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Decolonizing Lent

In the second century, Church Bishop Marcion of Sinope concluded that the Creator God of the Old Testament and the loving, merciful God made known in Jesus Christ were two different dudes, and one of them was way better than the other. Marcion called for a separation of Christianity from all things Jewish. He believed it was imperative for Christians to understand the lawgiver God of the Old Testament as utterly distinct from the New Testament God of love. Marcion was eventually deemed a heretic by the Church. (Unpleasant, but not unexpected.)

However, a lot of Christians today subconsciously believe what Marcion publicly proclaimed – Jesus loves us. God is here to punish us. We depict Jesus as a fun-loving, wine-slinging man of the people who didn’t take any crap from the establishment and who liked hanging out with children, prostitutes and tax collectors. We depict the God of the Old Testament as a stern, unyielding, humorless, and austere father figure. (There are variances to these depictions, but hear me out.) Jesus is disarming. God is disappointed in us. How did we arrive at these conclusions?

I’m oversimplifying the situation when I word it this way, but the Early Church was very Jewish (to say the least.) In the first century, Judaism and Christianity didn’t exist the way they do now, but Paul and Jesus were deeply committed to their heritage as children of Abraham. Their faith was inseparable from the land, and from their participation as a marginalized community in that land. Brutal political powers had moved in and taken what was theirs, and they were dominated and oppressed. Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel are ancient Third World documents written from a social location and perspective of imperially subjected people. As subjected people, they were not able to benefit from the Roman system. They had no access to the positions of power required for a public critique of the Roman Empire.

In this context, The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings were the perfect word of God to them. There was no gospel apart from the Scriptures. Jesus’ ministry was a performance of Israel’s ancient script – the story of a small people who were swallowed by Empire, but not corrupted or conquered by it. All four gospel writers depended on certain ancestors, whether it was Moses or Elijah or others, to present the Good News of Jesus Messiah.

James C. Scott, in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance(1) argues that members of the dominant culture have a ‘script’ that is different from that of the oppressed culture. He argues that members of the dominant culture cannot speak or understand the language of the marginalized. A member of the upper class can be criticized by a poor man in ways that the poor would understand, but that the rich would be oblivious to.

This script could even be performed in front of the powerful without their knowing. There are and always have been ways for the oppressed to critique and resist the Empire, and the Empire has been largely oblivious to it, even when the resistance leads eventually to the falling of the Empire. Consider the story in Mark’s gospel of Jesus casting out the demons named ‘legion’ into a herd of pigs. Some have wondered if the name ‘legion’ was perhaps an allusion to the Roman Legions, whose symbol of a wild boar appeared on each of their shields. Perhaps the demon that needed to be ‘exorcised’ was the Roman Legion oppressing the Galileans.

People in power don’t know how to interpret the ‘code’ of the marginalized, even if they were to pay attention. The book of Revelation is written as a code to critique the powers. It was a book that was understood by the oppressed, but not by the colonizer. They didn’t get it. For example, a member of the dominant culture wouldn’t know what the ‘Seven Headed Dragon’ is, but someone hiding from the Romans would know that. It was a coded reference to the Roman Empire or to Rome, the city on seven hills.

So how do we read the scriptures from our social location here in Calgary in the 21st Century? Calgary is one of the wealthiest cities in the world and has more than once been rated in the top five countries for standard of living. Am I so sure that I can understand the ‘code’ being spoken by the colonized? I most certainly cannot. I have never been an immigrant or a refugee. I’ve never been afraid of the police. I’ve never been a client at a soup kitchen. I’ve never been on AISH. I’ve never lived on a reservation where private ownership is forbidden. I’ve never been enslaved, and as far as I know, none of my ancestors have been, either. I’ve never feared the loss of my language, and my spiritual practices have never been outlawed. And yet the sacred text that I view as having Divine Authority is a collection of local histories written by people subtly reacting to and resisting the Empire and searching for hope that their identity, language, and stories will be preserved.

The creation story in Genesis does not make much sense to us today unless we understand that the community who wrote and preserved it were surviving colonialism and exile. If we knew the dominant Creation Story of the world during the time when Genesis 1 was written, we would understand the Genesis story is rife with coded critique of the Babylonian culture of violence and domination.

Consider this: why does Gen 1:14-16 say that God created lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night? Why not just say the Sun and the Moon? Have you considered that perhaps the Hebrew words for ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’ sound a lot like the Aramaic words for Babylonian gods and goddesses, and the whole point of Genesis 1 is to separate the Israelite culture from the Imperial (i.e Babylonian) culture? Genesis 1 was written down in an attempt to protect a local identity and preserve its ancestral hope in a God who favored the oppressed.

How damaging has it been to remove Jesus from this context and make Jesus into a personal God? Jesus was born under Roman Imperialism. He was executed by the state because his social movement was considered a threat to the Roman Imperial project. He was crucified – an execution reserved for social revolutionaries and non-citizens of the State. As Christians we believe that this act changed the world. Can you understand the code?

We read the bible today as Westerners. We easily forget, or are blissfully unaware of, the fact that Christianity was deemed the ‘State Religion’ by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity became the religion of the State. Or, in other words, the Global Religion of the Colonizer. Once in the hands of the Dominant Culture, the Christian story was the perfect tool to achieve world domination.

During the Heyday of the European Empire, Germany and Belgium and Nederland, France and Britain began taking over distant territories, subordinating dark-skinned peoples and establishing colonies around the world. European literatures and developing academic fields collaborated with these colonizers. They recorded its people, culture and histories through an imperial European lens. As a result, Europeans became the keepers and the storytellers of World History, as if such a thing could exist. They were able to present their story as if it was everyone’s story, thus erasing any stories that might inconvenience or hinder their quest for power and domination. World History simply became the Colonizer’s story. (2)

To reduce local histories into one Grand History is to colonize and essentially erase the local stories of the colonized. Many European Christians took advantage of this ‘World History’ by capitalizing on our Western obsession with the Creation-Fall-Redemption story, declaring it to be our global salvation history. European churches advanced this school of thought through the mission field. Through the missionary enterprise of saving souls for Christ using the Bible (which has been viewed as  European literature for most of the last 2000 years) English speaking people have taken on the role of colonizers by helping ‘foreigners’ learn English so that they, too, can participate in the English bible’s metanarrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption. Rarely do missionaries use biblical texts outside of certain New Testament epistles in their evangelism.(3)

I’ve been on many evangelism-focused mission trips. We were instructed to use what is called the Romans Road. We taught the unsaved that according to Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But in Romans 5:8, we’re told that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and the whole thing is wrapped up neatly by Romans 10:9-10: if we confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved. That’s it — that’s the story. That’s how we’ve erased the entire collection of local stories from between Genesis 3 and Romans 3.

Even if we translate this message into African or Asian languages, it is still a gospel catered to the domination interests of the Empire. Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu has joked, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. And then they said, ‘Let us pray’. But when the prayer was over, and we opened our eyes, we found that we had the Bible and they had the land!” (Sep 6, 2001).  Once Christianity attained its status as the Universal Religion, it undertook the task of bringing the ‘light’ of the Gospel to backward peoples around the world. The mission was to erase the stories of the various people groups and replace them with the One Story.

Here we are in 2020, Calgary Alberta. We’ve laid claim to a salvation story of Creation-Fall-Redemption and thus stripped the story away from the land, the local histories, the elders and the ancestors whose voices ring out to us from the pages of this ancient book. We profess commitment to a ‘personal faith,’ one that is removed from the political context and economic exploitation around us (which, at best, we are indirectly complicit with). Many Christians in our context think that issues of racism, human trafficking, and reconciliation with indigenous populations are a “secondary issue” behind one’s personal relationship with Jesus.

But once we remember that the Bible is not a book, but a collection of local stories, we can start to understand that these sacred stories originated with a diverse community of folks resisting the colonial project. The Torah begins with a story of enslaved people being brought out from under the Egypt Empire so that they might worship their deity in the wilderness – with their own religion and in their own language. They were given their own law and way of being in community. At the heart of the Torah is a command and a promise that they would be ‘set apart’ from the dominant nations surrounding (and constantly threatening) them. The Old Testament stories were put down into writing and preserved during the Babylonian exile as an attempt to preserve local stories which the Empire sought to erase and to survive the cultural genocide being enacted upon them.

During the height of the Babylonian Global Domination, individual communities were displaced or occupied, and forced to learn the dominant Babylonian  religion (Aramaic) and to speak it. This is the language that Jesus spoke. Let me say that again: Jesus spoke the Babylonian language. Jesus was born several hundred years after Babylon was replaced by other Empires, and yet the cultural influence upon the Second Temple Jews was still strong. Have you ever wondered why the Old Testament scriptures are written in Hebrew but the New Testament is written in Greek? After Babylon threatened their national identity, there was no reprieve. They never got to go back home again. Babylon was simply replaced by bigger and more powerful Empires – first the Persians, and then the Greeks.

Have you ever stopped to consider the way your bible tells the story of Jesus on the Cross in Matthew and Mark? Your bible likely has the entire story in English except for when Jesus cries out in his last moment. Instead of translating the sayings of Jesus in Greek from what he would have spoken (Aramaic), they keep his final words exactly as he spoke them: Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani – My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Jesus didn’t speak Hebrew in his everyday interactions and he didn’t even read his Scriptures in Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic and Greek, and these were not the language of his people. They were the languages of the colonizers.

That Jesus spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and that you and I only know him by his English name Jesus and only know his teachings in the Global language of commerce – English – should mean something to us. Firstly, it should mean that you do not get the joke. You can’t understand the code. You likely didn’t even know there was one.

God’s ‘chosen’ people is not a title that was ever given to the Empire. And yet, since the time of the Puritans, Americans (and Canadians by extension) have claimed the ‘chosen people’ status and used it to sanction an American exceptionalism that has brought harm to many people, from Indigenous to immigrants of various backgrounds. While we surely can benefit from reflection on what Israel’s chosenness means for Christians today, wholesale co-optation of Israel’s distinction as God’s covenantal partner – whether it be as Christians or Americans or both – neglects God’s primary relationship with this small band of powerless people who lived and died under the constant threat of forced assimilation. (3)

Why did God choose Israel as his own treasured people? Deuteronomy repeatedly emphasizes that it was not because of any merit of its own. A small, politically weak and economically vulnerable band of nobodies made up what we call the chosen people of God. In Deuteronomy 7, God says that he chose them specifically because they were the “least of all people”. When Jesus was asked what the great commands and essential characteristics of God’s chosen people were, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

How preposterous that Christians today would value the New Testament above the Old, and seek to completely dismiss and silence the stories of the Old Testament. Leviticus and Deuteronomy and the entire Torah were written down during the Exile by a people desperately attempting to protect their stories from the threat of cultural genocide.

Don’t gloss over the biblical stories that make up the space between ‘fall and redemption’ in an attempt to tell the world the True Story. Don’t be Egypt – Don’t be Babylon – Don’t be Rome. Let go of the imperially sanctioned metanarrative. Listen to those small voices clinging to their histories. Listen to the elders, to the ancestors, the people who lived in the land and were nourished by it before the Colonizer arrived. Those stories are what fill the pages between Genesis and Romans.

Living in Egypt, the Israelites knew to their bones what it was to be strangers in a strange land. The Old Testament stories are difficult to read for us Westerners, because if we pay attention, we will hear the ancestors  whisper that God does indeed play favorites – but in a plot twist, his favourites are by and large those who are favoured by no one (Daniel Berrigan).(4)

The idea that God’s chosen people are the colonized is not an idea that will last long in the Empire. To say that the all-powerful God prefers the occupied to the occupier – and that this God is a God of wrath against the Settlers – will get you executed by the State. If you are a Christian, you’ve read this. You know that Jesus was executed by the State for that very reason.

As you draw near to Good Friday, may you remember the God who was executed by the Global Empire, who cried out in the Babylonian Tongue instead of the language of his own people.

References and Recommended Resources:

(1) Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance : Hidden Transcripts.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 

(2) Horsley, Richard A. In the Shadow of Empire : Reclaiming the Bible As a History of Faithful Resistance. 1st ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

(3) Thompson, Deanna A. Deuteronomy. First ed. 2014. 

(4) Berrigan, Daniel. No Gods but One. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 2009.

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