This is an excerpt from a commentary I am currently writing on the Gospel of Mark. How might Mark see the appalling treatment of Kopika and Tharnicaa, two innocent little Australian girls from Biloela, who are being traumatised by their imprisonment and isolation on Christmas Island? We join the text of Mark at Mark 1:14-15. The text deals with faith, politics and crowds. You will find reference to three other places in the draft commentary, which I have added at the end of the section on 1:14-15.
14 Now after John was arrested (παραδοθῆναι), Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news [gospel] of God, [Other ancient authorities read of the kingdom] 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; [Or is at hand] repent, and believe in the good news.’[Or gospel]
Added to this, Jesus is proclaiming a kingdom. (See Point 4 below) The kingdom of God means not the kingdom of Caesar. To say believe in this good news (see the commentary on Mark 1:1), is to say trust and give yourself to this kingdom, not the kingdom of Caesar. And to repent, is to turn around, to live differently. Jesus' message is politically subversive at its heart.
The working out of this text in our own life is full of intricacy and compromise but, at base, as a Christian, I am not firstly a citizen of Australia. My primary calling is to be a follower of Christ, which will inevitably mean standing against the spirit of the nation in which I live. The opening chapter of Mark, read honestly, repudiates the climate in which I grew up, where it was just assumed that Christians would vote Liberal or Country Party, for example.
We see here how much the language we use, and the translations we make, influence what we hear. The NRSV says John was arrested. But the Greek word paradothēnai comes from paradidomi which has a strong sense of being handed over or given over. Later, when Jesus is betrayed, it will be paradidomi which is used (cf 14:44, 15:15). So when the soldiers come for John and take him away, which is what we imagine with an arrest, the text is saying he is handed over! This tells us a deep truth about human culture: we hand scapegoats over to the crowd. We fall in line with the crowd so it is not us who will be chosen, but someone else who is handed over. People who are handed over are abandoned by the rest of us to the systems of violence which structure our culture. They become the ritual scapegoat of the moment.
The two small children, Kopika and Tharnicaa, and their parents, who are imprisoned alone on Christmas Island are a stark contemporary illustration of this. At 1.4 million dollars a year[i], these children were not merely arrested. Mark would say they were handed over to the current manipulators of the crowd; not Caesar this time, and not the Priests, but another form of empire called the Commonwealth Government. We allowed this to happen. Indeed, the nation has acceded, has chosen, to allowing the use of small imprisoned children as an object lesson to the bogey of people smugglers, not to stop people smugglers, but so that we may have a designated enemy/scapegoat and can feel safe and united.
Politics comes from the word polis, or city. Politics is the organised life of the city. The sensibility which flows through Mark suggests that politics is the city; that is, the crowd, in action. Later in Mark we will see where the authorities are not able to manipulate the crowd. They need to give into it; Herod will murder John "out of regard for his oaths and for the guests." At the time of writing there is a flurry of protest about the Biloela family. Will the government blink[ii], will they give into the crowd, which for a moment is learning some decency? If we follow Jesus and speak of love and compassion to the crowd we are inextricably political.
To withdraw from the political means that we do not go out to the wilderness with him. Instead we seek to hide in a safe place in the city. Which means we will forever be enslaved to following the crowd in an effort to remain safe.
This is the first hint of a major them in Mark where, in the end, we are the crowd. See especially Themes in Mark, Point 4, 1:40-45 The Crowd Arrives, Point 5, and 2:1-12 Going into a Town, Point 6. In this post the references in the previous sentence are included below.
"Theologically, the message is of this passage is that John is the end of the era. John ends, then Jesus comes... The time is fulfilled; now is the time; we are left in no doubt that Jesus is beginning something new." (Act Now! , edited)
In a democratic world, we do not talk about reigns any more than we talk about kingdoms. But we do talk a whole lot about "culture"! So I suggest: "The time is fulfilled, and the culture of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." What does it mean to distinguish God's culture from human cultures? What does it mean to be "called out" (Gr: ekklesia, "church") of conventional human culture and to begin to be disciples of the one who brings God's culture near to us? Why is this such good news? Paul Nuechterlein
A culture demands allegiance. A culture is a matrix of understandings which we use to function in the world. It can become god-like. It enmeshes us. It can determine us. Where we are unconscious of our culture, it does determine us; we think it is real.
To enter into the culture of God is to step out of and to stop following the culture of Australia, or wherever it is we live.
Culture changes us. To enter into a new culture is an act of empathy. It is to understand reality from the perspective of other people. It is to understand in the literal sense: to stand under. Entering a culture means to be changed. (Jesus Begins the Journey, edited)
In this commentary I will tend to speak of the culture of God (or the culture of the kingdom of God), and of the culture of empire, but it is important to see that the culture of God is not formed in contrast to empire. If the culture of God were merely a reaction to empire it would be circumscribed by it. It would be like all other oppositional identities and politics; that is, at least partly formed by that which it opposes. This is why "cancel culture," correctly alive to the injustices of society, can appear in its behaviour very similar to the fundamentalist social conservatism which it opposes. The two, in rivalry with each other, form each other despite themselves. The culture of God, God's way of being, is, as James Alison would say, in rivalry with no one. Modelling ourselves upon this lifts us out of the culture of empire, and transcends the way of being of empire, rather than our being formed by competition against empire.
Crowd references from elsewhere in the commentary
Themes in Mark, Point 4: his fame began to spread… Fame is fickle thing and ambivalent. Fame is endowed by the crowd of us. Soon we will see how his fame results in the presence of crowds which, in Mark, are always close to being a mob. The crowd in Mark will take on a variety of roles. Robert Hamerton-Kelly in The Gospel and the Sacred says
the crowd is the constant background of Jesus' action, even when not specifically mentioned... It is vaguely analogous to the chorus in a Greek drama... The crowd is not on [Jesus'] side; for the most part, it is on the side of the leaders, and only wavers from time to time in response to Jesus' teachings and miraculous power. Even in its waverings, it remains essentially on the side of the leaders, within the order of sacred violence... The crowd [is] the explosive but manipulable source of the authority of the powers... [and] behind every crowd stands the original lynch mob ready to hound the scapegoat to death...( pp21-23, edited)
The crowd is us. Across the Gospel of Mark the crowd shows how humanity responds, and what humanity is like. Within the culture of empire the crowd is the ultimate source of authority; Pilate (cf 15:15) and the Temple authorities who nominally hold the power of life and death, all bow to the crowd. The authorities are repeatedly said to fear the crowd. (eg: 12:12) Despite this, the crowd can "itself step out of the crowd" and gather around Jesus, for a time, as we will see in 3:31-35 and in the feeding miracles.
1:40-45 The Crowd Arrives, Point 5: The word is now out about Jesus; he can no longer go into a town openly. And the crowd is now fully visible in the narrative. Hamerton-Kelly makes this extraordinary statement: "The behaviour of the cleansed leper arouses the inquisitiveness and the acquisitiveness of the mob." The crowd/mob may be disinterested in a person. But it is never merely interested. Once the crowd becomes aware of an individual person, it seeks to own them. The crowd cannot co-exist with a person, it must control them. Once a person is not "lost in the crowd" or undifferentiated from the crowd, they enter the place of either victim or servant of the crowd, and such servants are always liable to become victims. The person the crowd has noticed submits to the will of the crowd or is driven from the town into the wilderness. Hamerton-Kelly says, "It does not matter if one is execrated or celebrated, the attention of the mob and the sacrificial system make it impossible for the victim to exist within the system. (pp77) Unless, of course, they submit to it.
We see today that celebrities are owned by the crowd of us, which very often turns upon them. The celebrity fall from grace is the scapegoat mechanism at work. We vent our rage upon our idols when they disappoint us and no longer provide us with a way to avoid our own shame. Celebrities are already victims because they are being used by the crowd to avoid its own pain and vacuity and may be further sacrificed.
When we read Mark as the story of the Messiah who is a victim, we see that Jesus comes and goes as he pleases. He is not driven out of the towns, he chooses not to remain there, and returns to the wilderness. He chooses when to return. But, for the culture and its crowds, he is always the victim, even in his moments of fame and goodwill from the crowd. Eventually the crowd will demand that he be expelled utterly; that is, crucified as the scapegoat, and then we will see that empire is ultimately powerless because even death cannot expel him.
2:1-12 Going into a Town, Point 6: The scribes are correct about the tradition: God is the one who forgives. There is a Qumran fragment which may imply that in Jesus' time "some Palestinian Jews thought that a human being on earth could remit sins for God," (Marcus pp217) but generally a priest was seen to intercede with God on behalf of a person. In this case, when Jesus says your sins are forgiven he seems to be speaking in the divine passive which indicates this intercession or brokering. (cf 1:40-45 The Crowd Arrives, Point 4). Until this moment, and including when he says the sins of the man are forgiven, Jesus has acted exactly as Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest:
Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say, "I forgive you." Instead, as in 2:5, Mark is careful to show that God does the forgiving and that Jesus is acting as a broker on behalf of the forgiving Patron. Patrons were often absent and designated brokers to distribute favors on their behalf. What is being questioned in the challenge to Jesus, then, and what he demonstrates in his careful response, is his authorization to act as God's designated broker. (Commentary on Mk 2:9)
But if Jesus is a designated broker of God's forgiveness, then the monopoly of the current brokers is under threat. No wonder they were jealous, as Pilate perceived (Mark 15:10). However, Jesus is not competing in the same system as the religious authorities. He is coming into the town from outside; he is not a part of the system, but is already living and being in the wilderness. His gospel claims that the entire cultural system is misconceived. We will see him make that quite clear when he speaks of himself as The Son of Man, where he bluntly claims to have authority to forgive sins. He claims more than the religious authorities can claim.
When he makes this claim and demonstrates its truth by healing the paralysed man, the crowd is "all amazed", for the man who was paralysed, stuck, and unable to move, can now move and live freely. It is not accidental that Mark chose paralysis, and demonstrated its totality by the man being brought to Jesus on the pallet, instead of choosing a man who was healed of the flu.
Hamerton-Kelly points out that the word translated as amazed is existasthai, and we can see a family connection to our word ecstasy. The crowd is at flashpoint because its intelligence recognises it is in the presence of something... altering. It instinctively understands it has met an alterity, an "otherness," which can change everything.
A crowd in this state is a dangerous crowd for those whose skill is to manipulate the crowd and find a scapegoat in order to enable and preserve their own power and security. Despite the intelligence which recognises an alterity which may be healing and freeing, the crowd is also ecstatic; that is out of its mind. Crowds which are out of their mind instinctively seek a scapegoat to restore sanity and calm; in other words, to burn off the emotional overload, as it were, and restore the safety of the status quo. Those who are the designated leaders are very vulnerable at such moments, because they are already differentiated from the crowd and highly visible, which makes them a likely target if the mob panics. By the time we reach Mark 3:6, the religious authorities will have decided to destroy Jesus, but this decision begins here, for with his claim to be The Son of Man Jesus is not merely competing with the religious authorities. He is claiming that they are no longer relevant. The Son of Man, as we shall see, turns the religious system on its head.
Mark will make much of people's ability to see or not see, particularly at 4:10-12, but also in the stories of healing from blindness (8:18-28 and 10:46-52) which bookend the teaching in between. There is a subtlety to the metaphor of blindness which is quite evident in the current pericope. The scribes see exactly what Jesus is doing. They are neither blind nor stupid and can see that he is destroying the system to which they have given their lives. What they cannot see is that this destruction is freedom, because they have not given their lives to God, despite all their best efforts, but have been enslaved by a system which always destroys people, and which must destroy people in order to survive.
There is one more thing to say about the crowd and its manipulators here. Hamerton-Kelly notes that the crowd in 3:21 is said to be exestē which NRSV translates as out of its mind. But when we read 3:21, exestē is, in fact, being said of Jesus! Yet Hamerton-Kelly has not misread the text; he has seen that the crowd, so much a crowd that Jesus and the disciples cannot eat, is out of its mind. The phrasing for people wer saying, "He has gone out of his mind shows us the scapegoating has begun; the fear and vulnerability is already being tipped onto Jesus, even if at this moment we tend to see him more as a celebrity than a victim, and do not see that a celebrity is merely a victim postponed. (cf 1:40-45 The Crowd Arrives, Point 5) The other way to put this is to say that the guilt assigned to the scapegoat is the guilt the crowd knows at an unconscious level is its own guilt, but cannot bear to face. What the crowd says about Jesus is, in fact, the truth about itself.
[i] Based on figures released to a Senate Estimates committee. (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/07/keeping-biloela-family-locked-up-on-christmas-island-cost-australia-14m-last-year)
[ii] This is the language used by Minister Cash, which betrays the violence of the whole affair. (https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/biloela-family-unaware-of-option-to-resettle-in-nz-or-us-20210609-p57zj3.html)
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