Seeking to bleat like a sheep
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he [or: it] is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
And so, after our annual Synod, three days of some inspiration and blessing but of much more pain and despair, we come to the new year of the church, and begin to read The Gospel According to Mark. After Synod, I suspect many of us will feel more allergic than usual to the apocalyptic interpretation we have been taught to read into Mark Chapter 13!
My First Impressions this week attempts to maintain and reorient my place in Christ after the last few days, as I read Mark 13. This post makes many local references— I am writing for friends I love, and writing even more to myself. But the themes are universal, and critical to the living out of the Faith, and for what we will read from Mark this year.
I remember the Gospel of Mark as a sustained critique of empire and the powers. It suits my inclinations as I live in the world of Abbott, One Nation, Trump, and all the rest. But I can read it with an apocalyptic or with an eschatological mindset. I have learned this distinction especially from James Alison in my reading of Raising Abel.
Apocalypse is about a violent ending to the creation, a retribution by God against the tyrants, and the vindication of God's people. Behind this understanding of the completion of all things is a God who is a super version of ourselves. He— deliberate pronoun— will redeem and cleanse the world from its violence and evil, by using even more violence.
In apocalyptic thinking "the hope is in God’s ultimate sacred violence [whereas in] eschatological thinking… the nonviolent God is rescuing us human beings from our own violence." (Nuechterlein)
A key part of apocalyptic thinking is a dualistic us and them, good and evil mindset. The sheep will be separated from the goats, and we inevitably think we can perceive the lines of that separation, despite long experience that we get it wrong. We still venerate the tombs of those we victimised. (Matthew 23:30)
Jesus’ attitude with respect to the social and the cosmic dualities would already be a good indication of his attitude with respect to the [current apocalyptic] temporal duality.
It is evident that Jesus did not simply accept the social duality of his time, the division between good and evil, pure and impure, Jews and non-Jews. In fact, his practice and his teaching add up to a powerful subversion of this duality. (Raising Abel pp 125-6)
When we respond to violence with the construction of dualities, when we divide Synod into good and bad, right and wrong, we enter the mindset of apocalypse (which is indeed the mindset present in parts of the Old Testament) and we fail to enter the eschatological mindset of Jesus.
James Alison says in On Being Liked that "we always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen." At its worst Synod was a "jostling for security, reputation, goodness, success." (On Being Liked pp 1) If we give into that, if we let our desire to learn to see reality through Christ be subverted by such things, by a desire to be like those in power; ie, in power, then we become the very thing we abhor.
Synod was violent. Many of us who spoke, or who discussed issues at the tables, or in the groups, invited our listeners to enter the duality of us/them violence. Deeply Christian Ministers of the synod were told to their face that they were evil. We saw rhetorical tactics more suited to the town hall than the church. It was left to a young woman from the First Nations to remind us that those who are marginalised are people, not problems. People wept in despair. People struggled to enter or re-enter the building, others left after the first day.
This stuff is real. After this synod, I am surprised only to be overwhelmed, for the most part, but during one a recent synod I could not return after a break, and then found I could not even walk properly. For three days, my right leg would not work correctly. This happens to some of us on all sides, each time we meet. Indeed a speaker advocating the precise opposite of what I take to be the way of Christ, could barely keep from weeping as she spoke. From our own silos, what seems compassionate, imperative, and godly, can deeply offend, and even abuse, those in a different place.
There was reason for outrage. One of my congregation distilled it for me with his customary clarity at Sunday church lunch: "The Uniting Church passes motions to support refugees. The Uniting Church supports aboriginal people. But the Uniting Church says nothing to support LGBTI people." Indeed, to be more correct, we abused them— even when we thought we were not doing this.
But constantly, in our anger and pain, as we sought to make safe spaces for our friends, we risked falling into the same hatred and duality.
I speak for myself: Some folk appear to me to have a deep shame that they are sexual beings, and solve this by projecting their self-hatred and disgust onto others whose sexuality they think to be different. (The designation of sexual preference is a cultural construct.) They enlist "God" to their side, calling those of us who don't fit their categories of sexual acceptability sinners. They drag sexuality into the sphere of human violence.
But I am ashamed at my impotence before their hatred.
I too, am ashamed of my deep self, and ashamed of all my unworthiness before God, even if is not focussed in my sexuality. And other folk almost certainly see this more clearly than I can!
I too, am afraid I will be cast out from the church which gives me life, if people different to me and my friends get their way.
And so, I too, am at risk of imitating the world and dealing with my shame and fear by projecting it all onto them… as evil, as people lacking "the courage to be" in facing their own sexuality, as people corrupted by desire for power in their necessity to win and control the church.
I was constantly having to pull back, and to be pulled back, from doing and being the thing I wished not to be. James Alison (I think) speaks of the "intelligence of the victim"; the insight which allowed our sister to see we were calling people… a problem. But victims can also seek to victimise by joining the duality. Violence continues, and is amplified, when the victims reply with violence.
I can appropriately ask a sister or brother about some issue, "On this issue, can you not see— It would be better to say— Might it be that your understanding or proposition is aligned with the spirit of empire, which always falls short of God's desire for us, and is often simply evil, or bestial…(Daniel 7) But what I am inclined to say, instead, is: You are evil. And so I join the beasts.
This duality lies at the root of our unconverted humanity. While we remain in this us/them, good/evil duality we will be limited to being winners and losers, simply worldly, however right we may be, and whatever truth we hold. And any truth we do hold will be far less than we imagine.
I am constantly surprised at how deeply apocalyptic dualism is a part of me; it is at the root. This morning I am reading the first chapter of On Being Liked. Alison is reflecting upon, and learning from, our response to 9/11. Not upon the pain and response of those who were at the centre of it, but upon those of us who were at a distance. Those of us who are like me, actually, and not as affected by society's definitions of sexuality as those of my friends who are at the centre of the storm.
And there was grief. How we enjoy grief! It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy's roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial centre is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences.
(Why, Andrew, had you not brought to Synod a proposal supporting your LGBTI friends? Secure and gratified in my grief, such a question did not even occur to me until after the sharp rebuke of my congregant.)
And very quickly, of course, the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. (On Being Liked pp 5)
I can see only one way to transcend this response. It is to pay attention to the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25. Jesus is among us at a "day or hour no one knows." (Mark 13:32) He is among us in the ones we marginalise and dismiss and condemn.
Unemployed folk are called dole bludger = bad. Refugees are constantly labelled as a terrorist threat = bad. Domestic violence survivors are asked why didn't they leave, told they provoked him, called liars = bad. The poor are lazy = didn't work hard enough = bad. But never does Australia see these folk as unlucky, never as our victims, never as simply different to us, and easy to pick on so the rest of the nation can feel comfortable.
We understand this, and we even assent to such an analysis, until it comes home to us. For our whole paralysis over LGBTI folk in the Uniting Church is about this. LGBTI folk are merely the bottom of the heap of all the others we classify as evil, the ones everyone else can pick on. Was the almost unanimous and commendable support for the refugees on Manus Island, at this last synod, partly enabled because we'd had the gays to hate and could finally unite on other things?
Matthew 25 teaches us that when we call colleagues evil, and they do not return, we have driven out the Christ. But it also teaches me that when I condemn and hate the person who calls my friends evil, I too am driving the Christ away from me.
Mark 13:1-23 is commonly understood to be Jesus' foretelling of the destruction of the temple; my bible headlines the paragraph as The Destruction of the Temple Foretold. But then we get into theologies which imagine the coming of the Son of Man (v 24ff) to be a much later event, still to happen. These, we think, are the end times, hopefully not too far off, although, to be honest, in our comfortable privilege, we might privately think it would be nice to die peacefully in healthy old age.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
But Alison says of this text
Famously, this parable appears to refer to events which will follow on a few days later: it appears that the Lord comes in the acts of being handed over which follow. He hands himself over at the Last Supper in the evening; he is handed over by Judas at midnight, by Peter at cockcrow, and to the Romans in the morning. [My emphasis] The real coming is the very reverse of an apocalyptic appearance: it is the subversion from within of the apocalyptic, and will only be detected by those who have been disciplined to watch, those who have not been hypnotised, sent to sleep by meaning given by the spurious and fictitious sacrificial order of the world. The real meaning, the creative meaning is the undoing of that from within by one who lets himself be sacrificed by it. (On Being Liked pp11-12)
In our pain in all the roiling emotion of Synod, and in the undoubted violence of our failing of each other, Alison's words
the real meaning, the creative meaning, is the undoing of that from within by one who lets himself be sacrificed by it...
show us how we share the sufferings of Christ. (1 Peter 4:13) I hesitate to write this, for I suffer so little compared to some sisters and brothers in our church. Yet there is a truth. In our congregation we are doing something different to the well-funded, strategic planting of middle class congregations that some folk advocate. We are practising a different kind of intentionality: love of those on the margins, love of those who have been rejected and driven out of other congregations, love of those who can bring little money to the offering plate, love of those who sometimes use us and exhaust us. We are small, vulnerable, and aged. It is difficult not to feel that some sisters and brothers regard us as a saleable property. A colleague visited, behind my back, to see if the building would suit his church plant.
It would appear we are powerless. But Jesus' talk in Mark 13
is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all [the violence of the world,] weaning us of our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all-englobing. … Here is my point. Jesus not only taught us to look away, not to allow ourselves to be seduced by the satanic. He also acted out what the undoing of the satanic meant: he was so powerful that he was able to lose, in face of the satanic need for sacrifice, so as to show it was completely unnecessary. We are so used to describing Jesus' cross and resurrection as victory — a description taken from the military hardware store of satanic victory — that we easily forget that what victory looked like was a failure. So great is the power behind Jesus' teaching and self-giving that he was able to fail, thus showing once and for all that 'having to win', the grasping onto meaning, success, reputation, life and so on is of no consequence at all. (On Being Liked pp13-14 I have added some italics and a couple of commas to clarify what I take Alison to be saying here.)
There are folk in my congregation who tell me— sometimes in despair— that they are "doing nothing in the church." They have come to us out of terrible abuse and violence (often unaware of the trauma of those of us who appear to have life together). Together, we are beginning to thrive. But more than most of us, these folk are freshly assaulted by the violent declarations of society that that they are worth nothing, and that they are a burden upon us. This is the diagnosis of what Alison calls satanic power, as it builds itself up by victimising others. And when we regard any member of our congregation as burden or problem— no matter how much they cost us, we are joining the abusers, and the dynamic of apocalyptic.
But what is this "burden" that scapegoating proclaims— there is always something about the victim which it identifies. It is here that Jesus, not seeking power, enables us to relearn the world, to imitate him, and see through his eyes. Yes, these folk are a huge part of my life. They do sometimes consume my time in the congregation. And sometimes, I still worry about them, and about my inadequacy to support them, when I get home. Yet they have given me life. They have enabled me to learn what it is to serve and to love. They have been the doorway into more of life, for in them I have met the Christ.
They have given of themselves to me. They have entrusted me with their secrets. The pain of their lives, and the honesty of their declarations, unfettered by Christian niceness, has confronted me and has forced me and, therefore, enabled me, to examine my motivations and assumptions at all kinds of levels. One of my sisters and brothers in this journey occasionally blindsides me with acute observations about my psychological peculiarities; the sort of stuff that, elsewhere, costs $200.00 per hour. Plus GST.
It is through these folk that we are all being remade. But how is it that I am not making an object of them? It would be deeply perverse to say that they have suffered so the church can be built up. Much of our charity risks this. Alison said of 9/11
We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic. … a snare and illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgements clouded by satanic righteousness. (Ibid pp6)
The problem with Matthew 25 is that we read it with the eye of western affluence. We can do acts of charity, dropping more excess stuff off to the op shop, signing petitions, wearing #bringthemhere t-shirts (I'm wearing mine as I type) and it really costs us nothing. Very few of us are brought to trial. (Mark 13:11)
What preserves us in this is to do what was happening by default of poverty and oppression in Matthew's community. It is to stand with the marginalised in a way that costs: time, money, reputation, health, psychic pain, and to become vulnerable with them. If we do not do this, our doing good can be "as cold as charity," and may not be discipleship at all, but only self-aggrandisement or self-justification.
In the end this is about the sacrifice and the cost of standing not only with the losers of society, but with the unpleasantly different, and, finally, with those who call us other. Which might mean those we think are totally wrong. When we read Matthew 25, the duality which has shaped us has us assigning people to the goats almost before we realise it. Our calling is to join them.
A great silence settled over the stockyards. Many among the sheep had expected to go to the other place. They had, after all, not lived well. But some small mercy on their part had them standing here kingdom bound. A few shifted uneasily. Some of that charity had only been to shut up and get rid of beggars on the street.
In the other yard, people who had worked long and hard, and sacrificed much for God gazed dully at the ground. It was so obvious now− how could they have not seen that doing the right thing while leaving someone unloved was an absolute contradiction of the kingdom?
A small lamb squeezed its way between the fence rails and limped into the middle of the goats. The king rumbled, "You! Lamb! What are you doing there?"
The lamb quavered before the roar of the king.
"You said you would draw all people to yourself." (John 12:32)
The Great King said nothing.
The lamb paled. "Blessed Paul said, 'One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.'" (Romans 5:18)
Still the King was silent.
The lamb said"'For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.' (Romans 11:32) And he said, 'all will be made alive in Christ.' (1 Corinthians 15:22) And he said− "
"Enough!" said the King. "What do you propose to do, little lamb?"
"I… I think I will stay with the goats, sir. They need someone to care for them. And my sisters and brothers are among them."
And the King laughed a laugh of great joy. "Someone has understood! Someone has really loved! They have seen. The only judgement is love."
And the King was gone, and all that remained was a Lamb standing among the people, goats and all. ( adapted from One Man's Web 2014)
Until we can see this, and live it, our violence will not stop.
Being aware, and staying alert, is not about looking to the future. It is looking now at all those who come to us. These are the ones society tells us are the least. And they are especially those we are tempted to condemn as "them," as enemy. The bible study was excellent at Synod. But equally powerful was the sermon by the sister whom society too often dismisses as a "refugee." Not to mention the calls by two Congress members, themselves on the margins, to compassion. But most touching for me, most informative, and most healing, was my conversation with the brother to whose theology of sexuality I am deeply opposed. In him, I met the Christ in ways I am not yet able to tell.
But the embracing of those who are not only different from us, but are also strongly opposed to us, and who we perhaps find deeply abusive, is no easy thing. It is certainly not a discipleship we can somehow mandate or require of someone as we might mandate office behaviour. We are too deeply enmeshed in our need to survive for this to happen. And to preach it at a person when abuse is fresh, is itself an abuse. Please do not hear me doing that. It is not what I intend.
Indeed, I wonder if trying too hard to embrace our abusers as an act of will, might have similar unhealthy effects to suppressing our sexuality or other deep parts of ourselves. Abuse is real. It cannot be denied. This embracing is something given to us, and often, especially at first, only able to be appropriated fitfully. I know that if I were to discuss issues of sexuality with the the colleague I have just mentioned, my new rapport would evaporate. Despite this, I experience a small but real growth of what James Alison somewhere calls "disinterest," and an ability to sometimes transcend some of my hatreds. It seems that the smaller and less personally threatening acts of compassion open us to the greater ones. Not merely because of practice, but because we are somehow empowered by the Spirit. Compassion seems to be the path which lets us enter the new reality. Alison said of "disinterest" that we do not cease to care- I suspect I care more deeply- but that our winning, and our comfort and safety, become less consuming, or necessary. We are given a certain detachment. In small ways I find this to be true. Something does move me beyond myself, although my drive for self preservation and winning make me a dangerous person if I am cornered, or caught off guard.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
To assist with the context of this post, I recommend the following posts:
For Matthew 25: The Far Near Country (2017 and long) which explores the transformation or conversion of world views, When are we going to have the party, and The Lamb at the Stockyards (2014). For Mark 13, you might read The End… or Resurrection? (2014) or A Difficult Day of the Lord (2011)