Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love One Another: Healthy Sectarianism

In Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 Jesus famously tells would-be disciples to “Love your enemies.” However, John’s Jesus puts it differently and with emphasis: Jesus’ is, “Love one another” (13:34-35; 15:12, 17). The Johannine Epistles take up this “new commandment” and make it the sign of true discipleship (1 John 3:11-24; 4:7-12; 2 John 5).

Which is more noble, to love everyone, even one’s enemies, or to love those in one’s own group? The first reaction for most people is to favor “Love your neighbor.” Indeed, that’s the ethical teaching for which Jesus is most famous. It’s easy, as Jesus says, to love your friends but hard to love everyone. We all know those people who can be gracious and charitable within their group but vicious to those outside.

I’d suggest that we pay attention to “Love one another.”

For one thing, the Bible speaks with multiple voices. It’s a conversation, not a monologue. On a host of questions the Bible offers apparently contradictory advice – and we should attend to both sides. Is wealth a blessing from God or a spiritual danger? Does human suffering represent God’s judgment or a call to mercy?

We should also look out for the social and literary contexts of biblical teachings. Over the past forty years or so, scholars have expended lots of energy on the social context of Johannine Christianity. One of the most striking things about John’s Gospel is the blend of high-flying spiritual and mystical language (“In the beginning was the Word”) with signs of deep social trauma. As Jesus says to his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (15:18). Social scientists call that sort of religious outlook, in which the larger society is considered hostile and dangerous, a sectarian worldview.

Let’s look at the full context of that verse:

This I command you, that you love one another. If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.

Without going into detailed hypotheses about why the Johannine Christians came to believe that the world hated them, let’s simply notice this one thing: the “love one another” command results from the perception that the world is a hostile place. The Johannine Christians survive because they love one another.

(We might note that the “love one another” command is not limited to the Johannine literature. Paul was big on it, and so was the author of 1 Peter.)

I would suggest that Christians need to think about loving one another. At times faithful discipleship will elicit hostility. If followers of Christ speak out against violence, against a culture of greed, against the stigmatization of Muslims, against the oppression of queer folk – or, if we speak for peace, for a compassionate society, for blessing all people – we will experience hostility. Precisely at those times, loving one another goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors and our enemies. A sectarian outlook is a healthy thing for serious Christians.

In the great prayer of John 17 Jesus prays that his followers “all may be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). Loving one another is one way in which we love the world. Or to put it technically, a healthy sectarian outlook nourishes our catholicity.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pulp Fiction Hermeneutics: Jules and Vincent

Spoiler alert.

In some circles, it seems the point of biblical interpretation is to control the field of possible interpretations. Some do it by providing "rules" for sound exegesis, though that's going out of fashion. At the moment I'm more concerned by people who suppose that claims concerning the Bible's inspiration, even divine authorship, will guarantee sound interpretive results.

Even the highest views of biblical inspiration don't solve the question of interpretation. If we just looked at the Christian bodies who confess such views, we'll see how frequently they dispute with one another. I don't think that kind of resolution deserves serious reflection.

What I want is a way of talking about interpretive diversity while recognizing that some interpretations are more persuasive than others. I take a clue from two of my favorite fictional characters Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction.

Jules and Vincent are hit men who work together. Near the beginning of the movie they execute a small group of aspiring drug dealers who have fallen out with their boss. Jules quotes a chilling passage from Ezekiel, and the room is cleared of victims. Unbeknownst to Jules and Vincent, however, there's one more kid hiding in the bathroom. The young man jumps out and yells, "Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!" while he empties his pistol directly at the faces of Jules and Vincent.

At this point we don't see the two hit men. We watch the boy's face fall into dejection, just before the bullets blow him out of the frame.... Fade to black before the next scene.

What just happened? The film takes a long time returning to the question, returning to the earlier scene just after the young man fires at Jules and Vincent. Now we see the two hit men, who coolly dispatch their assailant with a hail of bullets.

Here's how the script reads at this point.

Jules, obviously shaken, sits down in a chair. Vincent, after a moment of respect, shrugs it off. Then heads toward Marvin in the corner....

JULES (to himself): We should be fuckin' dead right now. (pause) Did you see that gun he fired at us? It was bigger than him.

VINCENT: .357.

JULES: We should be fuckin' dead!

VINCENT: Yeah, we were lucky.

Jules rises, moving toward Vincent.

JULES: That shit wasn't luck. That shit was somethin' else.

Vincent prepares to leave.

VINCENT: Yeah, maybe.

JULES: That was...divine intervention.

Hours later, Jules and Vincent schlep into a coffee shop. As always, their brilliant dialogue wins the moment. It returns to the same debate. While Vincent blows off the notion that they'd experienced anything but luck, Jules reflects on the miracle's significance:

It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my fuckin' car keys. You don't judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God's touch, God got involved.

Jules resolves to quit his gangster activities, while Vincent goes his own way. The outcome? (Spoiler, spoiler, spoiler.) It has everything to do with how their lives turn out.

I'd suggest the miracle has something to teach us about biblical interpretation. There's a "text." There's no doubt what happened. Vincent and Jules would agree on the basic events they experienced together. But agreeing on the words on the page does not resolve the matter of what those words mean. How we perceive them requires interpretive choices -- and those choices are the products of temperament, experiences, and socialization. No matter what we say to "bind" the meaning of that text, interpretation eludes our control.