Facebook Fracas: Friction, Futility, and Faith

In his essay “On Racist Speech,” Georgetown Law School Professor Charles Lawrence III argues that the purpose of the First Amendment is “to foster the greatest amount of speech.” To me, this goes to the heart of the American democratic experiment. Censorship by State or Church is not acceptable, primarily because it is usually those who are being oppressed by said institutions who find their voices silenced. However, Lawrence cites an important exception, the so-called “fighting words” exemption, defined as those words which “by their very utterance inflict or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” He maintains that racist speech falls under this category, and therefore should be silenced, because racist speech does not intend to proliferate more speech, but rather aims to stifle it or to incite violence.

I think the same thing can be said for people who are aggressive, rude, vitriolic, and intentionally disrespectful on Facebook. Their speech aims to incite anger, to elicit emotional responses from people with no real intention of moving toward understanding or dialogue. And while some may argue that this is not new, I think it is worse than ever. Frankly, I am sick of it and I won’t tolerate it on my page anymore.

Why do I bring this up? I recently had an unfortunate incident on my own Facebook page which I do not wish to recount in toto. The important points are as follow: my post was hijacked by one person, who took my original comments and turned the discussion into something I did not wish to explore. The conversation continued when another friend responded; when the language turned heated, and unnecessarily hostile, I asked for it to cease and desist. Three times I asked, and three times I was largely ignored. Finally, one of the parties involved—honestly and sincerely—recognized that the overly-charged rhetoric was counter-productive, extended an apology, and removed the offending posts. (In fact, I can tell that this has been an opportunity for reflection on the part of this friend, and I have no hostilities or ill-feelings of any kind toward this person; we remain good friends.) The other party did not follow suit, but rather turned his vitriol toward me. I will not dignify the bulk of the charges by repeating them here. However, I was told that asking for a change is tone means that I am overly-sensitive, unable to argue, and not a clear thinker. As a professor, writer, pastor-in-training, and, I hope, an overall intelligent and caring person, these charges upset me greatly. Perhaps I am too attached to ego; perhaps I am giving too much credence to a person who enjoys being confrontational; whatever the case, the words hurt. I began to think about quitting Facebook.

As part of this reflecting, I have come to the following conclusions: The experience bespeaks a larger gestalt that is gripping our country. The overly-charged rhetoric of American politics has trickled down to discussions on Facebook; interactions that should be conducted with respect and openness now are infused with insults, derogatory language, and anger. The sound bite culture in which we find ourselves, I think, has resulted in people writing with less care, less nuance, and less thought than ever before. We read sloppily and shallowly as well: people will look at the headline of an article, or the first couple sentences of a post, and will immediately hit “comment” before taking the time to appreciate the conversation that has unfolded, or the totality of the content in the original article or post. Some people swoop in, have a violent case of logorrhea, and swoop out, leaving chaos and resentment behind. This is a microcosm of the larger debate we see in Washington, D.C., a place where entrenched ideologies are more important than working toward consensus. As President Obama said in his State of the Union last night, “We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas.” I have found this to be true of Facebook and online commenting: We need to turn down the temperature, and extend some respect to one another. We need to take the time to think about our comments, and not to jump so quickly to ad hominem attacks. There is such a thing as cyber-bullying, and I simply will not allow it on my Facebook page.

Back to my thoughts regarding my future on Facebook. Previously this offending party had caused such a furor among my friends, a few messaged me privately and said they felt uncomfortable with the hostilities. When I told the party to simmer down, I was accused of censorship and the stifling of speech. At the time, I took this to heart and thought about whether this was true. Am I trying to silence this person simply because we disagree? Should I allow this person to attack Christianity or people of faith, and simply understand that this is part of a free society? I now can say, confidently, that it most certainly is not. I do not accept that my Facebook page can be treated like free air-time for an individual’s SuperPAC ad. Uncited “facts” are wedded with vitriolic aspersions and aggressive posturing to such a degree, I can almost hear the ominous music in the background and I begin reading the comment in a low, gravelly voice. I do not believe it is censorship when I ask for a change in tone; I do not believe it is stifling of speech if I pull down those comments that are “killer” statements. Yet these are the accusations that are hurled at me. There is no attempt at real dialogue that I can see; what I witness is the desire to shut down other voices, to stop real discussion, and to inject anger and division into what otherwise could be a fruitful conversation. I have grown tired of such approaches, and I have to either accept that I will swoop in and remove these comments or I will have to leave Facebook completely. Either I think it is futile to have real discussions on Facebook, or I have faith that my friends will understand that I require a certain degree of respect on my page, and when it is lacking I have to become the 2 am bouncer: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

Perhaps it is overly dramatic of me to spend so much time and energy reflecting on this, but I do not think such is the case. Today, I attended a Boundaries training seminar for the United Church of Christ, and the topic focused on Facebook, along with some other issues. I thought about my path of discernment, how I wish to be a servant of God and a person of service to my community. I think that it is important that my page be a place where we can discuss faith, literature, politics, world events, and a wide variety of other topics without feeling shouted down. I received numerous messages from people asking me not to leave Facebook because of this experience, as my posts and voice are something they cherish. That is humbling and gratifying. Yet, I will not subject them to ridicule or bullying. Most certainly, this does not mean that I will be the content police. Those who disagree are encouraged to post, as long as it is done respectfully. And if I violate these rules myself, I expect to be called out. I am not perfect, by any means.

In the end, I have come to really cherish my Facebook community. Facebook allowed me to agitate for justice when two friends were viciously attacked in the Oregon District; I wrote a letter that was signed by over 50 people, all largely because of Facebook. Facebook allowed me to share the final weeks of my precious dog’s life, and to receive positive thoughts and energy from others. Facebook has become a platform in which I can connect with some of the most intelligent, thoughtful people I know. In truth, it is the only way that I can stay in touch with a number of people that I truly value. But I am changing the way that I Facebook. I will not allow aggressive, divisive voices to hijack my page and to poke at my friends. I will not allow for the negativity to invade my life and the lives of those I care about; if that is a person’s sole aim, that person will find him- or herself locked out of what I think is a pretty good community.

And to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

“Of Faith and Followers”: Mark 1:14-20

We need to divide this week’s Liturgical passage into two separate pericopes: vv. 14-15 and vv. 16-20.

Pericope One: Of Faith

Background: God’s Imperial Rule

The Markan narrator provides the reader with central information that will become relevant in 6:14-29, that of John the Baptizer’s imprisonment. John, who represents a movement of religious renewal and rebirth, is caged; there is an attempt by the Jewish political authorities—who have been put in place by the Romans, and therefore are de facto puppet leaders—to stop the work of God in the world. Jesus will have none of it; he goes into Galilee and begins to proclaim the good news (gospel).

Again, we face a central question: What is this “good news”? While v. 15 provides some further detail, it descends into a tautology: “‘The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news!’”[i] Jesus tells us that time is short and in order to be saved, we must trust in the good news. So is the gospel that we should put our faith in the gospel? What is going on here?

We should begin by identifying an underlying assumption of the Markan text, that of the impending eschaton or end time. This is a Pauline detail. In I Thessalonians 4:15-17, Paul warns followers that when the archangel’s trumpet sounds, “the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be one with the Lord.”[ii] This is reiterated in 1 Corinthians 15:51-2, when Paul insists that within the twinkling of an eye, we all will be changed. Without question, Paul expects that Jesus will return within his lifetime, or at least within a generation.

Paul is wrong.

It appears that the author(s) of Mark make the same error; in this gospel, Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet, that is, one who announces the imminent end of time (Mark 13:30; 14:25). The Markan Jesus proclaims that the time is nigh, and that all should repent—more exactly, “return”—and set their houses in order before God arrives. If we take this passage literally, we are left with very little. Two thousand years of history ridicule the claim that Jesus returns in the first or second century of the common era. So what do we do with this?

Kingdom language is at the heart of the Synoptic gospels.[iii] However, the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou) is not described in a monolithic, unified manner. Indeed, as we shall see, Jesus describes the kingdom as something that is imminent (Mark 9:1), and event that will strike suddenly and cause great tribulations (Mark 13); yet, he also describes it as something which has a hidden power that grows slowly (Mark 4:30-32); in Mark 1:14, the kingdom is depicted as something already present, yet as is discussed as something that cannot be detected (Mark 13:21).

If the good news is that the kingdom is at hand, how can we know? And what does this kingdom entail?

Even if we ignore issues of temporality, it seems clear that the kingdom of God boils down to one essentially point; as John Dominic Crossan writes: “The Kingdom of God is what the world would be if God were directly and immediately in charge.”[iv] We should never forget that the Romans came to be in control of greater Palestine because of the failures of the Hasmonean Dynasty, the political organization that grew out of the Maccabean Revolt, the second century B.C.E. event that is commemorated each year in the Festival of Hanukah. In the middle decades of the first century B.C.E., two Hasmonean brothers are arguing with one another over who will be high priest and king, and one brother beseeches the Roman General Pompey, who is still vying for overall control of Rome, to intercede. One does not ask the greatest superpower in the world to settle disputes, for said superpower will never leave. This is what happens. Pompey comes in and establishes a form of government that will dominate for over a century: “Israel” is ruled by an ethnarch, or “ethnic leader,” who is answerable to Rome. Brief independence is lost, and the Roman sandal is upon the necks of the Jewish people.

This model of empire is not new to the Jews; over the course of the millennium, they have been occupied or dispersed by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks (as well as the inheritors of Alexander’s kingdom, the Ptomelies and Seleucids), before the Romans arrive. But, starting in the second century B.C.E., they experience a brief period of relative autonomy under the Hasmonean Dynasty, and while there is corruption, it is local corruption. To put this in perspective, one need only think of sibling rivalries. One brother may beat the heck out of another brother, but woe to any outsider who lay hands on him. In other words, better the beast we know than the beast that we don’t. Rome is that unknown beast, and a brutal one at that.

Commentary

So it is hard to not read Jesus’ statements about the kingdom of God as political declarations. All around Jesus is poverty, suffering, oppression, starvation, exploitation, and despondency. Jesus presents a view of the world in which power does not oppress, but rather liberates. At the heart of Jesus’ kingdom of God is the memory of the Exodus, a time in which God hears the cries of affliction and reacts with compassion by raising up the people and delivering them from slavery into freedom. There is perhaps no greater form of good news in all the land for those who see no hope or redemption in their future. Return, Jesus says, just as did your ancestors, to the land given unto Abraham and delivered unto you by God through Moses. Repent, and be delivered by Jesus.

But I do not read this a simply a meta narrative, one in which recurring Jewish themes are cast into a new light. Rather, I see this as an existential call to arms. As we shall see, proclaiming the good news about God’s kingdom requires speaking truth to power. Jesus begins at the periphery, with those who are marginalized, but then marches into the locus of power and issues a damning indictment against the brokers of both political and religious power. This act costs him his life. The road of discipleship is not easy, and one that requires action, not passivity.[v]

 

Background: The Princely Life of Buddha

Siddhartha Gotama, known as the Buddha, was born in Sakka (present-day Nepal) sometime in the sixth century B.C.E.; most scholars date his life from 563-483 B.C.E. He was born into royalty; his father, Suddhodana, was a member of the ruling sangha (order), and his mother Maya was revered as a queen. Much of Siddhartha’s birth is steeped in myth. According to Buddhist myth, Queen Maya, Siddhartha’s mother, on the night of the Buddha’s conception, dreams that a white elephant with six tusks pierce her right side. According to legend, ten lunar months later, Siddhartha’s mother , Queen Maya, is walking through Lumpini Park, when she begins to have birth pains. The Sala tree bends down, takes her hand, and she gives birth standing up. The child is handed to Maya’s maids by the attending members of the Hindu Trinity (with their female consorts). She names him Siddhartha, from siddha, “one whose goals are accomplished.”

Other legends report the birth occurred differently. As Donald Lopez writes in The Story of Buddhism, “Ten lunar months later, as she strolled in the garden, the child emerged, not by the usual route, but from under her right arm.”[vi] Karen Armstrong, in her book Buddha, argues that this is symbolic of Siddhartha’s later compassion: He is born at the level of her heart. Regardless of the particulars, there is no doubt that compassion is at the core of Buddha’s message, much as it is with that of Jesus of Nazareth.

According to the Nidāna Kathā, a 5th century biography/history of Siddhartha, eight brahmins (members of the highest varna, or caste, in Indian society) examine his birthmarks and declare that the child will become either a Buddha (Enlightened One) or a cakkavatti, a Universal Ruler. Such juxtapositions are not uncommon in Axial Age[vii] myths; a great spiritual leader is tempted by the extremes of secular power. Siddhartha has a choice to make: he can achieve supreme spiritual enlightenment or become a cakkavatti who will ride on a divine chariot, each of its wheels rolling to one of the four cardinal directions. Through war and power, the cakkavatti will “turn the Wheel of Righteousness” and establish peace and justice through the cosmos. The cakkavatti stands as Siddhartha’s alter ego throughout his life, a reminder of the stark choices he faced.[viii] Hearing this prophecy, one of the brahmins declares that Siddhartha will not become a cakkavatti, but rather will be a Buddha for the present age. This revelation upsets Suddhodana, who wishes his son to become a Universal Ruler. The stage is set, the tension established.

Again, while much of Siddhartha’s life is steeped in myth, one experience seemed to have influenced him greatly. While attending the ceremonial plowing of the fields for the following season’s crops, Sidhartha sees that the young grass has been torn up, and the insect eggs that have been deposited therein are destroyed. He sees the hard life of the farmers, and witnesses a bird pecking at a worm, and the bird then being taken away by an eagle. Immediately, and without training, he sits and begins to meditate. He enters the first stage of dhyana (discussed later), and begins to realize what it might take to leave the world of suffering behind. Legend holds that the apple tree under which he sits continues to cast shade over him all day, even as the sun moves out of position. Just as the natural world pays homage to the future Buddha, so, too, do his nursemaids and father, Suddhodana. Buddha recalls this experience in his later life as he searches for his own dharma (teaching).

Despite this early encounter with spiritual truth, Siddhartha is only a child and is raised in seclusion under his father’s watchful eye. He engages in sense pleasures that are provided for him in the palace. This will influence his later behavior, as he wonders if living a life devoid of spiritual pleasures might lead to Enlightenment. He marries the princess, Yasodharā, a distant cousin, when he is sixteen years old. She gives birth to a son named Rahula, which means “fetter,” indicating that Siddhartha regards family life as an obstacle to Enlightenment. While Siddhartha has three palaces (one each for summer, winter, and the rainy season), he has no exposure to the outside world until the age of 29. When he finally wrests away from the forced seclusion, what he sees sets into motion a chain of events that will alter the course not only of his own life, but also of the world’s spiritual history.

One day, Siddhartha asks his father permission to take a chariot ride through the city. His father resists, but finally relents after ordering the troops to remove all sick, old, and starving people from the streets. His charioteer Channa drives Siddhartha outside the gates, where Siddhartha sees an old man. Some Buddhist traditions hold this man is actually a god in disguise (or, conversely, the gods allow an old man to escape the attention of the soldiers). Suddenly, Siddhartha is faced with the issue of mortality. The experience deepens on each of the three successive trips. He sees a diseased man, and realizes that our bodies decline; he witnesses a dead body lying on the street, and comprehends that our corporeal beings decay; and he encounters a religious ascetic, and his eyes open to the pursuit of spiritual truth.

Siddhartha is overcome by the suffering of humans; Suddhodana, his father, is despondent over the son’s discovery, fearing that the future cakkavatti will choose instead the path of a Buddha. The latter proves true; Siddartha asks to be released from the responsibilities of a grihastha, or house-holder, and to become a forest-dweller or mendicant monk. Suddhodana offers his son anything to keep him in the palace. Siddhartha asks to remain young and healthy, and to be immortal, which his father, of course, cannot provide. Siddhartha retires to his harem to be entertained by beautiful women. Donal Lopez writes, “as the night wore on the women fell asleep in all manner of inelegant positions, disheveled and drooling. The prince was disgusted by the scene, declaring that women are by nature imperfect, and resolved to go forth in search of a state beyond birth and death.”[ix] While there are few who always look attractive when sleeping, the point is clear: The crudeness and shallowness of a sensual life is clear to Siddhartha. He must venture forth in quest of something more.

Siddhartha realizes that palace life is not a proper atmosphere to focus on the spiritual life. Without saying goodbye, he leaves his wife and newborn son. According to Buddhist tradition, the gods muffle the sounds of the horses’ hooves so Siddhartha can leave un-accosted.[x] According to legend, Siddhartha begins his new life as a beggar in Rājagaha, the capital of Magadha. Within a week of living as a bhikku, Siddhartha comes to the attention of King Bimbisāra, who offers to make Siddhartha his heir. For a second time, Siddhartha is offered worldly power; for the second time, he rejects it. In the coming years, Bimbisāra becomes a follower of Buddha.

 

Commentary

While there are constituent differences between the Markan narrative describing Jesus’ declaration of the gospel, and the legends surrounding Siddhartha’s birth and upbringing, one central detail is present: Both encounter a worldly, limited notion of power and opt to pursue a deeper, more lasting spiritual truth that will not only aid their own lives, but also will provide succor and comfort to others. Siddhartha speaks truth to power by asking his father for release from cultural and familial expectations; Jesus eschews accepted notions of political and religious power by speaking of God’s kingdom and taking the message to those most oppressed by the current Temple system. Finally, both offer a message of hope and transformation to those who need it most, and both do so out of a sense of compassion. They enter into the world and form relationships with others; they explore the contours of a spiritual life by engaging others, and then frequently withdraw to be by themselves to reflect upon the significance of their experiences. They offer exciting and shocking alternatives to the status quo; they reject conventional wisdom and encourage followers to embrace an ethic of compassion and love. In truth, both draw upon their contemporary traditions—Judaism for Jesus, Hinduism for Siddhartha—but they refuse to accept the empty, self-serving practices of the elite. Certainly, it is incumbent upon me to provide ample evidence of this thesis, which leads us to the next pericope.

Pericope Two: And Followers

Background: Fishing for Jesus

Mark 1:16-20 is a simply narrative, in that the details related are not overly complex. But we should not underestimate the radical nature of Jesus’ call. Jesus alights upon Simon and Andrew, and calls for them to abandon their nets to follow him. They are not provided time to make a decision; they are not permitted to go home, set their affairs in order; they do not pack a bag, or discuss the decision with their families. They simply follow Jesus.

We must ask why. Jesus promises that they will become fishers of people, which speaks a deep truth about the Christian life. Just as baptism pulls us into relationship with other who have undergone the rite,[xi] so too does Jesus call us to come into one another’s company. Salvation is not about the individual; discipleship is not about self protection. Rather, it is a radical commitment to a new way of life, one that propels us toward one another in the midst of a world that seeks to drive us apart.

There is something troubling about Jesus’ call, though. As Jesus walks a little farther—we imagine with Simon and Andrew in tow, unless this pericope is composed of two separate oral traditions that later were placed together—he comes upon the Zebedee brothers, James and John. They too receive the call, and upon receiving it, abandon their own father, a seeming violation of the fifth commandment.[xii] This does not seem to square with the “family values” ethic of Christianity that so often is preached from the pulpit and used to justify the politicizing of religion. What do we do this with detail?

In my previous book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide, I argue that there are shared oral traditions between the Q Gospel[xiii] and the Gospel of Mark. While it is not appropriate to retrace the entire argument here, it is clear that Mark 1:16-20 parallels the following passages from the Q Gospel:

9:59-60: “Another said to him, ‘Master, first let me go and bury my father.’ But he said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave it to the dead to bury their own dead.’”

9:61-2: “Another said, ‘I’ll follow you sir, but let me first say goodbye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is qualified for the empire of God.’”[xiv]

It seems that, from a very early point, discipleship requires followers to respond immediately to the call, even when it means eschewing familial obligations. If we take this command as coming from Jesus himself—which the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar do not[xv]—the saying is most problematic. Does Christianity require a rejection of family, friends, and others who are not in the fold? If so, how viable a vision of life in God through Christ does this offer? Not very, I dare to answer. If we imagine, though, that this saying reflects more the needs and concerns of early Jesus followers rather than of Jesus himself, we might be able to make more sense of the requirement.

A good many scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written as the Romans destroyed the Second Jerusalem Temple. The First Roman Jewish War, which begins in 66 C.E., marks one of the lowest periods for the Jewish people. Tens of thousands of people are holed up in the Temple compound, besieged by Romans. Gangs of Jewish religious fanatics, called Zealots, roam the Temple with impunity, warring with one another and burning the food supplies. Disease, violence, and starvation are rampant. Finally, in 70 C.E., the Romans breeched the defenses, and razed the city. The Temple, the center of Jewish religious, cultural, financial, and political life, is leveled. Scholars believe that the author(s) of Mark witness this event, either in person or from a distance, receiving word as it spread through the Middle East. Fear becomes a currency, to be traded for cold comfort and empty promises.

While Mark’s gospel is filled with promises of hope and commands to not be afraid, the reality for those people living at the time of the Temple’s fall is bleak, dark, and brutal. Various Roman emperors persecute both Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians fight with one another about the future of their shared religion.[xvi] Families are divided; neighbors turn upon neighbors. The fabric of society is rent, and chaos reigns. So a Jesus who commands people to follow him, even in the face of abandoning their families, most likely speaks to their immediate experiences. Yes, I abandoned my family, we can imagine people saying to themselves individually, but that is part of what Jesus promised. Just as the fall of the Temple is most surely a sign that Jesus is returning, so too is my loss of family and friends a portent of the end.

Commentary

So what can Mark 1:16-20 mean for us today? If we take the passage literally, not much. But if we dig for a deeper truth, we can find great spiritual sustenance in the pericope. What are our nets? What are our seas? Do we cast out nets of selfishness into seas of greed? Do we cast out nets of violence and prejudice, apathy and despair into seas brimming with available catches? Do we fish in seas of ignorance, exclusivity, and hatred? How do we focus our energies? What is Jesus asking us to drop in order to follow him? What do we need to abandon in order to embrace the new family, the new community that God offers to us? Do we allow fear to reign, or do we exhibit trust, faith, and hope that the current oppression is not the final word? Do we glimpse, as we do at the time of our baptisms, that there is the possibility for a different kingdom, one in which the fellowship table is wide and long, filled with all God’s children, who are able to eat, drink, and be merry without fear of reprisal?

Jesus calls us to cast out new nets, but most likely the seas will remain the same. We can fish with nets of compassion and love, while the rough seas of solipsism and violence church, casting inhabitants to and fro. As Christians, we enter into the seas, with Jesus aboard our boats, and we cast out the nets of God’s righteousness and love, pulling people from the cold, indifferent waters. We help offer another way, just as God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has offered us another way: The way of Life in a world of death.

Do we live more in Good Friday or Easter Sunday?

Background: On the Road to Find Out

Siddhartha sets forth into the world. After wandering around for awhile encountering other bhikkus, who would always ask “Who is your teacher? And which dhamma [dharma; teaching] do you follow?” Siddhartha decides to study under Ālāra Kālāma, who teaches a form of Sāmkhya, a philosophical school teaching “discrimination.” The ideas Siddhartha encounters influence the development of his own dharma. Scholars believe that Siddhartha did not have much exposure to traditional Hinduism while growing up. It seems that Sakya was outside Aryan control[xvii], and the varna system was not central. As a result, Siddhartha did not have much interaction with Brahmins, the priestly caste of traditional Indian society. Therefore, it is important to understand what teachings he encounters when he begins his process of spiritual discovery.

Hinduism, while varied and complicated, asserts that there is a universal spirit, Brahman, who is the Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer of all things. The language used to describe Brahman is very similar to that used to discuss Yahweh, the Holy Trinity, and Allah. Brahman is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent; Brahman is a creator but is not created; Brahman is alpha and omega. Hindus view human life in different terms than do the Abrahamic faiths, however. They hold that each human person has numerous lives. The soul outlives the body and transmigrates, or moves, from one body to another in a process called reincarnation. The continuation of reincarnation over the course of many lives is called cycle of samsara, a Sanskrit word that means “wandering.” Samsara requires that the each person is born, lives, dies, and is reborn according to his or her own karma.

The word karma (kamma) frequently is misused by many in the West. Originally, karma referred to the rituals one would undertake in order to appease God or the spirits. In this sense, karma, “action,” meant the hymns one would sing, or the sacrifices one would offer. Yet, beginning in the seventh century B.C.E., karma takes on a new meaning. Karma is more about how one lives one’s life than it is about the rituals associated with religious worship. This shift in emphases has a strong connection with the prophetic movement taking place within Judaism at the same time. Just as prophets such as Micah, Hosea, and Amos are stressing that God cares less about the animal sacrifices than God does about humans extending love, justice, and compassion to one another, so too do Hindu reformers begin to emphasize the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. Karma, therefore, has to do with how one thinks, acts, and speaks. Kind, loving, and gracious thoughts, actions, or words will “generate” good karma, whereas solipsistic, malevolent, and violent individuals will “generate” bad karma.[xviii] The karma attaches to the soul, and dictates the future reincarnation of an individual.

The cycle of samsara is daunting. Imagine knowing that the sufferings of this life will find no relief, and will only be repeated again and again, seemingly without end. Hindu reformers found this unsatisfactory—what Buddha will call dukkha[xix]—and sought release, or moksha. Hinduism, in very simple terms, is a religion that concerns itself with how to find release from the process of birth, death, and rebirth.

When Siddhartha decides to study with Ālāra Kālāma, he enters into a system that seeks to find a path leading to moksha. The tenets of Sāmkhya influence Siddhartha’s development of his own dharma, or teaching.

  1. Ignorance, not desire, lies at the heart of our problems. (Ignorance “does not refer to a lack of knowledge but to an active misconception about the nature of things.”)[xx]
  2. Suffering stems from our lack of understanding the true Self, which is not the jina (phenomenal, psychomental self) but rather the Atman.
  3. Our intellect allows us to rise above unstable emotions and discover the eternal Spirit.
  4. Once moksha, release, has been achieved, one will stop feeling the effects of suffering. One will speak of “it suffers” rather than “I suffer.”
  5. Samsara ceases when bad karma is burned off.

 

Siddhartha excels in the dhamma, but he finds it unsatisfactory. He does not”realize” or “penetrate” the doctrines as he is told he might. According to some sources, this is because Siddhartha is attempting to understand truths on a purely intellectual level; Ālāra Kālāma exposes him to yoga.

Yoga, which means “to yoke” or “bind together,” attempts to bring the Self (Atman) and the mind together in a unified whole. Essentially, yoga aims to rid us of subconscious activities (yāsanās) that promote ignorance, passion, disgust, and selfishness. Through cultivation of yoga, we can rise above these impulses that control our behavior. Karen Armstrong, in Buddha, describes yoga “as the systematic dismantling of the egotism which distorts our view of the world and impedes our spiritual progress.”[xxi] With this practice, the illusory and mundane world will no longer have a hold on one; rather, only the Unconditional, Eternal and Absolute (Atman) Self will exist.

As a result of his exposure, Siddhartha becomes an ascetic yogi. He cuts his hair, a sign that he was no longer a grihastha (a householder), but rather begins his “Going Forth,” removing himself from the world completely. To begin, he has to observe five prohibitions (yama):

  1. No stealing
  2. No lying
  3. No intoxicants
  4. Practice ahimsā
  5. No sexual intercourse

 

There are other requirements as well. First, the niyamas (constraint), which include scrupulous cleanliness; the study of dhamma; and the cultivation of habitual serenity. Second, ascetic practices (tapas) such as extreme heat and cold, severely limited diet without complaint, and stringent control over thoughts, actions, words, and deeds. Once he has his “lower self” under control through these practices, Siddhartha begins āsana yogic practice: with legs crossed and back perfectly straight, he attempts to sit completely motionless, so as to master control over both his mind and his body. A major part of this is prānāyāma, where one breathes progressively more and more slowly until respiration essentially ceases.

With control over breathing, Siddhartha begins the practice of ekāgratā, concentration “on a single point.” He has withdrawn his senses and exists in true concentration, a state of trance known as dhyāna (jhāna). In this state, there is no distance between the subject and the object. One reflects on a reality or idea and sees it “as it really is.” The false self does not impede true vision. This ultimate realization comes in stages.[xxii]

Extremely skilled yogins can go beyond the dhyānas and enter into the four āyatanas, or meditative states, which produce four distinct mental states.

  1. A sense of infinity.
  2. A pure consciousness aware only of itself
  3. A perception of absence, which is actually plentitude. Often referred to as “Nothingness,” but understood as unlimited space and freedom.
  4. “Neither-perception-nor-non-perception” that allows entry into the true self, Atman.

 

Siddhartha reaches the third āyatana relatively quickly, but he disagrees with the teachings of Ālāra Kālāma, that it leads to the realization of Atman. How can “Nothingness” lead to the true Self?

So Siddhartha gathers five followers, leaving Kālāma, and begins the quest for his own dharma.

Commentary

The Gospel of Mark does not tell us about Jesus’ life before his baptism. We can use our imaginations, but that does not lead to responsible exegesis. What we do know, however, is that Jesus first goes to another teacher, John the Baptizer, accepts the rites championed by said rabbi, and the moves on, into the world, to begin his ministry. Sidhartha also seeks out a new teacher. He undergoes the training that is offered, but yearns for more.

Both Jesus and Siddhartha gather followers. Their visions of Truth move others to action; but, as we shall see, both Buddha and Jesus find themselves at odds with these same followers when times get tough. Both Jesus and Buddha go against prevailing wisdom, challenging the accepted authority. They expect that others will follow their lead, but discover that while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak. In both Jesus and Buddha, we see profoundly human figures dealing with the limits and frustrations of what it means to be human. However, they remain in relationship with others. They continue to teach, to lead, to inspire, to love.

At this point in our two stories, we have yet to discover what is “gospel” and what is dharma. Let us venture forth with the Nazarene and the ascetic, to see what it is life holds in store.


[i] All translations come from the Scholar’s Version (SV) translation, unless otherwise noted.

[ii] RSV translation.

[iii] The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are known as the “synoptic gospels,” so called because they see the story of Jesus “with the same (syn-) eye (ops).” While there are constituent differences between the narratives, they display a much greater thematic and literary cohesion with one another than they do with the Gospel of John.

[iv] John Dominic Crossan. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Harper Collins: San Francisco, 1994. 55. Print.

[v] We will return to this theme later, as I argue that the Greek word pistis (trust, faith, belief) is used as a call to action. As Mark 1:14-15 adjures us, we must place “trust” in the good news. As the gospel unfolds, I will develop my argument more fully and clearly.

[vi] Donal Lopez. The Story of Buddhism, 37.

[vii] The Axial Age is a period extending from 800 B.C.E. through 200 B.C.E., in which there were constituent changes in the ways religion was practices. From the Middle East to Asia, major world religions began to move away from a ritualized worship of the gods meant to appease and please, and instead focused on the ethical treatment of living things. From the social justice prophets of Judaism to the rejection of Brahmin authority in Hinduism, disparate traditions underwent fundamental transformations that, given the lack of global communication, are difficult to explain.

[viii] So, too, does Marā, the evil one; the connections between Marā and Satan will be discussed later.

[ix] Lopez, 38.

[x] This is known as The Great Departure.

[xi] See “Mark 1:4-11: Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed?”

[xii] See Exodus 20:12.

[xiii] The Q Gospel is a hypothetical document constructed by scholars to account for material shared by Matthew and Luke—material that is identical or nearly identical in language, theme, and event—but missing in Mark. Also known as the double tradition, the Q gospel records central passages such as the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and Jesus’ tempting by Satan. Although scholars have yet to find the Q gospel, an overwhelming majority agree that it existed in some form, and was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke to construct their gospels.

[xiv] Translations taken from the SV translation; see Aaron Maurice Saari, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide, 36-40.

[xv] The Jesus Seminar, comprised of some of the world’s foremost scholars, gathered together over the course of six years and voted upon the authenticity of each saying in the canonical gospels. For a full explanation of the Jesus Seminar’s methodology, see The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? , ix-38.

[xvi] At the time of Marks’ writing, it is incorrect to postulate a complete separation of Judaism and Christianity. While fissures were present, a true break, most likely, did not occur until the second century.

[xvii] The history of Hinduism is fascinating, yet complicated. In the third millennium B.C.E., the Harappan civilization flourished in the Indus Valley. As scholars are unable to read their native language, little is known about the people. However, it seems that they revered a divine goddess and a divine bull, and recognized any manner of lesser gods, goddesses, and spirits. Around 1500 B.C.E., Indo-European invaders known as Aryans moved in and overtook the Harappan peoples. Their form of religion, known as Brahmanism or Vedism, focused upon an unknowable world spirit called Brahman; there also was reverence for ancestors and other spirits. Religious worship focused on the household, and the male head of the family acted as a priest. The language of the Aryan invaders, Sanskrit, became the official language of the religion, as the Harappan tongue soon was dead. However, Indian influence soon came to impact the religion; new beliefs, such as a recognition of heaven and hell, changed the faith tradition. But it was the belief in reincarnation—the idea that the non-physical part of a person lives on after bodily death, and transmigrates from one body to another—that separated traditional Brahmanism from what we now call Hinduism.

[xviii] It is important to note that the word “generate” most likely is an improper term. Karma exists, in an of itself and outside of human actions. Think of it like bumper bowling. If you ball hits the bumper, it has not “generated” the bumper; it has struck it, and the trajectory of the ball is changed. Karma is the bumper; the ball is the soul.

[xix] See “Mark 1:4-11: Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed?”

[xx] Lopez, 46.

[xxi] Armstrong, 51.

[xxii]  1. One is oblivious to the immediate environment, feeling only great joy and delight. Only occasional ideas flicker across the mind. 2. Thinking stops entirely. 3. Awareness of joy and happiness dissipates. 4. Complete union between subject and object

 

An Open Letter to the Republican Presidential Candidates

I am an American citizen, 35 years old, and I rely upon the federal government. The fact is, we all do. Our roads, post offices, libraries, public schools: these amenities come from tax dollars and are the product of our social contract. But such arguments have been made time and time again, and seem not to gain much traction. So let me speak from the heart.

I rely upon federal assistance.

I am an American citizen who is quite upset by the tone coming out of the GOP debates. To wit, Mr. Gingrich’s recent standing-ovation-receiving comment that President Obama has put more people on food stamps than any president in history, a line that seeks to identify a lazy entitlement class established by the so-called “liberal elite.” Gingrich touts an administration will that convert food stamps to paychecks, ala Jesus changing water into wine. Certainly, this is an admirable goal, but the trope overlooks a basic fact: A vast majority of Americans who receive food stamps are children, the elderly, or those who are disabled; in other words, those who can’t work. Further, a great number of recipients  do work. Sometimes two or three jobs. The simple fact is, wages have not kept up with inflation and cost of living increases.[i] But pointing this out constitutes “class warfare” or “socialism.” If one is to defend these programs, one is frequently accused of selling out “real Americans” who “work” for a living. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney intensifies the charge. He claims that President Obama is dividing the country with the politics of envy. And given the fact that Mitt Romney has not held a job, by his own accounts, for four years, I do not see how his income from capital gains—which are taxed at only a 15% rate—constitutes “work.”  But maybe that is just envy speaking.

So, in summary, two of the major candidates accuse Americans who receive assistance (or perhaps,  only those who support President Obama’s policies) of both laziness and envy.

Doesn’t really make one want to run out and vote for you, candidates.

I stated above that I rely upon federal assistance. My continuing education would not be possible without the FAFSA loan program. If Congressman Ron Paul is to have his way, this program will be cut.[ii] This makes sense, because if you can’t afford to go to school in order to get a well-paying job you don’t deserve the education that will secure you that job. So if you are on food stamps or other forms of public assistance, good luck pulling yourself out of the systemic poverty that keeps so many Americans from realizing that ever-elusive American dream. While Mr. Paul may have been able to work his way through medical school without accruing debt, that is not an option for well over 99% of people who pursue graduate degrees. Times have changed; wages, unfortunately, have not. Most of us have crushing student loans debts that rival mortgages, and little hope of paying off said debt in a timely manner. Most of us will carry our debts for decades.

I am an American citizen. In fact, I am the “average voter” that so many of the GOP candidates want to target. I am a white male, culturally middle class, and a Christian. I have held a job since I was 13 years old, and I am a hard worker. Just ask any of my friends who frequently tell me that I work too hard. But I don’t have a retirement account. I moved back in with my family because I cannot afford to pay both my student loans and rent at the same time. To be sure, I also help my aging parents, and I do so gladly. I have knowingly chosen a career path—a theology professor and, God willing, a pastor—that does not result in vast dividends. I willingly make the necessary sacrifices because I believe in what I am doing, and my treasure is not to be quantified in monetary terms. But I resent the idea that I or others like me are asking for a handout. I, and many others I know, work multiple jobs. Yet we rely on Medicaid, SNAP, WICA, FAFSA, and a variety of other programs because we are the generation that has been left behind. And the GOP is demonizing us, calling us lazy and envious. Telling us that the brass ring is there is we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But many of us don’t even have boots, or if we do they are owned by Bank of America. Corporations can receive bailouts, can have the status of personhood, and seem to get all the privileges of citizenship without any of the responsibilities, but we do not.

I must ask, Do you really want to live in a country where citizens go hungry even while they work? Are you so out of touch that you do not realize that the minimum wage is neither minimum nor a wage? We can do better. We must do better. But until we do, social safety net programs have to stay in place. And humiliating those who utilize them is not the answer.

According to the recent rhetoric, we who rely upon social assistance or entitlement programs, apparently, are not American enough because, at the end of the month, what we owe exceeds what we have taken in. We have to make a decision between food or rent, education or heat. When we note that such a choice does not seem congruous with the promises given to us—that an education will lead to a good job, stability, and rewards for hard work—we are told to shut up. We are told to love it or leave it. We are told that we are failures.

This is not hyperbole; it is fact.

I am in a better situation than are a lot of people I know and a great number of Americans who are struggling right now. I am able to live with my parents, and my fiancée has agreed to marry me and move in to the family home. I really have no other choice if I want to pay off my debts and contribute to society as a whole. I do not want to be taken care of; I am not lazy; I am not envious. I accept the fact that my yearly vacation, most likely, will comprise of a stack of books and a long Netflix queue. I have realized that quite a few of the “necessities” in my earlier life are no longer necessary. I use my yearly tax return to pay down my debts. I do what I need to do in order to make ends meet. But I don’t like being called lazy. I don’t like having my American-ness challenged. I don’t like the fact that I can see the writing on the wall, and when I read it aloud, I’m told that I am filled with envy. I don’t like needing to rely on FAFSA, just like the people I know who utilize other assistance programs don’t like having to do so. We wish things were otherwise. We wish that education was not so expensive, or that companies would receive incentives from the government to keep jobs here rather than to send them overseas. We would happily pay more taxes if it meant that average wages could be increased so that the dignity of an honest day’s work could be rewarded with the luxury of a filled refrigerator and a consistently heated home. We would love that, but for many of us this is not the reality.

So I will not accept the politics of feudalism. I will not be a silent vassal that does what the overlord demands. I will not sit by as the gilded class seeks to dismantle the social safety net our forbearers wove for us so that we may not know the horrors of child labor, or unregulated food, or millions of elderly and disabled people starving on the streets. Because that is what the GOP candidates seem to be gunning for; and most horrifyingly, it receives a standing ovation.

I am an American citizen. No matter what you say, GOP candidates, you cannot take that away from me. I will not allow you to disrespect the work a vast majority of us perform, day in and day out, with no expectations of praise or standing ovations. I will not accept charges of envy and laziness, when many of you earn more money by delivering one speech, calling me lazy, than I do in an entire year working hours that would make you collapse. Stop saying that you speak for me when your speech seeks to ridicule and marginalize me.

My name is Aaron Maurice Saari, and I approved this letter.

Christian-Buddhist Commentary on the Gospel of Mark

For Liturgical Year B, I will be attempting to write a commentary for each Markan text that appears in a given week. This, of course, is a gargantuan task and may be impossible (pronounces ala Ralphie’s Dad in A Christmas Story, im-po-see-blay). Yet, I intrepidly set out to bridge the gap between Christianity and Buddhism, and hope to identify cross currents between these two beautiful traditions. I write as a religious Christian and a philosophical Buddhist, a nebulous distinction that reflects a need to label myself, a most un-Buddhist endeavor. I invite all to read and comment, especially those who are practicing Buddhists. I readily admit that, while widely and deeply read in Buddhism–in fact, I teach Buddhism at the university level–I am not a practicing Buddhist. I am attempting to be a Christian Thich Nhat Hanh, in that I begin in my own tradition by identifying shared traditions, beliefs, and theologies that I see present in Buddhism.

In truth, this may be destined for failure as such a project has inherent limitations. I am treating Buddhism as a whole, drawing from a wide variety of traditions, while focusing exclusively on the Gospel of Mark. I do this not to be disrespectful–I want to value the varied, rich tradition of Buddhism–but I would argue that Hahn does the same thing in his works Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. He roots himself in Buddhism, for that is where his spirit lives, and treats Christianity as an overall whole. I find this approach beneficial in some regards, but limiting in others. However, if I were to wait to be equally knowledgeable about both traditions, this project would never launch.

I invite well-meaning criticism and input, especially if you see that I am not doing justice to Buddhist ideas and principles. Let’s challenge each other–respectfully, but earnestly–to go beyond labels and to seek the Truth that is out there.

Yeah. I just made an X-Files reference.

I am excited about this project, and I hope that you will come along with me.

Blessings,

Aaron

Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed? (Mark 1:4 – 11)

Introduction

The Gospel of Mark opens with neither nativity nor noetic, but rather with a voice crying out to the world: “Here is my messenger, whom I send on ahead of you to prepare your way. A voice of someone shouting in the desert, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”[1] And so begins a primary conflict within Christianity: Is the gospel about Jesus the proclaimer, or Jesus the proclaimed? Is Christian truth to be found through the words of Jesus, who made the imminent Kingdom of God the center of his message, one that reaches deep into the vibrant salvation history of Israel; or is Christianity rather expressed by the experiences of the first generation of Christians, who saw Jesus raised and understood this to be evidence of a new covenant?

In the Gospel of Mark, we see evidence for both positions.

The first thing to establish is that the author of Mark makes an error. The passage quoted in 1:2b-3 (known as the “epigram” of Mark) combines language from both Malachi 3:1—“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the Lord of hosts”—and Isaiah 40:3—“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”[2] Despite this error, we know that something spectacular is occurring, an event that is reminiscent of God’s sending Moses to proclaim the covenant to the newly-freed Hebrews: “’Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is him.’”[3] In the words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you, Mr. Jones?”

The listener/reader[4]—and most importantly, the Markan Community—does know that something is going on, because we have been informed in v. 1 (known as the “title” of Mark) that there is good news (evangeliou) about Jesus the Anointed (Jesou Christou) contained in the story. It will be up to us to establish what these terms mean (i.e., what is the “gospel,” and what does it mean for Jesus to be an “Anointed One”?). Some manuscripts add the tag “Son of God” (uiou Theou) after “Anointed,” further complicating the investigation, but one thing is clear: This is no ordinary story, and listening to the details will have important and life-changing ramifications.

As we begin our journey, we should always keep in mind that, at the heart of Mark’s Gospel, there is a central question: Who is this Jesus?

Who is this Jesus?

As we shall see, throughout Mark’s gospel there are questions as to Jesus’ identity. In the main, there are three primary options: Jesus is John the Baptizer raised; Jesus is Elijah; or Jesus is one of the prophets (most likely, Moses). Clearly, Jesus cannot be John the Baptizer raised, for in the opening verses Jesus and John come into contact with one another. However, themes are established: John’s manner of dress—a mantle of camel hair and a leather belt around his waist—is the same as that of Elijah the Tishbite.[5]Yet, we cannot get off so easily, understanding only John to be Elijah, for the Tishbite, too, underwent a journey of forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking, so as to prepare himself for battle with the priests and priestesses of Baal and Ashterah, Canaanite fertility deities. Jesus has such an experience in 1:12-13. The author of Mark is using central theological symbols to signal the importance of both John the Baptizer and of Jesus. But what do these symbols mean?

Elijah the Tishbite

Elijah the Tishbite is a 9th century B.C.E. prophet who lived in Gilead, most likely an area that had retained a good deal of religious purity in the face of rampant syncretism, or integration of other traditions into cultic worship. At the time of his ministry, the throne of Israel is held by a man named Ahab, whose wife Jezebel is an adherent of Phoenician fertility deities. While Ahab seems to remain loyal to YHWH—for all of Ahab’s sons are named after the Jewish God—he is not only tolerant of other religions, but he also allows Jezebel to support her prophets out of the Temple treasury (1 Kings 18:19). This proves to be a bridge too far for Elijah. He storms into the court of the king and announces an impending drought, caused by God and meant to bring about the repentance of Ahab and larger Israel, who are engaged in apostasy. Elijah proclaims YHWH the God of All Things—specifically, the God of Life—and issues a direct challenge to the supposed purview of the Baal and Ashterah, that of fertility. As drought and pestilence spread across the land, Ahab becomes more desperate. Finally, he allows for a confrontation on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and Jezebel’s prophets, acting as surrogates for their respective deities. 1 Kings 18, in essence, records a divine playground fight. My God is better than your god, this narrative proclaims. The superior deity will be the one who will make it rain fire. Elijah, greatly outnumbered (450 to 1), mocks the prophets, who dance and wail, beseeching their deities to bring down fire. Elijah is highly entertained by this; he wonders if Baal has “gone aside,” a euphemism for taking a pee, and taunts the prophets until they fall to the ground in exhaustion. Then, Elijah arises, performs a sacrifice, confesses faith in God, and has some of those people present drench the altar with water. When it is flooded, Elijah asks God to bring about fire, which God does. Elijah then slaughters the prophets of Baal and Ashterah. Jezebel is enraged, and vows to kill Elijah, which sets up Elijah’s period of flight for forty days and forty nights, marking him as a new Moses (see below). Finally, God delivers Elijah from the wrath of Jezebel by sending a whirlwind—along with a chariot of fire and horses—and taking Elijah, still alive, into the heavens. According to Jewish belief (Malachi 4:5-6), Elijah is to appear before the Day of Yahweh, a time when God’s kingdom will be established and evil will be defeated definitively. Elijah’s role is to be one of reconciliation (Malachi 4:6) and, at least according to Sirach 48:10, to bring about the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. [6]

As we shall see, Elijah plays an important role in the Gospel of Mark; he even makes an appearance in Mark 9:2-13. Thematically, however, Elijah poses an interesting quandary. We can see him as a portent of promise, a prophet proclaiming the good work of God through Christ. Yet, we cannot ignore the troublesome aspects of the Elijah story: the ridicule, disdain, and destruction of non-Jewish prophets. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the present commentary is to foster dialogue, to emphasize the commonalities between two of the world’s great Wisdom traditions. What then do we do with Elijah?

Moses

The secret to interpreting Elijah may come through the lens of Moses, the first and, arguably, greatest of all the prophets. The word prophet properly means “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson,” so Moses represents the ability of human beings to receive and communicate divine revelations. Under the leadership of Moses, the Hebrew people are liberated from the shackles of slavery and led into freedom; the Jewish story is one of deliverance from oppression. Indeed, each one of us experiences this (or the possibility of it) every moment of our lives. We can be delivered from the oppression of ignorance, sin, greed, hatred, selfishness, and into the promised land of community, fellowship, and commonality. With Moses, God starts again with the people, promising them an unbreakable covenant relationship.

Perhaps that is how we can see Elijah: a man who experiences God intimately, and despite forty days and nights of sustenance-free wandering, is never bereft of God. Elijah, who is rescued from the murderous rage of Jezebel, represents the freedom from fear and death we can experience when in relationship with God. When we have confidence in the Lord, we can prevail, even when greatly outnumbered.

In truth, Elijah is a difficult figure. For the Markan community, he most likely is used to symbol the coming of the eschaton (end times). As we will discuss later, the Markan community is wrong concerning the timing of the Parousia, or second coming, but we cannot dismiss the presence of Elijah in the narrative. It is also entirely possible that the figure of Elijah is used to highlight the denseness—even idiocy—of those around Jesus (and perhaps within the Markan community itself). Without question, Elijah is important to Mark’s gospel, so he must be important to responsible interpretations.

John the Baptizer

John is remembered for his act of baptism. The act of ritual cleansing was already a constituent part of Judaism by the time John began his ministry. God commanded that Moses bring his brother Aaron—considered the first High Priest—and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting for a ritual bath.[7] Other books in the Torah also contain proscriptions concerning ritual cleansing.[8]During the time of John the Baptizer, “ritual cleansing was instituted for the purification of gentile converts to Judaism.”[9]But the opening of Mark seems to indicate that John is baptizing Jews—people come from the Judean countryside and from the city of Jerusalem—and that he connects the act to a “change of heart that leads to the forgiveness of sins.” In Greek, the word metanao is translated as “repent” or “change of heart.” On a deeper level, “repent” means to “return,” much as the people of Israel return to God under the leadership of Moses. Here, we see John the Baptizer initiating a ceremony that will allow people to return to God. He baptizes them in the Jordan River, the very body of water the people cross under the leadership of Joshua in order to claim the land of Canaan, which had been given to them by God.[10]The return, symbolically, to the sight of deliverance for their ancestors, entering into the cleansing waters of covenantal redemption. They return to God in spirit, body, and mind.

There are other signs of covenant present as well. After Jesus is baptized by John, the spirit descends on him like a dove.[11]We are reminded how God creates in Genesis 1:1-5, sweeping over the waters and bringing order out of chaos; we are reminded, too, of God sending the bird to Noah as a sign of a new covenant in Genesis 8:8-12. Here, Jesus functions as a symbol of a new creation, a new model for humanity, a new paradigm for reconciliation. God says to Jesus: “You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.” For the Markan listener/reader, there is a definitive answer to the question, “Who is this Jesus?”He is God’s son. But, again, we must ask: What does this mean?

The Significance of Baptism

Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Traditions, and Protestants disagree somewhat on the timing and purpose of baptism, but there is no doubting that it holds a central position in Christian faith life. In the main, we do it because Jesus did it. It marks the beginning of his ministry in the world, and for most of us baptism indicates the beginning of our walk with God through Christ. For Paul, baptism initiates us into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which allows us to assume new identities in the person of Jesus.[12] We die and are born again, as it were. As to whether this was John the Baptizer’s understanding, we can never know. It seems clear to me, however, that John saw the act as one of reconciling wholeness, an external symbol that the fracturing of the individual life has ended by inclusion into a larger human family, one that has God as the pater familias (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4-6). Baptism shows us that there are no solitary Christians; Jesus undergoes baptism and then, after forty days and nights of battling the Adversary, he enters into the world to proclaim the coming kingdom. So, too, are we who undergo baptism called to enter into the world as disciples of God. We are connected to all those who have been baptized before us, to those who are still living, and to those who will be baptized in the future. In baptism one dies to selfishness, and is given the largest family possible: the entire human race (Galatians 3:28). At baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descends at Pentecost (Acts 2); the same Paraclete that seals us (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14) to God. We are new creations, just as Jesus is the new Adam (Romans 5:18-21).[13]

Some might object that this is too broad and ecumenical an understanding of baptism, but in the coming posts I will show that Jesus, especially in Mark’s gospel, does not discriminate concerning whom he will serve: Lepers, sinners, hemorrhaging women, Gentiles, tax collectors: all make the cut. Why? Because Jesus stresses the commonalities of humanity as being divinely-mandated, whereas the differences so often stressed by mortals are manufactured by human beings.

The Dharma River

A foundational idea in Buddhism is that all life is dukkha, which often is translated as “suffering,” but better means that things are “awry” or “unsatisfactory.” We attach to impermanent things, such as a false sense of “self,” and, as a result, we suffer. Believing there to be a concretized “I,” we become prideful, lashing out in violence and ignorance when we perceive that the “I” has been insulted. In Buddhism, ignorance is mistaking the part for the whole. Imagine this: Man number one is speaking to a friend for 45 minutes; let’s call the friend man number two. A great deal of information is exchanged, and they bandy about a good number of ideas before a third friend sidles up to the pair just as man number one says, “Well, I guess my brother is just not a good sibling in that regard.” That third friend tells his wife about this statement, who then tells her sister, who just so happens to be the cousin of the first man’s hairdresser, who is the best friend of the first man’s brother. The brother, upon hearing the gossip, calls up his sibling and begins yelling, cursing, and denouncing him, believing that he has grasped the “reality” of the situation. Dukkha.

The second noble truth of is samudaya, that we continuously create our own suffering. We enter into a cycle of behavior in which we are attracted, disappointed, and then repulsed. We try to extricate ourselves from situations, most often through duplicity and selfishness. For example, imagine a party. A woman has gone out after a hard week of work. She is looking to unwind when, across the room, she sees the man of her dreams. He is physically attractive, and to her delight he is wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of her favorite band and is thumbing through a copy of her favorite novel. Their eyes meet, and the world stops. An introduction leads to conversation that leads to supper that leads to a goodnight kiss. The angels sing; the world stops, as if they are the only two inhabitants. Fast forward three months: after returning home from work, the woman finds that her paramour, who is unemployed, has slept all day, eaten her food, and has left the apartment strewn with beer cans and dirty underclothing. The same book he had been thumbing through months before lays unread on the side of the couch with a video-game controller on top of it. She wants out. They fight, call one another names, accuse each other of the most horrible moral lapses known to humanity. The relationship over, the woman decides to go out to relax. Upon entering a restaurant, she sees the man of her dreams…

This is what we do, according to the Buddha. We engage in a never-ending cycle that creates suffering because we are attached to that which is impermanent, that which is fleeting. The good news, however, is that there is a way out. This is the Third Noble Truth: nirodha. There is a cessation of dukkha, which can be achieved, in part, by following the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth (magga). In the coming months, we will examine these beliefs in more detail as they pertain to the Gospel of Mark, but for now suffice it to say, this is the heart of Buddhism: One can end one’s suffering.

In Buddhism, the word dharma (dhamma) means “teaching.” Adherents enter into the dharma river, the river of teaching. While there are many interpretations regarding the river—it can be a metaphor for life, rather than teaching; it can represent tradition or community—one thing is clear; a person is fundamentally changed from the point of entry to the point of departure. In one interpretation of the dharma river, a person must build a raft to get from one shore to another. The shore of entry is that of dukkha; the shore of arrival is that of enlightenment, or nibbana. When on the other shore, a person does not place the raft on his or her back and then continue to walk. No. A person sets the raft aside, as it is no longer necessary for the journey. That raft is the Four Noble Truths. They can get one to the other side, but they are not enlightenment in and of themselves.

So what has this to do with Christianity and the Gospel of Mark? Jesus enters into the water, marking himself for his ministry. He is initiated into the divine plan, signaling his willingness to go where God directs him. He leaves behind that which he had done before, and embarks upon his divine mission. And, as we shall see, Jesus is driven into the wilderness before entering into the world. Baptism marks us, yes. But it is not the good news. We do not carry the river with us; we do not remain forever wet with the water of our baptism. We leave our old selves behind; we die to a life of selfishness, injustice, and lack of compassion. The dove descends upon us, propelling us forward to enter into relationship.

We go into the world to proclaim the good news.

The question then becomes, what does that mean? Both for Mark, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians? Such is the challenge that lies before us as we go with Jesus from the river to the cross.


[1] Scholar’s Version (SV) Translation

[2] Revised Standard Version (RSV) Translation

[3] Exodus 23;20-1.

[4] Please see “An Introduction to a Progressive Commentary; Assumptions Amidst Gumption.”

[5] 2 Kings 1:8.

[6] Readers are encouraged to reference the Elijah cycle (1 Kings 17-19, 21; 2 Kings 1:1-2:18).

[7] Exodus 29:4; more elaborate instructions are mentioned in Exodus 30:17-21.

[8] Leviticus 17:15-16; Deuteronomy 21:6.

[9] “Baptism.” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.Ed. David Noel Freedman.

[10] Joshua 3:1

[11] It is important to note that the Markan Greek is very clear; an actual dove does not appear, but rather the spirit acting like a dove.

[12] Romans 6:1-11; Galatians 3:27-29

[13] For an outstanding yet encapsulated discussion of baptism, see Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 288-295.