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What Would Jesus Do…about health care reform, for example?

This is the fifth post in a six-part series in the re-church Summer Reading Group. The six posts will correspond to the six chapters of What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, by John D. Caputo. Click links for parts one, two, three and four.


This is the chapter we’ve all been wondering about, I think. What would Jesus deconstruct, specifically? In this chapter Caputo takes the deconstructive virus that he has been cultivating in the past few chapters and injects it into contemporary American culture. He focuses his deconstructive fury on four areas of American social life: economic justice, militarism, patriarchy, and sexual issues (abortion and homosexuality). If you tend to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum you probably enjoyed this chapter immensely, maybe even pumping your fist a time or two. If you are on the conservative side of things you probably had a hard time getting through these 28 pages. But regardless where you stand on these issues, you may have had a thought something like mine: “Isn’t this just too convenient? So you apply a Derridian deconstructive move to Jesus and he comes out looking like a liberal Democrat. How nice.” In other words, is Caputo really working backwards from what he wants Jesus to stand for? Is he creating Jesus is his own postmodern, liberal, democratic image?

What I would like to do in this short post is focus again on Caputo’s hermeneutical framework. Rather than going through each of the four major areas that take up the majority of the space in this chapter and tell you what I think and why (which is really not that relevant or important), I would like to ask the question, does Caputo’s hermeneutic make sense and does it rightly yield the kind of outcome he says it does in modern life? But before I do that, let me make this very personal with a short story about something that will happen tomorrow in Hollywood.

As you must know, unless you’ve been on silent retreat for the past 3 months, America is in the midst of a (now quite ugly) debate about health care. Congress is officially on summer recess and during this time the debate about health care is moving to the local front. Tomorrow, at one of the churches in Hollywood, I will be speaking on behalf of the 25 member congregations (churches and synagogues) that make up LA Voice, about the moral and religious values that we feel call us to speaking out for health care reform. (If you want to know more about our message, visit Congressman Xavier Becerra will be present, as well as dozens of other clergy and leaders from our congregations in Los Angeles.

Is this what Jesus would do? Would Jesus speak out for health care reform? I think he would, for some of the reasons that Caputo names in this chapter. And for me, it comes down to hermeneutics.

You will not find a passage in scripture that tells us to try to influence our government for more just policies that will benefit the poor. In fact, as Caputo points out, Jesus works outside the dominant political structures of his day. He challenged the social order (remember he ended up on a Roman cross, convicted of high treason). But you don’t see Jesus trying to become the next Caesar or even stage a coup.

The funniest expression of Caputo’s hermeneutic comes on page 91 when he says:

My basic hermeneutic formula is this: if you want to draw your vision and inspiration from the New Testament, bless your heart, but you need, in addition to a good reading of the text, an independently good argument.

What I think he’s saying here is that your interpretation needs to work in the world you live in. This is the hard work of living Christianly in the world. We have to use our heads and think. He gets a bit more specific about this.

I may be forgiven…if I have concluded that the private-charity argument is a cynical cover for greed, which as a way of working things out so that I get to keep as much money as I can for myself and let the poorest of the poor go to the devil. I have the idea that this is precisely the sort of hypocrisy that made Jesus flash with anger, so that if Jesus showed up on day uninvited and caught me holding forth on that point, the “revelation” I would experience would be of his meaner side. The more Jesus-inspired thing to do today, in my opinion, is to translate the gospel’s commitment to hte poor into an effective public policy that would actually implement an evangelical imperative, to come to the aid of the weakest and most defenseless people in society, above all the children (93, italics supplied by me).

This is not to say that the government is the answer to the world’s problems, or to shift the locus of God’s kingdom to Washington, D.C. I think it is possible to maintain that the church, filled with the Spirit and commissioned by Jesus himself, is the primary locus of God’s action in the world and that it is the role of the church to bear witness to Christ and his kingdom by doing everything possible now to enact that kingdom in the world we actually live in. Bill Colburn commented on the last post and quoted Stanley Hauerwas as saying, “To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible.” (You got a reference for that, Bill?) I think this gets the balance exactly right. To say, the church itself is the message and the witness is not to absolve the church from putting it’s faith into tangible action in the world as a witness to future God’s is bringing into our present.

It is our responsibility to breathe with the spirit of Jesus, to implement, to invent, to convert this poetics into a praxis, which means to make the political order resonate with the radicality of someone whose vision was not precisely political. We need hermeneutics, which means understanding linked to historical context, and deconstruction, which means an interpretive theory that is mad about justice, in order to make this translation (95).

This statement above comes the closest, I think, to saying what Caputo is up to in this book. This deconstructive hermeneutic peels back the layers of our hypocricy and complicity with systems of power that benefit the wealthy and franchised, and exclude the poor and disenfranchised. So, in the areas of economic justice, war and violence, patriarcy and sexuality, how does this hermenutic apply? Do you find Caputo’s application of his own hermeneutic compelling? Would you like to argue with him about this?

For example, how does this statement below set with you? Can you read the Bible in this way or has Caputo gone too far?

I appreciate the scholarly work that has been recently undertaken to interpret what the Scriptures have said about homosexuality and I wish it well. But even were this research not to hold up, I could live with the idea that Paul condemned what we today have constituted as “homosexuality: and that if anyone ever asked Jesus about it (and if they did we have no record of it) he would have said the same thing as Paul….

In my view even if there is a dominant view against homosexuality in the Scriptures and tradition…I would argue that on this point the Greeks were right and the dominant tradition among Jews and Christians is wrong, just as the Scriptures are wrong to underwrite slavery and the oppression of women (108-109).

Please join the conversation already in progress at the re-church blog.

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