This week we looked at Matthew 18:1-20 and talked a bit about “discipline.” One major note that we focused on was of “gate keeping.” Below are some additional (or clarifying reflections) on gate keeping, discipline, and perhaps discerning “binding and loosing”:
(What follows are my thoughts [not necessarily PMC’s (but hey maybe they are!)], and it is written for a church that is in a specific social location. So take that for what it is)
Gate Keeping and the Least
Are we gatekeepers? Are you a gate keeper? Or better, many of us are gatekeepers by the reality of our location. How can we be more aware, how can we empower others, open gates, and use what power we have for the least and the excluded?
There are many ways that we can be gate keepers, but often gate keepers unwittingly include and exclude by an assumed understanding of what is “normal.”–the way things are supposed to go, business as usual, or any other normative understanding about what is acceptable and what isn’t. This idea of what is “normal” can limit the inclusion, access, and power of others. To take an example from a book I am reading by Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, (would recommend) Hinojosa writes about early Mennonite missions to Latino/a (or Latinx) people and how these missions often included a heavy dose of cultural assumption and normativity (that of course was mission for the last century or so). As Latinx people became more prominent within the church, the predominantly white church had a hard time seeing past its normative German/Swiss/Russian cultural heritage to include Latinx people as partners in mission, viewing at times cultural issues, issues having nothing to do with gospel matters, as issues for discipline.
White Mennonites who defined their identity so much by their “ethnic” Mennonite inheritance stood as gatekeepers, guarding cultural purity (and at time the racial purity of the church). Their own assumed “normal” became the standard for gate-keeping.
The Hermeneutical Privilege of the Oppressed
A phrase that I use a lot in my teaching, especially for my intro level students is “the hermeneutical privilege of the oppressed.” By that I mean, those who are oppressed have an interpretive claim on Scripture in the face of the readings of dominant groups. I think in determining our community vision, standards, and values, those things that define “discipline,” we need to be aware of and privilege voices of “the least” (and really what I mean by this, and “poor” later, is non-dominant voices). But why? Shouldn’t we all be equal? Isn’t that like reverse racism? Well there are a lot of responses to this… Here is just a few that you might be able to add to.
- Jesus Was Pretty Big on Empowering the Poor: In Luke for instance (because it’s the best Gospel), Jesus’s birth is presaged by Mary with a pretty great prophecy that among other things notes that God, in God’s role as Savior, brings down rulers and lifts up the humble, fills the hungry (read poor) and sends the rich away empty (1:52-53). Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that he has come to preach good news to the poor (4:18), and in the Sermon on the Plain, he preaches blessing to the poor (No, not the “poor in spirit”… Go to Matthew for that one. This is just “the poor”). Later Jesus praises God for revealing God’s kingdom to children and not the wise and learned. Even in this last one, read “poor.” That is, God has hidden the truth from the wise, those who see themselves as wise and elite within society. There will be some who say, but that is spiritual poverty! I get why people would want to read it that way, but I think the rich ruler would have loved to read it that way too. Yet when Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, he got super sad (18:18-30). He knew it wasn’t just spiritual. To say it is spiritual is just a cop out. It makes Jesus’s difficult words easily consumable.
- We Read to Justify Ourselves: Certainly this goes for everyone, but see what happened at the end of the last point. Our social and economic location influences how we read a passage. Often without proper self-reflection, we will lean toward interpretations that justify our places, our positions, and our power. Those with less power are able to break through that clutter and offer something different. The dominant should seek out the interpretations of the “poor,” otherwise they might be doomed to read things in the same self-justifying ways.
- “Does that mean ‘my’ interpretations don’t matter?” No! Not at all! We should, however, be trying to always read better and understand our own limits. But also, honestly, if you come from a particularly dominant group of intersectionality like me (white, male, heterosexual, educated, married, middle class, etc…) your interpretations in all reality have already mattered too much for a long time. Sometimes when we think we compare interpretations with equal voice, those with the most power do not understand how their readings of Scripture are simply given normative and objective status, holding interpretive sway over all other voices that must struggle to contend with those interpretations. This myth of normativity and objectivity only reinforces the interpretive problem.
- In Many Ways the Interpretations of the Oppressed Offer Better Insight:It is not simply that God loves the poor so we should listen to them. Such a stance is just patronizing. The reality is that the interpretations of the poor offer insight that is often more accurate than dominant interpretations. So I just made a value judgment, but let me explain. I just finished reading another book called The Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew I. Hart (would also recommend). One argument that Hart makes is that when we reflect historically on the past, we will say that marginalized populations (slaves, e.g.) had a better understanding of who they were and their own situation than dominant people who generally get to define what is normal and accepted. So for instance, a simple example, slaves in the South knew that they were (to put it basically) human beings, and they did not deserve to be enslaved; but a prominent view of course was that white people were superior and Africans were less than human, fit for slavery. This view was seen as normative, but it was a distortion of reality (and a distortion of biblical interpretation!) that reinforced the power of white slave owners and justified their situation (I would argue that is the same thing happening when people say that Jesus’s talk about poverty and wealth is, or is mostly, about spiritual poverty). We look back and say that those slaves had a much better understanding of what was really going on, and the justification of the dominant position was blind. We question the judgment of the dominant group. But whenever we turn to the present, which we are implicated in, we flip that. White people will often assume black irrationality in understanding their own situation, requiring white corroboration for any assertions black people will make about their experience. Thus, when black people today complain about unequal police brutality, systemic racism, racially based economic inequality, unequal incarceration rates, etc. a large segment of the (white) population assumes that black people are unable to properly judge their own situation. It is only in the present when we are enmeshed in those power structures that we relive the error of the past. May God save our souls by teaching us to hear the voices of the “poor” who can much better see the reality that we are living in.
So, for discipline… Are we holding people to standards that are informed by the least of these (read the beginning of Matt 18!) or are we domineering in our blindness, causing scandal for the least of these in ways that are unnecessary?
None of this is to say that discipline and accountability are not important. In fact quite the opposite! And since they are so important, we need to take it seriously. We agree together, in baptism, to be part of a covenant community. It is no longer just about ourselves. We live for each other. We commit to follow Jesus, to imitate him, to be accountable to one another, to discern together what our standards and values are, and to live in mutual aid, love, and forgiveness.
This all, however, requires us to note (at least) two things: 1) Jesus is our Teacher, and we are not submitting each other to cultural norms (well we should guard against that), especially those that are seen as normative and objective by dominant culture, we are submitting ourselves to Jesus. Well easier said than done. We need to discern that together, so 2) there is a sense that the poor, marginal, and voiceless help us break out of the distorted ways we see the world. The “poor” and marginal in this way can lead the “rich” and “wise” to true understanding. We must engage with those voices to properly discern and this requires a hefty amount of humility and empathy.
In that, we are called to help each other follow Jesus, call each other out when we are not, and disciple each other along the way. That can be very hard and counter-cultural. So we also have to find ways to discern our community standards and work them out together even in the tough spaces. This requires that we have, as a prerequisite, discerned together our common values and that we have created a community of love where such dialogue and interaction can take place.
Jesus is Our Conductor
So one last time. We are not giving into worldly standards, but Jesus’s standards. I am not saying that that is so self-evident, but it does require that we come together to pray, study Scripture, and listen to all the voices, especially those that can help break us out of our dominant paradigms.
Ultimately, I hope to be in a community that understands the journey of it all. Where we seek to move behind Jesus together, though we may be at different steps along the way. Such a community doesn’t seek ideological or theological purity, but remains open to difference while committing together to follow after Jesus, and to help each other along the way.
Some questions to think about this week:
- In what ways are we gate keepers? How can we be more aware, how can we empower others, open gates, and use what power we have for the least and the excluded?
- How can we enact healthy discipline and accountability, though it may be hard, that helps us all seek after Jesus together?
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