The Oklahoma Geological Observatory reported more than forty earthquakes in the past seven days (to May 12, 2013). Who knew?! Many of these ground-breaking events go unnoticed, except at the point of origin.
We are in tornado season here in flyover country. When these storms fire up my coastal California friends will occasionally call, “Did you survive?” Spencer often remarks, “Why would anyone live where there is such a threat?” I would retort, “Most of the time we see them coming, unlike your earthquakes.” Now I am in search of a different answer.
Our Country continues to be rattled by startling stories. This time it was Cleveland, Ohio. A house in a non-descript neighborhood became the focus of our attention. Details emerge with regularity. One local morning news anchor noted that she listens for any and all updates. We are spellbound by the horror.
It does not take long to see weather patterns as apt descriptions for our emotional state. Whipped by the winds of stories from Boston to Ohio with a little hail from Philadelphia, we work to stave off fatigue from the dirge like 24-hour news cycle. The evening news programs serve up a drought of good news. Fires. Throat slashing. Drug busts. Abuse. Neglect. Scandal. Cover up.
I was struck by the possibility that Ariel Castro suffered as a child. Most of us could do without that detail. After all, we need him to be a monster. That is easier done if we cannot find any socially constructed identity forged around abuse and neglect. Absent human love it is nigh impossible to represent such love to others, even in marriage.
Circumstances do not excuse the terrible decisions. But, understanding the situation humanizes instead of allowing for detached judgments. The road to empathy is cavernously fractured. What story lies behind Kermit Gosnell?
These stories and more come to mind when I think about another earthquake. Rather than stirring images of broken buildings and wounded people, I have in mind breaking systems and freeing people. The (re)signing of earthquake in this rhetorical move stems from a recent reading of Acts 16.*
When humans serve as shifting plates within a system intended to harbor harm and exploitation, an earthquake disrupts the economic benefit of the status quo. The missionaries in Acts 16, responding to the vision of delivering good news in Macedonia, provide a case in point.
First, Christian people must capture a material vision for rescuing people. Our language tends toward the mystical, the ethereal. Human beings face bondage, captivity, addiction, emptiness, boredom, personal affronts, and more on the physical plane. Our verbiage mystifies a condition that leaves us talking about a subject very close to home but whose language largely obtains to a different plane, a spiritual one.
Sin leaves a stain. The imagery works for us in our church-house conversations. But, enslavement leaves a mark. Ask Elizabeth Smart. When we describe the rescue from sin, we need a corresponding physical reality. Rescue from enslavement conjures images of young women tied up and subject to the whims of another human being.
My friends on the left do not like the word sin. Maybe it is the ambiguity created by an umbrella word. Or, it may be the way we narrow our definition to an individual activity that keeps us blinded to humans systems that institutionalize sin. Think slavery. Once entrenched, these systems codify captivity. We miss these patterns when we only talk about your sin and mine.
Take for instance the idea that a particular eschatological vision creates an arrogant disregard for creation. “It will all burn up anyway.” Meanwhile a small move in the price of corn resulting from low yields due to drought sends many in the Southern hemisphere into poverty, or worse. Maybe you do not like global warming. Or, maybe you do not see humans as a culpable. You don’t trust science, so you don’t trust the science.
It is an odd day when we preachers will point out the consequences of sins that result from some human activity but not other.
Second, Christian people must learn to humanize the other. The missionaries represent the human plates that when rubbing against the cultural givens create an earthquake that unsettles the economic structures benefiting from de-humanizing, in this case, a woman. Consider the way the identity of the woman is translated in Acts 16.
“We were met by a slave woman.” (CEB) Our tendency is to attach meaning via labels. Translators, in an attempt to make the reading smooth, help create the perception that human identity is defined not by what it means to be made in the image of God, but instead by the ways that image may be marred.
The story could have easily been translated in its original form, “We were met by a woman.” We learn she is a slave by the context, “her owners.” I hope you see the shift. The chapter gives us the story of Lydia. She is a woman among the others found at the place of prayer in Philippi. Translators rightly emphasize her gender before noting she was, “a Gentile God-worshipper from Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth.”
Why not follow the same pattern for the woman, a slave who had the spirit of Python enabling her to predict the future? There is no reference to her accuracy, which is not the point. As an aside, there was another snake in the Scripture that purported to know the future.
The intent here is not to consider how we should understand the first century cult of Python or the reference to Zeus in, “servants of the Most High God.” Rather it is to raise the question of the way we talk about persons, personhood, and identity. When we first point to a socially formed identity marker it is easier to de-emphasize the divine maker – made in the image of God.
As we become increasingly aware of human trafficking and exploitation we ought to aggressively work to maintain the humanity of those trafficked rather than make of those rescued, or yet to be rescued, numerical statistics only. We may be sure the “owners” of modern day slaves will be angered by the loss of revenue from treating others as sub-human, just as in Acts 16.
Third, Christian people must practice Incarnation all the way down. The missionaries followed the Spirit to Macedonia. Luke records the way in which the place of prayer in Philippi, where they met Lydia and then the woman who was exploited for economic advantage, became the physical place where rescue took place. To stay with previous descriptions, the rescuing Good News declared by the missionaries livened up the immanent plane, the physical plane.
Reading Paul’s correspondence with Christians in Corinth reads like a call to live faithfully on the physical plane – not a call to live other worldly. Paul regards his human experience part and parcel of his spiritual experience. The two had collapsed. As long as we continue to split our selves between spiritual and other, our ability to bear witness to Jesus will also be split. Some days it will be good, like Sundays, and other days not so much.
I shared a conversation with a friend who self-describes as having left the building, Christianity. He insisted the way Christians talked about transformation maintained a split experience. Talk of the Christians’ inability to experience transformation, substantial that is, this side of eternity actually undercuts any talk of transformation. It is as if since Christians know they will not be complete until the return of the King, Christians get a pass. The longing is for a spiritual experience of transformation.
What Jesus described, however, included physical transformation. That is, life lived in Jesus’ Way looked a particular way in the body. Think Incarnation. I suspect the culprit is the vocabulary, the language structures; we use to talk about life and faith. Something that may be helped if we consider the ways smoothing our translations keeps us from the necessary moves to live in the world as human plates rubbing against the structures that keep people sub-human and away from Jesus.
*I am working my way through Crystal L. Downing’s, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication, Kindle Edition.