Jesus and the Disambiguated


Jesus’ message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of his people. He recognized fully that … no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them.” – Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.

I love to collect hifalutin’ words.  A word I stumbled upon earlier this year and continues to haunt me I found on wikipedia: disambiguation.

In computational linguistics, word sense disambiguation(WSD) is the problem of determining in which sense a word having a number of distinct senses is used in a given sentence. For example, consider the word bass, two distinct senses of which are:

  1. a type of fish
  2. tones of low frequency

and the sentences:

  1. I went fishing for some sea bass
  2. The bass part of the song is very moving

To a human it is obvious the first sentence is using the word bass in sense 1 above, and in the second sentence it is being used in sense 2. But although this seems obvious to a human, developing algorithms to replicate this human ability is a difficult task.

I know…a bit technical .  I took a couple of double takes at this short definition to get a layman’s understanding (and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it).  To bring this word down to a street level it appears that this word means, in a basic sense, clarity.  Dis-ambiguation is a way for a system to bring clarity to a word…to give us the proper meaning and sense of a word.  It is the removal of ambiguity, the fuzziness, the cloud that often hangs around a word with multiple meanings. 

In an exercise of postmodern playfulness I want to use this word, dis-ambiguation, in the sense of being given clarity.

In a gospel-sense, dis-ambiguation, would be a prophetic function.  The prophetic, as I understand it, is about giving clarity to God’s people in order for them to be faithful to God’s covenant of shalom.  It is the removal of ambiguity of the many narratives and powers that shape our lives.  If my playfulness with the word dis-ambiguation is close to something like clarity in the sense of the prophetic then Jesus would be the ultimate dis-ambiguator

Jesus, the Great Dis-ambiguator, would give a message, share words, perform practices, instill prophetic habits, and give cadence to the lives of those around him in a way that would give clarity of sight:

Luke 4:17-21: “And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him (Jesus). And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’

Jesus was a prophet.  And like all good prophets he gave people clarity about the place of their lives within the larger picture of God’s world. Jesus showed ‘what was the case’ and ‘what was hoped for’.  Jesus was good at giving clarity or removing ambiguity.  The ambiguity of the present and the hoped for future.  In short, he was the Great Dis-ambiguator.

So…in Jesus’ redemptive wake are those attached to him, the dis-ambiguated.  The dis-ambiguated are those, for whom Howard Thurman would say, that are emboldened and empowered to fight against the ‘spirit of the time’ or zeitgeist.

To be dis-ambiguated by the gospel is to be gifted with clarity to see how we have been routed by the militancy of ‘sin’, both systemically and personally.  

My use of “Jesus and the disambiguated” simply echoes Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the disinherited”.  Thurman, echoing the work of (pre)post-colonialist thinker Franz Fanon’s work (e.g. Wretched of the Earth) on the effects of oppression on the oppressor/oppressed, helped lay the foundation for liberation theology in our North American context. 

As an African-american, Thurman, gave us insight into the first century Palestinian, Jesus from Nazareth as a liberator.  Thurman’s location as being tied to an oppressed community aided him in having a hermenuetical solidarity with the Jesus community in Roman-occupied Israel.  Like most of scripture and the African-american religious tradition, faith tends to be interpreted from the margins…from the bottom-up.

Bringing Fanon and Thurman into our postmodern context, where we are being made more aware of ‘all’ of ‘our’ complicity with anti-human stories and powers, we learn that disambiguation is not just about those in the margins. 

The disambiguated can be everyone.  “All” of us are occupied territory of some sort.  “All” of us are like Legion the demoniac Jesus encounters in the gospel story.  “We” are all Legion for ‘many’ things plague us and oppress us.

The dis-ambiguated is not limited to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.  We are  all oppressor and oppressed.  Jesus disambiguates us with the message of salvation…the proclamation of God’s redemptive order, the kingdom of God. 

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6 thoughts on “Jesus and the Disambiguated

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m glad to hear seeds of liberation theology being spread within the emerging conversation. It is refreshing to hear liberation talked about without sinking into a form of self oriented prosperity.

  2. This post was amazing. I really like your close reading. I just finished a senior essay on Howard Thurman. It’s a project I think I’m gonna continue throughout my life. Hope to read more great articles as I mine through your archives.

  3. Great post and blog.
    I really enjoy reading your blog.
    It is very thought provoking and I like that!
    Keep up the great work brother an want you to know that I have added you to my list of favorites and welcome you to my blog as well anytime.
    Excellent blogging!
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry
    Aka,
    Preacherman

  4. Great post! Although on the issue of disambiguation in the prophets and in the words/works of Jesus, I’d like to challenge you a bit. It seems to me that a lot of what the the prophets and Jesus said and did had more to do with confounding and confusing the expectations and entire thought-system of the people.

    For example, take Jesus’ words in Mark 4 (the parable of the sower):

    “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
    ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
    otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'”

    Incidentally, Jesus is quoting Isaiah here. Certainly there is a lot of exegesis that has been done on these passages and I am not a biblical scholar but this is simply one example that came to mind.

    Now, with regard to Thurman. When I read him, my life changed. BUT, if you read Howard Thurman, you also need to read James Baldwin’s book The Fire This Time (if you haven’t already). It challenges quite strongly a lot of what Thurman has to say.

    And if you read Baldwin, I recommend that you also read Randall Kenan’s book, the Fire THIS Time – a contemporary rethinking of Baldwin’s classic work.

    Anyway, once again, great post! I need to start reading your blog more often. Sorry for the long comment!

    Grace & peace,
    A.T.

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