[This article is part of a series of posts on the politics of scripture. While the focus of this series is on weekly preaching texts, the blog also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to <email@example.com>.]
It is the nature of the gospels to disturb. It is almost tiresome to indicate how political and theological presuppositions and prejudice are consistently upended by what has commonly been called Christ’s ‘upside-down’ Kingdom. There is, however, at least one other, less-edifying way the gospels trouble. This concerns the question of whether the texts contain the seeds of Jewish stereotyping and anti-Semitism. Today’s reading from Mark seems to suggest that the answer is ‘yes’.
Yet again we meet Jesus’ most persistent and regular antagonists, the Pharisees and the Scribes of Jerusalem. If they were actors in a Hollywood comedy, they’d have grounds to complain they were mere set-up guys for the gags. They turn up, say their lines and Jesus delivers the killer reply. Jesus has the added advantage that, in the shape of the writer of Mark, he has a scene-setter who provides all the clues to tell the audience how they should respond. Thus, Jesus’ antagonists appear and notice that some of the disciples were eating with ‘defiled hands’. They feed in their set-up line, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ and Jesus makes his response. All this served up around a Markan gloss which explains, in a thoroughly stereotyped way, that the Pharisees – indeed, all the Jews – do not eat unless they wash their hands. Mark then goes on to suggest the Jews almost have OCD when it comes to utensil cleanliness.
Rightly, considerable scholarly energy has been given over to exploring the extent to which gospel texts turn devout Jewish traditions like 1st century Pharisaism, indeed Judaism more broadly, into the patsy for early Christianity’s emergent sense of distinctness and/or sense of grievance at post-Temple exclusion. Mark’s journalistic style (at best) tends only to add weight to lazy modern-day prejudices that purification rites and kosher food rules are evidence of ridiculous Jewish legalism. His seeming incomprehension of Israel’s need to re-member its distinctiveness in the face of repeated invasion and imperial conquest runs the risk of both making Jesus’ words a cheap put-down and disconnecting Jesus from his closeness to 1st century Jewish reform movements.
And Jesus says, ‘there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
It has always seemed clear to me that, as political animals, we are all people of defiled hands. That is, we should not imagine we participate in the Polis without compromise and ethical consequence. In a world of limited goods, how we are and who we are, in relationship with others, leaves a trail that is not necessarily edifying. Even as people seeking to live the Good Life we are caught up in situations beyond our control which will often make our attempts to do right, absurd.
Recent events in Russia involving Pussy Riot – which, as a music journalist I’ve written about elsewhere – demonstrate the foul spoil that can be thrown up at the institutional level. Pussy Riot were keen to criticize the extent to which the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church had cosied up to Vladimir Putin. As I read it, Pussy Riot were calling for the Russian Orthodox Church to be faithful to the way of Christ and be prepared to criticize corrupt political structures. Sadly, the Orthodox Church has overly identified its ‘Good’ – like so many religious institutions before it – with the Regime. As a vicar in the Church of England – a ‘State Religion’ – I am nervous about the over-identification of church and state or of church and power. In World War One some of the Church of England bishops acted as ‘recruitment sergeants’ for the state, becoming complicit in sending thousands to their deaths in Picardy and Flanders. The church’s treatment of protesters outside St Paul’s during the Occupy protests was, with the notable exception of Canon Giles Fraser, a demonstration of the dangers of faith caught up too closely with power.
It can feel safer to imagine that defiled hands are the preserve of institutions. But as individuals and local communities we typically choose between competing goods, rather than good and bad. In L’existentialisme est un humanism, Sartre cites the famous case of the young man who, in wartime, must choose between his patriotic commitment to the Resistance and his obligation to his aging mother. Such a case presents a genuine practical conflict, grounded in the complexity of human circumstances. Sartre’s solution is to suggest that all moral principles are inadequate and that one should simply choose – with vigour, clarity and without regret.
My own experience is that life is not as simple or heroic as Sartre presents. As we live we face choices, wrapped up in desire and ego and fear and hope, and we do our best in the face of conflicting choices. We may not frame our modern lives in the terms of Aeschylus or Euripides – in which people are caught up in the midst of the impossible and conflicting demands of the gods – but we know the cost of choices between two goods. We know the reality of tragedy, that leads not only to regret, but sometimes to the agony of remorse. Aeschylus presents a world in which Agamemnon, seeking to prosecute war against the Trojans, has an impossible choice: the war has been commanded by Zeus to avenge the violation of a crime against hospitality and yet, because of a violation against the goddess Artemis (to whom he also has obligations) the expedition is becalmed. Only the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia will guarantee the winds to carry the fleet. Agamemnon is caught between two horrific choices – impiety or the destruction of his daughter – and must decide. In our own contexts we are constantly making choices and decisions – about what to buy, how to act, what to believe – which have seemingly nondescript implications but unavoidably draw us further into compromise with the consumer-capitalist behemoth.
Jesus reminds us of a painfully simple truth: it is from within, from the human heart that evil intentions come; wickedness emerges from within and defiles.
One human instinct that seeks to remedy our sense of compromise is the creation of ‘purity’ or ‘holiness’ movements. These enable folk to feel they are disconnecting from those things which compromise and corrupt. Christianity and all religious traditions have always generated groups who, through the pursuit of rigorous tradition or ritual, have sought to lift themselves out of the everyday. Clearly this is no mere religious instinct. The hunger for political reform and renewal continues to throw up movements and groups which seek to define themselves in contra-distinction to the status quo. Some may even become the kind of groups which police their boundaries and expect their members to sign up to a rigorous set of practices. Vision may depend upon a hunger to exceed and expose the machinations of Realpolitik.
The notion of Incarnation is important here. In Jesus Christ, God embraces a human life and is not afraid. That is, the picture we have of Jesus is of one unafraid of fully living in the midst of compromised humanity; of, as his interlocutors sometimes have it, drinking and laughing and partying amongst the ordinary people. So do we draw from today’s gospel the image of a man offering a kind of personal morality for compromised times? This at least would be something religious and political leaders would find attractive.
Actually Jesus invites folks of all political and religious persuasions to a kind of humility. The human heart has, despite itself, a king of genius for corruptibility, no matter what rituals or traditions we make for ourselves. There is only one hope: to begin to see ourselves aright. And that is done by being in relation with God. This does not lie so much in the feel-good individualistic transformations beloved of conservative evangelicals, but in the challenging praxis of being part of a community of hope and forgiveness. When Jesus says ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold onto human tradition,’ how easy it is to imagine that it does not apply to ourselves. It is also easy to reduce Christianity to a set of values or even a set of traditions or practices. The call is to return again and again to God in search of transformation. Clearly, faith – as praxis – has external as well as internal dimensions, but it is also about orientation. Are we centered on God – the Other who, bewilderingly, loves us faithfully – in such a way that we may become servants of others rather than ourselves?
Rachel Mann is an Anglican priest based in South Manchester, UK. She is also Resident Poet at Manchester Cathedral and a freelance music journalist. Her book on gender, sexuality and spirituality, ‘Dazzling Darkness’ is due to be published by Wild Goose this fall.