In contemporary Western society we like to pride ourselves on having done away with what we would term ‘archaic’ systems, such as slavery. And so, when we hear such a system mentioned or even alluded to in a text like John 8:31-36, it is easy to write Jesus’ words off as anachronistic to our more ‘civilized’ approach. If we’re among the majority of such Westerners who know of no slavery in our ancestral background (or, if we do, whose ancestors were the slaveholders), then we may be tempted to object with Jesus’ disciples:
“‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’” (8:33)
The first disciples resisted Jesus’ slave imagery, but not without irony. After all, the children of Abraham with whom they identify are the same children of Jacob who traveled to Egypt and were made slaves. Moses and Aaron led their ancestors through the wilderness so that they—the disciples, all the Jews, and by extension believers today—are children of the exodus; children for whom the reality of slavery is very real and near. And yet they resist this, practicing a form of selective amnesia rather than think of themselves as slaves.
It seems easy. So easy we can almost brush it off. Smile approvingly at the Sunday School teacher seated across the aisle from us in worship, and check one more thing off our spiritual to-do-list. Welcome little children? Done. We might ask ourselves, “How dense could these power grubbing disciples have been to miss so simple a point as this?”
But take a look across that same aisle once again… If your church is like many, there may be an usher giving a mother a dirty look as she walks her small child to the bathroom. Or a father putting his finger to his lip, afraid that his toddler’s whispers might disrupt someone. Or maybe a middle-aged gentleman checking the church’s giving record, calculating in his head what percent of the church’s income comes from his check. Or a young woman dressed just so, glancing at a hand mirror to check her make up….
A critical issue left unaddressed in Bass’s response to Douthat is the state of power relations within mainline Protestant denominations. In her well-intentioned attempt to counteract the corrosive and controlling ‘narrative of decline’ that plagues mainline Protestant communities, she inadvertently diverts attention away from the reality that the majority of their leadership positions and financial resources are firmly in the control of the Baby Boomer generation….
While the abuses of power and privilege in modern banking may not be as explicit as David’s crime, they are parallel. People in power tend not to consider the cost of their self-interest in communal terms. Most families who are facing foreclosure in New York City today are the victims of banks who regard a homeless child as a reasonable side effect of their profit motive just as David regarded Uriah’s death as a reasonable way to Bathsheba.
Although often lost in a generic celebration of the giving of the Spirit, this text is one that is filled with questions of ethnicity, language, and diversity. It speaks to the American debate of whether this nation can or should be a melting pot that blends and ignores culture and ethnicity or a mosaic and celebration of the diversity that exists in our midst. But first, some background:
This procession down to Jerusalem is one of those very public moments in Jesus’ ministry. It could be called his most brilliant act of political theatre. Jesus proceeds toward Jerusalem, with a crowd that undoubtedly boasts some of the same sorts of outsiders Jesus has been connecting with all along: sinners, the possessed, the sick and blind, women, and foreigners. The crowd that shouts Hosanna would have been laughed at by any sensible members of society who happened upon this odd ritual. Much like I imagine today those with a high sense of their own political value would little understand what compelled these odd folk to gather as they had, creating trouble when they had little to gain but jail cells and crosses…
Where are you from? It may seem polite conversation, or an extraneous identifier, but it matters. In politics, it matters a lot. In the ongoing Republican quest for a nomination in the presidential race, certain candidates have made it clear that what matters are the delegates—and winning the states that secure the most delegates. If you’re not from one of those states, at least in this matter, your vote carries less weight. Similarly, as a registered democrat in a strong Republican county, my vote in the presidential race if I vote party line, is unlikely to actually change the dispersion of my state’s votes in the electoral college. And even more locally, when I moved to a small town in Western Pennsylvania, a dear friend who had lived in that town for more than 30 years, worked there, retired there, and raised her family there, advised me, “Don’t worry about being new to town; everyone here is welcoming, but after thirty years, I’m still not ‘from here.’” She was right. Where you’re from matters…
The world is ever changing and God calls Christians of every time and every place to be a part of this change. While often misread as a call to abandon the world, this weeks reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of many of these calls contained within Scripture — urging Christians who are in the world to change the way in which we interact with and thus influence the world.
As the Iowa Caucus approaches, increased attention is being paid to the religious affiliations of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Much of this discussion has centered upon Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, but the media has also paid a significant amount of attention to Newt Gingrich’s Catholicism. The latest round of controversy in the mainstream media began with Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times piece, in which she speculated about whether Gingrich’s 2009 conversion to Catholicism fits into a broader shift towards the right for Catholic participation in American politics in the post-Kennedy era. Likewise, Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s NPR piece narrated the details of his conversion process, highlighting the pivotal role of his current wife, Callista, as well as his attraction to the intellectual tradition of the Church.