Disclaimer: These are my beliefs and not those of any other group or organization I may represent or affiliate with. i.e. not the PC(USA) or YAV program.
Edit: I said gender and sexuality are a binary when I, in fact, believe they are not. Don’t write late at night without editing, folks. Thanks to Tim Coombs, my father, for pointing that out. I also decided to describe the early common era as more “traditional” with the quotations instead of conservative. I don’t like the word traditional cause it carries a lot of norm-based weight, but otherwise I was anachronizing.
It is halfway through orientation and I am having a great many thoughts. We had a workshop on cultural dominance and racism called “Critical Cultural Competence” and a session on Sexual Misconduct and Ethics that actually recognized rape culture as a real problem. It’s no secret that I have many thoughts about these issues. To me, gender and sexuality are spectra, our society is dominated by racist systems, and I am staunchly against victim blaming. So these sessions have not been groundbreaking for me. What has been groundbreaking is the place of religion in these conversations.
You see, I learned about and developed my progressive social values in secular atmospheres, like Macalester College and my abroad program in Bolivia. After a long time of learning, gaining information In my mind, Christianity has always been behind on these issues. I didn’t resent the church for this, but the fact was the bible and theology was written in a time and place that was just far more “traditional” and therefore it was difficult to be as progressive as I try to be and follow religion to a tee. I know about feminist critiques, liberation theology, and support for all-gender marriage, but progress is just slow by nature in the church.
Yet, my experiences at orientation around the bible studies are starting to change that sentiment.
Our bible studies are being led by Rick Ufford-Chase, a former moderator of GA, founder of Borderlinks ministry along the southwestern border, leader of an interfaith community at Stony Point, and someone with a very progressive agenda when he reads the bible. I appreciate that he was very open about this agenda and that he is working to treat the bible as a political text and bringing into the context of the time period. To do this, he draws heavily on the biblical scholar Ched Myers, for those of you who are familiar.
What it seems to be all about is remembering the context of each text and how that affects the readings of what we see. I’ll give you an example not from Rick, but from our worship leader, Matt.
Matt explained that the Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer for “kingdom” is the same as the one used for “The Roman Empire.” Essentially, the word Jesus offered was the same to refer to the dominant political system at the time. By translating the prayer as kingdom, we ignore the conceptual meaning of this part of the prayer. I’m unsure exactly what the Roman Empire was, but the fact that the writers of the Bible used the same language for both spots seems to insinuate a political statement of sorts, or at least an intentional reference. I don’t know ancient Greek, so I don’t know if this was an intentional choice between several words for a non-democratic governing system.
I will say that the way the language works here reflects culture. A culture or worldview shapes language because it leads groups of people to determine which concepts need words. In English, we do not have a separate word for the more permanent being and less permanent, which is the best way I have to describe “ser” versus “estar” in Spanish. Meanwhile, Spanish uses “esperar” to describe hoping and waiting. I believe this comes in part from cultural values on how different concepts are paired up and separated in a language.
So, within the culture of Middle East in the beginning of the common era, Greek had one word for the non-democratic governing system with a single ruler. And it is written that Jesus used that word in his prayer, calling for God’s “empire” to come. It’s a fascinating political idea and one I’m unsure of. Is Jesus calling God’s empire? Do I want an empire? Maybe people only knew “empire” as the governing system, so to term it God’s was to say there will be a governing system that would support the people where the Romans had not. As you can see, it quickly brings up new ideas.
Later on, Rich took the common story from Matthew 25 of the master who gives his slaves talents. In the story, the slaves who double their talents are rewarded and the slave who buries his talents and refuses to invest them is punished. It’s often read as saying those who waste their “talents” are not welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, with a little context within the early church and a quick note on the original Greek, a far more progressive reading is possible.
Rick explained that in the early church, the way to make several “talent” or the equivalent of 15 years hard labor’s riches, you had to be lender and charge exorbitant interest rates and then take the land when repayment was impossible. The master likely worked in that way and was probably visiting his investments while away during the story. The slave that chooses not to invest resists the master’s system that matches predatory loaning and is rejected.
That’s a cool interpretation, but the issue is what Jesus is referring to in this parable. Is this a parable about the kingdom of heaven? Most translations reference it as such, but Rick and Ched reject that. The original language uses a pronoun and the opening phrase of the passage in the NRSV, “For it is as if” infers that Jesus is speaking in simile about some unnamed concept. Ched, quoting Rick, suggested that “it” makes more sense when viewed based on the place of this parable in a set of three parables. It follows a parable about virgins awaiting a bridegroom and precedes the parable of separating the sheep and goats. Essentially, Rick argued that the first parable urges people to get ready for God, the second parable points out the wrong in society, and the third explains what will happen.
So the “it” may be referring to the current state of society. Jesus was criticizing the world and it offers immensely interesting applications for today and the motivations to get away from predatory loaning and systems of economic oppression that seem to dominate the world. It also offers an interesting critique of poverty traps with the master’s closing line: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” A poverty trap is the idea that you are so poor you cannot escape poverty. So the parable could be read as critiquing society for taking that stance and forcing the poor to stay poor.
Both of these new interpretations, in the Lord’s Prayer and Matthew 25 have really drawn my attention and been my source of learning this week. I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring religion to alignment with the rest of my values. That being said, there’s still plenty especially around racism, sexism, and cultural dominance of which I’m still suspicious. Most supports for same-sex relationships seem to reject other gender and/or sexual minorities, so I do not know what lies ahead. Likewise, I’m suspicious that placing the bible within its context might take some stories that are in line with my values and show that they are not. Still, I am intrigued and moved to start taking this religion stuff a little more seriously. After all, that’s what the year is about.
To that end, the other members of the YAV delegation headed for Peru may start working through Ched Myers’ bible study book, “Say To This Mountain,” which works through the Gospel of Mark. So far, religious and spiritual discovery has been more at the center of my YAV year than I expected, but I think I’m okay with that. It’s new and fascinating and truthfully, that’s what I want.