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Sunday, January 08, 2017

Uncircumcised in heart and ears: St. Stephen's Practical Guide to Making Yourself Obnoxious and Disliked

The 1979 Episcopal BCP's lectionary reading for today excerpts St. Stephen's long sermon in Acts 7 so as to read: "Then the high priest asked him, 'Are these things so?' And Stephen replied, 'Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do."

This misses out the long historical summary in which Stephen details all the ways in which the ancient Israelites had resisted the Holy Spirit, culminating in the denunciation: "You stiffnecked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears." But the lectionary, by cutting as it does, makes crystal clear just how the first Christian martyr got himself killed.

When I used to teach Religions of the World at Huntington University, I took my students to a Conservative Jewish synagogue, where (on one occasion) one of the members gave us a lecture about Judaism including a summary of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness. One of the students commented to me afterward that this lecture differed from the standard Christian narrative in that it didn't highlight the sins and failures of the Israelites.

Thanks to Stephen's sermon and other early Christian texts, we have a tradition of reading the OT primarily as a story of God's people messing up. Unfortunately, Christians have often read this as "the Jews messing up." The only way to redeem our narrative from the implications of anti-Judaism (and the only way to read it that is healthy for our own souls) is to read it as a narrative about our messing up.

One of the healthiest impulses in Christianity is the impulse toward self-criticism, which comes out of the basic structure of the Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, when Christianity is turned into an ideology, the basis for "Western Civilization," an instrument to make our ethnic or political group feel good, then we begin rewriting the narrative to be about a holy remnant under pressure from external enemies. And we can get that narrative from the Bible too. Stephen's persecutors thought they were the holy remnant. They thought he was a traitor.

They killed Stephen because he subverted a narrative that they thought was supposed to be about triumphalism and turned it into a narrative about the failure of God's people to be God's people. And it is our duty as Christians to walk in Stephen's footsteps, challenging the self-serving narratives that "our" group (whatever that may be) comes up with--and resisting the demonic temptation to turn Stephen's sermon into a narrative about some other group's failures.

Of course there is a huge spiritual danger here. Our "prophetic witness" against "our" group's misdeeds may easily turn into a self-righteous rant in which we imagine ourselves to be standing over and above the group. But there is no avoiding spiritual dangers.

Furthermore, at some point the group will decide that we aren't really part of it any more. And this may be reasonable given our actions. That is a difficulty that I face, myself, with regard to evangelicalism--but I'll write more about that another time.

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