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It goes without saying that we are a polarized nation. We are like two opponents squaring off in a boxing ring.
Similar to two prize-fighters, we have become exceedingly competitive. Like Ali vs. Frazier, each side trash talks the other while declaring, “I am the greatest.” As fear dominates, the goal evolves into eliminating the other. Our acute polarization indicates we are unable, or maybe a better word is unwilling, to inhabit a third space. With each side being so determined to win, bipartisanship is derided while power over the other is championed.
As I write this blog, this polarization is being played out in our nation’s capital. On January 6, Congress is set to count the electoral votes from our 2020 election. Many of us sit in fear regardless of for whom our vote was cast. For some, the warring sides have become more up close and personal. They appear in our neighborhoods as political signs remain posted in yards two months after an election, or they are seen on social media platforms such as Facebook or Nextdoor. And, unfortunately, the church is not immune as each side wonders how a Christian from the other side could even vote for that other candidate.
But not only have we been polarized about an election, we also remain divided concerning the pandemic. Is it real or not? Is mask wearing effective or not? Can our government require us to mask up or not? Ironically, during a time when it would seem beneficial for a nation to pull together, we experience an increase in extreme dissension.
But perhaps this is to be expected. A pandemic reminds us of our mortality, be it consciously or unconsciously, and this reminder causes us to more vehemently avoid death.
Of course, the mentioning of mortality may cause some of you to quickly depart from this blog, illustrating my point: We seek to avoid death. In fact, it is our resistance to death that drives us. It impels us to vote for a particular candidate, post on social media, or even write a blog.
To better understand how our resistance to death drives us, we must recognize the ways we strive for immortality: literally and symbolically. Literal immortality refers to the belief that we will never die or that some significant part of us will live forever. Humans seek literal immortality through spiritual beliefs, such as what is commonly heard at a Christian funeral when the minister states that the soul lives forever. Symbolic immortality refers to the assurance “that some aspect of one’s identity, or some legacy of one’s existence, will live on after death.” Examples include writing a book, establishing a foundation, or investing in young people.
When humans become more conscious of their mortality, they seek protection. The research of Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszezynski demonstrates that when humans were more conscious of their mortality, they tended to be more positive about their own cultural worldview and more negative about those who did not hold their position. For example, when Germans were interviewed in front of a cemetery, they were more positive about German food, cars, and vacation spots in contrast to those who were interviewed in front of a store. In another study, judges, who were reminded of their mortality via a questionnaire, strongly opposed those who did not hold to their values. These judges upheld the law more vigorously than their colleagues (the control group) who were not reminded of their own death. For instance, judges in the control group would have issued a standard bond of $50 to a prostitute who was arrested the previous night, but judges, who were reminded of their mortality, imposed on average a bond that was nine times higher than the standard bond.
This may cast some light on how our own country’s polarization has become more intense during a pandemic. As the number of deaths increase due to COVID-19, our awareness of our own mortality also increases. This awareness drives us to protect ourselves by grasping more zealously to our personal, political, religious and/or cultural worldview and by resisting more ferociously those who do not uphold our perspective. It is not a surprise, then, that we have become increasingly more xenophobic and more supportive of polarizing partisanship.
However, as a Christ-follower, I do not believe this is the way of Christ and his kingdom, but instead I am called to inhabit a third space, a form of bipartisanship, if you will.
Considering that January 6 is when Congress counts electoral college votes, it seems apropos that it is also Epiphany. Epiphany is a church celebration that recognizes the appearance of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles as seen in Matthew’s Gospel in the story of the Magi. In reflecting on both inhabiting a third space amidst our nation’s polarization and the celebration of Epiphany, I believe that Matthew’s Gospel not only offers a description of this third space but also calls me to live in it as an alternative to some of those around me.
This portrayal of a third alternative begins by reflecting on two verbs in chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew: fear (phobeo) and alarm (tarasso). In chapter one, Joseph is evidently afraid to take Mary as his wife (1:20), and in chapter two, King Herod is disturbed or emotionally distressed by the Magi’s inquiry about the one who is born king of the Jews (2:3). These fear-type reactions are critical to this discussion of inhabiting a third space, and this involves exploring the culture of antiquity.
Matthew’s world was honor-shame based. That is, it valued merit and status, leading to a competitive environment. Honor was determined by the public, which had certain expectations or values by which it evaluated individuals. The “public award” of honor, according to J. H. Neyrey, was “reputation, worth, and respect.” Matthew Marohl notes that honor may be received in two ways: (1) it may be ascribed, such as given to a person at birth based upon one’s family or hometown; and (2) it may be achieved through social interaction or competition. Yet, no matter how honor was received, it was limited as it was believed that only a certain quantity of good was available in the world. With such a limited quantity, one attempted to cling to one’s honor. If honor was lost, the result was shame, which meant being viewed as weak, having a loss of power.
In light of this, it is safe to say that both Joseph and King Herod feared a loss of honor.
In the case of Joseph, he was fearful of the shame the family would experience if he married Mary. She was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father, but unlike Mary and Matthew’s readers, Joseph did not know that Mary had been faithful. Matthew seems to imply that Joseph believed that Mary had committed adultery, and an adulterous woman within that culture could be stoned, which was known as “honor killing.”
Now, it may be tempting for contemporary Western readers to regard this story through an individualistic lens, believing that only the adulterous woman was to be shamed. However, this was not the emphasis of a patriarchal, non-individualistic, honor-shame based society. Joseph’s fear had more to do with his shame and that of his whole family. Pentecostal scholar Craig Keener writes:
“Because a wife’s adultery could imply the husband’s inadequacy or his family’s poor choice of a mate, it shamed the husband as well. From Joseph’s standpoint within the narrative at this point, Mary’s apparent betrayal had brought him shame.”
Scripture characterizes Joseph as being a righteous man, leading to the perception that this is the reason he decides to divorce Mary privately rather than publicly. However, his righteousness also indicates he upholds the law, which means he chooses to divorce Mary. As Keener comments, Joseph’s failure to obey the law in this manner would produce a long-lasting “reproach on his household.” In other words, he and his family would lose honor, or experience a loss of power, if he did not divorce her. In essence, his choice to divorce her was about his family’s honor—his symbolic immortality.
King Herod, too, is facing a loss of honor in chapter 2. Magi had come to worship the one who had been born king of the Jews. Scholars point out that Herod may have been called “the king of Jews,” but his honor to sit on the throne was not ascribed through lineage. Herod was vulnerable to the one whose ancestry gave him the right to be named the king of the Jews. Thus, Herod feared his loss of honor and power over others—that is, his symbolic immortality.
Both men, then, were vulnerable—they were at risk of losing honor or status; thus, both men devised plans to maintain their honor, or power over others. One chose to divorce, and one chose to kill. In the end, only one of the men was willing to be vulnerable, was willing to embrace his limited power—mortality—and trust God. This is seen when Joseph chose to heed the words of the angel (1:20-21), generating a possible loss of his honor. When Joseph took Mary as his wife, people may have assumed that Mary’s pregnancy was a result of Joseph’s having had sexual relations with her; thus, Keener notes:
“Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.”
In short, only one of the two men welcomed his own finitude—that is, mortality.
Unfortunately, many of us are more like Herod than we care to admit: we resist our mortality by seeking to eliminate the other.
But Matthew’s Gospel extends to us a different, albeit challenging, call. Instead of competing for status and power over others by resisting mortality, Matthew’s Gospel calls us to embody the trust and finitude of a child. Children in the human kingdoms of antiquity were powerless, without status. However, Jesus teaches that those who become like children are the greatest in God’s kingdom (chapters 18:1-5 and 19:13-15). If we are to be citizens of God’s reign, we are to imitate Jesus by becoming like children. That is to say, Jesus entered this world as a vulnerable child, and so we, too, are to become like children to enter Jesus’ kingdom. Keener summarizes:
“That is, Jesus is modeled best among the most powerless, not among the powerful.”
Contra to the kingdoms and Herods of this world, belonging to God’s kingdom is not about status or power but comes through the embracing of our finitude—our mortality.
- As Jesus who did not cling to his divinity but became vulnerable by becoming a child…
- As Joseph surrendered his honor by marrying Mary, thereby becoming susceptible to the viewpoint of his society…
- As the Magi became like children by worshipping the Christ child…
So Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly informs us that we must become like a child to enter into the kingdom of God.
This is the third space. Become like a child. Embrace vulnerability, powerlessness, finitude, and mortality, and trust in God.
 This discussion of mortality is from Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszezynski in The Worm at the Core: On the role of Death in Life (New York: Random House, 2015), Kindle Edition.
 Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszezynski, The Worm at the Core, 83-84.
 Ibid., 12.
 J. H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 15.
 Matthew J. Marohl, Joseph’s Dilemma: “Honor Killing” in the Birth Narrative of Matthew, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 2.
 Neyrey, Honor and Shame, 17-18.
 See Marohl, Joseph’s Dilemma.
 Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 92.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 69-70.
 Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 95.
 Ibid., 449.