Week of Sunday December 28 – Christmas 1
Gospel: Luke 2:21-40
A Jewish Christ
There is a constant violation of Christmas. It is celebrated in the midst of violence which ridicules the proclamation of peace on earth.
It's as though, in Simeon's words from this week, the opposition to the "child [who] is a sign" begins on the very day of his birth! (Luke 2:34) Or, in the words of one of the chaplains where I am working for a while, "Christmas Day is the busiest day of the year in the Emergency Department."
This week's First Impressions is not an exposition of the text; for that I suggest you read Bill Loader's First Thoughts. Instead, I begin with one purpose that Luke has in his text and move on to explore how we Christians are called to live in a world of exploding violence.
The text makes it clear that Jesus, like Paul, was "a Hebrew of Hebrews." (Phil 3:4-6) He and his family are thoroughly Jewish. Everything is done according to the Law for his circumcision and for the purification of Mary.
Luke's purpose in all of this, says Loader is to
demonstrate that they are devout followers of Torah. They are the best of true Israel, as also was John’s family.
Luke is concerned with continuity. Christians are not another religion. They are the true successors, according to Luke, of biblical faith and nothing of that Bible is to be discarded, unless divine intervention indicates this is so (as in the waiving of circumcision in Acts – but only for Gentiles).
We live in a time, and after a long history, where there is, and has been, a marked discontinuity with Judaism. We have most definitely been another religion and very often the persecuting religion. Where we are re-discovering our common heritage there is still often criticism of interfaith activity by other Christians.
As I wonder about a sermon for Sunday, and what to say about the violence which contradicts the angels' proclamation of peace on earth among those whom [God] favours! (Luke 2:14) I wonder what the salvation Simeon speaks of in this week's reading actually is. Could it be salvation from violence?
Could it be that our separation from our Jewish heritage is part of the rejection of our salvation, complicit in our continuing and increasing enslavement to violence?
The danger of cutting ourselves adrift from our Jewishness was recognised in the heresy of Marcionism, which is still current in today's church.
Study of the Jewish Scriptures, along with received writings circulating in the nascent Church, led Marcion [circa 85-150CE] to conclude that many of the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh.
He excised from the tradition anything he took to be incompatible with the teachings of Jesus whereas the Gospel of Luke is saying very clearly that we do worship the same God. Our appreciation of the nature of God has changed. But God is the same God. To solve the embarrassing bits of the Old Testament by disowning God in those places− which means we essentially disown the text− is intellectually dishonest about our heritage and, more importantly, cuts us off from the richness of our own story.
Marcionism should sound familiar. Richard Beck, for example, is describing a common phenomenon. (The post is worth reading in full)
I can't tell you how many times I've watched progressive and liberal Christians wring their hands over these texts, embarrassed and troubled by these psalms.
The classic example is the line about smashing babies on rocks from Psalm 137:
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (137:9)
I, for one, am glad that victims were allowed to speak in the bible, and therefore in the community of faith. And I'm glad victims spoke in their own way and with their own voice. The rage and hurt of victims is not kind, or polite or nice. The voices of victims make us uncomfortable and unsettled….
Recall the context of Psalm 137. The opening lines…
…For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
This is like SS officers asking a Jewish prisoner to sing a Jewish song in Auschwitz for their sick entertainment. "Hey, Jew boy, come over here and sing us a song! Do a little dance!"
What do we hide from in ourselves if we do not do the hard work of bearing the discomfort of the victims? One of the notable aspects of the violence recounted in the Tanakh/Old Testament is the refusal of the text to whitewash violence against the innocent. This is counter cultural. We need it.
We Christians do not read our Jewish heritage. We assume that Jesus and the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament as we do; that they did not criticise it; we ignore the midrashim; most of us do not even read the deuterocanonical Christian books. In fact, few of us even read the Old Testament in any detail, except for proof texting the New Testament.
So we are cast adrift unable to understand what our own holy texts are saying because we do not know their background, and are unable to see the big picture.
Our whole tradition can be read to show a long struggle against violence. Reading the entire tradition shines light on the salvation (Luke 2:30) which comes at Christmas and is always celebrated in the midst of violence which ridicules the proclamation of peace on earth.
There is something 'canonical' (in the sense that Brevard Childs uses the word) about our Faith and Scriptures and their history. They speak as a whole, as a great saga. Rene Girard complains about the
…vast effort of modern criticism to dismember the New Testament as well as the Old, and to compel each text to diverge from every other…
and considers that
this immense enterprise of dissociation is not innocent; it must be part of our effort to elude the significance that is common to all these texts, to flee from a message that we go on treating more or less in the same fashion as those whose place is designated in the gospels as the first recipients of that message…
However correct he is about that, there is no doubt that our essential separation of the two testaments and abandonment of so much of our Jewish heritage decreases our ability to see any overarching saga.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence
This myth…"enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world."
Wink said in his classic essay about the myth of redemptive violence that the
… Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today… [In] the mythic structure of cartoons [and movies which reflect our culture] … an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode.
He noted the close parallels to the Babylonian creation myth.
In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes (The Symbolism of Evil, Harper Collins 1967), order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolised by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.
The biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed to all this (Genesis 1, it should be noted, was developed in Babylon during the Jewish captivity there as a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth). The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution. … In the Babylonian myth, however, violence is no problem. It is simply a primordial fact. … Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people. Unquestioning obedience is the highest virtue, and order the highest religious value…. [Emphasis added by me]
The story we tell ourselves about remdemptive violence is a myth in the popular sense of the world. Violence does not stop violence, it breeds violence. And in the twentieth century our violence became sufficiently technologically advanced for us to wipe ourselves out. Our survival since August 7 1945 has been as much good luck as good management.
Rather being embarrassed by the "Old Testament God" the work of Rene Girard suggests that in owning the entire Scripture we will discover the nature of our violence. He sees the same God slowly and patiently teaching us about our violence.
Girard begins in anthropology, looking simply at the nature of human beings. (In fact, it was his study of the nature of our violence that led to his conversion to Christianity!) He asserts that the distinguishing advantage of our species comes from our ability to learn quickly by imitating, but that this same distinguishing and enabling ability leads to competitive, and ultimately utterly destructive violence. By some accident some early groups discovered that scapegoating an individual and pinning all the blame for a conflict on them restored the peace between warring groups and, essentially, saved them from wiping each other out.
However, the power of this scapegoating depends on people being ignorant of the scapegoating process. It appears magical and becomes sacred. Girard says that "to have a scapegoat is to believe one doesn't have any." Richard Beck quotes Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice:
But Girard goes on to note that this "solution" to communal violence--a simple murder--must be, to remain effective, "hidden." …. Religious myth, therefore, is fundamentally about obfuscation, about hiding a truth. What truth? That human society has been built atop and is still built atop murder:
Myth is an account of a murder that routinely obscures the fact that it was a murder at all. It describes a collective killing that was completely justified, entirely necessary, divinely approved, and powerfully beneficent. (p. 52)
In Girard's view the scriptures are a long exposé which culminates in the 'outing' of the scapegoating process. They unflinchingly record the undeveloped and often barbaric understanding that people had of the nature of God, that genocidal, arbitrary deity who hardened people's hearts, and then punished them for it. But, unlike much mythological literature, they constantly present the story of the victim. They show that the victim is innocent.
The Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — a bodily re-presentation in this case— in the Eucharist. The parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer. The mythical account is usually built on the lie of the guilt of the victim inasmuch as it is an account of the event seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous lynchers. This ignorance is indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial violence. … Already the Old Testament shows this turning inside-out of the mythic accounts with regard to the innocence of the victims (Abel, Joseph, Job…) (Wikipedia on Girard)
This all begins with the first murder, where Abel is clearly innocent.
In short, from Girard's work we learn that the Old Testament shows us who we are. By divorcing ourselves from our Jewishness, we have ignored what the death of Jesus shows finally shows us about ourselves and, too often, have chosen new scapegoats, especially Jews. 1.
When we understand the nature of scapegoating we are able to see that Jesus is not punished for our sins (as per substitutionary penal atonement,) but we ourselves punish an innocent man as we seek to bring our violence under control. We are saved by his sacrifice of himself because we are shown his innocence and are show a new way to live. He does not come back in revenge, but is seen in the resurrection stories as still loving us. We are shown that the way to finally overcome the violence that now threatens to destroy us is to love, rather than to retaliate with more violence.
This is a quite new approach to the doctrine of atonement; ie, to understanding "how Jesus saves us," and takes some time to assimilate and appreciate. For me, it has been the first time that atonement has really made sense. (See my Easter Confession) If I can be crass about it, the various theories of atonement have always seemed barbaric and unethical (penal substitution), or to involve some kind of unconvincing magic trick. But here is something that works in a way that is understandable and observable.
If you are meeting this understanding of atonement for the first time, Richard Beck's article which I have quoted above is a good first introduction. It is part of a series which addresses the problematic nature of substitutionary penal atonement.
Violence and Apocalypse
Although the exposure of the scapegoat mechanism removes one of the "impossible things to believe before breakfast," There is a huge challenge that goes alongside exposing the innocence of the scapegoat, which is that violence loses its power to 'heal' our conflicts. When we were unconscious of the scapegoating phenomenon, we saw it as something miraculous. As we were taught by Israel and by Jesus to see that the scapegoat is an innocent person, the mechanism has begun to fail in limiting our violence. We are ashamed to be found scapegoating. One alternative is to find another scapegoat, someone we decide is not innocent. That is we deny what Jesus has shown us. You can see an example of how this works in Footnote 1.
In his article On War and Apocalypse Girard quotes Clausewitz.
War is an act of violence, which in its application knows no bounds; as one dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which, in the conception, must lead to an extreme.
War has known practical bounds, of course. Basically, one side or another has always been exhausted or defeated. But now we have the means to go beyond boundaries via nuclear weapons. We can destroy ourselves. And this coincides with a time when the violence limiting power of the scapegoat has been largely destroyed by Christianity. The bounds have been removed. Girard says later in the same article
Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion…
The process of education away from violent sacrifice… moved very slowly, making advances that were almost always unconscious. [But] today that it has had increasingly remarkable results in terms of our comfort, and at the same time proved ever more dangerous for the future of life on Earth.
To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behaviour recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet.
I wonder if the "original sin" is not the eating of the fruit and the subsequent knowing of good and evil. (3:22) That knowing is what makes us like God— "like one of us"— and less like the animals, and also makes us a danger to the Earth. But perhaps ouroriginal besetting sin is that, from the beginning, from Abel onwards, we murder. Our great failing is violence towards others. We have built a world around violent exploitation of others. Girard says that the murder of Jesus makes this clear: "Truly this man was innocent." (Luke 23:47)
As he speaks about the destabilising effect of our recognition of the scapegoat, and our refusal to abstain from violence, Girard says
At present, the wise and the discerning (which I suppose now refers to academics) are furiously redoubling their attacks on Christianity and once again congratulating themselves on its forthcoming demise. These unfortunates do not see that their skepticism itself is a byproduct of Christian religion. While it is good to get rid of the sacrificial idiocies of the past in order to accelerate progress, eliminating obstacles to humanity's forward march and facilitating the invention and production of what will make our lives more prosperous and comfortable (at least in the West), it is nonetheless true that sacrificial stupidity was also what prevented us from perfecting ways of killing one another.
And then, this amazing line: (the emphasis is mine.)
Paradoxically, stupid sacrifice is what we are most in need of at present. Few Christians still talk about the apocalypse, and they usually have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.
We hear of this "stupid sacrifice" in the New Testament in some words of Jesus. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34) The ultimate costly discipleship is to renounce violence in all its forms. Violence is the sin which is destroying us. Although we have become "like God" (Genesis 3:22) we still turn away from that likeness by being violent. God, and God's kingdom, renounces all violence.
The cost of this is that we are, in the world's terms, powerless. We will be defeated. We cannot enforce peace! Such a thing is a contradiction of terms. In another article on his book on Clausewitz Girard says, "Christianity will be victorious, but only in defeat."
The Weakness of God
In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul says "… the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." What does this imply?
Richard Beck summarises New Testament texts about the weakness of God with a quotation from Bonhoeffer.
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Then Beck says
…this is… all that is to be said about the power of God in the world. God's power is weakness. Straight up. There is no Big Power sitting behind the weakness of the cross backing it up with a reservoir of force. The weakness of God exhausts the meaning of what it means to say God is "powerful."
Beck says that here "most conservatives will balk." I think many more of us than conservatives are challenged by this! While we
may accept, on one level, the cross of Jesus and the path of servanthood, [we] don't [truly] think the power of God is limited to those things. Behind the cross, [we] contend, is power and awesome force, a power and force that can push people around… God is more than weakness, God is power. Awesome power… [But] beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us.
Where does this powerlessness imply? Girard says
[For modern societies] the confidence is in violence. We put our faith in that violence, that violence will keep the peace.
And when we speculate that God will save us in some great apocalyptic return we are doing just the same. We are saying that violence, albeit God's violence, will beget peace. Girard is terribly pessimistic about our future. He suggests we are already in the apocalypse; in other words, we are living in the revelation of God that was given to us in Jesus. The revelation is our slow, almost banal, disintegration into escalating violence. It is happening because we Christians have not been faithful enough to renounce violence.
The Myth of Human Exceptionalism
Our confidence resides not only in violence. It resides in the Myth of Human Exceptionalism. We believe that we are always going to be here, in some way privileged above all other species. But when we stop speculating about some magical rescue by God, what we know is that we are not exceptional at all. We are just one more life form. I write elsewhere that
The land supports us. Without it we die. We are finite, extinctable creatures which the land holds to account. The health of the land tells us how far we have walked from God, from the reality of what can be, and from the goodness that sustains us.
Are we at peace with the land, living in it, nurturing it, buried into it? Or do we exploit it and destroy it? We are no greater an animal than a plague of mice or rabbits. Too many of us living too harshly will destroy the balances of the biological systems which support us. We will die…. The land on which we live, and its ecology and climate, is not our possession. It is our partner. And it is the senior partner. It will outlive us. We think we destroy the land; we are learning this at last, but is this so? Do we even make the land merely unliveable for ourselves, or does the land reject us? When we are gone other life continues, and even thrives.
God is faithful, says one of my friends. Whether we wipe ourselves out in war or are extinguished by the climate change we are creating, the unceasing love of God will continue to flow out to breathe life into adam. (Genesis 2:7) It's just that adam will not be us.
If we are taking the revelation offered by Jesus' life, death and resurrection seriously, where is our hope in the long slow apocalypse in which we live?
I think it resides in being faithful to what Jesus has shown us. It resides in renouncing the myth of redemptive violence, in trusting that this is what will save us from our besetting sin. An interviewer asked Girard what we should do.
"We just sit it out?" she asks.
"We just sit it out. But we must try not to surrender to the spiritual decadence of our time and rise above the world around us."
She asks, "What about this quotation: 'Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened"?'
"It means that the end times will be very long and monotonous, so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spiritually, even for the best of us, will be very great. This is a harsh lesson but one ultimately of hope rather than despair."
This is what it means to trust God: a mostly unspectacular renunciation of violence and retaliation as we seek to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. In this love the "un-power of God" is shown and violence fails. Our ability to destroy ourselves means this restraint is our only option.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
1. One interpretation of the "Curses against the Pharisees” remains that still enables those who have adopted the gospels as their Holy Scripture and call themselves Christians to elude the full burden of the message. This interpretation is the traditional one, the one that sees in that text only that and no more, curses that would be exclusively directed against a Jewish sect, or perhaps Judaism as a whole and that would concern no one else.
This reading does once again what Jesus reproaches the Pharisees for doing. It suppresses the revelation of the semiotic matrix. It redirects the painful impact of the revelation toward someone else. Since the readers see themselves as followers of Jesus, they cannot choose him as their scapegoat; they have to turn against the only other people present in the picture, who are, of course, his direct interlocutors, the Pharisees. They are the last available victims. This time it is the Christians turn to say: If we had been alive in the time of our Jewish spiritual fathers, we should never have taken part with them in the murder of Jesus.” If the Pharisees are said by Jesus to exceed the measure of their fathers, the traditional Christian reading of the Curses” certainly exceeds the measure of the Pharisees. It does the same thing once more, but this time the victimizers never cease to read the text that condemns their own victimage as they go on with their victimage. They invoke as their justification the text that in reality condemns them in the most explicit fashion. (Girard)
Bill Loader – First Thoughts: http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkChristmas1.htm
Wikipedia - Marcion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope#Teachings
Richard Beck- Quit Tone Policing the Psalms: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2014/12/quit-tone-policing-psalms.html
Wikipedia - Beshalach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beshalach#Exodus_chapter_14
Wikipedia – Canonical Criticism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canonical_criticism
Rene Girard – The Evangelical Subversion of Myth: http://www.imitatio.org/uploads/tx_rtgfiles/The_Evangelical_Subversion_of_Myth.PDF
Walter Wink – The Myth of Redemptive Violence: http://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf
The Girardian Lectionary – on the scapegoat: http://girardianlectionary.net/res/iss_12-scapegoat.htm
Richard Beck – The Voice of the Scapegoat: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2006/12/voice-of-scapegoat-part-2-sacred.html
Wikipedia – Rene Girard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Girard
Andrew Prior – An Easter Confession: http://onemansweb.org/easter-confession.html
Rene Girard – On War and Apocalypse: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/apocalypse-now
Rene Girard – Christianity will be victorious but only in defeat: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2009/07/christianity-will-be-victorious-but-only-in-defeat
Richard Beck – On Warfare and Weakness (5): http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/on-warfare-and-weakness-part-5-weakness.html
The Reading – Luke 2:21-40
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
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