Our lives are exegesis: reading the Bible with some Anabaptist heroes

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January 28, 2014 by jmar198013

Three decades ago, Nicholas Lash asserted that, “The fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity, and organization of the believing community” (Theology on the Way to Emmaus. London: SCM, 1986, 42). Please replay that statement in your mind: The fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity, and organization of the church. Lash went on to argue that, “The performance of scripture is the life of the church” (43). Stanley Hauerwas is fond of putting it even more bluntly (and he wouldn’t be Hauerwas if he did it any other way): “The lives of the saints,” he says, “are the hermeneutical key to Scripture.”

I do not believe that we who live amid the ruins of the project once called Modern receive statements like these as good news. After all, we are rightly suspicious of embodied interpretations, for embodied interpretations are just as likely to yield Crusades, genocides, and forced baptisms as they are to give us the gift of a St. Francis or a Clarence Jordan. We have come to regard embodied interpretations as primitive and therefore icky. I should know–I come from a fellowship where the dudes who pass out the Lord’s Supper elements seem to be trying to beat their previous time. I suspect that this is at least partly because the bread and wine are flesh and blood, and if anyone other than Jesus had asked us to do this, we’d unfriend them on Facebook because they’re creepy. Incidentally, that’s about what happened to Jesus when he first suggested the thing (John 6.53-66). We erstwhile Moderns prefer biblical interpretation when it’s just playing with words. When the word becomes flesh, things get messy, after all.

We do not want to hear that the “lives of the saints are the hermeneutical key to scripture,” because we have heard of old saints who did sick things; or perhaps, we do not want to hear that the interpretation of scripture depends upon the lives of earthy people because we know of old saints who have done things that make us look sick. For instance, I sometimes wish that I could go back to “Bible times” and tell Paul to knock it off. He’s an overacheiver and he’s throwing off the curve for the rest of us. “And you speak of grace!” I want to shout at him. But Paul understood well what we tend to forget: the fate of the world is at stake. We do not want to be reminded of this–no! Because secretly we are afraid that when we are able finally to admit this, God will ask of us what we are not willing to give. He may ask us to use our little lives to help him save the world. He may inform us that the only way to stop the wicked machinery is to throw ourselves into its cogs. That sounds too much like an adventure, and who needs an adventure when you have Honey Boo-Boo?

When we find scripture interpreted in the lives of actual people, we find that claims are made upon our lives that make us uncomfortable. One of the old saints stands before us and says, “He who preaches poverty lies, unless he be poorly clad” (that was St. Hugh of Cher, by the way–and no, I did not make him up). Of course, we know better than to preach poverty. After all, Jesus only told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all his stuff and give the proceeds to the poor because that particular guy had a “heart” issue with greed and materialism. See, that’s interpretation that plays with words instead of requiring embodiment in the life of a people. When we get to playing with words instead of figuring out how to make the word become flesh, we might fail to notice when we are being dishonest. For instance, that one rich dude wasn’t the only person Jesus said that to–it was general advice for his disciples (Luke 12.22-34). Likewise, when Jesus echoes the command not to kill (Matt. 5.21), we are told that the word doesn’t mean “kill” in general, but “murder.” Therefore it is acceptable to kill in war or self-defense, so long as we don’t murder. So all those early Christians and Anabaptists who got themselves slaughtered died needlessly. But it would seem that those peaceful peasants in our past knew something about how to properly exegete a text–even the illiterate ones. For in fact the word in the Decalogue we try to make mean murder also means unintentional killing (Deut. 4.41-42) and execution of a criminal (Num. 35.30). Most of us can probably make it through life without murdering someone–even if Jesus didn’t tell us not to. But when the madman busts into our church building and begins blasting us to kingdom come, we want to believe that God sanctions our going Clint Eastwood on him. We protest that those who call us to nonviolence–and the even more costly work of reconciliation and forgiveness–are judging us. But are we not judging those saints of old when we proclaim that we know better, in a violent world that hates us, than to come to church without an armed usher?

I say all this, mind you, as one whose life is judged and found wanting by the embodied interpretation of better saints past and present at least as much as yours, and probably more. I point all that out simply to explain why Nicholas Lash hasn’t got it backwards when he says that the, “fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of scripture is the life, activity, and organization of the believing community”; nor is Stanley Hauerwas a fool to say that “the lives of the saints are the hermeneutical key to Scripture.” I mean, didn’t Paul say as much when he told the Corinthians, “you are Christ’s letter, delivered by us. You weren’t written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren’t written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”? (2 Cor. 3.3) As I often like to say of this verse, we are Christ’s letter to the world, and it is up to us whether or not it is hate mail.

In other words, our lives are exegesis.

All that being said, I want to look briefly at what this might mean for how we understand our task of interpreting scripture; in other words, what might happen when the church reads the Bible with the intent of making the word flesh?

If the lives of the saints truly are the hermeneutical key to scripture, then it may be that one of the most profound interpretations of Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6.27), and Paul’s word, “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them” (Rom. 12.14), is found in the life and death of the Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems. Willems was imprisoned and tortured for some while for the crime of practicing believers’ baptism–and for supposing that being so baptized claims our lives for peace. One day, he found a way of escape from his captors, tearing across an icy pond toward freedom. However, when one of his pursuers fell through the ice and was surely going to die, Willems turned back around and pulled the man back through the ice. Willems was recaptured and burned to death. Now, this is a far cry from how Luke 6 and Romans 12 are usually presented to us. We are often told today that Jesus and Paul are telling us merely to kill our enemies with kindness. But Willems’ life testifies to a love that dies for the sake of an enemy. Incidentally–isn’t that the meaning of the cross?

Likewise, it was 35 years ago when a little Anabaptist child became an occasion for a peaceful witness from her family. Baby Adeline Schwartz was going home with her family in a buggy driven by her father, Levi. Along the way, they met up with four local boys raising hell. One of the youths threw a clay tile from their truck into the Schwartzes’ buggy, which struck seven-month-old Adeline in the head, killing her instantly. The non-Amish townfolk called for swift and harsh punishment for the young men, but the judge was able to hand down only a fairly light sentence because the Schwartz family refused to testify against the young men. In fact, the Schwartzes endorsed a letter from one of the Amish elders that was presented to the judge, pleading on the boys’ behalf. The letter read: “We believe that the four boys have suffered, and suffered heavily, since the crime, and they have more than paid for what they did.” When asked what an appropriate punishment for the youths would be, one Amish community member replied it would be for them to have to attend the child’s funeral. Baby Adeline’s father, Levi Schwartz, said: “I can’t say I feel hate or anger. If I saw the boys who did it, I would talk good to them. I wouldn’t talk angry to them or want them to talk angry to me.” In fact, while the boys were in jail, the Schwartzes visited the boys to make peace with them. I suspect that we might have learnt the meaning of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” when we are able to at least imagine ourselves responding as the Schwartzes did. And again–a parent initiating reconciliation and forgiveness with the very ones who murdered their child sounds too much like the meaning of the cross to be shrugged off.

The interpretation of scripture is the life of the church, and the life of the church is stories like Dirk Willems and the Schwartz family. The scriptures are interpreted and the church comes to life when the word becomes flesh in us.

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One thought on “Our lives are exegesis: reading the Bible with some Anabaptist heroes

  1. Ryan says:

    Just came across this blog post, and as a “convert” to the Anabaptist faith, I am pleased to see someone lifting up the Anabaptist martyrs as embodied exegesis. Since immersing myself in the Mennonite church, I’ve found that it’s often the Mennonites who are most opposed to this kind of example. We need more voices like yours to slow our accommodation. Thanks.

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