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Reading the Gospel of John inside a Jeepney

Jeepney hermeneutics is but one among many “Canaanite” readings. And it is a reading that (1) presupposes that the Bible is a “jeep,” an imperializing text, and that said jeep can be (2) transformed into a “jeepney.” Let me offer a brief example using the Gospel of John. Third World theologians have argued for decades that the connection of the Bible, its readers, and its institutions to Western imperialism do not call for special pleading. As Alan Lawson and Chris Tiffin insist: “Imperial relations may have been initially established by guns, guile, and disease, but they were maintained largely by textuality.” Simply put, the Bible was and is the key tool in the “textual takeover of the non-Western world” (Boehmer). Yet, most commentaries and expositions on John available in Philippine seminaries take for granted or do not find problematic the gospel’s imperial rhetoric. Spivey and Smith’s popular introductory text (Anatomy of the New Testament. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995) describes the Gospel as reminding its readers that faith is “walking by the light of Christ, and walking the way he walked… it is dependent on the source of life, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (203). Both argue that Christians have tended to read the other Gospels, indeed the whole New Testament, in the light of John’s christological and theological constructions (203). Musa Dube points out that “Mission studies indicate that John’s Gospel has been the most influential text” (1998b: 132). Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), another popular textbook, applies five methods in its analysis of John: literary-historical, redaction, comparative, thematic, and socio-historical. All five approaches lead to one major conclusion: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life now.” Adele Reinhartz (Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John. New York: Continuum, 2001) resists John’s rhetoric because of its anti-Semitism. James Charlesworth (The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1995) using contemporary historical Jesus methodologies argues that Jesus’ beloved disciple was really Thomas and, contrary to feminist arguments, could never have been a woman. “Imperializing texts take many forms and are written by a variety of people, even by the colonized, either collaborating with the dominant forces or yearning for the same power. Regardless of who writes imperializing texts, they are characterized by literary constructions, representations, and uses that authorize taking possession of foreign spaces and peoples” (Dube, 1996:41-42). The Gospel of John, according to Dube, may have been written by an oppressed minority group and among the colonized Jews. This setting does not automatically guarantee that it is an anti-imperial text. Post-colonial studies indicate that the colonized do not always resist their oppressors: they also collaborate and imitate the imperial power at various stages of their oppression (1998b: 119).
Why is John a “jeep”? Dube brings the following questions to the text (2000:57-58): Does the Gospel have an explicit stance for or against the political imperialism of its time? Does it encourage travel to distant and inhabited lands and how does it justify itself? How does the Gospel construct difference: is there dialogue and liberating interdependence, or is there condemnation and replacement of all that is foreign? Is the celebration of difference authentic or mere tokenism? Does the text employ representations to construct relationships of subordination and domination? Dube points out that the problem of reproducing imperial strategies of subjugation is also evident among interpreters (2000:26). As Kwok Pui-lan posits, “They operate more from a hermeneutics of consent than a hermeneutics of suspicion. They have not dealt adequately with the harsh reality that the Bible discloses a hierarchical social order in which slavery and male domination are seldom challenged” (42). John’s imperial discourse pervades the whole gospel. The “Word” that became flesh (1.14) was with God and is, actually, God (1.1). All things came into being through him (1.3) and in him was life and the life was the light of all people (1.4). This “Word made flesh,” the one who came from heaven is above all (3:31) and thus greater than John the Baptist (1.20,3.30), Moses (1.17-18,3.13-15), Jacob (4.12), and even Abraham (8:58). This “Word made flesh” goes into Samaria and tells the woman by the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4.22). This “Word made flesh” is “The Bread of Life” (6.35), “The Light of the World” (8.12), “The Resurrection and the Life” (11.25), and “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14.6). And if every one of the things that this “Word made flesh” did were written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21.24). Dube points out that John’s Jesus, as savior of the world who is not of this world, shows a colonizing ideology that claims power over all other places and peoples of the earth (1998b: 132). Moreover Jesus’ followers receive a transference of power. Jesus tells them that they do not belong to the world because he has chosen them out of the world (15.19), and then he sends them out saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20.21). In other worlds, Christians are not of this world yet they are sent into the world with the power to devalue and subordinate differences like John’s Jesus (Dube, 1998b: 130). With rhetoric like this it is not surprising, as Ali Mazrui points out, that Christianity, the religion of the underdog, became an imperial religion (Dube, 2000:11). More than this, the gospel’s reception history is, on the whole, an expected response to its imperializing rhetoric. Back to my metaphor, the gospel is a jeep. And most of its interpretations, especially those available in seminary libraries in the Philippines, are jeeps. All of the interpreters I have quoted above present legitimate readings. They are relevant to communities that find them relevant. But Good news is always relative. Many interpretations that ignore or even perpetuate John’s imperial rhetoric are products of the hermeneutics of consent. Many interpretations that challenge the gospel’s discourse are products of the hermeneutics of suspicion. It is tempting to classify Reinhartz’ reading as an example of jeepney hermeneutics. She has problems with compliant readings of John. Hers is a resistant reading to the gospel’s constructions of representations and structures of relationships. Ehrman too raises the problem of anti-Semitism in his discussion. Both then find problematic the anti-Jewish sections of the narrative and argue for alternative, liberating readings. On the other hand, both completely ignore the imperial ideology of the gospel. Jeepney hermeneutics, as decolonizing interpretations, suspects both text and interpretation. Ehrman employs a hermeneutics of suspicion as far as John’s reception history is concerned. Unfortunately, he employs a hermeneutics of consent as far as the “source text” is concerned. The Bible remains authoritative, normative, archetypal, God’s special revelation, blameless. Those responsible for Christianity’s sins are the Bible’s interpreters. Gomang Seratwa Ntloedibe-Kuswani cautions that an imperial ideology—that Christianity is the superior religion over all others and its God the real God—underpins the colonialist communication theory of “source text and receptor languages.” The Bible is the given and cannot be changed, languages, cultures, and peoples can and must be changed to make room for the Bible. Thus, even in translation work, there exists the colonizing ideology that renders receptors into slaves of the “source text” (80-81). Ntloedibe-Kuswani quotes Aloo Mojola who argues that translation is never neutral. It is an instrument of ideological and theological formation grounded on fidelity and faithfulness to the source text (81). Spivey and Smith are faithful to the “source text.” And so is Charlesworth. He is totally indifferent to the inherent problems of the Johannine rhetoric and instead uses the narrative as a window to a historical past, a privileged past, in order to find a historical beloved disciple. Kwok Pui-lan, I might add, classifies past and contemporary historical Jesus quests as imperialistic in nature: the West’s need for the “noble savage.” Sugirtharajah’s comments are more pointed: “The whole enterprise serves as an example of how the dominant discourse holds on to its deep-rooted Eurocentric bias, namely the assertion that anything theologically worthwhile can only emanate from Greco-Judeo traditions… Eurocentrism works on a double premise. It looks to Greece for its intellectual and philosophical roots, and dips into its Judaic heritage for its religious origins” (1998b: 113). Reading John inside a jeepney requires privileging Filipinos and their plight as modern-day “Canaanites,” insisting that the Bible informs, it does not define, life, and engaging the biblical text in search of the marginalized, the subaltern, the “Canaanite” characters—those whom Gandhi describes as “the ones who disappear because we never hear them speak. Those who only serve as medium for competing discourses to represent their claims.”
The paidarion, the lad of John 6:9, like the pais of Matthew 8:5-13 that I have argued as symbolic of Filipinos (2000:25-32; 2003), can also represent the continuing plight of Filipinos. 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"(Schirmer, 1987: 43-44). The child who offers the five loaves and two fish is absent from the Synoptics. Only in John is the source of the food identified. In the midst of a crisis involving adults, a child’s food is appropriated. The crisis is averted. Jesus is praised. The child disappears into the background from whence he came. He is never thanked. He is never mentioned again. The child gets one verse in the entire 21 chapters of the gospel. Filipinos, numbering over seven million, offer “loaves and fish” to countless peoples throughout the world as overseas contract workers. Many do not even get “one verse.” As De Quiros points out, “They do not figure in the narrative.” The Samaritan woman is another character that can represent Filipinos. Dube, going against the traditional feminist reading of John 4, presents the woman at the well as illustrative of control-at-a-distance strategies of empire (1996: 37-60). I agree. Spain and America domesticated the mujer indigena for over four centuries and turned her into their most effective subject. Yet like the woman at the well, despite being told that her worship was wrong and she did not have to fetch anymore water because of what Jesus was offering her in terms of “correct worship” and “eternal springs of water,” still left her jar by the well. Fernandez points out, “Though subjected to the most sophisticated political machinations and cultural genocide, the Filipino soul has never been totally crushed.” “Useless” is a relative term. The tens of thousands of rusted military jeeps the US Army thought useless at the end of World War II in the Philippines, Filipinos found useful as raw materials for what was to become the most popular mode of public transportation in the islands, the jeepney. Paul’s letter to Philemon is explicit--that for a while, Onesimus was “useless.” I read that to mean that for a while he ceased being a tool to either Paul or to Philemon or even to Christ. For a while, Onesimus was not Paul’s child, not a part of Philemon’s household, nor Christ’s slave. For a while, Onesimus was free. Dube’s reading complements mine. She explains why John is a “jeep” (to use my metaphor) by comparing and contrasting the Gospel with other imperializing texts like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the epic, Aeneid (1998b: 119). Dube refuses to read the biblical text in isolation from other works of literature and is thus able to argue that John’s colonizing ideology that claims power over other peoples and places on earth is not so different from other constructions in secular literature (1998b: 132). I, on the other hand, “fished” for characters that formed a totally different narrative. In other words, I took the “jeep” and transformed it into a “jeepney.” TO BE CONTINUED
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