Sun 14 Aug
The June 23rd Brexit vote and the ongoing discussion and heartache in the United Kingdom are around the notion of borders. How fixed or how porous should a border be? Being an island, the UK has geographically a natural ‘moat’ mentality. On the other hand it has long known the importance of trade and influence beyond the moat. Many Britons today value the ability to move over borders, trade, learn, live, and retire over borders.
Even many who voted for Brexit value these things and believed the ‘Leave’ campaign when they said these things would continue. Cornwall, for example, who voted ‘Leave’ also believed somehow that their EU subsidies would remain.
It seemed on June 23rd that the sentiments of ‘blame-migrants-for-our-woes’ and ‘distrust-central-government’ coalesced – sentiments I note common also to supporters of Donald Trump – to create an unfortunate outcome.
When you compare the UK to Israel/Palestine of the 1st century you have a very different geography. Israel was one of the main trade pathways from West to East and back again. No wonder it was conquered time and again by various empires. The borders were forever changing, and still are.
Some of Jesus’ fellow Jews – including some of his disciples – responded to the influx of migrants, imperial troops, and the foreign cultures and religions that flooded in by erecting spiritual borders. God’s elect were only those born Jewish, or who kept the commandments, or who behaved like we behaved.
This temptation to erect spiritual borders is still with us. If we are going to criticise the Brexit decision we need to acknowledge the parallels with Christian denominationalism. Denominations, including our own, have long been suspicious of newcomers with new ideas, theologies, and practices. Spiritual migrants are welcome but they have to blend and blend quickly. Spiritual migrants, though they bring the gifts of their difference, quickly learn that the faster they act like everyone else the faster they will be accepted. St Luke’s, like every other Christian community, needs to always be aware of both valuing what is while being receptive to the new and emerging.
There are though advantages in having fixed spiritual borders – especially when you are a ruled by a foreign empire with its foreign gods and customs. Indeed there seems to be a correlation between being oppressed (or feeling you are oppressed) and the desire for the increased security that borders might provide. Fixed borders allegedly help keep your sense of identity, community cohesion, and control.
I suspect it is for similar reasons that the majority of folk in England – especially older, and out of London – voted to leave the EU.
Remember that question in Acts 1, asked by a disciple to the post-Easter Jesus: “When will you return the Kingdom to Israel?” Which is another way of saying: ‘When will you make Israel great again?’ ‘When will you make England/the USA great again?’ And then, as now, those who ask the question don’t understand Jesus. Then, as now, they think greatness has to do with tribal/national identity, making it a stronger tribe/nation than other tribes or nations.
Of course Jesus, over the centuries, has been made into a tribal leader – the ‘King’ of the Christians. Indeed all the Christian tribes/denominations try to assert that he is their leader. ‘King Jesus’ is a long way from who scholars think the historical Jesus was – namely an itinerant Jewish wisdom teacher, whose voiceprint is known best in many of the parables. When we examine those parables – like the prodigal sons[i] (loving relationships trumping cultural status), the good Samaritan[ii] (care for the vulnerable trumping religious restraints), the mustard weed[iii] (a kingdom of marginalized anarchists), and the banquet for nobodies[iv] (the morally suspect, the contaminated are welcomed in) – we encounter a rabbi who was trying to encourage people to think and act beyond their borders and prejudices in order to dream big, to include, to overcome prejudice, and to free the sacred from the captivity of religious elites.
Jesus vision was for a banquet where all the excluded could be welcomed, and not sent to Nauru. I don’t think Theresa May would appoint Jesus as the minister responsible for immigration policy, and nor would John Key. Jesus and Paul both tried to open borders, rather than close them.
Some of the most interesting biblical research in the last decade has been on the Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles. In brief, there are seven authentic Pauline Epistles[v] and the rest of them are either trying to modify or reverse the teachings in those seven letters. As for the Book of Acts it is a 2nd century creation – largely a fictional work that knew the authentic Pauline letters but overrode them with another agenda. Or put another way, the Paul of Acts is a legendary character that serves the purpose of the author of Acts.
So, for example, in Acts the author is trying to give an impression of certainty by creating a Jesus movement myth of centralized leadership and authority from Jerusalem – a leadership and authority that is all male. Further, it reinforces the fiction that there were only 12 apostles in the early church and they were all men. Compare that with Paul’s understanding, reflected in our first reading today from 1 Corinthians 15, that “the 12” (whoever they were) were distinct from “the apostles” (possibly hundreds, men and women, who like Paul ‘met’ and were commissioned by the post-Easter Jesus). Scholars conclude that Acts deliberately circumscribes women within limited social and ecclesiastical roles.
The communities of the 2nd century reflected in Acts and other writings from that period were trying to create borders/boundaries in a time of uncertainty and fear. One way of doing that was creating the fiction of a centralised male hierarchy in the first century to justify the imposition of hierarchical control in the 2nd and proceeding centuries afterwards.
The authentic Paul on the other hand preached a radical message of egalitarianism between women and men – as well as between slave and free, and between Jew and Greek. In Paul’s authentic letters there is mention of a number of women apostles (Junia[vi], Phoebe[vii], Priscilla[viii], Chloe[ix], Lydia…).
Further Paul’s letters reveal a disorganized Jesus movement, often with tensions, with a movement whose ideas, theology and practices were being worked out as it was lived out. Leadership wasn’t fixed but fluid. Ideas around accepting Gentiles in the movement varied. There was no religion called Christianity with a clear Jerusalem-based authority structure. It was an evolving dynamic movement.
In times of uncertainty and fear there are choices. When comparing the rhetoric of the Republican and Democrat Party conventions commentators have pointed out that the Republicans largely believe they are living in a time of uncertainty and fear. Despite what Democrats or independent historians say, this notion among many Americans of uncertainty and fear, according to pollsters is accurate. And telling people that – especially compared with the rest of the world – they have nothing to be worried about just doesn’t work. They have a need to feel safe.
What has propelled Donald Trump towards the White House is the power of a myth – the myth of the self-made strident man: in control; winning; insulting and demeaning others (the modern version of a fist-fight); offering simple solutions to complex problems. Donald appeals to the yearning for the simplicity of this myth – wise words limited to a tweet, or if not wise then strong words that disguise the unpalatable truth the speaker may indeed be the weaker. The myth needs fear – fear that control has slipped, or being taken away, fear of crime, death, and difference, fear of the outside and outsider – all fears that only a strong strident man can save people from.
Donald Trump didn’t create this myth, and didn’t create these fears (although he regularly stokes them and manipulates them). Donald is intriguing to observe. It is plain that he consistently lies (look at the independent Politifact scorecard on him – the false categories total 70%[x]), and it is plain that his followers don’t seem to mind. It is plain that he doesn’t read books or have any substantial knowledge about the non-American world or even the workings of the American government, and it is plain his followers don’t seem to mind. It is plain that he is ego-driven to the point of blindness, that he isn’t a team player and that he has strange relationships with the women who have worked under him, and his followers again don’t seem to mind. It is plain that he is relentless in following a ‘strategy’ of saying something outrageous every two or three days to stay in the media forefront and this will somehow get him to the White House. And his followers don’t seem to mind. It is intriguing, and frightening.
The author of 1st John writing, note, in the 2nd century – maybe at a similar time as the author of Acts – has a very different response to the fears and uncertainties of the age. Acts wants to create a myth of unity and centralized authority with men in charge. 1 John though simply says ‘love conquers fear’[xi]. The community that produced the 4th Gospel and produced this letter interpreted Jesus into the context of the second century. Its advice was: love conquers fear.
Border control doesn’t conquer fear. Pulling up the drawbridge to repel migrants won’t conquer fear. Building a wall on the Mexican border won’t conquer fear. Excluding Muslims won’t conquer fear. Buying guns won’t conquer fear.
Learning the ways and art of love will. Ways of hospitality, generosity, and reciprocity. Love conquers fear.
[i] Luke 15:11-32.
[ii] Luke 10:25-37.
[iii] Matthew 13:31-32.
[iv] Luke 14:15-24.
[v] 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Romans.
[vi] Romans 16:7.
[vii] Romans 16:1.
[viii] Romans 16:3.
[ix] 1 Corinthians 1:11.
[xi] 1 John 4:18.