Reta Halteman Finger is an affiliate associate professor of New Testament at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and the co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation. You can read more of her writing on her Bible study blog.
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Christians in Post-Castro Cuba
IN MARCH, I visited Cuba on a 10-day tour with alumni from Eastern Mennonite University. I’ve studied the socialist structure of the early Jerusalem church (as recounted in Acts 2-6), and I wanted to experience Cuban socialism directly and see how it compares. How, for example, have Christian churches fared under a one-party socialist government?
On our visit, we heard about Cuba’s successes in the areas of health care and education. We heard a lecture on the massive effort to bring Cuba’s average level of education from third grade in 1959 to the current 11th grade. We learned about Cuba’s universal free health care, and that local clinics throughout the island provide basic care accessible to every citizen. As a result, infant mortality is lower than in the U.S. and overall life expectancy is about the same, according to The Atlantic—even though the U.S. spends more than 10 times as much per person per year on health care.
Such basic needs have been met not by Christian churches but by a government that initially robbed the wealthy and shared it with the poor. What were Christians in Cuba—Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—to make of this enormous shift toward economic equality? After the revolution, most missionaries returned to their home countries, and thousands of Cubans, Christians and otherwise, fled to the United States. Christians who remained had to rethink their mission in a society where the poor were educated and healed through structural change rather than individual charity.
Mary's Role Models
DID MARY KNOW, on that puzzling and fateful afternoon when the angel Gabriel visited her, that she was about to join a line of mothers in Israel who would be remembered and honored within a tradition dominated by men?
Did she think of her forebear and namesake, Miriam, co-deliverer of her people from Egyptian slavery? Did Deborah, prophet and judge, come to mind—or Jael, the housewife who drove a tent peg into the brain of an enemy general? Had anyone told this nonliterate young woman about Huldah, the prophet and scholar who identified Deuteronomy as sacred scripture? Surely Queen Esther, who saved her people from a Persian pogrom, was known to Mary from the annual festival of Purim.
More likely Mary would have remembered women in Israel who gave birth to important men, such as Samson and Samuel. The late pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth brought Isaac’s mother, Sarah, into view.
But her own premarital pregnancy may have reminded her more of Bathsheba, mother of Solomon. In this patriarchal culture, wives who could not conceive were disgraced and considered of little worth, but pregnancy before marriage could result in an honor killing. No wonder Mary fled to Elizabeth as the only person who might understand her unusual plight (Luke 1:39-45). Guided by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth enabled Mary to turn her fear into a song of praise adapted from Hannah’s prayer after her son Samuel was born (Luke 1:46-56; 1 Samuel 2:1-10). God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud.
If she pondered her place in Israelite history, did Mary also think of more-recent heroes? If Hanukkah was celebrated in Nazareth each year, she would have known how the second temple in Jerusalem had been rededicated to Yahweh after its desecration by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, 160 years earlier. Hanukkah acclaimed the successful Maccabean revolt and subsequent Judean independence; it also exalted Judith, whose name means “Jewish woman”; she saved Israel from destruction by beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes.
Jesus Confronts ‘Alternative Facts’
LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, a prisoner under arrest for treason faced his judge. The judge asked him about his beliefs and his political aspirations. “You can accuse me of wanting to be a ruler,” the prisoner replied, “but all I can say is that I came into this world to testify to the truth.” The judge was deeply scornful. “What is truth?” he said, and turned on his heel and walked away.
If you were working for a great empire, as was this judge and governor, you would be far more concerned about power than about truth. In fact, later in the trial, the judge reminded his prisoner that he had the power to release or execute him. The judge cared more about enhancing his own power and reputation in the empire than about meting out justice. The life of a powerless prisoner, along with the concept of truth, was expendable.
Today, truth itself may be expendable in the United States. A few years ago, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to describe that reality. But in the power struggle of our recent presidential election and the resulting shift in leadership, truth is becoming more and more squishy. Thus the Oxford English Dictionary added a stronger word in 2016: “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As Oxford’s usage example puts it, “in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.” No doubt the fake news we have seen and heard on social media is sure to continue.
The Political Drama of Revelation
WHEN I ASKED various Christians about their reaction to the book of Revelation, I heard back: “Dark and scary.” “It’s too violent for me.” and “It’s a total blank. I really don’t know anything about it.”
But this dramatic, political, incendiary scripture is important for us to understand today. It was written in empire and should be read today in our own imperial context to learn what it means to follow the Lamb. We also need to know how it has been used and misused by Christians throughout history. As evangelical New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, “To understand what a text means, we must first understand what it meant!”
Reading the apocalypse
First, a bit of background. The word “revelation” (apokalupsis in Greek) belongs to a popular genre of Jewish literature prevalent from about 250 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. An apocalypse purports to be a vision of a realm beyond our normal senses, where God is in control and will eventually break in to rescue the faithful from oppression. Apocalyptic literature is intended to bring hope during times of political uncertainty or persecution.
The books of Daniel and Revelation are our only canonical examples of apocalyptic literature. Other Jewish apocalypses written during this period are attributed to heroes of old, such as Adam, Enoch, and Abraham, to lend authority. Daniel also is pseudonymous, since Daniel lived 400 years before the second-century B.C.E. events described in chapters 7 to 12 of that book.
Only John in Revelation uses his own name and his own location: “I, John, your brother who shares with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). He is in political exile on Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), because of his witness to the good news of Jesus.
Not a Needy Person Among Them
AN UNUSUAL TITLE recently caught my eye at the library. The book is called The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, by Paul J. Zak. An economist with obvious interests in biology, psychology, and religion, Zak’s numerous experiments demonstrate that when someone is shown a sign of trust or when one’s empathy is engaged, a certain molecule called oxytocin surges in the brain and blood.
“When oxytocin surges,” says Zak, “people behave in ways that are kinder, more generous, more cooperative, and more caring.” In other words, they follow the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated. Zak eventually demonstrates how oxytocin can work within economic systems, which reminded me of a children’s song we sang at a church I used to attend in Chicago: “Love is like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many they’ll fall all over the floor!”
And that reminded me of research I had done on the early Jerusalem church in the book of Acts. If there ever were oxytocin surges, it must have been at Pentecost and in the days and years of the shared economic community that followed!
Two summary texts describe the common life shared among these earliest believers: Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-37. The first tells of their daily life together, distributing possessions, worshiping in the temple, and eating a daily communal meal in various households. The second passage describes the renunciation of private ownership. Believers sold their land and homes and gave the money to the community to be distributed “as any had need” (4:35).
Why did they do this? Wasn’t it impractical and more trouble than it was worth? Didn’t they soon have to cope with cheaters like Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) or complaints from Hellenist widows (6:1-6)? Didn’t that radical idealism soon peter out and people go back to their former lifestyles?
Interpreting through middle-class mirrors
My research on how these economic texts have been interpreted throughout Christian history was eye-opening. Ever since market capitalism arose in the 14th century, many commentators considered the communalism of the Jerusalem church to be unrealistic. For example, John Calvin, a 16th century community organizer, writes in his Acts commentary that he had to “properly” interpret communal sharing in 2:44 “on account of fanatical spirits who devise a koinonia of goods where all civil order is overturned.” He especially criticizes the Anabaptists of the time, because “they thought there was no church unless all mens’ (sic) goods were heaped up together, and everyone took therefrom as they chose.” Instead, Calvin recommends that “common sharing ... must be held in check.”
The rise of historical criticism during the 19th century in the West led to much skepticism about the accuracy of biblical texts. Luke wrote decades later, scholars asserted, idealizing the early church in Acts. The Jerusalem believers were very poor and had to help each other out, so Luke turns this grim picture into a Golden Age of sharing. In his 1854 commentary, Edward Zeller maintained that Acts 1 to 7 was full of legends and fictitious stories that Luke himself created.
The conservative reaction to such skepticism was to affirm the historicity of the early chapters of Acts—but to see this as a socialist experiment that soon failed and was never tried again. Its failure was confirmed by the poverty of the Jerusalem church in Acts 11:27-29, where the disciples at Antioch decided to “send relief to the believers living in Judea.”
No doubt these notions about the community of goods in Acts 2 to 6 prevail in many churches today. But both perspectives get it wrong because scholars and laypersons alike read these texts out of their own economic situation—Western capitalism. For middle and upper-middle classes (from which most biblical scholars emerge), capitalism has worked well. As a political and economic system, it has staunchly opposed Marxist and other ideas of socialist communalism, often perceived as “godless.”
This hostility has made it almost impossible to view the socialism of the early Jerusalem church as a positive development or one that survived more than a few years. For example, G.T. Stokes’ 1903 Acts commentary in the English Expositor’s Bible series declared that the Jerusalem experiment was a socio-economic disaster that should never have happened. One of the evils it produced, according to Stokes, was the conflict between the Hellenist and Hebrew widows in Acts 6:1. Stokes assumes they were destitute widows fighting over poor relief. Reflecting Victorian class distinctions and paternalistic attitudes, he asserts, “No classes are more suspicious and more quarrelsome than those who are in receipt of such assistance ... Managers of almshouses, asylums, and workhouses know this ... and ofttimes make bitter acquaintance with that evil spirit which burst forth even in the mother church of Jerusalem.”
Paul's Political Manifesto
“REJOICE IN THE LORD ALWAYS.” “Do not worry about anything.”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Verse fragments such as these, in the midst of a warm, fuzzy letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the house churches in Philippi, sustained me through high school and beyond. Indeed, the entire letter is saturated with joy. Philippians has been a source of great comfort to many Christians over the centuries.
It is clear that Paul had a close friendship with the believers in Philippi. A major purpose of the letter was to thank them for sending one of their own, Epaphroditus, with a gift for Paul. Sadly, the messenger became very ill while with Paul, but now that he has recovered, Paul is returning him to Philippi, along with the letter (2:25-30; 4:15-18).
Less clear are the political assumptions and harsh realities that frame this encouraging missive. Paul lived and traveled within the mightiest empire the world had known up to that point. He carried his gospel message thousands of miles on Roman roads built for military conquest. At the same time he challenged the very foundations that supported this empire, and his activism was perceived by political authorities as a threat. Paul paid for this by suffering in a Roman prison (1:13) and did not know if he would survive his ordeal or not (1:21-24).
Jonah At Sea
The prophet who got everything wrong.
A foreign woman creates a scene in Tyre.
On the Outskirts of Heaven
Reflections of the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle B
Bright Morning Star A-Rising
Reflections of the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle B.
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