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Generating Hope for Building Communities of Peace

Jayachitra L1

Bible Study 1: Dynamics of Resistance

In a world in which globalisation, hierarchy and hegemonic universalism are at work, the poor in Asian countries struggle hard to unmask the abuse of power and its arbitrariness by the rich and powerful. Unrestricted affluence of the powerful section of any community will lead to making the poor more weak and the suppressed cultures still more fragile. Majorities of people in Asian countries are under constant threat of unquenchable greed and unsympathetic individualism that neglect the poor and the weak; centralisation of power that deprives democracy and participation; a hegemonic and homogeneous order that rejects pluralism, differences and minorities; a patriarchal culture that fails in gender justice; a nationalism that disowns the poor; a religious system that legitimises inequalities; a consumerism that is pursued at the cost of the poor and nature.2 Can the heart of Asia yearn for a just and peaceful existence of different groups? Can it dream for co-existent communities of peace where every single person cherishes the freedom of life?

The New Testament passage for our first Bible study presents Jesus in a similar situation of hegemonic religious powers, which sidelined the peaceful existence of the poor in Jerusalem. Let's see how Jesus responds to such an arbitrary system of cruelty and injustice in John 2:13-16.3 The event of Jesus cleansing the temple and chasing the people out is found in all the four gospels. Generally it was believed that the market inside the temple was located in the court of the gentiles. Some other scholars believe that it was situated inside the Royal Stoa where vendors were trading in the animals and materials necessary for sacrifice such as wine, oil, flour and salt. The temple tax is paid in shekel. The items for sacrifice can be purchased using shekel. The Torah supported paying temple tax but considered paying or demanding brokerage as unscriptural.

Generally the money sellers in the temple were engaged in three activities: foreign exchange, changing of large denominations, and banking. Emphasis is on banking operations in the gospel of Mark. In Mark 11:16 Jesus did not allow anybody to carry skeuos or money receptacles (or anything) through the temple courtyards. Overturning of the tables shows Jesus' attack on those who financially exploited the people in the name of the temple tax through the use of foreign currency. This stops an act indispensable for both public sacrifices and individual compulsory and voluntary sacrifices.

Doves were the offering of the poor basically for the purification of women (Lev. 12:6-8, Lk. 2:22-24), cleansing the lepers (Lev. 14:21-22) and other purposes (Lev. 15:14, 29). This shows a special concern of God for the poor. The term used for the seats of dove sellers is kathedra, which can mean the seat reserved for philosophers, rabbis, teachers and priests. The dove sellers looked as if they were teachers and rabbis. This indicates the exploitation of the poor by the use of additional laws, although the Torah made special provisions for the poor in the laws regarding sacrifice (Lev. 14).

Mishnah supports the fluctuating prices of doves and pigeons according to demand. The sellers charged more money and at times demanded sacrifice of more doves. The common people were always exploited by the shop-owners. Moreover since Tyrean currency was required to purchase doves, the poor had to pay more. Here we see Jesus' special concern for the poor, especially women and lepers, who suffered the brunt of social oppression and economic exploitation by the temple leaders and their agents who acted as vendors. The purity laws discriminated against lepers and women, giving them inferior status in society, and demanded sacrifices. The term used for overturning is katastrepho, meaning "to destroy a dwelling place". It is indeed a destruction of the economic interests concentrated in the temple. Therefore the expulsion of dove sellers is a powerful protest against temple leaders who extracted from the poor through purity laws, introduction of new laws and their interpretation with the sole aim of profit.

Mk. 11:7b is peculiar to Mark and a direct quote from LXX text of Isa. 56:7. The passage of Isa. 56:1-8 speaks about God's promise to the foreigner, eunuchs and the outcasts of Israel. God will gather them in the holy mountain and "make them joyful in my house of prayer." The temple was intended to be inclusive and open to the outcasts and all peoples. Here we find an implicit criticism of the purity laws that restricted entrance to the temple and, thus, an inclusive community is envisioned.

The temple action is an open challenge to the temple leaders. Since the temple was the seat of religious and political authority, to challenge it was to challenge the political and religious authority of the Jewish nation ruled by the priestly aristocracy. The religious leaders did not want to take immediate action because of Jesus' popularity with the crowd. The common people understood Jesus' action and justified it. Mk.11:19 shows Jesus and his disciples leaving the temple by night probably due to the hostility of the temple leaders.

Is Jesus a peacemaker or a troublemaker? What is the relevance of this passage to the theme, "Building communities of peace for all?"

As far as the temple leaders were concerned, Jesus was a troublemaker as his action in the temple instigated the anger of powerful exploiters, religious leaders of the time. In fact, Jesus' action disturbed the smooth functioning of the religious activities of the temple. On the other hand, the poor, unnamed ordinary masses of Jerusalem would definitely see Jesus as someone who would restore their peaceful existence in relation to their temple access. Jesus was probably an emerging great mass movement leader for the ordinary masses. Therefore, first of all we need to understand that the primary step in building community of peace for all requires setting right those things that support the exploitation of the powerless. During his ministry, Jesus attacked the abuse of the power, which in fact could have been used for the welfare of the whole community of God's people. Does this not mean that establishing peace demands a restructuring of the power play of the dominant?

We live in a consumer culture which, by the influence of globalisation, cuts across national borders into arenas of common patterns of living style and moral values. The trend of use and throw creates a vast scope for instant excitements, which the youth are attracted to. A great desire to gratify the desires of the fast growing globalised world forces youngsters to struggle for a common platform for their expressions. This would ultimately lead to a homogenised community where the dominant and powerful expressions and experiences will find upper hand and subordinate the rest.

How do we go about, as young people, to generate hope in the midst of the confusing trends of consumerism and globalisation? For some, especially the privileged, things would seem alright. But those in the developing countries may be at the risk of losing their socio-political identities. Is it possible for every culture and every indigenous community to assert their own cultural and moral values at the growing threat of the great empires of globalisation?

Generating hope - the dynamics of resistance. Jesus' temple action was a clear evidence for the resistance he exhibited to the prevalent powers of the time. It was just the beginning of the destruction of the hegemony of religion. Jesus may not have achieved in his lifetime the complete victory over the religious hegemony of the temple. In fact he was taken over by the execution through crucifixion by the Jewish and Roman authorities. However, he succeeded in initiating it. Here comes the challenge to us, as we strive to create communities of peace for all.

The hope for creating communities of peace for all lies in the present day's resistance to the oppressive orders. It may sound ambiguous to us since we are caught up in interplay of
compliance and resistance. On the one hand, there is the practical necessity to comply with the existing order of things, e.g. the struggle to overthrow globalisation. However, we do not need to project the various civilisations introduced by the globalisation as the future of the world. Resistance derives from the experience of the woeful effects of globalisation and empires on the daily lives. This dynamics of resistance should arise from the realisation of the absence of humane ideals and noble values in the present oppressive order. I will end with the experience of Galileo at an individual level. He is a metaphor for the plight of the subordinated people who live in the interplay of compliance and resistance. While he had to exteriorly assent to the view that the earth does not move, something that the infamous Roman Inquisition demanded of him, yet his spirit triumphed when at the conclusion of the trial he whispered, "and yet it (the earth) moves”.4

Bible Study 2: Moving to the Margins of Alienated Identities

"For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, so making peace and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father." (Eph. 2:14-18)

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith. For as many as you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor tree, there is neither male nor female; for you were all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:25-28)

We live in a world of complex identities. Any discourse on identities needs to consider various identity markers such as culture, religion, language, ethnicity, socio-political preferences, gender notions, economic status, etc. According to the report of the United Nations' Development Programme (UNDP) in 2004, “some of the most socially divisive debates today are on cultural identity and diversity.” The question of identities touches upon issues of justice, peace, equality, human dignity and rights. Globalization ignores the reality of rich collective identities in Asia. Colonial legacy has includes the complete alienation of the suppressed identities in various forms. Tribals, dalits, women, refugees are examples of this. A realistic account of multi-faceted identities as the treasures of human existence has to be highlighted to rethink crucial issues like the practice of democracy, equality, justice and peace. Our theme of "building communities of peace for all" will be realized only in affirming collective identities with their own differences.

The Bible as a whole is concerned with the reality of identities. God is portrayed in the Bible as companion in the identity formation of people who are otherwise without power and identity. The vision and world-view of Jesus and his praxis strove to construct the identity of those suppressed by the power centers of Palestine and the Roman Empire.

For this second Bible study, we will see how Paul battles for space for the suppressed identities like gentiles, slaves, and women within early Christianity. The hallmark revolutionary statement of Paul in Gal. 3:28 is a counter-response to the pathetic situation of identity suppression in the first century. A Jewish male thanked the Lord everyday for not making him a gentile, a slave or a woman. It was a society based on hierarchy! In Gal. 3:28, Paul affirms that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We will briefly analyse each pair of power play.

In the two passages (in Galatians and Ephesians), there is an acknowledged tension between two distinct communities of the first century of the church's development: Jews and gentiles. There is a great paradigm shift in the Jewish understanding of gentiles. The Jewish people exercised a proud sense of their origin and election as the chosen people of God. As receivers of the covenant and law, they placed themselves above all other nations who they generally called 'gentiles'. In the course of time, this spiritual and political power play created within the Jews an exploiting nature that sidelined the existence of others in their territories/communities. It continued to the early Christian community where the first converts were from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Jewish Christians demanded the gentiles to become Jews first before they could become Christians. This was highly questioned in Ephesians and Galatians. Jesus of history alters the age-old notion of the ethnic or racist superiority of the Jews by accommodating the ‘other’, i.e. the gentiles in his earthly ministry. As we have seen in Eph. 2:14-18, Jesus abolished the wall of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles by his death on the cross and he became the peace for all.

Another form of hierarchy that existed among the first-century Christians was portrayed in the slave-free relationship. Till the eighteenth century, slavery was unquestioned, including by Christians. The Quakers, a reformer group of Christians, then began to condemn the institution of slavery, which depicted certain races of human beings as inferior to others and, hence, were to be ruled by others. The slave-owning class was supposed to be the influential, educated and biblically sound. It was strange to notice that as a response to the abolitionists of slavery, many Christians affirmed slavery as divinely instituted. After years of struggle, slavery was outlawed as an institution. The slaves were freed and rehabilitated into society. The associated dominant institutions of racism and apartheid were also outlawed globally. Similarly, casteism in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal continues to play its unequal hegemony in the church and society.

The third pair of relationship is man-woman. Jesus Christ in his full humanity carried out the mission of establishing full humanness in people irrespective of sex and gender. God in Jesus Christ has restored the fallen humanity, assuring them of the image of God and God’s will for equality. Gender difference was and is never a criterion to determine the redemption of humanity. Being ‘in Christ’ in Gal. 3:28 breaks down the barriers that have alienated women from mainstream society by various socio-cultural and religious influences, especially in the Asian context. Faith in the Christ, who incarnated as a human, creates a new relationship to God accompanied by a new man-woman relationship, which in turn affirms the hope for building an inclusive community of peace for all, including women.

In all these pairs of relations, the focus is on the outright denial of the dominant group’s unquestionable control over the suppressed identities, which divides people and set them in enmity to each other. Unless and until the suppressed identities find space to exercise freedom over their own selves, it may not be possible for them to engage in building communities of peace for all. The "I” or "We" attitude of one community has to be broken in order to accommodate the "other". One does not appreciate relation with someone else when the other does not belong to one's own community or share any commonalities. Jesus takes initiative in crossing boundaries of ethnic margins to see God-self in others like gentiles, women, poor, lepers, etc. in Jewish society. He does not stop there, but moves further to engage with the others. That Jesus talked with gentiles, women, and had women disciples explain all this. Engaging with the other demands understanding the existential realities and struggles of the other and taking upon oneself the experiences of others. This would further lead to taking part in the other’s community and facilitating common growth for both one’s and the other’s communities. Here at this point dawns a peace and justice filled world.

Communities of peace can be established only when the subordinated identities would find their legitimization and recognition. Modern pervasive ideology of globalization has a presupposition that the world is becoming more and more unified and any attempt to affirm or assert identities on the basis of culture, ethnicity, gender or religion would be regressive. However, the assertion of identities in a given situation shows how justice and peace are compromised and the opportunities for a particular community or a group of people is denied. Therefore asserting identities becomes a great weapon or tool for the liberation of suppressed communities.

In conclusion, for building communities peace for all, the oppressed identities have to exercise their socio-cultural rights and enter into a legitimate space of freedom and autonomy. This involves the indigenous peoples and tribals claiming their lands, the untouchables of India their human dignity, the religious and linguistic minorities their due share of power within the framework of multi-cultural and multi ethnic societies. In such communities of peace for all, the assertion of differences over against a blind assimilation is the way through which the marginal peoples consciously perceive and approve their collective selves. They are no more the objects of emancipation, but the subjects of emancipation.

And what is the role of the church, or Christian communities, or youth in building communities of peace for all?

First, since God is concerned with creating peaceful existence for the alienated identities, we must listen to God by experiencing the struggles of suppressed identities, indigenous peoples and minority groups. The vocation of Christians is to be permanently at the margins with God and the oppressed ones.

Second, we should not try to abolish differences in the name of pseudo unity. The difference in the human cultures and communities should be treated as providing basis for peaceful co-existence.

Third, to the vision of creating communities of peace, we need to add a vision of or for justice. Fostering differences entails the obligation to involve oneself in the practice of justice. The challenge today is to give expression to the vision of justice by actively getting involved in the struggles of suppressed identities.

NOTES :

1 Ms. Jayachitra L teaches New Testament at Leonard Theological College in Jabalpur, India. She is the convenor of the Commission on Theological Education, Madhya Pradesh Christian Council in India and a social activist on women and dalit concerns. She facilitated these two Bible studies at the Youth Forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 2005.

2 Felix Wilfred, The Sling of Utopia (Delhi: ISPCK, 2005), 14.

3 Sam P. Mathew has done an elaborate study on this passage in his book, Temple-Criticism in Mark’s Gospel: The Economic Role of the Jerusalem Temple during the First Century CE (Delhi: ISPCK, 1999), 138-55.

4 Wilfred, 6.

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