Hope as Inheritance

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe faithfulness of Jesus opened up a new way of living, a way hitherto inconceivable. In this way, Jesus is a pioneer of faith, as the author of Hebrews tells us. (See Faith as Faithfulness) A pioneer blazes a trail that others can follow which otherwise would be either very difficult or downright impossible. In some ways, Abraham had a harder time blazing the trail in that he didn’t even have Jesus to follow, but as Jesus says in John, Abraham followed Jesus’ trail retroactively by seeing Jesus and rejoicing. Abraham rejoiced in Jesus when he saw the ram caught in a thicket by its horns and understood what that meant. As Kierkegaard argued, it was not the willingness to give up Isaac that constituted faith but his belief in the promise made to him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the particles of dust on the earth.

Abraham’s faith was grounded in hope, but it was not hope in the subjective sense in which we hope things will turn out okay. That is the hope we have when we read a story, say a story about a boy or young man who is about to be sacrificed, and we hope the boy somehow escapes that fate. Likewise, we might read the Gospels hoping that the hero escapes the cross, but he doesn’t and our hope is dashed. But hope is not dashed at all.

In a provocative paper, James Alison helps us redefine hope. By that I mean Alison helps us see how Jesus has redefined hope. To begin with, redefined hope is grounded in the death of Jesus that seemed to blot out all hope. Jesus’ being raised from the dead might be enough to revive hope in the subjective, “hopeful” sense but that did not redefine hope. What does redefine hope is that the risen Jesus adopted all of us as brothers and sisters so as to make all of us adopted daughters and sons of Jesus’ Father. Alison picks up on the dynamics of inheritance and runs with it. When his mother died, the family inheritance entered the process of coming to him and his two siblings, same as it does when we inherit from our parents. Alison and his brother and sister had not actually inherited the estate right away, but they already were placed in new status because the transition of transferring the estate was in process and one day it would be completed, which it was one fine day. They weren’t “hoping” they would get the estate; the estate was already theirs.

If we return to Abraham and Sarah, we see that their faith became strengthened by hope when they understood that the promise of heirs meant that they had already been made the progenitors of countless descendants even before the first descendent was born. It was because of his prearranged status as a forebear that Abraham could see the ram for what it was, at which point he also understood what the culture he was being led to was all about: that it was about sparing the sacrificial victim. Even when it looked like he would have no heirs after all, Abraham acted like the progenitor God has already made him to be and so he spared Isaac.

With us, the pre-established status is the opposite. We are not progenitors but heirs. This is why faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1) The substance is the testament of our inheritance. Alison says this substance is a demonstration of what is not seen. The change of status as an heir has already changed us: “At the testator’s death, the promised inheritance is substantially mine even when it is not yet in my possession, and because of that, I already now find myself starting to become a publicly visible demonstration, a reliable sign of what is on its way. Who I am is objectively being altered as someone else’s promise, their desire, moves towards its fulfilment in my reception of it.”
Let us follow this anthology further. Imagine a ten-year-old son of the owner of a vast estate who is the heir of that estate. Because of this status, although he is not yet the owner of the estate, his father takes him around to begin teaching him how to run the estate: how to handle the workers, make sure the foremen order supplies at the right time, etc. This boy spends time learning these things because he is the heir.

Now let us change the story the way God changed it. Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate who is sweating profusely while the well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir. Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the son you had killed shows up at the court, very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still there. This really has you shaking in your boots. But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son assure welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like an heir who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that they will never run out. So it is that hope, far from wishing for a happy ending to the story of the workers in the vineyard, is, in Alison’s words, “ a realignment of our whole way of being towards what really is, as what really is begins to manifest itself in us.”

Proceed to Love as Ultimate Respect

Human Swords, God’s Peace

vocationersAtTable1Jesus’ words that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matthew) or division (Luke) are startling, coming from a man who is commonly referred to as “the Prince of Peace.” Does this mean that Jesus is a war-god of some sort after all? Since Jesus never used a sword and rebuked Peter from using one at Gethsemane, and died rather than call on legions of angels to defend him and beat up his enemies, and approached his disciples and even the persecutor Paul with forgiveness after rising from the dead, it is fair to assume that Jesus is not in the least encouraging swords and divisions, but is warning us that we will have both as long as we experience the world in terms of us vs. them.

The approach to scripture inspired by René Girard and colleagues such as Raymund Schwager and James Alison is strongly committed to an unequivocally loving God who seeks only peace as opposed to any two-faced Janus-like deity who is capriciously loving one moment and wrathful the next. This approach tends to interpret “wrath” associated with God as human projections that distort the truth of God’s unconditional love. Basic to Girard’s thinking is the conviction that humans tend to unify conflictive societies through scapegoating vulnerable victims with collective violence. Society has regained peace—for a time—but at a cost to at least one person. This sort of a peace simply has to be disrupted once and for all by a God who is unequivocally loving and who wishes that not even one person be lost. According to Girard, this is precisely what Jesus did by dying on the cross and exposing the reality of collective violence for what it is.

As a result, we now have a world where there is an ever heightening awareness of victims, but a serious lack of anywhere near a corresponding awareness of the need for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, awareness of victims increases resentment and escalated conflict. Since the awareness of victims does not allow collective violence to bring peace to a society, there is nothing to stop the escalation of violence. As resentment grows rampant, it infects every level of society including the family so that family counselors are in great demand to try and talk people into giving up their resentment against those closest to them. They often fail as much as conflict mediators in political hotspots and for the same reason. Resentment becomes a defining factor of many lives and defining factors are not easily given up. So it is that the coming of Jesus the forgiving victim has brought swords and divisions.

The offer of peace and forgiveness, for all of the divine love behind it, inevitably causes division between those who accept it and those who don’t. There are two possible reactions to such a choice and a unanimous conversion to God’s peace wasn’t in the cards then any more than it is today. (Of course we humans stack the deck heavily against peace.) For those of us who seriously try to choose peace, it is tempting to think we are on the “peaceful” side of this division but we need to realize that the Word, the forgiving victim, is a divisive two-edged sword “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” and “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” as the author of Hebrews puts it. That is, the pure forgiveness of the divine victim shows up the least bit of resentment we allow ourselves to harbor in the farthest, darkest, corners of our souls.

The escalation of violence occurring right at the time of this writing is a sure cause of discouragement. What we can do is take hope, primarily for ourselves, but also for our personal relationships and for humanity as a whole that the offer of peace from the forgiving victim remains open to all of us at every time of day and night and this offer will never end no matter what we do with our swords and divisions.