Jesus and the Theological Priority of the Marginalized

[The seventh in a series of responses to essays appearing on The Living Church weblog site.]

In the final essay in a series of posts at The Living Church weblog, Peter Robinson brings it all together in a piece that seeks to affirm the necessity of pastoral care for those who have been marginalized and wounded by the church while also arguing that those who maintain the traditionalist position on marriage in the Anglican Church must bear their own marginalization as the cost of a cross-bearing discipleship. That LGBTQ+ Christians who have been deeply wounded, emotionally, physically and sometimes fatally, will find no pastoral comfort from this article will not be surprising.

In “Christ and Care for the Marginalized,” Robinson expresses an interesting gratitude that there can no longer be any triumphalism amongst those who hold a traditional understanding of marriage. This turn of events, he says, is actually a good thing for traditionalists because they now “are compelled to struggle with the question of what it means to be faithful to the whole gospel even as we also seek to avoid rejecting or excluding others.” If we think of N.T. Wright’s hermeneutic of faithful improvisation the question is, how do we maintain fidelity to Scripture while being innovative in our responses to changing cultural contexts and pastoral challenges? Regardless of what side of the debate we are on, this is the hermeneutical crux of the issue.

The way this gets played out in Robinson’s article is in the relation of pastoral care and theology. For Robinson, theology represents fidelity and pastoral care is where we are called to compassionate innovation. But he wants to make sure that the priority in these matters is always with theology. He writes, “We cannot elude the question of how theology informs pastoral care. In a desire to care for those who have been wounded by the church, some suggest that pastoral care must take precedence over theological claims.” But “that is to assume that our care can be pastoral without being theological and that the best we have to offer is our own human efforts to be loving, caring and inclusive.”

Now there are two problems with this.

The first is that it seems like a caricature.

Maybe there is a body of literature in pastoral studies out there that divorces theology and pastoral care in this way, but I don’t know of it. But is there really a pastoral theology that says that the best we have to offer is our own human efforts to be caring and inclusive? I don’t think that affirming pastors have given up on biblical reflection, prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

The second problem embedded in Robinson’s critique is the assumption that such a division between pastoral care and theology is meaningful at all.

But this is a false and impossible division.

Just as there is no psychotherapeutic practice apart from fundamental views of what it means to be human, the nature of pathology, etc., so also is there no pastoral care apart from certain kinds of theological assumptions about faithful and healthy human life, sin, forgiveness and redemption. In the matter of LGBTQ+ inclusion or exclusion in the body of Christ there are undoubtedly different theological perspectives at work and they are manifest in contrasting and conflicting models of pastoral care, but no one is saying, “here is my theology on one side, and here is my pastoral practice on the other, and I happen to prioritize one over the other.”

When it comes to the matter of voting to change the marriage canon in the Anglican Church of Canada the issue isn’t that some folks prioritize pastoral care over theology while others prioritize theology over pastoral care. No, the heart of the issue is contrasting theologies, contrasting understandings of the gospel, conflicting views of the grand narrative of Scripture, and … dare I say it … seriously divergent understandings of Jesus.

Robinson shares this estimation of the issue. He writes, “At the heart of our confusion are basic assumptions about the incarnation – that in Jesus Christ God has entered into the world so that we might know him and live in response to him. And, in relationship to pastoral care, that Jesus realizes and shows us what it means to be human.”

Amen to that.

And if we looked at the gospels one thing becomes abundantly clear.

Whenever Jesus is confronted with someone who is marginalized and shamed, he always takes his place beside them against those who would exclude them from the community. And invariably his ministry of healing inclusion is in direct conflict with the orthodox understandings of God, Torah and Israel of his day.

Let’s give one example – the man with the withered hand who was healed on the sabbath (Mark 3.1-6; Matt. 12.9-14; Luke 6.6-11).

The Torah stipulations regarding the sabbath are, of course, rooted in nothing less than the very order of creation.

Sabbath (not marriage!) is the climax of the creation narrative.

And in the Torah, there is no exception to the sabbath requirement of rest. No work should be done. And healing is work. So when Jesus is in the synagogue on the sabbath and there is a man with a withered hand everyone is watching very closely. What is Jesus going to do? Is he going to prioritize pastoral care over theology? Would he in the name of compassion for this marginalized man abandon the theological principle of sabbath (again rooted in the very order of creation!) for some wider notion of inclusion?

So he puts the question to the traditionalists in the room: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or kill?” (Mark 3.4). And that shuts them up. Jesus goes to the heart of the covenant, indeed, the very heart of creation and the Creator’s generative love, and asks the most foundational question. Good or harm? Life or death?

“See, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity,” says Yahweh, at the end of the covenant document known as Deuteronomy (30.15). There you have it. Life or death? Blessing or curse? “So choose life” (Deut. 30.19).

And in the face of the silence of these traditionalists, the inability of these protectors of Torah orthodoxy to answer such a basic and foundational question, Jesus is angry and grieved. How could they not see that the whole story of redemption, the very heart of God, would require breaking the letter of the Torah on a sabbath day in order to realize and manifest the pastoral and redemptive heart of that very same Word of God? If this is the heart of the story of God with Israel, then how could there be any question about the appropriate pastoral response?

So, with a mixture of sorrow and anger Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3.5), and the man is healed. In the very breaking of sabbath, sabbath is realized for this marginalized man.

Peter Robinson rightly points us to the cross at the heart of the gospel and pastoral care. But notice that the conspiracy that put Jesus on the cross begins precisely in this radical act of unorthodox inclusion and healing. “The Pharisees went out immediately and conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3.6).

Jesus ends up on the cross because of his identification with and pastoral care of the marginalized, not because the marginalized are upset at him for maintaining the theological status quo. This is a crucial distinction.

Again, Robinson is right: “in relationship to pastoral care … Jesus realizes and shows us what it means to be human.” Yes, here is the incarnate one, the Word made flesh, the one who demonstrates and makes available to us, what full, authentic and redeemed human life looks like. And with remarkable consistency it doesn’t look like the traditionalists who are in constant opposition to the welcoming and redeeming Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and enacted.

Being fully human is to follow where Jesus leads in bringing healing and redemption where there is division and brokenness.

Peter Robinson identifies the problem of the relationship of theology and pastoral care. His article gives voice to the tension between a deep desire for a compassionate response to real hurt and wounds, and the compelling need to maintain a fidelity to Jesus, incarnate and crucified. Hence his title, “Christ and Care for the Marginalized.” Christ and care. Theology and pastoral practice. Fidelity to the gospel “even as we also seek to avoid rejecting or excluding others” (italics added). This is the horn of the dilemma for Robinson and other compassionate traditionalists.

I do not deny that there are all kinds of tensions in Christian discipleship. Nor do I suggest that there are easy pastoral or theological answers to the issues before us. But from these responses that Sylvia Keesmaat and I have written (which reflect the views of a growing number of evangelical voices affirming same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ welcome and inclusion in the life of the church) we have argued that the tension between theology and pastoral care is misconstrued.

Fidelity to Jesus and the integrity of Christian discipleship calls us to a radical and embracive love for our LGBTQ+ siblings. Continued exclusion from marriage in the church does not demonstrate such embracive love.

Indeed, when we read the gospels, the issue isn’t “Christ and Care for the Marginalized,” so much as “Jesus and the Theological Priority of the Marginalized.”

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

7 Responses to “Jesus and the Theological Priority of the Marginalized”

  1. Jonathan Turtle

    “When it comes to the matter of voting to change the marriage canon in the Anglican Church of Canada the issue isn’t that some folks prioritize pastoral care over theology while others prioritize theology over pastoral care. No, the heart of the issue is contrasting theologies, contrasting understandings of the gospel, conflicting views of the grand narrative of Scripture, and … dare I say it … seriously divergent understandings of Jesus.”

    I appreciate Brian’s frankness here. Finally someone has said it and I think he is correct.

    The fact of the matter is that progressives (whether evangelical, mainline, Catholic, whatever) understand Scripture and thus Jesus differently from the way the vast majority of Christians overtime have read and understood the Scriptures. I’ll add that such progressive readings more often than not seem to be located amongst white, educated, Westerners as exemplified by Brian and Sylvia. This is a demographic that has inherited the goods of the sexual revolution, consumer capitalism, and so on. It strikes me as curious that they nevertheless insist on having a privileged vantage point from which to reassess historic Christian teaching even as the landscape is littered with pornography, promiscuity, soaring divorce rates, abortion on demand, and other casualties of the late modern West.

    How is it that from such a hill one can unironically claim to know what marriage is “really” about given the weight of the historic and global witness that says otherwise?

    Reply
  2. C SEITZ

    Healing is work?

    Reply
  3. C SEITZ

    “Jesus ends up on the cross because of his identification with and pastoral care of the marginalized.”

    Nonsense. Jesus ends up on the cross because he said it was the path the Father laid out for him. He ends up on the cross because he claimed to be God, and in that place, came to redeem the entire creation from sin and death. He ends up on the cross in fulfillment of the scriptures, Passover Lamb slain once for all, before the foundations of the earth.

    Turtle is correct on this much.

    When people describe a Jesus who “ends up on a cross” we are seeing a different placeholder for Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and the Cross. He did not “end up there” because he did deeds of kindness. No tribunal could conjure up crucifixion for that.

    Reply
  4. C SEITZ

    Let’s look at the biblical example cited a bit more closely.

    Mark 3 reports that in response to Jesus, Pharisees present in the synagogue and “Herodians” (whoever they are) plotted against Jesus. Why? Because he associated with the marginalized?

    No. Because he asked a question that silenced those purporting to know torah, about killing or saving life, doing good or doing evil on the Sabbath. Rabbinic teaching can be cited that says one may save life on the Sabbath. The man with a withered hand was not dying; Jesus could have waited until the sun came down and “done a work” to heal him.

    The Pharisees present that day, Mark tells us, were seeking a cause to accuse him – not to rough him up for associating with the marginalized. Their silence speaks for itself. The man with the withered hand was verbally instructed by Jesus to stretch it out. His hand is restored by responding to Jesus and taking action as directed by the Lord God, the giver of torah. Jesus breaks no torah here but sees into torah’s heart, just as he does in the sermon on the mount. And because he has the power to heal by speaking a word, like the Lord God in creation, he speaks.

    The text is carefully constructed. Is it indeed against the sabbath to do good? Well, we know that it is not to do evil. The Pharisees are the ones plotting on the sabbath to kill, which is evil indeed. They are the sabbath breakers and Mark shows them accusing themselves by their actions. In the face of Jesus the law of God is shown to be what it truly is, while those who purport to uphold it, in the face of Jesus, are silenced and self-accused.

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      Thank you for responding to the exegesis itself. Jesus “… sees into torah’s heart.” Precisely. And that remains the issue – seeing into the heart of scripture, and thereby, the heart of God.

      Reply
  5. C SEITZ

    You are welcome.

    Which is why this is not about Jesus “ending up on a cross” because he hung out with “the marginalised.” He said he was the torah’s giver and one with God the Father who sent him for this hour. At his trial no one said, drag that man in for upsetting social expectations, and make him a victim. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. He died in relation to Passover so as to save the entire created order, and did so out of obedience and love. Those who wailed for him he said “wail for yourselves, and for your children.”

    Jesus so fulfilled the law those who believed they were defending it were rebuked by Isaiah, “you set aside the law of God, so as to enforce commandments of men.”

    To lose track of this narrative line–running across the NT in its entirety–is to change Jesus Christ into a different man than Lord and Saviour.

    Reply
  6. John Deacon

    Thanks Brian for these articles. Very helpful.

    For those who struggle with the notion of the church’s widening its embrace to include LGBTQ+ persons, as though for 19 centuries we got this wrong, I have been challenged and encouraged by these words from Christopher Pramuk’s book: The Artist Alive: Explorations in music, art and theology.’

    ‘The enemy of authentic religion is the lie that there are “no new gifts to be given,” no new dreams, no new pages yet to be written in the life-story of God and humankind. What matters is keeping your head down, not asking questions, doing what is required of you.
    Religion in such a guise becomes little more than a mausoleum, a repository of old words for God, lazy words for God, dead words for God.
    ‘For many of my students, “the church” as they have experienced it is foremost a place of rules and regulations, its leaders overly (and often hypocritically) preoccupied with sexuality. The church for them often has not been a community of living faith where all are welcome, on pilgrimage together, seeking new ways to embody Christ in the world.
    Some will continue to show up and pray for the poetry and prophetic spirit to return. A great many have already taken their dreams for life, love, and joy, elsewhere.’
    – from the concluding pages of Christopher Pramuk’s book ‘The Artist Alive: Explorations in music, art and theology’

    With the church’s acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons, a new poetry, a new art and new theology is emerging as revolutionary as Christ’s repeated insistence that he ‘desires mercy and not sacrifice.’

    As Leonardo Boff puts it in his ‘Christianity in a Nutshell’:

    ‘What is new with Jesus is that he brings good news: it isn’t the law that saves, but love, which knows no limits. There are limits to law, because its function is to create order and guarantee some harmony among people in society and to curb those who violate it. Jesus didn’t come simply to abolish the “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17). He came to lay out a criterion: what comes from traditions and moral rules, if it passes through the sieve of love, will be accepted.

    If laws impede and hinder love, he relativizes them, as he did with the Sabbath, or ignores them, as he did with the precept of fasting. It is love that opens up the reign. Where power prevails, the doors and windows of love, communication, solidarity and mercy close. That applies to both society and the churches.

    The supreme ideal of the ethic of Jesus is proclaimed in “Be perfect as the Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus always emphasizes two characteristics of the Father’s perfection: a love for all without barriers and an unlimited mercy. Love and mercy guide those who wish to enter the reign.’

    Reply

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