Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Cause and Meaning of Jesus’s Death: History, Theology, and Interpretation


Yung Suk Kim

There are historical facts about Jesus's crucifixion that cannot be fabricated or oversimplified. History is one thing, and what it means to people after the event is another thing. We must know why he was brought to death. The main reason is that he said and did something against Rome. He could not overcome violence and torture.  

Now all those who hear the story of Jesus and his crucifixion are challenged to live differently because of his tragic death. On the one hand, people must say his death is a tragic one and wrong. Evil and torture are wrong. How can an innocent person be crucified? Injustices must be named and those who responsible for his death must be judged and condemned. It is not God's character that allows his innocent Son to be killed for vicarious death paying for sins. On the other hand, Jesus's terrifying death is a holy sacrifice of love for God and the world because he did not spare his life to proclaim the good news of God in the world.

Therefore, the statement "Jesus died for us" (Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:14) can be understood as a moral challenge, as opposed to the payment understanding of sins. Namely, the challenge is that people must live a moral life of justice for others, moving away from an egoistic lifestyle.  

We need the correct interpretation of Jesus’s death. In other words, not all interpretations are valid. Especially, the problematic interpretation is found in the following lyrics, which show a most selfish form of religion: "The Lamb of God in my place, your blood pour out, my sin erased. It was my death you died. I am raised to life; Hallelujah, the Lamb of God." In other words, the point of the song is simple: “Jesus died for me, and I don't die. I am raised to life. All done and no worries."  

A Proposal to an Alternative Christology: The Messiah by Weakness

Yung Suk Kim

In 2016, I published Messiah in Weakness: A Portrait of Jesus from the Perspective of the Dispossessed (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). The book's synopsis is as follows:

Kim raises a perennial question about Jesus: How can we approach the historical Jesus? Kim proposes to interpret him from the perspective of the dispossessed--through the eyes of weakness. Exploring Jesus' experience, interpretation, and enactment of weakness, understanding weakness as both human condition and virtue, Kim offers a new portrait of Jesus who is weak and strong, and empowered to bring God's rule, replete with mercy, in the here and now. Arguing against the grain of tradition that the strong Jesus identifies with the weak, Kim demonstrates that it is the weak Jesus who identifies with the weak. The paradoxical truth with Jesus is: "Because he is weak, he is strong." In the end, Jesus dies a death of paradox that reveals both his ultimate weakness that demands divine justice and his unyielding spirit of love for the world and truth of God.

I have an issue with the "strong" Messiah, which is the Western view of Jesus characterized by triumphalism, colonialism, and supersessionism. In this view, he is fully divine and all-powerful. He defeated death and evil and completed salvation for humanity through his voluntary redemptive suffering. This is the Western Jesus of triumphalism. In this Western view, Jesus also appears as a colonial ruler who is the way. Likewise, John 14:6 ("I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me") is interpreted exclusively. All countries and cultures must accept him as the way and the truth. Non-Christians and their countries are forced to convert to the Western gospel of Jesus. It is our known history in the 19-20th centuries that commerce and Christianity went to other countries hand in hand. Colonialism and Christianity are hardly distinguishable in many colonized countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Similarly, this kind of a triumphant, colonial Messiah opposes Judaism or Israel. Namely, the issue is supersessionism or Antisemitism in that Jesus replaces the old covenant with Israel. Jesus's sacrifice is perfect once and for all and completes salvation. The law's time ended with Israel. Now is the new time for the church through Jesus. Old religion and tradition are rejected and relegated to inferior things.

But Jesus was born into a poor abnormal family and experienced weakness as a poor Galilean Jew. He did his best proclaiming God's good news and was executed by the Roman authorities. He showed God's way and truth; nevertheless, his work is not complete, the end did not come yet with his resurrection, and his work must continue with his followers.

Jesus was a devout Jew who never denied his Jewish identity and his loyalty to God. He affirmed the law and prophets. He did not preach about the heavenly kingdom of God. Rather, his primary concern was the rule of God in the here and now. His claim is: God rules, not the Roman emperor. He proclaimed "the good news of God," not that of Rome. He broke the laws of Sabbath and purity to advocate for the sick and the marginalized. This led to his death. In other words, he did not come simply to die for sinners but to testify to the truth of God (John 18:37). His death is the result of what he said and did in proclaiming God's rule, not Caesar's. His "dangerous" teaching and action cost him a life.

The Western view of Jesus with an emphasis on his power and glory is in error because we ignore his humanity with weakness in the first-century Palestine where so many people suffer, including Jesus. There are physical ills, social ills, famine, economic exploitation, and slavery. Why should we deprive him of his humanity and his weakness? Why do we not talk about his struggle to understand the chaotic world lacking God's rule?

In 2 Cor 13:4a, Paul also admits the fact that "he [Jesus] was crucified 'by or from weakness' (eks astheneias)." That is, he insinuates that Jesus could not avoid or overcome Roman violence because he had to continue preaching God's kingdom against Rome. In this regard, the often-made translation of "in weakness" for eks astheneias does not convey Paul's meaning. In fact, Paul contrasts eks astheneias ("by or from weakness") with ek dunameos theou ("by or from the power of God") with that phrase. Paul's point is clear in 2 Cor 13:4: 1) Jesus was crucified because of his humanity, which is weak; 2) But he lives because of the power of God.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Ruth: Survival, Race, and Transformation

 Yung Suk Kim

Survival and transformation are very important to a family of suffering going through economic hardships and/or family crisis. There was a famine in Judah, and Naomi’s family (her husband and two sons) moved to Moab to find food and economic prosperity. While staying there, worse things happened. She lost all men in her family: her husband died, and her two sons also died leaving two more widows beside her. So Naomi decides to return to her homeland only after losing everything. So she tells her two daughters-in-law to go back to their homes. The story may have ended at this point if she returned to the land with empty hands. But the story goes in different directions because of Ruth, a Moabite woman who insisted on following her mother-in-law. Ruth becomes a model of an ideal immigrant or foreigner who confesses the God of Jews to be true and follows her mother-in-law and widow. But Orpha, the other daughter-in-law, returned to her home. That is her decision that must be honored. It is nothing wrong with it.

From the perspective of Jews who hear this story, Ruth is a model foreigner/minority that can be part of Jews through confession of faith and through marrying one of them. Even as a widow, she must follow her mother-in-law to become an ideal foreigner/immigrant to Jews. So finally, Naomi reluctantly allowed Ruth to follow her to Judah, the land of others to her [Ruth]. At this point, Naomi may have felt that it would be okay to take Ruth with her because she may be a very helpful means of her survival and redemption back in Judah. In other words, things happening in Judah were roughly imagined of by her, especially about her redemption through Ruth from her goel, Boaz. Ruth was asked to glean in the field and happened to meet Boaz, having sex. Soon, the redeemer, Boaz, married Ruth, and she bore a son to Naomi. Ruth is a surrogate. Naomi’s success (redemption from poverty and recovery of her family through Ruth) sacrifices Ruth. Does the end justify the means?

But if we hear from the underside of this story of Ruth, we cannot help but imagine her own struggle when she got to live in Judah. She is surrounded by strange people and the unfamiliar hostile environment. She was a foreign woman who was committed to the God of Jews, showing respect to her mother-in-law. Because she came to their country by her decision, she had to endure all hardships, economic or psychological. But she certainly suffered from those conditions. She could not have her full humanity in the foreign land of Judah. She was still a Moabite woman who bore a son to Naomi. While she came to Judah with hope and was successful in some way, she was caught up in the middle. Was Ruth's decision to immigrate to Judah with her mother-in-law a good one? Does she not regret not having stayed in her homeland?

When it comes to the transformation of Naomi and Ruth, we can see its complexities. Naomi was hopeless when she lost everything in Moab. But because of Ruth, she hoped for a better future and made it through her goel, Boaz. But she used Ruth as the means to achieve it. Ruth chose to follow her mother-in-law out of her loyalty to the God of Jews and also to Naomi. She also hoped for a better future with her mother-in-law. She persevered and survived well with Naomi. Other than this, we do not know how terrible her life was because of her Moabite identity. Did she feel happy throughout her days? Did she feel complete integration into the Jewish culture? What role did she play in raising her son? 

"Thanks for sharing your blog. Very interesting read. The story can certainly be read differently. Ruth can be interpreted as a model foreigner who gives birth to the future Messiah of Israel--a line connecting David and Jesus. That is, Jewish ancestry has foreign blood in it. But Ruth remains ethnically a Moabite and we can imagine behind the text that she may have had an identity crisis although the text is silent about it, perhaps because she is a model foreigner. Elsewhere in the Bible, Moabites and other non-Israelites are vilified. So Ruth may be rehabilitating the image of the bad 'other' in the Bible." 
--From Dr. Robert Wafawanaka, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Who wants "unity"?

Yung Suk Kim

Those who have power prefer unity to diversity. They do not want a diversity of thoughts. They are afraid of losing everything if their rule or leadership is challenged. But everyday people are not really concerned about unity. Rather, they need more of respect, dignity, and equality in their lives.

Often unity becomes the language of control. This is true to the case of the Roman Empire. Even if diversity is allowed in the Empire, it is limited to religion and culture. That is, people are prohibited from protesting against the rule of Rome. They must speak the language of Rome and its Empire. They are forced to stay in their place of identity. They are told again and again that society is one body with an emphasis on unity. In the name of unity, the unfortunate are taken for granted and suffering is taken for granted.

Even in the church, pastors talk about the unity of the church, based on 1 Cor 12:27 ("You are the body of Christ and individually parts of it"). In their preaching, members of the church are expected to think in the same way without asking questions about church doctrine or any teachings about God. In a traditional frame of interpretation, scholars read "the body of Christ" as a social body with an emphasis on unity (homonoia) just like Stoics who tell members of the society to be one without asking about injustices (c.f., the fable of Menenius).

But Paul does not mean that members of the community have to be in consensus in all matters; rather, his point to the Corinthians is they have to have the same mind of Christ. In other words, they must live like Christ, being ruled by his spirit, imitating his faith. An alternative reading of this body metaphor is "a way of living" (I wrote Christ's Body in Corinth (Fortress, 2008) about this issue). That is, Paul's point is: "you are Christic body. You are to be ruled by Christ, individually and communally."

This way of reading of the Greek genitive is certainly plausible as we see in Rom 6:6: "the body of sin might be destroyed." Here, "the body of sin" is construed as "sinful body" or "sin-ruled body."

In this alternative reading of the body metaphor in 1 Cor 12:12-27, Paul's emphasis is not the unity of a community but the lack of true diversity due to the lack of Christic embodiment. Some Corinthians claim that they are wise in Christ and saved already. Others boast about their gift of the spirit: speaking in tongues, prophesying, and even their knowledge.

Given these problems of the disembodiment of Christ, Paul asks them to identify with Christ and his spirit. For example, in 1 Cor 6:12-20, the Corinthians are advised not to sleep with prostitutes because they are parts (mele) of Christ. Here, we have an image of Christ's body (as a human, not as a social body). Because they are connected to Christ, they must behave accordingly based on Christly manner. Then they can glorify God in their body (1 Cor 6:20).

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Naive imagination vs. critical imagination

Yung Suk Kim

[Photo courtesy of Frank Yamada]

Imagination is necessary to enrich our lives. We can live a new life through imagination. Science has been advanced through new imagination. New discoveries of many things were possible through imagination.

We can imagine flying like a bird and can do so through airplane or other means of flying. But if one does not do anything with his/her imagination, nothing will happen. Indeed, we can realize our imagination variously. But how to realize it is crucial. If one goes up a mountain and jumps off from a cliff or mountaintop, that person will be killed in a few seconds. This kind of imagination is so naïve that even one’s life may be lost. But if a person invents new things to ride on or uses a hang glider, he/she can fly like a bird. Thus what we need is imaginative power combined with critical, self-critical thinking.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A naive religion and spirituality

Yung Suk Kim

"Jesus died for me, and I don't die. I am raised to life. All done and no worries. That is, Jesus died instead of me and he was punished instead of me. He paid the price of sins. The Lamb of God in my place, Your blood pour out, my sin erased. It was my death You died. I am raised to life. Hallelujah, the Lamb of God."

The above is what we hear most frequently in most popular Christian churches these days in America and elsewhere. This shows a most selfish form of religion and spirituality. The following gospel song typifies such a naive understanding about Jesus.

You came from heaven's throne
Acquainted with our sorrow
To trade the debt we owed,
Your suffering for our freedom
The Lamb of God in my place,
Your blood pour out, my sin erased
It was my death You died
I am raised to life
Hallelujah, the Lamb of God
My name upon Your heart
My shame upon Your shoulders
The power of sin undone the cross for my salvation
My God, there is no greater love
There is no greater love
The Saviour lifted up
There is no greater love
The Lamb of God in my place,
Your blood pour out, my sin erased
It was my death You died
I am raised to life
Hallelujah, the Lamb of God
[*Lyrics source: http://www.songlyrics.com/vertical-church-band/lamb-of-god-lyrics/]

But Jesus did not come simply to die for sinners but to testify to the truth of God (John 18:37). His death is the result of what he said and did, proclaiming God's rule, not Caesar's or any human master's. In other words, his "dangerous" teaching and act cost him a life. 

In 2 Cor 13:4, Paul also admits the fact that Jesus was crucified "by or from weakness" (eks astheneias). That is, he insinuates that Jesus could not overcome Roman violence because he had to continue preaching God's kingdom against Rome. But the crucifixion is not the end of the story about Jesus. Paul says without a stop in the same verse: "but [Jesus] lives by the power of God." 

Given the above view of Jesus, Paul's central message is that Christians have to imitate Christ in his faith and spirit. They must be led by the Spirit, submitting to the law of God. They must die with Christ and live to God. Christians (followers of Messiah Jesus) are not mere believers of Jesus or beneficiaries of him but followers of his life and faith. This implies that they are not welcomed by the enemies of God's justice, running the risk of losing their life because of their testimony to God. But they should not give up on the work of God because God is their true hope. 

Deconstructing a social world through metaphor

Yung Suk Kim

The crucial issue of Pauline interpretation is how to reclaim Paul's radical, contextual theology of soma christou.  Namely, "the body of Christ" can be reimagined as the crucified body of Christ that evokes the broken images of the body in a Greco-Roman world. My debut book, Christ's Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor, was published by Fortress Press in 2008. Since then, this book has become a must read for serious readers of Paul.

"I highly recommend this work to all who take seriously Paul's metaphor of 'the body of Christ.' Kim interprets the metaphor as an alternative vision of vital reconciling community, over against conceptions that emphasize boundary markers to establish social groups. What is at stake in the interpretation of 1 Corinthians, he argues, is not just the ways first-century Christians constructed and lived out social unity but the consequences of our choices for the way we live out our own responsibilities today."
--David Odell-Scott, Professor of Philosophy, Kent State University

"Reading as a citizen of an increasingly diverse postcolonial world, Yung Suk Kim protests the scholarly consensus that reads Paul's language of the "body of Christ" in 1 Corinthians as a metaphor for social unity, current in Hellenistic and Roman philosophical and political discourse, in which the integrity of the social body required the vigilant maintenance of group boundaries and the harmony of its members. Kim points out the potential of this reading to promote coercive patterns of enforced unity in the contemporary world. Kim argues instead that in speaking of the church as Christ's body, Paul relies upon the metaphoric language of embodied vitality and growth, seeking instead to nourish the life-giving practices of a diverse community and to oppose the ideology of a powerful in-group that threatens to "disembody" the Christic body in Corinth. Reading the language of 
soma christou exclusively from a sociological lens fails to comprehend the important christological coordinates of Paul's thought, which nevertheless have clear and urgent social and political implications. Paul's exhortation is a message of particular importance, Kim suggests, for us who seek to discern the true value of difference in the contemporary world." 
--From the inside flap of the book cover

Although much has been written on the Pauline notion of the "body of Christ," this contribution by Presbyterian scholar Kim offers a thoughtful and provocative insight worth considering. Kim observes that the Pauline metaphor can be interpreted as setting boundaries or differentiations between the Christian community and those outside. However, if we consider the "body of Christ" as the crucified body of Christ it can be seen as a means of dissolving boundaries and being more inclusive, particularly of those who are pushed to the margins or who suffer. Kim draws out from this key Pauline symbol the implications for the church and society today, particularly in the Gospel call for solidarity with those who are marginalized. 
--Donald SeniorThe Bible Today

"Thanks also for calling attention to your book on the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians. I read the attachment that you sent, and it sounds like your interpretation and ours are very supportive of each other. I do think the body image is about inclusive egalitarianism in the new life in Christ, and not about sharp social boundaries." 
--A message from Marcus Borg (2009)

"I’ll add my own encouragement to it–I was at a clergy meeting last week where the question of “the nature of the church” came up, and someone said “well, we’ve all got to strive for unity because we’re the body of Christ,” and I described your book and said that metaphor meant a lot more than just unity. People had never heard the idea before. I hope it revolutionizes our thinking!" 
--a Message from Neil Elliott, editor of Fortress Press (2009)

The interpretation of the "body of Christ" in 1 Corinthians is a pressing concern in the present context of a diversified global church because its predominant interpretation as an ecclesiological organism characterized by unity and homonoia (concord) serves as a boundary marker that tends to exclude the voices of marginality and diversity. This traditional reading, while plausible, ignores a deeper, ethical meaning of the "body of Christ" as reimagined through his body crucified, which questions an ideology of hegemonic power in both the Corinthian context and today. From the perspective of a different conception of community and of soma christou in the image of Christ crucified, this metaphor of soma christou becomes a metaphor for a way of living through which the Corinthian community is expected to live as a Christic body, identifying Christ's body with the most vulnerable and broken bodies in the community and in the world, an issue that we are to grapple with and resolve. Read this way, Paul's theology continues the legacy of Jesus tradition in terms of deconstruction (critique of religion and culture) and reconstruction (advocacy of the beloved community for all).