Eschatological Imagination – Part III – Death, Life and Judgment

I am posting and commenting on excerpts from James Alison’s Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (1996) every day for a while. (Part I and II here)

Alison on seeing God as violent:

There is a certain understanding of God that is absolutely bound up with a mechanism of violence. That is to say: God keeps the group pure and clean by expelling from its midst any contaminating element. ” In the majority of cultures, God shows “his mercy and justice to the group by expelling the evil one. … The image of God which [Jesus] proposes in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) is exactly the inverse of the [violent] god we’ve seen. According to this parable, God is shown not to the group, but to the lost member, to the outsider. … [M]ercy has been changed from something which covers up violence to something which unmasks it completely. For God there are no ‘outsiders,’ which means that any mechanism for the creation of ‘outsiders’ is automatically simply a mechanism of human violence.” (p. 35)

My comments:
“Violence” has a specific meaning for girardians. Briefly, it refers to a particular mechanism humans use in an attempt to make ‘peace’ and maintain order — in a community, a group, a relationship, and I would say (I’m not sure others would) also within our selves — through the expelling, killing, and in any way seeking to exclude those whom we judge to commit “sin” — i.e., those who threaten peace and order and contaminate what we think of as clean, good, holy, and sacred.
Violence in a girardian sense is not necessarily about anger, although anger very often ends up being justification for doing so-called righteous or deserved violence to our enemies and loved ones alike, to blame, accuse, scapegoat, and purge the object of our anger. The emotion of anger can also, with an eternal perspective, lead to healing and compassion; see Paul Nuechterlein’s notes on Mark 1:40-45 – scroll down, and on John 11.

Alison on a god who says YES and who doesn’t participate in our violent moral system:

“It is very difficult for us to imagine the huge change of perception underway here, but it could be described as the change from a perception of a god in which the deity has a double face, saying ‘yes, but…’ or ‘yes, and no’, or ‘yes, if…’, to the perception according to which God only and unconditionally says ‘yes’. Another way of putting it is as a change from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus had begun to teach this to his disciples, but it had been incomprehensible to them until after the resurrection. Consider Jesus’ teaching that God makes the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. This has the effect of removing God completely from the sphere of reference of our human morality, excluding him from any participation in judging and condemning humans. The same thing happens in the parables: we are not to separate the wheat from the tares (Mt 13:24-30) in this life, because we cannot judge adequately, and God’s judgment has nothing to do with our own. The same with the parable of the fish caught in the net (Mt 13:47-50). Exactly the same point occurs in Luke 13:1-5: there is no link between any type of physical happening, or accidental death, and God’s action, but those who think that there is are trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death, and they had better repent or they too will perish.” (p. 42-43)

Note that Alison doesn’t say here that God doesn’t judge; he says that God’s judgment is nothing like ours, and nothing like what we imagine judgment to mean, formed as we are within a system where judgment means deciding who is good and who is bad, who is clean and who is unclean. God, on the other hand, treats “the good” and “the bad” the same (at least as far as weather goes).
Later, in Chapter 7, when he looks specifically at John 5:21-30, Alison elaborates. Essentially, he interprets the passage in John this way: God the Father doesn’t judge. The Son, in obeying his Father by revealing the murderous lie of the world, and as a victim of that very lie, becomes a judge, although he did not come to judge us. He ends up becoming our judge when we reject him, because his rejection, death, resurrection and forgiveness exposes our participation in the system ruled by death, the mechanism we use to do away with what we perceive as threatening. Alison says: “The coming of the Son into the world has as its end to create a belief in the absolute aliveness of God and to empower us to act as if death were not, thus being set free from our compulsion to act in a way governed by the kingdom of death.” (p. 139)
Alison has something helpful to say too about our conception of “love” (as in “God is love” and “”love one another”):
“We often interpret Jesus’ words about love from within a general notion which we have of love, that is, love is a general term embracing passion, affection, addiction, compulsion, generosity, sex and other realities besides. According to a certain fairly widely held view, Jesus is talking about a special subsection of this general notion: the sort of love that requires sacrifice, especially so that someone else may live. … Well, I beg to dissent. … Jesus is not talking about a particular subsection of the general term ‘love.’ Rather he is creating a new open definition of love.”
Alison then examines John 14:23ff for a page or two, noting that the passage is not about renouncing one’s life for one’s friends; it’s about giving — living out — one’s life “as a creative overcoming of death, showing that you are prepared to die because you are not moved by death,” and by living out this belief, making possible a similar belief and life among those who know you. The passage is about imitating Jesus’s whole life, his very purpose in being on Earth.
The commandment of love, far from being an insistence that we strain our feelings, as it is so often understood, in a sort of grotesque Christian parody, is a commandment to create a visible and imitable human history, living a life that is empowered by an imagination not shaded by death in a free and diverse imitation of the human story created and lived out by Jesus.” (pp. 70-72)


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