The Jesus Paradigm
I’ve been rereading my book on the Gospels. I wanted to review the portrait of Christ we find in the so-called Synoptics – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Although my purpose in writing the book was to defend the chronological order Matthew-Luke-Mark – the order supported by the early church fathers – my ultimate goal was to restore confidence in the historicity and apostolicity of the Gospel accounts in the face of attacks from both liberals and neo-orthodox scholars.
Now that my interest has shifted a bit from church history to questions of Christian ethics, I am reexamining the Gospels to see whether or not the Christ of the machine gun can be defended. Lest you laugh at such an absurdity, let me remind you that in recent years there has been no shortage of speculation about the nature of Jesus’ life and ministry. That He was a megalomaniac, a Zealot (or at least a Zealot sympathizer), a homosexual with compensatory sublimations, a student of the Essenes, a husband and father – all of these suggestions, and more, have been made. For what it’s worth, my own quest for the truth over the past three decades has forced me to conclude that the Jesus of history and the Christ of Christianity are one and the same. Frankly, I see no other explanation for the data. Christianity derives its ethical system from what happened in the first century. It is the tradition of Jesus, as faithfully recorded in apostolic documents we call “Gospels,” that is the normative factor which allows us to speak of a “Christian” ethic.
What, then, is the “paradigm of Jesus” we find in the Gospels? And how should Jesus’ model affect our contemporary moral struggles? Can, indeed, the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels be considered normative? I must ask myself these questions even though I am not a Christian ethicist, because it has become clear to me that violence and power-brokering are not excluded from the “Christian ethics” of a good many of my contemporaries. I feel that I have the responsibility of bringing to the total social order of which I am a small part a Christ-centered and Christ-honoring perspective. Above all, Christ’s love and redemptive action should find a consistent expression in my ministry of service to others.
I recognize that on this issue, as on many others, conscientious Christians will differ in their understanding of what it means to obey Christ. Speaking personally, and only personally, there is no doubt in my mind that America is moving toward a permanent militaristic outlook. The public now accepts as normal and inevitable that the nation must be prepared to go to war at any moment. The conclusion I derive from this is that America is not guided as much by evidence as by custom. A classic case in point is Iran (see my essay on this subject). A kind of unthinking pragmatism has settled upon us like dust. If we flex our muscles the world will respect us – so we argue. We have forgotten the servant role of Christianity. We attempt to exploit the powers rather than persuade them to conform to the way of Christ. We have forgotten that we need to make it clear that our loyalty is to Christ and not to the state. Indeed, uncompromising loyalty to Christ is the best way to render service to the state and, at the same time, to engage in prophetic witness to the world around us.
When one reads the Gospels one arrives at an inescapable conclusion: It is the suffering of Jesus that is the paradigm of the Christian life. The well-known axiom from Martin Kähler that the Gospels are “passion narratives with extended introductions” certainly applies. Jesus is the “king who didn’t reign,” in contrast to the false triumphalism found in the Hellenistic tradition of the “divine man” who masters the cosmic forces of evil. The Gospels proclaim “Christ crucified” every bit as much as the apostle Paul does. They warn us against the moral distortion that runs rife in our churches. Insofar as the Messiah was understood as a political deliverer, the Gospels are not only apolitical, they are antipolitical, for the Christ they present stands in diametrical opposition to the conventional messianic hope of the day.
The cross thus appears as the hermeneutical key to understanding the revelation of God in Christ. Is there not a clear parallel between America’s theologia gloriae and Peter’s protest against Jesus’ passion in Mark 8:32, with its overtones of ethnic triumphalism? Mark’s Gospel soberly recognizes where Christ stands with respect to the structures of power, whether in Jerusalem or Rome – or even the United States. The only question for the church is: Are we willing to follow Jesus “beyond politics,” that is, beyond the cultural optimism that encourages us to think that the most serious problem in the world today is the absence of democracy?
How this model of Jesus is to be transformed from the pages of the Gospels to the dilemma of modern life remains, of course, to be fleshed out. After all, the example of Christ will perforce have a potent effect upon one’s moral understanding of Christianity, unless of course we shunt it aside. James Douglass, in his book The Non-Violent Cross, is convinced that political pacifism is the only logical outcome of the paradigm of Jesus:
It is evident that the doctrine [of a just war] is too weak in its theological presuppositions to be able to support the cross, either the cross of conscientious objection or the cross of unilateral disarmament. The foundations of a just-war theory do not have the strength to sustain adequately the kind of witness demanded today by its own moral logic, which taken by itself compels one to relinquish all recourse to modern war (James Douglass, The Non-Violent Cross [New York: Macmillan, 1966] p. 172).
For myself, I have found no pat way to deal with the questions being asked by pacifists. I dare not assume that just because I am a Christ-follower I am incapable of gross moral evil. My position on war and peace is not neat and tidy. I continue to struggle with the questions, and my struggles belie neat schemes or solutions. My dilemma is perhaps best captured in the oft-quoted statement of Bonhoeffer: “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”
In the end, if I am moved by the compassion of our Lord Jesus to eschew violence and to participate in God’s reconciling activity in the world, it is only because His Spirit casts out all fear.
July 3, 2008
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.