The civil war had been raging for years. Rebels, religious extremists, nationalists, criminals, bandits, and a foreign backed regime all fought each other over a land whose leadership and borders had been determined by competing foreign empires. Powerful nations to its east and west, to its north and south and across seas by thousands of miles had long determined its fate. After decades of failed rebellions, and decades of foreign backed minority rule over oppressed and increasingly angry religious groups, nationalism, sectarianism, and religious extremism were on the rise. The foreign backed regime grew weak. The foreign backers themselves were caught up in their own internal disputes. Taxes remained high. Regime control over the economy remained tight. People remained poor. And, civil unrest by an angry populace was met with overwhelming and often indiscriminate regime violence.
Before long, entire towns and cities would be burned to the ground. Brothers betrayed brothers. Parents and children turned against each other. Murder, rape, and violence became the norm. Refugees streamed from once peaceful villages by the thousands, permanently relocating a once proud-people now scattered across the nations. The land, as it once was, would never recover. The world looked on in horror.
This is Syria. In 70 CE.
Christians have long forgotten the origins of their own faith. The historical realities of these origins were readily apparent to the first hearers of the good news. They didn’t need to be told the horrors of the world around them. They experienced it themselves. They weren’t just remembering the wars of the past; it was happening right in front of them. They were its victims. It was their land destroyed, their houses burned, their neighbors slaughtered, their children in slavery, and their holy places decimated. People to their right and to their left and the cities and empires that surrounded them demanded their allegiance, their money, their grain, their sons, and their daughters. These were taken by force by tax collectors, soldiers, armies, bandits, and thieves. The gospel, or “good news”, which we hear today, and many of us believe, ignore, or mock, was the “good news” that these people heard in the midst of the catastrophe that was unfolding right in front of them.
Advocates of a pacified, de-politicized gospel have ignored the historical realities of the faith. Increasingly high taxes, land seizure, urbanization, monetization/commodification of the economy, disruption of traditional village life, Hellenization, increasing use of sharecroppers and wage labor, breakdown of traditional risk and asset sharing as outlined in Torah, increasing western influence in the traditional religious leadership and rituals, and above all, the violence used to enforce all of this, were at the forefront of political and religious movements and were the chief concerns of the average person who was simply trying to live their lives as best they could.
Advocates of the pacified, de-politicized gospel ignore all of this and would have you believe that the chief concerns of the people for whom and by whom the text was written are not central to the message of the gospel while simultaneously insisting that the full humanity of one of those people, Jesus of Nazareth, is central to our faith. It is impossible to be human in the midst of war and mass suffering and not speak to that war. It is impossible to preach “good news” to the victims of war and mass suffering without speaking to their suffering. Imagine approaching a refugee from the current Syrian war whose children are dead, whose friends are fighting for one side, while their siblings are fighting for another, who is cold, hungry, and has nowhere to go and will never return home and announcing, “Good News!” followed by any of which passes for gospel at our pulpits on Sundays. The gospel speaks to suffering, to politics, to economics, or it isn’t gospel at all.
I had heard selections from the Gospels for years at church before I arrived at Wesley Seminary. I had been to bible studies, Sunday school classes, and even taken a class on the New Testament during undergrad. I thought I knew it pretty well, after all, I had memorized verses and everything.
Our professor told us to do something that, to me, sounded strange. Read an entire Gospel. In one sitting. Ignore the verse numbers. Ignore the chapters. Ignore the headings. And if preferable, read it aloud. So I did. What I heard was different than anything that I had ever heard before. It was a Jesus in narrative. A Jesus who was short and often rude. A Jesus who was angry, idealistic, and sometimes even sounded foolish. A Jesus who bested his opponents in public debates. A Jesus who died a horrible non-triumphant death. And, a story that ends abruptly without a vision or assurance of a victorious resurrected Christ. Instead, it ends in fear, with the hearers of the “good news” running away, telling no one.
This Gospel, with the very human Jesus, and the very flawed disciples, which ends in destruction, death and defeat, is the story of the Gospel of Mark. And it’s written in Syria, of all places, in the middle of a catastrophic war waged by religious extremists, rebels, nationalists, criminals, bandits, and a foreign backed minority regime around the year 70 CE.
Despite the two thousand years that separate them, the Herodian regime, which rules Israel during the time of Jesus, and the Assad regime, which has ruled Syria since 1970, are surprisingly similar. Like Bashar al-Assad, Herod is an Arab. Herod’s mother was a Nabatean and his father was an Idumaean (the Hellenized name for Edom). Herod’s grandfather converted to Judaism when the land was conquered by the Jewish Hasmoneans of Judea. As a Hellenized Arab, and from a family of converts to Judaism, Herod was not considered to be authentically Jewish by much of the population he ruled. He was even derided as a “half-Jew”. He did, however, use his Jewish claim to try to assert control over the population through various projects, most notably, the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. He also became the patron of several prominent religious authorities in Judea through granting economic monopolies and by giving financial gifts. Herod was an expert at making his enemies politically and economically dependent upon him and at exploiting economic and political concerns that would outweigh their religious objections. His support of Jewish religious figures and his efforts to restore the glory of former Jewish kingdom stands in stark contrast to his efforts to fund pagan religious projects to the cult of the emperor and various Roman and Greek deities and his blatant violations of Torah through his personal and political behavior. Herod was stuck between a population that demanded that their ruler be authentically Jewish, while Herod’s base of support came from the Romans who demanded both political and religious allegiance to Rome.
Like Herod, Bashar al-Assad rules a population who does not believe that he is an authentic member of the dominant religious group. Assad is an Alawite Muslim, a small religious sect related to Shia Islam, in a country dominated by Sunnis. Bashar, like his father and former Syrian dictator Hefez al-Assad, attempted to curry favor with popular Sunni religious authorities in Syria by doling out to them political and economic privileges and making public appearances alongside Sunni clerics, particularly on Muslim holidays. He wanted to appear to the public as sufficiently Muslim while discouraging Sunni leadership from publicly questioning his religious credibility. Bashar did this while simultaneously ensuring that the government and the military were dominated by Alawites, members of his own minority religious sect. Religious sectarianism was central to political control over Syria even though Syria was run by the Ba’ath Party which advocated a socialist and secular ideology. Bashar al-Assad also depended on support from the Islamic Republic of Iran due to their shared political interests and their connection through Shia Islam. Assad’s Syria is a secular, socialist country, ruled by Alawites for the protection and advancement of Alawites, while trying to placate the anger of its majority Sunni population by paying off and supporting Sunni religious leaders and at the same time, it garners support from the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran for blatant sectarian purposes against the interests of other Sunni nations. Contradictions abound.
Most modern biblical interpreters and even modern historians accept as a fact that Herod was effective in his economic development of Judea. Improvements in infrastructure, the foundation of new cities and the construction of grand temples and monuments has convinced many that Herod initiated a period of economic growth that benefited all.
While a few cities, Jerusalem in particular, benefited from Herod’s urbanization plans, most of the people of Judea lived in the villages in the countryside as farmers. For them, Herod’s rule resulted in increased taxes, war, and the loss of ancestral land. The holdings of large landowners grew spectacularly during the rule of the Romans over Judea, and the only place to get all this extra land was from the peasants who had worked it for generations. The most effective way to take their land was by lending to them, at interest and in violation of the Torah, to cover the peasants’ expenses due to to high taxes. When they could not pay back the loans at their high interest rates, the land was seized. The former owners of the land soon became sharecroppers and worked as day laborers on land that they believed was given to them by God in perpetuity. Notice how Jesus, who the scriptures claim has his lineage traced back to David, has no land of his own.
No longer in control of their own land, villages which once relied on economic cooperation as outlined in the Torah, abandoned these practices out of necessity to cooperate with the Roman backed regime or simply looked out for themselves at the expense of others. Biblical practices like liberal lending to your neighbors, debt forgiveness, and gleaning ceased to be practiced due to foreign control of the land and increased poverty. This economic cooperation was not only considered to be a good moral practice as is commonly understood today, but it was necessary given the geography’s unpredictable influence on crop yields. A good harvest one year may be followed by a bad one the next as rains in the holy land are unpredictable and often unreliable. In order to protect against unpredictable events like drought, political unrest, or personal tragedy, the Torah requires economic cooperation to decrease risk. Jesus repeatedly speaks about laborers, absentee landlords, debt forgiveness, and mutual economic cooperation, specifically because these are the issues the people are facing and these are the issues specifically addressed in the Torah. It is impossible to understand the message of Jesus, or the Torah, without taking into consideration the vulnerable agricultural economy and its relationship to predatory empires.
After Herod’s death, his sons were unable to keep the divided kingdom together. Many have argued that it was because they weren’t as effective or as intelligent as their father, but I believe this to be historical fantasy. The policies enacted by Herod and continued by his sons had economically devastated the population. The main tax base, the farmers in the countryside, faced economic ruin. Farms declined in productivity, fields now in the hands of large landholders lay abandoned, agricultural communities were destroyed by war, and once productive farmers moved to the cities to work in construction projects financed by Judea’s rulers. Once the projects concluded and without the regime’s ability to raise required funds for new projects due to a tax base no longer providing as much revenue, these workers became permanently unemployed and were unable to return to their farms. The regime responded by raising taxes and increasing collection efforts. The peasants responded back by leaving their land, becoming less productive, lowering their birth rates, and dying sooner. Herod effectively crippled the Judean economy and made the kingdom entirely ungovernable. Biblical interpreters, without a strong understanding of the effects of his economic policies, have made the mistake of placing the blame on the demise of his kingdom on the personalities of his sons.
After years of political and economic mismanagement, minority rule backed by a foreign power, and responding to opposition with extreme violence, the result was chaos. The people revolted. Despite a few short victories by the rebels, the Romans invaded Judea with their legions as they had done before. Jerusalem was destroyed. Its temple burned. Its people slaughtered. It would never again be the same.
The Assad family, like Herod in ancient Judea, brought political stability to Syria after decades of political uncertainty. Before the Assad’s, Syria suffered through many short-lived regimes that ended in assassinations and coups. Hefez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took control of Syria in 1970. He ruled through fear, central control and the time-honored tradition of bribing one’s enemies.
Hefez and Bashar al-Assad, like Herod, fooled many commentators about the economic and political progress of Syria. Under their regime, literacy dramatically improved, infrastructure was strengthened, and a far greater number of Syrians had access to clean water and electricity. Unfortunately, Syria grew at much slower rate than its neighbors and the rest of the world. The Assad regime nationalized numerous industries and controlled them through corrupt centralized planners. The regime, its supporters, and the influential to whom it bribed, soon controlled huge sections of the economy and more and more people became directly dependent upon the government for their jobs, pensions, and financial support. As the government’s finances became increasingly unmanageable, the result was high inflation, declining financial support for its poor, and sustained poverty – especially in the countryside and among Sunnis. Growth declined even as neighboring countries developed more quickly. The Assad’s and their political partners, however, grew very wealthy.
The Assad regime continually promised reform, and upon the ascension of Bashar al-Assad to the presidency in July, 2000 following his father’s death, there was great hope that reform would follow. He was, after all, western influenced having lived and worked in London. Promised reforms never materialized. Bashar al-Assad used every national and international crisis to delay necessary reforms and keep power in the hands of the regime. Like his father, and like Herod, he responded to opposition and criticism of his rule not with reform but with extreme violence.
Bashar also continued his father’s foolish foreign policy of aligning with sectarian Shi’ite governments against the Gulf Sunni nations, western powers, and Israel. Its foreign policy was designed to simultaneously placate its own Sunni hardliners and ensure support from its foreign backer, the Shi’ite nation of Iran. Given that Syria’s Sunni hardliners loathed Iran and considered them to be apostates, this required a delicate balance. Syria would learn that both could be accomplished by continually blaming all problems on Israel and the United States. This left Syria diplomatically and economically isolated. Its allies only seemed concerned with how Syria could advance their own goals thus leaving the country at the whim of international pariahs like Iran and Russia.
King Herod, in ancient Judea, suffered similar problems while balancing its own religious hardliners with the demands of the Romans. The Jewish hardliners in Judea loathed Rome and considered them to be enemies of God, but King Herod needed the Romans to maintain his rule and even if he desired otherwise, he could not overcome the power of the Roman Empire. The Romans used their client kingdoms like Judea to advance Roman interests against the Persian Parthian empire to the East and the Egyptians to the southwest. King Herod’s kingdom was continually called upon to participate in Roman civil wars (the conflict between Marc Antony and Octavian nearly cost Herod his head) and to commit troops to various skirmishes against the Parthians. Herod’s Jewish enemies inside Judea would try to exploit the international rivalry between Rome and the Parthians by allying themselves with the Persians. The victims of these rivalries and wars was always the same: peasants. Herod tried to appease the Jewish hardliners by rebuilding the temple and obtaining religious exemptions for the Jews from the Romans, and he tried to appease the Romans by sending Jews to die in Roman wars. Like the Assad’s, it was doomed to fail.
Commentators have blamed Bashar al-Assad for the downfall of Syria. They claim that if only he had been as strong and as effective as his equally brutal father, then the regime and the country would be stronger today. There’s little doubt that Hefez was a better politician than his son Bashar, but the decline of the nation cannot be simplified into blaming the personality of one of its rulers. Such analysis is just as foolish as blaming the personalities of Herod’s sons for the collapse of Judea made inevitable by Herod’s own policies. Bashar al-Assad is a tyrannical despot, and he’s not even a very effective one at that, but Syria was broken and unsustainable long before Bashar al-Assad became its dictator.
The inevitable results in Syria and Herod’s Judea should have been predictable. A nation with a minority, foreign-backed regime with a centrally controlled economy, closed political system, and who responds to opposition with extreme violence, necessarily collapses with the breakdown of the state and continuing violence. The response to such resulting chaos in the Gospel of Mark is clear: a return to traditional political and economic practices, a decentralized power structure, local and autonomous rule, debt forgiveness, liberal lending, sharing economic risk, rejecting foreign interference, recognition of political and economic rights centered in the individual/family/community, and self-sacrifice. This Gospel was not a call on how to build a nation for the people in power; it was a call to families and communities suffering through chaos to live peacefully in accordance to their traditions while being cognizant of the risks of doing so. Its early adherents died for it. Why did they do so? Because in the midst of violence and chaos, remembering who they were, carrying out their own traditions, living in peace, and the announcement that God has already completed this and still lives with them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who has overcome death at the hands of their oppressors actually was good news.
There have been many who have proudly declared that the people of Syria can do no better than having a strong man as king. They have claimed that its people are too backwards, too inherently violent to be able to peacefully rule themselves. We must put the ousted strong man back in power or install a new one lest our own lands be threatened. They must abandon their outdated traditions and adopt our civilized practices. They must keep the peace. If they do not, we will punish them with our armies. We will destroy their cities and holy places. We will put their religious leaders in chains and prevent its people from fleeing into peaceful lands. They will live in our peace or they will die against our sword.
These, the arguments of Rome, stand opposed to what God has done. Among these backwards people, God becomes human. To these violent people, the Prince of Peace reigns. At the hands of those civilized western people, God becomes victim. Among those who must abandon their traditions and adopt a civilized culture, Christ establishes his church. If we believe nothing good can come out of Syria, Christians make a mockery of Christ’s church and God’s history of salvation.
Syria cannot go back to a strong man. An Assad-led government, as envisioned by Russia and Iran and increasingly accepted by the United States, will necessarily result in more violence. An illiberal democracy in which a strong man is given credibility by the tyrannical desires of the majority will necessarily result in violence. A government with centralized social and economic planning in an ethnically and religiously divided country will necessarily result in violence. A foreign-backed regime, a minority dominated government, a military intervention from outsiders – all will necessarily result in violence.
The gospel offers no political solutions. It gives little guidance for what we should do. With regard to questions of diplomacy or military intervention, choosing one side or the other, selecting liberal democracy or authoritarianism – the gospel provides no help. Those who seek guidance for these modern questions in an ancient book will find their own previously held opinions or they will discover fantasy, only now with the backing of divine authority. To those in power, the gospel is comprised of good lessons and morals offering guidance for right religious belief and spirituality. To those who live in the shadow of empire from Damascus to Nazareth, the gospel is an announcement of good news: The Kingdom of God is at hand. In God’s Kingdom, if the dead are resurrected, what power do Herod’s legions or Assad’s bombs have over us? How will you live if you have no fear of Caesar? If God, glorious in heaven, becomes human and stands with the political and economic interests of the oppressed peasant, where will you stand?
Mark 1: 14: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’