Journeying together in Christ

Speaking truth to power is a dangerous game

June 7, 2015

TEXT: Mark 3:20-35

This past week has been, what I hope, is watershed moment for our country and our relationship with our indigenous peoples.  The stories we have heard have been heartbreaking and, at times, overwhelming.  I want to tell you today,  some of the story of a Mohawk woman I got to know when I was Rector of the St. John’s in Bath.

Dorothy was born in 1927 and raised near Oka, Quebec, where she was a proud member of the Kanehsatake First Nation.  When she was a young girl she and her brother were taken from their parents and family to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, some 950 kilometers away.  She told me many stories of her time there, of being beaten if she spoke her native language, of being given only shortening to put on her bread, of being hungry much of the time.  Dorothy said that she was only allowed to see her brother for half an hour, once a month.  They spent that half hour crying together and hugging each other.

Dorothy had a remarkably exceptional life in spite of her experiences at residential schools.  She used her great talents and gifts to head up the creation of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University.  She was an active member of the Alumni Association of the school.

She rarely spoke publically of her experiences in Residential Schools because she said she was one of the rare ones who they actually succeeded, in some ways, in turning into a white person.  She had a successful career with Canadian National in Montreal before retiring with her husband to the Kingston area.  Her story was not the normal one, and she spent a considerable amount of time using the gifts God had given her to tell the stories of all of the others and help them to heal and be whole again.

When I first heard Dorothy’s story it reminded me of my great grand-father, who was, himself, beaten for speaking Welsh in school, during a time when the British Government wanted to turn everyone into English people.

Speaking truth to power is a dangerous game, yet it is something Jesus did time and again.  In today’s Gospel reading we find the Scribes accusing Jesus of tapping into the powers of Satan to perform his miracles of healing and his crowds of followers.  He quickly disarmed their accusations  by turning their arguments on their heads.  Jesus’ family had their own issues with Jesus, perhaps because of his refusal to follow the acceptable patterns, perhaps it was about carrying on the family business, perhaps it was about how his actions were causing the neighbours to talk about his family.  He was attracting bigger and bigger crowds and people had been talking, so they pull him aside.  Mark begins today’s Gospel Lesson with the words, “ When his family heard it, they went out to restrain Jesus, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”   People were talking, the powers of the day were starting to ask questions.

Does Jesus back down and re-think his strategy?  No, he counters their concerns with a lashing out at those who would have him play by the rules and take his ordained role in the society.

Ched Meyers is a man I have admired for a number of years.  I travelled to Nova Scotia one year to learn from him at three day event at the Tatamagouche Centre.  He is self described as an activist theologian, biblical scholar, educator, author, organizer and advocate who has for 35 years been challenging and supporting Christians to engage in peace and justice work and radical discipleship.  He wrote a ground breaking commentary on the Gospel of Mark called, “Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  What made this book so fascinating, was how well he researched the social and historical realities of the world Jesus was speaking and living in.

He titles his book after a phrase in today’s Gospel reading, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods without first binding up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Meyers says this about the passage, “to put it terms of the political war of myths, when the ruling class feels its hegemony threatened, it tries to neutralize challengers by identifying them with the mythic cultural arch-demon.  The logic of the scribes was simple: because they believed themselves to be God’s representatives, Jesus “secession” necessarily put him in allegiance with Satan.  To borrow from the  modern cold war dualism, Jesus is being labelled a “communist.”

The reference to the strong man’s goods or property is a word that only appears twice in Mark, the other time occurs in chapter 11, verse 16 when Jesus refers to the vessels of the temple cult on which Jesus puts a ban.   The binding appears in another exorcism context referring to the demon that no one had the strength to bind.

Meyers goes on to say, “Mark has come clean; Jesus (a.k.a. the stronger one….) intends to overthrow the reign of the strong man, i.e, the scribal establishment represented by the demon earlier in Mark.  This is Isaiah’s prophecies coming to fruition as God is making good on the promise to liberate the prey of the strong and rescue the captives of the tyrants (Isaiah 49:24).   Those who live with power, comfort and empire might find such an interpretation offensive and shocking, yet Meyers points out that this image of Jesus breaking and entering is hardly a new one as Matthew describes Jesus coming as a thief in the night.

Then comes the wonderful, graceful and indiscriminate forgiveness that Jesus will become known for, with one exception, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”   What on earth is Jesus talking about?  Doesn’t this go into the face of all that we know and believe about grace and forgiveness?

There are pages of commentary on this one verse.  Most seem to agree that this is the sin of denying others the gifts of the Spirit, of denying others their humanity that Jesus is talking about.  It is also about being so delusional as to believe you are without sin, to not recognise the difference between good and evil.

The famous liberation theologian, Juan Luis Segundo says this, “the blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics, i.e. bad reasoning or logic, will always be pardonable…..what is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious.  The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with “theological joy” some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.”

Meyers says, “this is what the scribal class cannot see, Jesus has turned the tables completely on his opponents, it is actually they who are aligned against God’s purposes.  To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization  — is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”

To bring this back to the legacy of the residential schools, and all of the first nations people who carry that legacy in the pain of their lives, our calling as the church is to work alongside these people, that our nation and our church harmed, and to find a way forward where our indigenous people can be fully human and free.  To let the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to gather dust, to give it nothing more than lip service, is to let the offences of the past continue to offend and harm.

Desmund Tutu once said, “We are each made for goodness, love and compassion.  Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths.   He also said, “ My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”   That is what Jesus was beginning to demonstrate in these early chapters of Mark’s Gospel.  May we always be working to bind the strong man to that the stronger one can break through so that liberation, grace and reconciliation can be experienced by all of God’s creation.   Amen.


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