from Easter Horror Stories- Rescuing Jesus’ Good News–
The web version of a book draft exploring the dark side of the salvation stories in the lectionary. Print book slated for 2024 based on comments from readers.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9
The many voices in the Hebrew oral faith tradition were never harmonised into a single theology, even when edited into the written scriptures we have today. There is a majority “purist” view which condones violence, sexism and nationalist racism, and there are more universalist voices with a different opinion about who God is and how God relates to humanity. The story being read in churches all around the world this week – by over a billion people – definitely belongs in the nationalist racism category.
This bit from Genesis 17 is in the lectionary this week,
“God said to Abram, “…I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:8)
Which would not be so bad if Canaan was terra nullius. Unfortunately, when the Jews finally arrive after their exodus from Egypt, that is clearly not the case,
“…when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no Covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:2)
What kind of salvation is being offered here? Who gets it, who misses out, what kind of God is described? This time the promise is to Abraham’s descendants, a single race, though they have to go through slavery in Egypt before the great Exodus to the promised land.
The Exodus story is a powerful story of delivery from persecution, of salvation for those who are being treated unjustly. The Afrikaners referred to it constantly when they arrived in southern Africa. Those fleeing to the newly discovered Americas to avoid religious persecution in England saw that this story was their story.
God had guided them to the “Land of the Free.” To a lesser extent, some white Christians arriving in Australian claimed the Exodus story, and the theme of deliverance to a promised land, as their story.
But to fill a promised land, one must deal with the Indigenous inhabitants, who don’t just disappear. The Gumbaynggirr people where I live in Australia didn’t just disappear. Nor did the Native Americans, the original Africans, or the Canaanites.
The book of Joshua records that the massacres happen, but not thoroughly enough for God’s liking. The Israelites had to be divinely compelled to institute their “brown Israel policy,”
“… if you turn back, and join the survivors of these nations left here among you, and intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, know assuredly that the LORD your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you… until you perish from this good land…” (Joshua 23:12-13)
In other words, if the Israelites faltered in their ethnic cleansing project, and intermarried rather than enslave and butcher, God would give up on them.
I cannot fathom how modern Christians can understand our faith as the continuation and fulfilment of this story. That somehow this violent, racist, story of deliverance and promise is part of our story, fulfilled in Jesus, and therefore worth telling during Lent. Should we abandon the story? No. We should keep it as a warning against the extremes of nationalism and religious zealotry, not repeat it uncritically in worship.
As a warning this story asks us,
Does God favour some people over others?
Are some people simply objects to be disposed of?
Does God have no thought for Indigenous people?
Humanity seems to be facing a raft of ecological and economic crisis, with corresponding political and social ones. Australia is one of the least affected countries, but we won’t be forever, and growing numbers of us are already feeling the pinch. How are we hoping to get out of it? What “salvation” are we seeking? Is it sufficient if our nation, or our kind of people make it, at the expense of others?
The Israelites’ salvation cost the Canaanites everything.
White Australia’s “salvation” cost the Aboriginal people almost everything. What does our salvation now cost others?
Shall we also construct a story that lets us off the hook, in which everyone else is merely a bit part in the play in which we star? If not, what is our story, what deliverance are we hoping for? Not just for us, but for the world?
Let us flick back to Abraham. Even if his descendants didn’t baulk from their divinely mandated ethnic cleansing, there was yet one more condition,
“This is my Covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you for every generation: Every male among you shall be circumcised… when he is eight days old… Any male who is not circumcised by cutting off the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my Covenant.” (Genesis 17:9-14)
The sign of salvation, by which you get to be part of this promise from Abraham through Joshua, is the cutting off of the end of your penis. Now that’s just weird. Those babies whose parents baulk at cutting off their foreskins will be cut off from their people. They are out! And, so the story goes, this is to go on for ever.
An anonymous nurse unwittingly entered me into the Covenant when I was two days old, against my mother’s wishes, but most Christians don’t go in for penis pruning anymore. And when it was popular in the last century, it was for “hygiene” or to curb masturbation, not to keep their children Christian.
Jesus’ disciple Peter, a Jew, had a vision that circumcision wasn’t a requirement for entry into the Christian community (Acts 10-11).
But so clear were his holy scriptures on this point, and so strong was the tradition, and so harshly did the other Jewish Christians criticise him, that he wavered on the point, so that Paul, another Jew, had to confront him and force the issue (Galatians 2:11-14).
Eventually the other Jesus followers, also Jews, acknowledged that men could be a Christian, part of the “saved,” without cutting off the end of their penis. Not only that, but amongst Christians no distinction was to be made between men and women, who didn’t have foreskins to chop off in the first place (Galatians 3:28).
This was really, really radical! For a Jew to claim to be part of the saved community, yet keep his foreskin, was completely unscriptural. Everyone knew it, which is why it caused so much controversy. Just as radical was saying that “in Christ” there was no distinction between women and men.
Everyone knew that men were superior, as other parts of the Christians Scriptures make clear (1 Corinthians 11ff, 14:33ff; 1Timothy 2:11ff).
The first Christians were indisputably unbiblical!
Are we willing to be as unbiblical as the first Christians were, if that is where the Spirit is leading us?
Jesus probably grew up learning that those foreskin keeping gentiles were of little interest to God. How did he escape his inherited racism? In Mark it appears to be his conflict with the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7). In Matthew, the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8). In Luke, written by a gentile, Jesus’ cosmopolitan worldview is there from his very first speech in the synagogue, in which he claims that God loves foreigners. His audience is so incensed that they try to murder him (Luke 4).
Whenever he got the insight, by chapter eight of Mark, which includes this week’s lectionary reading, Jesus is out amongst the Gentiles teaching and feeding four thousand of their men. Oh yes, plus women and kids.
What does the feeding of the 4000 mean?
Was it a real live miracle? Was it proof that God used to be able to make food out of thin air, but for some reason doesn’t bother anymore, despite the billions of starving people in the world? The hard bit for me in believing that it was a bona fide miracle isn’t actually believing the miracle, but understanding why God has stopped feeding the hungry, if it’s so easy.
Was the feeding a demonstration that salvation comes when people, seeing others share, start sharing themselves? Did one or two people start to do the right thing, and inspire others by their example? Did enough people get out the bits of food which they had stashed on them, to help feed everyone else? Was it like when we all pitch in after a flood to help muck out each other’s houses? Was the miracle that people, inspired by listening to Jesus, actually loved their neighbour like he’d been telling them to? That those with food did for others as they would want done for them?
Or was the story a non-historical metaphor? A revelation of the shocking truth that salvation and wholeness, God’s Kingdom, is offered outside the proper places? That it is offered to the wrong kinds of people?
Is it a declaration that God doesn’t follow the rules?
How we answer those questions affects how we live now.
If we believe it was a magic miracle, we might pray that God will start magically creating bread again to feed the world, especially since it would really help with recruitment to our cause. Many prayers I hear in churches are, “God, please do something (magical) about problem X, Y and Z).”
If we take the second approach, we might commit to leading by example, sharing our bread and so inspiring others to share also, and build the Kingdom together. There are a wealth of other teachings of Jesus which suggest, or even compel us to follow, this approach. Doing so will bring us into conflict with those who want to make us fear our neighbour, and keep our bread for ourselves, so that we are easier to control.
Taking the third approach, we might risk breaking the rules ourselves. Doing the “wrong” things, in the “wrong” place, and the “wrong” way, for the “wrong” people. Like God and Jesus and the first Christians did. Remembering that this will bring us into conflict with those who strive, like Joshua and later Christians, to stay pure, respectable, and law abiding. It will mean conflict with those who want us to keep our bread for the right kind of people.
 See Christian Sex Today, lessons from Moses, Paul, Jesus and Darwin.
This book uses the ‘New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.’ In all cases where there are italics, they have been added by myself