Theories of Atonement and the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating

April 7, 2015

Violence, both coercive and systemic, reigns in the world. This is institutionalized in modern social structures. The myth of redemptive violence undergirds popular culture, civil religion, nationalism and foreign policy. It lies at the root of the system of domination that has characterized human existence. Religious traditions promise to heal the wounds of human existence by uniting human beings to ultimate reality and to one another. Through centuries church has claimed the atoning significance of the crucifixion of Christ. Theories of atonement have interpreted Jesus’ death in order to argue for its universal significance in reconciling human beings to God and to one another. However, a theology that affirms the salvific power of violence results in denigration of people, who are not part of the “saved community”, permitting discrimination and violence. This reality is reflected in the violent history of the institutional church marked by Inquisition, Crusades, Slave Trade , Segregation and collaboration with Colonialism, to name a few. Collaboration of the church and imperial power in violence against native peoples around the world is vividly illustrated by David Stannard:
At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and priests presented the Indians they encountered with a choice: either give up your religion and culture and land and independence, swearing allegiance ‘as vassals’ to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown, or suffer ‘all the mischief and damage’ that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you.

The collaboration with imperial power in violence undermines the claims of the church about the significance of the Christ event in relation to all forms of violence and itself as an alternate nonviolent community. The history of religions is also steeped in blood, sacrifice and scapegoating. The brutal facts of the history of religions pose stark questions about the intertwining of religion and violence.

Due to violence embedded in general understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death and the violence-seeped history of the institutional church, dominant theories of atonement have come under intense scrutiny. The impetus for this inquiry has come particularly in the late twentieth century from the perspectives of victims of violence, the marginalized. The Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating, as it relates particularly with the question of sacrifice, proves illuminating with regards to the general understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus Christ.

The Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating provides an important analysis of the function of violence in human society. This theory is concerned about the role of religion and violence in the formation of human culture. Rene Girard views violence as the foundation of religion and social system. It is the violence that generates a mechanism, which he calls “scapegoat mechanism”. This mechanism is generated to protect social order in a community. Girard believes that in the mechanism linking violence and religion lies the origins of culture. It is the death of Jesus Christ, the victim of the scapegoat mechanism that exposes the sacrificial structures of society. Girard develops his theory in his books: Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, The Scapegoat, and Job, the Victim of His People.

A. Theories of Atonement

Twentieth century experienced sharp debates, sparked primarily by contextual theologians such as black, womanist and feminist about the traditional understanding of the death of Jesus Christ. These contextual theologians have criticized the atonement theology that delineates the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ, because it starts with divinely sanctioned violence, namely killing of an innocent person Jesus Christ. The atonement theology assumes that the killing of Jesus has resulted in something good, that is, the salvation of sinful humankind. Thus, the traditional understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus Christ has glorified divinely sanctioned violence against the weak, poor, women and marginalized.

Three major theories of atonement are prominent in the church to interpret the death of Jesus Christ.

1. Theory of Christus Victor
Power and military imagery dominates the articulation of the theory of Christus Victor. This theory stresses on the theme of victory. It uses the image of cosmic battle between forces of God and forces of Satan. Gustav Aulen discusses how influential this view of atonement was in patristic thought.

According to the theory of Christus Victor the fundamental human predicament is that human beings are enslaved to the powers of sin, death and Satan. The classic Christus Victor, which is identified with Irenaeus and other early church fathers, and several versions of it emphasize on the cosmic battle between forces of God and forces of evil. They see in the death of Jesus Christ victory over cosmic powers such as sin, death and demonic powers that held human beings in bondage. The emphasis on Christ as victor makes Jesus’ death a turning point in the battle against evil powers that enslaved human beings. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead assures final victory. Thus, the struggle is cosmic and the victory of Christ is cosmic. The overriding emphasis of the theory is that God alone, through Christ, accomplishes victory. Therefore, the redemption of human beings from the enslaving cosmic powers is to be understood as a gift bestowed by grace alone.

There are variations of the theory of Christus Victor. One variation is God defeating Satan through deception. Failing to perceive the divine nature hidden behind the human nature of Jesus Christ, Satan swallows the human nature of Christ and is caught by the deity hidden under it. As Douglas John Hall summarizes:
Christ, the Victor, cloaking for the time being his divine omnipotence beneath the apparent weakness of the flesh, deceives and finally destroys the forces of evil that are responsible for human misery, and delivers the human victims from the bonds of sin, death, and the demonic.

Another variation of the theory of Christus Victor is the Ransom Theory. According to this theory, the death of Jesus Christ is described as a ransom price paid to Satan in exchange for freeing the sinful humankind from the bondage of Satan. With the resurrection, Jesus Christ escaped the clutches of Satan and at the same time freed sinners from the bondage of Satan. Thus, Jesus constituted the payment God owed to Satan in exchange for the release of human beings under the captivity of Satan. In this image, God sanctioned Satan’s violence against Jesus as a price for freeing human beings from the clutches of Satan.

The basic weakness of the theory of Christus Victor is that it locates the cause of evil in “an objectifiable, transhistorical demonic power, separable from human community.” The cosmic powers become the cause of Jesus’ death. As a result, the theory ignores the violence of the “lynching mob”- religious and political authorities, and populace. By sanctioning Satan’s violence against Jesus, the Ransom Theory intrinsically contains divinely authorized violence. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly criticize the Christus Victor theory for the divinely sanctioned violence and abuse. Because God delivers the son for Satan to kill in exchange for freeing the humankind in Satan’s bondage. Brown and Parker further say that “suffering is a prelude to triumph and is in itself an illusion,” because Jesus’ suffering and death are understood as mere “divine trickery” in a plot to “deceive the deceiver”. This “divine trickery” expresses the essence of mimetic theory, where God mimes the original action of Satan (that is, deception), and thus, becomes mimetic double.

Further, Brown and Parker contend that a divine model of submission to victimization can have dangerous consequences for those who live in abusive and oppressive situations. They declare:
Victimization never leads to triumph…(rather) it can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity, or creativity….By denying the reality of suffering and death, the Christus Victor theory of atonement defames all those who suffer and trivializes tragedy.

2. Theory of Satisfaction

A great change took place in understanding the death of Jesus Christ with Anselm’s book Cur Deus Homo? Anselm rejected specifically the ransom version of Christus Victor theory. He removed Satan from the atonement equation and made human beings responsible to God. Anselm’s theory of Satisfaction maintains that the basic problem in the world is disorder. This disorder is introduced by human sin into the cosmic order governed by divine justice. Human sin did dishonor to God. Now God’s honor is to be satisfied in order for the universe to remain just. According to the theory of Satisfaction, the death of Jesus Christ has satisfied the honor of God, and thus enabled salvation to humankind. As Williston Walker summarizes:
Man, by sin, has done dishonor to God. His debt is to God alone. God’s nature demands “satisfaction.” Man, who owes obedience at all times, has nothing wherewith to make good past disobedience. Yet, if satisfaction is to be made at all, it can be rendered only by one who shares human nature, who is himself man, and yet as God has something of infinite value to offer. Such a being is the God-man. Not only is his sacrifice a satisfaction, it deserves reward. That reward is the eternal blessedness of his brethren.

A post-Reformation variation of the Satisfaction theory is the Penal Substitution theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ death is understood as substitution for sinful humankind in bearing the penalty of the divine law incurred by them. In the Penal Substitution theory God’s law, not God’s honor, becomes the object of the death of Jesus Christ.

The theory of Satisfaction assumes that God’s retributive justice demands compensatory punishment for human sin. The premise is that justice is accomplished by inflicting punishment. The theory assumes that “doing justice consists of administering quid pro quo violence.” By bearing the punishment on behalf of the sinful humankind, Jesus paved way for human salvation. Thus, the theory of Satisfaction links atonement with the system of retributive justice or violence of God. In other words, this theory models the assumption that doing justice or making right depends on compensatory punishment or sanctioned violence. The implication of this is that the “lynching mob” in the killing of Jesus Christ – religious and political authorities, and people- is, in fact, aiding God in providing satisfaction for the divine justice or honor. Therefore, the Satisfaction theory promotes divine sanctioned violence.

Further, the human condition described in terms of human sin against God’ justice or honor naturally conceives the death of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice, which enables the sins of the humankind to be forgiven. In other words, Jesus’ death is understood as a penal substitution for human sin and to satisfy the violence (or vengeance) of God. If the violence of God is not satisfied, God’s absolute revenge or wrath takes place. If the wrath of God is not appeased, it would overflow into the world. In this harsh reality the need for a scapegoat would be pressing and permanent.

However, the argument of satisfying an angry and vengeful God overlooks the evidence in the New Testament that God is not the object of Jesus’ death, but rather sin. Peter Abelard criticized the theory of substitution for imagining a vindictive God. He deplored, “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything…still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world.” Contextual theologians have also challenged the theory of Satisfaction as not only offensive, since it portrays God as violent and vengeful, but also a potential source of oppression. Black, feminist and other liberation theologians have shown how certain interpretations of the cross can promote a cult of suffering. As a result, oppressed groups passively identify with Jesus’ death as though suffering itself were part of God’s redemptive plan, rather than seeking to overcome injustice. James Cone criticizes the theory of Satisfaction that it is an abstract theory, which lacks ethical dimensions in historical arena. He comments, “A neat rational theory but useless as a leverage against political oppression. It dehistoricizes the work of Christ, separating it from God’s liberating act in history.” Cone argues that the abstract legal formula enabled “white” Christians to claim salvation through the death of Jesus Christ, while actively accommodating chattel slavery and racism. Womanist and feminist theologians also criticize the theory of Satisfaction as divine child abuse or divine surrogacy. Brown and Parker write:

Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering. Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in the modern society when the predominant image of the culture is of “divine child abuse”- God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering death of his own son? If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed, it must itself be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race which can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb.

Brown and Parker point out that Anselm’s view of justice is “not that wrong should be righted but that wrongs should be punished…God’s demand that sin be punished is fulfilled by the suffering of the innocent Jesus, whose holiness is crowned by his willingness to be perfectly obedient to his Father’s will.” The theory that glorifies suffering of the innocent for the liberation of others can be dangerous in an abusive society. This conditions the abused to accept their situation. As Brown and Parker notes, “This glorification of suffering as salvific, held before us daily in the image of Jesus hanging from the cross, encourages women who are being abused to be more concerned about their victimizer than about themselves.”

Thus, the abstract legal formula of the theory of Satisfaction not only accommodates violence of the sword and various forms of systemic violence, but also perpetuates suffering, oppression and marginalization of the poor and marginal communities by appealing to the suffering of Jesus or submission of Jesus to suffering required by a divine mandate. As a result, this theory condones the plight and suffering of the poor and the marginalized.

3. Theory of Moral Influence

Abelard rejected the Satisfaction theory of Anselm and its variation, Ransom Theory. He proposed Moral Influence theory. The Moral Influence theory assumes that human beings are to be enabled to engage in agape love. Abelard in his book Know Thyself argues that human beings are capable of deciding what is good through the use of natural reason. Therefore, what they need are knowledge of what is good and strength of resolve to do it. This is what human beings get from the death of Jesus Christ. Christ’s death provides a compelling and inspiring example to follow. Jesus, in persevering through humiliation and cross, embodies God’s agape love. God gave him over to die in order to display God’s agape love for sinful human beings. Thus, the Moral Influence theory features the death of Jesus Christ as a loving act of God for sinful human beings. When sinful human beings perceive this love of God in Jesus’ death, it inspires human heart so that they are empowered to follow the same example of agape love. This, in turn, results in reconciliation with God and with one another. It is the psychological or subjective influence worked on the mind of sinner through demonstration of God’s love in the death of Jesus Christ that reconciles sinner to God and to one another.

However, Moral Influence theory also promotes divinely sanctioned violence. The display of God’s agape love is in the form of God giving up God’s son to die. This interpretation of the death of Jesus Christ ignores its cause, the violence of the “lynching mob” – religious and political authorities, and people. It makes God the cause of Jesus’ death with the purpose of showing God’s agape love to sinful human beings. This demonstrates the intrinsic divine sanctioned violence in the theory. Like the Christus Victor theory and the Satisfaction theory, the Moral Influence theory implies that the “lynching mob” is aiding God’s will to fulfill.

Brown and Parker rightly observe that the Moral Influence theory is another image of divinely sanctioned abuse. By suggesting that the cross represents the highest form of love, the theory leads to further victimization of oppressed people. As Brown and Parker note, on the basis of the image of the cross as representing the highest form of love “races, classes, and women have been victimized…(and) their victimization has been heralded as a persuasive reason for inherently sinful men to become more righteous.” Victims become means “for someone else’s edification”.

Thus, the dominant atonement theories contain elements of divinely sanctioned violence. They are intrinsically violent, in that they make God the ultimate source of violence, and portray the “lynching mob” as aiding God’s will to fulfill. The traditional interpretations of the death of Jesus Christ use transactional analogies such as satisfaction, substitution and ransom, where death of an innocent person is required either by a just God or a divine law or Satan in order to save the sinful humankind. Such interpretations of the death of Christ trade in the language of sacrifice. If Jesus’ death is regarded not as a revelation but as only a violent event brought about by God in order to either satisfy a just God or a divine law or Satan or to inspire human heart, it is misunderstood and turned into an idol. Not only does this not make sense, but it is scandalous in a variety of ways. Mark Heim says that this kind of understanding of God and the death of Jesus Christ leads “to a fatally skewed faith, revolving around a central narrative based on sacred violence and the glorification of innocent suffering.”

Therefore, a nonviolent perspective that exposes and rejects violence in Jesus’ death is required. This perspective provides a basis to subvert the dominant theories of atonement, which formed a framework for the interpretation of Jesus’ death in Paul’s letters. Nonviolent perspective also offers a new interpretation of Christ’s event. This perspective is shaped by the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating. According to this interpretation, violence that fulfils God’s agenda is not a factor in the death of Jesus Christ. Rather Jesus’ death reveals victimage and thus, exposes the violence of scapegoating. The revelatory aspect of Jesus’ death posits violence and its correlates (substitution, satisfaction, ransom) as an anthropological datum, not a divine one. It exposes the lie about the divinely sanctioned violence. The death of Jesus Christ, in one sense, is like all other events of victimization “since the foundation of the world.” But it is different in that it reveals the meaning of these events going back to the beginnings of humanity: victimization occurs because of mimetic violence, victim is innocent, and God stands with the victim and vindicates him or her. In other words, the violent death of Jesus Christ reveals that it was mimetic violence that is the generative power behind the sacrificial structures, which are responsible for Jesus’ death or any victimization, which Girard calls “scapegoat mechanism”.

B. Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating

For the theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating mimesis is the starting point. According to Girard, human culture has been founded on two principles, which he calls “mimetic rivalry” and “scapegoat mechanism”. The anthropological characteristic that Girard sees as most fundamental to human behavior is mimesis. Without mimesis, there is no human culture. From his study of mimetic desire in the modern novels written by novelists such as Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Proust, Girard conjectures that human desire is mimetic. He delineates, “Mimesis is the basic human drive to copy what the other person finds valuable; it is the ambition to acquire as one’s own what is deemed desirable by the other.” Girard argues that no object has any value in and of itself, rather objects derive value “insofar as they are charged with desirability on the basis of another’s attachments to the same.” In other words, “the value of the article consumed is based solely on how it is regarded by the Other. Only Another’s desire can produce desire.” That means, desire is always mediated by the other’s (whom Girard calls “mediator”) desire.

Since the origins and mechanisms of desire are controlled by the other, the subject of desire is no longer in control of his/her own destiny, but becomes a slave of the other’s desires and preferences. As Mark Wallace explains,

Because the self formed by the other’s desires can neither understand nor control the direction of its own appetites and infatuations, the mediated self is fated to an existence within a nightmare-world of culturally constructed needs and desires that it cannot comprehend. Everything that generates the culture of a particular social group – from tastes in food and fashion to codes of behavior and division of labor – operates within the same gravitational space of mimetic desire. Generally, however, this gravitational activity exists just beneath the threshold of conscious choices and activities. Thus, mediated desire is the source of all acquisitive and addictive cravings, the foundation upon which the hierarchy of cultural values is established, and the criterion by which most interpersonal decisions are made in social groups.

In imitating the other (model), the subject may come to approach the power and threaten the position of the model. Thus, mimesis leads to competition at the most intimate level of existence. The model tells the subject not to imitate him/her, and becomes an obstacle and rival to the subject in acquiring the object of desire. Mimesis, thus, inexorably leads to rivalry and rivalry sooner or later to violence. Violence (called mimetic violence) that results from mimesis poses a fundamental threat to the community. Escalating violence renders humans more and more like each other, leveling distinctions and sweeping people up into ever greater paroxysms of violence. Since human societies maintain their order through a system of differences, erosion of differences threaten the order and peace in society. Mimetic rivalry and violence threaten to overflow into society. This results in “mimetic crisis”.

Thus, the configuration of desire is triangular. Subject’s desire of an object is mediated by the model (or mediator) of the object of desire. When the angle between the plane of the subject and that of the model is large, the distance between two planes will be proportionately large and the relationship between the subject and the model is a good imitation without rivalry. However, when the angle between the two planes is small, the distance between them will be proportionately small. As the distance between the two planes becomes smaller, mimetic rivalry begins to grow proportionately. When the planes of the subject and the model draw very closer, model becomes an obstacle, in the sense of a rival, to the fulfillment of the object of desire. At this point desire shifts its aim from the object to the model-turned-obstacle and acquisitive desire becomes mimetic rivalry, which contests for recognition and status, rather than possession of the object of desire. It renders the subject to be more like the model. This, in turn, begins to erode the differences between the subject and the model-turned-obstacle and they eventually become the doubles. This stage is called the “mimetic crisis”. At this stage violence erupts, where they want to destroy each other.

Mimetic crisis threatens the social structure, that is, society’s order of differences and values. In this mimetic crisis society’s order is normalized by diverting the violence of the community onto an “unprotected other” (a scapegoat) accusing it as the cause of the violence and social disorder. According to Girard, each society is engaged in some form of sacrifice to control this violence and to establish a social order. Through a controlled act of violence, that is, killing of a scapegoat, flood of overwhelming violence and its effects are controlled. As Girard notes, “If left unappeased, violence will accumulate until it overflows its confines and floods the surrounding area. The role of sacrifice is to stem this rising tide of indiscriminate substitutions and redirect violence into proper channels.” Thus, the purpose of sacrifice is to restore communal harmony and to reinforce social fabric.

During the course of evolution, Girard believes, repeated primal murders taught early humans that the death of one or more members of the group would bring a mysterious peace and discharge of communal violence. Societies had learned to contain mimetic violence from overflowing into society by channeling the tensions of mimetic rivalry and violence onto a scapegoat. That means, the opposition of “everyone against everyone else” was replaced by the opposition of “all against one”. Scapegoating channels and expels violence so that communal life and existing social order may continue. This pattern is the foundation of “scapegoat mechanism”. Since human socialization itself originates from scapegoat mechanism, it can be said that “human culture (is) an effacement of bloody tracks, and an expulsion of the expulsion itself.” It becomes evident, then, that scapegoating is the basis of society, and mimesis leading to violence is central energy of the social system.
Fearful that unrestrained violence would return, early humans sought ritual ways to re-enact and resolve mimetic crisis in order to channel and contain violence. “Good violence” was invoked to drive out “bad violence.” That is why rituals from around the world call for sacrifice of humans and animals. At a later stage of social development, animal sacrifice is instituted. In principle there is no difference between human and animal sacrifice. The important thing is that the sacrificial victim should resemble members of the community, but not be identical. Girard says that the crucial element is choosing a sacrificial victim. Distinguishing between suitable and unsuitable sacrificial victims is essential for an effective sacrifice. As Girard notes, “Between these (suitable) victims and the community a crucial social link is missing, so that they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance.” Usually people, who belong to minority communities or have different marks such as color, disease, religious affiliation and class status, become potential sacrificial victims. Domestic animals that have close association with the community such as cattle and goats are sacrificed.

Therefore, mimetic crisis generates scapegoating mechanism, where it rediscovers an object, not to possess but to destroy. The rivals get united in attributing the cause of the social disorder to a victim. Thus, they transfer their violence on to the victim. Thus, violence and lie become twins in scapegoating mechanism. Killing of the scapegoat victim restores communal unity and social order. In that process not only the guilt of “mob” as the cause of social disorder, but also its violence against the innocent victim is obscured. In other words, the lynching of victim must not be seen for what it is. The violent basis of transformation of social disorder into social order, however, is concealed from those involved. Both the cause of social disorder and the restoration of social order are attributed to the scapegoat, who is seen as having power not only to cause social disorder but also to restore social order. This makes the scapegoat victim “the supremely active and all powerful victim”, because of its power to cause and to cure violence. The victim is apotheosized as a god. Hamerton-Kelly says that “god is the transformed victim…(and) the mob makes the victim a god…the mob’s stupefaction turns to awe.” Thus, scapegoating is the foundation of religion. Girard says that at the origin of any religious society stands the murder of a person selected as a scapegoat. For him, the “Sacred” first appears as violence directed at a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat. As Girard writes, “Now the victim/god is the processor of bad violence into good violence, the violence of disorder into the violence of order. Thus the victim/god is the personification and reification of the mob’s violence through the victim.” In a mimetic crisis, the distinction between the Sacred and violence is lost. The victim is transformed into the Sacred, the mighty one who can cause disorder and bring order in the society. Thus, “the double transference” transforms the victim into the Sacred with its powers of threat and promise, corresponding to mimetic rivalry and surrogate victimage respectively. Both threat and promise represent two forms of violence: bad violence disrupts social order and good violence restores order. Thus, “Violence is the heart and secret soul of the Sacred”.

The conception of the Sacred is based on violence turned on scapegoat, then attributed to God. This is sacred violence. The system of sacred violence is based on self-deception that the energy of the system is not our violence but the violence of God. It pretends that God demands victims in order to maintain communal peace and unity. Thus, the order of existing culture is an order of sacred violence centered on the place of sacrifice and sustained by threat (prohibition), promise (ritual) and lie (myth).

In Girard’s view, myths from around the world recount the primordial crisis and its resolution in ways that systematically disguise violent origins of culture. Girard attempts to explain the origin of myth in terms of a historical event in which each community commits a mob murder of a scapegoat in order to establish social order. According to him, mythical language presumes that human violence “is always interpreted as an act of divine vengeance, as God’s punitive intervention.” Human beings get so caught up in these stories that they lose sight of the basic truth that scapegoats are innocent. Even though societies no longer practice sacrifice directly, they still continue to target certain individuals or groups as scapegoats. These societies blame them for all problems, resulting in marginalization and even extermination of these individuals or groups, so that violence will not overflow into and threaten the society. Thus, the lynching mob is at the foundation of social order. According to Girard, every culture arises from the incessantly repeated patterns of mimetic violence and scapegoating.

Religion conceals the violent origins of society. In order to stop violence in community it has to conceal violence against victims. That means, it has to conceal the truth of innocent victimage. Charles Mabee says, “Thus, truth becomes second victim, after the innocent victim.” This victimage of truth is perpetuated by myths and rituals. As Girard argues, “This concealing aspect of religion and the culture that it generates results in its idolatrous nature, that is, its propensity for creating fake gods out of society’s victims.”
However, unlike myths of every other culture, God’s revelation of Jesus Christ, the victim of sacred violence, unmasks the mechanism of sacrificial violence found in myths, cultural systems, social practices, political ideologies and interpersonal relationships. Jesus’ death is not a sacrifice. Viewing Jesus’ death in terms of sacrifice, as presented by the dominant atonement theories, to effect human salvation reflects mythification. Such a view of the death of Jesus Christ reinforces divine sanctioned violence. Wink comments:

The nonviolent God of Jesus comes to be depicted as a God of unequaled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him, but also holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required.

Thus, viewing Jesus’ death as a sacrifice posits violence as divine sanctioned one, whereas it is human violence that is projected as God’s violence. God’s revelation of Jesus Christ, the victim of sacred violence, reveals the falsehood of sacred violence and God’s rejection of it. It makes clear that sacred violence is not from God, but from human beings. Jesus’ death is not God’s act of scapegoat violence; it is human violence. Jesus was swept up into a process of sacred violence whereby the existing social order could be maintained. Thus, the death of Jesus Christ reveals the sacred violence that humans use to maintain social order.

Therefore, Jesus’ death is “significant more for its historical content than as a basis for an ideology of sacrifice.” The cross of Jesus Christ points to the shameful death of an innocent person through an act of human violence. Jesus’ death does not destroy the sacrificial structures, but it discloses and demythifies “the victimage process, which is detrimental to the liberation of victims and the human community intended by God of love and justice.”

Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the opposite of myth, because it tells the truth about scapegoating mechanism. It offers the new creation/kingdom of God as an alternative. Girard says:
Once the basic mechanism is revealed, the scapegoat mechanism, that expulsion of violence by violence, is rendered useless by the revelation. . . The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the truth of God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

However, the gospel affects but not changes the structures of sacred violence in this world. The structures of the Sacred and the customs of scapegoating will continue. But through the disclosure of sacrificial structures by the gospel of Jesus Christ, God establishes a nonviolent society. The cross of Jesus Christ is salvific because it discloses sacred violence, not because it displays God’s love as regarded by the theory of Moral Influence. The cross saves when human beings recognize scapegoat mechanism operating in the death of Jesus Christ and become aware of the violent legacy of the mimetic process. The members of the nonviolent society of the new creation relate to the system of sacred violence differently. Faith in Christ leads believers away from the system of sacred violence into a community of the new creation characterized by agape love.

B. History of Interpretation of the Death of Jesus Christ in Galatians

In Gal. 3.13 Paul affirms the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in human redemption from the curse of the law. However, he does not describe the specifics of the connection between Christ’s death and human redemption. Therefore, Christian theologians have used one or the other theories of atonement to explain Paul’s words. The church fathers, who employed the Christus Victor theory of atonement, understood Paul’s words in terms of Christ’s victory over the powers, including the law with its curse that kept human beings under bondage. Jesus, by undergoing law’s curse on the cross and raising from the grave, liberated humankind from the curse of the law. The proponents of the theory of Penal Substitution or Satisfaction have interpreted the death of Jesus Christ as Jesus taking upon himself the curse of the law that was threatening all sinful humanity and thus redeeming human beings from the curse. Jesus, through his death, satisfied the righteous judgment of God that was looming on the entire human race. Martin Luther’s comment on Gal. 3.13 in his commentary on Galatians gives an indication of the influence of both the Penal Substitution theory and the Christus Victor theory. He wrote that Christ became a curse for us by taking upon himself all our sins. Otherwise the law had no right over Christ, for the law condemns only sinners and holds them under the curse. For Luther, the curse of the law is the wrath or punishment of God. When Jesus Christ became a curse for us, he came under the wrath of God as sinner on our behalf. Luther comments, “He (Jesus) thus bearing the sin of the whole world in our person, was taken, suffered, was crucified and put to death, and became a curse for us.” He further says, “But because He was a person divine and everlasting, it was impossible that death should hold Him.” Thus, Luther sees in the death of Jesus Christ victory over the powers of sin, death and the curse.

Those who have opposed the Satisfaction or Penal Substitution framework have used the Moral Influence theory to understand Gal. 3.13. Mostly it was the liberal theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth century who followed this framework. According to these theologians, Jesus’ death redeemed human beings from the curse of the law by providing them with an example of obedience and agape love. This example has inspired human beings to follow an alternate way of life where they are no more under the curse.

The biblical scholars have also used one or the other theories of atonement as a framework to interpret the death of Jesus Christ in Paul’s letters. Some have found support for the satisfaction or penal substitution mainly in Paul’s contemporary Jewish literature. On the basis of the support in Jewish literature, scholars have argued that Paul got the idea of vicarious satisfaction or penal substitution from Jewish sacrificial practice, ‘cultic juristic’ thinking, or martyr-theology. Rudolf Bultmann understands the death of Jesus Christ in terms of cultic-juridical terms. Jesus’ death is not only a sacrifice that takes away the guilt of sin, but also becomes a means by which one is liberated from the powers of this age, the law, sin and death. That is why Bultmann translates huper hēmōn as “in our stead”. He supposes that Paul was influenced by Hellenistic mystery religions (in which the initiated also participated in the death and resurrection of the deity) and the Gnostic myth. According to the Gnostic myth, there existed a cosmic unity between the redeemer and the believers redeemed by him, a soma, so that what happened to the redeemer also happened to those who belonged to his soma. By using this, Bultmann contends that Paul characterized the redemptive significance of Christ’s death and resurrection not only as a sacrifice offered once and for all on our behalf or as a punishment suffered in our place, but also as a redemptive event that could be interpreted as an event that indeed happened to human beings.

Lenski understands the imagery in Gal. 3.13 as a substitution of blood sacrifice. He also renders huper hēmōn “in our stead”, which represents substitution. Lenski argues that Jesus Christ assumed our curse. So he explains:

Christ bought us ‘out from under’ the curse of the law by becoming a curse ‘over’ us…In a word, we were under the curse; Christ took the curse upon himself and thus over us (between the suspended curse and us), and thus rescued us out from under the curse.

The curse of human beings, which Jesus took over him, “crushed Christ in death” and thus “his death satisfied the law and…ended the curse.” For Lenski, this curse is the curse of God. N.A. Dahl and G. Vermes believe that the substitution theme of Gal. 3.13 relates to Gen. 22, that is, the binding of Isaac. However, they are relatively tentative. No one argues explicitly that Gal. 3.13 reflects a vicarious, sacrificial death of Isaac. Dahl admits that this typology equates Jesus and the ram, rather than Jesus and Isaac.

Herman Ridderbos contends that the basic thought behind Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death is found in the cultic-juridical aspect. Jesus’ death should be understood in sacrificial terms. It is an atoning sacrifice. In Gal. 3.13 and 4.5 Paul speaks of Jesus’ death as ransom. It is a costly price paid for those under the curse. As Ridderbos notes, “As the one sent of God, he takes the curse upon himself and he dies, burdened with it, in place of men on the cross.” Christ “becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3.13) expresses the thought of substitutionary (atoning) sacrifice. The thought of substitution “constitutes the fixed content of the ransom concept. For this reason the expression “became a curse for us” not only means “in our behalf” but “in our place” as well.” In Paul’s letters, Ridderbos argues, the idea of atoning sacrifice is closely related to a concept of forensic justification, where God as a righteous judge condemns sin in Christ’s death and justifies those who have faith in Christ. Although Paul does not say that Christ has redeemed his own from God, yet God is the one whose holy curse was executed on Christ in their place. Thus justice is satisfied. Even though the substitutionary satisfaction terminology is absent, “the idea of substitutionary satisfaction is materially present here.” Thus, “substitution and justification are closely related so that it can be said that Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse (i.e. one cursed by God) for us (Gal. 3.13).” Ridderbos further maintains that “no matter how much people have been responsible for Christ’s death” it was God who delivered Jesus Christ to death. It was our sins, he says, that moved God to hand over Jesus in order to make atonement for human sins. Thus, Christ substituted himself for humankind in order to atone for their sins.

James Dunn also supports the understanding of Jesus’ death in terms of cultic sacrifice. However, he confesses that there is no clear rationale in Judaism concerning sacrifice. M. Barth admits, “It seems necessary to admit that we do not know or understand what the Old Testament and ‘Judaism’ really believed and taught about the mystery of expiating sacrifice.” However, Dunn supposes that Paul had an understanding of sacrifice, in terms of which he understood Jesus’ death. He argues that Jesus’ death is both sacrificial and representative in the sense that it is a “sin offering in someway representing the sinner in his sin.” According to Dunn’s understanding of redemption through the death of Jesus Christ, Christ redeemed human beings by uniting his divinity with the fallen humanity and destroying the power of sin and death in that “sinful flesh”. He bases his proposal on a particular understanding of Jewish sacrifice and argues that for Paul the “malignant, poisonous organism of sin” was destroyed in our fallen flesh when Jesus died and rose. He explains, “Jesus’ death was the death of the old humanity, in order that his resurrection might be the beginning of a new humanity, no longer contaminated by sin and no longer subject to death.” Jesus died as a representative of fallen human beings and “to say that Jesus died as sacrifice for the sins of men is for Paul to say the same thing.”

However, Ernst Kasemann contends that Paul’s letters give no support to the idea of substitution with regards to the death of Jesus Christ. He criticizes that the idea of the sacrificial death has often been unduly emphasized. Kasemann says that even though Paul was aware of the concept of substitution, he did not understand Jesus’ death in the sense that Christ offered sacrifice in our stead or carried the punishment for our sin. Kasemann contends, “Paul never definitely called Jesus’ death a sacrifice, particularly since it was in general accounted as God’s action and God can not very well sacrifice to himself.” He downplayed the idea of sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. He says, “The idea of the sacrificial death is, if anything, pushed into the background….” Rather, he argued, Paul’s thought was determined by the effect of Jesus’ death on human beings.

J.C. Beker has used the Christus Victor theory to interpret the significance of Jesus’ death in Gal. 3.13. He claims that Paul, basing on the Jewish apocalyptic idea, understood that Christ has inaugurated a new age by submitting to the curse of the law and then raising. Christ died “to break the power of the law itself, because the law had cursed him, whom God had vindicated.” This resulted in “the end of the dominion of the law and our transfer to a new lordship that saves us from the law’s condemnation and grants us new life in Christ.” Beker says that Paul rarely blames Jesus’ death on human authorities or rulers, because, for the apostle, spiritual powers of evil operate behind them (I Cor. 2.8).

David Seeley uses the theory of Moral Influence as a framework to understand Gal. 3.13. For him, Gal. 3.13 expresses Jesus’ innocence and his obedience. Jesus fully participated in the human condition, but lived obediently. The curse was attributed to Christ because he hung upon a tree, not because he broke the law. The emphasis is on Jesus’ obedience as the most important aspect of his death, and “it is the obedience which enables Jesus’ death to become salvific.” Seeley argues that Jesus’ death is vicarious in the sense that by imitating his example of obedience unto death, believers in Christ are redeemed from sin and the curse of the law.

The above brief survey demonstrates the influence of the dominant theories of atonement on the interpretation of the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ. However, Ernest Burton brings a fresh understanding of the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ as he interprets it as a revelatory event. Commenting on Gal. 3.13 Burton argues that the curse Paul spoke of is not the curse of God, but the curse of the law. The curse of the law, according to Burton, expresses the verdict of legalism, which falls on those who fail in their legalistic obedience to the statutes of the law. The verdict of legalism reflects not “God’s attitude now or at any time or under any circumstances,” but that “which the legalist must, to his own undoing, recognize as (that) of the law interpreted as he interprets it, and which on the basis of his legalism he must impute to God.” Therefore, curse is not an expression of God’s attitude towards people, but a false human conception of God’s attitude that God deals with human beings on a legalistic basis. Those who are of “works of the law” are under the curse of the law, which falls on all who do not fully satisfy its requirements. Legalism understands Jesus’ death as accursed. Deliverance from the system of legalism through the death of Jesus Christ is not “a judicial act in the sense of release from penalty, but a release from a false conception of God’s attitude, viz., from the belief that God actually deals with men on a legalistic basis.” The death of Christ is “a demonstration of the divine character and attitude toward men.” Burton insists that the deliverance from the system of legalism through the death of Jesus Christ is an epochal event. God through this epochal event “announced the end of that system of legalism which in the time of Moses came in to achieve a temporary purpose,…(and) revealed his own attitude toward men, and so gave evidence that legalism never was the basis of his judgment of men.” Thus, the death of Jesus Christ reveals not only the falsity of the system of legalism, but also the divine character and attitude towards human beings. It reveals that the system that perpetuated a misconstrued perception of God as a God of violence is based on a lie.
The significance of Jesus’ death for human beings is also understood in terms of “participation” and “representation”. Christ’s death is significant for the human beings in the sense that they “participate” in it. As Karl Barth notes, “For then and there, in the person of Christ taking our place, we were present, being crucified and dying with him.” Christ died as our representative. Many scholars have emphasized “participation in Christ” as a key theme in Paul’s soteriology. However, there is diversity of views about the nature of “participation”. Bultmann claims that Paul took the idea of participation from mystery religions and is partly behind Galatians 3.13. He describes, “Participation in the fate of the mystery-divinity through baptism and sacramental communion grants the mystes (initiate) participation in both the dying and the reviving of the divinity; such participation, that is, by leading the mystes into death delivers him from death.” Thus, Christ’s death provides believers with “the means of release from the powers of this age: Law, Sin, and Death” because they are granted “a share in Christ’s death.” E.P. Sanders remarks that for Paul the notion of participation in Christ or in his death is “the heart of his soteriology and Christology.” For Sanders, “participation” in Christ’s event is a reality for members of the community of Christ. However, he confesses his inability to delineate the nature of this “participation”. Sanders admits:

It seems to me best to understand Paul as saying what he meant and meaning what he said: Christians really are one body and Spirit with Christ…. But what does this mean? How are we to understand it? We seem to lack a category of “reality” – real participation in Christ, real possession of the Spirit – which lies between naïve cosmological speculation and belief in magical transference on the one hand and a revised self-understanding on the other.

Richard Hays, T.L. Donaldson and N.T. Wright have tried to explain the death of Jesus Christ in Galatians with the imagery of representation. Hays emphasizes that in Gal. 3.13 Paul understood Christ as a representative figure. Jesus, by taking the curse upon himself and then being vindicated by God at the resurrection, has at the same time redeemed from the curse all those who participated “in his same story or identify with it.” Donaldson argues that “Christ himself makes the passage from ‘this age’ to the ‘age to come’” functioning “not as an individual but as a representative figure.” Those who participate with Christ in death and resurrection are delivered from the curse and receive the blessing of justification and the life of the age to come. Building on these ideas, Wright interprets Galatians 3.13 on the basis of “Paul’s corporate Christology”. He delineates:

Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel’s curse and exhaust it…The Messiah has come where Israel is, under the Torah’s curse (see 4.4), in order to be not only Israel’s representative but Israel’s redeeming representative. That which, in the scheme of Deuteronomy, Israel needed if she incurred the curse of the law, is provided in Christ: the pattern of exile and restoration is acted out in his death and resurrection. He is Israel, going down to death under the curse of the law, and going through that curse to the new covenant life beyond.

Wright understands Jesus’ death in terms of not only participation, but also the Penal Substitution theory: Jesus took the curse of Israel. According to him, Jesus took the curse of Israel as her representative and exhausted it. Both Wright and Dunn argue for some type of “Adam-theology” in Jewish tradition that led Paul to interpret the death of Christ in representative or participatory terms. John Ziesler criticizes the idea of “corporate personality” in Jewish tradition:
While the Old Testament and later Judaism easily conceived of representative figures, it is not clear that they ever envisaged corporate figures, whether kings, patriarchs, Adam, or anyone else. It is now very doubtful whether there ever was a Hebrew idea of corporate personality which could explain Paul’s language.

J.C. Beker tried to explain the significance of the death of Jesus Christ by “transfer” imagery. Beker supposes that the preposition huper denotes the image of “transfer”. By becoming a “curse for us”, Jesus Christ broke the power of the law. Thus, Christ put an end to the dominion of the law, and enabled “our transfer to a new lordship that saves us from the law’s condemnation and grants us new life in Christ.” Beker is influenced by the Christus Victor theory in his explanation of transfer of believer from one lordship to another and thus, of discontinuity between the old age and the new. The influence of the Penal Substitution theory may also be seen in his delineation of Christ’s death “for us” in terms of Jesus “(taking) upon himself the curse of the law and (expiating) its punishment because of our transgression.” For Beker, “this expiation is primarily a sacrificial expiation.” He further says that Christ’s death eradicated not only the curse of the law but also the law itself. However, this does not find support in Galatians, where Paul talks about fulfilling the law or the law of Christ. E.P. Sanders uses the term “transfer” to denote believer’s shift from one community to another. In the case of Paul, according to Sanders, this “transfer” from his Jewish community to the community of Christ was due to his basic conviction, which Sanders summarizes as follows:

God revealed his son to Paul and called him to be apostle to the Gentiles. Christ is not only the Jewish Messiah, he is savior and Lord of the universe. If salvation is by Christ and is intended for Gentile as well as Jew, it is not by the Jewish law.

That means, Paul’s critique of the law religion is Christological and soteriological. It is derivative of his fundamental conviction. According to Sanders, Paul does not see any “problem” with Judaism, except that it is not “Christianity”. However, the problem with this conclusion is that it does not take into consideration the fact that Paul’s way of life in Judaism perceived the message of Christ scandalous in some significant way, which resulted in his active persecution of believers in Christ and his determination to destroy “the church of God”. And also his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son resulted in a striking transformation of his convictions about Jesus Christ and his way of life in Judaism. Since Paul’s persecution of those who proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, the “cursed of the law”, and his determination to destroy the “church of God” was linked to his zeal for the law, his “transfer” from the Jewish community to the community of Christ would not have occurred without his rejection of Judaism, or the way of life in Judaism represented by “works of law”.

Using the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating, it can be shown that Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of God’s son exposed that Judaism was a sacrificial structure of sacred violence, which was expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, persecution of those considered to be apostates, and exclusion of Gentiles. It also revealed that Paul’s way of life in Judaism was not a life for God, as was evident in God raising Jesus Christ, the victim of the “curse of the law”. This conviction effected his “transfer” from Judaism to the community of Christ, the victim of the sacred violence. As Hamerton-Kelly describes, “The transfer from one community to another signals a change in the function of desire, because those who have entered the realm of Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5.24).” The transfer of a believer in Christ from the system of sacred violence to the community of Jesus Christ, the victim of the sacred violence, means “to refuse the unanimity of conflictual mimesis” and participation in the nonacquisitive and nonconflictual desire of Christ, that is, the agape love. Thus, believer in Jesus Christ breaks free from the system of sacred violence, and becomes a member of the community of the new creation, which is governed by the nonacquisitive and nonconflictual agape love. Thus, the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating explains believer’s participation in Christ event better than Bultmann’s “mysticism” or Wright’s “corporate personality”, and believer’s transfer from one social order to another better than that of Beker and Sanders.

A String of Hope

February 12, 2015

In 1886 G. Frederick Watts titled one of his paintings Hope. It was painted shortly after the death of his adopted daughter Blanche. In this painting a woman is depicted sitting on the top of the globe, plucking at a wooden lyre with her head leaning towards the instrument. At first glance it gives an impression that she is in an enviable position, sitting on the top of the world, playing lyre and enjoying the music. But when you look at the painting closely, the ILLUSION gives way to the REALITY. The woman in the painting is blindfolded (probably symbolising that the world around her is dark for her) and in tattered clothes, playing the lyre with all but one of its strings broken (probably symbolising the condition of her life). Her head is leaning towards the instrument so that she can hear the faint music she can make with the sole remaining string. Commenting on his painting Watts says, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.” It is the ability of people, at their lowest point in life to sense and feel a strand, a single string of hope that gives them strength to move on even in the darkest hour of life.

Hannah in I Samuel 1.1-18 was like the woman in the painting. She was a wife of Elkanah. Her husband loved her. Whenever Elkanah, along with his family, went to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice to the Lord, he gave a double portion of the sacrifice to Hannah, “because he loved her”. He loved her more than his other wife Peninnah and her children. In fact it was his love towards Hannah that caused Peninnah to be jealous of her.

Elkanah loved her “though the Lord had closed her womb” (I Sam. 1. 6). In that culture a woman, who was barren, was looked down. Such women did not have respect both in their families and society. But Elkanah loved her, although she was barren. For him the “baggage” she carried was immaterial. He loved her as she was.

Elkanah was also an understanding person (1.8). He was there whenever she was down. He consoled her and comforted her whenever she was sad.

People in the society must have known about Elkanah’s love towards Hannah. Most of them must have thought that she was lucky and blessed. Her husband loved her. Hannah’s position seemed enviable. Outwardly she looked as if she was sitting on the top of the world.

When we look from a distance at some people, families and countries, it gives an illusion that they are happy, comfortable and peaceful. They wear designer clothes, drive latest model vehicle, live in a posh locality, a well paid job, a rich family. We think they have everything. On the outside they give an illusion of being on the top of the world.

This is the illusion Hannah’s life gives to the outside society. But this illusion gives way to the reality when we look at her life closely.

 

The Reality of Hannah’s Life

  1. Most probably, the attention of Elkanah to Hannah caused Peninnah to be angry and jealous. When jealousy gets hold of us, we can’t let it go because it won’t let us go. A jealous person tries to make the life of the other miserable by hitting at the areas where it hurts the most. Peninnah knew her target area. Every year when they went to Shiloh to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord, Peninnah constantly stayed on her, hurting her, making her cry and taking her appetite away, because the Lord did not give her a child (1.6-8).
  2. Then there is the pain of a barren woman. The story of women in those days (even today) with no children was a story of deep sorrow and despair. Her respectability was tattered and torn. Hannah was “deeply distressed” and “wept bitterly” (1.10). She confessed that she was “deeply troubled” and in “great anxiety and vexation” (1.15-16).

Hannah was deeply hurt and in pain. Outsiders could not see that pain and sorrow. This deep pain and sorrow made her vexed with life. Moreover, her heart was bruised and bleeding with constant attacks of a jealous woman. This had affected her psyche, which was visible in her crying, refusing to eat anything. She was deeply hurt.

When we look at Hannah’s life closely she was in a living hell. What looked like heaven, the illusion of having everything, the illusion of sitting on top of the world, was actually existing in a quiet hell.

Deep distress, sorrow, anxiety and vexation lead a person, usually, into depression and isolation. At times they may also be symptoms of depression. Remember Elijah in I Kings 19.4: “He went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life.” He did not eat. These are the signs of depression. It drives us into isolation and death.

However, in the case of Hannah, she found the single string that was not broken, that is, her relationship with God. She was definitely alone. But alone with God. Because she did not lose hope.

Notice what she did before God: she wept bitterly and confessed that she was in distress (1.11); she “poured out her soul before the Lord” (1.15); she spoke out her “great anxiety and vexation” (1.16). That means, she was honest before God. She just poured out before God what she had on her mind and heart. Expression of our feelings, emotions, doubts, questions and hurts before God and a trusted person is not unspiritual.

The other thing which Hannah did was she cried bitterly before God. That means she had pent up emotions/feelings. She did not have a let out. She did not have a window to vent out her feelings and emotions. We usually let out our deep emotions/feelings before a person, whom we trust and who loves and cares for us. This is what Hannah did. Because Hannah trusted God and believed that God loved her and cared for her, she let out her emotions/feelings. When we vent out our emotions/feelings, it will have a therapeutic effect on us. It lightens our heart and mind.

Notice the change in Hannah’s appearance: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer” (1.18).

In her darkest hour of life, Hannah had the ability to sense and feel the sole string that was intact. In her deep distress and sorrow, she found that one string of hope, i.e. God. Hannah had a strong relationship with God. Though she was barren in her womb, she was fertile in her relationship with God. Year after year when they went to the Lord’s temple in Shiloh, she kept on praying, although there was no visible sign of change in her condition. She prayed so fervently that Eli thought she must be drunk.

It is very easy to hope in God when there is evidence of God’s goodness all around us. But it is difficult to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident, or there is absence of God. There is a documentary titled The Day My God Died. This documentary presents the stories of young girls whose lives have been crushed by child sex trade. They describe the day they were abducted from their village and sold into sexual servitude in Mumbai, shattering their dreams and hopes, as The Day My God Died. These children are “the commodity consumed by the voracious and sophisticated international sex trade. Recruiters capture them, smugglers transport them, brothel owners enslave them, corrupt police betray them and consumers rape them and infect them. Every person in the chain profits except for the girls, who pay price with their lives.”

In a situation where there is no visible evidence of God’s love, care and presence, it requires courage, audacity to trust God, to hope in God.

There is an African American Spiritual titled “Over my head”. African American Spirituals were originated in the American South. These were created by mostly slaves whose names history never recorded. These were sung by slaves during their work in fields, factories etc. The theology conveyed in these songs is a powerful mix of African spirituality, Biblical narrative, an extreme human suffering, and hope. These were written in extreme pain and suffering. In the midst of that they express Hope in God.

Refrain:

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

 

  1. Leader: oh, when the world is silent,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: oh, when the world is silent,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: oh, when the world is silent,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

 

All: There must be a God somewhere.

 

Refrain

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

 

  1. Leader: And when I’m feeling lonely,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: And when I’m feeling lonely,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: And when I’m feeling lonely,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

 

All: There must be a God somewhere

 

Refrain

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

 

Even when the world remains a mute spectator to our hurts, sufferings, pain, agony and cry, and we feel lonely in the valley of the shadow of death, we can still hear the music from the divine musician!

The Temptations of Jesus Christ (Mt. 4.1-11)

February 9, 2015

The account of the temptations of Jesus Christ is sandwiched between the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry in Galilee (Mt. 3.13-17; 4.1-11; 4.12-25). The body of the narrative (Mt. 4.3-10) consists of three temptations: to turn stones into bread (vs. 3-4), to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (vs. 5-7), and to fall down and worship Satan (vs. 8-10). The first two of these temptations are introduced by a conditional clause “if”, whereas the third is a straightforward attack.

One of the key terms in the story of Jesus’ temptations is “tempt” (Greek word peirazō Mt. 4.1,3,7). Though its root meaning is “to attempt, to try”, and by extension “to put to test”, in common usage today the sense of “tempt” is “to entice” (eg. “tempting food”) or “to entice to sin” (eg. “Lead us not into temptation”).

The word peirazō in Matthew means “to tempt for the purpose of discrediting” (16.1, 19.3, 22.18,35). Satan tempts Jesus in order to discredit him or deviate him as the Son of God from doing God’s will. It is Jesus’ faithfulness as the Son of God that is put on trial. In Mt. 4.1 and 4.3, peirazō is used in this sense. The lure of bread when Jesus is hungry, the lure of performing spectacular act at the temple, and the lure of gaining “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” – in these ways the devil tempts Jesus.

However, in Mt. 4.7 the word peirazō has the sense of “testing”. The reference is to Deuteronomy 6.16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Here there is the question of testing God of his power or providence or trying his patience.

Therefore, the entire temptations’ narrative is about enticing and testing. Three strands run through all these three temptations, and these three strands are found in Israel as well as in the church. They remain perennial problems of the church even in the twenty first century. These are: (I) The Search for Identity, (II) The Search for Purpose, (III) The Search for Methods and Means.

 

  1. The Search for Identity

The temptations’ account is connected to the preceding story of Jesus’ baptism by Matthew’s favourite particle “then” (Greek word tote Mt. 4.1). At the time of baptism a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3.17). Now in the wilderness, after forty days of fasting and prayer, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God…” (Mt. 4.3,6). As Scroggie says, “After the testimony, the test.” Thus, Jesus confronts the question of self-identity before he has started his public ministry.

Dr. Erickson, a psychiatrist, notes that many geniuses and leaders have a crisis of self-identity. He lists among the persons who had such an identity crisis Luther, Darwin and George Bernard Shaw. This crisis of self-identity is also faced by institutions, and social and religious organisations. The church too confronts the question: “Who are you?”

The basic question of the temptations and of the rest of the Gospel of Matthew is: “Who are you?” Time and again this question of Jesus’ identity comes up in the Gospel. The disciples said, “Who is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt. 8.27). The disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11.3). In the city of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt. 16.13). After they gave varied answers, he turned to them and asked, “But who do you say that I am” (Mt. 16.15).

The divine testimony at the time of Jesus’ baptism establishes the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3.17). The temptations of devil reflect no doubt about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. The conditional clause in his words (“If you are the Son of God”) is not the statement of an unreal but of a real condition, a statement of fact. The “if” clause in Mt. 4.3 and 4.6 corresponds to the word “since”, than to the hypothetical “if”.

The temptations of the devil are not on the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, but on what kind of Son of God Jesus is. The issue is how Jesus uses the power and authority that the status accords him.

The divine announcement about Jesus at the time of his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” combines the thoughts from Psalms 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1. Psalms 2.7 points to Jesus’ role as the Messianic King, while Isaiah 42.1 suggests his function as the Spirit-anointed Servant. Thus the Son will exercise his Messiahship as the Servant. So Jesus is called to be the Servant-Messiah.

The temptations of devil are for Jesus to be trapped into a false identity, or to become or be shaped into the image of the expectations of the people. Jews are expecting a Messiah and they have developed many ideas about the Messiah. Some are expecting that the Messiah will come and fight on behalf of the “sons of light” against the “sons of darkness”. Some others are expecting a priestly Messiah who will come and cleanse the Jerusalem temple as it has become “a den of robbers”. The revolutionary Jews are expecting a political Messiah who will come and redeem them from the Roman bondage. So the devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory, and says, “All these I will give you” and tempts him to become a political Messiah! Jesus is tempted to do some spectaculars as the Son of God, probably to attract crowds to become his followers!

By refusing to be tempted to use his identity as the Son of God for his self-interests, or to become a Messiah of people’s expectations, and by using only the Word of God, Jesus has reaffirmed his identity as revealed by the voice from heaven at the time of his baptism. His identity is grounded in and shaped by the Word of God or the Will of God, not by the expectations of the people or the will of the people. All through his ministry, Jesus had to be conscious of this identity in order to avoid being trapped into some false identity. He had to rebuke Peter when the disciple wanted the master to be a different kind of Messiah, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Mt. 16.23). After feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, when they tried to take him in order to make him king, Jesus escaped from there (Jn. 6.15)!

The people of Israel, as the chosen people of God, tested God by asking for signs in the wilderness. They wanted to be called the chosen people of God, but did not want to be servant. They wanted all the privileges and prestige of the “only beloved nation of God”, but not responsibilities. They neglected God, his covenant and his word, but wanted to use God for their self-interests.

Similar is the state of the church in the twenty-first century. The church has succumbed to the temptations and shaped itself according to the expectations of people. The will of the people takes precedence over the will of God! So the church confronts the question about its identity: What is the church? Is it an inefficient organization, or is it an efficient institution? Is it a social or caste or class club taking on all of the mores, customs and systems of our Indian society? Or is it truly the Body of Christ? The salt of the earth and the light of the world? Is it the servant of God, or does it make God its servant? This is the heart of the continuing temptation of Jesus Christ in the church: the search for self-identity.

Jesus makes it clear that God (and his Word) is not someone to be used for self-interests. Rather, Jesus, Israel and the church are God’s servants, God’s stewards and God’s ambassadors. God’s power in the church is not to be used for spectaculars, for attracting crowds, for getting attention! God wants the church to do his will: Love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord, our God!

 

  1. The Search for Purpose

By identifying Jesus as the Son of God, the voice from heaven during his baptism commissions him as the Servant-Messiah to establish the kingdom of God (or the rule of God) on this earth. For this mission Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit. In his first public ministry in Galilee, Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) and cures every disease and every sickness among the people (Mt. 4.17, 23).

The confrontation between Jesus and Satan is central to the establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth. It is by the power of the Spirit, who led him into the wilderness to be tempted, that Jesus is able to proclaim the message of the dawning of the kingdom of God, cure the sick with various diseases, and cast out evil spirits (Mt. 4.17, 23-24). Casting out demons from the lives of persons, who are controlled in body or will or both by evil forces, indicates the presence of the kingdom of God (Mt. 8.16, 28ff, 9.32-33, 12.22-32).

To the establishment of God’s kingdom Satan stands unalterably opposed. So, he tries to hinder the Son’s work or tempts Jesus to stray from doing his commissioned work according to God’s will (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43).

In the wilderness Jesus is tempted by Satan to fulfill his messianic purpose, i.e. the establishment of the kingdom, by departing from the will of God. The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and tempts him, “All these I will give you.” But the condition is: “If you fall down and worship me” (Mt. 4.8-9). Jesus’ messianic purpose is to establish NOT his own kingdom by becoming a vassal king to Satan, but the kingdom of God. As the messiah of a benevolent God, he is commissioned to serve the needs of people, and thus show God’s goodness, love and compassion to them. Jesus declares clearly his messianic purpose to the disciples of John the Baptist: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11.2-5).

Thus, Jesus is clear about his purpose as God’s Son. He says to his disciples, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10.45). Humility and service are the characteristics of the Son of God.

Israel had also been called and commissioned with a particular purpose. The covenant promise that was given to Abraham, to Moses and to others is quite clear. It was remembered very well – at least two-thirds of it – by the Israelites and the Jews. First, “you shall bear a son”. Second, “I shall make of you a great nation.” These they did not forget. Jews remember this even today! Some of them still quote it in relation to Zionism and a new twentieth century nation called Israel. But the third part of the Covenant was the statement of the purpose: “…in you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12.3). But Israel became nationalistic, jingoistic and self-serving. In their pride and selfishness, they lost their ultimate and true divine purpose.

The crisis in the church is obvious today – not only its identity but also its purpose. It is concerned more about statistics, economic success, external appearance, or even with mere existence. The purpose of the church is not to test God’s faithfulness or God’s power or God’s promises, but to show forth in faith and service God’s goodness, compassion and love.

Until we know our true identity and purpose, it becomes easy to be tempted to follow false messiahs, false purposes, and to seek false goals. But if we are the Body of Christ, we have a purpose. It is to follow Jesus Christ in life and in mission. That is, to love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord, our God, and to be co-workers with God in the establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth.

What profit would it have been to Jesus, to Israel and to the church, to gain the whole world and lose its life, its self-identity, by betraying its very purpose?

 

III. The Search for Means and Methods

Satan wants that something has to be done to get Jesus Christ to betray his identity and his purpose by the kind of methods he used. The temptations of Satan to Jesus are to demonstrate his divine sonship and to fulfill his divine mission by means which are not in accordance to the will of God.

By attacking the ego of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Satan is enticing Jesus to test God’s faithfulness as the provider and protector, and to establish his own kingdom on this earth. The underlying objective of the devil seems to be to break the relationship between the Father and the Son and to force Jesus to stray away from his divine purpose.

 

  1. Bread Alone

Satan’s question is sharply formulated: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt. 4.3). Are you not hungry? Are you not the Son of God? Then why not “command these stones to become loaves of bread”? The end justifies the means!

Certainly satisfaction of hunger itself is not wrong, for this is involved in the angels’ ministry later (Mt. 4.11). The fact that a miracle would be involved does not make it wrong, for Jesus often performs miracles, twice where hunger is involved (Mt. 14.13-21; 15.32-39). Then why did Jesus refuse to use his power to turn stones into bread and satisfy his hunger?

The reason for Jesus’ refusal is found in his reply to Satan’s challenge, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt.4.4). The issue is: How does one “live”? Jesus is tempted by the devil to live “Bread alone” lifestyle, by keeping aside the Word of God or the Will of God. It’s true that without bread man can not live. He will surely die. “By bread alone” man can “live”! However, he can not live the life he himself wants to live and God wants him to live. It takes both bread and the Word of God to make man live in the way God wants him to live. Bread and the Word of God are basic for man in order to live. Thus, Jesus has brought “bread and the Word of God” together. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8.2-3).

Food, clothing, shelter, sex, money, brain, work, technology, power and religion must be illuminated and judged by the Word of God, and in the light of God must be brought to the right relationship to one another. Jesus says that the entire law (the Word of God) is summed up in two related commandments of God: Love your God and love your neighbour. What does “love your God and love your neighbour” say about poverty and hunger in the world, ever growing gap between the rich and the poor (i.e. inequality), power politics, casteism, classism, nepotism, regionalism in the Christian church and in Christian organizations and institutions, oligarchy and dictatorship in the world, globalization, present day greed-based capitalism and economic policies, and so on?

“Love your God and love your neighbour” is a way of life. It is living, it is speaking, it is applying the commandment to our own life and situation.

God complains against his people, “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal” (Hos. 2.8). Only human being misuses the good things given by God. This is the human being’s tragedy! So any human being lives constantly with the two possibilities: “For Baal” and “for God”. In him coexist tragedy and glory! Man can live “by bread alone” and man can not live “by bread alone”.

To be human means to know that she/he is confronted by these two possibilities: “For Baal” and “for God”; “Bread alone” and “Bread and the Word of God”. But “the true and authentic living” requires both bread and God’s Word. This is where human beings differ from animals!

 

  1. Testing God

Taking the cue from Jesus’ reply to his challenge to “turn stones into bread”, now the devil appeals to the Word of God. In an effort to persuade Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he quotes Psalm 91.11,12: “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (Mt. 4.6). Satan’s appeal to this Psalm is especially appropriate, for the Psalmist is declaring the security of the man who claims to trust in God (Ps. 91 .1-2). God promises to intervene through his angels to protect the man who has faith in him. Satan seems to be challenging Jesus, after listening to the reply of Jesus that man lives by bread and the Word of God: “If you claim that man lives by the Word of God, then live it out by throwing yourself down by trusting in the Word of God (or the promise of God)!”

Jesus’ response comes from Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not test the Lord your God.” This verse in Deuteronomy is referring to the episode in Exodus 17.1-7 where the people of Israel test God by questioning His presence among them. Yahweh is to prove His presence and keep His promise to Israel by providing water for the murmuring people.

To comply with the devil’s proposal would be asking God to prove His presence and His faithfulness to His promise of protection. Jesus refuses to confuse confidence in God with challenging God to prove his concern. Jumping down from the temple would not express faith in God, but would needlessly test God’s faithfulness to His word.

A trust that is weak or wavering seeks a sign or a dramatic intervention to make it steady! “I don’t understand why I have to go through all of this – humiliation, agony, sufferings and trials – why isn’t life easier for me? Why so many hassles? Why so many challenges day after day? Essentially ‘Why me?’ Why can’t God do something?”

Those, who truly know God and trust Him, do not need to find something spectacular to convince themselves of God’s faithfulness. In the present day there is a growing preoccupation with miraculous signs and “promise cards”. God does miraculous things … when He chooses to do them. But if people seek the spectacular in order to believe or to convince themselves of the faith, it betrays a weak faith.

The promises of God are always valid. But they are valid for us ONLY at GOD’S TIME. It is always wrong to put God to the test at OUR TIME.

 

  1. Building the Kingdom by Shortcut

When Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms and their splendor, the temptation is subtle. Because Psalm 2 had promised to the Davidic King a world-embracing empire. It had spoken in terms of violence and warfare: “You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2.9). Doesn’t it say that the Messiah has even scriptural warrant for capitalizing upon the nationalistic hopes of the Jews and leading them on to a world-conquest guaranteed by the divine power at his disposal? It is truly an inviting prospect!

Satan seems to be saying, “Look, you have come as the Messianic King to inherit the nations. Here they are. I will give them to you. Why go through the trouble of being the suffering Servant. Give me one moment’s homage and I will hand over the nations.” The temptation is to do with fulfilling the commission with a shortcut, not doing in God’s way.

This is the common temptation to avoid the means to get to the end, or as is said, the end justifies the means. Satan always offers shortcuts. He aims at speedy and sensational results and speedy solutions. Waiting, enduring and hoping do not figure in the devil’s theology.

Jesus rejects the speedy and sensational building of the kingdom. If looked carefully, Satan’s proposal costs Jesus at least three important things: a. Being the Servant-Messiah; b. Loyalty to God; c. Establishment of the kingdom of God (Jesus is commissioned to establish the kingdom of God, NOT his own kingdom).

Jesus stood firmly and replied to the devil, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him’” (Mt. 4.10)

Today false messiahs in the church use wrong methods and shortcuts to do the ministry of the kingdom of God. They offer people spectaculars. They offer security, material prosperity and peace of mind. Instead of seeking to establish the kingdom of God, they succumb to their desires for kingdoms. The kingdoms of this world spring out of one of the most fundamental and persistent aspects of personality – the desire for power – power to rule over others.

 

Conclusion

The aim of temptations encountered by Jesus Christ is to separate him from God and His will. In order to achieve this, the devil used the Scriptures subtly, attacked the ego of Jesus, and enticed Jesus to follow the principle – “end justifies the means”.

The church too is tempted to forget the will of God in doing the ministry of God by preaching to suit the desires of the audience, doing spectaculars in order to attract people, and using all kinds of techniques and methods for survival, for raising money, for stewardship, for evangelism, for missions and for social action.

Father John McKenzie, a Jesuit Biblical scholar, wrote in the Dictionary of the Bible on the “Temptations of Jesus”: “The episode describes the kind of Messiah Jesus was and, by implication, what kind of society the church, the New Israel, is: it lives by the Word of God, it does not challenge God’s promises, and it adores and serves God alone and not the world. Jesus rejects in anticipation the temptations to which his church will be submitted.”

 

References

Balmer H. Kelly, “An Exposition of Matthew 4.1-11.” Interpretation 29, 1 (1975), pp. 57-62.

Carl Umhau Wolf, “The Continuing Temptation of Christ in the Church: Searching and Preaching on Matthew 4.1-11.” Interpretation 20, 3 (1966), pp. 288-301.

Jacques Roets, “The Victory of Christ over the Tempter as Help to the Believers’ Fight against Sin: A Reflection on Matthew 4.1-11.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 22 (2011), pp. 107-127.

John Thomas Fitzgerald, “The Temptation of Jesus: The Testing of the Messiah in Matthew.” Restoration Quarterly 15, 3-4 (1972), pp. 152-160.

Kosuke Koyama, “’Not by Bread Alone…’: How Does Jesus Free and Unite Us.” The Ecumenical Review 27, 3 (1975), pp. 201-211.

Lamar Williamson, “Expository Articles: Matthew 4.1-11.”  Interpretation 38, 1 (1984), pp. 51-59.

Lewis Johnson, s. “The Temptation of Christ.” Bibliotheca Sacra 123, 492 (October, 1966), pp. 342-352.

Taylor, B. “Decision in the Desert: The Temptation of Jesus, in the Light of Deuteronomy.”  Interpretation 14, 3 (1960), pp. 300-309.

Theodore J. Jansma, “The Temptation of Jesus.” Westminster Theological Journal 5, 2 (1943), pp. 166-181.

Veselin Kesich, “Hypostatic and Prosopic Union in the Exegesis of Christ’s Temptation.” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 9, 3 (1965), pp. 118-137.

Christendom and Counterfeit Christianity

January 28, 2015

By Soren Kierkegaard

 

  • Gold and silver I do not have, but I give you what I have; stand up and walk,” said Peter. Later on the clergy were saying: Gold and silver we have – but we have nothing to give.
  • One would think that the omnipotence of money would run aground on the rock of Christianity, which proclaimed that a rich man would have difficulty entering the kingdom of God. Yes, so it was originally, but then the ordained hired-servants, the money changers of Christianity, got hold of things, and Christianity was improved practically and it triumphantly spread over kingdoms and countries.
  • Once upon a time learning to read was a rigorous matter; it took a lot of hard work. But eventually the theory was devised that everything ought to be enjoyable. So the practice of having a little party after each hour of reading was introduced, and the A B C’s were decked out with pictures, etc. Ultimately that hour was also dropped, and the A B C’s became simply a picture book. But still people went on talking about learning to read, even though the children did not learn to read at all. Learning to read was now understood to mean eating cookies and looking at pictures, which became an even more pleasant experience just because it was called “learning to read.” So also with the transformation of Christianity in Christendom, except that here (which is not the case in the illustration) “the teacher” (i.e. preacher) is also interested in this transformation, it suits him best of all.
  • No one can be the truth; only the God-man is the truth. Then comes the next: the ones whose lives express what they proclaim. These are witnesses to the truth. Then come those who disclose what truth is and what it demands but admit that their lives do not express it, but to that extent still are striving. There it ends. Now comes the sophistry. First of all come those who teach the truth but do not live it. Then come those who even alter the truth, its requirement, cut it down, make omissions – in order that their lives can correspond to the requirement. These are the real deceivers.
  • Christianity has been made so much into a consolation that people have completely forgotten that it is first and foremost a demand.
  • We humans have ingeniously turned God into a humbug. We talk about the fact that God is love, that we love God (who does not love God, what “Christian” does not love God, etc.) and even rely on him, and yet we refuse to see that our relationship to him is purely and simply a natural egotism, the kind of love which consists of loving oneself. We try to get this loving God’s assistance, but only to lead a right cozy, enjoyably religious life.
  • Think of a father. There is something he wishes his child to do (the child knows what it is); so the father has a plan: I will come up with something that will really please my child and give it to him. Then, I am sure, he will love me in return. The father believes that his child will now do what he asks. But the child takes his father’s gift and does not do what he wills. Oh, the child thanks him again and again and exclaims: “He is such an affectionate father”; but he continues to get his own way.
  • And so it is with us Christians in relationship to God. Because God is love, we turn to him for help but then go our own way. Although we dance before him and clap our hands and blow the horn and with tears in our eyes exclaim, “God is love!” we go on our merry way doing what it is that we want.
  • In so-called Christianity we have made Christmas into a great festival. This is quite false, and it was not at all so in the Early Church. We mistake childishness for Christianity – what with all our sickly sentimentality, our candy canes, and our manger scenes. Instead of remaining conscious of being in conflict that marks a life of true faith, we Christians have made ourselves a home and settled down in a comfortable and cozy existence. No wonder Christmas has become little more than a beautiful holiday.

Paul’s Experience of God’s Revelation of God’s Son, the Victim of the Law

January 23, 2015

Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of God’s son on the road to Damascus is recorded not only in Galatians (Gal. 1.11-17) but also in Acts (9.1-19, 22.4-16, 26.9-19). It is an encounter between the one cursed by the law (Gal. 3.13), but raised by God (Gal. 1.1), and the “persecutor inspired by his zeal for the law”. This encounter of Paul with Jesus Christ brought forth an insight into the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ “as the epiphany of sacred violence.” It exposed to Paul what had been concealed in Judaism, to which he belonged, that Judaism was a sacrificial structure of sacred violence. This revelation made a radical impact on Paul’s life that resulted in change of his worlds.

A. Paul’s Pre-Conversion Zeal

A zealotic religious ideology affirms the salvific power of violence. It denigrates people who do not follow the social order based on its interpretation of the Torah, thus permitting discrimination and violence. Paul associated violence with which he had persecuted the church with “zeal” for the law. He not only was persecuting the community of Jesus Christ but also wanted to destroy it because of his zeal “for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1.13-14). For Paul the way of life in Judaism provided a context where the law was used as a means to violence against those considered to be apostates. The law that governed his life, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, was the law interpreted in exclusionistic terms, which enforced a wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles. The community of Jesus Christ that he persecuted did not observe the Jewish distinctive rituals (circumcision, dietary laws etc) that expressed this separation, because the cross has made the rituals no longer significant (Gal. 5.11). It is this situation that has led to zealous Jewish persecution to preserve strict observance of ritual requirement of the law or the social order that promoted exclusionism (Gal. 5.11; 6.12).

1. Zeal

Zeal was an important characteristic of the Second Temple Judaism Period (about 515 BCE-70 CE). This is evident in the Maccabean movement. The zealous Jews were vigilant against those who were a threat to the Torah (i.e. zealot interpretation of the Torah), which was the constitution of the Jewish communities. In order to maintain the social order based on the exclusionistic interpretation of the law, they used violence against individuals and communities that threatened the social order of the Jewish communities. During Paul’s “life in Judaism,” he was “extremely zealous for (his) ancestral traditions,” so much so that he “used to persecute the community of Jesus Christ and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:6). The precise reasons for Paul’s persecuting activity are unknown. But there can be no doubt that it had to do with his zeal for the law and what he perceived as the threat by Jesus’ communities to the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish communities (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:6). Paul characterises his life in Judaism and his persecuting activity to “destroy” the community of Jesus Christ by the Greek term zēlōtēs, meaning a “zealot”.

2. Paul as a Zealot

In Gal 1.13-14, 23 (and Phil. 3.5; cf. I Cor. 15.9) the extraordinary zealotry of Paul is related to his persecuting activity of the communities of Jesus Christ. However, earlier studies on the persecuting activity of Paul did not always pay much attention to the character and role of his zeal. Some scholars have offered psychological reasoning for Paul’s persecuting activity, claiming that it was a result of purely personal aberration. They contend that it was an external attempt to silence his dissatisfaction with his life under the law and to suppress “all humaner tendencies in the interests of his legal absolutism.” However, this view is no longer in currency. Moreover, the zealot Jewish behaviour has precedence in Mattathias, the father of Maccabean movement, and his followers on the model of Phineas.

Echoing the Reformation interpretation of Judaism F.C. Baur argues that Paul’s persecution of the community of Christ has to do with its rejection of the Jewish idea that true religion was a matter of “outward ceremonies”. Baur remarks that Paul understood the gospel as a “refusal to regard religion as a thing bound down to special ordinances and localities.” Bultmann reformulated the Reformation view by stating that the concern at the heart of Paul’s persecution was faith versus works. Paul became a persecutor of believers in Christ because he understood the gospel of the Hellenistic Jewish believers as a message of “God’s condemnation of his Jewish striving after righteousness by fulfilling the works of the law.” However, E.P. Sanders strongly refutes the Reformation understanding of Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness by saying that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of it. According to him, the Torah in Judaism functioned as part of a system, not of legalism but of “covenantal nomism”.

Hengel supposes that the proclamation of the crucified one as the Messiah, who would lead the Jewish nation to salvation, would have been an intolerable offence to someone like Paul who combined nationalist aspirations with zeal for God and his law. For Menoud the heart of Paul’s persecution was that “the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah was not only a contradiction in terms, totally unanticipated in Jewish eschatological expectation, it was categorically prohibited by Deut. 21.22-23.” According to Sayoon Kim, the scandal of the cross could be the proclamation by the followers that Jesus Christ, the cursed one God, is the Messiah. Hultgren notes that even though there were several messianic movements before and during the times of Jesus Christ, followers of these movements were not persecuted. He contends that the messianic movement centered on Jesus, however, is different in several reasons. Two of the reasons are its proclamation of a crucified one as the messiah and the inauguration of the new age in Christ.

In the above studies Paul’s claim that he was “an extraordinary zealot for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1.14; cf. Phil. 3.6) is not taken seriously. However, in his 1975 article on the call of Paul, Klaus Haacker focused on Paul’s zeal as important for understanding his persecuting activity. According to Haacker Paul’s zeal should not be understood as a psychological category, but as a “pure theological category”. For Paul as a Pharisee, the law was his ruling measure and as a persecutor, the zeal his “obligatory norm, which is a decisive governing principle.” Haaker understands the term “zeal” as referring to a violent religious intolerance rooted in the times of the Maccabean movement. This zeal was directed primarily against Jewish apostates, but not foreigners. He contends that the claim of Paul to be a zealot does not indicate that he was a member of a revolutionary Zealot party, since it is doubtful that such a party ever existed. So Paul’s designation as a zealot denotes that he belonged to a radical wing of Pharisees.

Some scholars assume that references to zeal or zealot in the New Testament, such as Simon the zealot, refer to the Zealot Party. Justin Taylor argues that Paul’s claim to being a “Zealot”, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, should be understood as a reference to his membership in a Zealot party. He suggests that the reason for Paul’s persecution of the community of Jesus Christ was due to “the supposed hostility of a Zealot towards a group which stood apart from the national struggle.” According to Taylor, the Zealots were already opposed to Jesus and his teachings because of his “refusal to ally himself with them, and more generally his preaching of non-violence and even of non-resistance to Roman rule.” Therefore, they considered him to be a “no-less-dangerous quietist, hardly better than a collaborator and a traitor.” Paul’s persecutions were of the same kind as the Zealots’ political struggles. As Taylor notes, “He persecuted the followers of Jesus for the same kinds of reasons that Zealots had to be hostile to Jesus himself, namely that not only did they not take part in the national struggle . . . but they were a threat to it.”

However T.L. Donaldson and M.R. Fairchild disagree with Taylor’s view. They contend:
(Considering) diversity of offenses, the cross-section of literature glorifying zeal, and the variety of individuals and groups to which zealous actions were attributed (eg. Paul the Pharisee was a “zealot”) suggest that the term “zealot” was not a sectarian designation but descriptive of a type of piety which was not limited to one group or sect.

Donaldson and Fairchild argue that the evidence from Josephus indicates that the “Zealots” as an identifiable party did not appear until Roman-Judean War during 66-70 C.E.

Donaldson emphasizes that Paul’s claim of being a zealot does not denote that he belonged to a specific revolutionary party. He contends that a zealot is one who was not only passionate towards observance of the Torah, but also willing to use violence against those who were a threat to the Torah. Donaldson notes, “Zeal was more than just a fervent commitment to the Torah; it denotes a willingness to use violence against any – Jews, Gentiles, or wicked in general – who were contravening, opposing or subverting the Torah.” The reason for persecution of the communities of Jesus Christ by the zealots, according to Donaldson, was the conflict between Jewish sequential understanding of the Torah and Messiah, with the Torah defining the community guaranteed salvation when the Messiah arrives, and the “peculiar already/not yet structure of early Christian messianism.” He explains:

In early Christian proclamation the Messiah had appeared in advance of the full eschatological salvation, and participation in that salvation is dependent on acceptance of this Messiah. In consequence of this, Christ becomes, at least implicitly, another-thus rival-way of drawing the boundary in this age of the community guaranteed of salvation in the age to come.

Fairchild also argues that Paul’s claim of being a zealot does not make him a member of the Zealot party, because there had been zealot ideology that was cultivated over decades from the times of the Maccabees. The zealot ideology transcended the boundaries of the Jewish parties and had adherents not only among the various Jewish parties, but also among the unaffiliated Jewish masses. Zealotry expressed itself in violent actions against those perceived to be a threat to the Torah, such as Paul’s persecution of the community(s) of Jesus Christ.

Paul claimed, “I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1.14 cf. Phil. 3.6). This terminology is so close to the words of Mattathias, the father of the Maccabean movement, in Josephus’ Antiquities 12.271: “If anyone be zealous for the laws of his nation”. Septuagint records these words in I Maccabees 2.27 differently and uses the verbal form of the word for zealot: “He who is zealous for the law and the established covenant”. This change is significant in view of Josephus’ consistent concealment of past Zealot history. The pivotal demonstration of zealous piety, which inaugurated the Maccabean movement, may have become a pattern of pious action for the future. This implies that Paul was a follower of zealot tradition. He aligned himself with his predecessors of venerable individual zealots. This does not, however, make him a member of the Zealot party. But Paul, being zealous for the Torah, saw himself as acting out the model of Phineas, even to the extent of using violence against those perceived to be a threat to the Torah. Thus he became a persecutor of the communities of Jesus Christ. Paul’s zealotry resembles that of Mattathias. The zealotry of Mattathias was first, zeal for the purity of the ancestral tradition, and second, zeal that drove him to use violence against those considered to be apostates and posed a threat to these traditions. In Gal. 1.13-14 Paul mentions the same concerns: zeal for the ancestral traditions and violent action against those considered to be posing a threat to these traditions. By turning into a threat to the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish communities, the communities of Jesus Christ have become a threat to the Jewish freedom of patterning their lives according to the zealotic interpretation of the Torah, a privilege the Jews were enjoying in the Roman empire.

3. Paul as a Persecutor

In the NT “to persecute” (diōkō) is used in the sense of “pursue” (Phil. 3.12,14; Lk. 17.23), “follow” (Rom. 9.30, 31, 12.13), and “persecute” (Mt. 5.10,11,12,44). Therefore, the context becomes important in determining the meaning of diōkō.

In Gal. 1.13 Paul testifies about his conduct in Judaism. His use of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos) is very significant. In the NT this term is used only in Gal. 1.13,14. “Judaism” came into currency with II Maccabees, where it was used to distinguish those who were faithful to the Jewish way of life from those “adopting foreign ways” (II Macc. 2.21, 8.1, 14.38). According to Dunn, Judaism is “a description of the religion of Jews, only emerged in the Maccabean revolt…in reaction to those who attempted to eliminate its distinctiveness (as expressed particularly in its sacrificial system, its feasts, circumcision and food laws – II Macc.vi).” Thus, the religion represented by “Judaism” is a religion based on the zealotic interpretation of the law. Paul followed the same kind of Jewish religion that demanded exclusionistic way of life expressed primarily by the Jewish distinctive rituals such as circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath and festivals. This is confirmed not only by the description of Paul’s way of life in Judaism in Gal. 1.13-14, but also the usage of cognate expressions “Jew” and “live like a Jew” in the context of the controversy over the dietary laws in Antioch (Gal. 2.14). These cognate words are found only in Galatians. Raisanen aptly comments that “the word Judaism carries connotations which hint at those practices which separated Jew from Gentile.” Moreover, the word “way of life” occurs only in Galatians. Significantly this term also occurs in II Maccabees 6.23 (and Tobit 4.14) in the context where the Jewish way of life was seriously threatened.

Paul explains his way of life in Judaism by two interrelated clauses in Gal. 1.13-14. The first one is “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Gal. 1.13). It is significant that the word “persecute” (diōkō) is used in I Maccabees to describe the Maccabees’ pursuit of “the sons of arrogance” and the “lawless” (I Macc. 2.47, 3.5). Paul uses the verb diōkō not only in describing his own persecuting activity (Gal. 1.13-23; cf. I Cor. 15.9; Phil. 3.6), but also the persecution he himself suffered (Gal. 4.29, 5.11, 6.12; cf. I Cor. 4.12; II Cor. 4.9). The persecuting activity of Paul, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, is recorded not only in Paul’s letters but also in Acts (I Cor. 15.9; Gal. 1.13, 23; Phil. 3.6; Acts 8.1-3, 9.1-2, 22.4-5, 26.9-11). The verb diōkō is modified by the adverbial phrase kath’ huperbolēn, which means “beyond measure”, “excessively”, and “intensely” (Gal. 1.13).

Paul also uses the verb “to destroy” (portheō) to describe his way of life. This term occurs only in Gal. 1.13, 23 (and Acts 9.21) in reference to Paul’s activity towards the communities of Jesus Christ. P.H. Menoud argues that because Paul was never accused of murder, portheō here refers to the destruction of faith (Gal. 1.23), rather than physical destruction. Hultgren too contends that the verb portheō does not have violent connotation and so it simply means that Paul tried to put an end to Christian faith, or Christian church. However, the zealot context in which portheō is used implies the meaning of physical violence. Here portheō is used in the sense of “devastate” or “destroy” cities. This verb is directly associated with diōkō both in Gal. 1.13 and 1.23. What is evident is the intensity of Paul’s violent activity beyond trying to destroy “the faith”. Paul does not need to exaggerate his violent activity, because the communities of Jesus Christ knew about it (Gal. 1.23). Therefore, the violent zealotic nature of Paul’s persecution of the communities of Jesus Christ in the model of Phineas and rooted very much in the Maccabean movement is evident.

The second clause that describes Paul’s way of life in Judaism affirms what the first clause explains: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1.14). Paul’s sense of superiority with regards to his progress in Judaism, based on the exclusionistic understanding of the Torah, is expressed by his usage of the preposition “beyond”. This sense of superiority is based on his “being an extraordinary zealot for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1.14). Zealotry for the ancestral traditions, the Torah, and God would not have been perceived differently (cf. Gal. 1.14; Acts 21.20, 22.3; Josephus Ant 12.271). It was this extreme zealotry for the ancestral traditions of the law that had prompted Paul to use violence against those perceived to be a threat to the social order based on the exclusionistic interpretation of the law.

Considering Paul’s activities as a persecutor in the mould of Mattathias and the Maccabees with Phineas as their model, leads to a conclusion that such a behaviour stemmed from his zealotic interpretation of the Torah. Such an interpretation of the Torah demanded exclusionism expressed by the Jewish distinctive rituals that formed walls of separation between the Jews and the Gentiles. The Maccabean crisis had promoted a few rituals such as circumcision and dietary laws, as key elements of law observance or boundary markers of God’s covenant community. These rituals remained central even in the time of Paul as the boundary markers between those who belonged to God’s covenant community and those who were outside this community. Any community that tried to remove the walls of separation was considered to be posing a threat to the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish communities. Donaldson comments, “Persecution arises not because a group holds ideas at variance with the norm, but because it does so in ways that threaten social cohesion.” Paul saw the communities of Jesus Christ as representing such a threat. This is implied in Gal.5.11-12, where Paul says that the cross of Christ has become a “scandal” to the Jews (cf. Gal. 6.12; I Cor. 1.23). The scandal of the cross for the Jews is that it has annulled the Jewish distinctive rituals in the communities of Jesus Christ, thus removing the walls of separation between the Jews and the Gentiles (Gal. 5.11). This results in upsetting the social order that has been constructed on the exclusionistic interpretation of the Torah. In order to maintain social order based on the exclusionistic understanding of the law, it demands “good violence” against the “bad violence”, which is the cause of social disorder. The cross by demolishing the ritual barriers around the Jewish community and thus bringing together the Jews and the Gentiles, those who were excluded by the exclusionistic interpretation of the law, has given zealous Jews the motivation to engage in scapegoat mechanism, to maintain social order based on the zealotic interpretation of the Torah. Since in a zealot context faith in God is understood in terms of zealous action for God or the law, it is linked to sacred violence. It is a violent action against apostates to maintain conformity to a pattern of life according to the law, and thus preserve unity and order of the community. The unanimity of the members of Judaism in directing their violence against apostates is required to maintain the system of sacred violence. All cooperate mimetically in directing their violence against the victims. Those who withhold consent and cooperation in this conspiracy against victims are a threat to the very foundation of the sacrificial structure of Judaism. When Paul confessed that as a zealot, he was violently persecuting the communities of God and was trying to destroy it, he was, in fact, confessing that he used sacred violence against apostates to preserve the pattern of life according to the law, the constitution of the Jewish communities. In other words, by guarding the constitution of the Jewish communities, he was protecting their freedom to live according to the zealotic interpretation of the law.

B. Paul’s Conversion-Call and God’s Revelation of God’s Son

Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is recorded not only in Galatians (Gal. 1.11-17), but also in Acts (9.1-19, 22.4-16, 26.9-19). There are different views surrounding this experience. Some scholars insist that it is inappropriate to call this experience “conversion”. Krister Stendahl argues that the emphasis in the autobiographical account is on Paul’s call to be an apostle to the Gentiles, rather than on his “conversion”. In his essay “Paul among Jews and Gentiles” Stendahl argues that Paul, by echoing the language of Isaiah and Jeremiah, describes his experience as a call, similar to that of the prophets. The same God whom Paul had been serving since birth has now given him a new task. This task is, through the risen Messiah, God “asks him as a Jew to bring God’s message to the Gentiles.” Though Stendahl does not deny the fact that Paul’s experience on the Damascus road has resulted in a striking shift in his perspective, he rejects the description of this experience as “conversion”, because Paul did not change from one religion to another. However, Stendahl’s “call rather than conversion” formulation is an overstatement, because the term “conversion” properly understood can be appropriately applied to Paul.

There are many scholars who consider Paul’s experience as “conversion”. They have offered several proposals to explain Paul’s conversion. It is interpreted in terms of the psychological struggle with the Torah, and a result of his long struggle with the law in which he was dejected of ever achieving the righteousness it demands. J.S. Stewart describes how “Paul’s growing sense of the failure of Judaism” gave way to the sudden conviction “that he had found the truth for which all men everywhere were seeking.” However, Paul nowhere in his letters gives a hint of going through a period of dissatisfaction or mental turmoil. He rather testifies about his extraordinary zealotry for the Torah. The only thing that can be understood from his testimony is that his conversion was sudden and unexpected, and was a result of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son. Some other scholars understood Paul’s conversion in terms of his reaction to the scriptural apologetic and steadfastness under persecution of the communities of Jesus Christ. Some argue that Paul through his experience of God’s revelation of the risen Christ realized that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Further he understood that since Messiah had come, the law ceases. E.P. Sanders contends that Paul on the road to Damascus was convinced that God had provided in Christ a universal means of salvation both for the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul’s rejection of the Torah as a means of salvation is a consequence of his new conviction: if the salvation is through Christ, then it is not through the law. Donaldson sees the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the demonstration of God’s provision of universal salvation in Christ. Therefore, if salvation is through Christ, then it does not come through the Torah. Heikki Raisanen proposed a different view of Paul’s conversion. For him, Paul was converted from a rigid Jewish religion to Hellenistic Jewish Christianity and adopted its less rigid attitude towards the Torah, particularly the ritual and cultic aspects. F.F. Bruce maintains that for Paul who considered the proclamation of a crucified one as the Messiah as blasphemous, the experience of God’s revelation of the risen Christ is a “conversion” experience. He further says that this conversion was both an external and an internal event. It was an objective revelation of the risen Christ as well as an overwhelming inward experience. Bruce takes seriously the change in Paul from persecutor to apostle.

There are also diverse views regarding the connection between Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of God’s son and his gospel. Concerning the essentials of Paul’s gospel, Raisanen proposes developmental hypothesis. Paula Fredriksen argues that the autobiographical conversion report of Paul tells more about his state of mind at the time of reporting than at the time of conversion. However, these views can not be sustained in view of Paul’s polemic against the teachers of the “other gospel” that the essentials of the gospel he preaches remain same from the beginning (cf. Gal. 1.17, 5.11). Otherwise Paul would have faced criticism from his opponents, had he preached a different gospel at the beginning of his ministry. That means, Paul’s view of the Torah and the essential content of his gospel are the result of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son on the road to Damascus. Bruce rightly sees the connection between Paul’s experience and his theology. He supposes that although Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was not developed fully at that time, it too was implicit in the conversion. However, the weakness of Bruce’s analysis is that he relies more on the secondary source, the Acts, instead of Paul’s letters. Developing on his mentor’s view Seyoon Kim finds Paul’s conversion as the source of his thought.

It is important to refer to Paul’s account of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son to see a connection between his conversion and his gospel. Paul claims that his gospel is not “of human origin” but “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1.11-12). “Revelation” and its verbal form ”to reveal” in Paul’s letters refer most often to the end time and linked to God’s action in the end time (I Cor. 1.7, 3.13; Gal. 3.23). Therefore, Paul’s reference to “revelation” in Gal. 1.11-12 and 1.16 underlines the eschatological significance of the experience. This revelation is “of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1.12), which may be taken either as subjective genitive (revelation from Jesus Christ) or objective genitive (revelation about Jesus Christ). In the light of Gal. 1.16 which refers to God’s revelation of God’s son, “revelation of Jesus Christ” should be understood as objective genitive. It implies that the content of the gospel is Jesus Christ, who was revealed. What is striking is that in the following verses (Gal. 1.13-14) Paul, instead of explaining the revelation, first describes his former way of life in Judaism (notice the usage of the temporal particle hote). This implies that the information about his former way of life in Judaism has significance in the context of Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of the risen Christ. After explaining his extraordinary zealotic way of life based on the exclusionistic understanding of the Torah, expressed in the exclusion of the Gentiles, Paul returns to the apokalypsis (Gal. 1.15-16). In order to express the transition due to the impact of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son in not only putting an end to his former way of life in Judaism, but also starting a new life and vocation, Paul uses the temporal phrase hote de. Through this Paul is indicating a sharp contrast between the two periods of his life.

In Gal. 1.15-16 Paul describes the action of God and the purpose of that action. Paul says that God revealed the son “to me”. Paul elsewhere describes his Damascus road experience in terms of “seeing” Christ, or Christ “appearing” to him (I Cor. 9.1, 15.8; cf. II Cor. 4.6). In Gal. 1.16 Paul describes it in terms of God “revealing the son”. The subject here is God. God is disclosing the reality that has been hidden. What has been concealed is the scapegoat mechanism that is generated by the zealotic way of life in Judaism. The power of this mechanism lies in its deception and concealment. On the one hand, it deceives by depicting God as the one who is demanding “sacrificial victims”, and thus, portraying violence against victims as a sacred act. On the other hand, it conceals the plight of innocent “sacrificial victims” and transforms violence against victims as a sacred violence. The content of God’s revelation is God’s son, the victim of the curse of the law (Gal. 3.13). Through this God is revealing not only his rejection of the law (the law on which Paul’s zealotic way of life was based) that crucified Christ, but also God’s vindication of the victim of the curse of the law. Paul says that God has revealed this en emoi. Beverly Gaventa argues for a meaning of “to me” based on parallel usage en tois ethnesin Gal.. It is an encounter between the cursed one of the law and the persecutor inspired by his zeal for the law. This encounter of Paul with Jesus the crucified and cursed by the law (Gal. 3.13), but raised by God (Gal. 1.1), brought forth a realization that the one cursed by the law is vindicated by God. By vindicating the cursed one of the law, God has revealed to Paul that the cursed one of the law (that is, the exclusionistic understanding of the law) is not cursed one of God. Paul reiterates this in Gal. 2.19: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” That means, the way of life expressed in strict adherence to the Jewish distinctive rituals such as circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath and special days, and thus excluding the Gentiles, is not equivalent to living for God.

Paul draws on prophetic imagery in Gal. 1.16-17 (cf. Isaiah 49.1; Jeremiah 1.5) to “convey the radical impact of the revelation.” Even though Paul’s language here echoes the call of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, and implies that he views himself as standing in the prophetic tradition, it does not mean what has happened to Paul may be considered simply as his call. Though Paul’s call and commission are included in this experience, his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son is not limited to these. His experience has called into question his zealotic understanding of the law and the way of life patterned according to such an understanding. When Paul experienced God’s revelation of the risen Christ, the victim of the “curse of the law”, he realized the problem of Judaism to which he belonged. This problem of Judaism is the exclusionism expressed in its distinctive rituals. Paul realized that it is the way of life in Judaism based on exclusionistic understanding of the law that has led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, whom God has vindicated. In other words, the law that has excluded the Gentiles is the same law that caused the crucifixion of God’s son. And God is rejecting the way of life based on the law. Paul understood how the law was (mis)used in Judaism to serve violence, which was expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, persecution of those considered to be apostates, and exclusion of the Gentiles. Thus, the revelation of Jesus Christ has exposed what has been concealed in Judaism, to which Paul belonged. That is, Judaism is a sacrificial structure of sacred violence. Paul realized the law and the community that patterned its life according to this law as a system of sacred violence. This realization made a radical impact on Paul’s life and disrupted his way of life in Judaism. Paul’s cosmos has been shattered (cf. Gal. 6.14). This has resulted in his transfer from Judaism based on exclusionistic understanding of the law, to the community of the new creation, where circumcision and uncircumcision are no longer significant (Gal. 6.15). The contrast between these two worlds is expressed by the conjunction de (Gal. 1.15). Charles Cousar comments, “God’s revealing of the son to Paul not only involved a radical assault on his previous life, but also that assault was part of God’s world-changing activity, the bringing of new creation.”

God’s revelation of God’s son has a purpose: “that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1.16). It implies that the conversion and the call of Paul belong to a single event. Interestingly the content of God’s revelation that disrupted Paul’s way of life in Judaism and the content of the message that Paul was asked to proclaim are same. It is Jesus Christ, the victim of the curse of the law. It is also significant that Paul was commissioned to preach this message to the Gentiles, who are also victims of the Torah (Gal. 1.16; cf. Is. 49.1-6; Jer. 1.5). Paul understands his commissioning from that very moment of his experience of the revelation of the son as having Gentiles in view. This conviction is integral part of his experience on the Damascus road. It did not come to Paul later or grown over a period, as some have argued. Christiaan Beker comments that “Paul’s conversion experience is not the entrance to his thought.” However, Paul claims that he already had a well formed conviction before he first met other apostles (Gal. 1.16-17), and asserts its divine origin (Gal. 1.1, 11-12).

Thus, Paul mentions his conversion-call experience in contrast to his persecuting zeal for the ancestral traditions in the context of Galatian controversy in order to affirm that the way of life patterned according to the law (that is, the exclusionistic understanding of the law) and that according to the gospel of Jesus Christ are mutually exclusive. His experience of God’s revelation of God’s son disclosed that the death of Jesus Christ was the result of sacred violence. Paul realized that it was the same sacred violence expressed in exclusion of the Gentiles. This realization has resulted in his transfer from Judaism, the system of sacred violence, to a community of Jesus Christ, the victim of sacred violence. Paul was commissioned to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, God’s disclosure of Judaism as the system of sacred violence, which is expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and exclusion of the Gentiles, and the vindication of the victim of the sacred violence. The conversion-call experience of Paul has a direct implication on or become a threat to the self-understanding of Jewish Christians (and Jews) as the covenant people of God, and their zealotic way of life in Judaism. It poses a threat to the Jewish social order and freedom to live according to that order. This led Paul, in his former life in Judaism, to persecute the communities of Jesus Christ. This has also led the Jewish community, to which Paul once belonged, to persecute Paul and the members of the communities of Jesus Christ.

Message of Christmas

December 24, 2014

We live in a world of paradox. On the one hand there is development in the fields like science, technology. Today the world is no longer big. We can watch what is happening in any part of the world sitting in our drawing room. We live in a global village. (I have reservations in using this term because the question is what is the culture of this Village) On the other hand there is deterioration in personal and social values. There is discrimination of people on the basis of caste, color, creed, and race; some marry for fun and some live under the same roof without any commitment. This trend is growing in the cities of India. There is economic disparity- poor countries and rich countries, powerful and the powerless, exploiters and the exploited. There is deterioration in the relations among the nations, among people which has resulted in suspicion and growing sense of insecurity. The world, societies and families are torn apart.

To this world which is torn apart what is the message of Christmas?

Christmas gives four-fold message.

1. Christmas is a Message of Sovereignty of God

Jesus was born during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustus was a great conqueror and subjugated many kingdoms. These conquered nations had to pay tribute to the Roman government. In v.1 it says that Augustus passed a decree that “all the world should be registered”. This census was taken for the purpose of taxation. So people had to go to their ancestral house or town to be registered. What did this taxation mean to the conquered? Payment of tribute meant domination, subjugation and exploitation. Since for Jews paying tribute was subjection to alien rule and disloyalty to God, there was tension between the Roman government and the Jews. This continuing resistance resulted in slaughter and enslavement of Jews. Many were imprisoned and about two thousand were crucified around 4 B.C.

This was the situation in which people in Palestine were living. They were longing for deliverance from this yoke of slavery. It was a time of gloom. Many a time we wonder why God allows some seemingly evil things happen to us and in the society. We see injustice, exploitation of the weak and the triumph of the wicked. Sometimes we cry like Habakkuk, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise…. The wicked surround the righteous…. Why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they” (Hab. 1.3,4,13). Even though we do not understand his ways, we need to confess that he is sovereign. God can bring beauty out of ashes. The decree of Augustus brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, thus fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mt.2. 5-6).

It is God, not Roman Emperor, who is the king of kings. God is sovereign and is in control of the situation. Bill Hybel writes, “How do you pray a prayer so filled with faith that it can move a mountain? By shifting the focus from the size of your mountain to the sufficiency of the mountain mover.” Among the twelve spies of Israel who went to spy the promised land, ten looked at the size of the mountain but two looked at the mountain mover and wanted to move forward.

2. Christmas is a Message of Hope

In this time of gloom an angel of the Lord announced to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their sheep in the night, “I am bringing you the good news of great joy to all the people”. V. 9 says that when an angel of the Lord stood before them, the glory of the Lord shone around them. It was like light shining in the darkness. The shepherds, who were in the night, were completely encompassed/encircled by light, the light of “the glory of the Lord”. This denotes the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1.78-79).

Shepherds were the first receivers of the good news. Shepherds in the 1st century Palestine were poor and had very low status in the society. Jesus by being born in a manger has identified himself with the poor and ordinary people. Jesus’ identification with the poor shows an openness, which broke down all the barriers that separated people from one another. God has inaugurated in Jesus his redemptive act both in the lives of individuals and also in the life of society. This deliverance is not only from the bondage of sin (1.77) but also from the oppressed structures of the society. It is the inauguration of the new world where there is no discrimination based on caste, color or creed and all are valuable.

I do trust that all of us have the experience of Christmas in our lives. I read an article in the News Paper during the time of persecution of Christians in Dangs district in Gujarat. The writer says that one of the reasons of persecution was that after these tribal people, who were illiterate, were converted into Christianity; there was such a positive change in the society that there was no need of police or judiciary. These tribals were exploited by the local non-tribals, middlemen and officials. Their enlightenment and confidence in questioning the policies and the corrupt practices of the rulers/landlords and non tribal officials, in fact, triggered in the form of persecution. This change was reported by a Muslim journalist by name Seema Mustafa. Jesus transforms not only the lives of people but also the life of the society – the very ethos of society and its norms.

The story of Christmas is about the deliverance of those in bondage. That is why Christmas is a message of hope and Jesus is the hope for the world.

3. Christmas Brings Peace

The angelic host praised God by saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors”. Christmas brings peace not only into the life of an individual but also into the life of the society.

In those days Emperor Augustus was honored and worshipped as the divine saviour of the world and his birthday was celebrated as the “good news for the world” and the beginning of the new world, because he had restored peace and order in the empire by defeating those, who were the cause for the unrest. However this peace was brought by military might. Pax Romana (“Roman peace”) means subjugation of other nations. It was brought about by mass slaughter and mass enslavement. Roman peace means tranquility and prosperity for the privileged on the basis of the subjection of common people. This is what some are trying to bring through military power.

Luke is challenging this Roman self-propaganda by claiming that it is Jesus, not Augustus, who is the Saviour and source of true peace and whose birthday marks a new beginning in the world. He is the Prince of Peace (Is.9.5). He brings peace through the power of love. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is the state of wellbeing of the whole person. It means wholeness in the relations between God and the people, among people and the whole created order. Peace is the mark of His kingdom. Is. 9.6-7 “For a child has been born for us, a son is given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore”. He establishes a kingdom of peace through love, justice and righteousness. In this kingdom there is neither discrimination nor exploitation of the poor by the privileged. There is no more war. There is no need of weapons of war. Is. 2.4 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The weapons that are used in this kingdom are the weapons of love, mercy and selflessness.

4. The Paradox of Christmas

The essence of Christmas is the Word becoming flesh and living among human beings (Jn. 1.14). The Greek word used for “live” in Jn. 1.14 is skēnoō, which means “to pitch a tent” “to tabernacle” “to dwell in a tent”. So the Jn. 1.14 may be translated as: “And the Word became flesh and tabernacle among us….”

Before a temple was built for God, God “lived” in a tent or tabernacle. In other words, tabernacle denotes a place of God’s presence or God’s glory. Therefore, Jesus, as the Word of God, is an embodiment of God’s presence or God’s glory. He manifested God, whom human beings have never seen, among human beings.

What kind of God did Jesus reveal?

Paul beautifully delineates in Phil. 2.6-11 the kind of God Jesus has revealed. Although Jesus Christ “was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil. 2.6). The Greek word harpagmos (NRSV: “something to be exploited”) means neither something not yet possessed but desirable (to be snatched at), nor something already possessed and to be clung to, but rather the act of snatching. Jesus did not consider equality with God as plundering or grabbing or acquisitiveness or self aggrandizement. He understood equality with God as not getting, or using it for self interest.

It is a popular view that God’s almightiness or sovereignty means the ability to do whatever He likes. God, like an earthly king, is often associated with wealth, splendour and power to gain self glory. Popular mind imagines that it is divine prerogative to do what he wants. This is what the divine Roman emperors did.

But Jesus thought equality with God otherwise. He considered it not an act of snatching but an act of serving, not gettingbut giving. Jesus Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.7-8).

The “form of a slave” is in antithesis with the “form of God” in popular view. Kenosis (i.e. emptying) and divinity do not belong together in popular perception. But the self emptying was an exhibition of Jesus’ equality with God or “form of God”. Although Jesus Christ was in the “form of God”, a status people assume meant exercise of power, he acted in character contrary to what we would expect (in a shockingly ungodlike manner according to normal but misguided popular perceptions of divinity), but in accord with true divinity, when he emptied and humbled himself, taking the form of a slave.

Christ’s divinity, and thus divinity itself, is defined as kenotic in character. Humility and service are divine qualities. Greatness consists in humility and service (Mk. 9.35; 10.42-45). This is the good news that the angel proclaimed to the shepherds: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: YOU WILL FIND A CHILD WRAPPED IN BANDS OF CLOTH AND LYING IN A MANGER” (Lk. 2.10-12).

The shepherds went straight to the manger in Bethlehem to see Jesus (Lk. 2.15-17), whereas the wise men from the East went to Jerusalem, the centre of power and privilege, to find Jesus (Mt. 2.1-2)!!!

Jesus Christ

December 22, 2014

Quotes from “Provocations” written by Soren Kierkegaard

The birth of Christ is an event not only on earth but also in heaven. Our justification is likewise an event not only on earth but also in heaven.

Christ is God just as much as he is man – just as the sky seems to be deep in the sea as it is high above the sea.

Christ walks in history as he walked in life – between two thieves.

Christ does not always sit at the Father’s right hand. No, when dangers threaten, he arises, he stands erect, just as Stephen saw him standing at the right hand of the Father.

Christ is not love, according to the human notion of love. He is the truth, absolute truth. Therefore he does not defend himself. He permits us to become guilty of his death which reveals the truth in the most radical way.

Why cannot Christ be called a martyr? Because he was not a witness to truth but was “the truth”, and his death was not a martyrdom but the Atonement.

Christ is the paradox, the God-man. He is the very compounding of God and a socially insignificant man. But this is not the way we Christians like to think about it. We regard Jesus Christ as a great man who lived misunderstood, but after his death became somebody great. And this is how we want to be. Aha! This is why today’s Christianity is nonsense. All the danger is taken away. No, Jesus Christ is the sign of offense and the object of faith. Only in eternity is he in his glory. Here upon earth he must never be presented in any other way than in his social insignificance – so that everyone can be offended or believe. Christ willed to be the socially insignificant one. The fact that he descended from heaven to take upon himself the form of a servant is not an accidental something which now is to be thrust into the background and forgotten. No, every true follower of Christ must express existentially the very same thing – that insignificance and offense are inseparable from being a Christian. As soon as the least bit of worldly advantage is gained by preaching or following Christ, then the fox is in the chicken house.

Christ humbled himself – not: was humbled.

It must be firmly maintained that Christ did not come to the world only to set an example for us. If that were the case we would have law and works-righteousness again. He comes to save us and in this way be our example. His very example should humble us, teach us how infinitely far away we are from resembling him. When we humble ourselves, then Christ is pure compassion. And in our striving to approach him, he is again our very help. It alternates: when we are striving, then he is our example; and when we stumble, lose courage, then he is the love that helps us up. And then he is our example again.

Christ is anything but an assistant professor who teaches to parroters or dictates paragraphs for shorthand writers – he does exactly the very opposite, he discloses the thoughts of hearts.

Christ is himself the way. There were not many ways, of which Christ took one – no, Christ is the way.

Lord Jesus, there are so many things that attract us, and each one of us has his own particular attraction. But your attraction is eternally the strongest! Draw us, therefore, the more powerfully to you.

Whenever I think of the insipid, sweet, syrupy concept of the Savior, the kind of Savior Christendom adores and offers for sale, reading his own words about himself has a strange effect: “I have come to set afire,” come to produce a split which can tear the most holy bonds, the bonds God himself has sanctified, the bonds between father and son, wife and husband, parents and children.

Christ did not teach about dying-to-the-world; he is himself what it means to die to the world.

When the doors were locked, Christ came to his disciples. So the doors must be locked, locked to the world – then Christ comes, through the locked doors; in fact, he also comes from the inside.

One might ask: How was it possible that Christ could be put to death, one who never sought his own advantage? How is it possible that any power or person could come into collision with him? Answer: It was precisely for this reason that he was put to death. This is why the lowly and the powerful were equally exasperated by him, for every one of them was seeking his own advantage and wanted him to show solidarity with them in selfishness. He was crucified precisely because he was love, that is, because he refused to be selfish. He was as much of an offense to the powerful as to the lowly. He did not belong to any party, but wished to be what he was, namely, the Truth and to be that in love.

Christ was born in a stable, wrapped in rags, laid in a manger – so unimportant was this child apparently, so meagerly valued. And immediately afterward this child was so valuable that it costs the lives of the children in Bethlehem. Such is the squandering that can take place in connection with this child.

Declaration of Faith or Demonstration of Faith?

December 9, 2014
  • “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith…You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2.18, 24).
  • “The only thing that counts is faith WORKING through love….Through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”” (Galatians 5.6, 13-14). Faith is demonstrated through love, and love is demonstrated through loving service. Therefore, faith, love and service are interconnected and are the pillars of Christian life.

 

The issue of the status of SCs (Scheduled Caste Students and Graduates who have believed in Jesus Christ) in certain Christian organisations is a long debated issue. It is also an emotionally driven, rather than an informed debate. Because of this, powerful leaders, aided by an indifferent attitude of the silent majority (mind you, indifference towards evil is more evil than the evil itself), have introduced and are maintaining segregation within the organisations.

When a person or persons are in leadership for a long time, s/he becomes powerful. A secular understanding of the elevated position of leadership and thus the underlying distinction in rank and status between the leaders and the members has made some members of the Christian organisations to be associated with one or the other of these leaders for their own selfish interests (cf. I Cor. 1.12). On the one hand, these members are like a parasite plant which winds around a tree for its sustenance and existence, and so have associated themselves with the leaders. On the other hand, the leaders are “men in enjoyment of praise and honour; moreover, they are healthy, stout and vigorous; living delicately, nursed in luxury, strangers to labour, living in constant company of pleasure.”

The leadership of the Christian organisations has cunningly manipulated casteist images. This is what any racist or casteist society does. In order to maintain the hegemony of a section or certain sections of people, it projects a section or sections of people superior and others inferior. In Indian society some belong to “high” castes and others to “low” castes. The “high” caste people do not allow the “low” caste people to draw water from the same well, use same roads, live in the same locality, enter the same temples and churches, marry members of their communities and become leaders. In other words, the “low” caste people are deprived and marginalised. They are deprived of basic facilities and survival to life. In short, they are deprived of their basic human dignity, value and rights.

However, the “high” caste people expect, at times demand, “low” caste people to work in their fields and do menial jobs in village or town. Without the manual labour of the “low” caste people, the survival of the “high” caste people is very difficult. Who are the manual scavengers? They belong to the “low” castes that are considered as “untouchables”. Just imagine the plight of “high” caste people, if these manual scavengers stop working as manual scavengers, and do some other jobs. Will the “high” caste people do this work? That’s why the “high” caste people perpetuate casteism, on the one hand to maintain their hegemony and control of power and resources, and on the other hand to exploit the labour of the “low” caste people, to continue to keep them poor, weak and oppressed, by not allowing them to the center of power and resources.

Mostly, the perpetuation of discrimination and stigmatisation by the “high” caste people, with the aim to maintain their domination and control, makes the “low” caste people to internalise it. After internalising the manipulated casteist images, the “low” caste people start looking at themselves with the eyes of the “high” caste people – inferior and worthless. This makes them to hate themselves – their state, their identity…. This internalisation of their manipulated casteist image makes easier for the “high” caste people to have domination over the “low” caste people and to use them to serve their self interests at the cost of the interests of “low” caste people.

Similar method is followed by the advertising agencies. They tell us what it means to be a “desirable” or “ideal” woman or man. Advertisements of cosmetics, hair colouring and skin products aimed at girls and women show their models as “beautiful”. The “flawless appearance” of models with airbrushed blemishes and wrinkles, bleached teeth and eyeballs, created by makeup artists, photographers and photo retouchers, captivates girls and women. What happens when a girl or a woman is exposed to these artificial, manufactured images? They get dissatisfied with their REAL SELF. They hate their nose, eyes, teeth, skin colour and body. Poor self-image results in higher levels of anxiety and depression. It can cause them to avoid activities they normally enjoy, and lower their self confidence and self-esteem. This makes them weak and vulnerable for control and exploitation. Only by creating low self image and self esteem in people can advertising agencies sell their products to public.

Once a person allows her/his self-esteem and self-image to be destroyed by an outside force, s/he becomes a slave to that force, doing whatever that force demands.

This manipulation of images, I am afraid, is also happening in certain Christian organisations with the introduction of “Declaration of Faith”, instead of “Demonstration of Faith”, and casteist categorisation of committees as “official committees” and “unofficial committees”. This creates an image that belonging to a particular caste is bad, unacceptable, and not worthy to be proud of and to be “an official leader”. This section of people are projected as inferiors by those who are in leadership and power for a long time and have got used to imposing their yardstick to judge others. Thus, the leadership of the organisations is indulging in emotional abuse and degrading humiliation of the SC students and graduates.

In fact, Jesus Christ emphasised more on “Demonstration of Faith” rather than “Declaration of Faith”. He was amazed by the “Demonstration of Faith” of the centurion in Capernaum who was a gentile (Mt. 8.5-13). The faith of the GENTILE in Jesus Christ was not found among those who claimed to be the CHILDREN OF GOD. For Jesus, faith is active, not passive. Because even the evil spirits professed their faith in Jesus Christ by DECLARING that Jesus was the Son of the Most High God (Mk. 5.7). In the story of the temptation of Jesus Christ, the tempter Satan confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Mt. 4.3,6). In these passages the correct translation is not “IF you are the Son of God”, but “SINCE you are the Son of God”. In other words, even Satan and his followers professed that Jesus was the Son of God. Although Satan and the evil spirits DECLARED that Jesus was the Son of God, they never DEMONSTRATED their confession by becoming DISCIPLES of Jesus Christ. That’s why the writer of the Book of James considers mere DECLARATION of FAITH as DEAD FAITH and DEMONIC FAITH (James 2.14-26). James contends, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says (OR PRAYS OR “ENCOURAGES” THEM TO TRUST IN GOD) to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the DEMONS BELIEVE and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?”

Jesus makes it clear that mere “Declaration of Faith” does not make a person to enter the kingdom of God: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, BUT ONLY THE ONE WHO DOES THE WILL OF MY FATHER IN HEAVEN,” (Mt. 7.21). The FRUIT that a person bears in her/his life DECLARES her/his faith. A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bad fruit. If so, how can a believer in Christ indulge in speaking lies, deception, oppression, exploitation and GREED for POWER. Jesus says, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the evil heart that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” (Mk. 7.20-21). Therefore, it is DISCIPLESHIP (following Jesus, his life, attitude and values), not mere DECLARATION, that is decisive of a person’s FAITH.

Remember that GREED is the root cause of SIN (Gen. 3.5-6). The consequences of sin are hierarchy, domination and separation (Gen. 3.8, 14-16). Jesus Christ, in order to redeem human beings from the bondage of sin, has come to install the kingdom of God or the rule of God, which is characterised by love, compassion, service and equality. The first message of Jesus at the beginning of his Galilean ministry was about the kingdom of God: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1.14-15). The manifestation of God’s rule or the realisation of God’s redemptive purpose can be seen in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Jesus told the disciples of John, the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Lk. 7.22; cf. 4.18-21).

However, the gospel of liberation became the gospel of bondage when Christianity was co-opted by the Roman empire during the time of Constantine. Christianity became an imperial religion. The sign of the cross was put on the Roman battle standards (war flags/military flags/battle flags). Thus, the symbolic meaning of the cross was changed from a symbol of shameful, violent suffering of the innocent at the hands of religious and political hierarchy to an imperial symbol of oppression, exploitation, violence, war and conquest. Eusebius, 4th century Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, wrote that during the daylight hours of 27th October 312 AD, Constantine and his 98000-man army said to have seen “a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, “By this conquer”” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.28).

Cross has been used by the western “Christian” empires as the imperial symbol of occupation and colonisation. In the 15th century AD Christopher Columbus planted the cross in the lands he took over in the New World (Central/South America), which he “discovered”, signifying that the land belonged to the emperor of Spain. He presumptuously exploited native people for their natural resources, such as gold, and for human resources, such as slavery. Of course, he had also resolved “to make them Christians”.

As David Stannard wrote, “At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and priests presented the indigenous people they encountered with a choice: either give up your religion and culture and land and independence, swearing allegiance ‘as vassals’ to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown, or suffer ‘all the mischief and damage’ that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you.”[i]

The National Council of Churches rightly summed up, “For the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands, Christopher Columbus’ invasion marked the beginning of slavery and their eventual genocide.”

Ironically Christopher Columbus believed that God directed him to set sail on a westward journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In a journal he wrote, “It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to Indies…There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because he comforted me with rays of marvellous illumination from the Holy Scriptures.”

Thus, cross and colonisation have been together during the imperial rule of Spain, Britain, and now the US. In this context, for the imperial and colonial powers cross is a symbol of power, domination, hierarchy and control, whereas for the colonised people cross is a symbol of oppression, exploitation, plunder, slavery and bondage. Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

In order to avoid questions about and opposition to their evil intentions and practices of violence, plunder and oppression, the Christian colonisers interpreted the scriptures in such a way that the gospel was concerned only with the redemption of soul, and not the entire person, who also has body and mind (cf. Lk. 7.18-23, 4.18-21). If they had preached the gospel of Jesus Christ truly, they and their governments could not engage in dehumanising slave trade, and colonise other nations and plunder their natural resources. The listeners of the gospel would have questioned the Christian preachers why they were not condemning their own governments’ policies and practices of injustice, exploitation and oppression.

The same imperial and colonial gospel, which is concerned only about a person’s soul, is being preached by most of us, thus perpetuating injustice, exploitation, oppression, domination and control of the weak, poor and the marginalised. If someone speaks against injustice, hunger and poverty, s/he is taunted as preaching the social gospel. What these accusers fail to notice is, when people were hungry Jesus did not say, “Now, is that spiritual or political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because good news to a hungry person is bread. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the WHOLE PERSON. Good news to the marginalised persons is bringing her/him to the center of the society, so that they will have access to power and resources. In the case of the Christian organisations, it is recognising human dignity, value and rights of SC students and graduates, and acknowledging them as fellow believers and partners in the ministry of the establishment of God’s kingdom and its values.

The manipulation of caste image by the casteist leadership not only dehumanises and marginalises the SC students and graduates, but also creates a sense of low self esteem and low self image. This makes them silent spectators and bearers of humiliation and hardship inflicted upon them. Some of the mistreated may seek to deny their helplessness and humiliation through “identification with the aggressor”. They live and act according to the dictates of the casteist leadership. From the demeaning feeling of being “inferior”, these collaborators with the aggressors may vicariously feel a satisfying surge of “power over” those who can conveniently be scapegoated.

Since the marginalised are controlled by the manipulated images of casteism, they do not perceive the hypocrisy of the highest degree of the leadership of Christian organisations. When segregation is followed, how can “fellowship” among the members of these organisations be possible? How can there be brotherhood when there are some who consider themselves “superior” and look down upon others as “inferior”? How can they preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, when they themselves are in bondage of sin by practising segregation?

Segregation is evil because it stigmatises the segregated SC students and graduates as “inferiors” in the caste system. It relegates them to the status of THINGS. They are THINGS to be used, but not persons to be valued and respected. What is segregation but an existential expression of human beings’ tragic estrangement, their awful separation, their terrible sinfulness?

Racist, apartheid South Africa practised what it preached – racism, discrimination and segregation. But the “saved communities” of Christian organisations fail to demonstrate what they preach, i.e. freedom from the bondage of sin, if one believes in Jesus Christ.

THIS IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF HYPOCRISY!!!

If anyone points out this hypocrisy, that person is denounced and witch-hunted. Whenever a person shows signs of an uncompromising attitude towards injustice, discrimination and casteism, s/he is projected as radical, rebel, irresponsible and extremist. The hypocritical leadership intelligently directs extremism towards those who are defending themselves and other victims against the extremism of casteism and hypocrisy.

However, the prophetic voice against the hypocrisy of the leadership should, first of all, make SC students and graduates to love themselves and their identity. It should help to restore self-image and self-esteem in them. Secondly, prophetic voice should expose the LIE and make the leadership introspect its own sinfulness and bring it to the foot of the cross for repentance and divine forgiveness.

Patience, perseverance and persistence, coupled with God’s wisdom, strength and guidance for the establishment of God’s kingdom and its values of justice, compassion, goodness, love, mercy and equality, will surely take you to the GOAL. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.”

Carlyle said, “No lie can live forever,” because TRUTH is stronger than LIE. As William Cullen Bryant thundered, “Truth pressed to earth will rise again.” In spite of mountains on the way, we join in faith with James Russell Lowell:

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne.

Yet, that scaffold sways the future

And behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above His own.

 

With this faith we will be able to transform the discords in the Christian organisations into a symphony of brotherhood. That will be a DAY when “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” That will be a DAY when ALL GOD”S CHILDREN – SCs and Non-SCs, Women and Men, Servant Leaders and Grassroot Workers – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro Spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last!

[i] David Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 255.

Development of the Concept of “Hell”

December 7, 2014

In the state of Andhra Pradesh summer is the season for the “hell bent” messages. After suffering in the day-long heat of more than 40°C, people throng to the Christian gospel meetings in the cool evening. The summer weather, probably, prepares them for the messages on “hell”. These messages are usually preached by the “experts” in “hell”. In a coastal town of Andhra Pradesh a man went and sat on the sand to listen to the message. He was enjoying the cool sea breeze, after being in the oven-like house throughout the day. The preacher started to give a bombastic message on “hell”. He was describing the “hell experience”—unquenchable fire and eternal suffering of sinners in that fire. Incidentally, Jesus hardly spoke on this subject. His focus was more on the establishment of the kingdom of God (i.e. the rule of God) of justice, peace, love, unity and service on this earth. The man, who came out of the hell-like house to enjoy the evening cool sea breeze and the message, turned to the person sitting next to him and said, “The way this preacher is describing the hell and its experience so vividly, it looks that he has just returned from there!”

The idea of perpetual torment in hell is so prevalent in world religions, though it takes on different forms. Christianity also taught on concepts of judgment and eternal punishment in hell for those who fail to meet the necessary criteria. Augustine, the influential fourth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, played a key role in the development of the Christian doctrine of an ever burning hell. He wrote that “hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire and will torment the bodies of the damned.” He further wrote of “those everlasting pains which are to follow” the final judgment (City of God 21.10, 13).

But how did the concept of “hell” develop?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often translated as “hell” is sheol, which actually means “the grave”. When we die, we simply go to the grave (Ps. 49.10-11; Eccl. 3.19-20). Sheol is portrayed as a place of “darkness” (Job 17.13). The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible comments, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal ‘hell’ developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period (beginning in the fourth century BCE).”

In the New Testament three Greek words are used for “hell”. In the Gospels the one most often used is geenna (English “gehenna”). The Greek word geenna is a transliteration of the Aramaic word gehinnam, which is derived from the Hebrew word ge hinnom (Josh. 15.8, 18.16). The Hebrew word refers to a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem (Josh. 15.8, 18.16). It literally means “Valley of Hinnom”. During the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh sacrifices were burnt here to the Canaanite god Molech, even to the point of sacrificing their own sons in the fire (II Kgs. 16.3, 21.6; II Chr. 28.3, 33.6). Because of this prophets condemned this valley, identifying it as the scene of future destruction of life and God’s judgment (Jer. 7.30-33, 19.1-13, 32.34-35, cf. Is. 31.9, 66.24; II Kgs 23.10; Lev 18.21).

In later Jewish literature the Valley of Hinnom came to represent the place of God’s end-time judgment of the wicked Jews by fire (I Enoch 26-27, 54.1-6, 56.1-4, 90.24-27). By the first century C.E. gehenna came to be understood metaphorically as the place of judgment by fire for all wicked everywhere (Sibylline Oracles 1.100-103, 2.283-312). It is located in the depths of the earth (Sibylline Oracles 4.184-186) and is described with “fire”, “darkness” and “gnashing of teeth” (Apocalypse of Abraham 15.6; Sibylline Oracles 1.100-103, 2.292-310). There is also the implication that punishment is an eternal one (Sibylline Oracles 2.292-310; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.14, Jewish War 2.163, 3.374-375).

In Jewish Rabbinic literature gehenna is described as a place created before the creation of the world (b. Pesah 54a). It is reserved for the wicked (b. Erub 19a, b. Yebam 63b), including those who indulged in a variety of sinful acts: idolatry, immorality, arrogance, flattery, foolish speech, lack of compassion and listening too much to women!!! Those who fear God that follow the Torah in obedience and good deeds, and unfortunate in this life are spared from it.

In the New Testament all the twelve references to gehenna are used metaphorically as the place of fiery judgment (Mt. 5.22, 29-30, 10.28, 18.9, 23.15,33; Mk. 9.43,45,47; Lk. 12.5; James 3.6). Gehenna is pre-existent (Mt. 25.41). The New Testament does not describe the torment of gehenna.

Another Greek word used for hell is hades, the place of the departed, the grave, like sheol in the Old Testament (Mt.11.23, 16.18). In the book of Revelation, the word translated as “hell” is always hades meaning “grave” (Rev 1.18, 20.13,14). Hades is the place of the dead, not necessarily a place of torment for the wicked dead.

One other Greek word used for hell is tartaroo. This is found only in II Peter 2.4, where it is described as the place where wicked spirits will eventually be restrained.

From the above it is evident that references to “hell” in the New Testament draw on a rich and varied background. Beginning with the Old Testament, the concept of “hell” progresses through stages of increasing detail and description.

Jesus’ Inclusive And Holistic Ministry

December 4, 2014

The story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown Nazareth acquires significance in the Gospel of Luke. The parallel accounts of Jesus’ visit of Nazareth in Mark and Matthew appear much later (Mk. 6.1-6; Mt. 13.54-58), whereas in Luke the episode follows the temptation and the time of preparation, and becomes the opening scene of his public ministry. This positioning of the episode demonstrates its importance to the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The inaugural preaching of Jesus Christ in the Nazareth synagogue is programmatic that defines his messianic holistic ministry of impartial grace.

Jesus’ Ministry in the Light of Isaiah 61.1-2 and Isaiah 58.6

Jesus defines his ministry by the quotation from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah 61.1-2, with a few modifications. This prophetic text begins with the designation or equipping of the agent of Yahweh with the spirit of the Lord. The reason for or the purpose of this anointment is articulated with a series of seven infinitives: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to proclaim release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God, and to comfort all who mourn. Not all these seven infinitives are included in Luke 4.18-19.

The focus of the mission of God’s agent is on the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted and the captives. The captives are those who are bound. This signifies not those in the exile, but those in prison and slavery for debts and the like (Cf. Lev. 25.10; Jer. 34.8 ff; Ezek. 46.17). A new era (“The year of the Lord’s favour” Is. 61.2) is announced by the God’s anointed.

However, Jesus makes two modifications for the quotation of Isaiah 61.1-2:

  1. A phrase from Isaiah 58.6 “to let the oppressed go free” is added in Luke 4.18. Isaiah 58 demands that God’s chosen people should practice a fast consisting of the loosening of chains of injustice, sharing of food with the hungry and provision for the poor (Is. 58.6-7). It insists on the coherence between liturgical practice and social justice. For the prophet, the fasting pleasing to God can not just be liturgical (Is. 58.1-5), but social as well (Is. 58.6-14).

The association of Isaiah 58 with Isaiah 61 intensifies the social dimension of the mission of God’s agent, and provides a striking corrective to any religious practice which is carried on in the name of Yahweh without any concern for the poor, or to any religious activity that oppresses them or fosters their oppression (Is. 58.3-5).

Therefore, Isaiah 61 in association with Isaiah 58 serves as a corrective to any misguided spirituality that focuses only on ritualistic practices such as worship, prayer and fasting and neglects the weightier matters such as justice, love and mercy.

  1. Jesus’ second modification to Isaiah 61.1-2 is to cut it short. He concludes the brief citation with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Lk. 4.19), and omits the reminder of the sentence “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Is. 61.2). This is quite significant. Jesus also omits the reminder of prophesy which includes references to Gentiles tending Israelites’ flocks and working in their fields, and to Israelites feasting upon the wealth of the Gentiles (Is. 61.5-6). Thus, Jesus has excluded all references of hostility towards the Gentiles. Jesus reiterates this in Lk. 7.22 where he again declares his messiahship, this time in response to the query of John the Baptist, by merging together three passages from Isaiah (Is. 35.5f; 29.8f; 61.1). The contexts of these three passages contain references to divine vengeance (Is. 35.4; 29.20; 61.2), yet Jesus quotes only the good news of divine healing and deliverance. Thus, the messianic new era of God’s grace, which has dawned in the ministry of Jesus Christ, is impartial. That means, it is inclusive of Gentiles and outcasts, which Jesus affirms by retelling the stories in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha (Lk. 4.25-27).

Jesus explains that there were many widows in Israel during a severe famine, and Elijah was sent by God to none of them, but only to a Gentile widow of Zarephath of Sidon (Lk. 4.25-26).

In the second story, Jesus points out at Elisha healing Naaman, a Gentile, although there were many lepers among Israelites.

Both these stories depict God’s grace poured out not only on Gentiles, but upon the lowliest of the low class among the Gentiles – a widow and a leper!

God’s mission has a universal scope – transcending ethnic, cultural, social, racial, caste or confessional barriers. God’s preferential option for the poor is not for the poor of Israel only, and may even give priority to others.

The Object of Jesus’ Ministry: The Poor

Jesus proclaims the good news of a new era of God’s impartial grace to the poor (Lk. 4.18, 7.22). He promises to the poor the kingdom of God (Lk. 6.20 – It is “the poor” not the “poor in spirit”).

During the time of Jesus, certain Jewish sects, particularly the Qumran community, applied the term “poor” to their communities denoting the “pious poor”. However, the Old Testament term for the poor (anawim) refers to both social and religious humility. The poor are, in one sense, the victims of the unjust structures of society – powerless, vulnerable, insignificant, exploited, oppressed and economically deprived. In another sense they are the “pious poor” who are utterly dependent upon God.

The term anawim used in Isaiah 61.1 is translated in Jesus’ Nazareth proclamation with the Greek term ptochoi (poor) in Luke 4.18. The term “poor” is used by Luke in the same broad sense of anawim with reference to both social and spiritual humility.

Jesus in Luke is fundamentally concerned with those who are outcast or marginalized, a social state imposed on them, which was sanctioned by religion (Lk. 4.18, 5.30-32, 6.20, 7.22, 14.13, 21, 16.20). The term “outcast” is related to issues of power, privilege and social location. So “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” are the outcast in the society. The inclusion of lepers in this social category means that these are considered ‘untouchables’ who are forced to live on the periphery or outside the periphery of the society (Lk. 7.22 cf. 5.12-16; 17.11-19). This is evident by the phrases “streets and lanes” (14.21), which refer to narrow streets and lanes where one would find beggars of the town and “roads and lanes”, which refer to the area immediately outside the wall of the city inhabited by those involved in menial occupations and prostitutes (14.23). They are forbidden from having social relations with those “at the center of the society” (I QSa 2. 5-7 cf. I QM 7. 4-6). Since they are considered unclean, they represent a possible source of contamination to the community at large. Pharisees are particularly concerned about protecting the community against such dangers by upholding the purity rules of the community and in that way keeping the boundaries of the community strong. That is why there is constant conflict between Jesus and the community religious leaders, particularly Pharisees, over the boundaries and purity of the community (Lk. 5.30-32, 7.36-47). It shows that it is a common knowledge to follow the above regulations (cf. Lk. 5.30, 6.2, 7.39, 15.2, 19.7) and leaders have invoked commitment to this common knowledge. That is why the outcast are to be “compelled” (Lk. 14.23) to partake in the dinner, for they have immediately understood that the invitation is an inexplicable breach of the social system. Luke thus presents the traditional pattern of the society that has given legitimacy to oppressive structures. These strong social barriers have restricted the outcast from entering into the society and confined them to the periphery or outside of the society.

Thus, the outcast are those who are the victims of oppressive structures, which in turn have deprived them socially, economically and religiously.

Jesus Brings Good News to the Poor

As noted above, Isaiah 61.1-2 and Isaiah 58.6 define the messianic ministry of Jesus Christ. The determinative word in these Old Testament texts is the Greek word aphesis, which means “release” or “free”. This word links the two quotations. Out of the four sentences in Isaiah 58.6 (“to loose the bonds of injustice; to undo the thongs of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; and to break every yoke”), which say essentially the same thing, the one chosen in Luke is the one that in the Greek translation of Isaiah 58.6 uses aphesis. This word is prominent in Luke’s writings – Gospel and Acts. In these writings, aphesis is particularly associated with the release from sin. It is forgiveness (Eg. Lk. 1.77. 7.36-50, 24.47). The oppression from which Jesus sets people free is the tyranny of the evil one. The chains that Jesus breaks are the bonds that enslave them to sin in all its forms.

Isaiah 61.1-2 and Isaiah 58.6 enable us to understand that the release which God began in the ministry of Jesus Christ is not only from sin, but also from all those concrete kinds of physical, social and economic oppression. This holistic ministry of Jesus is spelled out and illustrated in Luke’s Gospel. It is among and to the poor that Jesus comes and brings good news (Lk. 7.22). He constantly commands and approves the sharing of wealth or giving of wealth to the poor (Lk. 14.13, 21; 16.19ff.; 18.22; 19.8). Jesus gives sight to the blind (Lk. 7.21; 18.35ff.; 14.13, 21) as well as deliverance from other physical illnesses and incapacities (Lk. 7.1-10, 11-17, 18-23). He also breaks the religious barriers, which enslaved the outcast, by healing them on the Sabbath (Lk. 6.6-11). Thus Jesus not only proclaims but also practices the holistic mission as God’s anointed messiah (Lk. 4.18-19; 7.20-23).

There is, therefore, a clear holistic liberation emphasis in Jesus’ mission: the aim is to radically change the spiritual, personal, social and economic conditions of all the victims, of all those who have been put aside by religious, social, political or economic developments in society. The categories are clear: the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. The aim is clear: good news, release, sight, freedom. There is no priority within this holistic vision and mission of God’s messiah Jesus Christ.

This messianic holistic mission has already happened: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4.21). However, what God has accomplished in the ministry of Jesus, he continues through the history of humankind through those who have identified with Jesus Christ and his ministry. To live and work as ministers of God and disciples of Jesus is to proclaim and enable people to find forgiveness. It is to carry on Jesus’ liberating work in church and society, to help persons find the free, obedient and responsible life.

There has been a sad tendency in evangelicalism to reject the holistic and inclusive ministry of Jesus Christ through oversimplifications or interpretations of biblical texts that are irrelevant to real life. However, the new era of God’s impartial grace, dawned in the ministry of Jesus Christ, calls the people of God everywhere to embrace the holistic mission of Jesus by engaging in the real world through Jesus’ spiritually and socially inclusive mission of justice, mercy and love.

 

Sources

Hugh Anderson, “Broadening Horizons: The Rejection at Nazareth Pericope of Luke 4:16-30 in Light of Recent Critical Trends.” Interpretation  18 (1964), pp. 259-275.

Jeffrey S. Siker, “”First to the Gentiles”: A Literary Analysis of Luke 4.16-30.” Journal of Biblical Literature III/I (1992), pp. 73-90.

Paul Hertig, “The Jubilee Mission of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Reversals of Fortunes.” Missiology: An International Review XXVI/2 (April 1998), pp. 167-179.

“Luke 4:16-30 – The Spirit’s Mission Manifesto – Jesus’ Hermeneutics – And Luke’s Editorial.” International Review of Mission LXXXIX/352 (January 2000), pp. 3-11.


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