Bernie Sanders: Rating 10/10

sandersThis is part of a series I’m running on the Democratic candidates for 2016. Yesterday I scraped the bottom of the barrel with Hillary Clinton, and today I’ll look at Bernie Sanders.

Normally I’m going to assess the candidates as they enter the race, but I’m making an exception for Bernie, who won’t decide until April 30. I want to cover him whether he runs for president or not, because he’s exactly what this country needs. He gets a perfect rating when I filter him through my presidential litmus test:

1. Free Speech
2. The Middle Class
3. Islam
4. The Drug War
5. Renewable Energy/The Environment
6. Choice
7. Marriage Equality

I’ve never felt this positive about a presidential candidate, or potential candidate, in my entire lifetime.

1. Free Speech: Pass

It sounds crazy that we need to interrogate people in this category, but just look at the example of Hillary to see far we’ve come in efforts to make (yes) opinions illegal. No matter how politically correct the American climate gets, Bernie won’t go there. The First Amendment is inviolate.

2. The Middle Class: Pass (with an A+)

If Elizabeth Warren is a radical reformer, Bernie is a thundering revolutionary. He would take all necessary measures to abolish the ruling 1% — the segment of our population that has come to resemble the elites of ancient agrarian empires — and gods help those who stand in his way. You would think more voters would be on board with such a revolution. The problem is that it involves questioning our entire system of banking and trade deals, which at first blush seems to go against the capitalist spirit. Bernie isn’t anti-capitalist. He simply wants capitalism to work for American families, and not just the corporate execs.

What would his dramatic overhaul look like? Investing more in education — and stopping the government from making huge profits by taxing student loans in order to keep tax loopholes open for millionaires and billionaires. Investing more in medicine, science, engineering, nanotechnology, touch screens, vaccines, gene therapies, GPS — and letting brilliant minds flourish. Raising the minimum wage — and getting the working poor out from having to rely on additional public subsidies. Helping unions. Improving health care. Expanding social security and medicare. The astonishing thing is that this is all what people really want, even when they insist they don’t because it would makes us socialists at best, communists at worst.

When over 99% of the economy’s generated income goes to 1% of the population, and when most working families can’t support themselves decently as they could decades ago, then it’s time to rebuild.

3. Islam: Pass

I have never heard Bernie parrot the absurd myths that “Islam is a religion of peace” (as Bush did) and that jihad groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS “have nothing to do with Islam” (as Obama has). That’s encouraging.

By the same token, he does not use Islamic war-mongering to justify our own. He insists that our involvement against ISIS, for example, be kept to a minimum. Air strikes and the use of special operations forces, yes, when essential. “But,” he continues, “I do not want to see a never-ending quagmire in the Middle East where our troops die, come back with terrible illnesses and we end up spending trillions of dollars. This war is a battle for the soul of Islam and it’s going to have to be the Muslim countries who are stepping up. These are billionaire families all over that region. Saudi Arabia has the fourth largest defense budget in the world. You’ve got billionaire families in Qatar, in the UAE. They have got to be increasingly involved in providing security in their region. They’ve got to get their hands dirty. They’ve got to get their troops on the ground. They’ve got to win that war with our support. We cannot be leading the effort.” That’s right. We can’t keep policing the world.

Bernie’s stance on Israel and Palestine is the right one, and he doesn’t suffer fools from the far left who think that being pro-Israel equates with Zionism or genocide. Both he and Elizabeth Warren have been risibly criticized for being imperialist war-mongers, when they should be praised for their moderate pro-Israel stance favoring a two-state solution.

4. The Drug War: Pass

Bernie has voted against the war on drugs and has pushed strongly for legalizing marijuana. I’m encouraged that he will see the decriminalization of all drugs to be the only humane solution.

5. Renewable Energy/The Environment: Pass (with an A)

Bernie has gone after climate-change deniers like a junkyard dog. He has introduced solar-power plans, which have been shot down by his colleagues. He’s as green as they come.

6. Choice: Pass

Of course.

7. Marriage Equality: Pass

“I am proud,” Bernie says, “to represent the first state in the country [Vermont] to allow civil unions and the first state where the legislature allowed same-sex marriage without a court order.” Enough said.

In Short —

Bernie is a presidential messiah. Like most messiahs, he will call forth hordes of enemies to drown the voices of his fervent followers. In other words, he doesn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in the deepest recesses of hell. My hope is that at the very least, his thundering persona will catch the attention of enough citizens and start a grass-roots movement to take America back.

Overall rating: 10/10.

NEXT UP: Martin O’Malley.

Hillary Clinton: Rating 2/10

clintonOver the next few months, I’ll be running a series on the Democratic candidates for 2016. As they enter the race, I’ll sift them through my presidential litmus test to see how they rank.

I’ll start with Hillary Clinton. She’s likely to be the only Democratic candidate who stands a chance of winning, and this makes for a dark forecast. In my opinion, she’s a bad choice. My litmus test involves the following seven categories, in order of importance.

1. Free Speech
2. The Middle Class
3. Islam
4. The Drug War
5. Renewable Energy/The Environment
6. Choice
7. Marriage Equality

1. Free Speech: Fail.

Anyone who fails in this category automatically doesn’t get my vote, so this rules out Hillary before even considering the other six. She has shown a flagrant contempt for the First Amendment.

The incident, of course, is the Benghazi attack in 2012, in which a group of jihadists attacked the American diplomatic compound and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. It’s well known that Hillary (and Obama) were appraised from the very start that there would be an attack, yet ignored the cries for help. What’s less known are the details in what followed, and so I’ll spell them out. Immediately following the attack, the Obama administration, but especially Hillary, blamed a youtube video for inciting the jihadis’ rage. This youtube video denigrated Muhammad, and quickly became the touchstone for riots and killings around the world. But at the time Hillary blamed it for the attack, the video had only 17 views on youtube. Contrary to what she claimed, virtually no one knew of it. There are, of course, hundreds of thousands of youtube videos ridiculing or attacking Islam or the Qur’an or Muhammad — and which have thousands of views — but no one with any reason or decency thinks to blame movies for real-world murder.

But Hillary did: she told the father of a navy SEAL who was killed in the Benghazi attack that “we’re going to have the filmmaker arrested and prosecuted” (she later lied and denied saying this). We now know that when she made this outrageous statement, she already knew that the Muhammad video had nothing to do with the jihadis’ reason for attacking. It doesn’t even matter if it did. Criminals are accountable for their actions. In scapegoating the video, Hillary was implying that it’s “our” fault that our own ambassador and his colleagues were killed. If we would just keep quiet about Islam and not provoke Muslims to rage, incidents like this wouldn’t happen. That’s sometimes a false assumption (as it was here), and other times not — but it’s disgraceful reasoning in any case. It’s equivalent to blaming rape victims for dressing provocatively.

Hillary delivered on her promise. She had the filmmaker (Mark Basseley Youssef) arrested, and he served a year in prison. He had been in prison before (for drug charges and bank fraud), and one of the terms of his probation was that he could not use the internet. So – nominally — he was arrested on grounds of violating his probation (uploading the youtube video), which was obviously a smokescreen. Many people violate their probation without consequence, and in ways far more serious than posting obscure videos. In reality, he was arrested for the reason Hillary wanted him arrested: for insulting Islam and Muhammad. Mark Basseley Youssef became the first political prisoner of the U.S. — jailed for his opinions.

It shouldn’t be illegal to hate or denigrate Islam any more than it should be to hate or denigrate Christianity, or any belief system (capitalist, communist, etc.). And it never has been illegal — until this event. It is, however, illegal in Islamic law: insulting Muhammad is a death-penalty offensive. What few people realize is that Hillary was catering to Islamic law by arresting someone for the the “crime” of offending Islam and its prophet. What further goes unconnected is that her action was a direct result of her (and Obama’s) recent endorsement of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation only nine months before, and her closed-door meeting with the Secretary-General of that organization.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is 56 nations plus the Palestinian authorities — the largest voting bloc at the UN since the collapse of the Soviet bloc — and from 1999-2010, every year, this bloc had tried introducing a resolution which called for the criminalization of inciting religious hatred. Effectively, this demands the criminalization of honest and truthful investigation. (When reasonable people like Sam Harris, Robert Spencer, Bill Maher, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali explain why Islam isn’t a religion of peace, and how it enshrines violence and intolerance, they are branded haters and bigots.) The OIC wants to foreclose on the possibility that one can study what jihadis actually believe, and what is fundamental to the Islamic religion. The U.S. government voted against this resolution every year, until Hillary (and Obama) signed on to it in 2011. For the first time ever, America went on record opposing the Constitution — the First Amendment, no less; free speech, the most sacred pillar.

Hillary Clinton is without question an enemy of the First Amendment. She opposed free speech on the international level, created the first political prisoner at home, and has even advocated the public shaming of citizens who speak hostilely against religion (particularly Islam). For this reason alone, she would never get my vote. But it turns out she’s even worse…

2. The Middle Class: Fail

Hillary is known for being cozy with Wall Street and trade deals. The question of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has her currently under the gun. America needs trade policies that benefit working families, not just Wall Street and multinational corporations. The trade deals that have been pushed on the American people result in millions of jobs lost through outsourcing, lower wages, and, of course, the collapse of the middle class. Hillary has been no help here, and there’s no reason to believe she will change.

3. Islam: Fail

Hillary, like Obama, is completely clueless about Islam, about the close relationship between abstract beliefs and real-world behavior, and about how our foreign policy should be accordingly conducted. She feigns a pro-Israel stance while downplaying the root cause of ongoing violence between Israel and the Palestinians — the latter’s refusal to make any concessions, unlike the former. She has made excuses for Hamas using human shields on grounds that “Gaza is pretty small”, showing no recognition (any more than Obama did) that Hamas’ statements that “killing Jews is worship that draws us closer to Allah” and “whoever kills a Jew goes to heaven”, reflect sincere beliefs that have nothing to do with poverty or lack of education. Likewise, elsewhere in the Middle-East, she would presumably pursue the same kind of policies Obama (and Bush) did — forging alliances and toppling dictators which result in the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups.

4. The Drug War: Fail

Hillary has stated repeatedly that legalization is the wrong approach to the drug war. Recently she’s been wavering on the question of marijuana (but only marijuana), making vague noises about “awaiting more evidence” about its effects. Suffice to say that she is no proponent of ending the drug war. A miserable fail on this point.

5. Renewable Energy/The Environment: Pass

But barely. Hillary seems to take climate change seriously, has supported renewable energy alternatives, and recently praised Obama’s use of the Clean Air Act. Much of this, however, could be lip service. She has refused to weigh in on the Keystone Pipeline, which may indicate that she’s worried about alienating the business community.

6. Choice: Pass

If nothing else, Hillary can be counted on to stand up for abortion rights.

7. Marriage Equality: Fail

Hillary hasn’t so much evolved on the issue gay rights, as she never had a heart where it counts. Andrew Sullivan points out that she was not, in fact, “just another evolving American”. She was the second most powerful person in an administration in a critical era for gay rights. “In that era,” says Sullivan, “her husband signed the HIV travel ban into law (it remained on the books for 22 years thereafter), making it the only medical condition ever legislated as a bar to even a tourist entering the US. Clinton also left gay service-members in the lurch, doubling the rate of their discharges from the military, and signed DOMA, the high watermark of anti-gay legislation in American history. Where and when it counted, the Clintons gave critical credibility to the religious right’s jihad against us. And on the day we testified against DOMA in 1996, their Justice Department argued that there were no constitutional problems with DOMA at all (the Supreme Court eventually disagreed).”

So the real question is whether she regrets that period and is willing to take any responsibility for it, instead of just getting angry when asked about it. Until then, she should be seen less as an evolver and more as one who accommodates and bends according to the climate. In this light, her current “support” for gay marriage doesn’t mean much at all.

In Short —

I would no more vote for Hillary Clinton than I would for Ted Cruz. She’s a dreadful candidate.

Overall rating: 2/10.

NEXT UP: Bernie Sanders.

The Disciples’ Prayer

disciples prayerI’ve waited a long time for this book. Its arguments were gestating back in the early days of the Crosstalk mailing list, and according to the preface even years before. Those arguments are now marshaled, and scholars who are attached to traditional views of the “Lord’s Prayer” will need impressive rebuttals. Jeffrey Gibson’s reading is not only better but strangely obvious at points, as if we just needed someone to take a hard look at the people who first prayed it.

Which is why he calls it the Disciples’ Prayer. The disciples were those first people (not Jesus, who taught them the prayer), and they operated out of an austere remnant theology that had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. The prayer, as Gibson argues, was designed to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy.

Jesus, not John

But let’s start at the end, with the book’s appendix, since it represents Jesus’ starting point. Gibson asks if there is any merit to the claim that Jesus inherited the prayer from John the Baptist. I’ve long been sympathetic to this view since it avoids “great-man” fallacies, but also because Luke 11:1 shows the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples”. The Greek wording could mean the disciples are asking to be taught to pray “just as” or “exactly as” John’s disciples were taught, though not necessarily. Gibson thinks not, and his strongest reason is that some of Jesus’ disciples had been John’s, and thus unlikely to be part of a group-request to be taught a prayer that was already known among them (pp 169-170). I applaud Joan Taylor’s attempt to align Jesus closely with John (against Crossan’s ilk), but on the point of the Disciples’ Prayer I’m afraid Gibson is right. The text doesn’t lend the greatest support for John as its author.

Matthew, not Luke

Q-skeptics will be happy that Matthew’s version of the prayer is given primacy. Gibson never actually brings up Q, relying on arguments that don’t depend on the question of its existence. Jeremias’ confidence in Luke is shown to be empty (pp 15-20), for Luke betrays a heavy editorial hand. The parts he omitted are organic to the prayer, and his version reflects a general effort to divest it of Jewish themes and make it more Gentile-friendly (p 27). Farrer advocates could obviously make Gibson’s case stronger. Not taking a stand on Q might be shrewd tactics, but that’s a two-edged sword, since some Q-believers may charge that Gibson is sidestepping an important part of the debate. Q-skeptics like myself will be convinced in advance.

Then comes the deeper question: Does Matthew’s version go back to Jesus? Gibson thinks yes, but arguing anything about the historical Jesus these days is speculative business. He nicely refutes Goulder and Crossan (pp 20-25), but just because their arguments are weak doesn’t make a case for historicity strong. Gibson’s case is that Matthew’s writing style and characteristic vocabulary “might be be a reproduction, albeit in Greek, of the style and vocabulary of Jesus” (p 26) and that the Didache, which mirrors Matthew’s version, is likely independent of Matthew (p 27). The first is conjectural, the second questionable. I’ve no idea if the Disciples’ Prayer goes back to Jesus, but in the absence of a compelling case against it, I can go along with Gibson and assume so to see where it leads. And on this assumption, Matthew’s version is indeed the better candidate.

The Meaning of the Prayer

Gibson’s thesis is on whole compelling, though some of his supportive arguments are either problematic or unnecessary. He basically dismantles the eschatological reading under the influence of George Caird. The prayer, he says, isn’t about praying down blessings from the end-times. I think he’s right about this, though part of his reasoning depends on what I take to be an unwarranted skepticism about literal apocalyptic imagery:

“The whole scholarly notion, rampant in New Testament studies since Johannes Weiss’s (re)discovery of apocalyptic, that Jews expected any kind of cosmic catastrophe, let alone an imminent end of the world, as part of the outworking of any divinely grounded hope for Israel, may be a false one, since it may be based in an overly literal reading, and misunderstanding of the nature, of ‘apocalyptic’ texts.” (p 138)

I deny this, and explained why in Will the Stars Really Fall?. In a page-by-page decimation of Tom Wright, Edward Adams proved (beyond reasonable doubt) that Jewish apocalyptic pointed to the universe’s literal destruction, followed by either its re-creation or miraculous transformation. Wright’s insistence that cosmic disaster language was a metaphor for purely socio-political events is refuted by a thorough assessment of the literary evidence. Even worse is the way Wright abuses George Caird to support his pseudo-historical view. Caird at least maintained literal elements alongside the metaphorical, though I think Caird could also push the metaphorical envelope a bit far.

But that’s an aside. Just because I’m confident that Jesus was a literal apocalyptic doesn’t mean everything he said had to be about the apocalypse. That would be absurd. Some of his parables were apocalyptic, others not at all. He spoke directly about the kingdom, but he also said things that were kingdom-related without focusing on the issue — not least in the Disciples’ Prayer. Gibson makes a strong case that the prayer isn’t “about” the kingdom. It’s about resisting apostasy to make oneself worthy of it.

Paraphrasing the Prayer

Here is Gibson’s paraphrase of the prayer (p 28). Again, this isn’t a plea for God to make his kingdom arrive, but to help the disciples maintain an obedience which the kingdom demands.

“Our Father, the one in the heavens,
ensure that we hallow your name
ensure that your reign comes
ensure that your will is done on earth just as it is done in heaven;
do indeed give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
in the same manner in which we have forgiven our enemies
and keep us from subjecting you to testing
but rescue us from doing evil.”

Thus, the “Our Father” segment is a confession of God’s sovereignty and pledge of disciple-loyalty, whatever the cost. “Hallow your name” asks that the disciples not dishonor God through disobedience, even at the cost of their lives (pp 114-120). “Your kingdom/reign come” asks that God shape the faithful remnant of believers and enable them to do his will (pp 109-114). “Forgiveness” has in view the principle of non-retaliation and constraint to love one’s enemies, and is the condition upon which God forgives the disciples (pp 126-132). “Lead us not into testing” asks God to keep the disciples from putting him to the test, not the other way around (pp 135-160). That last needs special attention — Gibson devotes an entire chapter to the “testing” segment — and I’ll return to it shortly.

All other prayers which Jesus urged on his disciples (Mt 9:38/Lk 10:2; Mt 24:20; Lk 21:36; Mk 14:38/Mt 26:41/Lk 22:40,46) were aimed to keep them on the right path (see pp 90-96), and so Gibson’s reading of the Disciples’ Prayer naturally follows suit. He also discredits comparisons to the Amidah, Kadish, and the Morning Prayer — the eschatological Jewish prayers from which the Disciples’ Prayer supposedly derives. The datings of these prayers are uncertain (later is more likely), and they were doubtfully prayed in synagogues before the liturgical introductions of the second century (see pp 54-58). First-century synagogues were places of Torah recitation and instruction (per Horsley and Sanders), and any prayers uttered in them were private and spontaneous. Taken together, the evidence reinforces Gibson’s reading of a prayer that aligns more with the stringent demands of remnant theology, and less with the liturgical hopes of later catechisms.

Who Puts Whom to the Test?

The final chapter on the “temptation” petition is the book’s strongest. For starters, the word is a poor translation. The Greek word πειραζειν peirazein, like the Aramaic nisan (which likely stands behind it), wasn’t thought to convey what “temptation” conveys to us today; “testing” is the better translation (p 33). But the real question is who is testing whom? Most assume that the petition means something like “Please God, don’t tempt (or test) us too harshly”, but Gibson argues that the disciples are asking God to keep them from putting him to the test.

It’s ironic that the apocalyptic crowd (of which I’m a vocal member) views this part of the prayer as lending strong support to the standard reading. The assumption that devout Christians would be assigned a prayer that begs to be spared temptation, testing, suffering and/or persecution makes nonsense of NT theology. Gibson grinds this point home (see pp 141-146), and cites Moule:

“Why should anyone pray to escape testing — even if it is testing by the Devil and constitutes temptation [enticement to evil]? If one knows that testing and temptation are inevitable; if one knows that, before the glorious climax of God’s final triumph, there will be inescapable testing of an exceptionally severe kind; if, moreover, one knows that testing can be salutary and that the Lord himself has pioneered the way through it to spiritual effectiveness — then what is the logic of praying for exemption?”

To which Gibson answers in agreement, none at all (p 144). The faithful elect expected to be put through the grind; they wouldn’t pray to be spared the badge of honor. As a brief aside, this is a similar point made by some of the more sane fundamentalists when they refute pre-tribulationist doctrine: the NT is replete with the idea that believers will be persecuted, oppressed, robbed, starved, slaughtered — have their faith put to the test in horrendous ways, especially during the tribulation. (Certainly the “rapture” spoken of by Paul in I Thess 4 was never understood to avoid this, against pre-tribbers). Christians were committed to suffering for their cause. Disciples invited martyrdom as proof of their allegiance. They faltered and got terrified and had doubts like anyone, but the remedy for this wasn’t a petition to get out of jail free.

The prayer should read, as Gibson says, “Lead us not into testing you”, which basically says, “Please God, keep us from doubting you and renouncing all that you have deemed fit for us to follow” (p 150) — in particular, the constraints of non-retaliation and loving one’s enemies in the face of lethal hardships (p 159). That’s a difficult thing to do in any time and place, but especially in the honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean.

Verdict

Gibson’s book is more than an argument. It’s an aesthetic, especially for the way it evokes seminal moments in Israel’s history: the wilderness generation, who hardened their hearts and put God to the test (Exod 17; Num 14; Psalm 95); the bread from heaven they received (Exod 16); Moses’ command to hallow God’s name, do his will, and not put him to the test (Deut 6:10-19). All of this lends more support to the apocalyptic model than Gibson realizes (I don’t think it’s possible to have a “new exodus” without literal end-times, unless your name is Tom Wright), but that’s a small matter when his thesis doesn’t suffer for it. This famous prayer, as he shows, doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now. It wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. If Jesus believed the world was about to end (as I think he did; Gibson less so), he also insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation. He was like any millenial leader, but he crafted a special prayer to reinforce allegiance.

For modern Christians, the book almost functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Not all religious martyrs are pacifist, and the path of non-violence is a hard one. Violence is in our nature, and a perennial question is whether our savagery is fueled or reined in by religion. Muhammad fueled it. Jesus reined it in, and for him, “to profess God as Father,” says Gibson, “entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world” (p 164). Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s exactly what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.