Excerpt from James Alison's Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, New York: Crossroads, 2001, pages 3-26.


the man blind from birth and the
Creator's subversion of sin


I would like to undertake with you a reading of Chapter 9 of John's gospel. The reading will not be a simple commentary, but an attempt to experiment with the perspective of the reading. That is to say, we're asking "Who is reading this passage?", "With whom do we identify?" And the reason for this approach is to nudge us into beginning to raise certain questions of fundamental morals, how we talk about them, or live them in a more or less coherent and convincing way. I can't promise you any great conclusions, because this is an experimental approach to the subject. I should also begin by saying that my intention is not to cause scandal, but to provoke a discussion which allows a fuller way of living a Christian life. In this sense what I'm trying out is an attempt at a search for a theological method which I have not yet mastered and which, if developed, will, I hope, prove somewhat emancipatory for all of us.

miracle or theological debate?

Let us begin our reading of John 9. At first sight we have an account of a miraculous healing. It is the story of a man blind from birth who receives his sight from Jesus one Sabbath, and then of the consequences of this healing among the people who witness, or hear about, the matter. If the account were to be found in one of the synoptic Gospels, perhaps it might remain at that -- there is no shortage of such stories. I have no doubt that, in the background to the story, we're dealing with an historical incident of a healing carried out by Jesus on a Sabbath. However, here the "miraculous healing" element doesn't receive much emphasis, nor does the Sabbath -- or rather, the matter of the Sabbath does receive a certain weight, as we will see later on, but with some very idiosyncratically Johannine touches. In any case, the purpose of this chapter is determined by the debate about sin, sight, blindness and judgement within which it is set: these are the jeweler's artwork which show forth, and make sense of, the gem of the healing.

Let us look at the beginning of the story. Jesus sees a man born blind, and his disciples ask him:

"Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (9:2)
Jesus answers them:
"Neither this man nor his parents. He is blind so that the works of God may be made manifest in him." (9:3)
That is to say, the whole story which follows comes as an illustration of Jesus' answer to this question of his disciples. Now, I think we've all heard this passage before, and we've probably heard the commentary that is normally made about it, which is that, in those days, people used to attribute moral causes to physical evils (like illnesses) or to natural disasters (like earthquakes or tempests). Jesus would, then, be breaking with this tendency, proper to a primitive religious culture, even though still very present in our own society, and giving instead a divine answer to the problem. Well, this interpretation, while partially correct, doesn't go to the heart of the matter, which seems to me to be much more interesting.

Let's look at the end of the story. We have the former blind man who sees Jesus, and, believing in the Son of Man, worships him. Jesus then comments:

"I have come into the world for a judgement (or discernment), that those who do not see may see, while those who see will become blind." When they heard this the Pharisees who were with him asked him "Are we also blind?" Jesus answered them: "If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you say that you see, your sin remains." (9:39-41)
So the whole account has as its frame a discussion about sin. Blindness and sight come to be a way of talking about much more than questions of the health of the eyes. Jesus' final comment is simply enigmatic if we don't follow what has happened meanwhile. Now let us turn to see what has happened in between our two quotes.

the account of an inclusion

What we have is something like two stories intertwined with each other, the story of an inclusion and the story of an exclusion. The story of the inclusion is easy. There was a man who had a defect: he had not finished being created, for when he was born he was lacking sight. This is not only to be excluded from a particular human good, but it is also, by being defective, to be excluded from a fullness of participation in Israel. His physical defect was also a cultic impediment, because only flawless people were permitted to serve God's cult (just as unblemished lambs were needed for sacrifice). A son of Aaron, for example, a member of the priestly caste, could not officiate at worship if he had a physical defect. However, in matters social a purely ritual exclusion doesn't remain at the level of the merely physical. Since ritual has to do with the maintenance of the purity and goodness of the group, so a physical defect which implied a ritual defect also implied a moral defect. In this way, the disciples, as ordinary people of their time and circumstances, deduced from the blind man's physical state some kind of moral problem, whence their question: "Who sinned that this man be born blind?" (9:2).

Now, please notice the route which the logic follows. The defect excludes; that which excludes from the group also excludes from the way in which the group makes itself good; whence it is deduced that that which excludes has a serious moral cause. In this way, the result of the process, the fact of being excluded from the goodness of the group, is taken as a cause, and by cause, please understand, fault: "Who sinned?" This is, indeed, a certain sort of logic. It is an absolutely common logic, and we find it in diverse forms round about us without much difficulty: it's called blaming the victim. If someone is assaulted, she must have been doing something to provoke it; if black people have a low socio-economic status, it must be because they are really more stupid or lazy than others; if someone has AIDS, it must be a punishment from God for some form of deviant behavior. And so think we all in some situations, above all when we're children, and totally dependent on our parents: if something bad happens at home, or our parents are quarreling, or alcoholic, or are getting divorced, then, in some mysterious way, the fault is ours. If we behave ourselves, making a promise or a vow to God, St Jude, or whoever, then everything will be sorted out. Psychologists call this sort of thinking 'magic', and we all have to grow beyond it somehow.

Well, Jesus' attitude is far removed from magic thinking: not only is it far removed, but he gives us a lesson in the subversion from within of this mentality. He proceeds to carry out an inclusion. First he spits on the earth, and from the clay he makes a paste and anoints the blind man's eyes. Here we have a Hebrew pun, disguised by the Greek of the text. Clay is adamah, and it is that from which God originally made "Adam," humankind, in Genesis 2:7. So, here, what Jesus is doing is the act of finishing creation. The man born blind had palpably not been brought to the fullness of creation, and Jesus finishes off the process by adding the missing clay. The blind man still does not see, and Jesus sends him to a pool where baths of ritual purification took place, and when he comes out, the blind man begins to see. Now, this question of the pool of Siloam is interesting, because it is normally interpreted as a reference to the waters of baptism, and I don't think that there's anything wrong with that, because Baptism is (or should be) the rite of inclusion par excellence. However, I think that what is important here is not the allusion to the rite, but to the inclusion: it is from his bathing in a Jewish pool that the blind man comes to be fully included in the Jewish people, and this is beautifully shown in the text. Up until this point the blind man has not said anything. He has not even had voice or name: he has always been a "him" or a "that one," recognized by his blindness and his position as a beggar. Even when he begins to see, people carry on talking about "him," until the moment when the former blind man interrupts to say "It is I."

From that moment on, they deign to speak to him, and address him as "you." At this point he does not know much about Jesus, for he has not even seen him, since it was only at the pool that he actually began to see. In the rest of the story we see the gradual process by which he becomes aware of who Jesus is. Under interrogation he says that Jesus is a prophet: a perfectly reasonable conclusion. It is as if one of us who received an important cure at the hands of somebody were to call that person a saint. The authorities doubt that he was originally blind, and seek other evidence to determine whether or not he had ever seen before, calling his parents, who point out that their son is an adult, and that he can answer for himself. Another moment of inclusion: now he is an adult, and has the use of the word and responsibility for his actions. Since he knows that he has been cured, he becomes stubborn in the face of his interrogators: his replies get longer, bolder, and more obstinate. He had said that Jesus was a prophet, and of course the Pharisees produce the principal prophet to whom they subscribe: Moses.

"We know that God spoke to Moses, but this fellow, we don't know from where he comes." (9:29)
At this moment the former blind man replies with a formidable lucidity:
"Well, isn't that extraordinary, that you don't know from where he comes, when he has opened my eyes. We know that God doesn't listen to sinners, but to those who worship him and do his will. Not since the dawn of time (ek tou aiônos) has it been heard that anybody has opened the eyes of a man born blind. If he didn't come from God, he could do nothing." (9:30-33)
Now, please notice here an important grammatical game. The Pharisees use the word "we" to exclude the former blind man's "you":
"You are his disciple; We are disciples of Moses." (9:28)
That is to say their "we" is defined by contrast with "you." However the former blind man doesn't accept their game, but he answers in terms of an "us," counting himself in with the Pharisees:
"We know that God doesn't listen to sinners, but to those who worship him and do his will." (9:31)
That is to say, he is debating in objective terms starting from the common ground of being a son of Moses, along with the Pharisees, and his position is very interesting:
"Not since the dawn of time has it been heard that anybody has opened the eyes of a man blind from birth." (9:32)
Please notice John's code: from the dawn of time means: since the creation of the world. Only the Creator could carry out this act of finishing off Creation, and if Jesus did not proceed from the Creator, he couldn't have brought about this act of finishing off Creation. The former blind man has perceived the full meaning of the clay, the adamah: in his person God was finishing off the creation of Adam. From a sub-person without voice or membership, he has come to be an included adult, and one who is, furthermore, a fine interpreter of the things of God. Shortly afterwards Jesus comes up to him, and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. Since the former blind man has still never seen Jesus, he doesn't recognize the one who cured him. Jesus identifies himself, and the former blind man prostrates himself in worship before him. He has moved from a theoretical recognition that this man had to have proceeded from God in order to be able to complete the work of Creation, to a full recognition of God in his life. Now he is the complete human, what we would call a Christian: the two things go together. The Christian is one who recognizes that it is through Jesus that she is brought to the completion of her creation, and for this reason is progressively inducted, which means included, into the life of God, which is life without end.

the account of an exclusion

Thus far the account of the inclusion. But we're only half way through the affair. There is also, and the two accounts are intertwined, the account of an exclusion. The blind man begins excluded. So far, no problem. He is merely an occasion for the curiosity of passers-by, allowing them to wonder about the mysteries of the moral causality of physical misfortunes. The established order has no problem with the existence of excluded people. Rather, as we will see, it depends on them. In the degree to which our blind man comes to be included, he provokes first curiosity, and then rejection.

Once cured, the former blind man is taken to the Pharisees. These Johannine figures 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." (9:3)
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 lovingkindness to humans, and God is identified by his exuberant creativity.

Well, it is their realization that this is what is at stake that produces a schism among the Pharisees. For some of them:

"This man does not keep the Sabbath; he cannot come from God." (9:16)
while for others:
"And how could a sinner carry out such signs?" (9:16)
Now the last thing that the Pharisees need has begun to happen: an internal division, which prevents them from taking joint action because there are two diametrically opposed positions in their group. What is the quickest way of overcoming this schism? While there is to be found a man who is incontrovertibly cured, the two possible interpretations of his cure, that it is from God, or that it is not from God (being instead the fruit of some diabolic deception) are bound to persist. And there is no way of resolving such a problem through reasoned discussion. So the problem of the cure has to be dealt with quickly by denying that it ever happened. If the man had never really been blind from birth, then neither has he been cured, and so there is no problem. So, they propose that there was no cure, and the parents of the former blind man are called so as to try to get out of them "the truth" about their son -- that is, that he was not, and never had been, blind.

Well, imagine the reaction of the parents. They know full well that their son had been blind, and that now he is not. However the last thing that they want, they or anybody with a modicum of common sense, is to get caught up in the midst of a group of the indignant just who are showing signs of needing to vent their righteousness. So the parents limit their reply to a minimum: that their son was indeed born blind, and that they have no idea how it is that he now sees. They want to get out as quickly as possible from this potentially violent circle, so they dump their son back into the middle of it, but now with a new status: as an adult who will have to interpret for himself what has happened to him. So they manage to get out of the threat of being victimized by the group of the "righteous just" by offering their son in their stead.

The first attempt of the group of the Pharisees to get out of the problem by the way of unreality, the denial of the existence of the problem, failed. Now they'll have to get the recipient of the cure to remove their problem for them. They regroup for this new sortie, and call in the former blind man. At this point they adopt a solemn, judicial, tone as befits serious men who must deliberate gravely with knowledge of legal matters. First they present the former blind man with their premise: that man (that is Jesus) is, without any shade of doubt, a sinner. So, they conjure the former blind man with the appropriate legal phrase "Give Glory to God" meaning: solemnly recognize this fact. (1) Please notice how they proceed. They were unable to recreate their unity by the most convenient means, which would be by the cure turning out never to have happened in the first place. They have to recognize that something did in fact happen. What is important now for them is to produce an unanimous and solemn agreement concerning the interpretation of what did in fact happen. It is as if they were to say: 'You, keep your cure, since we can't get around the fact that you have been cured, but, please, recognize that the cure comes from an evil source. That is, it doesn't matter what has actually happened just so long as you agree with us as to its interpretation. In this way we'll manage to maintain our unity, and you too can form part of the group, you can enter into solidarity with us.'

The former blind man responds with one of the most splendid lines of our religious tradition, and one which we should perhaps take much more seriously:

"Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know; the only thing I know is that before I was blind, and now I see." (9:25)
That is to say, the former blind man shows a healthy lack of concern for the moral dimension of the issue, a sane agnosticism, and holds on instead only to what is incontrovertibly good: an evident change in his life. By showing this agnosticism he is, at the same time, refusing to participate in solidarity against the one who cured him. And that means he has refused to imitate his parents. They had left him in the centre of the circle, as a probable object of target practice for the righteous just. He could have done the same thing, saying of Jesus 'Yes indeed, he is a sinner.' In that way he'd have managed both to get his sight and get out of the centre of the circle, leaving Jesus in his place as sole recipient of the group's ire, making himself instead a member of the club. In order to do this he'd have to give false witness under oath, for he has been solemnly conjured, but there's never been a shortage of people willing to give false witness if the occasion should merit it.

The former blind man refuses to cloak himself with the interpretation demanded by the group, so the group has to find another way out of the problem. Since, owing to his previous status as a blind beggar, he is ignorant, perhaps there was some hint in the concrete way in which the cure was carried out which might allow them to reach the desired interpretation. So they ask him once again what it was that Jesus had done. Perhaps in the description of the act something formally sinful might be detected which would allow them to interpret the act as a sin, now that they can't count on the helpful solidarity of the former blind man. They'd already heard the details before, but perhaps going over the evidence again some elements of witchcraft might be revealed, or anything which would allow them to say: 'You see! He did something evil that something good might come, so the cure cannot come from God.'

At this stage the former blind man begins to ridicule their ever more detailed efforts to produce a legal interpretation which allows them to maintain their unity. He asks them if they don't want to become Jesus' disciples themselves. After all, a close investigation of the procedure for carrying out a miracle could be motivated either by a flattering desire to imitate in order to do the same thing, or, as in this case, by the envious desire to get rid of the object of jealousy. It is this remark which produces the detonation of insults. Now, please notice that up until this point they haven't insulted him, and, if we were to take one of the group aside to ask him what they were doing, he would probably have explained that he sympathized with the former blind man. After all, the poor fellow hadn't done anything wrong: he was the victim of the evil of another (in this case Jesus), and doesn't understand the danger that he's in. The crux of the question is this: if he can only be persuaded to interpret what has happened to him with the certainty which they are offering him, then he will be safe, one of the group of the good guys. No problem. They are conducting this interrogation for his own good, and want, up till the last moment, to save him. It's only at the point where they perceive that the former blind man doesn't respect the sincerity of their efforts to lead him down the right path that they begin to mistreat him. That's when they perceive that, even though he isn't formally one of Jesus' followers, for he doesn't even know him, he's keeping himself independent of the group of the just and their opinions. And it is because of this that he becomes an object of mockery: 'We tried to reason with him; we sought every possible opportunity to show him the right way to go, but he became stubborn in his error.' From sweet reasoning they move to insult.

The first step in this process is their militant affirmation of their group's goodness and their security in their convictions: this is what allows them to become united. The former blind man has managed to resolve their problem of dissension by allowing them to join together in insulting him. Before, they were unable to say "we" in a convincing way, because there were disagreements of interpretation in their midst. Now they can be united, producing a shining "we" by contrast with a well-defined "they":

"You may be a disciple of his; we are disciples of Moses. We know for a fact..." (9:28)
While they are building up to an ever more rabid unity, in their midst the one who is about to be their victim, on whom they will discharge their wrath, is becoming ever more lucid, giving weighty theological arguments, more fitting for a doctor than for a beggar. The eye of the hurricane is a centre of peace and revelation while the expelling rage builds to fever pitch: the former blind man explains very clearly that the source of his cure can be deduced without difficulty. God would not have acted through Jesus if Jesus were a sinner, and of no one has it been heard that they could carry out an act of creation 'ex nihilo' except God alone, whence it can be deduced that:
"If this man did not come from God, he could have done nothing." (9:33)
The logic is perfect, but we're beyond the stage where logic matters. The most explicit revelation happens in the tornado of expulsion. The "righteous just" are no longer interested in arguments: they've got what they wanted, which is to build up their unity as a group, and they move from casual insults to a straightforward description of the former blind man as absolutely identified with sin. Because of this he is a contaminating element, and they expel him.

Please notice how the thing works. It is not that they reach, independently, the conclusion that the man is absolutely sin, and then, after a long and mature deliberation, decide to throw him out. Rather, the mechanism by which they build their unity issues forth simultaneously in the description of the man as sin and in his expulsion. He couldn't be expelled if he weren't sin, and he wouldn't be sin if it hadn't become necessary to expel him. We're back to magic thought: if someone is excluded, for example, because he's blind, then, somewhere there must be a sin involved. We've advanced not at all.

the subversion of sin

Well, so much for the account of the expulsion. You will have noticed that the accounts of the inclusion and of the exclusion are not independent, but are interwoven, and the account of the inclusion occurs in the middle of, and in a certain sense provokes, the account of the exclusion. In the same way, the account of the exclusion produces and fulfills the account of the inclusion, for it is in the midst of the mechanism of expulsion, and while he is suffering it, that the former blind man comes to have a real clarity with respect to what has been going on, and who Jesus is.

Now, Jesus' final phrases about blindness and sight come to be a commentary about exactly this double account of inclusion and exclusion. In the first place Jesus says that he has come to the world to open a trial, or judgement, or discernment. Any of these words will do. This trial, or judgement, which is not realised until his death, constitutes the subversion from within of what the world understands by sin, and goodness and justice. (2) Thus, beginning from his death these realities will be understood from the viewpoint of the excluded one, and not from that of the expellers. It is the innocent victim who is constituted judge, precisely as victim. Those who remain under judgement are those who thought that they were judging. The story of the man born blind thus has a role as a prophetic commentary on what is to happen to Jesus, and how what happens to Jesus is going to function. It is going to function as an element which makes it impossible for the righteous, the good, those who think that they see, to maintain for long their goodness by the exclusion of people considered evil, sinful, or blind. We're talking about the same mechanism as has made it impossible for the Argentine or Chilean military to keep a tranquil conscience about what they did during their dictatorships, however many amnesties and indults they may have received. Because now, since a vague rumour about the death and resurrection of Jesus has been spread abroad, which is also the redefinition of who is just, and of God, in terms of the victim, it is not possible for them to cover up for ever their suspicion that their own victims, those who they threw into the ocean from their aeroplanes, were innocent. In the long run nothing of the ideology of national security, nor all the arguments about the intrinsic perversity of communists, has managed to shore up their once militant belief that they were the good guys, and their victims the bad guys. (3)

All of this means that, for Jesus, the double account of the inclusion and the exclusion is not simply an instance of something interesting, but is paradigmatic of the process of the subversion from within of sin. Let us look at it once more. The one who was blind came to understand who God is, how he works, how his creative vivaciousness continues desiring the good and the growth and the life of the person. And the blind man is purely receptive: he does nothing to earn or win his sight. He just grows in the midst of the mechanism of expulsion, holding firm to a basic sense of justice: one doesn't call evil someone who has done me good, nor does one enter into solidarity with those who want to call him evil. That's all. The expellers, for their part, grow, also, but in security and conviction of their righteousness, goodness and unity, in the degree to which the mechanism of expulsion operates through them. 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.

God has not the slightest difficulty in bringing to a fullness of creation the person who is in some way incomplete and recognizes this. The problem is with those who think that they are complete, and that creation is, at least in their case, finished, and for this reason that goodness consists in the maintenance of the established order by the means we have seen: goodness is defined starting from the unity of the group, at the expense of, and by contrast with, the excluded evil one. The righteous members of the group, thinking that they see, become blind precisely by holding on to the order which they think that they have to defend. Whence we glimpse the deeper meaning of the Sabbath in John's thought. The Sabbath is the symbol of creation not yet complete. Either we grab at it, making it a criterion for division between good and evil, in which case we are resisting God who is alone capable of bringing to being even the things that are not, without rest. Or else we receive the creative goodness of God which carries us to plenitude. Sin is resistance, in the name of God, to the creative work of God which seeks to include us all.

Well, this subversion of sin seems to me to be much more important than it is normally reckoned. Please allow me to repeat its crystalized definition. Sin ceases to be a defect which excludes, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of exclusion. If I have taken such a long time to get to this it is because I wanted it to be evident that we aren't talking about an example of magnanimity, or liberalism, or lack of rigour, on Jesus' part, but about something much stronger. We are talking about a profound theological exercise which is, exactly as a theological exercise, the word of God. This means that we are offered something very fundamental: not a law, or a moral exhortation, but the re-forging of the meaning of sin. For humans sin is one thing, and for God it is something else, which is not simply different from the human version, but its complete subversion from within.

What we are offered is, let me remark again, not a law, nor a fixed criterion, nor an explanatory theory, but a dynamic story, the story of an inclusion and an exclusion. And it is the dynamic story which constitutes the principle of judgement for the moral activity, which is to say, the activity, of humans. Furthermore it is not something we can grasp, nor learn by rote, because it is a matter of the explicitation of a mechanism of involvement. This is what is important: the story itself acts as a subversive element. If this story is the word of God, then the word of God acts in our midst as an element which is continuously subversive of our notions of order, of goodness, of clear moral understanding, and so on. And moral life, far from being a going to the trenches in defense of this or that position of incontrovertible goodness comes to be something much more subtle. Let's do a little investigation of this subtlety.

from where do we read the story?

If you are anything like me, when you read the story of the man born blind, it is evident straight away that there is a good guy and some bad guys. That is to say, leaving Jesus to one side for the moment, there is the blind man, the good guy, and the Pharisees, the bad guys. What is normal is that all our sympathy is on the side of the former blind man, and our just despite is reserved for the Pharisees. In fact, that we should put ourselves on the side of the victim operates as something of a cultural imperative. And this cultural imperative can be very important: in fact, for any who feel themselves excluded, or treated as defective, by the reigning social and moral order, it is of incalculable importance to discover that this feeling of being excluded or defective has nothing to do with God, that it is purely a social mechanism, and God rather wants to include us and carry us to a fullness of life which will probably cause scandal to the partisans of the reigning order. Well, indeed, it seems to me that this cultural imperative is extremely important, and I know nobody who is not capable, in some way or other, of feeling identified with the victim in some part of her life. The problem is that this 'being identified with the victim' can come to be used as an arm with which to club others: the victims become the group of the "righteous just" in order to exclude the poor Pharisees, who are never in short supply as the butts of easy mockery.

Well, it seems to me that John 9 takes us beyond this inversion of roles which it apparently produces. We find it, for cultural reasons which are, thank God, unstoppable, easy to identify with the excluded one, and difficult to identify with the "righteous just." But for this very reason it seems to me that this chapter requires of us a great effort, which I scarcely show signs of making, to read the story with something like sympathy for the Pharisees. When all is said and done, we don't pick up even a little bit of the force of the story until we realize what a terrible shake up it administers to our received notions of good and evil. In a world where nobody understood the viewpoint of the victim, we would all be right to side with the victim. But we live in a world where almost nobody "comes out" as a Pharisee or a hypocrite, and it seems to me that the way to moral learning proceeds in that direction.

I've underlined how the story functions as a subversion from within of the notion of sin, and this is absolutely certain, and we must never lose this intuition. Well now: the process of subversion goes a long way beyond this. This is because the excluded victim accedes, thanks to this subversion, to the possibility of speech, and of talking about himself and about God. However, in exactly that moment, he has to learn to un-pharisee his own discourse. The very moment he accedes to the word he ceases to be the excluded one, and has to begin to learn how not to be an expeller. And this is the genius of morals by story, rather than by laws or virtues: in the story there are two positions: that of the victim and that of the expellers, just as in the story of the prodigal son there is the 'bad' brother who receives forgiveness, and the 'good' brother who never wandered, and does not know of his need for forgiveness. And we don't grasp the force of the story, nor its exigency as a divine subversion of the human, if we don't identify with the two positions at the same time.

I don't think that there's anybody here who isn't partially excluded and partially an excluder, in whom the two poles of this story don't cohabit. For, the moment we have access to the moral word (which is certainly the case at the very least for all of us who are receiving some sort of theological education) we can't grasp on to our 'goodness' as excluded ones. Instead we have to begin to questions ourselves as to the complicity of our use of words, and above all our use of religious and theological words, in the creation of an expulsive goodness.

In this sense it seems to me that the key instruction of the New Testament with relation to moral discourse, and it is a doubly sacred instruction, for it is one of the very few places where Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures with absolute approval -- and he quotes it twice. The key instruction for those of us who are trying to make use of the religious word in some moral sense, and there is no moral theology that is not that, is:

"But go and learn what it means: I want mercy and not sacrifice." (Matt. 9:13) (4)
Please notice that this is now no longer an instruction just for the Pharisees, but is, so to speak, the programme-guide for whoever tries to do moral theology. Being good can never do without the effort to learn, step by step, and in real circumstances of life, how to separate religious and moral words from an expelling mechanism, which demands human sacrifice, so as to make of them words of mercy which absolve, which loose, which allow Creation to be brought to completion. And this means that there is no access to goodness which does not pass through our own discovery of our complicity in hypocrisy, for it is only as we identify with the "righteous just" of the story that we realize how "good" their procedure was, how careful, scrupulous, law-abiding, they were, and thus, how catastrophic our goodness can be, if we don't learn step by step how to get out of solidarity with the mechanism of the construction of the unity of the group by the exclusion of whoever is considered to be evil.

transforming gossip into gospel

I want to conclude with a tale which leaves me perplexed, a tale whose relevance to you is not immediately evident, for it is taken from a distant culture. However, it is one from which we can all suck out some nectar. I'd like to consider the story from a few years ago of the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna. The physical distance of the tale from all of our lives allows us to consider it with a certain lack of passion. I must say, for starters, that I do not know personally any of those involved in this story, and have no more information about the truth of the matter than that offered by the mass media, which doesn't always present either the whole story or its true kernel. That is to say, I'm nothing other than the recipient of a piece of ecclesiastical gossip, part, as I imagine us all to be, of that myriad troop of slightly flapping, reddening ears. For this reason nothing of what I say can be understood as an attempt to work out the truth of what really happened, but instead is to be taken as an attempt to transform something sacrificial, the gossip, into the merciful, the Gospel. Let us see if I can pull it off; and of course this is only an exercise, and because of that is patient of any correction or development that you might like to suggest.

The details of the story are, apparently, as follows: around Eastertide 1995 a man of thirty-seven years claimed publicly to have had sexual relations on several occasions twenty years ago with the man who is now the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna. Twenty years ago, the denouncer was seventeen, and a minor, at least legally, though the discretion in the sexual behaviour of seventeen year-olds is in many cases greater than the law would have us believe. Twenty years ago the Cardinal didn't occupy his present position but was, if I'm not mistaken, a Benedictine superior. Well, either the accusations are true, or they are not. If the accusation is false, the moral question is pretty clear: the Cardinal is victim of a calumny, and the calumny is particularly devastating, because there is a certain prurient delight in all our societies when a piece of ecclesiastical hypocrisy is unmasked. A delight which, it must be said, is not entirely without its roots in passages of the Gospel like the one we have been studying, and is a delight that is not to be dismissed as simply evil. That is to say, I imagine that the first reaction of a good number of people was, as mine was, and against the presumption of the civil law, to suppose the guilt of the accused. And this is because it is no secret that the monosexual clerical world tends, like the monosexual military or police worlds, if there are any left, to propitiate an elaborately structured homosexual closet. The result of an accusation of this sort is, for that reason, particularly cruel, because it falls in terrain where people are strongly disposed towards believing it. That is to say, mud of this sort, once slung, almost always sticks, whether justly or not.

In the case that the accusation be false, the moral matter is, as I said, fairly clear. The Cardinal is a victim, and the accuser is a stone-thrower. We would have to ask why the accuser threw the stones, whether through malice or mental disturbance. In any case, the matter would be how to treat the accused in a merciful manner without becoming an accomplice of his game. It may be that, when all is brought into the light, the result is the exoneration of the Cardinal and the trial of the accuser.

Now, let us imagine the contrary, without any attempt to know if it be true or not. Let us imagine that the accusation is true. A 37-year-old man says that he sustained a series of sexual relations with a man many years his senior, and in a certain position of moral authority, twenty years ago. When he says this, the accuser is not, as far as I know, making a particular thing of having been traumatized in his tenderest youth by this experience, far-reaching though its emotional consequences may have been. His motivation, apparently (and this is all through the professional gossip of the press) was that the Cardinal in his present position was sending gay people to hell from the pulpit, in the time-honoured way, by means of a pastoral letter. Against this ecclesiastical violence, the 37-year-old reacted by revealing the hypocrisy of the discourse. Apparently four or five other men of a similar age joined in the accusation, saying that the same thing had happened to them at the hands of the same Cardinal, at about the same period many years ago. So, there is more than one witness, and the belief of the public inclines strongly to the probability that the accusations be true. Let us remember that if they are not, then ganging up with others to give a false witness leading to the moral lynching of someone is one of the most atrocious of crimes, one for which, in capital cases, the Hebrew Scriptures reserve the penalty of death by stoning. So, if the accusations turn out to be false, we would have to exercise ourselves as to how the merciful and non-sacrificial treatment of these proto-lynchers should be conducted. With luck, the Cardinal would lead the way, forgiving them for they knew not what they did.

However, let us imagine, as at least a part of the public has done, that the appearance of these people does not have as its end the gratuitous destruction of the Cardinal. Nor is it a question of a bust-up between former lovers, one of those nasty fights that could happen to absolutely anyone, and are, by their nature, absolutely undecidable, and the less public their consequences, the better for everyone. Let us imagine that that is not what it's all about in the view of the accusers, but rather the desire that the Cardinal, and ecclesiastical authority in general, stop throwing stones at gay people.

Now the scene changes somewhat. Suddenly the Cardinal is not the victim. Neither are those men who, when younger, were the recipients of his favours (and who have not, as far as I know presented themselves as 'victims', in marked contrast to some of the cases of sexual abuse in the USA where the minors involved were very much younger). Suddenly the Cardinal stands revealed as an hypocritical Pharisee: that is, as someone who said one thing and did another. And here indeed, all our medium-rare, 'anonymous,' Christian instincts rise up triumphant: we understand the role very well; the Cardinal's role is the same as that of the bad guys in the stories about Jesus. And there is a certain glee in the whole affair. The glee is even greater when we learn that the Cardinal, a very conservative prelate, was appointed by Rome as part of a policy of restoration of the "hard line" in Central Europe, to counter a certain liberalism attributed to his illustrious predecessor in the Archdiocese, Cardinal König. The whole affair seems absolutely typical of those ecclesiastical attempts, which are no less ridiculous through being so frequent, to 'save' the situation by putting in some hard liner, who turns out to be much more divisive, and leads to much worse moral consequences in the long run.

Well, here we have to interrupt with some factual details, once again derived from the press with I don't know what degree of reliability. The Cardinal kept silence for various weeks, refusing to comment on the matter. A few days later he was reelected, by a narrow margin, as President of the Austrian Bishops' Conference (and let us remember that, under those circumstances, a failure to re-elect him would have been read as an explicit vote of no-confidence on the part of his colleagues in the episcopate). The public protest was so great that, a few days later, the Cardinal published a note in which he denied the accusations formally and categorically, and resigned as President of the Bishops' Conference. A few days later a note emanated from the Austrian Government indicating that the Cardinal no longer exercises his post as Archbishop of Vienna, but has been substituted by one of his auxiliaries, who was named Coadjutor with right of succession, and eventually became the Cardinal Archbishop himself.

However, does the matter remain there? Of course we can imagine this story within the parameters of a typical inversion of the sort: 'The one who seemed a bad guy turned out to be the good guy, and the upholder of goodness and public order was exposed as a hypocrite and a charlatan, so the story ended well.' Certainly it is possible to imagine the story in this way, and to feel very Christian while doing so, with a firm backdrop for our feeling in stories like John 9. However, let us stop and think a little . . . Suddenly the Cardinal, who knows whether justly or not, is left in the position of the excluded sinner. Suddenly he is the shame and mockery of all society. Who helps him? Who is on his side? Of course, if he is innocent of these accusations, then we are dealing with an atrocious injustice, and he has at least the consolation of a good conscience. However, let us imagine, with the public and the press, that he is not innocent. His situation is not less, but much more, atrocious. He has suddenly been marginalized by the ecclesiastical machinery that he thought himself to be serving. It is possible that in his interior he doesn't understand why these things happened to him, for, when all is said and done, he may have done what is attributed to him, but has been to confession and received absolution. Why should these things now rise up and condemn him? Let us imagine also, that, as is probable in the case of a conservative churchman, he has a somewhat individualistic notion of sin: if he did those things, then they are quite simply his fault, full stop. Let us imagine also that he is not capable of taking any theological distance from the incidents by means of a little sociology, and that he doesn't understand the extent to which he has acted driven by the structure of a monosexual clerical caste where repressed homosexuality is very much present. It is a world where many people take part in some very complicated games in order to maintain appearances, going so far as to commit a great deal of violence against themselves and others, precisely through an inability to talk about the question in a natural and honest manner. And this "not being able to talk about the question in a natural and honest manner" turns out to be the "correct" line, upheld by the highest ecclesiastical spheres. Why should the Cardinal's moments of weakness be so severely punished, while those of so many others pass by unnoticed?

Those who now marginalize the Cardinal, including his ecclesiastical colleagues, have participated in a Christian seeming "inversion" of the matter: the pharisee has been transformed into the bad guy. But have they participated in an authentically Christian subversion of the story? Subversion goes much further than inversion, because subversion keeps alive the same mechanism even when the protagonists change. Now, the bad guy, the victim in the centre of the circle of the "righteous just" is the Cardinal. For some people he deserves it. But, are we satisfied with that? Could it be that our gossip is to be transformed only into the Gospel of "he got his just reward"? I fear that, if we speak thus, then our justice really is no greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). Which of us has helped someone in such a ghastly situation as Cardinal Groër, former Archbishop of Vienna? Which of us has tried to identify with the hypocrite, trying to understand the mechanisms which tie us up in hypocrisy, so as together to cut ourselves loose from them? Which of us has spoken out publicly, yet without hate, against the violence of the 'ecclesiastical closet' which fuels a mechanism of covering up and expelling, and expelling to cover up, so strong that it is not simply a question of some vicious individuals, but of a structure which lends itself especially to this vice? And this structure means that the matter cannot be talked about in terms of this or that sinner, who can be expelled or marginalized when they are discovered. It means rather that it is an urgent requirement of a real moral theology that it stop and analyse the system which typically produces this vicious behaviour, to which far too many of its members fall victim, whether as expelled or as expellers.

Is there anyone in Oh-so-Catholic Austria who, instead of accepting the reigning terms of 'goodness' and 'badness', and rejoicing in the transformation of the 'good guy' into a 'bad guy,' set about the ungrateful task of trying to dismantle the whole system of hypocrisy by which we cover up and expel? Here and now, do we recognize our complicity in mechanisms that are similar, when they are not identical, and seek to understand the violent structure of our hypocrisy so as to go about creating ways off the hook for our co-hypocrites?


This is only a first attempt at carrying out a reading of John 9 in such a way as to allow us a sketch of an approach to moral theology that is somewhat removed from the moral discourse to which we are accustomed. I know very well that we are scarcely beginning. However, I'd like to underline this: what the Christian faith offers us in the moral sphere is not law, nor a way of shoring up the order or structure of the supposed goodness of this world, much less the demand that we sally forth on a crusade in favor of these things. It offers us something much more subtle. It offers us the dynamic of the subversion from within of all human goodness, including our own. This is the same thing as saying that the beginning of a Christian moral life is a stumbling into an awareness of our own complicity in hypocrisy, and a becoming aware of quite how violent that hypocrisy is. Starting from there we can begin to stretch out our hands to our brothers and sisters, neither more nor less hypocritical than ourselves, who are on the way to being expelled from the "synagogue" by an apparently united order, which has an excessive and militant certainty as to the evil of the other. Let us then go and learn what this means: 'I want mercy and not sacrifice.'


1. The Johannine irony in the use of this standard legal phrase is exquisite, since it is precisely in refusing to call Jesus a sinner and in being cast out for his pains that the former blind man really does "Give Glory to God."

2. Cf. John 16:8-11.

3. Or that they were 'wheat' and their victims 'tares' in the marvelously satanic interpretation of the parable proposed to one of the officers by an Argentine military chaplain of the time.

4. See also Matt. 12:7, both quoting Hos 6:6.