Ched Myers, ‘Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus’ (Orbis, 1997). A study day at St Stephen’s, South Lambeth, on 11 June 1999.
[These are contemporaneous notes which were used to develop a Jubilee Group lecture on Myers, and a forthcoming article for the British Journal of Theological Education]
1. Assumptions about method
“I believe the ideology of apocalyptic holds the key to an accurate political reading of Mark – indeed, of most of the New Testament.” (p. xxvii). The wedge between theology and politics has led, in the US and elsewhere, to the domestication of the former and the sacralization of the latter.
“These ancient [biblical] texts are cultural artifacts, not easily or accurately interpreted without historical and critical tools. Yet as scripture, they are not merely artifacts, for they continue to shape the world as documents of a living ideology and practice.” (p. xxvi).
2. Introduction to this study
The focus of this study is healing – the linking of the human body, the body politic and the Body of Christ.
The church, like everything else, is often tempted to become a form of entertainment in late capitalist culture, but it is unable to compete – so it must try something different! Starting with politics per se is controversial. Healing, on the other hand, is often seen as a safe and ‘religious’ activity in Christian circles. So why did Jesus the healer get executed? How and who he healed is what is extraordinary, not the mere existence of another healer among many in antiquity, surprising though that may be to a modern society which has split off healing into a technocratic discipline… and therefore does not understand ‘healers’.
3. The wounded, the healer and ‘the system’
When we think of healing we think of the wounded one and the healer. The first step towards a fuller picture is to recognise victimisers as victims too, ‘the wounded wounder’, c.f. Henri Nouwen’s ‘wounded healer’. Introjection (displacing pain inwards) or projection (displacing it outwards) are the primary ways in which the wounded wounder – which includes all of us to some extent, but also pathologises some more than others, operates. Criminal behaviour is an example of the latter, mental distress of the former (political and personal, n.b.). Similar processes, of course, go on with the healer (who is also wounded). This is something we often overlook in Christian circles, where the healer is both elevated and separated from the victim.
And, most important, both are separated from the system (social, political, economic, cultural, religious, symbolic etc.) in which wounding and healing goes on. Our reading of the healing stories in Mark’s Gospel must therefore search for the relationship between the wounded, the healer and the system in the narrative – and its significance.
This tripartite relationship can be pictured (in very simple terms) as a triangle:
Frequently we end up dealing with the healer-healee dynamic, but not the overarching systemic dynamic. Entering into, say, the family system, medical system (etc.) raises a set of issues which is bigger than the personal, intrapersonal and inter-personal. The healer has a relationship to the system too, for example, though the relationship of the wounded one to the system may be most obvious.
Myers’ contention is that “Jesus got killed because of his interventions into the antagonistic relationship between the wounded ones and the victimising system. He operated on behalf of, and along with, the wounded. Every healing story in the Gospel tradition addresses in some way the systemic triangle.”
The most problematic element of this triangle is structural dependence of the wounded on the client system. Healers face an enormous vocational temptation to participate in the power relationship encoded within this system. Let us see how this works out in a Gospel story that has often been understood as quite ‘apolitical’:
4. Turning to the text
The healing of the leper. This is often seen as little more than another notch on Jesus’ Christological belt, a proof of his divine status or relationship. But suppose we relocate it within the client system. Note first that the leper (client) took the initiative. He is the one who approaches Jesus. The other dynamic at work here is that in some way Jesus made it possible for him to come. The fact that the leper saw something was because Jesus was proximate to these kinds of people. What does it mean to be approachable as a way of life? This is the discipleship question at the heart of the narrative. N.b. often it is the disciples who get in the way. The crowd is always ‘in the way’ for them. The disciples are trying to make a way, but through the crowd rather than encountering it. Jesus’ priorities are quite different.
In the context of this Gospel leprosy is skin disorder of any kind, not just Hansen’s disease. What is at issue is the fundamental relationship between the human body and the body politic. Your stance towards the body (reaction to illness etc.) always puts you in relation to the body politic (c.f. the false notion of the autonomous individual and the supervening state in contemporary thought). Race and gender are all about the relationship between bodies and the body politic, because people get included or excluded on the basis of skin colour or what is between their legs!
This relationship was understood in antiquity in a way that we have lost touch with today, theoretically, though the practice it is still there. So in Leviticus (chapter12ff.) leprosy is ‘resolved’ (the politics of perception) by going to the priest and being declared clean after an elaborate process of ritual purification. This is not necessarily healing, n.b. In Mark 1 the leper asks to be made clean, ‘if you will’… not ‘healed’.
The basic problem, of course, is that Jesus is an unlicensed practitioner. He is not a priest. But the leper is challenging him nonetheless. Jesus is ‘filled with compassion’ say our translations. Mark is not a psychologist, and rarely refers to feelings. So when he does talk about emotion we can be sure it is important. And our translations are putting it politely. Actually he is angry (see the Greek); his guts are being ripped apart (note the onomatopoeic word). He is being approached to do what he is not authorised to do. The leper knows this. He also knows where the priests are. But he has decided to defect from the system and to go to Jesus, because he detects that Jesus stands in a different relationship to his body and to the body politic than does the priestly caste.
Next, Jesus commits professional suicide by reaching out and touching an unclean person, thus becoming unclean himself. This is a boundary that is inviolable except for the professional class, the priests. (In traditional societies the act of cleansing re-ordered the social relationship through the priestly class only, thus producing a client-patient dynamic rather than justice).
That Jesus is acting as a priest (though in a radically different way) is emphasised by the touching. And the leper is made clean, not just ‘healed’. Fine. But always look for the epilogue in Mark. There is a warning not to talk about this, not to send out a press release about this violation of the system. At the beginning of the story the leper challenged Jesus, now the roles are reversed.
How we usually read the text is that Jesus sends the leper back to the priest in order to ‘legitimise’ the healing he has just performed. So the status quo is reaffirmed in the end. The church and its priestly system can breathe a sigh of relief. Actually this makes no sense. The phrase in the text says that the leper is ‘to bear witness’ to priests, to speak truth to power (martyrion). What happens is that the leper goes to pay the bill for a service he doesn’t get! Great theatre. Note that Jesus himself doesn’t do this himself. He is playing the priestly caste at their own game, but since the leper had the initial insight he is sent back to confront the system (empowerment). The alternative explanation is that the leper knew more than Jesus at this point, incidentally….
The leper is now a subject of his own liberation, not a mere client. But this is where things go badly wrong. The leper does, in fact, send out a press release ~ this is easier than the direct action of confronting the system. It is easier to get private healing than to join the process of confrontation. We are not told how the priests reacted, but we see the effect. The queues for Jesus grow ~ the word is out: ‘free healthcare!’. So Jesus cannot move about, not because of the people but because the political space of the countryside and the city is controlled by the system. (This is why he is trying to build a movement of animation, not to reproduce the system in the client-patient system).
5. Application to ourselves and to other texts
In the contemporary system this is the challenge to the church. As privatisation hits we may end up simply as service providers. The prophetic and discipleship task is to challenge the spaces ‘provided’ by the body politic from the perspective and demands of the kingdom of God.
Note that Jesus both deals with real people in concrete situations and gets to the root of the social situation. The personal and the political belong together. It is this that releases the power of God in the Gospel system.
[We then split into groups to work on some other texts ourselves, seeking to identify the relation between wounded, healer and system – and its significance in the purposes of God expressed in and through Jesus. Some comments:]
Mark 5.21ff. Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the haemorrhage. The latter has to be included before the former can be healed. Jesus is proximate to the poor woman not the rich daughter. Jairus approaches boldly, the woman with trembling. Note the difference. Jairus’ desire to see the daughter healed is of greater importance than his reputation. Jesus is made unclean by the woman with the haemorrhage (a period for 12 years… the most unclean of the unclean!), which strictly speaking makes the contact with Jairus’ daughter impossible.
The woman with the haemorrhage has a voice and a story, but Jairus’ daughter doesn’t. (Often poor people only get to talk to themselves). What has the system done for her? Not much. For Jairus it gets his daughter some access to help, but she dies while waiting for the woman with the haemorrhage to tell her story (‘boy, those doctors were a pain….’).
The woman with the haemorrhage has become a daughter, while the daughter at the beginning of the story (Jairus’) has died. The poor one is ‘raised up’ first. Divine reversal.
Note the potent symbolism of the 12-year-old daughter and woman with haemorrhage for 12 years. Not a random number, but the number of the tribes of Israel. This tells us that this is also a story about the nation. Until it is seen that all must be healed, no one can be healed….
When Jesus is touched he loses power and it goes to the woman. Power is redistributed.
The prescription on telling the story. Not to the woman with the haemorrhage, but to Jairus, n.b. Equalisation of press relations! But note that there is something ironic here too. How can you keep a story this big out of the press? Yet if it gets out there, the story of the woman with the haemorrhage will be told too…. How horrific for the dominant class!
Mark 7.24-30. Terrible situation in terms of propriety ~ a total interruption of society, class, culture. But note also how Jesus suffers the inhibition about which he has been teaching! The breach of table fellowship. He says to the woman that she is a ‘dog’, a terrible curse from Jews to Gentiles. Modern equivalent of calling someone a ‘nigger’ and ‘a bitch’. Here is Jesus mirroring the dominant culture, defending his own honour. She trumps him. First she argues. She mirrors his logic and turns it back on him. Dogs are people too (!)…
All this is very difficult for us. Is Jesus out of character here? Calling dogs those he had previously invited into fellowship? We are tempted to send in the theological rescue squad in order to save him from an apparently indefensible piece of behaviour, suggesting (for example) that he is being deliberately ironic. But the text suggests that he really did get it wrong. So learning becomes the ultimate act of service. He proves teachable. The healer has to be healed, the teacher taught. The woman is Messiah in this moment…. a gentile, of all people. Jesus is operating on a patch way out of his usual orbit. This could be a disaster. But Christologically Jesus’ Messiahship emerges from precisely such an intimate relationship with the other. If we have a problem with this it is because we have preconceived notions of ‘Lordship’ and ‘Messiahship’ that involve superiority, removal from relationship and didacticism. But God’s way is different. The ‘sinlessness’ of Jesus turns out to be a matter of triumph through endurance rather than escape….
Mark 8.22-24…. at Bethsaida. Word for ‘look’ means really to look, to revise reality. A crucial story this, and not just about eyesight.
Mark 9. 14-29 … ‘test the resistances’. If you don’t understand, go there. The Gospel of Mark is full of great failure stories of “the disciples who couldn’t.” They were not strong enough. The story begins with the disciples arguing with the scribes, and ends with them back in the safety of the house. You’d expect them to be toasting, but they are stuck with their own impotence and they are lamenting. So there is a Zen-like ending from Jesus, “ah yes, this sort can only be solved by prayer.” He understands the deeper forces at work here. This is a life and death struggle about silencing.
Why are the great Christian masses silent on justice? Are we possessed by the same demons that we are trying to cast out? We are under occupation by the great spirit of silence… Christians do nothing because they see nothing wrong. Silence is the great affliction of affluence. Our churches are locked in insular piety. Not engaged with public life. So those who are engaged are in danger of being cut off from the Spirit…. this is the ‘evangelistic challenge’ of a political reading of Mark.
6. Some concluding comments
C.f. Robert MacAffee Brown, ‘The Great Fallacy’ (against the division of activism and prayer. One reality…). Body, body politic, Body of Christ – these belong together. Wholeness, not just people being made whole, is what salvation is about. Politicians say ‘you concentrate on souls, we’ll do the rest’. No, it won’t work. It can’t work, because it is not how reality is.
All too easily Christianity can create a ‘togetherness’ based on the imperialism of “our God is better than yours” and a Jesus whose Lordship reduplicates the domination system. But the actual stories of Jesus subvert this way of thinking again and again. He is not trying to solidify the religious system, but to heal the divisions of humanity. Where the two come into conflict, the latter takes priority. This requires a kind of Messiah-ship that is very different to our (worldly) expectations. It is not about religious superiority, domination or didactic aloofness. It is about worldly solidarity, proximity, and learning.