Laura Nasrallah is a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. On November 15, she spoke at the Morning Prayers service in Holden Chapel in Harvard Yard. Below are her remarks.
The day after the election I began to think about a tiny book, nestled in a box in storage at the Harvard Art Museums, and I began to think about fear. The sixth-century codex can fit into the palm of your hand. It declares on its first page in the ancient Egyptian language Coptic that it is “The gospel of the lots of Mary.”
My colleague at Princeton, AnneMarie Luijendijk, who published and translated the text for the first time, explains that the book communicates this gospel or good news through lots or sortition. It is an object used for divining the future.
In sixth-century Egypt, an individual—likely somebody of little means, and perhaps illiterate—with a question heavy on her heart might approach a literate religious expert in antiquity. That priest or expert would hold the book in his or her palms, and leaf through it to land upon a page that has an “answer” to the question that the petitioner had in mind. Perhaps the petitioner would hear this short oracle: “They will trust you and you will be victorious in this matter. Strengthen your heart. This matter is from God. Fear not. As for you, everything you will do, God is with you.”
If you look closely at the codex, you can still see darkened marks at the middle of the edge of each page, where the reader’s thumbs would have rested, flipping through the book to aid the questioner, worrying the pages. Bibliomancy is an old practice. People have been trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing for centuries, from every corner of the earth. They have been coping with and calculating their concerns about the present and the future, often in terms that trade in fear.
These past days, I’ve been thinking not only of the Coptic codex and its “fear not,” but also about other statements from the Christian tradition. “Of whom shall I be afraid?” asks the Psalmist in our responsive reading. “Perfect love casts out fear,” insists the writer of 1 John. I’ve been thinking about the fears that are propelling U.S. politics, the fears shared in office hours and in classrooms especially over the last week, the fears expressed yesterday at a rally and teach-in in support of our undocumented students—the fear and the courage. At that meeting, several people said that they wanted to “take this fear and put it into action.”
But why say “fear not” or, in the words of 1 John, “whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” to those who are most vulnerable? Would we say that to our undocumented students and staff? To our minoritized students and colleagues who disproportionately suffer not only implicit bias but also from “stop and frisk”? To the immigrant, to the poor? To our students and colleagues who are queer, trans, Muslim, Jews, to women in this rape culture, who have good reason to fear? Statements like “fear not” and “perfect love casts out fear” sound smug, milquetoast, careless, like another slap in the face. Maybe we should be afraid. We are afraid in different ways depending upon our bodies and how we are perceived and policed. “Perfect love casts out fear,” the writer of 1 John offers to the beloved community in the late first century. Beautiful, but this could also be read as a criticism: you don’t yet have perfect love, so it’s your fault that you dwell in fear.
But I also want to imagine how those who heard these words could have found in them a possibility for courage and community. “Perfect love casts out fear” are words written to be used by a minority community in the Roman Empire. And the term that we translate as “perfect” in Greek is teleia, a word that indicates striving for completion and maturity and perfection. What is the work of not being afraid? What is the work of striving toward the perfect and complete love that could throw out fear?
We in our university are good at working toward perfection. So too those of us who participate in religious communities, where we strive together for the moral good and the common good. The classroom and the temple, the lab and the revival tent, the mosque and the quad still beautiful with autumn leaves: these are the spaces for the working out of possibility, for striving toward utopia, for casting out fear—and, I venture, for casting out white supremacy and casting down white privilege. I think of Ashon Crawley’s recent book, Blackpentecostal breath: The aesthetics of possibility, which is an analysis of black Pentecostal practice, a critical engagement with it through the theories of gender and race, and a celebration of the breath-filled possibility and powerful sounds that emerge from such practices. In a discussion that brings together glossolalia—speaking in tongues—and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Crawley writes:
I believe the capacity for the university to be a plurality, a space of irreducible search in ways that follow Emerson’s theorizing. I believe the university to be a great gathering of resources that should, it should be said, be exploited and put in the service of the search into the dark, dense folks of nothingness, the dark, dense folds of plentitude. What this would mean is paying attention to minor knowledges, minoritarian persons, not simply as raw material for analytics but as a means to transform the world.
The religious practitioner in sixth-century Egypt flips through the pages of the little codex, takes a deep breath, and reads out loud to the petitioner: “Fear not.” The writer of 1 John pauses a moment in dictation, exhales, says to a scribe, “Write down: ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’” These statements are not made in the interior of a withdrawn self, a solitary whistling in the dark in the face of a dangerous world. These words were written by those and to those of little means, who were striving to figure out possibility in the face of external powers. They are made between two or more people working out their ideas and practices, sitting face to face over a tiny codex to say and to hear “fear not” and to work out the conditions in which fear is expelled. They are made between folk struggling to figure out together what a perfect or mature love looks like. The work of the university and the task of religious communities can be, should be this casting out of fear, this transformational striving toward a perfected love.
Let us pray.
God, we ask for your presence on our campus, in this country, in the world. We ask for a community that speaks together about its fears, that strives together to cast out fear, that protects those who have cause to be most fearful. We ask, in the words of the Psalmist, for courageous hearts, and that we “shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Amen.