Per Caritatem

I received recently a generous gift from Father Patrick Henry Reardon: the new, revised version of his classic book, Christ in the Psalms. The new edition includes a helpful Introduction, wherein Reardon explains what the book is about, emphasizing toward the end its Christocentric focus. There are also substantive changes to his discussions of five Psalms. Although my brief comments below do not do the book justice, I want to highlight one of his new entries: Psalm 73. Here Reardon recounts Asaph’s reflections on the act of Creation as an act of deliverance or liberation. As Reardon observes, “[n]othingness was not neutral. Existence is not natural to nothingness” (145). In other words, God’s act of creating ex nihilo, was, especially given the resonance with such “battle” imagery in the ancient world, a conquering of forces opposed to God. Creation, thus, contains, so to speak, an imprint of future redemptive historical events. Listen to Reardon’s re-contexualization of Creation as the original Exodus or act of deliverance.

Centuries before parting the Red Sea. He [God] divided the more primitive waters, cleaving the fountains and the flood, cracking open the multiple heads of the sea monster in order to feed, with their meat, the peoples of Ethiopia. Creation, that is to say, was the initial Exodus, a deliverance from bondage, a redemption from the deep dungeon of non-being. The Lord smote that more ancient Pharaoh and fed him to His hungry creatures (145).

Reardon goes on to describe creation as “both a moral and a metaphysical act” (145). That is, God’s ordering of the chaos, his taking “hold on the tohu wabohu and invoke[ing] His light of the darkness of the abyss” are redemptive, salvific acts. “He did this in the sense that in the very heart of Creation, its arche or principle, there is a deed of redemption, the world’s deliverance from the oppression of primeval chaos” (145). As God’s covenant of creation “unfolded” (here one is hindered by language itself—as T.S. Eliot reminds us, “Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision”; “Burnt Norton,” V, in Four Quartets), he created time and space. The former is intimately tied to the and given expression in the liturgical calendar, whereas the latter is connected to his sanctuary. Reardon’s meditation on Ps. 73 ends by reflecting on how we, in our present human condition, attempt to undo Creation and thus to return it to chaos.

Of all the evils lamented by Aspah, therefore, the worst are the desecrations of sacred space and sacred time. God’s enemies destroyed the first with ax and fire, the second by the suppression of feast days. Man becomes the Lord’s enemy in the space dedicated for worship and glorifies himself in the sacred time set aside to glorify God. Both space and time are thus defiled. Rebellious man, by this desecration of his life, returns Creation to the primeval chaos. Living outside the covenant inherent in the structure of the world, he endeavors to undo what God has done (146).

(Although Reardon doesn’t develop an environmental ethic from this Psalm, I suspect he would be very open to the suggestion).

 

Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism and racial bias.[1] Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a predominately white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

Douglass begins with the following lines:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song.”[2] The captors, having accomplished their mission, now command their Jewish captives, whose eyes still tear up when they recall Zion, to sing one of their native songs. To this obtuse, insensitive demand, Douglass, speaking the “plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,”[3] asks, “[h]ow can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem […] let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] Always poised and ready, like Socrates of old, to turn his public speaking invitations into opportunities to provoke and to challenge the ethico-political status quo, Douglass condemns his fellow citizens’ superficial “national, tumultuous joy” in celebration of America’s so-called “freedom” and independence. In fact, earlier in his speech, Douglass emphasizes the great “disparity” and “distance” separating him and his fellow citizens. The good fortune and “blessings” celebrated on this day do not apply to those of a darker hue. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”[5] Beyond the surface civility, the fanfare, and the laudatory refrains, Douglass remembers, Douglass hears “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”[6]

With this example of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” Douglass uses the familiar words of Scripture and says in effect, just as the Jews were taken captive by their oppressors, forced to dwell in a land not their own, similarly African American slaves find themselves as strangers in a strange land where they have been constructed as the savage, as the intellectually-inferior other in need of the white man’s culture, “superior” reasoning abilities, and “moral” direction. Like the Jews exiled in Babylon, the most suitable song, the song corresponding to the violent, unjust, degraded existence of an African American slave is not a song of triumphalist jubilation, but a song of sorrowful lament. For Douglass to gloss over this all-too-recent contemptible American history because he is no longer in chains would be to turn a deaf ear to the “mournful wail of millions” and to once again allow the white, hegemonic culture to write the black story. Moreover, Douglass reminds his audience—who, after all, function as analogues to the captors of God’s people of old—that God’s heart bleeds for the weak, the humble, the downtrodden. Though a merciful and forgiving God, divine justice unlike human justice will not, in the end, be mocked.

Notes


[1]  Race, race-baiting, race relations in the United States, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/opinion/25rich.html?_r=1 (accessed  7/26/10).

[2] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 431–32.

[3] Ibid., 431.

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 432. The psalm on which Douglass improvises is Psalm 137.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid.

 

R. Douglas Whitfield earned his Bachelor’s degree at New York University and his Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently serving as an assistant pastor in Washington, DC. His interests include biblical studies, African-American history, and race.

***

How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament that appear to permit slavery? On my reading, it seems that the most fruitful way for the Christian community to interpret passages in the Old Testament vis á vis slavery is to employ a hermeneutic with a redemptive trajectory which continues to advance the call of the text beyond its historical context and into the world of post-resurrection reality and expectation. Put another way, the Christotelic flowering of the indicatives of the gospel provides the resources for a transformation in our understanding of the imperatives that we encounter in the Old Testament text concerning slavery. Careful attention to the contours of the divine meso-narrative of Scripture, along with a dynamic understanding of the two-age structure of Scripture can manumit the interpreter from bondage to static modes of interpretation that have been used to defend or justify slavery.

To begin with, the reader must see the series of movements within the Biblical texts. The first movement to be detected is the movement from the historical-cultural context to the pronouncements of the biblical text. When the two are placed beside one another, there is a redemptive trajectory at work wherein biblical texts improve upon cultural norms of the time, albeit, in a subversive and developmental manner. Though the development of these texts is commensurate with the development of the culture, the biblical ethic is always ahead of the prevailing culture.

The next movement to detect is the trajectory between the biblical text, in its particular redemptive-historical location, and the telos of the text as it is to be consummated in the eschaton. This is where the resurrection and the two-age structure must determine our reading, advancing the call of the text beyond its historical-cultural borders. There is an inextricable relationship between the indicatives and the imperatives in Scripture. It is the indicative of God’s redemptive activity that drives the imperatives that are given to the community of faith (cf. Exod 20). Where there is a heightening and development in the indicatives, there is a heightening and development in the imperatives. With the resurrection comes the consummate indicative that carries nothing less than an eschatologically charged hermeneutic and ethic. Put another way, the resurrection demands new age interpretation and praxis- the type of interpretation and living that introduce the life of God’s new creation into the present brokenness. This kingdom-present behavior and hermeneutic must come to the fore, particularly in contexts where it is all too obvious that the kingdom has not yet been fully realized.

The resurrection overturns the brokenness that was introduced into human relationships, bringing restoration. The pride and entitlement that would lead one to believe that they have proprietary authority over another human being is dealt a lethal blow by the resurrection. Disregard for the human rights of fellow image bearers is no longer conscionable in the new age that has been ushered in by the resurrection because one of the primary goals of the resurrection is the restoration of the image. This restoration is both individual and corporate in its scope, shaping the ways in which fellow image bearers relate to God and to one another. The Lordship that Christ demonstrated in his resurrection produces people who recognize only one sovereign who rightly holds determinative authority over other people.

The love that the resurrection produces in renewed people will not rest content with a foot on the neck or fear in the hearts of the weak. The resurrection introduces a drastically different vision of human relationships. However, these realities come to fruition in the community of faith only inasmuch as they allow the all-encompassing significance of the resurrection to permeate their interpretation and living. The Christian community must adorn the gospel with functionally and interpretively.

The resurrection has massive interpretive implications. However, if the reality of the resurrection does not inform one’s interpretive approach to the Old Testament slavery texts, then the biblical text will always appear to be lagging behind contemporary culture, ethically speaking, and resurrection realization will be stunted (as it was in the antebellum south). The reason why many interpretive approaches to these texts are unsatisfying (and down right disturbing) is because some interpreters are content with a static read of the indicatives and imperatives. They are unwilling to go where the resurrection boldly takes us. The redemptive trajectory present in the text remains undetected and the contours of the text are flattened out with the hammer of literalism and dislocation. The result is that these contemporary interpreters provide a read that is regressive with respect to contemporary culture because they take texts that were progressive in their redemptive-historical location and freeze them in time in order to carry them into contemporary culture. They fail to follow the trajectory to its proper end. This resurrection-less, old-age interpretation has the appearance of biblical fidelity and accuracy because it carefully measures words, grammar and syntax in order to draw contemporary equivalents. The problem is that it denies the interpretive, social and ethical power of the resurrection, failing to understand how this sweeping reality is woven into the narrative of Scripture in all of its culturally polyvalent glory. These texts are treated atomistically, permitting the old-age imperatives to stand precisely because the consummate, new-age indicative is ignored. These readers fail to understand that exegesis does not equal interpretation.

N.T. Wright helps us to frame our understanding of resurrection implications when he says, “The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the ‘age to come’, longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the ‘present age’ still continues.”[1] If Bishop Wright were speaking to this discussion, I believe that he would say that we must go and work out the implications of the resurrection in our own particular contexts- beginning with our Bible reading.

Slavery will have no place in the new age that is characterized by the resurrection, and it is this resurrection life that shapes the narrative of Scripture. As more Christian communities begin to read the Old Testament with these redemptive lenses, social restoration will begin to rise to the surface. This is not a hermeneutical silver bullet, but it seems to me the most helpful way to begin dealing with the difficulties that Old Testament slavery texts present. To summarize, we must move away from the old wineskins of static interpretation that flatten the dynamic trajectory of the Biblical text, exchanging them for the new wineskins of redemptive trajectory hermeneutics that take into account the canonical contours of Scripture and the transforming power of the resurrection.

Notes


[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 581.

 

Jesus Heals the LeperAs Alfred North Whitehead famously said, the history of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  The more I study the Western philosophical tradition, the more convinced I am that this is the case.  At the center of Plato’s philosophy is his doctrine of the Forms or Ideas.  In Greek there are two words, which we translate into English as “idea”:  εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea).  Interestingly, in Greek these works mean something that is seen; however, Plato uses the terms to mean that which is not seen physically, but mentally.  Nonetheless, seeing is still the root metaphor pervading his philosophy.  Consider some of his most famous images-the cave, the sun, and so on.  In the cave, there is no light, no knowledge.  When one emerges from the cave into the light, one comes to know (or potentially comes to know) reality by first seeing the things of the sense world and then ascending to the Forms or Ideas in which the sense objects participate and imitate.  As is well-known these days, postmoderns have challenged this privileging of the visual metaphor and have attempted to imagine what it might mean for some of the other senses to serve as a central metaphors.  For example, postmodern philosophers and theologians such as Jean-Luc Marion and Catherine Pickstock have written with great effect on the more “neglected” senses such as taste and hearing.

Personally, I think that touch offers particularly fertile ground that ought be explored and put to use in philosophy.  To be touched is, I submit, something that all humans need.  Unfortunately, it is something that has been lost in our interactions with one another-perhaps in part due to our technological mode of being-in-the-world and perhaps also because of a fear of communicating the wrong idea or of a negative response from the other to whom we wish to encourage. Yet, an embrace and a simple clasping of hands can often communicate more than anything we might say.  Two examples come to mind:  one personal and the other Scriptural.

My husband and I lived in Moscow, Russia for about three years.  During our time in Russia, we had the opportunity to visit various cities, small towns and villages. One winter we traveled by train to Kirov, staying approximately two weeks. While there we were invited to spend a day at one of the orphanages just outside the city. The memories of that visit are quite vivid, and the time with the children, though brief, was a life- changing experience. When we first arrived, the children, who ranged in age from 4-16 years old, were extremely shy and stand-off-ish. I noticed immediately a small, very cute little boy, Sasha, who was about 5 years old and very withdrawn. I walked up to Sasha and said, “Привет Саша,” (“hello, Sasha”).  But Sasha said nothing – no smile, no handshake, no eye contact – nothing. As the day progressed, we played games, performed skits, ate lunch and attempted to get to know the children better. While playing one of the more active games (something like dodge-ball), Sasha and I began slowly to “bond.”  When it was time to eat, I noticed that he wanted to sit with me (which made me of course extremely happy), so I tried to take his hand; however, he did not want me to touch him and quickly pulled his hand away.  Nonetheless, he still wanted to sit with me. So we sat and ate borsch together and then went off to play more games. As the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting on a bench resting and Sasha walked up to me, sat next to me, and to my surprise (and joy) he let me hold his hand. After that connection, he would not leave my side and even let me hold him. He actually wanted very much to be held and touched, but he of course was simply “one among many” in the orphanage and had been for most of his short life deprived of physical touch. When it was time to leave, he did not want to let go of my hand (nor did I want to let go of his). Then the dreaded time came and we were told that the bus was leaving and we’d better pack up and board the bus. As we drove off, the kids ran behind the bus as long as they could keep up, and we of course cried our eyes out. I often think about Sasha, and hope that he remembers me-more than that, I hope that he finds a home and a family that will give him the love and affection for which he longs, needs, and deserves.

Not long after our short trip to Kirov, I began studying the book of Leviticus, which among other things describes the law of the leper’s cleansing (chapter 13).[1] For example in Lev. 13:45-46, we read,

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Why must the leper wear torn clothes?  In the Old Testament, the rending of a person’s clothes was a symbolic expression of mourning over death. Here the leper is to wear torn garments to represent his/her absolutely hopeless condition-after all, the disease was incurable.  Prior to aids, leprosy was perhaps the most dreadful disease a person might contract.  For example, the body becomes covered with ulcers, the person loses his/her hair, s/he experiences extremely slow bodily decay even to the point of losing limbs, and the mental and psychological anguish endured is excruciating.  The person with leprosy is alienated from his/her own family and from societal life; s/he experiences death daily, moment by moment over period of many years and, worse of all, isolated, alienated.   Although we are not exactly certain of the kind of leprosy that existed in the time of the OT, we can, however, grasp how this disease illustrates well the nature of sin in the spiritual sphere.

In addition to wearing torn clothes, the leper must cry, “Unclean, unclean.” Here “unclean” is not so much a reference to the physical disease itself, but speaks of the ceremonial status of the person according to Levitical law. That is, the individual remains unclean ceremonially until s/he is pronounced “clean” by the priest – that is, when and if healing comes. As mentioned above, “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The leper experiences a separation, s/he has no koinonia with the people of God, and is considered ceremonially under judgment.

Though we do read in the OT of some lepers who were healed, there are very few illustrations of healing the disease until Jesus came on the scene. In other words, as to the “tonal center” of the OT, it was extremely unusual for anyone to be healed of leprosy. Yet, in Mark’s Gospel account, we read:

A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Jesus, who was well-acquainted with the Torah and the intricacies of Levitical law, did not rebuke the leper, explaining that lepers are social outcasts who belong outside the camp.  Nor did He worry about being socially stigmatized or becoming ceremonially unclean through contact with the leper.  Rather, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper.  Then the Incarnate Word said, “be made clean,” and it was so.  Jesus, who would soon know exile, alienation, condemnation and ultimately death, stretched out his hand of flesh and touched this diseased, dying leprous man.  Jesus, whose body was rent and broken for us – we, who in Adam are spiritual lepers – acted with compassion towards the leper, touching him and thereby affirming his humanity, and I assure you the leper knew love as he had never known it before.

If philosophy can’t find a use for these kinds of images, then theology certain should, indeed, it must.

Notes


[1] Many of the observations given here were first brought to my attention about a decade ago through a lecture series on Leviticus by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson.