One of the challenges of reading scripture in a college course in North America is the perceived saturation of any Christian text in a society in which Christianity dominates the religious landscape. When my students see the Gospel of Mark listed on the syllabus, they assume encountering the text will be a matter of review. “I mean, obviously, I’m a Christian, so I’ve read it before.” I hear this frequently, yet in teaching the text, I find many students have never read the Gospel the way they have read other assigned literary texts such as The Odyssey or Jane Eyre. They’ve heard the Gospel, but then only in snippets (or thematic extracts called pericopes). We can thank the various churches (mine included) for this; in proclaiming and studying scripture bit-by-bit (even, in some churches, phrase-by-phrase), we’ve created a “snippet” Christian scriptural culture, whose members struggle to put the whole story together and think critically about what it means, especially as members of the dominant culture.
One important aspect of the Gospel of Mark which is overlooked in the “snippet culture” is Mark’s distinctive socio-political setting, which profoundly shapes the story world and the reader’s response to it. In Hearing the Whole Story, Richard A. Horsley says, “For centuries prior to the time of Jesus, the people of Israel had languished under the rule of one foreign empire after another. Yet memory of the time when Israel was a free people was still very much alive among the people” (31). The foreign occupier du jour in Galilee in the Gospel of Mark is, of course, the Roman Empire, and the hope of the Jewish people for a Messiah who would enact their political liberation from the Romans is key to understanding the rejection of Jesus. Jesus in Mark is an ironic Messiah who offers not military might but spiritual liberation borne of radical faith in God, even and especially as it means laying down one’s life for others. In addition to providing such overarching insight into the text’s meaning, understanding Mark’s socio-political setting reveals episodic double-meanings within the text as well. For instance, in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5: 1-20), the possessed man tells Jesus “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Horsley says “Legion” is “the Latin term for a division of the Roman army, [suggesting] that the possessed man is also symbolic of the subjected people more generally, whose lives and land have become occupied by a violent alien force, the Romans” (18). When Jesus casts the “Legion” (Romans) into swine (a favored dish of the Romans, yet unclean to the Jews), who then plunge into the sea (from whence the Romans had come in the first place), the politically-fueled double meaning of the text, says Horsley, would not have been lost on the Gospel’s original audience, even if it is lost on most readers today.
But how do educators paint a portrait of such a foreign (in every sense of that term) socio-political landscape for Western students who have lived lives of relative peace and prosperity, in a country whose sovereignty is mostly intact (electoral and cultural interference by the Russians notwithstanding)? Our privilege and good fortune, grateful as we are for it, becomes a disadvantage in our encounter with Mark.
This year, I found aid in my usual struggle to portray Mark’s socio-political landscape for my students from the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, especially the scenes on Jedha, which start about 27 minutes into the film (Rogue One is available on DVD, Blue-Ray and digital streaming, and is included with a Netflix subscription). While what’s happening in Jedha’s holy city – the wholesale liquidation of Force-sensitive kyber crystals by the Empire under the noses of its citizens, rendered impotent by violent oppression – is not a perfect fit with the Roman Imperial occupation of Judea that forms the socio-political backdrop of the Gospel of Mark, it’s certainly a start.
First, Jedha City is shown in Rogue One as a diverse place, as Jerusalem would have been in Mark’s time: an intersection of various cultures, sects and religious expressions. Yet a unifying tension overhangs the whole of Judea in Mark, much like the Star Destroyer which hovers above Jedha’s holy city in Rogue One: the presence of a foreign power which seeks to profit from its military dominance of the local populace. For the Romans, Judea provided tax revenues for the Empire’s extravagant court, endless building projects and bloated bureaucracy; for the Galactic Imperials, Jedha City possessed the surplus of kyber it needed to power its dreaded Death Star (starwars.com). But secondly, as Horsley says above, the memory of the Israel’s former freedom still lingered among the oppressed Judeans, and Jesus in Mark is a reminder of this former dignity. This memory of former freedom is reflected in Rogue One in the figures of Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, protectors of the Temple and of the Force itself. Ultimately, however, like the priestly aristocracy of the Judeans, Chirrut and Baze preach about the Force to the pilgrims of Jedha only because the Empire allows them to do so; as soon as they run afoul of the Empire, they too become targets. Finally, just as Saw Guererra’s rebels in Rogue One operate their insurgency movement from the desolate countryside outside Jedha City, attacking the Empire where and when they can, in the socio-political context of Mark, “the principle insurrectionary forces” against the Roman occupiers in Judea “were popular movements from the countryside, such as Zealots, a coalition of peasants from Northwest Judea” (Horsley, 34). And just as the Empire makes a “statement” in response to the “security breach” in Jedha by utterly destroying the city and its most sacred Temple, the Romans used disproportionate force to suppress the Judean revolts that took place just prior to the Gospel of Mark’s transcription, including the mass slaughter of whole villages, and most devastatingly, the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (Horsley, 34), which has never been rebuilt.
Helping students who exist within an “imperial metropolis” (Horsley, 87) such as modern, Western, predominantly Christian culture to understand the socio-political context of the emergence of Christianity in the Gospel of Mark will always have its challenges. But utilizing elements of popular culture like the Jedha scenes from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story can help educators bring Mark’s ironic story world to life. Through our identification with the Rebels in Star Wars, we can view stories like the Gospel of Mark more readily from the point of view of the suppressed people out of whom the story first arose. This way, perhaps the “seed” of Mark’s story about Jesus and the Rule of God will have a chance of falling on good ground.