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As a professor at Northwestern College, I don’t find it uncommon for my students to raise questions or share perspectives that motivate me to rethink my own views. The rethinking I have in mind right now was sparked by a conversation with a student shortly after her graduation. She had enrolled in seminary and just finished the required reading of Peter Rollins’ text The Fidelity of Betrayal. She loved the book and encourage me to read it, suggesting I would also find the text thought-provoking. So I read Rollins’ text and found it one of the most challenging books I have read in recent years.
The Pharisees’ response to the healing of the blind man is less than enthusiastic.
Consider one of the questions that Rollins explores: He asks his readers to consider if, in order to be faithful to God, we might need to betray our faith. This is a strange and disconcerting question, and it took significant wrestling with the question itself to begin to understand what Rollins was trying to get. Only after hearing a lectionary reading and sermon on the ninth chapter of John did I start to realize how essential Rollins’ question is for those who seek to follow Christ.
MAN BORN BLIND
In brief, John 9 tells the story of a Sabbath day when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind. The disciples ask if the man’s blindness is a result of the man’s sin or his parent’s sin. But Jesus rejects the idea that the blindness is a result of anyone’s sin. Then Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud to spread on the man’s eyes and instructs him to wash in the pool of Siloam. After being healed, the man returns to his community, only to find that they do not recognize him. As if the lack of recognition is not enough indignity to endure, the formerly blind man is taken to the Pharisees to be questioned about the healing. The Pharisees are highly skeptical the man was born blind and even demand that his parents testify that this was true. After some debate, they drive the man out of their midst while claiming that whoever healed him had to be a sinner and violator of the Sabbath.
This story helps us think about Rollin’s question: If, in order to be faithful to God, we might need to betray our faith. Consider some of the people in the story.
Let’s start with the blind person. Born blind, he had never seen the world around him. He had never been able to view the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset. He had never glimpsed the fleeting splendor of wildflowers that briefly bloom in the desert after an unexpected rain. Even more tragic is how his blindness isolated him from the life of the community. His inability to see meant he had few opportunities to support himself. Instead, his disability left him begging on the side of the road, left him living on the margins of the community, left him hoping that others would be generous enough to help him stay alive.
A PERVASIVE BLINDNESS
And yet he was not the only one with a problem seeing in this story. The community he lived in essentially did not see him. When he was healed, they did not recognize him, and they debated whether this was the man who used to be blind. Most likely this debate happened because he was someone they frequently passed by but never looked at. In effect, the community had been blind to the man when they had treated him as an object unworthy of their attention.
The disciples also fall into this way of thinking. They ask Jesus why this man was born blind, in essence using the man as an object to raise a question about sin and punishment. Somehow they know enough about the man to know he was born blind even though their question does not reveal any compassion for him or his suffering. Perhaps the disciples were reflecting common religious beliefs about suffering and sin. And perhaps these beliefs were getting in the way of actually seeing the suffering, the humanity and intrinsic worth of this fellow human being, who, like themselves, was made in the image of God.
If we turn to the Pharisees, the importance of Rollins’s question comes into clearer focus. It would be safe to say that the Pharisees’ response to the healing of the blind man is less than enthusiastic. They bring in the man’s parents for questioning because they are skeptical that the man was born blind. They call on the formerly blind man to testify not once, but twice, about what happened. And even if there is some dissension among them, and though they are forced to acknowledge that something never before seen has occurred, in the end they drive the man out of their midst, out of the community of faith, rejecting him and more important, rejecting Jesus, the one who performed the miracle.
A MILE IN THE PHARISEES’ SHOES
It is all too easy for us to harshly critique the Pharisees. However, I wonder: If we put ourselves in their place for a few moments, might we better understand their response? The Pharisees were people committed to living faithfully. They studied and attempted to live according the Scriptures that God had given them. Because of this, it makes sense that Pharisees were upset that the healing took place on the Sabbath and likely even more upset that Jesus made mud on the Sabbath. Making mud was improving the soil, obviously a form of work, and therefore a clear violation of the Sabbath.
If the problem of violating the Sabbath was not enough, the Pharisees also emphasize that they are disciples of Moses. They know that God spoke to Moses and that through Moses they were given the law, a law they followed religiously. Furthermore, Moses warned the Israelites not to turn away from worshiping the one, true God. No doubt the Pharisees could point to the consequences for Israel’s failure to stay true to God, consequences graphically illustrated in the book of Judges, the writings of the prophets and the histories of Israel’s exile to Babylon.
So if we put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees, their response begins to make sense. The Pharisees were well versed in the Scriptures and their faith traditions. They believed Jesus was dangerously violating their understanding of God and their faithful adherence to religious traditions and requirements. They believed that unfaithfulness to God and God’s law would bring about suffering, foreign oppression or exile. And we should also not forget that when the story of the healing of the blind man takes place, Israel is suffering under the occupation of Rome and the people of Israel were longing for God to once again deliver them.
By his actions and his teaching, Jesus challenged the faith of the community, the disciples and the Pharisees. He frequently and flagrantly appeared to break the Sabbath. His claim to be speaking for God, in fact to be God speaking to them, was not only shocking; it came across as blasphemy, because it violated their deeply held religious beliefs, their traditions and the principles of the faith they held dear. Jesus challenged them to see that they had come to trust not in God but rather to trust in their faith: that is, to trust in the certainty of the rightness of their beliefs and traditions.
JESUS AS BETRAYER
Rollins asks if sometimes we need to betray our faith in order to be faithful to God. The word “betray” in this question is a strong, shocking and provocative word. But doesn’t the word “betray” capture what it is likely that the Pharisees or others felt when asked to give up their trust in their deeply held and cherished beliefs and traditions, when challenged about their actual faithfulness to God?
Jesus asked the people in this story to betray their faith by setting aside those traditions that kept them from seeing and loving the people whom Jesus loved, who were the least, the outcast and the oppressed. He challenged his hearers’ willingness to defend the principles of their faith, those principles that lead them to act toward others the way they acted towards this blind man when they treated him like an object, when they marginalized him, when they cast him out of the community and the community of faith. Jesus asked them to betray their faith in order to be faithful to God. It was a challenge that was not easy for the Pharisees, for the disciples or for the community. Yet it was a challenge easier for the blind man to overcome as he worshiped the one who said, You are not what these people of faith say you are: Rather you are valuable, you are loved, and you belong as an equal member in our community.
Thousands of years after the writing of this story, it is all too easy to judge those who appeared unable to set aside their deeply held and cherished beliefs and traditions – traditions and beliefs that left them unable to love Jesus and unable love the people whom Jesus loved. But we Christians also are people who have established traditions, traditions that shape our reading of the Scriptures, traditions that shape the way we do, or do not, love the least, the outcast and the oppressed. Perhaps we might likewise wonder if we have essentially come to trust not in God, but rather to trust in our faith – to trust in the certainty of the rightness of our beliefs and traditions.
BETRAYING THEIR FAITH?
In his The Civil War As a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll argues that during the American Civil War period, there was a fierce debate among Evangelicals over the way to read and interpret the Bible and the way to live lives of faith. On one side there were Christian preachers and theologians in the South and in the North who could point to the overwhelming number of biblical texts in both the Old and New Testaments that appeared to support slavery. Noll quotes one northern Presbyterian as saying, “When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is a sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to the sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.” Do we hear in this quote an echo of the Pharisees in the story from the gospel of John? Do we hear how this Presbyterian finds the challenge by abolitionists not just a challenge to the practice of slavery but a threat to the way he reads Scriptures and a threat to the essence of his faith?
Noll reports that on the other side of the debate were some preachers, theologians and abolitionists who believed that the call to love God and love our neighbor was incompatible with the enslavement, oppression and marginalization of fellow human beings. Their activism was challenging Christian supporters of slavery to betray their faith by setting aside their traditions and beliefs, traditions and beliefs that kept them from seeing and loving the people that Jesus loved – the slaves who were among the least, the outcasts, the oppressed. Opponents of slavery were challenging the supporters’ willingness to defend the principles of their faith, principles that led them to treat fellow human beings as property, to marginalize slaves and to keep slaves from being full members of their communities. In order to be faithful to God, slavery supporters were being asked to betray their faith. It also was a challenge for abolitionists to say to the unjustly enslaved: You are not what these people of faith say you are; rather you are valuable, you are loved, and you belong as equal members in our community.
Now, more than century-and-a-half after the conclusion of the Civil War, we agree that slavery is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus. We would reject the beliefs of those who used Scripture and their traditions to defend slavery, much as we would critique the Pharisees’ rejection of the formerly blind man and Jesus.
But when Rollins asks if, in order to be faithful to God, we might need to betray our faith, he is not asking this question of the Pharisees. He is not asking this question to critique Civil War-era supporters of slavery. No. He poses this question for us today. He is asking us to consider if we, at this moment in time, need to set aside some cherished and deeply held traditions and beliefs, traditions and beliefs that keep us from seeing and loving the people whom Jesus loves – the least, the outcast, the oppressed. He is challenging our willingness to defend the principles of our faith, those principles that lead us to treat others the way the blind man was treated or slaves were treated. He is challenging our support of principles that lead us to treat others like objects when we marginalize them, when we keep them out of our communities and our communities of faith.
Where might we need to do this? I think we could start by seriously considering some of the major debates among Christians today. Does Rollins’ question apply to our debates and discussion about issues such as economic inequality, sexuality, immigration, refugees, political-party allegiance, gender or race? What is keeping us from seeing and loving the people whom Jesus loved – the least, the outcast, the oppressed? What is keeping us from saying to our fellow human beings who are made in the image of God, You are not what we, people of faith, have said you are; rather, you are valuable, you are loved, and you belong as equal members in our community?
May God grant us the grace, wisdom and strength to wrestle with these questions and the courage to live out the answers with integrity.
Scott Monsma teaches sociology at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.
Image: Slave sale in Easton, Maryland, by http://teachpol.tcnj.edu/amer_pol_hist/thumbnail175.html /Bobak at en.wikipedia (Transfered from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons