Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blame Me: The Cross and the Power of Love


Perhaps you can admit to this as I must, that anything from a lost sock to a work project gone amiss is more readily attached to someone else’s failings than one’s own, at least initially. 

Again and again, across human history, we find that not just individuals but nations, religions, cities, families - human communities of all shapes and sizes - can readily be drawn into a vortex of blame, where some other, often an outsider or newcomer, is made to carry some burden as source, or merely threat, of harm. The first story of death in the Bible has this character - Cain kills his brother Abel, inexplicably apart from the implication that he resents the other's favor with God. So death enters the world and so it has continued.

There is often someone whose exclusion or destruction offers false assurance of security; and to these we attribute our own ills, our collective failings, what we find hardest to acknowledge in our deepest selves and in the others whom we claim as part of some “us” that is always defined relative to some “other.”

The real threat of terrorism or other crimes does not match the level of anxiety recently attached to refugees and migrants in public discourse, for instance. The fantasy that we can create a safe world for some sub-group chosen by accident of history or privilege of race, by building walls or banning travel, is both illusory as a policy that claims to make us physically safer, and dangerous or simply perverse as a theology of how to be human. It is, again, the quest for the perfect victim, the culpable outsider whose exclusion or even execution can make us safe, not in reality but in some world conjured out by a perverse liturgy of national insecurity, where we close ourselves off to our common humanity.

One of the great ironies of Christian history is how this process of labelling and blaming the other has been applied by Christians to Jews.

Already in the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John - probably the last-written of the four - we find a slippage from the earlier and more historical picture of some local cronies conspiring with the Roman authorities against Jesus, to a picture of “the Jews” collectively as Jesus’ antagonists. This reflects not the actual history of Jesus' trial and death, but the history of early Jewish and Christian communities a generation or two later, siblings in an awkward relationship. In later centuries however, as Christianity grew, that image led to the figure of the Jew as perennial outsider, scapegoat, and Christ-killer.

We may be tempted to think we have left all that far behind us. Those who have received threatening calls at synagogues and community centers this year might beg to differ. But the phenomenon of casting around for those to whom we may attach blame is a wider one, and one played out on the world stage and in our own lives. 

The cross is a sign of this tendency in us, and points to its resolution. 

Jesus does not die to satisfy the honor or the wrath of God. Jesus does not die because God is a larger version of a playground bully or of a despotic ruler, distinguished from the others we know only by scale, and equally lacking thus in love and imagination as to how to save the world. God does not will Jesus’ death, we do.

Jesus dies for the same reason we have variously labelled Jews, refugees, and others as people whose exclusion would somehow make us safe. As we heard in the Passion again, Caiaphas the High Priest had told his contemporaries that “it was better for one man to die for the people."

Jesus indeed dies for the people, but not as may be imagined. And he does not solve the problem of blame and scapegoating in any obvious way by dying on the cross, as history shows us all too clearly. Rather he tells us, in his body, two related things, one about God and one about ourselves. We learn from the cross of God’s unexpected and possibly very dissatisfying answer to our tendency to blame. God’s reality on the cross is not manifest in the appearance of legions of anti-fascist angels who might have set the world to rights, but would have underlined the problem of exclusion and oppression in doing so, but rather in God’s own helplessness, God’s solidarity with those labelled, excluded, and killed. 

God, it seems, cannot fix things by force any more than we can. Walls don’t work, and neither will any bomb of whatever size in the last analysis; neither will divine string-pulling. Instead God reaches out, the only power exercised to fix the world being love.

One of most ancient eucharistic prayers known to us, says that Jesus “stretched out his hands as he suffered so he might free from suffering those who believed.” 

This outstretched openness to love, which refuses to exclude or to label, is what we learn about God, but also what we must learn about ourselves; only love fixes things, and love always entails letting go of power rather than of taking it up. Love can offer itself, but cannot insist on having its way, or else it is no longer love. Hence the cross. The cross exposes the futility of our blaming, and shows us how human life could be lived as well as offering the deepest insight into the life of God. 

Whom then shall we blame? God says “blame me, blame me." Not God has done these things, for we did; but rather because God offers, invites, pleads with us from the cross to end our blaming forever, and to extend our own arms to each other and to the world, and thus truly to embrace life in all its fulness.



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