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Politics of Scripture

The Potential of Creative Misinterpretation

Perhaps the tension between honest reading and creative liberatory “misinterpretation” should not be solved at all but rather retained as an unsettling force in our work.

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

Some years ago, I was on a seminary faculty that was considering a radical overhaul of its Master of Divinity curriculum (a not-infrequent occurrence in these troubled times for seminaries). One senior administrator, trained in systematic theology and sympathetic to liberation and social justice movements, proposed a “Matthew 25” curriculum that would focus the classical seminary disciplines (history, biblical studies, theology, preaching, worship, pastoral care, etc.) around a core of service to the neighbor, particularly those in poverty. The classic imagery of feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, practicing hospitality, etc. would animate the ongoing formation of the students’ skills and vocational trajectories. And this not simply in the direction of charity, but also advocacy and engagement with systemic structures of oppression against the poor – “the least of these.”

This revision never came to fruition, for a number of reasons. One of them, somewhat surprisingly to the administration, was that the biblical scholars on the faculty, although very much aligned with the political and social justice goals, felt the need – based on scholarly integrity – to educate the rest of us faculty as to the scholarly consensus on the limitations of Matthew 25’s vision. Specifically, while many of the nonspecialists on faculty had been raised (and trained) with the invocation of Matthew 25 as a universal mandate to give aid to the needy and oppressed regardless of their identity and religious affiliation, these New Testament scholars suggested that the weight of scholarship around the text sees a more limited scope to the care prescribed by Jesus – to those oppressed followers of the Jesus movement, the “least of these who are members of my family/brothers of me” (τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων). In other words, as much as these biblical studies colleagues supported the idea of the seminary training students to advocate and care for all, without exception, they did not have confidence that the breadth of this vision of care was shared by Matthew’s Jesus himself.

With that incident being well in the past and with my training being in theology and cultural studies (and not New Testament), I defer to specialists about the state of that exegetical question; however, my interest is in the theological and exegetical significance of what it means for traditions like Christianity to misread a biblical text in a MORE expansive direction than might have been intended by its author. This is remarkable historically since, as is well known, there is a venerable and lamentable history of Christians interpreting scriptural texts as LESS expansive in their liberating view than what can be gleaned from the text itself; indeed, the entire enterprise of liberation hermeneutics rests upon a desire to correct this mode of misreading. Less common, though, is the opposite misinterpretive strand, whereby thinkers in the Christian tradition from St. Francis of Assisi to Dorothy Day (especially her The Long Loneliness) to Howard Thurman (Jesus and the Disinherited) specifically invoke Matthew 25 as a rationale for Christian care to “the least of these” without qualification, religious or otherwise.

Which raises the question: can there be a liberative politics of creative “misinterpretation?” As John Corrigan has pointed out in his work on religion, affect, and memory, the creative capacity to misremember and thus misinterpret has been a function of religiosity in multiple settings, occasionally for good and often for ill. In their work on White Christian nationalism, Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski invoke a constructed “deep story” of the Christian founding of the United States as the affective and political impetus behind ongoing extremism against democracy and towards theocratic impulses.  Misreading merges with misremembering when the narrowing of scripture’s scope of concern dovetails with a nationalist forgetting of the brutal origins of the American experiment in enslavement and genocide. But can it go the other direction?

To the extent that, however imperfectly and inconsistently, Christian settings have fostered a reading practice and a moral imagination that has made Matthew 25 synonymous with care for “the least of these” irrespective of religious or social location, we might say that this points to a generative hermeneutical tension between two goods:  the scholarly virtues of more historically/linguistically defensible exegesis (that is, the work of biblical studies) and the evolving, creative “betrayal” of creative reading as misreading. In the case of Matthew 25, we see this at work among those readers (and here we can think of the recently departed Enrique Dussel) who see in Matthew 25 a mandate, not just for baseline hospitality, but a confrontation with the systemic principalities and power that unjustly deny food, shelter, and liberty to so many – whereas the bare text focuses on charity, the hermeneutical trajectory to which it gives rise expands this charity “upriver” to interrogate structures of oppression. In other words, to move beyond charity and into social justice advocacy is already to move beyond Matthew 25’s text – but is it to move beyond the Spirit that is at work in the arc of the text’s formation of a justice-seeking people?

To be clear, the tension that I am pointing out between reading well and creatively misreading should certainly not be resolved in such a way as to eliminate the values of careful historical work and exegesis; indeed, I am suggesting that, as with all good aporias, perhaps the tension between honest reading and creative liberatory “misinterpretation” should not be solved at all but rather retained as an unsettling force in our work. This requires that we bear with each other even as expansive “misreadings” might leave us feeling less moored in the text and more reliant on each other in community.

Let me give an anecdote related to how the politics of creative “misinterpretation,” while far from straightforward, can be conducive to disruptive conversations around liberative hermeneutics – even as it also raises disturbing questions. When I was in discernment over whether to be received into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I went to stay at a monastery in the remote Hebridean islands of Scotland. While there, I was told a story related to Lucia of Syracuse (~283-304), known in both East and West as St. Lucia. As is common in hagiography of early Christian female saints, in this account St. Lucia was a beautiful young woman who pledged her virginity to Christ; however, a particularly persistent suitor would not leave her be. When, in exasperation, she asked the suitor why he would not respect her decision to remain celibate and thus kept pursuing her, he responded that he was entranced by her beautiful eyes. As is captured, then, in many icons of St. Lucia, the next day she promptly presented him with a silver platter on which she had placed the eyes she gouged out the night before.(We should note that, in some tellings of the story, God miraculously restores her eyes at a later point). I had difficulty sleeping that night – the story was abhorrent to me on many levels, but something about it would not leave me alone.

What I came eventually to realize is that this extremely troubling narrative exemplifies the tension of creative misreading to dramatic effect. On the one hand, I cannot imagine most ethicists condoning admiration for a woman committing self-harm in response to sexual harassment within the context of deep patriarchy. There is a strong argument to be made that St. Lucia’s example is tragic, not commendable. On the other hand, it seems to me that one cannot miss the theological – and indeed, hermeneutical – agency claimed by St. Lucia – if Jesus instructed (in another Matthean passage) that his followers should pluck out their eyes if they are causing sin (Matthew 5:28), then Lucia expanded the scope to include self-abnegation in response to her eyes “causing” others to sin (itself a deeply fraught notion, since the notion of women “causing” their own harassment simply cannot and should not stand in our own time, despite the fact that too many still talk this way). Thus, as with most extreme hagiography, this choice is quite personal and thus does not lend itself to a more formalized recommendation (nor, I believe, should it).

However, that is not the point. The point instead is that liberative hermeneutics in the mode of expansive misreading is not new within the tradition; what might be new – and thus needed – is expanded appreciation for what misreading makes possible, particularly when it comes to political agency for those willing to read against the text. The dynamics of patriarchy and spiritual agency in the St. Lucia story are difficult to parse, but much is at stake in our recognizing when creative “misreadings” have empowered disruptions of the status quo that may yet have something to teach us as we seek to do the same. There is no certain standpoint in the St. Lucia story – there is patriarchy, there is power, there is agency claimed under compromise, and there is the community left in its wake that seeks to bear together in each other’s “misreadings.” In this community is the hope for the Spirit to continue this arc of expansion.

One thought on “The Potential of Creative Misinterpretation

  1. I think your analysis and conclusion are accurate. I especially like the fact that you point out the hope and observation of the Spirit’s continued work in kneading the loaf of Jesus’s body for its expansion into the nooks and crannies of a suffering world.

    Though, Jesus never explicitly says in Matthew for us to challenge the structural injustices of the system, his example nudges us in that direction: He heals everyone who seeks, regardless of station–rich and poor. He challenges sabbath traditions that restrict the dignity and well-being of humans–male and female.

    In his teaching, he instructs us to view everyone impartially, as does our “heavenly Father,” even so much as treating our enemies with the same beneficial attention as our other neighbors. He calls for indiscriminate positive regard. Then, in the 13th chapter, with the parable of the weeds, he hints at the notion that we are unable to discern who is truly in and who is out.

    By the time we get to the 25th chapter, we have come to know the impropriety of value judgments. Then, when he expresses to the sheep and goats their vicarious treatment of him through those they did or didn’t help, there is a suggestion that we can’t know which individuals do or will “belong to him” since even the sheep weren’t aware of Jesus present in them, so it would be best to treat all as if they were, at the very least, potentially bearers of Christ.

    Therefore, as I understand the Matthean ethic, not only does the Spirit have a Christ agenda to work the leavening of the rule of God within the world through calling, equipping, and transforming believers, but scripture gives an identifiable structure that provides a trajectory for us to discern as the Spirit continues to make it a reality.

    I like what the late Bishop Desmond Tutu said concerning our compassionate response to troubled situations in the world: “It’s a good thing to pull drowning people from the river, but at some point, you have to move upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

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