Monday, July 29, 2013

John 1:19-34: Who is John and Why Does it Matter?

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ (NRSV)
In the prologue, the question of Jesus' identity was front and center. However, we largely glossed over the secondary character of that section, John. He comes to the forefront in an interesting way in this section. Verses 19-28 are part of a larger unit, stretching through 2:11. 1:19-51 cover four days. Moloney argues that the four day schema is borrowed from Exodus 19 where the law was given as a gift to the people along with Pentecost observance practices. 1:19-51 are preparatory for the revelation of the glory of the Lord, not in the law, but in Jesus. The first three days in our narrative (two of which we are examining here) are focused on John. But perhaps it might be better to say that they're focused through John.

John is questioned by various Jewish leaders about his identity and baptism. The precise nature of the delegation(s) isn't important. All that we need to see is that they represented the various religious authorities of the day. They came, responsibly, to check out John. Why was he doing what he was doing. Clearly John's actions had some sort of symbolic significance that were pointing to something. The leaders assumed that it was pointing to something about John's identity. The leaders, the guardians of orthopraxy were clueless.[1]

They assumed that John believed himself to possess some sort of special eschatological role. They assumed that's what his baptism was all about. What else could warrant a ritual washing that denied the efficacy of the prescribed purification rights of the Mosaic Law?[2] John's answering is surprising to everyone except the readers of the prologue. He denies the assumption that his baptism is about him. His role and purpose is to prepare the way of another chosen one of God. John calls people to repent so that their hearts would be ready for the coming of the Lord.

How does John know who this person is? God revealed it to him. He was given spiritual perception into the identity of Jesus, who here is described in two ways. First, he is the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains. This describes Jesus as the ultimate and final prophetic figure in the long line of prophets. He is the "prophet" and Elijah, the fulfillment of that set apocalyptic expectations. Additionally, Jesus is the lamb of God.

That last title has three main possible meanings. I prefer two of them, though I cannot rule out the third option absolutely. Many have found some sort of reference to an expiating or propitiatory sacrifice noting the action of 'taking away sins.' The problem is that the verb 'take away' isn't typically tied to notions of expiation or propitiation. Brown, in fact, provides a helpful parallel with 1 John 3:5, 8, where it is parallel to 'destroy.' This also, as Brown notes, fits the tenor of John's understanding of Jesus we find in the Synoptics. This inclines me to following Brown, who follows Dodd in seeing Jesus as the apocalyptic lamb. Thus we encounter in Jesus a messianic figure who crushes evil and brings freedom to God's people. This, then, meshes with a secondary interpretation, understanding Jesus as the paschal lamb. Thus, the description of Jesus is of one who brings deliverance and release from God's people from the hand of evil. Given Jesus exalted identity as God he must deal with the big problem, sin, and not just Rome.[3]

Jesus followed John for a time, but that does not imply any inferiority on John's part. The gospel wants to be extremely clear about the relationship. Jesus is the superior and John is all about Jesus. His identity is wrapped up and relative to the identity of the chosen one.[3]

John is presented here as the model witness. His ministry is not about himself but purposes to prepare and enable others to encounter God through Jesus. He received understanding via revealed rather than natural knowledge via the movement of the Spirit. Our knowledge of Jesus follows the same pattern. Yes the religious leaders of the day did not recognize Jesus for who he was, but that is because they were looking with natural eyes, not eyes that had been opened by the Spirit to perceive Jesus' true nature. Apart from that act, no one can know Jesus. And when we know Jesus our entire identity is an identity relative to him.

[1] A point well made by Keener.

[2] This seems to me to be the best way to understand John's baptism and why the Jewish religious leaders would care, or at least be narrated as caring.

[3] As helpfully pointed out by Lincoln.

[4] I found McHugh's argument for chosen one over son of God very convincing.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our Greatest Evil

Occasionally I write posts that are highly critical of the ethics of conservative evangelicalism. It could come across as picking on them a bit. Even using the word "them" implies some sort of distancing of myself. Yes I definitely am not a conservative evangelical, and it is questionable whether or not I am an evangelical of any stripe, even though I do go to an evangelical church that's not overly conservative or overly "liberal." I use quotes around liberal because liberal evangelicals are not very liberal when set in the wider church. There are certain elements of evangelicalism that I really appreciate and there are certain stances that conservatives within the movement in particular have taken that I find to be both bold and on the right track. Today I want to highlight the biggest ethical issue I think conservative evangelicals are on the right side on while at the same time arguing the case in my own way and maybe ruffling the feathers of some of my comrades.

I believe that the greatest moral evil that is sanctioned today is abortion. However, I feel that much of the opposition to it is missing something. It's a symptom of a far greater problem with our society, especially in the allegedly free west. While I honestly believe that it is blatantly obvious that abortion is wrong, it can't be tackled in isolation from other issues. Abortion is condoned because it is the logical outcome of an individualistic, consumerist, capitalist system. It is the reductio ad absurdum argument against western style capitalism, and somehow a majority of our population doesn't see that. I realize that abortion is neither a purely modern nor a purely western issue. However, in a society that values women more highly than any of its competitors, it is strangely more natural and at home. The weaknesses of capitalism are also present in other economic models as well, they're just not as endemic. To the degree that they are will, I believe, be the degree to which the horror of abortion is permitted in society.

As Foucault has reminded us, there are power dynamics in every relationship. I believe that ethics, at its core is about proper use of power, about using your power to serve others. Individualistic, consumerist capitalism has the opposite goal, pursuing your own self-interest ahead of all other goals. Yes, cooperation is necessary for the individual to succeed, but we know what each individual's goal is. Our consumption patterns are where this is most obvious.

Technological advancement has been accelerating like a car on a drag strip for decades. Yet even as productivity soars, there's no sign of reduction of labor hours and increase of health and leisure. Why? Consumerism. Corporations are out to convince us that we need to consume more products. Their goal, through marketing, is to convince us that we need to buy their product or service. While there's nothing wrong with many of the products on the market, and many of them are beneficial in many ways, don't think that these corporations have anything but their own best interests at heart in their attempts to sell you stuff. Their goal is to maximize profit. This is done by trying to achieve low costs so they can sell at an enticing price. What has the result been? Oppression, oppression, and more oppression. We've grown a love to consume at the lowest price possible and don't really care how the prices are kept low. The corporations under such pressure employ unethical business practices from factory farming, to employing workers in sweatshops, to building polluting factories that disproportionately affect the poor. Since consumers only see the end product they don't really care what happened along the way to get the rolled back price. As long as the behavior isn't beyond a certain level of unseemliness, the government doesn't step in. Those being oppressed don't have much of a voice. The cows certainly can't protest. How much can those working for pennies in Vietnam really do? Even your average American worker isn't treated great, but what can you do? You don't want to be labelled a malcontent.

What I hope you've seen is that without strong oversight, this kind of oppression of the defenseless is the obvious outcome of our economic system. Is not, then, abortion the reductio ad absurdum of western capitalism? It's the ultimate of do whatever is "best" for you regardless of who you hurt. Kids don't fit into your patterns of consumption? Abortion. You can't "afford" a handicapped child? Abortion. You truly are in poverty because of the oppression and selfishness and consumption patterns of others? Abortion. After all, they can't defend themselves.

Our economic and moral system needs to change. Rather than championing individual freedom and pursuing the American dream we need to promote regard for the other. Rather than hording our resources and stepping over others so that we can succeed we need to eliminate poverty. We need to empower the oppressed to speak and look to see who our actions might hurt. Yes, the laws concerning abortion need to be changed, but so do the patterns of society that cause it. We need a holistic approach that eliminates poverty and injustice everywhere. Only then will abortion cease. Only when people realize that what's right is not what's "best" for yourself but self-sacrifice for another who is weaker will the vacuousness of the arguments in favor of abortion be seen.