One of the books I have been re-reading this summer is one that treats the study of cancer as a biography. This very bad thing, cancer, has a life of its own: it has a beginning somewhere; its existence impacts both individuals and groups; it morphs over time, depending upon context; it rages in some eras in clusters, in others it recedes.
In this biography of cancer I encountered one parallel after another with the gospel. The gospel? Well, more generally, the story of salvation history – of the life and times of the people of God. The biblical story of orientation, disorientation and reorientation as theologian Walter Brueggemann so describes.
This morning’s Old Testament reading is one example of where I see some parallels. In it is the reminder of the steadfast effort on the part of the Lord, God to reign in evil. From creation onward when given a choice to be accountable to the Lord, God or to be accountable to no one or thing but self, God has made one gesture after another to help humanity get right with Him – to align their lives with God’s will so that healthy, right living will flourish in all of God’s people and in Creation.
The reading from Judges lists all those efforts. God freed them. Made a covenant with them. Gave them commandments. Ushered in victories. Fed them. Lead them. And all the while, God’s people disobeyed. Wandered away from the Lord, God.
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. 17Yet they did not listen even to their judges;
So a pattern had developed with the body of believers known as God’s chosen people – the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord – the familiar pattern of humanity choosing something over God, breaking God’s heart. Repeated over and over that choice becomes sort of hard wired and very, very hard – not impossible and all in God’s time – for God to contain or change. Humanity’s ego – choosing something created over the Creator – to worship, to love, to praise is the evil that wages the biggest battle against the primacy of God in our lives.
So how does this relate to what I’ve learned about cancer and the ongoing mystery of how to eradicate humanity from its destructive power?
The covenants, bargains, deals, victories, plagues – the consequences of the bad choices humanity opt for are in some ways like the medications administered to get rid of proliferating cancer cells. They work sometimes, most often they don’t.
Stepping into the story of cancer for a minute. In the mid-nineteenth century a young German researcher re-named the blood disease known as ‘a suppuration of blood’ – the disease of abnormally and fatally high white blood cells counts.
The young man re-named it based only on what he could observe under the microscope and what he observed was a preponderance of white blood cells. Hence, leukemia became the name (from the Greek word for white, leukos).
This renaming ushered in a teutonic magnitude paradigm shift in cancer research for it altered the understanding of what cancer actually was. Up to then, cancer was comprehended in a variety of ways that are of interest but not relevant to today’s ‘aha’.
What is of note is that the disease leukemia had been named something that mislead scientists understanding of what the disease was and hence, how to treat it.
The former name suggested the condition was due to infected blood – that something had gotten into the blood stream that made the blood bad. In other words, something outside the structure of the blood itself.
So, by just naming the disease for what was observable – a proliferation of white blood cells, scientists then found themselves with a new and agreed upon understanding and would look to a cure, differently.
The paradigm shift then included two epiphanies. First, cancer was molecular – something in the human DNA (though this wasn’t the 1845 clinical language). Cancer existed at the cellular level is the point. It was in the blood. And second, cancer was distorted growth, “Cancer was a disease of pathological hyperplasia in which cells acquired an autonomous will to divide,” (Emperor of All Maladies, p 14).
From here on, scientists and physicians would attack the problem of the never-ending divding cancer cell from two angles: they looked to prevent such cells from entering the human body (this doesn’t take hold as an idea until late into the 20th century) and they looked to rid the human body of such cells. Ridding the body of cancer cells ranged from surgery to radiation to chemotherapy and combinations of all three. Constraints on the cells’ growth is the point. How to contain the distorted cell growth.
Cancer cells unchecked will proliferate. Trump. Take over. Eventually distort the cellular structure of a human body to the point of death. Unchecked cancer grows and grows and grows.
So with egos? This is the parallel I saw – bear with me. The human ego – humanity’s self-interest gene, the selfish all-about-me part of our hard wired biology left unchecked, can manifest in wrong-doing, even evil. Ego unchecked is like cancer in this way – an ‘autonomous will to divide’…and conquer. The inclination towards ego and self and away from the Lord, God is in our blood.
God’s gestures throughout salvation history have been to save us from ourselves – from our egos, from the patterns of choice-making that comes from self, and not from Him. Covenants, calls, commandments, judges, kings, lands.
I know there’s more to the story but I’m not quite ready to go there, yet. The parallel I see today is in the way in which we understand God’s actions in the world and in our own lives. Does it change things in my life to know that my ego, unchecked by the will and Word of God, will run rampant – will grow and grow and grow to the point that it cuts off life everlasting?
Cancer researchers, as mentioned above, worked for many years only the cure end of the spectrum. The prevention end alluded their thinking for a number of reasons. So, this is my question and how I relate this cancer story in some ways to the salvation history as told in the bible. Is the Law in some ways the ‘cure’ end of the span of a believer’s life? Or more specifically, the Old Testament is it the cure-end and the Gospel later will be revealed as the prevention end? With grace, with Jesus Christ in your head and heart, we live with a new internal structure that constrains the ego?
Just as many ‘cures’ did not save cancer victims from death by cancer, does the Law save? If abided in all its proscriptions and absolutely, perhaps. But we can’t. Humanity cannot abide absolutely or perfectly. It is in our blood not to, in fact.
The preventive side in the cancer world leads to a focus on carcinogens- cancer cells that enter the body after birth.
Is this baptism? Is this what baptism is all about? The re-birth of the human body with a Holy Spirit that will constrain self? Prevent the proliferation of bad cells – bad choices?
I know this needs more thought – the parallels I’m trying to draw. And I know to be careful with drawing parallels between cancer and evil. I mean to make no connection, morally, in that way. In fact none of my thinking falls into the ‘morality’ realm.
I’m simply intrigued by difference a word can make and what that leads to in terms of the world’s understanding of something. And given that I live and breathe by words – Gods’ most especially – I’ve learned to pause at these intrigues, locate the Lord, and try to hear what the Spirit is saying.
Lectionary Readings: Psalm 61, 62; PM Psalm 68:1-20(21-23)24-36 Judges 2:1-5,11-23; Rom. 16:17-27; Matt. 27:32-44