Elite or responsible?

Privileged... and so

Privilege. Most of us who read this blog are indeed among the privileged, certainly when we take in a global perspective. I appreciate though that we do not consciously live in a global environment but a local one – whether that be a geographic or social context, and so we often have a mixed experience where we are also disadvantaged in some ways. There were many privileged groups in the New Testament times, being a Roman citizen certainly set some apart as elite. It is though the shift of ‘status’ that took place through the Gospel that I am focusing on in this post.

This has come into fresh focus with some of the wider writing I am involved in and also as we have ‘zoomed’ into a situation where the predominant cultural view is that of male dominance, with Paul (and Jesus!) seen as favouring the male.

The great egalitarian text of Paul in one of his earliest pieces of writing is Gal. 3: 28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Written into the contentious situation where these non-Jewish converts were being subjected to the teaching that any follower of Jesus that was not in compliance to Jewish law was not a ‘full’ member of the community of God’s people.

This bit is strong!!

We even read of Paul confronting Peter face to face, and the strength of the conflict was very strong. There was a good (missiological) argument that had won Peter over. Those who came from James had a compelling argument: ‘how would they ever reach Jews back in the homeland if the Jewish followers of Jesus were fraternising and eating with Gentiles. For the sake of the Gospel you have to pull back, Peter.’ It does not get stronger than that, and if is or this reason I don’t think it was as simple as Peter was making a backward step but he felt compelled to take a compromising step for the sake of non-offence to the Jews, a step for the Gospel. That makes the conflict even stronger. The missiological argument could not overpower the fundamental Gospel one! (Think we have it hard trying to work out what is a godly redemptive compromise!) Back in the day, to be involved in a slave owning group who professed faith could have been argued for: a compromise for the sake of the Gospel… but eventually that compromise was not a compromise for the Gospel but a compromise of the Gospel. Deciding when that shift takes place takes wisdom and insight, and knowing what has changed in our society with respect to the Gospel likewise is very challenging.

Privilege… Either it feeds the demonic idea of elitism / above someone else; or it pushes us toward the ‘responsibility’ element. I consider that over centuries there was a downward trajectory in the life of Israel from the commissioned responsibility for sake of the nations to the elitism of chosenness. I have also been considering (of late) that maybe if we are of the ‘zionist’ bias (not one I can see in the NT at all) maybe there is also a knock on with regard to how we see the gender issue of male and female. Both seem to come from a way of reading Scripture that I find strange, but one I have to respect as I have no reason to suggest that those who read that way are not acting with integrity. I simply hope the reading is not being fuelled by any form of elitism.

With the household codes (the instructions on ‘husbands’, ‘wives’, ‘masters’, ‘slaves’, etc.) Paul follows the conventions of the day where philosophers and religious writers would lay out how their philosophy / religion would not at any level disturb the status quo of the Roman society. In our culture they are not too radical (understatement!!) but in that culture he carefully redefined them. He moved the dominant one from a position of ruling the roost to a place where they were to be an animated source of life.

There was an anonymous letter written to a person names ‘Diognetus’, mid 2nd Century, that suggested that Christians were to the world what the soul was to the body. They were to be present and animating. (The quote below is fairly long, the specific part I am referring to is in bold… so feel free to skip to that point… and apologies for the male language.)

Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.  The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

The explanation is somewhat hellenised, indicating how quickly there was a shift from a Jewish psychology to a Greek-oriented one, but nevertheless the description as an animating life-giving source is very clearly put.

In the Gospel the privilege of Jew over Greek was nullified (I count it all ‘dung’ said one very privileged Jew; the NT era Jews were basically given a generation to respond to Jesus etc.); the rich were always being slapped about – we do not read ‘woe to you poor!’ but we often read ‘woe to you rich’; and in the Gospel any male privilege that might be inferred from creation is totally cancelled. The Greek of Gal. 3:28 seems to deliberately use the same construction as we find in Genesis, but reversing it – no ‘male and female’.

No privilege, indeed we might suggest that there is a bias the other way because of the Gospel! And any privilege that society might give, or we find ourselves in is to promote life (the shift in Paul’s household codes), to work toward an egalitarianism with everyone finding true life, and a corresponding emptying out of the privilege. Privilege is to be temporal and can only be in order to move things in the direction of the new creation.

Male and female

There is a patriarchal bias in Scripture and there is always a challenge as we read any portion of Scripture to grasp how we should respond. We can capture the Bible to our bias and use it to confirm our position, status and bias, or we can also seek to read it ‘against’ us as well as for us. That of course is very difficult to do with real integrity. The ultimate lens through which we have too view the various texts if Jesus, who is both the word of God and the revelation of the invisible God.

However much of a patriarchal bias appears at times in the Scriptures the first creation narrative does not seem to carry that bias.

So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ (Gen. 1: 27, 28).

There is a temple theology undergirding the creation story. The whole of creation is a temple with the fitting final element placed at the heart of this ‘good’ temple – the image of the deity. Now we have a ‘very good’ situation. There is no carved image for this cosmic temple, but an image ‘made’ by God. That image cannot be expressed by a gender, but by humanity as a whole, or perhaps we could say humanity as intended.

We might wish to say that the image of God is equally revealed in the female as in the male but I suspect that is travelling in a too-Western and individualistic direction. I don’t think the gender distinction is really what is in mind here. Humanity is created and the language is probably a type of speech known as a ‘merism’. We use such phrases when we say ‘I searched high and low for…’ We do not mean we only looked in high places and only looked under other objects. We searched high, low and everything in between. Genesis begins with a merism by stating that God created the heavens and the earth – the whole of creation. Here then I also consider we have this type of speech: the focus is not on male or female as distinct but on humanity as a collective whole.

Humanity relating together is where the image of God is to be seen, and where those relationships are dysfunctional that image is tarnished and at the extreme simply is obliterated. Hence how we see others is so key.

Paul in his ‘freedom in Christ mantra’ refers to this Genesis text. He says

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28, emphasis added).

The language is both a direct quote from Genesis and also incredibly strong. He writes twice ‘neither… nor’ but when he comes to this gender element he changes the language to ‘nor… and’. The gender difference has no weight at all in Christ, being human is the point. With Jew and Gentile there is a difference regarding election – not to salvation but to purpose. Slave and free is as a result of economic and social inequalities. Humanity, regardless of gender is something we all have in common – hence all war is ultimately civil war. This shared humanity is something so close to all of us where we can respond.

In the three distinctions I suggest we could think creatively about the election being with a purpose of holding space for a just society. Israel was to be an elect people for the world, both as a sign to the world, not being as one of the nations, and as a gift for the world. Slave and free, where position and status determine identity cannot be present in a true expression of the kingdom of God. All of this is founded on the creation reality that there is NOT male and female in the sense of identity, role and status. One humanity in Christ as image of God.

Definitions are difficult, and stereotypical generalisations are often not helpful but restrictive. Maybe there are feminine characteristics that are more intrinsic to females, and masculine ones that are more intrinsic to males. Maybe. However, it is whenever truly human characteristics are manifested that the image of God becomes visible, and the outworking into creation can take place.

For sure that can never take place in the context of a patriarchy that limits ‘male and female’; it cannot take place where ‘male and female’ are demarcated so that the image of the divine cannot be seen. There is something so fundamental at stake.

Maybe we need to draw up what are feminine and what are masculine characteristics. Probably very helpful so that we can gain clear sight. However, theologically it is essential to discover what is truly human and what is not.

We know that when God is present something happens to our relationships, and if it does not we have to question what ‘god’ was present. The radical nature of the Genesis verses are that when humanity relates rightly God is present! The image of God is there, God is seen, his goodness is distributed. Moses looked to the desert and saw the glory of God. He looked to the dry dust. Dust animated by the breath of God is where glory is seen.

Leonardo da Vinci has a quote attributed to him:

An arch consists of two weaknesses which, leaning one against the other, make a strength.

Now that is a challenge. Lean in not with our strength but with our weakness. In Spain vs. Cataluña there is no leaning in but coming in opposition to each other, even to the extent that the phone is not being picked up until the other party backs down. The result is a lock up. The result is division, fighting and violence. What is clearly visible there on a macro scale so often though comes through at a micro-, at a personal interrelationship level.

Leaning in… leaning in in weakness. Leaning in in such a way that there is no male and female. That is a different version of ‘ruling’!

A great egalitarian Scripture

I will from time to time look at a few of the wonderful Scriptures that overwhelmingly convince me that status by gender is not something the Gospel entertains. Of course as always how we read Scripture is an issue for we can read it to almost defend whatever view we wish. Maybe if I get round to it I will also look at that. But for an opener there are two verses that record for us an interchange between Jesus and a woman that are simply mind-blowing (Luke 11: 27, 28). They follow on from some pretty hot teaching and activity by Jesus, demonstrating wisdom, understanding and the delivering power of God in a way that had not been seen before. In that context the woman says:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

Jesus responds immediately. He does not need to wait to consider what she said. We read

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

In this very short exchange comes an amazing contrast of world views. A world view that was common to the day and the starkly contrasting world view of Jesus as far as the status of women was concerned. The woman holds to the dominant world view of her day concerning the gender difference, and she articulates, without realising it, what the culture has taught her about as far as significance was concerned. She is so impacted by what she sees, hears and experiences when encountering Jesus directly that from deep inside something spills out.

It spills out, almost involuntarily, because the very act of speaking (shouting?) out as she did in public was not something that her world view supported. The impact of Jesus provoked her in that moment to act beyond what she believed was even appropriate. Her speech even confronted her own views!

Her world told her that her gender had a status that could increase with every break she might get in life:

She would start as the daughter of, growing up her status might increase if she was not single. So singleness was the base level. If however she could be married – be the wife of someone – she would go to the next level. Married but childless? That was not something she could live with easily. So to bear a child was the next level… and if the child was a male an even higher status was hers. That was as high as anyone could ever hope for, but on this day when she encountered Jesus she realised there was one higher step: imagine giving birth to a rabbi who lived, taught and behaved as Jesus did.

Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.

The contrasting view is the one Jesus came back at her with and in a few words turned her world upside down. Status is not based on gender, it is the same for women and for men. It is simply becoming who we were meant to be. There is no higher blessing, perhaps I might even suggest no higher glory.

Pause for a moment. Being the mother of Jesus is not the highest calling for a woman. Mary is blessed, but…

The Gospel is crazy. It does not put us down but pulls us all up. Unless of course we take a superior attitude then it seriously does pull us down. There are not many attitudes that God actively opposes but pride, arrogance, superiority? The Gospel has always been good news for the marginalised. And it will not appear as good news to those who do not make way for others to discover who they are and express who they are. Freedom to discover and to express rather than restrictions and blockages will always be the bias of the good news that Jesus brought.

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