March 2012

Mark 14:1-15:47

The passion narratives of the Gospels are dramatic and absorbing. As many times as we may have heard or read them, they can still hold our attention, grip our imaginations. Liturgically, year after year, we find ourselves riveted by the unfolding drama as if we didn’t know what was coming next. Such is the power of good story-telling and the giftedness of a good story-teller.

As compelling as the narratives are, it is also important to step back a bit from the particulars and consider other elements of the story-telling process. Elements like: the Gospel writers’ own time and place; their shaping of other sources for their unique literary and theological purposes. In this year’s appointed Gospel reading for Palm/Passion Sunday, there’s an odd double-trial scene that raises interesting questions about these kinds of story-telling elements—about setting, context, and the Gospel writer’s agenda.

In the first scene (14:60-62) Jesus is interrogated by the Sanhedrin; in the second (15:2-4) by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. There is a striking symmetry between the two, even some word-for-word sameness. But why two trials?

One answer that has held sway through the centuries is this: An over-zealous Jewish Council, representative of the religious elite who had wrangled with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, was determined to be rid of him. They turned him over to a reluctant, indifferent Pilate whose hand was forced by a bloodthirsty crowd.

Ched Myers – a peerless interpreter of this Gospel – insists, to the contrary, that the parallelism of the two trials “strongly implicates both parties of the colonial apparatus as equally culpable—indeed collaborative—in the political railroading of Jesus.” Other scholarly (and popular) interpretations have read Mark as a kind of apologia to the Romans: an attempt to minimize the state’s responsibility in Jesus’ death and, as recounted above, to maximize the role of the Jewish authorities. Christianity’s long, tragic history of anti-Semitism is rooted in such readings.

But for Myers the double-trial in Mark’s passion narrative is all parody and political cartoon, and as such indicts the whole corrupt system—Roman and Jewish—of joint sovereignty. “The highest Jewish court in the land,” says Myers, “throws due process out the window in favor of a rigged hearing”: the chief priests’ frantic (and futile) lobbying of the masses they so reviled (v. 55); hired perjurers who can’t get their stories straight (v. 59). There is also the irony of Jesus convicting himself by “his subversive confession” (14:62, 15:2).

In the trial before Pilate the parody lies in “his ‘consultation’ with the Jewish crowds for a verdict and sentence,” a detail, if taken at face value, is inconceivable in the case of this Roman procurator, “whose tenure was infamous (and well-attested) for its stubbornness, provocation, and violence.” And the crowds in Mark’s literary lampoon? Fickle masses whom he caricatures as spellbound by Jesus’ teaching one minute (11:18), and screaming for his head the next (15:13-14).

“These literary hyperboles,” concludes Myers, “work together to indict the entire politico-legal process of colonial condominium.” And the astute reader of this Gospel will not be surprised by this: “Jesus has already ideologically repudiated the system that condemns him. The sharp edge of realism in the political cartoon recognizes the converse: The powers railroad Jesus because they know he is committed to their overthrow; in political trials, justice is subordinate to the need for conviction.”

Both trials are farces, and Mark’s narrative strategy is to send up their purported legitimacy. Satire as scathing political critique.

This is grim comedy on the way to Golgotha. Yet we can miss it when we neglect the drama’s historical setting, indeed when we fail to read the passion narratives and the Gospels in their entirety as the politically-charged stories they are.

But if Mark’s telling of the passion story is darkly comic, it isn’t funny. The calculated miscarriage of justice by the Sanhedrin and the spectacle of public execution by the state apparatus conspire to brutalize, condemn, shame, and kill—to “send a message” to would-be subversives with their own theo-political aspirations.

There’s also no humor in the chilling parallels between Mark’s (and Jesus’) historical era and our own. Our imperial context, like that of the Imperium Romanum, is a social-political-economic-moral crisis in which the abuses of power, economic injustice, contempt for the poor, and the destruction of the natural world are re-narrated into a fantasy for the privileged: the American dream as the Pax Americana. But it is a false peace, of course; as sham a construct as a mock trial in the backwaters of empire in first-century Palestine.

But the good news of the gospel is that empire does not have the last word. Mark’s sophisticated literary style makes dark comedy of Jesus’ journey to the cross. But it is Easter, thanks be to God, that will have the last laugh.

They put the prisoner against the wall.
A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him—strong,
gentle, saying goodbye.
—Forgive me, compañero—
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
and of
    those fingers on his arm
fills his body with light
   I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sound of the shots.

“Sun Stone,” Ariel Dorfman

You remember Abu Ghraib: the correctional facility in Baghdad where such atrocities took place that the prison’s very name is now synonymous with and shorthand for torture, degradation, military scandal, and unchecked American hubris.

A young army reservist named Lynndie England came to represent the horror of that dark chapter (one of several, as it turned out) of the war in Iraq. Photographs of England posing with abused Iraqi detainees led to a dishonorable discharge, a felony conviction, and a two-year prison sentence. Also revealed during and after the shame of Abu Ghraib was England’s own status as both a co-conspirator and an unwitting casualty. She was not a victim in the same way that the Iraqi prisoners were but, given her rank, gender, background, and the weird sexual dynamics she shared with the scandal’s ringleader (and father of the baby she would give birth to a few months later), England’s culpability, like that of many who commit heinous acts, was not separable from her own troubled life.

In the tidy way we like these narratives to play out, England was supposed to pay her dues for the evil she had done and, with time for reflection and introspection, own her guilt and express her sorrow. Or at least, for public consumption, she was supposed to voice regret for the tragic choices she made back in 2003 and offer an apology to those whom she had wronged. But in a recent interview, England was unrepentant. Her only regret, it turns out, is that her actions at Abu Ghraib may have directly caused American casualties.

It’s hard to read her words — hard to take in her clear lack of remorse, her naivete and self-pity, the unwillingness, still, to face the enormity of what she participated in. Unlike the doomed prisoner in Dorfman’s poem (quoted above), England’s victims, even after almost a decade, hear no whisper of grace, however faint, from their abuser.

And yet in the not-so-tidy narrative that Lent is leading us toward — a story of torture, degradation, scandal, and hubris — a wildly improbable ending — forgiveness, restoration, joy, new life — makes possible the surprising work of grace in even the most scandalous of situations and life stories.

The torture that Lynndie England took part in is, as William Cavanaugh has said, “a kind of perverse liturgy.” It is “the scripting of bodies into the drama of fear.” But those who risk the way of the cross enact a different liturgy, live by a different script. The drama of fear is traded for a story of shalom in which the undoing of death is achieved, paradoxically (and unconvincingly to Christianity’s critics), in a broken, tortured, defeated body. The accused, whether guilty or not, are embraced (“today you will be with me in paradise”), as are the accusers (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”). In this suffering body, dying on the state’s perferred instrument of public torture, we learn that there is no place in our own godforsakenness that God in Christ Jesus has not already been.

This is the good news, even for Lynndie England, even if Lynndie England doesn’t know it. It is the good news for the forgotten victims of Abu Ghraib and their families. And it is the good news for a wayward and complicit church, a church too accommodated to the ways of war, a church which has failed and is failing spectacularly to be a counter-witness to the perverse liturgies of state-sponsored violence.

Lent allows us to offer our own repentance: to turn from our false pursuits and be the true body — eucharistic, “political” in the deepest sense of the word — created by a tortured body, dead, buried, and raised, that all bodies everywhere might be treated with the dignity they deserve.

From a presentation I gave at the liberal arts college where I teach as part of a panel discussion on the recent contraception controversies. I tried to challenge the default language we always seem to use in these debates and I don’t think I was really understood. Which I think proves the point of how powerfully we are shaped by language and the habits of language systems.

I want to try and do two things in my allotted time:

I. Briefly trace (and comment on) the events that have led to this latest set of controversies.

II. Briefly sketch an account of moral agency and personhood that might help to reframe some of the gender-related questions and answers surrounding these controversies.


Two years ago this month the Affordable Care Act became law. You’ve heard it derisively referred to by critics of the President as Obamacare. Despite the fact that this admittedly imperfect law will extend health care coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans; that it stops insurance companies from imposing preexisting condition exclusions on children; that it allows young adults to stay on or be added to their parents’ family policy; and that it prohibits insurers from rescinding coverage when you get sick; despite all this, critics of Mr. Obama, including and especially those seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, have vowed to repeal the law. (In about ten days the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in a case challenging the law’s constitutionality).

One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act is that preventive health services will no longer cost anything out-of-pocket (no co-pays). The Secretary of Health and Human Services was given the power to decide which health services should be considered preventive, and in consultation with the Institute of Medicine, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius determined that all FDA-approved contraceptive measures should be counted as preventive health services, a category which includes birth control and sterilization procedures.

In January of this year this new regulation regarding contraception went into effect. In its earlier, interim rules HHS had excluded from this requirement only those “religious employers” who serve and employ members of their own faith traditions. This exempted churches from the rule, but not Catholic universities or social-service agencies and hospitals that serve and employ non-Catholics. Church leaders had requested a broader exemption on the grounds that the mandate would require Catholic institutions to act against their own teachings, amounting to a violation of conscience and of religious liberty. The Obama administration, after careful consideration and much consultation with health care professionals and church leaders, refused to grant the broader exemption.

Enter election year politics.


From a paper I presented recently at the Wesleyan Theological Society annual meeting in Nashville. My fellow presenters were Steve Long of Marquette University and Andy Kinsey, a UMC pastor in Indiana. Brent Laytham of Northpark Theological Seminary was the moderator. Our overall theme was: “The Danger of Dialogue is Not Knowing Your Own Doctrine.”



I used to teach a world religions course at a college that offered night classes to working adults. The students were mostly professionals—computer programmers, police officers, HR managers—who were completing their bachelor’s degree or earning a second one so they could get a promotion or a raise. The bureaucrat who hired me assumed I knew something about world religions since I had an advanced degree in theology, and because I needed the money and the teaching experience, I didn’t let on otherwise.

What I decided early on was that if the students (and I) were going to learn anything about Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam, we would have to get our noses out of the textbook and our bodies out of the classroom. So we visited local temples and mandirs and mosques. We observed Muslims at prayer, Hindus performing puja. We talked to the people engaged in these activities, who were generous and patient with our questions and our ignorance.

My favorite was Dharmesh, a software engineer at IBM and a devout Hindu. He was our guide through the Tuesday evening rituals we would often observe. Over the course of two or three years, I took several groups of students to his community’s mandir in a renovated trucking warehouse in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.  What quickly became evident, when Dharmesh talked about Hinduism, was that the category of “religion” was strange to his way of thinking about and practicing his “faith,” to his way of being a Hindu.

My students wanted to know how his “religion”—what they took to be his “personal beliefs” about God and stuff—affected, say, his home life or his job. But Dharmesh found the questions and the assumptions behind them a little odd. Of course, as a native of Mumbai who’d been educated in the American South he knew something about how Westerners talk about religion, and he was good-natured enough to humor us and to try and answer our questions. But for him, where he lived, who he married, what he ate—all of this and more—were not separate from what he did several times a week at the mandir, nor from the way he understood himself as a Hindu (a designation which,  to prefigure the next part of this presentation, was invented by scholars in the nineteenth century).

But to make my point clear: Dharmesh didn’t think of himself as “religious.” (more…)

A post I wrote for bLOGOS on the Ekklesia Project website:

Third Sunday in Lent
John 2:13-22 (25)

“The gesture in the temple is all the more poignant and prophetic when we imagine it executed by a man too slight to carry his own cross without assistance, a man whose idea of a workout is a forty-day fast.”

Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger

We live in angry times.

In our politics, anger can lead to cynicism and despair or it can energize grassroots movements for change. (Rush Limbaugh is now feeling some of the effects of the latter). More often, perhaps, our anger at the “broken system” we all lament leaves us somewhere in the middle: indifferent, disengaged, checked out.

In our family lives and our working environments, we are paying more attention to anger and its destructive ways. “Anger management” is not the butt of jokes it once was; it’s a set of skills that has saved many a job, many a marriage. We may not always win the battle against the buried fury or the passive-aggression that can wreak havoc on our personal and professional relationships, but at least the subject itself is no longer taboo.

In the church, however, anger is almost never talked about. The seething rage I may feel in a board meeting or Bible study is more likely to come spilling out afterward in a private conversation in the church parking lot (and thus my personal ire and the group’s larger discord will almost surely go unresolved). The “niceness” that Christians have taken to be our highest calling has us regularly avoiding conflicts both large and small, and leaves us bereft of the skills to distinguish between petty acrimony and righteous anger, between misplaced indignation and anger as both gift and necessity.

And then there’s Jesus’ anger. The textual variations in the gospels’ “money changers” scenes are interesting to consider: The Synoptics have Jesus throwing over the temple tables near the end of his public ministry—the action itself a clear impetus for his arrest, torture, and crucifixion. In John’s gospel, Jesus has barely begun his work—he has summoned a few disciples, carried out an impressive “sign” at a wedding in Cana—and now he’s in the outer courtyard of the temple losing his cool.

To read the rest click here.