I join with many of my friends in mourning the loss of Marcus Borg. Borg was a new testament scholar, an author, a prominent figure in the Jesus Seminars and the movement for the study of the historical Jesus. For many, he gave us a version of Christianity that we could hold on to when it seemed that the faith of our childhoods refused to grow up and mature with us.
I encountered Borg early in my seminary career. We read the book he co-authored with N.T. Wright entitled The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions in my theology class. The book is a conversation between two biblical scholars, one from the liberal side of the spectrum (Borg) and the other more conservative (Wright). Despite the reputation my school had for being liberal, it felt as if we were being challenged to side with Wright wherever possible. Maybe that was just an internal pressure that I felt. I was fighting hard to keep this liberal mumbo jumbo from diluting my faith. Borg seemed too “out there”. Too far from orthodoxy. Too far from what we would be comfortable preaching from the pulpit.
And that was the real sticking point. You can believe whatever the hell you want, but what are you actually going to preach? What will stop you from getting ordained? What will stop you from getting a job? What will stop you from keeping a job?
I guess that brings me to a thought about orthodoxy: orthodoxy is a byproduct of privilege. Or… it is a manifestation of privilege. I’m not sure how to say that best, but orthodoxy is linked to power. If I can draw the lines, then I can punish you for drawing outside of the lines. CAnd I can withhold certain privileges (i.e. ordination, gainful employment, etc…) from you if you do decide to color outside the lines. Or color in the wrong shades. The idea of creating and maintaining an orthodoxy is a way of excluding people from communities based on belief. That’s no new thought, but the implications of it, particularly in a creedal denomination like mine, are significant.
Part of what it means to be Christian, in my estimation, is to have an uncomfortable relationship with power. Any kind of power. We’re to pray for those with power, but we’re not to strive for it for ourselves. Ours is to be the power of a weed growing in the direction of compassion, the power of a virus spreading in love and justice from person to person.
This brings me to my most recent encounter with Borg’s writing. At the last church that I served, we read one of Borg’s collaborations with John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. The book uses the Gospel of Mark to give a very different interpretation of Jesus’ final days than what most of us grew up with. Borg and Crossan see Jesus’ final march to Jerusalem as an assault against the “domination system” of the Roman empire. For them, domination systems have three components: 1) Political oppression where the many are ruled by the few 2) economic exploitation where the work of the many benefits the wealthy few and 3) religious legitimation of the place of the wealthy and powerful. Sound familiar? Borg and Crossan also call domination systems the “normalcy of civilization”/ Depressing, right? Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God over and against this domination system.
As much as I appreciated Borg’s willingness to be in conversation with Wright, I prefer the consistent message that comes from the Borg/Crossan collaboration: the role of Christ, and therefore the role of the church both then and now, is to be a force of resistance against the domination systems of our day. Our resistance is a pledge of allegiance to something greater than the powers of this world of ours. It requires “.., loyalty and commitment to God’s passion as disclosed in Jesus, a passion for compassion, justice and nonviolence. Compassion – love – is utterly central to the message and life of Jesus, and justice is the social form of compassion… love is the soul of justice, and justice is the body, the flesh of love”.
Borg’s willingness to understand what Jesus’ life meant in his context and to his early followers has had an enormous impact on many people’s faith and lives. Borg’s Jesus is a three-dimensional character, not simply a cardboard cutout or bumper sticker material. I hope that those of us who count Borg as one of our spiritual influences will have the courage to preach the Jesus that Borg taught and wrote of, the radical Jesus who faced down the powers of Rome through compassion and selfless love. Those are, in fact, the only weapons we have against empire.