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Politics of Scripture

A Call to Radical Witnessing to the Faith Needed for Our Times

The disruptive presence of Nehemiah in spaces that are intended to erase his identity allows for a broader understanding of God’s word. While religious laws may sometimes be exclusionary in their nature, a higher law, one that is grounded in one’s fidelity to God through the way one lives one’s life, allows for radical inclusivity of all before God.

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:1-10

Though the book bears the name of the biblical figure, Nehemiah, the passage speaks of the recommitment of the gathered community to the covenantal bond God has entered into with their ancestors and which is to be sustained by the guiding principles of the Torah. The Torah, for Ezra, is to serve as the constitution and the tool for nurturing a collective Israelite identity, especially because of their time away as exiles on foreign lands. 

However, Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10 presents an anthropological vision that is authoritative for those who embody the gendered assumptions embedded in the gathered assembly. Never once did I ever question this text until now because of my current social location. Working closely with students who identify themselves as non-binary, gender wise, forces me to ask the question: is this text not a narrative of violence and erasure towards persons who embody an identity that is beyond the binary framework? 

As one of my non-binary students once shared with me: “I feel invisible anytime gender is reduced to a binary framework. I do not experience my humanity as a binary gendered one.” My student’s comment prompts me to want to understand how our vision of the human is either inclusive or exclusive–that one may find their identity acknowledged in a text does not mean it is the same for others. 

Also, my curiosity is drawn to who is present and who is not present. The text speaks of the gathered assembly as made up of “men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” Is this the only way to describe the gathered assembly? What about those who do not embrace these binary identity markers? If historical analyses are correct, while the text speaks of the gathered assembly as being constituted of men and women and those with the ability to understand what is being read, Nehemiah, as a eunuch, stands outside these identity markers. 

Though he works to rebuild the fallen walls of Jerusalem and helps to guide the returning community during the Restoration period to be more faithful to their commitments to God, the ritual laws guiding the Biblical Israelites prohibits the admission of eunuchs into the Jerusalem Temple (Deut. 23:2) and the offering of a castrated animal to God (Lev. 22:24). When Shemaiah, who was bribed by some of Nehemiah’s enemies, prophesied that Nehemiah go inside the Temple to hide from his enemies who seek to discredit him, Nehemiah refused to obey because of his reality as a eunuch (Neh. 6:10 – 14). On another note, the vocation of a eunuch was to be at the service of others, especially the ruling class. Nehemiah was no different. He was at the service of King Artaxerxes, who appointed him Governor in the land of Judah (5:14) and also mandated him to go and help rebuild Judah (2:1 – 8). 

As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I am particularly drawn to issues dealing with the human person because of the unresolved gender related issues playing out in my tradition. Gender is one of the reasons women are excluded from ordained ministry in my tradition. Women are said to lack in their persons the maleness of Jesus Christ and are thus unable ontologically to stand in the place of Christ as alter Christus (another Christ). Furthermore, the experiences of non-binary persons are simply reduced to pathologies and denied any credibility by the Church’s hierarchy. For the hierarchy, an appeal to scripture demonstrating the vision of the human as a binary reality–male and female–is unquestionable. Any discourse beyond this binary reality is a discourse that resides in the domain of fantasy. 

In 2019, the Congregation for Catholic Education, one of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, released a document titled, ‘Male and Female He created Them’ Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education that condemned gender theories and expressions of human sexuality that did not affirm the rigid binary vision of the human. Many scholars critiqued this document as tone-deaf and said it fails to take seriously the breadth of the human experience as illuminated through extensive research by social and cultural scientists. Resting its case on the biblical bias for heteronormativity, the Church’s view can become a means of weaponizing education, especially towards persons who identity as non-binary in our educational institutions. 

Looking closely at the text from Nehemiah, one notices a socio-cultural bias playing itself out. The gathered assembly is not really an inclusive one, even though it mentions men and women. The clause, “and all who could hear with understanding” evokes a privileged status in the gathered assembly. However, there are several different interpretations and/or translations of this clause. For example, the Vulgate translates it to mean saptientium, which means “those with wisdom.” Other translations tend to favor the notion of those who have attained adulthood. 

Even with this lens, discrimination still persists in this narrative. The text speaks of “all people” without really accounting for some of the members of the community. Where are the children, one is compelled to ask? What ritual spaces are accorded those who do not consider themselves to be men or women? Are they outside of the covenantal identity of God’s people? Central to the covenantal relationship between God and the Biblical Israelites is the politics of recognition. Sandwiched between great political powers of the day, God comes to the rescue of a people who have no power in order to shape their destiny. Consequently, theocracy that defines Biblical Israel is a theocratic politics of recognition. Like all politics of recognition, there is the tendency to be exclusive when the implementation of the demands of the relationship play themselves out. 

However, the politics of recognition do not always play themselves out with exclusive dynamics. It can become a tool for correcting social-cultural injustice. In the words of Judith Butler, recognition “is not the simple presentation of a subject for another that facilitates the recognition of that self-presenting subject by the Other. It is, rather, a process that is engaged when subject and Other understand themselves to be reflected in one another, but where this reflection does not result in a collapse of the one into the Other …. Recognition implies that we see the Other as separate, but as structured psychically in ways that are shared” (pp.131–132). In other words, recognition entails taking difference seriously, while also seeing it as a means for evoking curiosity that leads to authentic encounters with others. 

Addressing the ethical demands of politics of recognition, I turn to insights from the philosophers, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Both of them belong to the Jewish intellectual tradition of the 20th century. While Buber insists on relationality that is grounded in “I–Thou” relationships of recognition as that which befits authentic encounters among persons, Levinas advocates for an altruistic relationship between the subject and the other. Both of them insist on altruistic openness towards otherness as a mode of being truly a subject. In fact, they insist that it is the other who gifts the subject with the sense of self-awareness as subject in relation to the other. Without the other, who radically embodies difference, the subject will not experience the fullness of themselves as subjects bound to be ethically responsible for the other’s flourishing. 

Guided by the correct approach to the politics of recognition, one can derive new insights from the passage from Nehemiah that allows for the disruption of the dominant narrative. Yes, Nehemiah is considered unworthy to enter into the Temple or to offer himself to God as prohibited by Torah; yet, it is this same person, whom the religious law has erased from the religious spaces, that helps to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and introduce administrative reforms that will benefit the community. Nehemiah embodies fully an altruistic way of living one’s life for others. Fairness and justice for all were central to his governorship over the land of Judah (5:14 – 19).

The disruptive presence of Nehemiah in spaces that are intended to erase his identity allows for a broader understanding of God’s word. While religious laws may sometimes be exclusionary in their nature, a higher law, one that is grounded in one’s fidelity to God through the way one lives one’s life, allows for radical inclusivity of all before God. Nehemiah’s story is a testament to the fact that God favors eunuchs and/or non-binary persons as well.

On another note, why would Luke present Jesus in 4:14 – 21 as revealing his true identity to his own people of Nazareth? Isn’t it obvious that everyone in Nazareth knows him? Yet, if one is to take seriously the politics of recognition, one would understand that identity goes beyond the projections of narratives that we tend to do to each other. Just as Nehemiah was defined externally by his status as a eunuch, so also is Jesus being defined by the fact that he is a son of Mary. Jesus speaks to his own people that his identity is beyond that which they think they know of him. Similarly, Nehemiah’s fidelity to God is a proof that his complex identities transcend the bias of his people towards persons like him. Luke is clever by centering the Spirit in the narrative because the Spirit allows one to take seriously the demands of reading the signs of the times. In fidelity to the Spirit, Jesus speaks the revelatory narrative of inclusion by stating clearly that what he has been read to his audience is about him. 

There is close similarity between Nehemiah and Jesus. Both of them return to places of their roots and there, they speak God’s truth that calls for the transformation of their societies. Returning to one’s roots has a political motif to it. The revolutionary figure, Mahatma Gandhi helps to buttress the importance of returning to one’s homeland. Gandhi first practiced law in South Africa before returning to India to help his nation to gain independence from British colonial rule. To return to one’s homeland is to come home with a third eye towards reform. When done well, such a ritual of returning home allows for one to push for recognition of all persons, especially those whom society has erased. Just like Nehemiah’s return to Judah and his presence in such ritual spaces disrupts the narrow hermeneutic on who belongs and who does not belong based on their gender or non-gendered condition, so also did Gandhi for India: “Gandhi opposed practices which were injurious to women and girls even if such practices had the sanction of Dharma Shasta, law and tradition.” 

On another note, if one is to take Christian discipleship seriously, one cannot but embrace the narrative in Lk. 4:14 – 21. Filled with the Spirit, Jesus proclaims his calling to his own people. This allows them to understand that a single identity cannot exhaust who one is. Jesus may not have been a eunuch, but his ministry was radically inclusive: one that is validated by the passage he read to his people. From the stories of the woman with the hemorrhage (8:43 – 48); Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (19:1 – 10); and his healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath (13:10 – 17), one can deduce the fact that the ministry of Jesus was about giving voice to those who are erased by society. 

Finally, just as Jesus’ ministry was about embracing the ethics of the politics of recognition, so should all who follow him. This is at the heart of the reading from 1 Cor. 12:12 – 31a. If the body is constitutive of different parts, then the Christian community is constitutive of men and women, girls and boys and queer person.

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