Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Millstones and lobbed-off limbs: Jesus on child sexual abuse (and more from Mark)

This guest blogpost is a sermon preached by my friend, Rev. Karen Thomas Smith, Chaplain to the Christian Community at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. (The University was created by the King of Morocco to be a place of interfaith dialogue in this overwhelmingly Islamic nation.) Karen is also the Protestant representative to the Moroccan Council of Churches.  This sermon is part of a series on the Gospel of Mark.  Considering how widespread child sexual abuse is throughout the world–even in many so-called “Christian homes”–I asked permission to reprint it here.  This needs widespread dissemination and discussion. MLW-W
Mark 9:38-50; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5:13-20

So I’ve got your attention by the subject of this sermon. But before we get to the millstones and lobbed-off limbs, we have to remember where we are in Mark if we’re going to grasp greater meaning in this story and address this deadly issue from within its Biblical context.

Tonight’s gospel reading is part of what scholars call a Markan sandwich; some of you have heard me mention before that in Mark’s gospel, stories are frequently inserted within other stories. We all know that this frequently happens in real life to us, we’re in the middle of doing something or talking about something when we get interrupted. And, indeed, this would undoubtedly have happened to Jesus a lot. But scholars have long noted that the parts of a Markan sandwich are not just related temporally as part of the narrative, but theologically, thematically, in some way, mutually interpreting each other –which often happens to me in real life, too: the interruption colors whatever I was already engaged in and vice-versa. For example, if Ito from Tarmilat comes to visit me while I am working on my sermon, my having been thinking about the sermon shapes my conversation with her, and my encounter with her then shapes my sermon). I say all this simply to note that these so-called literary devices are not just artificially imposed, but relate to our lives.

So, in any case, what we have here is the middle of the sandwich and the bottom slice of bread. The top of the sandwich is the text we read last week, where the disciples were discussing greatness and Jesus draws a small child into their midst and invites them to abandon dreams of greatness and welcome small children. If you skip verses 38-41, the narrative reads much more smoothly, with Jesus continuing to talk about “these little ones”. And because I am so struck with verses 42-48, I am tempted to do just that. But I’m going to resist that temptation in order to honor the whole of Mark’s sandwich; am I making you hungry, especially since we also just read the text about the Israelites longing for meat?

So then, setting aside food metaphors, we begin with the story about John’s concern over the outsider exorcist. It’s interesting that Mark identifies John as the one who asked the question, John the son of Zebedee who will later be caught arguing along with his brother James about who should get to sit in the highest places of honor when Jesus is glorified. (Makes you wonder if they were not at the heart of the discussion of greatness earlier, though they aren’t named there.) It seems, you see, that John enjoyed being one of Jesus’ closest disciple friends (part of the inner circle within the 12 that included Peter and James). John seems very aware of his privilege and position close to Jesus and the authority that brings. And it seems that John is rather possessive about this authority. It is telling, is it not, that John’s concern about the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name is that “he was not following US”? WE are the insiders, and this guy is an outsider. And John wants Jesus to support that clear distinction.

But as is so often the case, Jesus refuses to accept this distinction, this dividing line. “Do not forbid him”, Jesus responds, using the language of the conversation between Moses and Joshua son of Nun so many centuries before. The question Moses asked is also, therefore, evoked if not spoken aloud: Are you jealous, John? I imagine John’s cheeks coloring. This is all the more embarrassing given the fact that Jesus’ own disciples, Mark says, have recently proven themselves incapable of casting out a demon.

John discovers, as William Loeder notes, that “Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people.” It does not matter if healing and love come from his hand or the hand of another. What matters is that healing and love come. The insider/outsider boundary simply does not apply. Love observes no such boundaries. And to try to impose them is a mistake. Richard Jensen remarks, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line. Jesus is always with the outsiders.”

So Jesus words in verse 41 are a reminder to his disciples who might want insider privilege that the time will come when they will be grateful for the mercy and generosity of so-called outsiders. When “outsiders” care for them in even the smallest ways, through a cup of cold water, for example, God sees that and honors it. Would we want God to do anything less? Should we not also likewise honor such mercy and generosity which reflects the spirit of God in Christ no matter where it comes from?

Now we might be tempted to just stop here with the middle part of Mark’s sandwich and apply it to our situation here, the necessity of our being open to the spirit moving wherever it will, for example. But I really want to go on and do this in relation to the rest of the text. You note that the strength of Jesus’ exhortatory language is increasing here in verse 41: That “Amen” (Truly I tell you) adds emphasis. And the language only gets stronger in the verses that follow.

If the first part of this reading is about not obsessing over outside dangers to the community’s authority, integrity, and identity , the second part of the reading is a dire warning to look out for dangers to the community’s integrity and identity within. I think this is such an important warning to hear at so many levels. As individuals, communities, and even nations, we focus on threats coming to us from without and spend unceasing energy and resources to counter those, when what is much more likely to undo us is within – our own destructive patterns of being and doing that suck the life out of us and others.

There are so many destructive patterns of being and doing we might note: addictions of all kinds which break our bodies and destroy our relationships, our societal materialist obsession which leads us to exploit the earth and its peoples for cheap luxury, our immense personal and social capacities to ignore destructive realities until we arrive at ruin. But what Jesus speaks to here, in the strongest possible language, is what we do to children.

Yes, we are back to that little child in the middle of the circle, the child Jesus holds, the one he says we should welcome if we want to welcome him, to welcome God. All of a sudden, Jesus’s voice is trembling with emotion, with anger. It’s hard to catch the force of it in English, related to this powerful verb scandalizo, Whoever scandalizé one of these little ones – it means whoever ensares, traps, seduces one of these little ones “who trusts in me”. Can you see him now, with the children in his lap, trusting him? Whoever ensnares, entraps, seduces, one of these trusting little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea. God takes seriously what we do to trusting children.

And then you can see him looking around at these men who considered themselves spiritual insiders and warns them about their own eye, hand, foot – and you remember what foot is a euphemism for in the Biblical text right, you say foot when you mean the male sexual organ! Do you feel the progressive sexual engagement there: seeing, touching, violating. If your body parts are leading you to this, by God, cut them off. That’s what Jesus says.

You’ve got to wonder what had been going on. Had there been a situation of child sexual abuse or molestation brought to Jesus? What did he know about that was going on in Capernaum, maybe had been going on for years, maybe in the synagogue itself? And though he was undoubtedly fiercely protected by his mother and step-father as a child, what had he seen and experienced as a child himself, what had happened to his playmates and childhood friends? Who among us does not have someone we love who is deeply wounded from childhood sexual abuse? And the vast majority of the time, the abuser is an insider, family or friend, and the place of abuse is inside the home, inside the church, inside the school, all places that should be safe, but so often aren’t.

Jesus could not be more seriously about the hellish deadliness of this sin. And that’s encouraging to me. I wish all Christian institutitions would be as uncompromising as Jesus himself when dealing with child abuse and molestation. So often, the institution puts a priority on forgiving the perpetrator and addressing his needs, hushing up the offense to protect the reputation of the perpetrator and the institution. The wounded child is encouraged to forgive and forget, to not dwell on it, to get over it (at best, with counseling). And while I am all for redemption for all transgressors, all sinners, from what I can tell, the family or institutional covering up results in little redemption for anyone – the offender or the victim. That is NOT what the Bible means by love covering a multitude of sins. The most gracious, loving, redeeming thing that one can do for all parties involved is to get the offender away from children definitively. For his sake, and most importantly, for the sake of the children.

The final words of this section, while rather strange and puzzling, are very important in moving toward hopefulness and healing. All the talk of the fires of hell, lead Jesus to reflect on fire and salt. It’s clearly an allusion to the Biblical custom of offering salt with every sacrifice (which was burned you know). Salt was essential for the purification of the sacrifice. And so Jesus is holding out hope for purification. And it’s related to the community. Don’t lose your saltiness (which happens when salt is corrupted with impure additions), but have salt in yourselves, Jesus says. These are all plural yous. He doesn’t mean just take responsibility for yourself alone and get as pure as you can (that’s much more the pharisaic approach). Jesus call for his community to be salt for one another as well as the world toward the goal of real peace (shalom) with all its implications – right relationship with each other, with the world, with God.

Jesus puts responsibility for being salt not on a few chosen insider leaders, but on everybody. In this spirit, James will say pray for one another, confess your sins to one another, bring one another back from the brink of destruction, don’t just let your brother, your sister get trapped, get stuck. Keep your eyes and your hearts open and work for changes that help keep people out of traps – changes in our institutions, changes in our society, changes in our world.

This weekend, some churches around the world are responding to the gospel text by drawing attention to child trafficking and asking Christian communities to speak out against it. Here in Morocco, the most commonly accepted version of child trafficking, which often leads to molestation and sexual abuse is the practice of having child maids. Nouzha Skalli, the Moroccan minister of development, leads the official campaign against child maids (illegal, by the way, in Morocco – no child under 15 can work), a campaign called Inqad, which means rescue. Apart from simply raising awareness of the issue, she emphasizes that the campaign is pushing for greater emphasis on girls’ schooling and formation, keeping them out of the maid market.

I can’t help but think of a girl at Tarmilat I know who was sent away at the age of nine to be a child maid. She came back a couple of years ago at the age of13, which is when I met her, and had herpes. She has some serious psychological issues now. And it breaks my heart. But I’d like to think this will not happen to others now. And although we are the “outsiders” here in many ways, I’d like to think we’ve been a part of helping stop this destructive pattern in one community through our support of girls’ education in Tarmilat and continuing education programs for the older teenage girls who never had the change to go to school. I found out this week that we now have the first child from Tarmilat to ever attend university – Samira, the daughter of Aicha Rehiwi. The offering we take tonight will go toward the Tarmilat education program, paying for books for four girls in middle school and high school and for Samira’s university books. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that we can do as Christ’s community to be salt for one another and for the earth where, ultimately, we are none of us outsiders, but all in this together.

So brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts to welcome and be welcomed, to exhort and to protect, so that we might create a community of peace where we don’t have to lose our limbs or our integrity, but may find wholeness and hope. Alleluia. Alhumdullillah. Amen.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | child welfare, discipleship, faith, human rights., sin | 1 Comment

The Truth About S-CHIP

Well, last week the House was 24 votes from being able to override the president’s veto.  Yesterday, they fell just 13 votes short. 44 House Republicans voted for the override.  157 Republicans and 2 Democrats supported Bush and voted against the health and welfare of children. See how your Rep. voted here and thank them if they voted for the S-CHIP expansion. If they voted against it, call them and urge them change their minds when this next comes up for a vote (which will be soon). To sustain this veto, the Republicans and the rightwing press and bloggers carried out a propaganda disinformation campaign.  They included the following false claims:

  • That the S-CHIP program was originally to help poor children and was now being expanded to families who didn’t deserve to be on it. FALSE.  The poor are covered by Medicaid.  S-CHIP, which was largely the work of Republicans during the Clinton administration, was ALWAYS designed for working families–up to 250% of the poverty line–who either could not afford private health insurance or who, because of “pre-existing medical conditions” cannot get insurance at any cost.
  • That the vetoed S-CHIP bill expanded coverage even to those with family incomes of $85 K per year.  FALSE. That figure was from New York state which attempted to get a waiver for such a family. The waiver was denied.  The S-CHIP legislation, including its expansion, insists that total family income be less that $50 K per year, no matter pre-existing conditions or cost of living, etc.
  • That the S-CHIP bill would give health care to illegal immigrants.  FALSE.  It is because this bill EXCLUDES undocumented immigrants that the usually liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) voted against it. (I disagree with Kucinich here, btw.) Kucinich was persuaded to change his vote to, “yea” this time around, I am glad to say.
  • That S-CHIP expansion is a step toward “socialized medicine.” No, socialized medicine is what the President, VP, Cabinet, every member of Congress and the Supreme Court all enjoy.  S-CHIP worked with a minimum of bureacracy, was adapted by each state locally, used private health insurance carriers (purchased by the states).  It focused on prevention and saved millions by not using emergency rooms as primary care.  It was so successful that even though George W. Bush opposed it as Gov. of Texas (and had to be overridden), he later came to praise its success.

I won’t re-hash all the lies told about S-CHIP recipient Graeme Frost and his family–all of which have been shown to be false.  But here are some other truths about S-CHIP which Republicans will have to grasp very soon:

  • According to a poll commissioned by CBS News, 81% of Americans back S-CHIP and its expansion.
  • 74% of Americans would favor it even if it meant higher taxes! If the question had mentioned that S-CHIP would be financed by tobacco taxes, that percentage would be even higher.
  • Only 22% of Americans approve of Bush’s handling of health care at all. That’s even lower than the 26% who approve of his handling of Iraq!
  • According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, only 26% of Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats to solve health care problems–lower than those who trust Republicans more on Iraq (34%), on fighting terrorism (40%), on the economy (33%), or on lowering the federal budget deficit (29%).  Those numbers suggest that Republicans up for reelection had better have evidence that they are not “typical Republicans” or not “copies of Bush” if they hope to retain their jobs. Voting against health care for children is NOT the way to produce such evidence.

With those kinds of numbers, it is certain that an S-CHIP expansion will pass.  Healthcare has now become the 2nd biggest issue of the 2008 campaign, right after Iraq. If this doesn’t pass before the end of the year, it will become an issue in every election of 2008.  The Bush veto of S-CHIP could be the nail in the political coffins of many GOP political careers.  Emergency legislation funding the program at current levels will keep the program going until mid-November. Expect another showdown over this bill before the emergency funding expires.

Unsolicited advice to Congressional Republicans:  Vote for this bill if you want to continue in your current job.  Bush doesn’t care about you. He will be out of office in January ’09 regardless.  But if you continue to uphold his position, you will be joining him in looking for new opportunities in the private sector.  And while you are breaking with the president to help children, you might want to vote to restore Habeas Corpus for everyone, end torture, and end domestic spying.  Are you sure you want to hitch your political future to the coattails of a president with lower approval ratings than Nixon had during Watergate?

October 19, 2007 Posted by | child welfare, economic justice, family | 3 Comments

Overriding the S-CHIP VETO

72% of the American public (including 61% of Republicans) wants the reauthorization and expansion of the S-CHIP program that protects children’s health.  The program was invented largely by Republicans, works very well, saves money for businesses and increases performance in education (thus saving society later from higher unemployment and prison rates). But most Americans just believe that this is the right thing to do.  Yet, today, President Bush has vetoed the reauthorization and expansion–saying the price (41 days of the Iraq war) is just too costly.  He’s consistent: This “compassionate conservative” vetoed S-CHIP as governor of Texas and it was enacted only when the Texas legislature overrode his veto.  Good on them.

Now, we U.S. citizens can help Congress do the right thing and override the president’s veto.  In the Senate, this seems safe.  68 Senators, including 18 Republicans, voted for this reauthorization and that meets the 2/3 majority needed to override this veto.  But in the House, we are, so far, about 2 dozen votes short.  159 House members voted against reauthorization (including the otherwise progressive Kucinich (D-OH), who thinks the final version didn’t do enough!), but one has already changed his mind due to citizen pressure.  The names of the Representatives and how they voted on this crucial bill are found here. If your Rep. voted against our children, call them and urge them to vote to override the veto and do right by our children.  If your Rep’s name did the right thing and voted for the children–call their offices and thank them and urge them to work hard to override this veto.  Call the Congressional Switchboard and ask for your Representative:202-225-3121.

October 3, 2007 Posted by | child welfare, U.S. politics | 2 Comments

Bush Renews Threat to Veto Children’s Health Insurance

This should prove the end of the lie about Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”  The man who took an unprecedented surplus and turned it into mountains of red ink is claiming to do this for “fiscal responsiblity,” when the truth is that the price of renewing and expanding S-CHIP ($35 billion) is about 6 months in Iraq.  (For a breakdown of how much–not counting lives and limbs–the war is costing this nation, click here.) Bush is angering his own party on this one, because Republican governors and know how much S-CHIP has saved business, hospitals, and schools.  Also, the GOP knows that any Republican politician up for reelection in ’08 who doesn’t vote to override the president’s veto on S-CHIP can kiss her or his political futures good-bye.

It will take more than Laura Bush’s campaigns for literacy or W reading “My Pet Duck” to kindergartners to rescue an image of compassion for children from the realities of this cruel and unnecessary veto.

UPDATE: The Senate and the House have reached compromise legislation that will prevent states from enrolling adults (and make them take adults off) and only ensure children making up to 200% of poverty–too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase insurance.  The $35 billion will increase the number of children insured from 6.6 million to 10 million and will be paid for by an increased tax on cigarettes (which seems appropriate since tobacco use adds enormous burdens to healthcare, costs businesses billions a year in increased sick days and other production loss–not to mention all the smoke breaks when non-smokers get only 1 15 min. break every 4 hourse by law!).  The president is still threatening to veto any bill which increases the funding more than $5 billion (not even enough to keep S-CHIP up with inflation).  Based on votes on earlier versions of the bill, the Senate can probably muster 67 favorable votes (enough to override a veto), but this will be harder in the House.

September 21, 2007 Posted by | child welfare | 3 Comments

Bush Will Veto Using Cigarette Tax to Give Children Health Insurance

Saying that he is “philosophically opposed” both to new taxes and to using government to insure uninsured children, President Bush is threatening to veto a new cigarette tax that would expand health coverage for children.  Way to put your personal political ideology ahead of children, Mr. Prez.  Let’s see, higher tobacco taxes, while not deterring adults from smoking, do prevent many children and young teens from starting to smoke–at just the age when most people are hooked. So, this could save lives, right?  And insuring uninsured children (in a nation the World Health Organization has just ranked 37TH!! in overall healthcare) would presumably also save lives.  So, what part of this veto will be “pro-life?”

July 19, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, child welfare, economic justice, healthcare, human rights., Uncategorized | 5 Comments