I am a human being

January 10th, 2015
by Chris

I’ve been tinkering with this post for a couple of months, thinking that it was going to go somewhere a little different from where this cut-down version ends. However, in the light of the “Charlie Hebdo” massacre, it seems to me that I need to post it, as in part it goes to what I see the root of why events like that occur.

I don’t much like the content of Charlie Hebdo. I don’t find the comedy of abuse funny these days, and they set their stall out to abuse people, and the more people were made visibly uncomfortable by that, the more Charb and Cabu used to skewer them. While the paper is something of an equal opportunity abuser, it’s racist, sexist and frequently – almost always – obscene, and I wouldn’t have bought a copy. However, it is not reasonable to muzzle them just because they abuse people, systems or religions, and totally unacceptable for them to be killed for doing it.

I continue this thinking after my previous writing.

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In a previous post I made a point of the confession “Jesus is Lord”. It does seem to me in the age of democracy that we tend to miss some of the implications of this confession, that a Lord (or King, Emperor, Caesar) is representative of the whole group of his followers (subjects, vassals) individually and collectively. What is done by or to the Lord is done by or to the entirety of his followers in a way which, while strictly speaking figurative, is treated as effectively literal.

This can be seen in nooks and crannies of our system here, as I live in a monarchy. Where in the States the title of a criminal case will be “People –v- X”, in England it is “Regina-v- X”, i.e. the Queen against X. As an example, many years ago, I was present in a court, prosecuting a case of noise nuisance, when the defendant pulled a knife and threatened the judge. This was technically in law an offence of treason. The judge was a direct representative of the Queen (in the secondary kingly function of arbiter of the law) and a threat against him was thus equivalent to a threat against the Queen herself; further, as the Queen represents the nation, it was a threat against the People as a whole. (I would mention that rather than acting in any way heroically, I hid underneath the advocates table until the man had been disarmed.)

It is, I think, also seen in the concept of blasphemy. As Christianity seems to have become more relaxed about this in recent times, let me use the example of the Danish cartoons lampooning Mohammed. In the same way as with my knife-wielding defendant, an insult against the Prophet (who is, in Islam, a direct representative of God) is equally an insult against all of God’s followers, namely every Muslim – and that on a personal basis, although actually more serious than would be a mere personal insult.

Of course, in a much more prosaic way, this can also be seen in the actions of a football supporter who comes away from a match in which his team has been successful saying “we won”. The supporter has, in truth, done little if anything to contribute to the win, but feels uplifted and strengthened by the actions of the team members who have actually played and won.

In 1 Cor. 15, Paul sees Jesus as “the second Adam” and as such representing not merely the people of Israel, but humanity as a whole, by analogy to Adam’s earlier representative status for humanity as a whole (I do not, of course, view Adam as an historical character but merely as representative of humanity as a whole, whereas I do view Jesus as historical; this is a view which is controversial with some). I would argue strongly that the sayings attributed to Jesus in the latter part of Matt. 25 (31-46) are also seeing Jesus as representative and as being represented, in that case by any individual human being. What you do to (or for) the least of these, you do to (or for) Jesus.

Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is then seen by Paul in Romans and Galatians as justifying the whole of mankind. Although Paul does not directly mention the Maccabean martyrs (see Macc. 2 and 4), his use of the term atonement must, I think, raise that parallel; in the apocryphal Maccabees 2 and the extra-canonical Maccabees 4, the faithfulness of the Maccabean martyrs in resisting the demands of the Hellenic overlords to do acts contrary to their religious beliefs (and thus being put to death) is seen as an “atoning sacrifice”, by which all Jews may benefit.

Similarly, in Paul, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice “rights” humanity with God. Arguably, within this logic, no particular act of any individual is required in order to benefit from this representative self-sacrifice, however, action may well be required in order to remain within the group identified as followers of Jesus (such as confessing that Jesus is Lord), just as the Maccabean martyrs’ self sacrifice was not seen as benefiting heretics by later rabbis.

It is probably worth stressing here that the representative atonement of the Maccabees was taken as effective communally, rather than individually; it was atonement in that case for the nation of Israel. It may therefore be necessary for the whole of the nation (and not just each person taken as an individual) to abide in “right relationship” with the nation as a whole, interpreted as faithfulness to the Law in the case of Israel; this is effectively the “covenantal nomism” of the New Perspective on Paul, in which the covenant is freely given by God prior to the giving of instructions for living (and in the case of Abraham, for marking himself and his dependents as being committed to God via circumcision). In order then to remain in good stead within the body of people (in this case Israel, or the descendants of Abraham) and so to benefit from the covenant, the Law has to be followed. Absent particular acts of ‘atoning’ heroism such as that of the Maccabees (which is in fact the only example I can clearly identify as a representative act which confers a benefit), the prophetic history of Israel demonstrates that it is a communal faithfulness which is looked for rather than any individual following of the Law. Whether it is then truly justifiable to take any atoning sacrifice as having individual effect in the absence of communal faithfulness would seem a moot point.

However, looking at the passage above from Matt. 25, I would argue that the better way to view any representative connection is as operating individually AND collectively, as Jesus there clearly sees it as operating individually. Elsewhere, he clearly sees the actions of certain individuals as having the opposite effect, as in the speech against the Pharisees in Matt. 23:1-39 followed by the prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Matt. 24:1-2 which ends that speech. While in the historical Hebrew scriptures it is in general the actions of leaders which are held against Israel, here it is the actions of individuals, albeit a group of individuals.

Perhaps, however, the passage in Matt. 25 should be regarded as representative of whether the individuals in question were acting in accordance with the “new covenant” (Heb. 8:7-13, referencing Jer. 31:31-34), and thereby gaining benefit from identification with Jesus? Matt. 7:21-23 would be a supporting text here.

How about the opposite effect, which I mentioned above? Well, the mechanism of taking communal and personal pride (and, arguably, such concepts as justification and sanctification) from the positive achievements of our leader is well matched by the mechanism of being diminished, embarrassed and made to feel guilt or shame at their negative actions. We require our leaders to be perfect in every respect, otherwise their “feet of clay” rebound on us. The Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) are full of examples where the iniquity of a few rebounds on the many; the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:1-26, David’s census in 2 Sam 24 and the fate of sympathizers with (and the family of) Korah in Num 16:1-17:13 are examples, but the whole history contained in Joshua, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles is a litany of collective responsibility of Israel for its leaders, and the collective responsibility of neighbouring peoples (such as the Amalekites and Edomites) for actions taken either by their leaders or small groups from among them.

It can hardly be thought, for instance, that the attempted gang rape of Genesis 19:4-5 actually involved the whole male population, which is what the text indicates (what, for instance, of those under the age of puberty?) or that it was a matter of national policy, but Sodom and Gomorrah were said as a result to be destroyed – and not merely the male population but “all the people”. The text clearly indicates that the whole people were involved because, in the concept of collective responsibility, they all were, whether they lifted a finger or not.

This is not merely an historical tendency. Very many among us are currently inclined to ascribe to the whole religion of Islam the actions of relatively few hot-headed fundamentalists (relatively few, at least, in comparison to the billion Muslims currently alive). We feel shame when someone we regard as one of “our” group of any kind is shown to have done something heinous (though a very common reaction is to distance ourselves from them, even if we can avoid an attempt to minimize or excuse their actions). I am, for instance, embarrassed when some lawyer (or politician) is shown to conform to the stereotype of a lying, grasping, conscienceless individual, and for many years was reluctant to accept the label “Christian”, being aware of a long history of persecution by Christians (and often by entire Christian churches) of groups such as the Jews or native peoples in the Americas or Africa. I am still struck with a sense of collective shame when Christians persecute homosexuals or fail to accord equality to women.

There are in the Old Testament a number of hair-raising stories about dealing with the transgressions of others which might, in the thinking of the OT, affect me – and this article deals with a couple of them. In that thinking, it is not merely the impossibility of perfection in loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself (in a proactive way) which is problematic, it’s also the actions of every other person who is a member of a group with which you identify.

Clearly, it is not merely the actions of our leaders which can cause us shame or guilt, and in times past (for some, not so much past) would found a feeling that God would rightly punish us for the sins of our co-religionists, countrymen or relatives. “Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you, and will draw forth my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked” (Ez. 21:3). The prophet goes on in the next chapter to predict a wholesale destruction of Israel, based on the transgressions of some.

And yet, three chapters earlier, Ezekiel issues a lengthy statement that denies collective responsibility for parents and children alike, and for any past transgressions, dependent only on repentance (Ez. 18 in total, though the nub of it can be seen in the first verses). Is there, perhaps, a conflict here, within the sayings of one prophet?

Clearly there is. But then, there is a tension between our feelings of elation when our representatives do something good (winning a match, ruling wisely, doing something heroic) and when they or others who are “one of us” do something bad (losing badly, ruling disastrously, acting in a bigoted, xenophobic, racist or sexist manner). Where is the balance, or, indeed, is there a balance?

For me, this does not throw up the difficulty of potential inconsistency in the actions of God. I do not see God as judgmental and severe, but as loving and accepting. This is definitely a “new testament” attitude (though the NT is not univocal in proclaiming a non-judgmental God), but also appears in places among the Hebrew prophets, as in Ezekiel 18, Hosea 6:6 and several other places.

If the tension is not within God, then is it within us? I would suggest that it is; whatever the reality of the thinking of God (and there I pray in aid Isaiah 55:8 – his thoughts are not our thoughts – or at the least “it’s above my pay grade”) as I said, it is a psychological, experiential reality for us. It’s the way we’re made, the way we’ve evolved. We do bask in the glory of our leaders (or cringe at their feet of clay) and we do feel embarrassed at the actions of others in whatever group we identify with, or uplifted when one of them risks life and limb to pull a child from a burning building.

Comdemnation thus comes to all of us through our association with (for some Christian examples) the Fourth Crusade or the antics of Westborough Baptist Church picketing military funerals in the USA, but exaltation equally comes through our association with (for example) Pope Francis or in a non-religious way from the local to me unknowns, part of “my” community, who recently rushed to a burning house to save some children from the flames instead of safely keeping their distance. Which of these prevails is at least in part a function of our psychology.

But our psychology can be changed.

It is, of course, possible to reduce the scope of those we identify with until it is a very small and very controlled circle. “I didn’t vote for him”, or “they’re foreigners, what can you expect?” or “he can’t be a true Christian” are all moves in that direction. Perhaps the ultimate end of this move is the rampant individualism seen in (for instance) Margaret Thatcher, Niezsche and Ayn Rand, for whom links to others are weaknesses rather than something to be acknowledged and even treasured.

However, if we are to regard Christ as the head of the body of which we form part (Col. 1:18), he is our representative, and as the second Adam, the representative of all humanity. We cannot escape being members of the group of all Christians, and even the group of all humanity (with the collective responsibility that entails) and remain followers of Christ. In my case, having a mystical, panentheistic consciousness, it is in any event impossible for me so to wall myself off from others in order not to be embarrassed by their actions. Any boundaries are not real, and cannot be maintained for long. As John Donne wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The question has to be how much weight we place on which action, the negative and the positive alike. Before I get to Paul, let’s look at the template he must have been referring to in his talk of atonement, that of the Maccabean martyrs. Seven brothers, their mother and their teacher are in this story (from 2 and 4 Maccabees) killed by the Seleucid Greek imperial rulers for refusing to adopt elements of Greek religion; their self-sacrificial martyrdom is there seen as atoning for the whole of Israel. Clearly, a self-sacrifice which result in death is experienced as having a massive effect compared with the transgressions of individual members of Israel, sufficient to cover over (the original impact of the term translated “atonement”) a plethora of failings and evil-doings.

Thus, when Paul is talking of Jesus’ death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, he is drawing on the same level of atoning efficacy, but increased. The Maccabean martyrs are ordinary Israelites, whereas Paul sees Jesus at the least as the principal agent of God (and presumably as the kingly messiah as well). The self sacrifice of a particularly exalted leader has an impact beyond that of even 9 common people, and while I do not think that Paul actually thought of Jesus as one member of the trinity (this was a theological development which, to my mind, postdated even the Fourth Gospel, though perhaps not some of the pseudo-Pauline epistles), Paul saw it as efficacious for all people in all ages. How much more so when in terms of later theology it was (and is) seen as God sacrificing himself. Not so much “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…” but more “he sent himself to be crucified”.

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Now in the news we have 10 journalists, including Charb and Cabu, and three policemen who died. We have at least four terrorists, three of whom are now dead. We have a number of dead hostages with no apparent connection with Charlie or the police, though they were shopping in a Jewish supermarket…

We have the opportunity of feeling identification with any or all of these. Vast numbers of people have instantly fixed on the journalists, with the tag “Je suis Charlie” – after all, they are the most obvious martyrs. As I am, like them, a white male straight middle class European intellectual, they’re the obvious choice for me and a whole load of my liberal-minded friends.

An increasing number of those are, however, realising that in identifying with Charlie Hebdo, they are also identifying with abuse, racism, sexism and a host of other politically incorrect attitudes. After all, that is what Charlie Hebdo stands for – as its masthead occasionally says, irresponsible journalism. Thus we have a number of “Je suis Ahmed” tags, referring to the Muslim policeman who died protecting Charlie Hebdo despite the fact that it attacked his religion and ethnicity on a weekly basis in the most offensive terms.

He’s clearly a martyr who is untarnished, at least until the press dig into his background, assuming they bother. He’s also a Muslim, so we can show that we’re not racially or ethnically biased. My mind turns to the insistence in the New Testament that Jesus was spotless, without sin, despite the fact that I can identify a number of episodes in which criticism could be levelled – violence in the cleansing of the Temple, for instance, even if we do not believe the polemic attributed to him in the Fourth Gospel against “the Jews” and which has founded 2000 years of antisemitic atrocities is authentically his.

I am, however, a panentheist. I am forced to identify with all the players in the tragedy which has unfolded over France in the last few days, including the terrorists. Matt. 25:40 compels me to think even of them as being representative of Jesus, my lord and representative, even if my base panentheistic experience of existence didn’t. I think the piece on representation above gives some clues as to one place from which their actions have arisen – the Prophet represents them, and Charlie has been merciless with the Prophet over some considerable time.

And they too thought that they were being martyrs. Not a martyrdom I am particularly happy to accept, but with John Donne, I am involved with humanity and cannot avoid it. They also no doubt saw themselves as being at war with the West.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Ahmed. Je suis tous ces gens. Je suis un être humain.

 

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