King Philip Came Over from Great Spain
November 15, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
One of the traditions in my family and in many families around holiday time is working on a puzzle. We get out a Thanksgiving themed puzzle or a puzzle of St. Nick, and spread out the pieces on a cardboard table so that everyone can work on it when the conversation slows. And what’s the first thing you do when you start a puzzle? You sort the pieces. I like to find all of the edge pieces and put them in their own little pile. Some in my family sort the pieces by color, some sort by size, and some sort by shape; everyone has their own system but it is the rare person who jumps right into putting together a puzzle without first arranging the pieces in some kind of order.
And that’s because as human beings, we like to impose order on our surroundings. When you first look at all of those puzzle pieces scattered across the table, it’s hard to make sense of them but if we can group them, sort and classify them, we feel like we can begin to get a grasp of the overall picture. We do this as human beings all of the time. Early naturalists, for example, looked at nature and saw a bewildering array of life, and so they tried to impose order on it by placing life into understandable categories. In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus developed a system of taxonomy that grouped all life forms into a hierarchy, one that school children memorize as King Philip Came Over From Great Spain: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Linnaeus based his groupings on forms. In other words, if life were a box of puzzle pieces and Linnaeus were doing the sorting, he would put you in the same pile with the sardines because you both have backbones, but he’d put sea slugs and sponges into a different pile on the table.
We have accepted Linnaeus’ method of sorting for 300 years because it’s convenient, but of course, when you start to think about this too much (as I did this week), you realize how artificial such groupings are. Why should our skeletal structure (or lack thereof) determine the group to which we belong? Why not group everything by color, or size, or the kind of sounds it makes? The Old Testament groups life according to where you spend most of your time: there are the birds of the air, the fish in the sea, and that which creeps upon the earth, which means that if you were sorted using the worldview of the ancient Hebrews, you’d be in the same pile with the beetles, and the sardines would be over there with the Humpback Whale. Some indigenous people sort plants and animals into categories determined by their usefulness to the community. By this system, artichokes and the sardines might be in the useful food group, while human beings would be with the pine trees in the non-edibles section, although even that could be disputed if you are Hannibal Lecter.
In other words, it is very human to want to organize and categorize our environment but ultimately all of these categories are artificial and the categories we choose to use are determined by how we want to think about our world.
What’s even more important to realize (and here is the preaching point) is that not only do we choose the categories we use by how we want to think about the world but those same artificial categories go on in turn to affect how we think about the world. We chose them, we impose them, and then we go on to believe them.
We value chimpanzees over sea slugs, for example, because Linnaeus grouped both chimps and humans in the Primate order whereas he put sea slugs in the order Nudibranchia a whole world away from us (and just want as an aside, I want to thank Google because I don’t actually have the taxonomy of the sea slug memorized!) These categories are so ingrained in our heads that it’s hard to imagine we would ever feel special about a sea slug, but who knows how you’d think about the lowly sea slug if Linnaeus had chosen to use different categories that made the little guy part of your community?
The categories which we chose to use and impose on the world to order it in what we consider a meaningful way take on a power of their own, because we go to believe them. Those categories change the way we see our world. They determine our loyalties; they determine our community, and they affect our self-identity. Everything we value is filtered through those artificial groupings; everything we understand about the world is seen through the categories we have imposed on our world.
This week in our Bible Study, I asked the class to read Romans 16:1 in which Paul uses the word διάκονον to describe a woman named Phoebe. He says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a διάκονον of the church at Cenchreae.” We then compared other verses having the Greek word διάκονον and we discovered that, especially in older translations of the Bible, the word διάκονον when it refers to a man is often translated as “minister” but in this verse about Phoebe, it is translated as “helper.” I don’t think this was deliberate sexism on the translators’ part; I think it was a result of filtering their experience through artificially constructed categories because in the translator’s time, men led the church and women served in helping positions. These were the categories they knew and so when they read Romans 16:1 that said Phoebe was a minister, it didn’t fit the order of the world as they saw it, and they decided that their translation must be wrong.
“Phoebe can’t be a minister,” they said, “because she’s a woman, and so here διάκονον must mean something different.” They wrote in the word, “helper,” instead.
Of course, once the translators imposed their familiar categories on their translation, they created a self-perpetuating loop because from then on people reading that translation would say, “See, only the men are ministers, while the women were only helpers.” Poor Phoebe: demoted for nearly 2000 years because she didn’t fit the classification system the translators used to understand their world.
We chose the categories, we impose the categories, and then we go on to believe them.
My first year in ministry, back when female ministers were few and far between, a salesman called the church and asked to talk to the pastor. I said, “I’m the pastor. How can I help you?”
He said, “No, I need to talk to the pastor not the secretary.”
I said again, “I am the pastor. How can I help you?”
He tried once more, “No, I don’t think you understand. I’m looking for the pastor. Are you his wife? Could you let me talk to your husband?”
I don’t honestly remember how the conversation ended but I will always remember how flustered and confused the poor man was. He wasn’t being deliberately sexist; he simply couldn’t fit me into his familiar categories, and what didn’t fit, he couldn’t even conceive.
The categories which we chose to use and impose on the world take on a power of their own, because they change the way we see our world, and the way others see it as well.
It is then, a radical thing that Paul claims in his letter to the Galatians. Paul says that in Christ, the categories are wiped out: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Christ has placed all of the puzzle pieces in one big pile on the board. And it appears that the early church tried to live out that sense of equality. Regardless of the disbelief of our biblical translators, Paul lists women among the leadership of the church, even calling some of them the fellow apostles. Slaves worshipped alongside freedmen, the rich sat at the table of fellowship with the poor. Paul fought for the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church saying that they shouldn’t have to adopt Jewish practices before being welcomed into the community.
“We don’t all have to look alike, Paul said, to be brothers and sisters. We can be many colors, many shapes, different economic classes, different genders, practicing our own customs, eating whatever we want to eat, and speaking the languages of our own country, but we will be brothers and sisters in Christ.”
There is only one category for Paul — will you clothe yourself in Christ? Will you love as he loved? Come join the great glorious messy pile in the middle of the table because it is the only category that is important.
Of course, human beings being human beings, we couldn’t live for very long with such radical disorder. Before the first century was finished, the church had begun to re-impose the old categories, grouping people by their beliefs, their doctrines, their communion practices, their forms of baptism, their creeds, and even such fine distinctions as how they trimmed their beards. And sometimes those artificially constructed categories became so powerful that people killed one another over them, executed those who disagreed with them, and crusaded across the continent to impose their order on the rest of the world.
And as we saw in Paris this weekend, the power of categories continues to wreak havoc on our lives. Modern day ISIS is the Islamic form of the medieval Christian church: ISIS wants to create a highly structured society based on ancient religious categories of gender, customs, and beliefs and they are willing to kill to defend those categories which they believe are divinely ordained. Our hearts are rent asunder by the carnage these beliefs have wrought, and for a moment, we intuitively understand what has gone wrong. People around the world are lighting candles for the people of Paris. Facebook users have shared an image of the Statue of Liberty holding hands with the French icon of liberty. The World Trade Center displayed the colors of the French flag. The headlines write, “Today we are all Parisians.” For a moment in our suffering, we will see commonality instead of difference. In our grief, we are able to step across the categories of nationality and politics and declare that we are one, because deep down we understand that it is our human insistence on rigidly ordering our world that leads to the evils of destruction and hatred. Today it is ISIS that has given categories the hellish power to dehumanize their neighbors; but we have been here before…. in the Inquisition, in the institution of slavery, in the genocide of the Holocaust, in the segregation of Jim Crow, in so many places, and so many times.
We chose the categories, we impose the categories, we believe the categories, and inevitably suffering follows.
Paul warned the church at Galatia that the way to salvation is to free ourselves from the categories we have constructed. I am not an expert on international terrorism, and so, like you, I have no idea how to keep us all safe from ISIS and other radical groups. I do know however, that in a few days, a few weeks, when the emotions of the moment have dissipated and most people go back to their safely ordered worlds where people are grouped in their minds by national, racial, political, gender, class, and religious identity, we can do the surprising thing of continuing to insist that we will need not yield power to those categories. Instead, we will accept the discomfort and confusion that comes from letting go of our carefully ordered world, and live out Paul’s proclamation that in Christ there is really is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. There is only love for our neighbor: whoever that neighbor is, whatever that neighbor looks like, wherever that neighbor lives. We will clothe ourselves in Christ’s love and Christ’s love alone will structure our world.