Bailie on “It Is Accomplished”

Excerpt from Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (Crossroads, 1995), pp. 217-223.


“It Is Accomplished”

Ultimately, it was Jesus’ public execution and not his public ministry that consummated the biblical revelation, inspired the New Testament, launched the Christian movement, and eventually led to the anthropological crisis in which we now find ourselves. As the first Christians moved beyond the Jewish cultural orbit into the wider Greco-Roman world, they found people bewildered by the idea that the world had been saved by a young Jew condemned by his co-religionists and publicly executed as a political nuisance by the Romans authorities. There was an understandable tendency to make the gospel more intelligible to the Greek world by downplaying the crucifixion and stressing instead the teachings of Jesus. Paul reacted vigorously to this, and he adamantly insisted on “preaching Christ crucified.” Almost two millennia later, the historian Paul Johnson would observe that the central paradox of Jesus’ mission was that it could have been fully vindicated only by its failure. (1)

If, as Paul insisted, the Cross is at the center of the Christian message, both Christianity’s emancipatory claims and its claim of universal relevance would seem to depend on whether or not collective violence of the kind structurally indistinguishable from that involved in the crucifixion is the linchpin of human delusion. Moreover, seen through the eyes of open-minded nonbelievers, it’s difficult to think of how else such claims could be sustained. Of course, one of the main reasons we have missed the gospel’s universality and tarnished its universal claims in the eyes of others is that we have tended to appropriate it in such parochial ways. The surest way to miss the link between the cure (the crucifixion and its aftereffects) and the disease (the structures of scapegoating violence upon which all human social arrangements have depended) is to read the passion story with an eye to locating and denouncing those most responsible for it. There is a deep irony in this. The fact that we automatically search the text — or the world outside the text — for culprits on whom to blame the crucifixion is proof that we are one of the culprits, for the crucifixion was demanded by those determined to find a culprit to blame or punish or expel. Responsibility for the crucifixion and the system of sacred or scapegoating violence it epitomizes — is to be borne either by all of us or by only some of us. If the responsibility belongs only to some of us, those who bear responsibility deserve the contempt of those who do not, and we are back in a world of religious categories and sacred violence. The crucifixion’s anthropological significance is lost if responsibility for its violence is shifted from all to some. To lay the blame on the Pharisees or the Jews is to undermine the universal meaning of the crucifixion in favor of the familiar finger-pointing theory of human wickedness.

The fact, however, that religious zeal played such a decisive role in Jesus’ death is both historically true and structurally essential to the revelation for which the Cross stands. The fact that it was Jewish religious zeal is not entirely without significance, but it has precisely the same significance that historical Christianity’s anti-Jewish pogroms have, namely, that the people who should have known better didn’t. And so, one of the great ironies is that historical Christianity’s willingness to blame the Jews for the crucifixion has often kept it from appreciating the role Jews played in recognizing the meaning of the crucifixion. The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting. Only in a culture predisposed to empathize with victims could the crucifixion have had its full effects. If the forces that militated for Jesus’ crucifixion were Jewish, so were the men and women whose lives were fundamentally altered by it and who first experienced its historical and spiritual impact. The Jewishness of Jesus’ opponents should never be given more weight than the Jewishness of Jesus’ disciples and those who first felt the power of the Christian revelation and proclaimed it to others. It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him, and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.

To think, as historical Christianity has sometimes allowed itself to think, that the responsibility for Jesus’ death lies with the Jews is to entirely miss the meaning of the crucifixion. There is no better place to turn to disabuse ourselves of this notion than the Gospel whose language seems to have favored the notion in the first place, namely, the Gospel of John. The author of John’s Gospel used the term “the Jews” often and in various ways, but the phrase is almost always used as a synonym for the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. Were we to substitute for the word “Jews” the word “religionists,” we would be closer to the anthropological significance of the Gospel’s reproach. Such a revision, however, would be both too narrow and too broad. Unless we identify it to some degree with Judaism, as many of the first Christians did, we cannot feel the pathos of Jewish opposition to Jesus. The most telling point to be made by indicating the Jewishness of Jesus’ opposition is the point made in the prologue to John’s Gospel, namely, that “he came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). Jesus was the victim of his own people, heirs as he was of the biblical revelation, but too blinded by a parochial understanding of that tradition to be able to recognize the living incarnation of its universality. Now that Jesus’ own people are Christians, the moral weight of every New Testament reference to Jewish opposition to Jesus falls squarely on Christians.

John’s Gospel provides the New Testament’s most breathtaking vista on the universal meaning of the crucifixion and its eventual impact on the world. In far more detail than the synoptic evangelists (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), the Fourth Gospel explores the underlying forces that led to Jesus’ death, and it provides the anthropological background for understanding the crucial role of the crowd. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in a passage in which the Johannine Jesus challenges “the Jews who believed in him.” In John’s Gospel, “belief” in Christ as the envoy of God is all important, but there are degrees of belief or faith, and many who believe-that-they-believe have in fact attained only very rudimentary forms of faith. So the fourth evangelist insists, for example, that those who believe in Jesus because of the miraculous signs he has performed, or because they are swept up in the enthusiasm of others, have yet to achieve the kind of faith that is decisive. Such a belief will not free the mere believers from the sacrificial predispositions by which their social and psychological lives are habitually ordered. As Rudolf Schnackenburg remarked, Jesus’ call for faith “brings about a crisis” in which “all unbelief [is] unmasked.” (2) There is an underlying “unbelief” of which “believers” are too often unaware. It is one that is too intractable to be eliminated by a mere change of conscious orientation. It is this unbelief that the Johannine Jesus is here “unmasking.” To “the Jews who (merely) believed in him” Jesus said:

If you make my word [logos] your home
you will indeed be my disciples,
you will learn the truth
and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32)

To dwell in the Logos of Christ, as the verses to follow explicitly show, is to transcend the parochial allegiances of conventional culture. It is to be emancipated from whatever culture-bound logos may have formerly served as one’s mental and emotional envelope. As Paul so forcefully argued, by moral effort alone one cannot free oneself from the grip of the sacred and the logic of violence. The logos of conventional culture consists of so pervasive a web of conditioned reflexes that we remain largely oblivious of its influence. If we are to be freed from it, something from outside the cultural matrix must break in on us. Structurally and anthropologically speaking, there is only one thing truly outside of this matrix: the victim whose expulsion brought the system into being in the first place, the stone rejected by the builders of all culture, the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.

What Jesus would accomplish by his death on the cross, and what he was already preaching in his public ministry, was the fulfillment of the great promise of universality that had been made to Abraham when, faithful to the biblical God, he initiated the long process of renouncing the sacrificial logic of the primitive sacred. Ironically, then, it was when Jesus reissued the call Abraham heard in his native Haran — to leave his father’s house and take the journey of faith — that his listeners went deaf to the voice Abraham heard in the land of Moriah. More ironically still, their justification for doing so was that Abraham was their father. They insisted that they didn’t need the truth that would set them free, for as children of Abraham their freedom was a foregone conclusion. As Jesus’ response to his interlocutors makes clear, however, he understands freedom to be freedom from sacrificial compulsions, for he proceeds to expose these sacrificial proclivities in the most explicit way. He says:

I know that you are descended from Abraham;
but in spite of that you want to kill me
because my logos has not penetrated into you.
What I, for my part, speak of
is what I have seen with my Father;
but you, you put into action
the lessons learned from your father. (John 8:37-38)

Earlier I noted that the slightly divergent accounts of Jesus’ wilderness temptations provided by Matthew and Luke form an interpretive diptych that allows us to appreciate the full anthropological implications of the story. In fact, it is when one approaches the New Testament with an anthropological sensibility that its central motifs become recognizable. Once these motifs have been recognized, all the evangelical discrepancies — so awkward and troubling when the texts are read as history, biography, or theology — have a unifying effect, inasmuch as they illuminate these central motifs from different angles. Another instance of this occurs in relation to the story of Jesus’ baptism and has an important bearing on the passages in John’s Gospel now under consideration. Whereas in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism the words spoken from heaven are taken from Isaiah 42, in Luke’s extremely brief allusion to the baptism the heavenly voice speaks the words of the Psalmist: “You are my son; today have I fathered you.” This verse I think uniquely captures what was surely the constituting experience of Jesus’ life, what some scholars call his “Abba experience.” Jesus’ public ministry was little more than a persevering effort to share with his contemporaries the liberating power and religious meaning of that experience. I mention this here because in the passages from John’s Gospel we are now considering Jesus contrasts his life and message with the mounting sacrificial proclivities of his listeners in terms of the radically different fathers to whom each is being loyal. In the earlier passage, Jesus had told (mere) “believers” how they might become “disciples,” namely, by making the logos of Jesus their home. The term logos now reappears in connection with the term “father,” and it does so as Jesus begins to reveal the inner workings of the psychosocial complex we call culture.

The term “father” as the evangelist uses it here refers to a social law of gravity that predetermines the pattern (the logos) of social developments in the ordinary course of cultural history. No doubt first-century Judaism was a patriarchal society, but the term “father” in these verses refers to the organizing principle of conventional culture regardless of its religious concepts or its peculiar form of social organization. What the Johannine Jesus calls the “father” — the father of lies and the murderer from the beginning — has virtually nothing to do with the male parent whom we call father. (3)

Jesus argues that those to whom he is speaking are neither the children of Abraham nor of God for, he says, “you want to kill me when I tell you the truth” (8:40). Those to whom Jesus is speaking have not been able to persevere in his logos. They have merely “believed” in him, while unwittingly remaining loyal to a “father” whom they mistakenly think is Abraham or God, but whom Jesus recognizes as a diabolical figure. The evidence for Jesus’ claim that his listeners are in the grip of this diabolical figure consists of one thing: they want to kill him. It is this scapegoating predilection that Jesus is able to see when even those in whom it has begun to operate remain oblivious of it. And it is the existence of this scapegoating predisposition that proves that those in whom it exists have not made the logos of Christ their home. But their murderousness is not simply moral perversion. It is fundamental. It is anthropological. It is structural. It is the ordering principle of culture, “hidden since the foundation of the world.”

“What you are doing,” Jesus says, “is what your father does” (8:41). What they were doing at the moment these words were spoken was simply objecting to Jesus’ annoying lack of interest in the religious pedigree upon which their social and psychological lives were premised. With nothing more on which to base a judgment than their irritation at having their descent from Abraham dismissed as irrelevant, Jesus extrapolates: soon they will want to kill him. How does the Jesus of John’s Gospel know that they want to kill him? He has only one piece of evidence. When Jesus tried to invite them out of their cultural cocoon, they bristled and reasserted their ethnicity. The fact that they suddenly began to assert their ethnicity with indignation indicates that they have begun to sense the shattering effect Jesus and his preaching might have on their conventional religious and social orientation. Those to whom Jesus is speaking are right to sense that he is a threat to the conventional cultural and religious framework on which they depend, but his challenge to these things is neither gratuitous nor anti-Jewish. He is simply revealing a truth that is antithetical to conventional culture and the merely social self.

The Johannine Jesus uncovers the struggle between the Logos of Jesus (the Logos of love) and the logos of violence. These are the two ordering principles that confront one another in the Gospel, and especially in the passion story. Over each of these systems of logic there presides a father. In one of the New Testament’s most anthropologically powerful passages, Jesus says:

Do you know why you cannot take in what I say?
It is because you are unable to understand my logos.
The devil is your father,
and you prefer to do
what your father wants.
He was a murderer from the beginning . . .
he is a liar, and the father of lies. (John 8:43-44)

The logos under whose spell the world of conventional culture thrives is the logos of misrecognition, the mythos, “the father of lies,” the “murderer from the beginning.”

1. Johnson, A History of Christianity 29.

2. Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St. John (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 1:571.

3. Alas, our world has become so completely preoccupied with matters of gender that the analysis of anything expressed in gender-specific terms is increasingly likely to get stuck there.

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