Last revised: March 10, 2020
Click reload or refresh for latest version
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR A
RCL: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
RoCa: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Not very often in one’s life as a Christian do you encounter, or are encountered by, a scriptural passage and its interpretation such that it has a life-changing effect. Such is the case for me with James Alison‘s reading of John 9. I hope that you take this as my highest recommendation for reading Alison on this passage before you preach it or teach it this week.
I begin this week’s offering with a link to an excerpt (repeated below) of Alison’s treatment of John 9, in the section “The Johannine Witness” from “The Resurrection and Original Sin” (ch. 4) of The Joy of Being Wrong. There is an expansion of this reading in the essay, “The Man Born Blind from Birth and the Subversion of Sin: Some Questions about Fundamental Morals;” originally published in Contagion, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, 26-46; but now also ch. 1 of Faith Beyond Resentment, 3-26, re-titled “The Man Blind from Birth and the Creator’s Subversion of Sin.”
This essay from Alison essentially elaborates the Girardian theme rung out in the title of Girard’s magnum opus Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. The sin involved at the point of human origins is a Scapegoating Mechanism that becomes embedded in all human culture, the true nature of which we are blind to. Humanity has been blind from its birth. It is far easier for Jesus to cure someone’s literal blindness than to cure the blindness of our entire species. And those who are most resistant to being cured are the leaders in any human culture who think they see — Jesus said to [the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41).
To cure this blindness it was necessary that the New Human Being must suffer and die at the hands of humankind and be raised on the third day by God. Only the Forgiving Victim of our originating sin could begin to open our eyes to such darkness.
The first Easter was the day the Re-evolution began, but we need to keep in mind the nature of evolution. It takes time — change over many, many generations. It’s a good thing we have a covenantal God who is in it for the long haul. Because even 2000 years later we seem to finally be getting to another crucial moment — hopefully, just in the nick of time, since our technology has evolved to the true possibility of self-annihilation as a species. In this post-Holocaust age, we seem to finally be getting to the end of Us Versus Them as the structuring of all human culture, which can now be more fully understood as the healing of our originating sin. The new age in which there is no longer us and them, but only us, is struggling to be born.
Mimetic Theory is also realistic about the apocalyptic nature of this birth. There are travails involved with this new birth. In 2020 awakened by the Trump presidency, we have been witnessing the rise of nationalism — hopefully, as the final birthpangs to something new. Leaders are coming into power who ring out the age-old message of Us Versus Them, a new round of the nationalism that resulted in the German Nationalist Holocaust of WWII. But this time around there is much more resistance. We’ve seen this story before. And, most importantly, the resistance is nonviolent. The nonviolent protests are real and massive . . . and absolutely necessary to the birth of Human Being 2.0, a humanity not structured by Us Versus Them. Only Us.
But here’s also the crucial nature of the insight of Mimetic Theory and readings like James Alison’s of John 9. We are all in the long, drawn-out process of being healed. There may be some of us who are glimpsing a humanity which is defined by only Us. But it is only partial. We are simultaneously saint and sinner. We are glimpsing, longing for, and working toward a new reality. But we are still comfortable in the old reality and in need of healing like everyone else. One of the signs of our sin is how easy it is to fall into a final version of Us Versus Them: those of us who ‘see’ the new reality versus those who seemingly work towards re-entrenchment in the old. Remember Jesus’ words: “As soon as you say, ‘We see,’ you remain blind.” We are still finding a way to remain polarized into an Us Versus Them.
My friend Marcus Peter Rempel, whose excellent book Life at the End of Us vs Them is highly relevant to these opening comments, gave me permission to share a song he composed inspired by Alison’s reading of this text, “Mercy (John 9 & Matthew 9)”:
There once was a blind man
Said to be born in sin
He came to Jesus,
Said, let the light in
Jesus took some clay
And spit in his hands
Made a new creation
Just like the first man
He said, God told y’all once
And now I’m telling you twice
I desire mercy
And not sacrifice
Along came the Pharisees
They knew something was wrong
Jesus workin’ on a Sunday
on a man who didn’t belong
Said, Give glory to God,
Admit it was a sin.
Blind man saw through them
Wouldn’t turn Jesus in.
The one called a sinner
Was the one who could see
The morality police
As blind as could be
Lord save me, I’m the blind man
And I’m the Pharisee
Let your light shine in, Lord
Have mercy on me
Cause I heard it once
But I guess I need to hear it twice
You desire mercy, and not sacrifice
So what is the way forward? How can we finally be healed of our originating sin? The only true way remains the Way of the cross and resurrection, the Way of loving, nonviolent engagement with the waning Powers of Us Versus Them. There is a Re-evolution underway. But we must emphasize the mystery of the “evolution” aspect of this new birth. We must live in the hope and prayer of Jesus just before his mysterious and ‘sanctifying’ messianic suffering:
But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. (John 17:13-21a)
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; ch. 8 brings in the eschatology, worked out at greater length in Raising Abel, to his wholistic working out of original sin. He quotes Eph. 5 at the middle of this key passage:
We can begin to understand then something of the depth of Jesus’ saying that not even the Son of man knows of the end (Mark 13:32), and why it is not important that he should know. The important thing is the beginning of the living out of the deathless time participating in eternity even now, something that already happens before this generation passes away. It is this new time that from henceforth counts. The time that is passing away, the time of human history, is no longer a theological reality, and it will come to an end when it comes to an end — the Father knows when; this is not because of some future divine irruption in violence, but because it is abandoned to itself, no longer a theological reality. The theological reality is rather, “redeeming the time, for the days are evil” (Eph 5:16, cf. Col 4:5). Any final “apocalypse” will be of purely human making, the outworking of the dynamism of death-related rivalistic desire. When finally history does work itself out to an end, there will be already present within it the criterion for its judgement: the coming of the victim in glory, whose presence had been hidden by the vain powers of this world for as long as they lasted.
What I have been attempting to describe is the coming into being of what I have called “the eschatological imagination.” The important thing is that this be understood to be the slow working out of the same dynamic that we have seen with relation to the emergence of the theology that later became called Trinitarian, and the anthropology that later became characterized as one marked by original sin. As the deathlessness and non-violence of the Father came to be appreciated, as well as the love that raised the creatively forgiving victim, so the continuity between this creation and the new creation was able to be understood, and a new sort of practical human involvement in eternal life starting now was made possible. (p. 219)
Alison follows that up with a whole section called “Redeeming the Time,” an elaboration on the letter to the Ephesians, on pages 229-232, the conclusion of which focuses on Eph. 5:
***** Alison Excerpt, JBW, pp. 231-232 *****
…The conclusion to this passage is almost embarrassingly apropos of the analysis that I have been trying to set out: “Therefore be imitators (mimetai) of God as beloved children, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:1-2).It is in the light of this that the following instructions about avoiding particular aspects of the world of desire proper to un-reformed selves are to be read. These desires militate against the walking in love in such a way that one can offer oneself up as a sacrifice to God. By walking in the light however, we are not expected simply to shun the darkness, but actively to show it up for what it is: “Take no part in the works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph 5:11). There is no escapism here, but an awareness that by living the life of Christ we will show up the works of darkness. It was that living of the light, of course, which was what caused Christ to be turned into a sacrifice in the first place. The author draws from this the observation not that we should flee to some heavenly place, but rather that we should learn to walk carefully. In the light of the foregoing, this can only mean that learning how to live the eschatological imagination and the consequent reformation of the self is a difficult process requiring wisdom, as we come to see by which desires we are being drawn in any given situation: the heavenly mimesis or the worldly. As we learn to walk carefully in this way, so we will be “redeeming the time, for the days are evil” (Eph 5:16).
We have then, already within the apostolic witness a clear understanding that Jesus opened up an eschatological imagination, making available a very strong hope, to be received in a childlike manner, and which, rather than encouraging a dissociation from history, encourages rather the construction of a new way of living in time. The centerpiece of this vision is the self-giving victim who himself makes possible the living out of this new quality of history on earth. This new quality of history involves an active construction of light in the midst of the darkness of the lies of this world. That is to say, it is the bringing into being of a counter-history, which, unlike the history of this world, is centered already on its continuation and fulfilment in the heavenly places. (pp. 231-232).
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, has another section taking its title from Eph. 5:16 called “Redeeming the Time,” pp. 109-116. He concludes:
Here the two qualities of time which we have seen are both present: time capable of redemption, and evil time. That is, time capable of participating in a life which has no end, and a time bound to grasping onto repetitions so as to try to avoid an always-to-be-feared end. (p. 116)
I think this points to a Girardian understanding of history, the concept of which can only come about under the impulse of the biblical revelation. Mythological time is the time of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return,” as Alison says, “a time bound to grasping onto repetitions so as to try to avoid an always-to-be-feared end.” It is only the revelation of the True God who begins to pull us out of the endless repetitions of sacrificial-crisis-giving-birth-to-new-sacrificial-order, and out onto a road leading finally to somewhere else. It is the prophetic glimpse of history that begins to point to another end, to another goal.
Reflections and Questions
1. The small snippet from Eph 5:8-14 of course gives us a different image to work with than time. It makes use of the images prevalent in the day’s gospel reading about darkness and light, blindness and sight. Can we connect the two? What is the light that pulls us out of the darkness of mythological time and lights our path onto the road of God’s history? John 9 brilliantly (especially with the help of Alison’s Girardian reading of it) gives us a story that captures the light. As Alison summarizes: “The result is sin turned on its head. Sin ceases to be some defect which apparently excludes someone from the group of the righteous, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of expulsion.” The mechanism of expulsion which has kept us in the darkness of Eternal Return since the foundations of the world (i.e., human societal order) is revealed, unveiled, in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. The mythological Eternal Return, which seemingly forever has had us in its deathly trance, is broken by the light, which says to us, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Could the preacher also draw a contrast between the Eternal Return and the Eternal Life of John’s Jesus?)
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 119-125; the highly recommended (above) excerpt entitled “The Johannine Witness” (to ch. 4’s theme of “The Resurrection and Original Sin”). John 9 reveals a revolutionary subversion of what sin is. Here are the key paragraphs from Alison’s expostion:
In this story then we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion.
This change of perception is exactly the change that was wrought by the resurrection of the crucified Christ. That is to say that what John has done is apply to one of Jesus’, no-doubt historical, healings of a blind man on the sabbath the revolution in the understanding of sin that came about as a result of the resurrection. The sin of the world is understood quite specifically as being involved in the work of “your father the devil,” who “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44; part of the proto-lynch that immediately precedes the story of the man blind from birth). Sin is recast entirely in the light of the casting out of Jesus. Jesus is quite specifically shown as having no problem with the sort of “sin” that is taken to exclude the “sinner” from the community: he cures the blind man with no problem at all (just as, in the previous chapter, he held nothing against the woman caught in adultery, but everything against those who would stone her). Sin is revealed as the mechanism of expulsion which is murderous, and those are blind sinners who are involved in that mechanism without being aware of what they are doing. The problem is not with those who are only blindly part of the mechanism of exclusion: they at least do not know what they are doing, and thus have no guilt. The problem is with those (like the pharisees who question Jesus in John 9:40) who form part of such mechanisms of exclusion, but think that “they see” — that is, think that they have moral insight, know good from evil, are capable of discernment and judgment. Such people not only take part in mechanisms of exclusion, but justify them as good, and from God. Their guilt remains.
We have here, then, a further subversion from within. Just as Jesus subverts the notion of judgment from within, so also the notion of sin is subverted from within. Jesus doesn’t abolish the concept of sin, or simply define it much more strongly than before. The notion of sin is subverted from within, in the light of the resurrection of the crucified one, in such a way that what sin is is shown to be much more drastic than previous interpretations, but from quite a different direction. Sin is not what excludes in the person of the excluded one, but the dynamic act of excluding in the persons of the excluders.
2. James Alison, “The Man Born Blind from Birth and the Subversion of Sin: Some Questions about Fundamental Morals;” originally published in Contagion, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, 26-46; but now also ch. 1 of Faith Beyond Resentment, 3-26, re-titled “The Man Blind from Birth and the Creator’s Subversion of Sin.” Well worth looking up, this essay is a splendid elaboration of the main points from the JBW piece above (#1); so if you couldn’t get enough, here’s more. Alison is able to draw out, for example, some of the other theological connections — for me, the most notable is to creation theology. Here is a brief section:
***** Excerpt from Alison’s essay on John 9 [Contagion, No. 4] *****
Once cured, the former blind man is taken to the Pharisees. They immediately have a criterion by which to judge if the cure came from God or not. The cure was carried out on a Sabbath, so it cannot come from God. Now the objection is more interesting than it seems. Of God it is said in Genesis that he rested on the Sabbath, after creating everything. So the commandment which obliges people to rest on the Sabbath is a strict injunction to imitate God. And the person who doesn’t rest on the Sabbath is a sinner, because he is neither obeying nor imitating God (which comes to the same thing). Here too we see an element of John’s code. In John 5 Jesus cures an invalid on the Sabbath, and the authorities reproach him for this. Jesus declares to them: “My Father is working up until the present, and I also work” (John 5:17).The reply is rather more dense than it seems and constitutes a formal denial that God is resting on the Sabbath, as well as an affirmation that Creation has yet to be completed, and that for this reason Jesus carries on with his work of bringing Creation to fulfillment on the Sabbath. Now, back at John 9 we note that when the disciples asked Jesus at the beginning of the story who sinned that this man should have been born blind, he replied that neither he nor his parents, but that: He is blind so that the works of God may be manifest in him.
That is to say, for John the matter of the Sabbath, the healing, and the continuing of Creation go absolutely together. The cure on a Sabbath has as its purpose to show God’s continued creative power mediated by Jesus. For the same reason, the reaction of the Pharisees is a sign of a profound disagreement with Jesus as to who God is and how God acts. Either the Sabbath serves to bring about a separation between those who observe it, and are thus good, and those who do not and are not, and God is defined, which also means limited, by the Law. Or alternatively the Sabbath is a symbol of Creation still unfinished, and is an opportunity for God to reveal his loving-kindness to humans, and God is identified by his exuberant creativity. (pp. 31-32)
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
3. Stanley Hauerwas, “Sinsick,” in Sin, Death, & the Devil, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jensen, pages 7-21. Hauerwas begins with some wonderful musings about the place of modern medicine in our lives, and its main category of “illness,” as something that has replaced the medieval cathedrals and its main category of “sin.” He follows with an interesting section on Aquinas’ view of sin. But he brings both these together with a concluding section that basically lays out James Alison‘s elaboration of sin in The Joy of Being Wrong. The title of Hauerwas’ section is even intentionally an affirmation of Alison’s work: “The Joy of Being Sick,” commenting in the footnote (#17), “It will become obvious how much I owe Alison’s quite extraordinary presentation for the general argument of this paper.” (p. 17)
Here are some interesting points in the first section that help set up an Alisonian parsing of sin.
Before exploring how sickness manifests our sin I need to make clear why for most people the language of being sick seems more intelligible than being a sinner. I think the answer is very simple — we are atheists. Even if we say we believe in God, most of our lives are constituted by practices that assume that God does not exist. The most effective means I have discovered to illustrate this is to ask people how they want to die. We all want to die quickly, painlessly, in our sleep, and without being a burden. We do not want to be a burden because we can no longer trust our children. We want to die quickly, painlessly, and in our sleep because when we die we do not want to know we are dying.It is quite interesting to contrast this with the past, when the death Christians feared was a sudden death. They feared a sudden death because such a death meant they might die unreconciled with their neighbors, their church, and, of course, God. We no longer fear the judgment of God, but we do fear death. So our lives are lived in an attempt to avoid death (or at least the knowledge that we are to die) as long as we can. As any doctor can tell you, sickness is the intimation of death — even hangnails. Accordingly we order our lives to be free of sickness. But so ordered, sickness becomes overdetermined as a description that indicates any aspect of our lives that threatens death. Growing old turns out, therefore, to be an illness. (pp. 8-9)
And a point about why medical schools have so much more prestige than divinity schools:
That medicine has such power is one of the reasons medical schools are more morally impressive than, for example, divinity schools. When challenged about where schools of virtue may exist, I often say Paris Island and/or medical schools. For example, a person can come to divinity school today saying, “I am not really into Christology this year. I am really into relating. I would like to take more courses in CPE.” They are likely to be confirmed in that option by being told, “Right, take CPE, after all that is what ministry is — relating. Learn to be a wounded healer.” Contrast that with a medical student who might say, “I am not really into anatomy this year. I am really into people. I would like to take another course in psychiatry.” They would be told, “We do not care what you are ‘into.’ Take anatomy or ship out.” That is real moral education if not formation. Why is medical education so morally superior to ministerial education? I think the answer is very simple. No one believes that an inadequately trained priest might damage their salvation; but people do believe that an inadequately trained doctor might hurt them. (p. 9)
Finally, he makes a point that I’ve pondered for years, noticing how the constant construction and expansion of the local hospital has replaced the similar behavior toward the local cathedrals of medieval Europe:
This set of presumptions, of course, has resulted in giving extraordinary power to the medical profession. The hospitals at Duke, Duke North and Duke South, are like the cathedrals of the past — our Chartres and Notre Dames that testify not as those cathedrals did to what we love but rather are testimonies to what we fear. As I often point out to seminarians, if you want some idea of what medieval Christianity felt like, hang around any modern research medical center. The description “Byzantine” fails to do justice to the complex forms of power exercised in such a context. (p. 9)
5. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #8.
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 2, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Jesus Completes Creation“; and in 2014, “Unfinished and In Formation“; and in 2017, “Daytime Sight Made Possible.”
8. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “Seeing with More Than The Eyes“; and in 2017, “Sight and Vision Recreated.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I’ve used this story of John 9 with confirmation students with some effectiveness. The drama of the narrative helps to unpack some of these ideas that even adolescents can relate to. The latter idea of continuing creation, for example, I connected with those posters that have been popular, that say something to the effect of: ‘God doesn’t make junk. He just isn’t finished with me yet.’ This helps to capture the whole crux of the story in John 9. We see unfinished parts of creation and turn them into justifications for expulsion, assuming ourselves in the category of being finished. (Or, if we do happen to see the defect in ourselves, it justifies self-hatred and self-destructive behavior.) Again, Alison’s summary: “The result is sin turned on its head. Sin ceases to be some defect which apparently excludes someone from the group of the righteous, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of expulsion” (p. 38, twice). Jesus, however, could see an unfinished part of creation (i.e., the man born blind from birth) and use it to reveal the glory of God’s ongoing creativity — at the same time that he also revealed our penchant to use it for expulsion and death.
Coupled with Alison’s overall point in chapter 4 of JBW, the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help us to see that even our penchant for expulsion and death is essentially an unfinished part of creation (i.e., our blindness as a species, since our birth in collective murder — so which is the more amazing miraculous healing?). It is capable of being forgiven so that we might truly be given Eternal Life.
2. In 2002 I continued using character monologs for the sermon with one entitled “Healing a Deeper Blindness,” making use of Alison’s insights. Since it is such a long Gospel Lesson, I also had the congregation be seated and read John’s text within the monolog as the basis for telling the story. In a different parish in 2014, we were using the dramatic monologue approach, and I updated the earlier version, “Healing a Deeper Blindness (2.0).”
3. All of this also relates to the conversation in John 3 of two weeks ago (Lent 2A). Jesus begins with a pronouncement about entering the Kingdom of God by being born again from above and concludes (the lectionary reading) in 3:16-17 with talk of saving the whole world. This cosmic context of the Kingdom of God and saving the world goes against the typical reading of a contemporary “evangelical” who focuses solely on the individual as being saved for the afterlife. This passage, and John’s Gospel as a whole, is about much more than the rebirth of the individual (though it is about that, too). It is about the rebirth of “the world.” With the Girardian anthropology we see that creation of “the world” is most typically about the birth of human society, the birth of the order out of chaos that holds human communities together. This birth, according to the hypothesis of mimetic theory, happens around the corpse of one collectively murdered. It thus will take the Cross, the Son of Man raised up on a pole like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, to give humanity a chance for rebirth — once again around the corpse of one collectively murdered, but this time with a difference: the true God intervenes and raises this one we murdered as a new reality based in forgiveness. The cultures of humanity have the opportunity to be reborn into the Culture (Kingdom) of God as increasing individuals are reborn to begin living (“eternal life”) in God’s Culture, by the Spirit, at the same time that they continue to live in human cultures, by the flesh. (Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, “simultaneously saint and sinner”?)