Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Six)

In the resurrection, what color will I be?

In a guest op-ed in the April 15th edition of The New York Times, Esau McCaulley reflected on “What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans Like Me.” McCaulley is the award-winning author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. I have recommended McCaulley’s book in previous posts and am happy to do so yet again. I encourage you to read the op-ed piece as well – in part because it has generated some surprising pushback.

McCaulley studied with N. T. Wright, and that salutary influence shows through his essay. “Christians believe that our bodies will be resurrected from the dead to live in this transformed earth,” he writes. “Like the earth itself, these bodies will be transfigured or perfected,” McCaulley continues, “but they will still be our bodies.” This means, of course, that McCaulley expects his resurrected body to be Black, just as Jesus’ resurrected body was scarred.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

“The body that God raised was the same body that was on the cross,” McCaulley writes. The disciples, with some difficulties, recognized Jesus as the Lord who had led them to Jerusalem. They talked with him and shared meals. “His body was transformed and healed,” McCaulley observes, “but it still had the wounds from his crucifixion. There was,” he suggests, “continuity and discontinuity with the person they knew.”

So far, so good. McCaulley draws out the implications that we Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus has for our resurrections. As Paul notes, Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection. We Christians believe that what God did for Jesus, he will do for us (and, I would add, for all of Creation). Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste, the preview, the down payment (again to use Pauline language) on the resurrection for all at the end of the age. But what will we look like in that resurrection?

“Will we all receive the six-packs of our dreams? Will we revert to the bodies we had in our 20s?” McCaulley teases. Then he gets serious again. “I do not find these questions that intriguing. What is compelling to me,” he declares, “is the clear teaching that our ethnicities are not wiped away at the resurrection. Jesus was raised with his brown, Middle Eastern, Jewish body. When my body is raised,” McCaulley concludes, “it will be a Black body. One that is honored alongside bodies of every hue and color.”

He argues that this continuity of color will be “the definitive rejection of all forms of racism.” Now we come to the punchline and payoff in McCaulley’s essay. “At the end of the Christian story,” he proclaims, “I am not saved from my Blackness. It is rendered everlasting. Our bodies, liberated and transfigured but still Black,” he asserts, “will be the eternal testimony to our worth.”

McCaulley has landed poignantly and powerfully on one of the reasons orthodox Christians have historically confessed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” In its fullness, the Christian faith is a body-delighting creed rather than a body-denying or body-disdaining creed. As McCaulley notes, this matters for Black believers who live with a history of Black bodies as locations of terror and torture, conquest and contempt, looting and lynching.

“The question,” McCaulley writes, “’What will God do about the disinherited and ripped apart bodies of the world?’ can be seen as a central question of religion. Either give me a bodily resurrection,” he demands, “or God must step aside. [Such a God] is of no use to us.” He argues that unless our God restores bodies that have been treated as though they don’t matter, then violent mobs and cruel diseases have taken something that even God cannot restore. McCaulley is not interested in such a God. Neither am I.

McCaulley knows that Christian hope is always Resurrection hope. We who follow the risen Lord Jesus have no other source or ground for our hope. He reports that he is often asked about what gives him the hope to go on in the face of the evil he sees in the world. “I find encouragement in a set of images more powerful than the photos, videos, and funerals chronicling Black death,” he writes, “the vision of all those Black bodies who trusted in God called back to life, free to laugh, dance, and sing. Not in a disembodied spiritual state in some heavenly afterlife,” McCaulley continues, “but in this world remade by the power of God.”

“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Touch my body, Thomas, and see what is really happening. In that touch, you can release your unbelief and come to trust what you hold in your hands. “If Christianity is mere method, a way of approaching reality, then it is inadequate,” McCaulley writes in Reading While Black, “but if Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, then the world is a different place even when I do not experience it as such” (page 134).

The Good News of the Resurrection is that God’s future fulfillment of Creation, God’s restoration of all things, has come to meet us in the present. If, for example, Black people will be raised to new life in their Black bodies, then our belief in the Resurrection requires us to treat them as full members of the body of Christ and full bearers of the image and likeness of God in the here and now. If setting things right is the reality of the Resurrection in the end, then the work of setting things right is the task of Resurrection faith in the here and now.

“Without the resurrection,” McCaulley writes in his book, “the forgiveness embedded in the cross is the wistful dream of a pious fool. But I am convinced,” he continues, “that the Messiah has defeated death. I can forgive my enemies because I believe the resurrection has happened.” In the Johannine account, that resurrection power, the power to bring life out of inanimate clay, is breathed into the disciples. “Belief in the resurrection,” McCaulley declares, “requires us to believe that nothing is impossible” (page 134).

There was a time when White Christian theologians and preachers believed that Black individuals were subhuman and therefore not subject to what was imagined as a humans-only resurrection. This, of course, is the only position that can affirm the rightness of Black chattel slavery and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Those White Christian theologians understood that if Black bodies could be resurrected at the end of the age, they could not be enslaved in the middle of time.

Most White people these days know, at least intellectually, that Black people cannot be regarded as less than fully human. Yet individual, institutional, social, and cultural behaviors and norms continue to regard Black people as less valuable than other human beings in the realities of daily life. We need only to look at differential health outcomes, educational outcomes, income disparities, real estate maps, law enforcement conduct and policies, and other concrete measures to see that our resurrection vision is not impacting our life together in the here and now.

The solution with which some Christians are left is a sort of “color blind” resurrection of the dead. In response to McCaulley’s essay, some commentators are appalled that color would be a consideration in the resurrection of the body. They complain that McCaulley has engaged in a politicization of the doctrine to score partisan points at the expense of theological and scriptural accuracy.

But if the Resurrection of Jesus is not specific, then what are we to make of the interactions in John 20? If the scars have come along into Jesus’ resurrection body, why would we think that his color does not? Of course, we could talk about all those paintings and stained-glass windows that depict the risen Jesus as White. Because that’s the point. For some critics, if they would tell the truth, the resurrection body is not colorless. For them, it is White.

Thus, the pushback to McCaulley’s writing encases the assumption of Whiteness as good, right, normal, and ultimately superior. But that expectation violates the very witness of scripture. “When God finally calls the dead to life,” McCaulley writes, “he calls them to life with their ethnic identity intact” (page 135).

He refers us to the words of Revelation 7:9 – “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (NRSV, my emphasis). Who could tell the differences in national origin, ethnicity, color, or language unless those differences had come along in the final resurrection?

In a single voice, the multitude cries out from their diversity, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Our text is an invitation to make that confession real and concrete in our Christian witness and service in a society, in a world, filled with nations, tribes, peoples, and languages.

References and Resources

Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Two)

This week’s gospel reading continues the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. Our reading begins with a strong adversative, the Greek word, “alla,” meaning “but rather.” As always, it’s the smallest words that offer the biggest interpretative challenges. “But rather” what? The conversation would be quite different if the connecting word were, for example, “therefore.” It is not. Our text steers us in a different direction.

Does the Lukan author want to continue leading us in the direction of a common life (and common humanity) rather than the binary interpretation that the blessings and woes seem to invite on their own? I think that’s the case. By themselves, the blessings and woes in the previous verses could easily be read as “either/or” propositions – either poor or rich, hungry or full, weeping or laughing, persecuted or praised. I am tempted by that possibility far too often.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Instead – but rather – the Lukan author seems to say, let’s get beneath these superficial binaries to something deeper. I think, as I noted last week, that the Lukan author is committed to a parallelism in discussing the social locations of the less privileged and the more privileged in the Lukan community. But I think this parallelism leads to different strategies of personal and structural resistance. And I think that resistance is directed to the larger system rather than towards one another.

Therefore, as I noted previously, I think the strategy commanded in Luke 6:27-31 is for those who do not have the power to resist in other, more subtle and covert ways. And the strategy commanded in Luke 6:32-36 is for those who have more power and privilege in the larger socioeconomic system.

The goal is the formation and sustaining of Christian community. We see a summary of that community in Acts 2:43-47. The first believers have all things in common, sell their goods and give the proceeds to the poor, worship and fellowship together. They eat with glad and generous hearts, honor God and benefit from the esteem of the larger culture. This strategy rooted in the Good News of Jesus causes the community to grow numerically and to extend the wholeness of the Gospel to more and more people.

Jesus finishes the blessings and woes. Then he shifts the discourse. “But rather,” he announces, “I am saying to you who continue to listen…” Sarah Henrich, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes a grammatical detail that matters at this point. “In 6:27 Jesus begins, ‘I declare to you who are listening,’” she notes. “One could emphasize the present participle and translate it as: ‘I declare to you who are still listening.’” What could that mean?

Perhaps Jesus is aware (at least in the Lukan author’s reconstruction) that his blessings may have distracted the marginalized among his listeners. And the woes may have alienated the more privileged among his listeners.

I can tell, as a preacher, when I have said something that leads many in the congregation into daydreaming. And I can tell when I have said something that hurts or irritates some of my listeners. I’m usually pretty clear in advance that this may happen. I might build in a strategy to recover their attention before either the distracted or the disgruntled check out completely. I have been known to say in a sermon, “If you’re still listening at this point…”

That’s often enough of a challenge to get roving or resistant listeners to check back in to the message until the next time I derail or offend them. If this is part of the sense of sentence from the Lukan author, then perhaps the intent of the “but rather” is an acknowledgment in particular that the “woes” were anticipated to put some people off – particularly those powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied people in the crowd on the plain and, by extension in the Lukan community. There was a danger that those folks would check out of the conversation permanently at that point unless they were wooed back in again.

This may seem to be a small point, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I am thinking about all the times when my own power, privilege, position, and property have been pointed out to me. I remember, in another lifetime, the first time my male privilege and misogyny were made clear to me. First, it was new information, so I simply didn’t understand. Of course, that defense last about three seconds, and then I knew what the issue was (at least a bit).

I know that I stopped listening at that point, and for quite a while after. I used the energy I should have devoted to listening and re-tasked that energy for self-defense and self-justification. My human brain has limited active processing capacity. If I’m spending it on making myself look good while under “attack,” then I won’t have anything left to hear what’s actually being said to me.

I know this is certainly the case for me when it comes to my white male privilege. But before I address that, there is for me the real matter that I hate to be told that I’m wrong. I intensely dislike being contradicted. I have a congenital lack of humility when it comes to my own views and opinions. Saying to someone, “You may be right,” does not come naturally to me. It only happens with practice, diligence, and calm.

The source of that resistance is not confidence or strength, at least not for me. It comes from the deep and clear sense that I have never been enough and will never be enough. Just because I know that’s not true doesn’t mean that sense has lost its power over me. In response to that constant threat to my ego, I build and maintain rigid realms of rightness that resist all contradictions. I’m often astounded that people put up with me.

Of course, then I remember many of us are like this and don’t even notice that it’s a flaw rather than a strength.

All that psychological confession aside, let’s get back to my lack of white listening. “The first duty of love,” wrote Paul Tillich, “is to listen.” We all know how quickly we can move in a conversation from deep listening to constructing our response to what we may or may not have heard. Often that response will be some form of self-defense rather than a request for further information. To love is first of all to listen.

The listening that matters is a deep and full and long listening, especially when we are asked to listen to testimonies that contradict our settled understanding and/or implicate us in a problem. Austin Channing Brown notes that such listening is not the same as “dialogue.” Dialogue, she argues, is the favored strategy of reasonable White churches to deal with racial tension.

But such dialogue is not helpful. “I am convinced,” she writes in I’m Still Here, that one of the reasons white churches favor dialogue is that the parameters of dialogue can be easily manipulated to benefit whiteness.” Such dialogues are often marked by tone policing which advises that people of color should nicer, kinder, more gracious, and less angry. “But we cannot negotiate our way to reconciliation,” Brown continues. “White people need to listen, to pause so that people of color can clearly articulate both the disappointment they’ve endured and what it would take for reparations to be made.”

“Too often,” Brown concludes, “dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come” (pages 169-170).

Listening requires that people with power, privilege, position, and property sit and pay attention long enough and fully enough to begin to understand the hearts, minds, and lives of those who live without the four P’s. People with power will have no trouble getting a voice and a platform for their positions. There’s no need to make sure that the “dialogue” is “mutual.” Jesus starts with the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted. Let us do the same.

I find great reluctance in many American Christian congregations to do such listening, even at the most basic level. I know a congregation that was considering placing a large cellphone tower on their property in the midst of a working-class neighborhood. This was a congregation that wondered why the neighbors didn’t respond to their invitations to participate in the congregation’s life. Yet, in the process of deciding about the cellphone tower (an income-producing opportunity for the congregation), the congregation had no interest in consulting with the neighbors.

I say to you who are still listening, love cannot be selective in its listening. The congregation was, I suspect, fearful that the neighbors would oppose the project and thus interfere with the financial windfall available to the struggling congregation. Thus, they did not even take the risk of listening. I am not surprised that the neighbors express no interest in the life of the congregation.

Could it be that the Lukan author is urging the better-off folks in the congregation to listen to the lives of the marginalized in their midst? I think that is one of the subtexts of this gospel account and certainly built into the fabric of the Sermon on the Plain.

References and Resources

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.

Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-627-38-2.


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Simon of Cyrene — Cross-bearing while Black

Read Mark 15:16-24 (A repost that fits this week from March 2021)

I want to step away from the intersection of Jesus’ crucifixion and the American lynching tree for a day — sort of. I don’t want to miss the mention of Simon of Cyrene as the first to bear Jesus’ cross for and with him. Simon is one of the characters in the gospel accounts who draws extended and deserved attention from interpreters. Most of those interpreters are Black preachers, theologians and scholars.

In his book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, Esau McCaulley writes:

“God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 108-109).

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on Pexels.com

Where, McCaulley asks, do Black and Brown people find themselves represented in the New Testament? He points to two early “cross-bearers” in the Christian accounts – Simon of Cyrene in Mark 15, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Simon’s identity as a black man is not unanimously supported. In his article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, E. P. Blair asserts, “It is unlikely that he [Simon] was a Negro. Many Jews lived in Cyrene, the capital city of the North African district of Cyrenaica” (IDB IV: 357).

Let’s reflect on those sentences for a moment. First, unless there was widespread belief that Simon was, in fact, “a Negro,” the first sentence would be gratuitous. So, Blair appears to be correcting what he finds to be an error. He does not, however, document the basis for his conclusion. The one thing we can say with relative certainty is that Simon was not White. The choices, given historical realities, would be some shade of Brown or Black. Blair’s statement appears to me more reflexive than informed and is, at the very least, an argument from silence.

Cyrene was originally a Greek foundation with democratic government and political independence until the campaigns of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. It was incorporated into the Roman Empire after 96 BCE. The population, according to Mellink in IDB I:754 was largely made up of “Greek speaking Jews who were sent as settlers by the Ptolemies and enjoyed equal rights.”

Simon was likely no stranger to Jerusalem and may have been a resident of the city. Jeremias includes a paragraph about Cyrene with several details. A burial spot belonging to a Jewish family from Cyrene has been unearthed in the Kidron valley. The Jews from Cyrene who lived in Jerusalem had their own synagogue, mentioned in Acts 6:9. Simon may have been part of this community. Or he may have come from the home country for the festival and stayed with family or in the guest house attached to the synagogue.

Jeremias notes that at least some of these Cyrenians converted to Christianity early on. Could this be some of the background for the Greeks asking to see Jesus in John 12 (a random thought)? They were found in Antioch, and perhaps met Paul there.

The sons of Simon are mentioned in Mark’s text. They were likely known to the Roman Christians to whom the gospel account was first addressed and may have been alive and present when Mark’s gospel was first presented in its entirety. Race as a function of skin-tone is a much later human invention in the West. The Cyrenians were identified as an ethnic or linguistic community and as a result established their own community structures. No conclusions can be drawn about what we would call “color.”

Hurtado makes a brief mention of Simon and notes that this part of the story is likely an early part of the tradition. “Jesus was clearly too weak, after a sleepless night and repeated beatings, to carry his own cross-beam,” N. T. Wright observes, “Simon happened to be there in the crowd, and the soldiers used their legal privilege to compel him to carry it instead” (Location 3721).

I have to wonder what made Simon stand out from the other members of the crowd. Perhaps he was dusty and disheveled since he was just coming into town “from the fields,” as the Greek text reads. It could be that his dress was that of a tourist rather than a local. Or, perhaps, his face stood out in the crowd because of its melanin content. Who knows? But there seems to be little reason to assert that this could not be the case.

Simon’s physical characteristics may be in doubt. The fact that he was an African was not. Nor was his role in the drama. “It remained Jesus’ cross, of course, not Simon’s,” Wright notes, “but anyone who had read Jesus’ words in Mark 8 about taking up one’s cross and following him would be likely to make the connection” (Location 3723). McCaulley asserts that “Simon’s cross carrying is a physical manifestation of the spiritual reality that Christian discipleship involves the embrace of suffering” (page 108).

“Black folk claim Simon with reference not to geography but to identity” reads the United Methodist Church Justice web page. “Simon’s blackness is truth-telling and empowering. It names the ongoing reality of social hostility and forced labor imposed upon blacks the world over. It also names the dignity, power, and humanity black people have had in the face of half a millennium of such oppression. Simon of Cyrene, the black man in society, helping God carry his burden.”

Simon has been the focus of sermons, studies, art, and song in the Black Church from the beginning. Simon’s is, in part, the power of representation. Where can I see myself in the text of the New Testament? For Black Christians, two of the answers are in the faces of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Simon of Cyrene. “Black Simon” treads the Via Dolorosa with Jesus and perhaps supports him on his tortured path to Golgotha.

We White Christians should remember that we will not find any particularly light-skinned faces in the crowd on that Good Friday. If we do, they are likely to belong to the oppressors and their collaborators. As noted in a previous post, Italian immigrants did not automatically “qualify for Whiteness” in American Anglo-Saxon culture. That status had to be earned through a gradual approximation by assimilation to Whiteness. So even the Roman soldiers would have carried a questionable skin-tone for race-conscious American Whites.

Nonetheless, we insist that White faces would be imposed on this colorful crowd. Just try removing Warner Sallman’s iconic white, Nordic image of Jesus from most White American church buildings. The only move that will cause a more violent pushback in those places is an effort to displace the American flag from proximity to or in front of the altar. Come to think of it, Sallman’s picture and the flag represent pretty much the same thing in those facilities – White male supremacy that will defend its property with whatever means necessary.

Of course, it’s worse than that. Reputed scholar and public intellectual, Eric Metaxas, recently tweeted a comment that began, “Since Jesus was white, did he have white privilege too?” The obtuseness of this failed attempt to be clever is hard to overstate. We certainly know that Jesus was not white. Nor was he privileged. Nor was he powerful. Nor did he triumph in any way that a system of domination would recognize. It’s not clear which Jesus Metaxas is hijacking to make his perverse point, but it’s not any Jesus actual scholars would recognize.

Why does this matter? It matters because the cultural supremacy that Metaxas assumes is both false and deadly. “A fundamental criticism of Black Christianity,” McCaulley writes, “is that it is an alien thing, an imposition of the white man through the persuasive power of the whip and chain” (page 96). White Christianity and its iconography have been tools of slaveholders, Jim Crow lynchers, real estate red-liners, and Christian nationalists throughout American history. This must be named, rejected, and repented.

Historical Christianity arises primarily outside of Europe. It is White people who are the latecomers to the drama. “Those who doubt the blackness of early Christianity are going to have to make a decision,” McCaulley argues. “Either some Westerners have whitewashed Egyptian history by turning many of its characters into Europeans, or they have not” (page 97). It’s clear that we have, and that we are wrong. “This means that the leading lights of early Christianity were Black and Brown folks or Egypt isn’t as African as we say it is” (page 97).

Geographic representation is one thing, and it is clear. Socioeconomic representation is another thing, and it is just as clear. If Jesus is like anyone in our American history, he is not like Massachusetts Puritans or Virginia planters. He is much more like Black slaves and Brown farm workers and Asian miners and Natives walking the Trail of Tears — another Way of Sorrows. Thus, James Cone is correct when he identifies Jesus as Black.

Of course, that sort of language is a good way to get yourself beaten half to death in some Christian Churches in America.

References and Resources


Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 6); October 17, 2021

Another Friday with Phil

If you know some of my research interests, it will come as no surprise to you that the mention of “slaves” leads to me to think of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. One of the things I love about studying that little letter is that it allows me to imagine and get in touch with real people in real relationships in a real family, home, church, and community in the first century. It’s one thing to wax academic about what these texts mean. It’s another to conduct thought experiments with Phil and his household to see how it might all play out.

What if we sift Philemon and his household with the sieve of Mark 10? Before you think I’m letting the rest of us off the hook, I am not. This is going to be hard on Phil and his household. It is just as hard, in different dimensions, on me and my household. I’ll try to come back to that before we finish this post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Let’s begin with Phil’s marriage to Lady Apphia. I assume they were husband and wife, but that detail is not necessary to carry through this analysis. It just makes it a bit simpler for the sake of the experiment.

If we read the divorce text at the beginning of the chapter, we will see that Phil is called to see Apphia as a person in her own right and not a utility for his convenience. She is a partner in the enterprise of the household and not a piece of attractive furniture. Her sexual functioning is not his property, nor is their marriage a mere contract. Apphia is his sister in Christ as well as his spouse and is thus an equal in this newly (re)constituted family.

If Philemon was a traditional Roman, upper-class, man, this was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more.

Let’s move to Phil’s relationship to Archippus. If Archippus is the adult son of Apphia and Phil, some changes are in order in that relationship as well. He is now also a brother in Christ to Phil. He is not merely a receptacle for Phil’s bequeathed honor and estate. As with Apphia, Phil’s power “over” his son must now be replaced by power “with” and “for” his offspring.

In a culture that regarded infanticide as a legitimate means of birth control and children as subhuman until after puberty, this, too, was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more!

It is obvious that Philemon is “rich,” not poor. He has enough wealth to own a home where a group of Jesus followers can meet regularly for worship and community life. He is rich enough to hold at least one enslaved person, and it is likely that his household contained at least several more enslaved persons. Paul addresses him as an “honorable” man who commands respect because of his power, position, privilege, and property.

This takes us to the story of the rich man in Mark 10. I would think that such a story would not go down well with Phil and other rich people in the early Jesus movement. It doesn’t appear that Paul asked Philemon or other wealthy patrons to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to join Paul personally in the missionary enterprise. Paul clearly depended on the patronage of some well-off people and communities to do his work. The counsel of Mark 10:17-31 was not adopted wholesale.

This adaptation was not without its problems in some of the Pauline communities. The disparities in wealth and status in the Corinthian church caused no end of mischief. The rich arrived early for the love feast (because they didn’t have real jobs) and ate all the good food. The privileged claimed that their voices counted for more in the assembly – especially, it seems, the voices of some of the privileged women (but that’s another conversation). In Corinth, wealth was making it difficult for some members to enter the Kin(g)dom of God.

The concern for property was, I think, an issue for Philemon as well. It may be that Onesimus took some property or some cash when he escaped to find Paul in Ephesus. It would seem that this tension was a fairly big deal for Philemon, since Paul offers to pay the costs out of his own pocket (and then guilts Philemon into withdrawing his complaint about the “crime”).

At the least, Paul wants Philemon to see that mutuality in Christ trumps any concerns about personal property. Paul does not appear to require divestment of wealth as a condition for following Jesus (and Paul). But he does expect that wealth will be used for the well-being of the community and not for the benefit of the wealthy.

So, Phil, stop worrying about your money. If it bothers you so much, send another gift of cash along with Onesimus when you send him back to assist Paul in things that are far more important!

So, this “Good News” deconstructs Phil’s family relationships. It calls into question the importance of his power, position, privilege, and property. The Good News calls on Phil to put love for neighbor ahead of the demands of the honor and shame system of the culture. That would be more than enough work for a lifetime. But wait! There’s more!

Let’s take a little stroll back into Mark 9 for a moment. Phil, you know those wandering hands of yours (and anything else that might be wandering) that seem to find their way on to the bodies of several of your slaves? Cut it out or cut them off! You know those roving eyes of yours that linger a bit too long on your next-door neighbor’s wife as she rests in their courtyard? Give it up or gouge them out!

Given the norms of elite sexual behavior in Greco-Roman culture, these boundaries would have made Phil the laughingstock of the local bathhouse. But wait! There’s more!

Finally, we come to the enslaved persons. First of all, they cannot be regarded as sexual, physical, and commercial utilities at the disposal of the slaveholder. Jesus followers don’t get to treat anyone that way.

Second, there’s this “ransom for many” business. The language of “ransom” in the first century, as we noted in a previous post, is really the language of manumission for enslaved persons. Phil, how can Jesus release the enslaved from bondage, but you will not? I think that’s the question that stands behind Paul’s request to Phil that he would treat Onesimus as “more than a brother.”

Enslaved persons were a substantial part of the wealth in first-century households. The release of the enslaved persons would likely crash the household economy. And the rich people would have to start doing actual human work. The last would become first, and the first last, in very practical ways. Phil would have the chance to become “great” in Jesus’ terms because he would start serving whether he liked it or not.

Is it any wonder Jesus says all that stuff about camels and needles’ eyes?

I find this experiment of processing Philemon and his household with the Markan “moral sieve” instructive and terrifying. I don’t have actual enslaved people under my roof. But I find it very hard to give up Amazon purchases even though I view the wealth of Jeff Bezos detestable. It pisses me off to have to look at the labels on my clothes, investigate how they are sourced, and determine if the clothing is ethically produced (it hardly ever is).

We made a commitment at our house almost three years ago to maintain a whole-food, plant-based diet. I did that because one day I realized that I couldn’t treat animals as edible automata. I’m not evangelistic about this choice, but it works for us. At the same time, those choices have reduced our options for socializing, made us the ongoing topic of conversation among family and neighbors, and made grocery shopping an experience in mindfulness.

If being modestly vegan takes that much effort, what does it mean to be a Mark 10 disciple? Phil, I’m not judging. I’m empathizing.

It seems that at least some of Paul’s churches chose the route of moderate accommodation to the culture. I think that’s why we find the tables of household duties in Ephesians and Colossians – tables that ratify the larger culture and make no mention of Markan discipleship. That is certainly why Christian elites continued to hold and deal in enslaved persons, in and through the Church in many cases, for centuries.

In our own context, we know how much effort, theology, and violence have gone into maintaining White Male Supremacy in and through Christian churches in America. The resources for this discussion are now voluminous. But at the least, I hope you will read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Robert Jones’ White Too Long, and Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne. These works give depth and data to the White Christian Church’s complicity in the American project of White Male Supremacy.

So, Phil, what do we do about this? I’m reflecting on how best to make reparations for the rest of my life – to Indigenous people, Black people, Brown people, AAPI people. I don’t think I’m going to sell it all and give the proceeds to the people to whom that wealth is owed. But I also don’t think I can continue to do little or nothing that has a dollar sign attached to it.

References and Resources

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 5); October 17, 2021

Onside with Jesus

“But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be a slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, my translation).

Whenever enslavement comes up as a metaphor for sin, discipleship, or any other theological category, we White American Christians should get nervous. The Christians Scriptures have been used for too long and continue to be used as ideological props for White Male Supremacy in our culture. I think, at least in our reflections, we are required to interrogate this metaphor and get to the other side of it.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, my translation and emphasis). The words about becoming servants and slaves are conditioned on what the Son of Man does. That’s the logic of the text. The Son of Man ransoms the captives, releases the enslaved, frees those in bondage. That’s the Good News of the text and of the Kin(g)dom of God.

If the enslaved are freed, enslavement is ended. The only way the enslavement metaphor now makes sense is if freed people willingly take on serving. Power over others is, as we shall see below, ruled out of bounds for Jesus followers. Power “for” and power “with” are to be embraced, embodied, and enacted in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom.

This is possible because (thus, “for”) the Son of Man has given his life a ransom for many. The Cross is an event that is accomplished, not merely an example to be followed. There is certainly an exemplary character to the Cross for Jesus followers. Jesus does, after all, invite us to take up our “crosses” and follow him. But providing an example is an outcome of the Cross, not its purpose.

The purpose of the Cross and Resurrection is to release enslaved people, to ransom those in bondage, to rescue captives. David Seeley argues in his article that the model of “servant rulership” described in our text has roots in and resonances with such thought in Greco-Roman philosophy running from Plato through the first-century Cynics. I don’t find that argument compelling. There is plenty of material in the Hebrew scriptures to support the image of “servant rulership” for the Jewish Messiah. Just read the royal psalms.

Seeley has a final section, however, on the word “lutron” (ransom), which is instructive. Up until the appearance of that word in our text, Seeley argues, the imagery would support an exemplary, “paradigmatic” view of the Cross. But when the Markan composer quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man came as “a ransom for the sake of many,” the notion of a paradigmatic death is left behind. Something is actually happening in the Cross.

Seeley notes that (forty years ago) Markan scholars were at pains to separate Markan theology from Pauline theology. He gives four reasons why that is wrong-headed. Paul speaks about the death of Christ as liberating people from slavery (see Romans 6). It would be hard to be a Christian in the late first-century (especially if that Christian were in Rome) and not to have heard of or given a nod to Paul. The sacramental imagery in Mark 10:38-39 sounds so very much like Paul. And the Markan composer was a sharp enough tool to figure out how to dialogue with Paul without plagiarizing or endorsing everything Paul said.

A generation ago (sigh), I spent a week with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary on the conversation between this section of Mark and Philippians 2. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a contested topic in the New Testament guild, but apparently it was. Frederickson made a strong case that “having the mind of Christ” is precisely what the Markan composer also meant when, in chapter 8, the composer accuses Peter of not “thinking the things that are of God.”

Here at the climax of the discipleship discourse in the Markan composition, we have (I think) another marker from Philippians 2. If a Jesus follower is to become a “slave of all,” that is because the One I follow has gone there first. Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “who, though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be gripped with both hands, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7, my translation).

The Son of Man, the one in human likeness, embraces the form of an enslaved person in order to release all of Creation from bondage. It is that willing embrace, even of death on a cross, that results in his exaltation as the Name which is above every name. The Good News of the Kin(g)dom is that this is the very character of God! Jesus takes on the form of the slave in order that all the enslaved would be ransomed, redeemed, and released.

Our text “seems well on its way to presenting the Son of Man’s death in terms of paradigmatic suffering and martyrdom,” Seeley writes. “But then the term lutron is added. By using it,” Seeley continues, “Mark invites his audience to understand this death as liberation” (page 249).

Seeley argues that the Markan composer goes no further than this because the composer wants to give a nod to Pauline theology without affirming all of that theology. That strikes me as an argument from silence and a misunderstanding of the Markan composition as an oral text. The mentions of baptism and eucharist earlier in the paragraph would leave the door open for further comment by the performer if the audience setting called for it. Better to address what is in the text than what is not.

What can we draw from this part of the discussion? First, this text is an anti-slavery passage. It may have been used to undergird human enslavement by pro-slavery Christian preachers in the past. I’m not sure of that, but I suspect that was the case. In fact, the very purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is to ransom, redeem, and release the enslaved.

The Cross is not a metaphor, example, or paradigm. It is an effective event. Real people get real freedom. If nominal Jesus followers don’t do that, we aren’t following Jesus. The Son of Man has come to challenge the powers of domination that are the human norm and to change the status of those who are in captivity to those powers.

Second, therefore, disciples dismantle hierarchies. Disciples flatten power pyramids. And that happens at the systemic as well as the personal level. If we think this text is only about personal behavior, we’re wrong. If you want a place where Jesus talks about systemic evil and the need to dismantle a system, this is your text. He doesn’t point to specific Gentile rulers who are lording it over others. Instead, he describes a general system of domination that is typical of the world in which he lived. And he declares that such a system shall not be so among us.

Systems that create and sustain domination of some humans over others are not part of God’s intention or goals. Amassing power, position, privilege, and property is not a feature of following Jesus. Any system that is based on such behavior is contrary to the character of God. Like it or not, this is a political text. It is about how human communities are structured. The Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, when in fact, there is only one Lord and one God. It takes hard work and layers of self-delusion to miss this dimension of the text.

Third, Jesus followers enter “enslavement for all” (whatever that means in my situation) willingly and freely. The actually enslaved never get to choose to serve. Nor are the actually enslaved slaves of all. Only those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can choose to freely serve. And those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can only work for the freedom of others, if we are to be consistent in our Jesus following.

There may be no better expression of this text than Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Luther loved paradoxes almost as much as the Markan composer. One of his favorites comes from the great 1517 treatise. The Christian is both perfectly free, servant of none, and perfectly slave, servant of all. The freedom comes as God’s gift to all of Creation in Christ. The servitude is chosen as a grateful response for that gift and an enactment of that Good News.

Fourth, we can see why the Cross stands in the center of the Jesus way. He is clearly opposed to the normal structures of power in this world. These are the structures that make “lording it over” the order of the day. A few people gain a great deal from such systems and will fight to the death to maintain what they have. Opposing such systems of power always provokes a violent response.

We live in a time when people are doing much to dismantle hierarchies and flatten power pyramids. The systems of White Male Supremacy, European colonialism, unfettered Capitalism, and unregulated wealth are certainly receiving long overdue scrutiny, criticism, and resistance. Is it any wonder we are witnessing such violent and systematic responses? More to the point, are we American Jesus followers on the “Jesus side” of these conflicts?

Too often we are not. Perhaps a reminder of how the Good News actually works can move us a millimeter closer to that Jesus side.

References and Resources

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 3); October 10, 2021

The “I’s” Have It

I wonder if the rich man gets it wrong from the start. No, I don’t wonder. I’m sure he does. “What shall I do,” he asks the Good Teacher, “in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation and emphasis). The rich man’s focus is on his own situation as an individual. Perhaps it is that self-absorbed and self-interested perspective that elicits Jesus’ initial ire.

Jesus responds by quoting commandments focused on the covenant community. “Inheriting eternal life” has something important to do with our relationships with one another and how we treat one another – especially the vulnerable ones in that community. It is not, at least in this text, an individual reality. Here in Mark 10, salvation seems to be a community reality rather than an individual matter.

Photo by Abbat on Pexels.com

The argument that “being saved” is more about a community than about an individual runs opposite the assumption of most American, especially evangelical, Christianity. The possibility that human sin could have a structural dimension primarily and an individual dimension in secondary terms is regarded as even more problematic from such a perspective. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Evangelical Christian tradition as it is now expressed in America, there is no such thing as structural sin.

Robert P. Jones wrote a recent article for Time magazine entitled “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” He was kind enough to put an excerpt from that article on his social media platforms.

Jones describes his growing up years in a Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, MS. He notes that his theological tradition was “a double inheritance.” On the one hand, he says, “I internalized a cycle of sin, confession and repentance as a daily part of my life.” This part of the inheritance was and is deeply individual.

On the other hand, the inheritance included assumed membership in a privileged community of faith. “Individually, I was a sinner,” he writes, “but collectively, I was part of a special tribe. Whatever our humble social stations might be,” he notes, “we white Christians were God’s chosen instruments of spreading salvation and civilization to the world.”

Jones argues that it has been “the power and sheer cultural dominance of white Christianity in America historically” that has allowed Evangelical Christians to hold these seemingly contradictory descriptions together. The real output of this perspective is that the intense focus on personal sin and salvation makes it possible to ignore and deny the collective and communal dimensions of sin altogether.

It’s no accident, therefore, that a rich man can ask salvation questions in the first person singular. What shall I do that I might be saved? Jesus’ response to him indicates, I think, that this is the wrong question right from the start. “How can we be the Kin(g)dom community together?” seems to be the question Jesus wants to answer. It is, however, the question that privilege refuses to ponder.

Jones expands on this theme in his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin,” Jones writes, “can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling about it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry” (page 96).

Jones reports the work of social scientists who have identified three elements in the “Evangelical Tool Kit” that make this perspective possible. Those three elements are “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (page 97).

Individualism means that individuals are sovereignly responsible for their own actions. Relationalism means that all problems are rooted in individual relationships, not in laws or institutions. Antistructuralism rejects explanations for social problems that would lie in realities beyond the individual. This suspicion believes that any explanation for bad things other than individual sinfulness is out of bounds.

What is gained by the use of this toolkit? Economic inequities are the result of laziness. Governments should stay out of our school rooms, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods. Bad things that happen to people are their own damned faults. Good things that happen to people are due to individual merit, hard work, and accomplishment. Anything “social” or “structural” is a cultural artifact that can and should be ignored.

This discourse of individualism confers specific benefits on White people. Robin DiAngelo outlines these benefits in her article. I summarize her findings.

Individual White people can deny that race matters and that being White confers any advantages based on race. Individualism hides the generational accumulation of wealth. It denies the reality of social and historical context. It prevents any analysis of institutions and structures. It denies any power to culture and the tools of culture to shape individuals. Individualism permits color blindness and supports the myth of meritocracy. Only the privileged get to “be individuals.” And individualism keeps oppressed groups from acting as groups.

Individualism supports the status quo of White Supremacy. And it hides the structural nature of inequality. Problems are all a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel. All lives matter, so nothing systemic needs to change. Sound familiar?

Jones notes that this toolkit is not limited to those who self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is the dominant worldview among White American Christians of a variety of theological stripes and traditions. In fact, for many of us, this toolkit simply defines what it means to be “American.” And it conveniently relieves us of any responsibility for our neighbors – especially those who happen not to be White or rich.

I am guilty, to a degree, of anachronism here. I don’t think the rich man was a prototype for White American Evangelical Christians of the twenty-first century. I do think, however, that power, privilege, position, and property operate much the same way in all human cultures and hierarchies. The more power, privilege, position, and property I have, the more likely I am to see myself exclusively as an individual with no real connections to or responsibilities for others.

“In the personal Jesus paradigm,” Jones writes, “Jesus did not die for a cause or for humankind writ large but for each individual person” (page 100). The question that makes sense in this paradigm is, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s it. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model,” Jones argues, “to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (page 100).

The rich man knows precisely how to interact with the “system” in his time. It is, for the most part, designed for him. He has kept all the commandments since he was a young man. He has had the time, the leisure, the status, and the financial resources to do whatever was required by the system. He also had the power and privilege to pretend that there wasn’t really a “system.” He was just doing the right thing, all on his own.

Jones notes that individualism allows for all sorts of moral and political sleight of hand. White evangelicals prior to the Civil War dismissed the brutality of slavery, he argues, “as acts of particular individuals rather than broad patterns; and the broad application of love and equality was denigrated as a move that illegitimately brought ‘politics’—by which they meant anything social or structural—into religion” (page 103).

Now we are, as they say, moving from preaching to meddling. That critique sounds painfully familiar to me. “Keeping politics out of the pulpit” is a way to maintain white power, privilege, position, and property – protected by the thin veneer of individual piety.

Jones writes that “the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well” (page 105).

His conclusion is inescapable and devastating. “To put it succinctly,” the White Evangelical theological worldview “has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion” (page 105). I wonder if this critique might have traction with the story of the rich man in our text.

Why does this matter to Jones – and, I hope, to us? “Confronting a theology built for white supremacy would be a critical first step,” Jones writes, “for white Christians who want to recover a connection not just to our fellow African American Christians but also to our own identity and, more importantly, our humanity” (page 106).

In fairness to the rich man, he is simply operating from assumptions shared in the broader culture. Rich people, perhaps, get to be individuals. If they can’t be saved in that condition, the disciples wonder, then who can?

Peter points out that they have done what Jesus ask of the rich man. Jesus responds by describing the gift of community they are beginning to receive as a result. When Jesus talks about the impossible things that God will do, he describes this new Kin(g)dom. Jesus doesn’t talk about individual forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t launch into a treatise on justification by grace through faith. Jesus situates us in community – in relationship with all, including the vulnerable.

The Christian image of salvation is not an individual reality. Focus on the individual will lead to a privilege competition that has no part in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. We will be “saved” together or not at all, I think.

Of course, those of us who most benefit from “individual salvation” may leave this conversation sad, for we have many possessions.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.

Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/the-unmaking-of-the-white-christian?r=m09x3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&fbclid=IwAR3x1ubbXwm1HMXPxmG76O4uCUErS_SYSex5RA5zFXHl_7YncBDr0QaJsVs.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L.  Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 3); September 26, 2021

Trip Hazards

Most commentators agree that Mark 9 is an unusual element of the gospel composition. It is likely a collection of sayings that the Composer has brought together into a set of instructions for disciples. The teaching section begins with Mark 9:30. We read in verse 31 that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the handing over, the judicial murder, and the Resurrection in his immediate future.

It’s clear that the disciples are just not getting it. They argue about who is greater, and Jesus gives them a living illustration of real greatness in the Kin(g)dom. It’s even clearer that they still don’t get it. John reports that the unnamed exorcist is practicing his craft outside of normal channels. Jesus decides it’s time to bring out the heavy rhetorical artillery in order to break through their willful obtuseness.

Jesus continues to sit in the midst of the disciples with a small child cradled tenderly in his arms. He deflects John’s administrative detour and returns to the matter which is literally “at hand.” He points the disciples back to the child as his continuing case study. Eager outsiders must not be rejected, especially when they’re just trying to help by giving the disciples a cup of water to drink in their labors.

Photo by Yassin Doukhane on Pexels.com

(42) “’And he who might trip up one of those little ones who are putting their trust in me – it is better for him if a grinding stone (like that drawn by a donkey) would be placed around his neck and he would have been thrown into the sea.

“And,” Jesus continues in verse 42. That connection is omitted by the NRSV translators, and the separation is highlighted by a paragraph space in the text. But Jesus, in the Markan composition, links the kind cup of water to “these little ones who are putting their faith in me” (Mark 9:42). It is, in part at least, the rigid rejection of these eager outsiders which is a stumbling block to their continuing trust in Jesus.

Instead of acting like a bunch of beggars who get to show the other beggars where the bread is, the disciples in Mark’s composition act as if they own the bakery. That unfortunate trend will continue at least through the end of chapter 10. The Twelve had been invited into Jesus’ campaign about five minutes earlier (at least in a cosmic sense), but now they had become the membership screening committee. Rather than inviting all comers in for the party, they were giving the newcomers the boot.

Jesus’ response is, to understate the case, severe. If anyone trips up one of these newcomers on the way in, the consequence is massive. Being thrown into the sea wearing a giant millstone was a method of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. Jesus says, using hyperbole to get their attention, that such a fate would be preferable to the one that awaits the disciples if they impede the entrance of the “little ones” into the Kin(g)dom.

“Shit’s gettin’ real,” as one might say. It would seem that the behavior of at least some in the leadership of the Markan community was causing “little ones” in that community to question their trust in Jesus and perhaps even to leave the community in the midst of the stresses and strains of first-century Christian living. Capernaum, we have a problem.

I am thinking today of the trends in Christian church membership, church participation, and Christian faith commitments in the United States at the present time. The lines for all of those trends are headed down on the graph. As time goes along, the declines of the lines grow steeper. As I have noted before, the ELCA Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation projects that, based on current trends, my denomination will effectively cease to exist by 2050.

Well, denominations come, and denominations go.

In fact, the ELCA is the third variety of Lutheranism of which I have been a member in the last sixty-five years. As a denomination, we are living through the third major re-organization since 1988. I’m sorry for the disruption that causes in the lives of people who serve Jesus and his Church with faith, hope, and love (because it’s certainly not for the money). That disruption falls disproportionately on people of color and women who have served as ELCA staff, and that’s wrong.

That being said, this denominational decay is a feature of these larger national and societal trends. The Gallup organization reports that in 2020 church membership among U.S. adults fell below fifty percent of the population for the first time in the survey’s history. The study, in fact, charts self-reported membership in a (Christian) church, synagogue, or mosque. So, the numbers for Christians are even lower than the forty-seven percent measured in the survey.

In 1937, the number was seventy-three percent. It remained fairly stable until 2000. In the last twenty years, church membership as a percentage of U.S. population has moved from seventy percent to the reported 47 percent. Church, synagogue, and mosque membership has declined in this country during that time by one-third. The overwhelming majority of that decline has been in Christian denominations and congregations.

Well, why is that? The Gallup folks demonstrate that the decline is does not directly correlate to a decrease in belief in God. Nor is it purely a function of generational differences. Nor is it linked with any particular flavor of Christian theology or history. I think the data indicates that church membership and participation are declining in large part because we Christians (especially White Christians) are putting stumbling blocks in the way of people who might wish to have a trusting relationship with Jesus.

I hope you will read Robert P. Jones’ important book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, if you haven’t done so already. Jones does a masterful job of detailing how White Christianity has constructed and sustained White Supremacy in the United States. “White Christian churches have not just been complacent,” Jones argues, “they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6).

White Christianity continues to move further in the direction of White Christian nationalism. “Christian nationalism,” writes Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians” (page 4). It’s tempting for us mainline types to think that White Christian Nationalism is a disease of the “evangelical” traditions. Sadly for us, it is alive and well in most of our historically mainline congregations.

Until churches get serious about repentance and repair when it comes to racism, there will be no reconciliation. And it’s not only reconciliation with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people that is at stake (although that is crucially important). Many of our own children are leaving our churches because they are sick and tired of trying to sit next to people who refuse to put Jesus’ words into action when it comes to White Supremacy in the churches.

Similar things can be said about our welcome of those who are excluded and rejected because of gender, orientation, economic class, age, and personal history. My experience is that most young people in the Church actually get what the Gospel means in behavioral terms. Since they don’t see churches and older Christians living according to the Gospel, they’re headed for the exits.

As this exodus continues, (historically White) Christian churches become increasingly older, Whiter, and more socially and politically conservative. We are, it seems to me, caught in an accelerating negative feedback loop. Our Christian behavior trips up the “little ones” in our midst. Out they go. So, there are more of us to do the “tripping.” Disaffection increases, and the reactionary rump of the Church gets larger. I suspect we passed the tipping point some time ago, and it’s too late for many congregations.

Yes, I am pessimistic about specific religious institutions. And…and…and I am always wildly optimistic about the power of the Good News of Jesus to change lives and change the world. It’s just that much of that power of change is being applied outside the boundaries of long-established institutions and structures. We American Christians are surrounded by people who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name but are not following us.

We can follow John’s example and complain that they’re not part of the club. I understand that impulse. Many of these unnamed exorcists around us are not church members. Many of them are, I am sure, not Jesus followers, at least in their faith commitments. But these unnamed exorcists are certainly doing the work of Jesus, whether they know it or not.

Jesus tells John to look at the results, not the label. That’s our call as well. But, like the first disciples, we have some trouble getting out of our own way. As a result, we often end up flat on our faces, lying at the edge of hell on earth.

More on that next time.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 2); September 26, 2021

More Than One Story

(38) “John was saying to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone in your name casting out demons, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” (Mark 9:38, my translation).

In 2009 I listened to one of the first TED talks I ever heard. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian author and intellectual, talked about “The danger of a single story.” At this date, the talk has been viewed nearly twenty-nine million times. If you have not heard the talk (or if you want to watch and listen again), you can find it at https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare.

Adichie shares stories about narratives she has heard and narratives she has learned that boil the world or people or a person down to a single thing. A single story, she says, will “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” John and the other disciples tell a single story about the unnamed exorcist in Mark 9. That single story is “he was not following us.”

“It is impossible to talk about the single story,” Adichie continues, “without talking about power.” Many singular stories establish boundaries between “us” and “them.” That is certainly one of the functions of the story John tells in Mark 9:38. John and his colleagues don’t focus on what the exorcist does.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

In fact, he is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. That seems like a good thing. But, John says, he’s not following us. He doesn’t belong to us. The unnamed exorcist is not one of the cool kids. He’s not one of the insiders. He has the wrong identity, the wrong pedigree, the wrong credentials. He’s one of them.

I invite you to think of all the stories that create “us” and “them.” There is the story of male dominance – a story that delineates differences between men and women. We all know, at least after John Gray’s 1992 book, that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” There is the story of Indigenous genocide. Native peoples are savages to be assimilated or erased because they can’t possess the land like civilized Europeans. There is the story of anti-Blackness. Black men are either hapless, subhuman fools or terrifying, subhuman Black beasts.

These are only a few of the “us” and “them” stories we tell (especially as White, Male, European, Christian, Western individuals). We can add more, of course. We tell stories about fanatical Muslim terrorists. We tell stories about murderous and raping Mexicans pouring across the southern border of the United States. We tell stories about lazy unemployed people who would rather eat chocolates and collect checks than earn an honest living. We tell stories about crazed White Nationalists who threaten Truth, Justice, and the American way.

Not all stories are equally limited or equally false or equally dangerous. But all stories lie to the degree that they leave out the details that make the subjects human. What about this unnamed exorcist? First of all, did he have a name? Was he just a camp follower who hadn’t gone through the regular onboarding process for the position of “disciple”? Did the power of exorcism in the name of Jesus land on him spontaneously, as the spirit of prophecy landed on Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11? Was he better at it than the Twelve – who had recently failed to cast out the epileptic spirit of the boy who simply needed more praying?

We don’t know because John and the others weren’t interested in another story. We do know that John and the others are very interested in position, power, and privilege as they follow Jesus. Another story threatened this campaign for jobs in the cabinet of the new Messiah. So, they had to put a stop to it.

“It is impossible,” Adichie reminds us, “to talk about the single story without talking about power.” She describes a term from the Igbo language that helps us get a grip on this. The term, she says, is “nkali.” It is this part of the talk that really nails the conversation to this section of Mark’s gospel. The term is, according to Adichie, a noun that means something like “to be greater than.”

Boom. We find ourselves immediately back a few verses in Mark 9. The disciples spent the trip from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum arguing about who was greater. The disciples were arguing about nkali. “Like our economic and political worlds,” Adichie continues, “stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent,” she argues, “on power.”

John and the other disciples exercise power in pointing out the “otherness” of the unnamed exorcist. They tattle on his out-of-normal-channels behavior. They exercise power in how they shape the story from their perspective and to advance their agenda. They apply power directly as they try to stop the person from continuing to act (it would seem that they failed in this attempt). They keep up the pressure by urging Jesus to put a stop to this out-of-bounds activity.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another,” Adichie notes, “but to make it the definitive story of that person.” The disciples do precisely that. The exorcist doesn’t even need a name. It’s the behavior that tells the whole story, as far as they’re concerned.

Adichie makes a powerful point at this moment in the talk. She quotes the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti who writes that the best way to hijack the story, the land, the history, and everything else that would make a people a people is to start with “secondly.” This is precisely what John and the other disciples do to the unnamed exorcist. They begin their story in the middle of his story and thus claim it as their own story.

“Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans,” Adichie says, “and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state,” she continues, “and you have an entirely different story.” We can add examples.

Start with the failures of “inner city” schools and not the histories of segregation, redlining, White flight, White riots, and maldistributed funding, and you get a story that blames Black people rather than White people. Start with the poverty of Pine Ridge and Whiteclay and not with the genocide and Indian schools and stolen land and broken promises, and you get a story that blames Indigenous people rather than White people. Start with AIDS ripping through communities of gay men a generation ago rather than the violent homophobia of American culture, and you get stories of the “gay cancer.”

Once you see the power of “secondly stories,” you will see them everywhere. These are the stories that underwrite and expand imperialism, colonization, racism, genocide, sexism, and all the other power games we continue to play inside the church and out.

This is not how Adichie ends her talk. Nor is it how Jesus leaves the situation with the disciples. (39) But Jesus said, ‘Don’t stop him, for there is no one who shall perform power based on my name and shall soon have the power to speak evil of me. (40) For the one who is not against us is for us. (41) For the one who might give you a cup of water in the Name that is “Messiah,” I tell you truly that one will not lose his wage.” (Mark 9:39-41, my translation).

Don’t stop him! For the one who is not against us is for us. It’s the sort of meme-length aphorism that helps make the Markan script so memorable (and easy to memorize). “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,” Adichie says, “but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people,” she observes, “but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Jesus tells the story of the unnamed exorcist in a very different way. Look at the outcome, not the identity. Did he cast out a demon in my name? That action will not leave him unchanged. Not only has someone else been set free. Someone else, the exorcist, has been drawn closer to the Kin(g)dom of God in your midst. The story is not about “us” and “them.” The story is about how “us” is infinitely bigger than our small minds can comprehend.

White, Western, male-dominated Churches are shrines for the Single Story. The question for too long has not been, “Is that Other Person following Jesus?” The question for too long has instead been “Is that Other Person following us.” That is something that must change if the Church is to remain faithful. “When we reject the single story,” Adichie concludes, “when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

What can it look like for churches to be homes to multiple stories rather than shrines to the Single Story? Every White congregation can seek a healthy dialogue with other-storied communities. Every Christian congregation can seek a healthy dialogue with Jews, Muslims, and other communities with different spiritual stories. We can be places where belief is not an entrance requirement and where doubt is celebrated rather than denigrated. We can become communities of discernment and deliberation rather than of judgment and violence.

Oh, is that all? Unfortunately, the Twelve are not having it…

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Jesus Isn’t Playing — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:30-37; September 19, 2021

Jesus’ disciples remind me of my five-year-old grandsons. I spent a week this summer shuttling two of them to and from a local day camp. The opportunity to overhear their backseat conversations was for me one of the highlights of the week.

There was the usual conversation about toys and teachers, about sack lunches and sports. But typically, they got around to the latest installment of the “My Daddy” game.

“My daddy drives a new car. But my daddy has a big, new truck. My daddy mowed the lawn last night. But my daddy mowed the lawn and power-washed the driveway. My daddy can lift a hundred pounds. But my daddy can lift two hundred pounds.” The bidding on that one rose to a thousand pounds before we arrived at the day camp door!

Photo by sudip paul on Pexels.com

I expected at some point that one of the daddies would be stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Then the other daddy would have to fight daily for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, while masquerading behind the glasses of a mild-mannered reporter.

The conversation was loads of fun for me. But it was deeply serious for the boys. Their verbal jousts substituted for the wrestling matches that sometimes unfold on our basement carpet and, as often as not, end in either tears or triumph (or both).

Who’s greater? The five-year-olds are practicing the skills and building the stamina that they will need for a lifetime of such contests. The pursuit of position, privilege, and power is older than the human species. The compulsion to compare mine to yours (whatever the object of comparison) is one of our deepest psychosocial structures.

The question, “Who’s greater?” drives human history from the halls of kindergarten to the halls of empire.

Who is greater? This need to compare and compete animates our activities. True enough that it seems more visible behavior among the males in the species. I think, however, the gender variation when it comes to comparison behavior is a difference in degree rather than kind.

Comparison, and the jealous envy it produces, is fuel for our late-stage capitalist consumerism in the Western world. We compare stuff and want more. The disciples, however, simply use a different currency. For us, the envy might focus on cars or couches. The disciples compared status and wanted more. For the disciples, the envy focused on honor and shame.

But the question is the constant. Who’s greater?

I know that most Bible translations, including the NRSV, have “greatest” rather than greater. There are good, technical reasons for that translation. But the question in the Greek is a comparative, not a superlative. It’s about establishing my relative position in the hierarchy, not about my absolute worth as a person.

I don’t have to be the best, the greatest, or the highest. I only need to be better than, greater than, or higher than…you. As the old joke has it, if a bear is chasing you and me, I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.

That old joke demonstrates what the question really means. The question lives on fear and anxiety. We fear that there is not enough for everyone – not enough stuff, not enough security, not enough love. The good things in this life, we believe, are in short (and limited) supply. So I better get mine while the getting is good.

I don’t have to be fast. I just have to be faster than you.

Most of us relatively rich Westerners don’t have to outrun hungry bears. But that lack of physical threat doesn’t make us less afraid. If anything, we are more anxious than ever.

The “greater” game is often secret and subtle. The rules change constantly. In our consumer-driven economy, people can make lots of money off my “less than” fears. All I have to do is put the word “limited” in any advertisement, and the response rate will go up. I am assaulted every day with promises of “greater than” – if only I will part with enough cash.

The disciples pass the time on the road to Capernaum playing the “Who’s greater?” game. I suppose it was less irritating than the “Are we there yet?” game. I imagine that Jesus overheard the spirited contests just as I overheard the “My Daddy” debates raging in the back seat.

When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus quizzes the disciples on their conversation. He knows what they’ve been arguing. They know he knows. They answer his question with embarrassed silence.

Jesus tackles the teachable moment. No one can win the “greater than” game in the end. There is always someone better than, greater than, or higher than me. There is always someone who can outrun me. The bear catches us all in the end. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, the one who dies with the most toys still dies.

The only way to “win” the “greater than” game, Jesus says, is not to play at all. He doesn’t propose that we stop running and surrender to the bear claws. Instead, he declares that God is not the bear. God is not a supernatural miser, hoarding the good stuff and dispensing it with an eye dropper. God is not the hungry bear seeking to devour us when we stumble and fall.

The God who sends Jesus among us is the Loving Parent. That Loving Parent embraces us for who we are – not for what we can produce or how fast we can run.

Jesus takes a toddler by the hand and leads the little one into the middle of the muddled disciples. Jesus doesn’t point to the innocence or humility or trusting nature of the child. Those are late-modern romantic fantasies. Real parents will tell you that those fantasies have little to do with actual children.

In the ancient world, small children were not seen as gifts. Instead, children were regarded as economic liabilities with no intrinsic value. They might grow into usefulness if they survived to adulthood. But as toddlers, children around Jesus were often viewed as good for nothing.

A “good for nothing” cannot be “greater than” anything. That little child could not play the “greater than” game. That is Jesus’ point. That toddler is a living, breathing parable of how God regards us. That little child is a living sacrament of the Divine community. We are all “good for nothing” in the end. And God loves you for you – not for what you can produce or how fast you can run.

“God’s Love is not oriented toward ‘what is’ but rather toward ‘what is not’,” writes Tuomo Mannermaa. “That is why God’s Love does not desire to gain something good from its object,” he continues, “but rather pours out good and shares its own goodness with its object.”[i] Mannermaa is drawing out Martin Luther’s insight that the central and most important fact about God is that God gives.

In other words, God doesn’t love us to get anything. That’s the game sinners play. Rather, God loves us in order to give everything. “Just as God has created everything out of nothingness and caused what is not or what does not exist to come into existence-to be,” Mannermaa notes, “in the same fashion God’s Love calls its beloved out of nothingness and surrounds its object with its own goodness and good things.”[ii]

Mannermaa quotes Luther’s words from the Heidelberg Disputation to cap off his point. “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved,” Luther wrote, “they are not loved because they are beautiful.” God brings us “good for nothings” into the beauty of existence for the sheer love of us.[iii]

That’s the point of the living, breathing parable in the middle of the muddled disciples. Who’s greater? Who cares? God knows you’re the greatest before you even draw a breath.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see myself. “How radically must we rework our own self-image,” Antony Campbell asks, “if we accept ourselves as lovable—as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?”[iv] The answer is obvious. This Good News requires and facilitates a revolution in how I see – and treat – myself.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see my neighbor. After all, if God loves me “for nothing,” that’s how God loves all of us “good for nothings.” If I live that way, then I must resign from all the “greater than” games we humans play on a daily basis.

That’s going to cause some trouble, which is why this whole section stands under the shadow of the cross.

The cultural system of White Supremacy is the biggest and baddest of all the “greater than” games we White, Western Christians have been playing for five centuries. If we don’t hear in this text the call to dismantle that system in our congregations and communities, I have very little hope for us. Fortunately, God has much more hope than I do.

The cultural system of Consumer Capitalism depends on the oxygen of envy and eats comparison for breakfast. If we are “enough” for God, then we can trust God to provide enough for us. That means learning to be satisfied with enough rather than always hungering for more. That may break the Consumer Capitalist system. Ok.

For me this also applies to my relationship with other species on this planet. I see no reason to limit this ethic to human relationships. Therefore, I do not have the luxury to believe that humans are “greater than” (that is, more valuable than) other species on this planet. That affects what (I mean “who”) I eat, what I wear, and what I throw away.

Who’s greater? Who cares? It’s time to stop playing.


[i] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 149-150). Kindle Edition.

[ii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 152-153). Kindle Edition.

[iii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Location 156). Kindle Edition

[iv] Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love (p. 4). Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 6); September 19, 2021

Last of All

I have been using the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, as partially described in Paul’s little letter, as a case study of how Jesus’ words in Mark 9 might work out in an actual setting between Jesus followers. The call to Philemon in this regard is, I think, relatively straightforward. Paul encourages Philemon to relinquish his power over Onesimus and to welcome Onesimus as a beloved brother both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Commentators debate whether that means that Paul is asking Philemon to ratify Onesimus’ freedom from enslavement. I think that is the minimum for which Paul is asking, and that Philemon does comply with Paul’s request. That’s part of what “the cross” looks like for Philemon, and we could spend even more time imagining the cultural, social, political, familial, and personal earthquakes that result.

But let’s not.

Why does Onesimus return to Colossae and risk possible torture, disfigurement, and/or death? Why does he come back to the place of his enslavement when he could just as easily have stayed with Paul or moved on to greener pastures? I think he comes back because this is what “the cross” looks like for Onesimus in this situation. Having said that, I want to be very careful to explain what I mean.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of Jesus’ passion teachings in the Markan composition have to do with the nature and exercise of power in the life of the disciples. Jesus calls us to understand that the nature of power is always “positional.” If one has power “over” others, then as a disciple one is called to renounce that power over others in the name of Jesus and for the sake of neighbor love. That is the challenge facing Philemon. And that is the challenge that faces White American Christians in our time.

That’s a simple idea, but it’s damnably hard in practice. As has often been noted, the powerful experience equality as loss. That true because it is a loss – a loss of power over others and the privilege, position, and property that accrue to that power. For example, we White people experience so-called Affirmative Action as a loss because it makes us compete with all other people on an even playing field, and we won’t do as well as we did when we had a monopoly on the playing field.

If one is oppressed by others, then Jesus’ words in Mark 9 take on a different dynamic. Let me think about this as I imagine the situation of Onesimus. First, I am sure that Onesimus returns to Colossae voluntarily. Just as Paul did not make Philemon’s agreement a matter of obedience but rather something voluntary, so I am sure Paul applied the same deference to Onesimus. Otherwise, Paul could not have regarded them as equals in his family of faith.

Onesimus, therefore, has the power to choose to return or not. He uses that power to return, in spite of the potential risk to his safety. There may have been some legal reasons in the Roman system that made returning more advantageous to Paul, but Paul was already in custody and headed toward a hearing in Rome. As it turned out, Paul’s cause in that action did not succeed. In short, you can’t get more dead than dead. So, I don’t think the legal argument has much weight here.

I think Onesimus returns (along with Paul’s little letter and a small delegation from Paul) to provoke a crisis in the life of the Colossian congregation and in Philemon’s life of faith. It is certain that Onesimus did not return in order to apologize, beg forgiveness, and return to his former station. If that had been the case, Paul would have written a quite different letter. We know that because we have examples of such letters, such as the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus, regarding a somewhat similar situation (see https://www.bartleby.com/9/4/1103.html).

Onesimus does not return in order to be “nice.” Jesus does not talk about first/last issues in Mark 9 because Jesus wants his followers to be “nice.” This is about how disciples are to exercise power. And when we exercise power appropriately, we will destabilize the existing power structures. That’s why the paragraph about serving is preceded by a teaching about the cross. It’s not being “nice” that gets Jesus crucified. It’s about challenging the way in which power “over” is used as the only model of relationship. Onesimus does that to Philemon.

Onesimus does not return in order to punish Philemon. Rather, I would argue that he returns on the basis of Christian love. It is not a loving thing to leave me in a place where I blithely exercise power over others without thought or consequence. The idolatry of power over others makes me, as the power-wielder, subhuman. We human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, were made to use power for the sake of the Other. When we use it for ourselves, we degrade ourselves, eventually to the point of ceasing to be authentically human.

Onesimus comes to confront Philemon about power and to set him free from his inhumanity. If following Jesus is the clearest path to full and authentic humanity (and I think it is), then slaveholding is a clear deviation from that path.

Therefore, I believe Onesimus comes to destabilize, disorient, and deconstruct Philemon’s world – and to do so for the sake of love. If Onesimus (and Paul and his colleagues) make Philemon (and the rest of the congregation) uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Would it be loving to abandon Philemon to his self-delusion? I don’t think so.

It’s a simplistic illustration, but it works for me. Is it more loving for my spouse to point out the lettuce stuck in my teeth before I go into a hundred-person Zoom meeting (even though I have that initial twinge of irritation at being criticized)? Or is it more loving for her to leave me in my comfortable ignorance, only to discover later as I review the video that I looked like I was growing a garden in my mouth? For me, the answer is obvious, no matter how I might feel in the moment of critique.

When Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI Christians challenge me in my unthinking racism, are they doing damage to me? No. I am uncomfortable. It is painful. I am forced to look at things about myself that I don’t like. I have to change not only some details about my behavior but my whole view of the world through White Supremacist lenses. That’s no fun for me, and my automatic response is angry rejection. But would it be more loving for others to abandon me to my sin and move on? No.

I want to say right way that I don’t think it’s the “job” of others to educate me about my own racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, classism, ageism, or any of the numerous other failings in my character and my worldview. Unlike Philemon (who may not have had access to many resources to encourage his reflection), I have access to a whole world of stories, experiences, history, data, reflection, theory, theology, and encouragement in this regard. I have a responsibility to seek out those resources – and to know that when I feel uncomfortable, that’s a sign that someone is trying to love me into my fuller humanity.

By the way, I think that Emmanuel Acho’s book, listed in the “References and Resources,” is an excellent beginning to precisely such a conversation.

If someone is oppressed, abused, and dehumanized, the most loving expression of power at that moment may well be escape (where that is possible and safe). There is no obligation for anyone to “educate” oppressors, abusers, and tyrants. That’s an analysis and a decision that the person in that position must engage in the moment. I have no right to even speak further about that.

Onesimus is in a somewhat different position. He comes with the new power of the gospel and a community that is constituted by that power. He does not come alone. Together, he and his colleagues confront Philemon and the Colossian congregation with the deconstructing news that every element of life needs to change for those who follow Jesus. For those with power over, that means relinquishing that power. If that relinquishing happens, then the oppressed might begin to think about reconciliation (but not before).

Thus, “the cross” for Philemon looks like relinquishing his “power over” others. He is invited to do so for the sake of the love of Christ – so he can refresh the hearts of the saints even more, to use Paul’s words. The cross which Onesimus has taken up is the one that will result either in a conversion of a slaveholder or the death of a former slave. For Philemon, the cross means being changed. For Onesimus, the cross means being the change.

When someone confronts me with the love of Christ and with my need for conversion, I need to learn the habit of appreciation rather than anger. When someone confronts the White Church with the love of Christ and the need for conversion, we are called to regard that confrontation as loving service, not as troublemaking. When we welcome such a one into our lives and conversations, we are welcoming Jesus and welcoming the One who sent him.

It is, therefore, a daily question for Jesus followers. How do I stand today in relation to power, and thus in relation to the Cross?

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-7.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.