You are hereBishop Spong's Articles January 2011

Bishop Spong's Articles January 2011




Joseph - An Essential Character in Matthew's Vision of Jesus

Facing Hard Choices in the 21st Century. It's Either Hogs or Hines!
Biblical Ignorance in Public Life
Watching the United Kingdom Wrestle with its Deficit

Joseph – An Essential Character in Matthew’s Vision of Jesus
5 January 2011
Christmas has faded from our memory.  The trees are down, the tinsel and the chaos of the day have been cleared away.  The crèche scenes have been stored in the basement or attic for another year.  It is, therefore, a good time to focus on the least understood member of the Holy Family that dominated the Christmas images.  We call him Joseph and he is the strong, silent one, who stands behind the manger in that patriarchal world as the symbol of order.  Who was he?  Was he a person of history or a symbol?  While the Christmas story is still fresh in our minds, allow me to explore the figure of Joseph.
Mythmakers and fantasizes have wrapped layers of legends around him.  A Christmas song from the 14th century, called “The Cherry Tree Carol,” depicts Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem when Mary was “great with child.”   They pass an orchard filled with cherry trees ripe with fruit.  Mary asks Joseph to gather her some cherries, reminding him that she needs assistance “for I am with child.”  To that request Joseph responds in anger, “Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”  The tension is relieved, however, when the baby Jesus from the womb of his mother orders the cherry trees to bow down so that Mary can pick the fruit herself and Joseph, seeing this miracle, repents of his doubts.  The 20th century English poet, W. H. Auden, similarly, in his Christmas Oratorio, entitled “For the Time Being,” depicts the temptation of Joseph as an inner debate where he hears a voice say: “Joseph, have you heard what Mary said occurred?  Yes, it may be so, but is it likely? No!”
When we turn to the Bible itself to see what the New Testament says about Joseph, our first response is surprise when we discover how little there is, given the rich legendary tradition. Paul, the first author of any book that is included in the New Testament, writing in the years between 51 and 64, says absolutely nothing about either Joseph or Mary.  He also seems to be totally unaware of any notion about a miraculous or virgin birth.  All he says about Jesus’ origins is that he was like every other human being “born of a woman” and like every other Jew “born under the law.” (Gal. 4:4).  When we come to Mark, the first gospel to be written (ca.70-72), once again we find no birth story and no mention of Joseph whatsoever.  Mark does, however, seem to know that Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters (see Mark chapters 3 and 6).  They are, however, portrayed as not only negative to Jesus, but also as actually seeking “to seize him (Jesus) for, Mark tells us that people were saying, “he is beside himself,” that is, out of his rightful mind.  Could Mark have avoided the story of a miraculous birth and Joseph’s role in that drama if he had known about it?  I do not think so.
When the virgin birth story entered the tradition in the 9th decade of the Common Era in the writing of Matthew, the second gospel, Joseph makes his first appearance of which we are aware in the Christian tradition.  Please be aware that Matthew’s gospel was written 50-55 years after the crucifixion and thus some 80-85 years after the birth of Jesus.  Joseph is not only introduced into the tradition for the first time by Matthew, but he is also the central figure in Matthew’s birth story.  Here Joseph is portrayed as wrestling with whether or not he should send his wife back to her father’s home as “damaged” goods since she is pregnant before their marriage, but when he is assured of her faithfulness by God in a dream, he becomes the one who names this child, and thus the one who offers both protection and legitimacy to this child.  When this birth narrative ends, however, Joseph disappears from Matthew’s story. Joseph appears in Luke’s birth story also, but in a much less central role than the one assigned to him by Matthew.  When the two birth narratives end Joseph disappears from the entire gospel story.  Joseph never appears in any biblical story about the adult life of Jesus anywhere in the New Testament.
So the first biblical fact to be embraced is that in the New Testament Joseph is only a character in the birth narrative, he is not a presence in the adult life of Jesus.  That is not true about Jesus’ mother, Mary, who is referred to in Mark only once by name, but is referred to as “the mother of Jesus” in a few other places in all of the other gospels. Even so, the fact remains that while Mary’s resume in the New Testament is quite thin, Joseph’s is almost non-existent.
People have speculated that the absence of Joseph, whom tradition has suggested was an old man, is best explained by the possibility that he must have died while Jesus was very young.  That is of course a possibility that must be considered, even though there is no data that gives us anything on which to base that speculative conclusion.  I want, therefore, to propose another alternative for which I suggest there is some supportive data if one knows how to read the gospels properly, that is, not literally, but the way the original Jewish readers of the gospels would have read them.  Perhaps Joseph was not a figure of history at all, but a literary creation originated in Matthew and designed to fill out his cast of characters when he created the first birth narrative.  My reasons for suggesting this arise out of my study of Jewish history.  Let me seek to build this case.
It is a well known fact that there was a deep division in Jewish history between the tribe of Judah, which was also called the Southern Kingdom, and the Ten Tribes of Israel, which were called the Northern Kingdom.  What is less well known is that this division was viewed by the Jews as a division between the descendants of Judah and the descendants of Joseph.  The dominant tribes in the Northern Kingdom were Ephraim and Manasseh, both of whom were said to be the sons of Joseph.  The Bible suggests that this division went all the way back to the patriarch Jacob, who had two wives.  His first wife, Leah, was the mother of Judah and his second wife, Rachel, was the mother of Joseph.  Enmity between these two half brothers appears in the Genesis account of their early life. Judah is portrayed as the brother who was willing to sell Joseph into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. The two Jewish states split permanently after the reign of Solomon in 920 BCE.
The author of Matthew’s gospel wanted to portray Jesus as the messiah who came to bind up all of the divisions in the human family. This unity, for Matthew had to begin in healing the ancient division in the life of the chosen people. He opened his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus that traced his line through King David and the kings of the Southern Kingdom, so Jesus emerged out of the tribe of Judah.   Now, by making Jesus’ earthly father be named Joseph and by assigning to Joseph the role of protector, he incorporated the Joseph tribes into his story.
If this is accurate thus far, then we ask: Where did Matthew get the content that he has assigned to his character called Joseph?  Everything biographical that Matthew relates about Joseph is found in the birth narratives, which constitute the first two chapters of his gospel.  Here we learn three things about Joseph.  First, he had a father named Jacob.  Second, God speaks to him only through dreams.  It was through a dream that he was told to take Mary as his wife.  It was through directions received in dreams that Joseph moved regularly with Mary and the Christ Child until he finally settled his family in the village of Nazareth.  Dreams were essential to Matthew’s portrait of Joseph’s life.  Third, the role assigned to Joseph in Matthew’s narrative was to save the messiah, the child of promise, from death and he did this by fleeing to Egypt.  That is the extent of the knowledge we have in the New Testament about Joseph.
Now look back into the Hebrew Scriptures at the story of Joseph the patriarch, best known in our culture today as the Joseph of the “coat of many colors.”  His dramatic story is found in Genesis 37-50.  When we read that story carefully, we discover three things about this Joseph.  First, he had a father named Jacob.  Second, he was constantly identified with dreams, first as the interpreter of the dreams of the Pharaoh’s butler and baker and finally as the interpreter of the dreams of the Pharaoh himself.  He was even called by his brothers, “the dreamer.”  Third, in this narrative the role that the patriarch Joseph played in salvation history was to save the chosen people from death during a time of famine and the way he did it was to take them down to Egypt.  I do not think these connections are coincidental.  Matthew is going to tell the story of Jesus as the Messiah who came to bind up the human family.  He first must heal the divisions in the chosen people.  So he makes Jesus the heir of King David and thus a son of Judah and then he portrays him as being raised under the protection of an earthly father named Joseph.  Messiah has made his people one so that they could make one the nations of the world.
So the figure of Joseph looks like the literary creation of Matthew and becomes the first interpretative hint of his theme that Jesus came to bind up divisions and to make the human family one.  Recall that Matthew ends his gospel by having the risen Christ give the Great Commission: “go into all the world” go to where people have been defined as different, unclean, uncircumcised, and tell them the message of Jesus, namely that God’s love is unbounded. Assure them that there is nothing anyone can be or do that will separate him or her from the love of God.
Paul captured this same theme when he wrote in Galatians in 52 CE that in Christ, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free,” but all are one.  To that we add that in Christ there is neither white nor black, gay nor straight, Protestant nor Catholic, Jew nor Muslim, believer nor atheist, conservative nor liberal, but all share in a common humanity.  That is the vision of Jesus that Matthew intends to paint in his gospel and Joseph is a crucial, introductory character, in whom Matthew’s theme is announced.  Perhaps if we ever learned to read the scriptures correctly, escaping the mindset of literalism, we could once again hear the gospel and begin to assert the oneness of all people under the love of one God.  That is the substance of the vision we Christians receive from Jesus.
~John Shelby Spong
Question & Answer
Toddie Whitlock asks: Morristown, NJ
Question:
Why do we introduce the Lord’s Prayer by saying: “And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:” Why does one have to be bold to say the Lord’s Prayer?
Answer:
Dear Toddie:
The first part of that statement bothers me more than the last, since I do not believe that Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. It does not enter the tradition until Matthew and Luke write in the 9th decade of the Christian era. Neither Paul, who wrote between the years 51 – 64 nor Mark, who wrote in the early years of the 8th decade, appear ever to have heard of this prayer. John’s gospel also makes no mention of it. If it had been a prayer Jesus literally taught and enjoined on his disciples as the model prayer, I do not believe that three of the five major writers of the New Testament would have failed to include it. The prayer also involves a particular messianic interpretation of Jesus, which was applied to him by the church, but I see nothing in the gospels that causes me to believe that this was the self-definition of the Jesus of history.
I believe that the reason the church has suggested that it takes boldness to say this prayer is that it is a kingdom prayer. That is, we are praying for the end of the world to come! We are asking for God’s Kingdom to come, with the sign of that Kingdom being that God’s will be done on earth as it was in heaven. Then we ask for food to allow us to survive each day until the kingdom comes and next the strength to bear any test or temptation that might come with the end of the world. That means it is a particularly scary prayer that it takes boldness to say.
Thanks for asking.
~John Shelby Spong
 

Go to Top

Facing Hard Choices in the 21st Century. It’s Either Hogs or Hines!
12 January 2011
In the last half of the 19th century a country doctor named Edgar Hines lived with his family that included two sons, Edgar jr. and John Elbridge in Oconee County, South Carolina, near Clemson University.  Edgar Hines, Jr. went on to become an outstanding doctor.  John Elbridge Hines grew up to become the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and probably the outstanding world leader in religion produced by the Episcopal Church in the 20th century.  Bishop Hines was graced with a unique ability to see issues as they emerged in the life of our society while they were still embryonic.  He then acted to address them before they became major crises and thus while action was still possible.  This prescience is what I believe is the unique gift of those who Christians have called prophets.  Prophets have never been predictors of the future, as biblical literalists like to contend.  They are, rather, the discoverers of the future as it is being born, because they know how to read the contemporary signs of the times.  Bishop Hines was this kind of prophet.  During the urban riots of the 1960’s in America, while typical politicians were calling for the imposition of “law and order,” John Hines was walking the streets of our erupting cities in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, Detroit, Cleveland and Newark, talking to the people who lived there, listening to the rage, the sense of hopelessness and despair that was fueling the outbreaks of violence and discovering how out-of-touch with these human issues the institutional forms of Christianity really were.  Then, in acts of powerful and courageous leadership, he called the Episcopal Church to re-order its priorities to put human need before institutional security; to recognize that Christian mission also meant empowering the powerless.  From his study of history John Hines demonstrated the profound lesson of human civilization, namely that powerless people are always exploited people.  This insight signaled to him that by empowering the powerless ones an effective blow against exploitation is being struck.  He illustrated this insight in Christian history by pointing to the treatment of the powerless ones, whether they were people of color, women or homosexuals, all of whom have been exploited not only by western people, but also by professing Christians.  John Hines laid these ideas before the church he headed and his church responded to his leadership with the boldest initiative I have ever known a religious institution to undertake.  They began to fund as a primary part of this church’s ministry a program that would give powerless people the power to determine their own future. Of course, it was controversial!  Of course, dislocation resulted!  Of course, establishment values and establishment people were threatened.  Yes and of course, they struck back, withholding their contributions, demanding that the church “stick to religion” and “quit its involvement in politics,” as if Christianity had ever in its history been a religion that tended to the “things of the spirit” and not to the call to give life to all and to give it abundantly.  It was probably the most glorious chapter in the history of the Episcopal Church.  Yes, our church lost members and it lost financial support, but it discovered its integrity and the realization dawned on us that the Church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.  John Hines was then and is now my ultimate ecclesiastical hero; he was and is my ultimate role model.  A photograph of him sits before me at my desk until this very moment.  It has been there for years.  He was the first person with whom I talked when I was elected Bishop of Newark in 1976.  I later worked to get his biography published so that his kind of leadership would never be forgotten.  The Biography was entitled Granite on Fire and was written by Ken Kesselus.  Until John Hines died, hardly a week went by that we did not talk on the phone.
I asked John Hines on one occasion to help me to understand how a lad could grow up in the little town of Seneca, South Carolina, known for its fundamentalism in religion and its conservatism in politics, and become a world leader in religion battling for the human rights of the victims of our culture’s prejudices.  He responded by telling me a story about his father, Dr. Edgar Hines, who, in addition to his private medical practice, had also been appointed the County Health Officer for Oconee County, South Carolina.
Dr. Hines, he said, became aware of the health risk to the people, caused by the fact that in that poor farming region, people kept hogs in their fenced-in backyards, where the ground water in the wells was susceptible to infiltration by diseases carried in the feces of the pigs, making an outbreak of cholera a distinct possibility. This impending danger caused him to propose to the county commissioners the passing of a county ordinance, which would require the housing of pigs to be located a sufficient number of yards away from human dwellings.  For the people of Oconee County, South Carolina, this was an unheard of and unappreciated interference on the part of government in the private lives of these farmers and they struck back with fury.  The county commissioners, far more responsive to the votes of these disturbed citizens than they were to the warnings of a country doctor, refused to pass such an ordinance. Dr. Hines then informed the commissioners that without such an ordinance, he could no longer be responsible for the health of the people and was thus prepared to offer his resignation.  This was no idle threat for doctors in the 19th century in rural South Carolina were scarce and replacing Dr. Hines would be almost impossible.  In the face of his threat, the county commissioners agreed to a reconsideration of their vote at the next official meeting.  It was the primary county-wide topic of conversation before the re-consideration meeting occurred.  The local newspaper trumpeted the debate with a headline on page one of the weekly paper “It’s either Hogs or Hines.” When the meeting was finally held, the hogs won by a 3-2 vote.  Dr Hines resigned.
Within six weeks, the daughter of the chairman of the county commissioners contracted cholera and died.  An outbreak of cholera spread throughout the county creating a major health crisis.  Shortly thereafter the Commissioners reversed their decision and pigs and humans were legally separated by a sufficient distance to minimize future epidemics.  It was from this childhood memory that Bishop Hines came to understand that the role of the prophet is to understand life so deeply that you can see a crisis before it develops and step out to meet or even to divert it while there is still time.
I though of this principle and of John Hines as well on two occasions recently.  One had to do with the debate on whether or not to allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire as the law that inaugurated them called for them to do.   Over the next decade these tax benefits for the wealthiest 2% of our population will add more than a trillion new dollars to our national debt.  To sustain these tax benefits, the United States will inevitably have to borrow the money from either China or Saudi Arabia.  That reality raises to the level of the inevitable the fact that somewhere down the road this nation runs the risk of bankruptcy.  This in turn means that this momentary enrichment of the few will inevitably result in long term disaster for the entire nation.  To sweeten this irresponsible tax bill and thus to gain sufficient liberal support to pass the measure, additional tax benefits for unemployed people and a drop in payroll taxes for the middle class were also approved.  At the same time that this tax bill was being debated, a bi-partisan task force, headed by Democrat Erskine Bowles, the former chief of staff to President Clinton and Republican Alan K. Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming and a major party leader, were confronting the Administration and the Congress with the impending fiscal disaster facing this nation if the skyrocketing deficit is not brought under control.  Their bi-partisan report called for a radical revamping of America’s tax structure, closing all of the loopholes, which are used primarily by the rich to lower their tax obligations.  This would mean, if adopted, ending many exemptions that are “sacred cows” like mortgage interest and charitable contributions.  It would mean the lengthening of the years one must work to be eligible for social security; as well as tempering the amount of social security the very wealthy are allowed to receive.  It would mean cutting defense spending that still represents an out-of-bounds percentage of the national budget.  The report of this commission could not get enough votes from its own members to require Congress to take up their proposals.  Please note that the vote to require Congress to take up this report did not require that they pass any of its provisions, but only that a consideration of this report and its recommendations would be forced on our elected officials.
The second occasion in which John Hines insight came to my mind occurred when I continued to hear right wing people condemn climate change warnings as something coming from “neo-fascist environmentalists.”  They maintain that climate change, which they continue to call “global warming,” is a myth that can be dismissed with every winter storm.  At the same time, the melting of the Arctic ice cap has not only threatened the polar bears with extinction, but has set off international competition for the oil that might become accessible if new passageways through the Arctic are opened up.  At the other end of our planet in Antarctica, a New York Times feature in December warned of the decline and possible extinction of its penguin population whose food supply has been disrupted by the melting ice caps.  The choice the leaders of this nation face today is between doing only what we are now doing for the sake of immediate profits or to face the reality of the coming environmental crisis and to act responsibly to divert it.
Our way of life is at stake in the out-of-control national debt.  The life of our planet is at stake in the environmental crisis. Yet no alarm bells are being sounded nationally.  Dr. Edgar Hines, where are you now that the nation and the world, not just the people of Oconee County, S.C., need you?   Where is your successor in our country today?
~John Shelby Spong
Question & Answer
Michael an Anglican priest from the United Kingdom
Question:
As an ordained member of the Church of England, I do not think that Jesus is the founder of Christianity or that he intended to create the institution called “the Church.” My study, including the reading of your books, leads me to the conclusion that he sought to reform Judaism, to call people to share his experience of the God presence, an experience that helps people to know abundant life. (I’m still trying to find my way there!) The challenge then, for me as a clergyperson, is whether I simply bring comfort to the dying – individuals, congregations, the church – or a somewhat ill formed vision of the resurrection experience beyond, but not instead of death.
Your words to me the first time we met in England were “be of good courage, Mike, they can only kill you.” Whether you realized it or not, there was a great truth in those words. If I choose to challenge the “domination system” of the church then I know because of my personal vulnerabilities it could “kill me.” If I don’t, then suppressing that challenge is creating as dis-ease within me, which will cause me to wither away into the shadow of my being. At this point in time Buddhism (without a deity) seems to be a healthier and a better option. The wisdom teaching of Jesus and the Buddha feed my soul in equal measure. I would prefer to sit in a meditation hall than most church buildings.
Answer:
Dear Michael,
Thank you for your letter. I would like to use your letter, with your identity blurred, to address your issues publicly. Let me say first that you might be surprised to learn that you are not alone. The themes you raise in your letter come to me from many ordained people in many Christian traditions. The first thing all of us must see and accept is that God is clearly not a Christian and Christianity has no ultimate hold on the truth of God. Such claims represent little more than institutional power claims. If the people of your congregation could hear what you are really saying more of them would agree with you than you now imagine. Many lay people do not bring these issues up because they do not want to upset their pastor and they do not believe that any alternatives will be forthcoming. There would, however, be a few whose hold on a phony religious security system is so fragile that they would be threatened and as usual they would be loud and negative. A church run to keep the weakest and most immature of its members happy, however, will never be a church that is able to lead anyone into the reality of today’s world. Some of our clergy, bishops and institutional leaders, including those who sit on the thrones of the Vatican and Canterbury, need to embrace that reality, to recognize its truth and to respond appropriately.
I have great admiration for you, Michael, and believe the church would be much less viable without you and people like you. We can change Christianity, but only from the inside. The question is can those of us who see the need for change survive the struggle it will require?
My best.
John Shelby Spong
 

Go to Top

 

 
 
 
Jan 20, 2011

Biblical Ignorance in Public Life

One of the things I look for in my elected representatives in government is that they understand the issues on which they speak with some level of competence. When people in authority take stands on public issues, I believe, they do have a responsibility to be informed.  Two events occurring recently in our political landscape have indicated that that quality is not always present.  No political party has a monopoly on incompetence and one of these publicly embarrassing moments featured a governor who is a Democrat, while the other featured a senator who is a Republican.  Ignorance, it appears, is non-partisan and so apparently is an elected official’s willingness to play to the lowest common denominator of the people’s fears and prejudices in order to be re-elected.  I examine these two episodes today with the recognition that they are part of a disheartening and discouraging current political reality.
The Democrat is the sitting governor of Kentucky, Steven Beshear.  The Republican is the senior Senator from Georgia, Saxby Chambliss.  In recent public appearances they both offered vivid illustrations of how uninformed they are and, by their rhetoric, both of these gentlemen indicated that their commitment to be informed is not essential to them, nor is truth important if it is inconvenient to their political agenda.  To make it even more distressing both claimed the Bible as a supporter of their ignorance.  These are their two stories.
Governor Beshear of Kentucky recently announced his support for a plan that will provide three hundred and twenty five million dollars in tax abatement to a private group in Kentucky to enable them to build a theme park based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The purpose of this theme park is to combat those who might suggest that the biblical story of Noah and his ark is not literal history. This bias becomes obvious when one learns that a major partner in this plan is a “private group” that previously created another theme park, 40 miles away, but still in Kentucky, dedicated to countering evolution in the name of “Creation Science.”  That organization called “Answers in Genesis” is headed by a man named Ken Ham.  Both theme parks are part of this man’s agenda, which is to demonstrate the literal accuracy of the book of Genesis.  That is a point of view that no recognized biblical scholar in the world would support.  That seems not to matter to these self-styled “defenders of the literal truth of the Bible.”
The assertion of the creationists is that the earth was created in 4004 BCE and is thus little more than 6,000 years old.  The assertion of the Noah’s ark literalists is that, since Noah saved two of each of the world’s species, there had to have been a time when human beings and dinosaurs lived together on planet earth, since the fossil evidence for the existence of dinosaurs is indisputable. When those planning the Noah’s Ark theme park were asked at a recent press conference whether or not dinosaurs had been on that original ark, they answered yes without embarrassment.  They regretted that they would not be able to have any real dinosaurs, but in all other details they would make this project literally authentic. At least they seemed to know that dinosaurs are extinct.  In this Noah’s Ark Park they also plan to have a replica of the Tower of Babel, described in the Book of Genesis as a human project designed to be so tall that they could talk face to face with God.  That, of course, assumes that God lives above the sky of a three tiered universe, an idea that departed this world with the work of Galileo in the 17th century.  Ken Ham, Governor Beshear’s resident biblical expert, described the story of Noah’s Ark as one of “the best known historical events” in the Bible. I suppose the Tower of Babel would, in his mind, be right up there in at least the Top Ten “historical” events related in the Bible.  When people who have studied these issues raise questions about the historicity of his “facts,” they are dismissed on the Ken Ham blog as “secular scientists” or “secular historians,” who are not true believers and therefore whose points of view have no validity.  Truth to be truth, it seems, must support Mr. Ham’s convictions. I listened to this press conference with amazement.
While I am neither a “secular scientist” nor a “secular historian,” I am a practicing Christian who has been educated in reputable centers of Christian learning and  I find these theories offered by Mr. Ham and endorsed by the Governor of Kentucky to be profoundly ignorant, and more importantly, to be insulting to the Christian faith itself.  The kind of biblical literalism that this organization espouses has been relegated to the dustbins of history for the last two hundred years.  I am not opposed to an individual’s private ignorance nor would I deny anyone’s right to interpret their religion in any way they wished, but when they seek public funds to peddle their biblical ignorance to the world in a money making scheme I do object.  Even more, I resent their ignorance that reduces the Christian faith that I deeply believe to a caricature of itself and subjects it to the constant ridicule of the late night comedians who know a good source of comedy when they see it. While Mr. Ham and his organization assert that the “literal Bible cannot be wrong” those who study the Bible know that it is wrong in thousands of places. Epilepsy and mental illness are not the result of demon possession, as the Bible states.  Slavery is not a legitimate social institution.  Women are not created inferior to men and cannot be regarded as male property.  Since homosexuals do not chooses their sexual orientation they should not be put to death for “their sin.”  Yet in a literal Bible I can validate each of those assumptions. The literal Bible is demonstrably wrong in thousands of places in its understanding of reality.  As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said in another context, “Let me count the ways.”
Look for just a moment at the flood story in the Bible. If a flood covered the entire earth at the time of Noah, there would have had to be enough water to cover every mountain chain in the world from the Himalayas to the Rockies and the Alps.  That is more water than there is in all the oceans of the world, which are only about five miles deep at the deepest point.  I wonder where all that water went.  It could not have simply evaporated because the evaporation of that much water would simply have been recycled as abnormal amounts of rainfall.  Perhaps the only alternative was that it fell off the edges of the flat earth!
At the time of Noah no one knew about dinosaurs for they had been extinct for 65 million years.  From fossil remains that we have discovered, we know they were enormous creatures weighing many tons.  The dimensions of Noah’s Ark are described in the book of Genesis and the developers of this Ark project in Kentucky, seeking to replicate those dimensions, plan an ark that is 500 feet long and 75 feet high.  They, thus, do not seem to realize that a pair of dinosaurs would have taken up enormous space, made navigation all but impossible and, in the 150 days that Noah was supposedly on that boat, would have by themselves required more food than the ark could have carried.  These developers did seem to sense that they had a problem with space because they suggested that Noah must have taken on board only baby giraffes that did not require the height adult giraffes would need.  When the story of Noah and his ark was written no one knew about kangaroos or koala bears because the existence of Australia was unknown to any, but its aboriginal people.  Neither were polar bears nor penguins known to have existed.  There are also billions of species of insects, some microscopic in size.  How were they contained in the literal ark and what would have happened if Noah had heard a buzzing about his ear one night and swatted one of the two mosquitoes?
Hominids, who were our human ancestors, can be dated no earlier than four million years ago.   We human beings thus missed the dinosaurs by only about sixty-one million years!  Most of these facts we can now document with DNA evidence.  This is not “secular” science, Mr. Ham and Governor Beshear, this is documentable truth.
We have also today traveled deep into space and we have not yet discovered the God who lives above the sky for whom the tower of Babel would give us access.  The Christian Church thought Galileo was wrong in the 17th century, but in December of 1991, even the Vatican finally issued a statement that announced they now believed Galileo was correct!
Of course, there will be people who will come to these biblical theme parks. P. T. Barnum reminded us of how often such people are born. Does the State of Kentucky and Governor Beshear, however, want to announce to the world the lack of knowledge that must reside in that state to cause it to offer tax incentives that encourage this degree of religious ignorance? Does the governor’s argument that this project will create jobs make it worthwhile?
Senator Saxby Chambliss, prior to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” wanted to put the constitutional rights of homosexuals to a vote of the people in the armed services!  His argument was that if serving with gays and lesbians in the military makes one feel uncomfortable, the soldiers’ comfort level must take precedence over justice!  This wisdom comes from the man who won his senate seat by attacking as non-patriotic a quadriplegic, incumbent senator, who had lost his limbs in military service to his country!  “This is not the right time for this change,” he argued.  It will never be the right time for homophobic people any more than it would ever have been the right time to end segregation, if this nation had waited until white southerners were comfortable with the idea.  We as a nation have walked this road and heard these arguments before.  When Senator Chambliss, trying to mask his deep-seated prejudice, asserted that “some of my best friends are homosexuals,” I broke into laughter.  Ignorance is no less ignorant when it is perfumed by biblical quotations or is spoken from the mouth of a United States Senator.  This nation deserves better leadership than these embarrassing demonstrations reveal to be present.
~John Shelby Spong
 
Question & Answer
Ted Clarke, Via the Internet writes:
Question:
I was pondering this past week about the right wing fundamentalists and their real fear of anything that smacks of socialism. For me, the word socialism means that the society cares for those who are marginalized, who have major difficulties coping with basic life issues, the poor, etc. My understanding of Christian belief is that this care is at the core of our belief - to care for those who need our care, our support, our understanding. Why do those who are “fundamentalist” refuse to see this as part of the Christian gospel? Or am I missing something?
Answer:
Dear Ted,
Thanks for your letter. Socialism is one of those words bandied about today rather loosely. To you it means care for the marginalized. For members of the Tea Party in America, it seems to mean having the government control one’s life down to telling us when one must die. I do not believe that using loaded, easily misunderstood words is helpful to dialogue, so let me approach your question from a different angle.
I do not see any economic system devised by human beings that does more good for more people better than capitalism. Capitalism, however, devoid of social conscience that expresses itself in making sure that the wealth of the nation is not limited to a very small number of people at the top of the economic pyramid on one side and that no one falls through the safety net on the other, simply does not work. This means that I support things like a graduated income tax, Social Security, mandated universal health care and the regulation of institutions to guarantee fair and equal opportunity in wealth creation for all citizens. If capitalism is not tempered with these restrictions then I am convinced that the capitalist system will drive toward the revolution that Karl Marx predicted. So socially responsible and democratically established legislation is today necessary if capitalism is both going to endure and to be effective. This means that it is essential that capitalism develop the means to allow the wealth of this nation to be spread more equitably and thus allow capitalism to continue to be the best economic system yet devised by human beings.
We are in fact mandated by our faith to care for the poor, to feed the hungry and to tend the sick. We are also enjoined to love our neighbors as ourselves. I do not see how those ideals can be served if we allow capitalism to develop an underclass in which poverty is never escaped and in which the basic elements of a caring society do not exist. Christian history, which includes the development of capitalism, also reveals that we have not only violated these ideals, but we also have been anti-Semitic, anti -Muslim, anti-people of color, anti-women, and anti-homosexual. That is a strange way to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
What is going on in America at this moment is the political manipulation of basic human fears in order to gain power over others or to have power, which the ruling classes believe they have lost, restored. One manifestation of this is that the white Anglo-Saxon population that claims to be the “first families” of America is facing the fact that the United States now includes enormous numbers of citizens whose ancestors migrated not from Europe, but from Africa, Latin America and Asia. We are thus engaged in an internal struggle between the American spirit of inclusion and the vested interests of the earliest settlers. The anger in our political system today also reveals our latent racism, our greed and our xenophobia. When these fears are coupled with unstable economic forces that cause the future to feel insecure, the problems are compounded.
I believe we will get through this time in our history. We need long term stability in our government so that the big problems in energy, financial reform, health care and the environment may be addressed. Whether we will have that long term stability is the question. My sense is that with an economic revival and the creation of jobs, the fears will subside. Will that economic upturn come before the election of 2012? I do not know, but that election will be crucial to our future as a nation.
John Shelby Spong

 Go to Top

 

   
Watching the United Kingdom Wrestle with its Deficit
All economic downturns have political ramifications. What the actual effect will be is determined to some degree by the psyche of the nation itself.  In the Great depression of the 1930’s Germany turned to Adolph Hitler to lead them out, while America turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  One must admit those were two radically different responses to the same reality.
With that political insight in mind, I went to the United Kingdom early this year to examine the way our closest ally, under a newly-elected Tory, that is, conservative, government has decided to tackle the economic crises in that country, in order to compare it with the approach of the newly-elected Democratic, that is, liberal government of the United States.  The comparison was instructive.
Today, David Cameron is the occupant of 10 Downing Street as the Prime Minister of a coalition government.  He did not win a majority in the last election and had to patch together a ruling coalition by entering an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, a perennial minority party that represents a position somewhat to the left of the Tories, but to the right of the Labor Party.  Labor, you recall, led first by Tony Blair and later by Gordon Brown, was in power when the economic crisis of 2008 rattled the stability of both Great Britain and the entire developed world.  The political reality is that if you are in power when a crisis comes, you get credit for the crisis. So Labor, i.e. liberals, were blamed for the economic collapse in England, while Republicans, i.e. conservatives, who controlled the White House in America, were blamed for the collapse in this land.  David Cameron’s election thus represents a reaction to Blair and Brown while Barack Obama’s election represents a reaction to the presidency of George W. Bush
There is not as much of “the blaming of big government” in Great Britain as there is in the United States for government there has not been demonized in recent years as it has been here.  The UK’s National Health Service, for example, is hailed by both the conservatives and liberals as an asset not a liability.  The NHS does provide universal health care for all its citizens and is not even debated politically today except wherever the tension between quality care and cost efficiency appears.  Even the well established English conservatives with whom I spoke simply do not understand why the United States will not move to a single payer government-run system.  The people of Great Britain cannot comprehend the fear of government that permeates America’s national political debate.  They simply do not understand why privately owned health care companies should make profits for their shareholders on peoples’ health.  Health care is a right of citizenship in the UK; it is not a privilege of wealth.  Great Britain’s health care system has cut costs by developing well trained ancillary health care professionals to treat routine sicknesses, while quickly referring the serious illnesses to the supervising MDs.  Despite the political propaganda one hears in America about the shortcomings of “socialized medicine” in Great Britain, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of their citizens are almost completely satisfied with the NHS.  As I listened to and engaged their comments, the one thing that I found to be incomprehensible to the English was the way money manipulates public opinion in the United States by employing fear as a major force in creating public policy.  The United States has the most expensive health care in the developed world and yet in every measure of health care effectiveness from life expectancy to infant mortality, the United States ranks near the bottom among the developed nations of the world.  These statistics violate our national self-image so deeply that we find them hard to believe and seek to explain away their reality.  The facts are, however, that there are enormous profits in our health care system and those who are the recipients of these profits defend their vested interests both passionately and expensively.  If one will trace the money that fuels various aspects of the political debate in America, from the Tea Party movement to the Religious Right, to the campaign directed against the recent health care bill, one will discover that it comes from the same source, rooting ultimately in Texas Oil.  Texas, once an independent republic and still distrustful of any national authority, spews more venom against the national government and spends more money to do so than any other state in the Union.  They call this passion a commitment to “States Rights,” but, as everyone who grew up in the South knows, that is little more than a respectable cover for not wanting to pay minimum wages and not allowing people of color to be treated with equality and fairness.  The role of money in politics in America is quite frankly beyond the imagination of most Europeans.
Great Britain is a more highly-taxed nation than the United States.  One cannot, however, compare the tax rates in the two countries until one reckons with the fact that the English people all have access to free medical care and until recently paid almost nothing for the education of their children and young people from kindergarten through the university.  Health care and university educations are major costs in the average American family.
The citizens of Great Britain, for example, have an income tax that is graduated according to income levels with 10% at the low end rising to over 50% for incomes above £450,000 ($725,000).  The inheritance tax, dubbed the death tax by American conservatives, is also much higher in the UK than in the United States being 40% on estates over £350,000 ($500,000.)  The English were amazed to discover that Americans can shelter the first $5,000,000 in every family from any inheritance tax.  They also pay taxes to local governments that are generally not as high as property taxes are in America.  They do not have state income taxes because they do not have that level of government.
The other major source of government funding in the UK is called the “Value Added Tax” or the VAT, which is collected on any purchase people make except for food and children’s clothing.  This is a national sales tax.  Until very recently the VAT was pegged at 17.5%.  In terms of our dollars this meant that for every $10 purchase, the Brits would pay $11.75.
Given this British tax structure, in order to rein in the current deficit, the Cameron government has done two things.  First, they tripled university fees from about £3,000 ($4,500) a year per student to about £9,000 ($13,000) a year per student, a figure that would still be a bargain when compared to American university charges.  It was this provision that was blamed for the recent student riots and even the widely-reported attack on the automobile carrying Prince Charles and Camilla.  Second the Cameron government raised the VAT – national sales tax – from 17.5% to 20%.  Now every $10 purchase will cost $12.00 and big ticket items like automobiles and large appliances will be significantly higher. A £30,000 ($50,000) automobile in the UK, for example, will now cost £36,000 ($68,000).  We were in England when these increases became operative.  A highway toll of £4.50 (about $8.00) on one day became £5.00 (about $9.00) the next.  A cup of coffee in England averages between $4.50 and $5.00.  Yet so far as I could tell from individual citizens, the public press and television news there was little more than resignation to this tax hike.  No one suggested that these higher taxes might sink the weak economic recovery now going on.  The UK also taxes gasoline heavily with the cost of a gallon of “petrol,” as they call it, now in the $6-$7.00 per gallon range.
Compare that response with the tactics of our government.  With the deficit soon scheduled to be equal to the gross national product (GNP), our congress and president agreed on a “compromise” that saved the top two per cent of wealthy Americans from facing the elimination of the Bush tax cuts that were written to expire on December 31, 2010.  This extension was successfully championed by the Republicans.  In the compromise additional benefits for the unemployed and low income Americans were added to guarantee Democratic support.  Not one thing was done to address the deficit.  Instead this extension of tax advantages will add about a trillion dollars to the national debt over the next decade.  The joy ride of spending beyond this country’s means is thus destined to roll like a boulder down the side of a mountain, headed for a disaster that seems inevitable.  Both of our political parties seem intent on protecting their political bases at all costs, but at the expense of the well-being of our nation.
One of the principle teachings of our religion is that of personal sacrifice for the well-being of the whole.  That religious principle must find a political expression.  Ours is a great nation, worthy of our sacrifices to maintain the gifts we treasure – freedom, liberty, justice and opportunity for all.  Health Care and Education should be our birthright not a privilege enjoyed only by those who can afford it.  That will never be possible unless we find a way to pay for it.  The government is the corporate expression of us all; it is not a sinister power.  It exists to carry out the purposes of the nation.  All Americans want to have a strong national defense; government protection for our savings; assurance that our businesses are honest and run fairly; that our monetary system is secure; our food is safe; our veterans, wounded in the service of this nation, are properly cared for; our drugs are pure, and our highways are built and maintained.  These things are worthy of the taxation it takes to provide them.  Fairness in the tax code is essential and those who have been made wealthy by the opportunity they have had in this country need to stop seeking special tax privileges and offshore havens and pay a fair share of the burden a great nation requires.
This is not a call to class warfare as some right wing politicians claim.  It is rather a call to basic fairness.  Class warfare is present when the wealthy in power require heavier taxes on the poor than they do on themselves.  We have had that kind of class warfare for too long.  America can do better than that.
~John Shelby Spong
“The President warned the people of Pennsylvania to lower their hostile rhetoric against the Federal Government.” A line quoted from a book about the Whiskey Revolution in 1790. The President was George Washington.
Read the essay online here.
 
Question & Answer
Kris Flaa via the Internet, writes:
Question:
I finished reading your book Liberating the Gospel this past Sunday and was fascinated and excited by the biblical scholarship you outlined in it. I’ve read Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Jesus for the Non-Religious and I look forward to reading the rest of your books as well. You have no idea how wonderful it has been for me to find a religious leader who presents such thoughtful and meaningful perspectives on the Bible; perspectives that allow me to use my brain while remaining spiritual.
Later that night, I turned on the TV only to hear Jack Van Impe and his wife Roxella (people I was not familiar with until that very moment) reminding viewers that he and his wife do not preach about the end of the world, they preach about the second coming of Christ. He quotes passages that say a certain number of people will go with Christ up to heaven and then come back to live 1000 years ON EARTH…and then something else will happen and then God’s chosen ones will live here FOREVER. Each of his assertions was supported with Bible verse after Bible verse like a man with Tourette’s.
The distance between your views in Liberating the Gospels and the views expressed by Van Impe’s struck me that day. In my life there are people around me who believe in the literal interpretation of scripture. Have you ever considered creating a television show of your own to provide an alternative view to the craziness I heard on the airwaves Sunday night? Are there personal approaches you might suggest that I take with people I know that take scripture so literally (e.g. women shouldn’t be ministers for Jesus had no female disciples, homosexuality is an abomination or “love the sinner, hate the sin”, etc., etc., etc.
Answer:
Dear Kris,
Thank you for your letter. I have seen Jack Van Impe and Roxella on television from time to time, but not for long. Their profound ignorance of the Bible combined with a deeply prejudiced view of other human beings made further watching not something I was interested in doing. People like the Van Impes are a dime a dozen on radio and TV and they always have the answers to every issue with biblical quotes to spare readily available. If one can justify one’s prejudices with quotations from the Bible, assumed to be the “literal and sure word of God,” one never has to think or to be challenged by new knowledge. I grew up in that sort of world. I am a Christian today because I escaped that mind set. Many, however, either do not or can not escape and unfortunately they represent ignorance in its most profound dimension.
There are two kinds of ignorance. There is the ignorance that comes from lack of knowledge. That is easily addressed through education. The second kind of ignorance is the ignorance of those who do not know that they do not know. This is the ignorance of religious imperialism that pretends to know all there is to know about God and is not open to any other truth. The Van Impe’s would seem to fall into that category.
No, I haven’t considered a television program and I might add no one has considered one for me. My medium is the written word, books and this column. Both of which have given me the privilege of hearing from you.
~John Shelby Spong

Go to Top