I remember the time when I began formal studies and training to become a minister, setting me on the path to ordination, coming across the word hermeneutics. I spent ages learning how to spell it, and possibly longer trying to fathom out what it meant! It is worth 19 points in scrabble, and the oxford dictionary definition is this: “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, particularly of Biblical or literary texts.”. This wonderful word came up in the context of a discussion yesterday, when I challenged someone’s interpretation he countered ” I was only using hermeneutics. He was, but so was I, I was bringing a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion to his interpretation. He didn’t like that very much.
I decided not to push things on this occasion, I am new to the team, and felt I had made enough of a point, but as I went for a walk in the afternoon, I had to ask myself why I withdrew, why I backed down. The text we had been looking at was John 8: 1-11, so often titled, “The woman caught in adultery”, as such she becomes the focus of the text. I have decided that I want to give it another title, I want to name it “The morality police”, and to shift the focus of the story from the woman to the accusers. It is a month since Masha Amini died in the custody of the morality police in Iran, her crime, not wearing her hijab correctly in their eyes. In the ensuing month reports are that at least 185 people, including 19 minors, have been killed, hundreds injured and thousands have been arrested by security forces, according to rights groups. The Iranian government says more than 20 security forces have been killed. Masha Amini’s death has become a focus for the rage of not only women, but people all over Iran who have declared that this is unacceptable.
I think my question when looking at the the John 8 text, would be to the woman’s accusers, is this acceptable? Is it acceptable that they bring only the woman to be accused? Where was the man, for surely she had not committed adultery on her own? Why do we throw all of the focus upon the woman when Jesus challenges the baying accusers with their sin, to the point that confronted with it they left one by one, dropping their rocks and slinking away, his first concern was dealing with them and not with her, his first concern is their hypocrisy not her sin, but theirs. When he does turn to her, it is to point out that her accusers have all disappeared, the words that follow are these:
“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.
Neither do I condemn you, Jesus is not in the mood for condemnation, and while he does leave the challenge “do not sin again”, her sin is still not his main point. The energy has gone out of the whole situation, a situation that was at first charged with anger and fear, the poor woman must have been terrified, she knew that she was likely to be stoned, but in the space and time that Jesus creates, bending down to write in the earth while the “morality police” hurled their accusations, and demanded that he interpret the law, probably frustrating them by his silence, maybe he was writing one of the ten commandments, maybe “thou shall not kill/ murder”, but in truth we don’t know, but when he stands, we do know that his focus is firmly upon them.
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.“
There is no-one to be found, and the woman is sent on her way, we don’t know her story, she may have been a widow, one with no family to rely upon, doing what she could to get by. She may have been a divorced wife, a victim of the laws that allowed a husband to divorce his wife for trivial reasons, leaving her struggling with shame and stigma. She may have been conducting an affair, having taken a lover, letting love and lust blind her to the possibilities of being caught, we don’t know. What we do know is that this is a very human story, a story of the strong oppressing the weak, it is also a woman’s story, the woman stands accused, the woman is seen as the seductress, the woman for historical and cultural reasons is seen as the one in whom evil resides. We can trace this right back to the creation myth, and the treatment that Eve has been given hermeneutically through the ages. So when I began to wonder why I had backed down, I think I can trace it back to a deep seated instinct, and even belief that somehow my thinking is lesser, that I shouldn’t be confrontational, and that any articulate argument I make is somehow less valid. I don’t believe that of course, my ordination is valid ( though I have had those who declare it isn’t), but not only that, for I cannot hide behind a collar, my personhood is valid, it is not less because I am female. I am well educated and well read, and that is a privilege I don’t receive lightly, but even that can be something to hide behind. Masha Amini’s life was valid, she died because there were those more powerful who thought that she needed correcting. Today I heard the story of a 9 year old girl whose video of herself reciting a poem in defence of Masha, was beaten to death because in it she was not wearing a headscarf.
The “morality police” were in the wrong in Jesus day, they still are, and if we take any words from this story perhaps they should be these: ” neither do I condemn you”. You are not condemned, go on your way, let nothing in life separate you from God’s love.