James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. Doers Publishing, 2013. 572 pp.
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. –Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre
You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. –Caiaphas in John 11:50
Do you wonder why after 2000 years of Christianity the world is still full of discord, lack of neighborliness, and violence? Why do we seem better at creating a battle ground than a common ground? Shouldn’t 2+ billion Christians have made a greater contribution to peace than we actually experience? Why, in fact, do Christians seem to be proponents of divisiveness, of an “us-them” mentality all in the name of righteousness and the purported defense of Jesus? I sometimes feel that despite having far more tools and resources for understanding Jesus including pious devotions, bible studies and commentaries, and praying and meditation, we are further away from understanding what living as Christians means than ever before.
A few months ago I started reading an author who has spent much more time than I trying to understand how Christianity has become what it is today. Fr. James Alison, a Roman Catholic convert and theologian, has written an introduction to Christianity called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, in which he tries to answer some of the questions I’ve struggled to address. This is a full-blown course based on a series of Alison’s essays. His method is to look at Scripture, both OT and NT, and especially the OT in light of the NT. He urges us to interpret what the NT authors were trying to convey beyond the literal meanings of their writings. The NT is full of images and ideas that make sense only in reference to OT stories. Jesus’ teachings, for example, often have their roots in the stories and admonitions in the Jewish tradition. We can’t have Christianity without the OT.
Alison centralizes the idea that our understanding of Scripture is heavily dependent on how we approach the texts and what explanatory key we use. He asks, “Through whose eyes do you read the Scripture? (77) … We [should] read the Scriptures eucharistically through the eyes of Jesus our Rabbi” (78). Of course, using Jesus’ eyes means that we also need to understand what Jesus was trying to do. According to Alison, “Jesus … was creating faith. He was doing something that we could believe” (207). Further, “Jesus death and resurrection is God’s way of proving that he is able and willing to hold humans in being through death, starting here and now” (212). God loves us, sends His only Son to prove it and Jesus rises from the dead to reveal our immortality.
I suspect most of us would agree with Alison’s understanding of Christianity and Biblical interpretation as described above. Seems like standard Catholic fare, really. He then suggests that, “Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy and in such a way that it creates sacrifice” (380). Alison would claim that both historically and currently we prefer (and think God prefers) sacrifice to mercy. Or in his words, we really like to create scapegoats. Think of Abraham and the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac, Joseph being thrown in the well by his brothers, Abel murdered by Cain. In the New Testament remember the tax collectors, the Gentiles, and, of course, Jesus himself. Historically, we can remember the Inquisitions, Salem witch trials, and salvation as only available to Roman Catholics prior to Vatican II.
Lest we think this focus on sacrifice is confined to the Bible we should look for examples in our own time The evangelicals demonize the LGBT community, Roman Catholics deny the Body of Christ to non-Catholics, and Christians of all stripes support the death penalty for people we find contemptible. Those are all religious examples but each of us could easily come up with many political and social examples—just read the comments on Facebook! According to Alison we endlessly target and scapegoat other individuals and groups to establish our own righteousness. We prove our own worthiness by pointing out and exiling those we deem unworthy. As Alison puts it, “[O]ur self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves” (42). In short, despite all our protestations to the contrary, we prefer sacrifice to mercy.
Alison invites us to rethink our understanding of Christianity and Catholicism particularly through Jesus’ eyes. In that vein he suggests, “Catholicity is not a decree, it’s a process and a process of reconciliation” (334) and “Christianity is a religion of grace, not of laws or morals” (521). He suggests that if we focus on Christianity as a project of love and mercy rather than judgement and sacrifice, our hearts would be turned in deep and abiding ways such that, “You find yourself doing things out of love, and those things are the sort of ‘works’ which show that faith is alive” (218).
I fear thus far I’ve given the impression that Alison proposes a strictly intellectual exercise that would turn right thinking into right doing. Nothing could be further from his understanding of how we find Jesus and therefore our Christian way of life. True faith requires us to come to terms with our need for God’s forgiveness especially in light of our supposed goodness and to remember “there is no holiness except from forgiveness” (337).
Prayer is key to how we even begin to understand ourselves as both forgivable and forgiven. “The really hard matter of prayer is learning to receive ourselves through the eye of Another other” (420-1). Yet, “It is only through our wanting something that God is able to give it to us” (417). God initiates but we choose whether or not to respond.
Honestly, I’m besotted with Alison’s ideas. If you too are intrigued by what Jesus may be doing in our midst; if you are wanting to think, pray, and live mercy rather than sacrifice; if you want to explore this version of Christianity, Alison’s course may be a great starting point. The course is available as a series of short books and/or as video presentations accompanied by facilitator and participant guides.
In the meantime and in the spirit of mercy not sacrifice may God bless us all—no exceptions!
Holy Spirit ANCC (Montandon, PA)
James Alison also offers a 6-DVD full course on Jesus the Forgiving Victim.