The Seeds Footscray mob again hosted our next instalment of Go Engage: The Direct Action Campaign of Jesus in Mark 1-4.
We started our study with our gut reactions to the term: Christian Healing!
“Is super natural ‘real’ and if so how does this work?”
“I want to exorcise images of Benny Hinn from my mind but I cant!”
“It happens, but not to me.”
“It doesn’t happen in my tradition”
“What does it mean for me, here and now?”
“It happened to me!”
I started by making the statement that “There is no healing story in the gospels that is not also symbolic.”
Jesus himself talks about the importance of his miracles as ‘signs’ rather than giving emphasis to the dramatic or supernatural.
Just because something is ‘symbolic’ however does not mean that the healing story is reduced to a ‘metaphor’ or did not happen historically. It does not mean that it is NOT ‘super-natural’ or NOT intensely ‘personal’ or ‘physical’. It just means that is has power and meaning beyond the healing of an individual body or set of symptoms.
The fundamental significance and power of the healing stories always lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occur.
Our sense of what is healthy or sick, clean or unclean, evil or good is always socially determined.
Even what is “supernatural” is also to some extent socially determined.
Witchdoctors seem to have a lot more power when this is ascribed to them in traditional societies than they do in Western ones for instance. We see these limitations narrative in the healing ministry of Jesus when he is less effective in social contexts that are characterised as having ‘little faith.’
A deaf person may not necessarily see themselves as sick or disabled, merely differently- able-d.
Healing in this instance may not involve regaining the ability to hear auditory sounds but the recognition of one wholeness and the valuing of ones own unique way of communicating (i.e.. Sign language) within the broader society.
Such a healing can have ‘divine power’ and be ‘miraculous’ without necessarily being supernatural.
Ched Myers helps makes the distinction between our modern Western lens of ‘bio medicine’ and that of ethno medicine.
The sickness described in the Old Testament as leprosy is simply not leprosy at all from a biomedical perspective. But from a socio-cultural perspective — which is what the Bible always reports-this condition called leprosy threatens communal integrity and holiness and must be removed from the community.
Jesus’ activity is best described etically as healing, not as curing. He provides social meaning for the life problems resulting from sickness.
In the symbolic order of Judaism, illness was associated with impurity or sin, a state that meant exclusion from the full status in the body politic.
Mark’s Jesus seeks always to restore the social wholeness denied to the sick/impure by this symbolic order. This is why his healing of the sick/impure is virtually interchangeable with his social intercourse with them, which defy the symbolic order of purity and class and are threatening to the dominant order. (1.41ff, 14:3a)
(in Binding The Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Orbis, 1988)
I think Kentucky Farmer, Wendell Berry expresses it beautifully in his essay entitled “The Body and The Earth”
The difficulty…lies in our narrowed understanding of the word health. That there is some connection between how we feel and what we eat, between our bodies and the earth, is acknowledged when we say we must “eat right to keep fit” or that we should eat “a balanced diet.” But by health we mean little more than how we feel. We are healthy, we think if we do not feel any pain or too much pain, and if we are strong enough to do our work. If we become unhealthy, then we go to a doctor who we hope will “cure” us and restore us to health. By health, in other words, we mean merely the absence of disease. Our health professionals are interested almost exclusively in preventing disease (mainly by destroying germs) and in curing disease (mainly by surgery and by destroying germs).
But the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health.
To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body. Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.
Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We lose our health and create profitable diseases and dependences — by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving.
– From “The Unsettling of America” : Wendell Berry
The ‘symbolics’ of each healing story of Jesus gives us clues and insight into the diagnosis and concrete nature of the evil and or sickness that is being dealt with.
How do we read ‘symbolics’ in the story of Jesus and consider this in our own culture and our own discipleship practice of healing?
Some basic narrative questions that we asked and found helpful in interpreting healing symbolics are:
- What is the significance of the settings?
- List the characters?
- How are they characterised? What is significant about what detail is and is not included?
- What names are given? Who is not named?
- What do the words used by the demonic voice reveal?
- What do the demons do?
- What are the ‘physical’ symptoms named?
- What narrative tools are employed? Structure of episode…
- Where do we find the ‘key words’ used in the rest of the story? Is this significant?
- How does it sit in the bigger plot line of the gospel story? Why has this story been placed here and told in this way?
Some generalisations about the Healing Ministry of Jesus or ‘Christian Healing’ with which we concluded were:
- PRIORITY FOR THE POOR… Jesus seems to heal those on the edge of society for whom the traditional structures of healing have not worked or from which they are excluded.
- INVOLVES RISK/ FAITH… often on the part of both the healee and the healer.
- WHOLISTIC… Never JUST physical but includes social, poltical, economic, cultural dimensions.
- MUTUAL… The healee is often an active agent not a passive recipient and the healer is often confronted with their own brokenness or need for healing through the process.
- CONFLICT/CONFRONTING CAUSES: Jesus’ healing stories are often suprising or unexpected in how they play out and ridden with conflict with authorities about the diagnosis or real causes/ cure of the problem which extend beyond the individual.
I conclude with an article on the Healing ministry of Jesus written by Ian Lawton from St Matthew in the City in Auckland. ( I can’t find the original link so I post it here respectfully, in its entirety… Yes that is the church that brought you the most memorable Christmas billboard of all time).
It is written in a ‘liberal’ tradition and whilst I does not explore everything I necessarily believe about healing, it does say a lot of things I do believe clearly and succinctly. I think the idea of ‘Divine Inter-connection rather than Inter-vention’ is an interesting concept worth exploring further, especially in light of the Wendell Berry quote emphasising ‘healing connections’ above…
“Jesus the Alchemist: The Politics of Healing”
– by Ian Lawton
A friend of mine recently lost her husband to cancer, and in the midst of her grief was told by her fundamentalist colleagues that God took her husband to teach her not to rely on human beings, and rather to rely on Jesus. This is a piety which is as brainless as it is heartless! It led me to ponder the concept of Jesus as healer.
Jesus was a radical peasant who became a social prophet. This made his powers as ‘faith healer’ more extraordinary, although the two roles were intertwined. However, that’s getting ahead of myself.
In the church readings this year we have encountered a string of Jesus’ miraculous healings. This led to an exhausting existential excursion, as our parish community at St Matthew-in-the-City has grieved the loss of loved ones, and is feeling the struggles of many others.
There seems little doubt that Jesus was an authentic faith healer of some kind. Even the most liberal scholars, including Borg and others in the Jesus Seminar, find compelling historical evidence for the healing miracles.
It also seems certain that Jesus was not alone in this role in the first century. He was one of a number of Jewish charismatic healers or magicians known about at the time. Jesus was said to have turned water into wine, like a first Century alchemist. Some scholars, like J.D. Crossan, saw Jesus as a faith healer correcting “psychosomatic disorders,” believing he used some sort of “trancelike therapy”.
The question remains as to whether Jesus’ healing powers were a result of divine intervention, which would leave open the possibility of divine intervention today, or rather because he had a rare ability to heal. In this case, there would be no reason to expect supernatural healing today, unless other contemporary healers could claim similar powers.
It is a question with no ultimate or clear answers. The existential dilemma is clearer. If divine intervention is a possibility, that intervention is random and possibly even cruel in its arbitrary intentions. As a community who have just lost two men of integrity who worked so hard for the good of those around them, the possibility of divine intervention is unthinkable.
It seems to make far more sense to believe in a divine power which fills the universe and dwells within human beings and human relationships. In this scheme it is not so much divine intervention as divine interconnection. The magnetic fields and the chemistry which can be ignited between people suggest the possibility of healing powers. The universe has a random pattern, which takes some people well before their time and leaves others well beyond theirs.
Prayer in this scheme is not so much asking a divine power to change the outcomes of a sickness as it is a commitment to positive energy flowing between and within people. This prayer is powerful and it includes a divine interconnection.
Getting back to the twin roles of Jesus in the first century, it seems no accident that in most cases Jesus healed people who were socially, religiously and politically on the edge. His healings were a challenge to the powers of that day to show compassion. They challenged the Greek philosophical belief in the survival of the fittest. They often included affirming or re-visioning the social status of those healed. They were an integral part of the revolution which Jesus launched to transform the exclusive and patriarchal power elite system of the day. They were part of his non-violent and radically inclusive mission to unite people of all conditions.
Jesus pushed social boundaries (e.g. touching a leper). He pushed religious boundaries (e.g.healing on the Sabbath). He pushed political boundaries by requesting that those healed remain silent. As Ched Myers points out, Jesus’ healing was political as he sought to transform the system of victimiser and victim. ( http://www.simonbarrow.net/article5.html )
Above all, in the healing miracles Jesus is affirmed as the Son of God. This doesn’t point to power as much as character. As Son of God, Jesus reveals the character of God, which is a preferential love for the struggler, the questioner and the outsider.
So, where does that leave us today? It certainly leaves us with unanswered questions and grief about loved ones who are lost. It leaves us also with an assurance of a God whose character is found in the connections of the universe; friends who care for us and fill our lives with positive energy, even healing. This God doesn’t intervene or not intervene. This God is the connections we make, the meaning we fill situations with.
It leaves us inspired to carry on the radical care and mission of Jesus. This will be a mission of compassion and social transformation. It will include a challenge of health care systems which are not open to all people and which favour the wealthy. It will include a challenge to religious and health systems which stigmatise people and treat them as no more than their conditions.
Current research in the UK is attempting to make the connection between positive thinking and healing. It is as yet inconclusive. However it points to the opportunity for the church. When the church is involved in life-affirming, proactive social justice work, personal and social healing it is continuing the healing ministry of Jesus. In this the church will reflect the face of Christ, the character of God to those who are struggling for hope.
Finally, the concept of alchemy is as good as any for describing the journey of life, healing and the connections which are divine. The fabled process of turning lead to gold parallels the human journey to transformation. The process is as significant as the result. As the Buddhist monk, Nyanaponika Thera said, “In almost every bad situation there is the possibility of a transformation by which the undesirable may be changed into the desirable.”
The journey through struggle is essential to the transformation, even the negative is part of the learning and healing. It is not so much God teaching lessons, as it is making the connections of life and the universe.
Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland, NZ, http://www.stmatthews.org.nz/