Alison on the Sermon on the Mount

Excerpt from Knowing Jesus, by James Alison (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1993), pages 42-45.

Now, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount points to what I have called ‘the intelligence of the victim’ [link to webpage on Alison’s use of this phrase “the intelligence of the victim“]. It starts with the beatitudes, where the people chosen as exemplars of proximity to God are all marginal, dependent people. People who have a certain relationship to others which one might describe as precarious: the poor in spirit are poor relative to people who might use power and riches against them; those who mourn are those who are in a relationship of vulnerability owing either to some loss, or some overbearing situation; the meek are meek in the midst of a social other that despises meekness; the merciful refuse to be involved in a vengeful relation to the other, that is they don’t insist on their rights over against another; the pure in heart have acquired their purity of heart with difficulty in the midst of a world which does not encourage it; the peacemakers are notoriously those who eventually get blamed by both sides for not sharing their violence — each side sees them as traitors and those who are persecuted for righteousness . . . well, the intelligence of the victim couldn’t be more explicit — and this is emphasized again in the final beatitude: ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of falsehood against you.’

The key feature of blessedness is that it involves living a deliberately chosen and cultivated sort of life which is not involved in the power and violence of the world, and which because of this fact, makes the ones living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into victims. That is the center of the ethic as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If we then turn to the end of Jesus’ last discourse before his passion [Matt. 25:31-46] — the mirror image of this, the first of his discourses — we find the same intelligence at work. In the famous passage of the last judgement, the judgement is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgement is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims. Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them. Again, the intelligence of the victim: it is the crucified and risen victim who is the judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim.

Now what is extraordinary about this intelligence, particularly in Matthew’s gospel, is that it is universal. The intelligence of the victim is not seen as something only related to the person of Jesus, though he reveals it fully; it is seen as something that has always been present. Jesus is revealing something that has always been true about human society, from the time of Abel the just, to that of Zechariah the son of Berachiah (Matt.23.35). That is from the beginnings of humanity, until the last of the prophets in the Bible as it then was. Human society is a violent place, which makes victims, and the revelation of God is to be found in the midst of that violence, on the side of the victims.

Again let me stress that this intelligence was made available to the disciples after, and as a result of, the appearances of the crucified and risen Lord. The intelligence however is not limited to the very many and frequent passages where, especially in Matthew, Jesus actually talks about persecution — his own, or that which the disciples will undergo. It is to be found at one remove in all the moral teaching!

Let’s go back to the Sermon on the Mount. After the beatitudes, Jesus gives a series of teachings which reveal the way in which humans are utterly constituted in violence — anger is the equivalent of killing, lust the equivalent of adultery, a quarrel with a brother the complete invalidation of an act of worship of God. Because of this, the law, which Jesus does not come to abolish, does not go far enough. Jesus is determined to teach people at the level the law cannot reach: how to be free from being bound into the other by violence: so, no retribution to the other who violates you, because if you do, you remain on the same level as that person — so instead, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile. It is only by not being stuck at the level of reacting to the violent other that we are free. Move out of reciprocally violent relationships, and into free ones. The strictures against false piety and hypocrisy are because the ones who practice those things are tied into what other people think, they are not able to act freely. They are run by the opinion, or what they hope to be the opinion of the other. Hence the tremendous importance of forgiveness, or loosing the bonds which tie one in to the violent other. For only thus can one be free, and perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.

Yet it is precisely this freedom, which is to be the mark of the follower of Christ, which prepares the follower to become the victim. This aspect of the intelligence of the victim is vital. For it is this freedom which lays bare the workings of human society, and that society reacts against it by expelling it and persecuting it. At the same time the freedom comes prior to the victimization. Let me try to explain that. If you take the phrase ‘the intelligence of the victim’ you might think that I am talking about some kind of victim-complex, or paranoia. I might be saying that Christianity was simply a huge version of this complex, which can be found in all societies, and in almost all humans, at least under certain circumstances. But that is exactly what is not meant by ‘the intelligence of the victim.’ The intelligence of the victim comes from a freedom in giving oneself to others, in not being moved by the violence of others, even when it perceives that this free self-giving is going to be lynched as a result.

The free self-giving is not a seeking to be lynched, but is completely open-eyed about the probability of just this happening. However, not even the natural fear of this is enough to shake the freedom that is based on a continual loosing, forgiving, of the violence of the other’s relationship to the free self-giver. Now, the evidence is that Jesus taught, before, and on his way up to, his execution, exactly this sort of open-eyed freedom-towards-being-lynched, and indeed that this is the whole drift of his moral teaching. He taught people how to loosen themselves from relationships of violence with each other, where their personalities were constituted by the reciprocal give and take of that violence, and instead to start to side with the victims and those who can easily be victimized, even though, as an inevitable consequence of this breaking out of the violent determinism of the world, they would be liable to become victims themselves.

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