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Politics of Scripture

A Strategy of Grace

In our times when critical thought is suspect and even scientific facts have become articles of faith in need of defense, to play the double bind between the ethical and the political is the constant task Christians and others must continually engage in. This play contains serious risks, no doubt. What gives grace its generosity and generative capaciousness also makes it liable to be the locus of opportunism and oppression.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:1-17 (NRSV)

The third chapter of John contains perhaps one of the best-known verses in the Christian Scriptures: John 3:16. Readers who grew up in the church probably recognize this passage as one that pastors and Sunday school teachers quoted, likely ad nauseam. That is not surprising. Taken on its own (and out of context), the passage seems to summarize some of Christianity’s cherished articles of faith, such as God’s love for humanity, Christ’s death on the cross, and the promise of eternal life. The Evangelical catch-phrase “born again” comes from this passage, contributing perhaps to John 3:16’s universal fame. But careful readers who heed the text’s context may notice rich details that are pregnant with theological possibilities beyond John 3:16, such as the soteriological significance of John 3:17. Another detail of note is the peculiarities that brought together Jesus of Nazareth and Nicodemus, one that has an interesting history in Christianity.

Nicodemus was not a nobody. For one, he was a member of the Sanhedrin and, therefore, someone with significant religious authority in the Jewish community. Much later, when Jesus’s body was claimed by Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus arrived with seventy-five pounds of embalming herbs – myrrh and aloes (Jn. 19:39). Thus, on top of his theological and juridical positions, Nicodemus had access to substantial wealth. With such a background, one could rightly say that he belonged to the Jewish “establishment.” But celebrities and establishment figures do not enjoy the privilege of public anonymity. In fact, the notoriety is often accompanied with a host of difficulties, including double binded situations.

Readers familiar with critical theories and postcolonial thought may associate the concept of “double binds” with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose treatise on an aesthetic education is an extended reflection on it. However, the concept has been a topic of extensive discussion in psychology and, more pertinent to our considerations, communications studies. As Linda Putnam helpfully clarifies, double binds are not merely contradictory messages that create awkward situations, but those messages also involve parties bound by a particular relationship. For Nicodemus, the double bind exists because on the one hand, he was persuaded by Jesus’s teachings, at least enough to address him as “rabbi” and acknowledge Jesus as “a teacher who has come from God” (v. 2). But on the other hand, Jesus’s teachings were challenging to many Pharisees, perhaps even outrightly angering most of them. Preceding Nicodemus’s meeting in the Johannine narrative, Jesus had overturned the trading stalls and tables in the temple marketplace (2:13-18). When questioned about his authority to do such a thing, Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). John helpfully offers to his presumably culturally and theologically diverse audience a less literal interpretation of Jesus’ answer, pointing out how Jesus was not referring to the Temple structure but the “temple of his body.” (2:21) But no matter. To the Temple authorities, Jesus’ answer certainly would’ve seemed to verge on lunacy, perhaps even terroristic, one might say. It would be dangerous for Nicodemus to publicly associate with or even assent to anything from Jesus. Therein lies Nicodemus’ double bind.

One way to resolve paradoxes, as Spivak argues, comes through play. In the case of an aesthetic education, this would take the form of a “training of the imagination for epistemological performance” (122). Such an education plays the liminal spaces between categories, resisting instrumentalization or banalization which, in turn, forms people into agents of oppressive structures or institutions. For Spivak, it means navigating the muddy waters between the political and ethical, particularly when the two seem oppositional. 

But turning back to John 3, I suggest that Nicodemus was, in more ways than meets the eye, trying this form of play. For one, he appeared to Jesus at night, allowing him to engage the popular but also highly controversial Jesus in theological conversation and learning without the public misreading him as a Jesus follower. If we use Christian-theological language to describe this situation, we might say that he is playing the ecclesial/theological double bind.

It is that double bind which leads many to make a clean separation between institutional religion and an allegedly purer “spiritual” religion. This is likely behind the rise of the so-called “nones” who may not identify with religious institutions because they seem antithetical to the religion they supposedly represent. But the sentiment driving the growth of the “nones” is not new. In the wake of the European Reformations, John Calvin ran into this particular difficulty. The Reformers, in some ways, were the “nones” who felt alienated from the predominant ecclesiology that made room only for the clerical and theological elite, not for the hoi polloi whose hard-earned money funded clerical and episcopal extravagances.

The trouble came with those who were caught in between, such as the French Huguenots who were a sizable minority but lived under State-sponsored Roman Catholicism. Calvin had little patience for those who refused to commit fully to the Protestant cause, and he made it clear in an apologia, calling them Monsieur les Nicodemites. The Nicodemites were those who may conscientiously agree with Protestant criticisms of Roman catholicity but for various reasons continued to attend Mass as “underground Catholics.” Of course, as many have pointed out, it was easy for him to condemn Roman Catholicism from the relative safety of Protestant Geneva. Meanwhile, his French Huguenot compatriots did not have the luxury of avoiding harassment from authorities. Many were caught between being members of the French establishment and their consciences, and made known to Calvin that their situations often required more careful treatment that cannot be summarized by a sneering label.

Calvin’s response, however, is not surprising. After all, one prominent feature of the double bind is that epistemological performance can easily be misconstrued negatively. In politics, for example, progressive policies often require the support of moderate or even neoliberal politicians, which is why compromise is necessary in democratic political arrangements. And yet, compromise is seen as a weakness.

What makes double binds more difficult to resolve than paradoxes is the reality that people caught in a double bind are also bound to the relationships surrounding it. Politicians, for example, are elected by their constituents, making compromises difficult. Putnam gives an example of middle-level managers who were often caught between the needs of upper-management and the concerns of their subordinates and often issue contradictory or ambiguous communications. Such contradictions or ambiguity come across negatively; the communicator is usually seen as being duplicitous, shifty, or unwilling to commit. Thus, in Calvin’s view, the Nicodemites were lacking in faith. Either they were not entirely persuaded by the Protestant cause (and, so, were hedging their theological bets) or they were more fearful of worldly authorities than trusting in the power of God.

In the face of Nicodemus’ double bind, Jesus’ response was not judgment but grace. In fact, Jesus participates in the play by temporarily dissolving the boundaries that created the double bind to begin with. In that moment, Nicodemus was not a member of the Sanhedrin but a student learning from the Son of Man. The binding relationship that mattered was the one between him and Jesus. It is in that space of grace where Nicodemus could discuss salvation with the Author of Salvation and Liberation. One is not “born again” under thundering clouds of judgment but under the shelter of grace.

Christian existence in a world afflicted with suffering, violence, and evil often means that double binds are inescapable. Like Nicodemus, Christians find themselves bound to structures of evil or imperfection that provide for the flourishing or survival of them and their families. Seminaries and churches, struggling with the rapid decline of institutional or Constantinian Christianity, find themselves in such situations, frequently balancing conflicting obligations to various stakeholders. Consequently, leaders oftentimes needed to make morally debatable and, at times dubious, decisions in order to find the least-worst way forward. Nonetheless, they are easily targeted for being duplicitous or hypocritical. Calvin himself would know. The Doctor of Geneva who preached grace was also the Doctor who sent Michael Servetus to the gallows.

In our times when critical thought is suspect and even scientific facts have become articles of faith in need of defense, to play the double bind between the ethical and the political is the constant task Christians and others must continually engage in. This play contains serious risks, no doubt. What gives grace its generosity and generative capaciousness also makes it liable to be the locus of opportunism and oppression. That is, people can abuse grace in order to advance their own personal goals and agendas. But the fear of sin is not an excuse to abandon grace. It is quite the opposite: Christian witness in our fraught political environment requires doubling down on grace so that there can be room for salvation and liberation. After all, as John 3:17 says more profoundly than 3:16, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

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