Patriarchal Violence & the Persistence of Proof (John 7-10)

Sunday, April 23, 2023

John 7-10; April 24-30

In these chapters, people are trying to figure out what to think about Jesus. Some people really love him, others really hate him, and a few are still unsure of what to think. There are concerns about his refusal to follow the law of Moses perfectly, which he broke when he healed a man at the pool of Bethesda on the sabbath. There are also advocates that say, who cares when he performs miracles - the point is that he performs miracles! Its at this point when we begin to see Jewish leadership feel increasingly threatened by Jesus and his messages and begin to attempt to catch, corner, and even kill him because of this.

We read about two of these instances in this week’s chapters, first with the story of the woman caught in adultery, and second with the man born blind, who was healed by Jesus. In both these stories, these events were either put in motion or used by Jewish leaders to challenge Jesus. In this week’s episode, we will cover these stories and explore themes of power, patriarchy, direct experience along the way.

Woman Taken in Adultery - John 8:1-11

This is a story of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery and brought before Jesus by a group of religious leaders. They asked Jesus if they should stone her, as was the punishment for adultery under Jewish law.

Jesus responded by writing in the sand, and then saying to the accusers, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." One by one, the accusers left until only Jesus and the woman were left.

Jesus then told the woman that he did not condemn her, but told her to go and sin no more. This story is often cited as an example of Jesus' compassion and mercy towards sinners, as well as his teaching of forgiveness and love.

There is a lot going on in this story, and reading it with a feminist lens helps us see things we might have otherwise missed and read Jesus and this woman’s interaction as loving and liberating. In Michael O’Sullivan’s article “Reading John 7:53-8:11 as a narrative against male violence against women” reading this story with a feminist lens helps us see that the person who stands accused is a woman and Jesus and the accusers are all men. With a feminist lens we also see that the woman is unnamed and is only identified by the charge brought against her, which reduces her to “an unacceptable sexual object, and is treated like a passive object for debate, a public spectacle, and as bait to try and trap Jesus.” She is also on her own, without an advocate, among men with authority, authority that can literally kill women. 

A few things I want to point out from this story: First, the patriarchal and religious power structures in place give the men accusers of the story both the confidence and the right to snatch up this woman, throw her in the middle of the Temple, and accuse her to the point of demanding the legal punishment of death by stoning. And aside from the horrific trauma experienced by this woman, another terrifying element of this story is that these men probably think they are carrying out their God-given religious duty, even if it means the literal death of a woman. Thus, for these men, they do not have to be conscious of how they uphold patriarchal and religious power; they don’t have to outwardly abuse or hate women; in fact, many of them would probably say they love their wives and daughters and sisters. And that’s the terrifying power of the system: it encourages people to abide by the violent structures in order to be seen as fulfilling your duty to the state and to your God. Thus, in their violence these men are seen by the public and by their own selves as upholding their responsibilities.

This scene is also so terrifying because it is so reminiscent of bishop meetings and disciplinary counsels in the Mormon church held against women and queer folks. The church is a patriarchal institution that also values surveillance, which means that members and neighbors are encouraged and praised for reporting perceived wrongdoings and sins of others to their leaders. From here, it is neither unlikely nor uncommon that based on the gossip or accusations of others you would receive a phone call from your bishop asking you to come in for a meeting, which plays out quite similarly to part of the story we’re looking at today. Accusers think they are fulfilling their duty and continue to uphold the patriarchal system where you then have to stand trial against an all male jury. And unfortunately, many bishops and stake presidents do not choose Jesus’ response where they silence the accusers and flip this story on its head. Instead, they often choose metaphorical death by stoning which means punishment over solidarity.

Still, although the woman seems to be the center of this story, she is merely a nameless object used by the accusing men in an attempt to trap or trick Jesus. The accusing men want to have some charge to bring against Jesus. John 8:6 “This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.” Some scholars think the Roman government had removed the power of capital punishment from the Galilean governing legal body. Thus, if Jesus advocated for stoning, he would put himself at odds with the Roman officials. On the other hand, if he advocates that she not be stoned, he would appear to deny the law of Moses and thereby put himself in a bad spot with the Jewish officials. In this way, the story is shaped like a tragedy where the woman is both the pawn and the punished, the bait and the battered, in the careening chaos of male-dominated patriarchal and religious authority systems. 

Perhaps this is why Jesus’ response is all the more unexpected and destabilizing to the power structures. When he takes a quiet moment, writes something in the sand only he and the woman might see, and then responds “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” he is refusing to play his adversaries’ game. He is refusing to participate in a system of violence and punishment. He refuses to sanction a violent death for the woman and goes further by saving her from such death. One by one the men realize their hypocrisy and depart from the scene until Jesus is left alone with the woman and says “Woman, where are those thine accusers, hath no man condemned thee?” She said, “No man, Lord.” (her first, and only line in this story). To which Jesus responds, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” In this story, Jesus ushers in a new order of saving love, not punishment.

Of this interaction O’Sullivan writes, “All this time the woman has been living the traumatic violence of being consigned to silence as her life hung in the balance whilst her male accusers battled verbally with the male Jesus…Jesus now speaks to the woman, as a person, and in a kind way which reflects the developmental cognitive and affective effect that her experience may have had on him in his humanity and spirituality. His action empowers her to be heard into speech for the first time in the story. By speaking, listening to, and hearing her, he treated her with the dignity, care and empowerment that corresponded to her as a human person…”

With all this, what are we to make of the line “go, and sin no more?” because at first it sounds like Jesus believed the woman had acted sinfully. I realize this reading may feel loving and merciful for some, especially because Jesus does not shame or blame the woman. Further, even if he did accept that she had committed adultery, it seems that the issue of how to interpret that event is not an issue for Jesus. Said differently, maybe Jesus recognizes that a woman’s sex life is not his business. For me, sometimes I read “go and sin no more” as a standard goodbye from Jesus. A general, all encompassing reminder to try to do things a bit better tomorrow, which he also implied to the group of accusing men and has also said to many people in the New Testament who are sick or disabled and as such, the word “sin” seems to be acting in an ambiguous way.

Finally, in an imaginative way, we might ask ourselves what was not written down in this story? What more words were shared by Jesus and the woman? Did he ask if she was safe and if she had somewhere to stay that night? Did she cry and tell him how difficult and unfair it is to live in a world that encourages violence against women both in private and public spaces? Did she yell out in frustration about double standards crying: “They just left him there! Why did he get off scot free?” And perhaps Jesus introduced this woman to his friends Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, because he knew they would welcome her into an understanding community of women who know what it’s like to be accused of adultery, promiscuity, and varying degrees of violence.

Whatever the case, I think this story is a harrowing example and warning of patriarchal and religious violence and the lengths men will go to to protect their power and position, even if it means taking the life of a woman. Yet at the same time, this story also showcases the dismantling power of mercy, love, and solidarity with the women, and all those who are accused and brought to trial, suffering beneath a violent system. 

Let's also take a look at some other conversations that happen in these chapters.

In these chapters, I read about many people trying to sus out who Jesus really was - a magician? A performer? A manipulator of dark magic? The literal son of God? A prophet? A teacher? A nobody who fooled people into believing him and spreading rumors for him? And what struck me most was that in the midst of these questions was a lot of scriptures and people using scriptures to argue one way or another; but I also noticed there were yet others who used their bodily senses to gather information for themselves about what type of person Jesus was. One place in the text I feel is a great place to explore this is in John chapter 7.

In this chapter, we are able to get the temperature of belief around Jesus. V. 12 tells us “There was much murmuring among the people concerning him: Some said, He is a good man. Others said, Nay, but he deceiveth the people.” We find Jesus is teaching in the Jewish temple. Jesus is doing his normal Jesus thing, talking about God and also talking about the people. He begins to critique the way the people follow the law of Moses. In V. 19-23 he says “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Who go ye about to kill me?” Remember, people are really, really upset about his healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda on the sabbath. Jesus speaks directly to this, saying “Moses gave unto you circumcision [which is the cutting and removing the foreskin of the penis] and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receives circumcision and the law of Moses isn’t broken, are you [really that] angry at me, because I have made a man whole on the sabbath day?” Or, in other words - under the law of Moses its okay to cut and mutilate a man on the sabbath day, but somehow its not okay to restore a man on the sabbath?

I love what Jesus does here in appealing to the senses of the people. He places sacred cutting to sacred healing opposite one another, and asks the people to use their own sense of what feels whole, healthy, and life-giving to double check their own standards. I am not keen on using the JST for the NT all the time, but here I love the distinction made for v 24. According to the JST, Jesus says “Judge not according to your traditions, but judge righteous judgement.” I also love the “Good News” translation for this verse, which says something similar, “Judge not according to external standards, but judge by true standards.”

What are true standards? This is a tricky question - one that we even see some people working out in the text. For many in this story, true standards are “what is written” in the bible. We hear some people say against Jesus in v. 26-27 “[Jesus] speaketh boldly, and the rulers say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but [the text says] when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is.” In other words - the text says that nobody knows when or from where Christ will come. Yet others say, v.42 “Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?” 

After this exchange, we learn in v.43 that “There was a division among the people” regarding Jesus. But not all of the people. If we read ahead to the end of the chapter 10, we learn that “many resorted unto Jesus and said “John did no miracle, but all things that John spake of this man were true. And many believed on him there.” Who were these people? Who were these people who, in Jesus words, did not judge by their traditions, but with true judgement? I think we get a hint at who they are when we hear them speak in chapter seven, after hearing Jesus teach. V.40&41 “Many of the people therefore, when they heard [Jesus] said, Of a truth this is a Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ.”

How did they know? How did they know, when many other scriptorians and scholars argued back and forth to no end on the matter? I think it was because these people relied on a different source of information and knowledge. I believe those who relied on their senses were able to recognize Jesus for who he was.

I’m not talking about “senses” as logical, thinking common sense. I’m talking about the visceral, embodied acts of the five senses - the seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling senses. This is certainly a change of pace for many of us who are steeped in a culture that values logic, knowledge, measurement, empirical data to define the world and explain the human experience. There is a huge focus on “knowing” the “truth” of things by way of numbers, dictionaries, formulas, equations, and facts. In this same culture, the information gathered by senses are less valued. The human experience of the world is one that cannot always be measured and defined. What measurement do we have for the enchantment of birdsong? Have you ever had the experience of knowing something without knowing how you know it? Can you explain it any other way? What definition do we have of the way the spring breeze kisses our forehead on a sunlit morning? There is a way of being in the world that does not rely on measurement, data collection, and definition.

Phenomenology is the study of direct experience - or, in podcast terms, the study of a type of information gathered from lived experience. Direct experience, or a sensuous experience, is one that embraces the human senses as real and valid forms of information, even though they are difficult or impossible to measure. The gospel according to Channing says that the scripture mastery verse in 2 Nephi that says “the learned think they are wise” applies to a phenomenological experience of the world. When one relies too heavily on empirical data and knowledge, there is a temptation to ignore or shadow-over the wisdom and knowledge gained from a sensuous experience. We see this play out in John chapter 7, where those who rely on the text heavily have difficulty defining Jesus, but those who are able to engage their senses - their hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling senses - are able to see Jesus for who he is. They are the ones who say, “This is a Prophet. This is the Christ.”

The body receives information from the world and from the other beings in it constantly. The human experience is a constant back-and-forth communication with the world and the beings in it. If we learn to deny this type of communication and information gathering, we can become hindered in our ability to understand and relate to others. Many of us must re-learn to engage our senses after living in both a society and a religion that devalues the body and bodily sensations and experiences. In the world of phenomenology, it is precisely our passions, our “natural man” that provides us with the type of faith Alma describes, one that is a “hope in things that are not seen [by minds accustomed to understanding fully, beyond a doubt, empirical ways], which are true.”

Faith doesn’t have to be something we constantly try at. Faith is also a natural state of being. Faith and imagination is how our brain works out the world. For example, if I am sitting across a table from Elise, I can see her face, her eyes behind her glasses, her hair, her shirt, her arms. What I can’t see is her legs, her feet, or the back of her head, but I know they are there and I can sense them even when I can’t see them, because my brain creates a picture in my mind based on what it thinks it knows about the shape of Elise. I have a type of faith that Elise is all there when she’s at the table with me. If someone were to ask me how I knew her legs were there, or that her head was more than just the eyes and lips and nose I see in front of me, I wouldn’t be able to say anything other than “I just know.” This is the type of faith that is born out of a direct, lived experience with our senses in the world. We just know.

As we engage with the chapters in John this week, we might ask questions like, 

  • What do I “just know” is true?

  • What information do my senses offer me that can provide me with valuable knowledge about my place in the world, in my relationships, and in my spirituality?

  • Are there spaces where I feel I need definitive proof to believe something? Does this happen in my spiritual practice?

  • Where do I feel I need to justify my sensate experience with empirical facts?

  • What might it be like to trust the information my senses give me?

Are we able to identify the truth of someone from the way they speak? What might it be like to listen to, say, a conference or sacrament talk with all of our bodily senses intact? What is it like to listen to a podcast, maybe even our podcast, with your full body? What is it like for you as a sensing and fully relational being to be in sacred places, whatever that means or doesn’t mean to you? How difficult is it for you to trust yourself and what you see, hear, feel, and know?

If, like us, you find it to be difficult at times, it seems that Jesus offers a remedy for this, too. In John 9, Jesus restores sight to a man who was born blind by mixing his own spit with dirt to form a clay that he placed over the man’s eyes. It seems that the act of engaging with the mundane, the profanity of spit and mud, that miracles are produced. Jesus’ mixing of body and earth is a restorative act. It seems that if we are to “see,” if we are to sense, we must be willing to do the same. We too, must engage with the earth. We too, must mix our bodies up into and with it. We too, must layer ourselves with the undeniable earthly state of our being if we are able to “judge with true judgement.”

I don’t know how else to explain it. I just know it. There may be those that call this approach blasphemy or sacrilege - and I suppose in a way, it is. I am promoting the mixing of the sacred with the mundane. But it doesn’t make it wrong, either. Spirituality and truth can be both. Jesus can be both Christ and a type of sinner - he broke the rules, after all. But does it really matter? Not to those who sense him for who he is. In the words of the man born blind in John 9:25 “Whether Jesus be a sinner or no, I know not. One thing I know: that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”

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