Johannine Politics – Part 2: Egalitarianism against Dogmatism
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Already in much of the New Testament, the conception of the Church as a hierarchical dogmatic institution is apparent. In the development of the Pauline tradition within the Pastoral epistles, for example, one finds the elevation of dogmatic rigor (one must “hold firmly to the sure word as it was taught” Titus 1.9) and dissonance or difference must be eradicated from the community; dissenters “must be silenced, for they are disrupting the whole households by teaching for dishonest profit what they have no right to preach” (Titus 1.11). This “deposit of faith” (II Timothy 1.14) is conceived in absolute terms; it is Truth, it is the foundation upon which the community is constructed. In order to maintain control over this deposit, the church structure of the Pastorals is rigid. If I might quote a longer passage, II Timothy 3.1-9 reads:
You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone.
The vitriol of this overly drawn image is palpable. Having centered their conception of the church upon the maintenance of dogmatic content, it is not only alternate content which must be feared and hated, but the purveyors of such content. Simply, in order to maintain the credibility of its own presbyter-bishops, the author(s) of the Pastorals must posit a category of corrupt teachers, whose “counterfeit faith” directs them to poison the faith of the truly faithful remnant. Their dogmatic rigidity necessitates the creation of an absolutely corrupt “other.”
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In distinction to this rigorous dogmatism, the Johannine church represents a charismatic alternative. Where the pastorals posit a “deposit of faith,” John posits a living Word—not only in the form of the incarnated logos (Christ), but also in the Christian community itself. The static dogmatism of true teaching is overturned by the mobile generative power of the “living water,” and here emerges the possibility of a truly radical egalitarianism. For, “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38). Where the pastorals ground their community within the content of a dogmatic truth, a determinable fact, whose clear center makes variance easily identifiable, the Johannine community founds itself in a Spirit. This Spirit is certainly felt, it is present, it speaks, but it does not speak in the univocal voice of rigid dogmatism. Rather, this Paraclete-Spirit nudges and suggests, it is a weak force (as John Caputo might call it), it is not itself a determined fact or set of facts, but rather an event which creates without precedence, an unexpected voice which calls for a response, in no way predetermining the form or content of that response. In the language of Gilles Deleuze, the Paraclete-Spirit is an Idea. But not an Idea in the naïve platonic sense—an original which must be merely copied—but an Idea which inaugurates a creative space, which determines a problem for which there is no clear solution.
This centering of the Johannine community upon the mobility and plasticity of Spirit, rather than the rigidity of static doctrine can be immediately felt in the non-hierarchical egalitarian character of the fourth gospel. To once again borrow a phrase from Deleuze, the Johannine community offers a “crowned anarchy” where the pastorals offer a hierarchical rigidity. This non- (if not anti-) hierarchical perspective can be highlighted in a few different repects. First, as Raymond Brown emphasizes, one finds the language of the kingdom or rule (basileia) of God significantly diminished in the fourth gospel, “if Jesus and the Father are one, the rule of God is most perfectly made a reality in Jesus. Instead of entering the kingdom of God as a place, one needs to inhere in Jesus to be part of the community” (Brown, 87). Second, the fourth gospel tends to downplay the institution of the sacraments. In the last supper, for instance, there is no institution of the Eucharist, rather, there the washing of the disciples feet is instead emphasized. Third, the role or prominence of the twelve is severely downplayed, in their place, John leaves the “beloved disciple,” who reclines on Jesus’ breast during the last supper, and who is given Jesus’ mother to watch at the cross (see: Jn 13.23-25, 19.26-27, 20.1-10, 21.20-25). This ambiguous character appears, on the one hand, to describe an actual historical figure (likely John), and on the other, a model of authentic discipleship. The beloved disciple is a Johannine “every(wo)man.” Forth, and this is quite remarkable, the Johannine community appears radically egalitarian regarding gender roles. Contrary to above, where women are portrayed as “silly” and gullible, John portrays women in pivotal roles throughout Jesus’ ministry and the early church. Again citing Brown, “The Samaritan woman, Martha, and Mary are characters absolutely equal in importance to the blind man and Lazarus. In the portrayal of major male and female believers there is no difference of intelligence, vividness, or response” (Brown, 94). More radically, it is Martha who offers the first full affirmation of Jesus’ identity (“You are the Christ, the Son of God,” John 11.27), following the incomplete titles of the other disciples, (e.g. “prophet”). It is also worth noting that this affirmation is attributed to Peter in the synoptics.
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The political ramifications of this alternative construal of a radically egalitarian community are essential to the construction of a democratic society. What the comparison of the Pastoral and the Johannine communities show us, is that the ideological center of a community and its functional structure cannot be isolate from each other. Where a society is grounded upon rigid affirmation of dogmatic truths, be those religious, philosophical, or political, the social structure will necessarily take on a repressive form. Difference, creativity, and exploration are all facets of a community which threaten the stability of a hierarchical-dogmatic structure, and must therefore be branded as “counterfeit” and eradicated. Simply, where ideological conformity is demanded, repression will be necessitated. Against this dogmatism, the Johannine community offers the model of a community which forgoes concrete dogmatisms for the fluidity of the Spirit and emphasis upon the plasticity of relation. This movement from a concrete to a fluid center is mirrored by a parallel reduction in repression. Egalitarianism presupposes fluidity. Where emphasis is taken off of abstract dogmatism and placed on the living community, the structural hierarchy withers (the kingdom language wanes, the twelve are de-emphasized and replaced with an “every(wo)man”), priority is granted to ethics over ritual (the washing of feet, over Eucharist), and oppressive social structures (e.g. gender norms) are set aside. It is these factors which constitutes the truly radical egalitarian political potential of the Johannine community.
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*Raymond Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).
(Notes and disclaimers: First, I am relying upon Raymond Brown’s reconstruction of early church communities. I recognize that these are highly hypothetical and often suspect. But, that being said, even a hypothetical community is a ripe source for imaginative examination. Second, I do not hate the pastorals, I am simply using them as an example in this instance. Please do not barrage me with “why do you hate the Bible” messages. Third, to argue, for instance, that the Johannine community rightly emphasizes ethics of sacrament, is not to belittle sacrament. I think that the Eucharist is an invaluable core of Christian practice. But, it cannot be allowed to overshadow concern for the oppressed or needy.)