Excerpt from Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroads, 1995), pp. 42-47.

There is a New Testament story that exemplifies how those in closest historical proximity to the crucifixion experienced its astonishing revelatory power. The story, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, tells of an encounter between Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch on his way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The story is written by Luke, the evangelist most familiar with the Greek culture that was dominant in the first century and most aware of the confusion those with the Greek cultural sensibilities felt when confronted with the Christian proclamation that the messiah -- in Greek terms, the savior of the world -- was a man condemned by Jewish authorities and executed on a Roman gallows. For Luke, the story of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian is a parable about the interpretive power of the gospel in resolving that confusion.

The story takes place in the aftermath of Jesus' crucifixion. Philip is one of the members of the fledgling community of Jesus' followers in Jerusalem. On the occasion in question, he is inspired to approach an Ethiopian traveling on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The Ethiopian is reading aloud this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

Like a sheep that is led to the slaughterhouse,
like a lamb that is dumb in front of its shearers,
like these he never opens his mouth.
He has been humiliated and has no one to defend him.
Who will ever talk about his descendants,
since his life on earth has been cut short. (Acts 8:32-33 [Isaiah 53:7-8])
Scholars continue to speculate on the identity of the "suffering servant" in this passage from Isaiah. Some have thought him to have been an individual whose Godliness the prophetic writer has recognized and whose mistreatment he has witnessed. Some have thought him to be a prophet himself, whose fate was commemorated by his sympathetic followers. And some have considered the Suffering Servant poems to be allegorical references to the people of Israel. The power of these "servant songs" comes through regardless of which of these interpretations is favored. Christians have tended to understand these texts as referring to an individual, a prophetic forerunner of the Crucified One, and this is presumably the way in which the Ethiopian is reading the passage here quoted. Though he feels an affinity with this despised figure, as a reasonably cosmopolitan inhabitant of the Greco-Roman world, the Ethiopian is as perplexed by the biblical text as are many modern readers of the Bible. Perhaps, like many who read the Bible today, he has turned to this strange anthology for inspiration and spiritual fortification. Instead, he has found a story of mob violence. He cannot make sense of it, and he asks Philip to help him.

Luke tells us only this of Philip's instruction: "Starting, therefore, with this text of scripture Philip proceeded to explain the Good News of Jesus to him." When has one sentence summarized so much! From the grim story of persecution in Isaiah to the Gospel in one sentence. From its effect on the Ethiopian, we are made aware of the shock which Philip's interpretation delivered. As a result of this shock, there on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the Ethiopian insisted on being formally admitted into the Christian fellowship. To appreciate the larger anthropological implications of this little story is to have the Bible explode in one's hands, much the way Philip's insights caused the text from Isaiah to explode in the Ethiopian's.

What makes the text so haunting and bewildering is that it tells the story of mob violence, and its perspective is to a great extent that of the victim. Not altogether so; it is laced with the perspective of the religiously scrupulous and righteously indignant community that persecuted the victim. In other words, it is a text in transition, one that clearly is moving away from myth -- the story that flatters the victimizers and sanctions their violence -- and toward "Gospel" -- the story that reveals the violence, strips it of its religious justifications, and reveals to the world a God of powerless love. The Ethiopian has in his hands, therefore, a text of inestimable anthropological value, inasmuch as it is a candid presentation of cultural violence shorn of most of the mythological trappings. It reveals a truth myths suppress in order to make culture possible. It is a truth that slowly works its way to the surface of the biblical text beginning with the Cain and Abel story in Genesis and culminating with the crucifixion.

The Bible's anthropological distinction lies in the fact that in it an empathy for victims again and again overwhelms the Bible's own attempt to mythologize its violence and venerate it as divinely decreed. Ask ten people what they think of the Hebrew Scriptures -- the "Old Testament" -- and even if they've never opened it, eight of the ten will tell you that they are put off by its violence. The world over which myth presides with its majestic poise is no less violent. Its violence is simply better veiled and suffused with grandeur. As a gentile, the Ethiopian would have been accustomed to having official tribal violence shrouded in an aura of myth. The passage from Isaiah, however, is haunted by a crude specter of mob violence. Since the Ethiopian is still bound up in mythological thought patterns and the primitive religious cosmology made plausible and morally palatable by myth, he hasn't a clue to the meaning of the text from Isaiah. Philip, on the other hand, has known the passion story. He has been effectively exposed to the story of righteous violence in which an innocent victim died forgiving his murderers, realizing that "they know not what they do." With that story as his interpretive key, the few mythological vestiges that survive in the Isaiah text offer no serious impediment to Philip's revelatory interpretation of it. The mob was wrong and its sense of righteousness was a delusion. It is the victim who is the chosen one of God, the agent of God's self-revelation to the world.

The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and, second, that his victimization was socially beneficial, and that his punishment brought the community peace. The fact that it combines these two perspectives is what makes it such a trustworthy text. It has suppressed neither the moral offensiveness of the violence nor the social fact that the violence had beneficial cultural effects. In order for these two antithetical facts to be reconciled, of course, it was necessary to subordinate one to the other. If the social harmony it produced was to be enjoyed and extended, the violence would have to be found morally acceptable. All cultures have had to choose between confronting the truth about their mob violence, on one hand, and enjoying the camaraderie it generated, on the other. What is distinctive about the Bible is that it is the first literature in the history of the world to grapple with the moral dilemma this choice represents.

The author of the Isaiah text has seen both the innocence of the victim and the social revival that his victimization brought about. He tries to reconcile them, and he knows only one way to do so. He assumes that "Yahweh has been pleased to crush him with suffering," that the victim was allowed to be struck down by a God who counted his sufferings as an atonement for the faults of the very mob that inflicted them on him. With one important difference, this is a variation on an ancient and universally prevalent myth. The difference is that the speaker in the Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah sees perfectly clearly how morally upright, how wretchedly abused, how pathetic, and how arbitrarily chosen the mob's victim really was. This knowledge is at war with the conclusion that the text makes, namely, that God was somehow pleased with the results of the violence. In other words, the passage which the Ethiopian found so troubling embodies an unstable balance between culture's dependence on collective righteous violence and the growing empathy for the victims of it, an empathy that develops within and is documented by the biblical literature as a whole. The moral and religious solution the text pronounces is an unstable one because these two forces -- the empathy for victims and the need for rituals of victimization -- are incompatible. Sooner or later, one of them will have to prevail over the other.

Reading the Signs of the Times

Now let's not forget what has happened in this vignette. The Ethiopian, perplexed by a strange text, underwent a profound change when someone who understood the larger implications of the crucifixion was able to point out to him the text's deeper meaning. Philip's interpretation focused the illuminating power of the Cross on a biblical account of mob violence. Like the Ethiopian, we too are on a journey, and, like him, we are too enmeshed in the myths and scandals of contemporary culture to be able to make sense of what we read about them. Unlike the Ethiopian, however, it's not the Bible we're reading. On our homebound journey we read the newspaper. (Or, we wait until we get home and have the TV anchor read it to us.) If the interpretive power of the Cross is what it purports to be in this story, then might that interpretive power shed light on the evening newspaper as much as it does on an ancient Hebrew text? Is it possible, in other words, to see in the newspaper what the Ethiopian, with Philip's help, was able to see in Second Isaiah? On opening the newspaper, how long would one have to search to find righteous crowds making common cause by uniting against culprits or adversaries which have been chosen more or less at random?

In John's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they will do greater things than he. One wonders. Nevertheless, I think we are called upon to do something even more audacious than what Philip did, for Philip brought the revelation of the Cross to bear on one of the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that most closely resembles it. It is precisely this resemblance between the crucifixion and the Suffering Servants Songs in Second Isaiah that provided the first Christians with such an important clue for understanding the crucifixion in the first place. In fact, because the early Christians weren't able to eliminate entirely the implications of sacrificial atonement found in these Servant Songs, institutional Christianity perpetuated the idea of placating divine wrath, a notion that is squarely at odds with the God revealed by Jesus' life and death. To say that we are challenged to do something more audacious than Philip, therefore, means two things. First, it means that, as beneficiaries of Gospel revelation, we are now better able to distinguish the New Testament revelation from its sacrificial antecedents, and that we have a responsibility to do so. Secondly, it means that we are challenged to focus the interpretive power of the Cross on texts and on personal and historical experiences which, in contrast to the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah, seem to bear no relationship to the New Testament whatsoever.

The modern heir to Philip's task will not encounter a eunuch returning home to Ethiopia and reading with incomprehension a passage in the Hebrew scriptures. He will more likely encounter a modern commuter returning home reading a newspaper and being confounded by the stories of fierce ethnic violence in foreign lands, or savage and sometimes gratuitous violence in urban America. If Philip's modern counterpart is to offer bewildered moderns what Philip offered the Ethiopian, he will have to bring the specifically Christian revelation to bear on these sources of contemporary bewilderment. He will have to comment as decisively on those newspaper stories that are as much a source of consternation to moderns as the Suffering Servant Songs were to the Ethiopian.

If, for instance, a homeward traveler has before him the March 28, 1991 edition of the Los Angeles Times, would a modern Philip be able to explain the Good News of the Gospel to him by explicating the story by Janny Scott that appeared on page one? The story, entitled "Violence Born of the Group," tries to analyze the beating of Rodney King by a number of Los Angeles Police officers on March 3, 1991. The beating, videotaped by an onlooker unnoticed by the officers involved, gained prominent national attention. This story appeared more than a year before the verdict in the Rodney King beating case touched off riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In order to better understand how the senseless act of violence against King could have happened in the first place, the Times writer interviewed sociologists and psychologists and reported their conclusions....