Monday, April 26, 2010

Can "Damn You" be Good News?

On Friday night I spoke at a 30 hour famine event using the "beatitudes" from Luke 6. However for the sake of emphasis I used the scholars version rendering of the text, because of it's "shocking" words.
Congratulations, you poor!
God's Domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
Congratulations, to you when people hate you, and when they ostracize you and denounce and scorn your name because of the son of Adam.
Rejoice on that day, and jump for joy!
Just remember, your compensation is great in the place of God's dwelling.
Recall that their ancestors treated the prophets the same way.

Damn, you rich!
You already have your consolation.
Damn, you who are well fed now!
You will know hunger.
Damn, you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve.
Damn you when everyone speaks well of you!
Recall that thier ancestors treated the phony prpohets the same way.

But to you who listen I say, love your enemies...
On the way home my lovely wife asked me, "Where was the good news in that message?" She was concerned that the teens of our audience would have left feeling more judged and more hated by a God who has been constantly misrepresented already. Although I think that the transition to salvation as transactional between God and man clouds the ability to "hear" the good news, I will not go into that for the purpose of this post. Instead I want to focus on the text itself, and draw out the "Good News" that is very present in this text, even for the oppressor (the rich, the well fed, the laughing).

To begin, I want to ask the reader to take off any lens you have as you come to the text that inclines you to hear the text in an individualistic way. This is hard in the western culture of America, since we are a culture of rugged individualism. However I think it is necessary to understanding that this message, as well as the totality of scripture is directed to communities rather than individuals.

So the text compares two communities, the oppressed community and the oppressor community. To the oppressed community Jesus admonishes them, "your weakness is strength" to the oppressor community Jesus warns them, "your strength is your weakness." Jesus reminds those who have been scorned that they are loved by God. Jesus warns those who have perpetuated that scorn that they are loved by God.

"WAIT," you might be thinking, "he told the oppressors "Damn, you" are you missing that is not an encouragement but a scold?" I did not mistype. Jesus expresses love to this group by foretelling to this group where the institution of oppression leads. History is full of examples of as society's rise up, and then eventually collapse in revolt at the hands of the oppressed.

Let me have you read a story by Clay Shirky:
In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—” Under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification."
As Shirky foretells the fall of complex society, Jesus in this text also warns of the downfall of living atop the oppression food chain.

Jesus illuminates that both sides of the oppression equation, the oppressor and the oppressed, are caught in slavery to the violent system that oppression is. Jesus tells both groups that they are loved by God, by planting the very seed of hope needed by both groups. Jesus is not condemning the individual, instead he condemns the societal grouping, the institution, that enslaves each community.

To put this another way, in a way I know might offend many of you but captures the gist of Jesus' words with contemporary relevance, the text could read, "Damn you America your military corporate imperialist machine will crumble." Jesus can condemn the institution of American exploitation and oppression. This is not a condemnation of the individual but rather, as with all others on both sides of the oppression equation, a recognition that slavery to that machine is damaging to the humanity of it's persons.

The slavery to oppression is a cruel master no matter which side of it's violence you are seated in. So Jesus offers the only alternative to violence to everyone willing to hear the alternative, "Love your enemies." By embracing the shared humanity of all persons the cycle of violence is broken. The oppressed can see the humanity of the oppressor and therefore feel his oppression. The oppressor can see the humanity of the oppressed and therefore feel her oppression. Enemy love is the great radicalizer. It frees all to stand in freedom; freedom with God, and freedom with fellow humanity.

The invitation to embracing uncompromising love makes Jesus' "Damn You" an invitation to freedom. Enemy love ends the cycle of violence, though often it's participants feel the burning from both sides of the cycle. Enemy love joins all once divided by social fences back to oneness. Enemy love is the mystery through which creation reconciles back to God. Enemy love is not transactional, it is the relational cradle of new life. Enemy love is the extremist act whose seditious ripples topple the violence of oppression. Enemy love is Good News and all structures and institutions that prevent one from experiencing it be damned!


Angela Harms said...

"Damn you" seems much less like what I hear from Jesus than "You poor things."

"You poor things, you who are well fed now, because you're going to be hungry...
(You poor things, who have it all figured out. What will you do when it all comes crashing down?")

"Damn you" is not something I hear from Jesus, who offers me hope without fear, redemption without shame, love if I just choose it.

Kevin J Bowman said...

I certainly think, "You poor things" is a great way to word it. I think the point of the translators of the scholars version is the "Damn you" reflects just the counter cultural reversal that would have shocked his audience. Much like the rich man and Lazarus or the good Samaritan is a story of cultural reversal. I see the same idea in using, "Bless your heart you who are rich" to make the point in a contemporary "southern" culture.

Unknown said...

Except 'damn' doesn't correlate to 'ouai' - a form of denunciation or grief. Sounds good but it changes Jesus words to fit a theology rather than take his words and make theology out of it.... unless we really don't believe this is what Jesus said anyway (Scholar's version?????)

Kevin J Bowman said...


The Blessings & Curses paradigm is an important oratorical tradition in the Hebrew community of canonical literature.

This style can be seen as far back as Torah, continuing through both the wisdom literature and prophetic literature of the Hebrew canon. It is present in the Christian canon in both John the Baptist & Jesus.

Now as for translation as "Damn." I do not believe the word is intended as "Damnation" as the text of the post makes clear. In 'The Works of Epictetus' the 'ouai' is translated "undone" which captures the idea I believe is being intended here. I don't in ANY WAY think "Woe" is a mistranslation, but "Damn you" conveys it with an emphatic plea that rings through the blessings and curses style that is ever present in Hebrew literature.

As the first commenter noted, "You poor things" is a wonderful way to coney the idea, that I believe is being conveyed.

Scholars version is published as a nonsectarian translation. Since your profile is private I do not know your academic qualifications but the translators of the text I used are all well credentials scholars who certainly feel the word does correlate.

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