I’m going to begin this morning by talking a little bit about the Unitarian address (or sermon) for the benefit of our guests. Our faith tradition encourages individual freedom of enquiry, allowing each of us as individuals to explore faith for ourselves, allowing each of us to come to our own understanding and beliefs, being directed by our own conscience, our own rational enquiry, our own life experience. Though, at the same time, it would be naive not to acknowledge that through the shared language we use, our shared spiritual legacy, and being a ‘church’, a ‘family’, we no doubt influence and inform one another a great deal. We both affirm individual liberty of thought, while striving together after a shared ideal of love and compassion for all. We describe the Unitarian movement as being ‘non-creedal’, which is a “jargony” way of saying that you or I are not required to affirm any specific set of beliefs in order to be a member here. When it comes to “what you believe” we are a diverse bunch. In all this then, the address (or sermon) does not tell you what to believe, but rather sets a kind of ethos of enquiry, it illuminates facets of interest, and invites personal reflection. It is, as it were, an evolving conversation which unfolds week on week, informing discussion, and broadening exploration. I say all this, because I am going to give my take on Michael Lumb’s piece ‘Redemption’. I’m going to give you my perspective, or at least, I’m going to give you what I want the piece to mean. But of course, I am not, and cannot, give you its definitive meaning, not even Michael could do that. So, with all that in mind, I now turn to the passages Ann read out for us from Isaiah 53.
Ever since there has been religion on this planet, and there has been religion ever since there have been human beings, faith traditions have stolen and co-opted from one another, reappropriating myths, and reframing previously held beliefs in the light of belief and understanding of their day. The book of Isaiah, which was written 700ish years before Jesus, is a classic example of this process. It reads,
‘He was despised and rejected by others;
Surely, he has borne our infirmities,
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.’
The normative way of reading these passages for Christians today is to understand this suffering individual, this suffering servant, to be Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, the Gospels writers themselves quote this chapter from Isaiah directly seven times, and several times more indirectly. In other words, Isaiah was co-opted to serve the Christian narrative. And it doesn’t seem to matter to most Christians today that the Book of Isaiah is in fact very clear that the suffering servant is Jacob, who was given the name Israel. Nevertheless, throughout Isaiah 53 we begin to see something new and very interesting take shape. As we know, there is a great deal of violence in the Hebrew Bible, and many examples of God himself doing violence as a means of punishing the disobedient. There are even some examples of God killing for no apparent reason at all. In Isaiah 53 though, God is identified not as the one doing the violence, but identified alongside the victim of violence. Much of the time in the Hebrew Bible, myths are being written from the vantage point of the victimizer. But here in Isaiah 53 we’re getting a critique of domination, the voice of the victim is breaking through. The victim is being vindicated. The context of violence within the Bible paves the way for the dominant scapegoat myth which is at the centre of the Christian religion: that violence might be done to one, that one might suffer, that we all may be redeemed by the blood of Christ. As the famous quote goes, history is written by the victors. When the tribe of Israel was prevailing over her enemies, God is portrayed as a vengeful God smiting the backwards and wayward; when the tribe of Israel was persecuted, brought into captivity, when the people were scattered, God is identified alongside the victim. Many Christian traditions glory in the brutal suffering and death Jesus received upon the cross, seeing it as the ultimate atonement for the sins of humanity. Take for example Mel Gibson’s movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’. In that bloodfest of a movie, every gory detail is shown graphically. The hammer comes down in slow motion, and the camera lens is sprayed with blood. The blood is a fetish – through the blood souls are redeemed. In other words the ‘Gospel’, the Good News, is reduced to the blood of Jesus pouring. Jesus’ very purpose is reduced to this one bloody moment.
I think this is a very problematic way of reading the New Testament, because the verdict passed on Jesus to have him crucified in the New Testament is not celebrated, it is denounced. By emphasising Jesus’ innocence as the Gospels do, one highlights the futility of the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus upon the cross refrains from all forms of reprisal, he does not order a campaign of vengeance upon the power structures which killed him. He does not endorse holy or just wars. Only by having God’s representative killed through violence on earth, could God show that his way is antithetical to violence, that the antithesis of the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Violence. Jesus’ message reveals that those who believe in divine violence are still bound up with the Kingdom of Violence, or Satan’s universe (to put it more dramatically). The reign of God means the definitive elimination of violence between every individual, and every nation. That is what it is to live as a Kingdom people, or ‘Kindom’ people, if you prefer. But that is not the narrative of our world. The narrative of the world is the domination system, premised on the belief that violence must be used to overcome violence. The true Gospel is one which renders the scapegoat mechanism impotent. It is a critique of domination systems. My reading of this piece is that it too is a critique of domination systems. Go into any Roman Catholic Church, and even some Anglican Churches, and you will find a cross with Jesus being crucified upon it. Why would Christians perpetuate this horrific image? The reason comes back to theology.
So, now for an historical side note. As you all may know, this year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The central thrust of the Reformation was the belief that individuals had the right to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. This religious/spiritual/intellectual revolution in Europe sent shock waves through the Catholic Church which threatened their previously taken for granted hegemony. Whenever things get a bit shaky for the Catholic Church, they tend to call bishops, church officials, and theologians together and have a general council, and in the decades following the Reformation they did just that, and held the Council of Trent. As you might imagine, with these destabilising/revolutionary ideas coming out of Germany, coming from Luther and Calvin etc., the Catholic church did not moderate its position, but rather theologically it lurched in a much more conservative direction. One of the Catholic theological ideas which was solidified during the council of Trent was the idea that Jesus did not suffer and die once upon the cross, but rather that his suffering upon the cross is ongoing and timeless, that there is a perpetual sacrifice taking place; that today, whenever someone goes into a church, looks up and sees Jesus and his pierced hands upon the cross, he is, as it were, still hanging there. Our sins continue to be heaped up upon him. Hence: Catholic guilt. In other words, the council of Trent, given the threat of Reformation ideas, had to reframe catholic theology in a way which was more accessible, and more functional to everyday folk. And the best way to do that is to reframe its theology in terms of the Kingdom of Violence: restructure everything through the myth of redemptive violence, through the myth that violence must be used to overcome violence. From the Council of Trent onwards the presence of crucifixes in Catholic Churches exploded in prevalence, and became normative.
The question becomes then, to my mind, how does one subvert classic Christian imagery, most notably the crucifix, in order render the scapegoat mechanism impotent? And indeed, undermine the very notion of this central bloody event being not in any sense a sacrifice, but rather the miscarriage of justice that it was, a miscarriage of justice which cuts against the whole system of might makes right and restores its original import? Like Isaiah 53 it reaches after being a critique against domination systems. This peace, Redemption, is an effective example of this. As Calvary was a place in space in time, changing our vantage point of the world, so here is a shrouded space in time, changing our vantage point. Hands are pierced, like the pierced hands of Jesus upon the cross. But being cut at the wrist, they bring to mind Daesh (or Isis), cutting the hands off accused thieves, their brutal and thuggish judicial violence being wrought upon their own scapegoats. Nearby is water. Is this the water that came forth when a spear was pierced into his side? Or is this the water Pilate used before the crowd to wash his hands, and proclaim his own innocence, justify his own lack of culpability? And he says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood…” But was he really? And are you really?
Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.