Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 8:1-20) transports me to an unidentified college campus in the state of Florida, on an unidentified date, probably sometime in the early 70s, when Will Campbell was invited to participate in a student conference on capital punishment. Brother Will, civil rights activist and author and un-steepled pastor to the highwaymen and other outlaw county musicians, only found out at the last minute that he was to debate a noted scholar on the subject, and the event was to be televised live before a college audience. The scholar was up first, and took up his entire 15 minutes with a well-researched argument in favor of the death penalty. Will slowly made his way to the podium to give his side of the argument, not sure what he was going to say. When he got to the mike, he spoke the only thing that came to his mind, I think it’s tacky, and sat back down. The nervous moderator, needing to fill in some tv time, clarified, Tacky? and Will confirmed his point. Yessir, I just think it’s tacky. Still needing to fill the time, the moderator asked him if he might expound on that word. Will explained that any Southerner worth his salt should know precisely what it meant, and how it applied to the situation. Tacky means something is ugly, he said, and if a thing is ugly, there is no beauty in it, and if there’s no beauty in it, there’s no truth, and if there’s no truth, there’s no good in it. I’m not sure what they did with the rest of his 15 minutes of tv time.
In another Will Campbell tale around the issue of capital punishment, a biblical scholar tried to downplay the oft-cited story in John’s gospel, where Jesus shows mercy and grants clemency to the woman caught in the capital crime of adultery. The scholar pointed out to Will that this passage in John’s gospel was not authoritative because it was a later addition. Will’s response was as concise and on point as his earlier one: They were all later additions. Everything in the gospel accounts are later additions, remembrances circulated in oral traditions that eventually got written down, much later than the actual accounts themselves. That the first few verses in John 8 aren’t found in the earliest known manuscripts may provide fodder for the scholars in the Jesus Seminar, but it raises an entirely different question for me. What was happening in the early church at the time of these later manuscripts? What could have provoked the story-tellers to suddenly remember this particular episode and insert it into the sacred text? I can only surmise that the question of capital punishment was somehow raising its ugly head. The application of Mosaic ethics, relative to the death penalty, must have been the subject of some debate. And there must have been someone in the inner circle of the Johannine community who thought the very idea of stoning a woman after dragging her out of some man’s adulterous bed sounded tacky. Ugly. No truth. No goodness. Especially in light of their understanding of our common ground as sinners, equally guilty under strict applications of the law, and equally redeemed under the application of Jesus’ love.
It seems to me that the contemporary church has something of the same responsibility as the early church of John’s day. We are called on to make some later additions, that is, to tell some Jesus stories to help us figure out how to apply the mosaic of law and grace that weaves its way into our daily lives. We can choose a Levitical approach, and justify all sorts of harsh punishments and condemnations for people who disrupt and destroy community life. Or we can choose, as I imagine the early church chose, a narrative approach, and remember some stories of grace. I imagine that there were back stories to this one of the woman freed from the consequences of adultery. There were stories of Moses, whose anger waxed hot one day, leading him to murder a man from the ruling class. There were stories of David, rapist and murderer. There were stories of Saul of Tarsus, guilty of hate crimes as he breathed threats and murder against the first Christians. Each of these represented a capital crime if there ever was such a thing. And yet all these narratives ended the same way. Capital mercy. There’s beauty in those stories. There’s truth and goodness. I don’t think that’s up for debate.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to respond, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.