Theology in Pharoah’s Household

BindingWe continue our celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel.  Today, as the lectionary pivots to the Gospel of John, we share an excerpt from the Intro of Binding.  

Those doing theological reflection from a vantage point on the peripheries have properly focused upon the themes of liberation in the story of exodus.  We at the center, however, have no choice but to learn to “do theology in pharoah’s household“–that is, to take the side of the Hebrews even though citizens of Egypt.  There is a significant minority of Christians in the U.S.A. and other First World countries who are struggling to find a lifestyle and politics that does just that.  This movement also constitutes the site from which I read Mark.

The so-called Christian left, like so many other strains of dissent, arose amid imperial culture’s crisis of crediblity during the civil rights movemet and the war in Indochina.  This period brought disillusionment also with the churches–liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant–which, by their silence concerning the war, suggested that perhaps the gospel was irrelevant to history.  Feeling betrayed, many sensitive persons left their church, pursuing the new and potent myths offered by secularization and the New Left.  Others, though similarly disaffected, instead looked for the source of the betrayal by reexamining their roots (Latin radix, whence “radical”).  For many there was a rediscovery of a nonimperial heritage within their own traditions: Lutherans found Bonhoeffer, Baptists remembered the Anabaptists, Methodists reread Wesley and the Abolitionists, Catholics found Francis and a host of martyrs and saints, and so on.

There have been many tributaries to this stream.  One of the most important has been the witness of the church in the Third World and liberation theology, which began to be more broadly felt in North America in the mid-1970s.  Challenges to dominant church ideologies also came from feminist, black, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific, and Amerindian theologies.  The 1980s saw the beginnings of real solidarity between churches of the center and periphery through such popular efforts as the sanctuary movement, the free South Africa campaign, and movements against U.S. policies in Central America, Korea, and the Philippines.  Meanwhile, Christian participation in the domestic peace and antinuclear movements steadily broadened, and the practice of nonviolent resistance gradually deepened.

Above all, however, the source of renewal was the rediscovery of the gospel story about the eminently nonmetropolitian Jesus, whose voice still reaches across the ages in a call to discipleship.  As Sobrino put it: “Access to the Christ of faith comes only through our following of the historical Jesus.”  Hence in my book and its companion volume I refer to this movement under the rubric “radical discipleship.”  It is a label that some in the movement have adopted and others avoid, more so now that the term “radical” is well out of fashion in popular culture.  But this seems all the more reason to embrace it, for it is not vogue, but rootedness in the nonimperial gospel that will sustain the movement.

It is not my purpose here to offer a portrait of contemporary radical discipleship; this can be found elsewhere, and I will explore it at some depth in the forthcoming volume that carries out the second part of this project.  I will here simply introduce two key themes that I believe should characterize our theological reflection and guide our practice in the locus imperium.  The first is repentance, which for us implies not only a conversion of heart, but a concrete process of turning away from empire, its distractions and seductions, its hubris and iniquity.  The second is resistance which involves shaking off the powerful sedation of a society that rewards ignorance and trivializes everything political, in order to discern and take concrete stands in our historical moment, and to find meaningful ways to “impede imperial progress.”  Both themes demand a commitment to nonviolence, as a personal and interpersonal way of life and as a militant and revolutionary political practice.  These themes will be in the background throughout this reading of Mark, and I will return to them briefly again in my Afterword.

Because we understand the present crisis of empire to have everything to do with the ordering of power, the distribution of wealth, and the global plague of militarism, radical discipleship necessarily approaches the Bible with social, political, and economic questions in mind.  What does Mark have to say concerning our struggles to overcome racism?  Or to find more proximate forms of solidarity with the poor while we work for justice?  Or to deepen our use of nonviolent direct action?  These questions explain why I have chosen to entitle this commentary a “political reading,” despite the fact that such an idiom will inevitably arouse the suspicion of most North Americans.  There is another reason, however: I use it in order to distance myself at the outset from the prevailing approaches to biblical interpretation in North Atlantic circles.

One thought on “Theology in Pharoah’s Household

  1. John Hartjes

    I must not have turned to “Radical Discipleship” on Sunday for a long time because this is the first time I’ve seen your series on Ched Myers’ “Binding the Strong Man.” Now I intend to go back and read all of them. I always linked the prophets with social justice. It wasn’t until I read Myers that I saw justice (as distinct from charity) as a concern in the New Testament.

    I’m in the middle of my own series of blogs on “Binding.” I’m “Lost in a One-Acre Wood” on Patheos/Catholic:

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