A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Naming as Marginalization: The Case of Doubting Thomas and "Those People"

Every year on the Sunday after Easter, the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary contains the story of the man we call "Doubting Thomas," in John 20:19-31. In my thirty-five years of preaching I can say definitively that there are only so many angles one can find on this or any other story in the Bible for that matter. Of course, there are other portions of that particular lesson in John that one can find to preach on-- the Holy Spirit and the purpose of John's Gospel and how that relates to the church's mission today. Yet, for preachers who don't mind repeating themselves (which is a good teaching device) but who still want to find a new angle on a familiar story, discovering a new angle on the story of Thomas and the resurrected Jesus can be quite the challenge.

It is because of this story in John that Thomas has been known as "Doubting Thomas" for a long time. But why is that the case? There are two other stories about Thomas in John that reveal other character traits we do not assign to him. In John chapter 11, Jesus heads toward Bethany in Judea where his friend, Lazarus has died. The disciples warn Jesus against returning to the region where the leadership had already once tried to kill him, but Jesus is insistent on going to that little village. In response, Thomas says, "Let us also go, that we may die with him (11:16). Here we see "Committed" or "All In" Thomas who is willing to give up his life with and for Jesus if necessary. And then in John 14, Jesus in the Upper Room offers an account of where he is going in death that prompts a question from Thomas,
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’'s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him' (14:1-7)
Here we see "Inquisitive Thomas" who asks for further clarification on the direction of the way of Jesus.

In reducing Thomas to a single incident, he has been branded with the negative moniker, "Doubting." Thomas has been marginalized by being stereotyped as a doubter who is not to be emulated. But clearly there is more to Thomas than the understandable doubting of the miraculously unexpected, and a single story does not summarize his life in total.

Names are important. They are identifying markers we need to get along in this world. Names can remind us of who we are and of whom we are not. Naming is a big deal in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The problem is that naming can also be a way to marginalize others, to push them to the fringes, to identity them in ways that either do not explain them in the complexity of who they are or are a patently false way of making someone other, that is, making someone who is on the outside and can therefore be rejected and excluded. We can use names positively as a way to categorize and we can use the same names to marginalize-- Conservative, Liberal, Republican, Democrat, Traditionalist, Progressive.

When names are used to marginalize others as individuals or by groups, naming becomes labels by which we devalue persons created in the image of God. They become "those people" (not one of us) or "illegal aliens" (even though they are seeking asylum in keeping with U.S. law), or "Mexicans" (said in the context of they are all rapists and murderers). Once we can name or stereotype people to fit with our own myopic view of the world, it becomes even easier to label them in ways that make them less than human-- they are an infestation, a virus, a cancer, animals. When people who claim to follow Jesus do this they fly right in the face of the counsel of James, Jesus' brother who writes,
With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:9-12).
No human being or groups of human beings can be an infestation or a virus or a cancer or animals. Because Jesus Christ died for all, no follower of Jesus can speak of any other human being in a way that makes them less than worthy of Jesus' death and offer of salvation. And let us not forget that Jesus says the standard by which we judge others will be applied to us (Matthew 7:2). Do any of us want to stand before God and be treated as a virus or a cancer or an infestation? Do we want to be judged in the way we marginalize others in the way we inhumanely name them?

Now, since the human capacity of irrational rationalization is strong, I am sure there will be those Christians who will be able to find a way to justify such marginalization; but if you do so, please do me a favor-- when you are so naming and stereotyping and cursing the existence of "those people" (whomever they are for you), please don't let anyone know you are a follower of Jesus. Our Lord gets enough bad press from the words and actions of those who claim to follow him. Let us not forget Jesus' warning in the Sermon on the Mount:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?" Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers" (Matthew 7:15-23)
Let's stop marginalizing Thomas by naming him as a "doubter," and let's heed James' words to use our God-given gift of speech to bless others. Names are to be a blessing. Let's make sure our good names are used to lift up the name of Jesus.

No comments: