Last revised: June 23, 2018
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PROPER 7 (June 19-25) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 12
RCL: 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11,19-23) 32-49; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
RoCa: Job 38:1, 8-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Two weeks ago (Proper 5B), we proposed the Parable of Satan Casting out Satan as one of the most important passages in Scripture, because it is a perfect example of Jesus demythologizing evil entities such as Satan. Such powers and principalities are primarily ‘higher powers’ generated by human social interaction that becomes embedded in human institutions and cultures.
Today’s Gospel Reading, as well as the passage from Job, raise the category of evil in nature. Sometimes, stories about storms are metaphors for human violence and can be demythologized in order to see more clearly the violence as human, not forces of nature. But, obviously, sometimes storms are just storms. How do we deal with forces of nature that snuff out life? This is the most persistent of the so-called theodicy questions.
I believe that the Gospel’s demythologizing power opens the way to a spirituality and knowing that resonates with science. Even when we are confronted with cancer and other deadly diseases, it is best to engage those forces not necessarily as evil but simply as What Is. Creation is unfinished. It is on the way to a fulfillment in which there is no more decay and death. That is the promise of Romans 8.
A corollary element of a new Reformation to the one of two weeks is to learn to not see evil in the forces of nature that continue to lead to decay. Evil proper comes from human sin, and forces of decay in nature are simply in the category of What Is. With storms as a metaphor of the day it is helpful to distinguish between the violence we experience in nature and the human world. But it is also helpful to learn how to respond when engaging each.
Andrew Marr has an excellent parsing of the kinds of storms in his 2018 reflection, “Whirlwinds and Storms.” In 2018, it is also the 3rd anniversary of the terrible racial violence at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. See my reflections below.
Job 38:1, 8-11
1. René Girard, Job: The Victim of His People, pp. 141ff., on the “God of the Whirlwind” passage. Girard takes chs. 16 & 19 as the highpoint of revealing the God of victims in the original dialogues of Job; and he thinks that chs. 38-42 can be included with the prologue and epilogue as additions by a later redactor. Putting it bluntly, he says, “It is difficult to take this farce seriously.” I am sympathetic with Girard’s view, having always been suspicious of this “God of the Whirlwind” who seemingly intimidates Job into submission. I think that Girard is correct in saying that this God of the whirlwind simply doesn’t fit a God of victims whom Job calls upon to vindicate him.
2. Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary, ch. 6, “‘The End from the Beginning’: Evil and Accusation in the Book of Job.” Goodhart agrees with Girard on his basic reading of Job as the scapegoat, but he disagrees with Girard’s assessment of chs. 38-42.
3. James G. Williams, ch. 6, “Job Versus the ‘Friends’: The Failed Scapegoat,” in The Bible, Violence & the Sacred; and ch. 13, “Job and the God of Victims,” in The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, a collection of fine essays on Job edited by Leo G. Perdue and W. Clark Gilpin [Abingdon, 1992]. Both of these chapters give another excellent Girardian reading of the Book of Job.
4. René Girard also has two capsulizations of his book on Job: ch. 12, “Job as Failed Scapegoat,” in the Perdue/Gilpin volume above; and “‘The Ancient Trail Trodden by the Wicked’: Job as Scapegoat,” pp. 13-41 in Semeia: an experimental journal for biblical criticism, vol. 33, 1985, a special edition devoted to “René Girard and Biblical Studies.” In the latter volume, Baruch Levine has a response to Girard’s reading of Job, pp. 125-134.
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11,19-23) 32-49
1. Dan Clendenin, “Texts of Terror and the Enemies of God: What Should We Do When Religion Becomes Evil?” This is an excellent essay on what mimetic theory refers to as sacred violence, that is, divinely sanctioned violence. One source Clendenin cites is Mark Juergensmeyer‘s Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, who uses mimetic theory in his book. But Clendenin displays no other exposure to mimetic theory — which nevertheless does not detract from the excellence of this essay. He has a good quote from anti-Nazi German pastor Martin Niemoeller, and then follows it up with one he attributes to Anne Lamott: “When God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be absolutely certain that you have created him in your own image.” He also has a good list of “warning signs that religion has become evil and evil has become religious”:
- Fanatical claims of absolute truth. I do not mean the belief that absolute truth exists, but the doubt-free and uncritical confidence that one understands such absolute truth absolutely.
- Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or their views that undermines moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
- Identifying and rationalizing end times scenarios in the name of your religion.
- Justifying religious ends by dubious means.
- Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy, demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, to claiming that God is on your side alone.
- Pressure tactics of coercion, deception, and false advertisement.
- Alienation, isolation and withdrawal from family, friends and society, whether psychologically or literally.
- Exploitation and all forms of unreasonable demands upon one’s time, money, resources, family, friendships, sexuality, etc.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 1, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), 2nd in a series of ten sermons on King David and King Solomon.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 177-179. For example: “Paul uses the two peristaseis lists (2 Cor 4:7-12; 6:4-10) in that letter to bracket the discussion of reconciliation, as if to say that reconciliation can take place only through knowledge of the mechanism of the scapegoat.” (p. 177) [Same reference as three weeks ago.] See the wider section, “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 85-92. Hamerton-Kelly shapes this section around the notion of faith as stepping out from the crowd. The one who steps out from the crowd not only steps away from the scapegoating mob but risks becoming their victim as one who stands out. Hamerton-Kelly says:
Because this mythic world is maintained by a conspiracy of myth-interpretation, its stability depends on the unanimity of the crowd. As long as the mass mind buys into the conspiracy, the Sacred is safe, but as soon as an individual breaks ranks and speaks the truth, the conspiracy is threatened. Mark calls this taking of responsibility for speaking the truth, this stepping out of the crowd, faith. It takes the form of an active decoding of the divine communication that comes per contra. Faith sees the strength in divine weakness and the weakness in sacred power. A message that requires an active decoding in the form of a faithful response is radically noncoercive. It is at the other extreme from modern advertising, which is the apex of communicative violence. It is also different from law. It never occurs in the apodictic or casuistic imperative but always in the indicative or subjunctive mood…. The divine revelation does not tear the covers away from mythology, but it does invite one to lift the veil for oneself. (pp. 90-91)
Hamerton-Kelly then comments on the stilling of the storm:
The fact that the disciples need special instruction (4:34) shows that they cannot spontaneously grasp the revelation in the parables. Their inability to understand becomes clearer in the subsequent miracle story which leaves them puzzling “Who then is this, because even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). The miracle of the stilling of the storm introduces a series of portentous actions that disclose the mysterious power of Jesus and the essential incomprehension of even those closest to him. In the previous set of such miracle stories in the Gospel (the “conflict stories” in 2:1-3:6), the opposition is the religio-political vested interests; here, it is incomprehension and misunderstanding on the part of the disciples themselves. We are being shown how it is possible that three quarters of the hearers of the word could prove unfruitful, as well as the crucial fact that the insiders are in no better case than the outsiders. This irony of the excluded insider is part of the poetics of sacred violence. Those who go into the house with Jesus for private instruction are no better off than those who remain outside because they do not yet understand the cross. They treat Jesus as the demons do, as “the holy one of God” (1:24), the messianic bearer of sacred prestige. The exorcism of the Gadarene demoniac (5:1-20) ironically underlines this incomprehension (see R. Girard, The Scapegoat, 165-83). The Gadarenes, in asking Jesus to go away and leave them alone, not to tamper with the order of the Sacred in which they live, paradoxically understand Jesus better than the disciples do. (p. 92)
I would also recommend reading Girard’s essay on the Gerasene demoniac as a way to read this passage in context.
2. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 6, “Unmasking Oppression.” Myers and his team begin the chapter by noting four “crossing journeys” in Mark 4-8, commenting, “The function of this crossing pattern is to dramatize the fact that, despite their cultural and political ‘otherness,’ Marks Jesus is determined to bring liberation to those on the other side.” (p. 56). Placed in this wider context, this scene takes on something more than a miracle-over-nature story. It is about trusting Jesus in crossing over our usual boundaries:
Mark consistently refers to the freshwater lake as a sea in order to invoke the most primal narratives in the Hebrew tradition: the Ark of Noah; the crossing of the Red Sea; and the psalmic odes to storms. But, above all, Mark draws on the tale of Jonah, the prophet who resisted the call to preach repentance to foreigners (read Jonah 1). Jonah fled from his mission, apparently because he was unconcerned with the fate of those suffering oppression under the imperial city-state of Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). Thus Jonah, like the disciples here, was caught up in a great storm (1:2-4).
The wind and waves in Mark’s story, as cosmic forces of opposition (see Psalm 104:7), symbolize everything that impedes Jesus attempted boundary crossing. The enmity between Jew and Gentile was seen by most of Mark’s contemporaries as the prototype of all human hostility. The separation between them was considered part of the natural order. Mark’s harrowing sea stories suggest that the task of social reconciliation was not only difficult but virtually inconceivable. No wonder, then, that in Mark’s second boat episode Jesus must force the disciples to make the crossing (6:45). (p. 57)
3. Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel. Tolbert has a ingenuitive thesis that the Parable of the Sower lays out the different kinds of soil as a summary of the characters we meet in Mark’s gospel. She suggests that the rocky soil — those who “when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” — is the disciples in Mark’s gospel, led by Simon who is dubbed “Rocky.” Immediately after these parables, they begin to show their true colors by showing fear in the face of a storm. Ultimately, they will go with their fear and fall away.
4. In years when Easter is late, we often miss perhaps the most crucial text in Mark, especially from a Girardian standpoint: the “parable” of Satan casting out Satan. Link to Proper 5B for Girard’s reading of this parable, which is not only a key for understanding Mark’s Gospel but also for Girard’s substantial work on the figure of Satan in the New Testament. (It has been interesting to note that N. T. Wright‘s magnum opus on the historical Jesus, Jesus and the Victory of God, ends up centering on the figure of Satan as well — but regrettably has missed the profound underpinnings which Girard’s anthropological work could have provided.)
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 25, 2006 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 these readings come in the aftermath of the murder of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. How can Jesus speak a word of peace in the face of such a storm of violence — this racially-induced massacre the tip of the iceberg of the storm of hatred that is at the foundation of Racism? How does one begin to see the big picture, the entire iceberg that shipwrecks our best intentions at moving toward racial equality?
I believe that we are in the beginning stages of moving out of a Christendom-shaped version of the Christian faith which focuses our view of salvation onto the personal, and that makes things like seeing the enormity of of Racism part of the emerging challenge. Through our former lens, we think we can eliminate Racism by reducing individual’s racial prejudice — the personal dimension. But this will never work, because the sin of Racism is the sin of racial prejudice infecting and shaping our cultures, institutions, and politics for the past four hundred years. We can begin to roll back personal prejudice, but it will still leave the infection of Racism lurking on the cultural, institutional, and political levels.
So what is needed in this era of a faith perspective emerging out of post-Christendom? A new lens through which to see — a new hermeneutic. I propose that Mimetic Theory provides a key for recovering the prophetic dimension of Jesus’ Gospel message about the coming of God’s reign into the world. Christendom could not abide fully in God’s reign, shifting the focus to the individual’s hope for an afterlife in God’s Reign — while continuing the typical human reign on earth through sacred violence. Mimetic Theory helps in this post-Christendom era to understand on the widest possible level — the anthropological level, which encompasses the cultural, institutional, and political levels — to understand how sacred violence continues to enslave us through deadly powers such as Racism.
The challenge is how and what to preach during a time of such great change in perspectives. The congregation is likely to be in different places in the changeover, especially with respect to varying issues. A congregation of African Americans are going to understand and hear the prophetic dimension with regards to Racism more easily than most white congregations (the segregation on Sunday mornings continuing to be a big part of the problem). In 2015, in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, I was preaching to a mostly white congregation. So instead of preaching more fully in the prophetic dimension of Jesus’ message, I chose a ‘meta-level’: preaching about what it takes for us to recover the prophetic dimension. I focus on two great needs for that recovery: adult education or catechism, and contemplative prayer (paving the way for simply ending the sermon in prayer for the victims and their families, Charleston, and our nation). It was a sermon extemporized from PowerPoint slides, “Recovering the Prophetic in Response to the Charleston Terrorist Massacre.”
For adult catechism on Racism, I highly recommend the two-and-a-half day training by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training. It is also crucial to study Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow; there are great support materials through the Unitarian Universalist Association website. For more on contemplative prayer, I recommend the works of Richard Rohr and Martin Laird. In the above sermon I used a quote from Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land, where a recovering drug addict James tells his story, using the imagery of today’s Gospel:
Prayer has shown me the calm at the center of the storm, something that is silent even when the chaos rages. Once during a particularly difficult storm of inner chaos something happened that he could only call a spiritual breakthrough. One morning I was sitting in the chapel where I like to go to pray. The chaos was pretty bad. I thought my head was going to explode. I can’t really describe what happened next, but it was as though while trying to pray I fell into hell. I stopped fighting and just prayed there in hell. Then I felt a welling up of love within me, a love for all people who struggle, who screw up, who have been defined out of the picture, people who despair, people who are told they aren’t the right race, gender or orientation. I saw how I was part of all this, how I judge people who fail and condemn people who are different. I saw how it was all tied to my self-loathing. And there I prayed in solidarity with all people who struggle. I moved beyond my self-loathing and felt one with all these people. (p. 113)
2. In a Year A parallel to this story, where Matthew adds Peter trying to walk on water, I see the water imagery in the biblical convention of floods of water as a cover for violence. The sermon with a Girardian theme (from 2002) is “Faith Is Rising Above the Stormy Seas of Violence.” For more on water imagery for violence in the Bible see the page for that week, Proper 14A.
3. Is this story a foil for the one in the garden of Gethsemane? In the latter story it is the disciples who are asleep at a time of need. We can compare the disciples reaction of panic in the storm narrative — “Do you not care that we are perishing? — with Jesus words of preparation: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” He then has to chide them to stay awake. Another difference is that with the sea and wind, Jesus is in control and can bring peace. But with the scapegoating mechanism, he is relinquishing control and letting it overwhelm him as the way to bring peace. It is immediately after the garden scene that the disciples prove themselves to be rocky soil, falling away as persecution arrives.