The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Sermon Heard Round the World

So since everybody else seems to be grabbing a piece of the story, here's my reaction to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's now infamous sermon delivered in Curacao last month. The part of the sermon that drew the ire of many was this:
We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.

There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.

An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God. The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand. This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.
Now, I've given a little more of the sermon than is provoking most of the hostile commentary, because I think the context shows that the PB was trying to do something a bit more nuanced than her detractors are giving credit for--Paul is, in her telling, responding in an unworthy way to the slave girl, and then getting it right with the jailer, by reacting with compassion to the jailer. To be fair, that's a very Pauline inconsistency--think of Paul's strictures on women in 1 Timothy 2:12, and then what Kirster Stendahl has called his breakthrough moment in Galatians 3: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." As Stendahl has said:
St. Paul—I like him, but he was arrogant. He had a lot of human flaws, but he was great. He was a great, great theologian. A theologian is someone who sees problems where no one else sees problems, and sees no problems where other people see problems. Once, when he is speaking (1 Cor. 7)—it happens to be about family matters, divorce, and sex, and things of that kind—he says: On so-and-so, I have a word from the Lord, but then on so-and-so, I have no word from the Lord. I think he was the last preacher in Christendom who had the guts to say that. New situations come, really new situations. What shall we then do? And Paul says: I have no word from the Lord, but I'll give you my advice. I'm doing as well as I can. And I think I am right. . . . That's a wonderful insight. What a lovely Bible that tells us that sometimes we might need to think, and not just to think that it is all settled.
After all, Paul included himself in the great line, "or now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." And, of course, as the PB notes, the slave girl is telling the truth--she accurately says of Paul and his companions that "“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” So the PB's suggestion that Paul first reacts in a censorious, self-righteous way--well, there's a case for it, right? It's supported by the text, consistent with his behavior on other occasions--so, possible, right?

Yet my first reaction was to reject her hypothesis. Not because I believe that Paul can do no wrong, but because of what he does--he "said to the spirit, 'I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.' And it came out that very hour." Now, I have a very hard time believing that in the New Testament, God, answering a prayer in the name of Jesus, would wreak an injustice, and, in the Presiding Bishop's words, "destroy" something "beautiful and holy" because Paul does not see its value. That would make Paul exercising not prayer but magic--the power of God would be entrusted to him for bad use as well as good. And I do not believe that that is how God works.

By the way, you don't have to believe in miracles, spirits of divination, or demons to accept this criticism of the Presiding Bishop's reading of the story; we are talking about the internal logic of the universe of the story, meaning certainly Acts itself and its prequel, the Gospel According to Luke. Even if you do not believe in the supernatural facets of the Bible in any kind of historical way, the fact is, the Presiding Bishop's reading of the story in in profound tension with the in-universe logic of the story as given in the text. So that's a problem.

And, originally, that's where I was going to end this post--the PB has, without any ill intent, I am sure, made an interpretation of a passage that conflicts with the passage's own internal logic and with authorial intent. And I think that's largely true still.

But noodling around with it this evening, I've realized that I'm less certain than I'd like to be, and that Bishop Katharine has more of a point than I'd like to admit. After all, what does become of the poor slave girl? Why was Paul "annoyed" (The King James Version has "grieved", which doesn't ameliorate Paul's response terribly)? The text does not suggest that Paul has much more--in fact, any more--concern or compassion for the slave girl than do her owners, does it? Even if he is liberating her from a spirit that is harming her spiritually, it's in a pretty grudging way.

My point of resistance remains that this doesn't explain God's part in it. Although Acts does contain what Bernard Shaw called "the vindictive miracles", it's hard to view the author as including a harmless woman speaking the truth about the Way as worthy of punishment, and thus depicting God giving Paul the power to destroy that which was beautiful and holy. (May I digress for a second, and add that the linked Shaw essay--the Preface to Androcles and the Lion--has some first rate thinking about the New Testament?) So I do believe that the PB's reading of the story ultimately doesn't work. But it's a great deal of a closer call than I thought just a few hours ago.

So, for what it's worth, I believe the Presiding Bishop pushed her insight--Paul is grudging; even if he's curing the slave girl, and not taking away her gift, he's doing the right deed for a pretty dubious reason. But destroying what is holy? That seems to push the insight further than it can go without making God himself guilty of injustice.

And further than the PB needs to go--or possibly intended to go--in making her point.

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