Mark as Manifesto

BindingWe continue our every-Sunday-celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel.

Mark’s Gospel originally was written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves. He does not pretend to represent the word of God dispassionately or impartially, as if that word were innocuously universal in its appeal to rich and poor alike.  His is a story by, about, and for those committed to God’s work of justice, compassion, and liberation in the world. To modern theologians, like the Pharisees, Mark offers no “signs from heaven” (Mark 8:11f). To scholars who, like the chief priests, refuse to ideologically commit themselves, he offers no answer (Mk 11:30-33). But to those willing to raise the wrath of the empire, Mark offers a way of discipleship (8:34ff).

A reading of Mark’s Gospel was fundamental to the genesis of the contemporary radical discipleship movement. Those of us who came from traditions of evangelical Protestantism that promised personal engagement but delivered social irrelevance thirsted for the “whole gospel for the whole person for the whole world.” The discovery of the uncompromising call to commitment in Mark was the key, for many of us, to our “second conversion.” We studied the Gospel with help from redaction critics such as E. Schweizer (1960), whose synopsis of Mark’s thesis–“discipleship is the only form in which faith in Jesus can exist”–fired our nascent battle against acculturated Christianity. This compelled us to go on to recover the subversive discipleship traditions that have persisted throughout church history, from the old monks to the Confessing Church. But we have always returned to Mark–we have seen it as a kind of manifesto.

It is very much the contention of this commentary that Mark remains a manifesto for radical discipleship. Unfortunately, our movement has not been very successful in finding new reading strategies commensurate with the deepening politicization of our practice. Too much of our biblical study remains strictly devotionalistic and often frankly superficial.  Rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion we persist in a suspicion of hermeneutics.  For some reason, it is acceptable to appeal to political analysis, ideological criticism, or sociological method in discerning the meaning of contemporary history, but not the meaning of scripture. In a word, we “read” contemporary history better than we “read” the Bible.

This contradiction risks estranging our practice from our biblical foundations, and is reflected in the fact that more persons in our movement are less interested in reading the Bible. Some of them are still alienated because of having endured too much irrelevant preaching and teaching. For them I hope to offer a reading strategy that can overcome the betrayal of both pulpit and academy. Others still impatiently insist that the Bible be made directly relevant to their situation. I offer this book in the hope of challenging, encouraging, and perhaps inspiring them to take their Bible study more seriously. For like political discernment, Bible study is hard work, and yields more questions than answers.

There is another way in which our practice needs to be better buttressed by our reading. For example, we often claim that our practice of nonviolent direct action is grounded in the symbolic action of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, but rarely does our biblical study demonstrate how exactly this is the case. Let us remember that if we can impose our views upon the text, so too can our ideological opponents. From what basis shall we then challenge them? These same concerns apply, I might add, to much of the exegesis offered by liberation theology. Although it often is exciting and suggestive, it is also highly selective and more impressionistic than systematic. Is it not curious that contemporary radical Christian movements, which appeal so readily to the biblical narratives of liberation, have produced so few in-depth commentaries on these texts?

Nor are we immune from the danger of domesticating the Bible so that we no longer allow it to pose disturbing questions to us. We must not forget that our movement was founded (in good radical Protestant fashion) upon a fresh reading of the scriptures; it can be continually renewed only in the same way. We must not be reluctant to venture beyond the conceptual work of our mentors! Fortunately, in our search for more useful methods of interpreting scripture, Mark is the best proving ground.


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