Saturday, April 30, 2011

Superman influenced by Walter Wink's interpretation of Matthew 5?

In 'Action Comics' issue 900, Superman adopted 'non-violent resistance'. The comic page is from here.

Has Superman been reading Walter Wink lately?

Friday, April 29, 2011

John Rawls' theory of justice at local shore

"...I have a very strong sense of justice, so if I feel that there're people who are being treated unfairly, if I feel that there is an unfair distribution of resources, I would want to be in there [the Parliament], to step in, to be the 'doer' to change things instead of standing by the sideline and complaining."
(Interview with Strait Times Razor TV dated 21 April 2011)

Nicole Seah, 24-year-old National Solidarity Party's candidate for Singapore's 2011 General Election, seems to have adopted John Rawls' theory where 'justice' is understood as fairness. No doubt there are problems Rawls' idea, but one can appreciate his argument without agreeing with everything he said.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Reformed understanding of 'plan'

A dark joke quoted by Ben Gibbard, a singer (H/T: Valerie Tjahjono):

How do you make God laugh?

You make a plan.

Gibbard elaborates why he feels that this one-liner sounds true:
"Nobody ever makes a plan that they're gonna go out and get hit by a car. A plan almost always has a happy ending. Essentially, every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time. I really like the idea of a plan not being seen as having definite outcomes, but more like little wishes."
(The Mixonline website: Rick Clark, Death Cab for Cutie, dated 1 January 2006,
What does Epistle of James say?
"Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil."
(James 4.13-16)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rowan Williams answers a 6-year-old

From Telegraph's Damian Thompson (H/T: Lucilla):

There’s a charming article in today’s Times by Alex Renton, a non-believer who sends his six-year-old daughter Lulu to a Scottish church primary school. Her teachers asked her to write the following letter: “To God, How did you get invented?” The Rentons were taken aback: “We had no idea that a state primary affiliated with a church would do quite so much God,” says her father. He could have told Lulu that, in his opinion, there was no God; or he could have pretended that he was a believer. He chose to do neither, instead emailing her letter to the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (ditto) and the Scottish Catholics (a nice but theologically complex answer). For good measure, he also sent it to “the head of theology of the Anglican Communion, based at Lambeth Palace” – and this was the response:

Dear Lulu,
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

'Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!'

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.
+Archbishop Rowan

I think this letter reveals a lot about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sort of theology – more, indeed, than many of his lectures or agonised Synod addresses. I’d be interested to know whether readers of this blog think he did a good job of answering Lulu’s question.

But what the letter also tells us is that the Archbishop took the trouble to write a really thoughtful message – unmistakably his work and not that of a secretary – to a little girl. “Well done, Rowan!” was the reaction of Alex Renton’s mother, and I agree.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How influential were Charles Dodd and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1940s?

This morning, our lecturer Daniel Koh told us about a circulating creed in the 1940s around these two influential theologians. And I found the link to it (from; originally published in the magazine dated 23 August 1943):
"Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, who last Thursday received the degree of D.D. from Oxford University, is recognized as an outstanding religious teacher.

So great, indeed, is the influence which, along with Professor C. H. Dodd of Cambridge, he exercises over the younger generation of theologians, that a current Oxford witticism enjoins:

'Thou shalt love the Lord thy Dodd with all thy heart, and thy Niebuhr as thyself.'"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

France's ban of burqa: What does it show us?

France enforces its controversial ban on 'burqa' earlier this week. I am not a French nor have anything much to do with the country. I haven't been there either. The closest I am to France is reading Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Satre, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and, of course, the indispensable Jean Calvin. So I don't claim to know the country, the culture and the problems the nation is struggling.

Nonetheless, I find the ban puzzling, together with others French Muslim women. One of them commented that, "The law is humiliating--and it's ridiculous."

Another commented in similar abhorrence, "This whole law makes France look ridiculous. [...] I never thought I'd see the day when France, my France, the country I was born in and I love, the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité, would do something that so obviously violates people's freedom. [...] I'll be getting on with my life and if they want to send me to prison for wearing the niqab then so be it. One thing's for sure: I'm not taking it off."

A 27 year-old Muslim woman became the first to be fined 150-euros for wearing burqa in a shopping complex. Two others have been arrested by the police.

I keep thinking to myself, whether is this necessary?

Some reasoned that the burqa poses a threat to France's national identity. "France is a proudly secular state. The wearing of the burqa, even though it is not a religious obligation, is a challenge to that. To accept that is a one-way ticket to eventual national oblivion. [...] this was not about limiting the religious freedoms of anyone. It was about protecting the hard-won norms of the French state and the Sarkozy government was right to do so," wrote Tony Metcalf, Editor in Chief of Metro US.

William Langley remarked that the ban is for the good of the French society, to liberate Muslim women from being culturally forced to wear burqa. "Women who refuse to wear the hijab, and, increasingly, the burka, are intimidated and brutalised by gangs whose ideas about female emancipation are on an exact par with those of the Taliban. [...] Large numbers of the women who wear the burka – whether in France, Britain or anywhere else – don’t have a choice. So France has taken a stand. The first country in Europe to do so, and, I would suggest, by far the best equipped for the task. Secularism is taken seriously in French society – a legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism that was further enshrined in the landmark 1905 law that prohibits the state from recognising, funding or favouring any religion. [...] [France's President Nicolas Sarkozy] in banning the burka, to demonstrate that France has a more sophisticated concept of tolerance than Britain."

If Langley is right, then the banning of burqa is simply a manifestation of a militant version of secularism.

For those who are for the ban to avoid being perceived as intolerant, they would appeal to the cultural oppression experienced by the Muslim women. That's what Langley and the "parliamentarians and feminists in France" did.

For those Muslim women who are against the ban are appealing to their own preference. One of the veiled Muslim woman said, "There was no mosque involved, no pressure from anyone. It is not a religious constraint since it is not laid down in Islam or the Qur'an that I have to wear a full veil. It is my personal choice. [...] I would never encourage others to do it just because I do. That is their choice. My daughters can do what they like. As I tell them, this is my choice, not theirs. [...] I never covered my head when I was young. I came from a family of practising Muslims, but we were not expected to even wear a headscarf. Then I began looking into Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim and decided to wear a headscarf. Afterwards in my research into the wives of the Prophet I saw they wore the full veil and I liked this idea and decided to wear it. Before, I had felt something was missing. Then I put it on and I felt serene and complete. It pleased me and it has become a part of me."

Another one shared about her personal choice to wear burqa, "I was very flirtatious and wore a lot of makeup before I met my husband. After we got married, I stopped wearing makeup and dressing up, but I still got attention from men and I didn't like it. I felt much better behind the veil. It's a barrier between me and men."

In an interview with 32 Muslim women carried out by Open Society Foundation noted that all of them chose to wear the burqa willingly, without being forced to do so.

Clearly the reason used by French feminists, politicians, and William Langley does not apply to these Muslim women who conscientiously decided to veil themselves.

Rokhaya Diallo, the founder of Les Indivisibles, after seeing what is happening in France in the past few years has written in 2010 that "secularists become more militant, their arguments have gotten less rational and have begun to ring with the righteous conviction you usually associate with religious forces they oppose. [...] My perception of secularity has always been one of protection, of the state and society defending individuals and minority religions from coercion. Now we frequently see the opposite at work."

Jean Baubérot, a professor emeritus of sociology and expert on secularism at Paris University's École Pratique des Hautes Études remarked, "The 1905 law establishing secularism describes it as a measure to protect individual citizens' freedom of religion and faith by rendering the state totally neutral to — and disconnected from — religious matters. [...] Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs or practices of people or organizations. [...] Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a 'civil religion': the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to — or be made to respect."

The move in banning the burqa is obviously not without its reasons. Yet this does not make the ban any lesser a violation of individual's liberty. France became a secular nation because it realizes how oppressive it was during the time when religion was prevalent in its government. But the recent ban simply demonstrates how empty its excuse to be a secular state was in the first place.

What we are witnessing here is a clear evidence that governance can be as oppressive regardless of its religiosity or secularism. This also exposes the emptiness of a very popular notion among the Christian community that says "God or/and the Church is/are non-partisan."

The problem is not with partisanship but with the right party. And right does not mean perfect. Our theological notion of right can never mean 'perfect' in this saeculum age. God's partisanship is with the right party. And God's partisanship is not permanent as long as the eschaton is still not here. Hence the Church should perceive its political partisanship in similar manner. Whether does the Church has an unanimous partisanship is of course another matter altogether.

I shall leave it at that.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Matthew 5.30: Non-violent Resistance? Creative, counter-cultural, and radical approach?

"But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matthew 5.39)
Many have interpreted this passage as Jesus' creative and counter-cultural way to respond to oppressor. Some say that what Jesus was teaching here is radical.

Hence many have attributed this apparent creative, counter-cultural, and radical response as the third way: the non-violent resistance.

We shall examine how this interpretation has been validated by some of its most ardent advocates through the award winning book by Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee.
"In Jesus' culture, "to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, backhanded insult" with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things (Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 64-65, 68-69). To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying nonviolently, "you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal." Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity (Garland, Reading Matthew, 73ff.; Luz, Matthew 1-7, 327-29; Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives, 63-70; Stassen, "Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount"; Wink, Engaging the Powers, 175-177)."
(Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context [USA: IVP Press, 2003], p.138-139)
The four premises of this interpretation:
(a) It is forbidden to touch or strike anyone with left hand because the left hand is for dirty things.

(b) Therefore in order to strike someone's right cheek, one has to slap with the back of the right hand instead of the palm of the left hand.

(c) Strike a person's right cheek is a symbol of humiliation or insult.

(d) Subsequent offering of the left cheek after the right side is slapped is understood in that culture that the victim is demanding to be an equal with the insulter.
Stassen & Gushee quoted from these sources to make their four premises:
1) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 63-65, 68-70.
2) David E. Garland, Reading Matthew, 73ff.
3) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, 327-329.
4) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 175-177.

Such interpretation has gained popularity. N. T. Wright quoted the same understanding in a 2001 BBC1 documentary:
"Often in the Sermon on the Mount we come upon saying which puzzle us initially because it sounds as if Jesus is saying just be a doormat and let people walk all over you, turning the other cheek is one example, but that is not what is it all about. If I give someone a blow on the right cheek it will be with the back of my right hand and many scholars have suggests that that is a demeaning, dismissive sort of thing to do which is what you'd do to a slave or child or, alas in that culture, a woman. So that to say okay now hit the other cheek is a way of saying hit me again if you want but this time do it so that we are equals. It is a way of reaffirming one's own dignity often with a kind of rye humor at the expense of the bully who is putting you down."
(Directed by Jean-Claude Bragard, Son of God, Part 2: The Mission, 2001, BBC1, 38.15 to 39.04min)
We shall see how each of these sources validate Stassen's and Gushee's four premises (a, b, c, and d). I'll quote only the specific section that has immediate relevance.

1) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking:
"Turn the other cheek. In the customs of that day, when someone gave a slap on the right cheek, it meant an insult by a superior who was taking you as inferior (Job 16.10; Ps 3.7; Lam 3.30; 1 Esd 4.30). To turn the other cheek was to stand up and affirm your own dignity as an equal human person, but without violence. It seized the initiative. In the custom then, the insulter would either have to recognize your dignity as an equal person by striking you on the left cheek or would have to back off. This was not a strategy of passivity but an initiative that asserted your dignity and confronted the other person nonviolently with his or her antihuman behavior (this is nicely explained by Walter Wink, Violence and Nonviolence, pp.15ff)."
(Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace [USA: WJK Press, 1992], p.64-65. Bold original.)
Stassen pointed out to 4 passages from the biblical times:
Job 16.10: People open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.

Psalm 3.7: Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.

Lamentations 3.30: Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.

1 Esdras 4.30: ...and [the king's concubine] take the crown from the king's head and put it on her own, and slap the king with her left hand.
Job, Psalm, and Lamentations do not say anything about (a), (b), and (d). These three passages point out that striking is scornful, destructive, and disgracing. These may back Stassen's and Gushee's point (c).

1 Esdras does not explicitly say anything about (a), (b), (c), and (d). Given that this passage talks about the power of women over men, probably Stassen understands this passage to mean that the king was so enticed by his concubine that he couldn't react appropriately even when his was humiliated in the worst way, being slapped by left hand that is meant only for dirty things. The problem is that we have no evidence of (a) which this interpretation presupposes.

The biblical passages that Stassen referred to do not establish his interpretation. He pointed to Walter Wink's work, which we will discuss below. This means that the main reliance of Stassen's interpretation of Matthew 5.39 is Walter Wink's interpretation.

2) David Garland, Reading Matthew:
"To be struck on the right cheek implies that a person has been slapped with the back of the hand. Jesus is therefore not simply urging his disciples to turn the other cheek when someone aims to blow at them but when someone assaults them with insulting violence. Such as calculated indignity is considered to be at least four times as injurious in the Mishnaic discussion on indemnities for violence:
If a man cuffed his fellow he must pay him a sela [four zuz; a zuz was approximately a day's wage]. R. Judah says in the name of R. Jose the Galilean: One hundred zuz. If he slapped him he must pay 200 zuz. If [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz. (Mishna Baba Qamma 8.6)
[...] By turning the other cheek, for example, the victim "robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate." The oppressor must decide whether or not to slap the person again, but this time not as one would slap a slave with the back of the hand but as one would an equal. Wink contends that turning the cheek "seizes the initiative from the oppressor, overcomes fear, and reclaims the power of choice, all the while maintaining the humanity of the oppressor" (W. Wink, "We Have Met the enemy," Sojourners 15, no.11 [1986]: 15; see also "Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus' Nonviolent Way," RevExp 89 [1992]: 197-214)."
(David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: a literary and theological commentary [USA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2001], p.72-74)
The Mishna Baba Qamma 8.6 that Garland quoted points out the severity of slapping someone backhandedly. This probably supports (b) and (c). Garland does not argue much other than directly refer to the works of Walter Wink.

3) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7:
The portion of 327-329 in Luz's commentary that Stassen and Gushee quoted does not talk about how the Matthew 5.39 can be interpreted within its cultural setting to mean what the two of them wrote it to mean. So I shall discuss the portion where Luz engages specifically with Matthew 5.39 than the portion Stassen and Gushee have highlighted.
"A slap in the face (v.39b) was considered as an expression of hate and insult; the insult and not the pain stands in the foreground (Isa. 50.6; Lam. 3.30). The addition of right, which perhaps comes from the evangelist to make it more precise, could mean an especially vehement insult. The slap on the right cheek is not the ordinary thing; for that one either has to be left-handed or slap with the back of the hand (B. Qam. 8.6, 1 Esd. 4.30). But it is more probably that it was made more precise arbitrarily for rhetorical reasons. No special situation is in view. It is neither the issue that a master beats his slave or the oppressor the oppressed nor the waiver of legal retribution for insults nor slaps on the cheek which the disciples receive during the mission ("as heretics"), but rather any kind of violent altercation possible in everyday life. Slaps are so widespread that it is unnecessary to awaken special reminiscences of the servant of God os Isa. 50.6, who was beaten."
(Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary [USA: Augsburg fortress, 1989], p.325)
Luz's commentary only supports (b) and (c). There is no evidence that show (a) and (d). Hence Luz's work contribute little to the interpretation that Stassen and Gushee insist.

4) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:
"Turn the Other Cheek. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in the right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. An open-handed slap would also strike the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days' penance. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did the fine was exorbitant. The mishnaic tractate Baba Kamma specifies the various fines for striking an equal: for slugging with a fist, 4 zuz (a zuz was a day's wage); for slapping, 200 zuz; but "if [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz." But damages for indignity were not paid to slaves who were struck (8.1-7).

A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would invite retribution. The only normal response would be cowering submission.

Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus' audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5.39b-41, Jesus' listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (if anyone strikes you... wants to sue you... forces you to go one mile..."). There were among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of class, race, gender, age, and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.

Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your fist blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter the fact. You cannot demean me."

Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the strike. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality. Even if the superior orders ther person flogged for such "cheeky" behaviour (this is certainly no way to avoid conflict!), the point has been irrevocably made. He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, "The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.""
(Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination [USA: Augsburg Fortress, 1992], 175-177. Emphasis original.)
No evident for (a) and (d). Wink simply assumes without evidence that left hand was used for unclean task and so not appropriate to humiliate people by slapping them. But if the purpose is to humiliate, shouldn't one use the dirty hand to strike the other person? That would be extra-humiliating.

Wink also assumes without evidence that Jesus' listeners were victims. Jesus was giving hypothetical situations ("If anyone strikes/sues/forces you...") rather than identifying his listeners as real victims of events that have already occurred. And the 'anyone' in this passage means that Jesus' teaching is not confined to "dehumanizing treatment carried out within a hierarchical system."

As conclusion, there is no coherent evidence to support the cultural setting that generates the symbol of 'non-violent resistance' that so many contemporary scholars want it to mean, building on Wink's proposal. Such hermeneutical exercise is driven more by other concern rather than what the text says. As Malcolm Brown observed, "Wink's point is to distance Jesus from the charge of passivity and to stress that pacifism, properly understood, is not inert. He wants to make this move because, on other scriptural grounds, he sees Jesus' resistance to oppression and injustice as the 'bigger story', and so the limp passivity implied in most interpretations of Matthew 5 must be wrong." (Malcolm Brown, Tension in Christian Ethics: An Introduction [UK: SPCK, 2010], p.219).