Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thoughts on Christ on Trial by Rowan Williams: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 of Rowan Williams' book, "Christ on Trial," takes a look at the trial of Jesus as recorded in Mark's Gospel.  The centerpiece, which struck me so vividly, was how Williams drew out the events in Jesus' trial where, while being accused and questioned by the High Priests, He finally breaks His silence and answers their question, declaring Himself in clarity as the Christ, the "I am," the Son of the Blessed One.

Here it is... the dark of night.  It is not totally unlike the dark, shady interrogations ordered by corrupt governments or other men throughout history who are in positions of great power and authority.  You can almost picture a blinding light shining in his face, cutting through the darkness of the private room, as the interrogations continue.  Finally someone asks the prisoner point-blank: "Tell us, are you the Christ?!"  The prisoner, stripped and defeated by the encircling onslaught of prosecutors and false witnesses, answers back, "I am..." -an answer that not only answers the question definitively but gives a clear second message, an identification which the prisoner knew His Jewish audience would not mistake.  The "I am."

The 'I am'?  Really?  In this moment of weakness and condemnation?  It seems to make no sense.  What is going on?  There was a lot of underline-able material, but I will restrict myself to two piecemeal quotes to help give you an idea of what Williams wrote:

"If we are really to have our language about the transcendence -the sheer, unimaginable differentness- of God recreated, it must be by the emptying out of all we thought we knew about it, the emptying out of practically all we normally mean by greatness.  No more about the lofty distance of God, the sovereignty that involves control over all circumstances: God's 'I am' can only be heard for what it really is when it has no trace of human power left to it; when it appears as something utterly different from human authority, even human liberty; when it is spoken by a captive under sentence of death.

The freedom or power at issue here, in such an utterance at such a time, is the freedom of complete alienation from the categories of the unaccountable world, freedom from the insanity and violence of human power.  I said that Mark's passion story gave the impression of voices in the dark. You could say more: that God's voice here is supremely a voice at midnight, audible only when the language of this world has fallen away once and for all around the figure of the prisoner on trial.  There is nothing comforting, edifying or reassuring, nothing that secures our picture of ourselves and our hopes for ourselves, in the silent prisoner.  And that is how and why we can hear him name himself with God's name."
And later...

"... Mark's trial narrative passes sentence on our understand of power and significance.  Without this strange moment at the heart of the trial, we might be left with a false clarify about God and how God is recognized in Jesus: God becomes the illustration of what is highest or strongest for us.  This applies not only to the crude identification of God with success or domination, and the resulting believe that failure in the world's terms somehow indicates God's absence; it applies also to the identification of God with what seems to us wisest or holiest, most spiritually impressive.  But here, the one who says 'I am' is, at that moment, in that setting, neither wise nor holy, neither admirable nor impressive."
As Williams' points out elsewhere in this chapter, we are always in an ever-present struggle to escape suffering, demanding an account from God when He does not rescue, and to escape the present, hanging ourselves in the past or hoping to transcend the present by looking at the future.  It is not as though we should think suffering is great, and it is not as though we are not given much to hope in. 

But in this glimpse of Jesus on trial, in the dark of midnight when the pretense of the world falls down and the insanity and violence and injustice and unaccountable, nonsensical power of it shows itself in the trial of Jesus -pointing its fingers at Him and demanding an account- God answers us plainly... with no arguing, no justification, and offering no "evidence" to prove Himself in our system, in our courtroom.  Jesus answers them, "I am."  He declares Himself, in stubborn opposition to the system of this world.  He will not play games.  He will not answer to it.  In the darkness of this hour, with the murmurings and accusations of our kangaroo court, He stands against the world... transcendent.

Yet it is not a transcendence that we would normally think of, nor is it the kind of transcendence that we would choose.  We would choose to speak of transcendence in terms of God's greatness and power and sovereignty, or in His might to save and rescue us from bad things in our lives, ensuring a happy ending.  But that will not do, here.  God silences us.  He not only opposese the world's insane system of power.  He also opposes, in one breath in this one moment in time, our aspirations of spirituality and what we think a better world, and a real God, ought to be.  He stubbornly exclaims, "I am not here to fit into your ideas or expectations or designs for how the world and happy endings ought to work out but to challenge and ultimately destroy them."

This is essentially what Martin Luther described as the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory.  The theology of glory does not merely wrap up all of the "badness" of us all but also all of our greatest spiritual aspirations and stories of glory and success and ascent up the ladder out of the moment, past our frailty, past our humanness.  It sounds wonderful to us, until we see the cross, which exposes it all for what it truly is.  God did not come down to us, to die on a cross, to fulfill our paradigm of the world and how we think it ought to work.  Nor did He come down to die to validate our ardent climb of spiritual piety and religion toward our idea of "heaven."  He came down to die, and in so doing, kill all of it -ripping it out from under us like a stinking rug soaked in our own urine.

At this moment of midnight where the Son of Man finally announces clearly what He had been evading all through Mark's Gospel, we see a God who is unequivocally unlike.  All results and expectations are thrown out the window.  He simply is, and He is in ways that again overthrow all the world's ideas of strength, power, virtue, religion, and God.  He declares Himself to be YHWH, yet in weakness and powerlessness.  What a strange way to oppose the entire world.  Rather than joining our Nitzche-like quest for power and authority, joining our game which He could so easily win by flashing His glory or smiting the world with fire from above, He chose to reveal Himself, and to oppose our system, by standing outside of it in utter obscurity and powerlessness.  It is as though God is saying, "I came not to play your game but to end it."

What struck me most is how this speaks to me so clearly in my own suffering.  I have longed for God's rescue.  I am the one who wants to not live in today but live in tomorrow, where God will finally rescue and deliver.  I am the one who wants to escape the suffering at all costs and demands an account from God when He will not save.  Yet here I am on trial.  I see a God who, before the day when He finally overturns the suffering and betrayal and evil and abuse and insanity in this world, stands against it in powerlessness and weakness while simultaneously declaring Himself to be.  But this is exactly where I am.  This is where I live.  I cannot stem the tide of suffering.  I cannot make it all go away.  I am powerless against the world.  I can pretend I am not, and I can lash out against it for a time, but I will again face my inability.  I will either be crushed under its weight, or I will numb myself by divorcing myself from living in today.  Or, I will discover another way.  I will discover that I am not alone in it.  That there is a kind of power in living outside of it, in being... just as Jesus was being the "I am" in the midst of his oppressors... and in being with Him.  He is there.  He lives in the obscurity, in refusing to play the game and standing obstinately yet powerlessly in the shadow outside of the world and its ways.  He is found where I am, and I am found where He is.  When the fanfare dies down and everything is stripped down to what it is, just like when we are suffering, this is where God speaks, where God is made flesh, where He dwells with humanity.  And this is a far cry from anything else out there and anything that religion has to offer, ever.

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