Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wounded God 4: Was it all “finished” on the cross?

They thought it was finished—and that they were finished with it: “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

But he was dead, and the glorious mission seemed over. Then, through appearance and visitation, through illumination and encounter, they came to realize it had only begun. Their own involvement in the redemption of the world, that is; for it became clear this startlingly alive, transformed and enduring Presence was not going to accomplish it without their active participation: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” (John 20:21)

One wonders how they felt about that. The gospels, of course, present a picture of astonished joy, and surely that was the main reaction. But there are also indications of continuing uncertainty and doubt. We even find the apostles (hiding out?) in Galilee even after receiving Christ's risen “peace be with you” greeting with its commission to “remit sins.” And what are they doing? “I go a-fishing,” Simon Peter declares, and they all hit the boats. (John 21) What’s that about? Possible yearnings to go back to the familiar life they had left behind to follow him on this wild-goose-chase of Messianic hopes?

Not your ancestors' Messiah

So consider this possibility: Jesus had dismayed them by getting himself killed while they had stubbornly, against all warnings, still believed he would give them plum positions in a new government. (Mark 10:36-38) Then he surprised them by reclaiming their lives after his death. By being crucified, he had re-defined the meaning of “Messiah” in the most wrenching way: the one who was supposed to be the great Rescuer had not performed the expected rescue. Indeed, the heart of the meaning of a crucified Messiah is that God is not, primarily, a rescuer. Redemption doesn’t work that way.

Of course they had been challenged to accept this all through his ministry. According to the gospels they just refused to absorb fully what he showed them. From the beginning he made them his partners, trained them, sent them out in the power of the Spirit to share in his work. On the way to the Holy City, while they vied for those governmental positions, he asked them if they were willing to undergo his “baptism” — persistence to the kingdom vision even at the cost of life.

So now, underneath the joy and excitement, there’s maybe the final shock that, after all, the world isn’t going to be miraculously saved from its reckless and destructive ways, souls aren’t going to be brought from darkness to light, without a commitment from them that will cost them (as T.S. Eliot puts it) “nothing less than everything.”

Who wouldn’t be tempted to return to the fishing business? But there he is, a mysterious figure on the shore at dawn, asking them about their catch, and hosting yet another meal, challenging them to shoulder the task yet once again: “The works that I do you will do, and even greater works than these." (John 14:12)

The suffering of Christ is not yet complete

The resurrection challenge to them is to shoulder his task and take their place in the drama of God's own soul-and-world redemption. “As he is, so are we in the world.” (1 John 4:17)The joyful parts of this will be healing the sick and building compassionate community. The risky and possibly sorrowful parts will involve challenging the power-structures of evil in the world and their vicious kick-back, as Jesus did. The johnny-come-lately apostle Paul puts it this way: " my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions." (Colossians 1:24)

Something "lacking in Christ's afflictions”? Paul's statement, taken at face value (and how else could we take it?), would be considered the rankest heresy in many conservative Christian circles. A wide swath of Christian teaching speaks of the “finished work of Christ upon the cross” and hymns proclaim that “Jesus did it all.” All we’ve got to do is accept Christ’s “finished work” by faith, and —behold!— forgiveness of sins, eternal life are ours.

Nonetheless, there it is, along with all Jesus’ acts of initiating his followers into his work, Paul’s bold statement that he is a “co-worker” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) and his mystical perception that Christ dwells, quite literally, in the heart of the believer, working together with us for good in a difficult world that needs repair, rebuilding and redemption from its evil possibilities.

I don’t mean at all to deny that Cross and Resurrection are cosmically decisive events. I accept completely that Christ was "delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (1 Corinthians 15:3), and the whole apostolic proclamation that if we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising our whole relationship to God is realigned. But to believe “Jesus did it all” and we just "accept it by faith" is to miss the very meaning of the wrenching re-definition of Messiah as the Crucified One, the embodiment of the Wounded-yet-persistent-God. We must make up "what is lacking....”

The resurrection challenge: participation in Christ

The name of this process is participation. God doesn’t save the world alone, and we certainly can’t do it alone. We are co-operators, synergoi as Paul puts it, literally “co-energizers.” (! Corinthians 3:9)

The “kingdom does not come by observation” (Luke 17:20) but by gradual processes like plant growth and bread rising. In Christ, God has united human nature itself with Divine nature so that the divine Spirit works “by, with, and under” human effort. The cross is sign and seal of God's perpetual entry into all human difficulty and suffering, of God's taking it all into his heart to open every circumstance to the air and light of the Spirit.

The beloved spiritual “He’s got the whole world/ in his hands,” comforting as it is, is only half true. The missing verse is “He gave the whole world/ into our hands,” as Genesis 1 so clearly tells us. Fortunately, even larger swaths of Christian thought from Patristic days onward have realized that participation is key.

Continued resistance to the challenge

But, as the New Testament seems to indicate, not everyone got the message. Some voices in the apostolic literature still imagine the Eschaton, the “restoration of all things” is just around the corner, just as some sectors of Christianity, continue to gaze longingly at the clouds, fervently expecting the return of Jesus now, in this generation, in spite of the repeated failure of the outside Rescuer to appear. Christ is the revelation and enactment of a Pattern, the sign of how grace works to bring good out of evil and work redemption even in the midst of tragedy. And that Pattern reappears again and again in lives and situations, redeeming to world.

The risen Christ, finding habitation in hearts and lives that welcome him, remains ready to take our mistakes and tragedies into his wounded hands and begins weaving them into larger patterns where healing and good emerge in ways small and large—

—if we participate lovingly and trustingly in the Pattern of the Wounded One who persists in embracing the world whole and entire: beauty, goodness, and tragic failings alike.

Graphic: Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion

Next week: The glorified Body and our flesh

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Wounded God 3: “He broke the bars of the prison”

Whatever else happened to those ardent but bewildered disciples during the resurrection appearances of Jesus, the transformed Presence of the Man they had known was real to them—unmistakably familiar, palpably convincing. “We have seen the Lord,” they say. And by that they mean, among other things, that the same soul-liberating power they had experienced around him in the days of his flesh had returned in an unmistakably familiar but transformed mode.

What was this unmistakable Presence like? The stories speak of a suffusive breath of Spirit that brought joy, forgiveness, and peace to men and women wallowing in despair and self-loathing; of a series of Illuminations that broke the fetters of their limited understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life; and of the spiritual Fire that burned away illusion and opened new doorways to the future.

“We have seen the Lord,” yes; “but now we see him—and ourselves—quite differently.” The Jesus of their past memory—and their own memory of themselves—is now set into the radiant spaciousness of God’s compassionate mind and expansive purposes. They go forth with the message that the “mind of Christ,” the all-pervasive Spirit of God, is available to all who will access it to liberate humanity from the powers of sin and death which underlie and support all the oppressive systems of this world’s life.

A Presence that "takes away the sin of the world"

“Christians believe that they can still meet this human being,” the historian Diarmaid McColloch says, in ways not unlike “the experience of the disciples....They are convinced this meeting transforms lives, as has been evident in the experience of other Christians across the centuries.” (Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years). I would add that this experience of the divine power that was in Jesus is not limited to Christians, but appears in other guises and other names. As Jesus says “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.” (John 10:16)

I’ve seen this Presence at work often. I remember sitting in an Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meeting for the first time and being amazed at the palpable atmosphere of compassion in the room as people shared a variety of frustrating experiences, painful wounds from the past, and scary challenges. As each difficult situation was shared, no one offered “helpful advice” or burbled “O poor baby.”

The receptivity of the Silence was profound. Every word and feeling was taken into a cleansing, loving, accepting atmosphere that welcomed and embraced both the words and the soul that uttered them. The sense of empathy, of interconnection deepened. Hearing so much pain was not depressing, because the spirit—and Spirit—in the room was not only healing but oddly invigorating. As I left the meeting, I realized I had been experiencing the "sin of the world" being "taken away" that the New Testament speaks of. The power of the past to hold us in its grip was being broken by sharing, confession, and welcome into a larger space that imparted a sense of connection with others, a sense that life is bigger than the wounds, and a Love that poured through, not just from, the group.

Witness from treating trauma

My brother-in-law, an M.D. with training in “Somatic Experiencing” a disciple that addresses the psychological dimensions of trauma, sees in this a parallel to his work with trauma victims. “In trauma, whether physical or psychological” David says, “too much happens too quickly. Neither psyche nor body can cope, and everything gets compacted in a dense, painful, interlocking mass. Whatever reminds you of the trauma sets this compacted mass off again. You’re stuck inside the prison of the memory, which leads to all kinds of avoidance behavior.”

What can unlock this prison? All the “sympathy” in the world won’t do it, and standard talk therapy runs the risk of simply re-traumatizing the patient by hauling up memories that he can’t cope with. David’s complementary medical method involves a form of Vipassana meditation—a way of simply being fully present to your experience, and welcoming whatever occurs or comes up from within. Through focus on relaxation, breathing, and centered focus (the ABCs of meditation), with the presence and guidance of a compassionate guide to support and reassure, bits and pieces of the traumatic memory unfold themselves at their own pace, piecemeal, without being forced. “The psyche knows how to heal itself, given breathing room, and surrounded by an atmosphere of compassionate receptivity to hear what wants to speak itself,” David says. “Eventually the ‘it-was-all-too-much-to-cope-with’ story the person is trapped in dissolves and is replaced by a new narrative connected with the rest of life. The person is no longer crippled by the deadening grip of the past.”

A Presence available throughout time and space

Now you may say, ‘Do you really mean that’s there no more to the Resurrection than that?” Not at all—though that would be quite a lot. Rather, experiences like this give me a clue to what at least one aspect of Presence of Christ must have been like for the original witnesses, for it certainly had a similar result: their entire story of Jesus and themselves, a story that had ended in failure, fear, shame and hopelessness was re-visioned and redeemed. They were "ransom, healed, restored, forgiven" and given a new energy and aim in life.

As a believer, I’m sure that the Dazzling Presence was so real it was as if they could touch the wounds in its side—the signs of Jesus’ own trauma transformed. As they ate and drank it he sat among them. But they simply stood closer to the source of the Presence that surrounded me at the ACOA meeting. It has come to me again and again kneeling at the altar rail to commune with Real Presence, and I’ve felt It in spiritual direction sessions where someone’s imprisoning past gets miraculously re-set in a new framework, and energies are released that will create a new future.

So, even though there's a lot more to Jesus' resurrection than this aspect, what I have "seen and heard and touched" of the "Word of life" (1 John 1:1) looks a lot like resurrection to me. Quite enough to bring forth yet another soul out of the tomb.

Next week: Was it really "finished" on the Cross?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Wounded God 2: "He opened the Scriptures to them"

One thing is clear from the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his followers after his death: he gave them a radical new angle on the ancient Scriptures of Israel. This new angle would radically alter their view of how the grace of God operates in the world.

The new angle was that the Crucified and Risen Man is the key to understanding the entire saga of Hebrew history, and God’s ongoing work in the world. Jesus as the messenger and embodiment of God’s Way with humans “opens” a different way of reading the Scriptures. Such a radically changed reading of sacred texts would, more and more, drive a wedge between the new Jesus movement and emergent rabbinical Judaism, rival claimants for the heritage of ancient Israel enshrined in the Hebrew Bible.

The early Christian movement was a hot-bed of inspired utterance, vision, and out-of-the-box angles of vision on the possibilities of human nature, alternative constructions of society, and the ways grace can operate. We get a glimpse of the beginning of this mystical fervor in the resurrection stories when we are told of incidents where the Risen Christ “opened the Scriptures to them” and in the book of Acts where the new insights continue, opening the movement to non-Jews and bringing Paul’s radical views into the fellowship.

Beyond the issue of "proof-texts"

At the center of all this is the reality of a Jesus who has somehow managed to pursue the disciples after his defeat. In the light of this, previously obscure verses in the Psalms and Prophets now appear clearly before the astonished eyes of the disciples as they re-read the Bible and see the Crucified One revealed in startling new ways: “It was necessary that the Christ suffer and rise again.”

We can easily misunderstand the experiences of the disciples if we reduce this all to a series of “proof texts.” Christian conservatives still hold fast to the historic list of “prophecies” which, they feel, “prove” that Jesus is indeed Israel’s promised Messiah. Other Christians, under the influence of historical-critical biblical scholarship, point out that most of these “proofs” are wrenched out of their historical context in the Hebrew Bible. And, they will point out, that to beat Jews over the head with these texts (as was the custom of the medieval Church) has led to great evils against a people trying their best to be true to the God of the Covenant.

But the debate about the power or non-power of the proof-texts misses the point. Because of what happened to Jesus, the disciples now saw the Creator of the world and the Shepherd of Israel as The Wounded God, the One patiently seeking to teach, woo, lure humankind away from its self-destructive paths, and all too often being betrayed and rejected. They saw Jesus foreshadowed in the story of Joseph, in the Exodus from Egypt, in the suffering servant of the Exile, in the mysterious pierced prophet of Zechariah. And because of this, they could never read Israel’s story, or their own, the same way.

They see that the cause of God, again and again, is crucified, dead and buried. And yet, again and again, the Divine Love returned, again and again to embrace those who had failed it, resisted it, or ignorantly misunderstood it—returned with mercy and forgiveness, to resume once again coaching, enlightening, expanding understanding, prodding to new ventures designed to further the best interests of humankind and all creation.

The paradoxical good news

This is good news for humankind, however counter-intuitive. Really good news for a species that, sometimes in spite of its best intentions—and often because of truly self-serving, ultimately destructive intentions — hasn’t yet learned how to “get it right” on so many things that we need for our survival and long term well-being. It is good news because it tells us that the creative Intelligence that broods over and within our life in the world knows how to take mistakes, failures, and tragedies in stride, continuing to work “with those who love him to bring forth good.” (Romans 8:32)

This message was a "stumbling block to Jews" because Messiah is meant to come in Triumph, and "foolishness" to non-Jews who believed that deities were removed from ordinary human suffering. But, for Christians, it remains a valid and revelatory reading of ancient Israel's holy book, though this does make all other readings invalid. (Nor does it suggest that Jews and others do not have their own insights into the pattern which Christins call "cruciform").

And it remains both stumbling block and foolishness to so many in our culture — and in the churches — who see brokenness only as "failure, stupidity (or) incompetence," as Walter Bruggemann puts it. "In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people."

Since Christian history, is about as full of disobedience, betrayal, and tragedy as ancient Hebrew history (and, for that matter, all histories) this is specifically good news for a Church all to often intent on wrapping the image of righteousness about it as a defense rather than opening its brokenness to God — and a culture that, increasingly, can only "apologize" for failure, sin, and destructiveness.

As Bruggemann puts it, The that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics--it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Angst who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility...generosity, candor...and resilient hope." (The Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible)

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Wounded God: Meditations About Resurrection

I. Did he still carry the dark of Hades in his eyes?

When he appeared to them, that startled and soul-shaken band of grieving disciples, Jesus carried the wounds of his torture with him. Whatever the reality of that transformed body was, the past had not been obliterated. So as Jesus faces his disciples, his wounds remain—and meet theirs.

The text does not speak of their wounds, which are not visible. Rather it speaks of their hesitancy in believing the surprising news, and their slow, reluctant opening to belief even when he appears to them. But surely they were wounded by their cowering as he was executed. And who knows what resentment had brooded in them against Jesus for pushing them beyond their limits into a "Test" — which they had failed? Their wounds meet his as his dark stare meets their guilty, fearful, and hopeful eyes.

He greets them with, however, not with accusations, but with “Peace be to you," and greeting meant to invite their "and with you, peace." Carrying his past and theirs, he is not imprisoned in it.

In the light of such a somber beginning to the Resurrection, the Hallelujah and Hoopla of most Easter Sunday services often seems a bit too much — as if by shouting loudly, beating drums, and blasting away on trumpets we try to reassure ourselves that death isn’t such a big deal, and evil is easily undone. "The three sad days are quickly sped" neglects the descent into the timelessness (and, historically, the perennial return) of the powers of darkness.

Descent among the dead

In Pico della Mirandola’s remarkable “Risen Christ,” Jesus seems to carry more than his physical wounds back from the grave. The somber stare of his seemingly deadened eyes speak not only of the memory of the cross, but the eyes seem dark with the shadow of Hades itself. As early Christians believed, "he descended among the dead"(1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6).

Descents into Hades were popular in ancient literature. Just recall the sad tale of Orpheus seeking to reclaim his beloved Eurydice, or Ulysees visiting his father. Jesus was believed to be successful where Orpheus was not —but who was the “beloved” he set out to find?

Astonishingly enough, as noted in the my Holy Saturday blog, Jesus descends to give all the rebellious souls who “refused to obey” in the Great Flood the chance of a new future. He went to rescue these condemned sinners (not just the righteous saints of the Old Covenant, as medieval Christianity wanted us to believe). He went among those alienated from God, stuck in the darkness of their self-chosen alienation.

To reverse the past? Not possible. They had been in “the prison” since the Flood, living with the consequences of their resistance to their own best interests. Deeds have consequences. Apologies are weak antidotes when mistakes, or misdeeds, have taken a real toll. But he went to give them a chance for a different future—the same opportunity he had given lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the rich, and the poor in his lifetime. As his light went among them, they could see their past in a new light, and their long lament over the tragic mistake of refusing Noah’s message became the penitence that can lead to new life. They were, we are told, “made alive in the spirit.”

Entering the heart of alienation

How did he do this for those “in darkness and the shadow of death”? The story doesn’t tell us, but I think he entered into the heart of humanity’s own alienation from God. Souls that are large and deep can do this. They can feel, from within, the fear, bitterness, and despair of the human heart without being lost forever in the darkness.

Jesus somehow immersed himself in both the God-forsaking and the God-forsakenness—all without losing his taproot in God’s love. He had learned from his own moments of dereliction, his own moments of “testing” by the Darkness, how to find his way back to the Light. He was able to share that secret with those in the prison of alienation, remorse, and hopelessness. Given hope, their own innate, but darkened connection with God re-ignited.

Such transfigurations of past mistakes into sorrowful learning are not confined to the realm of Hades, of course. The past is always rewritten, moment by moment, by the present. The memory of betrayal can change in the light of repentance and a renewal of relationship. What had seemed the end of a relationship can be seen as a painful episode, but not the end of possibility.

And yet to “forgive and forget” seems a bit utopian. If wounds are deep enough, scar tissue always remains. The issue is how we carry it. We forgive and remember, with gratitude, that the dark past is not the prison we feared it to be. Then, and only then, can we dare utter "Alleluia."

Next week:

Reordering the past: "He opened the Scriptures to them."

Friday, April 2, 2010

God’s Dark Night of the Soul

My analysis of the Passion as tragedy is inspired by the work of the great Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin. For Berlin, Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life" and constitute the tragedy of human life. It is much harder, but considerably more conducive to moral growth, to see things from this perspective, rather than our usual either/or, good guys/bad guys dichotomy. This does not mean all values are equally good, or appropriate at a given moment, or that genuine evil does not exist. Rather that we have so many loyalties it is almost impossible to honor one without risking harm to another.

Jesus is crucified on a cross made of the tragedy of conflicting interests, the clash of moral concerns each of the key players considers important for survival and well-being.

Caiaphas and his supporters want to save the Jewish pilgrims at Passover from insurrection and the ensuing Roman crack-down. Pilate is devoted, to maintaining the Pax Romana which is widely seen as bringing an era of peace to the war-torn Mediterranean (though his methods are so harsh even Rome will condemn him).The disciples want to follow Jesus, but he has now led them down a path so full of peril they are forced to consider their own lives and well-being as family men with other obligations.

And at the center of all this, the provocateur Jesus will not back down from his assertive demand for personal and national change, reorienting Israel toward the values of prophetic justice, righteousness, and compassion. As a result he is “betrayed into the hands of sinners” — those moral men upholding their particular moral concerns, albeit willing to sacrifice their moral integrity to uphold them.

Tragedy and God

We will err if we see Jesus’ willingness to enter into the growing darkness of this tragic clash apart from the whole sweep of biblical narrative—for the Scriptures might well be titled “The Tale of the Tragedies of God.” Jesus reflects and embodies, in human form, what the Divine Love has experienced again and again.

In the biblical Saga, God has been “crucified” in just such clashes again and again. The creator is betrayed by the man and the woman in the Garden, seduced by a mysterious lying snake who promises great good to humans. The highly favored Noah, the new Adam and second father of the human race, proves a disappointing role model and parent. The clan of Abraham which the divine Wisdom chooses as its pilot project in healthy community-formation proves a truly difficult bunch of learners (as do the Jesus people much later in the story — and the church's history is hardly any different).

The first king of Israel God chooses messes up almost immediately and then tries to kill his successor-designate. The beloved David, a virtual bosom-buddy, succumbs to lust, murder, favoritism and a lassitude that sets the divinely chosen Royal House off in the wrong direction. The chosen nation refuses to heed the prophets sent to avert their destruction.

More than the “tragedies of God” one might well call the Scriptures the “failures of God” — just as Jesus, God’s latest outreach to save humanity from its own ignorance, resistance and downright folly, has walked right into apparent failure.

Tragedy redeemed

Now in a Greek tragedy, just as soon as Jesus breathes his last, the deus ex machina would descend and read everyone the riot act: “You did this wrong, that was your fatal flaw, this is the way you messed up, and you, over there, you overreached destructively. Got that? Too bad about all the dead people.”

But biblical tragedy always turns out differently. After all, the Greek gods and goddess are deeply involved in bringing the tragedy about themselves. They represent precisely the conflicting values we have been considering: family, state, prophecy, religion. And at his best, the deus ex machina merely tells you what went wrong, and how it comes out of your hubris, or ignorance or malice or whatever. The God perceived by biblical people can radiate that penetrating, revealing, fault-exposing light, too; but this God does a great deal more. Tragedy is not reversed, but redeemed.

As the shepherd of Israel, “He” sets out yet once again to rescue and gather the lost sheep. As holy Wisdom, “she” not only exposes flaws, but instructs, heals, inspires and assists in rehabilitation and growth in virtue. More than that, this God, faced with repeated failure, begins more and more to take on the very suffering caused by humanity’s misdeeds—feckless and malicious alike. As Isaiah comes to see, “In all their afflictions, God was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in this love and pity he redeemed them, and he bore them and carried them...” (Isaiah 63:9)

Jesus as a "Man of God's own heart"

Viewed only as tragedy, Jesus goes down to defeat. But Jesus is “more than a prophet,” as he himself says. The heart and soul of his humanity “cleaves” to God so completely that he has awakened to himself “in God” and welcomed God to live “in him.” As such, he becomes the human vessel (or as the “ascension” mystics of his day called it, the “chariot”) of the divine Love, the Word or Wisdom or Expression of God in the world. Though the man in front of them is clearly human, people who welcome him easily feel themselves to be in the presence and atmosphere of God.

And, as the followers of Jesus reflect on this experience, they decide that in Jesus the Divine is able to experience what being human feels like: all the lurking fear, lust, pride, malice, all the loneliness of being cut off from the profound participation mystique of pre-human, paradisical life. God enters into the depths of the human “dark night” as well as knowing, from the inside of flesh, its capacities for good.

And so, when Jesus walks into the dark night of abandonment — by friend, follower, nation, world, and even abandonment by a felt sense of the presence of God — the Cosmic Mind that weaves the worlds is “afflicted in his affliction,” synergistically with the human soul of the Man Jesus. God in Jesus, and Jesus in God understand the tragedy in the context of compassion for human vulnerability, ignorance, fear and the viciousness that comes from all three. Jesus utters words that build on Isaiah’s insight into the relentlessness of the divine Love: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And though he does not say it, the God Jesus reveals may even be heard saying, “I forgive, even when they know what they do.”

Forgiveness as the door to redemption

This forgiveness is not some namby-pamby willingness to put up with evil. Rather, it is a firm dedication not to give up on the Humanity Project—to stay in relationship. In human life, there is no recovery from tragedy but a forgiveness that can open the door to repentance, reconciliation, change in relationships, and reparation if necessary. Amazing, according to the Story, the forgiveness radiates out through time as Jesus is pictured entering into Hades itself, into the furthest pole of alienation from light, life, and God, to wrap the imprisoned souls in the light of compassion and love and open a way for them to come out. Even ancient tragedies like the ignorance of humankind before the Flood can be transfigured, new doors to the future opened.

In human life, tragedy happens again and again. Whistle-blowers get blackballed (I knew one who even went to jail as an accessory to the corporate crime he discovered and exposed). Children and spouses are betrayed by a parent who sacrifices them for the career meant to support the family. Religious hierarchies bury crimes secretly lest their moral credibility be publicly lessened. Adulterers do not own up to their infidelity lest it shake the trust of spouse and damage the marriage. Politicians betray some supporters to represent others. All too often, such actions eventually lead to crisis, perhaps disaster.

Still, as Archbishop Tutu says, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” Tragedy set into the unconquerable Love of God is not obliterated, but transfigured and set in a larger atmosphere of possibility.

Whatever else the resurrection of Jesus means (and it means more than this), it is a sign of the persistence of an unconquerable Love—a love that will not let us go, even in the darkest night. A love that can lead us in that darkness, through that darkness, perhaps even beyond that darkness if we are open to it. And, if all else fails, companion us in the darkness until we fall through it into the radiant and eternal Light around and beyond it, the Light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Easter Monday:

New weekly series of blogs on the Resurrection:

#1: Carrying the darkness of Hades still in his eyes......

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dilemma or staged drama — is Pilate’s hesitancy real?

Jesus stands before Pilate, and in the confrontation between them, two worlds collide. The Man from Nazareth embodies the prophetic critique of the corruptions of power, and the Roman procurator represents the most highly organized form of worldly power the world has thus far seen. In this clash of competing interests, Jesus will be scourged, flagellated, and executed in Rome’s cruelest fashion.

And yet, in the Passion narrative, the figure of Pilate is most easily read as curiously passive and weak. It would seem, and has seemed to readers through the ages, that Pilate is hounded into crucifying Jesus by the insistence of the high priest and his supporters. Surrounding this scene is an even more curiously fickle crowd, most often identified (or misidentified, as we shall see) with the same folks who hailed Jesus’ entrance to the City with “hosannahs.”

Gospel distortion of Pilate?

The problem with this picture is that we know from rather firm historical records that Pilate was so excessively cruel that the Emperor recalled him from his position for making matters worse—in particular crucifying too many people. His “iron fist” policy in the face of Jewish troublemakers was counter-productive, much as the British policy of tough crackdown on the colonial protesters in Boston in 1775 backfired badly.

In the face of the contradiction between the New Testament narrative and the Roman records, many modern biblical critics decline to give any credit to the Passion’s portrait of Pilate. They see the story as it comes to us as an obvious attempt to shift the blame for Jesus death to “the Jews” by a second generation Jesus movement in order to protest their own blamelessness with regard to sedition or disloyalty to a government scrutinizing them after the catastrophic Jewish rebellion of 66-73 C.E., Romans like Pilate, Caligula, and Nero had provoked.

It certainly seems that there is a growing desire to appear reasonably “safe” to Roman authorities in the development of the gospel tradition—and therefore to highlight the role of Caiaphas and his supporters. This was no doubt a burning necessity for a group worshipping a Man convicted of sedition, and carting around the sacred scriptures of a people who rebelled against the Empire just as the Romans were beginning to notice the Christian movement. But does that mean the character of Pilate in the Story is wholly fictionalized? Or is there a way of reading the text that can reconcile Pilate’s public show of reluctance in the Gospels with his notoriously harsh rulership tactics?

Pilate the cruel cynic?

Consider this reading that makes sense of the text, at least to me: what if the portrait of the vacillating, uncertain Pilate is based in a cynical, perhaps even sadistic tactic by the Roman governor? Pilate’s in-your-face tactics have already aroused protests to Rome—his bringing the pagan god-laden standards of the legion into the holy City, his erecting the image of the Roman eagle on an entrance to the Temple itself, and his swift and vindictive punishment for people accused of resisting Roman overlordship.

What if he has told Caiaphas that it is on the Jewish leadership to keep things in hand this Passover. After all, he keeps the high priest’s vestments for the fall Day of Atonement under lock and key in the fortress Antonia, overlooking the Temple—the vestments for the crucial New Year’s “Days of Awe” that annually allow Israel to shed the burden of the past year’s sins.

What if he has decided that he’s not going to be the “bad guy” this time and risk calling Rome’s attention to him after the recent protests? So, when the high priest, responding to Pilate’s demand that he “handle it” comes to turn this disturber of the peace over to Roman authority for sedition, Pilate plays “prove it to me,” and feigns perplexity before witnesses. What if his making the high priest plead for Jesus’ execution is a callous act of humiliation of the Jewish leader, every false statement of reluctance twisting the knife further? Then, finally, he “gives in” with a missive to Rome already in mind if needed which will say, “The local authorities convinced me this religious teacher was really dangerous. I didn’t offend them this time.”

As novel as this reading of the text may be, it reconciles the cruel Pilate we know from history and the vacillating milquetoast of the narrative. He would not be the first person with all the power concentrated in his hands to make somebody else be the fall guy for his own actions—which brings us back to Jesus and Pilate facing each other, each representing a very different approach to power.

Conflicting approaches to power

For Pilate and Rome, power is imperium—power over. For Jesus and his Way, power is power with, power for, and power to be shared, even given away. Jesus gives people power—charismatic power to disciples whom he trains in the ways of healing prayer and exorcism and personal power to people he delivers from disempowering demons and disease. For him, leadership is all about serving the needs of people so that they can become more powerful in service to God’s desires.

One has to careful here not to fall into the trap of “good Jesus/ bad Romans.” Pilate represents a particularly vicious exercise of Roman power, so much so he loses his job. Rome is not the stereotypical tyrannical villain of Hollywood epics, and the Romans certainly don’t see themselves that way. Rome has ended hundreds of years of warfare in the Mediterranean basin, cleared the sea lanes of pirates so goods can be shipped safely, built a remarkable system of international highways that facilitate travel and commerce—all part of the fabled “Pax Romana” that the majority of Mediterranean peoples found a welcome relief.

Moreover, the shift from direct Senate governance of the provinces to the growing Imperial bureaucracy and more highly organized military had ended some of the more egregious corruption of the past century, when Senators went out to be governors and plundered the provinces. While Rome will not tolerate rebellion, it has brought many blessings to the world. Rome will even allow the Jews a special dispensation not to participate in the rituals of reverence to the “genius” or “divinity” of the City and Emperor so long as they pray for the Emperor in the Temple. Jesus seems, and the early Christians surely did, give some room to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” — pay your taxes, obey the law, even “honor the Emperor,” as St. Paul puts it.

But, while Rome is keeping the peace, Jesus is clear that their power system is not meant by God to be center stage in human affairs. Power-over may be necessary as a outer safeguard of social order, but the God Jesus serves wants center stage to be a place where power is shared by people who lead other people. (This doesn’t imply pure democracy, of course, which never seems to have found traction in the early Christian movement, but it does mean “servant leadership,” one that empowers people to grow to full stature.)

Neither Pilate, nor Caiaphas, for that matter, is interested in Jesus’ Way—nor have most leaders been. As a recent president said, with a grin and a chuckle, “It would be a lot easier if I were dictator.” What Jesus stands for, even if Pilate had any interest in understanding it, would be, quite exactly, revolutionary. And so the charge against Jesus—that of a dangerous “revolutionary”—was, on the one hand, a cruel libel, but on the other ironically accurate.


God’s dark night of the soul