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.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 5); September 19, 2021

First of All

I noted above that the term for “child” in this text can just as easily be used to identify an enslaved person. That connection takes me to another of my interests, the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s little letter.

It’s too easy for us as Bible readers to experience Jesus’ words in the gospels as happening (to coin a phrase) “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But the people who heard the Markan composition, and Jesus followers in the generation preceding them, had to work out what Jesus’ words meant in terms of their behavior and how they treated one another.

If, for example, Philemon heard from Paul and understood the Good News of God’s unconditional love for him and for the cosmos in Jesus the Messiah, then nothing in Philemon’s life could remain the same. His view of himself, as we heard earlier from Anthony Campbell, would be flipped on its head. His relationships with others would occur in an entirely new framework. His commitments to power, privilege, position, and property would be definitively deconstructed.

If the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is true, then nothing can remain the same. That would include Philemon’s relationship with and response to Onesimus.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“If one desires to be first,” Jesus tells the squabbling disciples, “that one shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b, my translation). Philemon was the paterfamilias and the slaveholder. That’s a typical image of “first” in Greco-Roman culture. Onesimus was an enslaved person – the paradigm image of what it meant to be “last.” If there is any situation in which Jesus’ discipleship teaching should have traction, this is it.

In Paul’s little letter, Paul makes it clear that Philemon’s trust in Jesus has produced the fruits of faithfulness in the life of the congregation in Colossae. Paul urges Philemon to continue to respond to the Gospel of love with works of love in the case of his response to the actions of Onesimus. Paul prays that “the partnership of your faithfulness might effectively generate in recognition [of the Lord Jesus] all that which is honorable among us toward Christ’s purposes” (Philemon 6, my translation).

Paul expects the new life which Philemon has experienced and continues to experience to result in some specific behaviors that give evidence of their partnership in the gospel. At the present moment, those behaviors have to do with how he will respond to the return of Onesimus to the community. The summary of Paul’s expectation is in verse 17. “If, therefore, you count me as a partner (and you certainly do, welcome him as me” (my translation).

The word for “welcome” has the literal sense of “take toward.” This is not a grudging tolerance or a mere passive acknowledgement. The word, and Paul’s expectation, is much more like the way that Jesus “takes” a child and gives that child standing in the midst of the community. Just as Jesus tenderly embraces that child, so Paul expects Philemon to embrace Onesimus as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).

Paul plays on the ambiguity in the terms for “child” and “slave” as well in his little letter. He acknowledges that Onesimus has been enslaved. He also refers to Onesimus as his “child” whom he has birthed into new life in Christ during Paul’s Ephesian imprisonment. Paul is “father” both to Onesimus and also to Philemon, the one who owes Paul his very life (Philemon 19). They are brothers in Christ and in Paul!

The congregation at Colossae witnessed the working out of Jesus’ “first and last” instructions to his disciples. Philemon needed to renounce his power of life and death, or at least physical punishment, over Onesimus if he was to obey Paul (and Jesus). Philemon had to give up his honor status, his position, in order to embrace Onesimus as a brother. He had to relinquish his property – both that which Onesimus might have taken and Onesimus himself as an enslaved person. And he had to surrender his privilege in order to embrace Onesimus now as an equal partner in Paul’s gospel mission.

I am walking through this in such detail in order for us to appreciate that Jesus’ teaching to the disciples was not theory or poetry. Christians, at least in Pauline congregations, were expected to put this teaching to work in their lives in Christian community. The powerful were called upon to relinquish that power for the sake of their partnership in the gospel.

At the beginning of his two-volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright spends a hundred pages on Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul as a case study for how the Gospel works out in these communities. “Here we have, in fact,” Wright argues, “the concrete outworking of Paul’s theology of the cross – reflecting the same theme in 2 Corinthians 5 itself, written probably not long after Philemon” (Paul, page 20).

Because of this gospel of New Creation, Wright argues, the question of the social relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, and the status of each is “radically outflanked” (Wright, Paul, page 20). The “last” becomes first, and the “first” becomes last – and servant.

The one who was socially dead, the enslaved person, has been made alive. Onesimus has been “birthed” into the faith just as Philemon received his very life from Paul’s preaching. The one who was most fully alive, the honorable paterfamilias, must die to himself and to the world in order to live in the partnership of Christ.

As I discussed the Mark 9 text with a group of lay preachers this week, we came to a difficult realization. If we remain focused on verses 33 through 37, the text provides a marvelous opportunity to focus on the unconditional and prevenient love of God in Christ for us. As I described in an earlier post, we can find ourselves in Jesus’ arms as beloved children of God. There is no greater or more life-changing news that that!

If we stay with those verses, it’s all well and good. But we also have verses 30 to 32. All of this happens under the shadow of the cross. This transformative, revolutionary, destabilizing, re-orienting Divine Love provokes a violent pushback from the powers of this world. That violent pushback begins in my own heart – the place where my desires for self-idolatry originate. The move from first to last is the death of the Old Self.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes to the Galatian Christians. “It is no longer ‘I’ who lives but Christ who lives in me.” The death of the ‘I,’ (the ‘ego’ in the Greek) is part of how I participate in, exercise partnership in the cross of Jesus Christ. “And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul continues, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

The change in relationship between Onesimus and Philemon involved a variety of “deaths” for Philemon. Welcoming Onesimus as a beloved brother happened at the foot of the cross or not at all.

This case study has been conducted so far from the position of one who is “first” and is called now to be “last” and “servant.” The text calls me to look at my own faith walk and to assess where I am “first.” For me, that is nearly everywhere. I am White. I am male. I am educated in a Europa-centric system. I am not impoverished. I have professional status and standing. I have all the habits and assumptions that go with this mash-up of “first.” Following Jesus, for me, is mostly about daily becoming “last” and “servant.”

In the next chapter of Mark’s composition, by the way, we will see how this works out for one of the Firsts who comes to Jesus for advice. The rich man, whom Jesus loves, is unable to die to the “First” of his wealth and goes away deeply troubled. If I’m looking for myself in the larger story, there’s a place for me.

I am part of a denomination that has spent a lot of time in the company of the cultural Firsts. If we are to be a factor in the future of this culture, we will have to figure out how to embrace being Last. Jemar Tisby, in his book The Color of Compromise, itemizes some of the ways that we can embrace being Last in order to be faithful.

We can, as individuals, congregations and denominations begin making Reparations to Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI communities. We can take down Confederate monuments and dismantle other symbols that continue to make “White” equal to “First.” We can learn from the Black Church how to be faithful without having to be First. We White Christians have no idea how to do that. We are so wedded to White Christian Nationalism that for many White Christians there is no daylight between such Nationalist idolatry and their understanding of the Christian faith.

Tisby has several other suggestions that I would commend for your consideration. “This much is clear,” Tisby writes, “the American church has compromised with racism. Countless Christians have ignored, obscured, or misunderstood this history. But the excuses are gone. The information cannot be hidden. The only question that remains,” he concludes, “is what the church will do now that its complicity in racism has been exposed” (page 212).

Will we who are powerful embrace being Last of all and Servant of all?

This post has focused on the “First” who is called to be “Last”? What does it look like to start out “Last” like Onesimus? Let’s think about that in the next post.

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

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 4); September 19, 2021

Child-centered

Twice in Mark’s composition, Jesus puts forth a child as a teaching illustration. The Composer uses multiple stories around similar themes to highlight the importance of each of those themes. The second time we run into a small child in Mark’s composition will be in a few weeks in Mark 10:13-16. In our current text, the focus is on embracing the child as an image of discipleship. In the next chapter, it is the child who embraces (receives) the Reign of God.

As I noted previously, neither of these images has to do with innocence, openness, or any supposed characteristics of the Child. There is nothing in the Child that demands Jesus’ embrace on its own merits. That’s the point, as I noted in the previous post. Jesus loves the Child “for nothing.”

Photo by nappy on Pexels.com

In his 1995 article, Jim Bailey gives us a summary of Ched Meyer’s assessment of the social status of the child in first-century Mediterranean culture. It’s a helpful summary of a fairly complete assessment. According to Bailey, Meyers lists six features of this social status:

  • Jesus does not have an idealistic notion of children in either text.
  • The Child typifies a category of the marginalized and dominated, like women, the poor, and the unclean.
  • The Child is “least” in both family and social structures in that culture.
  • Children were easily dominated and exploited since they were vulnerable and dependent.
  • Jesus invites his disciples to imagine the “least” as the model for discipleship.
  • Disciples, therefore, are called to “take up the powerlessness and vulnerability of the child.” (page 59).

In my experience, that reminder to listeners will still come as a shock and receive romantic resistance from those who continue to idolize the Child in White American culture. On the one hand, we who have power, privilege, position, and property don’t want our children to resemble those first-century Mediterranean children in any sense. We expect our children to be protected and powerful, able to receive and to maintain the power, privilege, position, and property we will bequeath to them.

I need look no further than myself in this regard. Regardless of my theological, moral, and political stances and pronouncements, I was committed to keeping my children firmly in the White middle class and elevating that privileged position, regardless of the cost (my estate will likely pay the last of the student loan debt unless something changes in the interim). I have succeeded in that project, and they are solidly on their way to carrying that effort into another generation.

Thirty years ago, the meaning of that effort played dimly around the edges of my consciousness. When it invaded my waking moments, I certainly found ways to push that awareness back into the shadows. We talked about having our kids in a more diverse educational setting. We did not, however, find an acceptable home in that school district. We didn’t take the effort or energy to enroll outside of our geography, although we could have done so. Those choices – paths of least resistance and White defaults – continued through college, with predictable outcomes.

None of this made my kids “bad” people. I’m not very objective, but I think they’re pretty good folks, despite their connections to me. But our clan has embedded itself firmly in the system of White power, privilege, position, and property. In two generations, Hennigs folk have gone from being tenant farmers without indoor plumbing to triple garages and swimming pools in Midwest suburbia.

It didn’t occur to me that this was all part of a system to sustain the White power of children of privilege until I thought back on the house we bought in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had an excellent realtor who listened closely both to what we said and what we didn’t say. The realtor sized us up and created a list of potential homes. They were all in neighborhood bastions of White power and middle class “propriety.” We didn’t ask for that. The realtor didn’t ask about it. We just all assumed this was unthinkingly “normal.”

We put the Child in the midst of our imagination, our priorities, and our communities. But the Child was White, middle-class, Christian, and English-speaking. Any suggestion that we might have needed to adjust our imagination, our priorities, and our vision for community would have been (and was) met with stiff resistance.

Continued reflection tells me that my efforts were, as should not be surprising, far more about me than about my kids. I love my kids and want “the best” for them (as if I actually knew then or know now what that might be). But I also did not want to “fail” as a White, middle-class parent. I was unconsciously anxious about the risk that my children might fall out of the White middle-class because of something I did or did not do.

If that happened, I would have regarded myself as a miserable excuse for a parent. So, I spared no expense, approved every sport and activity, and signed every loan document. I didn’t really begin to think hard about this until it was far too late for me. I read Scott Bader-Saye’s excellent book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. It’s one of those books that will be on my shelf after I die and to which I return often for challenge and clarity.

In the first chapter, called “Fear for Profit,” he has a section labeled “Fearful Parenting.” I read that in 2007 and had a brief, but profound, thought.

Shit.

Bader-Saye points to the shift from a “good parenting” model to a “safe parenting” model. Ordinary life for children is now seen as this massive minefield of existential threats, and we parents have to hover over every step lest disaster strike. And there is someone else hovering in the background – the vendor always ready to sell us parental peace of mind. “When ‘good parenting’ is replaced by ‘safe parenting,’” Bader-Saye writes, “child rearing is easily captured by consumption – we may not be able to buy goodness, but we can buy safety” (page 13).

Safe parenting becomes an exercise in preventive living. We focus on dangers we must avoid rather than experiences we might embrace. We focus on control rather than creativity. We emphasize avoidance and aversion rather than adventure. We value familiarity rather than novelty. We raise children who know everything and learn nothing, who judge everyone and engage no one. “We want our children to grow into adults who are expansive and generous rather than fearful and constricted,” Bader-Saye writes, “yet the culture of fear routinely squelches such an extravagant embrace of life” (page 14).

I feel guilt and shame over that story and that history. I need to sit with those emotions and experiences, to marinate in them, and not expect anyone to make me feel better. But that’s not enough. We have sought to live in a somewhat different neighborhood these days, although it’s not exactly a stellar effort on our part. We support school funding that is not dependent on property tax revenues and zip codes. But that’s not going anywhere right now. We encourage our grandchildren to have a diverse set of friends, but we’ve already put in place many dynamics to work against that.

This text challenges me to do better.

The focus on the White Child in the center of our culture has another dimension. “If only we could all have the faith of a little child,” the resistance will insist, “then we wouldn’t have all these problems and divisions in our churches.” This perspective presumes that Jesus embraces us because of something in us rather than as an act of grace. And the image of the “innocent” and “trusting” Child is, in White American culture, always White and “pure.”

One of the unspoken and collateral dangers of clinging to this iconography of childhood innocence is that it will quickly morph into what it really is – the mythology of White Innocence and Purity. Remember our thought experiment about displacing the “white” baby Jesus in the congregational creche with a Brown baby Jesus? That experiment assumes rightly that the doll we are most likely to find there will be White.

If the child in the center of our imagination is White, Innocent, and Pure, then we White people see children (and adults) of other colors as guilty and impure. I have to confess that the first time I wrote that sentence, I wrote it in the passive voice with a thus unidentified subject. But that’s a symptom of the problem. If I write about children of other colors as “seen,” then I don’t have to take responsibility for the fact that I as a White person am doing the seeing.

In fact, that’s precisely what is happening. The myth of White Innocence and Purity is encapsulated in our imaginations as we center the White Child, the beginning of that Innocence and Purity. Once we have done that, it’s fairly easy to imagine children other than White as culpable and dirty. When we embrace that imagination, it’s even easier to see children other than White as dangerous, unworthy, and less than human.

The reverse image of the Pure, Innocent, White Child is the Dangerous Black Man. The power of that toxic image flows easily on to the bodies of Black boys who suffer fatal consequences. Studies too numerous to cite demonstrate that Black boys are perceived by White people as far older than they actually are. The Goff et. al. study shows that Black children do not have the same presumption of innocence as White children; that Black boys are seen as more culpable for their actions than White boys; that Black boys are misperceived as older than their peers in other races; and that these misperceptions result in violence based on dehumanization (especially violence in law enforcement and corrections situations).

We can say the names of a few of those Black children who have been killed by the Myth of the Pure, Innocent, White Child: Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Tyre King, Cameron Tillman…and those little Black boys in my own neighborhood who are already at risk for just being boys…and Black.

How does this conversation impact our preaching about putting a Child in our midst?

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.

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.

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (Pt. 1); September 12 2021

Mark 8:27-38

The Crucifixion of Omaha

CW: This post has references to rape, murder, torture, and lynching, and an image of the lynching of Will Brown.

“Be sure as you develop your way of telling this story,” Richard Swanson urges, “that you do not attempt to housebreak the crucifixion. The animal is wild and will not be tamed, much less housebroken. This would be the surest road to falsification you could find,” he warns. “Attempt to tell the truth.” (Swanson, pages 219-220).

But, Professor Swanson, in many of our congregations this is “Rally Sunday,” the beginning of a new program year in the life of the congregation. Those who are going to come back from their summer hiatus (made interminable by Covid-19) are probably back by now. This is a time of fresh starts and hopeful smiles. Now is not the time to lay the cross on the backs of skittish parishioners who might easily flit right back out the doors!

Housebreaking the Crucifixion is precisely what we seek to do in our church architecture, in our Christian jewelry, in our contemporary Christian music, and in our triumphalist American theology. The cross is described as wondrous, beautiful, powerful, and even attractive. If we are stunned into silence by such descriptions, then the cross of Jesus has become mere ornamentation.

“Death by torture is a horrible thing. That is clear,” writes Richard Swanson. “What gets obscured in most treatments is that Jesus is only one of millions of people who have died in the hands of torturers, in excruciating pain. This was surely true in the ancient world, where the Romans developed crucifixion as a way of reminding the colonials who was in charge, and who was not” (pages 216-217).

As James Cone reminds us so powerfully in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, we white Americans in the twenty-first century dare not tread upon the territory of the cross without seeing its intimate connection to our own past and present systems of ritual torture for political hegemony. If you want to re-connect with the horror of the Crucifixion, Cone’s work is a good place to land.

I refer you to an article in the Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Nebraska History. “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot.” The article, by Orville D. Menard, contains descriptions and images of gleeful white inhumanity and the horrific torture and lynching of a black man named William Brown.

The article is not for the faint of heart. But we white readers should not avoid the article. As Emerson notes, we wish to be settled. But if there is to be any hope for us who are white in this culture, we must seek out things that unsettle us—things like Menard’s article.

On September 25, 1919, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loeback were walking home in downtown Omaha after watching a late movie. A man threatened them with a gun. They reported that the man took Hoffman’s watch, money, and billfold as well as a ring from Agnes. The assailant dragged Agnes into a ravine and raped her. According to Hoffman and Loeback the man then escaped into the night.

On the twenty-sixth, the Omaha Bee identified the criminal as a “black beast.” Two hours later a neighbor described one William Brown as a “suspicious negro.” A group of civilians connected to Agnes captured Brown at gunpoint.

Hoffman and Loeback identified him as their assailant, although Agnes later expressed some uncertainty about her accusation. By that time, a crowd had gathered around the house. Reports suggest that about 1500 people had come to the house. Twice they got a rope about Brown’s neck, but police succeeded in transporting him to the Douglas County Courthouse jail.

Witnesses described Brown as physically incapable of such assaults due to crippling physical conditions. Nonetheless, by the afternoon of the twenty-eighth, a mob had formed with the purpose of taking Brown out of the jail to be lynched. The mob grew to somewhere between four and five thousand people.

Late in the afternoon they attacked the courthouse building. The police chief, a city commissioner and the mayor tried to defuse the situation and were met with violence. Both the courthouse and a police car were burned.

By this time, the crowd had grown to somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people. Ultimately the authorities handed Brown over to the lynch mob in order to save their own lives.

Carol Anderson reminds us of the larger context for this atrocity. “During the Red Summer of 1919 there were, in fact, seventy-eight lynchings,” she wrote in White Rage, including a man burned at the stake in Omaha, Nebraska (page 54). That man was Will Brown.

Brown was beaten and shot to death. His body was dragged behind a stolen police car to 17th and Dodge streets. His remains were burned there and then dragged further down the street. Brown’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the local Potter’s Field until they were reinterred in a marked grave provided by a donor almost a hundred years later.

A grand jury handed down a number of indictments in the Brown case, but no one was prosecuted in the end. One of those indicted was Claude Nethaway, a local farmer and realtor from the Florence area of Omaha. Nethaway was charged with conspiracy to murder and unlawful assembly. He was reported to have urged the mob to lynch Brown and to have claimed that he fired some of the shots into Brown’s body (Bristow, 2020).

Nethaway spent a few months in the Douglas County jail pending a trial. “But that was all the time Claude Nethaway would ever serve,” writes David Bristow. “Despite a dozen witnesses testifying against him, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Unable to secure convictions,” Bristow notes, “the county attorney eventually cleared the dockets of cases related to the Will Brown lynching” (Bristow, 2020).

The December, 1919, issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, commented on the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 as one of two such riots. This article suggested that Loeback worked as a white prostitute in one of the local houses catering to black men. The article asserts that Loeback and Brown knew one another and that at the time of the alleged assault Loeback was wearing a diamond ring given to her by Brown. The article proposed that the “rape” accusation was concocted by Loeback in order to punish Brown for an earlier quarrel between them.

In the midst of that article was the photo of this horror, published with the caption, “The Crucifixion at Omaha.” It is fortunate that the quality of the photo is poor. Otherwise, we would be able to see Brown’s guts hanging out of his belly, the result of the dozens of bullets that literally shredded his body.

The report from the Equal Justice Initiative on lynching describes the photo as “among the most inhumane images of lynching in America that survive today.” The caption frames the image in such a way that I can only see it now as a crucifixion.

“The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” wrote James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (pages 103-4) “or more precisely what white Christians did to blacks and what Romans did to Jesus—was reflected” in this photo. “If the American empire has any similarities with that of Rome,” Cone continues, “can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of blacks on the lynching tree?”

In fact, we white Christians have spent four centuries avoiding and rejecting just such a vision. “Can American Christians see the reality of Jesus’ cross,” Cone repeats, “without seeing it as a lynching tree?” This American Christian cannot.

“But it ought to be kept clear when performing a scene like this one that the cross in this scene is not nicely housebroken like those in our church buildings and jewelry boxes, “Richard Swanson writes of our Markan text, “neither is it tightly wedged into a sadistic theological scheme like the cross is in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.”

“The cross in this scene from Mark is simply an obscenity,” Swanson observes, “an absurdity, an instrument of torture that Rome used to remind its subject people of the cost involved in resisting the Empire” (page 214). The lynching tree (or pole, in Brown’s case), was an instrument of torture that White America used to remind Black people of the cost involved in resisting White Supremacy.

We begin our meditations this week by remembering that crucifixion is not merely a metaphor. The further we get from real crosses (and real lynching trees), the more housebroken the cross becomes. In order to experience some of the real power of this text, it is necessary to grapple with the horrific violence which stands behind it.

Once again, perhaps our preaching should begin with a Content Warning. If we make our meditations on cross-bearing so palatable that there is no potential for offense or upset, we should wonder if we are preaching from the foot of the Cross at all. I’m not advocating for the use of graphic images and physiological descriptions.

But I am suggesting that our folks must see the cross as more than jewelry.

References and Resources

Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011.

Dahl, Nils Alstrup. “The Crucified Messiah and the Endangered Promises.” Word and World 3/3 (1983). Pages 251-262. https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/3-3_OT-NT/3-3_Dahl.pdf.

Edwards, W. D., Gabel, W. J., and Hosmer, F.E. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” JAMA 255 (1986): 1455-63.

Ifill, Sherrilyn. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century (Tenth-Anniversary Edition). Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2007 (2018).

Lawson, Michael L. “Omaha, a City in Ferment: Summer of 1919,” Nebraska History 58 (1977): 395- 417. URL of article: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1977Omaha.pdf.

Menard, Orville D. “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot,” Nebraska History 91 (2010): 152-165. URL:https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH2010Lynching.pdf

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.; The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Text Study for Mark 7:24-37 (Pt. 4); September 5 2021

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Jesus

But what if our perspective on reading this text is the problem rather than the solution? David King outlines six varieties of solutions to the problem of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman. We’ve explored some of those responses in detail in the previous posts.

In his analysis, King uses three questions to analyze representative responses. He does this using a technique of reader-response criticism called “gap filling.” This technique acknowledges that readers make assumptions to fill in the narrative holes that any story leaves unfilled. “In the case we examine here,” King writes, “the gap is created by the characterization of Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, a characterization which seems inconsistent with his characterization elsewhere” (page 3).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The six responses King identifies include: 1) Jesus is on vacation; 2) Jesus is playing; 3) Jesus has a more important mission; 4) Jesus is bested in debate; 5) Jesus is racist; and 6) Jesus is sexist. We have examined some of these responses in the previous posts. We have even analyzed some of the same N. T. Wright texts that King uses as examples. Based on the gap-filling analysis, King finds the examples of each response to be unsatisfactory.

We should note that most of us use some combination of the above responses with better or worse effect. For example, N. T. Wright uses a combination of 2) and 3) with a sprinkling of 4). In addition, the “Defending Jesus” perspectives tend to use the first three responses in some combination. The “Teaching the Teacher” responses tend to use the last three responses in some combination. It’s a helpful taxonomy and analysis.

All of these responses, however, assume that Jesus is in the position of social and cultural dominance in the conversation. I think we’d be well served by re-examining that assumption as we read the text. I found the 2010 article by Poling Sun to be very instructive in this regard. Sun summarizes the “Defending Jesus” and “Teaching the Teacher” responses.

He notes that the “Teaching the Teacher” response takes on particular resonance in the voices of Asian Feminist Postcolonial interpreters. However, he does not agree that the situations of Asian women under British colonial rule are directly comparable to the positions occupied in the story by Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. “[T]hat missionary movements in the past made mistakes is simply undeniable,” Sun notes, “but to equate the Jesus of first-century Palestine with nineteenth century western Christianity is dubious, and the social-cultural descriptions of both Jesus and the woman seem not to be supported by historical scrutiny” (page 384).

He also notes that many of the “Teaching the Teacher” responses now focus on the gender of the Syrophoenician woman and the politics of patriarchy. He is not convinced. “If the powerful one in this story, however, is not Jesus but the woman,” Sun argues, “or more accurately, not the woman as woman, but the Syro-Phoenician woman who symbolizes and in fact represents the powerful and real colonialism, the story and message would be entirely different” (page 385).

Sun analyzes the story, then, from this perspective – the Syrophoenician woman as colonizer and Jesus as colonized. He notes that women occupy a variety of social roles and power gradients in Mark’s account. “Thus,” he writes, “contending that the gospel presents every woman as a victim, marginalized, oppressed, and colonized is actually shooting everything that will move” (page 386). This is not to say, he hastens to add, that androcentrism and patriarchy are absent from Mark’s account. But gender is not essential to this story.

“I would suggest,” Sun contends, “that the woman’s presence symbolizes the coming of a power instead of a victim” (page 386). This is not Jesus’ first foray into Gentile territory or the last. This is not the first Gentile healing story or the last in Mark’s account. This is not the first woman healed. This is not the first mother mentioned. Jesus breaks no new ground in these regards.

“If the story of the Syrophoenician woman signifies an important transition and therefore the way for the Gentile mission, we must look for another motif instead,” Sun argues, “I suggest that it is the power revealed and subverted that makes the Gospel heard among the Gentiles. It is also from this perspective,” he continues, “that Jesus’ offensive words can be understood and perhaps appreciated” (page 387). This story, Sun proposes is “about when Power and Jesus encounter each other.”

He notes the negative descriptions of Tyre and Sidon in the Hebrew scriptures. He also points to the continuing negative attitudes to Tyre and Sidon both in the Christian scriptures (Matthew 11:21-24) and in the Against Apion by Flavius Josephus. The hostility was even more recent and local than that. “If the readers of Mark were not unaware of the incident that the Tyrians had killed and imprisoned many of their Jewish inhabitants when the Jewish revolt broke out in 66 CE,” he notes, “the coming of a Syro-phoenician woman could hardly be thought of as just another visitor asking for help” (page 388).

In addition, the Gentiles along the coast exploited Galilee as their breadbasket. Galilean peasants often went hungry while the Tyrian elites were well-fed. Isn’t that an interesting image in light of the discussion about tables, crumbs, and dogs! The Syrophoenician woman came first as a symbol and cause of suffering for Jesus’ home folks. There are indications in the text, according to Sun, that she was “Greek-speaking, educated, urban upper class” (page 389).

“All these historical, cultural, and social considerations lead to the conclusion that the Syrophoenician woman does not come to Jesus as a victim oppressed by colonialism or male domination,” Sun concludes, “not to mention homeless or marginalized. There is,” he declares, “simply no evidence from the text that supports any of that” (page 389). He argues that the woman comes from a dominant and oppressing group. She intrudes on the relatively powerless Jesus. In that context, his response is an act, not of rudeness, but of resistance.

What if Jesus is not just taking a small sabbatical? What if, instead, he is hiding out from the agents of Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem elites until things calm down a bit? If that is the case, then the Syrophoenician woman has blown his cover. When she came in the door and put him at risk, did Jesus think, “Just another Gentile rich bitch coming to take what belongs to us Jews”? That puts a different spin on his words in the text.

This doesn’t exclude the possibility that Jesus was using some resistance humor to respond to this fraught situation. Right now, I’m reading the book by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar called You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey.” In part I’m reading it because most of the stories told have happened in Omaha, Nebraska, in the last few years. I’m also reading it because these are some very, very funny women. And I’m reading it to understand my own white supremacy from a different angle.

The fact that Ruffin and Lamar use humor in their stories doesn’t mean these are light pieces of entertainment. It means that humor is a tool of resistance and a resource for grieving. I won’t try to summarize or recapture the wisdom and pain in the book. Just buy it and read it. My point is that humor is no guarantee that everyone is happy and nice.

“Niceness” is a luxury and expectation of the privileged and powerful. I know that I expect women to be pleasant and pliant, and I’m put off when they’re not. That’s my problem. I know that I expect Black and Brown people to smile and be friendly in order to assuage my anxieties. That’s my problem. I know that I expect the world to be nice to me just because I’m a privileged and positioned white male. That’s my problem.

In a 1961 radio interview, James Baldwin replied to a question about being Black in American. Here’s what he said:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance. Now, since this is so, it’s a great temptation to simplify the issues under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them. I think this illusion is very dangerous because, in fact, it isn’t the way it works. A complex thing can’t be made simple. You simply have to try to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across.

What if we come to this reading seeing Jesus as oppressed rather than powerful, as enraged rather than abusive? How does that affect our experience of his initial words, and of his actual response?

More than that, what if we begin to see following Jesus as a path away from power? We read the text from a triumphalist perspective where Jesus has all the power (and therefore so do we). But, if Sun is right, that is not the situation It certainly wasn’t the situation for the Markan church. Jesus is one of the colonized, not one of the colonizers. If Jesus is suspicious, defensive, and reluctant, that makes sense. He is testing her sincerity, not her “faith.”

Can we mainline Christian types in America serve and witness from a non-dominant place? We are so addicted to triumphalism in the Western, White church that I’m not sure we can adjust. Can we submit to the leadership and wisdom of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous siblings in Christ to learn real humility in order to be healed? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

References and Resources

James Baldwin quote: https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867153918/-to-be-in-a-rage-almost-all-the-time.

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.

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

King, David M. “The Problem of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: A Reader-Response Analysis of Mark 7:24-31.” Journal of Religion, Identity, and Politics (2014). Pages 1-21. https://www.academia.edu/1353308/The_Problem_of_Jesus_and_the_Syrophoenician_Woman_A_Reader_Response_Analysis_of_Mark_7_24_31.

Liu, Rebekah. “A Dog Under the Table at the Messianic Banquet: A Study of Mark 7:24-30.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2, 251-255. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3082&context=auss.

Ruffin, Amber; Lamar, Lacey. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matthew L., “”She Departed to Her House”: Another Aspect of the Syrophoenician Mother’s Faith in Mark 7:24-30″ (2006). Faculty Publications. 193. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/193.

Smith, Mitzi. “Race, Gender, and the Politics of ‘Sass’: Reading Mark 7:24-30 thrugh a Womanist Lens of Intersectionality and Inter(con)textuality).” https://www.google.com/books/edition/Womanist_Interpretations_of_the_Bible/J2esDQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=mark+7:24-30&pg=PA95&printsec=frontcover.

Sun, Poling. “Naming the Dog: Another Asian Reading of Mark 7:24-30.” Review and Expositor, 107, Summer 2010, pages 381-394. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/51627184/Naming_the_Dog.pdf?1486166793=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DTHE_GOSPEL_OF_MARK_Naming_the_Dog_Anothe.pdf&Expires=1629922639&Signature=fehZP7odtynKeFSy1fzAvFRtDVal6YS~V46kODdJJ02umisAs6dCxtI4~JSOJMfyk5qZZ2QufzBFgz8AJv2Xf88aUUSVI-9rHk2D144YJmmgp6tZgdGxYRQo06HC~8knVV6x-721~NKG9coCYxo4zVyk4Y5ostcsx4yFpZe7F8NpFOk8dxcbOPKuhncCX2MU8KY8EgjRJ9kzm3BwuDK~FZERu9k~ZhNvRff5K3jHSQ6-M78ndYjU9L3MzT7qoUMvZsoHQGnA2HNfeIR55mYi5zeCcQ4OD2bh15zlZBK3BjBR5VsN8PcFDGS9hN-Eh4~qOQg1CIz4~fmfS-sI4I1vaw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA.

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

Purity Problems — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:1-23; 14 Pentecost B 2021

Jesus hits a home run with his feeding miracle, and how do the opponents respond? They launch into a critique of the handwashing etiquette of the disciples. His opponents immediately call his authority into question by pointing to the “bad manners” of his followers.

“Purity in matters of food was as important as anything in postexilic Israelite practice,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “though what is under discussion here is the Pharisaic expression of Israelite custom rather than the Law of Moses. Here Jesus rejects the former in favor of the latter” (page 221).

The primary practices Jesus advocates in this text do not focus on external purity. Instead, the first practice is to honor the full intent of God’s commandments rather than blurring that intent through the vagaries of case law. Exceptions and equivocations can multiply to the point that the heart of the commandment no longer matters. When self-interest drives that process, there is no limit to the possible abuses than can ensue.

Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com

The second practice is to focus on relational holiness rather than physical purity. Jesus focuses on the filial relationship to parents. He then expands that to an examination of the human heart, the source of “evil intentions.” Many of these evil intentions result in the breaking of community, the exclusion of the stranger, and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Defilement has more to do with maintaining community integrity than it does with maintaining bodily purity.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. The story we tell may be about land or food or clothing. But those material things always represent the difference we construct between people: the insiders and the outsiders, the honorable and the dishonorable, the natives and the foreigners, the good and the bad. We humans love hierarchies, and we will fixate on almost any feature of existence in order to establish a pecking order with us at the top and someone else at the bottom.

I lived in Denver, Colorado, for a few years in the early 1980’s. That was the time of the “Native” bumper stickers. Colorado was a popular place for pilgrims seeking their version of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” They (we, for a while) came from all over the country and all over the world to enjoy the skiing and the columbine, the low humidity and high meadows. It was difficult to find someone who was actually born in Colorado and still lived there.

The few folks who made up the aristocracy of birth began a movement expressed on green bumper stickers decorated with a background of mountain peaks and displaying the title “NATIVE.” This designation placed them above the rest of us mere mortals who had the misfortune to be born somewhere else and to feel the need emigrate to God’s country.

There were several edges to this label. “Natives” were, according to some, inherently better than the interlopers and better-suited to their home state. The non-natives were invaders who brought with them all sorts of foreign ideas, customs, and priorities. They (we) were dilettantes who came for the skiing and left when the snow turned to mud. The natives were the only ones really deserving of the best real estate and were deeply resentful of all the outside money that drove up the prices and reduced the inventory.

Non-natives were, somehow, “impure.” Only later did most of us find out that the original idea for the “NATIVE” campaign originated with a transplant named Eric Glade. After a few years the campaign petered out, but the message stuck with me.

It takes very little for us humans to whip up a caste system, out of whole cloth if we need to do so. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Isabel Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she concludes, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

It is one thing to have a system that maps out the relationships in life in such a way as to provide a framework of meaning and purpose. But human beings, over time, find it nearly impossible, I think, to resist the temptation to use that system to establish a caste system which affords advantages to the in-group that sponsors the system.

It was one thing to point out that there were still a few “Native” Coloradans hanging around in the sea of newcomers. That was just a fact. And those “natives” could indeed offer some insights into life along and among the great Rocky Mountains. If the “Native” label were regarded as a gift, an asset, something to be offered up for the good of all, it might have been a salutary thing. But it was claimed as a resentful privilege and a mark of preferred purity.

It wasn’t long before a few people noted the astonishing and immoral presumption in the label as well. The real “natives” of the land weren’t white people who happened to have been born within the boundaries of Colorado. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land long before Colorado was even a consideration. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land when the ancestors of the pretenders were still expelling the Romans from northern Europe.

Every human hierarchy is constructed on a false foundation. Jesus understands this, names it, and challenges the presumptions of the purity system in Israel at the time. It’s not the covenant itself that he challenges. It is the way the purity system is now used to underwrite systems and structures of power, to serve self-interest rather than God, and to sustain the divisions constructed to uphold the system in the first place.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. No, that’s not quite right. Purity rules are always about power in the end. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, the purity system was based on rules that had meant something quite different in Bronze Age Israel and in Iron Age Judea. Now that system was being used to police the poor, to control women, and to prop up the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. Regardless of their intentions, the Pharisees participated in that caste system, and Jesus challenged that participation.

Jesus emphasizes how God approaches us – through our hearts. He argues that purity rules, at least in the “Traditions of the Elders,” had become the tail wagging the dog of right relationships. These rules had become a tool of the religious/political/economic elite to control the people.

In what ways do we church “insiders” use “traditions of the elders” to control access to our Christian congregations? We may say that “all are welcome here” but are “all” really welcome here? In most congregations, the honest answer is “no.” We exclude people through a variety of conscious and unconscious norms designed for the comfort of the insiders and the repulsion of those who might want to get in.

I don’t think it’s trivial that Jesus takes on the hand-washing practice and expands it into a major theological and ethical issue. If, in fact, the practice originates with the Roman colonizers and is a way into assimilation with the imperial power and status structure, then this is a big deal. Jesus takes his audience and his disciples out of that system and back to their core identity as the people of God formed by Scripture and not by human traditions.

God’s people cannot live inside a domination system, cannot accommodate to imperial powers, without experiencing a defaced and deformed imagination. This is the song that binds together the witness of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrews resist Egyptian imperial power and are released in the Exodus. Israel and Judah embrace forms of empire and are destroyed by empires. Jesus proclaims an alternate reign, God’s kin(g)dom and is executed by agents of the Roman system.

Our own “imperial” system that deforms the Christian imagination has now been outed for what it is – White Christian Nationalism. The evidence of a deformed and defaced imagination is almost too much to catalogue. There is the conjunction of “Christian” and Confederate flags. There is the excruciating whiteness of large parts of the Church on this continent. There is the complicit racism of those of us who wish we could get it “right” without paying a price.

Perhaps the good news here is in the accurate diagnosis Jesus offers. There are no crimes such as “driving while Black,” or “shopping while Black,” or “walking in the park and bird-watching while Black.” Those are made-up things – the Traditions of our Elders that we need to abandon. Knowing this can help us to repent and make repairs, the first steps toward real growth.

Next week, we get some insight into just how difficult and necessary this conversation is for people who follow Jesus. Stay tuned.

Text Study for Mark 7:1-23 (Pt. 6); 14 Pentecost B 2021

Sacred Places, Sacred People

The Fall 2021 edition of the ACLU Magazine shares an article by Anita Little entitled “Buried Truths.” Little begins by telling the story of Darrell “Soul” Semien, a black man who served fifteen years as a law enforcement officer in Oberlin, Louisiana. At age 55, Semien died from cancer. His widow and family wanted him to be buried in the nearby Oaklin Springs Cemetery. When they inquired to make arrangements, they were in for a shock.

A representative of the cemetery told them that a clause in the burial contract specified that use of the cemetery was restricted to “the right of burial of the remains of white human beings.” The ACLU became involved in the matter and sent a letter to the cemetery board, demanding removal of that contract clause and a revision of the cemetery by-laws, which had been in place for all of the more than seventy years of the cemetery’s existence.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The board acted quickly to remove all race-based restrictions from its contracts, to destroy all previous copies that included the “whites only” covenant and to remove the employee from working with families in such matters. The board president offered the family one of his own plots in the cemetery as part of the reparations. Understandably, the family refused and went elsewhere.

It would be one thing to hear this story as an artifact of some previous generation. This series of events, however, took place in 2021. ACLU officials believe that such hidden covenants and other restrictions still lie buried in documents across the South and across the country. Alanah Odoms, director of the ACLU of Louisiana said, “We suspect this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Supreme Court decisions have rendered race-based covenants unconstitutional over the last seventy years. But that does not mean they are irrelevant. “That this language exists in so many places, even if it’s not enforced,” Little writes, “also acts as a signal, a reminder that this country and its promises were meant for only a select few. Removing these covenants from documents,” she observes, “would be simple, and the lack of organized effort to do so communicates the racism that vigorously thrives beneath the veneer of changed laws.”

Little reviews the history and impact of restrictive covenants on the racial wealth gap in this country. She quotes a 2019 Federal Reserve Board survey that shows median household income for Whites at $188,200, for Latinx families at $36,100, and for Black families at $24,100. This disparity is the result of decades of intentional policies – especially the downstream results of redlining. In Minneapolis, for example, White families are three times as likely to own their homes as Black families.

The actions of the Oaklin Springs cemetery board were not the end of the matter either. Little reports that a white person who has a plot in the cemetery “threated to file a legal complaint stating that with its actions, the ACLU was violating his right to be interred in a whites-only cemetery as per the burial contract he signed.” Of course, the plaintiff claims to be “not-racist.” Instead, he argues “that he has ‘preferences’ that include being ‘laid to rest in a white cemetery.’”

“And again, calling the crowd to himself, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Listen up and get this straight! There is nothing outside of a person which entering into that person is able to defile that person; rather what defiles a person is that which comes out of that person” (Mark 7:14-15, my translation).

The racism of White supremacy uses the external marker of skin tone to identify a group of people as “impure.” That deep, visceral belief in the mythology of Black impurity teaches, justifies, and mandates the desire to have separate cemeteries. This belief is handed from generation to generation and makes White people insane when it comes to something like sharing public swimming pools. Better to close the pools, the mythology says, than to risk being “contaminated.”

The racism of White supremacy is handed on, taught, deepened, expanded, and enforced from generation to generation. It is, in the most literal of terms, a “Tradition of the Elders” which is passed on to our children and grandchildren. It is not in Hebrew or Christian scriptures, no matter what some exegetes might manufacture as evidence. We know when the mythology was invented and why. We can trace its transmission history. We can demonstrate that it is not written into the fabric of biology, sociology, history, or politics.

According to Jesus’ declaration to the crowds, we can render a judgment on who would “defile” the “holy ground” of the Oaklin Springs cemetery by being laid to rest there. It would certainly not be the remains of Darrell Semien. Mr. Semien’s remains would honor that space in light of his of public service.

The remains of the plaintiff coming after the ACLU would be another story. What defiles is what comes out of us – the products of our hearts. The overt racism, the threats of legal violence, the self-deception, the casual deceit, the avarice, and hatred spill out of the report Little offers to us in the plaintiff’s own words. When he is buried in that cemetery, he will certainly defile that holy ground.

I hope this report illustrates just how careful we must be with this “purity” text in our preaching. I think we must take into account and discuss our position of power lest we get into any sort of cultural, political, ethical, or physical redlining.

It’s one thing to be a subject people who are just barely holding on to their identity in the face of a massive, assimilationist empire. To put it in the best light, the Pharisees are trying to keep Israel in one piece and relatively faithful under the domination of just such an imperial system. They may have gotten it backwards, as Jesus points out. They may have used the system to their own advantage (clearly, they did). But they occupy a position as subjects under subjugation.

We dare not put ourselves into the same social position unless we really are in such a position. But White, mainline Christians are not in that position. We are representatives of the exploitive, extractive, imperial system called White Male Supremacy. Unless we come to terms with that difference, our reading of this text will make us dangerous to any and all who are subjugated under that system.

“Purity” in the hands of the oppressor is a highly useful tool to sustain the oppression. That’s one of the downstream effects of the racialized purity system in this country. That’s why it’s worth remembering those restrictive covenants which led to the redlining that produces the current disparities in household wealth, educational opportunities, employment, health outcomes, and home ownership. When we draw lines, we create outsiders who can be exploited.

We rely on external features to determine how the lines are drawn. But, Jesus says, you can’t do that! Those external features don’t defile. Instead, our policies and practices that keep people oppressed based on external features – those things do defile. They come from our avaricious, deceitful, hate-filled, fear-soaked hearts. The system of White Male Supremacy, therefore, defiles everything and everyone it touches.

You might think I’m taking the text too far in this regard, but I don’t think so. “And when they went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable” (Mark 7:17, my translation and emphasis). Jesus’ declaration is a parable, so it’s meant to be interpreted, applied, and expanded. After all, the audience for Mark’s gospel were mostly Gentile Christians. They, too, needed to figure out what this meant for them.

Perhaps the good news here is in the accurate diagnosis Jesus offers. There are no crimes such as “driving while Black,” or “shopping while Black,” or “walking in the park and bird-watching while Black.” Those are made-up things – the traditions of our Elders that we need to abandon. Knowing this can help us to repent and make repairs, the first steps toward real growth.

“We cannot repair the harms that we have not fully diagnosed,” Little quotes Rakim Brooks, senior campaign strategist at the ACLU as saying. “Our history has shown us that it’s not enough to take racist policies off the books,” Brooks asserts, “if we are going to achieve true justice. We need,” he concludes, “systemic solutions.”

Little suggests that we also need the imagination to begin to see what that repentance and repair can look like. Jesus offers a different vision of purity and defilement, one rooted in the human heart. That’s where our imagination is rooted. We can stop looking at the outsides of people and embrace our common humanity as fellow bearers of the Divine Image. And as Little concludes, our imagination needs to encompass the same quality of life for all people, with all sorts of “outsides.”

As I noted in the previous post, the preacher needs to keep this conversation in the context of the upcoming reading. It’s almost as if the writer of Mark’s gospel wants to remind Jesus that talk is cheap. He will immediately have the opportunity to put his principle into action as he encounters the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. I mention that because it’s probably important not to over-promise yet on Jesus’ commitment to inclusion.

We’ve got some work to do next week.

References and Resources

“Cutting Off the Ends of the Ham.” https://www.executiveforum.com/cutting-off-the-ends-of-the-ham/.

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.

FURSTENBERG, Y. A. I. R. (2008). Defilement Penetrating the Body: A New Understanding of Contamination in Mark 7.15. New Testament Studies, 54(02). https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688508000106.

Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010.

Kenny, Andrew. “Surprise, Colorado: The guy who sold all those ‘NATIVE’ stickers is a transplant.” https://denverite.com/2018/05/25/surprise-colorado-natives-inventor-beloved-bumper-sticker-utah/.

Little, Anita. “Buried Truths.” ACLU Magazine (Fall, 2021), pages 16-21.

Malbon, E. (1989). The Jewish Leaders in the Gospel of Mark: A Literary Study of Marcan Characterization. Journal of Biblical Literature,108(2), 259-281. doi:10.2307/3267297.

Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd Edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

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

McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Oswald, Roy M., and Friedrich, Robert E. Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-2/commentary-on-mark-71-8-14-15-21-23-5.

Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Webb, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-2/commentary-on-mark-71-8-14-15-21-23-4.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.