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Politics of Scripture

Speech and Silence: The Politics of Genesis 1–2:4

August 28th 2013, reminded us of the power of the spoken word as the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. What was celebrated was the moral power of words to transform history – this despite the risk and tragedy of empty rhetoric which has inundated it.

Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar, an Anglican Priest from the Church of South India is Programme Executive for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation with the World Council of Churches, Geneva. Earlier he was Associate Professor for Christian Ethics and Director of Field Education at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. His recent publications include Dalit Theolopgy and Dalit Liberation: Problems, Paradigms and Possibilities (Farnham: Ashgate), Asian Theology on the Way: Christianity Culture and Context (London:SPCK as editor) and Foundations for Mission (Oxford: Regnum co-edited with Emma Wild-Wood).

This is the first Politics of Scripture post following the Narrative Lectionary.

August 28th 2013, reminded us of the power of the spoken word as the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. What was celebrated was the moral power of words to transform history – this despite the risk and tragedy of empty rhetoric which has inundated it. Acknowledging the indelible impact of King’s memorable 1963 address, the American President, Barack Obama, affirmed that King’s words “belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time” and recognized that through these words King “gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions.”

My introduction to Martin Luther King Jr several years ago was through this very speech. Words can make a difference: the effect of the re-membering of King’s words through the last fifty years in the course of several struggles for life and dignity bears witness to the impact of words in inspiring change.

Genesis 1–2:4 are as much about the spoken ‘word’ as about the God of life. It may not be unfair to say that ‘one’s words can act as a window to one’s identity.’ The identity of God as the ‘God of life’, the life-giving God, is revealed through God’s words. God’s being is revealed through God’s doing: all that God ‘does’ is ‘speak’ in Genesis 1–2:4. In Genesis 1–2:4 God’s words spell life. They are uttered for the purpose of creating life.

If we trace the subsequent development of this first link between God’s identity and God’s word in the biblical narrative the political implications of this link may begin to dawn upon us. On a cursory look the Genesis 1–2:4 text may appear as if it does not yield easily to political analysis beyond a critique of the ‘anthropocentric’ (human-centred) exploitation of the created order. However, if we shift our focus to the motif of the ‘word’ as a lens to the identity of God the political subtext becomes inescapable.

The life-giving word of eternity in Genesis 1 assumes an identity in the first chapter of John’s gospel as Jesus, the incarnate word who chooses to pitch his tent among human beings in an act which can be described as radical solidarity (especially given the way John relates Jesus’ incarnation to power using what biblical scholars call the ascent-descent motif). The nature of this solidarity of Jesus, God’s incarnate word, becomes more specific in Hebrews when Jesus chooses to suffer outside the city gate – itself a space invested with political meaning, signifying exclusion and marginalization. The eternal life-giving word is political in its solidarity, which, without being constrained by the lure and security of divine power, chooses to be incarnated alongside the suffering and the excluded outside the city gates, sharing their abuse. In this unfolding of the politics of the ‘word’ one can see that the capacity of the eternal life-giving word to engender life lies in being enfleshed in vulnerability and in solidarity. That is the divine economy of the word.

Genesis 1–2:4 therefore has the capacity to illuminate our understanding of the political significance of words. Where do our words pitch their tent today? In the safety and security of power or in the vulnerability of and solidarity with those disadvantaged by power? Even as I write this blog, as an Indian I am appalled and ashamed by the state’s apathy towards those demanding an investigation into the rape and murder of a Dalit (‘out-caste’) girl in Jind in North India and the general impunity that has been offered to rapists and murderers who come from a dominant caste to violate Dalit women. As the case revealed unashamedly how the ‘word-world’ could become the conduits of caste-biased power, an activist writer Meena Kandasamy had this to say in her blog: “One day we will be known as the nation that cut up the raped and the murdered in autopsy after autopsy, a nation that sadly contained a caste-Hindu nation that lived in denial of its own vicious hatred against the Dalits, a nation with a media that silenced the stories where the truth stared back, a nation where the police can peddle the lie that a raped, murdered woman died of suicide, poisoning and mosquito bites. The people have no need for this nation…” Where our words pitch their tents matters in today’s world of division, discrimination and denial of justice. Words which seek refuge in power spell death for the victims of power.

We can delve into God’s words in Genesis for longer but I also want to reflect upon God’s silence. Having recently viewed the movie ‘The Conjuring’, one thing which struck me was the way in which silence was employed to heighten the horror experience. Making the audience inhabit the silences not only influenced their experience but also invested the movie with meaning. Silence matters and it does have political significance.

There is a great deal of pietism that surrounds silence in Christianity, which at times seeks to make a virtue out of silence in an indiscriminate manner. I once had a conversation with a friend who emphasized that the church’s political vocation was not so much to raise its voice on issues of justice as it was to be silent. An unambiguous connection was made between Christian silence and the Sabbath – the logic of which still remains beyond my understanding.

Returning to that particular conversation that I had with my friend some time ago, I am now inclined to say that Genesis 1–2:4 can also offer insights on silence, as it gives us a snapshot of God’s silence. Ironically, the argument for God’s silence in today’s text has to be made from silence within the text. Given that all that God did so far in the Genesis text was to ‘speak’, on the seventh day, when the text states that God chose to refrain from all of God’s work, what seems to be implied is that God was silent on the seventh day. But an important aspect of this ‘silence of God’ is that God could afford to be silent because God saw that ‘everything was very good’.

In a context where everything is ‘very good’ silence can be a hallowing act. However, strategic silence in the face of structural sins is morally dubious. Not every silence has the moral credibility of silence employed to challenge injustice and un-peace. The silenced silence of the victims and survivors of the abuse of power and the self-advancing silence of a government official who refuses to register a case of casteism, racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia for fear of the powers that be are different. The politics of silence rests in why and when one refuses to speak and what it does to one’s self-interests.

This week, as we explore the politics of silence and speech through the prism of the eternal ‘Word’ – the life-giving word of Genesis 1–2:4, which through its enfleshment (John 1) and identification with the margins (Hebrews 13) engenders the fullness of life – the text addresses us not only in the language of the imperative – ‘of what we ought to do’ – as the followers of Jesus Christ the incarnate word, but also in the language of the indicative – ‘of who we are’ – as followers of Jesus Christ the incarnate word. It also declares what we ought to become.

As we engage in this living dialogue of discipleship with the divine word let me end with a prayer from Dorothy McRae-McMahon’s Liturgies for Daily Life, ‘Visit us deeply in the life-places we refuse to name. Speak to us in the silences, O God, where our words of guilt and regret lie unspoken and listen in the spaces where our souls whisper in longing for different ways of being’.[1] May the ‘Word’ speak to us and may the ‘Word’ shape us in our doing and being.

[1] Dorothy McRae-McMahon,  Liturgies for Daily Life, (London: SPCK, 2004)

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