Mary Magdalene and the Kingdom of God

Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly much better than most films about Jesus and his disciples. Then again, that isn’t really saying much.

I enjoyed the film and – after the rather slow and confusing first twenty minutes or so – I found it pretty engaging. The acting was very good and I found Joaquin Phoenix far more believeable as Jesus than most actors who’ve taken on the role. Rooney Mara gives a powerful performance as Mary Magdalene. Peter, Judas and Jesus’ mother Mary are all portrayed convincingly.

As my friend remarked as we left the cinema, it was perhaps more of a film about Jesus than a film about Mary Magdalene. However, it was a film about Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, and this is pretty exceptional. It has long been accepted by biblical scholars that women may have been very central in the group of Jesus’ disciples, but this realisation has been slow to make its way into churches and popular culture.

In showing Mary Magdalene’s closeness to Jesus, however, the film in some ways did not go as far as modern biblical scholarship – because it showed her as the only woman who was part of the community following Jesus.

I very much appreciated the fact that the filmmakers did not feel the need to show us every scene from the life of Jesus as mentioned in the gospels, or even all of the best known ones. In this film, Mary Magdalene is knocked unconscious by the Roman soldiers arresting Jesus. Because the story is told through her eyes, we see nothing more of Jesus until Mary awakes and finds out that he is already on his way to be crucified.

The scene in which Jesus protests against the markets in the Jerusalem Temple is particuarly well done. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen the incident portrayed so well in a film or play. A priest at the Temple is shown justifying the operation of the markets in much the same tone in which the representatives of the establishment today offer reasonable-sounding defences of other forms of economic exploitation. As soon as Jesus begins his direct action, three or four Temple officials leap on him to drag him away. It is a sight familiar to many people who have taken direct action, or observed other people taking it.

That said, I disagreed with the film’s portrayal of Jesus’ protest as an apparently spontaneous one-man action. The gospels give the impression of an organised protest. This is especially true of Mark’s Gospel, which shows Jesus visiting the Temple the day before but deciding the time is not right to act (Mark 11,11). Mark writes that when Jesus took action the next day, he “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple”, implying that a large number of disciples must have been involved in order to blockade the doors (Mark 11,16).

The main disappointment for me, however, was the theological message that the film was clearly giving, and which was made explicit towards the end. The film’s writers have fallen for the old idea – often heard in schools and churches but discredited elsewhere – that Jesus’ disciples wanted him to lead a violent revolution against Roman rule but that he instead brought a message of personal transformation. I won’t give away the details of the ending, but it leaves us with a pretty clear idea that this is the idea we’re intended to take away.

It is not believable for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s scarcely credible that a large number of people followed someone while all completely misunderstanding him. But the main problem with this idea is that it implies there are only two options: violent rebellion against Rome, or individual change. This ignores all the other possibilities, such as nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire, or a wider political challenge to all systems of domination in both personal and political forms.

The Kingdom of God has to be political. A kingdom, by definition, is a political entity. If you belong to a kingdom, you are expected to be loyal to it. Yes, the Kingdom of God involves personal transformation. But it is not possible to live morally within an immoral system; the Gospel calls for both personal and social change.

If we are loyal to the Kingdom of God, we cannot be loyal to the rulers, empires and states of this world. That frightened the Roman Empire enough to crucify Jesus, and it should frighten those who hold power today.

———————-

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

Advertisements

Not doing what we’re told: The arms fair, the Daily Mail and civil disobedience

“You’re not supposed to talk to us,” said one of the police offiers protecting the set-up of the London arms fair from nonviolent protesters last week.

For a moment, I was confused. While I’ve often been ignored by police, I’d never been explicitly told be police not to talk to them.

Then I realised what he meant. When legal advice was read out by protest organisers every morning to the protesters outside the arms fair, it included the advice, “Don’t talk to the police”.

This is not advice that I choose to follow. This is not due to naivety: I am careful about what I say to the police and I don’t give away personal information (this is, I think, what the advice is aiming at). However, I don’t like the idea of not talking to someone, and I also believe in challenging the police about some of their actions, while following the longstanding Christian pacifist principle of distinguishing between the person and their actions.

I did not, sadly, get time to explain this to the policeman in question. He had heard us being advised not to speak to the police at all and he assumed therefore that this was something that we would do. He has to do what his superior offices tell him and he seemed to have been expecting us to operate on the same basis.

The difference is that we did not have superior offices. We did not have orders. We had advice, that could be accepted or rejected.

The protests over last week caused significant disruption to the set-up of the London arms fair, known euphemistically as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI). Over 100 people have been arrested in the nine days since the protests began for carrying out nonivolent direct action. This involved a great deal of organisation on the part of some of the groups involved, and spontaneous decisions in the case of others. But it didn’t require anybody to give orders, do things they did not believe in or fit into hierarchical structures. The police officer who talked about what we were “supposed” to do may have difficulty understanding this.

 

Most people (myself included) are far too ready to do what we are told. Of course, in some emergency situations, this may be the right thing to do: a surgeon who is operating on someone needs to make quick decisions about the equipment needed and their collleagues need to respond speedily when asked to pass something. At other times, what we are told to do may be the right thing to do anyway, or we may choose to go along with a collective democractic decision out of commitment to the group involved and its processes.

However, doing what we are told simply because it’s what we are told is nearly always a mistake. Most injustices involve large numbers of people. A dictator can only be a dictator because their troops fire when ordered to do so and the media print what the dictator wants people to hear. Of course it is unimaginably difficult for one soldier or journalist to stand up to a dictator single-handedly – and I’m certainly not judging them for failing to do so. But when large numbers of people withdraw co-operation from a government, it cannot function. A dictator whose troops refuse to fire becomes no longer a dictator, turning in a matter of minutes into a powerless person in a palace.

The Daily Mail has today effectively devoted its front page to attacking the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience. The headline suggests that Len McLuskey has compared himself to Nelson Mandela. He has, of course, done no such thing. Rather, he has defended the right of people to break unjust laws, including the Tories’ new laws restricting strikes. While I’m often very critical of McLuskey – not least for his support of the arms industry – I completely agree with him on this issue.

The Mail quotes McLuskey saying that Gandhi, Mandela and the suffragettes were all attacked for breaking the law. Indeed, they were all attacked by the Daily Mail for breaking the law. The paper described Christabel Pankhurst as the “most dangerous woman in Britain”, before she abandoned the suffrage struggle to back the army recruitment drive in World War One, after which the Mail loved her.

By saying it’s wrong for illegal strikers to compare their struggles to these historical ones, the Mail is implying that these struggles were praiseworthy and justified. It’s not the first time the Mail has conveniently forgotten that it’s been consistently on the wrong side of history and that most of the positions it’s backed have been firmly defeated.

There are plenty of respectable people who back civil disobedience – as long as it’s safely in the past. I once heard a Tory peer saying how much she would have supported the suffragettes. She was not, of course, backing any civil disobedience in the present.

 

Despite all the arrests last week, despite the police’s facilitation of the violence of the arms fair and the obscene sight of mounted police breaking up a Quaker Meeting for worship in the road, I freely acknowledge that we have far more rights to protest in Britain than in certain other countries (not as much freedom as we should have, but still a lot more than some). What rights and freedoms we do have, we have because our ancestors campaigned for them, and because we continue to assert them. They were not graciously handed down to us by the rich and powerful.

All worthwhile political change happens from the ground up. If people always did as they were told, we would have gained no rights at all. All large-scale injustice relies on people doing what they are told. To overcome injustice, therefore, we need to stop doing what we are told.

How radical is the Greenbelt festival?

The following article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 2nd September 2017. I wrote it after attending the Greenbelt festival the previous weekend.

Last weekend communist theologian Marika Rose called for the abolition of the police.

It’s nothing remarkable: she has been expressing such views for years. What was different this time is that she was addressing an audience at one of Britain’s largest religious festivals.

Greenbelt is a Christian-based festival of music, comedy, arts, talks, debate, politics, worship and theology. In recent years, it has projected a clearly left-of-centre image.

Taking place every August, it is now held in east Northamptonshire. It attracted over 11,000 punters this year, as numbers rose after falling from the high point of 20,000 some years ago.

Mariks’a comments triggered a mixed response. One festival-goer told me she was delighted to hear such radical views at a Christian event. Another wrote: “Shame on you” to Marika.

The controversy provoked a minor Twitter storm, with some apparently angry that such a view should be given a platform at Greenbelt. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more anger a few years ago.

This is not to say that Greenbelt is centre of communist activism, however its conservative detractors portray it. It has been described as “the Guardian does Jesus.” While this criticism comes from right-wing critics, there is a certain accuracy to it.

Like the Guardian, Greenbelt is liberal and centre-left, preferable to the powerful interests on its right, but broadly accepting of capitalism and compromised by its role as a large commercial institution.

You can hear repeated attacks on poverty and austerity at Greenbelt, but they often focus on specific policies rather than any deeper challenge to class structures.

Thankfully, there are exceptions: this year’s highlights included Teresa Forcades I Vila, often described as “Europe’s most radical nun.”

Pacifist activists Sam Walton and Dan Woodhouse spoke about their attempts to disarm a BAE warplane destined for Saudi use in Yemen. Anglican priest Rachel Mann offered a complex but accessible analysis of the link between militarism and masculinity. Interfaith events looked at how Christians can support struggles against Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Greenbelt has been a truly liberating event for many people. In the early 2000s, it was the first Christian event at which I saw a same-sex couple holding hands. Nowadays you can see almost as many same-sex couples there as mixed-sex couples.

At most Christian festivals, this would be unthinkable. For countless LGBT+ Christians, Greenbelt was the first place in which they could be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Socialists at Greenbelt this year welcomed a new tent hosting stalls from co-operative businesses and discussions on the co-operative movement.

There was for the first time a women-focused venue on site: the Red Tent, with a number of events open to all who define themselves as women. This seems particularly important when transphobia is so prevalent in churches, and when even some on the left wish to deny trans people equality.

There were a number of firmly progressive groups running stalls in the middle of the festival, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a radical peace organisation), Church Action on Poverty and groups promoting resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In important ways, however, Greenbelt fell short. The theme of this year’s Sunday morning communion service (the main event at Greenbelt) was disability.

There was an inspiring sermon by a disabled teenager as well as contributions from other disabled people about ways in which they are included or excluded.

Remarkably, however, despite all the discussions of poverty at the festival, not a single word was spoken in the service about the way in which disabled people are facing systematic attacks on their livelihoods by a government that is slashing and burning the welfare state.

And over it all hangs the shadow of an incident in 2011, when festivalgoer Ceri Owen was dragged from the festival by police as she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The most positive interpretation is that Greenbelt organisers overreacted and misunderstood the situation when they called the police. But far from apologising, they continue to defend their behaviour and Ceri has been banned from Greenbelt ever since.

At the same time, she has become an increasingly prominent mental health activist, frequently appearing in the media to speak about cuts to mental health services.

The importance of Greenbelt for promoting progressive views among Christians should not be underestimated. For some LGBT+ Christians in particular, it has literally changed their lives.

But as Ceri’s exclusion demonstrates, when push comes to shove large institutions tend to veer towards self-justification and conventional power dynamics.

Such problems can also be seen in a number of secular left organisations, including certain trade unions. Radical change requires people working at the grassroots from the bottom up.

Thankfully, the more radical punters at Greenbelt will soon be joining in with the large number of protests, vigils and direct actions planned for the run-up to the London arms fair.

Despite Christianity’s many compromises with wealth and privilege, we still have Jesus’s example of standing up to the rich and powerful. The reign of God is not compatible with the power structures of this world.

The Church of England’s budget response reveals twisted priorities

Institutional churches can be pretty slow to respond to injustice, so I’m not surprised that some people were pleased to see that the Church of England issued a speedy response to George Osborne’s budget yesterday.

Did the CofE’s response challenge the cuts to disability benefits? Denounce the tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy? Demand more funding for public services and the protection of the welfare state?

No. It did none of these things. The Church of England’s press release began with the following words:

“The Church of England has welcomed warmly the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget today of a £20 million fund for works to cathedrals.”

It continued along similar lines.

Thankfully, many Christians, including both clergy and lay people in the Church of England, have criticised the budget – the last in a long line of Osborne budgets to serve the rich at the expense of the rest. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been known in the past to criticise some of the cuts to the welfare state, although I believe he has yet to respond to the budget.

Nonetheless, it says a great deal about establishment that the first official response from the Church of England as a whole was to “warmly” welcome the crumbs that the Chancellor threw in their direction.

Some may say that this was a press release about the cathedrals repair fund rather than the budget as a whole. That, of course, is the problem. Why should this be considered the most important part of the budget for the Church to respond to? It is a trivial detail.

Nor should it be said that this announcement was more relevant to the Church than the other parts of the budget. It was not. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who led by example in showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised. He did not set up a charity for maintaining interesting old buildings.

Did Jesus believe in saving money?

David Cameron likes to describe people who work hard and save money as those who ‘do the right thing’. Cameron is a self-professed Christian and I would be fascinated to hear where he finds support for this approach in the teachings of Jesus.Upside-Down Bible

The gospels are pretty negative about saving money.

Take the ‘parable of the rich fool’, which you can find at Luke 12, 13-21. A rich man replaces his barns with bigger ones in order to store ‘all my grain and all my goods’. He then relaxes, knowing he has plenty of possessions on which to rely. God appears and calls him a fool, saying his life will be taken that very night. ‘And the things you have prepared, where will they be?’

Many Christians insist that it was not the man’s wealth that was the problem but his attachment to it. But the question at the end seems to be mocking the efforts he has made to accumulate it. Just afterwards, Jesus urges his disciples not to worry about what they will eat and wear. ‘Consider the ravens,’ he says. ‘They have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.’

Elsewhere, Jesus urges his listeners not ‘to store up treasure on earth’ but treasure in heaven. He told a wealthy man to give all he had to the poor. Urging people not to boast about their generosity, he encouraged them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. It is difficult to imagine Jesus entering his daily income and expenditure on a spreadsheet.

Jesus was acting in a strong biblical tradition. When the Israelites fled Egypt – where food was stored in barns for the elite – they had to rely on ‘manna’, food sent by God on a daily basis that went rotten if kept until the next day.

I have recently been showing Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were new to the Bible (as research for my new book, The Upside-Down Bible). I was not surprised that some of them regarded them as over-the-top. Dunyazade, a Muslim, contrasted Jesus’ ‘extreme’ encouragement to give away everything with the apparently more realistic Muslim requirement to give a percentage of your income away. Carl, a left-wing activist, approved of Jesus’ words on the grounds that they support ‘the ideals of socialism’. Sally, a charity fundraiser, saw Jesus reflecting the reality that it is often some of the poor who give the most to charity.

The gospels imply that at least some of Jesus’ disciples lived in community, sharing a common purse. This may have removed day-to-day fears about having enough to eat while making things very uncertain and precarious in the longer term. This style of living was itself a radical witness to the Kingdom of God, contrasted with the kingdoms and values of this world.

I recently heard a politician suggest that financial advisers should be stationed in food banks, to help their users to manage money. Perhaps he thinks the sharp rise in food banks has been caused by an outbreak of financial mismanagement. True, charities provide a valuable service in advising people on looking after their finances, but this is different to seeing such matters as the cause of the problem. I have always been baffled by the common middle-class belief that the act of entering numbers in columns generates food.

The idea of saving money and looking after it is so venerated in today’s society that any rejection of it seems extreme. Perhaps it’s time for Christians to acknowledge that this is what Jesus’ teachings are: extremist.

———

My new book is The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, which was published by DLT on 26th November in paperback and eBook, priced £9.99. The above post appeared originally on the DLT Books Blog as part of a series of five posts looking at Jesus’ parables in the light of my research for the book.

More famous parables reconsidered

Upside-Down BibleLast week saw the publication of my new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence.

My publisher – Darton, Longman and Todd – have been publishing a series of blog posts I have written about Jesus’ parables, based around some of the parables explored in the book.

The fourth post, Sex workers and the Kingdom of God, was published today. It explores Jesus’ comments on sex workers and the “parable of the two sons” in Matthew 21.

The previous blog posts are

The labourers in the vineyard and their zero-hour contracts

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published next week. To give you a taste of it, I’ve written some short blog posts that my publisher, DLT, will be running over the next few days. I’m cross-posting them on here. Here’s the first.

 
Upside-Down BibleJesus spent a lot of time talking about money. It was a central theme in many of his parables.

When I showed these parables to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them, they responded by talking about money. This is less obvious than it sounds. Christians rarely mention money when discussing these stories. We are used to being told that they are making symbolic points about salvation.

First-time readers are unlikely to do this. Like Jesus’ first listeners, they hear stories about their everyday concerns. I have found that they make varied, interesting and insightful observations – all of which Christians risk overlooking in our rush towards doctrinal conclusions.

This experience has convinced me that Christians have a lot to learn from non-Christians – about the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable often referred to as “the workers in the vineyard”. You can find it at Matthew 20, 1-15. The story concerns a landowner who hires casual labourers for different lengths of time but pays them all the same wage.

For many readers, the issues feel close to home. In various parts of the world, farm labourers and construction workers still gather in the morning to see if anyone will hire them. In the UK, zero-hour contracts are now very common. People await a text at six in the morning to tell them if they will have work. They are the equivalent of day labourers gathering in the market place.

One recent academic commentary on Matthew’s Gospel lists eight possible interpretations of this parable, none of which have anything to do with money and work. It is true that Jesus appears to have been drawing on a Jewish tradition of ‘parables of recompense’, in which unusual payments were used to illustrate wider points. Jesus’ story, however, goes into far more detail than most of these. Furthermore, Jesus’ listeners heard a story about their own worries: work, money, power, having enough to eat. Christian interpretation, however, has been influenced over centuries by church leaders and scholars who have rarely had to worry about finding enough work, money or food.

So how does the story sound to people who have experienced poverty and unemployment in today’s world?

‘I would have to identify with the late arrivals,’ said Samantha. ‘As a person with a disability, I have often had to claim benefits because of being unable to keep up with normal “hardworking” people.’

She added, ‘I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others’.

Although Samantha is approaching the story from a left-wing perspective, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who shares her politics will read it in the same way. Carl, another first-time reader, believes that the employer behaved unfairly.

‘This story illustrates the exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The parallels to today are many; the inequalities of pay are vast: between genders, between different countries of the world or even areas of the same country, between workers within the same company.’

He concludes, ‘Surely Jesus was saying this isn’t good and that we should not behave in this way’.

Whether we agree with Samantha, with Carl or with neither, their perspectives are a reminder of something that Christians all too easily overlook: Jesus’ teachings concern our everyday lives and how our world functions, not merely a distant future or an abstract doctrine.

 

The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 26th November in paperback and e-book, priced £9.99.