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

Huckabee Withdraws–From the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.

As both Bruce Prescott and Melissa Rogers have noted, the Florida Baptist Witness is reporting that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. president in ’08, has noisily withdrawn his participation in the upcoming Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. This event, largely organized by former U.S. Pres. Jimmy Carter (D), arguably the most famous Baptist layperson in the U.S., is to bring long-divided groups of Baptists together in common work for the Rule of God. Huckabee had been scheduled to be one of the speakers. I am not a fan of Huckabee’s politics and oppose his presidential ambitions, but I had thought that he was personally a good guy and I was pointing to his participation in this event as a good sign.

 Now, Huckabee has withdrawn and his reasons are quite disturbing.  1) He claims to have withdrawn because Jimmy Carter, in an interview, claimed that George W. Bush’s foreign policy was the worst of any president in U.S. history, including Nixon’s.  Why is this a reason for withdrawing from an event that isn’t about politics, much less about Bush? Carter has been known for his blunt speech for decades, including about members of his own party (e.g., Ted Kennedy, the late Tip O’Neill).  If Huckabee only wants to meet with Baptists who admire the current president, then he’s going to have a hard time meeting anyone outside the Southern Baptist Convention. One would be hard pressed, for example, to find many African-American Baptists who are big Bush fans. Does Huckabee never want to meet with these sisters and brothers?  If loyalty to a political party is a “test of Christian fellowship,” then the only word to describe the phenomenon is “idolatry.” I have worshipped in congregations that had elected officials from across the political spectrum (not to mention the rest of us who aren’t in elected office). Has Huckabee never done this?  Is this some new version of the twisted “homogeneity” principle used by some church growth theorists–in direct contradiction to the New Testament’s message of reconciliation between various classes, races, language groups, both genders, etc.??

2) Huckabee’s other reason for withdrawing from the Covenant event is even more disturbing. He claims that he cannot appear on the same program as Marian Wright Edelman, founder and head of the Childrens’ Defense Fund, the foremost, independent, grassroots advocacy agency for the wellbeing of children.  Huckabee claims that Edelman’s presence as a speaker is “evidence of the extreme liberalism” of the event. Huh?  This is confusing on several levels.

A. As Bruce Prescott asks, since when is trying to seek justice and wellbeing of children either “liberal” or “conservative?” Does this mean that Huckabee’s much vaunted pro-life credentials stop when children are born? For crying out loud, even G.W. Bush adopted (I’ll not say “stole”) the CDF’s “Leave No Child Behind” slogan when he created his “No Child Left Behind” education law (which leaves MANY children behind, but that’s a different issue).  Isn’t it a BASIC principle of biblical faith, which surely any ordained minister must know, that children (along with widows and other vulnerable people) are a test of a just and caring community?  Did Huckabee somehow miss all that the Bible says about protecting children?  Why would he put down Edelman’s work–work which has led to 3 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize??

B.  Suppose, for a second, that Edelman is a “liberal” in either politics (which would not be surprising since she was a Civil Rights activist in college before becoming one of the first African-American women to graduate from Yale Law School) or theology. (How would he know anything about her theology? She hasn’t written on it and I doubt Huckabee shows up at Edelman’s church much.)  Isn’t the very purpose of this meeting for Baptists to cross dividing boundaries of race, region, history, culture, worship-style, and YES, divisions of political and theological conviction in order to find common ground as sisters and brothers in the Lord? Did Huckabee imagine that only “conservatives” (however he defines the term) would be at a meeting designed to get past such divisions??

Bruce Prescott speculates that Huckabee’s real reason for withdrawing as a speaker and participant is because the leadership of the SBC (which opposes the meeting) has pressured him to do so.  That may be it. Or it may be that some campaign guru has told him that he cannot afford to be seen with the likes of Carter and Edelman if he wants any shot at the G.O.P. nomination. Both are pretty sorry excuses, in my view.

Will other Republican politicians who had planned to come to the Covenant, such as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), now back out, too? Will the conservative SBC Bloggers who met with Carter and planned to come, now retreat?  Will either denominational or national politics trump the “ties that bind” sisters and brothers in Christ?  It’s happened before, but I know it breaks God’s heart every time.

My respect for Mike Huckabee as a person of faith and integrity (whatever our differences in theology or politics), just plummeted to the basement.

May 22, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, scandal, sin | 10 Comments

Tragedy at Virginia Tech

By now most people know about the tragedy at Virginia Technical University in Blacksburg, VA where, on Monday, a student shot 32 people before killing himself. I have not immediately blogged on this because I wanted to digest it.  Although the U.S. seems wedded to a gun culture, I keep hoping that we will wake up to the need for strict gun control before more tragedies like this happen. The pro-gun folk like to quote the saying, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” While true, it fails to mention how much EASIER guns make it to kill people. If the depressed student had been armed with a knife, he might have succeeded in killing one person before he was stopped. He certainly couldn’t have killed 32 in one morning. Had he been armed with bow and arrow, he might have killed more than with just a knife, but still considerably fewer than with a gun.

In 1984, I was mugged and stabbed, nearly to death. Had the mugger used a gun, I almost surely would have died (especially considering how long it took the ambulence to find me).  I would have missed the last 23 years of life, a marriage of 17 years, and 2 daughters. 

It’s time that the U.S. makes it harder to kill people by making it harder to get and use guns.  How many more Columbine High Schools, how many more VA. Tech U’s will it take before we stop valuing gun ownership more than we value human life in this nation?  11 years ago, a similar event happened in Australia and the result was landmark gun restrictions (resulting in turn in decreased violent crime and gun deaths). In 1996, after a gunman killed 16 children in the U.K., the result was an almost total ban on handguns. But no one believes this will be the result in the U.S.  A total ban would take a constitutional amendment, but even reasonable gun control laws clearly within the Constitution won’t be touched–because Democrats fear this would lose them upcoming elections. Any leadership on this will have to come from faith groups–but our churches are just as filled with pro-gun nuts as society at large.  It is SO frustrating.

April 18, 2007 Posted by | guns, sin | 29 Comments