics.

I’m enjoying this book and there is lots in this chapter – so I’m going to do a couple of posts on it.

Some thoughts upfront before getting to what Bird says. There is a very popular saying of Philip Yancey’s that goes like this:

There is nothing I can do to make God love me more and there is nothing I can do to make God love me less

Now at a very important level this is wonderfully right. We love God because he first loved us [1 Jn 4:19]. Salvation is purely by grace. We cannot earn God’s approval.

However, Yancey’s epigram can easily give the impression that since ‘there is nothing I can do’ to make him love me more, then there is nothing I need to do full stop. This gets perilously close to Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’ – a sort of individualistic ‘easy believism’ that reduces the Christian life down to a warm sentimental feeling of being loved by God and little else.

The necessity of a transformed ethical life becomes an optional ‘add on’ to faith, not an essential part of it. There is more than enough of this sort of distorted theology around in evangelical and Protestant circles – often seen in a very loose attachment to living out faith within the accountability and demands of a church community for example.

What place to you give to ‘works’ in salvation? At the end of the chapter Bird puts it this way, “While we are not saved by works, we shall not be saved without them.” What’s your response to this?

As Bird makes clear, Paul would have been baffled by this sort of disconnect between faith and ethics. He is not abstract theologian (and there are plenty around!) but a pastor-apostle deeply concerned that the behaviour, attitudes, actions and lifestyles of Christians in his care show that they are living lives worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, both individually and corporately.

The framework for his ethics is eschatological. The future age has arrived with the resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit. Christians are to live life in ‘this present evil age’ [Gal 1:4] empowered by the Spirit. Christians are new creations [Gal 6:5; 1 Cor. 7:19; Col 3:11]; they are now ‘in Christ’, they are continually to ‘put on’ the ‘new man’ [Col. 3:9-10; Eph 4:22-24].

He doesn’t say so, but Bird sides here with Gordon Fee that, although hugely popular in Christian piety, it is a mistake to think of Christians as having two internal natures, ‘spiritual and carnal’ which ‘fight like dogs’. This sort of pessimistic thinking also tends to treat the ‘two natures’ as nearly equal and therefore has a pretty limited expectation of spiritual progress – but that’s a post for another day. Bird rightly says that Christians have one nature – the new creation. The process of spiritual transformation is more about ‘be what we are, be what we are becoming and be what we will be on the final day of Christ Jesus’.

This ‘be what you are’ theology makes sense of the many Pauline imperatives. Paul is no legalist. He exhorts his listeners to changed behaviour, not to earn merit, but because of their identity in Christ. Imperatives follow indicatives. There are tons of examples. One is 1 Cor. 6:19-20,

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.”

Ethics flow from identity as God’s people. As Bird puts it

‘The charge to produce good works and seeds of righteousness cannot be separated from the continuing and sustained relationship the Christian has with God.”

Sundays in Mark (33) 10:35-45 The Request of James and John

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on the Gospel of Mark. This week Mark 10:35-45.

This passage in Mark is packed with significance, both original and contemporary. Indeed it is hard to read this text without immediately jumping to modern application of the call to servant leadership in the church. But first the text:- the request of the brothers reveals the depth of impact Jesus has made on the disciples. Whatever lies ahead, their hope is confident that he is God’s chosen Messiah who has the ability to grant their request.

What is inconceivable is that the calling of the Messiah is one of suffering and death. James and John are hoping for glory but are yet to grasp (and experience) what following Jesus will inevitably mean. To share his ‘cup’ is to share his fate.

How many teams have been destroyed by internal self-seeking factions putting their interests first over those of the group? Jesus again takes the opportunity to teach them about the alternative community of the kingdom. Compared to the highly stratified and power obsessed  structures of the Herodians and the greater Roman world, followers of Jesus belong to an upside-down-order where greatness is measured in slavery – the very bottom of Roman society.

Verse 45 is extraordinarily important. The basis for the disciples’ self-giving servanthood is imitation of their leader. His ultimate act of service is the voluntary giving up of his life, ‘a ransom for many’. Here is revealed the Messiah’s self-understanding. Ransom has the sense of deliverance by purchase. One life delivers ‘many’. Themes of substitution, and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who offers himself for sin, lie close to the surface here.

John later came to see the full significance of Jesus’ words in light of the cross…

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”

The Request of James and John

35Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

36“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

37They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

38“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

39“We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”