Like many faithful pilgrims, one of my favorite places in the world is the region of the Holy Land. The climate and topography that spans from the below sea level dry Judean wilderness to the lush landscapes and rolling hills of Galilee, with grape vines, olive trees, and sprawling bougainvillea. The ancient stories of the Scriptures make the place come alive for me. My first visit was in 1998 when I was studying abroad for a semester in Egypt and Israel with Westmont College. Taking an earth science class in the Holy Land and the Middle East was no joke! We studied the limestone of the Pyramids, and of course we studied the salt of the Dead Sea, which, unlike most sea salts that contain about 85% of sodium chloride (table salt), the Dead Sea salt only contains about 30-35% sodium chloride, while the rest is made up of ion and other minerals. I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he referred to the disciples as the “salt of the earth.”
Chapter 17 of Reasonable Radicalis titled: “Christianity and Contemporary Culture.” This concise reflection of Walker Percy is anchored in an exposition Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Mt. 5:13). Percy begins with a corrective to common interpretation by reminding the reader that the “salt of the earth” is quite different than “table salt.”
Percy suggests that the “salt of the earth” that Jesus referred to may have been like the detoxifying bath salt of the Dead Sea, found around the area and used to amend the soil for farming purposes. (581). As Percy goes on in his exposition of the text, he suggests that when salt loses its saltiness, that this means that the salt has lost its strength and has become useless, whereas the salt of Jesus never becomes useless.
Percy goes on to liken this to the current influence of the church in the West within postmodern culture, and suggests that the church rethink its place of power and vocation in the world: “The empowering mission of the church, like the salt of Jesus’ parable, has a consistency of power. However, that power, enculturated into contexts, does not lead to uniformity. Rather, it leads to considerable diversity of expression, growth, and human flourishing. The salt must always respect the type of earth in which it is situated. Diverse cultural sensibilities have to be taken into account in the mission of the church. The soil may also be inhospitable; it may be rocky, thorny, and adversely affected by climatic conditions (582).”
Almost a year ago my colleague and I joined a family foundation that sent our families to live and raise our children in the community in which we have been called to serve. The institution is a philanthropic foundation but the job is a missional endeavor, where we are to enculturate ourselves into a small bi-racial community with a particularly unique history along the California Coast. Our work is to join with community and faith leaders to design, fund, and execute programs that seek to address the very real opportunity gaps facing nearly have the population of adolescents in town. This work has required us to do nothing in the way of programmatic offerings in the first year, but to embed our families into the community in order that whatever offerings we would share would “salty” in the Walker Percy sense, arising out of the needs and desires and resources of the community itself. We have been blessed now to have been invited by the local public high school (Carpinteria High School) to run their multi-faceted afterschool program and to add whatever components we would like. We will begin our formal partnership with the school this summer.
Percy writes: “There is a teleology to the salt: what begins as being a distinct and separate substance—to be purposeful—has to give itself to the soil, and so ends up being absorbed and lost to the ground it nourishes” (583). To this we are called.