Today’s scripture readings:
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
When the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington was bombed last summer by self-professed white nationalists, leaders in the Twin Cities’ Muslim community realized they had to make a choice. Would they respond in fear, turning inward and retreating into the shadows? Or would they “go public,” building deeper relationships with their neighbors and demanding a place in the community? For them, the choice was clear: Things would only change if they took responsibility for themselves and began building a more powerful public and political life.
So they got to work. The leaders of Dar Al-Farooq attended ISAIAH’s Weeklong Leadership Training to learn the basics of community organizing and discover how they could become more powerful public leaders. Soon after that they decided to form the Muslim Caucus of ISAIAH, an organization that had previously been exclusively Christian. A few months later, this past January, they hosted trainings for members of the Muslim community to learn how to take part in precinct caucuses and participate more fully in the political process.
You might have heard what happened next because it made the news: A video of the caucus training, which had been livestreamed on Facebook so people could participate virtually, went viral on white supremacist websites around the country. Over the next few days, the two leaders who facilitated the training received dozens of death threats, and some elected officials here in Minnesota warned that Muslims were planning to “infiltrate” precinct caucuses. Nevermind that the Muslims who attended the caucus training were American citizens who have just as much a right and responsibility as any of us to participate in our democracy—and it’s not considered “infiltration” when the rest of us do it. The prospect that American Muslims might claim their voices and engage our political system to create a better world for themselves evoked anger and outrage. To these Muslims who responded to the Dar Al-Farooq bombing by taking responsibility for their own liberation, the message was clear: “You don’t belong here.”
What is it about liberation that provokes so much anxiety and fear?
At the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson we hear that the crowds were pressing in on Jesus and his disciples, preventing them even from having a meal. If we read back a few verses we get a bit more of the context. At the beginning of chapter three, Jesus has been healing people who are sick, and the word is getting out. We read that a “great multitude from Galilee followed him,” and “hearing all that he was doing, [people] came to him in great numbers” from north, south, east, and west. He tells his disciples to get a boat ready in order to escape the crowd, “so they would not crush him”; Mark writes that Jesus “had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.”
Here’s what you need to know about this part of the story: In Jesus’ time, it was believed that illness was the result of sin. If you had a disease, it was because you had done something wrong. And according to ancient Jewish customs, these people had to be cut off from the community—literally forced to live apart from others, physically separated from their neighbors—so having an illness meant you were a second-class citizen, told you didn’t have a place here, that you didn’t belong. So when Jesus went around healing people, it wasn’t just that he was curing their diseases. When Jesus healed people, he was also restoring them to the community. By healing them, he was making it possible for them to have a place in society. He was liberating them for the kind of life that was available to everyone else.
Maybe that helps us understand what’s going on in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus has been healing people who were ill and restoring their place in the community, and in this reading we hear about the backlash. It starts with Jesus’ own family. They think he’s crazy, that what he’s doing is too foolish or too dangerous. They want to take him away and hide him and stop him. They’ve seen how he’s been going around liberating people who are supposed to be confined to life in the shadows, and they realize that’s probably going to get him in trouble.
That’s when Jesus’ opponents, the scribes, come into the story. The scribes were the wealthy, upper-class, highly-educated leaders of the Jewish community who had a vested interest in upholding the status quo and maintaining the hierarchy that existed in that society. They see what Jesus has been up to and realize that his work of healing the sick and bringing them into the community threatens their stranglehold on power. So the scribes confront Jesus and accuse him of being possessed by a demon. That’s an age-old tactic, isn’t it? When we see someone advocating for people who are oppressed, and we’re among the privileged who benefit from the status quo, we point to the one who’s shaking things up and declare that they’re evil.
What is it about liberation that provokes so much anxiety and fear?
Almost 20 years ago, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote a famous essay for the Christian Century magazine called, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.” Citing story after story from the Hebrew Scriptures, Brueggemann makes the case that God created a world of abundance, where there is enough for everyone; but he argues that somehow we have come to believe that this couldn’t possibly be true. We cling to the “myth of scarcity,” worrying that there is not enough to go around. And so we see all of life as a competition in which we need to keep as much as we can for ourselves and prevent others from getting their hands on it.
Underneath this impulse, behind this myth of scarcity, is fear—fear that if others are allowed to accumulate things for themselves, then there won’t be enough for us. Brueggemann tells a story about Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who opposed Adolf Hitler. As a young man, he was part of a delegation of church leaders who met with Hitler in 1933. Niemöller stood at the back of the room, listening and observing. After the meeting, his wife asked what he had learned that day. Niemöller told her, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.”
A mindset of scarcity is what takes hold of us when we fear there’s not enough. But the myth of scarcity isn’t just about a fear that there isn’t enough money or possessions or resources. We encounter the myth of scarcity when we talk about intangible things too. We worry that there’s not enough respect to go around; not enough status to go around; not enough energy, not enough attention, not enough dignity. And so we worry that if Muslims participate in precinct caucuses, then there’s somehow less democracy for us. It’s as though all of life is a zero-sum game, where if you win something, then I lose. When we subscribe to the myth of scarcity, it becomes impossible to believe what others have sometimes said: that a rising tide lifts all boats.
One pastor tells a story about when some members of her congregation wanted to get a “Black Lives Matter” banner for the church. She says when the congregation started discussing it, someone pointed out that the LGBT community still faces oppression, and that person wanted to know, “Where’s our banner?” The pastor went on: “I keep bumping up against this idea that if we are specifically for one group of people, we must be against other groups of people. Because there is just not enough for-ness to go around. If we are for Black Lives Matter, we must be against the idea that all lives matter. If we are for dismantling racism, we must be against dismantling homophobia and patriarchy. If we are for victims of police brutality, we must be against the police… It is the lie of scarcity that suggests that offering respect to one group diminishes the respect of another.” “There is enough respect—an abundance of respect—to go around.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately—about scarcity versus abundance, and about fear versus faith. We’re coming into another season of political campaigns, and already we’re hearing candidates of every political persuasion appealing to voters using messages of fear and scarcity. They’re arguments that end up pitting marginalized groups of people against one another, warning them that if one oppressed group is given some sort of benefit, then certainly there won’t be enough left over for others. There is some sort of twisted logic in this; when marginalized groups are made to compete with one another for scarce resources, they never think to demand what they need from those who actually have it. Promoting the myth of scarcity is one way those with privilege in our community uphold the status quo and maintain their grip on power. In the weeks ahead members of our ISAIAH team will be seeking to continue this conversation here at Gloria Dei about scarcity and abundance, and faith versus fear. They will be inviting us, as we approach the primary election in August and the general election this fall, to evaluate candidates through this lens of scarcity and abundance, faith and fear, and to vote our values on Election Day.
Actually, the invitation is to an entire life shaped by faith in God’s abundance, an invitation to recognize that there really is enough for all of us: enough money, enough resources, enough care, enough compassion, enough dignity. And it’s an invitation to invite others to share that vision, to imagine a world of abundance, because only then can we make it so.
Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” the Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999, https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/.
Amanda Cooper, “Messaging for More: The False Story of Scarcity,” Lightbox Collective, July 28, 2017, https://www.lightboxcollaborative.com/messaging-more-false-story-scarcity/.
Riham Feshir, “Muslim voters say they want to participate, not ‘infiltrate’,” MPR News, February 1, 2018, https://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/02/01/muslims-say-they-want-to-participate-not-infiltrate.
Joanna Harader, “Racism and the Myth of Scarcity,” Brain Mill Press, March 21, 2016, http://www.brainmillpress.com/joannaharader/voices/open-book-with-joanna-harader/racism-and-the-myth-of-scarcity/.
KARE 11 News, “FBI: IED caused explosion at Bloomington mosque,” August 5, 2017, https://www.kare11.com/article/news/fbi-ied-caused-explosion-at-bloomington-mosque/89-462157254.
Muslim American Society of Minnesota, “Caucus Delegate Training with ISAIAH,” https://www.facebook.com/MASMINNESOTA/videos/1432507420206059/.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988).