I don’t know about anyone else here today, but one of the staples of my childhood was watching Warner Bros. cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat – and my absolute favourite: Foghorn Leghorn, the bombastic, loudmouthed, prank-playing rooster (and I would caution you against making any connections between the nature of his character and the fact that he was my favourite!). Watching these cartoons was a daily event; and for myself and my siblings it was one of the highlights of the day.
But here’s the thing: you will no longer be able to watch the classic Warner Bros. cartoons on TV. Indeed, you probably won’t be able to buy the DVDs in stores. Probably the only place you’ll find these cartoons is on the internet, on You Tube and other such locations. I was explaining to someone the other day that the reason why this is the case is that for all that they were hilarious and often clever satires on society, they were also laced with racial and gender stereotypes that in the modern world would simply be considered unacceptable. You simply would not get away with putting them to air.
Now, some people might react to that reality rather angrily, by claiming that it was political correctness gone mad, the kind of “nanny state” censorship that fails to see that they are “only” cartoons with whom generations of people grew up without become in the least bit racist and misogynistic. But what this attitude prevents us from seeing is that the stereotypes contained in these cartoons are there, not because their creators were any more or less racist or misogynistic than anyone else, but simply because they reflected the assumed, un-critiqued attitudes toward race and gender which were widely prevalent at the time. And it is because – at least, in those two areas – our society has perhaps become less complacent and more critical that we recognise the offensive nature of these stereotypes today, and why these cartoons cannot be aired. Moreover, it is precisely because these attitudes were assumed and not critiqued that they perpetuated an injustice; one in which we perpetuate and preserve a culture that demeans and degrades other human beings.
And it is this matter of uncritical assumption that is one of the key issues when we approach Scripture. We all of us grow up with cultural and social and historically specific assumptions, which form the framework through which we read Scripture. The notion that there is such a thing as “common sense”, that some things are so self-evidently true they don’t need to be explained or examined, is part and part of the baggage which all generations carry into their encounter with and interpretation of Scripture. And if for no other reason alone, it is to ensure we are not captured by these assumptions that theology and biblical criticism and continued bible study is absolutely necessary. Scripture challenges us to continually encounter it, to be continually challenged and confronted; and through this challenge and encounter, to see the Scriptural text in new ways and in new lights. Each generation carries with it the obligation to read and understand Scripture in a way that both builds on the historical tradition, and which also breaks new ground, taps new sources of insight and meaning.
And there is arguably no passage in Scripture for which this reality is true than today’s reading from Genesis. One of the most ancient portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is filled with symbols and metaphors and analogies that speak of the dilemma of human self-consciousness, of human self-awareness. It is a rich and subtle text that needs to be read carefully and repeatedly. The ancient Hebrews – indeed, most ancient peoples – were not the credulous, superstitious simpletons they are often made out to be; on the contrary, they were deep and complex thinkers, and their understanding of God was nuanced and challenging. And this is why, for example, there are multiple theologies within the Hebrew Scriptures: and we need to pay close attention to these multiplicities if we are not to do Scripture a grave injustice; and thereby perpetrate an even graver injustice against others.
The story of Adam and Eve, the archetypal first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, has been subject to an historical interpretation that has been the root cause of much injustice and evil. And we get a glimpse of this when we consider a story from Greek mythology: the story of Pandora. According to this story, there was a time when humans lived in innocent bliss, free from wars or corruption, knowing nothing of avarice or greed or dishonesty. The gods gave a woman named Pandora a gift: a box which they said she must never open. For a long time, Pandora was faithful to this command; yet, in the end, her curiosity got the better of her; and out from the box poured all the evils and travails and terrors and sufferings that are part of the human experience. Pandora managed to shut the box in time to ensure hope stayed within the grasp of humankind; but the point was that a woman had been responsible for the letting loose of evil into the world. And it was based upon this cultural assumption, retold over countless generations, that women in ancient Greek society were reduced to the status of near-slaves, unable to leave the house, unable to possess any rights before the law or have a say in social decision-making; reduced, in fact, to the status of baby-making machines.
And so it is with today’s reading from Genesis. Eve has historically been read as the “tempter” who led Adam into sin. Adam’s sin then became the basis upon human “falleness” proceeded. But let’s actually pay attention to the text. The serpent says to Eve: there’s the tree whose fruit you’re forbidden to eat, the fruit that will enable you to understand good and evil and become like God. And Eve looks at the tree and observes that the fruit is aesthetically pleasing, that it appears as though it would be nice to eat, and considers that knowledge of good and evil would be a useful thing. In other words, Eve thinks about it: she exercises discernment and judgement. She doesn’t just blindly follow the serpent’s suggestions; she actually uses her mind, her intellect to come to a decision to eat the fruit. Then she hands the fruit to Adam and says: eat this. And Adam says “Well, duh, okay” and does what he’s told without even pausing to consider his options. Adam exercises no judgement – none whatsoever. As one of my lecturers at theological college declared: Adam was a moron.
And yet, who gets the blame? Eve does! And as a consequence, both inside and outside the Church, women have for millennia been treated as a source of evil, as a source of “temptation”. Women, the historical reading of this passage from Genesis declares, are responsible for letting evil out into the world; and, in particular, evils that were related to human relationships and human sexuality. Women got the blame. But the text makes clear that Eve used her judgement and that Adam did not. So what is today’s passage actually telling us?
It seems to me that the first thing it is telling us is the necessity for discernment. Now, I’ve already said that Eve used her judgement and her intellect, and yet still made a calamitous decision – so what do I mean when I say “discernment”? What I mean is that discernment occurs in two forms that need to be simultaneously activated when we are making decisions. The first is reason, intellect. We are gifted with consciousness; we are gifted with thinking, analytical minds. And so we must of necessity utilise the judgement and discernment that consciousness bestows upon us. But discernment is not purely intellectual; it is also moral. And moral discernment is not merely about “is this right or wrong” or “will I suffer consequences or escape scot free for this action”. Moral discernment asks: what do our decisions mean for our humanity? What do they mean for the humanity of others? And what do they mean for our shared humanity – mine and others – in relationship with God?
Eve exercised her reason, her intellectual discernment; but her sin was to utilise intellectual discernment without moral discernment. And we don’t have to go back to far in history to realise what the consequences of that failure involves. The eugenics movement of the 19th century – which culminated in the horrors of Treblinka and Auschwitz and Buchenwald in the mid 20th century – was once a respected scientific position; and it enjoyed the support of a wide cross section of the mainstream scientific community, many of whom would also have considered themselves devout Christians. But the exercise of intellectual discernment without moral discernment led to the objectification of the Jewish people, which in turn ultimately resulted in the obscenity of the Holocaust.
That was Eve’s sin. Adam’s sin was that he exercised neither his intellectual nor his moral judgement – he simply went along with what Eve suggested to him – he did the very thing that is often incorrectly imputed to Eve. His attitude was, if someone else has done the thinking for me, if someone else has done the discerning for me, it’s alright. I don’t need to think or discern or explore or challenge, either intellectually or morally. And the result of that kind of attitude in history is located in all the “everyday”, “ordinary”, “decent” people who unthinkingly went along with the Nazis, who accepted their vilification of the Jews, and who remained silent in the face of their atrocities.
So if the story of Adam and Eve is actually about human consciousness and the need for discernment, what, then, does it say about temptation – particularly in the context of human relationships and human sexuality? I think what it says is this: lust is not the enemy; desire is not the enemy; arousal is not the enemy; attraction is not the enemy. These are all perfectly normal human emotions; they are part of our shared human experience. But here’s the thing: if we problematize our emotions, then we make problematic the existence of the ”other” to whom those emotions are directed. And if we make problematic the existence of the “other”, then we immediately dehumanise and objectify them: they cease being a fellow human being with whom we exist in relationship, and instead become a source of “temptation” against whom we react. And that leads to all sorts of skewed and damaging misconceptions about human relationships and sexuality – one that sees the “other” as the ”enemy” – that have needlessly crippled untold numbers of people across human history.
But what it has also done is enabled those in positions of power and privilege to escape accountability for their attitudes. Because then it becomes a case of saying, in effect: “I was not culpable; I was not being sexually abusive; I was tempted beyond endurance, by my capacity to resist this ‘other’.” And thus women need to be suppressed and controlled and denied rights and essentially be reduced to the status of machines bonded to the service of men because they are the “source of temptation”. They are evil, they corrupt the otherwise virtuous masculine character.
But what today’s reading demonstrates is that “temptation” is not about whether or not we are strong enough to resist its allure. And it’s not a story about whether or not the one for whom we hold these feelings is culpable because of the existence of those feelings. Rather, what it tells us is that when we encounter those situations in which we feel ourselves to be tested and challenged, then we need to exercise discernment. It is not a matter of applying pejorative labels to others; nor is it a matter of problematizing our emotions and our human experience; rather, it is a matter of our accountability. It is about recognising our shared humanity, co-existing relationally with one another; and when we find ourselves in testing and challenging circumstances, we are being called upon, not to demonise or objectify, but to exercise discernment. The discernment of our reason and the moral discernment by which it must always be accompanied.
And likewise in today’s reading from the Gospel According to Matthew: Jesus resisting the temptations of the devil is resisting what is actually temptation: the desire to reduce other people to a means to an end, forgetting that other people are, in fact, the end in themselves. The dignity of other people’s creation in the likeness and image of God means they are the end of faith itself; and when we use the manufacture of resources and foodstuffs, when we use faith and the positions of trust into which it places us, when we use temporal authority to put ourselves in a position of privilege through which to oppress and suppress others, we reduce others to being no more than a means to the end of our own self-aggrandizement. But that is not what we are called to do and be: we are called to see people as an end in themselves; an end that is nothing less than a vision of God.
So when we approach this ancient text – indeed, the whole of Scripture – we must remember the power and the danger of unchallenged and un-critiqued assumptions. And we must remember the subtle and powerful and rich and deep theology that underpins a lot of these apparently simple narratives. We must remember that if we use these texts to justify and sanitise oppressive or exploitative behaviour, that’s the point in which we give in to the devil, because we reduce others to the status of objects. And no matter how pained I might feel about the loss of things like a treasured part of my childhood, it is nonetheless a necessary thing that the assumptions that were part and parcel of that treasured past are challenged and overthrown. Because what we lose is not the joy and pleasure associated with that memory, but the offensive and dehumanising attitude that reduced others to the status of mere stones under our feet.