10th July 2012
Social Justice and Christian faith
A review of‘Knowing Jesus’ by James Alison, SPCK, London 1993
Alison begins in the first chapter of his short book by rejecting the assumption that talk about entering into a personal encounter with Jesus – ‘knowing Jesus’ – is a special language reserved to Protestants or charismatics. Rather, he claims that it is a central theological idea. He will explore the idea as formative ‘for what it means to be a Christian at the end of the twentieth century’.
He avoids the ‘objectivity/subjectivity’ trap by adopting the idea of ‘witness’ and in particular the apostolic witness as it was forged by the experience of Jesus’ resurrection for his followers. He argues that without the resurrection there would have been nothing to witness about. As other theologians have strongly argued, the gospels are not to be read as some kind of ‘history’ or biography, of which the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances are the last chapter. Rather the gospel account is to be read as the apostles ‘rewriting of their experience of the last years before the resurrection in its light’ (p6). It follows that the only way we have access to Jesus is that we have received the witness of his resurrection.
The rest of the book is an exploration of this idea and what it may be to know this Jesus.
The disciples were not only witnesses of the resurrection but from it. This is a central idea of the first chapter. Alison argues that the gospel accounts, and indeed the events to which Acts and the early history of the church point, reveal a radical re-thinking of the whole of their lives and relationship with culture, values, God.
In the aftermath of his death, Jesus’ followers were conscious of acute personal danger - fear mixed with the sense of their own betrayal and guilt – psychological responses ‘either present or hinted at in the NT texts’ (p11). Alison emphasises at this point that the texts now bear witness to an event, the resurrection, that happened to Jesus i.e. that was first and foremost seen as happening to him, not as a series of events or understandings worked through in the lives of the disciples in his absence following his killing.
Alison analyses this firstly in terms of the notion of gratuity,when something is given wholly outside any interest accruing to the giver. The resurrection was an act of gratuitous love by the Father, firstly to Jesus and then to his followers. It was utterly ‘other’, completely outside any possible frame of reference, hence the consternation expressed in the accounts when the disciples failed at first to recognise what was happening. However, in spite of being utterly other, Jesus was also recognisable. Furthermore, Jesus was not given back as a ghost or a haunting or an accusation but in an act recognisable as ‘the giving back of a freely loving person’ (p15).
Secondly, Alison analyses the resurrection in terms of its being an act of forgiveness. The fear and guilt that the disciples had been feeling appear to have been ‘loosed’ through the gratuitous loving presence.
Thirdly, the resurrection is to be understood as mission. The utterly other, present as forgiveness,‘is given so as to be given’, sending the disciples off to the ends of the earth.
Finally, Alison discusses aspects of interpretation bearing upon the resurrected Jesus. The resurrection is to be understood as the whole life and death of Jesus being given back gratuitously. So for Paul, the only direct witness of Jesus as the resurrected one after his ascension, Jesus is crucially the persecuted and risen Lord. Being involved in persecuting the followers of Jesus, Paul came to understand , in a radical and life-changing act, that‘The gratuitous presence was that of the crucified one. Not as accusation, but as forgiveness’. (p22)
Jesus appears at the resurrection as fully human. But the physical appearances end, bringing up the question as to the difference between the way Jesus was present to the apostles in his resurrection appearances and how he was present to them– and us – thereafter. In Luke, God sends the Holy Spirit from on high; in John, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that makes available to us the whole of Jesus’ life, including the death and the resurrection, in its gratuitous and forgiving love. Alison is it pains to stress that the Holy Spirit is not some vague and numinous ethereal cloud but the divine reality at work at the human level. In other words, to know God we need to enter ever more into the human experience of faith and allow that to be deepened.
(2) The intelligence of the victim
In this chapter Alison outlines for the first time the central creative thought of the book, i.e. what he understands as the radical re-focalising, through the resurrection, of an understanding of ‘the intelligence of the victim’.
‘ As a result of the resurrection of Jesus the disciples underwent a profound shift in their understanding, such that they were able to understand something about human life and relationships that had never really been understood before. That something was, to put it simply, the relationship between God and victims.’ (p34)
He points out that the gospels are written out of the experience of the resurrection. They describe the mis-understandings of the disciples and other followers juxtaposed with Jesus’ profound understanding of where he was going, what was going to happen to him and why. In other words, the disciples had come to understand the whole drift of Jesus’ life as having been lived towards the passion. Unlike themselves, Jesus had possessed all along ‘the intelligence of the victim’. The Old Testament prophecies embedded in Jesus’ discourses suggest Jesus’ own profound understanding of Jewish sacred text.
But Jesus is not to be seen as a special man with arcane knowledge. The gospel accounts make it clear that time and time again Jesus had tried to explain to his disciples but that they had not been able to grasp what he could see and had even opposed it. The disciples, in short, like ourselves, had a background of understanding, survival techniques, a self-deception dependent on exclusion. The experience of Jesus after the resurrection enabled them to go back over what he had been trying to communicate and finally to make sense of what he had been saying. Alison reviews this over three major themes in Jesus’ teaching:
a)Moral issues – the inner logic of the Sermon on the Mount and other moral teaching is that the key feature of blessedness which involves a rejection of the violent power structures of the world necessarily involves the risk of becoming a victim. The intelligence of the victim is shown in the passage about the last judgement as universal, not just applied to Jesus, and where God is‘in the midst of the violence, on the side of the victims’ (43).
The ‘life of human freedom leading to persecution which Jesus was teaching his disciples’ (48) is in no way to be understood as a kind of victim paranoia but rather that Jesus’ whole life came to be understood as a free self-giving in opposition to a society which created vulnerable and victimised groups and which to a great degree depended on understandings of exclusion in order to function. Jesus gave himself to be a victim, not because he wanted to die, but because his act of self-giving led to sacrifice as incidental, accidental to the self-giving purpose of his life.
b)Discipleship Following the resurrection, the disciples come to understand their own discipleship in terms of their calling and the preparation that Jesus had been giving them. Key to this is the idea of the skandalonor stumbling block. Jesus has stressed non-rivalistic imitation, based on his own imitation of the Father. The followers had been scandalised by the death of Jesus and his failure to deliver on their hopes. The resurrection removed the scandal without taking away the death. More than this, it opened up to the followers the possibility that also they could live in such a way that‘death itself became an incidental side issue’ (54).
(3) The universal victim
c)The new Israel and the coming Kingship of God
This chapter is about how the intelligence of the victim went worldwide.
Firstly Alison dispels the idea that the NT texts can be read in any ‘linear’ or chronological way. The same understanding of the intelligence of the victim (for Paul ‘the mind of Christ’) underpins all of the texts – they are all written from the perspective of the resurrection.
Three gospels, ‘Paul indirectly and John differently’refer to Jesus’ meal with his disciples on the night before his death. Alison argues that this was a planned, highly significant event. It was Passover. Passover itself was both a calling by God and an expulsion. Movement towards freedom and towards an expulsion were simultaneous. For Israel‘the memory of its victimary status is constantly kept alive by the memory of the Passover’ (65). The values of this new society were thus meant to be shaped by this memory of slavery and redemption. Independence and equality were stressed – widows, orphans, slaves, exiles were to be able to live with equality - as against neighbouring societies with their feudal, mercantile, slave-dependent structures.
So when Jesus refers to the ‘kingdom of heaven’ his hearers don’ t hear it as a vague reference to abstract qualities such as mercy and peace, they hear a promise about the restoration of Israel as God’s chosen people and the vehicle of His kingdom. For example, Jesus’ teaching about the scribes and Pharisees carries resonances which suggest a comparison with Egypt from whom Israel had to be set free.
Jesus appears to be aware of the salvific act inherent in his celebration of the Passover. At the same time as shifting the meaning of the Passover, with its association of covenant and election, onto his own person he reveals a deep critique of Israel’s faith. Alison argues that by their very rejection of him, the Jewish leaders made possible the revelation of who God really was. What is opened up is the possibility of a new society not based on the propensity to make victims or to exclude, but rather ‘a new way of relating to the victim [which] involves the unlearning of all those patterns of behaviour which depend on, or tend to produce, victims, of whatever sort’. (72)
So, Alison argues, the point of the resurrection was not the internal reform of Judaism. God, as forgiving victim, invites the possibility of a universal humanity which is non-tribal, non-sectarian. The dynamic of the movement begun by the risen Christ is to be understood as that of breaking down cultural, racial and national barriers. In other words it can’t be looked at in a linear historical way as a movement which started with Judaism and moved out.
‘ It was not just that a man rose from the dead, and other men thought that everyone should know about this, and so organised a series of international trips to tell them. No. The man who died and rose again did so as part of a process of making available to the whole of humanity the possibility of forming a new human society which maintains its unity in a completely different way from all human societies…not by excluding, but by serving and worshipping, the victim’ (78-79)
Alison’s challenge in this chapter is to ask whether I build my security over and against some victim, some ‘other’, or whether I am starting to build my identity from the victim.
(4) A Framework of knowing
Alison argues that no-one who really knows the crucified and risen victim can ever again belong exclusively to one group. He critiques Catholics who wish to put a boundary of belonging and exclusivity around the faith – ‘a sectarian belonging’ (91). Knowing this Jesus demands a very deep critique of our ways of belonging. He warns against minorities who claim that they are victimised over against the supposed violent other; these are often themselves involved as victimisers. The position leads to self-justifying behaviours which depend upon comparison with or approval of others.
However, he then argues at length that the Eucharist is ‘pivotal for knowing Jesus’ (93), that ‘Knowing Jesus is inseparable from knowing Jesus in the Eucharist’ (93). From this point a substantial part of the chapter explores the sacramental character of knowing Jesus which in a way feels quite exclusively Catholic and somewhat undermining of the rest of his argument.
A powerful insight of this chapter, and of the conclusion of the book, is that of ‘loosing’. God allows us to kill him, gratuitously forgives us and thereby looses us from being locked into social patterns of violence. Bit by bit we are released from the hardened patterns of relating, old grudges, tribal prejudices into a new relationship with others. Alison makes the point that‘forgive’ means ‘loose’.
In the closing argument, Alison critiques that kind of spirituality which tends to boast, to set the person who claims to know Jesus apart, to in effect be a stumbling block to other people. He criticizes the claim of one event or series of events in becoming ‘saved’ as a substitution for that profound, lengthy and human-bound work of deepening and extending relationships over long periods of time – the slow and profound work of changing one’s life towards the vulnerable and outcast. Over-personalised and emotional claims to ‘know Jesus’ are also at risk of undermining people who do not find such expression for their spiritual reality, as well as marginalising non-believers.
Appropriately, Alison ends with a discussion about Jesus himself, for whom there is no evidence that he was at all interested in people knowing him. Jesus’ concern is that his followers should know the Father.
In conclusion, the illuminating central idea of this book is that knowing Jesus is not quickly learnt. It must be something discovered through the gradual process of turning more and more towards those whom we might otherwise exclude from our lives, freeing ourselves of self-delusion – to know as we are known.
Some questions to consider:
1. What is wrong with any claim to knowing Jesus that doesn’t have practical consequences?
2. To what extent are our responses tribal?
3. What does this mean in terms of learning to stand up for those who are being cast out, especially by those who think that in doing so, they are serving God?
4. What sense does it make to claim that we know the Father apart from our learning of a new fraternity with Jesus and those who are being cast out?