Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Living under empire

Greetings again from Cairo, Egypt. We have been reviewing the characteristics of the Roman Empire at the time of the birth of Jesus in our class on church history. The economic situation was that about 90% of the people were poor, and lived on and depended upon the produce of the land for their sustenance. These people were subject to high taxes from the wealthy landowners and often were at the mercy of the extremes in weather which could wipe out all their work for the year, leaving them hungry and often in deeper debt. It was not uncommon in these times that the only answer was to sell themselves into slavery, at least for a while, in order to secure the basic needs for living.

I was think about how this same economic situation is very much a part of our world today. Many, many people live off the land and have to hope that all conditions are right to bring about an abundant harvest. Sadly, with our neglect and abuse of the creation, times of drought in some places and of too much rain in others are more and more been the norm rather than the exception. And the ability of poor countries to respond to their people in need are more and more limited because of the downturn in the global economic picture, a condition which is now forecast to continue for many year. Here in Egypt the people are feeling the ill effects of this global problem.

I meet weekly with a divinity student who wishes to improve his ability to read, speak and understand English. One of his classes has been studying the Book of Proverbs and so we start our sessions by having him read a passage out loud, and then we discuss what it means, and how it applies to his congregation in Minia, Upper Egypt. This past week we came upon these verses in chapter 13.

...v. 21 = Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the
...v. 23 = A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away

As we talked about these we realized how the first is consistent with the main trust of the Book of Proverbs, that hard work and clean living produce blessings which God confers upon the "good" people, and that the lazy and the evil person will suffer dire consequences. However, the second verse attributes "bad" things to unseen forces outside of our control which are present in the world.

We decided that this later verse is a much more accurate and complete picture of the way things often are. It certainly stops us from "blaming" the poor for their plight. A postcolonial biblical scholar from South African points out that many times the missionaries from the west sought to reenforce certain "middle class" stereotypes of the poor through the use of the Book of Proverbs in their introduction of the Bible to "distant" places in the world.

The painting above is by a 19th cenury French artist named Jean-Francois Millet, entitled "L'homme a la houe", and so affected an America poet, Edwin Markham, that in 1863 he began his verses about it with these words:

The Man with a Hoe

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground.
The emptiness of ages in his face, and on his back, the burden of the world.

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave to have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power; to feel the passion of eternity?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands, is this the handiwork you give to God?
Give back the upward looking and the light; rebuild in it the music and the dream.

May these images serve to remind us of the plight of so many in this world, and as we join together to plan for a better future that it will include all who now suffer severe hardships.

In Christ, peace, hope, and a sufficient and sustainable income for all. Roger R.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Women hidden in history

Greetings again, as we begin the Spring term here at ETSC. Hope all is well with you. My course in Christianity in the Middle East will study the beginnings of the church up to the coming of Islam. Following up on the course which focused on the contributions of women in the field of biblical interpretation, I present for you these women of the ancient church and their contributions.

The painting on the right by a German Renaissance artist bears the title: "Do not touch me." showing his concept of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary of Magdala. From this and other biblical passages mentioning the "Marys", church tradition has constructed many commentaries of her person and her place among the disciples of Jesus. She is often confused with the women of ill refute who came to Jesus for forgiveness and came to symbolize the redemptive power which could come to women. Particularly in Western church tradition this linkage of prostitute and saint served to warn the male population of the temptations of the "flesh" which women present to men in this life, and often connect the female gender to Satan and his wiles. Such portraits went a long way in "dehumanizing" women and putting them forth as the reason for the fall of Adam and all men. This picks up on the one passage in I Timothy 2:14: "And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."

This title, "Do not touch me", can also help to introduce us to the "Gospel of Mary", a Gnostic (heretical) writing which seems to have been written in the 2nd or 3rd century. Gnostics, using pagan, Jewish and Christian images, had developed a scheme which saw the material world (the world of matter) as evil, which entraps the divine soul or spark of humans, which is immortal. Salvation is not viewed as forgiveness of sins and new life to begin now in Christ through faith, but as a special knowledge of how to liberate this divine soul from captivity to the world and in the human body. The writer or writers of the Gospel of Mary sought to influence Christians by introducing this book which would challenge the theology in the other books circulating in Christian churches in the Roman Empire. This also raises another part of the attitude toward women arising in the early church, when they returned from the empty tomb - "Let no one believe them, let them keep silent." See Luke 24:9-11.

When they (the women) came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others,
It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the
apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

In Revelation 3:20, the Church in Thyatira is warned against "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.(and) by her teachings misleads my servants into sexual immorality...." Adjusting more and more to the patriarchal, androcentric Roman world, the church silenced those who presented alternate views through alternate spokepersons.

But not all women were silent. A dramatic tradition grew up about some of the women who were martyred due to their opposition to Rome and its traditions and values. They spoke with words and actions, and their lives. The story of Perpetua and Felicity, in the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitas, probably written in 202-203 CE, records their defiance to Roman oppression, and also her rejection of obedience to a Roman father, while embracing a new vision of life and of eternity from which they were to gain courage, conviction, and independence. In the words of Perpetua, and her actions which triumphed over both mental and physical suffering imposed on her, the new identity and new spirit of Christianity is demonstrated, particularly for women in a male-dominated society. In her visions of battles, sometimes casting her as a male athlete contending in the arena, the old forces try in vain to defeat her through the use of fear tactics and physical torture. The story seeks not only to witness to the glory of God, but also to strengthen the weak among the Christians as they too are facing the fierce persecutions of Roman authorities in the last great attempt to eradicate Christianity under the Emperor Diocletian. It highlights the witness of women.

You may find two recent articles of interest in the exploration of this, one by Lisa M. Sullivan, in a Union Theological Seminary Abstract, and another by Willam Tabbellece, entitled "Perpetua, Montanism, and Christian Ministry in Carthage" in the NABPR. Here again, women in history become the center of story telling, and also shine forth as ways that women expressed their independence and their faith.

A third woman, Macrina, who has come to be studied a great deal recently is part of a famous family, lived in Cappadocia, a part of the eastern section of the Roman Empire, in the 4th century. They had lived through the persecution of Diocletian, and we know about her from a biography written by her brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Not only is she a devoted mother and head of a large household, something expected of aristocratic women in her day, but a teacher par excellence. She nurtured and helped to shape the traditions of the martyrs, and of the communal life for women in convents, and is said to have performed many miracles, including one on herself. If you wish to read more about her, let me recommend a chapter entitled: The Cult of the Martyrs and the Cappadocian Fathers (sic), by Vasiliki Limberis, in: Byzantine Christianity, edited by Derek Kreuger, in a series published by Fortress Press of A People's History of Christianity, publications on various periods of Church history seeking to uncover "hidden" aspects of the faith and life of "ordinary" Christians. I recommend this series to you.
There are some scholars who argue that she was the author of or a contributing partner to several of the major theological works attributed to her family, to Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, during this era of Church councils and controversies. The church was becoming part of the late Roman Empire, replacing paganism. In a dialogue between Macrina and Gregory, the issue of the immortality of the soul (a popular concept in that day from Greek philosophy) and the resurrection of the body (or as it is expressed with greater clarity, the resurrection of the dead in the Christian creeds of that day), an attempt is made to reconcile the two. For Macrina, death brings about the dissolution of both the body (the visible person) and the soul (the invisible). Thus, the radical proclamation of Christ's resurrection from the dead, following the end of all that is life, is presented with all its starkness. And, that which is what we might call the personality (the soul) while also dead, is not lost, but for her becomes part the resurrected person. In this she notes is room for grief and for hope. It also suggests that our life in this world in Christ where we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ will be present as it was when we were alive, and will be completed in the resurrection. as we come into the fullness of Christ.
I used to play the game with people asking them if they could choose to go back in history to meet people which ones they would like to get to know in their own time and context. The three I have just written about are on my list.
Blessings to all. Roger R.