7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them,“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
If one were to ask young American students to define Advent—as I have often done—the response is almost invariably: “the month before Christmas.” In this way, these students reflect the tendency by which Advent has been steadily absorbed into Christmas—the anticipation into its fulfillment, the waiting into the arrival.Ask what Christmas is, and you will get conventional images of shepherds, wisemen, and babies. The messianic arrival of the Son of Man and its inauguration of the Kingdom of God has become the stuff of a children’s story.In the same way, so too has the radicality of Advent been consumed by the decidedly unradical Western Christmas imaginary. Thus, if Christmas has become the de-politicized birth of a bouncing baby, so too has Advent suffered a total de-politicization.
This week’s lectionary texts—particularly the Gospel reading—serve as a powerful resistance to this contemporary depoliticization of Advent. For, in the midst of Christmas carols and Charlie Brown, candy canes and stockings, the advent lectionary thrusts into our midst the seeming lunacy, the—remarkably violent—ravings of a madman: John the Baptizer.
John is a strange figure in the Gospel texts, whose intrusions into the narrative are always as brief as they are extreme. In the gospel of Mark, for example, we learn that John is clothed in camel’s hair and that he eats locusts. This wild appearance is undoubtedly intended to reflect the appearance of Elijah (2 Kings1:8) and serves to situate John within the Jewish prophetic tradition.
Yet, John’s physical appearance is the least of his prophetic credentials. Indeed,his preaching draws directly from the prophetic tradition. He is, we learn, “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (verse 4, cf. Isaiah 40:3),demanding repentance, restitution, and justice. Thus, when John makes extreme ethical demands upon his audience—that “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (verse 11), that the tax collectors and soldiers should maintain honesty and refrain from violence (verses 12-14)—this would be immediately recognizable to his audience as a prophetic command:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin”? (Isaiah 58.6-7)
Despite their radical character in practice, such commands are not ideologically foreign to the modern liberally-minded Christian—care for the oppressed,freeing slaves, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. These are demands to which we can comfortably consent (even if we consistently fail in practice).
But, John’s preaching issues a stark challenge to this comfortable liberal imaginary. For, bookending these ethical demands, John appends language that is considerably less comfortable to the contemporary progressive: “even now the axis lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (verse 9), he declares, continuing, “his winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”(verse 17).
As mainline and liberal Christianity rediscovers the theology of universalism (see, e.g.: Rob Bell’s Love Wins),“unquenchable fire,” Gehenna, and Hell, are more than ever seen to be the language of a theological conservatism and its violent and reactionary exclusivism. What then is to be done with such language?
This task must begin with an explication of this hellish language. Although John often speaks in the vernacular of the 8th century prophets, he is equally formed by more contemporary apocalyptic strains of Jewish thinking. In the 1st century BCE Isaiah Targum, for example, one finds language nearly identical to John’s“threshing” imagery:
“If the house of Israel set their face to do the law, would I not send my anger and my wrath among the Gentiles who are stirred up against them and destroy them as the fire destroys briers and thorn together?” (Isaiah Targum, 27:4)
“And the peoples will be burned with fire; thorns cut down are burned in the fire.”(Isaiah Targum, 33:12)
Such language reflects no mere sadism. Rather, like its immediate predecessor—the book of Daniel—it emerges from the concrete historical context of the Seleucid occupation of Judea, the colonial and genocidal violence of Antiochus IV (whose defeat is remembered on Hanukkah).
It is in response to this foreign occupation of the promised land that both Daniel and the Isaiah Targum anticipate the liberating action of God. Thus, the reign of the Son of Man in Daniel—“his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel7:14)—becomes, in the Isaiah Targum, the reign of the kingdom of God—“how beautiful upon the mountains of the land of Israel are the feet of him who announces, who publishes peace, who announces good tidings, who publishes salvation, who says to the congregation of Zion, ‘The Kingdom of your God is revealed” (Isaiah Targum, 52:7).
It is precisely this messianic tradition into which John is birthed, and which defines the unique character and imagery of his ministry.
But, even granting this historical context of these passages, the question remains:what then is to be done with such language? Can and should such violent language be recovered in the contemporary world, or must it be rendered to the garbage heap—must Gehenna be cast into Gehenna?
The Jewish philosopher and political theorist Walter Benjamin opens up precisely this question in his “Critique of Violence.” According to Benjamin, violence generally appears in two principal forms: law-creating violence and law-preserving violence. Under these forms of violence—Benjamin takes the death penalty as a case study—the law creates and maintains itself. The death penalty’s “purpose is not to punish the infringement of law,” Benjamin controversially suggests, “but to establish new law. For in the exercise of violence over life and death more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms itself” (Walter Benjamin, Reflections,286).
In like manner, Benjamin shows, the police (as an arm of the state) exercise a near monopoly on legitimate violence within the domestic sphere. It is for this reason that the police often “intervene ‘for security reasons’ in countless cases where no clear legal situation exists” (287). Such violent interventions not only aim to preserve the law (the first sense of violence) but to create law(the second sense): that is to say, to establish law’s legal authority through violence. One can see precisely this shift in countless critical responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. The summary execution of unarmed black folks, despite disingenuous arguments to the contrary, serves to preserve no law. Rather, such violence is vigorously defended because a critique of police violence is (perhaps rightly) recognized as an attack on the very foundation of law itself—a foundation that is itself violence.
What then is to be said of John the Baptizer’s violent rhetoric? Is anticipation of a hellish judgment law-preserving or law-creating? According to Benjamin, these two options exhaust any use of violence as a means to some other end: “all violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving” (287). But, as Benjamin continues, for each of these alternatives “power is transferred from the privileged to the privileged”(291). In neither instance is there a fundamental questioning of the political and legal system itself.
But what of violence that is truly revolutionary or anarchic—the French revolution,the general proletarian strike? Might there be a third option, neither law-preserving nor law-creating, but rather law-destroying? Benjamin names this law-destroying alternative—drawing from his own Jewish prophetic tradition—“divine violence” (297).
Such divine violence, Benjamin insists, is not reducible to “sacred execution”(300). Divine violence is not a religious exemption from the imperative “do not kill”—either for the human or the divine. Rather, divine violence refers to an entirely different structure of violence—no longer employed as a means to an end (the law). On the contrary, Benjamin argues, “divine violence [is the] pure power over all life for the sake of the Living” (297). Divine violence is not simply law-preserving or law-creating violence granted a divine justification. It is the inauguration of a “new historical epoch” (300), one no longer defined by the violence of the law, but by justice. “Justice,” Benjamin writes, “is the principle of all divine end making” (295).
Returning to the question that has prompted this tangent into Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” we may now be positioned to provide (the beginnings of) an answer to the question of John’s hellish language of judgment. Such rhetoric serves neither to impose nor justify a law of violence—it is neither law-preserving nor law-creating. Rather, it inaugurates a critique of structural violence, of violence embedded into the law.
For John, the painful occupation of Judea by the Romans was merely one more in a series of violent kingdoms, each of which pails before the anticipated kingdom of God. Thus, John lives a life of anticipation of the advent of the kingdom:“one who is more powerful than I is coming” (verse 16). But this anticipation of the peaceful kingdom likewise demands the eradication of every form of injustice and oppression. To again cite the Targum:
“[On that day] the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun in the day when the LORD will return the exiles of his people, and will heal the sickness inflicted by his blow. Behold, the name of the LORD is revealed just as the prophets from the old prophesied concerning it; his indignation is strong and too hard to bear. Before him a curse goes forth upon the wicked,and his Memra [word] is like a devouring fire; his Memra [word] like a river overflowing to the neck will kill the strong, to sift the Gentiles with a sieve of emptiness.” (Isaiah Targum, 30:26-28)
It is precisely this apocalyptic logic that is reproduced in John’s preaching. The anticipation of restitution (exemplified in the ethical demands at the center of this passage) is coterminous with the anticipation of a devouring—and purifying—fire. Or, said otherwise, the advent of the kingdom demands the advent of justice. The one who is coming will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (verse 16). Or as Jesus preached, “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew10:34).
In John’s use of apocalyptic language, he makes a question of any legal system which would justify the oppression of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Is it a coincidence that John calls out tax collectors and soldiers—the embodiments of colonial violence (economic and physical) by name? John does not seek to transfer power “from the privileged to the privileged.” John offers a more radical, political vision. He envisions and anticipates a radical restructuring of society upon a new foundation, he envisions a new historical epoch: the kingdom of God.
This is far from the bouncing baby, wreaths, and carols that tend to define Advent, but perhaps this revolutionary anticipation is something that the liberally-minded Christian might learn from. As mainline Christian denominations continue to be disproportionately home to the white upper-middle class, perhaps we need a reminder that “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”