We begin the season of Lent thinking, generally, about how our habits and distractions close us off from continuous awareness of God’s loving presence. As the season moves along, it becomes increasingly apparent that the experience of God’s absence may in fact be a merciful blessing. The more deeply we look into ourselves, the more we begin to see the negative forces that battle there with what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
As we move more fully into Lent, our scripture readings probe more deeply into the mysteries of human motivation. For some reason, Jesus seems to arouse as much enmity as he does reverence. In yesterday’s Gospel reading, Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple and announced, “"Destroy this temple [his body], and in three days I will raise it up." [John 2] The Sunday before, Jesus told his companions, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” [Mark 8] Next Sunday we will hear Jesus say, “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” [John 3]
Jesus radiates the divine presence. He is loving, compassionate, and gentle. Yet many people—some of them decent people—hate him. How can that be?
This semester I’m teaching a class at Cranbrook in which we’ve read, among other texts, Shakespeare’s Othello and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. In the Shakespeare play, the villain Iago hates almost everybody in the play, but he exhibits a particularly virulent antipathy for the Lieutenant Cassio, of whom he says,
Iago never reveals his motivations for all the havoc he unleashes, but this one remark suggests that there is something in Cassio’s very goodness (“daily beauty in his life”) that shows Iago up by comparison to be the opposite. He hates Cassio not despite but because of his moral excellence. Iago dislikes goodness because it shows up his own deficiencies in relief.
Herman Melville’s Billy Budd tells the story of a sailor persecuted by the ship’s Master-at-Arms, a man named Claggart. As Iago hates Cassio, so Claggart hates Billy. Claggart is a “man of the world” who knows how to navigate the politics of a nautical/military establishment. Billy is a complete innocent. Claggart is offended rather than charmed by Billy’s naïveté. Something in Billy’s innocence offends the man of the world. As Melville tells us,
If askance [Claggart] eyed the good looks, cheery health and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain--disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! [Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Chapter 12]
Over the course of reading both Othello and Billy Budd, the reader attuned to the nuances of Christian faith comes to see that the victims of hatred (Desdemona in the play, Billy in the novel) take on the characteristics of Christ figures. Both die in total innocence. Both are killed as the result of a chain of events brought about by deep and inexplicable malevolence. Something in their persecutors rebels at the notion of pure, uncorrupted innocence. Something in that innocence shows up their guilt sharply in relief.
One of the reasons we respond so powerfully to figures like Iago and Claggart is that we see something of ourselves in them. If you’re like me, you have probably nourished the fond fantasy that, had you been there at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, you would have raised a lone voice in opposition. But the longer I live, the more I have to acknowledge that at best I probably would have gone along with the crowd. Following the exploits of these literary villains, we are surprised into a recognition of our own complicity. It’s easier for me to acknowledge my inner Iago or inner Claggart than it is to admit that I carry an inner Judas around inside me, too.
As we move toward Holy Week, we will all be asked to stand in the at times unbearable tension between the knowledge of Jesus’s holiness and a corresponding awareness of our own sin. The good news of this season lies in its constant assurance that God knows and loves us not in spite of but because of our complications. We are, each and all, partly Judas. And we’re partly Jesus, too. Iago and Claggart never had the grace to see that. Living and praying together, you and I just might. That is why Easter is so radically hopeful.