Voices: A Gospel for Our Time
by Bill Placher '70
May 9, 2011
Introducing his final book—the award-winning commentary on the Gospel of Mark—the late Bill Placher wrote that this first Gospel is “particularly relevant for our time.” Historically, he noted, “Of all the sources available to us, Mark gets us closest to Jesus’ own lifetime.”
Following are three excerpts from the introduction:
Eastern man standing on a box, arms stretched out like a cross, a bag over his head, electric wires attached to his hands. Many people, including even the young woman who took the picture, had the same reaction: “He looks like Jesus!”
The story behind the photograph turns out to be complicated. It comes from an American prison camp in Iraq, Abu Ghraib. The young Army Reserve troops who took it and others like it were acting out of complex motives—partly joking around, partly trying to document horrors that disturbed them, partly just following their generation’s instinct to photograph everything. In the case of this prisoner, the electric wires were not connected to anything. (He seems, incidentally, to have been a young taxi driver caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.) But these young prison guards had been told to soften up prisoners for questioning, with no clear limits on what they could do. Experi-enced interrogators find that offering prisoners tea and talking with them in a friendly way nearly always generates more useful information than beating them. But the word had come down from Washington that guards needed to be tougher. Mysterious nonmilitary personnel turned up at Abu Ghraib from time to time with anonymous prisoners whose presence was not to be recorded; these prisoners’ screams could be heard from secret rooms, and at least one of them died. The young people who took the pictures have been sent to jail. Neither the actual torturers nor the people in Washington who gave the key orders have even been officially investigated.
Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark —this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time—when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does that imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?
Mark wrote in the midst of imperial violence affecting Christians and Jews. When much of Rome burned in A.D. 64, Emperor Nero dealt with a rumor that he had started the fire himself in the midst of a drunken party by shifting the blame to the small Christian community. The historian Tacitus tells how Christian prisoners “were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed, were burned to serve as lamps by night.”
Palestine saw even more violence. In A.D. 66 Eleazar, a captain in the Jewish forces at the temple of Jerusalem, refused to perform sacrifices there to the Roman emperor. A rebellion began against both the Romans and the higher Jewish authorities, and the rebels burned the public archives where records of all debts were kept, got the Roman garrison in Jerusalem to surrender, and then killed them. After four years of brutal warfare, the Romans defeated what must have seemed to them a terrorist operation on their vulnerable border with the Parthian Empire, burned the Jerusalem temple, and razed it to the ground. Such news would have reached Rome quickly as well. If we read Mark with our newspaper headlines, and therefore a great power’s violence in the Middle East in mind, we are thus not imposing an agenda on the text but connecting to its own time’s concerns.
Those of us who belong to many mainline churches read in another context too. Though matters of war and torture seem surely more important than the sexual orientation of our ministers, it is the latter question that threatens to divide several of our denominations at the national or worldwide level. Issues about homosexual orientation or practice never come up in Mark or the other Gospels, a fact that in itself makes it stranger that this should be our potentially church-dividing question.
Purity, however, is one of Mark’s central topics. The Pharisees, sometimes cast among the villains of his story, were in many ways among the most admirable Jews of Jesus’ time. Unlike those who wrote off ordinary people as incapable of real piety, the Pharisees encouraged all Jews to follow the laws God had given them—and a good Jew thinks of these laws as a gift rather than a burden. They therefore had a popular following all over the country, which is why they are the opponents Jesus so often encounters early in Mark.
Only when we recognize the Pharisees for the pious, virtuous folks they were can we see how radical was Jesus’ opposition to them. As the great New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias put it, “The numerous words of judgment in the gospels are, almost without exception, not directed against those who commit adultery, cheat, etc., but against those who vigorously condemn adultery and exclude cheats from the community.” In a society where concerns about propriety focused on the rituals surrounding meals, Jesus casually invited everyone to dinner, from prostitutes to the tax collectors who collaborated with the hated Romans in cheating the people. Where rules about eating or the Sabbath were concerned, he had a certain insouciance. Such things mattered little. Far more often, Jesus condemned those preoccupied with respectability rather than those society judged unrespectable. As we read Mark, therefore, we have to think about the implications of this attitude for the debates of our own time—debates about sexuality, but also all the debates about how we sort out insiders and outsiders and how we treat them.
II. Mark seems to have invented a new genre of writing when he wrote the first Gospel. We take the “four Gospels” so much for granted as part of the New Testament that we forget that no one before Mark had ever written a “gospel.” Given Paul’s relative indifference to the narrative of Jesus’ life, it was by no means obvious that Christians would write works anything like Mark’s. Scholars sometimes try to classify it among the forms of Hellenistic literature, but the results often have a quality of desperation. The literary critic Erich Auerbach (a secular Jew who cannot be accused of Christian bias) seems to reach the best conclusion: Mark “fits into no antique genre…too serious for comedy, too everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.”
In a culture where anyone but kings and queens and lords could appear in drama only in bit parts or low comedy, this text tells a story of infinite importance focused on fishermen and a small-town carpenter’s son. When Willy Loman’s wife cries out, in Death of a Salesman, that “attention must be paid” to the trials of her rather ordinary traveling-salesman husband, or when Marcel Proust plumbs the philosophical implications of the most ordinary events, they are asserting a principle that, in all of Western literature, first appears in Mark.
III. “Only the suffering God can help,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell shortly before the Nazis killed him. His understanding of God as suffering with us has become a commonplace of contemporary theology, but it challenges one of the most basic assumptions of most past centuries.
Christian theologians before the 20th century generally insisted that God is unchanging, immutable, and certainly incapable of suffering. God, they believed, is all-powerful and all-knowing—how could such a God be subject to injury? God is eternally perfect—how could such a God suffer change?
The Bible sees God differently. God tells the prophet Hosea that Israel’s unfaithfulness makes him feel pain like that Hosea feels when his wife is unfaithful. Isaiah describes a God who “will cry out like a woman in labor” and “gasp and pant.” In Philippians Paul talks about Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.” Mark, most starkly of all the Gospels, presents Jesus as at once the Son of God and a human being who ends up abandoned by his friends, subject to a painful and humiliating death, and crying out at the end to ask why God has forsaken him.
The other Gospels all try to soften the story somewhere along the line. In Mark it is precisely the appalling way Jesus dies that leads a first human being to proclaim that he is God’s Son.
When so many 20th-century theologians speak of a God who suffers, therefore, they are not inventing a new way of thinking about God, but recovering an important biblical theme. Still, one can speculate on why something so long apparently hidden to wise forebears has become in our time so clear to so many. Did the tragedies of the century just past—the trenches of World War I, the Holocaust, the Gulag, and all the rest—make it harder to worship a God defined as somehow untouched by human suffering? When Christianity’s influence shrinks in more powerful and wealthy nations even as it grows among the world’s poor, is it more difficult to imagine a God characterized by power and incapable of suffering?
Whatever the reason, when we come to believe in a God understood first of all in terms of suffering love, we will find Mark waiting for us, with a story he is eager to tell.
In February, the College established the William C. Placher Fund for Faculty Support—including a $1.4 million leadership gift from Professor Placher’s estate—to support, nurture, and develop the excellence of Wabash faculty.