Judgment and Universal History
It may be objected to the line of argument just proposed that Girard's theory is disputed and is for that reason not suited to providing a proof that the drama of Jesus' fate possesses a universal significance. Against this objection it must first of all be maintained that the problematic, as it was thrown up at the beginning of this century by the history of religion school, has not found any real solution, but that it has been more or less passed over -- above all under the influence of dialectical theology. Girard has taken up again the unsolved questions, which is why his projected solution deserves attention and discussion. Problems which are repressed or displaced must recur in one form or another.
Our reflections concerning the truth of the Easter message are moreover independent of Girard's theory at the crucial point. The problematic described by him, of aggression and projection, has become so central in modern society that it is recognizable even without the mediation of a specific theory. We intend to pursue it first of all within the history of the recent philosophy of history -- following on directly from a study by O. Marquard -- in order then to move on to modern history itself. In Difficulties in the Philosophy of History Marquard sets out how the Enlightenment dogma that man is the actor in history necessarily excluded from consideration the question about responsibility for misdeeds. "Clearly man is now what, in his philosophy of history, he wanted to prevent God from being: a doer of misdeeds. How does he bear this?" (1) Men seem in fact not to have borne this, since Marquard can demonstrate how the philosophy of history has consistently sought strategies to soften the problem. "Those very philosophies of history which emancipate man and enthrone him as he wishes to be are the ones which conduct a vigorous search for 'another doer of deeds': they need him as an alibi." (2) Marquard includes in these alibi-strategies the attempts to shift the problem onto Nature or surreptitiously onto God again, which in view of the modern thesis of radical autonomy cannot succeed. There thus remains only one way out: "In view of perennial evil, in the search for the other doer of deeds, the philosophy of history, no longer speaking of God and no longer wishing to speak of Nature, but having to speak of man, discovers as the crucial figure the others, the people who hinder the good which people intend: i.e., the opponents, the enemy." (3) And even more directly: "Where the other-worldly scapegoat is missing, there is need for a substitute, an inner-worldly one, and where Nature is considered unsuitable for it, a human scapegoat must be found." (4) The problematic of enemies and of the displacement of guilt in misdeeds is thus shown to be in no way superseded or the mere remnant of the sacred tradition. It was operative with a particular virulence in precisely those outlines of the philosophy of history which have attempted to distance themselves completely from the religious tradition of the West.
However, not only those who consider the philosophies of history, but empirical researchers into history, if they proceed in a self-critical way, face similar questions. For example, in his great study of anti-Semitism, L. Poliakov established how far the Jews during the whole history of Western Christendom were made responsible for the evils in society and were forced into the role of scapegoats. (5) In his further study La causalité diabolique he was also able to show that conspiracy theories played an important part in the great Western revolutions (English, French, Russian). (6) Only through the systematically stirred up suspicion that sworn enemies were everywhere present was there achieved that unity of action among rival revolutionaries, keeping a careful watch on each other, which would make effective political action possible.
The English historian H. Butterfield came to a similar insight through the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history with its bitter conflicts between "civilized" nations. This history showed him, with an evidence which could not be doubted, that people and nations have again and again acted from the conviction that they themselves are the good and just ones and that they must combat evil in their neighbors. But as the neighbors thought the same, saw the guilt in others and thought they were the victims of wicked calumnies and aggression, the judgments of people and nations were over and over again in sharp opposition with each other. Illusions about themselves and others must consequently play a central part in human judgments. For that reason, historians who do not come down in advance on one side out of blind partisanship, which has happened only too often even among experts, (7) do not leave on one side the problematic of aggression and projection. Butterfield concludes:
For that reason it seems to me -- although history does not pursue this problem into the deep levels in which the theologian expressed his judgments and does not lay bare the self-deceptions about our ostensible righteousness -- that the historian, even already in his own area, should reach his hand to the theologian even in the realm of observable historical events, and the necessity of this appears even clearer today when we stand in a bitter conflict and our situation is desperate. In the world as it offers itself to me in history there is a chief sin which holds humanity fast in all its other sins and doesn't let men and nations emerge out of their difficult situation -- a sin for which there is no cause if what I said above about the nature of man and his place in the world is true: self-righteousness. (8)In order to gain insights like those put forward by Butterfield, one does not finally even need the methods of history. An attentive glance at what current history offers us shows immediately that human ways of behaving -- one can with a certain justice speak of "mechanisms" -- as found in conflicts over the whole earth, and independently of social classes and cultures, are very similar. Everywhere people paint pictures of themselves and of their adversaries which they consider to be objective judgments, but which in reality are opposed to one another and cannot be reconciled with each other. Everywhere also there is seen the tendency to regulate problems which cannot be resolved at the level of judgment by recourse to physical violence. The methods of history as well as immediate historical experience therefore place us before a universal problem, which cannot in any way be relativized as culturally conditioned. It is precisely the problem which was shown up as central in Jesus' proclamation and fate. With him also the issue was essentially about judgment and the question of how to meet aggression, which arises from blind judgment. Up until now the old forms of judgment dominate history on the great and on the small scale, and for that reason conflicts continue. In the fate of Jesus, however, it became clear how, in spite of deep oppositions and smoldering conflicts, forms of cooperation and collaboration are possible if that dark element, which one cannot see and master in oneself and in one's own group, can be projected onto a "victim" (the different Jewish groups and the pagans against Jesus). This procedure has over and over again made possible human order and civilization -- despite fundamental tensions. Historical experience should consequently provide the documentation that those themes in the New Testament message which distinguish the Jewish-Christian tradition from other religions and by which, within this tradition, Jesus' ministry further stands out from the Old Testament background fully maintain their outstanding significance at the universal human level.
Apocalyptic and the Self-Judgment of Humankind
The conclusions reached so far can be clarified and confirmed by a further point. The apocalyptic texts in the Gospels were exploited by a theology imprisoned in the ways of thinking of the nineteenth century, with its tendency to postulate the time-conditioned nature of Jesus' message. But in reality, it is precisely these texts that speak of the problematic of violence with that universality which imposes itself on human beings today in the most immediate way. Ever since science, which arose in partly direct, partly indirect dependence on the Christian tradition, designed weapons by which the self-destruction of the whole of humanity became a real possibility, all other questions stand under the influence of this problematic. It has become the most comprehensive this-worldly horizon of human effort. Thus the indications are -- even at the empirical level -- that the judgment on humankind, as Jesus announced it in his judgment sayings, is ultimately a self-judgment and can lead to a total collective self-condemnation.
To say that we are in an objectively apocalyptic situation is in no way "to announce the end of the world." It is to say that humankind has become, for the first time, capable of destroying itself, something that was unimaginable only two or three centuries ago. The whole planet now finds itself, with regard to violence, in a situation comparable to that of the most primitive groups of human beings, except that this time we are fully aware of it. We can no longer count on sacrificial resources based on false religions to keep this violence at bay. We are reaching a degree of self-awareness and responsibility that was never attained by those who lived before us. (9)
If the apocalyptic texts have achieved such an amazing actuality, then there is no cause from the viewpoint of this world to question that hope in the resurrection of the dead which arose precisely in the apocalyptic tradition. On the contrary, contemporary experience points back clearly -- notwithstanding their once-for-all character -- to those past experiences.
Place and Time
Since Reimarus, the objection has been repeatedly raised against the credibility of the Easter message that the narratives about the appearances of the risen one in the four Gospels are hard to relate to one other in terms of place and time. If our everyday experience of time and place were an absolute quantity, then a certain weight could be given to this objection. But can something be presupposed as an absolute norm, which is perhaps in need of questioning itself? Isn't scholarly research thus immunizing itself in advance against everything which could surprise it and cause it to change its thinking? Here again there can be seen the ambiguity of a historical-critical method if it is not carried out self-critically. The physical sciences today show that one has to tread carefully with the usual representations of space and time. Is not far more care required for an event which claims to be the action of God in the world? What is initially felt as disturbing with regard to place and time can be precisely a sign of how the exclusive and disturbing bounds of space and time are overcome in the power of the spirit bringing about the resurrection. For this reason, G. Wenz rightly offers this consideration:
The living quality of this presence of the Spirit, in which Jesus himself is really present, can be seen among other things in the unanimity of the biblical message that does not destroy its pluriformity, but rather calls it forth. From the plurality of the Jesus stories, which symphonically witness to the resurrection of the crucified one, it becomes clear that in his eternal life, time and space are not abstractly negated, but are achieved in their fullness. The exclusive bounds of time and space are meanwhile negated and broken through. (10)This is not, however, a welcome to complete arbitrariness. It is also crucial, therefore, that possible false or even mythological ways of representing the resurrection should be guarded against. We may not then content ourselves with the question of the credibility of the Easter message, but we must make an effort to uncover its deeper meaning.
The Action of the Heavenly Father
The way to approach the inner problematic of the resurrection, arising from the consideration of Jesus' fate, was succinctly expressed in the first epistle of Peter: "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; he suffered, but did not threaten; but he handed himself over to the righteous judge" (1 Pet. 2:23). The action of the Father at Easter is to be understood as a judgment by which he takes up a position in the conflict between the claim of Jesus and the verdict of his opponents. This statement is central and at the same time liable to misinterpretation, as it could suggest a return to traditional conceptions of judgment and thereby to a distorting horizon of interpretation. In order correctly to understand the judging activity of the heavenly Father at Easter, we must first of all remind ourselves that Jesus in his proclamation of judgment took back nothing from his message of the goodness of God, but rather uncovered the possibility which threatened that people would close themselves off absolutely. Further, we must consider that Jesus, faced with a violent death, gave himself completely for the opponents of God's kingdom, who had closed themselves off. In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus' opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they had already turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation.
The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. (11) But the heavenly Father in his Easter "judgment" acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message "Peace be with you!" (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge's verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes" (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people's hardened hearts.
Finally, from this perspective it is also understandable why the heavenly Father "held back" in his Easter judgment and why he did not powerfully authenticate his Son before the whole world. Jesus made the claim, by his proclamation and by his lived decision not to meet the violence of his opponents on their own level, that God's action is not identical with action on this earth which brings immediate victory. He was not able himself to prove this claim, since it led him by an inner logic to earthly defeat. But even the Father was unable to endorse him in a graphic way, since a demonstrative, public intervention in favor of the Son would have worked precisely against his message. The action of God and a historical, public victory would have appeared once again as identical values, and the way of surrender to death would have shown itself to be merely a passing episode. This style of endorsement would have contradicted what was to be endorsed. Rather, what was needed was a sign which on the one hand made explicit the unrestricted divine "yes" to Jesus and on the other hand was "reserved," so that it was not tantamount to a public victory. Both demands were met by the appearances of the risen one before the women and his disciples. What from the historical-critical viewpoint may be felt to be unsatisfying shows itself to be most appropriate at the level of the inner coherence of content. Thus it emerges once more that the cryptic presuppositions of the historical-critical method do not match the reality which came to expression for the first time in the fate of Jesus.
1. Marquard (1973), 72.
2. Ibid., 76.
3. Ibid., 78f.
4. Ibid., 77. Marquard is thinking here primarily of the Marxist philosophy of history, but also of National Socialism.
5. Poliakov (1977, 1987).
6. Poliakov (1980, 1985).
7. H. Sitta gathered in the little monograph Geschichte und politischer Charakter der Deutschen: Ein Versuch judgments by Germans and French on German-French conflict and, correspondingly, on German-Polish and Prussian-Bavarian conflict. One can only be amazed at how naively self-righteous and contradictory the judgments of even great people and scientists were.
8. Butterfield (1952), 50f.; see also Schwager (1987), 257-75.
9. Girard, Things Hidden, 260-61.
10. Wenz (1984, 1986) 2:412f.
11. In Matthew, of course, Jesus poses only the question about the action of the owner, and the hearers themselves answer that the owner will put the wretched tenants to death (21:40-41).