Postcards from Galilee
I wonder if stand up comics in ancient Israel made snarky jokes about being from Galilee, the way Jimmy Fallon ridicules people from New Jersey: “Surely the Messiah does not come from Hoboken, does he?” Of course, since Christian scriptures tend to portray Jewish leaders as a humorless bunch, we can assume that their comments in John 7 were not intended for fun. Nothing is less funny to religious people than a poser who thinks he’s God—especially a poser that people follow.
That was the problem ancient Jewish leaders worried about. By the time Jesus was in his early thirties, some people were openly wondering if he could be the Messiah. But what do the crowds know? (John 7:49) Anyone who took the scriptures seriously, these leaders told themselves, would know that the Messiah must come from Bethlehem, not Galilee. What we don’t need, they must have muttered behind closed doors, is some hair-brained Galilean, from a province notorious for religious impurity, mixed marriages, rabble-rousing, and an obsessive allegiance to God above all other rulers—a “hotbed of radicalism, the ‘60s Berkeley of Palestine” —what we don’t need is this Galilean guy running around making people think he’s the Messiah.
Of course, Christians are supposed to get the joke. The church knows where Jesus’ story begins. Every time we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we get a postcard from Galilee: We are in on the holy joke of Jesus the Messiah. Americans love unlikely origin stories—leaders born in log cabins, accidental royalty, wizards who think they are ordinary schoolboys. In real life, we have cheered Olympic bobsled teams from Jamaica, a “people’s princess,” and an “untouchable” who became the president of India. You would think that a savior who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks would be someone we would embrace with open arms.
But it turns out that we have become snobs in spite of ourselves. After all, would the lore of our culture be as appealing if the log cabin yielded a plumber instead of a president, or if the schoolboy grew into an annoying pimply teenager instead of Harry Potter? The truth is, most of us don’t take “the crowds” any more seriously than the ancient Jewish leaders did, especially when it comes to pointing out God. The gap—theological, political, sociological, you name it—between church leaders and rank and file church members remains enormous. After all, what do the crowds know? What if they point to a way of doing church that our blue-chip theological education looks down upon? What if they make room for people who worship Jesus in ways we find shallow? What if a leader emerges from a part of the Christian community that we don’t take very seriously? What if the next generation of Christians comes from Galilee instead of Princeton?
These “glimpses of Galilee”—the power of faith from the margins—were everywhere in South Africa, where I traveled with ten PTS students in January. We were continually awestruck by the courage of marginalized Christians, and youth specifically, who had challenged the theological establishment and the apartheid system it supported. Even bishops, white and black, who challenged the status quo were mocked, arrested, and sometimes tortured by Christians who saw no contradiction between their faith and the brutality of apartheid. Ultimately, it was black youth—protesting because they wanted to be taught in English, rather than Afrikaans—who brought the system of apartheid down upon itself.
But the story doesn’t end there. These same brutalized Christians insisted that forgiveness should be the route to reconciliation in South Africa after apartheid fell. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa won a fragile healing, and today churches continue to call for justice while binding the country’s many, many wounds. Young Christians in South Africa do not view the church as a place teenagers play ice breakers and eat pizza. They consider themselves called by God to lay the groundwork for the “new South Africa” by modeling faith and reconciliation. In one of the townships, Stephen, a nineteen-year-old with no school, no job, and no steady family life recounted the multiple groups he attended each day to pray. Frankly, it seemed excessive to me. “It sounds like you have plenty of church in your life,” I laughed.
He looked at me directly, and seriously. “Oh no, ma’am,” he said. “It is a privilege. To serve God is a privilege.”
A postcard from Galilee.
To be honest, I think it’s at least as likely that the church’s future will come from Galilee as from Mercer Street. A lot of them are young. And honestly, there are not enough people out there following Jesus for me to think it’s wise to dismiss any of them too quickly. Since none of us gets the whole story of God right, we need each other to remember parts of this story that we—that I—would otherwise overlook.
So I am praying this Lent for a holy humility. I am praying that the church—and maybe Princeton Seminary especially—throws open our doors to Galileans, and all the doctrinally messy, rabble-rousing, God-focused obsession that comes with that. It will challenge us. It will humble us. But I’m guessing it’s our best shot at welcoming Jesus.
Kenda Creasy Dean
Links: http://www.ntimages.net/Galilee-i-map.htm http://cacina.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/6-callingdisciples.jpg
Allen Callahan, “From Jesus to Christ,” Frontline (April 1998), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/portrait/galilee.html (accessed February 13, 2011).
2P.J. Anthony, “K.R. Narayanan Dies at 85; ‘Untouchable’ India President” (November 10, 2005), http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/10/international/asia/10narayanan.html (accessed February 13, 2011).