Do not swear at all

054a133563d7c1cab5f5bff8a838b5fbJesus’ statement from Mt 5.33-27 came up recently in conversation.

“Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (RSV)

Some find this to be a repudiation or rewriting of Deut 6.13 which apparently commands (Greg Boyd, CWG, takes it as commanding, not merely allowing) that oaths be taken in God’s name:

“You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name.” (RSV)

This raises the question of Jesus’ understanding of the sanctity and status of the Old Testament as God’s work. Not only does Jesus dismiss this OT command, he adds that to add anything too our simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ “comes from the evil one.” This seems to mean that obeying Deut 6 in this instance would be evil, as it would “come from the evil one.” Strange indeed.

I’m just thinking out loud on this one, so bear with me, but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees.

If by ‘oath’ one simply means confirming one’s intentions in a contractual way – that can hardly be forbidden. If we don’t do that much, there’s no basic promise being made to which our “going beyond” would be evil. So binding ourselves contractually either to the truth of our statements or our intent to honor terms of an agreement, doesn’t seem to be forbidden by Christ. Paul takes oaths and speaks in terms of adjuring others (Rom 1.9; Phil 1.8; 2Cor 1.23; 1Th 2.5, 10; 5.27).

My own sense is that taking oaths had become so false and corrupted, the truthfulness of one’s statements only came to bear moral importance if one swore. One’s very way of living in the world became divided into two stories. I noticed this in the Middle Eastern Muslim context I lived for years. Using God’s name to bolster one’s claims is an easy way to deflect attention away from the speaker’s character and believability. What it does is divide people from their own word. The weight of their words and promises only carried moral consequence if God was appealed to. Calling on God gave weight and accountability to your words.

But this is just the sort of two-storied worldview Christ wants to expose as false. Christ isn’t saying (I don’t think):

“Don’t swear oaths because when you add God’s name to your promise you run the risk of defaming him in some special way.”

That would be to assume never making oaths is a safe way to avoid offending God. But this leaves the two-storied framework in place. I suggest that Jesus is saying something closer to:

“God is in everything you say to begin with. If you think making mention of him adds something, you’re missing the point.”

The idea is – whether we live or eat or drink of whatever we do (Rm 14.5-9), we do for and unto the Lord. ALL of life is by definition lived “in God’s name.” It’s not that we shouldn’t appeal to it. It’s that we’re in it already with each breath we take, so to feel that you have to add God’s name to your promise is to already have a two-storied view of life that “comes from the evil one.” It’s not that we aren’t to do or say this or that “in God’s name.” It’s that we aren’t to dissect our words and actions into those done in his name and those not done in his name because everything already is in his name. Jesus isn’t repudiating drenching our conversations with explicit references to God, he’s repudiating the idea that God is only consequentially or especially present because we ‘say’ it is so and not all the time as a matter of fact no matter our words. You can add a reference to God that you understand as just a reflection of a truth you live in whether you say so or not, or you can add a reference to God that you think makes your language something it wouldn’t otherwise be. The first is the language of one-storied spiritual life. The second is two-storied talk.

We don’t cease to take oaths, then, because of Christ’s words. We turn all of life into a single promissory note that we give ourselves to in God’s name – everywhere, all the time. Christ raises the bar here rather than lowing it. He’s not commanding that we purge our language of references to God, he wants to save us from that view of God which sees him as present in the world because we put in it by saying his name. So the reason we shouldn’t appeal to God to bolster our promises is because to do so is already to have excluded him from actions we take without explicitly naming him. When you ‘swear’ you’re pretending God isn’t in the things you say and the promises you make that don’t explicitly mention him, and Christ wants to awaken us to the implicit presence of God in all things, at all times, in everything we say.

My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?

Easter-message-picMy final thoughts on the so-called Cry of Dereliction, after which I promise to abandon this subject (pun intended). We should finally consider the relevant texts themselves. In CWG (pp 770-774) Greg expounds his understanding of Christ’s cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46 and Mk 15.34) as the “paradigmatic judgment of sin.” Greg takes the words of the Cry to be the “most profoundly revelatory” words found in Scripture, for here God “experiences his antithesis” by “becoming the sin of the world” (2Cor 5.21) as well as “our godforsaken curse” (Gal 3.13), though Greg does not consider this to be the Father acting violently toward Jesus.

Evaluating Greg’s objections to the Ps 22 connection
Greg notes the Cry has always troubled theologians who were “invested in preserving the classical understanding of God’s impassibility and immutability,” aspects of which (viz., actus purus or ‘pure act’) he summarizes and dismisses; “How could God the Son truly experience abandonment from the Father if the Trinity is ‘above’ suffering and ‘above’ experiencing any kind of change?”

I’m not sure how “troubled” by the Cry theologians are who seek to defend a classical understanding of God’s impassibility. Greg doesn’t give any examples. Given the classical view of transcendence, I suspect there’s far less likelihood the Cry would trouble a classical theist than a kenoticist – truth be told. However, I don’t mind agreeing with objections to aspects of classical theism (as I understand actus purus). We’ve made them repeatedly ourselves here. But Greg’s account makes it appear as though any rejection of actus purus classically understood is a default adoption of his understanding of the Cry as the Father’s abandonment of the Son. But it’s worth pointing out that one could agree with Greg on all his substantive objections to classical theism and yet reject Greg’s thesis of divine abandonment as equally objectionable as whatever aspects of classical theism one has a problem with. There’s no default win for Greg’s view of the Cry if classical theism is proved to be wrong. But I got the distinct feeling in CWG that Greg construes his view of the Cry as following logically from certain weaknesses of classical theism, which of course it doesn’t.

Classical theism aside, however, there are serious theological problems with divine abandonment on the Cross as Greg imagines it. I’ve rehearsed these already. Even a thorough-going kenoticist could have as great a problem with Greg’s thesis as she does with Chalcedon. But what about the exegetical particulars of the Cry itself? Let’s take a look at aspects of it that Greg brings up in CWG.

First, consider the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Cry in both Mt and Mk:

Matthew 27:46: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Mark 15:34: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

The transliterations in both Mt and Lk are followed by a similar “…that is to say, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Second, Greg offers two reasons for thinking Jesus is not alluding to Ps 22 but is in fact offering his own, original composition expressing his personal dereliction. First, he notes that if Jesus was alluding to Ps 22, he would surely have quoted it in Hebrew. But he speaks in Aramaic (which we have in the form of transliterated Greek). That Jesus speaks Aramaic suggests he does not have Ps 22 in mind. Secondly, Greg quotes R. T. France’s objection that “if we read into these words an exegesis of the whole psalm…we turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.”

Let’s look at this shall we?

(1) There’s no argument in France’s quote. Yes, if we take Jesus to be alluding to Ps 22 (“as an expression of confidence”), we understand Jesus’ pain as not indicative of a particular agony, namely, the agony of divine abandonment. But (a) this is the point of debate, so how is it an argument in favor of Greg’s view that if Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 his agony must be understood differently than Greg thinks? In addition, (b) no one who denies Jesus is abandoned by God thinks Jesus is not experiencing the agony of being crucified and left to die.

(2) More significant is the apparent fact that Jesus cries out in Aramaic. Jesus is a Jew whose Scriptures are written in Hebrew. It seems strange that in his dying moment Jesus should quote his Scriptures not in their original Hebrew but in his mother tongue, Aramaic. Greg reasons that this must mean Jesus is not alluding to the Hebrew Psalm 22 but authoring his own personal cry of abandonment.

It’s completely understandable that a dying person should cry out to God in his heart-language, which was Aramaic for Jesus, in spite of the fact that the text he alludes to is a Hebrew text. I don’t find this especially odd at all. There were Aramaic targums of Ps 22 that were popular in Jesus’ day, and he would not have been ignorant of these. Nor would it be at all strange for him to quote the Aramaic form rather than the Hebrew.

christ-on-the-mount-of-olives-1819But there are few other interesting facts about the Greek transliterations of the Cry found in Mt and Mk which Greg doesn’t discuss which I’d like to consider.

(a) Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were different but very closely related languages. For example, lama (some MSS have limi, “to what” or “for what”) is both Hebrew and Aramaic for “why.” There’s no deciding what language Jesus cried in based on this word. And both Hebrew and Aramaic indicate the perfect tense of the 2nd person singular with the attached pronoun “me” (as in “You ______ ed me” ) by suffixing the verb root with “—ani.” The verb conjugations are identical in Hebrew and Aramaic.

(b) “My God” doesn’t settle the matter either, since it is transliterated differently in Matthew and Mark. Most ancient Greek MSS traditions try to normalize these differences between the two. Only the Byzantine text consistently preserves the distinction. (Of course the Nestle-Aland preserved the differences as well.) What differences? Well, Matthew transliterates Jesus’ Cry with Eli (Ἠλί) for “My God” which, interestingly, mirrors the Hebrew of Ps 22. Mark has Eloi (Ἐλωΐ) which is Aramaic and not biblical Hebrew.

(c) Though there is some question over its precise origination and meaning, the verb shabaq is not biblical Hebrew but originally Aramaic. Were Jesus quoting the Hebrew text, he would have used azavthani (“forsaken” or “abandon”) which we find in the Hebrew of Ps 22.

(d) The verb shabaq, however, is not only Aramaic, it’s also Mishnaic Hebrew (a descendant of biblical Hebrew that developed under the influence of Aramaic following the Babylonian captivity). It’s entirely possible that Jesus is citing Ps 22 in Mishnaic Hebrew. And there are those who argued that presenting a biblical text in Mishnaic Hebrew was a well-known Rabbinic technique introducing a midrash (interpretation or teaching) on the text in question.

(e) What does seem unlikely is that Matthew would have changed the Aramaic Eloi to the Hebrew Eli and not change sabachthani to azavthani if he was interested in making the quote conform to the Hebrew text. But if Mishnaic Hebrew is in view, then things fit. In addition, there is the question of Aramaic targums that do use shabaq in their translations of Ps 22.

What’s the point of all this?
The linguistic data isn’t easy to assemble into a coherent picture. But it’s not altogether certain that Jesus was speaking Aramaic on the Cross. My point is that if he was, there is nothing about this that would suggest he was not alluding to Ps 22. Matthew’s account makes the Mishnaic Hebrew connection stronger because Eli is clearly Hebrew, and Mark’s passion narrative (cf. Rikk Watts on Mark’s use of Ps 22) has obvious allusions to Ps 22 besides the Cry. I take it to be virtually certain that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22.

However, Greg offers yet a further reflection. Let us assume, he suggests, that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22. This would not, he contends, “undermine the genuineness of Jesus’ experience of abandonment on the cross,” for it was only “after the psalmist had expressed his authentic sense of abandonment that he regained his composure, as it were, and expressed confidence that God would eventually rescue him.” So even if one understands Jesus as referencing Ps 22, it needn’t lead us to deny that Jesus “was genuinely experiencing godforsakeness” and “was even experiencing confusion as to why it was happening.”

But this seems confused. Does Greg want a genuine abandonment of the Son by the Father, a true withdrawal of the Father that occasions a genuine experience of godforsakeness, or not? It seems his cruciform thesis itself requires that Jesus’ feel this particular agony and that it not be the result of misperceiving. But Greg’s proposed reading of the Ps 22 (on the assumption that Jesus is alluding to it) concedes that God in fact never abandoned its author. The author only temporarily loses his composure and misinterprets his suffering; but this undermines Greg’s case for more than an apparent abandonment. So I don’t see how Greg can concede that Jesus has Ps 22 in mind and still secure the particular view of divine abandonment that defines his view of the Cross.

What in Jesus’ experience parallels Ps 22?
What about those who argue Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 in its entirety but who also argue Jesus never despairs of the Father’s love, presence, and filial affection? Surely there must be something in Jesus’ experience that parallels or fulfills the psalmist’s cry which, admittedly, seems to reflect some doubt or lapse in his belief or confidence in God’s faithfulness.

This is an excellent question. My own sense is that there is nothing in Jesus’ experience that parallels any suspicions the psalmist might have in God’s faithfulness, nor must we suppose there to be in order to make sense of Jesus alluding to the psalm. To begin with, assuming the psalmist genuinely interprets his suffering as God’s having abandoned him, it does seem strange that he would go to this same God in prayer. Biblical prayer presupposes at least some confidence in the faithfulness of God, some belief that God hears one’s prayer and is open to responding. Is his opening cry a poetic-rhetorical device to heighten suspense and drama? When we cry “God where are you?” does it follow that we’ve concluded God has forsaken or abandoned us? If so, why are we addressing our prayers to him at all? No prayer to God can be motivated by a belief that God has absolutely forsaken and abandoned us.

7511534I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ve already drawn out this series on divine abandonment too long. My point here is that whatever the precise belief of the psalmist may have been, there is no one-for-one parallel between every belief and attitude held by the psalmist from the beginning of his experience to his vindication, on the one hand, and existential carbon copies of each of those beliefs and attitudes that must obtain in Jesus. There’s no warrant for insisting on this kind of ‘fulfillment’ simply because Jesus alludes to Ps 22. It’s enough that Jesus responds to the taunting crowds who provoke him with their “Where’s God now?” and “Come on down if God’s on your side!” by offering them a well-known account of an innocent, scapegoated victim who was not in fact abandoned by God but who was vindicated: “You think God has abandoned me here? You think I’m cursed by God as I hang here on this tree? Go read Ps 22 and think again.”

What about the Garden?
It occurred to me that Jesus’ sufferings en route to the Cross have an important role to play in deciding what Jesus took to be the meaning of his pain and suffering, and the intensity of his suffering in the Garden (Mk 14:32-34; Mt 26.36-46; Lk 22.43-44) came to mind. How are we to understand this suffering relative to claims that it is divine abandonment experienced as godforsakeness which gives Jesus’ suffering its redemptive value? In the Garden Jesus suffers beyond description, sweating blood. He confesses that he is at the point of death. He offers his humanity in all its finitude and natural weakness to God, truly wishing for there to be another way.

There is, however, no divine abandonment here. In fact, Jesus converses with his Father and is comforted by angels. At the center of his storm of pain there is the eye of the Father’s filial affection mediated to him by the Spirit. He is not alone (as he had made clear to his disciples – Jn 16.31-33). He knows the Father’s love and presence and still he sweats blood and feels like dying. So it doesn’t seem that divine abandonment either constitutes Jesus’ understanding of his own suffering or that it is necessary to give his suffering their unique healing, redemptive value – unless we wish to argue that Jesus’ suffering in the Garden, his flogging, or the pain he bears en route to Golgatha all have no healing, transformative value in our lives simply because they were accompanied by his belief that the Father was personally and affectionately with him through it all.

My fundamental point is that this suffering is healing and transformative in our lives precisely because the Father’s personal presence and affection are present, defining Jesus’ own self-perception and understanding of his pain at a level nothing could deconstruct or wrest from his heart. There, friends, is our saving act. The reason nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8) is because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ.

Happy contemplating!

How Jesus viewed his Cross

hqdefaultPermit me another reflection (or set of reflections) on the question of whether the Son was abandoned by the Father on the Cross. The question is often answered solely in terms of the Cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Disagreements over the meaning of the Cry are played out in terms of whether Jesus is referencing Psalm 22 and if so how this might or might not inform our understanding of what Jesus believed to be the state of his relationship with God to be. My own sense is that this cry is indeed a reference to Psalm 22 and that, given the context of the Psalm, what Jesus is actually saying is “I am not abandoned by God as you suppose,” which is the opposite of what many take the Cry to mean. But it comes as bad news to some that Jesus did not suffer from any dereliction of mind or belief regarding the Father’s abiding love, intentions, support or presence throughout his passion.

In this post I think it would be helpful to expand the search beyond the Cry itself for clues to understanding how Jesus might have intended these words. How did Jesus view his Cross? Did he anticipate his own suffering? Did he describe it ahead of time? Did he saying anything during his trial that might give us an insight into what he thought was going on or what he believed would be the meaning of his suffering? What else did he say while on the Cross? Can his statements in any of these contexts help us understand his own understanding of his suffering?

I think there are significant statements Jesus makes that reveal his perspective on his own suffering. I invite you to consider what Jesus says before, during and after (in a manner of speaking) the Cross.

Prior to the Cross
First, Jesus anticipates his sufferings and resurrection (Mk 8.31; 9.30-31; 10.33-34; Mt 16.21-28; 17.22-23; 20.17-19; Lk 9.22-27). We repeatedly meet with Jesus’ prediction that “the Son of Man will be betrayed, suffer, die, and on the third day rise” (and similar phrases). It’s clear that Jesus knows he will be betrayed and murdered. He knows he will be handed over to religious scapegoating violence. There’s no surprise here. In addition, and importantly, he is as confident that he will rise as he certain that he will suffer and die. He knows the game-plan heading into Jerusalem.

Second, Jesus makes it clear that “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up.” Not only does he know the game-plan, but he is quarterbacking the play. Some want to ignore or dismiss the implications of Jesus’ claim that he will raise up his own body, but it has to be taken into any account of what one takes Jesus to mean by the Cry. I suggest that at the very least this means Jesus decides to submit himself to be killed and that nothing done to him by others wrests his command of the narrative and meaning of his suffering from him. This in itself makes any deconstruction of the divine identity Jesus enjoys exegetically untenable.

Third, though Jesus clearly believes he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples, he does not believe the Cross is where his Father will forsake him. Jn 16.31-33 make this point explicit:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (Jn 16.33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground his disciples’ own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ despairing belief that God had in fact abandoned him.

These three sources of information from prior to Jesus’ passion suggest that Jesus’ understanding of the Cross had been forged over time and in the most intimate of conversations between him and his Father. He knows the what, the why, and the whence (resurrection) of his suffering to come, and his understanding of the Cross did not include “being alone” or “abandoned” by the Father. Those promoting divine abandonment, however, suppose that although Jesus anticipated the suffering of the Cross and its rejection, and knew he would be vindicated through resurrection, and although he believed the Father would be supportively present with him, this all comes unraveled in Jesus’ mind on the Cross as he ceases to believe it.

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On the Cross
Comments Jesus makes while suffering include:

“Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“It is finished.”
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

On the Cross Jesus has the presence of mind to connect his suffering purposefully to his mission and his identity as the Son beloved of his Father. He forgives sin, bestows eternal life, identifies himself as an innocent scapegoat, calls God his Father, confidently commits his spirit to his Father, and dies satisfied in the knowledge that his life’s mission is “finished” – that is, he continues throughout his passion to do what he sees the Father doing. This is perfectly consistent with the confidence he expresses prior to the Cross in what is to occur and what it will mean. Given what he says on the Cross, there is every indication that Jesus’ perspective on his own identity as the beloved of his Father and the success of his mission was not deconstructed or reduced to despair or dereliction by the intensity of his pain or by any internal perception or spiritual sensibility that God had abandoned him. He meaning-makes throughout his suffering without giving up any of this.

After the Cross
What other post-resurrection statements (of Jesus or others) might shed light on Jesus’ view of his own Cross? I’ll mention this as food for thought without going into detail, but the resurrected Jesus says to Paul, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9.4) What might this tell us about Christ and suffering? Anything? And what are we to make of Paul’s statement that he “fills up in his flesh what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ”? (Col 1.24) Heb. 12.1-3 introduces “hope” as a defining motivation for Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross? How is that hope sustained alongside his believing himself to be forsaken by God? Then there are 2Cor 5.21 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”) and Gal 3.13 (Christ becomes a curse for us).

Does God really forgive sin if he pours upon Christ the “death consequences” we deserve? It would seem that rather than forgiving sin that God prosecutes it, for if Christ suffers the godforsakeness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says. To take passages like 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13 as expressive of the truth of God’s perspective and motivation is to read God as scapegoating Jesus in mythological terms.

Paul cannot mean (2Cor 5.21) that Jesus literally becomes sin in an ontological sense, or that his human, created nature even is transformed literally into sin, for Paul credits this transformation to God. I think if we read Paul here in terms of the broader narrative of the gospel and in the context of Jesus’ own anticipations and convictions, Christ’s being made sin has to be read as God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences. God’s “making Jesus to become sin” is thus equivalent to God’s having Jesus become what we (not God) consider to be the divinely appointed mechanism by which our sin and violence are addressed – i.e., the scapegoat.

Same with Gal. 3. God didn’t curse Jesus and God isn’t of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God. That’s Israel’s false belief and her own scapegoating, skewed perspective, not God’s. But God does give himself to it – i.e., to be treated by it, allowing it to exhaust its resources on him. But if is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? He demonstrates it by hanging on a tree without being cursed (or abandoned) by God. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us, then, is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

Lastly, there is the question of the application of a proper understanding of the Cross for Christians who are suffering innocently. The Cross functions as an example of how Christians are to suffer, not how they are not to suffer because Jesus suffered. If the moment that defines Christ’s Cross is Jesus’ derelict belief that God had abandoned him, then it’s difficult to see how the Cross becomes an example for Christian suffering, for no NT writer promotes the view that Christians are called to suffer God’s abandonment of them. Quite the contrary (Mt 6.24f; Rom 8.31-39; Col 1.24; 1Pet 2.21; 4.12-19; Heb 12.2). But how does the Cross exemplify the promise to us of God’s sustaining presence in suffering if it’s true that the Cross is most fundamentally an embodiment of God’s abandonment of Christ in fulfillment of the death consequences of our sin? Hebrews 12.2 grounds Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross in a vision of the joy his suffering would result in, hardly the kind of perspective on one’s suffering that a derelict, God-forsaken mind would be capable of. But if Jesus has the joy-giving purpose of his death in mind, as the perspective from which he interprets his own suffering as he suffering, he can hardly think of himself abandoned by the Father.

We have in these competing interpretations of the Cry fundamentally different visions of the God-World relation and its relational, aesthetic, and moral dynamics. So as the Knight said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”

I, not I, but Christ

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“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
(Galatians 2.20)

There’s a difference between seeing the Cross from where you are and seeing where you are from the Cross.

What would you say the difference is? What’s the difference amount to? What difference does it make?

Suffering servant

downloadOne more passage from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. There are a dozen passages I’d like here to reproduce from this insightful book, but I’ll try to make this the final post and encourage you to acquire and read the book for yourself. In this section (from chapter three) Heim continues to trace the development of the theme of scapegoating in the Old Testament and how the Scriptures, though they are “thick with bodies [and] the voices of victims,” expose this economy of violence as bankrupt, even as that economy is adopted within and by Israel’s worship of God (also to be judged in light of the Cross). At times scapegoating is depicted from the perspective of the persecutors, those who employ scapegoating as a means of achieving and maintaining peace, while at other times that same process is described from the point of view of the scapegoat/victim. Heim’s section on Job is one example of scapegoating presented from the perspective of the victim who in Job’s case, argues Heim, is a failed sacrificial event. Here, however, I’d like to reproduce Heim’s treatment of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, which as we know was a source of understanding for the early Church’s understanding of the Cross.

For later Christians the revelation of persecuting sacrifice that is so deep in the Old Testament reaches a special climax in the “songs of the servant” in the book of Isaiah. Here in the figure of the suffering servant we find perhaps the single most prominent scriptural text for early Christian interpretation of the cross… [Heim’s here reproduces the fourth song, Isa. 52.13—53.12, which I’m omitting.]

These words are so familiar, and so freighted with tradition, that it is hard to hear them say anything new. But compare them with the description of the sacrificial scapegoat presented in our last chapter. This passage says concisely in a few sentences all that was contained there. Consider it first not as a mystical job description for a unique messiah, but as an anthropological account of a repeated reality. As Gil Bailie, says, “The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and second, that his victimization was socially beneficial and that his punishment brought the community peace.”

This is presented in great detail. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” The persecuted one is likely chosen from the marginal or those whose appearance is marred, and so is more easily rejected. “He was despised.” The person chosen is without supporters, isolated and abandoned. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The victim has been chosen and will suffer because of our problem, our collective disease of rivalry and conflict. The impetus comes not from some offense in the victim but from a need in us. “Yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God.” We thought this, but we were wrong. Though the problem is ours, we believed it was this one who was the cause, this one who was hated by God, this one who deserved the Job and the Joseph and the Abel treatment.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions.” In fact, it is because we could not maintain peaceful relations that we require a sacrifice. We wound because of our iniquities. And wounding is another iniquity. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” We are actually reconciled and freed by this violence, even though the victim is wrongly charged and we are the actual guilty ones. Hating together unites us, strops our divisions. What hurts him helps us. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are all involved. We do this together; we have all turned to scapegoating. “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” The entire procedure by which we carry out this killing may claim to have some moral basis, but there is no justice in it.

This is about as clear as it can be about religious scapegoating violence. It is an unequivocally bad thing, with undeniably good results. To perceive this sacrificial mechanism in others is unusual, a breakthrough. To face it explicitly in our own behavior may be, literally, miraculous.

Of course, there is another element in the text, expressed most powerfully in two lines: “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” and “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” Otherwise the passage is giving an uncannily clear description of violent sacrifice as the unjust if fruitful persecution of an innocent victim, wrongly attributed to God rather than to our own evil. But these lines appear to turn around and say it is all God’s idea after all.

The different biblical voices we have been examining in various ways exposed and criticized this foundational religious dynamic, and set God against it. The trail of attention to scapegoats in the Bible leads to this moment of blinding clarity about what is going on. And at this point, it seems, the writer blinks, and in a few words draws the whole thing back under divine authorization. That long struggle to hear the voice of victims backslides into a passive acceptance, the surrender of a crushed Job who mumbles that it must be right after all.

Is that what’s going on? No. But let’s suppose for a moment that it were. If we stop there, we still have something completely new. In the past the participants in persecuting sacrifice, including the divine participants, endorsed it as something other than what it actually was. They accepted a mythical account, the validity of the accusations, the guilt of the victim. They did it because they thought it was right. What is proposed in this text would be a knowing acceptance of sacrifice for what it actually is. God knows and we know that it is the evil killing of an innocent, for our own benefit. This is the way the world works. We go ahead anyway. It’s wrong, but useful. This is a God who has read Nietzsche, and agrees.

But this isn’t what the text is saying. The writer is not talking about divine approval for sacrificial business as usual, and the sign is in the way God’s will is distinguished from the will of the persecutors. Isaiah says that we, the sacrificers, esteemed the victim stricken by God. But the whole tenor of the text is that it was wrong to think that. We are the ones who wounded and crushed the scapegoat with our iniquities. If what is being done is so clearly wrong, why would God support it? If it was wrong to think that God inflicted the punishment, what does it mean to turn around and say that God laid on him the iniquities of us all? It can mean only that there are two different things going on. When we inflict our iniquities on the victim, it is not the same event as when God lays those same iniquities on him. The writer of the servant song brings these two together with the suggestion that “the victim was allowed to be struck down by a God who counted his sufferings as an atonement for the faults of the very mob that inflicted them on him.”

imagesGod is doing something different from what the persecutors are doing. The Isaiah text gives us many plain indications of this shift. It ends with exaltation of the servant. And it begins with verses that already presume the vindication of the sacrificed one. “See, my servant shall prosper; / he shall be exalted and lifted up….” The victim’s cause will be upheld, in a way that will startle the nations, “for that which had not been told them they shall see, / and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” Though what is happening is old and common (even if the blunt description of it is new), this instance of it is going to be dramatically different. It has a purpose counter to, but superimposed on, the standard purpose of sacrifice. This is powerfully reflected in the lines “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. / Who could have imagined his future?” Clearly, those doing the sacrifice do not imagine it, a sign that God is not playing the same game they are.

The text says, “When you make his life an offering for sin, / he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days, / through him the will of the Lord shall proper.” In other words, when you sacrifice him as a sin offering, it won’t work. Instead of falling into death and oblivion, the servant will live long and see descendants. Through him the will of the Lord – and not the will of his killers – will prosper. The servant will be blessed (“Out of his anguish he shall see light”) and will bless many others (“the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous”). Traditional sacrifice may accomplish something very real. It may still our strife for a time. One thing it cannot do is make its practitioners righteous, since they must sin to carry it out. Somehow the servant’s death is to save them from what led to the killing.

We can understand this better by comparing the servant in this passage with Job. Job is a full-scale resister to his scapegoating, but the servant is patient, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb. Job protests his personal innocence while the friends enlist God to argue his guilt, and the outcome is up in the air. The servant songs are crystal clear that the servant is suffering unjustly for other people’s sins, and it is a mistake to think the servant guilty. Job demands some kind of vindication from God. He does have his earthly prosperity restored, but gets no unequivocal verdict in his favor, no reply to his plea for an accounting from God. The entire episode of his suffering is still posed as a test proposed to God by Satan, an episode that turns out to be a test of God too. By contrast the servant song is framed by an affirmation of the victory of the victim. The servant does not protest, because the protest has been heard and validated by God. The song directly proclaims the innocence of the servant and the injustice of the persecution. The servant is in league with God to change this dynamic. This sacrifice is not meant to be one in a long line. The servant is a singular figure, and the effect of his life will be something new: “for that which had not been told them they shall see.” For a beginning, in this picture of the servant, the nations see what they had not been told about their own scapegoating practice.

The servant song tells a story like that of Job, from a different perspective. This time there is no doubt about the scapegoat’s innocence, no doubt about the evil of the suffering inflicted, no doubt whose side God is on. The focus has shifted. Now it rests on the sins of the persecutors, US. Job poses a question: How can God be justified in fact of the arbitrary suffering of a righteous person ganged against by everyone, including God? The servant poses a different question. Assuming that God decides to side with the scapegoat, how can those who do the violence ever be justified? If the first was about how the one can be rescued, the second is about how the man can be saved.

A good pollution

scapegoatI’ve been reading Catholic/Orthodox theologians for a while, but I’ve been reading them exclusively for a couple of years now. I may have tapped into a very few Protestants here are there during this time (Dallas Willard, James Loder, N. T. Wright, Robert Jenson) but not at any length, and the ones I just named are exceptions to what I typically find in Protestants of the standard, American Evangelical genre. If that seems unfair, it’s not because I’m being dishonest. That’s just been my experience. Last month I picked up a book by an American Evangelical (PhD, theologian, never mind who). He was writing on the Trinity. I fell asleep. I kid you not. It was in the middle of the day and I was not deprived of sleep the night before, and he was writing about the Trinity of all things. What’s not to like? I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I’ve given up on Evangelical theologians by and large. But I’m happy to say that Evangelical Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice (outlined in the previous post) is a wonderful exception. When I picked it up I thought I’d race through the preface and conclusion, get the basic thrust of his (Girardian) thesis (which I already share as far as I’ve explored it), and launch into something else. Not this time. This is a slow and careful read from beginning to end. I already shared a portion from the preface that outlines the book. Here is another thoughtful and provocative section (under the subtitle of “Creation and Murder”) from chapter three:

The Genesis creation accounts are a striking exception to the prevalence of violence in the Bible. In comparison with the founding and creation myths of most traditions, no acts of expulsion, battle, or bloodshed are essential for creating the world. The text reflects clear awareness of myths of this type – Marduk’s slaying of the great water goddess Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story, for instance. But instead God moves over the face of the watery chaos and speaks through it to bring the universe into being. The world is not founded on violence or the expulsion of a cosmic scapegoat. Girard suggested that our social world is historically founded on human forms of sacrifice, and that myths of origin often misrepresent that fact by veiling it in symbols or transposing it into mythic space. At this crucial point the Bible insists that the true origin is a nonviolent one. And ontology of peace is more fundamental than the reality of conflict.

In almost the next breath, however, Adam and Eve fall away from the preconditions of peace and Genesis presents another story, the story of Cain and Abel. Here we do have a story of violent origins. But it is plainly a secondary story. The ultimate, divine origin was a peaceful one. In Cain and Abel we meet not the original sin, but the first murder: the original social sin. This is a story of the human origins of violence, and one told in concrete antimythical terms. One man kills another, in a field, for motives of rivalry and jealousy that are in some obscure way connected to their sacrificial practices (God “had regard” for Abel’s offering from his flock, but “had no regard” for Cain’s offering from his fields).

Cain is angry at what he sees as God’s preference for Abel, and commits murder. There is, famously, no explicitly explanation for the success of Abel’s offering and the failure of Cain’s, but interpreters have supplied them without end. God prefers herders with their animal offerings to farmers with their vegetable offerings. Blood sacrifice is the only effective kind. In any event, Cain is cautioned by God that in his anger sin is lying close at hand, but he must overcome it. Instead, he kills Abel. One simple way to read this story is that a successful sacrifice does not lead you to kill your brother, and an unsuccessful one does.

This “fall” of Adam and Eve addresses why we humans need sacrifice. Our capacities for deep empathy with each other are twisted to construct intentions and instigate conflict of a sort that did not exist before. The story of Cain and Abel reflects the fact that sacrifice is not the source of creation (as in some myths of origin) but is a strategy to deal with a fallen creation. And the story encapsulates the true nature of sacrifice, in which violence fends off violence. Abel’s bloody sacrifice does so. Cain’s nonbloody offering (despite God’s caution) does not. God is an enigmatic figure in this story. God says to Cain, who perceives that his sacrifice is unsatisfactory, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Does God mean that Cain should sacrifice animals like Abel and then things would be all right, but in the meantime he should take care not to fall into murder? Or does God mean that if Cain resists falling into violence his offering will be acceptable, but if he continues to view the situation as one of rivalry with Abel for God’s favor, then he risks falling into murder?

The story of Abraham and Isaac suggests that animal sacrifice arises as a way of backing off from human sacrifice. This text suggests something strikingly different. It pictures a time after sin had entered but when there was a kind of testing whether it might be restrained effectively with animal sacrifice or even with the more limited offering from the field, before it led to any murder at all. And it is in the train of this failed experiment that the full weight of sacred violence descends. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. Confronted by God, and sentenced to be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, Cain raises the specter of reciprocal violence (“whoever finds me will slay me”). God places a mark of protection on Cain, promising that if anyone kills him God will take vengeance against that person sevenfold – deterring killing with the threat of more killing. Abel’s murder becomes the occasion for a law against murder, whose prescribed punishment is multiple murder in return.

Cain goes on to build a city and to found civilization. The rest of the story is told only in the genealogy of his children and the occupations they invented, except for a brief song from his descendant Lamech: “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23-24 RSV). There could hardly be a clearer expression of progression from one murder to unlimited blood revenge. Death now is returned not for death but for a blow. With this hair trigger of escalating retaliation, society spirals quickly into such unbridled violence that God regrets the creation of humanity and contemplates the destruction of the entire world. We go quickly from Cain and Abel to Noah and the flood.

No one would suggest that Cain is a hero of the Bible and a model to believers. His story launches an acute diagnosis of the particular human evil we are concerned with. It unveils what myth hides. Rival brothers appear frequently in mythology. A well-known example would be the story of the brothers Romulus and Remus and the origins of the city of Rome. Romulus kills Remus for not respecting the boundaries he has set out for the new city. This is the founding event, looked back on in later Roman tradition not as a crime but as a sacred beginning. Romulus’s action is approved, and the account lacks entirely the supervening framework of condemnation and horror provided by God’s confrontation with Cain. The Bible looks back to Cain and Abel as a point at which things all went dramatically wrong, following on the original fall in the garden. The Romulus example demonstrates that we should not take it for granted that stories of a “first murder” would naturally have such a flavor. They were more likely to be seen as part of how things went right.

There is no foundational violence in God or God’s creation of the world. But the biblical God is quickly implicated in killing. In fact, the story of Cain and Abel beings a short, vivid portion of scripture in which God is caught up in the intensive spiral of violence at the end of which God destroys the entire world (save Noah and his ark) by flood. The explanation given for this is, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Just as Cain’s descendants escalate their levels of retribution, God is recruited into this dynamic. God breaks out in violence…against violence. From Cain and Abel the world has spiraled into a relentless reciprocal destruction. The response is a massive attempt to drive out violence by violence, and attempt God then declares will never be repeated. The rainbow marks this unilateral covenant promise. To put it baldly, God too became subject to this disease, or was forced to violent judgment by it. By the end of the tenth chapter of Genesis, one response to the problem of human violence – greater and greater violence – has been tried both by humans and by God, and found wanting.

God is prompted to the rainbow promise when Noah sacrifices some animals as a burnt offering. “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…’” (Gen. 8:21). Human life is restored, and ritual blood sacrifice is at the center. It is the occasion for God to forswear manifold retribution against humanity. And in fact, God gives a new law: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, / by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). This is a dramatic de-escalation of the sevenfold vengeance promised before. The act of sacrifice is associated with the restriction of runaway divine and human violence, with its limitation to a strict equal exchange.

What is striking about this is how sharply the opening verses of the Bible outline the fundamental human problem of violence. In the train of the first murder, the remedy of escalating revenge is tried (by humans and by God). This leads to total destruction. Then God and humanity begin again, with new limitations on the extent of both human and divine retaliation, a dispensation marked by Noah’s blood offerings. In some way these are substitutions for the now-forbidden violence. Humanity is given clear permission to sacrifice and eat animal (though not their blood). Perhaps this too is some kind of compensation. From a world of whole-sale violence we have entered the realm of proportioned violence, the realm of sacrifice. Though the problem of violence originates with humans, the response to it implicates both God and humanity. Caught up in a mimetic rivalry they attribute to God, humans then conceive God as the mirror imagine of their own escalating conflict. This chapter of the story ends with God destroying a world given over to violence. Then God appears as an enforcer of prohibitions to avoid the escalation of violence and a power who underwrites sacrifice to defuse it. If we are to judge from the Bible’s own plot, none of these representations gives a full or adequate characterization of God’s true nature. But they do tell fundamental truths about the human condition and our relation with God. Without such pictures, it is hard to see how we could grasp our situation, even if the full biblical story makes clear that we cannot stop with them.

A few chapters later we move from God’s destruction of an entire violence-ridden world, with only a tiny remnant saved, to Abraham’s intercessory argument with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:22-33). Now God agrees that if only ten righteous ones can be found in the city, all its guilty inhabitants will be spared. In contrast with the idea that the guilt of a few can contaminate and pollute an entire community and bring divine destruction on it (a classic scapegoating assumption), an alternative idea is introduced suggesting a positive contagion, a good pollution, in which the virtues of a minority can save a corrupt community.

I imagine some readers are scratching their heads wondering how contrary descriptions of God in the Bible can combine to give us a single, trustworthy character. As Heim himself says in this same chapter, such apparent inconsistencies are “often counted against the idea that the Bible contains revealed truth about God.” He enlarges on this point:

One (conventionally liberal) approach to biblical authority may find in scripture pearls of truth and revelation set amid errors and misapprehensions that never should have had a place there to begin with. Another (more conventionally conservative) approach may find the truth binding on us set amid inspired commandments that were God’s providential truth to their time but obsolete in ours. It falls somewhere between the two to suppose that there are portions of scripture that may have continuing revelatory content, though what they present is not something to be emulated or endorsed. The Bible, the faith that it expresses, and the God that it describes are all entangled in the dynamics of mythical sacrifice. To assume otherwise would suppose an absolute discontinuity to revelation, a truth dropped with no key to its context. If our human religious history has the qualities we have suggested, an alternative to the violent sacred could only be posed as an argument about God. And it must make reference to the only kind of god sacred violence knows, a sacrificial one. The Bible is engaged in a struggle over the sacred. It is a struggle waged in the substance of the texts themselves. (Link mine)

Not Alone

600x600bb-85Anita and I have been enjoying History Channel’s Alone series. Just finished Season 3 recently. Each season documents ten new pre-approved survivalists who are dropped off in remote locations and left to survive on their own. Seasons 1 and 2 were held on Vancouver Island. Season 3 was in Patagonia, Argentina. Each contestant is given a few essential tools to take along, but all have to eat, drink and survive alone. No human contact. They’re given video equipment to set up and record their thoughts and activities.

It’s very interesting to observe the gradual effects of solitude upon each contestant. The quiet breaks and whittles them down, brings them face to face with themselves. If you want to call it quits, you tap out by calling a Sat Phone and you’re extracted. As people tap out, 10 becomes 9, then 7, then 4, etc. If you’re the last one standing, you win half a mill. Season 1’s winner lasted 56 days. Season 2’s made it to 66 days. Season 3’s winner won on day 87. Amazing show. Check it out!

That said, my thoughts on being alone brought to me thoughts of the Cross. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples (John 16.32-33):

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

It’s just because Jesus says this before the awful events that end with him on the Cross that its truth gets separated from the Cross and altogether forgotten when you get to the Cross. But the truth Christ here affirms should be included in what we have traditionally considered Jesus’ “Final sayings from the Cross,” for Jesus himself insists that what he here says embraces his suffering to come and so will be true when he hangs on the Cross. Think about it. We should learn to hear Jesus say from the Cross not only “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but also “I am not alone; my Father is with me.”

Earlier we offered:

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Consider also –

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree
A cell made of diamonds?