Monday, February 26, 2018

Identity and Destiny

The gospel of Mark is an interesting book. The author wrote it in two distinct halves. Doublets seem to be a theme of Mark, and that plays into the gospel as a whole, as well as the individual vignettes.

The first half (1:1-8:21) is generally understood as an attempt to show who Jesus was. There are stories and parables showing healings, feedings, walking on water—the miraculous. Then 8:22-26 are thought to be key verses which provide the link between the two halves of the book. These four verses tell the story of a blind person who was healed as a two-part process. When asked if sight had been restored after the first attempt to heal, the response indicated that there was sight.  However, it was blurred, people were described as “trees walking.” Then, after a second touch from Jesus vision was clear. This two part healing is reflected in the style the gospel. For both the disciples and the later readers in the first half of the book vision is dim while in the second part it becomes clearer.

Today’s text (8:27-38) is the beginning of the second half of the gospel. It begins a new season for the disciples. They had begun their journey with Jesus full of great hope and expectation. They had been called to be “fishers of people”, they had been instructed to cast out demons and heal the sick. Then the turning point, vision becomes clearer, the ethos changes. The talk now is largely about suffering, poverty and death. In the tale, the disciple Peter, protested when he heard this and no wonder, what a shock it must have been at that moment.

When I read a story in the gospels I want to look for some relevance for myself and contemporary times — a reader-response hermeneutic. So, as I read today’s passage, I paused, I pondered, I looked for the themes that gripped me as I moved into the second half of Mark. Two words came to mind as I pondered these well-known verses.

The first word was identity. This whole second half of the gospel starts with a question. “Who do you say I am?” It seems to me that is an important question in contemporary culture. There is a general cry for identity. People want to know who they are. One only needs to look at the popularity of organisations like There is a search for identity and belonging. Furthermore, there is the rise of people seeking tests purported to analyse DNA giving an ethnic background. The results of these tests are often blazoned on social media. Not only are people asking who they are but feel a need to be share with others who they are.

That leads to an important question or maybe, two important questions. I’ll continue to ponder them this week. The first is “Who am I?”.  From this flows my second question to think about, “Who do others say I am?”

In the sixth understanding of the community it says, “to be the same on Monday as on Sunday; to be the same at work as at home; to be the same with our family as with our friends and colleagues.” Would the answer to “Who am I?” and “Who do others say I am?” be the same.

The second word that came to mind as I read this passage was destiny. Peter and the other disciples clearly thought the direction of their destiny was determined. They had been called, they had been instructed to heal and cast out demons. Then came the reality of that destiny. It wasn’t going to be all healing people and casting out demons. There was going to be hardships, many hardships.

 In his small way, Peter kicked back against this change. It did not change his destiny, Peter needed to change his thinking, his mind-set. The author of the gospel then depicts Jesus as saying the same thing to the crowds. Clearly, this story was written from the vantage point of knowing the end of the story rather than predicting it. Yet, today I can read it and ponder about my destiny, my journey, my vision. It’s not very grand. I suspect most people don’t have grand visions, but simply want to do the best they can to help others. Then having committed to that task in whatever way is right, do the best to follow it regardless of hardships on the way.

Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that the second half of Mark is all doom and gloom. Right after this discourse is the transfiguration. As Maria Noonan Sabin says, “God’s creative power to transform or transfigure us from suffering humanity into persons of radiant joy is the key to Mark’s theology.” (The Gospel According to Mark, Liturgical Press, 2005, 158)

Enjoy the journey!

(Photo: The Forbidden City, Beijing, December 2017)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Punishing the Body . . . No, thanks!

I chose the lectionary passages for Epiphany 6 today. They seemed fitting as the beginning of Lent approaches this week.

It was the New Testament reading that caused me to stop and ponder. I didn’t like the words I read. Dare I say it, I didn’t agree with the words I read. The lectionary passage is 1 Corinthians 9. The text talks about running a race with a determination to win at any cost (24). The phrase used to describe the method to try and obtain this prize is “I punish my body and enslave it” (28).

“I punish my body” those words arrested me. What a distasteful phrase! It is a concept which has had far-reaching effects on contemporary society. It creates the dichotomy that bodies are bad/spirit is good.

This week the organization Weight Watchers have been in the news. Apparently, they are offering six-week free membership to teenagers (thirteen to seventeen). There has been a huge outcry about the harm that could be done to these young people.

The Washington Post featured an article about it. The author of the article writes, “As a health professional and mother, I am appalled.”

Later in the article she explains, “Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this ‘free’ membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are problems”

Other critics have also expressed concern (google it). In fairness, some have applauded the decision, but most of the articles I read express dismay about possible harm.  Today, the question I am pondering is, “Is this a form of punishing the body?”

Please don’t read this that I am in anyway against healthy eating to maintain the weight healthy for that individual.  However, these are children, possibily entering puberty. The underlying message they may receive is exactly the message of the text today, “I punish my body and enslave it” (28).

Many people choose to fast from some food item as the Lenten season approaches. This is part of their Spiritual journey. So, also, please don’t read this as saying the spiritual practice of fasting is wrong. It is possible to engage in a spiritual practice while being sensible and kind to one’s body.

Another concern is the easily made leap from punishing one’s own body to punishing another’s body. Specifically, punishing the bodies of children and teens (or spouses) to try and enslave them, to bend their will to another’s.

The data show that in the US 67% of adults think it is okay to punish physically children. Worldwide almost a billion children are regularly subject to physical punishment by their caregivers. These figures are shocking.

I have often heard it said that it does no harm to punish a child physically. Evidence does not support that. I have done extensive work looking at the harm caused by punishing bodies. In this blog, I will content myself with just one statistic, that of harming or considering harming (or should I say punishing) one’s own body.

Four percent of adults who had suicidal thoughts had received no physical punishment as teens. This rises to a massive twenty-four percent when physical punishment had been administered a couple of times a month.

Here is yet another concern. Half of girls aged 15-19, worldwide, think that a husband would be justified in beating their wife. The word that gives me most concern is justified. What gives a human being the right to punish another’s body?

Often, it is passages in religious writings that give credibility to the idea that it is okay to punish bodies to get the desired result. 

I thought it was a little ironic that both the gospel and Old Testament readings talked about healing bodies. This text felt a little out of sync. Healing is preferable to punishing.

Therefore, taking the imagery of the author of Corinthians’ passage, as the race is run instead of punishing the body in attempt to be first, why not run the race together supporting and caring for each other (including the body)?

I like that image much better.

UNICEF, “Hidden in Plain Sight” A Statistical Analysis of Violence Against Children.”

Murray Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them. London (Transaction 2009) 73.

(Photo: Beijing, December 2017)