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the agonies of Christ: more deaths in Baghdad

March 24th, 2006 by isaac · 1 Comment

“Christ will indeed be in agony unto the end of the world.”

That the last line I read last night in bed before I turned out the lights. It’s how D.M. MacKinnon ends his essay “Order and Evil in the Gospel” (Borderlands of Theology, p.96).

“Violence rages in Iraq; 58 killed.”

That’s the headline I read first thing this morning as I sat down at the table with my cup of coffee and the newspaper. When will it ever end? Tomorrow it always gets worse. Of course, I’m grateful that the folks from the Christian Peacemaking Team were rescued. But there’s always still more violence, more death. The escalating violence of this month makes Fr. Richard John Neuhaus look a bit naive, when we read his defense of the war back in October, 2004 (First Things):

Leading up to the invasion and even after its rapid military success, critics were predicting a quagmire, a Somalia-like debacle, a rising of the Arab ‘street’ that would be ‘a storm from hell,’ and, of course, another Vietnam. With reference to civilian casualties, some protesters spoke about a ‘Middle East holocaust.’ None of that happened.

The optimism of Neuhaus and others strikes me as quite dellusional every morning as I page through the newpaper. It seems like Peter Dula’s cynicism from December of 2004 is more truthful: “Iraq is a catastrophe-on all accounts (except perhaps Dick Cheney’s).” (See his article in Commonweal).

But who cares about hindsight? So people are wrong sometimes, even powerful conservatives like Father Neuhaus. I’m just trying to make sense of the deaths and the apocalyptic yellows and reds exploding on the streets of Baghdad, leaving charred houses and bodies. So I pick MacKinnon from my shelf and see if his words can open up a passage, just a crack, through this present darkness that invites the wonder-working power of Christ’s redemption. But MacKinnon refuses easy, sentimental answers. There’s no fluff in his gospel; there’s no escape from the angoy of Jesus on the cross.

It’s so easy to escape to an image of Jesus as victor, seated at the right hand of the Father directing the course of history, working out the finishing touches on the redemption accomplished in the resurrection. But, as the writer of Hebrews says, “at present we do not yet see everything made subject to him” (2:8). And MacKinnon knows this, and calls us to the cross and to remember that Jesus still bears the marks of death, of pain, of human suffering. There’s no easy way out from under the scandal of the cross. And when MacKinnon takes me to the foot of the cross and grabs my head with both hands and forces my gaze at Jesus’ body smeared with his own blood, I am left with unsettling questions: How does the hope of Christ’s redemption transfigure those dark figures into the life of resurrection? How does Jesus explode the cross into new life? What is the link between the cross and resurrection? How do those two contradictions reconcile?

I don’t know how to answer. And I think the danger of easy answers is that they render the particular suffering of others redundant; we are tempted to shift our eyes, to look away, to turn our gaze, because we already have an answer for that, a way to put that issue to rest, to bury them without listening for the whispers of life breaking through the cries of pain. The last thing we want is for the painful gaze of the suffering ones to catch our eyes and hold them captive. But maybe, just maybe, that gaze may offer us the eyes of our Christ… Can Christ’s redemptive hope speak through death?

All I can do is echo Maximus the Confessor: “The one who knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb, knows the reasons of things. The one who is initiated into the infinite power of the Resurrection, knows the purpose for which God knowingly created all.” (see the end of this sermon). And I know that this sort of answer doesn’t satisfy. At least it doesn’t settle anything for me. But I don’t know where else to turn than to that mystery.

I’ll let D.M. MacKinnon lead us further into the mysteries of our Paschal lamb. His text speaks of human suffering and the mysterious agony of Christ more honestly than most people I read. The quote I started with is at the bottom of the selection:

It is fashionable nowadays to speak of Christ as victor, as if the agony and disillusion, the sheer monstrous reality of physical and spiritual suffering which he bore were a mere charade… But the gospels, including that of John which does not chronicle the episode of Gethsemane, recall our imaginations to a figure prostrate on the earth, afraid and desolate, bidding men and women see in him the ground of all creation. (92)

Christianity takes the history of Jesus and urges the believer to find, in the endurance of the ultimate contradictions of human existence that belongs to its very substance, the assurance that in the worst that can befall his creatures, the creative Word keeps company with thsoe whom he has called his own. (93)

‘Come down from the cross and we will believe.’ Many Christians have joined in this cry; many continue indeed to make it their own, even when they pay lip service to the gospel of the Resurrection. But it is only in the light of the resurrection that those Christians can learn rather to say with understanding the profound words of Pascal, that Christ will indeed be in agony unto the end of the world. (96)


I still can’t shake that haunting image of the Pauline church that Jacob Taubes portrays in his book, The Political Theology of Paul:
You must imagine prayer as something other than the singing in the Christian church; instead there is screaming, groaning, and the heavens are stormy when people pray… This is how Paul experiences the praying congregation.

That sounds like the description of a church whose brokenness bears the marks of Christ’s wounds. That sounds like a church who knows that its savior is not the untouchable Christus Victor, but the slain Lamb who will indeed be in agony untill the end of the world. This Jesus, as MacKinnon put it, lies “prostrate on the earth, afraid and desolate, bidding men and women see in him the ground of all creation.” And 58 more lay prostrate on the earth in Baghdad yesterday. Who knows how many more tomorrow. And the countless others who lay in bed, afraid and desolate.

Is that what my Savior looks like?

...in agony untill the end of the world.

Tags: current events · life · theology · war

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Drew // Mar 25, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    That reminds me of Shusaku Endo’s idea of the suffering Christ. Reading his book Silence really altered my idea of who Jesus is and of the nature of his suffering. This idea also puts a different spin on (what I seem to often hear reiterated, but without much pause for thought, in evangelical circles) that Christ’s suffering and atonement were for all sin, past, present, and future.