Alison on Justification by Faith

Excerpt from Knowing Jesus, regarding “justification by faith,” by James Alison (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1993), pages 80-84, 89-93.

There is one further dimension to the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus I would like to bring out, and that is a dimension which cannot be separated from the dimension with which we have just been dealing. At the same time as the crucified and risen Lord is the foundation of the new Israel, so it is his crucified and risen presence that is the basis of the holiness of this new people. What is traditionally called ‘justification by faith,’ is inseparable from the universality of the new community, or society, that the victim founds. There is no grace, no faith, that is not by that very fact immediately related to the new reconciled community. The new Israel is not tacked on to the making of humans holy, as an additional extra. Making us holy is identical with making us part of the new Israel of God.

Let me try and develop that. You will remember that what has been key throughout this book has been the intelligence of the victim [link to webpage on Alison’s use of this phrase “the intelligence of the victim“]. I have emphasized repeatedly that this involves a prior self-giving out of freedom. So, the whole process of Jesus’ life was not simply the story of a lynching, but the story of a man who acted in freedom in certain ways which he knew would lead to his being killed. He did not want to be executed, but he knew he would be. He didn’t allow that fact to change the way he acted or taught. And in fact what he taught was the same: he taught people how to act freely, how not to have their lives run by being locked, in an unhealthy or resentful way, into the life of someone else, or the life of the group that formed them. The symbol of this freedom is the ability to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, and so on.

The importance of all that was the recognition that behind all of Jesus’ life was a free self-giving, that was in no sense masochistic, in no sense contained by the violence of human relationships. Rather it was their antidote. It was this which, you remember, John saw as being the Father’s giving of the Son, and the Son’s obedience to the Father. That is, the free self-giving of Jesus, prior to any of the violence he underwent, was the divine hallmark of his mission. It was this element of self-giving that was totally gratuitous, not part of any human tit-for-tat or relationship of reciprocity, that was the witness to Jesus’ being God.

Now, Jesus illustrated the depths of that free self-giving in his last supper. It was in the last supper that he gave a mimed definition of himself as the self-giving victim (‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’). That is how Jesus was present among his disciples. It was that presence that was made alive again at the resurrection, when the crucified and risen Lord was the making alive of the self-giving victim as forgiveness for all victimizers. This means that when people talk about justification by grace through faith, the grace that is in question is the gratuity of the self-giving victim. There is no other grace. It is precisely that element of self-giving which was present in Jesus’ life, up to and including his death — that is what is present to us as grace.

Now this has consequences! It means that holiness is our dependence on the forgiveness of the victim. That is to say, our being holy is dependent on the resurrection of the forgiving victim. And this, as we have seen, is exactly the same as the foundation of the new Israel, the beginnings of the new unity of humanity. The gratuity of the justification by grace through faith, and the gratuity which is the foundation of the new Israel is exactly the same gratuity. This means that justification by grace through faith automatically implies a relationship to the new Israel.

Let me try to say the same thing in a slightly different way, since this is a difficult concept to grasp for those of us brought up in an individualist society, and accustomed to an individualist account of holiness, or justification, or faith, or all three. The new unity of humanity, begun in the new Israel, has only this as its basis: that the resurrection has turned our victim into our forgiveness. Such as receive the forgiveness begin to form a new unity without any victims.

This means that what is given in Christ’s victim death is a subversion of the old human way of belonging, and the possibility of our induction into a new human way of belonging, of being-with, without any over-against. This means that justification by faith belongs, in the first place, to the new community, the group receiving as a given its unity from the forgiving victim. It is exactly this making present of the beginnings of a new reconciled humanity which is the making present of justification by faith in the world.

There is, therefore, no such thing as individual justification by faith. Such a justification would imply a rescue of an individual from an impious world, over against which the individual is now ‘good’ or ‘saved.’ However, while the individual is still locked into some or other form of over-against, they are not yet receiving the purely gratuitous victim who has nullified all over-against. All justification by faith (that is, all faith) is a relational reality, flowing from, and tending towards the purely given unity of humanity in the victim. There is no grace that is not universal, that is not constantly creating and recreating the purely given unity of all humanity from the body of the victim.

Salvation, therefore, as it became present to the disciples at the resurrection, involved from the beginning a recasting of their way of relating to others, such that they were able to receive the purely given, without any appropriation to themselves of what was given as if it were somehow ‘theirs.’ We have already seen how Jesus’ teaching was understood by the disciples in exactly this way. Part of the effect of the intelligence of the victim on their lives was their understanding Jesus’ teaching on the importance, for instance, of forgiving so that we can be forgiven. It is the change in our relation with the other which permits and is permitted by the change in relation of God, the transcendent other, towards us. We are asked literally to loose, so that we may be loosed, to set free so that we may be set free — that is what the Greek word aphiemi, usually translated ‘to forgive,’ means. Only in this way can our relationality be set free from the defensive self, which moves out of ressentiment, and enabled to become an interchange of gratuity.

I have already indicated how in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching is about how freedom involves not being moved by any over-against, not being creatures of reaction. It is about our movement out of reaction, and into the receiving of the given that is simultaneously our movement into the purely given unity of humanity. The teaching is about how to relate to the social other as a gift, rather than a burden which defines and limits us. That which makes this movement possible is the forgiving victim, mediated to us in the transformation of human relationality. I ask you to think how different this sounds from the fairly standard view that lurks beneath not a few people’s attitudes, an attitude which goes something like this:

In the Old Testament, religion was a collective thing, and as such, needed Law, and rites, and all that. However, Jesus came along, and preached a religion of grace, and the conversion of hearts, and this is an individual thing, not a collective one. So Christianity is essentially the religion of the free individual. If we were going to be radical, we’d have to get rid of rites, and any notion of church membership as anything other than voluntary association. However, for convenience sake we keep a lot of funny old rites, and ecclesiastical oddities, just so long as we remember that these are superfluous to what Christianity is really about.

I bring this up because it is by now, I hope, apparent that there is no change of heart that is not simultaneously a change in a way of belonging to a social other. And that of course means that there is no knowing Jesus outside the change of relationships that is the new Israel of God.

Now all this is an essential part of the package of the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus, which is what I’m trying to set out before exploring in detail ways in which we, at this distance, might genuinely know Jesus, the crucified and risen one. If it sounds complicated, it is in part because it is complicated. It is difficult for us to understand that the foundation of the new Israel is the same as the basis for all holiness, all justification, all conversion. We find it difficult to understand that justification by grace through faith is necessarily a collective phenomenon. It is collective because the only sort of salvation we have been given is the beginnings of the unity of the whole of humanity in a new society founded on the forgiveness of the risen victim. Grace is automatically collective: there is no grace that does not tend towards the construction of this new Israel of God. There is no faith in Jesus that is not intrinsically related to his founding and edifying this new humanity, and there is no making righteous that does not involve a movement away from a certain sort of social ‘belonging,’ kept safe by casting out victims, and a simultaneous movement towards the fraternal construction of the people of the victim present in all the world….
We ended with the presence of the universal victim as the foundation for a new unity of humanity. I think therefore that one of the first questions we can ask ourselves about whether or not we know Jesus is: to what extent are we caught up in a sectarian frame of mind? To what extent are our responses tribal? Let me suggest ways in which we might be: whenever we behave as though some group to which we belong is self-evidently superior to, more truth-bearing than, some other group. That is to say, whenever there is a note of comparison in our reactions and behavior. The comparison can be to our favor, as when we consider ourselves superior, or to our detriment, as when we take on the role of the oppressed victim of society, or whatever. Both of these comparative forms of behavior betray that we have not found the givenness of the self-giving victim as the foundation of our unity.

So, for instance, Catholics may easily talk of Protestants, or Muslims, as though the Catholic Church were superior to these other groups. Thus, belonging to the Catholic Church makes of one a superior sort of person: after all one knows the truths of the faith, and belongs to the true Church. This attitude is not uncommon, and it gives a sort of feeling of combative brotherhood with other fellow Catholics, a strengthened sense of belonging as one faces up to a world run by a hideous army of Protestants, pagans, Masons and what-have-you. In some countries the word ‘Jew’ would traditionally be part of this list of others. Well, I hope that gives it away. The unity that is created in this way — even the laughing emotional bonding that seems to have no practical consequences, is created at the expense of a victim or victims, at the expense of an exclusion. That is to say, it is a unity that is derived over-against some other. And that is to betray the very deepest truth of the Catholic faith, the universal faith, which by its very nature, has no over-against. The unity which is given by and in the risen victim is purely given. It is indicative of no superiority at all over anyone else. Anyone who genuinely knows the crucified and risen victim can never again belong wholeheartedly to any other social, or cultural, or religious group. He or she will always belong critically to all other groups, because all other groups derive their unity over-against someone or some other group.

The only unity to which he or she cannot escape belonging is the new unity of humanity that the Holy Spirit creates out of the risen victim, the unity which subverts all other unities. And this new unity, given us in the Catholic Church is not yet a realized unity, as must be apparent. The Church does not teach that it is the kingdom of heaven, which is the realization of the unity in the new Israel, but that it is the universal sacrament of that kingdom. That is to say that it is the efficacious sign of a reality that has been realized only in embryo. As such, it is radically subversive of all other forms of belonging, all other ways of constructing unity. But it is so as a gift from God.

So, knowing Jesus implies, of necessity, a gradual setting free from any tribal sense of belonging, and the difficult passage into a sense of belonging that is purely given. Its only security is the gratuity of the giver, and that means a belonging in a group that has no ‘abiding city,’ that unlike the fox, has no hole, and unlike the bird, has no nest. You can see, I think, why it is particularly sad when Catholics turn belonging to the Church into a sectarian belonging, into a definable cultural group with a clearly marked inside and outside, and firm ideas as to who belongs outside. Of such people it can be said that they do not go in to the kingdom of heaven, and throw away the key so that others may not enter. By their very sectarian insistence on the unique truth of Catholicism, these people cut themselves off from access to the truth which they think is theirs, but which is only true when it is received as given.

The flip side of this sign of knowing or not knowing Jesus is the adoption of the role of victim, one of the key moves in modern society if you want to establish your credentials, and make space so as to be tolerated. I imagine that almost all of us at one time or other have felt the pull of this cultural imperative: if we can cast ourselves as victims, then this makes us pure and innocent. Society is the villain. This is a tactic for any number of so-called ‘minority’ groups in society, and for any number of individuals in their relationships. It is a way, too, of covering up my violence, or the violence of the minority group, by blaming the (usually nebulous) other for all my ills. It can thus be a potent form of emotional blackmail, as well as making it very difficult to distinguish cases where people really are being persecuted, and something must be done about it, from cases where people are using their sacred status as victims to get away with what no other person or group would be able to. I am sure that all of you can think of examples of this mechanism in operation from your own history.

Now, again, the knowledge of Jesus, the crucified and risen victim makes a difference here. For if you know the crucified and risen victim, you know that you are not yourself the victim. The danger is much more that you are either actively, or by omission, or both, a victimizer. We have only one self-giving victim, whose self-giving was quite outside any contamination of human violence or exploitation. The rest of us are all involved with that violence. The person who thinks of himself or herself as the victim is quick to divide the world into ‘we’ and ‘they.’ In the knowledge of the risen victim there is only a ‘we,’ because we no longer need to define ourselves over against anyone at all.

So, knowing the universal victim involves a conversion in these very deep areas of our belonging and our way of relating. Any talk of knowing Jesus that permits the sectarian attitude, the ‘we’ / ‘they,’ might well give cause for suspicion. You can see once again how the theme of the universality of the victim, and hence of the Church, and the theme of justification by faith, are the same theme in the light of this. For the whole point of justification by faith is that it is the justification by God, not self justification. The whole problem Luther had with works was that he took the Catholic insistence on good works to be necessarily a source of self justification. Self-justification is of course when I justify myself over and against someone, or something else. I am trapped in a defensive, or self-justifying position if I constantly depend on comparison with, or approval from, others. That means that my sense of identity, my security is built over-against others, and is not simply, gratuitously given. I am dependent on various ways of showing that I am different, separate, not part of the crude mass of humanity. Self justification and the sectarian attitude are exactly the same phenomenon. The given-ness of goodness by God (implying the growing appreciation of my similarity to, and my lovability as one of, the crude mass of humanity which is loved by God) and the givenness of justification (and the givenness of the universality, the catholicity, of salvation) are one and the same phenomenon. In this way the individual and the group simultaneously learn to live without any over-against, defining themselves against no one at all. That is a sure sign of a real knowledge of Jesus.

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