Monday, October 17, 2005

How Concrete is the Kingdom....?

Birth castrates some

Owners castrate others

There are also those who castrate themselves
for the kingdom of God
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 138

Crossan derives this aphorism from Matthew 19: 10-12a. On this, Crossan says:

The Mediterranean was (is?) a magnificent sea surrounded by layers of pathological male sexuality, and nothing accosts that profound insecurity like the mention of eunuchs and castration. This aphorism does not necessarily commend celibate asceticism but uses castration as a metaphor, directed especially and deliberately at men, for all the abandonment of normalcy that the Kingdom of God demands. Like so many of Jesus' other metaphors, such as children or weeds, it is (for males) a devastatingly precise challenge.

Crossan, p. 169.

The problem with talking about the "kingdom of God" is that we too easily slip into abstraction and broad aphorism, and ignore the not insignificant barriers of applying ideas to the concrete situation.

Or we focus so much on the barriers and the concrete situation, that we posit the whole business in simple terms of impossibility (and despair). Caught between afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, we end up doing both.

When Jesus answers the question about the coin, we have to be reminded what a dangerous situation he was in, and what serious consequences his answer would have. It was a very concrete reality he was dealing with, and like all things concrete, a very complex one, full of abstract issues bursting out of it, impinging in on it. We don't take the question of the kingdom all that seriously, or if we do, we tend to take it seriously as an intellectual endeavor. We consider it as a matter of ecclesiology, or theology, perhaps even just an issue for individuals. Jesus' answer is a "devastatingly precise challenge." But does it challenge us? Should it challenge us? It is an answer very much of the moment, but is it for all moments? Sometimes seeing the kingdom is precisely the problem of such challenges.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her new book Bait and Switch, challenges the individualism now run amok in America. As she notes in the interview with Amy Goodman about the book, anyone unemployed for more than a few months in America is soon made to feel they are to blame for their position; that it is simply a matter of attitude, of their "will in the world" that holds them back, or causes them to lose their place in the corporation, or to be so long on the unemployment line. If the individual is unique, in other words, and "special," perhaps the individual is also too unique, and too special, and needs to find a way to conform, the better to get along in society. Thus do we "preach it round and square," and continue to foist responsibility off on everyone else, while absolving ourselves of all blame. The poor, after all, are poor because they choose to be, or because of the policies of the Great Society, or the New Deal; certainly not because of the policies that have been in place since Ronald Reagan left office, or because of the stinginess of the GOP House. But how much of our current situation is "of the moment," and how much of it is of our weltanschaaung, our culture?

Ehrenreich reminds us that this system: of governance, of economics, of corporations and "free markets," of "capitalism," are not conditions of nature or creation; they are our own creation. "Birth castrates some; owners castrate others." Are we in this position because of the nature of our birth? Or because society allowed some to be owners before we got here? And when how much that is asked of us is too much, what then? "There are also those who castrate themselves for the kingdom of God." What does the metaphor of castration mean now?

Where is that break point, that limit beyond which we will not go? And why?

The kingdom of God is not the only place that requires our all; requires, perhaps, more than we are able to give. That demand is always being made on us. It really isn't a question of how much of a sacrifice we make, but more a question of which kingdom we make the sacrifice to.

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