Friday, February 1, 2013

Mike Bird, N. T. Wright, and Thinking Christianly Rather Than "Rightly"

Mike Bird is one of the leading lights among younger New Testament scholars today. His works on Jesus (Are You the One Who Is To Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question; Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimonies of the Gospels) and Paul (The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective; Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message) are models of clear thinking on controversial, complex topics. For me, his work on the apostle Paul has been particularly salutary, demonstrating that one can indeed, despite disclaimers in certain quarters, be both a genuine Reformed theologian and, at the same time, "favorably disposed" to the insights of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul." He is also an engaging speaker, giving the lie to the stereotype that academically gifted people must exude dust and tedium from the lectern (his 2010 IBR response to N. T. Wright at Atlanta was a delightful case in point).

Bird is also an Australian, and as such provides a needed corrective to the insular ways of thinking that hold most evangelical American Christians in their straightjacket. Like I, Bird simply cannot understand ("just don't get it") the thought process whereby conservative Christians in my country adhere to the right-wing political policies of the Republican Party with an almost confessional-like commitment (with reference to the notoriously right-wing Liberty University, see his comments here). One example is his (to me) eminently sensible advocacy of strict gun control measures (see here and here). Another is his mystification over conservative American Christians' lock-step opposition to universal healthcare coverage (see here). In this vein, in today's blog post he provides a link to an interview with N. T. Wright, in which Professor Wright explains, among other things, where, as an Englishman, he cannot comprehend the black-and-white polarities of American political discourse, and his agreements and disagreements with one of his earliest influences, the great Ulsterman C. S. Lewis. Wright's comments on healthcare, most of which are also cited by Bird, are worthy of being cited in full:

Well, what I’m doing is making a broad-brush point for readers. I’m not talking about Fox News in any detailed way and I’m not claiming that everything they tell you is wrong. I’m just referring to the well-known political viewpoint that comes through Fox News and I’m saying: We should be careful about listening to that point of view exclusively. There is a striking, radical polarization between your Left and Right that I have to say is really disturbing because it distorts so many issues. This Left-Right polarization forces people to say: We are all on this side now! We must check off every box on this slate! We must keep in line!
In your country, for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—“If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point. Yet, over here, some Christians are saying that it’s part of the list of boxes we all should check off to keep in line.

Well, I have to say that Tom, as usual, nailed it. Even in my youth, trained by my evangelical subculture to assume the propriety of "conservative" political views, I could not understand why I should make such an assumption. Why, for instance, was Franklin Roosevelt (one of the two genuinely great American Presidents) derided by Christians who, one would have thought, would champion his advocacy for the nation's poor and key role in the defeat of Nazism? Why were support for the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon (!) considered nonnegotiables? I never received an adequate answer to my questions forty years ago. And I haven't received one in the intervening years. So I have adopted what I consider the only responsible course of action: use the brain God gave me to formulate an informed, distinctly Christian view on such matters, irrespective of what I was told I "should" believe. Not surprisingly, such views are often met with incomprehension, at best, and outright hostility, at worst, from many of my Christian brothers and sisters (for example, see my take on guns here and here).

The problem, as I see it, is a worldview one. For better or worse (usually worse), most American evangelical Christians have what can only be described as a conservative American worldview. And it is through that assumed, subconscious grid that they filter what they read from the Bible. And so they, in effect, become Christian Americans rather than, as they should be, American Christians. The most amusing example of this, in my experience, has been the way many Bible teachers and preachers, including my own beloved father—against the obvious contextual clues and Old Testament scriptural echoes—have explained away the earliest Christians' practice of "having all things together" (Acts 2, 4) as being misguided and inapplicable to today's church. But the phenomenon works itself out in a whole range of issues, from war to guns to healthcare. And the fact that evangelical Christians elsewhere, both in wealthy nations like the UK, Canada, and Australia and in the poverty-ravaged two-thirds world, disagree with them on such matters, bothers them not a bit. But it should. Americans, after all, are not always right.

Conservatism, per se, is not the issue. I myself am conservative in many ways, especially in matters where my more putatively "conservative" brothers and sisters are not. The issue is one of manifesting a faithfulness to biblical principles and standards of behavior. How is it that Christians, who believe humankind was created to be God's "image"—a matter which involves their wise stewardship and care for the earth and its creatures—continue to deny the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change and defend the rights of polluters and industries whose sole purpose is to exploit the earth's resources? How is it that Christians are so vociferous in their support of capital punishment (even in cases where the standard of proof hardly satisfies the Torah's stringent requirements) and participation in war (despite the clear pacifistic example of the early Church)? How is it that Christians who so stridently—rightly, I might add—decry abortion on demand are just as adamant in their support of guns, whose only real purpose is to kill, and whose toll in human lives is one of the great scandals of modern America? Have they forgotten Jesus, who told the hot-headed Peter that "those who live by the sword will die by the sword"? How is it that Christians, who supposedly agree with Paul's dictum that "the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil," so adamantly fight to preserve an ever-more unregulated form of capitalism that results in the increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of the economic ladder? How is it that Christians, disciples of one who proclaimed blessing on the poor and who healed the sick without charge in demonstration of the Messianic Jubilee, consider it acceptable that quality healthcare is available only to those who can afford it? Do they really think it is Christian to consider the rights and profits of insurance corporations to be more important than the welfare of people less well off than they are?

I ask these questions with a heavy heart. Frankly, I do not see much of Christ in many of those who claim his matchless name. I see more Ayn Rand than Jesus, more Ronald Reagan than Saint Paul. Fundamentally, it is a matter of abject failure to obey Jesus' command to "love your neighbor as yourself." And at the heart, as always, is the toxic combination of self-righteousness and pride, topped with the cherry of materialistic selfishness. I am not a politician. And I am quite sure that neither political party in modern America has the answers that will usher in another golden age of American life. But there is one thing I know: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not Barack Obama. It is to him and to him alone that I pledge allegiance. And it is high time that many of his followers do the same and provide the prophetic witness this country so desperately needs.

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