Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reflection Sunday 10.21.12 (Jesus Corner)

Howdy-do, y'all! Classes are back in session this week and I feel a little bit like a steam engine sputtering back into motion after stopping at a station. Now that I've got a week back under my belt, I feel like I'm chugging along, but it definitely took the whole week. The bright spot was acing my Greek exam- the first exam I've taken in grad school. In addition to feeding into my general grade mongering, it was an affirmation that I can handle the work here. Which is a relief. Now I just need to keep my nose to the grindstone.

This week the theme of my own contemplation is "the law." Appropos, as it is election season and two of my classes addressed ideas of legal/political entities and their relationship to the church in history. First, we talked about the law in the Old Testament, going into the relationship and hierarchy of the moral vs. legal directives that God gave to Israel. I really appreciated our professor's distinction between the hierarchy of how the law is structured in the Old Testament. It starts with the highest moral imperatives: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Then there are overall principles from which the "case laws" spring from... for instance, the 10 Commandments are overall principles and then all the subsequent laws are case studies of how to live out the principles.

There are a couple of things that come from this structuring that I never fully considered. First, the case laws are not the entirety of the ancient Israeli legal code. Not that the Bible ever says it is, but it had always been implied by my teachers. There are things that aren't in the Bible that would have applied to the Jewish nation's justice system. Second, the case studies are not immutable - we can see that situations are handled differently at different points of time throughout the Old Testament. That is because the case studies are the practical working out of moral imperatives and principles... meaning that depending on the cultural context, practical outworkings of those imperatives and principles will change. For instance, an Ancient Near Eastern cultural context would necessitate case law about "high places" and fertility gods. In our context, we might not need those specific case laws, but the overall principle of having no other gods before God would still stand. Third, the practical outworkings are exactly that: practical. The case laws make allowances for human sinfulness and culture. Jesus alludes to this when He speaks of divorce: the case law allows for divorce in as principled way as possible, but the moral principle would say that there should not be divorce at all. This is hugely liberating in reading the case studies - it means they are not all high moral aspirations, but rather a loving attempt to mediate holiness in broken situations. As a whole, I am so taken with this way of looking at Old Testament law. It affirms, in the awesome words of my professor, that "negatives do not exhaust the moral vision of the Bible."

A couple thousand years down the line, we considered the "identification of the church with the whole of organized society" (R.W. Southern) after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. So here's the two pictures that had always been painted for me as to why "Christendom" came to be. On the secular end, it was portrayed as the church's final success in seizing power for itself and controlling the political world, as had always been it's goal. On the church end, it was portrayed as the culmination of God's will for the church to drive the secular world. Neither of these assessments seemed 100% satisfying to me. Sure, there are people who are power-seekers by nature in any organization. And I don't have a problem believing that the confluence of events that led to Christianity becoming the dominant religion in 250 years flat was divine in some sense.

But how did the church and the state end up in bed together so thoroughly in the west? Why would the secular authorities let that happen? People aren't generally keen on sharing their own institutional power  with another institution. Why did the church go along with being kingmakers? Just a couple generations before, monks were being dragged by their ears from their monasteries to take on bishop seats, pouting and angry all the way to have to give up their simple life of reflection. Looking at things through the role that the Roman Empire had played in the secular and ecclesiastical life, however, it starts to make more sense. Both my history class and the superlative History of Rome podcast have illuminated the cultural milieu for me in a much clearer way. Maybe this is obvious but... the Roman Empire was a big deal. It had been a unifying force for a huge part of the world for hundreds of years. And it had started to play "referee" for church affairs. When there were two areas that had a disagreement, the emperor would host a big get together for everyone to work things out. With the invasion of northern tribes and the fall of the west, that stability for the western part of the church was gone. They didn't have a referee and they also didn't have the stability of knowing that the same group would be in power from one day to the next. They tried to continue to have the Eastern emperor and church help stabilize things, but over time, that became decreasingly effective.

Meanwhile, it's not like these northern tribes were organized to hold large areas of land. They were regionally oriented and suffered from the same instability as the church did. Thus, a mutually beneficial (and problematic) symbiosis was born that lasted for a long, long time, providing the stability that everyone was trying to achieve. Viewed in this light, we don't have to think of Christendom as a completely evil, nefarious, and wrongly motivated force, nor do we have to think about it as a holy kingdom on earth that can't be criticized. It's a result of understandable political and social forces that had both positive and negative effects on the lives of people under its rule.

What does all of this have to do with the elections? Maybe nothing. Or maybe it's just a good reminder to me that in the midst of an election season that has been full of exultations, demonizations, magic bullets, and inexcusable blunders, maybe it's okay to think of things as layered rather than a clear cut directive. Maybe it's a reminder to treat "the other" (whoever that other is for you) with some grace, because we don't yet have the hindsight to know how things are going to shake out.

Or maybe that's just my take... anyways, I'll be reviewing Bad Religion later this week, which has been a super helpful framing book for me in the way we should think about politics in America.

How has this year's election season impacted your thoughts on government or law?

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