Pope Francis quoted the American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton in his address to Congress.
“I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”
Perhaps Mark had something like that in mind when he attributed to Jesus a grotesque instruction about following in the way of Christ. The images of Mark 9 are ludicrous, violent, grotesque. Cut off a foot or a hand. Tear out your eye if it causes you to “stumble” — if it causes you to lead a child toward the fire of hell. It is better to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to enter hell with two.
Author Flannery O’Connor seems to have known the genius of these jarring metaphors.
“I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”
Watching the news of grotesque crimes against humanity, we ask how anyone could behead another human being. How, indeed? And always in the name of God, in the name of righteousness, the children of light against the children of darkness.
Jesus’ words from Mark 9 were read aloud last Sunday in many churches around the world. They are as off-putting now as they were spoken into an earlier violent time, a world that was for Jesus and for Mark what Merton’s was for him: a picture of hell.
But for Jesus, the word we translate “hell” was not a place of divine punishment. It was the name of a place outside of Jerusalem. Paul Nuechterlein writes in last week’s Girardian Reflections:
‘Gehenna’ in Mark’s Greek rendering would have been ‘Ben Hinnom’ in Jesus’ own Hebrew/Aramaic. It’s the valley referred to in Jeremiah 7:30-33:
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the LORD; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire — which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away.
‘Hell,’ ‘Gehenna,’ ‘ben Hinnom’ is the place of human sacred violence that has never even come into God’s mind. It is our violence that we need to fear, not God’s. Jesus is speaking grotesquely of lesser sacrificial violence like cutting off one’s hand, as being better than amped-up sacrificial violence like the child sacrifice of Jeremiah’s day — or the Nazi Holocaust of our day. [bold print added by VFTE]
Self-criticism, prayerful introspection, the opening of one’s own divided heart to Divine judgment and mercy are the stuff of which heaven is made; hell would be when we remain prisoners of our own selfish violence, a place filled with people just like me.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 28, 2015.