Thursday, December 12, 2013
REDEEM THE CHRISTMASTIME
"Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be simplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived.” In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions in the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the prospects of institutionalizing either the Sermon on the Mount or the revelation of the Cross are not great. "The Church," wrote Karl Barth, "sets fire to a charge that blows up every sacred edifice which men ever erected or can erect in its vicinity." In every instance, the institution in closest proximity to the gospel's explosive charge is the institution we call church. As Andrew McKenna put it, "The breakdown of institutional Christianity is the legacy of the crucifixion narrative, which is one with the Hebrew Bible's denunciation of overtly sacrificial institutions, indeed, of all forms of victimization." Fortunately, however, the breakdown of institutional Christianity is not the only legacy of the crucifixion narrative. Peter's Aramaic name should serve as a perpetual reminder of the lingering lure of sacrificial thinking in Christian history, but it should not obscure the fact that the name means "rock" and that, especially in a world as radically destabilized as the one in which we live, we should not casually dispense with the few forms of stability that survive. The church, like Peter, is both a stumbling block and a cornerstone. It is the latter only when it is consciously contrite for being,and having been, the former. The inherent contradiction with which institutional Christianity is always faced was perhaps best summed up by T.S. Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday, where he wrote:
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.
The gilded hearse drawn by jewelled unicorns is Eliot's Dantesque image for the ridiculous pageant of Christian pomp that has sometimes been the only access people living under the weight of history have had to the unread vision of the gospel revelation. Lampooning the pomposities and hypocrisy of the gaudy pageant has its place, but in light of the present urgencies such things hardly deserve top priority. The real challenge is to redeem the time and to do so by redeeming the unread vision in the higher dream. Jesus, we're told, was born in a squalid little barn. The institutions that bear the Christian revelation through history are as seemingly inadequate to the task they've been given as was the feeding trough in which the newborn Christ was laid. The fact that we are less offended by the smelly manger than by the "jewelled unicorns" and "gilded hearse" is proof that the latter haven't prevented the spirit of the gospel from having its effect on us after all."
--Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, pp. 274-275