This is a concluding reflection for the class “Gathering the Winnowed Community” (John 12:20-33), part of the Lenten series “Beholding the Lamb, Being Held by the Shepherd: Exploring the Question of Suffering in the Gospel of John” taught at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday March 25, 2012.
We began this course six weeks ago with the question of theodicy: How do we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world of suffering? or as Grange Coffin’s daughter put it to him, “Why did God make man-eating sharks?” Jesus’ disciples asked their own form of this question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer urged his disciples (and us) to let go of the idea that human suffering is always the result of our sin and God’s punishment. Rather, human suffering is an urgent call for us to be a pastoral presence to one another in response to a world of suffering and to acknowledge our “blindness” when it comes to understanding the complexities of one another’s sufferings. Jesus’ answer also included the invitation to know and experience Christ as the Good Shepherd, the ultimate pastoral presence to us in the midst of our suffering and confusion.
Girard’s mimetic theory revealed the violent mechanism inherent in ancient religions and even in modern culture: that is, our need to scapegoat and blame others for the suffering in our lives (just as Martin Luther blamed the Jews for his own personal loss of his daughter). In looking at Psalms of Lament and post-Holocaust (post-Shoah) literature, we observed a tradition that is unafraid to hold God accountable and to put God on trial for the suffering in the world. This tradition is expressed most succinctly in Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God in which a group of Jews in Auschwitz gather together one day and put God on trial. Their charge against God was cruelty and betrayal for allowing such horrible suffering to take place. Some of them offered the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering, but, in the end, no one was satisfied or consoled with these answers in the midst of the current obscenity. God remained painfully aloof (if not complicit) to the crimes against the chosen people. They could think of no legitimate excuse for God, nothing to let God off the hook, so the Rabbi pronounced the verdict: God is guilty and worthy of death.
The Passion of Christ (which we will be remembering liturgically in the next couple weeks) is the Christian version of this “Trial of God” in which we put the Divine on trial and then sentence him to death. The social and political reasons for the death of Jesus are many, but as Caiaphas pointed out, one clear reason for the death of Jesus was because of the need for someone to scapegoat and blame. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus understands this human need to scapegoat and blame. But Jesus did not want other humans and animals to be wrongfully blamed and punished for all the evil in the world, as they have been throughout human civilization. So Jesus took the place of the victim (the Lamb of God, the scapegoat) and allowed us (and allows us still) to blame him for all the evil in the world. Although God is not an evil, violent, and punitive monster (as Jesus kept trying to show us), God still allows us to punish Him as if he were, because there is no one else upon whom we can direct our anger without perpetuating more violence. God takes our anger and violence and then transforms us in the process. In this way, God gathers us together around his own self-giving love, forming a new “winnowed” community that no longer needs to scapegoat others in order to survive and thrive.
The group of Jews in Auschwitz who put God on trial did something very startling after they convicted God as guilty and worthy of death. After the Rabbi pronounced the verdict, he looked up and said, “The trial is over. Now, it is time for evening prayer.” Perhaps these Jews understood that, even while they were putting God on trial and blaming Him for all the suffering in their lives, God was still holding them lovingly like a parent holding an angry child. And after their trial, all they could do was melt into God’s loving arms. After blaming Jesus for the death of her brother, Mary also melted into God’s loving empathy which were made manifest in Christ’s tears. The tears of Christ are God’s way of saying, “You cannot understand the reason for this suffering, but I am always with you, feeling your pain, weeping along with you and allowing you to blame me.” Here, we begin to see how the Gospel of John reveals a pastoral theodicy: God’s pastoral response to our question of human suffering.