The Bloody Body

By Amy Schifrin

When my son, Hans, was a freshman at Valparaiso University, a Lutheran College in Indiana, he, like all other entering students was required to take a class called “Freshman Core.” Great Books, Ancient History, Theology, Church Doctrine, and Biblical Studies beyond the confirmation curricula were introduced to some for the first time. They had just begun a new unit that dealt with the multiplicity of Biblical authors, the professor wanting his students to understand that the Bible was not recorded all at once but by the faithful over the course of many centuries.

One girl, who I’d venture to say came from a far more theologically sheltered background than my Hans declared to the class just what she had learned from her home pastor, “That there were forty writers to the Bible and they all agreed about everything.” Hans raised his hand (he was being polite that day) and said that he disagreed with her. The prof, a learned man, said that he disagreed with her, too, but he wanted Hans to articulate why he disagreed, hoping that this “critical” student would remember something from the assigned readings which spoke about the history of the transmission of the Biblical text (most specifically about J, E, D, and P), and that one classmate could, though a classroom conversation, teach another. But the prof was in for a surprise when Hans, who had lived his whole life with his Jewish mother, and who had witnessed his extended family argue in three languages at the same time responded, “Forty writers to the Bible and they all agreed on everything? You can’t get two Jews in a room to agree on anything, let alone forty!”

Jews, of course, demand signs, but even when signs are given, they grumble. Manna, manna…they ate to their fill and then declared, “They had nothing to eat.”

Jews demand signs, and why not? A ram in a thicket, a low tide through the sea, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, an eight-day flask of oil, a serpent on a pole. Jews demand signs. Demand. What had come as grace was now understood as obligatory, as if God owed them a sign. What was intended in mercy by the One whose name was too holy to be uttered, now led back in a circle to the self, as God was made the object of their demands, and signs of grace and kindness were made to be mere whims to be manipulated. What God had shown them freely in his love, they now demanded because they wanted to be in control of his signs, in control of his grace. They demanded signs of proof from the One whose mercy knows no end. Is there anything more foolish?

Greeks. Greeks desire wisdom: study of the natural world, studies of the arts and literature. Some have put all their energies into their desire to know more and more, but their goal isn’t always to give glory to the God who created all things. There are even those who study the Bible to give glory to themselves. There are even some for whom Biblical criticism is not done for the sake of proclaiming Christ become has become an enterprise unto itself. These folks may know many things about the Bible, but they don’t necessarily listen to its wisdom. In their race to deconstruct the Bible, they don’t listen to it as truth. They can argue over the historical and linguistic details, but for them, the Bible is an object to be scrutinized, dissected and manipulated. It becomes, in essence, like any other material object one can seek to control.

Greeks desire wisdom says St. Paul. And this desire, like any other desire, is where the trouble lies. For like Adam and Eve at the foot of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, desire, apart from God’s will, always has a bad ending. For it is desire, of any sort, that is unbridled, that puts the self first—before others, before God. It is desire, all-consuming desire that allows us to leave others in the dust without looking back. It is desire, whose grasp can be felt far more intensely than obedience that allows us to hurt and discard other people without ever feeling any of their pain.

Christ crucified, however, knows this pain, the pain that results from someone else’s selfish desire. Foolishness to a world that is perishing as it eats itself alive, scandal to a society that measures itself by its profit margins, a disgrace to the church that calls itself Christian as it draws its crowds with promises of financial prosperity and serves lattes with a side of easy-listening music, whose clichés are spouted by the richest and most powerful in business and government. But beneath this sickeningly pious veneer suffers the bloody body of Jesus, from whom the world perpetually averts its eyes…just as it did outside the city gates. The world’s wisdom sees the suffering poor as vermin, but to those who live in our refuse, our garbage, they have no place to look but to One who has been crucified.

Along with a number of our students, I spent our January term in El Paso, Texas and across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. We worked, served, and learned from the poor and from those who are giving their lives to serve them. Not many people are receiving asylum these days and so the refugees wait hungry and filthy in shelters, in parks, in open fields, under bridges, hoping for a word of mercy. In halting, heart-stopping terms they speak of being raped, of the murders of loved ones, of the traffickers that have stolen their sisters, of the blood baths of the cartels. These things did not happen overnight but have a long history where people in power from both the North and the South have colluded to treat human beings as commodities to be exploited. And day after day as we brought clean water and food to those who were perishing, the memories of my first trip to Guatemala City kept flooding my mind for these humble people were so much like the generation of El Salvadoran refugees who had established a cardboard city on the side of a river bank in Guatemala City.

I lived with these generous and loving folks for part of summer. There were five people already in the cardboard shack into which I was welcomed warmly. They shared their “bed” with me (and I say bed loosely, for it was a piece of plywood wrapped in a flea-bitten blanket) upon which we all slept.  And they shared their table with me, insisting that I eat before  their children, a very difficult thing to do.

I hadn’t gone to Guatemala alone, but as part of a church delegation and so just as our Trinity group had toured through Juarez, we toured through Guatemala City. One day our guide took our delegation to the city’s garbage dump. It was a close as people could get to Gehenna in this life, as close to hell as humankind could ever know. It was city block upon city block, mile upon mile of civilization’s discards that were finally shoved down an endless ravine into a fire that never ceased.

When the garbage trucks rolled in with their latest collections, the people who lived in the dump encircled it more quickly than the vultures who lived above their heads, for this was where today’s manna was to be found. Neither the stench of decay nor the poisonous chemical remains that caused the oozing sores on their bodies could deter them from their task.

We watched from a ridge above where our guide had directed us, but my heart wouldn’t stop pounding in my chest, for some one, some thing, some power kept drawing me closer and closer to the people who were now waist deep in reeking garbage. “And I, when I am lifted up,” Jesus says, “will draw all people to myself,” and from the fullness of my sinful state, I looked up and there it was, spray-painted by the faithful on a make-shift cinder-block wall—the cross—the cross of the crucified, and three words, “Jesus es Senor. Jesus es Senor.” Jesus is Lord! Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.

In every heart there is such a garbage pit filled with desires and demands. Everything that leads from God is in that pit. Everything other than God that we trust is in that pit. Everything we aspire to know apart from God’s will is in that pit. The wisdom of the world that was taught to us by the debater of this age is in that pit.

And so, it is into that pit that he comes, hanging on a cross, victim of the world’s desires, the sign that comes unbidden and unrecognized. Our demands be damned, God’s will is mercy, so that even our stinking garbage pit might be saved through him.

Proclaim Christ crucified, proclaim Christ crucified, the true sign of triumph. And consider our own call, my dearest sisters and brothers, that it would please God that through the folly of what we preach this dying world will be saved.  Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Schifrin is president emeritus of the North American Lutheran Seminary.

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