This is the right occasion to blog about Matthew 18.15-17 even though I’ve blogged on it before. The reason why I feel compelled to blog on this is because of the Rick Warren Red Guard joke that appeared on last Monday. It has since been taken down, after numerous Asians and people from other races have pointed out the offense it gives to all decent Chinese folks, especially those who have gone through the Cultural Revolution. I’ve already said that I’m going to forgive him in a followup blog, and he eventually apologized for the misstep. So, here we are. Why do I belabor that point instead of “getting over it and moving on”?
As a specialist in the NT, I feel that this is a great teaching moment about interpretation. This problem persists as Tienanmen student leader, now citizen of the US, Chai Ling openly calls for forgiveness of the Chinese government’s act of massacre. Her theological acrobatic almost every year on the anniversary of Tienanmen massacre, 1989, has drawn a lot of heat from pro-democracy advocates. At the bottom of her one-sided forgiveness is a lack of understanding of what true biblical forgiveness actually means. I know a lot of Christians blame her for what she said, but many of us share the blame due to misunderstanding of texts such as Matthew 18.15-17. Her misunderstanding is not the only misunderstanding.
In my book Right Texts, Wrong Meanings, I’ve already given my interpretation of what Matthew 18.15-17 actually means. Since a lot very nice (and a few very hateful) people encouraged me to look at Matthew 18.15-17 in dealing with this controversy with Rick Warren, that’s what we’ll do together. I believe the same can apply to Chai Ling’s case of one-sided forgiveness. Most often, people interpret the passage as either about church discipline or about confrontation of the offender in church. The passage is ultimately not about either. Even less so is it about forgiveness of powerful people who unrepentantly and repeatedly step on toes. Now, I wish to talk about the implications and limitations of such a good biblical passage. First, let me observe the occasion for this passage because with each occasion of every narrative, there’s usually a main problem followed by subsidiary problems that probably relate to the main problem.
In principle, when we read a historical narrative, my first-year/first-semester students often make the passage a command about THEM. Let me sound the warning that no biblical passage is explicitly about YOU without taking into consideration of what kind of passage it is and what the main emphasis of the passage is. In narrative, we need to take into consideration of the narrative situation by asking why the narrative was written to begin with. Here’s the exegetical lesson for those who want to use Matthew 18 for everything having to do with conflicts.
The occasion is when the disciples asked “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18.1). Everything which follows seems to address this problem in one form or another. With every occasion, there’s a response. In this occasion, Jesus responded by using a little child to illustrate the lowly who would be great in the kingdom. The little one then is compared with the one lost sheep among the ninety nine. The little one, though powerless, is precious in the eyes of Jesus.
Yet, the discourse continues as it answers the main question, “Who is the greatest?” Our paragraph division of the Bible is not original. So, the discourse moves to the brother who sins against you. Who is the brother who sins against you? Well, he must be related to the original context; he’s the little one. If we imagine the parable of the lost sheep to be a sermon illustration, then the sinful brother discourse in Matt 18.15-20 would be the sermon body. I do not want to rehash my previous blog about “two or three witnesses”. Rather, I want us to pay attention to the context. Matthew, in a rare usage in the Gospels, used the word “church” even though the CHURCH has not been formed yet. Thus, what does “church” mean in the Greek without having its religions meaning of the Christian church? It actually means “assembly”. In other words, the context of offense is to be addressed ultimately in the assembly (i.e. synagogue) where there’re ultimate authorities who would judge each case. Although the sphere of such an assembly has its publicness, it is not the same kind of publicness of modern situations. The closest comparable situation would be a modern church with a set authority counsel at the top to judge cases.
Then, Jesus answered Peter’s final inquiry about how many times forgiveness had to happen in Matt 18.21ff. Allow me to observe that the forgiveness was given upon the erring brother (i.e. the little one) who would listen. It was not a cheap forgiveness many modern abusers of scriptures put on their victims. All forgiveness requires sincere acknowledgement that the offender is wrong and owes a debt to the offended (cf. Matthew 6.12). The main concern of Matthew 18 is still for the little one, but more specifically, the repentant little one. Jesus closed the discourse so strongly that whoever would not forgive the little one (i.e. the erring brother) who had repented, God would look upon the lack of forgiveness with gravity. The discussion could well be the expansion from earlier and abbreviated teaching in Matthew 6.14-15. Here, we’re still talking about the little one (aka the erring brother).
All right, the stage is set for comparison with the Rick Warren or Chai Ling case. Let’s rehash our findings from our exegesis of Matthew 18.15-17
- The main issue: the little one (the one who has no power)
- The location for resolution: religious and semi-public space
- The offender: a weak erring “little one”
- The offense: a singular person against another singular person
- Solution: repentance followed by forgiveness
This layout will already give you the big difference between Jesus’ context and the context of Rick Warren’s Facebook or the Chinese government. On his Facebook, what are our findings.
- The main issue: who is the little one?
- The location for resolution: public secular cyberspace called Facebook followed by blog sphere or news outlet for open letters such as Chai Ling’s.
- Solution: repentance followed by forgiveness
Let’s now see the differences.
- The main issue: who is the little one? As a minority in American Christendom with a lesser voice, I would say the Asian Christians primarily are little ones (i.e. brothers and sisters). Rick Warren is in the position of power. So is the Chinese government who continues to abuse human rights not just of Christians but of all dissenting voices. We already see the shifting of the main issue when we compare the situation of the Bible to this event.
- The location for resolution: public secular sphere
Here’s where a little understanding of geography will help us. I know geographers like Chinglican here can say far more than I can imagine. A location is just a place with no name unless we can see the function of the location. In other words, the symbolism of each location, given by its name, has a purpose and function. The function dictates what goes on in that place. Already, we can see that Rick Warren’s Facebook is not the church community. It is not the synagogue. It is an open access space controlled by him and his staff. Neither is any public outlet for news where open letters and interviews can be recorded. There’s no assumed privacy of the church community. Rather, there’s a control exerted by those in power of the site. Comments such as “why don’t you people stop boiling and eating cats and dogs” eventually would be deleted by the administrator (yes, this actually was posted against the Asians who were unhappy about the joke) without any need for remorse, handshake or reconciliation. Unlike a synagogue or the church, there’s no “face-to-face” (pardon the pun) on Facebook. The owner of the Facebook, in this case, Saddleback, can control the kind of image it projects and shape it like clay dough to present a positive public image. A public apology, for instance, would make Pastor Rick look weak. An apology and reparation from China would make it even look weaker, and that government must keep its facade of world power. Instead, the deletion of the offensive posts and its many hateful comments would make the whole situation go away. The same can go for censorship in China. PR done! This however is not how the church works. You simply can’t put Matthew 18 on this kind of public sphere where the control falls into the hand of the powerful (web admin) instead of a council of elders of the synagogue or the church. In fact, due to the power structure of the location, the offender can erase any offense with no trace of historical record. Both cases amounts to revisionism and in the case of China, censorship.
Now imagine in my life of writing. Writing something into words is already an activity of the public sphere. For example, if one of my books get reviewed and the reviewer got really offended at something I wrote, s/he has no obligation to do the Matthew 18.15-17 with me. He can just write it up in a review. Of course, a journal can contact me and ask me if I want to respond because a debate always increases readership. I don’t have the obligation to respond either but I may, depending on what the reviewer sees as offensive. He can say that my book is totally rubbish without me ever having to respond, and he would not violate Matthew 18.15-17. Public spheres obligates the speaker and writer but not the readers and listeners in their responses.
In public sphere like Facebook where uneven balance of power exists, people can’t just hide behind a privacy text like Matthew 18. Public abuse of any kind of power will get public backlash. If one does not like it, then maybe Facebook is the wrong medium to communicate. Scholars have argued that public expression and trespasses will carry public (not private, two or three witnesses) responsibility. A friend also pointed out to me that the Niebuhrs did it, Barth did it, Tillich have all called out people on public responsibility. Public speech is agonistic. Public speech can be heated. If you don’t believe me, just look at all the posts that try to hint at application of Matthew 18 on any blog criticizing public boo boo’s of Christian celebrity. Ironically, they posted the comments PUBLICLY in blogs, but not many Christians get the irony. Unlike the church where there’s a degree of privacy and membership, public speech is confronted publicly. Public figurers have to bear that burden, unless they move away from the public square when they started.
So, let’s not mistake one location for another or one function of space for another, and focus on the similarity between the situation and the concern of the passage. If you look at the original post that was deleted, the lesser voice, the weaker voice, the little “brother” would be the Asian objectors. Overwhelmingly, the strong voices were the “atta boy, Pastor Rick. It’s a funny joke.” In the case of China, the little ones would be those who lost their lives, especially Christians who have lost theirs for no good reason other than believing in Jesus. The strong voice over there in the government would be those who still claim that China (and its colony Hong Kong) has “relative freedom of speech.” The emphasis, of course, is the word “relative”.
The manner of offense is also important, if we look at the location. The offense of which Matthew 18.15-17 speaks is from one person to another person or at most a very small group. That is reasonable to assume because Jesus was dealing with 1st-century synagogue situation. This is vastly different from the present case. In this case, one singular person (whose influence eventually spreads to an entire group of his followers) offends an entire group. Sure, not every Asian is equally offended, but a very large percentage is. Neither is every Chinese student leader equally offended at China (e.g. Chai Ling), but the publicness of the act and not personal/private feelings dictates the nature of offense.
Now, to our final point of real difference between the Rick Warren or Chai Ling/China case and the case of Matthew 18.15-17, who’s the offender and the offended? As I said above, It’s a powerful person or government who offended an entire minority group (in the case of China, the minority would be those who spoke up for freedom and paid for it with their lives). Though culture is a shifting sand, cultural offensive has an substantial dimension. Matthew 18 clearly says that the biggest person is the little person. In rape counseling, the private confrontation of rapist with victim does not work. To force a victim to forgive face to face when the powerful rapist is committing the crime will only further victimize the victim. Jesus was giving this command in the light of the situation when the offender was the weak little one, the erring brother, not the strong offender. Jesus realized the power disparity needed to be handled carefully. Pastor Rick is a powerful person with a publicist and a huge church. The Chinese government has the biggest cyber spying network to control information and to get the low-down on its good citizens. The group he offended are the ignored minority in the whole butt of the joke he cracked. In the case of China, the situation is even worse. How is any of this similar to Matthew 18? I’m doing careful exegesis here. We simply can’t do “fast and furious” with Jesus’ words, unless you don’t really believe his words mean all that much. With powerful offenders, you deal with them a different way which Matthew 18.15-17 does not address. If we want to be truly biblical, we can just read other parts of Matthew 18. For instance, Matthew 18.6 tells us that the powerful who stumble the little ones would be warned about a grave judgment the equivalence of having a millstone induced drowning. In Matthew 18, there is not one way, but many ways depending on the power-relationship. The main issue of the disciples’ questions is power.
The real issue of Matthew 18 is not to force the victim or the weaker party to forgive or to reach out. The main issue of Matthew 18 is the power of the little one, not the powerful one. Who then is the little person and how is his or her need being met? Not many are willing to address it. Thus, if anyone wants to quote Matthew 18, let’s do serious exegesis and see what the real point is. You’d be surprised by the result, and why not? The kingdom is surprising. It is often not to our liking. For Christians, the Bible doesn’t always have to say what we want it to say. The Bible does not serve us. Quotation of a few selected verses only does violence to the whole biblical message.
To summarize, the differences between Matthew 18.15-17 and the present situation com in four categories: main issue, power disparity, public/private spaces and the manner of offense.
My post shows that certain “magic bullet” passages we abuse only expose our inadequacy not only as interpreters, but also as theologians and even as geographers. If you want to apply the text, at least get the sphere right. The interpretation and application are dependent on three things: context, context, and context.
As I always say, the text is not the problem, the interpreter is.
PS. I do not want to dismiss some of the good work done by Chai Ling for women victims of the one-child policy in China, but her annual sharing about her forgiveness at the Tienanmen massacre anniversary betrays an incomplete understanding of biblical forgiveness.