They toil not…but then they burn?

GardenAs a teenager my parents struggled to get my brother and me to mow the lawn and trim the hedges. Over the course of my life, however, I took increasing interest in developing whatever potential our home had for growing a garden. I embraced my part with an interest that surprised even me – mowing, planting, transplanting, watering.

I daily check what Anita and I have planted. And – don’t laugh – I chat with my flowers when I water them. The bougainvillea I planted struggled at first, but with love and care, and talking to, it looks like they’ll make it. I look at flowers differently (like the picture featured here, from a planter outside the window inches from where I’m writing this note). I don’t just stare at them because they happen to come into view as I’m on my way to seeing something else. I contemplate them intentionally. I go looking for them. I don’t know what word to use other than ‘love’ to describe this, though obviously it’s not equivalent to what I feel for the people in my life. But neither is it entirely something else.

As I tended to my garden this morning, Jesus’ words in Mat 5 came to mind: “Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these [flowers of the field].” I paused to enjoy the moment and affirm it. How true it is that these flowers are more beautiful than any man-made jewelry. The best that we clothe human royalty in can’t exceed the flowers outside my window.

However, just then my thought was disturbed by what Jesus says immediately following his statement about the incomparable beauty of flowers: “If that [the beauty of the flowers of the field] is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. Perhaps it’s a bit of a philosophical abstraction, but I feel it personally. I talk a lot here about the theology of beauty, the implications of our perception of beauty, the redeeming/healing properties of beauty. Suddenly it bothered me that Jesus juxtaposes the incomparable beauty of flowers with their being discarded into the fire so nonchalantly. There’s no disagreeing that the beauty of flowers are a fleeting thing and that we have to discard them when they die. But for me there’s something to truly grieve here, and I don’t see the grief in Jesus’ comments. Even if the overall point is to reassure us that God will care for us more than he cares for the flowers of the field, somewhere along the line the reassurance became a warning: If the flowers are here today and tomorrow are tossed into an oven, what might happen to me? Maybe the beauty I constitute for God is disposable too. How would I know if God is OK with so obvious and excessive a beauty as flowers being here today and gone tomorrow?

I didn’t feel reassured. But I suppose the reassurance is in the fact that the flowers parallel not me but rather the clothes, food and shelter we seek for survival’s sake; so if we seek first God’s kingdom God will clothe and feed and shelter us (more than he does the grass of the field?). Well, OK. But then, I thought, seeing the beauty of flowers as exceeding Solomon’s is the Kingdom (i.e., is the Kingdom come in the shaping of our aesthetic perceptions and valuation of things). And that gets tossed into the fire? The Kingdom tosses the Kingdom? You might respond, “Well, those are flowers being tossed, not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is something else. It’s bigger and more important.” Really?

I guess my question is: How’s the passing of such beauty (the perceiving of which is the Kingdom) into the oven shape our understanding of beauty and the way we’re to value it?

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No, not that scapegoat

180px-The_Scapegoat,_film_posterI was thinking through the letter to the Hebrews in light of Girard’s early opinion that the author, though a Christ-follower, had nonetheless lapsed into a violent-sacrificial reading of the gospel. Girard later admitted this was rash and conceded a non-sacrificial reading of the letter was possible, though he never described how such a reading should proceed. I happened upon Hebrews 9.22 which states that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” and recorded my thoughts in the margins:

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” does not mean sacrificial blood is the price paid to make forgiveness possible. Shedding of blood is the offense needing forgiveness, not a means to forgiveness, but forgiveness is manifest in the bearing of the offense. It is forgiveness, then, not justice, which must be seen to be done. Unless our violence is seen to exhaust itself upon the One who in turn forgives, forgiveness is not manifest. The Cross is where forgiveness is revealed not where it is achieved. In other words, you cannot demonstrate that you forgive someone their violence without suffering that violence, but this is very different from saying you suffer the punishment their violence deserves.

The historical Paul

I’ve been chatting with my good friend Dwayne who has been a part of practically every post I’ve put up on this blog since its beginning. Dwayne follows a few people that I’d like follow more closely but don’t because, well, Dwayne keeps up with them. Bart Ehrman is one. Sam Harris is another. They both recently came together on Harris’ podcast “Waking Up with Same Harris” (Episode 125). The episodes posted summary:

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks to Bart Ehrman about his experience of being a born-again Christian, his academic training in New Testament scholarship, his loss of faith, the most convincing argument in defense of Christianity, the status of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the nature of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, self-contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice, the conversion of Constantine, and other topics.

Quite a bit to cover. I wanted to zero in on Paul’s conversion because its relevance has partly to do with facts whose historicity aren’t in dispute: Paul’s existence as a Christian apostle and his account in the NT of having encountered the risen Jesus. But leaves us with something to explain, and I thought Dwayne’s note to me was worth sharing.

Sam Harris asked the right question of Ehrman after talking about Paul’s conversion: How did Paul relate to the Apostles/Disciples of Jesus? Ehrman mentions that things were more contentious than people think. But Ehrman left out important facts we glean from Paul’s accepted letters which we would do well to ponder.

(1) Paul is convinced he experienced the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus, the same Jesus that the disciples knew and lived with. Recall that three years after his conversion, Paul stays with Peter (to whom the risen Jesus also appeared, says Paul) for fifteen days. Paul also talks to Jesus’ brother James. Paul leaves this meeting and doesn’t meet up with Peter again for another fifteen years.

(2) Paul also claims he was taught the gospel from Jesus, not from men.

We know that Peter and James believed Paul’s story. They are convinced Paul did experience the Jesus they knew. But we must ask: What can explain their being convinced of this? What could have convinced Jesus’ own disciples that Paul had indeed encountered the risen Jesus they had lived with? Peter heard something from Paul that did the convincing? That something Paul shared that removed Peter’s doubts. Who knows what this was? But imagine you’re Peter meeting the arch-enemy of Christians, a man who has been persecuting Christians and now claims to have met the risen Jesus. You are one of Jesus’ Twelve disciples and a leader of the emerging Church. You certainly are going to ask Paul some hard questions. It’s going to take some convincing for you to welcome this terrorist into fellowship.

Point is, Peter’s acceptance of Paul and his gospel as authentic, given who Paul was known to be, has to be credibly explained – not just that Paul had an inexplicable, incommunicable experience or a “crisis of conscience,” but that Peter and James were convinced by Paul that his experience was an encounter of the same Jesus they followed. Somebody would have to give me a completely naturalistic explanation of Paul’s conversion that explains how Peter and others were convinced Paul had indeed experienced the risen Jesus they knew in order for me to have doubts about the resurrection.

As I have loved you

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I’ve read through these passages many times, but only this week noticed an interesting shift in the way Jesus reoriented the entire Law and its fulfillment around himself. Consider the Golden Rule:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19.18)

After love of God with all one’s heart and life, Jesus considers love of neighbor the greatest commandment (Mt 22.36-40).

I’ve often made the point that ‘self-love’ is not a bad thing. After all, how are we supposed to love others “as we love ourselves” if loving ourselves is either impossible or evil? Love other others, per the Golden Rule, is a function or expression of love of one’s own self. No one who hates himself can love others.

This is still true, but I’m intrigued by the change in perspective this undergoes in Jesus’ teaching. John picks up on it. In his first letter, St. John (1Jn 2.6) writes “I am not writing you a new command, but an old one.” Indeed, if Jesus had merely repeated the Golden Rule (“Love others as you love yourself,” or “Do to others as you’d have them do to you”) then in fact there’s nothing new here. But John immediately continues (v. 7), “And yet, I am writing you a new command.” Old but new?

Jesus doesn’t shy away from the standard (old) version of the Rule. In Mt 7.12 (cf. Mk 12.31; Lk 6.31) we find, “Whatever you want others to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.” This is the “old” rule. So what’s “new” about Jesus’ articulation of the “old” rule? Doesn’t he just repeat it? No.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13.34)

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15.12)

See it? Love others not as you love yourself (old rule) but now as I have loved you (new rule). Note the shift. It’s monumental, and it could not have been otherwise for Jesus’ Jewish audience. Not only does Jesus essentially edit the Law (which no good Rabbi did), he makes himself the measure of its fulfillment and appropriation. No longer is self-love the point of departure for genuine love. Now Christ’s loving life and death constitute that point of departure. It’s not that the old basis of ‘self love’ is false. It’s still true that no one who hates himself can love others. But not everyone loves him or herself. With the self-relation spoiled and fragmented, we have in Christ the truest embodiment of love (for self and for others). Jesus thus replaces every self as the point at which the self can know whether it is loving itself and others.

Paul maintains this shift as well. Note that when the “old” rule is stated, it is expressly identified with the Law:

“For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Gal 5:14)

This is to speak of love from the perspective of the Law. But when re-spoken in terms of its fulfillment, Christ replaces the self as measure, standard, and point of departure:

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph 4.32)

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5.2)

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5.25)

As Dwayne reminded me today, for Kierkegaard, God (in Christ) is the middle term of the love relationship. Christ becomes the effective protagonist in our own self-narrative in Works of Love as the God relationship displaces the self-relationship by way of divine command without negating it.

Giving thanks this Thanksgiving

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“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1The 5.17-18)

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5.19-20)

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17)

I can hardly believe some of these convictions of St. Paul. Rejoice “always”? Pray “without ceasing”? Give thanks “in all things”? But I’ve drawn a drink often enough from the flow of this living stream to know this is the sort of thankful, grateful being is possible and that it is what I wish to be. As we head into the packing, the traveling, and the stuffing of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to reflect a bit, not on what “thankfulness” is in any deep, metaphysical sense (no metaphysical talk allowed during Thanksgiving!), but instead on what characterizes thankful people.

(Before I get into my reflections, I want to ask you to take a moment to ponder this miracle of thankfulness, gratitude and the undying creative imagination and desire for beauty (all of which are just the name we give to ‘human being’ as we know it is intended to be).

To be thankful is…

…to know I need others. If I give thanks, I’m acknowledging my need of others, and of God. I’m not Atlas, on any conceivable level. I’m incomplete through and through. I’m learning to appreciate how deeply and profoundly connected to others and to all things we are. No one of us accomplishes anything independently of God or independently of the contributions of others. All our stories are interwoven. No story is sealed off from the rest. Who I am is on the inside of who others are in whose lives I’ve participated and who are on the inside of who I’m becoming. I am not first somebody – sealed up, self-contained, having arrived, having accomplished, having believed – only then to step into the connections and relationships of life. No – from the start we are connected, we need God and others, and our lives and especially our success are a participation in, and an expression of, the lives and successes of others.

For some, just acknowledging this is torture. For to need others is to be “vulnerable” and thankful people are vulnerable people. They know they need. Moreover, the more thankful one is, the more one knows one needs, not just on some levels, but on every level of existence. Name something of value, some cherished desire. Whatever you have in mind involves you in some relationship of need and dependency. Being thankful means seeing that essential connectedness and the dependencies upon the presence and contributions that form a web of living relationships which are your life.

…to know I have something to be thankful for. To be thankful, secondly, is to realize that something specific I need, something I’ve desired, has come to me, has been provided me. Being thankful requires us to be specific, to be thankful for something or someone. Name it. Describe it. Then say why that for which you’re thankful is valuable and important to you. That kind of thoughtful openness and responsiveness is mature godliness. Thankfulness opens our mind and heart up to the world, to others, and to God. Thankful people live in that openness. That’s why, if you notice, open-hearted and open-minded people are thankful people.

…to know I am not alone. Thirdly, not only is thankfulness the acknowledge of my need of others, and not only is it acknowledgement of the provision of something I need, but it is also the discovery through these that I’m not alone. I cannot be thankful for something and believe I am alone and godforsaken. That’s not possible. If I need God and others, and if God and others are where and how something I need has been provided, then this can only mean I am not alone. God is here with me – in the all things in which St. Paul urges us to be thankful. God sees, he provides, and even if all others happen to forsake me, he will not leave, and so I am not alone. How do I know this? I know it primarily because it happened to the man, Jesus, whose confidence that God was with him in the darkest hour was confirmed by God’s raising him from the dead. “You will all forsake me and leave me alone,” Jesus told his own disciples on the eve of his Crucifixion (Jn 16), “but I am not alone, for my Father is with me.”

Thankfulness in all things, at all times, is therefore forever possible because of the Cross, where one innocent victim, stripped by the world of the world he loved, died without ceasing to be thankful. The Cross is the ground of the possibility of undying thankfulness because (“for the joy set before him he endured”) it was where the worst that could happen to a human being happened and it didn’t involve God abandoning that person. Jesus made the Cross something that redeems rather than just a way to perpetuate our violence and despair.

…to think of what I can do to be a reason someone else realizes these things, that is to say, lastly, to be thankful is to embrace a vocation, the call to attend to the needs and possibilities of others as others have attended to mine. Because thankfulness begins with the awareness that I need God and others and that I’m connected to them, it ends with me wanting to be for others what they have been for me. I can’t be truly thankful and not open myself up to becoming a reason someone else may become thankful.

Enjoy Thanksgiving this week, connecting to the depth of your need, to the gracious givenness of life, to the inescapable presence of the Giver, and to the call to be for others a reason to be thankful.

He took it away, nailing it to the Cross

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You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.

I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.

Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:

There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.

Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…cruical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.

The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us

…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.

Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…

Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).

It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.

The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).

By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.

…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…

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jesus-on-a-tree-crossThere’s a lot to engage here. Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but one for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.

What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).

This is a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest. Greg has sent mixed messages as well. One could easily produce examples of Greg explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections we have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?

What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” which constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Jesus thus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakenness. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.

Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. But regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced.

If God’s suffering for us precludes punitive associations simply because God loves those for whom he suffers godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory is in fact a punitive understanding of the atonement, for such understandings all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve ‘out of love’ and ‘with the intention to redeem’, just as Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, ‘out of love’ and ‘in order to redeem’, just as Greg holds. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving, redemptive intentions absolve his own theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal, for all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem?

What do the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common then? What makes them equally, objectionably penal? It is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from the godforsakenness that transpires in God through the Father’s abandonment of the Son in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) is entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. The notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends, is itself the mythological contagion that undermines the gospel’s radical message. Girard understood this fundamental insight as defining a truly non-violent and non-penal view of the Cross.

One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:

…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this classic Christus Victor passage as well. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not simply between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.

Lastly, consider this. If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the scapegoating myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God where God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are, supposedly, experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. On the contrary, he must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.

He has no power over me

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In my post “How Jesus viewed his Cross,” I explored statements Jesus made about his own suffering, statements which make it impossible to consider Jesus ‘godforsaken’ (“cursed” by God, per one reading of Gal 3.13, and “made sin by God,” per 2Cor 5.21). One stunning statement Jesus made on the eve of his lynching which makes this abandonment reading particularly suspect is relayed by John in 16.31-33:

“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.” (emphasis mine)

Translate “leave me alone” for what it is: “abandon” or “forsake.” The passage is perfectly clear:

“You will all abandon me. Yet I am not godforsaken, for my Father is with me.”

This makes available for our transformation the saving truth that how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God is with us in ours.

This week I ran across an equally stunning statement by Jesus, a statement I had earlier missed, in Jn 14.28-31 (esp. v. 30b-31),

You heard me say I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (emphasis mine)

Jesus’ perspective is mind blowing. Consider three things:

First, Jesus takes the time to place his disciples’ despair and worries into proper perspective: “If you love me, you’d be glad that I’m going to the Father.” That they are overwhelmed with concern for their future reflects a certain failure of love. It is stunning to imagine that on the eve of his murder, Jesus expects his disciples to have a perspective on his departure that inspires joy; but only a love for Christ that is deeper than the world itself could see it this way. In any event, this is not a text you’re likely to hear preached on Good Friday, though Jesus preached it on Good Friday.

Secondly, the more instructive statement comes in v. 31b: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has no power over me.” He has no power over you? Really? He is getting you crucified, he will insert himself into the very essence of God and separate Son from Father, and will blow the divine mind by submerging it beneath the sum total of all the despair and godforsakenness creation has ever known. Sounds like “power over you” to a lot of folks. One interested in Jesus’ own perspective on his suffering, then, should take time to contemplate this passage (along with Jn 16.31-33). As horrific as Jesus’ suffering is, we misunderstand it completely when we construe it in terms of Satan’s enjoying any ‘hold’ or ‘power’ over Jesus, and yet a good deal of passibilist reflection upon the Cross, it seems to me, proceeds in precisely such terms.

Lastly, why does the prince of this world close in? Why does Satan descend with all he has upon this moment? I’m sure he has his own reasons. But from Jesus’ perspective, Satan comes – don’t miss it – “so that the world may recognize that I love the Father and do what he commands.”

I don’t know what to say. This has to be one of the strangest things you’re likely to hear in response to the question, “So, why did Satan close in on Jesus?” Had Jesus not made it explicit, I can’t imagine any theologian arriving at the conclusion that Satan’s role in silencing Jesus would be seen by Jesus simply as an opportunity for God to demonstrate through his life and death, within and in spite of the world’s fallenness, that God both knows and loves, and can be known and loved, unconditionally as Father in the worst imaginable places. Again – how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

Imagine – it if you dare (some don’t dare) – that on the eve of his lynching when Jesus contemplates the ordeal to come, he is first of all “glad” (certainly as “glad” as he expected his disciples to be) to be returning created being (via his own humanity) to its home in God, and secondly, he sees the ordeal to come as the quintessential opportunity for him not to be deconstructed by godforsakenness, but to deconstruct godforsakenness and free us from the power of every narrative of abandonment.