The Craftiness of Christ: The Wisdom of the Hidden God
This is the original unpublished version of an essay written for Mel Gibson's 'Passion' and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy, Ed. Jorge Gracia, Open Court Publishers, 2004. The collection is Volume 10 in a series of books about culture and philosophy, and this version was not philosophical enough. Here the film is the foundation for a discussion of what was really going on in the spiritual realm during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. You may also wish to read the published version, which speaks more specifically to the movie and to Satan’s role throughout the events portrayed.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion has forcibly brought to public consciousness, once again, the question of the meaning of the trial, sufferings and death of Jesus, traditionally called “The Christ.” The events of Christ’s “passion” were for centuries the centerpiece of European and of “Western” civilization, and it is at least highly probable that he is, to date, the single most influential person in world history. But one of the things that becomes apparent in the responses to Gibson’s film is a widespread current ignorance of the details of the story among the populace at large. The fact of the person and passion of Christ, however, remains a world presence. It is a curious fact that non-Christians around the world use his name to curse with, while a similar discourtesy is rarely if ever extended by Christians to the names of, say the Buddha or Mohammed. One is bound to wonder at the sources of such influence and notoriety. Was the process of the “passion” something that just “happened,” or could it be that it was something he himself carefully planned and executed? Was it his own brilliant way of accomplishing his divinely assigned role of Redeemer of humankind?
The very name or description, “The Passion,” may be misleading as to the nature of the events involved in his crucifixion. The phrase is often understood to simply mean “the suffering” of Jesus. It conveys the idea of passivity, of something being done to someone who is totally at the mercy of surrounding people or events. Jesus is thus presented in the Garden of Gethsemane as cowering in the face of upcoming death, as begging God to allow him to live, and as unable to do anything about what was being done to him, a helpless rag tossed about by the dogs of hell. He was, in short, a pathetic victim. But anyone who credits the historically standard view of who he actually was must occasionally wonder if that could possibly be the right take on the events in question.
Conversely, how we understand the events of “the passion” will deeply affect our views of who Jesus was at the time, and who he is now, and will profoundly influence the kind of life we will now live in response to him. What is really at issue in the interpretation of the passion is the identity and character of Jesus. Therefore we should consider the matter very carefully. Was he the “gentle cynic” of the Jesus Seminar, who got caught off-guard and died in a political squeeze play? Or was he merely a bleeding sacrifice, whose merits, earned through suffering and death, were to be doled out through succeeding centuries by his official representatives on earth? Or was he in truth, even at his lowest point, the mighty Cosmocrator: the ruler of the Cosmos, presented by the whole New Testament as such, and to be seen today peering down in awesome majesty from the central dome of Greek Orthodox cathedrals?
If we take the wording of the New Testament gospels seriously—holding to one side many views of Jesus that have developed through the centuries—there can be little doubt what our response should be as we look at the trial, torture and death of Jesus. We err badly when we describe that process simply as “The Passion.” Suffer he certainly did. But it is Jesus himself who was in charge of events and people involved in the story. He ‘played’ them—not quite like a piano, for the people involved still had their choices to make—to achieve his end of blowing open a carefully prepared but tiny cultural enclave and stepping upon the stage of world history, where he has remained up to the present. As he said at a crucial turning point in his career: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion], will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) We need to think carefully about whether there was any other way he could have accomplished that goal.
As we look through the Gospels we see that he very purposively turned away from “opportunities” to be a political or military leader or a king, or to leave Palestine and be a teacher in the larger world of the Roman empire. (See the passage just cited.) With his incredible power and attractiveness, there were many ways he could have avoided the cross had he wished to do so. He could have founded the ultimate welfare state, producing wine and food by a mere word. But, as he clearly told his followers at the time: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18) This was what “the Father” wanted him to do, and he loves and honors him for doing it. (Cp. Philippians 2:5-11)
Apparently, at any time he wished he could have called off his “passion” by invoking multitudes of angels to rescue him. (Matthew 26:52-53) At least that was his understanding. He was taunted by his persecutors to come down from the cross. No doubt he could have done that. But what then? How would his story from then to now read, had he chosen to do what he clearly could have done? Did he not in fact choose the supremely intelligent way to accomplish his goal of world-wide presence and moral revolution?
Jesus fully understood the limitations of what could be accomplished by power as understood among human beings. In fact, he had gone through all that with Satan in his famous “temptations”—to food, fame and governmental power—at the opening of his public life. (Matthew 4:3-11) When he finally approached his “passion” there were no new issues for him to face. The “ruler of this world [Satan] was coming upon him,” as Jesus then told his closest friends, “but there is nothing in me for him to get a hold of.” (John 14:30 paraphrase) And that was the reality of the struggle in the Garden. Gibson’s film does much to recapture the understanding of the early Church on this point.
The Garden was Satan’s last chance to keep Jesus from the cross and to foil the execution of The Divine Plan for shutting down the kingdom of evil. Jesus had even called his right-hand man, Peter, “Satan,” when he had tried earlier to turn Jesus from the cross. (Matthew 16:23) Satan well knows by now that he cannot dissuade Jesus, but he tries to overwhelm him and kill him in the Garden. How he put the pressure on him, we do not know, but the Gibson portrayal is not bad. Many people have died from less. The “cup” which Jesus asked the Father to let pass from him (Matthew 26:39) was, then, not death on the cross, but death in the Garden, and the early Christian understood this. (Hebrews 5:7) They fully appreciated the fact that Jesus was running to the cross, and toward the completion there of his remarkable work “in the flesh.” (Hebrews 12:2) And now just think of the actual place of his “passion” and his cross in human history. What, do you think, could replace them—all deeper questions of theology and atonement aside?
Exercises in imagining another path for Jesus besides a bloody crucifixion are not entirely lacking. We have The Last Temptation of Christ, the book and the movie, and now The Da Vinci Code, the book and movie soon to be. Now try to imagine yourself loving, worshipping, giving up your life for such a person as the Jesus of those books. Imagine a great civilization formed around him. Imagine the saints and martyrs that have formed the core of Christian believers throughout the ages living and dying as they did for that ‘Jesus.’ Imagine the multitudes now dying for Christ around our world doing it. For that matter, try to imagine Nikos Kazantzakis or Dan Brown laying down their lives in devotion or in death for the Jesus they present in their writings. But of course, multitudes of remarkable and unremarkable human beings have and will give everything to the Christ of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Perhaps Jesus really knew what he was doing.
According to the Harvard University Gazette of March 25, 2004, faculty members of the Divinity School, with some guests, gathered on March 18 to discuss Gibson’s film. The members of the panel leading the discussion “unanimously condemned ‘The Passion’,” presenting reasons “scholarly, political, spiritual, and visceral to loathe the film that has been a box office winner since its release.” The participants differed only in the precise terminology with which they condemned the film; characterizing it as deeply sadistic, disturbing, militaristic, pornographic, obscene, “overwhelmingly bad news,” and “a celebration of apocalyptic violence.” In an effort to cast light on “the ‘shockingly positive reaction’ the film has elicited from a broad audience,” author James Carroll suggested that “the film’s appeal derives in part from its dramatization of George W. Bush’s ‘us versus them’ spirit and its simplification of the complexity of good and evil.”[i]
No one seems to have mentioned that if Jesus were the person, and his passion the event, that the participants in this discussion take him and it to have been, there would have been no Harvard Divinity School, no Harvard, no United States of America as we have known it, no Western Culture and no Western Liberal Tradition of political and social life. Would the panel please inform us of where on earth today there is a Liberal society that is not rooted in the Christ and his “passion” of Gibson’s film? Would they show us such a society that derives from Christ the “gentle cynic”? And would they kindly give us their version of exactly what did happen? And where would their version of the “passion” take humanity today—humanity as it really is, not humanity as dreamed of in scholarly circles?
No one can understand the events of the “passion” unless they see them in the light of the kingdom of God, “the kingdom of the heavens,” and thereby in the light of what God intends to bring out of human life and human history. Most any New Testament scholar will tell you that Jesus’ life and message was all about “the kingdom.” What they usually miss, however, is exactly what Jesus did and said about the kingdom. Simply, by his acts and words he invited anyone at all, no matter who or what they were, to live in the kingdom of God now, by trusting—relying on, putting their confidence in—him. The events of his “passion” and afterward, as traditionally understood, demonstrated to his followers and other observers that what Jesus said about the kingdom and it availability is true. To live through and beyond torture and the cross in resurrection life shows the presence of a world of God among men.
In the simplest possible terms, the kingdom of God is God in action. It is the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done is done. Jesus is a reformulation and embodiment of the message about God and his kingdom that runs through the history of the Jewish people recorded in the Bible. Jesus said: “Seek above all to live within the kingdom rule of God, and to have the kind of goodness he has, and all else you need will be provided with it.” (Matthew 6:33 paraphrase) The Psalmist said simply and concretely, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23) In one of the historical books of the Old Testament a prophet is quoted as saying: “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” (2nd Chronicles 16:9) This is what Jesus knew as he went through his sufferings and death. He simultaneously wrote across the pages of human history the depth of human meanness and brutality and the unlimited reach of God’s love and power.
It was his knowledge of the presence and unfailing availability of God to those who trust him that led Jesus to say all the beautiful things (largely already recorded in the Psalms) which we wistfully acknowledge, but hardly believe to be true: all of those things about birds and flowers, of course, and about how we need never be anxious or afraid, no matter what comes. Jesus’ basic idea is that this world—with all its evil, pushed to the limit in what he went through going toward and nailed upon the cross—is a perfectly good and safe place for anyone to be, no matter the circumstances, if they have placed their lives in the hands of Jesus and his Father. And Jesus practiced what he preached, even as he was tortured and killed. And so have multitudes of his followers. St. Patrick before his conversion witnessed a Christian teacher being burned at the stake. The fire languished, and the man cried out to his persecutors: “Bring more wood! I am not yet consumed.”
But of course the kingdom of God is not overwhelmingly obvious. It is something one must seek. Isaiah the prophet marvels at the fact that “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” (45:15) He is the one who gives us the deus abscounditus, the hidden God, deeply interwoven into Christian tradition. Because God loves us, he wants to be known to us. That is the way of love. But because we, in our rebellion against him, are hardened in our insistence on having our own ‘kingdom,’ he must hide from us to allow us to hide from him and to pretend we (individually and corporately) are in charge of our life.
Only the hiddenness of God allows people to define themselves. Jean-Paul Sartre had a point, though not the one he thought. He says that since there is no God, man has no nature. He must make of himself whatever he is to be.[ii] Of course such a view is logically incoherent, strictly speaking. Something with no nature cannot do anything. (Yes! Yes! I know something more can be said for Sartre here.) Pico Della Mirandola came closer to the truth.[iii] His view was that God had produced in man a creature that had the responsibility of becoming what he was to become—to locate himself on the Great Chain of Being—by the choices he made. God allows, indeed requires, that we choose to act on the basis of our desires, and that we freely decide what we will live for. What we choose in selecting among our desires for fulfillment determines what kinds of persons we become. What we decide to seek in life is the key to our character. God, like persons in general, wants to be wanted. He is unwilling to impose himself on anyone if and as long as that can be avoided.
Village atheist types, such as Bertrand Russell or Norwood Hansen,[iv] can protest that they would believe in God if they had more evidence. But is it indeed true that they would then believe? How much more evidence would it take? And would they then be glad there is a God? Would they then believe because they wanted God, wanted it to be his world, wanted not to be God—the ultimate point of reference in their lives—themselves? Would they be prepared to love God? More than evidence is required to bring a person to that point.
In his The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has the senior devil, Screwtape, say to his protégé, Wormwood:
The obedience the Enemy [God] demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to His…. You must have wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves.[v]
So God let’s himself be known. He is available to those who want him. “When you search for me,” the old prophet said, “you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) But he will not force himself upon you, not jump down your throat. And if you in your heart really want to be God yourself, you probably will not find him. You will find yourself.
The craftiness of Christ is of a piece with the hiddenness of God. And this is to be seen in the means he employed to secure the end he had in view. That end was to bring out of human history a world-wide, non-ethnic community of human beings who have the character of God, expressed in Jesus himself and in αγαπη love: a character spelled out in a many-sided way—it really is a “many-splendored thing”—by the contents of the New Testament and the lives of Christ-followers throughout the ages. (Just keep your eye on the best among them.)
Remarkably, after his resurrection Jesus continued his low-profiled ways. The human inclination would have been to pay a post-resurrection visit to Pilate, perhaps, and to say something like, “Now could we have that discussion about power and truth once again?” Or perhaps to swing by the High Priest’s house, or causally to drop in on the Sanhedrin in session. But no. That of course would have only been to give in to the temptations earlier posed to him by Satan. It would have been the “wisdom” of man, not the wisdom of God. Instead, “God raised him [Jesus] up on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:42) And then, of all things, he simply sent his bedraggled little friends out to the whole world to enlist students to him, promising his unseen presence with them.
Everything considered, the plan worked pretty well, though, admittedly, with many failings on the human side. These were always precipitated by the failure to follow the cross-bearing character and example of Jesus himself. Even today—or especially today—people don’t think of Jesus as being very smart. Hence, they do not find in his actions a pattern to actually follow. For many people now, including most professing Christians, it is very hard to think of Jesus as if he had a brain in his head. If you ask people, with no prior warning, who is the smartest person who ever lived, Jesus will not be mentioned. If you then mention Jesus as a candidate, they may grudgingly agree, but they won’t really believe it. He is nice, perhaps, but not very intelligent. “Smart” is the wrong category.[vi] Of course that was not true of the people who first took him and his gospel of life-in-the-kingdom-of-God-now across the face of the earth. On their view, in the words of Paul, “in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3) Given who they believed he was, that just had to be true. And, believing it, they acted on it, and found it to be confirmed to their satisfaction in life and in death.
Compared to the other schemes of redemption from the human condition, of then and of now—from Plato’s Republic to John Lennon or the latest “success” guru—a candid observer might have to say of following Jesus through his “passion” into the kingdom of God, “Not bad.” And of Jesus himself, I am sure that he would tell us to take a better way if we can honestly find one. (Let’s see now, what’s the latest thing on that?) Thorough and open comparison is what we need. We well may find, with Paul, that “…the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through ‘wisdom’, God decided through the ‘foolishness’ of our proclamation, to save those who believe…. For the foolish thing of God is wiser than men, and God’s weak thing is stronger than men.” (1st Corinthians 1:18, 21, 25 paraphrase)
Ποΰ σοφός ?
[i] Beth Potier, The Harvard Gazette, “At the Divinity School, passionate talk of ‘The Passion of the Christ’,” March 25, 2004.
[ii] See the first few paragraphs of Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” many editions. E.g., in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed, Walter Kaufmann, (New York: New American Library <Meridian Books>, 1975), pp. 345-369.