God’s Wrath, Christ’s Peace, and the Culture Wars

Catholic theologian James Alison’s essay “Wrath and the gay question: on not being afraid, and its ecclesial shape” is not only the best explanation of the Atonement I’ve seen in a long while, but also represents (to my mind) a more helpful direction for gay-affirming Christians than merely hunting for proof-texts that support our position and explaining away those that don’t.

Alison contends that human societies constantly seek self-definition by scapegoating outsiders. When Christ, the only completely innocent person, voluntarily assumed the scapegoat role, he exposed the sinfulness of that entire system. Never again could we in good faith believe that spiritual purity depended on exclusion. If community must be founded on sacrifice, Christ was the sacrificial victim and the entire human race became a single community, united by our responsibility for his death and by his equal love for us all. Yet Alison also finds fault with the liberal “many flavors” approach to gays in the church, saying we need to emphasize not the diversity of human lifestyles but our universal brother- and sisterhood.

Some highlights (boldface emphasis mine):

I want to bring into polite adult discussion something which is not normally allowed there, but is relegated to the backroom of fundamentalist discourse, where its misuse is a mirror image of its exclusion from enlightened discourse.

In enlightened discourse, there is of course, no “wrath” in any theological or anthropological sense. There is progress, and development, and of course, on the way there is conflict. Conflict is shown as something painful, but necessary, steps on the way towards the next phase. No omelettes without breaking eggs, and similar sentiments. In fundamentalist discourse, that conflict and those “steps on the way to the next phase” are personally and cosmically significant, and victory and defeat in them are part of the mysterious workings of a divinity, certainly something far greater and more important than anything the “wise” and “enlightened” of this generation could know about. Part of the attraction of fundamentalist discourse, and this fundamentalism can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Marxist, or secularist, is the way it allows partially self-selecting “outsiders” from mainstream culture (and we’re all such partially self-selecting “outsiders” now) to see themselves as secret “insiders” with a direct line in to What’s Really Going On.

For the Enlightened, it is perfectly obvious that there is no violence in God, if there is a God at all; while for the fundamentalist, the violence is always associated with God, directly, or through those charged with interpreting “His” (and it usually is His) message. In fact, without the violence there would be no sign of God’s activity in the world, which effectively means, there would be no God. What I would like to do is rescue the notion of wrath by attempting to show how there is indeed no violence in God, but that the phenomenon which religious language has described as “wrath” is very real, and worth taking seriously. Not only that, but it is rather important for our contemporary ability to live the Gospel that we overcome the schism between the enlightened and the fundamentalist, two positions which are, in my view, very much enemy twins, by recovering a sense of the anthropological effect in our midst of the covenant of peace to which the Scriptures refer (Isaiah 54, 10; Ezekiel 34, 25 & 37, 26). By recovering, if you like, the ecclesial shape of Christ making his covenant for us and enabling us not to be afraid.

There seems to be something odd going on when the same person, Jesus, both promises his followers:

      Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. (John 14, 27)

And yet says:

   Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. (Mt 10, 34-36; cf. Luke 12, 51)


Jesus does warn that the effect of his mission is going to be to produce wrath, in the passage I have already quoted to you. And in fact, he then gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.

Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient world’s views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. This is not the way we saw with Achan, where the temporary freedom from wrath comes with the outbreak of unanimous violence which creates singleness of heart among the group. What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of “wrath” which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.

So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.

The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being “run” by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldn’t possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again.

Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no longer be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus’ coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes,
the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you.
Read the whole article here.

One comment on “God’s Wrath, Christ’s Peace, and the Culture Wars

  1. zhenimsja says:

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