The apocryphal story from John chapter 8 (1-11) describes Jesus encountering a mob that is ready to stone a woman caught in adultery. It illustrates beautifully the way I believe churches should engage alternative sexuality issues in North America. For sure, I know the story is a late addition to the Johannine gospel. Nonetheless, the approach modeled here by Jesus is exemplified many times over in other gospel texts (which I will detail in an upcoming book). I stick to this text because it highlights in one text the several lessons from all the other texts . It crystallizes what it means for the church to be present among those who are hurting, victimized, confused and caught in the world’s antagonisms when it comes to sexuality.
In Christ, a people comes together to live out of his fullness, abundance, forgiveness and reconciliation in the world. We live this life first together and then in the world as a sign of His reign over the whole world (1 Cor 15:25). It is a witness in essence to what God is doing in the whole world in drawing all people to Himself. It is a sociality of peace not violence, fullness not lack, reconciliation not antagonism, forgiveness not revenge, healing not destruction. This is life under His rule. We therefore do not participate in antagonisms (the communal formation via ideology). We instead enter the world to be present, resisting the urge to join the world’s ideologies on its terms. We enter the world to make space for peace, reconciliation and the renewal of all things. We enter the world tending to the presence of Christ.
The Way Ideology Works
The first thing noticeable here in this text is that the woman caught in adultery is placed before the mob (“making her stand before all of them” RSV vs 3). She has been made an object upon which the wrath of the crowd is being directed. In the midst of this spectacle, Jesus is asked should this woman should be stoned as “the law Moses commanded?”
This scene illustrates how ideology works. The “law of Moses” which was given to be a good thing within the covenantal life of Israel, has been elevated into the status of a political ideology. Instead of a sign of new life for the world, it is used to pit one group of people against another, to define who is in and who is out. This had become a major sticking point for Jesus. The law, given to Israel to give witness to God and His purposes to the world, had become an ideology that separated who is in from those who are out. Israel had become self righteous. And the woman caught in adultery has become the object of this ideology around which those who consider themselves “in” can feel good about themselves. There’s a bit of self congratulatory enjoyment, jouissance, at work as they are able to say she failed, but we are holy and we keep the law. This again is the way the ideology works. Jesus is asked to enter into the ideology on its terms. Take a side. As ideology goes, we are often invited into the ideology to take sides. It’s what the ideology does. Strikingly, Jesus is silent. He stoops down to write on the ground. Jesus does this kind of distraction/silence tactic repeatedly throughout the gospels when he is presented with similar circumstances. It is stunning how often he refuses to enter into the violence of the terms offered to him by the ideologies.
The Way of Jesus (and His church)
Instead, after some silence, and his questioners persisting, he says “let he who is among you without sin, cast the first stone.” It is a tactic that brings to the surface the underlying dynamics at work and reveals the duplicity at work within the ideology. It takes the underlying ideological assumptions to their extreme. It disrupts the ideology and dislodges those subjectivized by it. The ones ready to stone the woman suddenly see their ‘selves’ in the absurdity of the moment. The antagonism is broke. And the ideological violence flitters away as one by one the accusers disperse. The woman is left in the presence of Jesus cleared of all the strife and violence and anger.
Jesus displays the manner by which the church enters the world to be among. We do not enter into the violence of the world’s antagonisms where we are forced to take a side. Many might consider this silence complicity, but there are times when such refusal is a refusal to enter the violence of the world and indeed heep violence upon violence.
Instead, we are to become present to those hurting and broken and in the midst of strife. We are to disrupt the ideologies and make way for the presence of Christ where true healing and reconciliation can begin. Only then, can Jesus then say to a woman released from the violence of defense, hate and antagobism, “you are forgiven,” now go in the way of righteousness, and choose sin no more” (my paraphrase of some commentators insights). Ironically, once the scribes and Pharisees have left, Jesus reasserts the true sense of the law. He does not throw away orthodoxy, he extends its true intent into the life of this woman.
Often churches are tempted to join in the ideological debates concerning sexuality in our culture on the terms laid down by the ideology. Often we find ourselves taking a position of “not affirming” or “affirming” in ways the ideology predetermines. In the process, the thing we (think we) are affirming or not has little to do with the actual persons caught up in the struggles. Like the woman, they have become an object stereotyped. They are caught up in strife and antagonism of the issues and we just add to it. We have entered the violence of the world, what I have typified as the antagonisms of ideological formation.
I say, following the way of Jesus is to resist ideological formation. Resist taking public positions separated from the life and Spirit’s work in people’s lives. Instead, let us enter the world discerning and tending to the presence of Christ among us. To resist taking a position, some will say, on either side, is to in essence join the side of injustice (whichever position we take). I suggest that is only sometimes true. Sometimes instructive clarifying statements will be helpful to a community at large. But often, on the other hand, pre-mature policy statements foreclose the space for God to heal the world in Jesus presence. Often it joins in with the violence of the world that forecloses God’s work in the cross and resurrection.
What say you?
Admittedly, there is much more to be explored and described in this practice of the church in mission among sexuality. It’s much more complicated. To which I say, come join us at Northern Seminary to study sexual ethics and mission. (MA Theology and Mission)