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Politics of Scripture

Dangerous Beginnings

The Gospel of Mark’s beguiling beginning bids us to consider the dangers of beginnings. John the Baptist’s heralding of Jesus’s coming was not the finality of salvation, but merely a herald to its coming. In this light should we consider our works of bringing God’s salvation and liberation to the world. The work of justice and liberation is long and hard, and many of us will be called to herald it, to lay the groundwork for its eventual manifestation.

1The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
   who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared* in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’

Mark 1: 1-8

The Gospel of Mark opens beguilingly and innocently: “The beginning (Ἀρχὴ) of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This statement, in fact, heralds not only a beginning, but many “beginnings.” Besides how the word begins the Gospel or the good news, William Placher unpacks other obscured complexities, noting that the “beginning” also proposes an opening to the whole story that follows the first verse. It may even suggest the beginning of a new order, a new world to come. In other words, the beginning of something new is arriving. Beginnings often promise newness and change. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17) But beginnings can be tricky, even dangerous. The 1979 Iranian Revolution was a revolt against an oppressive and lavish monarchy but it was certainly not replaced with a more liberating government. As Eboo Patel warned, “be careful how you overthrow the Shah; you could wind up with the Ayatollah.” While beginnings may harbor possibilities for change and newness, embedded in those possibilities are dangers. The changes and newness we think are life-bringing may well mean death or destruction to others. My reflections on the seemingly simple opening of Mark suggest that the difference between life and death, resurrection and destruction can often be determined by who is included in “the beginning.”

Many of us may be familiar with the story of Christ’s first coming into the world as a humble baby, the Messiah who taught and preached justice and righteousness, the Suffering Servant who would die an imperial death on the cross and rise three days after. That, for us, is the good news, the gospel. It is easy, however, to gloss over those who were also included as part of the gospel story in order to focus on the main character – Jesus the Christ. The first of these individuals was John the Baptist, who heralded Jesus’s coming. To be sure, as John the Baptist even admitted, he himself was not the Savior, even though he was included in the Savior’s story. The humble prophet who was clothed with camel hair, leather belt, and sustained himself with locusts and honey, made clear that, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals.”

John the Baptist, however, was more than simply a herald. His humble dress was reminiscent of the Northern Kingdom prophet Elijah who, likewise, wore hairy clothing and lived on the edge of precarity. More important than that, however, was the challenge Elijah posed to the ruling establishment of his day. As Walter Brueggemann describes, “Elijah is a problem for the king, a hope for the poor, a dazzlement in Israel that no one can decode.” His witness and his God-inspired proclamations of judgment against the systemic corruptions and evils of King Ahab’s administration presented a dangerous memory, to use Johann Baptist Metz’s concept, that heralded the possibility, indeed the potential reality, of a world made new, of a world where God’s truth, righteousness, and justice could be the foundations of society. Elijah and many of his prophetic colleagues were testaments to an “otherwise,” an otherwise to the principalities and ruling structures of the day. Hence, John’s hearkening to the witness of Elijah prefigures the ministry of “the one who is more powerful than [he],” a ministry that will be otherwise to the imperial powers of his time. The life and ministry of a Jesus threatens to be an “otherwise” to the ruling powers, principalities, and indeed, the rulers of darkness in the day. (Eph. 6:12)

It’s important to recognize that the “otherwise” can be surprising, even interruptive. It is easy to begin our remembrances of Jesus’s first coming by bathing the story in a warm and comforting light, assuming that his coming would be welcomed by those on his side, presumably “us”, and be a threat to those who disagree with us and are on the wrong side of history. That is, we include our co-ideologues in “the beginning” of our considerations of the story. Certainly, as Karl Barth has taught us, there is a place in Christian faith for prophetically calling God’s truth against corrupt or evil powers. Yet, the past several years has taught us to be sanguine, to be humbler in the face of our abilities to do just that. The evils of fascism or right-wing nationalism, which we have assumed to be the domain of German Nazis or Italian Fascistas, have turned out to be our neighbors, our brethren in Christ, even our family. All of a sudden, confronting evil and corruption is no longer something we read about only in our history textbooks. The “good news” that John the Baptist was heralding may well be “bad news” for the ideologies we have been accustomed to, ideologies like the greatness of the United States or the goodness of American “freedom.”

How, then, do we forge ahead knowing that we could be both beneficiaries and yet be threatened by the coming of Jesus? I suggest that we can draw inspiration from the beginning of Mark in two ways. The first involves realizing that John the Baptist’s inclusion in the good news paints salvation not as an instantaneous change, but as a process requiring work. The idea that John’s hearkening to Jesus’s coming was part of the good news and not just a “prequel” or preface to it might surprise us. John the Baptist may not have been the Savior or even the focal point of the gospel story, but his work of heralding the coming of the Savior was nonetheless an integral part of it, part of the beginning of the gospel. And if we agree with Mark’s thesis that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law, the one to whom the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to, then the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, etc. are also all included in the gospel story. These pivotal figures were all contributors to the wider narrative of God’s salvation.

The lesson for us here in terms of justice work, then, is to realize that the work of justice and liberation is not instantaneous. Certainly, the need to fight for various forms of justice is urgent. In the United States and in many parts of the world, the past few years seemed to be a contemporary redux of King Ahab’s corrupt reign, when those who claimed to be God’s people confused righteousness and corruption, good and evil. Hence, compounding the need for the fulfillment of justice is the imperative to restore the love of truth, of patience, respect, and other virtues. But as we look forward to the possible end of some cruelties and evils that typified the Trump regime, we must be wary that the story of liberation has not ended. A post-Trump world is not a post-Trumpist world. Our work to make the world more just and merciful cannot rest, but must persuade more peoples who, for various reasons, find justice and mercy to be a fearful proposition. The ministry that John the Baptist heralded was one that included, among other peoples, women, unremarkable men, a tax collector, a foreigner (Samaritan), and even a money-loving disciple who would betray the Savior. Are we making efforts to include more peoples in our efforts to bring justice into the world, including the tax collectors, the Samaritans, and even those who have legitimate and well-reasoned critiques of our efforts? Justice in an echo-chamber, with those whom we agree with, is difficult to actualize when what is necessary is to bring others on board. And that requires resisting the urge to deliver justice in one-day Amazon Prime shipping timelines, but engaging in the slow, hard work of strategy, patience, and endurance.  

The second inspiration we can draw from Mark’s beginning is how we can attend to dangerous memories. As I’ve noted before, beginnings are not always harbingers of blessings, even though they often are. Jesus’s ministry was not God’s gift to the tradesmen working in the Temple compounds the day Jesus, overcome by righteous anger, overturned tables. His teachings incensed his opponents and threatened to upend the already tenuous relationship between the Jewish people and the Roman Imperial occupiers. Likewise, the beginning of the Trump regime heralded blessings to some, but marked the beginning of suffering for many, including the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic that will likely claim the lives of 300,000 Americans before it is over. This makes it important for us to attend to the late Johann Baptist Metz’s caution for us to be careful in sanitizing the biblical narratives and our theological constructs of suffering and discomfort. Quite oppositely, Metz’s call is for us to inhabit those spaces of suffering and discomfort, wrestling with voices silenced by injustices past, encountering the specters of history, so that we can remember a future for justice and inclusion.

Again, this is work that is long and arduous. An example of the length of this work comes from my Hebrew Bible survey course. Susannah Heschel, in her writings on Christianity and colonization, rightly asserts that

Christianity was well suited to serve as a religious justification for colonialism… because at its core Christian theology is a colonialist theology. Colonialism stands at the heart of Christianity’s origins within Judaism. Christianity colonized Judaism, taking over its central theological concepts of messiah, eschatology, apocalypticism, election, and Israel as well as its Scriptures, its prophets, and even its God and denying the continued validity of those ideas for Judaism.

The question, then, was how to at least begin decolonizing our readings of the Hebrew Scriptures? I made it a point to teach the Hebrew Bible by encouraging students to read it as a Jewish text rather than a Christian text; that is, without constantly superimposing Jesus into it. “The people for whom the texts were written for,” I reminded them, “did not know that a Jesus of Nazareth will be born in Bethlehem.” It was not easy to dishabituate students from reading Jesus into the “Old” Testament as a default reading strategy – most students went to church and were probably reinforced through Sunday schools and their pastors’ sermons that such a reading strategy was de rigueur. To instruct students to read the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish text, as best as I am able, is important because in many ways it teaches them to read a biblical text decolonially without using the term.

But the boni ardui has its blessings. Encouraging a decolonial reading strategy paved the way for my students to realize the value of diversity. When students see how reading the prophets on their own terms allows their pronouncements to speak powerfully today, they become exposed to the practice of letting “the Other” speak on its own terms. Instead of forcing the text to say what they wish, they allow the text to encourage them to learn. They learn to learn. And in doing so, they see how the Holy Spirit can still speak to them, their struggles, their challenges.

The Gospel of Mark’s beguiling beginning bids us to consider the dangers of beginnings. John the Baptist’s heralding of Jesus’s coming was not the finality of salvation, but merely a herald to its coming. In this light should we consider our works of bringing God’s salvation and liberation to the world. The work of justice and liberation is long and hard, and many of us will be called to herald it, to lay the groundwork for its eventual manifestation. And laying that groundwork may demand some excavation of the troubled and silenced histories that we need to encounter, the dangerous memories that we need to address in order to perfect the justice and mercy that is to come. Even though the Gospel of Mark begins with “the beginning of the good news,” it does not end with that certainty. As Placher notes, “Indeed, when we get to the last sentence [of the Gospel], it will turn out that Mark really has no ending: it opens to the future, challenging its audience to continue the story.” That may be, but how the story is continued cannot be divorced from whom we include in the story’s beginning. To hearken to Metz again, if we wish to remember the future or, indeed, re-member the voices of the undersides of society into the future, we need to make sure that, to the best of our abilities and consciences, their voices are included in the beginning.

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