The Cross of Christ Declares that Virtue Does Not Secure Blessing


Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Romans 6:3-4

I recently watched a movie which starred Slavoj Zizek entitled “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.” Before you think I have gone of the rails and become a “Christian atheist” and that I think he has the right thinking concerning these things, let me assure you I don’t. However, there is a very profound point he touches on that I want to pick up and examine. Let’s read what he had to say in the film about Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ”:

… I think one can read the Christian gesture in a much more radical way. This is what the sequence of crucifixion in Scorsese’s film shows us. What dies on the cross is precisely this guarantee of the big Other. The message of Christianity is here radically atheist. It’s the death of Christ is not any kind of redemption or commercial affair in the sense of Christ suffers to pay for our sins. Pay to whom? For what? And so on. It’s simply the disintegration of the God which guarantees the meaning of our lives. And that’s the meaning of the famous phrase Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani. “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Just before Christ’s death we get what in psychoanalytic terms we call subjective destitution, stepping out totally of the domain of symbolic identification, canceling or suspending the entire field of symbolic authority, the entire field of the big Other. Of course, we cannot know what God wants from us because there is no God. … This is why I claim that the only way to really be an atheist is to go through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism, which can claim there is no God and so on. But nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the big Other. This big Other can be called natural necessity or evolution or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within a harmonious whole of evolution, whatever. But the difficult thing to accept is, again that there is no big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.

To take the meaning of the crucifixion this way is of course to completely disbelieve in the justificatory power of the cross, the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, and the existence of the Father, and ultimately to deny the divinity of Christ. Zizek is not even close to being faithful to the true person of Christ as presented in scripture. However, I am not citing this in order to dispute it. His idea here is so crazy and difficult to grasp that I don’t think there is much threat that many people will be influenced by it at all. After I watched this, I began to reflect on what he was saying, and I think there is an important element of truth here. The cross tells us that there truly is no immediate connection between virtue and blessing. Here is the most virtuous man who ever lived and who ever could live, in fact here is a man who is morally perfect. His moral perfection does not lead him to a place of blessing but to the cross. We may want to dispute this in light of the resurrection, but even He, in light of the resurrection which He already had foretold, sweated blood and pleaded in prayer to be spared the unjustified agony of the cross. What we see is that moralistic perfection itself cannot manipulate the favor and protection of God. The Father does not act on this basis.

In general we interpret the idea that we have “died with Christ” and that we have been “raised with Christ” to mean that we have left a place of loose and unsuccessful moral responsibility and have entered a place of greater moral responsibility, and that we have come by one means or another to better adhere to this greater moral framework. Yet, Job’s story and the cross of Christ declare that no great virtue can ensure blessing with God. Psalms and Proverbs remind us that many times the wicked prosper and the righteous struggle. This was why the “Lord Lord didn’t I” people in the sermon on the Mount were turned away. They equated virtue with earning the bestowal of favor. The cross of Christ severs this tie completely. It says, when you do right, you will be rejected and crucified. It says, if you want to be my disciple, you must bear the cross. The Father God will not necessarily step in and help you in the way and at the time that you think He must. We learn the secret of contentment at the point when it becomes evident that our virtue has not secured our blessing (Philippians 4:12-13).

What dies at the cross is this idolatrous notion of a God who can be controlled through our moral success. We have so many idols. Our highest, most dignified, most cherished and sophisticated pictures of deity are shown as graven images at the cross. All we do in our religion without the cross of Christ is name God in vain. The cross shows us that these notions are really God in our own image. I think that to truly die with Christ, we must be able to say from our heart, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” We must functionally become atheists in the sense that we lay down our most cherished notions of who we think God is and what we think He is supposed to do for us. Then the God who is real can by His own initiative raise us from the dead, so to speak, and express favor and love to us because of pure one-way love without the slightest reference to the quality of our virtue. Virtue and blessing have been forever rent asunder by the cross. Truly, the poor in spirit are the inheritors of the kingdom. True virtue is only born once it is a product of this one-way love and is shown through the cross to be no longer a requirement but a gift.

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