Shuck and Jive

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Power Over" or "Power To"

After watching Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza's lecture, it occurred to me that what is happening in my own little neck of the woods is what is happening on a broader scale in church and empire. The big flap over my post that was recently published on Presbyweb and is still generating conversation on Toby Brown's blog, has to deal with interpretation of scripture and the rhetoric of empire.

I find it fascinating that so many of my loyal opposition think I am a heretic and desire my removal from the PCUSA. Before my expulsion I would like to suggest that some attention must be paid to the power dynamics of the church and of empire. Why is what I write, teach and preach in my own little corner of East Tennessee such a threat?

I do teach and preach what I think are values contrary to the values of Empire and "power over." I reject interpretations and applications of scripture that dehumanize. This is why I challenge the notion that the whole of the Bible is the "Word of God." Yet at the same time, we do have to deal with this text that is theologically authoritative for the church and culturally authoritative for the empire of the United States.

Fiorenza points out that when we turn the Bible into "The Word of God" it serves exclusion, dominance, and violence--the attributes of empire. She suggests that the scriptures contain the Word of God. Not all of it is revelatory of the divine will of compassion and justice. From her speech:

[Feminists] have pointed out that the Bible has not only been written by human hand, but by the hand of elite men. It is not only the product of past imperial cultures, but also has and still is used to instill the dehumanizing violence of such cultures as "The Word of God." If biblical norms and traditions are not only historically conditioned by empire, but also ideologically determined, then one must ask what kind of authority does the Bible have for believing communities today? It is not only a historically and theologically limited book, but also ones that implicates the ethos and violence of empire.

She concludes:

Since Christian fundamentalism draws on the language of empire inscribed in Christian scriptures, Christian liberationist readings need to reconstruct elements of a radical democratic and egalitarian vision that is also inscribed in Christian scriptures. We need to rescind the authority of scripture not as "power over" that demands obedience but as "power to" as enabling decision-making power as discerned of the Spirit.

The oppression of the authority of Scripture is not just an inter-Christian problem, but it is a challenge to all those who seek to change cultural-political ethos of empire and its internalizations. Discretion becomes more and more pressing when at a time in the name of God and the Bible, anti-democratic tendencies are on the rise.

In response to this question, several hermeneutical approaches have been developed. The approach which I have found most helpful utilizes classic theological teaching which recognizes that the Bible contains revelation, namely in the form of a written record, but that not all of scripture is revelation. In line with Augustine and Thomas of Aquinas, this approach articulates the criterion that limits revealed truth pertaining to matters of salvation or well-being. The theological criterion for the sake of our salvation, for our well-being allows, us to adjudicate everything said in scripture as to whether it fosters well-being. It compels us to reject the authority of those biblical texts that are inscriptions of empire and violence.

As theological subjects we have to insist on our spiritual authority to assess both the oppressive as well as the liberating imagination of particular biblical texts in concrete situations. We need to do so because of the imperial function of authoritative scripture claims that demand unquestioned obedience and acceptance. Yet biblical authority understood as "power to" is not something that requires the subordination of the human. Rather it understands scripture as a resource of creativity, courage and solidarity.

The creative power of scripture is something ongoing, that can be articulated only in and through the rejection of the violent power and ethos of empire. The truth of sacred scripture is not something given once and for all. The words of scripture are not engraved tablets of stone. Rather they are nourishing threads of divine wisdom which empowers us to struggle against the violence and exploitation of empire in our daily life.


  1. By preaching against the values of Empire, you preach against the values of a system of domination and control. How well this matches up against the fact that the witch hunt against you is itself an attempted exercise of power and control. Hounding you of the PCUSA would be the ultimate expression of this kind of authoritarianism. Witch hunts have always been that way, and they always will be.

  2. ES Fiorenza is a challenging read, but a worthwhile one. I remember hating her in undergrad, but I certainly respect her now. Even for a flaming, eeevil liberal like myself, reading her was a shock to the system.

    Like most, including particularly myself, on almost every blog I've read, you provoke when it could be avoided sometimes, but on the other hand, if we never push, how does anything ever move?

    I just hope everyone realizes, at some point, that this is not a battle - it is a relationship. Dysfunctional to be sure most of the time, but it is a relationship. If we view it as a battle, then we've already lost.

    I see that as one of the main insights of nonviolence, a big reason I try to practice it (and fail, and try again) - that the only just struggle is one that is in the best interests of all involved and which seeks to reconcile all sides, rather than defeat or humiliate "opponents".

    Unfortunately, it also demands the willingness to suffer until that aim is achieved.

    I wish I was a more courageous person.

    I hope reconciliation is how this, whatever *this* is exactly, ends.

  3. John,
    A couple of things, if you really do wish to understand why some have made such accusations against your writing.

    First, a framing comment. You, and your writing are not at the center of things. You took vows regarding our commonly held confessions and BoO. Therefore to call those who say things against you, as 'the loyal opposition' betrays, perhaps, a perspective that is, well- off. As much as it feels like it from your vantage point I'm sure, ultimately- this ain't about you. Its about God, and how he has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. And what we have all agreed upon to live under and embrace as officers in the PC(USA).

    This leads to my second observation- although folks might disagree with you, as they have ESF in her assertions- it isn't what you are for that has gotten you in trouble (as wrong headed as that may be, imho), but it is what you deny - bodily resurrection, virgin birth, divinity of Christ, personhood of God- that, if sincerely held, place you outside the pale of the agreed upon boundaries of our guild. You seem to indicate you are not sincere in what you deny, that some of what you say is hyperbole. If that is accurate, I really don't understand what you are attempting to do... provocation for provocations sake?

    Lastly, I sincerely doubt anyone thinks what you teach in TN is dangerous in the sense that it'll ruin the church. I suspect folks, like myself, simply see it as contradicting and denying what scripture asserts as being so, the confessions and the book of order as well- in other words, the faith once delivered.

    You're a smart guy, you are obviously adept at rhetoric, you know all this. Folks might hear what you assert as important- your anti empire hermeneutic- if they observed in the process you didn't belittle our triune God of grace, and the scriptures to boot.

    btw, loved the Ochs song, been humming it for several days now.


  4. I agree with your criticisms of the politics and power of Empire and any biblical interpretations which dehumanize. But here is something I wish everyone would think about more.

    The traditional story of Jesus' death which has Jesus surrounded and done in by Jewish enemies is based on power and not rational assessment of the evidence. Even academic scholarship on the historical Jesus has engaged in a witch trial against Judas and Jewish leaders. The details in the Gospels do not support their guilt. My definition of a witch trial is this: One which a) exaggerates or invents incriminating evidence, and b) suppresses and erases exonerating evidence.

    I know this charge which I make can shock a lot of people, but I can soldily prove it. The reason it shocks people is that literally everyone has participated in or fallen in step with this witch trial. As long as the abusers of power are over there, it is easy to accuse them, but when well-intentioned people come face to face with the fact that they too may have abused power by believing in false accusations against Jewish leaders and Judas, then it becomes a lot harder to be critical of a power that you too have embraced.

    I suggest that it is very liberating to face this and rid yourself of an attachment to a dehumanizing power. To read the NT in a fresh way — what could be more exciting? To realize that Paul says at Acts 13:28 that there was no Jewish death penalty against Jesus, that a retired priest, Annas in John 18, questioning Jesus has implications, that the Gospel word for Judas' action has been mistranslated as betray — this should all be very exciting, and there are another 30 or so clues that tell us what really happened. All you have to do is confront how we have all been seduced by power to overlook these things.

    Leon Zitzer

  5. Seeker,

    Thanks. I think issues of power are central to any discussion of what it means to be human in church, society, and the world.

  6. Doug,

    This is life. There is no question that I am a man with clay feet. I may get it right now and then but I certainly get it wrong. In the end, you write what you think is true and good and hope for the best.

    By the way, I love the blog world. I think it is a fascinating way of communicating even though we have not mastered ourselves through it.

    You are of course correct. In the end reconciliation is the last word.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Dave,

    Thanks for dropping by. Thanks for your words and for the tone in which you express them.

    Here is my response:

    1) I am not in trouble nor do I think I am in trouble. Some may disagree with my views and with the fact that I express them. Many more are appreciative with the questions I ask even as they may come to a different point. I am not worried about my loyal opposition. Whatever happens in this life happens!

    2) I don't necessarily deny those things you suggest I deny. These symbols of faith need, in my view, to be understood in our 21st century context, after Copernicus after Darwin, and in our present situation of Empire. I should add that I fully affirm and uphold all my ordination vows.

    3) I am not about provocation for the sake of provocation. I read Schussler-Fiorenza in seminary. I don't think my professors required I read her to provoke for the sake of provoking, but for the sake of learning. Nothing I write is new. It is simply a regurgitation of what other scholars have written and my interaction with it.

    4) Style. For some it may seem belittling, for others liberating.

    5) Glad you like Ochs. I find it difficult to find folks who have even heard of him!


  8. Leon,

    I am not sure exactly what you are saying. I think it goes something like: Jews should not be blamed for the death of Jesus. I agree. But I am not sure exactly what more you are saying. You have commented before. Could you tell me you thesis in simpler terms for me?


  9. John –

    Thanks for the lecture link. I read three of Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza’s books, including In Memory of Her, over ten years ago. I t changed the way I read the Bible. To hear her speak was quite a treat.

    John McNeese

  10. Okay, I like John and what he 'does' with church - but this comment is going to be very telling.

    "but it is what you deny - bodily resurrection, virgin birth, divinity of Christ, personhood of God - that, if sincerely held, place you outside the pale of the agreed upon boundaries of our guild." (Regress)

    So basically the question of Christian validity is laid down on what he 'believes' and not 'what he does'? First off, belieivng God is 3 or 1 isn't going to make you a nice person...that's just not how it works. So if the 'guild' thinks it is so right about it's stand - maybe it should invest in some sincerity while at it - who made them as a church organization (rep of Christ) the sole and final rep? Who says all that they have written down is true? So if John questions the validity of some of their claims they just 'remove' him? Do you see the obvious problem here (the machine is dead and refuses to grow).

    "folks, like myself, simply see it as contradicting and denying what scripture asserts as being so, the confessions and the book of order" (Regress)

    Confessions? Book of order? This isn't tradition holding up tradition for tradition's sake? Drop them all - your faith would be 200% better off since it wouldn't be colored in by imaginery lines that the 'machine' has chosen to make look like faith - but really is faith in the system and nothing more.

    "Folks might hear what you assert as important - your anti empire hermeneutic" (Regress)

    It is important and valid as a viewpoint from Jesus' teachings - supporting an 'empire' is the actual invalid point (as far as I can tell). I find John's lingo in this post right on the money - we need to be 'for all' and not 'for some' (empire)...which begs the question if empire is important - whose empire has the reigns as we speak?

  11. This isn't tradition holding up tradition for tradition's sake?

    That is pretty much what it is. And it creates an ossified faith, in which anyone who dares to think for themselves is subjected to a witch hunt for not conforming. It views faith not as a living, breathing relationship with the Sacred, but merely a rote affirmation of dogma.

  12. I'm going to limit my comments to the subject of the Confessions of the PCUSA. Are they time bound? I would say yes and no. Certainly they were all written to speak to particular issues in particular times. Except for the Catechisms. they were written as teaching devices. So the Confessions are time bound. On the other hand each of them speak to issues in the world and the Church today. Westminster's writers had the humility to say that synods and councils do err, suggesting that they themselves might be wrong about some things. And Barmen, given the discussion, speaks directly against empire by asserting that Jesus is Lord, not Hitler.

    There are a lot of other assertions in them, some universal and some time bound. We in the Church have to be very careful as we read them to first appreciate the work, usually against the forces of empire in the past, and second to ask ourselves what they say to our time. After all, the past can be very instructive.

  13. John,

    I'd be happy to state this as simply as I can. The majority of scholars and religious tradition tell us that the Gospels say Jewish leaders put Jesus on trial, etc., and Judas betrayed Jesus. Actually, this is false. The Gospels do not literally say these things. These are not facts or data from the Gospels. They are interpretations of the Gospels (or hypotheses or theories), but not literally stated facts.

    It's important to get this right because when you realize that they are interpretations or theories, you can ask 2 questions: 1) are they good interpretations (are they based on plenty of evidence), and 2) is there a better interpretation? They are certainly not good interpretations because (and here I am not saying anything new) every scholar knows that the so-called Jewish trial and Judas' betrayal are contradictted by plenty of other information. Yet everyone holds fast to the "trial" and the "betrayal" because they mistakenly take them to be Gospel facts.

    So here is the thesis: If you adopt another theory or interpretation, you can explain all the Gospel evidence in a way that makes a lot of sense. I am saying that Judas never betrayed Jesus but was helping him to the very end and Jewish leaders tried to save Jesus from a Roman execution. If you adopt this approach, everything makes sense, no more contradictions. The Gospel writers were as honest as they could be and preserved so many details that tell us the original story. We should honor that.

    It is only an obsession with power that keeps everyone from reading the Gospels in a fresh way. Real faihfulness to the Gospels instead of willful misinterpretaion will reveal a very inspiring story that deepens Christian faith instead of overthrowing it. The only thing Christians will lose is the false idea that Jesus was surrounded by Jewish enemies. The details in the Gospels just do not support that.

    Leon Zitzer

  14. I am always fascinated by this rather large blind spot in the history of the right wing of the PC(USA) (I won't use the term "evangelical" as most honest evangelicals know better).

    Societyvs is learning about the Presbyterian Church, and my contributions were rambling essays on the PC(USA), PCC, UCC, and the General Assembly. This story is a crucial one to the understanding of Presbyterianism in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.

    There is an important historical point in American Presbyterianism that occurred in the 1920s. At the time, the northern (PCUSA) and southern (PCUS) churches were still separated from the Civil War. The northern church was deeply divided over liberal-conservative faultlines. It came to a head over whether to ordain candidates to ministry who did not want to swear their belief in the virgin birth. A Doctrinal Deliverance in 1910 proclaimed that ministers must profess their beliefs in five "fundamentals":
    1. Inerrancy of Scripture
    2. The virgin birth of Christ
    3. The crucifixion as substitutionary atonement for humanity's sins
    4. The physical, bodily resurrection of Christ
    5. The historical reality of Christ's miracles.

    The advocates of these standards became known as "fundamentalists".

    Long story short, in 1926 the General Assembly eventually came to the same conclusions as the Auburn Affirmation, a 1923 document that affirmed the Westminster Confession of Faith but acknowledged that American Presbyterianism historically allowed clergy to dissent from the WCF and allow the governing body to decide whether the disagreement was serious enough to bar ordination or accepted as freedom of conscience. The very conservative J. Gresham Machen tried to enforce the Five Fundamentals anyway in his faculty position at Princeton Seminary, and after being removed for insubordination, tried to form his own seminary. After failing to convince the General Assembly to require foreign missionaries to affirm the Five Fundamentals, Machen tried to form his own competing Independent missions board within the PCUSA government. This was declared as in violation of the church's constitution, a trial was held, and Machen was suspended from the ministry in 1936. He left the PCUSA and formed the very conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

    The southern church (the PCUS) experienced a similar schism about 40 years later when the conservatives left (citing similar concerns to Machen's, but with underlying opposition to the ordination of women and the church's advocacy of the civil rights movement) and formed the Presbyterian Church in America.

    The northern and southern churches reunited in 1983 to form the modern PC(USA).

    All this brings me to my main point.

    The mainline Presbyterian churches in the United States have explicitly rejected the idea of a checklist of doctrines for ministers. The conservative splinter groups (OPC, PCA, etc) have explicitly endorsed such checklists. This is (pardon the pun) a fundamental distinctive between the mainline and splinter churches.

    This is an issue that was settled over 70 years ago. Why are the few fundamentalists still around trying to fight this all over again?

    Regressive, specifically to your point, "bodily resurrection, virgin birth, divinity of Christ, [and] personhood of God" are NOT "the agreed upon boundaries of [your] guild". We settled that in 1936.

  15. I also want to make a parting shot about John's hyperbolic statement about Jesus and the Gays. I will do so by making an even more ridiculously hyperbolic suggestion:

    If Christ himself appeared before me and ordered me to rape a child, I would not do so, even if it meant my damnation.

    I think this is a natural reaction for most Christians. We all have that line we will not cross, even for our faith. It is what keeps the vast majority of people of any faith from turning into terrorists. The question is where we draw that line. Do we save it for only the most extreme situations, or do we extend it to include loving our neighbor?

  16. If Christ himself appeared before me and ordered me to rape a child, I would not do so, even if it meant my damnation.

    Remember that the Bible claims that God ordered Abraham to murder a child. Personally, I think that Abraham failed the test.

    Your point about lines we will not cross is rather interesting. Biblical literalists believe that no such line exists. Their morality has no rational foundation, no consistency, no logic behind it, other than the whims of "God", and no one is to question "God"'s whims; so if "God" tells you to commit genocide against the residents of a city, then you must do it. (Any biblical literalist will defend the depiction of genocide in Joshua, and in fact in discussions I've had in John's blog this has come up).

    The funny thing is that back in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative Christians got all upset over the idea of "situation ethics", which I guess was in vogue back then. The idea that ethics might be situational was an abomination to these conservative Christians; morality was fixed and always true no matter what. Except, of course, when it isn't. This is yet another example of where biblical literalism makes no coherent sense.

    Because biblical literalism eschews any rational or consistent conception of morality, and instead leaves it to unexplainable Divine whim, the whole idea of biblical morality (which they like to proclaim a lot, especially when it comes to sexual matters) is actually a devoid of any content.

  17. Thanks all!

    Flycandler, thank you especially for the history of the PCUSA and for interpreting what I wanted to say

    "If Christ himself appeared before me and ordered me to rape a child, I would not do so, even if it meant my damnation."

  18. I've always wondered how people would react if Jesus asked people to read the Gospels more carefully and not believe the myths that are imported into them. What if Jesus said, "Don't believe that Judas betrayed me because it isn't true and don't believe that Jewish leaders put me on trial because it isn't true"?

    Would people say, "We like believing these things and won't give them up, no matter what you say." If Jesus said, "Listen, this is an abuse of power", would anybody listen? Or is something an abuse of power only when it threatens you and yours, but not when it threatens other people you don't identify with?

    Leon Zitzer

  19. flycandler - being the anal retentive presbyterian that I am I just have to correct a couple of things in your comment about the fundamentalist modernist controversy. First, things came to a head not because candidates who didn't believe in the virgin birth wanted to get ordained but rather because Harry Emerson Fosdick was serving as pastor of a presbyterian church in NYC and people objected because he didn't believe in the virgin birth. NYC presbytery was told to question him, Fosdick refused to be questioned, and some rich family, I think the Roosevelts, started Riverside Church for him. The rest of what you say is mostly right.

    The one thing wrong is lists of doctrines and time frames. The presbyterian fundamentalists wanted to make the five fundamentals absolutely binding. Problem was, when they had the power to do so, (say in 1907), they didn't put them in the book of order. The PCUSA decided in 1927 that if it wasn't in the book of order then it could not be required by a general assembly.

    Still candidates for ministry had to present scruples about the Westminster Standards (Confession and Shorter and Larger Catechism), if they disagreed with something in Westminster and a presbytery had to decide if that part of Westminster was essential or not. So there was, in a sense, a doctrinal list. This lasted until 1967 when the Book of Confessions was created and subscription to Westminster, (with allowed scruples), passed into history.

    And yes, I learned this from Jack Rogers! ;0>

  20. Almost, but not quite, Bob.

    As I mentioned, I was trying to condense a very complicated story into what ended up being a very long comment anyway. There is a fascinating side story to this involving William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Monkey Trial, but I was trying to keep it brief.

    The Five Fundamentals became a Doctrinal Deliverance (which I understand is roughly the equivalent of a modern Authoritative Interpretation) by a (probably unconstitutional) vote of the 1910 General Assembly, eight years before Fosdick went to 1st P of New York (he was still at 1st Baptist of Montclair NJ at the time). While Fosdick may have provided the case that caused a full-blown fight in 1923, he was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back of brewing hostility that really got going with the Doctrinal Deliverance, which was the Five Fundamentals response to those candidates almost a decade and a half earlier.

    While it was not in the Book of Order, the list of Fundamentals did have the weight of church law, much like the Authoritative Interpretations from the 1970s against the ordination of openly gay ministers--the ban was effectively in place, but "sanctified" by Amendment B in 1997 (since it actually got the ban into the Book of Order).

    What the Auburn Affirmation (and the report largely drawn from it adopted by the 1926 GA) did was acknowledge the authority of the Westminster Confession but NOT, as you imply, a doctrinal list of essentials. It upheld the principle of scruples, a concept which directly contradicts the idea of the WCF being the hard-and-fast list of things a Presbyterian must believe.

    And no, the adoption of the Book of Confessions format in 1967 did NOT make WCF (or subscription to it) "pass into history", and the Constitution is VERY clear on this. Rather than the WCF being a sole standard, it now stands among equally important standards ranging from the early church to the Reformation to the 20th Century. An examiner can ask a candidate about any part of the Book of Confessions, from the "descended into Hell" part of the Apostle's Creed to the authority of the magistrate in the WCF to "unmasking idolatry in church and culture" in the Brief Statement. It is still, as it was three hundred years ago, up to the examining body to discern whether or not that departure is serious or not.