[These next posts are reflections I gave before and during a recent trip to Mexico with the ELCA's Youth in Missions program. This was given at opening worship.]
June 16, 2013– “Two Important Questions”
Read Romans 15:5-8
We don’t want to give you the answers, because that would be us pretending we have them. And rather than simply asking you to find the questions for yourselves, we want to challenge you to find the questions that belong to Others. To marginalized and disenfranchised Others, especially.
As an example, I will discuss what I think to be two of the most important questions in the entire New Testament. The first is “Why was Jesus executed?” Not simply ‘sent to the cross for us,’ but tortured and publicly executed by the Romans? And the second question is, “Must the Gentiles be circumcised?”
First, we have various interpretations of the death of Jesus in the New Testament. Blood Atonement in Hebrews 10, Mercy for the Martyr in Romans 2, Ransom in Mark 10, Forgiveness of Sins in Matthew, New Covenant in Luke. Also, in Luke you have the motif of the death of the righteous man. In Luke there is no atonement, and it is evident that Jesus suffers at the hands of the Powers, the Powers of Jerusalem and of Rome. In its own way, the cross is an injustice that the resurrection corrects.
We must not forget that–that in its foundational elements, the cross is injustice, a State sanctioned murder. That’s not to say that the different biblical claims are wrong, but rather that they are true to Jesus-communities’ struggles to understand and explain a tortured, dead Messiah. How could they not struggle? My cousin, who doesn’t always attend church, brought his wife and 4-year-old son to a Passion play this past Easter. At the crucial moment when they crucified Jesus, when the audience was silenced and moved, the 4-year-old yelled out, “Don’t kill Jesus, he is a good man!” This 4-year-old’s cry rings truer than most Theologies of the Cross that I’ve ever heard, because it’s raw, because it understands basic inhumanity.
In psychoanalysis, when a community encounters a traumatic event, the phenomenon of differing stories is evidence of both the historicity of the event and and of its traumatizing nature. If all accounts of the cross matched, this would be evidence of a manufactured story lacking trauma. Instead, the memory of the cross, even over two or three generations, is broken and scattered, much like the Jesus-communities after the destruction of Jerusalem. The New Testament reflects this broken and scattered community, who struggled to deal with their memory of injustice.
The second question, “Must the Gentiles be circumcised?” is one of ethnicity. Judaism in the Ancient World was not a religion, but an ethnic category. So now if you think of “conversion” to Judaism, then accepting the cultural codes found in the Torah becomes quite understandable. For the Gentiles, in Greek = the [other] nations, circumcision was difficult for obvious reasons. And as Judaism spread out from Jerusalem, its boundaries became less and less rigid, giving rise to certain ethnic conflicts in heterogeneous gatherings.
For many Christians, reading from Galatians or Martin Luther, think only strict adherence to the Law is critiqued: “Faith in Christ trumps following the Torah.” Or in less nuanced thinking: “the Jews were criticised because they followed rules, while the Christians were free to love.” However one sees the Gentile form of Christianity trumping its earlier Jewish forms, this is turned on its head by Romans.
When we encounter other ethnicities, races, and other forms of difference, we must go beyond the question of how are we different. We must always ask if and where is there privilege, an arbitrary power imbalance. In the Roman communities, the Gentiles had this privelege, and Paul critiques their dominance. For this reason he concludes Romans with these words in 15:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
On our trip to Mexico, try to find the questions posed by the lives of others. Why do they live in difficult conditions? How does privilege affect one’s views of another culture?