Reflections from a pastor who is himself afraid.
"Why on earth have we panicked over toilet paper?" we wonder. To be sure, shortages of rice and flour and oil have followed, but why did it all begin with toilet paper? In his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, (Available on Kindle) Richard Beck explores the role of disgust, cleanliness, and purity in our being human. Impulses of disgust, cleanliness, and purity, are a response to the fear of death.
Purity and cleanliness establish boundaries around us. We still sometimes say that "cleanliness is next to godliness," which gives it all away. Early purity laws were not about hygiene and microbiological cleanliness as we understand it today. They were about being right with God, which had a lot in common with being right with the tribe. In fact, in order to be right with the god, you had to be right with the tribe. So following purity rituals, the rituals of washing and cleanliness and boundaries, had the deep psychological role not only of keeping nasty stuff out of our mouths, or keeping us out of danger in other ways, but also of marking us as belonging. And when you belong, then you are far less at risk of being the one chosen as the scapegoat, and ending up being killed, or driven out, and dying.
In this sense, cleanliness which is again very suddenly and seriously about the keeping of rules, is about being right with 'God,' where 'God' is the ruling behaviours of our culture here and now. And whether we see this 'God' through a religious lens or not; that is, whether or not we think God actually exists beyond ruling behaviours, doing the right thing by that which is 'God' to us, promises us a life lived long in the land. That, of course, is the language and promise of Deuteronomy. Toilet paper betrays the obvious thing about us in the days of Covid-19: we are afraid. Death is at the door. So our deep instinct— we who are, after all, not very far from our primitive ancestors— our deep instinct is to be 'clean'; hence, the purchase of toilet paper, which promises us in some dimly seen but deeply felt sense to wipe away our fear.
Death is always at the door, but we mostly manage to ignore it, and pretend it won't come today or anytime soon. In Covid-19, death has suddenly broken through our defences; death could come next week. Indeed, it is uncomfortably likely that it will have a shot at us. John 11 can be read as a text about how to live in the face of death. It can be read as bios-life— ordinary human biological existence, transformed into zōē -life, a healing of our living in the shadow and fear of death; a calling out of the cave of death. (zōē is the word Jesus uses of himself: "I am the resurrection and the life- zōē.")
In all of this panic in the last couple of weeks, we had been swamped with false news and conspiracy theories. I have been watching a Facebook 'friend' who traffics this stuff, although I have finally turned him off for a while. But I understand what has been happening. Fake news and conspiracy theorising come down to two main things that I can see: One is the desire to control. It is from here that both the spur-of-the-moment fabrications of a sad figure like Trump, and also the carefully planned campaigns of political parties and governments come. Such liars speak to control, to their own benefit, the metanarrative by which the people will live.
But the consumers of such conspiracies, people like my Facebook acquaintance, also seek control. They seek the thrill and control of secret knowledge – they seek the power and comfort of 'knowing what is going on'— or pretending to know what is going on. Even crazy theories can give us a sense of control and safety in the face of death. We know.
In itself, an overarching explanation of the world— knowing— is a good thing. It helps to understand what is happening around us, because then we can decide how to live well; in fact, we can't live without some such explanation. The question is, is our explanation and understanding correct? What does our understanding and explanation— and the living of it— do for the health and healing of human beings, of all human beings, not just our own position and safety? (Obviously, facts are important. But all facts, as they come to us, are tainted by interpretation, and serve a purpose. Our facts, even those which seem to be hard physical data, always need to be questioned about the purpose they are being made to serve.)
This is all relevant to John 11 because, as I say to people, there is a conspiracy going on. There are forces which wish to control you. They wish to use you as their insulation from death, and they do. We often call them "the powers-that-be," and if we simply cut off John at Verse 45, as the Lectionary does, we leave "the powers-that-be" out of the equation this week. We ignore John's and Jesus' understanding of the world, and of what is happening in the world. We don't open our eyes to the fake news.
(It's not that conspiracy theorists are wrong, as such. They simply don't go deep enough. When we go to the depths John and Jesus go, we end up staring death in the face. Who wants that!? A mythical 'Deep State' is a much more comfortable story to run with!)
The key verses that we need to bring into the light of Jesus' raising of Lazarus, so that we may see what he is doing, are these:
48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place [lit. the place and the nation] and our nation.’
The controlling power is Rome. And Rome's power is death. Rome, the people at the top, are always seeking to maintain their own lives, and to insulate themselves from death, by the threat of death. We then have Caiaphas' classic statement of scapegoat theology:
49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
This statement underpins Deuteronomic Theology, which is refined in our time as Prosperity Theology. For the nation to have a long life – even if only a life in the presence of Roman oppression – there must be death. We must be prepared to sacrifice people. And exclusion, boundaries, cleanliness— all these are an attempt to sanitise what we are really doing at the symbolic level: killing. And when the symbolic fails and everything boils over, and there are fights in the toilet paper aisle, and riots on the street, death is a too common end-point.
In John 11, we have two groups of people. There are the people of the lie, those who've cast their lot in with Rome's lie that it provides life: the Pharisees, the Chief Priests, and those who take their lead from them. Those who take their lead from them are the Judeans, the Ioudaioi.
Ioudaioi, the Greek word which NRSV translates as Judeans, but which others translate as Jews, does not mean Jewish in John's Gospel. Everyone in this story is Jewish. Ioudaioi means those who think, in the end, that by killing someone, by blaming, by finding the ones at fault, we can extend life and create safety. A Ioudaioi life is a life driven by the fear of death, and ruled by it. And the tragedy is that even someone like a Pharisee, a good, ethical and clean living person, deeply politically opposed to Rome— even they end up, in this story, being Ioudaioi, when they are ruled by the fear of death. As can we.
The other people in John are the Galileans. John Petty suggests that Lazarus – it means: god helps – is a Galilean name.
The word "Lazarus" comes from the Hebrew eleazer. "Lazarus" is believed to be a Galilean pronunciation of Eleazar, indicating that Lazarus and his sisters perhaps were "Galileans." To be a Galilean in the fourth gospel was not determined solely by geography. To be a Galilean means to share a "Galilean" frame of mind.
The fourth gospel can be said to be an argument between a Galilean and Judean [that is: a Ioudaioi] worldview. The Judean view represents that of the empire, what Walter Wink calls "the powers." The Galilean point of view is that exemplified by Jesus--a new world of equality, mercy, justice, and true life.
The Galileans are Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and the disciples: confused, angry, grieving, afraid, but all in their own way seeking to follow Jesus. And Jesus seeks to show them – John seeks to show us – that death does not have the last word about us. To follow Jesus is to be a Galilean.
Both Jesus and Lazarus are buried in a tomb in John. Lazarus (11:31) has been laid in a mnēmeion, a word for tomb which has overtones of a memorial, and very soon, Jesus will be buried in another mnēmeion in John 20:1. (You can see how we derive the word mnemonic from this word.) But then John specifically says the mnēmeion of Lazarus was actually a spēlaion, a cave. (I think we get the study of caves: speleology, from this word.)
Spēlaion is also the word used for a den of thieves in Matthew 21:13 and Mark 11:17. It is also used in Revelation 6:15.
Then the kings of the earth and the princes and the generals and the rich and the powerful and everyone — slave and free — hid themselves in the caves (spēlaia | σπήλαια | acc pl neut) and among the rocks of the mountains. (Mounce)
Jesus calls Lazarus out of the place of death, and out of the place of the liars and thieves, the kings of the earth and the princes and the generals and the rich and the powerful who promise life but always seem to bring war. We are called out to a new way of living, and we are called to unbind those around who are beginning to step out of the way of death.
And the cost of this is death! In John, the reason Jesus dies is that he has exposed the lies of the Romans, and of the Ioudaioi, the ones who lived in the Roman orbit, and on the Roman scraps. He says there is a life, a zōē where death is not the last word, or the controlling word, and that life can be lived without the excluding and killing of others.
Fear just is. It is a basic human emotion no one can escape. And here, in John 11, Jesus and the disciples are afraid. And the Ioudaioi are afraid. They recognise the Empire will seek to rub the phenomenon of Jesus out, and make sure they are not in the firing line by killing him first. Whoever hammers the nails, the Empire in some form or another kills Jesus because it understands how it is being challenged. Rob McCoy says
If you don’t have a little bit of fear, then I think you might be christian-ish, or as Kendra Creasy Dean would put it, you might be Almost Christian. I say this because I think the Chief Priests had it more right than most people give them credit for. Jesus is dangerous.
Jesus has the power to turn your life upside down. Jesus offers life, but he also offers a cross. He offers life, but only to those that would turn their life away. He offers comfort, but only to those that mourn. Jesus came to afflict the comfortable. He came to turn sons against fathers and daughters against mothers.
If we don’t have at least a little bit of fear about what discipleship really means, than I’m not sure we really get it. Following Jesus can lead people into dark places – uncomfortable, dirty, smelly places. It can lead us into danger, and bring us into contact with dangerous people [and viruses.]
At one level, Jesus' call to a new way of living this seems an impossible challenge. How do we trust it? How do we live in a way that will make us stand out as dangerous?
John 11:26 says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Do you pisteueis (believe/trust) this?" It's one thing to concoct some theoretical or intellectual model of what this might mean. But can we trust it by living as though death does not have the last word, and by ceasing to sustain ourselves by judgment, condemnation, exclusion and killing? (Which means not supporting the structures which do kill. There is more than private piety involved here.) Can we really trust that "Those who believe/trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die?"
I say "as though death does not have the last word," and not "as though death does not matter," because John makes it very clear that death does matter. Jesus is angry and deeply moved by the death of Lazarus. He weeps for Lazarus, and perhaps, because he knows what is coming, for himself. He does not chastise either Martha or Mary who say the same quietly blaming words: "If you had been here...." He too lives in a world where God is, apparently, absent and silent and powerless for much of the time.
Pastorally, I think this text allows us to vent our fear and rage and panic upon God, which is the right place. Otherwise we will visit these things upon other people and join the way of Ioudaioi, which is to give death control over us. One of my teachers told us many years ago of the father who bought a birthday cake to bring to his son in hospital. As the father drove to the hospital, the son died. Later, speaking to our teacher in the hospital chapel, the father hurled the cake at the cross. He did exactly the right thing. And those of us who do not feel we will "cast our crowns before [him], lost in wonder, love and praise," (Wesley) but are angered enough by the world that we long to shout on the Last Day, if we did not do so yesterday, "What the f*** made you think all This was a good idea?" do the right thing.
Davis says he uses Martha and Mary's regret and pain at funerals.
I often use this text for funerals and memorial services to note that when someone we love dies, there are almost always regrets of what we could have or should have done/avoided in the past. Such expressions are a sign of love.
I think that to rage at God in the face of death and injustice is also a sign of love, not only because of our concern and our grief for people, but because in it we refuse to deflect that rage and death upon others. We trust that God loves us even in our regrets and rage and fears.
And to be afraid is to understand what is at stake. And is to value the life we have been given. Many who are not afraid, and who are still not 'social distancing' don't really understand, or perhaps they are not quite being honest with themselves.
As the plague explodes into Adelaide, I have family out and about, instead of in sensible self-isolation. They are trying to get someone safe into Residential Care, a massive undertaking at any time. The details don't matter, but one result could well be that the person will be safe, and the carers, older, with compromised health, will come down with the virus just as the health system begins to collapse.
To abandon this person would be to join the Ioudaioi way of living. Walking with the person, bearing their confusion and anger and fear, as well as our own, will be a constant wobble between the way of Jesus and the temptation to give into the way of Ioudaioi. A temptation which will face all who are working in supermarkets and hospitals and police, and other essential services.
And perhaps we will die.
Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life."
This is all we have, whether we die now or later. But it is the way of life. It steps out of the way of death. It is Resurrection life. It is good for us, and healing.
May peace be upon you.
Andrew Prior (Lent 5 2020)
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!
Would you like to comment?
Click to add feedback