Not in the middle

Following Jesus does not mean we straddle the middle when it comes to the Culture War. The story of the woman who is healed when she touches the hem of his garment illustrates Jesus' response to a cultural problem.

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Jesus is facing a particularly potent cultural problem in Mark 5. On his way to heal the daughter of a man named Jairus, a crowd forms around him and follows him. Among this crowd is a woman who has been subject to bleeding for 12 years. She is an unclean woman.

Why is this such a problem for Jesus? There was a clear pattern within Jewish culture. Ceremonial cleanness was incredibly important—a number of the laws of the Torah reflected this. And not only that, but it was known that “uncleanness” was contagious. If an unclean thing came into contact with anything else, it automatically became unclean and defiled. This was the pattern: What was unclean spread, but what was clean did not; what was unholy spread, but what was holy did not.

So now this unclean woman stands before Jesus and seeks to touch him, hoping against hope that even grazing the garment of this man will bring her relief, healing, acceptance, cleansing. What is Jesus to do?

Warriors and diplomats

This is a bit of a generalization, but I think Christians today tend to respond to similar cultural situations in one of two ways. On the one hand, we have Culture Warriors. These folks see a culture that has wholesale rejected the Christian sexual ethic and is utterly antagonistic toward Christian belief. They read Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and reason that they, therefore, must fight for what is right. They must stand against the world for Christ.

This is a bit of a generalization, but I think Christians today tend to respond to similar cultural situations in one of two ways. On the one hand, we have Culture Warriors…. On the other hand, we have Culture Diplomats.

On the other hand, we have Culture Diplomats. These folks see problems abounding in our culture as well—racism, poverty and other issues of social justice. But they read 1 Corinthians 6:22, where Paul says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” and reason that, rather than fighting the culture, they ought to work within the culture. They must stand in the world for Christ.

This is a rhetorical exercise—many do not fall so neatly into one side or the other—but, broadly speaking, there are inherent dangers, temptations to these approaches. According to a 2021 Pew Research survey, the number of white Americans who self-identified as evangelicals actually increased between 2016 and 2020, from 25 to 29 percent. But this seeming success on one front of the Culture War is belied by the lack of increase in church attendance at the average evangelical church. What’s going on?

It seems, as political scientist Ryan Burge points out, that millions of Americans have been drawn to the political association evangelicalism has with the Republican party, rather than to the person of Jesus Christ. The Culture Warrior risks making his position more about his posture—fight—than about the person he is supposedly fighting for—Jesus

The Culture Diplomat’s weakness, as H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out so many years ago, is to remove any and all tension between his understanding of Christianity and the culture. In attempting to become all things to all people, the Culture Diplomat can merge Christianity and culture, thus being won for the culture rather than winning for Christ.

Placed in Jesus’ shoes, how might these two categories respond to the unclean woman? The Culture Warrior might want to stand on purity. The unclean woman should be kept away until she is clean, whenever and however that may be. But this desire for righteousness comes at a great cost of love and mercy.

The Culture Diplomat might want to stand with the unclean woman, identify with her and become unclean along with her. But this admirable desire to be gracious leaves the same intractable problem of uncleanness. The woman does not want more people to become unclean with her—she wants to be healed!

Jesus’ response

But then we see what Jesus does. In Mark 5, this suffering, unclean woman, desperate to be healed and purified, comes to Jesus and touches the hem of his garment. If the old pattern held, we would expect Jesus to be made unclean. But when she touches Jesus, she is healed. In Christ, we see a dramatic reversal of the pattern. The unclean is made clean. The sick is healed. The unholy is made holy.

Jesus does not shoo away the unclean person, nor does he revel in what is unclean. He becomes like her so she can become like him.

In this, Jesus radically fulfills the best of what both tendencies are after. Jesus identifies himself with this woman, and more than she can know—the Word became flesh and, in Eugene Peterson’s memorable paraphrase, “moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus is tried and tempted, Jesus gets tired and hungry, Jesus is abandoned and lonely, for her, for this woman, for you and me.

And Jesus upholds purity. For his identifying with her is not simply some sympathetic stance of compassion. He identifies with her so she can identify with him. He takes on her uncleanness so she can become clean. He bears terrible wounds for our transgressions so we can be healed. He assumes what was worse so he can give what was better.

Jesus does not shoo away the unclean person, nor does he revel in what is unclean. He becomes like her so she can become like him.

“Not in the middle” 

There are many terms for this approach to culture. Some call it a “third-way” approach. In his book Biblical Critical Theory, Christopher Watkin calls it “diagonalization”—“cutting across and rearranging false culture dichotomies.” John Stott describes it particularly well by saying that Christianity finds truth “not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.” What we see is that Christ fulfills in his life, death and resurrection the best of what these opposing approaches have to offer.

This is a way to be a Christian in the world. With regard to bodily autonomy, where the left says, “My body, my choice,” in reference to abortion, and the right says, “my body, my choice,” in reference to forced vaccinations, the Christian says, “I am not my own, but my body belongs to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Where some praise wealth as an inherent good and others praise poverty as something inherently noble, Jesus, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

Being “salt and light” in the world does not mean clinging to our purity by avoiding salt- neutralizing acids or darkness. Neither does it mean becoming like the acids or darkness themselves. It means being like Jesus. Because he became like us so we could become like him.

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