Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermons I would like to hear: The Disappointment of Christmas

This is part of a series on this blog where I allow myself a little more freedom with religious language than a strict reflection of my beliefs might allow. I like to imagine slinking into a church and hearing this sort of thing from the pulpit.

Originally when I shared the sentiments of this particular post in conversation I said that if I was a preacher at Christmas time then I would preach this. I guess I sort of am, on this blog. So here it is.

Note: Usually I leave old writing intact but  I've given this a little edit for 2015. I hope it reads more clearly.

This Christmas in some churches when they talk about the nativity they will call it a signpost. They will argue it points to the fulfillment of “a promise”. The fulfillment of that promise is not there yet in the birth of Jesus, nor is it even there in the crucifixion. Nor is it even there in the resurrection.

They will preach that the nativity is a signpost pointing to a promise fulfilled in Judgement Day – the second coming of Jesus. This is when the Messiah will reappear in full wrath and might; Jesus will impose their holy will on the earth as God's anointed King. This is supposedly a good thing – there will be no more victims of sin like little children abused. However by some reckonings all the little children who don’t believe in God are going to be thrown into hell so it may be more of a frying pan to fire outcome for some of them.

This shift of focus from the baby in the manger to Jesus with a flaming sword can be blindingly fast and in that lack of pause I hear shame. I hear shame and disappointment that when a peoples' awaited Messiah came they were a vulnerable and needy newborn. Vulnerable and needy are not words that many can comfortably attach to their God. Not when our Gods still function competitively in our psyche and our divine (or secular) powers ultimately prove themselves by their sovereignty over human affairs. 

Quickly Jesus must be aged, his human limitations removed and his divinity weaponised. This way, instead of reflecting on how Jesus might have needed their ass wiped, we can jump to a future vision of ass-whupping by a righteous king. A king is always meant to be unchallenged. The centre of the universe can’t be a baby.

But I don't hear anything in the nativity story that gives this permission to look away from the crib – to hurry time till Jesus grows up, dies, rises, comes again and makes everything alright by being the sort of Messiah they should have been in the first place. No, this is supposed to be “it” ; the long-awaited God dealing with humanity. This infant is Gods' cards thrown down on the table in a hand of two high.

One rationalisation of the Christmas disappointment is that God wanted us to have at least two thousand extra years for us to learn what right and wrong is. Jesus Mark I, the infant and the crucified, was the teacher and example. Jesus Mark II, the warrior, will set the final exam. It seems downright churlish to question this sort of reprieve. To accept it also potentially points history towards us as the real generation of Gods' will fulfillment, a reasonable feed of our ego.

But that’s bullshit. People were being raped two thousand years ago and I’m willing to wager they and their rapist knew what was happening to them was wrong well enough. If ever Gods' people needed a saving and avenging God it was the first century. They cried out for it from beneath Roman boot heels. The moment was ripe.

To spend Christmas talking about an avenging Messiah who is to come seems to me to be a denial of Christianity itself, a refusal to engage with the most basic mystery of the Messiah we got. Instead the nativity calls us to sit with a reality that includes the collective disappointment of God's conquered people. We should be able to hear their grief  still relevant to victims today;  “This, this is what we got God? A baby? Thanks heaps.”

No sword. No power. Another mouth to feed basically. A God who didn't come to kick our enemies arses at all. Instead they came to teach us to love our enemies and did so from the only position we would be willing to hear that from; one of us from the word go.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why we need a shining Star.

My local community run cinema, The Star, has been publicizing a need to raise $65,000 dollars in order to convert their technology to show digital format films. The fear is that without this conversion the Star won’t be able to continue as a functional cinema in the Australian environment.

In addition to being one of a dwindling number of community run cinemas in Australia the Star is the only “art house” cinema in Bendigo, a regional Australian town of approximately one hundred thousand people. I’m not a huge fan of the term art house but there is no denying that the films shown at the Star, compared to Bendigo’s other more mainstream cinema are generally from smaller film studios, and include more characters that don’t conform to being white, wealthy, heterosexual and other stereotypes of “normal.”

My immediate thoughts on this matter in order were;
1. No! The Star must go on. What can I do?
2. $65,000 is an awful lot of money to be raising. How on earth is that going to happen?
3. Can I justify promoting this cause instead of promoting other, more bread-and-butter fundraising campaigns?

I’m not going to discuss thought number two in this blog post. Bendigo Council and Empowering Eaglehawk (the local traders association) are making contributions. For all I know $65,000 is quite achievable, if we all chip in. Also this is primarily a philosophy blog so I’ll skip to the philosophical concerns.

My primary philosophical concern is my vacillation between thoughts one and three. As I contemplate asking friends and family to join me in donating to the Star and as I contemplate how much to donate myself an embarrassing question occurs to me. Is fundraising for my local cinema just a feathering of my own privileged nest (or cosy two person couch, as that’s what the Star uses for seating)?  Shouldn’t my money and my friends’ money and attention go towards other more prosaic concerns like clean water in the majority world?

To answer these questions I want to illuminate what the Star really contributes to Bendigo. To do that we first need to consider what a cinema is. A cinema is a place where stories are told in moving image and sound, sure, but there are many places where such stories are told. In fact thanks to cyberspace, “films” to use their anachronistic title are shared anywhere we have a connection to the internet. And that’s possibly everywhere you go in a day if you’re reading this blog. The short film format in particular has never been so popular with facebook or twitter regularly guiding us to you-tube or vimeo. Perhaps we can declare that cinema is dead, but long live video.

This would be a loss however. What distinguishes a cinema from anywhere else is not what it does for us in telling stories but how we listen to those stories in a cinema. We listen without distraction and with devotion. If the moving image has become as ubiquitous as God is purported to be by believers – then the cinema is like a church, a place set apart specifically and reverentially for the object of its fascination.

Be honest– when was the last time you paid continuous attention for longer than an hour to any story told in moving image and sound? For me it was in a cinema. At home my best chance of achieving this is if my partner and I are both watching a dvd. Even then we’ll probably be stopping the film to put the chickens away, or make a cuppa or some custard.  Heaven help us if the film is boring at any point. Some movies don’t get finished.

On the internet there is simply no hope of my attention lasting that long. With a world of other information and entertainment only a click away then anything longer than ten minutes will almost definitely be interrupted. I recently made it thirty four minutes into an absolutely fascinating lecture by Douglas Rushkoff but I was watching it while making both apricot jam and fudge.

I’m not alone. According to a few internet articles which I skimmed and some videos I barely watched while opening another tab in my browser to check facebook, polls and experts recommend online videos be between two and half to four minutes long  or between ninety seconds and two minutes or  not much longer than fifteen seconds

Given that a cinema provides a rare space for reverent attention towards the moving image it’s fair to say that the loss of cinema from our culture would be a real loss to how video story telling is received. I believe this is important because there is something uniquely important about movies. Although this would take numerous essays to do justice I’m going to attempt to explain this unique value here in just a small part of this post.

I’ll begin by suggesting that wisdom only develops when we encounter the world rather than studying it from a distance. We need to meet, with all the unforeseen circumstances such meeting might bring, other “worlds” (from cliffs to factory farms to outer space) to incorporate them into our reality. Otherwise we only know about them. We will have only stayed in our world in which those “things” are mentioned. If this seems remarkable to you then consider how you learnt about members of the opposite sex, or your own body, or spaghetti or the flu.

Video stories when completed with editing, sound and soundtracks and particularly when attended to in a darkened cinema are a way to simulate the encounter of other worlds. They are our best approximation of dreaming. I have respect for the lucid dreaming communities but I think movies done right exceed their efforts.

Before any bibliophile stabs me with their library card I’ll acknowledge that books provide encounters with other worlds – sometimes better than movies do. But ask yourself this – would you finish a book you pretty much disagreed with? If so you’re exceptional. I for one will probably never make it from the cover to cover of some new age mash up of self-help and quantum physics. But I watched “What the Bleep do you know?”  and I watched it at the cinemas believe it or not. (Cinema Kino in Melbourne I should add so as not to tar the Star.)

Likewise if I wanted a friend to open themselves to the idea that the Jesus archetype is relevant to today’s world and not just as a long past historical event then I could probably find many books for them to read. None of them would have much chance of being opened. I would be the most dreaded Chris Kringle . On the other hand I could introduce them to the film, Jesus of Montreal and they would probably watch it to the end. Even if they loathed the movie they would get a sense of what appealed in it to me while only losing a couple of hours of their time. 

Neither of these worlds of string-theory inspired positive thinking or Jesus Christ vs the Catholic Church are going to get an airing at Bendigo’s other cinema, Bendigo Cinemas. That cinema is committed to carrying the movies that generally cater to the mass consumer market and which come with the guarantee of entertainment rather than disturbance. This doesn’t mean “bad” movies at all  - I loved both the Avengers and the My Little Pony movie. They even include the occasional grungy and atypical story. I saw Animal Kingdom there, albeit on their smallest screen.  Still the only times Bendigo Cinemas will feature a film with a non-white main character, it will probably be an animated pony or car.

This is why the STAR in particular matters. We need to go beyond the mainstream to gain the wisdom to address exactly the sort of issues that might legitimately call us away from the STARs funding concerns – issues like Australia’s treatment of refugees for example. The same is true if we just want to see more nuanced conversations about relationships and growing up than the Disney model would give us. Those conversations might include unwanted pregnancies or same-sex attraction. These elements of reality do get a decent showing in movies at the STAR.

You could argue encountering these marginilised worlds in a movie is unnecessary. Those worlds are all around us and even in our own lifes. Very few of us actually live out Hollywood norms. However until we see our atypical lives depicted on the big screen and given such respect I think we can censor even ourselves from ourselves. We tend to view our own difference as deviance – not a definining aspect of reality but an error in the code. The Star showed a documentary a while back about Australian roller-derby contestants - This is Roller Derby. While the film probably gave local roller –derby players very little new factual information it gave narrative worth to the Australian history of a sport sometimes just seen as a U.S. import. It changed what was included in “the real” story of roller-derby.

So there we have it. The train of my logic (or at least rhetoric) has brought us here. Cinemas are crucial spaces for us to pay attention to movies and movies are realistic ways (more realistic than books frankly) for people to encounter worlds beyond their own or even their own previously self-censored world. Those encounters produce wisdom. Lastly the STAR cinema is going to show the worlds that are far more rarely shown – worlds that can offer us the wisdom we need to tackle those competing bread and butter issues.

I’m not sure I’ve entirely convinced myself that supporting the STAR should hold a similar priority to addressing more mundane needs (giving money to Refugee Resource Centres for example). I just hope I have articulated how the two are connected. Losing the STAR will make affecting change in regard to a whole lot of issues harder. Currently I consider the STAR to have a profound and positive effect on my local culture. That’s something worth fighting for.

So donate.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Punk Parenting Part 2.

The last post hopefully spelt out why I respect a punk perspective. It ended with my doubts about the relevance of punk to parenting but a promise to tease out what might be possible to salvage when the two collide.

Ultimately I think the best parenting approach is child-led. I need to be willing to let my child show me if they need structure or spontaneity, more risk or more safety. Best of all if my child leads me I can parent beyond the limitations of my pre-conceptions. Who could predict some of the places their kid’s interests take them – bird watching for example.

“All children are different” may not be especially true, anymore than “all kids are the same” is, but it’s worth proclaiming anyway. “All children are different” permits and obliges us to pay attention to our particular child’s needs, rather than following any philosophy slavishly. “All children are different” gives us the cognitive and social out we need to escape what may be imposed on our children regardless of who they are. Feel free to use the phrase liberally in rejection of punk parenting principles too.

What I do want to address and lessen is something called “cognitive dissonance” (primarily for myself but maybe for you too). “Cognitive dissonance” refers to the major cause of burnout in many occupations when people are required in their jobs to be false to themselves. They might make decisions in their job roles that don’t reflect their values or pretend expertise they don’t have. This contradiction produces sick people. In my experience this sickness of hypocrisy, if unchallenged, leads to more and more faking of expertise and, well, becoming increasingly like a tosser basically.

Even more insidiously is when the same thing occurs in our parenting roles. The issue is not when people who don’t believe in punk values promote other values to their children. The issue is if people like me who do believe (somewhat at least) in punk values go against them because we lack the time, skill, language, imagination or effort to pull off a combination. That’s when we become tossers spouting advice ad naseum that we don’t even believe.

From such a position I think I have lost my legitimate authority to parent. If I can’t defend my true hopes and concerns in my parenting then its time to put down the pipe and exit the armchair. Mr. Brady needs to do a drumming workshop and figure himself out. That might mean recognizing some punk ideas are wrong and letting go of them. Anything would be better than showing my child a false self for the sake of propriety.

I don’t think it’s that outrageous an ask to combine punk and parenting either. Maybe it’s just that at some point in the world of fairy princesses, the alienation of the peasantry or the boredom of the princess has to feature. My child can handle that. She is often more instinctively just – and passionate - than I am. She demands happy endings and hates unfairness. No-one’s told her she needs to grow up in regard to magic or God – yet. She certainly dances, paints, and plays with less rules than I carry around. In fact if I let myself be truly child-led I may become more punk than ever.

So here guided by the music are what I see as some core elements of punk that can translate to my parenting:

Punk is not valueless

Painters and Dockers – Die Yuppy Die

You know that notion where your kids can do whatever they want with their life so long as it makes them happy? That’s yuppie philosophy – not punk. Punk is massively judgmental and every form of happiness or success is not respected equally. As the contemporary punk song, Sat in Vicky Park relays “numbers on a payslip are no indication of worth”.  The happiness of a new iPhone is likewise a shat upon joy.

Punk ideals are difficult to describe positively. Partly this is because many punk songs are negative – they describe what they don’t like. Partly this is because (as I see it) the primary ideal of punk is just a brutally honest reciprocal respect (for people not things). This includes honest call outs if you are being an asshole and a commitment to anti-discrimination. Sensitivities and prejudices are not coddled in Punk.

This can look like rudeness or even amorality. Punk certainly has no reverence for traditional moral absolutes such as property and sexual purity. Punk has subsequently been judged as a rejection of all standards - including musical ones. Rather it is that Punk recognizes that adding false standards takes away from the few that really matter. Punks rage is a focused lens. As George Bernard Shaw once said “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

Other punk principles include a high premium on creativity and absolute control over that creativity by the artist. This is tempered by a strong acknowledgement of the shared creative process. Punk artists recognize the lineages they draw on and this creates an artistic debt to the world.

Punks ideally share any wealth and good fortune from this perspective. The punk lifestyle of low budget creation and self-made fashion while proudly squatting is intended to be accessible to all. That’s a return to that reciprocal respect. Anyone can publish a zine and there are loads of people prepared to show you how.

How does this relate to my parenting? For my child at her age it’s really a case of modeling. I try and live economically in a way I’m proud of as much as I can. I’m as proud of the work I do for no pay as any job I have. I don’t need to judge people who live differently but I also don’t need to gush with awe at others’ wealth in front of my kid. I can rather save my highest regard for the art of making a difference in the world.

I also don’t tolerate bullying. My kid already knows some of the ways that bullying is acceptable in our society – such as Australia’s treatment of refugees. She sees me and her mum opposing that. I could be more careful not to add more standards than this. It’s amazing how many rules I find myself coming up with some days. I need to consider whether the more standards and morals I add diminish the importance of the key ones

Punk rejects forced choices.

Rage Against the machine - Testify

When our kid was young my partner and I discovered the benefit of offering forced choices. Instead of asking if our daughter wanted to go to bed we asked if she wanted to go to bed now or in ten minutes. Or we asked which book she wanted us to read instead of whether she wanted stories at all.

This same forced choice management style is everywhere. Instead of asking if we want a career it’s choose one. Pepsi or coke, environmental destruction now or in ten years, they’re all choices that aren’t any choice at all. Punk smells that rat. I hope my kid does too. So I need to face the contradiction between that hope and trying to get away with giving forced choices.

When my kid becomes a teenager I definitely don’t want her to accept the forced choices life offers her. I want her to be prepared to knock all the options off the table and imagine something different – something that doesn’t compromise her values. That requires skills and courage that she can practice on me. 

Punk demands a joy-filled, creative life.

The Ramones – I don’t want to grow up

Punk takes a look at the adult world of submission to chaos and stupidity - with the panacea of a few trinkets and therapies to get us by - and says “no fucking way.”
As several members of The Clash members express in a very watchable 1981 interview with Tom Snyder “Life is Boring and we want to make it interesting.” 

Traditionally parenting seems to include preparing our children to accept authority because its there, follow rules without reason, endure long periods of time wasted and so on. That’s what I might have to do as an adult after all. The line “I don’t always want to go to work but I still go” in response to our child saying that they don’t want to go to school has actually left my lips.

That attitude might make good sense if I am struggling to pay for the roof over my head, but not to pay for a sea of luxuries that don’t actually make me happy. In such a case I should hope to God my kid ignores me. I’m just peddling my fear and laziness.

I see this becoming especially pertinent when my kids become teenagers and the issue of their risk–taking appears even larger. My partner and I need to be honest with ourselves (and with our kids) if there are risks we are not taking that maybe we ought to. Have we grown too cautious after falling or have we found a rut to get stuck in? I should ask myself “What does such a person look like when they try to discourage risk in others?” Not like someone worth listening to.

To discuss risk with our children we may need to be prepared to be more adventurous ourselves. We need to be pursuing our joy with full gusto before our advice is worth listening to. After all there are lots of ways to go down the gurgler – sudden death by car accident or a slow death by sadness treated with chocolate and television.


These are just some initial thoughts on the topic. As I qualified in my last post, hard core punk isn’t my preferred music style. (Hence the use of some not exactly punk bands in these posts). However I find in Punk philosophy a criticism of power and refusal to be powerless that I try to share. It’s the voice of the angry youth railing against the establishment. That’s a sentiment that inspired freedom for me when I was younger. Figuring out how to honour that sentiment I think will make me a better dad.

Most of the time authority can’t see itself very well. I remember working on a ward with a boss who described patients as “attention seeking” – in a perjorative way. This boss had meanwhile put their name on their office door in gold letters. Like that boss I will probably struggle to notice the hypocrisies in my exercise of power as a parent.  Coupling my parenting with a philosophy that holds a blow torch to authority should help to catch myself.

If nothing else writing this post has taught me about the amazing and ongoing history of punk music. I regret not sourcing more female led bands. I really liked Bikini Kill and Bratmobile but didn't find a song relevant to the topic. I'm continuing my education aided by the Bad Reputation blog and their authors compilation of some global Riot Grrl songs. Check em out.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Punk Parenting Part 1.

This is a piece about punk philosophy. It even gets to the topic of parenting eventually. Firstly I want to acknowledge that I’m being imprecise in my use of the word punk in terms of musical genre. I’m including some bands as punk that wouldn't probably make an official cut based on look and sound. For that matter I don’t mind Pink but punk she aint.  She just has the look.

As the Dead Kennedys sang in Chicken Shit Conformist; 
 “Music scenes ain't real life
They won't get rid of the bomb
Won't eliminate rape
Or bring down the banks
Any kind of real change
Takes more time and work
Than changing channels on a TV set.”

My aim therefore is to tap into the punk way of being in the world rather than merely its use of fast guitar or hair style.  I want to investigate the punk values which punk styles are merely expressions of.

That said, I’m not just using punk as a friendlier word for anarchist. Anarchist philosophy can be dry and academic. It can (I think wrongly) be about some top-down design of a perfect society. Punk is not that. Punk is reactionary, emotional and raucous. Punk, like other romantic movements, is more concerned with authenticity than outcomes.

As much as we can say that punk is more than just a sound, we can’t say that punk isn't about making a sound or about performing. Punk is public. While punk is not just a copy-able fashion trend, the on-show attitude is not irrelevant either. That’s why I’ve looked to bands as my primary sources for this topic.

 The Rebel Riot Band.

When I learnt that Buddhist monkswere involved in the persecution and killing of Muslims in the Myanmar province of Burma I felt heartbroken.  Buddhism is called the path of compassion. I cherish the ways that Buddhist thought has illuminated that path for me. In particular I aim for a love that can acknowledge the impermanence of all things without retreating.

If Buddhism is going to miss the mark around justice I would see that happening through taking a philosophical disinterest in material suffering too far.  But what’s happening in Burma is Buddhist-branded ethnic nationalism. That’s a nonsensical travesty– nationalism has to be one of the most material and frankly least naturally Buddhist of any concerns.

Thank the Buddha for the punks of Burma who are taking a stand against the violence.  Groups like No U-Turn or the Rebel Riot band are outsiders in their society with only recent changes making punk music or dress less likely to get you arrested. That outsider position protects them from co-option. They have no interests to maintain and no political favors to return. As they say "They can arrest us, we don't care....Or we can be attacked by certain groups. We don't care, We've prepared ourselves for this mentally. But we want to speak our minds."

To say that these punks are more Buddhist than the official Buddhists around them isn’t an original idea. The conflation of Buddhism and punk is the topic of Hardcore Zen and other books by Brad Warner.  It’s now being made into a movie. Particularly in the zen forms of Buddhism there are a great many concepts and ideas that lend themselves to a punk philosophy.

The adage that a person must kill the Buddha if they encounter them on the road to enlightenment is similar to the punk/anarchist ideal of “No Gods, No Masters”. In fact the Buddhist story is probably an even “punker” way of putting it.  It ought to be a story that inspires an inability to be dissuaded from enlightenment. But in Burma today the practice of remaining undistracted from the path of compassion by the trophies of impermanence is coming easier to those clad in leather rather than robes.

Pussy Riot

Around the globe from Burma, Pussy Riot is a feminist solidarity group which gained notoriety for performing a punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. For this act some Pussy Riot members are currently imprisoned. Pussy Riot members like the imprisoned Nadezhda Tolokonnikova can speak for their ideas far better than I can. They remind me of the Guerilla Girls  with a much broader politics. In fact they are closer to the also masked Zapitistas in their general critique of capitalism and culture.

If you caught the snippets of the Pussy Riot action that our Western media bothers to show it may just seem they were disrespecting the sanctity of a church. This might incline us to make sense of them in terms of Western cultural wars between small l-liberal feminism and right wing Christianity. Less well known is that they took over the church in order to appeal in “punk prayer” to Mary who is seen as the patron of Russia. Pussy Riot’s appeal to Mary was to get rid of Putin, Russia’s dictator-President.  

In the short youtube video “Holy Shit”, a young woman makes the point that the Cathedral really isn’t a Christian site but just one in which the powerful take photo-opportunities. The sanctuary and tabernacle function as useful backdrops for corrupt politicians and businessmen. Another woman, an orthodox Christian herself, expresses support for the Pussy Riot action as a reaction to the abuse of their power by the Orthodox Patriarch to support Putin’s dictatorship. (2:28)

Like The Rebel Riot bands’ relationship with Buddhism, Pussy Riot could be said to express the reality of Jesus
message better than the church they supposedly desecrate. In fact it brings to my mind probably the punkest image I know, Jesus kicking the money changers out of the temple.

Pussy Riot’s actions communicate with the Russian people on so many different levels, in ways that reclaim, subvert and refuse traditional categories. I think they’re fully aware of this and very sophisticated in their use of symbols. I encourage you to take a further look at what they are doing under a hostile government.

So that’s two contemporary examples of political actions that I am in awe of. They represent, better than the old religious and political institutions around them, values I cherish. Neither of them have swallowed the hypocrisy medication. Both of them fall under the banner of punk.

Also in less dramatic ways punk has fed me philosophically. I’m not a huge fan of the more hard-core sound despite loving those musicians’ ideas. The punk(-ish) bands I’ve relied on to give a soundtrack to my state of mind have included Iggy Pop, Rage Against the Machine, the Sex Pistols and massively the Violent Femmes. (That can go down on my “permanent record”.) Also sometimes nothing speaks my gospel like the hurdy gurdy of the Pogues “If I should Fall From Grace from God” I've learnt more about punk researching this topic and the house has been ringing with The Clash, Ramones and Dead Kennedys amongst others; all amazing.

But Punk Parenting?

How can a Punk perspective apply to my most important occupation as a parent? Punk feels like the sort of thing you believe till you have kids, then shoebox until they grow up and leave home.   When I googled this question I discovered an amazing looking documentary called the Other F word about the transition to fatherhood for some of the big names of punk.  The preview plays on the presumption that there is a contradiction between Punk and parenting.

Punk is not really violent – as Jello Biafra said introducing his performance of NaziPunks (fuck you), “Who the fuck here came for a brawl anyway?” but its certainly got that potential. Punk is explosive, chaotic and cacophonous. How does that meet a kids need for security and safety? Can there be a less punk word than “routine”?

Punk is also “drunken”, either actually on alcohol or metaphorically in its outlook.  I’m warm to the idea that such a drunken attitude is a path to wisdom. Parenting just seems to me to be the hardest place to imagine that attitude in place. Parenting for me means being present and responsive, essentially a sober mindset. How does one not cancel out the other?

I'm asking for your help in answering these questions. In my next post I want to tease out some of the lessons for my parenting that can be found in Punk. Please comment if you've integrated in any way the spirit of Punk with being a mum or dad or if you've felt like parenting is more of a double life.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jesus and the State of Faceless Men.

This is the third post in a spontaneous blog-conversation with my brother. We’ve been discussing a short passage in John’s Gospel (John 8:1-11). Both I and my brother feel this passage is poorly represented by its usual title of “Jesus and the Adulterous Woman”. 

After that we disagree on what the passage is about. It’s fascinating because we are reading the same words. We’re not even disagreeing over translations yet we still read very different things.

In this specific case I think our conflict is more confused than anything. The most important element of my interpretation is to read this story with a similar historical respect to what I use in an old post The Massacre of the Innocents. I’m resisting making a modern and middle class metaphor out of a 1st century reality by discussing stoning as if it were mere moralizing. After all stoning remains an actual reality in this century too. I know Simon appreciated the sentiments of “The Massacre of the Innocents” so I suspect we don’t have a broad argument with this approach here.

I think we’ve gotten confused because John 8:1-11 is a red flag within certain religious culture wars. Some Christians use this story as if it had a punch line in the phrase “sin no more” – a message to the woman which they turn into a very different message to them selves.  

The phrase “sin no more” is used as an example from Jesus to not be silent on naming sin. It even pops up in conversations about homosexuality (Here, for example in the second last red comment). It is treated as a justification for the line of “love the sinner but hate the sin”. The argument goes:
  1. Jesus did not just let the woman go but commanded her to “sin no more”.
  2. Therefore a Christian, while opposing violence against sinners, must also instruct people in what is their sin.

John 8:1-11 is not in my opinion a valid support for that position. To say it is you have to jump over most of the story for one thing. Nor does it need to be. If a Christian wants to bang on about other peoples sins they have biblical examples of Jesus doing just that, far clearer, at other times. Those sins are just most likely to be sins of selfishness, self-importance and hypocrisy (Luke12:13-21Luke 11:37-53).

Neither is John 8:1-11 however an argument against calling out others sin. It’s easy and tempting to use this story to promote a culture which silences any moralising. Many people have gotten used to translating “stoning” into any form of judgement – even a judging statement that has no power to harm behind it. Then it follows since none of us are without sin we shouldn’t “stone” others by saying anything about their wrong doing.

There are other verses that can make a biblical case for something like that position (Matt 7:1-5), but this story is not one. This is because this story involves the prevention of wrong doing. At the beginning of the story the woman is to be stoned, at the end she is not. In our consideration of how Jesus achieves this we shouldn’t ignore what is achieved. We can’t use this story as some sort of encouragement to ignore the moral actions of others and focus only on our own. That would be the result of a story in which Jesus told the men, “Don’t ask me about stoning her, do what you want,” or even where the Jewish men’s total religious freedom to follow their law was defended.

What I’ve just said merely reprises my previous comments. If you have read the two previous posts then you may think all I have to say is what this story is not. I’ve hesitated to express what I think it is actually teaching – and how that’s relevant to me – because it’s a big deal. It answers some questions I’ve grappled with for a long time –from an anarchist perspective in particular.

I hope you’ll tolerate a little back grounding to what I think this story teaches first.

The Kingdom of God.

The teachings of Jesus are the teachings of a Jewish teacher from the first century and as such they have to grapple with the greatest Jewish question of their time. The Jews were a conquered people. Much like today, the power of a civilization was seen as the proof of its religion and philosophy. How then could Israel, the Jewish nation, be God’s Kingdom on Earth, and yet under pagan rule?

The implications of pagan power (first the Greeks before the Christian Era and then the Romans) were many. Upon entering Jerusalem only sixty-three years before Jesus’ birth, the Roman army had massacred twelve thousand Jews with very few Roman losses. The Romans controlled the most important position of Jewish religion, the High priest of the Temple and the most important Jewish secular authority, the Jewish King. It was a total defeat.

Any Jewish movement in the first century had to speak to Roman power over the Jews. The obvious answer was that God’s Kingdom was a lie and the Jews were just one more people who could be conquered like any other. Jewish cultural survival depended on forming a philosophical resistance to that idea.

Some 1st century Jews would have remained committed to a physical empire as the only idea of a kingdom. There were certainly supporters of military rebellion. Recent history helped their case; the Greeks had not so long before been thrown off by a violent revolt. Israel had then returned its empire to its own historic height. In fact even today Hanukkah still celebrates the re-consecration of the temple by Jewish guerillas in the Maccabean revolt of 165BCE. By God’s will this had succeeded. Was God just waiting for Jewish courage to bring such a military victory against the Romans?

Others would have emphasised that to be God’s people meant to be faithful to his commands. Perhaps God would intervene for God’s own glory when their people kept their side of the covenant (agreement with God) or perhaps merely obedience was its own reward. Maybe the covenant defined the kingdom rather than borders and city walls. This view assured the Jewish nation’s resilience. After all if God’s kingdom was defined by the covenant, then a single faithful Jew (a contemporary Noah or an Abraham) could preserve it – even as temple and citadel were overrun.

Jesus was a part of this discussion. He also claimed that the capacity to be in God’s Kingdom was not distant in the future but immediately possible. In this regard he was in agreement with the covenant keepers.

Jesus recognized (along with others in his time) that lawyers twisted the laws of the covenant to make life harder for people. They hid injustice with it. Jesus wanted the law to be a tool for justice and ultimately subservient to the purpose it was meant to fulfill. In just one example he claimed that the Sabbath was made for peoples sake, not people for the Sabbath. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give workers a day of rest – but lawyers had turned it into an onerous obligation. (Luke 6:1-11) In naming this Jesus would have made both political allies and enemies of his peers.

Jesus may have seemed “soft on sin” for his friendships with sinners and his enjoyment of food and wine. (Luke 7:34). He certainly wasn't an ascetic. However he was far harder than the religious institutions of his time on specific sins like wealth, hypocrisy, and in-hospitality  Perhaps the biggest “sin” this teacher spoke about was choosing to ignore the suffering of others.(Matt 25:31-46, Luke 10:25-37)) Jesus was talking about a very high standard of collectivism and asked it of a conquered people who must have felt tempted to just look after their own individual survival.

Jesus also extolled a spirit of fearlessness. Rather than allowing poverty or persecution to cow him, this teacher told his followers to embrace both in the confidence that God provides. His movement proposed non-violent separation from Rome rather than violent conflict, but that separation was not physical. It was a renouncement of the values of Rome – both the pursuit of gross luxury and its glorification of military victory – for the embrace of poverty and the love of enemies. Jesus wanted the Jews to act as people of God even towards and among their pagan oppressors.

Dangerously, it seems Jesus’ followers referred to their teacher as a king and received him with messianic anticipation. Such claims were provocative to both the Jewish puppet king and to Roman power.  Consequently this Jewish teacher was brought to trial and executed by crucifixion around 33CE.

We have a reasonable record of Jesus’ ideas. He wrote nothing himself but within about forty to sixty years accounts of his life emerged which are fairly intact to this day. Those are the four Gospels of the Christian Bible. As ancient documents go they are well preserved.

The Gospels don’t read like texts of political philosophy in a modern sense. In an ancient sense though, they are deeply political. Any reference to the Jewish God is absolutely also a reference to the proper common purpose of the Jewish people. That purpose defines the nation. For the Jews of the 1st century redefining their nation was the most immediate task of any prophet.

The Definition of a State

A state is a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory. – Wikipedia on the State (polity)

The words state and a nation refer to two different things. A nation is a culturally homogeneous people. It is defined by a common language, religion and history.
A state however is a legal entity. The fundamental definition of a state is its claim to a special legal status and the moral/legal exemptions that come with it. If you or I did on our own time what our governments’ spies, soldiers or even police do we would be arrested (by those institutions) and incarcerated. Only the state can order our incarceration or even our assassination and it not be illegal.

Crucial to the state being able to exempt itself from its own rules is the anonymity of its functionaries. In fact anonymity isn’t quite the right word. It is more that a functionary of the state is no longer quite a person. This is because they are acting as the state; the state is not a person so neither can its actors be.

We can experience this whenever we ourselves belong to any kind of “chain of command”. We may no longer feel responsible for what we do – instead we are following orders or policy. Whether that feeling is legitimate or not is essentially the argument for or against the legitimate statehood of our organization.

Seen in this light there are lots of modern mini-states attempting to assert themselves. If you work at a fast food venue for example, then you are often reminded that your own identity isn’t required while you are an agent of the company. God forbid you should have an opinion about the food you’re serving. Many work environments operate on the same principles – any employee is ideally interchangeable. These “states” may seem silly up close – complete with their own flags, logos, songs and costume – but less so when you look at the size of some corporations. (The revenue of Exxon Mobil is larger than Bangladesh’s and Wal-Mart’s is larger than Norway’s. - link)

The ultimate expression of the moral exemption of the state and the non-personhood of its functionaries is when the state kills with impunity. The state is exempt from the moral rules which call killing murder.  The individuals who do the killing are not murderers.

Back to the Story

This is how the “scribes and Pharisees” came up to Jesus. They did not approach Jesus as persons out to commit murder. They approached Jesus as functionaries of the Jewish state. The law was clear – the woman must die – and whoever threw the stones was not responsible for her death when acting as an agent of the law.

To accept this was politically dangerous in the 1st century. Rome, not Israel was now the state. In 30CE Rome had explicitly forbidden the Jewish courts from pronouncing the death penalty. Rome claimed for itself “a monopoly of the legitimate use of force” within its territory. If you accepted Rome’s rule then the men who brought forward the women had no right to act as her executioners. If on the other hand you accepted the men could act according to the law, as functionaries of a Jewish state, then you opposed Roman rule (which Jesus would eventually get killed for even if it was a poor understanding of his views).

This wasn’t the only trap set for Jesus here. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts Jesus is put in a spot between supporting literal scriptural authority and respect for the sanctity of life which also can be drawn from scripture. But I think this question of who does Jesus support, Israel or Rome as the state, is the key one. Jesus was after all, known for this complicated idea of separatism that isn’t. The gospels demand an extreme repudiation of Roman values but reject isolationism. Where does Jesus stand therefore on this issue of whose law should be enforced?

For some people it would have been seen as a natural conclusion from Jesus’ teachings that the Jewish law must be enforced. The consequences of that would be arrest by the Romans and death but it would be a heroic death. To enforce God’s law in the midst of the Roman Empire would be suicidal. It would be a martyr’s death for the sake of the Jewish state.

What Jesus does in response is deeply radical. Jesus de-anonymises the men. In doing so Jesus denies them statehood. Jesus words are an invitation to the men to be people – not anonymous functionaries of a morally exempt state.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

These words have a powerful effect. They take us inside ourselves to the place where we are real. This is why I think this story does get translated to cover all manner of situations including any kind of judgment. We want to hear these words spoken to us. They are so refreshing in a paradoxical way. Although they accuse us of sin they return us something that serving the state can take away – ultimately they accuse us of our humanity.

The consequences of Jesus’ reaction.

Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God he is declaring is not a state. When these men come up desiring to act anonymously to complete the law I believe this is an act of kingdom definition. Jesus then defines the nation of Israel differently. He does this not only by refusing to accept the accusing men’s non-personhood. He does this by staying in person himself.

Neither will I condemn you too.”

This has particular meaning for “the church” that emerged after Jesus death. By “the church” I mean the community of Jesus’ followers across time and denominations. Based on certain biblical passages “the church”, used in this way, is seen as the inheritor of the mantle of Israel. This church is (ideally) the people of God, a nation in the sense that it is defined by a common history and culture (broadly), but has always had to exist inside hostile states and empires.

That hostility can be especially true when those states and empires have been nominally Christian. When the state takes the identity of Christian then it can become even more necessary that the sort of Christianity that rejects statehood will be persecuted. The latter is too thorny a prophet against the former. Regardless of that persecution I think this story should tell non-statist Christians that they are on the right track.

Non-statist does not simply mean that a Christian shouldn’t try to make a government’s use of force their own. A Christian should also resist the state-making tendencies in their own communities. The crucial element here is anonymity and special legal status. Christians need to reject the idea that actions by authorities are not in the same moral category as actions by “ordinary people”. Killing is killing no matter who does it.

In more general ways where even our employers may want us to become agents of their mini-states a Christian is never allowed to adopt a “just following orders” mentality. Christians are reminded in this story to always be people on their own spiritual journeys of overcoming sin; never faceless perpetrators of policy.

Taking this stance will lead to conflict with society. The state in times of war for example has no tolerance for non-combatants. Most industry, even in “peace” time relies on people who truncate their moral selves for their employers. Refusing to comply has historically brought people closer to the heart of state power; that spiraling towards the murderous center is reflected in Jesus’ own path to the crucifixion. The greatest gift of this story is the example Jesus gives about how to confront a state-mentality in others. Jesus invites the “scribes and Pharisees” to be fully human again.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This is exactly how peace work treats figures of authority. The soldier, the clerk, the lawmaker, the judge are all reminded of their full humanity. They are called by the peace activist to re-occupy their self-hood, their relationship with God and their own sins.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A response to a response to Jesus and the Murderous Men.

This is a response to my brothers comments on my previous post. To make sense of this please read my previous post and my brothers comments below it.

What we're discussing is how to interpret the passage of John 8: 1-11 (or rather John 7:53-8:11 as I've had corrected). For those not familiar with biblical notation this means the first eleven verses of chapter 8 in the Gospel according to John. This is a story traditionally titled Jesus and the Adulterous Woman (or similar), which I propose re-titling as Jesus and the Murderous Men.


I’m glad this post and this passage has engaged you. I think you are partly right.

Firstly you are right that I am making a decision to name the gender of the scribes and Pharisees; a decision the texts author doesn’t make. The author only names the accused gender. That naming of the accused gender has been a part of the history of this piece for a good sixteen centuries at least. No-one would dispute that all the accusers are male so I think a few years of having that mentioned would be fairer to me than suddenly not identifying any gender matters. The experience as a man of feeling even slightly tarred with the same brush, when the scribes and Pharisees are called men, is the experience women have had in relation to this story from the moment of its titling.

Secondly you may be right when you say that the motive of the men is to accuse Jesus rather than to actually stone the woman. It may be that whether or not she has committed adultery is incidental to them. It might even be that whether or not they stone the woman is incidental to them. This had occurred to me when writing, however that charge against the men is so damning I was reluctant to make it on scant evidence.

We should stop and reflect for a moment. We need to take into full account what stoning is. (http://www.neurope.eu/article/iran-death-penalty-stoning may help) And only then can we appreciate the magnitude of what it means to say that whether or not they stone the woman is incidental to them; that the point is to test Jesus and the stoning of the woman is merely a prop in that.

What is a culture where the stoning of a woman is secondary to a religious point being made about it? What are women to that culture? What is religion and religious leadership in that culture?

What does Jesus say to that culture? What do we say to that culture?

I feel strongly Simon that the danger of titling this piece according to the intent of the Pharisaic men is that we continue a culture in which the stoning of the woman is incidental. I don’t think we can allow for a conversation to occur between Jesus and “his” accusers that considers the woman’s stoning as secondary, even unimportant – whether or not even the author thinks that is appropriate.

I should add that I don’t think Jesus buys into that culture either. He doesn’t engage with the Pharisees about “this woman”. He addresses the men but not about the woman. He speaks to the woman directly as well. She is not merely a prop for Jesus in a theological debate about grace.

Regarding this comment; “To imply that maybe the woman wasn't a sinner at all, is such a terrible twisting of this story as to miss the whole point of Jesus' interaction with her.” I certainly don’t mean to suggest that she is not as much a sinner as we all are. I simply think people often tell me this story as if the woman has had some New York modern affair or downloaded pornography or something else that translates to adultery in their mind. I want people to realize that this is grossly interpretive in a way we shouldn’t ever read the Bible. The story merely tells us that she is accused of adultery by the men who bring her to Jesus. In the first century that could be in a context that would outrage us for a multitude of reasons.

I really think that your translation of this story into one about her and her salvation from the law by grace – is a huge insertion of your own point. Fortunately you show me your arguments so I can understand why.

Firstly you place the context for this story in the debate between those devoted to the law and Jesus authority (and perhaps his “seeming disregard for the law”). I don’t have a problem with that particularly and I think what I have to say and what you have to say are not so different after all. Jesus is claiming that the only authority to “stone” belongs to God which is not what the Mosaic Law says. It may be that Jesus as God then declines to use that authority. That second point is a slight stretch but not one that bothers me. I would just urge caution before inserting any suggestion Jesus might have stoned her as he would have qualified. That’s borrowing from elsewhere too much for me.

Where we disagree is that I think capital punishment is not at all a minor issue in Judaism. The more and more I read the more I realize that it was actually a pre-occupation of Jews in the time of the early Christians. It is definitely not just sentencing or judgment of any kind but belonged in its own special category. I find it bizarre that both theological liberals and conservatives want to ignore this distinction so that stoning becomes general sentencing or even just dissaproval.

Capital punishment is in its own category especially for Jews. It offends against the commandment not to kill. A person in Judaism is an image bearer of God and a Jew is one of God’s chosen people. To legally sanction murder is therefore theologically akin to burning down the temple…. And yet the law of Moses requires it.

Even outside of Judaism capital punishment was a special type of punishment by the way. Around 30CE the Jews lost the right to impose capital punishment to the Roman empire. The question for the Jews about capital punishment would have included whether or not to pursue it as a right. Given its connection to Empire and “Babylon” was it a part of being a people of God? Indeed what was the kingdom of God supposed to look like without the capacity to impose the death penalty? This “what is the kingdom of God” is the salient question of the age.

The first century is a world of rigorous debate in which Jesus is a leading figure. Be careful not to flatten all these debates into a dichotomy of law and grace with a monolith of Jewish thought on one side and Jesus on the other. That’s a historical flaw with how Christians have understood 1st century Judaism that is only now being corrected. Jews (including Jesus) disagreed with Jews.

Of concern to me is how you seem to negate the clear restriction in the text. There is a kind of commandment here that I believe you are overlooking. Subsequently you have no need to ask how this commandment could apply to you. That’s a real shame because I reckon there is such amazing fruit for growth here that you are missing. This is one of those stories that could change your life. More to the point it could change mine and so I’m sitting with its challenges. I'm allowing it to be outrageous and unsure what it would require of me.

I’m glad at least that you don’t seem to focus in this story on the commandment against the woman which some people make out of “sin no more”. I’m not saying that also isn’t an instruction. However the irony of modern male religious leaders (who refuse to share their pulpits with women) finding that instruction loud and clear while changing and negating the instruction against the men in the passage… perhaps deserves a harsher term than irony.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jesus and the Murderous Men.

Passages in the bible have traditional names that aren’t original to the text. These are headings that have been given to the passages by people studying them or simply a printer’s decision to make the Bible more readable. The names can be very revealing (and dictating) of the way we predominantly read these passages.

 For example, The Prodigal Son is a title given to a parable that is only partly about that son. The Prodigal Son arguably aims its teaching more at the son’s hard–hearted brother instead.  Because it is named The Prodigal Son though, it takes effort to see that teaching. I’ve even heard abridged or children’s versions of the parable which entirely omit the older brother. The title has led to a misreading of the text.

Likewise the following is also misnamed. Here is the passage (John 8:1-11) from the 21st Century King James version;
Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives.
And early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came unto Him; and He sat down and taught them.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst,
they said unto Him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
Now Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned but what sayest thou?”
This they said testing Him, that they might have cause to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground, as though He heard them not.
So when they continued asking Him, He lifted Himself up and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
And they who heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the eldest even unto the last, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted Himself up and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”
11 She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.”

This passage is called the Pericope de Adultera (Passage about the Adulteress) in Latin. In the Contemporary English Version of the Gospel of John this passage is titled The Woman Caught In Sin, in the popular Good News Translation, The Woman caught in Adultery and in the New American Standard Bible, The Adulterous Woman. Not every printing of the Bible gives this passage a title but those that do invariably follow this theme.

The effect of this titling is to decide who the story is about. Our focus is put on to the woman in the story. We may even end up viewing adultery as the sin in question in the story as if the story was meant to say something about that in particular. Unfortunately this plays into a very pious anxiety over whether Jesus was making light of adultery or not. We the reader, end up in the position of the men with stones in hand saying “Come again Jesus? What are you really saying about her actions?”

This concern about making light of adultery has both a legalistic and an empathic aspect to it. Legalistically a person might be concerned about the contradiction between not punishing adultery and the instructions of traditional moral law. In such a concern the affront of tolerating adultery is to the authority of moral teaching against it – even to the authority of God. I think this is the author’s assumed motivation for the men who approach Jesus in this story.

On the other hand to make light of adultery is something which could ignore the pain of those who have suffered cheating spouses. This is the empathic reaction to making light of adultery. This is probably not the motivation of the men in the story. The wronged husband is certainly not featured. However this empathic concern about making light of adultery can be a challenge for modern readers. Surely Jesus is not asking this of us?

My response to this is to challenge what we know of this ancient woman’s “sin”. In Jesus’ time a woman could be married at the age of puberty, at least as young as thirteen. However she also was commonly betrothed from much younger and always without consent. If while betrothed she had sex with another man she could be stoned for adultery. Furthermore if she was raped in a populated area and her cries were not heard according to the strictest definition of the law she was a willing participant.

It is within the Jewish law of Jesus’ time that a nine year old girl could be flung down at Jesus feet by a group of men, intending to stone her, because she was raped. The “offended party” (not offending) might be a man who was much older and unknown to the girl – who has lost the virginity of his future child bride or the child’s own father whose family has been shamed. That’s an extreme case, and unlikely (given the language in the passage and Jewish culture at that time) but it gives us a sense of how little we really know of this woman’s situation.

Whatever her age the following is plain; her husband could beat her legally, she probably never chose to marry him and she had an extremely limited means to divorce him (he could divorce her much more easily). Her husband may have had multiple wives as well. Polygamy was legal for Jewish men in Jesus’ time with different families in different towns for those who traveled, though probably uncommon.

We shouldn’t think that our ignorance of the woman’s situation is accidental. A function of saying “this woman was caught in the act of adultery” is that what needs to be said about the situation feels like it has been said. Adultery is a word which locates the woman’s “act” within a legalistic moral system. Detail that might muddy the situation is washed away to reveal the relevant kernel of the woman’s action vis a vis the rules that make up that system. That’s what a process of naming-the-sin does.

Naming-the-sin happens in the story but is more importantly reinforced by the titles given to this passage. In the story it is merely the one of the discredited men who names her sin but as a title it has the authority of the Bible. This even enables us to make a 1st century story into one in which we evaluate modern actions that also correspond to the legal category of adultery. Identical logical kernels of a deed (i.e. adultery) are locatable now and then once we no longer pay any attention to the muddy detail of either the 1st century or an individual’s situation today.

I don’t think the Jesus of this story buys into this notion of sin as the context-less kernel of a deed. When all the men have retreated Jesus refuses to condemn the woman and he bids her to go “sin no more”. We can choose to hear in Jesus’ answer that he had a perfect, miraculous, insight into the woman’s broader circumstances. We could speculate that Jesus knew exactly what the woman’s act of adultery meant in her story – maybe she was part victim and part sinner and both she and Jesus knew how those parts combined. Thus when Jesus says to “sin no more” he and she knew exactly what he is referring to; perhaps even some sin other than adultery.

However it’s also possible that Jesus says what he says in this passage from ignorance of the woman’s situation. Jesus knows she’s done something these men call adultery but perhaps the why and the how and the whole context of that is as unknown to Jesus as it is to us. Does her husband spend most of his time with his first wife and family? Has she succumbed to another’s attention in order to put food in her children’s mouths? Or to feel something good for herself in a community where she is mocked as if a concubine? Jesus won’t condemn her from ignorance but still asks her, in a general way, to live a holy life.

As interesting as this speculation might be if this story leaves us with merely speculation then we can say it’s not a very good teaching tool. It’s too vague. It doesn’t really tell us anything about adultery. That however is because, thanks to the title, we have been misled. This is not a story about adultery at all – the sin in this story is something else entirely.

It’s very easy in white middle-class Australia to completely minimize what stoning is. It is the brutal public murdering of a person. In contemporary Iran this practice continues. Women are buried up to their neck and stones thrown at their head until they are dead.

Stoning is a torturously slow way to execute someone, however there is another reason why it might have developed. No single stone can be large enough to kill a person in one or two blows. This shares the responsibility for the murder amongst the mob. In a way, all modern executions by the state do the same thing. They diffuse responsibility so that nobody is considered a murderer. But someone is still killed and dies outside of their community.

This is the action that these men propose.

In the first century, precisely because it was understood to be ordered by God, stoning was a part of the Jewish legal system. This passage is not the only time it is mentioned in the Christian bible. The apostle Paul states that he participated in stoning a Christian before he converted to Christianity himself. However it also seems that doubts existed in Jesus’ time as to the legitimacy of capital punishment. There is a record of rabbinical debate in the first and second centuries known as the Mishnah. In the Mishnah one Jewish teacher is cited as describing as “destructive” any Sanhedrin (Jewish Temple Court) that executes a single person in seven years. Another says that such a Sanhedrin is destructive if a single person is executed in seventy years. Over the next two to five centuries complicated requirements will be developed within Rabbinical Judaism to effectively make the death penalty impossible to impose.

This debate is the context in which this story belongs. It is the sole reason why “the scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery” rather than just stone her. The same sort of exchange occurs in other passages in the bible where Jewish scholars test Jesus for where he stands on other debates of their age. When Jesus is asked about divorce (Mathew 19: 1-10) it is also a question that divided the schools of two major Jewish teachers (Hillel and Shammai). When Jesus is questioned whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans (Matthew 22:15-22) that was a particularly divisive issue in his time and his answer could have put him between the zealots and the authorities. In all these cases (including John 8:1-11) Jesus’ answer is a rhetorical dodge that opens up alternative conceptual spaces to what readers might have imagined.

We can read these interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees in one of two ways. Perhaps these are accurate records of events. In which case the questioners of Jesus would have imagined that whatever answer Jesus gave would have placed him in one camp or another and alienated him from their opposite. That’s a very plausible political tactic. It drags Jesus into disputes between two other schools and reduces Jesus to a commentator on their positions. Cynically they might have been attempting to split Jesus own followers or expose him to ire and ridicule. In John 8:1-11 that seems to be expressed in the bible verse, “This they said testing Him that they might have cause to accuse Him”. Alternatively as Jesus was teaching at the temple they may have been trying to gain his support for their own position.

We can also see this as a story concocted to show a Christian position on these issues. This is not an unusual way to write history in ancient times. Ancient speeches could be inventions by historians in the style of the speaker. This scene seems to be a little too neat to me to be an actual event. Both the men and the woman go from and to nowhere else in the gospel narratives.  The “Pericope de Adultera” is also almost definitely not an original part of John’s Gospel. It appears in none of the earliest copies still in existence and is ignored in important biblical commentaries up to the fourth century. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t recorded elsewhere but we don’t have those records. It does raise doubts as to whether there ever was an actual woman charged with adultery at Jesus’ mercy.

Whether this story is a record or a concoction however the point of the story is to show Jesus’ response to the requirement under Mosaic Law to stone people and the debates of Biblical times about that issue. For that reason the passage ought to be retitled if it’s going to be titled at all. It could be called Jesus and Capital Punishment, though I like Jesus and the Murderous Men myself. “The Adulterous Woman” misses the point.

I also disagree with attempts to make the story more relevant to middle class Australian choices by broadening what is understood as the men’s behaviour to include all negative comment or judgment. “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone” is not the same as “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. Only the second refers to metaphorical stones. In the first there are issues of violence and the sanctity of life. In the first there is also the institutional power held by some over the lives of others. Jesus is expected to take a place in that circle of power as a fellow man and teacher but he doesn’t.

If you really are so removed from the type of violence depicted that the story bears no direct relevance to you (a claim that mightn’t survive scrutiny) then I think it’s still best to keep the stories original intent clear. As a second step of interpretation you can contemplate how its principles, for example that a life is only God’s to take, might apply to you in other ways. Changing stories in order to “middle – class” the gospel, produces a Jesus who came to save the “worried well” from their malaise. That removes any challenge to the perspective of the worried well.  Maybe the hardest part of the gospel for us privileged Australians to swallow could be that it isn’t always about our priorities.

Having outlined what question I think John 8:1-11 is about I’m not actually going to say what I think is the teaching in this passage.  Jesus answer is genuinely a complex and intriguing one that I am still pondering. I encourage you to ponder John 8:1-11 too. I merely hope I’ve refocused your attention to what I feel confident the story is about. It’s not the woman’s alleged adultery.

Further reading:

On Marriage in Judaism in Jesus day;

On Capital Punishment in 1st Century Judaism and it’s evolution;

On the scriptural authenticity of this passage;

On the teaching of this passage;

…and your own comments below.