Sunday, May 25, 2014

Proclaim Freedom

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Decades ago, at our previous church, a new parish priest invited the congregation to join him in memorizing the passage above, Luke 4:18-19.

It was his way of announcing that our role, as Christains, was to follow Christ in enacting that anointing: proclaiming good news to the poor and freedom for prisoners, aiding in recovery of sight, actively, courageously, setting the oppressed free.

Freedom is mentioned twice there: freedom for prisoner. Freedom for the oppressed.

As we give thanks this Memorial Day weekend for those who have sacrificed to further the cause of freedom, I find myself wondering: what does it mean, now, today, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, to set the oppressed free?

During our travels to Greece, we spent a day in Corinth, one of the wealthiest commercial cities during the time of Christ.

We visited the the diolkos,  the paved passageway that allowed a five mile portage of ships across the Isthmian strait from the Aegean to Ionian Sea, and we stopped by the ruins at Kenchreai , the Corinthian port that served the trade routes heading west to Rome and other European ports.

Periodic earthquakes (most recently in 1858) prompted a population shift to an area several miles northeast of the original city, allowing more extensive archaeological investigation of ancient site than in cities like Thessaloniki, or even Athens, where new building has continually taken place on top of old.

Our group walked through the agora, often translated “marketplace” in the New Testament but, as our guide Costos Tsevas explained, more accurately “assembly” or “gathering place,” the center of political, philosophical, civil discourse. 

We gathered on the bema, the stone platform where citizens came to receive awards, face punishment, or take their allotted three minutes to present their point of view.

We saw the broken stone pillar, strangely worn and etched, reputed to be the post where prisoners, including the Apostle Paul, were beaten.

And we stared up at the Acrocorinth, the imposing castle high on the monolithic rock where the wealthy of the city lived in the shadow of the temple of Aphrodite

Ancient Corinth and Acrocorinth
Costos described the role of the pornai and heterais who plied their trade through the city streets, offering mystical union with the goddess through sexual encounter, and wearily carrying their profits up the steep road to the Acrocorinth.

The pornai were among the lowest tier of slaves, sent out by their owners to collect what they could of the currency flowing through the city. The heterai were more elite sex workers, in Corinth most often owned by the temple of Aprhrodite. Around 2 BC, an observer, Strabo, wrote: 
 “The temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it employed more than a thousand hetairas, whom both men and women had given to the goddess. Many people visited the town on account of them, and thus these hetairas contributed to the riches of the town: for the ship captains frivolously spent their money there, hence the saying: ‘The voyage to Corinth is not for every man’. 
Standing among the rocky ruins of Corinth, I could feel the weight of oppression: worship of a goddess who ensnared both men and women, physical enslavement enforced through force, sex used to further commerce, a sharp divide between wealthy owners and the miserable underclass, living only to serve the whim of the rich.

Paul, and those who joined him, proclaimed freedom: freedom from bondage to gods and goddesses who offered nothing and demanded constant sacrifice of wealth, wine, animals, captives, slaves, maybe even children (as when King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia).

Freedom, as well, from a culture that used sex as currency and considered trade a value far higher than compassion or human dignity.

Freedom from participation in evil and the resulting condemnation.

Freedom from unrestrained self-indulgence.

Freedom for slaves?

Paul didn’t advocate immediate freeing of every slave, an impossibility in an economy where more than half the population was held in slavery and a large percent of non-slaves lived on the edge of starvation. He did, though, hold up a vision in which slave and free would be treated as equal, where generosity and kindness took priority over profit. In the short book of Philemon, he asked that the runaway slave Onesimus be treated as his own son, embraced as slave-owner Philemon’s brother, be given whatever privilege or hospitality Paul himself would receive. 

Costos led our group to an inscription set in stone near the ancient theater of Corinth:
"Erastus in return for his aedileship laid the pavement at his own expense.” 
The tradition was for wealthy citizens in prominent political positions to underwrite capital improvements during their time in office. This Erastus, as an “aedile,” would have been responsible for public buildings, festivals, and enforcement of public order, and the pavement would have been evidence of his time in office, his commitment to Corinth, as well as of his wealth.

Was he the same Erastus mentioned by Paul as a city treasurer (Romans 16:23), then coworker in the early church? (Actrs 19:22, 2 Timoty 4:20).  Costos quietly pointed out that if some of the church in Corinth were former temple prostitutes, now set free to pursue a new life, someone must have provided the funds to free them. Erastus, as a prominent citizen, would be a likely candidate to make that happen.

Certainly, the evidence trail on that possibility iscontested, yet it raises the question: in a society so deeply divided, with wealthy merchants living like kings, and others crowded into hovels, this good news Paul proclaimed would demand a radical shift on the part of the wealthy: to open their homes to the poor and enslaved, to sit beside those they had been trained to consider “andrapodon,” “one with the feet of a man,” as opposed to “tetrapodon” or "quadruped", the term used to designate animal livestock.

In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul made clear that a genuine understanding of the new "way" Jesus offered would require followers of Christ to become servants of each other, putting the needs of others first, choosing to do what would ensure the health and growth of the weakest, poorest member. Paul repeatedly asked the Corinthians to consider themselves slaves to each other: even to the least shonored. The one of no reputation.

As I track through the history of the church and of slavery, it seems to me that one gauge of the church’s health and witness is it’s willingness to embrace the cause of the slave and to stand against whatabolitionist William Wilberforce called “the mortal disease of all political communities”: the innate self-centeredness “that clouds our moral vision and blunts our moral sensitivity.”    

This week’s Time magazine (May 26, 2014) carries an article titled “Bring Back All Girls: What the 276 Girls Abducted from a Nigerian School Tell Us about Human Trafficking.”

What the article tells us: nearly 30 million people worldwide are exploited and treated like property.

4.5 million of those are subject to sexual exploitation.

A thriving market in prostitution and forced marriage enjoys enormous profits from the misery of uneducated, unprotected girls.

Human trafficking is now the second largest global criminal activity, second only to the drug trade.

I’ve written before about modern day slavery: Chocolate Dreams, Freedom is Indivisible, Seeking Justice

And yes, I buy fair trade chocolate, sign petitions, look for ways to support a more equitable economy.

But I’m haunted by a scene I watched in a rest stop outside New York City one evening. I was traveling home on I-95, the road that connects the northeastern cities, and saw a young teen girl and woman in the rest room. 

Something didn’t seem right: the girl’s clothes not quite what a girl traveling with her family would wear on a Saturday night, the woman watching a little too closely. As I headed out toward my parked car, they exited in the opposite direction, toward the lines and lines of trucks.

Sometimes we see but don’t see.

Know but choose not to know.

Double-guess ourselves.

Explain it away.

The Polaris Project, a national non-profit committed to ending human trafficking in the United States, offers a 24-7 hotline, for anonymous tips, calls for help, questions about how to spot traffickers.

Polaris Project Hotline Map
I’ve put the number on my cell phone: 1-888-373-7888.

The project publishes an interactive map showing trafficking hotspots.

That rest area?

In the heart of the biggest US hotspot.

It’s easy to grieve the slavery of Corinth, lament the evil of the cross-Atlantic slave trade.

Harder to acknowledge that more people are in slavery today that at any previous time in history. Some not far from my home, along the routes I travel.

Jesus said “proclaim freedom.”

I still wonder: How?

for more about the US hotline and anti-trafficking networks 

for international trafficking information 

This is the third in a series, Texts in Context, revisiting two weeks spent in Greece.
Earlier posts: 
Texts in Context: Yassas!
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Reputedly Socrates prison; on Filapappos Hill, Athens
Beautiful Greece is a land of mysteries.

The land itself holds mysteries. There are caves everywhere, more than 10,000 charted caves, some so extensive they’ve never been fully explored. The Acropolis, in the heart of Athens, sits above a network of caves, and throughout the Greek hills and islands there are shallow caves used as homes, storage, animals sheds, prisons, even inns. In a nation where the sea is never more than 85 miles away, there are also thousands of underwater caves, caves carved into cliff face, caves that offer passage to underground lakes and rivers.

There are also springs – water welling up in caves, in rocks, high up on rocky crags. Some of the springs yield clear, clean, ice cold water – like the spring in the center of Berea, where I drank cold water spilling from a fountain in a rock wall. Some springs are the perfect temperature to bathe in; some too hot to enter. In some, the water bubbles, or steams, or smells of sulfur. Some taste sour, or salty. Many have been considered therapeutic, even curative, since long before Plato. 

During my time in Greece, I traveled by metro and bus to Vougliameni Lake, 15 miles south of Athens. It was formed when a cavern collapsed, and in several places low-ceillinged caves lead off into the rock below Mount Hymettos. The lake is fed by a mix of springs, some salty, others from somewhere deep underground. Its temperature is 75 Fahrenheit year round and like most springs in Greece, it’s slightly radioactive. Even today, Greek doctors prescribe time in Vouliagmeni for a wide mix of symptoms. The site is wheel-chair accessible and attendants are on hand to help lower visitors into the water.

Vougliameni Lake
In the 1970s, three divers exploring the chambers and tunnels of Vouliagmeni disappeared. A photographer searching for them years later also disappeared. 29 years later, the first three bodies were recovered; the photographer is still missing.

In some ways, that’s a recurring story in Greece: strange springs bringing water from the underworld; subterranean chambers providing passage between life and death.

On our first day of travel with Biblical Tours Greece, we took a bus through the busy streets of Athens, out toward the Peloponnesian peninsula. Costos Tsevas, our guide, directed our attention past the petrol refineries lining the coast to the hills of Elefsena, home of Demeter, Persephone, and  the Eleusinian mystery cult.

The story of Demeter and Persephone is one I thought I knew well. After all, I was Demeter in a third-grade play, my long dark hair draped over a carefully wrapped sheet. I stood on the Prospect Hill stage, grieving the disappearance of  my daughter into the underworld, where she was held captive by Hades. Eventually, Hades agreed to return her, but since she’d broken her hunger strike by eating several pomegranate seeds during her time in the underworld, she was forced to return there for an equal number of months each year  – yielding three or four months of wintry darkness.

Somehow, our third grade production had missed the cave connection, and the ongoing history of the Demeter story. For over a thousand years, the Eleusinian mystery cult drew initiates to a multi-day ritual that reenacted the drama of Demeter and Persephone and prepared participants to cross the boundaries of the supernatural. After procession along “the sacred way,’ the road from Athens to Eleusia, (now Elefsena), the path led through the gates of Hades, a cave in the face of the Eleusainian hillside, and into the Telesterion, at one time the largest construction in the world, where the most secret rites of initiation took place.

Reading more about the Eleusinian mysteries and the power they held for many hundreds of years in the region around Athens, I discovered theories about the influence of the “mysteries” on the early Christian church, conjecture about the secrets of the mysteries and the possible uses of hallucinogenic libations or incense. attempts to link the Apostle Paul to mystery rites of both Elueusia and Tarsus,

I found myself reading the places in his letters where Paul talks about mysteries. His use of that word sometimes puzzled me in the past, but in light of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the Mythraic mysteries of Paul’s own hometown, his choice of that word seems clearer.

The mystery religions of Paul’s day depended on esoteric knowledge, ecstatic experience, and complete secrecy. In Eleusis and Athens, speaking of “the mysteries” was punishable by death. Mithras may have been even more secretive; women were not admitted, and rituals were carried out in underground caverns.

But when Paul speaks of “mystery,” he does so in the context of revelation: that what was not known is now known. That what has been revealed should be shared with all.

In Colossians 2, Paul writes:
 I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 
As I read through Paul’s epistles, I see his sympathy with those who are fearful of death and hungry for understanding.

Paul offered access to a mystery more constant than a night of narcotic-induced euphoria, a communal experience more substantial and lasting than an annual participation in a series of prescribed enactments.

I know many contemporaries who would say "they’re all equal." The mystery cults, the Jewish tradition, the Christian faith are equally valid, or equally invalid. There’s no one “sacred way,” no one revelation that offers full understanding, no one “mystery” that resolves all others.

Reading Paul’s letters, researching the religions of his day, revisiting in my mind the rough terrain he traveled so tirelessly, I realize he wrestled with the same objections, the same arguments.

What he knew, and believed, he knew and believed from the inside out: God had revealed himself in a way that made sense of the laws, the stories, the traditions, the overlapping questions.

What he knew, and believed, was not from his own conjecture, his own imagination, his own mental manipulations.  It was given in a moment of surprising revelation, shattering all previous agendas, all tightly held convictions.

That’s the amazing mystery of the early church:  men and women shaken from prior certainty, compelled by a new understanding, set free on a path so different from any prior path that they startled their neighbors,
Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627, Amsterdam
disrupted social patterns, outraged authority.

And shared it – consistently, creatively, courageously – even when threatened, beaten, imprisoned, exiled.


The mystery religions vanished, almost entirely, in 392 after an edict by Roman Emporer Theodocius.

Meanwhile the Christian faith continued, and continues, to spread, sometimes by misguided political force or conquest, but more often, and more consistently, by the continued awakening of men and women whose previous agendas and tightly held convictions have been shattered by an encounter with the living mystery, Christ himself.

Riding the tour bus from Athens to Corinth, reading and talking with Scripture Union friends, I found myself thinking of the ways the mystery of faith in Christ has shaken each of us, shaped us, set us on strange paths, refined our vision and refocused our agendas.

If we added the years devoted to the gospel by our small group, the total would be well into the centuries. And if we totaled the countries touched by the work of that one group, the reach would span the globe: clubs and camps for kids in hundreds of communities; training for pastors, youth workers, teachers; Bibles and books in countries where books are hard to come by.

I’m thankful for all. And all the others I know, and will never know, who celebrate with joy the greatest mystery.

To repeat Paul’s words in Colossians, rephrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
I want you to realize that I continue to work as hard as I know how for you. . . . Not many of you have met me face-to-face, but that doesn’t make any difference. Know that I’m on your side, right alongside you. You’re not in this alone.
I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries.

This is the second in a series, Texts in Context, revisiting two weeks spent in Greece.
The first: Texts in Context: Yassas!

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Texts in Context: Yassas!


That’s Greek for hello, goodbye, cheers, “to you!”

And a makeshift “thank you” for those (like me) who can’t quite manage efkharistó (eff-car-ee-STOH), the official Grecian “thank you.”

I recently spent two weeks in Greece and every time I tried to say a proper “efkharistó” I was rewarded with puzzled looks and general incomprehension. The receptionist at our hotel suggested an easier alternative might be to say “yassas!” when I entered, when I left, and whenever a thank you, or other general greeting, was needed.

Then she tried to complicate things by explaining that “yassas,” written Γειά σας, geia sas, or yia sas, is plural, or “formal,” while “yassou”, written γεια σου, gia sou, yia shoe, is singular, or informal. So while I could say “yassou” to her, or a shopkeeper, or a waiter, she, and they, would need to say “yassas” to me.

I'm not big on status distinctions (a customer is "above" a shopkeeper or waiter? in what way?) so I finally decided that “yassas” would work in any situation, and sure enough, a friendly “yassas” brought an equally friendly “yassas” (or, sometimes, “Ya!”) in return, and sometimes prompted conversations about what natioanality I might be (Italiká? Germanós?) Apparently, most Americans don't bother with even simple greetings. 

My time in Greece was prompted by my husband Whitney’s need to attend a series of meetings with international Scripture Union colleagues, so our first week was spent in the company of Scripture Union friends from a mix of other countries.

I was reminded, in conversation with these multilingual friends, that as a native English speaker my understanding of language, of translation, of the interplay of meaning and words, is shaped by my experience as a monolinguist in a world where I have the luxury of expecting literature, media, politics, finance to meet me in my mother tongue.
Scripture Union friends near the steps to Mars Hill

There are plenty of benefits to growing up immersed in English.

Yet, as I talk with friends from smaller linguistic populations who grew up fluent in second, sometimes third and fourth languages, I’m aware that there are benefits to engaging words, texts and ideas in unfamiliar linguistic contexts.

Among other benefits of multilingualism, "children and older persons learning foreign languages have been demonstrated to:
  • have a keener awareness and sharper perception of language;
  • be more capable of separating meaning from form;
  • display generally greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher-order thinking skills;
  • see their own culture from a new perspective not available to monoglots, enabling the comparison, contrast, and understanding of cultural concepts. 
Here's an observation I find intriguing: "a person who speaks multiple languages has a stereoscopic vision of the world” ( Vivian Cook, 2001).

I wrote last week about the way the “plausibility structures” of our culture can shape and define our understanding of what’s possible. There’s interesting research suggesting that our language itself can limit our comprehension. We see and understand what we have words for; we miss the reality that slips by the contours of our language.

A simple example: words for color. In English, we have eleven basic colors. Some languages have only two (dark and light), some have four (white, black, red, green). Some have twelve. Just a few variations:
  • Latin originally lacked a generic color word for "gray" and "brown" and had to borrow its words from Germanic language sources.
  • Classical Greek is said to not have had different names for blue and black.
  • Biblical Hebrew had no word for blue.
  • Navajo has one word for both grey and brown and one for blue and green. It has two for black, however, distinguishing the color of "coal" from that of "darkness".
  • Russian, Italian, and Greek  have different basic words for darker and lighter shades of blue. Russian has голубой and синий; Italian has azzuro and blu; Greek has γαλάζιο and μπλ.   
Another simple example: the Inuit of North America have at least a dozen words for snow, and ten or more for ice. Examples
  • qanik snow falling
  • aputi snow on the ground
  • pukak crystalline snow on the ground
  • aniu snow used to make water
  • siku ice in general
  • nilak freshwater ice, for drinking
  • qinu slushy ice by the sea 
I wrote earlier this year about the multiple words for love offered in classic Greek: agápe, éros, philía, storgē, ludus, pragma, mania, philautia. Even now, Greek offers more variations on “love” than English. Here’s a fun, slightly puzzling experiment: google translate “love.”  Then try to reverse it. The idea of a one-for-one transference quickly disappears.

Thinking about languages, the hazards of monolingualism, the benefits of multilingualism, I came across an interesting historical discussion: what language did Jesus speak? And what is the original language of the New Testament?

As members of a small nation frequently conquered by the powers of the day, as part of a people group needing a language of trade to do business with the surrounding economies, most Jews of Jesus’ day spoke Hebrew, did business in Aramaic, read classic Greek, and would have known at least a little Latin.

While there are some scholars who argue that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and others who posit an Aramaic New Testament, the general consensus is that the early texts were written in Koine Greek, a “common” Greek used as the regional language throughout the area conquered by Alexander the Great. Even the Romans depended on Koine Greek in administering the Roman Empire, while Latin was the language of the military and the courts.

Biblical Tours Greece: Voula Kalapoda, Costos Tsevas,
and Theo  Karvounakis
During our time in Greece, we had the great privilege of spending time with staff from Hellenic Scripture Union and the guides of their Biblical Tours. On a chilly March morning forty-some Scripture Union representatives from over a dozen countries boarded a bus to visit Corinth. Our guide, Costos Tsevas, lost no time in explaining his goal of setting Biblical texts in context: geographic, historic, linguistic. He suggested that the linguistic, even philosophical context of a regional Greek language and habit of discourse enabled the rapid spread of the Christian faith in a way that would not have been possible in other times and places.

As he talked, I dug in my bag for paper and pen and found myself taking notes on the back of our itinerary, on the margins of a map. Through Costos, and his years of training as a guide, his years of reading about Biblical texts, his lifetime speaking of Greek and bridging the divide between Greek and English, I found myself seeing and hearing in new ways.

Members of the group were asked to read parts of passages in English, with the warning that they'd be interrupted. "Wait," Costos would say mid-text. "Read what that says again. Now in Greek, it says . . ." and he'd be off, explaining the fuller meaning of a term, showing how translation had flattened, skewed, or in some other way altered an important concept. 

I will never know another language well enough to have that “stereoscopic vision of the world” available to speakers of multiple languages, but through time spent with Costos, and then further travels to other Biblical sites with his colleague, Voula Kalapoda, I have new insights into Biblical texts and their contexts.

I”ll be working through my notes in the weeks ahead, posting insights, sharing observations and some of my thousand or so photos.

And remembering, with great gratitude, the welcome and generosity we experienced in beautiful, wonderful Greece.