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Politics of Scripture

He Saw the Heavens Torn Apart

The tearing open of the cosmic order is the descent of the true justice of God, waged against the empires of this world who rule under the banner of “order and justice,” but whose “justice” is always only violence and oppression.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:4-11

It should come as little surprise that the author of the gospel of Mark—for whom the word “immediately” is the ever-present watchword—wastes little time establishing the tenor of his gospel. This is an apocalyptic text. And while the reader will have to wait until the thirteenth chapter of the gospel for the full breadth of apocalyptic imagery to come pouring out of Jesus’ mouth, this apocalyptic tone already rings throughout the opening narrative of the first chapter.

John, for example, is presented as the quintessential apocalyptic prophet. He eschews standard cultural trappings of clothing and food, and spends his days out in the wilderness calling forth repentance in the face of the imminent judgment of God. But, it is not John’s apocalypticism that interests me today, it is the heavens.

In the tenth verse of the chapter, we are told that, as Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, “he saw the heavens torn apart,” at which point the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice of God rings from the heavens to bestow a blessing—”in you I am well pleased.” This passage is apocalyptic, not only because of its visionary character, but because the tearing apart of the heavens is a locus classicus of apocalyptic imagery, found in both the Hebrew (e.g. Isaiah 64:1) and Christian (e.g. Revelation 6:14) scriptures.

The heavens of the Biblical world were not the fluffy clouds, golden gates, and fat winged-babies of the contemporary Western imaginary. They were undoubtedly a spiritual domain, the home of God and their coterie of spiritual beings. But they were equally the heavens above—the skies, the vault across which the stars moved in their predictable patterns. Thus, the heavens were the domain of order and regularity, which, despite their extreme complexity, their interpretation could be mastered by a skilled astrologist.

So what does it mean for this domain of order and regularity to be disrupted, even torn open? For the Gospel writers the indication is clear: the logic of the incarnation represents a rupture, a radical inbreaking of something genuinely new. But, this arrival of the new necessarily takes the form of a disruption of the delicate harmony of the cosmos, epitomized by the heavens.

Here, Slavoj Žižek in The Fragile Absolute, provides a useful analysis of this incarnational logic, what he calls “the subversive core of Christianity.” Against the “pagan notion of cosmic Justice and Balance,” wherein “an individual is ‘good’ when he acts in accordance with his special place in the social edifice . . . and Evil occurs when some particular strata or individuals are no longer satisfied with this place,” Žižek contrasts Christianity, which “asserts as the highest act precisely what pagan wisdom condemns as the source of Evil: the gesture of separation, of drawing the line, of clinging to an element that disturbs the balance of the All” (118–121). Christianity, for Žižek, represents an alternate logic that ruptures every whole—as the heavens themselves are torn apart. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus famously remarks, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

On this point, the partisans of the whole are right to view the rupture as a risk—and it is for this reason that it is deemed “evil.” On this point, then, the Žižekian “pagan” is no different from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, from white moderates condemning Martin Luther King Jr.’s tactics as “extremist,” or from any number of Fox News pundits bemoaning the “disruption” of Black Lives Matter protests. These revolutionary activities are “evil” because they rupture a stable order—they destabilize.

Yet, to the partisan of the rupture, this destabilization is precisely the point. What the rupture offers is a risk, precisely because it offers an opening toward—to borrow a term from Jacques Derrida—the unforeseeable. Thus, one must not ignore the risk. The French Revolution did devolve into the terror. The October Revolution did eventuate in Stalinism. But, for the partisan of the rupture, the promise of destabilization outweighs its risks. And this promise is justice.

But, here it is necessary to differentiate the justice of the whole from the justice of the rupture. The former can be exemplified by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Interpreting Anaximander’s linking of nature and justice, Heidegger in The Beginning of Western Philosophy, foregoes any “juridical-moral sense” and instead interprets “justice” as “Compliance—that is harmonization” (10–11). Heidegger has hereby elevated compliance and harmony to ontological principles. The cosmic order is justice. It is perhaps unsurprising that a virulent antisemitism—directed against “people without a land,” who could not properly “dwell”—erupted from this account of justice.

An alternative account of justice, a justice of the rupture, is exemplified by the messianic justice of Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, justice is the domain of the future, the to-come. Justice emerges as a call or a demand for responsibility to the Other. It cannot be calculated or anticipated, because justice, if there is such a thing, is always a risk, as Derrida notes in, “The Force of Law.” (947).

It is this justice, this apocalyptic, messianic, rupturous justice, that is enacted in the tearing apart of the heavens. This justice can already be found in the prophet Isaiah, who, in a time political upheaval, prays to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1–2). For Isaiah, the tearing open of the cosmic order is the descent of the true justice of God, waged against the empires of this world who rule under the banner of “order and justice,” but whose “justice” is always only violence and oppression.

In the same way, John the Seer, in his vision of heavenly justice, imagines the overcoming of Roman empire, through the envisioning of a ruptured cosmic order:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.

Revelation 6:12-15

This is the justice of the rupture. It is a justice that casts down the powerful, the oppressors. It is a justice that destroys the class and caste boundaries that order our world, so that “everyone, slave and free” find themselves on an equal footing. For John, any social, political, or economic order that is built on oppression, built on the backs of “slaves—and human lives” (Revelation 18:13), is an order that must be torn open.

And so, when we see protesters blocking our streets, rioters smashing windows, barricades blocking evictions—in the name of a justice that stands against every order built on the destruction of human lives. We can know that, there, the heavens are being torn apart and the justice of God is well pleased.

2 thoughts on “He Saw the Heavens Torn Apart

  1. Wow! You capture the meaning of the Magnificat! You illuminate the possibilities of Christianity. In your article, you move us from “manners to morals .” This is The Church of which I want to take part. Thank you!

  2. I read your piece as an Episcopalian with an AA degree (i.e. just enough education to make me dangerous) with nterest, and would like to hear more about the concept(s) behind Derrida’s work on the the risk of true justice. I read your work here against the backdrop of Richard Rohr’s Divine Dance, and dimly see connections.

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