Crossan, Rieger: The nonviolence of Jesus and economy based on need


Joerg Rieger speaks Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, closing a week of Interfaith Lectures on “The Heart and Soul of Money.” Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

John Dominic Crossan addressed “Finale: Violence and Nonviolence,” and Joerg Rieger discussed “Economics and Resistance: Reshaping Desire from the Bottom Up” for Friday’s joint presentation in the Hall of Philosophy, concluding their Week Seven examination of “The Heart and Soul of Money.”

‘Finale: Violence and Nonviolence’

Crossan equates heart and soul to value and meaning, and he concluded that the value and meaning of money is the economy.

“Money is useless. That’s not a moral statement; it’s useless outside its economy,” he said.

According to Crossan, the heart and soul of the economy is nonviolent, distributive justice. All should be afforded the inalienable right to a fair distribution of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Crossan said, and it is the purpose of government to secure these.

“Is it possible to pursue happiness if you don’t have a job and a living wage?” he asked.

Crossan said understanding what the Bible says about justice and violence necessitates a focus on what he calls the “Christian theology of the Christian Bible.”

This has never been done before, he said. Instead, theologians rely on a feeble “good cop/bad cop” vision of God in the New Testament and Old Testament, respectively.

In the texts, Crossan encounters a struggle between two seemingly different Gods — one of retributive and violent justice and one of distributive nonviolent justice.

He looks to the Christian view of Jesus as a revelation of God.

“Whatever you find in Jesus, you find in God,” he said. In his lectures earlier in the week, Crossan established that Jesus follows a pattern of nonviolent distributive justice; ultimately, God must follow this same model.

Crossan sought to address “what’s going to happen to Jesus, in Jesus’ name, in the New Testament … if he is the center of the Bible, as the Bible proceeds after Him.”

In the four versions of the Gospel — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — Jesus’ approach seems to change.

Crossan said, “Across the Gospel texts, I want you to watch not Jesus getting more physically violent — he doesn’t do that — but I want you to watch him get more rhetorically violent. I want you to watch the path to the apocalypse.”

In the 1960s, Crossan lived in a monastery, praying and studying. He read the Gospels in parallel, all four at once, basing his study on the scholarly consensus that Matthew and Luke copied Mark’s account. He offered several examples of how Matthew and Luke escalated Mark’s rhetoric.

First, Crossan examined Jesus’ reaction to rejection in Mark 6:11:  “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.”

“That’s all,” Crossan said. “Sort of a ‘We’re outta here’ or ‘Whatever.’”

But Matthew and Luke expand this approach, comparing the fates of the unwelcoming towns to those of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed.

Second, Crossan addressed the Gospel responses to those who asked Jesus for a sign of his divinity. In Mark 8:12, Jesus “sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.”

Matthew 16:4 offers a harsher response: “‘A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.’ Jesus then left them and went away.”

Third, Crossan utilized the Q source — “quelle,” which is German for “source” — which Matthew and Luke used, in addition to Mark, to write their Gospels.

“It tends to be much more rhetorically violent than Mark,” Crossan said.

The Q source only mentions “gnashing of teeth” once, but Matthew uses it five times to conclude parables.

“My point is not that Jesus could never lose his temper,” Crossan said.

His fourth example, the Sermon on the Mount documented in Matthew 5, shows Jesus warning his followers that they will be judged for their anger. In Matthew 23, on the other hand, Jesus uses epithets and insults, like “fools,” “hypocrites” and “brood of vipers.”

“Did Jesus change his mind, or did Matthew change his master?” Crossan asked.

“It’s much more likely that the escalation of rhetorical violence comes after Jesus on the lips of Jesus than from Jesus,” he said. “It’s the process that’s worrying me.”

His fifth example also referred to the Q source and how its description of the apocalypse differs from that of Mark. Mark’s version comforts; Luke’s version, based on the Q source, predicts destruction.

Crossan transitioned to a study of images of the “Grand Finale” in the New Testament.

“I’m unhappy with the language,” Crossan said. “I don’t want to say ‘the return of Christ’ … Matthew says Christ will be with us forever.”

He said he doesn’t like the phrase “second coming,” either. Like “return of Christ” the Gospel writers themselves didn’t use such language.

“That would seem to mean that God couldn’t get it right the first time, so I have no reason why I should trust the second coming if the first was a failure,” Crossan said.

Paul of Tarsus asserts that Christ’s entrance will be akin to that of the return of an emperor and a celebration of a job well done, complete with parties and feasting.

“As Paul says, to hand the kingdom of God over to God,” Crossan describes.

In Revelation, John of Patmos portrays a beautiful but violent image of Christ’s return, but one that is preceded by bloodshed.

“Armageddon is Jesus coming back having got this donkey stuff out of his system and coming back on a warhorse,” Crossan said.

Both Paul and John of Patmos thought that Christ’s return would happen in their lifetimes or within the lifetime of the next generation. John the Evangelist, however, had a different interpretation of Jesus returning “soon.”

Seven times in four verses, John records the use of the phrase “a little while.” At the same time, Jesus tells his disciples the Holy Spirit will come.

“The second coming is over. The second coming is the Holy Spirit,” Crossan said.

If God is love, how do love and justice interact?

“What is wrong is we have separated (love and justice). Like a human being is composed of a body and soul, we say of flesh and blood, when you separate them, you don’t get two things — you get a corpse,” Crossan said. “Justice is the body of love, and love is the soul of justice. Justice is the flesh of love, and love is the spirit of justice. You separate them, you don’t get either. You get a cosmic corpse.”

He continued, “Justice without love is brutality. Love without justice is banality.”

Crossan adapted the last lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to conclude his lecture: “Justice is love, love justice — that is all ye know on earth, and all you need to know.”

‘Economics and Resistance: Reshaping Desire from the Bottom Up’

Rieger sought to expand his audience’s “democratic muscle” and asked them to reach outside the traditional conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat paradigm.

“What I’m pushing for is expanding our culture war terminology that we have inherited into more radical possibilities,” he said.

Both religion and economics seek to address human desire by offering alternatives.

“Blaming consumerism doesn’t really ask the question, ‘What is the desire that drives consumerism?’ It is sometimes proposed that we can control these things easily, without much thought,” Rieger said.

Rieger paraphrased Martin Luther: “God is that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself.”

Therefore, those afflicted with consumerism may make their possessions their God.

“But what if consumerism wasn’t really about stuff?” Rieger asked.

Instead, he pointed to the associations one places on new items. For instance, he suggested that the desire for a new car might connote a desire for safety, security and happiness, whereas a desire for a new cell phone might demonstrate a desire to stay connected, to have someone listen.

“How are the consumer products and our desires related?” he asked.

Theologians and economists assume that desire is innate, Rieger said, but businesspeople understand this better.

“The desire to buy more things has to be produced, has to be kept alive,” he said.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of diminishing urgency of wants and consumptions posited that desires and wants ebb at some point. The claim that the economy is driven by infinite, innate desire is a myth.

Advertisers know this best, Rieger said. Society believes desire is innate because its members are trained as children to want things. The goal of advertising is not to provide information about products, but to produce desires in people.

Advertisers may be key in manufacturing new, alternative desires to combat traditional desires.

Rieger emphasized that he was not blaming any group of persons specifically, simply observing that the church tends to misunderstand these phenomena, which leads clergy to demonize consumerism in the midst of a society trained to desire.

The problem is not just ethics, but the problem is also theology, Rieger said. Society needs a strategy to reshape desire.

“Simply moralizing and demonizing, putting down consumerism, putting down people that are caught in this system, is not going anywhere,” he said.

The prosperity gospel, which promises incredible wealth to those who follow God’s commands, is fraught with flaws, Rieger explained.

Its focus on the material over the spiritual is not the most legitimate criticism — the real question, Rieger said, is “What’s the material that concerns us? What kind of material reality is promised, here?”

The prosperity gospel promises endless wealth. It celebrates false desires, Rieger said, and this kind of message cannot save the millions living in poverty worldwide.

“If that is the heart and soul of money, we are all lost,” Rieger said.

Instead, Rieger recommended alternative approaches to combating the dichotomy of unlimited desires versus limited needs. He reiterated the importance of a bottom-up approach, “reconnecting with real needs of people,” common in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Moses, for instance, realized the needs of his people and radically altered his own lifestyle and desires, resulting in liberation, Rieger explained.

Jesus is another example; his parables include aspects of the lives of the working people. Rieger posited that modern audiences don’t always understand Jesus’ parables because they are not connected to the lives of working people. Rieger offered the parable of the unforgiving servant as an example — the servant’s flaw was not in refusing to pay his boss’ mercy forward but also missing an opportunity to build solidarity with his fellow servant.

In addition to basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, the opportunity to contribute positively and work with dignity is also a fundamental need. Rieger said this explains his fixation on labor issues. Economy should be based on need, he said, not the maximization of profit.

In a society where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer consistently, Rieger urged his audience to examine who has the opportunity to do productive, rewarding work? Rather than redistribution, there must be a revaluation, he said.

The Judeo-Christian tradition can provide solutions to economic needs, he said. He cited 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, in which Paul says God chose the weak and foolish to do his work to shame the strong and wise.

“I’m not here preaching class struggle,” Rieger said. “I’m not here preaching that we need to take up violent means or anything like that … What I’m talking about here is that we begin to understand that God may be very different from how we have imagined.”

Rieger continued, “The solution may not come, this time around from some heroic leaders, some founding fathers or great theologians or great economists — the solution may come from the people themselves. This is an old American theme — ‘we the people.’ What would happen if we deepened our democratic traditions … to also look at economics?”