Monday, September 06, 2004

Reading Matthew... part 2

Interpretation, by definition, is always perspectival and particular. In other words, everything-including the supposedly objective historical-critical method-is reader response. My selective literary analysis of Matthew as imperializing text presupposes the reality of empire as backdrop to the construction of the narrative. Many Filipinos employ a similar assumption when engaging Filipino resistance literature: Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Francisco Baltazar's Florante at Laura, and Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart. My analysis does not equate the Gospel of Matthew with historical facts. What it does is argue that the Gospel is a narrative discourse constructed and framed by a particular historical setting, in this case the Roman Imperial occupation. Anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon and educator Paolo Freire show that dynamics leading to literary production exist not only between the colonizer and the colonized, but also between various interest groups of the colonized, some of which try to gain power to define national cultural identity, as well as to compete for the attention of their collective oppressor. My analysis argues that Matthew is not rejecting the imperialism of its time but is seeking its favor, or at least condoning it.
My reading also presupposes resistance, as reflected in what activist Salud Algabre and historian Reynaldo Ileto call "little traditions." Algabre and Ileto memorialize all those resistance fighters that have been victimized by the violence of institutionalized forgetting, a fate most of the unnamed children in Matthew share. These traditions coincide with the argument of postcolonial theorists that in the wake of imperial reality lies the inverted, deconstructing dynamic of resistance/fear, where the margins actually take the initiative, and the center is forced into a reactive position.
I agree with New Testament scholar Musa Dube who posits the following questions in order to measure whether Matthew is an imperializing text or not: Does the text offer an explicit stance for or against the political imperialism of its time? Does the narrative encourage travel to distant and inhabited lands and how does it justify such travel? How does the narrative construct difference? Is there dialogue and liberating interdependence? Or is there condemnation and replacement of all that is foreign and "other"? Is the celebration of difference authentic or mere tokenism? Does the text employ representations to construct relationships of subordination and domination?
Using these questions to analyze Matthew's rhetoric, Dube concludes that the implied author's stance toward the imperial powers of his time presents the imperial rule and its agents as holy and acceptable. Matthew constructs a politically un-subversive Jesus and encourages travel to distant and inhabited lands. The positive presentation of empire and the decision to take the word to the nations (28:16-20) is born within and as a result of stiff competition for power over the crowds (Israel) and the favor of the empire. In envisioning the mission to the nations, Matthew's model embodies imperialistic values and strategies. It does not seek relationships of liberating interdependence between nations, cultures, and genders. Rather, it upholds the superiority of some races and advocates the subjugation of differences by relegating other races to inferiority. Matthew's model employs gender representations to create relationships of subordination and domination by featuring the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) and the centurion (8:5-13) in contrasting stories foreshadowing the mission to the nations. Matthew's presentation of Pilate, his wife, the Roman soldiers at the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus show a clear-cut pro-empire position (27:1-28:15).
The encounter between the centurion and Jesus, according to Dube, particularly highlights Matthew's stance toward the empire. Both men are presented as having authority that effect things simply by the power of their words (vv. 8-9). Dube continues: the paralleling of Jesus' authority with that of the centurion's has the effect of sanctifying imperial powers. Jesus pronounces the centurion's faith as surpassing the faith of everyone in Israel (v.10), a statement that contrasts the imperial agent with the colonized and exalts his righteousness above them. The passage casts imperial officials as holier beings and predicts that they, and other groups, will have more power. Such characterization not only disguises what imperial agents represent, institutions of exploitation and oppression, but also pronounces imperialism as holy and acceptable. A quick survey of the reception history of Matthew and centuries of Western colonization, euphemistically called "civilizing missions," in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shows that most interpreters followed the gospel's imperial rhetoric.
Back to my metaphor, the centurion is to Matthew as the 30-caliber machinegun mount is to the military jeep. To read Matthew inside a jeepney is to celebrate the fact that the first thing Filipinos did in their transformation of the military jeep is get rid of that machine gun mount. To read Matthew inside a jeepney is to remove our gaze from the centurion-and even Jesus who mimics the centurion-and focus it upon someone else. I suggest privileging the servant, pais in Greek, of 8:5-13.
The pais, whether I translate it son, daughter, girl, boy, servant, slave, or sex slave, is a child and he or she serves to remind flesh and blood readers that the reality of empire-in varying forms and degrees-is experienced by children and by those constructed as "children." Political sociologist Ashis Nandy, in Leela Gandhi's Postcolonial Theory, draws attention to the colonial use of homology between childhood and the state of being colonized.
Fred Atkinson, the first American General Superintendent of Education in the Philippines, inaugurated over a century of racist public education in the islands when he remarked: "The Filipino people, taken as a body, are children and childlike, do not know what is best for them ... by the very fact of our superiority of civilization and our greater capacity for industrial activity we are bound to exercise over them a profound social influence."
The pais reminds flesh and blood readers that children's oppression-of varying forms and degrees- is inscribed in the text because, despite the rhetoric that God's reign is for children (19:14) no child is ever named-except Jesus-or is given a voice in the gospel-except Herodias' daughter who says what her mother tells her to say. Yet like the Canaanite woman's daughter (15:21-28) and the pais, Herodias' daughter serves only as a medium through which competing discourses present their claims. The girl falls prey to manipulation by her mother and by Herod. We don't even get to hear the cries of the children who are massacred in 2:18, only their mothers'. Children are the primary victims of Matthew's "culture of silence." [To be continued]