Tuesday, September 04, 2007

But We Proclaim Christ Crucified (Part I): Isaiah 53 in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

[Please check out the Introduction to this series.]

Whenever I see a crucified figure of Christ, I cannot help thinking of the gap that lies between Christianity and Buddhism...

Christian symbolism has much to do with the suffering of [humanity]. The crucifixion is the climax of all suffering. Buddhists also speak much about suffering and its climax is the Buddha serenely sitting under the Bodhi tree by the river Niranjana. Christ carries his suffering to the end of his earthly life whereas Buddha puts an end to it while living and afterward goes on preaching the gospel of enlightenment until he quietly passes away under the twin Sala trees. The trees are standing upright and the Buddha, in Nirvana, lies horizontally like eternity itself.

Christ hangs helpless, full of sadness on the vertically erected cross. To the Oriental mind, the sight it almost unbearable...

The crucified Christ is a terrible sight and I cannot help associating it with the sadistic impulse of a physically affected brain.

- Excerpts from D.T. Suzuki's essay "Crucifixion and Enlightenment," found in his Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.

The ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is the Bodhisattva, who vows to forestall nirvana until all sentient beings have been liberated from samsara, this realm of suffering. This ideal demonstrates a Buddhist commitment to end all suffering. This powerful commitment makes a lie of the common Western assumption - taken from the common English translation of the First Noble Truth, "Life is suffering" - that Buddhism is passive and pessimistic. Buddhism does take seriously both human suffering and the suffering of all sentient beings, which it identifies as a fundamental problem. But Buddhism is not only a description of a problem; it is also a prescription for the solution of that problem. At its best, it is a way of life deeply committed to the cessation of suffering.

For this reason, the image of Christ hanging in agony on the cross is a troubling image for Buddhists. The common Christian understanding of this event as an act of redemptive suffering, in which God through Jesus takes on the suffering of the world, is foreign to their way of thinking. But within the scandal of the cross there can, I hope, also be found the grounds of some kind of reconciliation between Christians and Buddhists.

I believe that both Christians and Buddhists share a deep concern about suffering, and a commitment to as far as is possible alleviate suffering. This shared common ground - despite what D.T. Suzuki refers to as the sadism of the image of the crucified Christ - can be the foundation for the joining of Christians and Buddhists in the cause of alleviating suffering wherever it is found.

A little while ago I received an email from a young Buddhist (I don't know his age, but I do know that he is just beginning to explore a Buddhist life, and I salute him for that) troubled by the image of the "Suffering Servant" presented in Isaiah 53. His concern reminded me very much of D.T. Suzuki's concern while looking at the image of Christ hanging on the cross: What kind of a God would do this to someone?

His concern compelled me to explore the image of the "Suffering Servant" in Isaiah 53, and what follows is an excerpt from my response to him:

The passage from Isaiah that you are concerned with comes from what most scholars (regardless of the religious commitments) call Second Isaiah. While it is now included by both Christians and Jews in the book of Isaiah, it was almost certainly not originally part of the same work. According to the Jewish Publication Society's commentary on Isaiah, chapters 1-39 were the product (though, I would add, this does not necessarily mean that they were written down in his lifetime) "of a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during the 8th Century BCE." The passage you are concerned with - coming from Second Isaiah, chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah - comes from the work of a different prophet, who addressed the concerns of Judean exiles in Babylon, which means that it comes sometime after 586 BCE.

So the unknown prophet whose work is lumped in with that of Isaiah was concerned with the needs of a group of Jews living in exile, after their homeland was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. In that context, it is not hard to see why any prophetic work would have to address the suffering of a defeated and demoralized people, who believed themselves to be chosen by God, only to have their homes and their identities crushed by a mighty empire.

My reading of the Suffering Servant is that he represents the exiled Jewish community, who are deeply concerned about what their present state (in Babylonian captivity) says about their relationship with God. Here the unknown prophet offers the (contextually) comforting message that suffering is not incompatible with being chosen by God for some special purpose.

Christians would later - when wrestling with what we call the scandal of the cross - apply this passage to Jesus. Again you have a community struggling to come to terms with what suffering and defeat say about one's relationship with God. The one who had revealed God, and who had preached a powerful (and political!) message about the kingdom of God (if God is sovereign, then Caesar - with his foot to the throat of the Jewish followers of Jesus who eventually formed the Christian religion - is NOT sovereign; if the kingdom belongs to God, it does NOT belong to Rome!) had been crushed by the Roman authorities. What, then, does this say about Jesus? What does it say about the God of Jesus?

Part of the answer to this concern can be found in teachings concerning the resurrection of Jesus. Whether these teachings point to a physical, bodily resurrection, or to something more metaphorical, their effect on the Christian community is the same. The scandal of the cross is answer by the power of the resurrection. Rome could kill Jesus, but they couldn't keep him (or his message) in the grave.

But another important part of the answer was found in the prophetic passage that troubles you: suffering at the hands of worldly powers does not prevent one from having been chosen by God. Jesus can be both the Christ and the one crucified by the Romans.

Placed in this context, I don't read this passage as saying that God wills or intends suffering. Rather, this passage is a message of hope to those who are suffering that their suffering is not incompatible with their status as ones chosen by God. Whether that message still preaches today, in a vastly different sort of context, is obviously open for debate. What I'd encourage you to see is that this passage is not offered up as a timeless message from God to all persons everywhere, but rather a very situational message from humans wrestling with their understanding of God in the face of existentially disorienting suffering.

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