Jesus, James, and the Healing of Old Wounds
By Leonard McMahon.
Part of the fun of the study of religion and culture is to discern how incongruous things cohere, and this is especially true when it comes to the Bible and popular culture. At first blush, the story of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 (NRSV) and this most recent 25th season of the ABC hit, The Bachelor, with its first black Bachelor, Matt James, would seem to be worlds apart. The show, both before and behind the camera, turned out to be a fascinating morality tale and those not familiar might become intrigued.
Except for the fact that the Bachelor this season is black, the show’s premise has been the same every season: James has thirty-plus women from which to choose (set aside, for lack of space, the patriarchal perversity of the situation, but know that it takes real effort to suspend disbelief). In the beginning, we see James, who speaks wistfully about wanting to find a wife while standing there like a dame awaiting suitors on Netflix’s Bridgerton, as he exchanges awkward greetings with each woman as she emerges from a limousine.
Everyone is out for love, and willing to do almost anything to get it. Unrequited longing and desire are a kind of suffering, and this seems to be what the Bachelorettes, by their own lights, want to heal by coming on the show. We hear from each woman as she yearns to be alone with James, to touch and be touched by him and, of course, he touches and kisses everyone. Salvation at last! According to promotional materials, James is downright heavenly.
But there is a deeper lesson to be learned here. The show ended in controversy because Rachel Kirkconnell, one of James’s last two choices, became embroiled in scandal when her racist past resurfaced on social media, causing a storm that engulfed host Chris Harrison and left the network scrambling to salvage the season. Kirkconnell is white, as is Harrison, and in response they vacillated between innocence, ignorance, and the need for “education.” Both did brief apology tours trying to salvage their “brands” and, in Harrison’s case his job.
But if it is education they want, the biblical story of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 offers a moral education: in it, a deteriorating woman who has been bleeding for twelve years seeks Jesus out as he is passing through a crowd on his way to heal a little girl. The author of Mark connects the nadir of female desire and distress with the heights of wholeness and healing: “if I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (5:28). But then, this suffering, seeking woman does something extraordinary: after she furtively touches Jesus’s garment (she “came up behind him…”) (5:27), she “immediately…felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (5:29). Yet, “knowing what had happened to her, [she] came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth,” (5:33), and then, quite remarkably, she waits. She neither asks for nor expects forgiveness, according to the text. Jesus replies, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” (5:34).
Most readers might assume the “faith” in question is her determination to reach out and touch Jesus. But what if it were the fact that she waits in truth without expectation? I argue this woman is a moral example not because she takes something from Jesus but because she gives something—her courage to accept responsibility without trying to manufacture a favorable outcome. To fully confess and lie at someone’s feet, afraid and anxious, without knowing what is going to happen, is indeed Christian faith at its best. Without it, there is neither peace nor healing.
These days such public displays of faith are rare. In response to their faux pas, Kirkconnell and Harrison in fact do exactly the opposite of faith: all their special pleading for patience and forgiveness feels like an evasion of black judgment as well as a failure to learn from this biblical example. Powerlessness is part of the angst of black life. Some cancel culture warriors these days claim that talk of powerlessness is simply victimhood made fashionable. But recall that the woman does not ask for anything; she only offers “the whole truth,” demonstrating that there is moral strength in powerlessness. Both personally and communally, black people are more than familiar with “fear and trembling,” and when white people expect black forgiveness, the sense is one of obfuscation and evasion about life in America, not to mention life in general. Thus, the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity is missed and racial healing is forestalled yet again.
Suddenly being unable to manufacture a favorable outcome in a crisis must be unnerving. But white claims of ignorance and innocence are diametrically opposed to the fear and trembling that black people can feel. They are in fact instances of what Sharon Jacob calls ‘white incredulity,’ and it is, well, incredible that Kirkconnell and Harrison could be genuinely innocent or ignorant after Charleston and Charlottesville. “How could they not know?” is the quizzical reaction; it is the same reaction to how brazenly Amy Cooper says she will report Christian Cooper’s race to the police; and at how smugly Edward Livingston states there is no racism in modern medicine. Kirkconnell, Harrison, Cooper, and Livingston’s surprise at all the fuss suggests a willful refusal of reality. When suddenly confronted with public opprobrium, each pleads the Fifth and then wants a time-out to convalesce. Such white incredulity strains black credulity and heightens black cynicism, which, for its part, the Bachelor franchise has yet to relieve.
In the end, part of the appeal of a show like this is that we, black and nonblack, get to see, in manicured and melodramatic form, how life really is in America: superficially stimulating, deeply disappointing, and occasionally inspiring—something to pass the time. The Bachelor is admittedly a simulacrum; but for many black people, and black women especially, this season is yet another painful dose of the truth, er, “reality” of American culture. Fortunately, I have my Bible to keep me rooted in what Clifford Geertz calls the ‘really real.’
Leonard McMahon is pursuing his PhD in political theology at the Graduate Theological Union. He is the Founder/CEO of Common Ground Dialogue, a political diversity consultancy that specializes in making political, racial, and cultural difference work for companies and organizations, and may be reached at cgdialogue.org and [email protected].