Jesus' fraternal relocation of God
John 8:31-39 is often read as a particularly striking example of an anti-Semitic tendency which is to be found in all the gospels but especially in John's. Jesus indicates to his interlocutors, ominously called 'the Jews,' that their father is the devil who was a murderer from the beginning, while he is the Son of the Father. This is taken to be an example of community rivalry, a piece of one-upmanship, 'we're better than you are,' what I will refer to as tit for tat, and is read straight back into the construction of the text. Thus, according to this reading, the so-called 'Johannine community' was involved in a tit-for-tat spat either with Judaism as such or with a troublesome local synagogue. Its members read their situation of strife back into their understanding of Jesus, and so tell a story of Jesus which fits in with their concerns. It is the story of Jesus as the definitive one-up man, meaning God is also a one-up God, not so much God as a 'Gott mit uns.' The trouble with this reading is that it uses a sociology of community which leaves God wholly within the framework of human violence and rivalry. God is entirely wedded to strife and the construction of community 'over against' another group. But this is the essence of nihilism. There is nothing but strife: violence is all, only conflict is creative. The implication of this reading of John 8 is that there is nothing of divine revelation in this text, or that if there is, then all that it reveals is that God is at root tit for tat, which is to say the same thing.
Now I'd like to suggest something different. I'd like to suggest that this passage works in a quite different way. I'd like to suggest that John's Jesus is not taking sides in a particular instance of interreligious strife. Rather he is making available a coherent anthropological vision which is, even today, beyond the bounds of our customary perception, and is part of divine revelation just as an anthropological vision. In other words, the apparent tit for tat in the text is not something which governs the text as would be the case if the author were imprisoned in a tit-for-tat mentality and unable to see beyond it. On the contrary, the text is specifically about overcoming tit for tat by showing where it comes from and how it need not be the last word.
One of the constants of John's gospel is the gradual re-centering of the concept of God as Father onto Jesus. I mean, that it is only through Jesus that we have access to the Father. (1) Everything that had been associated with the Father -- with God alone -- comes to be associated with Jesus. So, all judgement has been entrusted to Jesus, (2) it is Jesus' commandment that resumes and fulfils God's commandments, (3) it is by honoring Jesus that we honor the Father (4) and so on.
Well, let's just suppose that this is not Jesus being a self-important prig, part of the tit-for-tat model. Let us assume, rather, that by means of this sort of talk Jesus is accomplishing something of incomparably greater anthropological significance: the removing from God of any of the anthropological connotations of fatherhood, and the recasting of God entirely within the terms of reference of fraternity. Let us read this text, then, in that most Jewish of veins, as a text about overcoming idolatry.
A brief caveat before we start. You are about to embark upon a reading
of some texts which rely upon a painfully masculine use of language. I
hope that it will be clear by the end that one of the effects of these
particular texts' heavily masculine language is to undo the sort of world
in which masculine language and especially male forms of cultural interaction
are taken to be the naturally defining basis of social life. We have reached
the stage where the language itself is painful to us. I take this as a
sign that the subversion from within of the cultural world which took that
language for granted, a subversion which is embodied in texts like these,
has had some success. Please bracket any feeling of being excluded. I hope
it will become clear that what is being interpreted is a road to inclusion.
a close reading of John 8:31-59
Jesus is teaching in the treasury of the Temple. So far he has managed to avoid an objection by the Pharisees. There are a number of listeners, presumably not Pharisees, who have been hanging on to what he teaches, despite considerable incomprehension, and have in fact started to believe that he speaks with divine authority, and that the Father is in some way involved in what Jesus is teaching. Let us take up the discussion at verse 31:
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.'Here we have Jesus trying to get a group of people who had followed his teaching so far, whom he had been able to carry along thus far, to go a step further with him in his programed of de-idolatrising God. This is a vital point: the discussion does not start with: 'You are wrong and I am right, and I'm going to tell you how wrong you are and you are going to get angry with me.' It starts with something much more like: 'We are part of the same programed of overcoming idolatry, and we've come a long way. Now let's see if you can bear to follow the next step in this programed, which will be difficult, because any overcoming of idolatry requires personal unhooking from one's idols.'
So, the 'next step' in Jesus' fleshing out of the programed is to indicate that entry into truth and freedom are linked not to deriving identity from group adhesion to some paternal law or teaching, but to a certain sort of fraternal listening. This is the sort of listening that seeks to imitate and re-enact the kind of fraternal living which Jesus is teaching. When we talk about discipleship, it is to this sort of fraternal listening and imitating that we are referring. It is through this horizontal discipleship alone that people will come to perceive who God is, and discover God's paternity. In other words, it is only by working at the horizontal that we will begin to discover the true vertical.
This, like any new step, is a provocative teaching, and Jesus' interlocutors reply:
'We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say "You will be made free"?' (8:33)Now, please note the word they use: 'descendants' -- literally 'seed' -- the Greek word is sperma. We will see soon why this word is important. So far they are pointing out something to which no one could take exception, that they are descended from Abraham, who of course set out on his wanderings precisely so as to get beyond and away from idols. He was in fact the initiator of the anti-idolatry programed which is under discussion. Thus their observation about bondage is an observation that they have never been subject to idols. They are not referring to their time in Egypt, as must be clear from no less a source than the first commandment. The interlocutors knew that 'I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage' (Exod. 20:2). That this would have been familiar to any early reader of John's text suggests that the bondage in which 'we have never been' is not the political slavery of Egypt. It is rather the bondage to error which would have been incurred if they had gone after other gods, abandoning the God of Abraham. So their reply is a properly theological one and is a response to Jesus' suggestion that there is something more to God that they don't already know about by virtue of being the seed of Abraham, that there is a freedom yet to be gained. (5)
Jesus replies to them:
'Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave [to sin]. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.'Now, you will notice that I have bracketed the phrase 'to sin' which you find in the RSV text. It turns out that this phrase is not present in many ancient texts, and may represent a piece of editing influenced by Paul's use of 'slavery to sin,' a concept we have tended to moralize into meaninglessness. Whatever the textual history, Jesus' reply is not moralistic but theological. His interlocutors have claimed that by virtue of being seed of Abraham they are free from idolatry and thus free. Jesus claims that anyone who commits sin is in thrall to an idol, moved by an idol. The true God lives for ever, and so does anyone who is utterly moved and formed from within by God. Anyone who is enslaved to an idol, however partially, will not live for ever: they will 'die in their sins' (to go back to what Jesus had been teaching just before this exchange at 8:22). However, if the son of the house, the one who, utterly moved from within by the living God, lives for ever, chooses to set them free -- which means, making them equal in the house to the son, making them, in fact, so many extra siblings of the son -- then they will have the freedom of the son. Now please notice that this is simply to recapitulate what Jesus had already said in verse 31. It is by listening to his word and being his disciple, which means learning to imitate him fraternally, and thus becoming a sister or brother at the same level with him, that they will know the truth and be made free. In fact, it combines that with what he had said earlier, 'for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.'
Jesus then expands his argument, which grows in concentric circles, beginning to make explicit some of the crucial distinctions which underlie his anthropology.
'I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.'Jesus agrees with his interlocutors that they are the seed of Abraham: their biological progenitor is not in dispute. What he points out is that being a descendant of Abraham is not the same thing as being a child of the God of Abraham. The difference is shown by the fact that they are prepared to kill Jesus. Someone who is biologically descended from Abraham and yet is prepared to commit fratricide -- killing a brother-in-Abraham -- because what he says challenges their perception of God, clearly has a different moving principle from Abraham. So, Jesus says that he speaks to them from the moving principle which is his Father, God. Their moving principle, their father, is, by an implication which will soon be made explicit, the father of fratricide.
The interlocutors come back to Jesus with the retort:
'Abraham is our father.' (8:39)Now please notice the subtle wordplay. We have just moved up a notch in the argument: up until now Abraham has only been claimed as the male progenitor, supplier of the seed. The biological continuity with Abraham has not been in dispute. But here, with the word 'father' we have a new dimension, not that of biological continuity, but of cultural motivation. The distinction which Jesus had been making between biological descent and cultural motivation has been refused. So far all that is happening is that the interlocutors are claiming that their biological origin and their cultural motivation have the same source.
Jesus tries to make his distinction even more explicit:
'If you were Abraham's children you would do what Abraham did, but you now seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did. You do what your father did.' (8:42-43)Jesus has brought in the word tekna, children, as distinct from seed, sperma, to reiterate his point. If they were children, rather than merely descendants, of Abraham, that is, if their motivating principle were the same as his, as opposed merely to their genes, then this could be detected in their acting out of the same motivating principle. The sort of thing Abraham did did not include seeking to kill one who told the truth which came from God. Abraham had quite complex reactions to the various truths he heard from God. He laughed with incredulity, despaired of the promise and so got a child by Hagar, but the most important reaction was to have believed the truth he was told concerning his own offspring, and to have desisted from sacrificing his son Isaac. Now Jesus is not making a simple ad hominem, tit-for-tat point. He is making a more fundamental anthropological point. When he says 'You do what your father did' he is not only holding up to them what they are doing, but he is enunciating an anthropological principle: One does what one's father does. This is actually the premise of his argument: the cultural reality of paternity is determined by what one does. Or, in other words, our fraternal practice is the only criterion for our paternity.
Jesus' interlocutors reply:
'We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.' (8:41)Some have read this reference to fornication as an ad hominem remark to Jesus, suggesting that he, both as a Nazarene and thus from a region where various imperial resettlements had severely tainted racial purity, and as a man with a dubious family history, was of questionable paternity. Others have seen in this retort a further denial that the interlocutors are children of Abraham via Hagar, where fornication flows into idolatry. Whatever the case, the important point is not the underlying reference but the dynamic of the discussion here, which is the hardening of the refusal to accept Jesus' anthropological distinction, saying: 'There's nothing idolatrous about us, nothing to distinguish about our paternity -- it's all one package.'
Jesus had been making the distinction between seed and children so as to make comprehensible a teaching about the coming freedom of children, those who are to be enabled to act out of non-fratricidal cultural imperatives. His interlocutors could only hear this as a slur on the integrity of their race and of their faith which, in their minds, are indistinguishable. So they reach the logical conclusion to the development of their own response: 'We have one Father, even God.' Now please notice John's very clever use of language here. Their previous retort to Jesus was 'Abraham is our father.' Now they say 'We have one Father, even God.' The point is not that they are inconsistent when they say that they have one Father, God, and yet that Abraham is their father. The point is rather that in the refusal of the distinction which Jesus is trying to make, the paternity of God and the paternity of Abraham become absolutely identified. They make the final bond between theological paternity and cultural paternity towards which they have been building under the provocation of Jesus' attempt to introduce a distinction.
So Jesus now makes explicit the contrasting visions of theological paternity out of which he has been operating:
'If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.' (8:42-43)In other words, if the motivating force behind their cultural unity really were God, then they would be open to fraternity with Jesus. This is because Jesus opens up the real access to God by introducing a discipleship which is the creation of real fraternity, and he does so in direct imitation of God. The creation of fraternity, and the proceeding from and imitating and obeying God, are all the same thing. Why do they not understand this? They do not understand it because they cannot bear Jesus' word. They cannot bear it because Jesus' word collapses the sort of group belonging produced by the linking of cultural and biological paternity, a group belonging which leads to exclusion and fratricide. Jesus' word collapses this and introduces instead a fraternity which leads to the discovery of a Paternity which is quite outside biology and culture. None of us can bear that sort of word: it suggests that our god, our social belonging, our sense of security, are all idolatrous. There is nothing harder than to be told that what we hold sacred is an idol. Remember these were people who had believed in Jesus, that is people who were, in principle, ready to move on to the next step in Jesus' programed of the de-idolatrisation of God. The phrase 'You cannot bear . . .' points to people on the cusp of moving on to the discovery of a new and less idolatrous fraternity, who nevertheless find themselves retreating into a stronger and more exclusive affirmation of a previous paternity.
'You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.' (8:44)Now we are in a position to read this not simply as the mother of all insults, which is how it is read in the tit-for-tat school of exegesis, but as the logical summation of the anthropological distinctions which Jesus has been trying to make all along. Jesus is saying that there are two paternities: that of his Father which is accessible in and through the imitative creation of an inclusive fraternity following Jesus, or its alternative, the cultural reality proper to all humanity, one which is no respecter of anyone's biological origin. Human culture has its origin in a fratricidal murder, that of Abel by Cain, and all humans are by virtue of that origin radically distorted both in our willing and our knowing. The structure of our desire, which precedes our consciousness, is murderous. That desire ensures that our cultural constructs, our language and our knowledge are radically inflected by the lie which fails to recognize this, fails to see God in humans who are 'other,' or ourselves in our victims, which is to say the same thing.
This statement contains a piece of radical anthropology, a claim concerning cultural paternity: any earthly paternity is ultimately a reflection of the murderous distortion of fraternity into fratricide. Human paternity as we know it flows from fratricidal sibling relations. Notice what this means: in Jesus' view the cultural reality of being human fratricides, being a member of the species homo pecans, is a structuring reality which is prior to, and structures the biological reality of, paternity. In other words: it is our being bad brothers and sisters that leads us to be bad fathers and mothers, not our having bad fathers and mothers that has made us bad brothers and sisters. Let me say this again, for it sounds so strange for those of us who have become accustomed to suckling at a Freudian breast: fraternity is the matrix (now there's a slip), and paternity the symptom, not the other way around. If you get two fratricides, one of whom happens to be the progenitor of the other, then it is easy to imagine, as Freud did, that the lethal violence each may have towards the other is something to do with being a progenitor or being an offspring. So we talk about the filial desire for parricide, or the paternal annihilation of a son's being. Wrong, says Jesus: this is nothing to do with fathers or sons, mothers or daughters, this is simply what fratricide looks like when it is intergenerational.
The logical extension of this perception is quite simple: there is no such thing as an earthly father, and it is vital to our task of overcoming idolatry to come to perceive this. We know from another source that Jesus, never one to buck the logical conclusions of his own anthropological insights, taught exactly this:
'And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father who is in heaven.' (Matt. 23:9)As if this phrase were not remarkable enough on its own terms, please let me point out that the words 'for you are all brothers' does not belong with the verse about fathers, as would seem natural to us. It belongs with the previous verse:
'But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.' (Matt. 23:8)The verse about cultural paternity and fraternity precedes the verse about biological fraternity. It could not be clearer: it is not biological paternity which is the model from which a distorted cultural paternity flows, but a distorted cultural fraternity which inflects biological paternity, and makes it un-fraternal. The unlearning of this pattern of desire works the same way: by attending to what should be fraternal on the cultural level, properly fraternal relationships between progenitors and their seed can develop as well.
Enough of this for the moment, and back to John 8. Now that Jesus has laid the ground by explaining the cultural paternity of all people in fratricide, with its accompanying lie that fratricidal sacrifice is necessary to keep society together, he is able to continue:
'But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.' (8:45-47)Again, let us continue to read this as logical argument, not as ad hominem diatribe. For people whose cultural paternity is based on a murderous lie, to hear the truth about our cultural paternity is well nigh impossible, whereas we can hear and believe any number of flattering mystifications. So Jesus says that it is because he is telling them the truth about their origins in fratricidal murder that they do not believe him. This of course raises the question of 'where he's coming from.' If he were of the same cultural paternity as they, then of course what he said would be just another variant of the lie. But have any of them ever found anything in his behavior which would lead them to think that he was part of that cultural paternity? Do any of them attribute sin to him? No. So he does not speak from out of the murderous lie, but from the truth. But if he tells the truth and their moving principle were God rather than the murderous lie, they would believe him, because they too would recognize the truth. And Jesus makes this clear by enunciating a further general principle: people who are of God hear the truth of God wherever it comes from. The fact that his interlocutors don't hear Jesus' word is what enables it to be deduced that their moving principle is not God.
Back to the interlocutors: faced with the very puzzling intrusion of an exposition of an anthropological reality that would seriously destabilize their belonging and their social unity, they have gradually regrouped ever further under the aura of their sacred paternity. What had started with the unexceptionable statement that they were seed of Abraham developed to their claim that Abraham was their father, their prime cultural mover, and then that God alone was their Father. Thus they made completely and sacredly watertight their cultural and group belonging, simultaneously making that belonging independent of their behavior. The next step in this progression is, of course, the redefinition of someone who threatens that unity: he ceases to be what he has been until now, a discomfiting insider, 'a sonofabitch, but our sonofabitch,' someone who was provocative, but ultimately 'one of us.' Jesus is now redefined simultaneously in cultural and in theological terms as 'not one of us':
'Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?' (8:48)Now, please notice that this is not simply an insult, and it is not yet simply an exclusion from being one of Abraham's children. Samaritans, being descendants of Jacob, were children of Abraham. In the circumstances the interlocutors are making an excuse for Jesus. To say 'you are a Samaritan' is to say 'you're not really one of us, despite your pretensions to worshiping the same God as we.' But it is also to assimilate Jesus to a known class of people who are 'not quite like us' -- 'oh well, no wonder he sings a bit off key, he's one of them.'
Furthermore, when we 'demonize' someone, for instance calling them 'the great Satan' or 'intrinsically perverse' it is simply a way of declaring them evil, and utterly cast out from us; but this was not how the much more socially courteous demonology of Jesus' interlocutors worked. When they said that Jesus 'had a demon,' this was their way of saying that he was not really responsible for what he was saying, and should not be held accountable for it. Such a person could not properly blaspheme or be held accountable for blasphemy any more than a foreigner, a drunkard or a minor can be held accountable for infractions of the rigorous etiquette which marks proper belonging to, for instance, Japanese adult society. To be declared a Samaritan and with a demon is partially the sort of expulsion to which they have been building up by linking their cultural and racial paternity directly with their divine paternity. But it is also a brake on that expulsion, a putdown as much as a putting-out: 'he couldn't know better.'
A little observation here: Jesus uses the word 'devil' about his interlocutors' paternity and his interlocutors use 'demon' to get back at Jesus. Doesn't this sound like tit for tat? I would suggest that even here the choice of words is instructive: the word diabolos in John always refers to the founding principle of fratricidal order, and is a revelation of a principle that is to be overcome, not an accusation of 'bad people.' The word 'demon' -- daimonion -- is the accusatory word from within the fratricidally structured cultural order, the way one indicates someone as not 'one of us.' Jesus' word diabolos reveals the murderous structure of human desire; the interlocutors' word daimonion is a function of that desire. Its use is an acting out of expulsive desire by those who don't know what they're doing.
In any case, Jesus refuses to accept the implication that he's not really responsible for what he's saying, not a serious interlocutor:
'I have not a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it and he will be the judge.' (8:49-50)In fact, Jesus is insisting on carrying on with the teaching he's been trying to get through to them all along. He is acting responsibly and he is giving proper reverence to God, and their disqualification of him from serious dialogue, however exculpatory its intent, is in fact a failure to attribute to him the honor which should be attributed to one who is speaking well of God. Not that he's personally diminished in any way by their treating him as incompetent. His self-esteem doesn't depend on people taking him seriously and giving him a sense of worth. God himself will honor him by establishing his worth and truthfulness, and of course God's discernment is quite outside the sort of judgements produced by cultural group dynamics such as we have here.
So Jesus, dismissing his interlocutors' increasingly forceful assertion of a paternally based access to an exclusive fraternity, is insisting on carrying on his teaching about the bringing about of the new sort of fraternity. This fraternity is the same as being adopted as a son by God: the fraternally based access to an inclusive paternity which has been the burden of his teaching:
'Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death.' (8:51)Jesus emphasizes again what he has been teaching throughout chapter 8: his word is about overcoming idolatry by learning to produce that flexible imitation of himself which is called discipleship. The one who stays in that program is entering into a filial relationship with the ever-living God who knows not death. Such a one will never die.
Jesus' interlocutors reaffirm the demon, as if to suggest that Jesus is mad -- preferable to his being a blasphemer.
'Now we know that you have a demon.' (8:52)And please look at John's irony. The interlocutors now repeat very exactly what Jesus had been saying all along, but as if it were mad.
'Abraham died, as did the prophets; and you say, "If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death." Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you claim to be?' (8:52-53)Abraham died. The prophets died. But this is exactly what Jesus had been saying. The fact that they were slaves to sin, still not entirely free from idolatry, is shown by the fact that they died. It is only the Son who can give life. The interlocutors even repeat and lay stress on the fact that these characters died. The first time they say 'Abraham,' the second time 'our father Abraham,' thus linking their much-vaunted paternity with death -- again, exactly what Jesus had been saying. The phrase which is translated as 'Who do you claim to be?' reads more exactly 'Whom do you make yourself?' which we might render 'Who is it that you have the pretension to make yourself out to be?'
Now Jesus gets explicit:
'If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say that he is your God.' (8:54)There is a textual problem here: the majority of Greek texts for the last part of the sentence read literally 'of whom you say that he is our God.' Not only the majority, but the oldest and least polished, meaning the most likely to be original. The translation we have here not only translates but interprets this 'our' as meaning: 'You say "he is our God."' The translators thus read 'our God' as an act of exclusion (i.e. 'ours not yours'), so that in reported speech it reads 'You say that he is your God.' But that is to introduce the tit-for-tat interpretation even into the choice of Greek text and the translation, and is absolutely not the only, or even, I suggest, the most likely, interpretation. It could be that the 'our God' should be read inclusively, with Jesus counting himself in with the 'our': 'of whom you (also) say that he is our God.' The ambiguity is probably quite deliberate: it is in such a place that the tit-for-tat or fratricidal reading and flue gratuitous or inclusive reading rub shoulders.
In the light of the reading I am trying to uncover, this sentence now reads like this: the interlocutors ask Jesus who he's making himself out to be, and he replies 'If I were making myself out to be someone out of pretension, then I really would be worth nothing. As it is, it is my Father, the very same whom you also claim as God, who shows forth who I really am.' Jesus is trying to make God's paternity inclusive by showing up the fratricidal nature of the idolatrous appropriation of God, and he will make the same move with Abraham at the end of his argument.
'But you have not known him. I know him. If I said, I do not know him, I should be a liar like you; but I do know him and I keep his word. Your, father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.' (8:55-56)Let me paraphrase this as follows: 'By being in fratricidal, exclusive mode, you show that you do not truly know God. I do know God, the witness that I bear to God, how I talk about God, is the true program of purification from idols, and to pretend otherwise would be to bear false witness to God, which is what you are doing. I bear true witness to him, and truly enter into the dynamic of God's word which brings down idols. For this reason, the one whom you just referred to in an exclusive way as your father Abraham, the one who was first caught up in this project of breaking free from idols, he was delighted to think that the day would come when the process of becoming free from idols would be accomplished. This is what I am about. In fact this culmination of his project in me was what he was looking forward to. The project was the one by which slaves learned to become daughters and sons. This means that Abraham is really the name not of an earthly and deathbound paternity under which one huddles for security over against some other, which is to reduce his project to the very fratricidal idolatry he was called to overcome. Abraham is the name of a project of fraternity which overcomes that, and which leads to people becoming sons and daughters and sharing in God's life for ever.'
Now please notice Jesus' strategy: he constantly refuses the terms of the argument set within a tit for tat, for that is part of the fruit of idolatry, a dialectic based on violence. Instead he tries to show a way out of that, revealing it for what it is. Is Abraham's project to be interpreted and lived out within the terms of the 'strife is all' paternity, in which case it is reduced to that paternity, going round and round in violent circles for ever? Or is Abraham's project to be interpreted as a response to God's call from outside that paternity, a gratuitous irruption that is an invitation to move beyond idolatry and construct a fraternity? Is Abraham the name of an enclosing paternity or of an open-ended fraternity? Only the latter reality has nothing to do with the tit for tat of idolatry, and yet it can only be made visible by the subversion from within of that tit-for-tat idolatry.
This is what lies behind the next, and most staggering of exchanges, Jesus' interlocutors say to him:
'You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?' (8:57)At one level this is mockery based on the obvious chronological disparity between Jesus and Abraham. At another level it is asking the question 'By what right do you claim to offer this definitive interpretation of Abraham?' It is this latter question which Jesus answers:
'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.' (8:58)A little pause for breath. Now this is not an ex abrupto claim of divinity as a way of resolving the argument with a bigger stick, which would simply have been blasphemous, and which is how the interlocutors interpret it. It is something much richer than that: and any commentary here is, by nature, something of a stammer.
The logic behind Jesus' answer seems to me to be this: the program of purification from idols is simultaneously the program of setting God free from any sort of paternal image and the practical overcoming of fratricidal fraternity. It is this fratricidal fraternity which has thrown up these idolatrous images of God. For the program to come to its fruition, a point will have to be reached where there is no image of God left except for that of a brother. And it is only from within the learning of fraternity with the brother that God, the imageless Father, can come to be seen and imagined. This is exactly what Jesus sees himself as doing: he is that brother. For the moment he is son, which is only brother-in-potential, for the other brothers-in-potential are not yet brothers, being slaves to death. But he is present to open up for them the possibility of becoming brothers of the Son and thus sons.
The giddy-making moment in this is the appreciation that at the very end of this program of purification from idolatry there are two possible outcomes. Either this purification is simply negative, and by emptying God out of any paternal projections derived from earthly paternity, we simply empty God out, and are left with nothing. Or else the purification is positive, and is carried out by God having been putting himself forward as on the fraternal level all along. One coming into the world as brother, so that there is a real, and positive image of God, who is brother, and permits the overcoming of fratricide by making possible a real new human fraternity. But if that is the case, if God has gradually been effecting a fraternal relocation of divinity all along, been putting himself forward as brother all along, there arrives a devastating moment in the project of purification. This is the moment when we are faced with the ultimate blasphemy considered from the viewpoint of the fratricidal projection of paternity. We are faced with the self-affirming presence of the imageless God in a human contemporary who is constructing the new sort of fraternity, but is entirely vulnerable to fratricide.
Now, here is Jesus' point: he is not only the culmination of the project, but the project itself, God made brother, offering us to become siblings, but vulnerable to fratricide. And it is this, of course, which enables him to say that he envelopes Abraham, including him as only the gratuitous initiator of the project can. Furthermore, by saying 'I AM,' Jesus is literally performing the revelation which he has been describing and explaining, the gratuitous revelation of divine fraternity in the midst of fratricidal nihilism. Jesus' revelation 'I AM' is the positive enactment of his own interpretation, the moment where the divine project of the overcoming of fratricidal idolatry and the fraternal teaching about it become one.
So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (8:59)The brother reveals himself as the God of whom the Temple is supposed to be a sign, while his brothers shore up the paternal model of the Temple, by preparing to desecrate it with an act of fratricide. I do not think it an accident that almost in the same breath as God 'comes out' as brother in the Temple, John adds two little phrases which hint at key moments of the revelation of God in the Scriptures. Jesus hides himself, echoing
Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior. (Isa. 45:15)More dramatically, Ezekiel 10 and 11 tell the story of how, in disgust at idolatry, the unthinkable happened: God went out of the Temple.
the background to Jesus' anthropology
It has been my aim to show that, within a very difficult text, there is present a very exact revelatory anthropology: an understanding of who we humans are. It is an anthropological vision which assumes that all of us are bound in to a certain sort of paternity, one where our group belonging is dependent on a number of received traditions, many of which appear to have divine backing. The divinity in question backs up inherited group belonging, giving apparent authority to those who determine who is in and who is out. Fraternity is available to those who stay within the group, going along with its apparent paternity, and agreeing to exclude those who must be excluded for the group to keep its identity.
What is new is that this sort of belonging to a group defined by an inherited paternity is shown to be an idolatrous belonging, and by idolatrous, understand a belonging demanding sacrifice. Jesus appears in the midst of such a group and, by showing up its structure for what it is, provokes it into tightening its group frontiers, into acting ever more obviously according to sacrificial type. And the threatening, destabilizing element in Jesus' teaching and mode of acting out is that he refuses to concede any divine element at all to inherited group belonging. It is difficult to resist the extraordinary force of Jesus' categorical statement that we are to call no man on earth our father. But not only the statement: the revelation which goes along with it is that God himself, in order to talk to us, does so as a brother, as One on the same level as us.
Now, I want to make quite clear that I am not in the first instance having a go at the papacy or the Vatican. These institutions are frequently perceived as exercising a paternal religious teaching in the minds and hearts of the faithful, and sometimes engage in thoroughly sacrificial forms of behavior in order to shore up their teaching, even while they claim their teaching to be at the fraternal level. Sometimes, in fact, the juxtaposition of priests being called 'father' and the pope 'Holy Father' with a sacred text explicitly forbidding this behavior is just enough to produce the sense of wry irony and proper resistance to ecclesiastical pretension which characterizes Catholicism at its best. The problem is not with these baroque excrescences, but with something which can be at least as bad in those religious and nonreligious spheres where people lack such ongoing reverse reminders of the truth of the evangelical text. Our Lord does not explicitly forbid us from calling religious leaders 'father' -- though that is obviously included in the general prohibition. Much more strikingly, he forbids us from calling anyone 'father.' And the most evident meaning of this is: especially our progenitors. I have yet to meet anyone who, however critical of Catholic hierarchical usage of the word 'father,' was actually prepared consistently to ditch the normal familial use of the word.
Now I don't suppose that Jesus was much interested in the grammatical feat of eliminating a common word from everyday use, reserving the word 'Father' only for God. He does appear to have been very interested indeed in making quite sure that we learn how not to attribute anything sacred to our progenitors, whether cultural or biological, as progenitors. For to the degree that we do that we risk holding fast to a false form of belonging and remaining blind to our involvement in apparently sacredly inspired fratricide. If we do this, we cannot discover for ourselves, by learning to create a non-fratricidal form of fraternal living, our true paternity in God.
In teaching this, Jesus was not plucking something entirely new out of a clear blue sky. He was being faithful to some of the most astonishing passages of Jewish Scripture. The fraternal overcoming of fratricidal relations locked into bad paternity is fleshed out in the story of how Rebekah's favorite, Jacob, learned fraternity with Isaac's favorite, Esau. Before he was able to be reconciled with Esau, whom he had tricked out of birthright and paternal blessing, and in order to face up to his own rivalry, which was the root of the problem, Jacob finds himself wrestling with God. Mysteriously God is manifest in clearly human form, at the same level (Gen. 32:22-30) as Jacob. It is in this wrestling that Jacob 'prevails with God,' and realizes that he has seen God face to face. He has overcome not God, but his own rivalry. After this mysterious struggle he was able to recognize his wrongdoing and look his brother Esau in the face. Thus he was able to learn to live in peace with his brother -- and become Israel, a community of brethren. (6)
Even more gloriously the same dynamic is shown in the story of Joseph (Gen. 37-50). There is a clear symmetry in the story between Jacob/Israel who is shown up at the beginning as a 'bad dad,' and Pharaoh, who is shown at the end as a 'good dad.' Jacob's favoritism induced rivalry among his sons -- favoritism is a way in which a father lowers himself to the level of just another quarreling brother. And in fact at first Jacob deservedly does not enjoy the love and respect of his sons. Joseph is sacrificed within the fratricidal logic of bad paternity but comes to discover himself capable of building fraternity from beyond his own annihilation at the hands of his brethren. He is able to do so from a far-off land. Not only is he able to give his brethren abundance, but does so living under the grace of an entirely new father figure, one who is in no way in rivalry or envious, and doesn't even appear with any personality traits at all. This is because, just as in Jesus' teaching about God in the gospels, he has pacifically entrusted all authority to Joseph, to be exercised fraternally. That the Hebrew Scriptures are able to imagine the Pharaoh of Egypt, by the time the story was written very definitely a symbol of 'the enemy,' as the 'good dad' entirely without rivalry, is simply outside any normal structure of cultural writing or understanding. It is a sign of the presence of what we appropriately call divine revelation.
The one time Pharaoh does appear personally after he has put Joseph in charge of Egypt is as someone whose immediate reaction on hearing that his favorite 'son' had a father and brothers was to welcome them and give them land -- the very definition of lack of envy (Gen. 47:1-12). Even more overwhelming in this story is that Joseph, acting as his own man, entirely bereft of interference from an envious father figure, but entirely supported by a gratuitous one, is able step by step to nudge his brethren out of their fratricidal logic. He tests them to see if they will sacrifice Benjamin. Finally he coaxes out of Judah's mouth what is to my mind one of the really astounding passages in any culture. This is the speech where Judah recognizes his previous fratricide and refuses to go down that path again by sacrificing Benjamin, offering himself instead -- the sign that he has at last learned fraternity (Gen. 44:18-34). And in doing so, he has learned to treat his father gently, not out of rivalry:
'For how can I go back to my father if the lad is not with me?' (Gen. 44:34)The anthropology of this story, and that in Jesus' teaching are the same.
towards being given a conscience
It is clear from all this that when Jesus taught about Abraham in John 8, he was not inventing something new. He was interpreting the story of the first man to be told to 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you' (Gen. 12:1) in the light of the deepest tradition which gave substance to the Abrahamic project.
The program for escaping from the idolatry of earthly paternity is not only a demand that we stop treating each other from within the belonging of sacrificial groups, and learn to stretch out to those who have no belonging, a stretching out which will tend to threaten and ultimately collapse the borders of our own groups. It is that, and we must do so if we are to be siblings of the Son, and thus discover his Father as our own. But it is much more. It is also a program for the unbinding of our conscience from any form of paternal cultural and religious teaching.
Jesus always appears in the gospels as someone who is already living the divine paternity, and thus already treats his progenitors as on the fraternal level. So, at a tender age, he tells Joseph and Mary that he must be about his Father's business (Luke 2:41-51). He is also explicit that he considers his female progenitor from within the paradigm of his fraternity towards her and many others, and refuses the assumption that the mother-son relationship is a 'special' one escaping from his teaching about fraternity. Jesus explicitly saw his female progenitor, the guardian of his infancy and childhood, as, in the first place, his sister, and only as his 'mother' in an analogous sense that he was perfectly happy for others to occupy as well. (7) He was also clear that he saw those of his contemporaries who were progenitors as people who, even though evil, were capable of giving good things to their children -- of satisfying their desires rather than binding them up in double binds. (8) However, what appears in Jesus' case as something that was always already in place in his consciousness, is only reached by us through a massive learning upheaval. We have to learn step by arduous step how to think and act free of our 'paternal' group belonging and how instead to live and act as ones who only have siblings, including intergenerational ones who need fraternal treatment appropriate to their age and strength.
One of the key steps in this process is the realization that any particular instance of bad paternal and/or maternal relationship with a son or daughter is not, as, alas, Freudian discourse has suggested to us, the result of intrinsically paternal, maternal or filial conflicts deep in our respective unconsciouses. Bad paternal and maternal relationships with sons or daughters are simply part of a package of skewed fraternity. Nothing buried in the Freudian complex is anything other than sibling rivalry -- intergenerational sibling rivalry. What is profoundly liberating about this realization is that it means that there is nothing in these conflicts that cannot be worked out in the present by means of learning fraternity with our contemporaries -- including our intergenerational contemporaries, and especially our progenitors. Bad fraternity precedes any of our parents' relationships with us, and shapes them, to a greater or lesser degree. But that means -- thank heavens -- that none of us has any right to see the conflicts as 'especially' our parents' fault. All of us, including our progenitors, are born within the bad fraternity which dresses itself up as cultural and familial paternity, and all of us are equally well -- or badly -- placed to begin working our way out of its consequences. Any profound damage or hurt which we may well have received at the hands of the guardians of our infancy and childhood are particular instances of the package of bad fraternity which precedes those guardians, and which they, just like us, have not overcome fully enough. Nothing more.
This is an enormous relief, because we can learn to forgive fratricidal fraternity that others have exercised towards us, often convinced they were doing the right and holy thing. As sons and daughters we can never forgive paternal and maternal damage held to have formed us, because as sons and daughters we can never be on the same level as the 'paternal' or 'maternal.' If you have the experience of having forgiven one or both of your progenitors, or your offspring, did you not find it to be a process of becoming aware of them as people on the same level as yourself, of fraternally letting go of what seemed paternal, maternal or filial? So we can either ontologize the damage as of the sort done by progenitors to offspring or vice versa, which means we stay at the level of resentful recipients. Or we can begin to realize that the distorted paternity and maternity we received are simply particular instances of the fratricidal nature of human culture. That is to say: nothing to do with our progenitors as progenitors or our offspring as offspring. Rather it is the case that as brothers and sisters we are all called to take part in the overcoming of that universal cultural tendency.
So the moment we start looking at our task as beginning to undo the effects in our own and others' lives of violent fraternity, having no one to blame, we find ourselves speaking with our own, adult, fraternal voice. At that moment also we begin to 'see through' a huge amount of what appeared to be sacred, and what appeared to be 'paternal' in the lives of our families, our culture, our countries and our religion. Indeed acceding to responsible living is strictly related to our grasp of the fraternal mutability of all inherited structures. Instead of being 'victims' of the 'dead hand of the past,' or nobly regretful 'champions' of unalterable divine traditions, (9) we start to be able to treat these structures as something on the fraternal level with us, and this is true of our family life, our political structures, our national heritage and our religious institutions. And it is true whether or not they accept being so treated by us, and whether or not they reciprocate by treating us fraternally, instead of fratricidally thinking that it is right to act paternally. There is no wicked and numinous paternal 'they.' There are only brothers and sisters like ourselves: fragile receivers and mete-ers out of ambivalent and often fratricidal fraternity.
Now, here is where this is leading: what has enabled us to begin to accede to this gradual realization that the matrix of our entire social life is fraternal and nothing else is the fact that God himself, the Creator of the universe, has spoken to us definitively as brother. The only authentically divine voice we have ever heard or will ever hear is spoken to us not through the clouds and mystifications of some paternal schema, demanding sacrifice, laying down prohibitions, or fining the limits of our belonging. The only authentically divine voice we have ever heard taught us to move beyond all that, speaking to us uniquely and rigorously at the fraternal level. This is the point of Jesus (among many other Jewish commentators before and since) reading Abraham and Moses and the Prophets against sacrifice, and as brothers on the level with us. It means that there is no paternal divine teaching, no paternal voice to which we must pay heed independently of the fraternal voice. The only places in the gospels where the paternal voice of God appears independently of Jesus is precisely to indicate that it is to Jesus that we must listen, and that in him God is glorified. (10)
Now the phrase 'there is no paternal divine teaching' sounds so drastic that I wish to issue a caveat. This is not so as to diminish the phrase, but to protect some of its force by making it more difficult for it to be regarded as simply a piece of radical chic. I do not of course mean that there is no divine teaching in the Christian faith concerning God the Father. When all is said and done there is in fact little else! Certainly the whole point of this chapter is to make the stunning truth of God's parenthood more, not less, available. So, of course there is in the New Testament a huge amount of teaching concerning praying to the Father, imitating the Father, being rewarded by the Father and so on that is fundamental to the Christian faith. The point I want to drive home is that it is never a paternal voice which teaches us these things. It is rigorously a fraternal one. For if we are to accede to allowing ourselves to be loved by a Father entirely without rivalry, one who does not want sacrifice but mercy, it is by learning a new mode of fraternity that we will do so. We hope indeed to come to know ourselves loved as children of a non-rivalrous Parent, but the voice which leads us to that knowledge is entirely at the fraternal level, unbinding our sibling rivalry and fratricide. If it is a paternal voice teaching us, it will bear within it too many of the ambivalent tones of previous cultural belonging. It will limit the fraternity which is 'acceptable,' and we will eventually discover that it was not the divine voice.
This teaching has very marked consequences for our understanding of the development of conscience. If the divine voice speaks to us only at the fraternal level, then we will receive the conscience, which also means consciousness, of being sons and daughters of God, only, and strictly, in the degree to which a new 'I' is called forth in each of us by our learning to listen to the fraternal voice which addresses us as 'you' and calls us into being. And only and strictly in the degree to which we learn to say 'you' and thus call forth each other's 'I,' at the fraternal level. In every case, this will mean the hard work of our learning to distinguish between those voices which would address us as 'you' in a non-fraternal tone, a paternal tone, or that of a resentful child, masking fratricide, and the authentically fraternal voice calling us out of fratricide. It will also simultaneously mean the hard work of our learning to say 'you' only ever from fraternity, learning how not to pass over into someone else's 'I' the ambiguous vestiges of paternity which mask our fratricide.
To give you an example of this: one of the best fraternal critiques I have received of my own writing pointed out to me that I do not give enough space for the proper anger which annihilated gay people feel in the face of the intransigence and hypocrisy of religious authority. This criticism goes deep. For it is true that I am, for reasons of my own history, so frightened of being blown away by my own anger at my own experience of annihilation, and thus losing the possibility of engaging in the sort of constructive conversation which might make me count as a person, that I am perhaps over-desperate to deny the pain and instead rush to accede to rational and courteous discourse. I probably would never have become a theologian but for this dynamic! The result is that, out of my own denial of pain, I sometimes write in a way which makes others feel guilty for not moving as fast as I into seeking to avoid violent victimary language. I might be bullying you into short-circuiting your own process of dealing with your reaction to pain undergone. It is one thing for a theologian to attempt to point the way towards a certain sort of adulthood of faith. It is another for there to be a hidden and unpitying voice of cultural paternity (part military, part English boarding-school, part Conservative party) just beneath the surface of my own tone barking at me, and through me, at others: 'Grow up, and stop feeling sorry for yourself!' In short, I have little doubt that even in my attempt to talk fraternally I am passing over into someone else's 'I' the ambiguous vestiges of paternity which mask my own fratricidal tendency. All of us sit in a process of learning our way beyond mechanisms such as this.
Typically, we very rarely manage to imagine God's voice as speaking
to us entirely at the fraternal level. We very rarely believe rigorously
in the incarnate Word of God as God's definitive form of address to us.
We persist in taking some of what Jesus taught, and then bolstering up
our paternity by quick recourse to hastily constructed arguments derived
from some independent source and attributed to God as Creator, sustainer
of eternal laws, and deliverer of special prohibitions which lead to sacrificial
belonging. In short, we do not test all things and hold fast to what is
good (1 Thess. 5:19-22), but very quickly compromise God in the tradition
of men (Mark 7:8) and protect ourselves from learning fraternity. But in
doing so, we are not being more, but much less faithful to the gospel which
has been entrusted to us by the first of many brothers (Rom. 8:29).
a fraternal consideration . . .
This teaching on Jesus' Fraternal relocation of God and its consequences for the proper development of conscience manifestly has implications for all Christians. For instance, it suggests a self-critical route by which we can work our way out of our tradition of 'divinely' guaranteed misogyny that is somewhat different from a massive victimary investment in criticizing 'patriarchy.' As our conscience becomes free, so our imagination is unbound from reaction and we become able to create new ways of being together. Nevertheless, it is as a Catholic who is gay that I have come to these things, and I think for gay Christians the teaching has particular consequences, one of which I would like, briefly, to hint at.
Do we find ourselves reacting to official teaching, to official intransigence, and to official incapacity for adult discussion in any of our churches with resentment, dismay or a desire to provoke? This, rather than with healthy anger at injustice, and sorrow at the plight of our brethren caught in a trap whose nooses of their own making they keep pulling tighter and tighter? If so, then there is a good chance that we too are still bound in our consciences into the paternal and sacrificial mode of fraternity which we so easily detect in official words and actions. It may be that we are stuck in this way out of the weakness of those who have found ourselves annihilated, and have yet to learn to live with the strengths and limitations of our own anger. In which case, I hope, for my own sake, that little blame attaches to it. But as we become stronger, more capable of words, happier in our discovery that God does indeed love us, then might it not be important that we learn to withhold the excessive tribute of our resentment from something which doesn't really exist?
The one sure way to prevent church teaching from being changed except in the direction of more closed-mindedness is to pander to the paranoia which undergirds it by playing its game. While those upholding the teaching and those attacking it are locked in the world of fratricide disguised as sacred paternity, with all its bizarre twists, then no one gets anywhere. Instead we get 'innocent children' trying to gang up on wicked 'father-figures,' or a 'victim' hierarchy claiming that it has never hurt anyone, but protesting its need to speak the 'divine truth' against those who would sully and 'affront' it. This has nothing to do with the revelation of God in Christ -- except as a parody of it, on both sides. (11)
The real discussion about church teaching will only really get under way when we have done the hard work of ensuring that both our listening and our speaking are only at the fraternal level -- never mind who else is shouting, or refusing to talk, in either case fratricidally. It is only by attending to this development of our own fraternal listening that we'll be able to sift through the hateful rhetoric and the half-baked philosophical traps, stop living in reaction to them, and really hear whatever it is that our Lord actually does want to say to us. His voice is something which has so far successfully been drowned out by what we mistook for 'paternal divine voice.' Since it is increasingly clear that that voice is a 'paternal' double bind, and doesn't appear capable of the open-endedness and unwillingness to bind which characterizes fraternal teaching and is the hallmark of the Gospel, maybe it had indeed better be relegated to the category of 'noises offstage.' But that relegation should not, I suspect, be spoken of lightly. If it is not the fruit of a process of discernment which involves moving out of reaction into fraternity, then all we will have done is scandalized those brethren whose weakness of conscience keeps them dependent on a sacrificial paternity (1 Cor. 8:12). In that case, however free we may feel, we will have done them, and thus ourselves, no favors at all.
1. John 14:6: 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.'
2. John 5:22: 'The Father judges no one, but has given all judgement to the Son.'
3. John 15:12: 'This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.'
4. John 5:23: 'He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.'
5. It may be the case that early Christian readers will have picked up the reference to bondage as a denial that the interlocutors are sons of Abraham through Hagar, the slave woman. Paul's allegory concerning 'who are the real descendants of Abraham through Sara rather than through Hagar' in Galatians 4, with its development in Romans 9, can be, and often has been read, in 'tit-for-tat' fashion. John may well have been seeking to make available the revelatory anthropology that undercuts a possible Christian tit-for-tat reading against the Jews. In other words he may have been saying 'This is not a we-are-better-than-they-issue. There is a substantive question about what it looks like anthropologically to overcome idolatry here.'
6. I am indebted for this insight to Angel Barahona, whose article 'From Cain and Abel to Esau and Jacob' is forthcoming in Contagion 8 (Spring 2001).
7. Mark 3:31-35: 'Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother!'
8. Matt 7:9-11: 'What man of you . . . if his son . . . asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!' Luke throws in an egg and a scorpion as well (Luke 11:12)!
9. 'Even if I wanted to change this teaching, you must see that I can't because it doesn't depend on me, it is an unalterable divine command.' Ah, Abraham, Abraham, raise the knife to your son's throat, but don't look around you too hard, lest you see a ram caught in a thicket, and suspect that the divine command may change!
10. Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; John 12:28. See also Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22.
11. It would be traditional to hold that hierarchs, supposedly beneficiaries of the divine gift of faith, are far more likely on the Last Day to be held responsible for having self-importantly portrayed themselves and the Church as 'victims,' thus falling straight into paranoid parody. Those who do not know that God is the self-giving victim, without self-importance, who never retaliates when slighted, cannot be held to the same measure of accountability. But then again, being able to speak honestly as a gay man nowadays is such a privilege, considered in the light of what this planet has offered our predecessors in earlier generations, and what it still offers many of our contemporaries, that maybe our very process of having discovered dignity should teach us accountability when we are tempted to behave in this way . . .