This summer, I’m playing with the book of Mark every week! Check out my summer in the book of Mark starting with my original post about why I’m studying Mark, Mark 1:Authority, Mark 2: Avocado Toast, Mark 3: So You’ve Left Fundamentalism…, Mark 4: Our Patch of Earth, Mark 5: What is Your Name?, Mark 6: WWJD! What Could Go Wrong?, Mark 7: Talking Back to God, and Mark 8: The Banality of Goodness.
If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung round their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.”
Everyone will be salted with fire.
Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
Bible verses can be time machines.
This verse tosses me back to twenty-one-year-old-Laura-Jean. Twenty-one-year-old-Laura-Jean is sitting on the floor on a dirty purple rag rug from Goodwill, and the Bible is open up to Mark 9. I’m about to start my junior year of college. I’m spending the summer giving busy people coffee out the drive-through window at Dunkin Donuts, and trying to repent and be holy and get my shit together after falling in love with a girl, and kind of dating, and then kind of breaking up, and then getting back together, and then lather-rinse-repeat, oh, say seven or eight times. Being queer in evangelical land gives you a really shitty template for how to fall in love, y’all.
It also gives you a shitty template for reading Scripture.
I still have my journal entries from that summer. They’re pretty messy. They’re a hodge-podge of Bible verses, Jon Foreman lyrics, and scrawly, angry, fiery self-hatred. That summer was my War On Me, trying hate my way into deeper spirituality. It wasn’t the first time I would deal with my self-hatred and shame by making more rules to follow. I wish I could say it was the last time, but nine years later it’s still my go-to method of dealing with shame – make a new rule, and make it harsh.
I used Scripture as a weapon to do violence to myself with, because no one in fundamentalism warned me that the Golden Calf wasn’t just going to be debauchery and orgies, but the pernicious temptation to use the Bible as a violent tool of perfectionism: a justifier of self-righteousness and an amplifier of shame.
“If your right hand offends you, cut it off.”
I’m thirty years old, and when I read that verse while sitting at my adult desk covered in plants, surrounded by icons of Mary and Eve and quotes by Ignatius and Julian of Norwich – when I read that verse, as a woke progressive liberal Christian –
– I still feel the impending doom of a high school and college fundamentalist killing herself to be good enough. What will I have to give up now, Jesus? What person? What movie? What book? What class? What life plan? What do I need to kill in myself so that I can finally be holy? And the Greek chorus of pastors and youth pastors and campus ministers fall in line behind me: This has become an idol in your life. Kill it. Cut it off.
Goddamn, the violence that we crush our young and tender and gentle souls with. The ways we hurt ourselves. The ways we try to hurt ourselves into holiness.
The ways we try to hate ourselves into love.
It’s so hard to read this passage and not see myself sitting on a shitty rag-rug in my bedroom in rural New Hampshire, asking Jesus to help me cut off my metaphorical arms and legs so that I wouldn’t be tempted to sin.
Last week, I read this passage again and again. Marked it up with colored pencils. Read some commentaries. Tried to stay out of all my memories. Cried a little bit.
So here I am, powering through this passage, trying to find patterns, trying to stay out of my own way, trying not to listen to the lizard brain that tells me I should be afraid, because if I’m not cutting off my arms, then well damnit, you’ve backslidden, you used to be so super holy and now look at you, gay and progressive and churchless. Shut the hell up, Fundamentalist Lizard Brain. Perfect love casts out fear, I tell Whatever is spitting at me, because fear has to do with punishment. Can’t beat me in a Scripture dueling contest, little lizard. At least fundamentalism gave me that.
I’m trying to diagram the passage, because diagrams can disenchant evil spells, especially spells cast by fear.
I get to the end, lots of lines and boxes on the page.
“Have salt in yourself, and be at peace with one another,” Jesus concludes.
In conclusion, in conclusion of this terrifying passage about self-flagellation and amputation and hell for goodness sake, Jesus says: Have salt in yourself, and be at peace with one another.
In conclusion of this passage that has been used to separate me from myself and others, that has been used to hit me and that I’ve used to hit other people –
Y’all, in conclusion, be at peace.
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace.
The funny thing about growing up fundamentalist is that I don’t think anyone thought “peace” was the point.
Or, I mean, love, was the point.
“Being holy” was about not doing certain things that would affect your body, especially drinking or sex or pornography. “Not causing someone to stumble” was about what I wore as a woman (so guys wouldn’t want to have sex with me?) – well, and maybe a little bit about whether I smoked or drank.
But when you start to read the Bible as if love is the point.
Good God, what a change.
When you start to read the Bible as if peace is the point?
If you read the whole Bible through the lens of Love, through the lens of taking care of each other, through the lens of what is real holiness? It’s loving the people that God has put in your life. What is real spirituality? Love. What is the greatest commandment? Love your neighbor.
Y’all, what if the arms and legs and eyes that should be sawed off and plucked out and discarded are actually the self-righteous, self-flagellating, self-obsessed methods of growing in “holiness” that separate me from people around me?
Because that’s what the context of the passage suggests. This lesson from Jesus happens in Mark 9 right after the disciples have argued on the road about who is going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. This lesson from Jesus is a response to the disciples obsession with power, place, and “holiness.” When Jesus begins to speak, he is speaking to a community that is tied up in their own selves, their own spiritual worth, and their own righteousness.
Whoever causes this little one to stumble…
If your right hand causes you to sin…
If salt loses its saltiness…
In response to the sin of competition, in response to the sin of pride and combativeness, in response to the disciples trying to be as awesome as possible, Jesus tells them to cut things out of their lives that are making other people stumble.
What if it’s my self-righteousness that’s being a barrier to someone’s growth?
What if my pursuit of perfection is causing these little ones to stumble?
What ways am I living my life that is making it harder for people to believe that Jesus loves them?
Reading Scripture through the lens of love, through the lens of the peace of Christ, doesn’t come naturally. It’s something that we need to train our eyes to see. Especially those of us who grew up in rigid traditions that read the Bible as a self-help book instead of a story of the covenant God’s search for God’s people and redemption of the world. For many of us, those “words of life” gathered up weight like words of death. Coming to the Bible for healing can feel like asking for bread and getting a rock.
But when we listen to Jesus, and hear Him saying that all the Law and the Prophets point towards love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself – when we start to read the Bible as if Peace is the final word and Love is what God is trying to say – then the Word starts to take root and something alive can finally sprout up out of dry earth.
When we believe Julian, that “Love is your Lord’s meaning,” Scripture sings.
What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing?
Know it well, love was his meaning.
Who reveals it to you? Love
What did he reveal to you? Love
Why does he reveal it to you? For Love
Remain in this. And you will know more of the same.
– Julian of Norwich
Be salt, and be at peace.
Salt preserves. Salt preserves peace.
I used to think that I should cut lots of people out of my life, or cut lots of things out of my life, that were leading me astray, like I was the Holy Grail of Myself, that magical temple that needed to be preserved even if that preservation meant crushing other people.
But this verse, in the context of the rest of the passage and in context of the work of Christ, is not just about our own personal holiness bubble. It’s about how we can cause other people to stumble when we compete with them for holiness or place or power. It’s about how we are salt, and that salt is to be used to preserve peace, not chop each other up into The Ones Who Stumble and the Ones Who Don’t.
It’s about how our peace preserves the world.
And it’s hard! It’s hard to be the kind of salt that preserves each other, preserves each other’s lives even at the expense of our ideals and self-righteousness and carefully curated holiness. It’s easier to turn inward into our own personal quiet time, self-help, spiritual disciples. It’s easier to have a false clarity that assumes the inerrancy not just of Scripture but of my own personal interpretation of Scripture.
It’s easier to cut off our arms and legs when doing so makes us feel like spiritual superheroes. It’s harder to cut off the part of ourselves that likes feeling like a superhero.
What in my life is making it harder for people around me to see how much Jesus loves them?
What in my life is creating dissonance and harsh edges between me and the Other?
How is my self-righteousness causing people to stumble, because they see in me a rigidity that they imagine Jesus has, too?
It’s too easy to turn into a Liberal Law Bringer, and turn the “Law of Love” into just another self-righteous rule to check off. It’s too easy to make Peace Maker another violent weapon that we wield against outsiders and the impure.
But the Law of Love is different not just in content but in kind. The Law of Peace is not just a different chapter in the same book, but an entirely different genre.
Because our Love is the love of Christ, in and through and around us. Our Peace is the peace of God, moving in the world to redeem her from herself.
And the love of Jesus is so much bigger than my ability to love myself.
The peace of Jesus is so much larger than my ability to be gentle with my neighbor.
The covenant of God holds you, and holds me, whether we remember the covenant or not.
The redemption of the world rolls on, through our failures and through our successes.
So let Jesus take your self-righteousness that you’ve been using to hide your shame, just for a minute? Let God be the one who carries the promise for you. Let the Holy Spirit be the peace in your heart that you are terrified you can’t manufacture yourself.
The peace of Christ be with you all.
And also with you.