Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Great Book for Holy Week: "Beyond the Passion" by Stephen Patterson

Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus by Stephen J. Patterson, 2004, Augsburg/Fortress Press.

I just finished reading this great little book. Its a quick read with 161 pages of text, with its extensive notes at the end of the book and chock full of information about the life and society in the time of Jesus.

The author Stephen J. Patterson teaches New Testatament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "One of the great mistakes of Christian theology has been our attempt to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from his life," he writes. When I spoke at Eden last week, I made the same point, even though I approached it through the theologies of Atonement. (See my blog post on March 19, 2007)

In recent times there has been an eagerness in the Christian community to make such a separation, the highlight of which is Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," where the violence of flogging and the crucifixion was at a pornographic level. Basing himself on the scripture "By his stripes we are healed" Gibson seemed to say that the more Jesus sufferred the more we were atoned for our sins. I argued against such a theology when the movie was released three years ago, and Patterson offers a similar argument in this book.

The first followers of Jesus generally did not understand the death and resurrection apart from his life. The gospels portray his death only as a consequence of his life. Therefore before we can deal with Jesus' death, we must deal with his life.

For instance, when Jesus came into Galilee he announced that the empire of God was at hand. The Pax Romana, the established emprie maintained itself through violence. It was politically, economically and socially structured as a pyramid of patronage, the wealthy and powerful at the top and the poor and dispossessed at the bottom, held together by “loyalty, piety and Roman family values.”

The empire of God, described and demonstrated by Jesus, was structured horizontally, as a “open table” where all people are equally welcome, including expendable people like fishermen, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, the sick and the disabled. Soon, the empire of God was seen as subversive of the empire of Caesar.

Who killed Jesus? The Roman empire did; for sedition. It was probably around Passover, on order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. Jesus was a victim of the Empire. Christians must totally get rid of our inclination to say the Jews killed Jesus -- this is critically important, not just because our history of anti-semitism, but it is important for our own theological consistency and spiritual well-being. Patterson clearly points out that those people in Pilate's yard who shouted "crucify him" were a different crowd than those who followed him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Those "Jews" were not allowed in Pilate's yard. Those who shouted "crucify him," were a mob organized by the Empire's operatives.

How do you find meaning in such a death? Patterson focuses on three early Christian understandings of the death of Jesus: as “Victim,” as “Martyr,” and as “Sacrifice.” Each chapter building on the previous one takes the reader through what these conceptual strands would have meant at the time of Jesus. Patterson says that these three ways of understanding the death of Jesus were also ways of calling attention to his life. “His death mattered to them because his life had mattered to them. They spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life, and reaffirmed their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.”

Patterson reminds us that resurrection was a common belief in many ancient religions. The proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected was not a unique one. In Jewish tradition, to say that God had raised someone from the dead meant that because he was faithful to God unto death he was vindicated by God. But Jesus was a nobody. He was born a peasant and died a criminal. What is remarkable is the early church's claim that this Jesus had been raised from the dead. It was Jesus, and not Caeser. The resurrection signals how the Empire of God triumphs over the Empire of Rome.

This rethinking of the death and life of Jesus is a profound challenge to the contemporary church. Patterson suggests that the death of Jesus as victim could hold meaning for us still, “if we have the courage to face it - and to face the consequences of realizing how inhospitable the world remains to Jesus’ vision of God’s empire.”


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