This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.
[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]
Queensland, a part of the country where most locals seem to espouse the philosophy that two wongs don’t make a white and which is not especially well known for a radical brand of Christianity, sees some religious fanatics charged for beating swords into garden hoes.
Paul Collier reviews a couple of recent efforts to understand the logic and opportunities of, and challenges to, capitalism. Along the way, he has some insightful things to say about nationalism, ‘nationhood’, multiculturalism, and global citizenship too. (However, given the reality of religion, for example, it would be very difficult to defend the claim that ‘nationhood is the only force that has proved to be sufficiently powerful to bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity’.)
Bruce McCormack gave an outstanding lecture at this year’s Annual Karl Barth Conference. It was titled ‘The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology’. The lecture proper starts at around the 26-minute mark.
Last Sunday, my daughter and I marched, together with a reported 15,000, in Melbourne’s Palm Sunday Walk for Justice4Refugees. Many thousands of others across the country were doing likewise. For a number of reasons I won’t name here, it was at once emboldening and disheartening.
And over in Perth, Tim Winton offered a great speech. It bears reposting, both in its written and spoken forms:
Palm Sunday commemorates the day an itinerant prophet spoke truth to power. Jesus of Nazareth arrived at the gates of Jerusalem in a parody of imperial pomp. But he was a nobody. Instead of a stallion, he rode up on a borrowed donkey. In place of an army, he had a bunch of lily-livered misfits throwing down their cloaks and palm branches as if he was a big shot. Street theatre, if you like. And a week later he was dead. He was there to challenge the commonsense of the day. Armed with only an idea.
Jesus used to say things like this. If a child asks you for bread, will you give him a stone? Awkward things like that.
His followers called his idea The Way. Many of us are here today because the idea has stuck. We try to follow the Way of Peace and Love. Just another bunch of lily-livered misfits.
For generations, in communities all over the globe, Palm Sunday has been a day when people walk for peace and reconciliation. And not just Christians. People of every faith and of no faith at all come together as we have today in solidarity. To express our communal values and yearnings, the things that bind us rather than those that separate us.
We belong to a prosperous country, a place where prosperity and good fortune have made us powerful. Yes, whether we feel it or not, we are exceptionally powerful as individuals and as a community. We have the power of safety. We’re richer, more mobile, with more choices than most of our fellow citizens worldwide. Not because we’re virtuous, but because we’re lucky. But we don’t come here to gloat. We’re here to reflect. To hold ourselves to account. We didn’t come here today to celebrate power or to hide in its privileged shadow. We’re here to speak for the powerless. We’re not here to praise the conventions of the day, but to examine them and expose them to the truth. We’re not here to reinforce the status quo. We gather to dissent from it. To register our dismay at it. We’re here to call a spade a spade, to declare that what has become political common sense in Australia over the past 15 years is actually nonsense. And not just harmless nonsense; it’s vicious, despicable nonsense. For something foul is festering in the heart of our community, something shameful and rotten.
It’s a secret we don’t want to acknowledge. We hide it from ourselves. At times, it seems we’re content to have others hide it from us and for us. But we hide this dark secret at great cost. To faceless strangers. To innocent people. To powerless children. We hide this dirty secret at a terrible cost to ourselves as individuals and as a community.
What secret are we hiding? Well, it’s awkward, and kind of embarrassing. You see, we’re afraid. Terrified. This big, brash wealthy country. We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening. They send us into wild-eyed conniptions. As if they’re armed invaders. But these people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge. Yet, they terrify us. So great and so wild is our fear, we can no longer see them as people, as fellow humans. First, we criminalised them. Then, we turned them into faceless objects. Cattle. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. You see we’re sentimental about cattle. Especially cattle on boats. We have values, you see, standards of decency. We hate to see suffering. We’re moved to pity.
But for someone seeking asylum, someone arriving by boat, this special species of creature called a “boat person”, the pity isn’t there. Pity is forbidden. All the usual standards are overturned. Their legal right to seek asylum is denied. They’re vilified as “illegals”. And their suffering is denied. As if they’re not our brothers and sisters. Yes, we hate suffering. But apparently their kind of suffering is no longer legitimate. And therefore, it’s no longer our problem. Our moral and legal obligations to help them are null and void.
Since August 2001, Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution and homelessness and poverty on themselves. Our leaders have taught us we need to harden our hearts against them. And how obedient we’ve been, how compliant we are, this free-thinking, high-minded egalitarian people.
We’re afraid. But the government has made them go away. They have stopped the boats. And spirited the victims away. Now, we don’t have to see their suffering. In fact, we’re not allowed to see it. They’re out of sight, and out of mind. And here at home, all is well, all is calm again. For the past few years, as traumatised people have fled towards safety, towards what they believed was a civilised and compassionate haven, our national peace of mind has been built upon the hidden, silent suffering of others.
And that, my friends, is what our elected representatives have done. Using the military, using warships. Using spin and deception in Parliament. Shielding its deeds from media scrutiny. With the collusion of our poorer neighbours, the client states of Nauru and PNG. The political slogans have ground their way into our hearts and minds. The mantras of fear have been internalised. We can sleep at night because these creatures are gone. It wasn’t enough to turn these people away. We had to make them disappear.
So. All is well. Nothing to be afraid of any more. Until we find other poor people to be afraid of. Folks who are here already. Australians who are poor and powerless and, therefore, somehow troublesome, embarrassing, even dangerous. Because that’s the thing. Once you start the cycle of fear, there’s always someone new and different to be afraid of, some new group to crack down on.
But will we ever sleep easy? I wonder. Because there’ll always be the creeping suspicion that some poor person could be white-anting our prosperity, our privilege, our Australian specialness. Or maybe we won’t sleep because, deep in the back of our heads, somewhere in our spirit, we’ll feel a flicker of shame, a twinge of conscience. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a child’s face behind the wire. For a second, I saw a resemblance. Could have been my kid, my grandkid, the little girl next door. Just a kid. A face behind the wire.
My friends, we weren’t always this scared. We used to be better than this. I remember because I was a young man when we opened our arms and hearts to tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Australians were poorer then, more awkward, less well travelled as a people. And yet, we took pity on suffering humans. No cages, no secret gulags. We had these people in our homes and hostels and halls and community centres. They became our neighbours, our schoolmates, our colleagues at work. I was proud of my country, then, proud of the man who made it happen, Malcolm Fraser, whose greatness shames those who’ve followed him in the job. Those were the days when a leader drew the people up and asked the best of them and despite their misgivings, Australians rose to the challenge. And I want to honour his memory today.
It breaks my heart to say it, but fear has turned us. In the past 15 years, it’s eaten into our public spirit and made a travesty of our most sacred values, the very things we thought we stood for as a society: our sense of decency, fairness, justice, compassion, openness. In our own time, we have seen what is plainly wrong, what is demonstrably immoral, celebrated as not simply pragmatic but right and fair. It’s no accident that both mainstream political parties have pursued asylum seeker policies based on cruelty and secrecy. First, pandering to irrational public fear and then at the mercy of it. Because these policies are popular. I don’t deny it. It hurts me to acknowledge it. But it’s a fact. A hard-hearted response to the suffering of others has calcified and become the common sense of our day.
We used to be better than this. I still believe we’re better than this.
So what’s happened to this country? I’m confused. I read the news. But as events unfold, I don’t always recognise my own people. This still looks like the country I was brought up in but it doesn’t always feel like it. You think mining royalties have had a dip? Well, spare a thought for the Fair Go. Because that currency has taken a flogging. There’s a punitive spirit abroad, something closer to Victorian England than the modern, secular, egalitarian country I love.
In the days of Charles Dickens, child labour was acceptable, respectable. It was common sense. So was the routine degradation of impoverished women. Charity was punitive. Until Victorian reformers like Dickens exposed the common sense of his era as brutal nonsense, the suffering of children was inconsequential. The poor were human garbage. They were fuel. Victorian England extracted energy and sexual pleasure from the faceless bodies of the poor. When they became a nuisance, they were exported, “offshored”. In chains. Some of these faceless, degraded people were our ancestors. Mine was an unaccompanied minor, a little boy. A boy consigned to oblivion. A boy without a face. I’ve been thinking of him lately. Public events have made it unavoidable.
And yet from this brutish convention, this hellish common sense, we made something new here in this country, something better. Where Jack was as good as his master. We turned away from the callous feudalism of the Old World and made this place a haven for decency. We granted everyone a face. Some, to our shame, later than others.
The face is the window of the soul. It’s the means by which we make ourselves known. To those of us of religious faith, it’s the means by which we recognise the Divine spark in each other, the presence of God. To those who aren’t religious, it’s the way we apprehend the sacred dignity of the individual. We present ourselves to one another face-to-face, as equals. When you rob someone of their face, of their humanity, you render them an object.
In this country, a nation built upon people fleeing brutes and brutality for 200 years, we have a tradition of fairness and decency and openness of which we’re rightly proud. Whether we’re inspired by the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, the universal dignity of humankind, or the sanctity of the individual, we’ve always thought it low and cowardly to avert our gaze from someone in trouble or need, to turn our face from them as though they did not exist. When I was a kid, there were a few salty names for people like that. You didn’t want to be called out as one of those. That’s where our tradition of mateship comes from. Not from closing ranks against the outsider, but from lifting someone else up, helping them out, resisting the cowardly urge to walk by. It distinguished this country from the feudalism and patronage of the Old World. When the first boat people arrived in the late ’70s, we looked into their traumatised faces on the TV and took pity despite our misgivings.
Now, of course, we don’t see faces. And that’s no accident. The government hides them from us. In case we feel the pity that’s only natural. Asylum seekers are rendered as objects, creatures, cargo, contraband, and criminals. And so, quite deliberately, the old common sense of human decency is supplanted by a new consensus. Built on hidden suffering, maintained by secrecy. Cordoned at every turn by institutional deception. This, my friends, is the new common sense. According to this new dispensation, Australia does not belong to the wider world. We’re nobody’s fool. We have no obligations to our fellow suffering humans. Unless it suits us. Because we are exceptional. And beyond reproach. It seems we are set to distinguish ourselves by our callousness, by our unwavering hardness of heart. We will not be lectured to by outsiders. Or, come to think of it, by insiders, either. Not about human rights, not about torture, not about the incarceration of children. We will bully critics and whistleblowers into silence. We will smear them. We will shirtfront them.
Which is to say that we live now as hostages to our lowest fears. But to assent to this newly manufactured common sense is to surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our moral right, our self-respect, our inner peace. To passively assent to this is to set out together on a road that leads to horrors, a path from which we must turn back before we lose our way entirely.
To those in power who say they’re exiling and caging children for their own good, I say we’ve heard that nonsense before. So, don’t do it in my name.
To those who say they’re prolonging misery to save life, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. You don’t speak for me; I don’t recognise your perverse accountancy.
To those in power who say the means will justify the end, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. It’s the tyrant’s lie. Don’t you dare utter it in my name.
To those who say this matter is resolved, I say no. For pity’s sake, no. For the love of God, no. A settlement built on suffering will never be settled. An economy built on cruelty is a swindle. A sense of comfort built upon the crushed spirits of children is but a delusion that feeds ghosts and unleashes fresh terrors.
If current refugee policy is common sense, then I refuse to accept it. I dissent. And many of my countrymen and women dissent alongside me. I don’t pretend to have a geopolitical answer to the worldwide problem of asylum seekers. Fifty million people are currently displaced by war and famine and persecution. I don’t envy those who make the decisions in these matters, those who’ve sought and gained the power to make decisions in this matter. I’m no expert, no politician. But I know when something’s wrong. And what my country is doing is wrong.
Prime Minister, forget the boats for a moment. Turn back your heart. Turn back from this path to brutality. Turn back from piling trauma upon the traumatised. Because it shames us. It grinds innocent people to despair and self-harm and suicide. It ruins the lives of children. Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t hide them from us.
Because the secret won’t hold. It’s out already. There are witnesses. There will be testimony. We will remember. In another time, and very soon, I think, our common sense will be nonsense. And you’ll have to ask yourself, was it worth it? This false piece of mind, this stopping of the boats. Was it worth the price paid in human suffering? You’re not alone; the rest of us will have to face it, too.
Jesus said: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world only to lose his soul?” And I wonder: What does it profit a people to do likewise, to shun the weak and punish the oppressed, to cage children, and make criminals out of refugees? What about our soul as a people?
We’re losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you. For the children’s sake. For the sake of this nation’s spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there’s still time.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is more complex than it might seem at a first or a hundredth reading. Its central point is precious and also clear, that we are to help where help is needed, putting aside every distinction and consideration that might give us an excuse to pass by on the other side. If we are more like the scribe and the priest on too many occasions, sometimes we encounter, and sometimes we are, good Samaritans, people who do the kind and necessary thing, even the difficult and costly thing, when occasion arises, hoping nothing in return but to secure the well being of a stranger. This nameless, and fictional, Samaritan has left innumerable descendants, and they have been a blessing to us all.
Luke gives the parable an interesting context. A lawyer rises to “test” Jesus. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the law. He answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies, “Do this and you will live.” Good brothers and sisters in Christ, let us ponder the fact that, if Jesus is to be believed, the law of Moses is fully sufficient to the securing of eternal life.
The lawyer is offering an established first-century Jewish understanding of the essence of the law of Moses. Notice that here the lawyer cites the law. In the Gospel of Matthew it is Jesus who quotes it. He does so repeatedly, a fact which might explain, though it cannot excuse, the belief widely held among Christians that the commandment originated with Jesus. I have even seen it argued that this commandment to love, which is found in Leviticus, a Book of Moses, epitomizes the difference between the law of Moses and the law of Christ, between Judaism and Christianity. It’s hard to know sometimes whether to laugh or to weep or to tear one’s hair. Be that as it may. Here Luke gives us two first-century Jews discussing the correct interpretation of a particularly venerated law of Moses.
What is called a “law” here is in fact a phrase taken from a law, Leviticus 19:18, which forbids grudgeholding and revenge. In the New Testament the phrase is consistently understood to have a much broader meaning than its original context would give it. Indeed, it seems to be in its nature somehow to have and to acquire always broader reference. The phrase occurs three times in the Gospel of Matthew. In the first, Jesus enlarges the circle of those to be loved to include one’s enemy, since God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Again, when a young man asks what he must do to be saved, Jesus cites the Ten Commandments, and then, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is remarkable to find this phrase, stripped of its context, given equal standing with the Decalogue. Its great importance is made clear again when Jesus responds to a question put to him by another lawyer – “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replies, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all the soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first Commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.” In the Gospel of Mark Jesus quotes the great commandment, to love the Lord, as the first in importance. Then he says, “The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, There is none other commandment greater than these.” Paul quotes the phrase in Romans, saying that the law is summed up “in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He says, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
In the exchange in Matthew that prompts the famous parable of compassion in today’s text, the lawyer who is testing Jesus grants the authority of this commandment, but, being a lawyer, he wants a clarification. “Who is my neighbor?” Luke says he is seeking to justify himself when he asks this question, which might be understood to mean that he is asking “Whom am I obliged to love? and, conversely, who falls outside the range of those to whom love is owed?” Presumably the lawyer in his attempt to be obedient to this law has been proceeding on a definition of his own that allows him to be a little bit selective. The Hebrew word translated “neighbor” can mean kinsman, friend, companion, or neighbor as we understand the word. The Greek word suggests less in terms of personal relationship and more in terms of nearness, physical proximity. In both cases, the concept “neighbor” is potentially somewhat narrow, as it is for us. The lawyer, intent on his own salvation, clearly does not want on one hand to risk loving where he would realize no eternal benefit from it, or, on the other. to allow himself indifference or hostility toward anyone on whom his eternal happiness might depend. In the way of pious people in all times and places, he wants to get it right.
Now, as it happens, there is another law, another commandment to love, in the same chapter of Leviticus, fifteen verses on, which is far too little known, though we must assume Jesus knew it, and probably the lawyer did, too. It says: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. A phrase very like the one with which we are familiar could have floated free of this context – Thou shalt love the alien as thyself. Here the law specifically draws the stranger, as stranger, into the great defining narrative of the people Israel. Aliens are in effect naturalized, made, in the same language, properly the objects of love just as neighbors are, and on precisely the grounds that they are outsiders. Without reference to origins or any other quality, their circumstance is all the identity that matters. Put these laws side by side, and together they make neighbor and stranger equivalent terms. In the language of the Hebrew Bible there is a structure called a merism. The naming of two extremes – heaven and earth, good and evil – implies everything that falls between them. This is to say that, taken together, the commandments to love in Leviticus are very broad indeed. Whence, perhaps, the energy that makes this fragment of a law, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, rank among the greatest laws.
Still, the lawyer seems to feel that he can love where the law requires, that the requirement of the law can be limited and defined – and that self-interest can inspire a good enough approximation to that exalted emotion to satisfy the commandment, and to serve his eternal purposes. Looking at context again, this characteristic pairing of the laws to love God and neighbor makes them both dependent on the one word “love.” Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and thy neighbor as thyself. To perform actions that only signify love of God is not sufficient – is in fact reprehensible, offensive to God, as all the prophets tell us. The very emphatic language of the first of the laws – love is to engross heart, soul, strength and mind – makes this point. It is in effect a definition of love, that it is engrossed by its object, and is in that sense selfless. The lawyer is using his own interests, piously defined, to determine the limits of his love as well as its proper focus. Insofar as his thinking influences his feeling, he is preventing himself from really loving anyone. The self-forgetfulness love requires is impossible for him.
I propose that the parable turns on this point. The kindness of the Samaritan has no self-interest behind it, no motive of friendship or kinship. In fact, there was inveterate hostility between Samaritans and Jews. In a broad, cultural sense, the Jew was the Samaritan’s enemy. Freud might have referred this hostility to what he called the narcissism of minor difference, the tendency of friction and conflict to occur most frequently between populations that are most similar to each other. Our own United States has engaged in three wars in which its national survival was at stake – the Revolution and the War of 1812, fought against England, and the Civil War, between our own North and South. Over the centuries Europeans have found differences among themselves that were intolerable to them and trivial or invisible to outsiders. And so with the world at large.
The kingdom of Israel became divided after the reign of Solomon. After the separation, the northern kingdom was called Israel, then Samaria, and the southern kingdom was called Judah, then Judea. This distinction is reflected in the word “Jew,” which means Judean. Both peoples centered their faith and worship around the five books of Moses. The Samaritans did not accept the prophets or worship at the temple in Jerusalem but at a temple of their own in Bethel. These distinctions are reflected in the Old Testament text from the writing of the prophet Amos. Christianity, of course, has its origins in the religious culture of Judea, which might lead to further, sadder reflection on the narcissism of minor differences. In any case, the antipathy felt on both sides, Samaritan and Judean, was very real and is certainly a factor in this parable. The compassion of the Samaritan expresses an utter freedom, on this occasion, at least, from the mean distinctions culture and history seem always to generate and to impose. In making the good man of the parable a Samaritan, another inheritor of the traditions of Moses, and specifically of the commandments to love in Leviticus, Jesus suggests that this “heretic’s” understanding of them and obedience to them were of a higher order than the lawyer’s, a man who had devoted himself to mastering the law, and probably prided himself on his command of it. Jesus is inviting his hearers to put aside these same mean distinctions, to emulate a Samaritan. In putting aside the strictures of religion, they will enable themselves to be truly obedient to the law. We are all painfully aware that the most telling indictment of Christianity is our persistent failure to distinguish identity and adherence from actual, lived faithfulness.
But Jesus broadens the question much further. A commandment to love is mysterious in itself. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. How is this done? If one’s heart does not incline to love, or to this kind of love, what then? How does one love God, of Whom reverence itself requires us to acknowledge that we can know so little? Jesus says; the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is like unto the first great law. How is this to be understood? For Christians, the answer lies in Jesus Himself, in the Incarnation. In another famous parable, this one in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the Son of Man, appearing enthroned as apocalyptic judge of all the nations of the earth, says to the blessed, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me.” To the Samaritan he would say, “I was beaten and robbed and left lying by the road, and you bound my wounds and cared for me, bearing every expense of time and effort and money, expecting nothing in return.” This parable in Matthew is also addressed to the question put by the lawyer in the text we have read today, what one must do to inherit eternal life, and there is absolutely nothing sectarian in the answer it gives. Humanity’s remotest ancestors could come under its blessing. The impulse to be kind manifest in the parable of the Good Samaritan is a human impulse, rarer than it ought to be and beautiful wherever it finds expression. Christians can know that they honor God Himself whenever they honor another human being, showing that they understand the value of his or her dignity, life, peace and safety. Jesus, man of sorrows, Son of Man, gives us most explicit instruction on this point. If we fail in our reverence toward others, it is not because we don’t know better.
Still there is a question. Can we oblige God to think well of us by showing mercy and generosity? As children of the Reformation we must answer, no, we cannot. The revelation we are given in Matthew’s parable of the Great Judgment is not simply that heaven blesses acts of mercy, but something vastly more astounding, that Christ is present in those who are vulnerable to our oppression or neglect, and that Christ feels and remembers in his own person every kindness that is done to them. It is not the pathos of the world but its profound sacredness that is shown to us. At issue in our parable is not how the word neighbor is to be understood, but what is meant by the word love.
That one verb expresses the right relation of ourselves to God and of ourselves to whomever circumstance puts in our way. Notice how Jesus’s parable shifts our perspective. The neighbor is definitely not a relative, not the member of the community, not a co-religionist. Jesus’s having made his protagonist a Samaritan suggests that he takes the lawyer to expect the definition of the word “neighbor” to fall within one of these categories, if not more than one. The letter of the law could be used, as it so often is, to deny the spirit of the law. Jesus does not even allow the word to mean “whoever needs our kindness or our help,” though this would be a very broad definition, since everyone does need kindness very often. Instead he defines the neighbor not as the proper object of love – but as the one who acts lovingly. More precisely, his story moves the lawyer to this recognition. If love of neighbor were a commandment honored generally, then its effects would be reciprocal. As neighbors we would receive the benefits of this love, and also extend them to others. We create ourselves as neighbors – and fulfill the law – when we honor our side of this shared bond, whether the bond is acknowledged on the other side or not. The word has as broad a definition as we have insight, engagement and compassion to give it.
And there is always another, much larger, context. The Gospel gives us a scene in which a legal scholar is disputing with a self-taught carpenter about a point of law. A bright fellow, he must have thought, interesting enough to spar with a little. He’s attracting crowds, and that can be dangerous. If I give him a question we specialists have struggled with, I might take him down a peg. No harm in that.
The writers of the Gospels take this carpenter to have been, in fact, the epitome of holiness, the Word made flesh, the universal judge. The lawyer is debating the law with God Himself, whose own commandments are at issue. This makes the scene most remarkable. But it is remarkable for nothing more than for the fact that Jesus, the Christ of Luke’s Gospel, is an ordinary man. On a landscape where prophets have appeared he is taken by some people to be one more prophet. Others have no opinion, or take no notice. But, in light of the utterly singular Presence the writer we call Luke understood him to be, there is the greatest significance in the fact that he really is one of us. He might have been the man lying injured by the side of the road, and he might have been the Samaritan who took him up. His wounds would have bled, his voice and his hands would have comforted, just as theirs did, just as ours do. The deep holiness with which human life is invested, which is so great that the Christ could take on true humanity without the least diminishment of his holiness, should tell us who we are and whom we are among, and why it is that the love of neighbor is “like unto” the love of God.
Let us be truly faithful to the last commandment of Jesus, that we love one another. Amen.
Marilynne Robinson preached this sermon at the Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City, 14 July 2013.
[A note on the first image: The first image, of Kevin Rudd, is accompanied with words from Rudd’s essay ‘Faith in Politics’, published in The Monthly, October 2006. It seemed a fitting image to use given the subject of the sermon, and the shameful political context in Australia during recent days from where I first read it.]
‘The name of Christ should not be misused as a “carrot and stick” to motivate people to do what ordinary self-interest and a few altruistic genes can accomplish just as well … The business of the church is to be faithful to the word and wisdom of the revealed God (deus revelatus), one who does not meet us anonymously within the ambiguities of the world process. The church is not called to minister in [sic] behalf of some anonymous Christ, or some unfleshed deity immanently directing the course of history incognito. The biblical line of promise is a thin line, and the church must learn once again to walk it faithfully, rather than take the easy road of popular trends and fashionable movements’. – Carl E. Braaten, ‘The Mission of the Gospel to the Nations’, Dialog 30, no. 2 (1991), 129.
On Friday night, I had the privilege and joy of addressing the elders of the Southern Presbytery at their AGM in Invercargill. The topic that I was asked to speak about was mission and the priesthood of Christ. (Two other speakers would reflect on the other two classic offices – prophet and king.) A number of people have asked me for a copy of my talk. Here it is:
So what is happening when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ? Two things strike me. The first thing to say is that someone is not acting out on their own bat, so to speak. Every movement towards God is a movement that is already happening inside the triune life, and so it’s a kind of prayer, a listening and participation in the divine conversation. Here I am reminded of a recent sermon by Rowan Williams in which he writes:
When I pray, I ask God to bring me into that mystery of love, to bring me into that pouring out and pouring back of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I ask to be dropped into that ocean and carried along with its energy, its life.
Out of that, of course, come all sorts of other bits of praying. If you start there it makes sense to acknowledge that you have got things wrong, to acknowledge that you have failed – as in that wonderful song we sang earlier, ‘I am free to fail’, one of the most important messages any Christian can have. If I know that I am dropped into the ocean of God’s love, then I am not afraid to acknowledge just how much I have got wrong, just how much growing I still need to do. As I drop into that mystery I can say, ‘There is no comparison. Your goodness, your love, your abundance, your generosity are so immense that I cannot hold a light to them – I know how awful it must look. But hey, here I am in the ocean anyway. Let it come in, let it flood me through’. That is how our prayer includes confession.
And then in the context of that dropping into the love of God, we can also say to God, ‘You, God, must be passionate for the healing and the peace of my neighbours. You must care for their life, their openness to love and forgiveness. So I bring them to you knowing what you want for them. I put them in your hands because I know you want their life’. That is how we pray for one another, how we pray for peace in the world, and how we pray for our fellowship as a Church. Saying to God, ‘We know what you want for us and our neighbours’. That is the prayer of intersession, as we pray for each other.
The second thing to note is that a miracle has taken place; specifically, a miracle about the nature of Christian preaching itself. As one theologian put it, ‘No one has ever heard the gospel from the lips of a human being’; i.e., from the lips of a human being other than Jesus. If I have heard the gospel, then the who that I have heard is not the preacher but Jesus Christ. This reality describes both the possibility and the impossibility of preaching.
So when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ (who is the Father’s right hand) one is gathered up by the Spirit (the Father’s left hand) to share in the inner relations of God’s own life and love with Christ by the Spirit in such a way that the very life of God is made to reverberate in us, and our very life is brought to reverberate in the spaciousness of God’s. This is sheer gift. As this happens, the Church recognises her true nature and purpose as centered with Christ in God in such a way that all her faith and obedience is a joyful and thankful sharing in and with the actual mission and ministry of the living Christ.
Earlier this week, I was reflecting on Luke 4.1–13. Three things struck me:
The Spirit who confirmed Jesus in such a public manner at his baptism (i.e., his coronation as king) where his complete identity with estranged humanity was so shockingly made public now led him away from the crowds and into the wilderness.
This movement from public to aloneness, and from fulness to famishment, does not represent an abandonment of his calling and identity to be the God who is with and for us, but precisely the reverse; it is God going deeper into the human situation. Here is God entering into the depths of humanity’s estrangement and famishment and recalcitrance and doggedly refusing to be estranged and famished and recalcitrant in it. Here he is, standing on humanity’s side, as it were, and refusing the way of humanity turned away from God – of refusing to live by bread alone, of refusing to compromise the exclusivity of worship and service which is due to God alone, and of refusing to put God to the test.
By recapitulating the same series of temptations that Israel faced in the Sinai desert and yet responding with faith rather than with distrust, this true Israelite and second, or last, Adam is actually bending humanity back into our true relationship with God. In other words, Jesus is in the desert for the same reason that he was standing in the Jordan River – for us!
In a recent post, I drew attention to the Dunedin poet John Paisley. He was certainly someone familiar with the experience of wilderness. Sometime during the 70s, he penned ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ wherein I think he gave voice to his belief that there was not only some deep connection between his own life and that of the One who was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but also something of the truth that the triune decision that Jesus become our vicarious Saviour brings about a situation that the Son needs to not only be deeply embedded in the human plight but also and equally be the one who stands alone before God. Here’s the poem:
‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’
He has gone out from us
Into a place where no roads are,
And at each tired step over
The sand and among the sun-warmed
Rocks, he looks for the road
Which only he shall tread.
He has gone out from us
And left us in the bustling market
Or the crowded streets, building
Our thoughts like bridges
Over an abyss of hours, feverish
And furtive, caught between
Means and ends, slaves
At our towers of air.
There in a wasteland out of
Bricks that we rejected he will build
Walls to outlast all time.
There he will face, alone, dark-hooded
Thoughts by day and night,
And he shall not eat
Till he has won the bread
Of suffering, and he shall not rest till
He has given up the sleep of men.
He has gone out from us
But he will come again,
And always as he moves through
Coast and day, demons will fall
Before the swords of angels,
And in the wake of his feet
The desert will bloom.
Here is a text, words spoken by Jesus, that keeps this in clear focus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.
But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among the Christians with whom I have worked for fifty years as a North American pastor. In the text that Jesus sets before us so clearly and definitively, way comes first. We cannot skip the way of Jesus in our hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as he is worshiped and proclaimed. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces, with our friends and family.
A Christian congregation, the church in your neighborhood, has always been the primary location for getting this way and truth and life of Jesus believed and embodied in the places and among the people with whom we most have to do day in and day out. There is more to the church than this local congregation. There is the church continuous through the centuries, our fathers and mothers who continue to influence and teach us. There is the church spread throughout the world, communities that we are in touch with through prayer and suffering and mission. There is the church invisible, dimensions and instances of the Spirit’s work that we know nothing about. There is the church triumphant, that “great cloud of witnesses” who continue to surround us (Heb. 12:1). But the local congregation is the place where we get all of this integrated and practiced in the immediate circumstances and among the men, women, and children we live with. This is where it becomes local and personal.
The local congregation is the place and community for listening to and obeying Christ’s commands, for inviting people to consider and respond to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me,” a place and community for worshipping God. It is the place and community where we are baptized into a Trinitarian identity and go on to mature “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), where we can be taught the Scriptures and learn to discern the ways that we follow Jesus, the Way.
The local congregation is the primary place for dealing with the particulars and people we live with. As created and sustained by the Holy Spirit, it is insistently local and personal. Unfortunately, the more popular American church strategies in respect to congregation are not friendly to the local and the personal. The American way with its penchant for catchy slogans and stirring visions denigrates the local, and its programmatic ways of dealing with people erode the personal, replacing intimacies with functions. The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American Way. For Christians who are serious about following Jesus by understanding and pursuing the ways that Jesus is the Way, this deconstruction of the Christian congregation is particularly distressing and a looming distraction from the Way of Jesus.
A Christian congregation is a company of praying men and women who gather, usually on Sundays, for worship, who then go into the world as salt and light. God’s Holy Spirit calls and forms this people. God means to do something with us, and he means to do it in community. We are in on what God is doing, and we are in on it together.
And here is how we are in on it: we become present to what God intends to do with and for us through worship, become present to the God who is present to us. The operating biblical metaphor regarding worship is sacrifice — we bring ourselves to the altar and let God do with us what he will. We bring ourselves to the eucharistic table and enter into that grand fourfold shape of the liturgy that shapes us: taking, blessing, breaking, giving — the life of Jesus taken and blessed, broken and distributed. That eucharistic life now shapes our lives as we give ourselves, Christ in us, to be taken, blessed, broken, and distributed in lives of witness and service, justice and healing.
But that is not the American way. The great American innovation in congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. We Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had. We are insatiable.
It didn’t take long for some of our Christian brothers and sisters to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, whatever. This is the language we Americans grew up on, the language we understand. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?
Given the conditions prevailing in our culture, this is the best and most effective way that has ever been devised for gathering large and prosperous congregations. Americans lead the world in showing how to do it. There is only one thing wrong: this is not the way in which God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus and sets us on the way of Jesus’ salvation. This is not the way in which we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our sacrificed lives become available to others in justice and service. The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “deny yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.
We can’t gather a God-fearing, God-worshipping congregation by cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation. When we do, the wheels start falling off the wagon. And they are falling off the wagon. We can’t suppress the Jesus way into order to sell the Jesus truth. The Jesus way and the Jesus truth must be congruent. Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life.
In a few weeks’ time, on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, one of the lectionary readings that I plan to preach from is Luke 16.19–31. It’s not an easy text to understand or to preach, but I’m thinking that Duncan Forrester might be able to help me out:
‘It is impossible to keep company with Christ if we refuse to accept the company he has chosen to keep. Following the patristic principle ubi Christus ibi ecclesia (where Christ is, there is the Church), it is necessary to go to find Christ and therefore the Church among the poor he loves, to listen to them, and to learn afresh from them how to worship God in Spirit and in truth … Worship separated from the great issues of liberty and justice has become idolatry, an instrument of ideological manipulation, a way of hiding from God rather than encountering Him’. – Duncan B. Forrester, Theological Fragments: Explorations in Unsystematic Theology (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 109, 110.
[Image: Heinrich Aldegrever, ‘Lazarus Begging for Crumbs from Dives’s Table’, 1552]
In 1962, Stringfellow was approached by the Christian Education Department of the Executive Council to pen a book for adolescents that would be included in its high school curriculum. Instead of Death, a book with ‘an astonishing career’ (p. 3), represents Stringfellow’s generous response to that request, a book concerned not with death as such but rather upon the historic transcendence of death, i.e. with resurrection from death. Concerning this book, Stringfellow writes:
‘Instead of Death seeks to cope pastorally with a few issues which confront young people, as well as other persons, in self-conscious individual circumstances. But the theological connection of any of these matters to the ubiquity of the power of death and the redemptive vitality of the word of God in this world applies equally to political affairs and social crises and, moreover, does so in a way which renders apparently private concerns political’ (p. 4).
Throughout the book, Stringfellow recalls his own journeys alongside death – his own unremitting pain and sickness, the deathly institutions, authorities, agencies and bureaucracies with which he engaged as a Harlem lawyer, and the way in which the community of East Harlem helped him to identity the relentless and ruthless structures, procedures and regimes which dehumanise us, and which are as militant and as morally real as that death which visits us in our illness and personal challenge to life. Stringfellow charges that the Church has all-too-often preached an innocuous image of Jesus, a Jesus who demonstrates no real authority over death’s power, and has supposed a distinction between the personal and the public (or political) which undermines the eventfulness and accessibility of the resurrection for every human being in every situation in which death is pervasive, whether that be in realms political, economical, cultural, psychological or personal. To announce the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is to announce the liberation of all of human life from ‘the meaning and purpose of death in loneliness, in sexuality, and in daily work’ (p. 9), three of the six themes that are then taken up throughout the book.
While sin, evil and death are related, Stringfellow warns that we should not confuse with them each other:
‘Death is not the consequence of either evil or sin, nor is death some punishment for evil or sin. Nor is there any such thing as objective evil; that is, some knowledge or idea or principle of evil which people can learn or discover or discern and then, by their own will, do evil or good. If humans knew or could know what is good and what is evil in that sense, then they would be like God himself … What one person or nation considers to be good or evil can never be claimed by that person or nation to be the equivalent or even the approximation of God’s judgment, although persons and nations constantly make just that pretense. They do it as a way of mocking God, as a way of pretending that they can second guess how God will judge their decisions or actions, as a way of asserting that they already know how God will judge themselves and others. That is perilous because only a person who does not believe in God would so seriously usurp and absurdly challenge the freedom of God in judging all persons and all things in the world … Sin is not essentially the mistaken, inadvertent, or deliberate choice of evil by human beings, but the pride into which they fall in associating their own self-interests with the will of God. Sin is the denunciation of the freedom of God to judge humans as it please him to judge them. Sin is the displacement of God’s will with one’s own will. Sin is the radical confusion as to whether God or the human being is morally sovereign in history. And those persons who suppose that they are sovereign exist in acute estrangement in this history, separated from life itself and from the giver of life, from God’. (pp. 18, 19–20)
And from this decision for or against God, for or against life, none are exempt, not even the youngest of persons:
‘Death does not wait for full maturity and adulthood, for infirmity or age, for sickness o weakness to assail human life. The work of death begins at the very moment of birth: death claims every person on the first consciousness of existence. Death does not respect or wait upon the foolish amenities which cause people to hide from their offspring the truth that, for all the ingenuity and capability of human beings, death is present, powerful, and active in every moment, in every event and transaction of human experience. No one is given birth who does not imminently confront the claim of death over his life’. (pp. 20–1)
But neither death nor life-after-death is the last word – that word Stringfellow insists, is Jesus Christ.
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‘Jesus is in the neighbourhood of God the Father and so when we stand where Jesus is we too are in that neighbourhood and we learn his language of his relation to God the Father. But the incarnate Jesus is also in the neighbourhood of the chaos and the suffering of the world – a world he has entered to transform. It’s a dimension of baptism vividly captured in the visual and verbal imagery of the Orthodox Church which sees the descent of Jesus into the baptismal water of Jordan as a descent into the chaos, into the unformed reality which swills around just below the surface of the ordinary world. To speak in those terms is really to paraphrase the epigram which I think originates with the great Irish Benedictine, Columba Marmion. He spoke about Christ being simultaneously in sinu Patris and in sinu peccatoris: in the bosom of the Father and in the bosom of the sinner. Christ is simultaneously in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of the sinner, the formlessness, the shapelessness and dissolution, the dis-integrity of creation. He is in the heart of both realities, simultaneously. And that, of course, suggests that when we as baptized persons come to be in the neighbourhood of Jesus, that same dual proximity is what we have to get used to. We are in the neighbourhood of God the Father indeed, and pray the prayer that the Spirit enables: Abba, Father. But we are also in proximity to the world into which Jesus descended; in proximity to the chaos and the formlessness of fallen creation.
And it is of course that two-sided dimension of baptism which stops the baptismal identity simply being static or exclusive, ‘religious’ in all the worst possible senses. It means that we can only be confident of our proximity to God the Father in Jesus if we’re also alert and awake to the proximity of chaos. Our baptismal solidarity with Jesus Christ means that we are in solidarity with all the fellow Christians we never chose to be in fellowship with (always one of the most difficult bits of Christian identity) but it also means that we’re in solidarity with an unlimited variety of human experience that relates to the darkness and the chaos into which Jesus descends in his incarnation. We are in the neighbourhood of a darkness inside and outside the Church, inside and outside our own hearts. In sinu peccatoris: in the bosom—the heart—of what sin means.
So the identity of the baptized is not first and foremost a matter of some exclusive relationship to God that keeps us safe, as opposed to the rest of the vulnerable and unlucky world. It is at one and the same time living both in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of darkness. That is why we speak of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply baptized as a mark of our affinity or alignment with Jesus in a general way, not baptized as an external sign that we more or less agree with what Jesus says. Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails. And it means that Christian baptismal identity is—again at one and the same time—both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a continuing experience of expectation, humility, penitence and hope. The experience of the baptized is not the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings. We don’t simply acquire a relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more. On the contrary, to be baptized is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will. So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.
That, I suggest, is somewhere near the heart of what the identity of the baptized is. And lest you should think that’s just a twenty-first-century perspective, I refer you to (among many other texts) what St Augustine had to say about baptism in some of his great treatises and letters on the subject. St Augustine, confronted with people who seemed to be inclined to regard baptism as a badge of having ‘arrived’, would refer back to the fact that baptized people say the Lord’s Prayer. That is in fact one of the most distinctive things that baptized people do, because they call God ‘Father’. And in that baptismal prayer that Jesus gave us, we say, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. Why do we bother to say this (says Augustine) if baptism is simply the badge of having arrived? When we meet a Christian who is inclined to treat baptism in that way, just remind them of the Lord’s Prayer. In slightly different terms you can say baptism is the beginning of a ‘baptismal narrative’, a story of discovering and rediscovering through failure and restoration, just what it is to live in the place where Jesus lives.’ — Rowan Williams, ‘”The Fellowship of the Baptized”- The John Coventry Memorial Address’.
It is impossible, it seems, for a theologian to think seriously about the arts and not before long be confronted with the question of visual representations of God and, for the Christian theologian, of God as incarnate. The Orthodox and the Reformed traditions, in particular, have long taken this question with the utmost seriousness (and that beside heated debates on the communicatio idiomatum or of those on the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper). The four main objections seem to be:
# 1. Violation of the second commandment
There are no commands to make pictures of our Lord. In fact such pictures, it is argued, clearly violate the second commandment. There are issues here of the ongoing question of idolatry, witnessed to in the Old Testament’s depiction of pagan idols described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone – i.e. of the ‘stuff’ of creation, of the work of human hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18). And, of course, there is the Decalogue’s second commandment:
‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus 20:3–4)
Does this commandment put a fence around what artists can – and cannot – depict of God? Are images of Jesus – whether in Sunday School books, galleries, or spaces dedicated for public worship – idolatry? And if not, then how ought we understand the relation between the unique and unrepeatable revelation of God in the incarnation (and that attested to in the inscripturated word and from the Church’s pulpit, font and table) and visual depictions of that Word?
# 2. All attempts are false representations
Since no accurate representation of Christ can be produced by creatures, all attempts are false representations and can only promote idolatry.
# 3. We don’t know what Jesus looks like
Despite passages like Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 1:13–16, the Bible does not give us enough information to make a faithful representation of Christ’s physical appearance. Therefore, it is obvious that God does not sanction portraits of God’s Son.
# 4. All plastic (i.e. material) representations of Jesus implicitly promote the ancient heresy of Nestorianism
The most serious objection to artists’ attempts to represent Jesus pictorially has been associated with this charge of Nestorianism. In other words, even if we had a photo of Jesus which depicted what he looked like, no human artistry can portray Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, all attempts are a lie and portray Jesus as infinitely less, or other, than he is as the God-human. This argument was proposed by the Council of Constantinople in 754:
‘If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image of the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed’.
The council [of Constantinople, 754], appealing to the second commandment and other Scripture passages denouncing idolatry (Rom. 1:23, 25; John 4:24), and opinions of the Fathers (Epiphanius, Eusebius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, etc.), condemned and forbade the public and private worship of sacred images on pain of deposition and excommunication … It denounced all religious representations by painter or sculptor as presumptuous, pagan and idolatrous. Those who make pictures of the Saviour, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures, like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy. The eucharist alone is the proper image of Christ. (pp. 457–8.)
This issue is just one of the many in which the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth and his reformation great-grandfather, John Calvin, agree. They both held that:
Preaching and sacraments are central to the community’s activity;
That static works are a distraction to the ‘listening community’;
That the community should not be bound to a particular conception of Jesus;
That even the best art cannot ‘display Jesus Christ in his truth, i.e., in his unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted’ (Barth, CD IV.3.2, 867). To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV.2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship. See CD IV.2, 102–3.
‘Whatever [people] learn of God in images is futile’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.5). God’s majesty ‘is far above the perception of our eyes … Even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching’ (Inst., I.xi.12); and
‘Theology cannot fix upon, consider, and put into words any truths which rest on or are moved by themselves – neither an abstract truth about God nor about man nor about the intercourse between God and man. It can never verify, reflect or report in a monologue. Incidentally, let it be said that there is no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image’ (Barth, The Humanity of God, 57).
That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Karl Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (CD III.2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:
There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)
While Barth and Calvin could and did find proper recognition of the gift of God’s love expressed in human culture, they both failed to find in their theology a positive place for the plastic arts that they could find, for example, in music. Ah Wolfgang!
So what ought we make of Barth’s – and others (e.g. Calvin, Kierkegaard) – judgement against visual representations of Jesus? Are visual representations of Jesus really any more susceptible than words (poetry, sermons, etc) about Jesus? (One recalls here Calvin’s insistence that it is the heart that is factory of idols.) Does not God’s act of redeeming creation not extend to the arts’ service of giving an account to the creatureliness of God in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s and Calvin’s rejection misunderstand the nature of the dynamic and continuing event which is the relationship of the viewer of a painting or a sculpture with the artwork, and of the freedom of the Word in that event? (See Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, 21.)
For most of the Reformed, theology is something that is meant to be done with words, and not with images. But, of course, every decision we make about how we choose to communicate the good news is loaded with visual symbolism and reinforces a perception that God communicates with us in a particular kind of way. The question, therefore, is not, whether or not we should communicate visually; it is, rather, how we do so and what we say when we do.
One of the things that good art does is to shed light on the true nature of things; it broadens our horizons, enriches our capacity to see, alerts us to dimensions of reality that we had not seen before, and for which words, sometimes, are simply not enough. The arts help us to birth the kind of imagination and re-imagination that the good news itself fosters and encourages and demands and makes and invites. Artists see differently, but no less truthfully than scientists, how things are with the world. If we are to walk in our world well, and justly and with the mercy of God, then we cannot do so without the kind of re-imagining of reality and of human society that the arts promote and invite.
So NT Wright:
‘We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public in America with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in’. (NT Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God’. Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, Warsaw, February, 2006).
Of course, as Murray Rae recently reminded a bunch of us here in Dunedin, the risk-taking work of re-imagining means that there can be no guarantee that misunderstanding and misinterpretation will be avoided. But neither do we have any such guarantee in the use of our words. In both cases, it seems, what we offer is an act of faith given under God’s imperative that we should share the good news. We offer in Christian witness so much as we have understood, knowing it to be partial, inadequate, and marred by our own sinfulness. And we do so in the name and under the inspiration of the God who makes eloquent the stumbling witness of our faith, and moulds our communication to good and loving purpose. It’s risky, but it is, it seems, God’s risk too.
Perhaps a few words from John de Gruchy would be a fitting way to conclude this post:
Art in itself cannot change society, but good art, whatever its form, helps us both individually and corporately to perceive reality in a new way, and by so doing, it opens up possibilities of transformation. In this way art has the potential to change both our personal and corporate consciousness and perception, challenging perceived reality and enabling us to remember what was best in the past even as it evokes fresh images that serve transformation in the present. This it does through its ability to evoke imagination and wonder, causing us to pause and reflect and thereby opening up the possibility of changing our perception and ultimately our lives … From a Christian perspective, the supreme image that contradicts the inhuman and in doing so becomes the icon of redemption is that of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. So it is not surprising that artists through the centuries have sought to represent that alien beauty as a counter to the ugliness of injustice. We are not redeemed by art nor by beauty alone, but by the holy beauty which is revealed in Christ and which, through the Spirit evokes wonder and stirs our imagination. (John W. de Gruchy, ‘Holy Beauty: A Reformed Perspective on Aesthetics Within a World of Ugly Injustice’ in Reformed Theology for the Third Christian Millennium: The 2001 Sprunt Lectures, 14–5).
‘[F]aith exists not only in hope in the epiphany of Christ; it is bound up with the veiling of Christ, with the ascension, and here we come back to the other reason for the ascension or the purposed withdrawal of Christ from sight. Faith can exist only where there is a gap, an eschatological reserve, between the present and the future, between actual participation in the kingdom here and now and the future manifestation of its glory. Let us consider it like this. If Jesus had manifested his full divine glory on earth so that men and women were confronted face to face with the ultimate majesty of God, then they would have been damned on the spot; they would have been face to face with the final judgement. But the veiling of his ultimate glory meant that Jesus was giving people a chance to repent; he was holding them at arm’s length away, so to speak, giving them time to repent, room for decision. He came veiling his glory, yet revealing himself obliquely, so as to give people enough light to believe but not enough finally to blind them or judge them. That is why he refused to give a compelling demonstration of himself, but sought to evoke faith. Faith is not sight, but faith answers to revelation that is yet only in part, for faith exists in the gap between partial and final manifestation. Faith is, therefore, essentially eschatological in its inner nature.
Now the ascension means that Jesus Christ has withdrawn himself from sight and history in order to allow the whole world time for repentance. He holds back the final unveiling of his glory and majesty, holds back the final judgement when there will be no time to repent, and when, as the Apocalypse puts it, the person that is filthy will be filthy still. That gap between the times is the eschatological time when this present age is already interpenetrated by the age to come, but it is time when the new age in all its glory is as yet veiled from sight, in order to leave room to preach the gospel and give all opportunity for repentance and faith. Thus the world-mission of the church is part of God’s grace, for it is God’s grace alone that keeps back the dissolution of this age’. – Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (ed. Robert T. Walker; Downers Grove: IVP Academic/Paternoster, 2009), 434–5.
‘As [Jesus] ascends, creation is healed. The gulf between heaven and earth caused by human sin is bridged; the rift of our ancient wound is closed. The ‘flesh of man’ is able to go where it was always intended but had ever been prevented since the Fall – into the courts of heaven and the immediate presence of God. This is the foretaste of ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God’ in which the entire creation will be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:21). The ascending, triumphant King is the firstfruit of the new creation. Such is the victory procession of the ascension … The victory of Jesus, celebrated in the ascension, inaugurates his reign as the God-human enthroned at the right hand of the Father. This economy will continue until the entire creation in Christ Jesus, led by Christ Jesus, submits to the Father and the Triune God again fills all in all. The ascension, then, is the promise of a more complete victory. Our King has gone forth to his throne; he will come again in splendour. In this hope, the church has found its identity in the world, and the more the church has embraced the place of its ascended Lord, the more it has advanced his kingdom …
For the present situation of the church, a proper doctrine of the ascension preserves the vital core of historic orthodox Christology: Jesus who walked among us was, and is, truly a man, and also fully God. The ascension provides the narrative structure upon which the clothing of the doctrine may be hung. For the ascension locates our understanding of the person of Christ squarely within Jesus-history. Our doctrines are not merely speculations imposed on Jesus, but rather arise from reflection upon what happened to Jesus as well as what he said and did. We find, to our relief and felicity, that the historical frame bears the full weight of the Christology.
In fact, the doctrine of the ascension keeps us from collapsing our understanding of the person of Christ into any of the Christological distortions of the present age. For not only does Jesus continue now in our flesh, he continues in his divinity. The fully human Jesus is and ever shall be fully God. The Son of God from eternity, in the fullness of time, took our humanity up into himself as he became incarnate in Jesus. Now, he will keep our humanity in himself beyond all time. So we may joyfully resonate with the doxology of Professor [Hugh Ross] Mackintosh, who frequently declared: ‘When I look into the face of Jesus Christ and see the face of God, I know that I have not seen that face elsewhere and could not see it elsehow, for he and the Father are one’. The ascension as an essential part of the story of Jesus protects the doctrine of his person against the pluralizing tendencies of our culture. The ascension was a singular event (as was, of course, the resurrection and indeed the whole course of Christ’s sojourn with us) that demands a proper understanding of Jesus to account for it. I believe Professor Mackintosh would agree that not only ‘if we regard him as Saviour’ but also if we regard Jesus as ascended, ‘we must see him at the centre of all things. We must behold him as the pivotal and cardinal reality, round which all life and history have moved. That is a place out of which his Person simply cannot be kept’. When we know the triumphant Jesus as continuing in his full humanity and divinity through the ascension, we are open to the splendour of the riches of understanding him as our head and firstfruits …’. – Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (London/Phillipsburg: T&T Clark/P&R Publishing, 2004), 71, 72, 90–1.
During a recent visit to the Diocese of Guildford, Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a lecture (based on John 14:5-6 and Acts 4:8-13) on the finality of Christ in a pluralist world. The whole piece is well worth reading, but here’s how he concludes:
‘[B]elief in the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ — for all the assaults made upon it in the modern age — remains for the Christian a way of speaking about hope for the entire human family. And because it’s that, we are bound to say something about it. We are very rightly suspicious of proselytism, of manipulative, bullying, insensitive approaches to people of other faith which treat them as if they knew nothing, as if we had nothing to learn and as if the tradition of their reflection and imagination were of no interest to us or God. God save us from that kind of approach. But God save us also from the nervousness about our own conviction which doesn’t allow us to say that we speak about Jesus because we believe he matters. We believe he matters because we believe that in him human beings find their peace. Their destinies converge and their dignities are fully honoured. And all the work that we as Christians want to do for the sake of convergent human destiny and fullness of human dignity has its root in that conviction that there is no boundary around Jesus — that what he is and does and says and suffers is in principle liberatingly relevant to every human being; past, present and future.
The challenge is partly re-connecting our christology (what we say about Jesus and the Trinity) with our anthropology (our sense of what belongs properly to human beings); and rightly understood, I think that the belief in Jesus’ uniqueness and finality allows us to do this. And, rightly understood, I believe it also allows us to encounter both the religious and the non-religious other with the generous desire to share, and the humble desire to learn, and the patience to let God work out his purpose as is best in his eyes’.
There’s one wee book of Hauerwas’ that I purchased during the past year and never got around to reading, namely Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Brazos Press, 2004). Lent seemed like the right time to dig in. So I found me a quiet moment tonight and read it. Here’s a few passages that I sat with for a while:
‘Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality’. (p. 26)
On Luke 23:43: ‘What does it mean to say these are criminals?’ (p. 38)
Citing Rowan Williams: ‘God is in the connections we cannot make’. (p. 39)
‘Our attempt to speak confidently of God in the face of modern skepticism, a skepticism we suspect also grips our lives as Christians, betrays a certainty inappropriate for a people who worship a crucified God’. (p. 40)
‘Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten’. (p. 44)
‘In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reasin than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly’. (p. 50)
‘Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been … The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation; instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis – complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love’. (pp. 62–3)
‘This is not a dumb show that some abstract idea of god appears to go through to demonstrate that he or she really has our best interest at heart. No, this is the Father’s deliberately giving his Christ over to a deadly destiny so that our destiny would not be determined by death’. (p. 63)
‘We try … to compliment God by saying that God is transcendent, but ironically our very notion of transcendence can make God a creature after our own hearts. Our idea of God, our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make everything turn out all right for us, at least in the long run, is revealed by Jesus’s cry of abandonment to be the idolatry it is … In truth we stand with Pilate. We do not want to give up our understanding of God. We do not want Jesus to be abandoned because we do not want to acknowledge that the one who abandons and is abandoned is God. We seek to “explain” these words of dereliction, to save and protect God from making a fool out of being God, but our attempts to protect God reveal how frightening we find a God who refuses to save us by violence’. (pp. 64–5)
‘If God is not in Mary’s belly, we are not saved’. (p. 76)
‘”It is finished” is not a death gurgle. “It is finished” is not “I am done for.” “It is finished” will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. “It is finished is a cry of victory. “It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work. The work that is finished, moreover, is the cross. He will be and is resurrected, but the resurrected One remains the One crucified. Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This is a remark that makes unavoidable the recognition that we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be consummated or perfected until the end of the world. Williams observes that Pascal’s comment on Jesus’s on-going agony is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers; it is instead an exhortation to us, those who believe in Christ. It is an exhortation not to become nostalgic for a supposedly lets compromised past or take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”‘ (pp. 83–4)
‘We are told in John 1:18 that without the Son no one can see the Father. Von Balthasar, therefore, reminds us “when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible.” This is the terror, the silence of the Father, to which Jesus has committed himself, this is why he cried the cry of abandonment. He has commended himself to the Father so he might for us undergo the dark night of death. Jesus commends himself to the Father, becoming for us all that is contrary to God. Christ suffers by becoming the “No” that the salvation wrought by his life creates. Without Christ there could be no hell – no abandonment by God – but the very hell created by Christ cannot overwhelm the love he has for us’. (p. 97)
Karl Barth once noted that ‘Even within the world to which it belongs, it [the Church] does not exist ecstatically or eccentrically with reference to itself, but wholly with reference to them, to the world around. It saves and maintains its own life as it interposes and gives itself for all other human creatures’ (CD IV.3.2, 762). There can be no doubt that this ministry of intercession certainly involves prayer, but prayer without diakonia is not true prayer, even as diakonia without prayer is not true diakonia. Authentic intercession also involves a struggle against evil, identification with those who are estranged and alienated, and an ‘argument’ with God on behalf of those who have become disenfranchised from God, from human community and from creation. We might recall here Moses’ intercession for those who have worshipped the golden calf:
On the following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I shall go up to Yahweh: perhaps I can secure expiation for your sin.’ Moses then went back to Yahweh and said, ‘Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. And yet, if it pleased you to forgive their sin …! If not, please blot me out of the book you have written!’ (Exodus 32:30–32)
Inherent in this intercession of responsible action is a sharing of guilt. This recalled something that I read recently in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, (the implications of which we might also profitably tease out with a copy of TF Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ in hand). I cite Bonhoeffer:
[The] structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.
When we once more turn our attention to the origin of all responsibility it becomes clear to us what we are to understand by acceptance of guilt. Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; He is not concerned with Himself being good (Matt. 19.17); He is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for that reason He is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and to take the burden of their guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to be regarded as the only perfect one at the expense of men; He does not desire to look down on mankind as the only guiltless one while mankind goes to its ruin under the weight of its guilt; He does not wish that some idea of a new man should triumph amid the wreckage of a humanity whose guilt has destroyed it. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which men die. A love which left man alone in his guilt would not be love for the real man. As one who acts responsibly in the historical existence of men Jesus becomes guilty. It must be emphasized that it is solely His love which makes Him incur guilt. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into the guilt of men and takes this guilt upon Himself. Freedom from sin and the question of guilt are inseparable in Him. It is as the one who is without sin that Jesus takes upon Himself the guilt of His brothers, and it is under the burden of this guilt that He shows Himself to be without sin. In this Jesus Christ, who is guilty without sin, lies the origin of every action of responsible deputyship. If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then, precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt. Jesus took upon Himself the guilt of all men, and for that reason every man who acts responsibly becomes guilty. If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this; he is blind also to the fact that real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men. Through Jesus Christ it becomes an essential part of responsible action that the man who is without sin loves selflessly and for that reason incurs guilt. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 209–10.
Bonhoeffer (who my wife often confuses with Jason Alexander, a.k.a. George Costanza) then turns to consider the implications of this theology of Christ’s vicarious humanity for the human conscience and its relationship with law:
When Christ, true God and true man, has become the point of unity of my existence, conscience will indeed still formally be the call of my actual being to unity with myself, but this unity cannot now be realized by means of a return to the autonomy which I derive from the law; it must be realized in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Natural conscience, no matter how strict and rigorous it may be, is now seen to be the most ungodly self-justification, and it is overcome by the conscience which is set free in Jesus Christ and which summons me to unity with myself in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has become my conscience. This means that I can now find unity with myself only in the surrender of my ego to God and to men. The origin and the goal of my conscience is not a law but it is the living God and the living man as he confronts me in Jesus Christ. For the sake of God and of men Jesus became a breaker of the law. He broke the law of the Sabbath in order to keep it holy in love for God and for men. He forsook His parents in order to dwell in the house of His Father and thereby to purify His obedience towards His parents. He sat at table with sinners and outcasts; and for the love of men He came to be forsaken by God in His last hour. As the one who loved without sin, He became guilty; He wished to share in the fellowship of human guilt; He rejected the devil’s accusation which was intended to divert Him from this course. Thus it is Jesus Christ who sets conscience free for the service of God and of our neighbour; He sets conscience free even and especially when man enters into the fellowship of human guilt. The conscience which has been set free from the law will not be afraid to enter into the guilt of another man for the other man’s sake, and indeed precisely in doing this it will show itself in its purity. The conscience which has been set free is not timid like the conscience which is bound by the law, but it stands wide open for our neighbour and for his concrete distress. And so conscience joins with the responsibility which has its foundation in Christ in bearing guilt for the sake of our neighbour. (pp. 212–3)
This got me thinking: What might be some implications of Moses’ prayer, and Bonhoeffer’s words, for pastoral ministry? And for that of the people of God as a whole?