A Weapon of Separation

A Weapon of Separation

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Haze Motes had an odd way of reading the Bible.

Haze is one of the most objectionable and puzzling characters an author ever created. He is the main character in Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood (1952). Though truly bizarre, Haze saw himself as pure and the rest of the world as distorted. That's why O'Connor gave him the name Motes. He had motes in his eyes.

One of Haze's strangest behaviors was that when he read the Bible, he first put on his mother's glasses. Before leaving for military service, Haze had promised he would read his Bible. However, his reading was always a prisoner of those glasses. Limited by mother's glasses, Haze never saw the Bible as it truly was.

O'Connor intended Hazel Motes to be a parable. As a Roman Catholic, she listened to Protestants boast that they believed only what the Bible teaches. But she noticed many of them read the Bible only after putting on their 'mother's' glasses. The glasses might have come from their race, denomination, gender, nationality, political party, or socio-economic status.

Having put on the glasses, they declared their "allegiance to God's Holy Word alone." "Only the Bible!" they proudly announced. They did not recognize how their biases, brought to the reading, always filtered their understanding of the Bible's message.

To be fair, none of us can justifiably claim to read the Bible in the absence of 'glasses.' We all read from 'somewhere,' including particular historical periods and cultures. However, we must work to recognize our 'lenses,' submit them to scrutiny, and discard them if they contradict God's character and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we are recognizably Hazel Motes's sisters and brothers.

Two prominent lenses through which many of us often read the Bible are classism and sexism. For some of us they are such treasures that merely mentioning them sends our defenses scrambling. We will deal with classism here and sexism in a future article.

What is Classism?

Classism is bias and discrimination against, or contempt for, others simply because of their class status or social stratification, including ethnicity and race. It is driven by belief that some persons are superior to others, and should be treated as such, simply because of their class identity.

Classism may include an unspoken disdain for members of another class. It can also be institutionalized in social systems. A system may shower benefits on some people while denying them to others. Class superiority supposedly justifies the favors. Classism is multi-directional. For example, one may be a member of the middle class and have contempt for persons socially and economically located above or below them.

It can be present in Christianity. A denomination might boast of its superior piety, sophistication, education, or social influence. This problem started in the early Church. We observe it in the epistles to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians. For example, in Colossae there were 'super saints' so impressed by their 'advanced' spiritual athleticism they could judge and disqualify others (Colossians 2:16). They were poster children for a seemingly ineradicable error: their 'superior holiness' bred contempt for others and gave them license to voice it.

Class identity and classism are not the same. Everyone is located by identifiable social markers that differ from culture to culture.

Class status or social stratification is also multi-dimensional. One might be a member of one class in one of life's dimensions, and a member of another class in another dimension.

Examples: One might stand tall as a professional sports hero and be excluded from the class of persons who prize the fine arts. Or a person might enjoy occupational prestige as a scientist, but be lost in the world of international finance.

Class identity is neither good nor bad. A person can be a member of a particular class and still respect all other persons. One can value one's social location without turning it into a weapon of bias and ridicule.

Class distinctions are not eliminated in the New Testament. If they were, the author of Hebrews would have had to abandon his superior education that made it possible to use diverse philosophical and religious symbols to author a document of such beauty and power. Saint Luke, author of Luke and Acts, would have had to surrender rare first century knowledge of how to write history.

The Gospel or Classism?

The gospel of Jesus Christ and God's grace oppose classism in all forms, whether social or religious. The gospel and classism are mortal enemies.

Classism opposes obedience to God's Spirit, places confidence in the flesh, and suffocates grace, love, and Christian community.

If one holds on to classism, he or she must surrender all claims to being in Christ Jesus. Classism tries to establish a basis for human worth radically opposed to grace.

Persons who cling to classism cannot also cling to Christ the head of the Church (Colossians 2:17). They don't believe they have "come to fullness" in Christ (2:10) or that life's highest joy is to "share in the inheritance of the saints" (1:12).

The Apostle Paul said troublemakers in the church at Colossae had introduced their own form of classism. They boasted of their love of wisdom, self-denial, and knowledge of heavenly powers.

However, they were in fact lovers of the flesh. They were full of contempt for others who did not measure up to their standards. They told their 'inferiors' that Jesus was not enough. "Real saints," they bragged, acquire more elaborate and visible forms of religious observance than what Jesus alone offers. They experience higher planes of ecstasy than 'commoners' in the church.

It is always this way with classism. It is a way of declaring, "I already have an adequate basis for my salvation. I don't need the grace of God!"

Paul, a Christian Model

Probably no one in the New Testament paralleled Paul's social status as an educated Roman citizen. If anyone could have played the class card, he would have been the person. 

Scholars have identified eight levels of social stratification in first century Greco-Roman society. They begin with the ruler, move to the governing class (1 or 2 percent of the population), then to the retainer class (5 percent of the population), which served the governing class. The levels conclude with the unclean, degraded, and expendables.

Paul's letters show evidence he was educated to read, and especially to write, at a high level of sophistication. Many scholars say Paul had progressed through three levels of Greco-Roman education, an expensive privilege available only to the wealthy and urban elite. In all likelihood, Paul and his family were members of the highly regarded retainer class, near the top of the social ladder.

Additionally, Paul possessed enviable credentials as a well-educated Pharisee. Knowing this, we can better appreciate one of Paul's best-known statements. "Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:7-8).

Paul did not abandon his superior education and pretend to be illiterate. Instead, he retained his education and Roman citizenship and committed all to Christ's service. He counted as rubbish the option of using social and religious status to define himself, to elevate himself above others, and to look with contempt upon the ninety-five per cent of the population located 'beneath' him.

Jesus Christ, Paul's Lord and Master, was his model and motivation.

Even though Christ was in the very form of God, He did not reckon equality with God something to be seized. Instead, He emptied himself of His divine privileges and assumed the form of a slave (Philippians. 2:5-7). Christ humbled himself in obedience, all the way to death on the cross (2:8).

Paul understands the meaning of the cross not only for Jesus, but also for himself. He lived not in the power of his social privileges, but in the power of Jesus' resurrection. He was radically in Christ through the Spirit's power.

The form of Christ's self-emptying became the form of Paul's life. Like Christ who poured himself out for many, Paul now pours himself out in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the Philippian Christians (2:17). The similarity between Christ "emptying out" and Paul "pouring out" is striking and intentional. Paul uses the same Greek word to speak of Christ not "counting" equality with God a thing to be "grasped" as he does when saying that whatever privileges he earlier had he now 'counts' as loss for Christ's sake (3:7).

Paul urges the Philippian Christians to be characterized by the "mind of Christ" (2:5). Live in a manner "worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27, NRSV). Let self-emptying be the form of your existence. Don't grasp after social privilege and status. Empty yourselves in service to one another even as Jesus did. Paul promised the Holy Spirit would replicate in the Philippians the same pattern Jesus displayed.

Paul admits that before his conversion he looked at people through his 'mother's glasses,' in this case Pharisaic Judaism. He looked at Jesus through human eyes (2 Corinthians 5:16). What he saw as one zealous for the Law was a rural deluded imposter who foolishly and justly died on a cross. The notion of a crucified messiah was sheer nonsense. Did not the Old Testament say God curses those who "hang on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:23)? But Paul was transformed radically. His old fleshly way of measuring others died. He told the Corinthian Christians, "So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, NRSV). "New creation," has profound consequences. "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way" (2 Corinthians. 5:16-17, NRSV).

The old or the new humanity?

Near the end of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes admits he is in fact not pure and begins a transformation by the very Jesus he had consistently ridiculed. A signal of major change happened when Haze threw away his mother's glasses.

Are we ready to abandon our old fleshly ways of viewing other persons? Ready to recognize alien filters that distort God's Word? Ready to throw away 'mother's' glasses? Ready to cling to Christ alone? Do we truly rest in confidence that we have come to fullness in Jesus Christ? Are we done with trying to attach classism to Christian discipleship?

Which will it be? The old humanity patterned after Adam that breeds divisions, hatred and injustices of every kind, or the "new humanity" formed after the image of Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:10)?

Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2010