home > archive > 2003 > this article
So Christ is carrying his cross to Golgotha. Kierkegaard warns against a too easy assumption that one as good, as elevated and brave as oneself would have had the courage to stand with Christ in these circumstances, and along the way has something to say about the impulse to sanitize images that perhaps expresses one of the very reasons Mr. Gibson wished to make his film:
To be sure, Kierkegaard was not addressing the question of Jewish culpability for Christ's death. What was significant to him was not the accidents of time, place, race and custom, but that the Jews and Romans were men, and therefore in all essentials like ourselves. Kierkegaard wanted the individual, at least he who claimed to have some interest in being associated with Christianity, to see himself in light of Christ's life and example and in the mirror of God's word, to understand himself, who he was, in light of God's absolute requirements, not by the normative comparative standards that men always apply in judging of themselves and their times, in which everyone was automatically more or less a decent fellow, "nice guy," good parent, loving and devoted husband or wife, hard worker, honest merchant, respectable and esteemed businessman, brave soldier, etc. xii Even pagans do the same. xiii How could men who did not measure themselves against God's unconditional requirements, Kierkegaard wondered, ever even honestly feel that they needed a savior, when nothing in the conception they had of themselves, judging especially by the way they lived their lives and not by their announced beliefs, indicated that there was anything about them they thought needed saving?
Theologically speaking, then, the story of Christ's crucifixion is a story about a story of how men are offended at God and by his requirements, in which it is possible to see oneself. Jew, gentile are irrelevant - it is you and me of whom it is speaking.
Christians Are Under a Commandment
I have taken this long approach to respond to the idea that "deicide" is a taboo subject, too dangerous for unprepared, untutored minds, and that thinking about why men put Christ to death, and who is responsible for it, somehow leads "naturally" to notions of collective Jewish guilt and grant of a divine license to hate succeeding generations. In numerous works, Kierkegaard demonstrated how what Christ said and did was an offense to men. In doing so he makes plain how worldliness perceives God, what it is to be mired in worldliness, and why worldliness and the kings and powers of this world want nothing so much as to put God out of the way. xiv
It is not necessary, however, to make such long investigations in order to address the concerns of Mr. Gibson's critics. If a renewed rise of anti-Semitism by people who call themselves Christian is what we are worried about, then the emetic is readily at hand in the form of Christ's own teaching. It does not take long to administer. It is easily addressed within even a 350 word limit for an op-ed article and well within the 15 minute limit for a single church sermon. The one Christians call Lord gave a commandment -- a standard of conduct that his followers are required to adhere to at all times. In the context of this particular controversy, this commandment, when followed, makes the question whether the Jews were 1%, 50% or 99% responsible for the death of Christ and metaphysical speculation whether their role in his death subjected the entire Jewish race forevermore to eternal damnation not only irrelevant, but far worse, a flagrant evasion that exacerbates its disobedience by passing off its hatred for others as a form of piety, that obscenely employs the strength of its hatred as a measure of its piety for God, and thinks that God smiles on and is fooled by this.
The words are simple, the concept is easily grasped; carrying out the task is everything. This man who was crucified, who, while in agony on the cross, asked God, "forgive them," this is what he taught: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Jeff Snyder is an attorney who works in New York City. He is author of Nation of Cowards -- Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control. © Jeffrey R. Snyder, 2003
i For example, is the 1970s rock opera and Broadway hit, Jesus Christ Superstar, to be censored because, during the trial before Pilate the chorus shouts "Crucify him! Crucify him!," and it might occur to the audience that the people shouting this would have had to have been Jews, and from this further conclude that, in the words of the ADL press release, there was "Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus"? In fact, the logical extension of the concerns expressed over Mr. Gibson's movie would be to question the degree to which the New Testament itself should be sanitized to avoid giving the wrong impressions. But then, why stop there? The Old Testament itself freely reports that the Jews, at different points in their history, were in revolt against God, and that they often put prophets sent by God Himself to death because the prophets had the temerity to point this out to them. Thus, if left unsanitized, the Old Testament itself contains sufficient "evidence," for any person bent on finding "religious" justification for his anti-Semitism, that the Jews were, in the words of the ADL press release, "enemies of God."
ii The assumption at work in requests that Mr. Gibson change his movie seems to be that, by controlling some of the factual and image content of people's minds, we can control their passions. This is a thin reed to hang so much upon; one can only stand amazed at the presumption that we are such masters of causality; once can only be distressed at the presumption that people, or at any rate certain people (not the ones controlling the images, to be sure!) are essentially to be regarded as little more than stimulus-response automatons. Instead, what needs to be challenged is the leap that is made when a person concludes that he has a license to hate from a historical fact or claim that some Jews - at some level - were involved in the decision to put Christ to death (e.g., that Judas Iscariot provided the means of arrest). Merely making a well-rounded presentation of the event (as best we can discern based on current historical research and archaeological findings), while meritorious in its own right, is not going to address this.
iii Rousseau should not have written The Social Contract; Goethe should not have written The Sorrows of Young Werther; Nietzsche should never have written about the Superman; Wagner should not have composed his pagan operas.
iv The purpose of this observation seems to be to point out not only that both Jews and gentiles shared complicity in the death of Christ, but also the irrationality of the "blood guilt" theory. If there were some sort of "blood guilt" that taints an entire people for all eternity resulting from complicity in Christ's death, then gentiles would necessarily also be eternally tainted, unless, of course we gratuitously assume that Jesus' plea on the cross to God to "forgive them" (i.e., at a minimum, everyone involved in his death) was selectively answered by God on the basis of race and, further, is not binding, by way of Christ's example, on those who proclaim themselves to be his followers.
v "But false piety has long since let it be forgotten that the family was despised as long as it lived on earth; false piety makes a show of the ‘holy family,' would like to fool itself and others into thinking that this condition of abasement is glory, that heavenly glory and earthly glory amount to the same thing. And false piety is offended when abasement is portrayed -- it is embarrassing, and in order to protect itself, it calls this blasphemy by us freethinkers." Judge for Yourself!, by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990, at pp. 163-164.
vi A problem not unique, however, to God. Existence, in general, cannot be proved. Kierkegaard explains this quite succinctly: "So let us call this unknown something: the God. It is nothing more than a name we assign to it. The idea of demonstrating that this unknown something (the God) exists, could scarcely suggest itself to the Reason. For if the God does not exist it would of course be impossible to prove it; and if he does exist it would be folly to attempt it. For at the very outset, in beginning my proof, I would have presupposed it, not as doubtful but as certain (a presupposition is never doubtful, for the very reason that it is a presupposition), since otherwise I would not begin, readily understanding that the whole would be impossible if he did not exist. But if when I speak of proving the God's existence I mean that I propose to prove that the Unknown, which exists, is the God, then I express myself unfortunately. For in that case I do not prove anything, least of all an existence, but merely develop the content of a conception. Generally speaking it is a difficult matter to prove that anything exists . . . [t]he entire demonstration always turns into something very different and becomes an additional development of the consequences that flow from my having assumed that the object in question exists. Thus I always reason from existence, not toward existence, whether I move in the sphere of palpable sensible fact or in the realm of thought. I do not, for example, prove that a stone exists, but that some existing thing is a stone. The procedure in a court of justice does not prove that a criminal exists, but that the accused, whose existence is given, is a criminal. Whether we call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it is never subject to demonstration." Philosophical Fragments, by Soren Kierkegaard, originally translated by David Swenson and revised by Howard V. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1971, pp 49-50.
vii See generally, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, by Soren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1992. "If that of which I am to gain possession by venturing is certain, then I am not venturing, then I am trading." Id., at Volume 1, at p.425.
viii Judge for Yourself!, at p. 172.
ix Practice in Christianity, by Soren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1991, at pp. 85 - 87.
x Judge for Yourself!, at pp. 177-178.
xi See Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, III 2926. This fragment is contained in the Supplement to Works of Love, by Soren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1995, at pp. 470-471.
xii See "Good Men Make Good Rhinoceroses," by Jeff Snyder, at http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig/snyder4.html.
xiii Matthew 5: 43 - 48.
xiv See, for example, Practice in Christianity, which is an extended reflection on this subject, especially Part II thereof, which takes as its title Matthew 11:6: "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me."
xv A reference to Luke 10: 37. Concerning the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself, a Pharisee has asked Christ, who is my neighbor, in other words, which people (surely it is not all!) qualify as a "neighbor" and are therefore worthy of receiving this love? Christ responds with the parable of the good Samaritan, and then prevents further legalistic wrangling over the concept, "neighbor" (a wrangling the essential purpose of which is to evade the obligation) by (as Kierkegaard notes) trapping the questioner in a task: Go and do likewise.
xvi Works of Love, at pp. 62-63.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2013, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.