Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bizarro Lectionary Edits & Deadly Protection from Being Found on the Margins


Necessary background for this post: first, this Sunday's lectionary; second, what the heck's a lectionary? Perfect. We're all set.

My biggest objection to the lectionary's editing out "uncomfortable" verses is the presupposition that you and I and others come to Scripture primarily to be comforted. I don't know everything about Jesus, but so far I've gathered that following Jesus is training in losing one's life. Likewise, I don't know everything about me, but I've gathered that losing my life does not come naturally to me. I expect to hit my head on certain parts of Scripture, or at least to be granted the occasional significant wrestling match.

Lectionary edits both "protect" us from the wrestling *and* so doing presume that the nature of the struggle is obvious and clear. If, however, the nature of the wrestling is *not* obvious and clear - something I take to be definitionally true of scriptural "wrestling" - then neither is it clear from what the lectionary is protecting us. In short, the lectionary makes assumptions about who is at the center of the biblical story and what that means that are dangerous because of the unquestioned de facto standing they enjoy.

An example. The troubling psalms about smashing the heads of the kids of the wicked on rocks (see psalm 137). Of course it is violent. Of course it is appalling. But at least one thing about the psalm is not clear and obvious: whether the hearer is being invited to 1) pray the cry as her own or 2) hear the cry of one she is oppressing. If the thing we are being protected from is praying this prayer in error, that's one thing (and still a debatable thing); if the thing we are being protected from is hearing the cries of those who could credibly cry these prayers against us, as Ellen Davis offers as at least one possibility, then the lectionary's "protection" is in point of fact furthering my immense propensity for self-deception. It is impossible for especially 21st century, middle-class, white Americans to write off prayers like psalm 137, written in the context of exile and slavery, as inapplicable to post-Ferguson America or unnecessary to the kinds of repentance truthful healing will require. Ellen Davis similarly argues that future generations could rightly pray these prayers against her and her generation's rapacious consumption of material goods without respect for the environmental impact on her children's children's children.

To read a psalm in the way Ellen Davis suggests may well warrant a protective warning sign like those the lectionary attempts - "Do not attempt this reading without a firm grasp of grace and the community of faith" - but the whole point is that the structural posture of institutional protection, if set up wrongly, can prevent the truly dangerous reading from ever taking place. When the embedded structure of the lectionary says, "Don't ever say that!" it obscures the possibility that someone is saying *that* to you. And that it would be very good to hear. 

In "Overcoming Racial Faith," Willie Jennings writes convincingly about the racial implications of forgetting that, in the biblical narrative, "we were Gentiles, the real heathens." As Jennings writes, 
Without a sense of the reality of being Gentiles growing and expanding in and with us, we declared that the biblical story was simply about the church and Christians and their destiny—in other words, all about us. The good of seeing ourselves through Scripture was distorted by the problems of not seeing ourselves rightly in Scripture. We should have seen ourselves as those who always understood what life was like from the margins, who understood what it meant to be an outsider, and who lived in ways that are always inclusive, built on an abiding humility and a sense of grace. We would have understood that becoming Christian meant a permanent opening of our identities toward those whom God would send into our lives, because it was exactly that opening that made us Christian in the first place. 
Could Sunday's reading from Revelation be protecting us not from the possibility of persons outside the gates but from the realization that this is our place in the story? And why should Christians be afraid to be found on the margins? If our faith doesn't mean the trust that Christ will met us in the place of our most utter vulnerability, what in God's name does it mean? Or what else does it mean to worship the One who died for us outside the city gates?

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