I preached on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew chapter 2 last Sunday morning, and then I taught the very same text that evening in a Bible Study. In my preparations for preaching and teaching this text, I came across an article written by Kate Jones Calone and published at Sojourners online (01-06-2017) entitled “When the Wise Men Refused to Collaborate with Empire” (https://sojo.net).
What Kate wrote intrigued me.
After a brief reference to the broad outline of the familiar story, Kate gleaned this as her primary learning from the narrative –
Throughout human history, individuals and institutions have had to make difficult and risky decisions in response to unjust directives — especially those directives framed as required cooperation, “for the good of the country.” Resistance can take many forms: Dissent, protest, civil disobedience. Sometimes, though, what should be done is simply declining to participate.
And then she made this application –
This new year, conversations are taking place all around the country about whether local law enforcement agencies will assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in tracking down and turning over undocumented individuals living in the United States. As political discourse and top-down pressure threatens to move us further toward mass deportations, those political leaders seeking to find and arrest those without documents hope that local law enforcement officers will become de facto agents of ICE… The wise men decided not to collaborate in facilitating Herod’s raid on the holy family… the wise men realized, whether by recognizing Herod’s duplicitousness or taking seriously the warning that came to them in a dream, that it would be unjust and unwise to serve as Herod’s enforcers. We are called to empower our local law enforcement leaders to make the same decision today.
Back in seminary Dr. William Baird, one of my New Testament professors, warned us to be careful about turning Biblical texts into “springboards to Washington D.C.” What he meant by this was the political use of a Biblical text. I don’t know, but I suspect that Dr. Baird would view what Kate did with the story of the Magi in her essay as an example of this. When she read Matthew 2 she made an immediate political application. To her credit, Kate also made reference, in passing, to the redemptive dimensions of this narrative. She pointed out that “Jesus grew up to accomplish his saving work in the world,” and said that she believes that “God chose to move this salvation story forward through these holy non-collaborators.” But there is no doubt that Kate read this text primarily through political lenses.
What Kate featured as primary in her exposition of Matthew 2 – the non-collaboration of the Magi with Empire in this narrative – would have been noted in passing as a secondary theme – an implication, an interpretation, an inference – of the text in my exposition of it, if I mentioned it at all. And what Kate noted in passing as a secondary theme – an implication, an interpretation, an inference – of the text in her exposition of it – the historical redemptive dimensions of this narrative – was primary in my exposition of it. And I know how this story ends.
All of my “progressive” peers and colleagues are shaking their heads at those of us who read the text primarily through redemptive lenses, and wonder how we could be so blind to its obvious political references. And all of my “traditional” peers and colleagues are shaking their heads at those of you who read this text primarily through political lenses, and cite it as evidence of what’s wrong with the church today. Like children on the blacktop at recess getting up a kickball game, we’re all busy choosing sides. “Redemptives” over here, “politicals” over there. Kate will captain one team. I’ll captain the other! The only problem is that I don’t want to play.
Oh, there’s no question about my “redemptive” sensibilities when it comes to my reading of the Biblical text. It is primary in my hermeneutic because I find it to be primary in the sources themselves. When I read the Bible what I find is a single narrative that holds together around the question of God’s saving work, a narrative that climaxes in Jesus Christ, His death, burial and resurrection, and it mystifies me that others don’t see this as clearly as I do.
Getting ready for another assignment recently brought me to Wilfred McClay’s 1988 essay on “Religion in Politics; Politics in Religion” in Commentary. I alternated between mad and sad as I read –
A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral service for a young woman, a secretary at the university with which I was then affiliated. She was an attractive, generous, incandescent soul, beloved by everyone she worked with, no mean feat in such a contentious setting. She had died, tragically, in giving birth to her second child—a death even more bitterly shocking than an automobile accident or a street-corner shooting, for it seemed almost too atavistic to be possible. How, in this day and age, in a major American city with all the most advanced medical technologies available, could such a thing still happen?
Evidently the same question was on the mind of the minister who stepped up to deliver the eulogy to the overflow crowd of mourners that day. But where the rest of us had been stunned into reflective silence, awed and chastened by this reminder of the slender thread by which our lives hang, the minister had other things in mind. He did not talk about the deceased, except to praise her laughter briefly and imprecisely, leaving one with the feeling that he had not even known her. (I later found out this was not so.) He did not try to comfort her family and friends. Nor did he challenge us to remember the hard words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Will be done.” Instead, he smoothly launched into a well-oiled tirade against the misplaced priorities of our society, in which billions of dollars were being poured into “Star Wars” research while young women such as this one were being allowed to die on the operating table.
That was all the minister had to say. His eulogy was, in effect, a pitch for less federal spending on defense and more spending on the development of medical technology. There was also an unmistakable hint that the young woman’s doctors might well have been guilty of malpractice, but would of course be insulated from the consequences of their mistakes by our corrupt system. The only thing omitted was an injunction that we write our Congressman, or Ralph Nader, about this outrage.
I could hardly believe my ears. Had the minister set out to desecrate her memory rather than honor it, he could hardly have done a better job. But leave aside the eulogy’s unspeakable vulgarity, and its unintentional cruelty to the woman’s family. Leave aside the flabby and clichéd quality of language and speech. Leave aside the self-satisfied tone of easy moral outrage. Leave aside the fashionable opinions, too, since honorable and intelligent men and women can disagree about these things. I am even willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that the minister may have been right in everything he said. All these considerations are beside the point.
Nothing can alter the fact that he failed us, failed her, and failed his calling, by squandering a precious moment for the sake of a second-rate stump speech, and by forcing us to hold our sorrow back in the privacy of our hearts, at the very moment it needed a common expression. That moment can never be recovered. Nothing that religion does is more important than equipping us to endure life’s passages, by helping us find meaning in pain and loss. With meaning, many things are bearable; but our eulogist did not know how to give it to us. All he had to offer were his political desiderata. For my own part, I left the funeral more shaken and unsteady than before. Part of my distress arose from frustration, that my deepest thoughts (and those of many around me, as I later discovered) were so completely unechoed in this ceremony and in these words. But another part of my distress must have stemmed from a dark foreboding that I was witnessing another kind of malpractice, and another kind of death. (www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/religion-in-politics-politics-in-religion/)
That’s how we “redemptives” think, and that’s what we “redemptives” feel. But clearly, as Kate’s essay on the Magi proves, we “redemptives” aren’t the only Christians in the church. And I’m quite sure that you “politicals” could come up with an equally compelling story of the spiritual malpractice of a “redemptive” that made you just as mad and just as sad. And I as a “redemptive” need to hear that story, just as you “politicals” need to hear mine.
This is our problem in the church today, if you ask me. We’ve stopped listening to each other. So convinced are we of the rightness of our own positions as “redemptives” or “politicals,” that we’ve stopped listening to each other. And the tragedy of this, again, if you ask me, is that in doing this, we’ve both settled for just half of Biblical Christianity.
It was reading E. Stanley Jones’ book The Christ of the Mount (Abingdon 1931) when I was a freshman in Christian College that persuaded me that Christianity has both a redemptive side and an ethical side, and that “if the ethical side of our gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless” (17). To be sure, I find the redemptive side of the Gospel to be primary in my thinking and believing. You may find the ethical side of the Gospel to be primary. But so long as we both acknowledge that the Gospel is bigger than just what we ourselves regard as primary, that there is an ethical side to our redemptive side, or vice versa, depending on our perspective, then we’re potentially within “hearing distance” of each other, and the possibility of the formation of a vital community of interpretation exists.
But, for this to move from the potential and the possible to the actual and the experienced, we’ve all got to act on it. “Politicals” need to show that they are just as interested in talking to “redemptives” as they are in talking to other “politicals,” and we “redemptives” have got to show that we are just as interested in talking to “politicals” as we are in talking to our fellow “redemptives.” As a first step, as a gesture of good will, we could begin by refusing to caricature each other, erecting stereotypes to be smugly and gleefully dismantled with our respective airs of spiritual superiority. This is the “good faith assumption” that I find to be so missing from recent theological and political rhetoric. It says that I will begin with the assumption that the person with whom I disagree is just as interested in and serious about the matter at hand as I am. And as a second step, we could be deliberate in sending signals, just as Kate was in her essay, that we are aware of the others in the interpretive community who see the texts with different lenses, and to embrace the idea that there is always more to the text than my experience, perspective and presuppositions allow me to see.
On Sunday night in my Bible Study on the Magi in Matthew chapter 2, I actually said the word “Empire,” and I noted the politically subversive nature of the Magi’s response to Herod’s sinister request, and the challenge it poses for us today. And it was Kate’s respectful nod to the redemptive substructure of her political reading of this text that persuaded this “redemptive” to hang with her argument long enough to be able to see it as a valid dimension of the story’s meaning that needs to be included in any honest conversation about it.
When I am just as committed to listening to you and your interpretation of the Gospel, as I am in trying to explain to you my interpretation of the Gospel, and to persuade you that I’m right, I believe that it is the Gospel that is actually served. DBS +