Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Myth of Innocence

Years ago, my Sunday school class read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert called Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World, in which she referred to the myth of innocence. (Turns out she got this idea from reading The Fall by Albert Camus—a good thing for an English teacher to hear.) This was a very useful concept to me and helped me experience the grace of God, so I want to share it with you.

I’ll start with the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. After disobeying God, Adam and Eve covered their shame with fig leaves and went into the woods to hide from God. There is something deeply sad about their wanting to hide from the divine lover. All their previous relationship of trust and dependence dissipates into fear and shame. But who can win a game of hide and seek with omniscience? The first principle to remember is that God already knows.

Second, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. It was not my fault, it was the fault of something else. Specifically, God, it was the fault of something or someone else YOU made. Implicitly, it is God’s fault. He, she, or it, is to blame for what I did; and ultimately You, God, are to blame. God doesn’t argue with any of these, just goes over the consequences. "Here’s what the world is like when you don’t trust God’s love enough to obey." The world becomes inhospitable and painful, and hostility and power mar every relationship. The second principle is that blaming other people poisons our lives.

Now I want to jump to the story in John 4 about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Embodied love in Jesus meets a woman with a checkered past. Also, she is used to being socially snubbed by the Jews, and expects the same from Jesus. In fact, when Jesus asks her for water, she says, “Why are you even talking to me? You’re a Jew.” Jesus said, “You have no idea who I am because if you did, you’d ask me for living water.” She replies, “Really? You don’t even have a cup to collect water in. You act like you’re greater than our founder Jacob who dug this well.” (Don’t be deceived by the “sir.”) Jesus replies to her, “And will this water satisfy your deepest thirst? No, of course not, it only temporarily satisfies your superficial thirst. But if you, for example, were to drink of the water I offer, you will be satisfied and a source of living water yourself.” She says, “Ok, then, give some of this to me, so I won’t have to come here to the well.”

Put into Eden’s terms, God in human form shows up to a woman hiding in broad daylight. She fences with him until she finally admits she is thirsty. The third principle is to admit that our defences have trapped us and we actually would like some freedom.

Then Jesus challenges her with a form of the question God asked in Eden, “Why are you hiding?” He says, “Go get your husband and bring him back with you.” “I don’t have a husband,” she says, and it’s true. Jesus adds to the truth: “In fact, you’ve had five husbands, and now you are not even married to the man you’re with.” An aside here—one contextual bit of information: divorce was hotly debated at Jesus’s time and widely practiced; in one school of thought, a man who was dissatisfied with a wife for any reason could write her a certificate of divorce and put her out of his house. The other view was that divorce required some conditions, namely neglect, abandonment, abuse, and unfaithfulness, and Moses set it up to protect women as much as men. Though it is comfortable to view her as a victim, it just may be that she was a part of the problem.

She certainly doesn’t cave, just because she’s been slapped with fact. She diverts the discussion onto theology: What about the right place to worship, o prophet.

Jesus tells her, “The place isn’t important; what’s important is worship in spirit and truth.” Ma’am, with all due respect, you need to get more right than the place in order to worship.

Her last gasp: “The Messiah will tell us what is correct.”

And Jesus: “I am Messiah—I’m telling you.”

She went back to her village and said, “Come see this man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Can he be the one we’ve been waiting for?”

She stays in hiding until the gracious person of Jesus helps her face the truth—the truth about herself and the Truth in physical form. Look at me, Jesus says, I am Truth. You can be true, too, you can tell truth and know truth.

Interestingly, it is the exposure of her own personal history that tips her over into belief and evangelistic zeal. She does not confess in any obvious sense, but she admits that Jesus knows everything she has ever done, her shame and her sin. Even if she is a victim, she is not innocent, and she doesn’t say Jesus knows everything people have done to me.

The story of the woman taken in adultery has a similar moment. She certainly has no need to confess, since she was taken in the act, and the preservation of her life depends on Jesus facing her accusers with their own personal truth—they have sinned also, they also are ashamed, and likely their shame fuels their anger at her. And Jesus says to her, “Go and sin no more.” She is both victim and sinner.

The myth of innocence for me went like a Life in Hell (Matt Groening)comic strip: I’m innocent for 11 frames, and then finally, ok, I’m guilty as hell. The protestations of innocence were accurate enough for a particular set of events that victimized me, but I was not without sin myself. Even as a small child, I knew enough to recognize that I was deliberately unkind to someone smaller and weaker than myself. For some reason, admitting my own sin against a weaker person helped set me free from needing to insist on being a victim.

The fourth principle is this: Admit it. Let the consciousness of what you have done against conscience or truth see the light of day—maybe just to God, maybe to a spiritual friend and to God. Let Jesus tell you everything you’ve ever done. It isn’t easy, but it is the way grace breaks through our fence, our defence. And sets us free. The truth sets us free, and the spirit of God guides us into all truth.

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