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Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus Christ in a Globalised World – David Smith

November 10, 2016

ltgI remember being in awe of The Pergamon Altar in the museum of the same name in Berlin, little realising then what this told us about empire.

 Today’s globalised world shares many of the characteristics of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ message has been sanitised, lost its saltiness, become tepid so the author helps us to see afresh Jesus’s challenge.

The book has five chapters: a relatively short introduction and conclusion are separated by three long chapters; one on Jesus, one on Paul and one on Revelation. By paying particular attention to the socio-economic context that both the writers and readers of the Scriptures experiences, Smith draws out new insights from the text and develops a scintillating critique of the inequalities of our globalised world.

The author is a bit naïve when it comes to New Testament scholarship, thinking at the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are two different occasions. Matthew’s doubling the demoniacs is seen by him as universalising the plight of the homeless.

David takes up N. T. Wright’s advice that we should read the New Testament ‘with first-century eyes and with twenty-first century questions’. So he engages in what he calls ‘deep listening’ to the message of Jesus and the New Testament writers.

I don’t like the way the author confuses sexual rapacity with bisexuality: Paul’s hearers in Rome did not need to look very far to witness living examples of the vices and perversions he describes because at the very time at which his letter was composed the emperor Nero, a man known to be an aggressive bi-sexual, regularly stalked the streets of the city with his entourage, choosing people at randomto satisfy his lusts. However, the followers of Jesus in the Roman slums had much more personal and painful experience of the moral corruption described by Paul,since this was deeply embedded within a social system within which huge numbers of persons were treated as sub-human, and therefore as usable and expendable on the part of others who possessed power and were accorded honour.


As I write this, on 1 December 2015, it is all too clear that our world stands on the brink of more than one sort of catastrophe. International talks about climate change have just opened in Paris. Many thousands of migrants continue to make the dangerous journey to European countries that cannot reach agreement on how to respond. Tomorrow the House of Commons in Westminster will debate whether to bomb the headquarters of so-called Islamic State in Syria. All of these crises are interconnected.

‘My hope is to overcome the apartheid between the academy and the congregation, suggesting ways in which cutting-edge biblical scholarship can be a positive and liberating force for Christianity in the twenty first century.’

“At a time when Christian in Europe continues to experience drastic decline such an agenda may seem impossibly daunting, but if the dynamic movement which burst into history at the beginning came to birth in the margins of an imperial society, the loss of power and privilege and the ending of Christianity’s role as the chaplain of an increasingly secular culture can be viewed as a blessing, creating the space within which Christians in the West may rediscover what genuine discipleship of Jesus Christ might look like. Furthermore, the shift in the centre of gravity of Christianity to the Global South were millions of believers confess Jesus as Lord in impoverished and exploited contexts, including the slums and favelas of the megacities of Latin America, Africa and Asia means that the new heartlands of this faith are often located at the imperial margins where millions are reading the Bible with very different lenses from those provided by the Enlightenment”

I suggest that even a superficial reading of the New Testament suggests that a reluctance to be self-critical with regard to the religious traditions we have inherited is actually very odd. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is for ever warning of the possibility, one might say the inevitability, that his radical message of the coming of the kingdom of God will be compromised, its demands softened in a process of accommodation to the spirit of the world, until it becomes a form of words without the power to bring about change. When that happens, Jesus says, the resultant religion becomes good for nothing ‘except to be thrown out and trampled by men’ (Matt. 5:13). Warnings like these are not issued to the enemies of Christ, to those who dismissed him and his teaching, but to the disciples who loved him, hung upon his every word, and experienced the blessings of his love and grace. That being so, it is sobering to reflect on the possibility that Jesus’ words may suggest that the deepest cause of secularisation in the modern world lies not with what is done or said by unbelievers, but with the failure of those who profess to follow Christ to fulfill their calling to act as salt and light in the world. The compromising or abandoning of this vocation, reflected by a flight from the public world to the interior realm of the individual soul, strips the gospel of its power, turning it into a formal, dead or dying religion which is easily disregarded, then abandoned, and finally is ‘trampled underfoot’.

We might conclude then that the massive recession for Christianity in Europe during the twentieth century and its growing cultural marginalisation in North America, so often blamed on the spread of secular ideas, has far more to do with a long process of internal corruption within the churches, accompanied by a retreat from concern for the earth, and the world so clearly spelt out by Jesus. This process results in the erosion of spiritual vitality and moral courage so that what remains is a good-for-nothing religion devoid of ‘saltiness’ and irrelevant to the deepest of human concerns.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote that we live in a world ‘captured, uprooted and transformed by the titanic economic and techno-scientific process of the development of capitalism’. It is clear, he suggested, that this process cannot continue ad infinitum; the future cannot be simply an extension of the past because the forces ‘generated by the techno-scientific economy are now great enough to destroy the environment, that is to say, the material foundations of life’. Our world, Hobsbawm concluded, ‘risks both explosion and implosion. It must change’. If the gospel of Christ is to be the agent of that sorely needed change, it must be liberated in order to appear once more as genuinely good news to contemporary people.

The outcome of the events of the fourth century was that it became necessary for the next thousand years and more ‘to accept Christ as the eternal King if one wanted to be a temporal king’.

when Islam later burst into world history, Christian apologists rejected its claim that Jesus was a prophet on the grounds that this designation was inadequate, and not even accurate. Consequently, `the potential significance of Jesus as a meeting ground between Christians and Jews, and between Christians and Muslims, has never materialized’. The loss of such a point of contact between these faiths had tragic consequences in the history of European Christianity and continues to result in serious misunderstandings to this day.

It is sometimes difficult to see in the Jesus of both Rationalism and Romanticism just why he was ever crucified, so accommodated had his image become to the spirit of the times.

The Roman system, about which its apologists boasted in such overblown language, thus consisted of a small strata of extremely wealthy people, lifted far above a huge mass of lower-stratum groups, with vast numbers who were ‘absolutely poor’. The tragic plight of large numbers of human beings at the base of the social and economic pyramid of the imperial system is described as follows: [T]hey are hungry and thirsty, have only rags for clothes, and are without lodging or hope. For the necessities of life they are dependent on others, for example, through begging. In addition to beggars, their numbers often include widows and orphans, but also those who are chronically ill or disabled like the blind, the lame, and lepers.”

The Roman writer Horace described how slaves walked the streets of the city each morning collecting the corpses which had been thrown out during the night by families unable to meet the costs of burial, while other sources describe people living under bridges or in the cellars of apartment blocks. Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann conclude that the majority of the populace ‘suffered chronic undernourishment, and in times of need many a poor family had no choice but to feed itself with grass and roots. Thus the poor may have envied slaves who were adequately fed by their masters for economic reasons.’

This description of the situation in the Roman Empire sets the life of Jesus within its broadest historical and social context. It will be immediately evident that the New Testament writers make use of language to describe Jesus and his followers which echoes, and thereby challenges, the claims that Roman apologists and poets made for both Caesar and the Empire. What we have here are two sharply contrasting announcements of good news, two claims of universal salvation, and two proclamations of the arrival of an age of peace and reconciliation. As Klaus Wengst puts it, at the focal point of the New Testament, `the testimony of the death and resurrection of Jesus, two completely opposed modes of peace clash’. On the one hand, there is the Pax Romana, `a peace produced and secured from the then centre of power, above all by military means, and order going out from the metropolis and orientated on it’. On the other hand, ‘there is peace and reconciliation as the abolition of oppositions and enmity, as new creation which takes I place on the periphery of society’.”

There were of course exceptions to the neglect of the poor Christ, but alas, those who recognised the poverty of Jesus were invariably treated as heretics and ignored or persecuted. For example, the name of Pelagius has become almost synonymous with heresy since the British monk was involved in a controversy with Augustine in the early fifth century concerning grace and free will, yet his writing reveals a passionate concern for the practice of discipleship in which the humility and poverty of Jesus are held up for imitation as the rule of the Christian life. ‘In what manner are we to imitate Christ?’ Pelagius asks, and replies: ‘In poverty, if I am not mistaken, not in riches; in humility, not in pride; not in worldly glory; by despising money, not by coveting it.’

Jan Huss, who was burned at the stake in Constance in 1415, argued that the church could claim to be apostolic only in the sense that it understands itself as the “church of the poor’.

pressure from the top inevitably led to an increase in levels of poverty, and the slide from landowner, to tenant farmer to day labourers, to beggars, all characters we hear of in Jesus’ parables, was inexorable.

The changes described here, which took place as Jesus grew to manhood, undermined traditional values with regard to the resources of the created world. The exploitation of the sea for commercial purposes and the purchase of land by a wealthy elite determined to increase their already large estates, ignored and over-rode the Jewish conviction that Yahweh was the ultimate owner of the land which he had entrusted to the stewardship of people and which, to be used with care, even with reverence the creator.

In contrast to the Qumran community, Jesus does not offer a manifesto of withdrawal into a separated existence, sealed off from the corruption and evil of the world, but he calls Israel to recognise the present reality of the kingdom of God and to live out its values in such a way as to act as ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14), so fulfilling its destiny as this was conceived from the very beginning. When Jesus likens his community to a ‘city on a hill’ which cannot be hidden, was he thinking of Sepphoris just down the road? Clearly, the community which Jesus seeks to create not only offers Israel redemption, but contains a promise to the nations presently in thrall to the power of Rome, presenting them with a gospel of hope

Horsley and Silberman point out that ‘many of the demon-haunted young men we repeatedly hear about in the gospels may have been people whom we would today describe as “homeless” — those troubled sons and daughters who found it impossible to cope with the realities of life around them and drifted away from their families, living on the alms of others and acting out their ain and physical frustrations in unpredictable ways’. It was among such people that Jesus brought healing, hope and transformation, creating in that process great excitement and huge expectations….Josephus’ account of a later Roman assault on Gerasa serves as an illustration of the kind of actions by which the legions frequently pacified conquered peoples: After taking the town by assault, he killed a thousand of the young men who had escaped, took their families captive, and allowed his soldiers to plunder the property. Finally, he set fire to the houses and marched against the surrounding villages. Those who were able-bodied fled, the weak perished, and all that was left went up in flames.”

Hengel similarly denies that Jesus came from ‘the proletariat of day-labourers’, and placed him rather within ‘the middle-class of Galilee, the skilled workers’. Property and Riches in the Early Church. ‘ The phrase ‘middle class’ is anachronistic since studies of the economy of the Roman Empire demonstrate that this key element in modern societies was absent from the ancient world, resulting in the existence of basically two strata: a rich elite and a huge mass of more or less poor people.

the missionary historian and theologian Andrew Walls has argued that cultural issues lie at the very heart of the Christian faith, ‘because Christianity is about conversion’. Far from involving the replacement of one religion by another, conversion means turning toward Jesus Christ from within whatever cultural worlds we occupy; it is thus the opposite of previous identity as a condition of entering the new, evangelising group

The careful analysis of the names of many of the people greeted Paul at the conclusion of his letter (Rom. 16:14-15) dicates that the assemblies they represent were made up of slaves, freedmen and Greek immigrants, almost certainly located in the tenement blocks (or insulae) in Trastevere or Porta Capena.

Philip Essler provides a detailed description of these dangerously high and overcrowded tenements in which the standard of the accommodation ‘decreased in the upper levels, where the rents were lower and the poor rented rooms’. The owners of these properties exploited the poor, charging excessive rents and so creating the problem of debt, with even tenants possessing some resources struggling to meet landlords’ demands. Many of these blocks were badly built, owing to their builders ‘having economized on construction costs’. Additional levels were often added to already unstable structures and, since construction techniques were poor, ‘with foundations too shallow and walls too thin’, they frequently collapsed ‘and were always exposed to great risk from fire’.

When this context is kept in mind even the most familiar of texts take on fresh meanings and begin to shine with previously unrecognised depths of pastoral love and concern. For example, Paul’s opening address, to ‘all in Rome who are loved by God’ (1:7), is no longer a formal statement with which any letter might open, but sounds from the beginning the note of assurance and blessing, so that small groups of Jesus’ people gathered in squalid high-rises to hear this letter read, people without honour or dignity, are addressed with respect as the objects of divine love, and as those called and given a new status and the power to live a hopeful and useful life. Later in this same letter Paul will urge his receptors to resist ‘the pattern of this world’ and ‘be transformed’ by the ‘renewing of your mind’ (12:2), an extraordinary statement which indicates that the dominant ideology, to which there appeared to be no alternative, especially within the city of Rome, can be renounced and resisted, and at the same time recognises the freedom and ability of members of the underclass to think their own thoughts in obedience to Jesus Christ This lays the foundation for a social revolution from below, encouraging a movement with the potential to ‘turn the world upside down’.

‘envisioned the spiritual universe as a vast, multistoried insula with swarms of supernatural beings occupying floors above and below them’. In other words, the w which Paul faced, unlike that of the modern West which the cosmos has been emptied of spiritual to become an infinite, silent space, was an enchanted universe in which the borders between the spiritual the physical, and between the living and the dead, porous and easily and frequently crossed.

In the aftermath of the Second World War in Europe, James Stewart observed that Christianity in the West had lost an awareness of the extent of the victory of the cross and needed to recover the apostolic proclamation which ‘spoke of an objective transaction which had changed the human situation and indeed the universe, the kosmos itself. It spoke of the decisive irrevocable defeat of the powers of darkness’.35 As to those powers, for much of the twentieth century Paul’s language concerning such spiritual forces was quietly ignored by most Western Christians who, having been socialised into the modernist worldview, regarded such beliefs as an archaic and somewhat embarrassing hangover from pre-modern times: However, the multiple horrors of the twentieth century involved encounters with evil of such profound and terrifying depths that even intellectuals with unimpeachable secular credentials found themselves forced to use terms like ‘demonic’, and even ‘satanic’, as they struggled to find language capable of describing the human tragedies of the times. Carl Gustav Jung, for example, described the situation in Germany in 1939 as one in which a man, ‘who is obviously “possessed”, has infected a whole nation to such an extent that everything is set in motion and has started rolling on its course toward perdition’.36 In theological circles the recovery of the language of the ‘powers’ is evident in the work of Karl Barth, who rejected talk of the need to ‘demythologise’ Paul’s gospel and, turning this approach on its head, insisted that it was the modern myths underlying the culture and politics of Europe and North America which needed to be critiqued from the perspective of the gospel, especially those associated with the power of the state and the rule of Mammon.

Thus, the assemblies to which Paul writes understood themselves not as yet another religious movement, an additional strand to the luxuriant and politically innocuous subculture of the Empire, but rather, as a counterculture, or ‘a cultural form that was counterhegemonic in the area of religion’.

“The recognition that the context in which Jon of Patmos wrote his Apocalypse was one of multiple crises is important both for the proper understanding of his complex work, and for the discovery of its relevance and power in similar situations in our world today. Revelation did not descend out of a clear blue sky to a person living a life of tranquility and undisturbed intellectual reflection. Rather this book emerged from a tumultuous period of history when the very foundations of life were shaken and death and suffering stalked the earth. It is a response to a deep personal, spiritual and social crisis in which the dissonance between the hope inspired by the gospel (a hope which, as we have seen, motivated Paul’s universal mission and the demonstrable reality of a world dominated by a pagan power arrogating to itself the rise of the saviour of all nations demanded fresh vision and anew kind of theological language.”

“This brief sketch of the history and reception and interpretation of the book of Revelation and its profound and lasting influence on Western culture compels us to consider some uncomfortable but unavoidable questions. Catherine Keller asks whether it is ‘mere coincidence that the last book of the holy book of the Western world envisions a cataclysmic end, given that the West seems in its modernity hell-bent on producing some literal form of that end’. How do we explain the strange paradox that while Western modernity espouse the optimistic millennialism of progress it has engaged in ‘busily facilitating the most demented of ecological or nuclear dooms?’”

While John has sacrificed his freedom and given everything for the sake of Christ, many of those to whom he writes are settling down in the world, devising ways to serve both God and Mammon, and accommodating the message of the gospel to the dominant culture. The result is that among those who profess to follow Christ, only a minority are capable of hearing the voice of the Spirit; the rest are listening to teachers who openly advocate complicity in the denial ‘of the true God and his righteousness which characterises the forces of evil incarnate in the Roman system’.

As Richard Bauckham says, John and his hearers are enabled to see behind the historical events as their world is expanded and opened up to divine transcendence. ‘The bounds which Roman power and ideology set to the readers’ world are broken open and that world is seen as open to the greater purpose of its transcendent Creator and Lord’.”

If what happens in public worship may be likened to the act of passing through the portal between earth and heaven, must it not be admitted that for us it too often turns out to be a revolving door which, having given the merest glimpse of heavenly reality, propels us back into the mundane world without the theological and spiritual resources necessary to discipleship and mission in an idolatrous and broken society. Clearly, we cannot aspire to John’s apocalyptic experience, but how might his reports of what he discovered taking place ‘beyond the door’ inform and enrich the worship of the church militant on earth today?

The cultural encounters of the first century, those of our day, do not take place in abstra of economic and political systems … [T]he w order – or rather, the world disorder – is such people are forced to leave their traditional h and move to new lands in search of safety, se freedom and work … When the rivers of wealth in one direction, it is only natural for population to flow in the same direction.

As I have said elsewhere, when the description of New Jerusalem becomes divorced from its wider context within the Apocalypse the question arises as to whether John’s brilliant depiction of another world is actually a form of religious escapism by means of which those who currently suffer injustice and poverty are offered the false comfort of post-mortem compensation?

Here is brought from every land and sea all the crops of the seasons and the produce of each land, river, lake, as well as the arts of the Greeks and barbarians, so that if someone wished to view all these things, he must either see them by travelling over the whole world or be in this city … So many merchants’ ships arrive here, conveying every kind of goods from every people every hour and every day, so that the city is like a factory common to the whole earth. It is possible to see so many cargoes from India and even from Arabia … that one imagines that for future the trees are left bare for the people there and that they must come here to beg for their produce if they need anything.

The description of the layout and extent of the city in 21:15-16, where an angel with a measuring rod reports that it is in the form of a massive cube, extending approximately 1,500 miles in every direction, including a vertical elevation, suggests that this is a metropolis on a completely unprecedented scale. Were it to be

superimposed on the geographical space of the ancient world it would extend across the entire Mediterranean area, or (and this may be intended) would cover the region conquered by Alexander the Great and that now subjected to Roman authority and power.

John’s new world is no return to Paradise lost, but instead anticipates an urban form in which human civilisation will exist in perfect harmony with the (re)created world. The New Jerusalem ‘consummates human history and culture insofar as these have been dedicated to God’ and `points to that harmony of nature and human culture to which ancient cities once aspired but which modern cities have increasingly betrayed’.

Columbus is known to have possessed a book entitled Imago Mundi that interweaves the biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden with the prophecies of Joachim, and passages from the latter concerning the glorious third age were underlined and annotated. In his later correspondence, Columbus makes frequent reference to Joachim, whose mystical theology imbued him with the unshakable confidence seen in a letter written in 1500: ‘I am making myself the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which our Lord speaks in the Apocalypse by the mouth of St John’.

There is a tragic irony here. As Catherine Keller points out, Joachim’s visions anticipated an age of universal love and economic sharing, a time when the gospel would heal the divisions of humankind and bring justice for all. His theology thus reflected Revelation’s ‘anti-imperialist animus, opposed to precisely the Rome-like concentration of colonizing power and wealth which Spain was emulating’. The religious and missionary motivation of Columbus was interwoven with the quest for gold and for slaves and the conquistadores who followed in his wake ‘would so flood Europe with the gold and silver of America that a new economic system would arise’. Keller concludes: Thus the global capitalist economy is directly indebted to the native peoples and the silver, gold, and resources their slave labour produced. The ‘New Heaven and Earth’ of which Colon was the messenger would liberate Europeans not from private property but for its endless pursuit.

Friesen makes the telling observation that the nations in which the academic discipline of New Testament studies has flourished in modern times `are precisely the countries that have claimed large sections of the earth as their empires’. Has the discipline of Biblical Studies ‘been a tool of imperialism?’

Could the western academy withstand a studious attention to hegemony? Could Christian churches tolerate a thorough accounting of their abuses of power? Could the modern west survive if it attempted to atone for its domination? John would not dodge these questions.

In 92 AD the emperor Domitian issued an edict that no new vineyards were to be created in Italy and half the vines in the provinces, including Asia Minor, were to be destroyed and the land returned to growing grain to feed the population. The edict was fiercely resisted by the elite and was never implemented; do we hear their voices in the cry in 6:6, `… do not damage the oil and the wine’?

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