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Reading the Bible in Rome: A Pastoral Letter at the Beginning of a New Year

from LeDayne McLeese Polaski


January 10, 2018

Reading the Bible in Rome: A Pastoral Letter at the Beginning of a New Year

LeDayne McLeese Polaski


One afternoon in 2009, at a Bible Study held as part of the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Rome, I had a sudden visceral rush as I realized that I was physically present in the seat of the Empire that had shaped and controlled the world of the book we were reading. Rome’s oppressive presence hovers over Jesus’ life from birth to death. His life begins with Caesar Augustus declaring that all the world must be taxed, setting a heavily pregnant Mary on the road to Bethlehem. Soon Rome’s puppet Herod is furiously ordering the death of children two and under after he realizes he’s been duped by the Magi. It hovers through all his life and ministry - and hovers still over his death - from Pilate washing his hands and saying, “See to it yourselves” to the soldiers who pounded the nails, kept watch at the cross and guarded the tomb. Jesus’ world was one of ruthless political and military conquest, and it is little wonder that the cast of characters includes emperors and governors, centurions and tax collectors, political prisoners and resistance leaders. After his death, the disciples continued to face arrests, imprisonments, threats, beatings and even death. Perhaps you can see why reading scripture in a multinational circle of Christians while looking out over the countryside of the Roman suburbs suddenly left me breathless.

A little later on a bus tour through the city led by a local Baptist pastor (one of the few male Italian pastors we met), I asked how there came to be Baptists in Rome. He looked at me incredulously and replied, “The Apostle Paul came and preached the Gospel.” So he did – in the chains he would wear for the rest of his life. That same day we visited a church on the outskirts of the city called The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls – it is said to house the tomb into which Paul was laid when the empire crucified him for the treasonous claim: “Jesus is Lord.”

Over Christmas I read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer dwelt in the Bible daily and, no doubt, had many moments of visceral response to the scripture. One came as he was meditating on Psalm 74 just after what is now known as Kristallnacht – one of the first full revelations of the awful intentions of the Nazi regime – a night in which Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and looted, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, synagogues set aflame and Jews beaten and killed. When Bonhoeffer read the words of the Psalmist, “They have burned all of God’s houses in the land,” he wrote in his Bible the day’s date: “9.11.38.” He knew that he had witnessed the verse coming to life and understood that the Nazis were lifting their hands not simply against people but against God. The burning synagogues were God’s, the lifeless bodies the beloved of God, the traumatized survivors the apple of God’s eye. He had learned to read the Bible in Rome. His devotion to his Jewish Lord would allow him to willingly lay down his life. Another man executed for the treasonous proclamation: “Jesus is Lord.”

As I write, we have just marked the Baptism of the Lord. Mark’s version of that story begins in an unexpected place and time -- people are streaming toward a light they have not found in city or temple to find truth, forgiveness, and a new way of being in the wilderness from a wild man clad in camel’s hair with locusts on his breath. When Jesus steps into the waters of baptism, he does so in the midst of a violent brew of collaboration between governmental, military and religious powers. The baptizer will soon be arrested and beheaded. Jesus will spend the rest of his ministry under the heavy weight of occupation, and he too will eventually die at their hands.

Not too long ago, I got an email from my colleague Katie Cook that simply said, “I know too many people.” I knew exactly what she meant. Everywhere in every way people we know and love are threatened, are dying. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires; the end of DACA; a rising tide of white supremacy encouraged and embraced by our own empire; tax policies with the purpose of creating poverty so as to insure wealth; women and girls abused on the streets, in our workplaces and in our homes; a state with an unchecked mandate to imprison and execute; the termination of protective status for immigrants from Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador. Everywhere we look we see the same violent brew of religion and state willing to offer up any “other” for sacrifice. The veil has been pulled back and the ugliness revealed. Of late, all my Bible reading feels likes reading the Bible in Rome. 

Payne Best, who shared imprisonment with Bonhoeffer after he was transferred to the notorious death camp Buchenwald, wrote a letter to Dietrich’s twin sister after the war in which he said, “His soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison . . . [He] had always been afraid that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test but now he knew there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid.” On April 8, 1945, the first Sunday after Easter, his fellow prisoners asked him to lead a worship service. He prayed and read the verses for the day, including 1 Peter 1:3, “By God’s great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Shortly after the last prayer, two men came with the chilling words, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.” – which everyone in the room knew meant he was headed for the scaffold. Bonhoeffer pulled Best aside to say, “This is the end . . . For me the beginning of life.”

Mark sets his baptismal story in a wilderness and follows it with Jesus’ temptation and John’s arrest. I expect his first readers resonated with his acknowledgement of deep struggle and desperate danger. He also speaks of the tearing open of the heavens that assures God is with us and the baptism of the Spirit that assures that God is, in fact, within us. Revelation, incarnation, redemption, mercy, forgiveness and fullness of life are found right in the midst of the world as we know it.

Bonhoeffer’s close friend Franz Hildebrand preached at his memorial service and took as his text a verse Bonhoeffer had preached as the Nazis were rising – a verse to which he clung as his world grew dangerous and chaotic – “Neither know we what to do, but our eyes are upon Thee.” (2 Chronicles 20.12) He quoted Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship: “Only the believer is obedient, and only [the one] who obeys believes.” and concluded with another Bonhoeffer quote written after the death of a close friend, “while in God confiding I cannot but rejoice.”

I do not know what is coming in this new year. I do know that our scriptures were written during and for times like ours. I do know they were written by and for people like us who often do not know what to do. I do know that they are calling us to a faithful obedience to a countercultural vision of the world. I do know that obedience might be costly, and I trust that as we strive to be faithful, our faith will increase. I do not know what depths we might yet reach. I do know that others have gone before and found that the bottom is sound.

May the Lord give strength to the people. May the Lord bless the people with peace. – Psalm 29:11

LeDayne McLeese Polaski is the executive director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz.


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