Notes on a Revolutionary Life: Part 1, A Kingdom of Nuisances and Nobodies

A few weeks ago I finished reading John Dominic Crossan's book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. I really enjoyed it. I know that Crossan is a provocative thinker in many quarters. Crossan's involvement with the Jesus Seminar and his thoroughgoing skepticism regarding the miracles recounted in the New Testament irks Christian fundamentalists. Within the academy the opinion seems to be that Crossan too often goes out on a limb. He's not a cautious thinker, he takes risks, frequently offering interpretations with scant evidence.

But here's the thing: I like thinkers who take risks. Damn the footnotes, just tell me what you think. Provided, that is, you let me know when you are going out on a limb. And Crossan does this in the book, he tells you when he's skating across thin data. Also, as someone who struggles with religious doubt, I get Crossan's reluctance to take the miracles at face value. So I was interested in how he approached those accounts. He doesn't simply dismiss them, but he does recast them in ways that are, at times, interesting.

Overall, then, there are some really interesting moments in Jesus: A Revolutionary Life, observations that illuminate the gospels that I would like to remember. So, in light of this, I thought I jot a few notes about some of the parts of the book that interested me.

After two chapters where Crossan talks about the Nativity and John the Baptist he gets to Chapter 3--A Kingdom of Nuisances and Nobodies--where we dive into the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus went about proclaiming that the Kingdom of God had come. What could this mean? And what does the Kingdom of God look like? Here is Crossan defining "Kingdom of God":

I am not particularly happy with the word kingdom as a translation of the Greek word basileia, but it is so traditional that any alternative might be confusing. It is not only that king- is chauvinistic but that -dom sound primarily local, as if we were talking about some specific site or some geographically delineated location on earth. But what we are actually talking power and rule, a process much more than a place. a way of life much more than a location on earth. The basic question is this: How does human power exercise its rule and how, in contrast, does divine power exercise its rule? The Kingdom of God is people under divine rule--and that, as ideal, transcends and judges all human rule. The focus of discussion is not on kings but on rulers, not on kingdom but on power, not on place but on process. The Kingdom of God is what the world would be if God were directly and immediately in charge.
I think most people--conservative and liberal--would recognize this understanding of the Kingdom of God. So the question is, how did Jesus envision the rule of God? How did Jesus rethink power relations in light of the Kingdom of God? What does God "being in charge" look like for Jesus?

Crossan answers by pointing us to a couple of different moments in the gospels. Consider first this text:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
"a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household." (Matthew 10.34-36)
You'll recall this as one of Jesus' many rants about biological family. It sounds strange to our "family values" ears. So what is Jesus trying to say about the Kingdom of God in this passage? Notice the locations of conflict:
Crossan unpacks these pairs:
[N]otice where and how emphatically the axis of separation is located. It is precisely between the generations. But why should faith split along that axis? Why might faith not separate, say, the women from the men or even operate in ways more random? The attack has nothing to do with faith put with power. The attack is on the Mediterranean family's axis of power, which sets father and mother over son, daughter, and daughter-in-law. That helps us to understand all of those examples. The family is society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped, abuse and be abused. It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it involves the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it. His ideal group is, contrary to Mediterranean and indeed most human familial reality, an open one equally accessible to all under God. It is the Kingdom of God, and it negates that terrible abuse of power that is power's dark specter and lethal shadow.
Beyond the power relations involved with family and social structures, Jesus also addresses economic power. In Luke 6.20 Jesus declares:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
In this, Jesus privileges the poor over the rich (what theologians call God's preferential option for the poor). Interestingly, in a parallel to Luke, Matthew 5.3 spiritualizes the notion of poverty, removing the prophetic edge of Luke's socioeconomic critique:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Most American Christians tend to go with Matthew's version: The issue is spiritual rather than economical. This privileging of Matthew over Luke is understandable as it is a largely a self-serving interpretation for most Americans. By contrast, Crossan tends to take Luke as the more faithful and primitive witness regarding the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

So we see Jesus interrupting power relations in the family and in the economy. Crossan goes on to consider this passage in Mark 10.13-16:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
This passage seems very sweet. Consequently, Americans tend to miss the subversive and shocking message in the story. Americans, being child-centric, tend to see Jesus' actions as obvious. Children are sweet and Jesus is sweet so why wouldn't he like to be with children? But this misses some of the odd things in the story. For example, why are the disciples "rebuking" the people? Why were children taboo? Also, what could Jesus mean that receiving the Kingdom is tied up with receiving children?

We miss the point of the story because we fail to remember that children were not privileged in the 1st Century the way they are today. It was an adult, male world back then. Children, particularly female children, were marginalized. They were non-entities, powerless, nobodies. And this remains the case in today's world. Consider the millions of missing women worldwide:

In an ancient illustration of this gender genocide, Crossan cites a letter from a Roman man to his pregnant wife back home. The man, Hilarion, instructs his wife to do the following when the baby is born:
If by chance you bear a son, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out [to die].
What is stunning about his line is how matter-of-factly it is delivered. This is how children were treated in the 1st Century (and in our own; see video above). This is why the disciples were rebuking those bringing children to Jesus. Children were the lowest of the low. Particularly little girls. So what we are seeing in Mark 10 is another story about power. Jesus blessing the children isn't a Beatrix Potter story. Jesus' receiving of children was subverting the power structures of his day. Jesus was pushing the adult males (the disciples) to the side in favor of the powerless ones. That is what the Kingdom of God does.

A final illustration of Jesus' vision of the Kingdom, according to Crossan, is Jesus' practice of open commensality. "Commensality" is defined as "fellowship at table; the act or practice of eating at the same table." Most of you are familiar with Jesus' practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners and his call to invite the poor and disenfranchised to table fellowship. Crossan makes the following observations about Jesus' practice and preaching of open commensality:
[T]able fellowship [is] a map of economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation...What [Jesus] advocates, therefore, is an open commensality, an eating together without using table as a miniature map of society's vertical discriminations and lateral separations...Since Jesus lived out his own parable, the most predictable counteraccusation to such open commensality would be immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. And since women were present, especially unmarried women, the accusation would be that Jesus eats with whores, the standard epithet of denigration for any female outside appropriate male control. All those terms--tax collectors, sinners, whores--are in this case derogatory terms for those with whom, in the opinion of the name callers, open and free association should be avoided.

The Kingdom of God as a process of open commensality, of a nondiscriminating table depicting in miniature a nondiscriminating society, clashes fundamentally with honor and shame, those basic values of ancient Mediterranean culture and society.
And, I would add, the values of the contemporary religious world as well.

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