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My Theology Lets me Imagine a Nation of California – Part 2

April 8, 2017

Would a California Nation be “solid as a rock”, like the massive granite, Half Dome? (In Yosemite, California, as pictured.)  I happen to think it would.  I gave a few of the reasons in Part 1.

But let me repeat that I’m not saying it’s necessarily a wise or practical thing to move in that direction.  However, it’s fairly likely that a proposition about it will be on our 2018 California ballot. So I’m featuring the idea to stimulate some thinking about it on a spiritual basis.  (For now, I’m merging the concepts of “religious” and “spiritual”, though I do think there are important separate usages of the terms.)

A key reason for encouraging deeper thought is that recent US elections, beyond just fall of 2016, indicate many people use shallow religious reasons or alliances for voting as they do.  We might say they are quasi-religious reasons in that they seem actually more cultural or economic with a mere veneer of the religious.  This is somewhat the case world-wide, but the USA is more deeply religious than Europe or much of the Western World.  For this and other reasons there is a stronger and more direct effect of religion in our politics than in many countries.

For California voters or US or foreign onlookers who consider themselves Christian (broadly defined, not just “born again” or Evangelical), let’s look at teachings of Jesus and Paul, particularly.  Are there any which might guide throwing our support, or not, to some form of Calexit? I think there are some principles which apply, though neither of these leaders spoke very specifically about political organization, and voting was nearly unknown or irrelevant to their audiences at the time.

Of course, both Jesus and Paul spoke a lot about kingdoms… of this world and of another place and order entirely.  I see both men as operating, in somewhat different ways, within the apocalyptic prophet “movement” of ancient (or “Second Temple”) Judaism.  To oversimplify significantly, they were expecting the direct intervention of God to establish the “Kingdom of God”, both on earth and in heaven …. So a form of theocracy.  With Paul, unlike with Jesus, who remained culturally Jewish all his life, one could say that apocalyptic views that were basically Jewish had become “Christian”.  Paul had incorporated Gentiles, seriously tweaked Pharisaic Jewish theology, and broadened outreach.  The result was that the Jewish Jesus-following sect was universalized as Christianity was “founded.”

I should insert here that my own brand of Jesus-following does not expect any “supernatural” (i.e., miraculous) intervention to establish a Utopian “kingdom” although I believe God has been and will always exert loving influence toward improvements in human governance.  

My explanation of “apocalyptic” in the thinking of Jesus and Paul is important on two counts: First, that it is often overlooked or downplayed in interpreting the Gospels and Paul’s writings, leading to distortions of New Testament theology.  Second, that this is a key example of why it is complex and tricky to apply their teachings to situations within any political structure, and especially to those within a modern democracy.

The distortions produced include seeing Jesus too far removed from political/prophetic involvement.  Contrary to this view, his execution was clearly by Rome (not the Jews) as a threatening figure in terms of political stability.  Although he was not fomenting armed resistance, it was resistance none the less.

As to distortions of Paul, his generally accepting or passive stance toward governing authorities, based largely on Romans 13, can’t (or shouldn’t) be easily translated over to contemporary times.  If one is, as was Paul, expecting the very-soon appearing of Christ and “final judgment”, one tends to be less concerned about challenging or improving political conditions.  So with that super-brief treatment of Paul’s politics, let’s say his input toward a California-US divorce is tough to determine and would perhaps be neutral.

So what about the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels? (The Gospels cannot be taken to consistently reflect what he actually said or did, according to most biblical scholars and serious students of the New Testament, but we’ll set that matter aside for now and take things as expressed.) What that he is storied as saying might apply to the issue of California exiting the United States?

Again, nothing seems to apply directly.  Much of the reason is this: The political situation of the Israel of Jesus’ time was quite different than ours.  For centuries, the civil governance of the nation had been interwoven with its religion. “Judges” and then Kings had autocratic authority over much, but a great deal of economic and social life was governed by Torah (the legal part of the Hebrew Bible) and administered by the tribal/familial line of priests.  By the time we get to the first century, the “second” Temple of the post-Babylonian Exile period, upgraded magnificently by Herod the Great, was more than a place of animal sacrifice and worship.  Much more.  It was effectively the center of economic activity, record-keeping and administration of much of what made both Judea and Galilee tick. (These were the major regions often referred to in the New Testament).

Again, much of civil as well as religious governance was with the High Priest and administrative, functional layers of priests, under the control of first King Herod (or his sons, Herod Antipas, “that fox”, or Archelaus, by Jesus’ time) and then the Roman local governance.  The latter is seen famously (if in some distortion in the Gospels) in Pilate.  The Romans had been wise enough, since taking direct control of the region in 63 BCE, to allow the Jews their religion and cultural practices and much of their own economic governance.  However, it was always under the oppressive taxation and tight anti-insurgency control of Rome and its vast military.

So one can easily imagine the high level of corruption, particularly because King Herod and his family were inter-married with Roman Gentiles.  As half-Jews, the line was not fully accepted as legitimate kings, nor of course the Romans as legitimate overlords, being non-Jewish and “heathens”.  So the Temple represented and actually was the center of a highly oppressive and corrupt system in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

This is the important context for the well-remembered scene, known even by non Bible readers, in which Jesus “cleanses the Temple”.  At the least, this was brief and purely symbolic… a prophetic gesture calling leadership to account for the systemic corruption that clearly broke the spirit of Torah, if not often its letter as well.  At the most, it may have led, perhaps unintentionally by Jesus, to a serious riot or violent protest involving many people and leading to Jesus’ arrest and charge of sedition. (See my posts here and here for more.)

Whatever exactly happened, it seems clear that an important, probably pivotal incident of challenge for a more just and fair economy and implementation of laws took place.  In it, we find a model that is at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity – the tradition of prophets (and earlier, legislators) who call for economic justice and the opportunity for all to thrive.  In my view, elements of this tradition are reflected in the US historically in both conservative and liberal parties and wings of parties, the balance and specific features varying over time.

So how does this relate to theological applications in a possible Calexit? And do Jesus’ teachings give any further guidance?

In my mind one connection is this: If California, as a state, seems clearly to express more of the positive elements of governance expressed by Jesus and elsewhere in the Bible (and the better periods and aspects of Christian history) than does the USA as whole, then Calexit is at least worth examining.

As to anything else specific to be gleaned from Jesus, I would cite his teachings of forgiveness and servant leadership.  Sure, these are generally taken, as they may have mainly been intended, for personal conduct more than civil governance.  But do things need to be fully reversed when “scaled up”? Does a nation absolutely need to use coercion on a broad scale, either internally or internationally, to generally provide for peace and a just set of economic policies? I think not.  At least not in the extreme fashion seen in both the military of the US and in our run-away practices of imprisonment.

Finally, does not Jesus’ call to provide for “the least” (or “underprivileged”, less able) among us apply to some extent, at minimum, to policies of civil government? (Some of this was included in the civil law of Torah in things like gleaning laws, Jubilee, etc.)  I say “some extent” as a word to my more conservative friends who believe the private sector alone is responsible for this social function.  I think it’s abundantly clear that Americans have long treated this as a matter of degree, not an either-or, despite rhetoric from large elements within conservatism.    

So, if the US as a whole should distance itself further and further from sensible policies of social welfare (which appears right now to be happening), and California continues to support and promote such things, this may add justification, on a theological basis, for Calexit.  Similarly with respect to the use of science in critical areas like climate change and ecological civilization.  Of course, science was not a developed area of study apart from theology in biblical times.  But the issue is, to me, more one of submission to the serious pursuit of truth versus denying reality for the sake of short-term aims.

I have not sought, even for myself, to fully develop a wholistic rationale (theological and otherwise) for evaluating a possible exit of California from the Union, but these are some of my early thoughts.

Your thoughts on the subject, whether you’re from California or not, are welcomed!

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