The Good Samaritan and “Wokeness”

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Let’s talk about “wokeness” and the bible. When the teacher of the law asks Jesus “who is (εστιν) my neighbor?” in the well known parable of the Good Samartian (Luke 10: 25-37), we could talk at length about the social/power dynamics, or religious and ethnic discrimination, but before we get to that, let’s look at the end. Jesus changes the question in typical Midrash style and asks the teacher, “Who became the neighbor?” He doesn’t use the same verb as the teacher (εστιν), but uses the much more active verb of being (γινομαι) (here in the perfect γεγονεναι).

This changes the understanding of the command to “love thy neighbor” away from the neighborliness of obligation that is either individualistic (Kantian/Lockean) or even one with the clear demarcation of society as in Hegel’s Sittlichkeit–which focuses ethics to be in primarily in a societal realm. By changing the question of “who is my neighbor,” which implies reciprocity and societal rules/order, to “who became the neighbor” Jesus is subverting societal expectation and the very concept of individual/personal “rights.”

Now going back to Jesus’s decision to make a Samaritan his primary hero, we can see that this no mere tokenism. It is integral to the broader point that Jesus is making to the Jewish teacher of the law that the one who becomes the neighbor be a Samaritan. I’m sure you are aware of the racial implications of the “good Samaritan.” The Cottonpatch version did a good job communicating this to white Southerners in the 1960s by changing the story to the parable of the “Good Negro” (not so subtly calling out their racism). What is less well known, is the religious minority status Samaritans held among Jews. Samaritans were descendants of Northern tribes of Israel who were left by the Assyrians as too old/weak/poor to bother with and who married/had children with others from the Assryian empire.

They had already changed the worship of YHWH (see John 4) and altered it further by blending together their ancient Yahwehism with other Ancient Near East cultures. Thus Samaritan religion had some similarities with Jewish religion, but was not “pure.” They used similar terminology, claimed to worship the same God, but most Jewish people did not think that was true. A near contemporary parallel to the Jewish relationship religiously with the Samaritans for the Modern American/Western European would be a Christian in relation to a practitioner of Islam (a Muslim).

So, going back to the question Jesus asks at the end of the parable, before Jesus tells the teacher to emulate the ethnic and religious minority, how do we set that in our contemporary context? There is a subtle draw to adopt a modernist ethics pervasive in the Church today. While we are told to beware the dangers of “postmodernism,” ethically, philosophically, and theologically, the real danger to the Christian message as presented in the bible and throughout most of its history is found in modernism.

Modernist Ethics seeks to ground the authority for ethics in reason alone. It acts in terms of clear cut rules for what is and is not acceptable and believes these are arrived at through universal reason. It may vest that authority in something else, like the bible. It justifies doing so because that authoritative text is proven trustworthy. So a modernist Christian will accept the bible is the source for ethics because it is true. It is true because it is verified as such from the experiences of many, coherence to historical fact, scientific truths, etc.

This is behind the obsession with proving a Young Earth Creationist view of the world, insisting that Jonah was swallowed by a fish, not a whale, or that the Mustard seed is in fact the smallest seed. These types of concerns are modernist ones that fail to grasp history or differences of language in translation (especially of ancient texts). The bible, for its part, is not concerned with these modernist notions. That’s not to say modernism is always bad, just foreign to the world and concerns of the Bible. So we should not necessarily be surprised when the biblical worldview is conflict with the modernist one. Nor should we try quite to hard to conform the Bible to our Modernist sensibilities.

The fear of “woke-ism,” too, is a modernist one. It is a fear that we cannot readily identify the boundaries of which group is where. Critical Theories (CT) like Critical Race Theory (CRT) are extensions out of modernism, but are not bound within modernism. Integral to CT and cRT work is challenging the prevailing narrative as (for instance with CRT) too white-centric or too male dominant, etc. CRT challenges the modern categories of race as artificial, and demands we listen to the story of others and take them at face value, at least initially, prior to making judgment.

CTs are not completely anti-modern, though, as they tend to back up claims with a methodology that incorporates hard data and statistics, often focused on economic realities, but other metrics as well. Still, they challenge the idea that everyone fits into neat boxes.This is especially true when one begins to discuss Intersectionality or “Identity politics.” It subverts the clear cut narratives. On the one hand, the fear is understandable. If I can’t clearly define exactly what the rules are, I might unintentionally break them.

The reality is much more complicated, though. There are no rules, at least not ones with clear cut boundaries as in modernist ethics (like you get with Kant and Hegel). This is uncomfortable. Returning to the parable of the good Samaritan, then, we see this play out. Jesus asks the teacher of the law “who became the neighbor?” This implies first, that while each act and incidence might be self-contained, “neighbor-ness” is not a permanent status, but a goal to be striven after, over and over again.

Second, the boundary for who this includes is beyond the scope of what we would normally consider. By all accounts, the Levite, the priest, the other characters were the neighbor, but they did not *become* the neighbor. Only the Samaritan did. So the question this poses to us, then, is not “what are my (ethical) obligations?” But rather, “how can I demonstrate love, kindness, neighborliness today?” By making the conversation about maintaining the societal order and status quo, questioning the notion of “wokeness” as valid, opponents to CRT in the Church excuse themselves from asking the second and more difficult question. They excuse themselves from hearing, listening, or seeing the “other,” from seeing the one who “fell among bandits,” from understanding their own relationship to a society that creates bandits in the first place, or allows others to fall victim.

An obsession with dismissing “wokeness” makes for an easy life that is not concerned with loving the down-trodden, but instead with excusing one’s actions and justifying oneself. The dismissal of the work as “wokeness” accepts the goodness of the kingdoms “of this world” to the neglect of the Kingdom not “of this world” (εκ του κοσμου).


2019 Lent Day 22: Mark 8:14-26

Mark 8:14-26

Come on!

At the start of today’s passage, Jesus is trying to warn his disciples about the “yeast of the Pharisees;” the idea that a little bit of bad teaching gradually works its way through everything. Instead, the disciples hear “yeast” and immediately think with their stomachs. Jesus can scarcely believe it. Why would they be worried about food? Jesus has demonstrated his ability to not only meet, but exceed their physical needs. But they can’t get past it.

An incomplete healing

The next passage has an interesting bit. From a surface reading, it looks like Jesus heals, and it doesn’t take initially (they people “look like trees”), and so must be done again. Instead of wondering in this way. Is it possible, that this is exactly what Jesus meant to do? Wat kind of conversation, not here recorded, might Jesus and the blind man have had. By healing him over a process, instead of instantaneously, this man had a different and unique experience (only this Gospel records it). Perhaps, in our own life, there is some greater reason that, when we request a healing, it comes slowly, if it all.

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2019 Lent Day 20: Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37

The Secret Spreads

The passage today opens with yet another reference to the “secret” of God’s Kingdom as the Gospel of Mark tells it. Yet this time, the secret is spreading to the foreigner. And we have a somewhat troubling passage in the Gospel.

The question here is, what is going on with the Syrophoenician woman? As an interpreter, you have to decide: is Jesus testing her or is Jesus being convinced by her? Given the general tone of Mark’s gospel, and of Scripture as a whole, option one seems unlikely. Instead, we get the gospel idea that while Jesus has come to all nations, it is to Israel first. He responds “First”, indicating there will be a second.

Is Jesus calling her a dog? That seems a bit rude. Perhaps. Yet, I think that we misunderstand the rhetoric. It seems that Jesus is drawing on a relevant example of how mealtime works. He is both bread and father, and at a Jewish meal (as in any household) the family is fed before anyone else. Israel has always been called God’s son, and Christ is noting that, at least right now, those outside Israel are not yet God’s children in the same way.

The woman’s response presses the metaphor beyond what Jesus intended (i.e. his intent was not to insult her). However, she is right that the Kingdom may be able to spill over as it is breaking through. He did, after all, come to her village. So Jesus’ compassion toward her breaks through and her daughter is healed and kingdom spreads.

Be opened

In direct contrast to the nation of Israel that are incapable of hearing the message of the Kingdom, Jesus encounters a physically deaf man. His response is quick and to the point “Be opened” and it is so. The language is creative in nature (“Let it be opened” as in “Let there light”) indicating a connection with restoration. And so the “secret” gets around all the more.

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Lent Day 12: Mark 5:1-20

Mark 5:1-20

The Demonic and today

Earlier in the Gospel of Mark, and throughout many places in the Gospels, there is mention of those who are demon possessed. Today we are tempted not to think much of it. Perhaps, we may reason, this was just an ancient attempt at understanding mental as well as physical ailments. Demonic possession, after all, seems the sort of thing they make scary movies about. Certainly not something to be taken seriously in our day to day life. Perhaps there were, and even are still, demonically possessed individuals, but I have never encountered them and don’t really need to worry about that.

Perhaps. But perhaps not. Early modern thinker S∅ren Kierkegaard believed that the demonic was particularly acute in our modern society. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard opens his section on “Anxiety about the good” in his fourth chapter noting our modern reluctance to even mention anything about the demonic. According to Kierkegaard, the plight of the demonic (whether that is the man or the demons within the man) is that he is so bound to sin, that he is no longer anxious about it. Rather, he is anxious about the good. Yet, by that same anxiety, the demonic is drawn and revealed by the good. It is the demoniac that approaches Jesus, not the other way around. Kierkegaard is not dismissing the real possibility of demonic possession (in fact he prefers such a reading), but is noting that should not be the primary focus.

Rock Bottom

What really strikes me, and has struck most readers of Kierkegaard, is that the man who is in this pitiful state, who has gone as far down as possible, asks Jesus to leave him alone. This man who is tortured day and night (or the demons who torture themselves day and night) asks Jesus not to torture him. This is the dichotomy Kierkegaard points out. The demonic is simultaneously drawn to the good and repulsed by it. The man his lowest can see the goodness exuding out of Jesus, yet is so bound to sin he wants to be left alone. He is incapable of asking for help, yet he so desperately needs it. He is more victim than condemned at this point. It is precisely in this binding to sin that we see the full destructive power of sin. Sin is not something to beat ourselves up about. Rather, Sin is the ultimate enemy. The devil wishes he were as powerful and destructive as sin, yet he is just another victim of it.

The name to which the man responds is legion. Whether this also means he is possessed by a legion of demons is again not the point. He is not the only one in such a sorry state.

The drug addict, cannot save himself from his addiction. The bully at school is not being a bully for its own sake, but (in most all cases) responding to her or his own trouble at home. The plight of loneliness in our modern culture is brought about by chemical changes wrought on our psyche through technology our minds never evolved to truly handle or understand. We are legion indeed. And only Christ can save us, whether we want it or not.

Get Out

The passage ends with Jesus insisting on the secret again, but just before that, the town’s people come to see this man. The great shock was not the pigs running off the cliff. What prompts the crowd’s actions is seeing the man, the former crazed man, sitting, fully clothed at the feet of Jesus. Kierkegaard notes that this is primary failing of our society. We fail to see ourselves in the plight of the demoniac.

Rather than seeing the man rescued from sin and fully restored and rejoice, the people become afraid and ask Jesus to leave. If Jesus can cause such a radical change for that man, what kind of change does that mean for us? And so many of us go to a church building, drawn to the goodness in Christ, but we’ve segmented this part of our lives off so much that we may as well have rejected it. We depart from the presence of the holy unchanged, unbothered, and unconcerned. The Good (that is Christ) is calling us to genuine freedom and we abandon it for the comfort of daily routine.

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