I’m not a believing man myself, but one element of Christian doctrine has always made a great deal of sense to me: the claim that humans are so deeply and universally sinful that only God’s grace could make us worthy of salvation. I see no need for recourse to the great historical evils to demonstrate our basic iniquity: hatred, lust, petty greed, and pettier cruelty are ubiquitous wherever men meet. If the cities don’t run with blood and tears, it’s police and cowardice we have to thank, hardly goodwill. Even toward those we love we are so cruel, so selfish and inattentive—what husband, what mother, what child, what friend has not been the object of some petty nastiness? Who among those you love have you never harmed? It’s a wonder any of us sleep at night. So much even of what seems to be virtue is mere prudence and vile housekeeping; we speak and act as though anger or greed were as good as virtue, so long as it remains in the dark. Christ’s doctrine, according to which he who has looked upon a woman in lust has already sinned, may seem puritanical to those of a more enlightened morality; it has never seemed so to me. I suspect that they forget what lust is.
The enlightened moralists, who judge goodness by the average and declare themselves no worse than most, do not speak with conviction: we know the better and do the worse. We sin. It’s not as though humans are all bad, of course: most of us strive for the good according to our abilities. We try to love each other and to treat each other well. It’s just that mostly, or often, we fail. And we know this! Think how many of us interpret our misfortunes as punishments. It’s much easier to accept the sufferings of others as undeserved than to accept that our own are. A man who asks in the face of misery, “What did I do to deserve this?”, will always find plenty of answers. (Think of survivors’ guilt: “Why not me?”) We know we’re very bad; we want to be better, and can’t be. The success of Christianity is proof enough of that: there will always be a market for forgiveness. The need for grace, as I’ve said, always made sense to me.
What has always struck me as strange is the method by which God gave grace: Christ’s crucifixion. It’s odd that this isn't wondered at more often. First, how is God’s forgiveness possible? It would make perfect sense if God simply couldn’t forgive us: when you've sinned, no one can remove the stain, or you alone can do so through repentance. But that’s not how it is: God can forgive us. Hence a second question arises: given that God can forgive, why must He be crucified to do so? God, omnipotent, is presumably at liberty to forgive whoever he wants; like a president on his last day in office, he can pardon at will. Can’t he? Apparently not. Humans deserve eternal torment; if they are not to receive their punishment, someone must. No forgiveness without pain.1 Hence the crucifixion.
The Greeks said that even the gods could not resist Ananke, necessity; it seems that our God, too, is under some compulsion. But what is higher than God? Our first guess might be: justice. God cannot break the rule according to which every crime must be punished; he can only redirect the punishment, taking it upon himself. But that can’t be right, because the crucifixion is not just. Quite the contrary! To punish an innocent man and let the guilty go free is the very epitome of injustice. Justice this is not; we are in the presence of another and perhaps an older logic here, the logic of sacrifice.
The logic of justice is restorative. A crime occurs, an equilibrium is disrupted: there is a victim and a criminal. A third party must enter the situation and restore balance. The victim finds redress, the criminal atones, and peace is restored. Just ask the victims’ families’ lawyers: justice brings “closure” to the crime. But what if there is no prior order to restore? What if society and the human beings who constitute it are irredeemably corrupt? “Closure” is then impossible: the breach made by crime cannot be sewn shut. History spills through the gap unceasingly. Time is then what Benjamin described in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: a wind blowing in from eternity, heaping wreckage upon wreckage, victims and criminals indistinguishable because every criminal has suffered and no victim has ever been innocent. The “state of exception,” of lawless violence, is then the rule; justice has never once ruled and can never be restored, not even by God.
I think some such suspicion haunts our society, beneath its conscious faith in the progress and perfectibility of mankind: the idea that justice is nowhere to be found, that history is an unmitigated and irredeemable disaster which will never end. Maybe this explains our endless fascination with the Holocaust. Whatever ideological uses this event has been put to (as apology for liberal capitalism, as alibi for Zionism), the place it holds in our culture is deeper. The Holocaust (chosen from among the million other crimes of history) is the way we name our suspicion that history is an accumulation of nameless corpses, that some crimes cannot be forgiven and some events cannot be redeemed. Then there’s the steady flow of disaster movies and disaster TV shows, following the last remnants of humanity across a world cleansed of nearly every human being; more often than not the disasters in question (nuclear winter, global warming, biological weapons) are the result of human sinfulness, floods we have brought down upon ourselves through our own sins. Beneath the promise of new beginnings something else draws us to these stories: the image of a world cleansed of humanity, the history of mankind as progress toward the moment when we at last annihilate ourselves. Modern culture figures its own erasure with pornographic regularity; we judge ourselves unworthy of existence, we dream of a world cleansed of our crimes. It’s no accident that the classics of this genre (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia) have been produced by Catholics: the empty globe is the reactionary judgment against any possible Enlightenment. But it’s strange, and telling, to see this judgment represented in summer blockbusters and produced by HBO. If popular culture is wish-fulfillment, our wishes are more Christian than we know.
But the Catholics have a different apocalypse up their sleeve, an alternative to the empty world; their God died for our sins. To understand the crucifixion it’s important to remember that Christ didn’t just die in intense suffering: he was killed. And we killed him. It is our sins that placed him on the cross. The nuns at my mother’s Catholic school would remind the little girls of this when they were being naughty: Christ was crucified to save just such bad girls. They were responsible; everyone is. To be sure, we weren’t there in the crowd, choosing Barnabas over our Savior, but we make the same choice every day. The crucifixion raises every single sin to the highest power: each of them, from murder on down, is another nail through His palm. Before offering forgiveness Christ produces an apotheosis of guilt, an absolute guilt: every human being, every day, repeats the murder of our Savior and our God.
In a world of suffering sinners, Christ introduces something new: an innocent victim, the first and last who absolutely did not deserve to suffer. Killing him is an absolute crime, and it is the only crime: everything else is a pale repetition. The crucifixion gathers the guilt of every human being who has ever lived into a single thread; the resurrection cuts this thread. We are forgiven. Only the victim has the right to forgive; only by becoming the great, the sole victim, may God forgive us our sins.
The idea of paradise for me has always been inseparable from forgiveness. That someone who knows me well, who knows every struggle and evasion and ugly thought, might someday take me in his arms and tell me that it’s okay, I’m okay, I have tried, I am worthy of love. And can any of us imagine paradise without forgiveness? Can we be happy without deserving to be? I don't believe it. But forgiveness comes only from the victim, and only when we acknowledge our crimes. This is the meaning of the Eucharist: we eat once again the flesh of our Savior and drink his blood, we take upon ourselves once again the great and only crime. We love and forgive each other in light of our shared, our unspeakable guilt; we are all partners in crime, equally unworthy. This is grace: that God is dead, and we have killed him, and he loves us anyway.
1 And don’t try to wriggle out of this with heretical denials of the trinity; it won’t help. Even if we understand Christ's crucifixion as the chief item in a deal made between the new, loving God and the old, angry one—YHWH will let us off the hook, but for a price—the question remains: why this price? What does YHWH want with Christ’s torment?