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Politics of Scripture

The Way to Save a Life

Yet this “good news” – profoundly strange, even apparently morbid – promises that, in relinquishing our supereminent concern for the self, pursuing instead the way of peace and justice, we become so free that even a violent end may be an expression of an ultimately joyful reception of the gift of life – that is, it may be the way to save a life.

31 Then he began to teach them that 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:31–38 (NRSVue)

In a common interpretation of this passage, Jesus is “actively trying to prevent a political interpretation of his messiahship,” thus redefining his identity away from the political realm and towards the personal and spiritual instead (Roskam, The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark in its Historical and Social Context, 187). After all, in what immediately precedes this scene in Mark’s gospel (8:27–30), Jesus poses a crucial question to his inner circle of followers: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the messiah,” identifies Jesus with a widely anticipated political and military figure who would restore the kingdom of Israel and defeat its foreign oppressors. Peter’s exultant confession thus serves as a dramatic climax to the first half of Mark’s gospel, which has been concerned throughout with the question of Jesus’s identity. Here, Peter becomes the first to apply the title messiah – with its deeply political connotations – to Jesus. 

In a stark counterpoint to Peter’s assertion, Jesus here makes two startling statements, one about himself, the other about his followers. First, that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and killed, and after three days rise again.” Once again, Peter again speaks out from the otherwise anonymous group of disciples, this time to rebuke Jesus. While no reason is provided for Peter’s objection, the context of the exchange makes it clear: Jesus’s prediction of his own suffering, rejection, and death does not accord with Peter’s understanding of what it means to be the messiah.

Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter for thinking “not on divine things but on human things.” That is, Peter’s expectations about Jesus’s messianic identity are defined by conventional assumptions, not by the peculiar pattern of life that Jesus has so far exhibited in Mark’s narrative. Indeed, Jesus’s proclamation of a new kingdom has been marked not by a conventionally political program that would violently oust the Roman occupiers, but by healing the sick and feeding the hungry, arguing with other religious teachers, and articulating visions of an apparently utopian “kingdom,” often in the form of cryptic parables.

Turning now to “the crowd” as well as his disciples, Jesus makes the second startling statement: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The condition for following this messiah is not to take up swords or spears against the Romans, but rather “to take up their cross.” To elucidate this claim, Jesus offers a series of remarks about “those who want to save their life,” whose tone matches the cryptic parables that have defined his teaching thus far.

Before considering whether these sayings in 8:35–37 have political implications beyond the personal realm, it is worth investigating their logic, which rests on a series of oppositions, each verging on paradox.

  • To save one’s life, one must lose it.
  • In losing one’s life (for Jesus’s sake and for that of the gospel), one saves it.
  • A rhetorical question: can one exchange one’s life for “the whole world”?

Consider the first. This statement is puzzling insofar as it suggests that seeking to preserve a valuable thing is – paradoxically – the very act that causes one to lose that thing. For a concrete example of this general principle, we might consider some perishable good – a loaf of bread – intended for human enjoyment. If I, having baked a beautiful loaf, admire it so intently that I cannot bear to cut into it, but instead display it in my kitchen so I can admire its beauty, then I will soon lose this bread entirely. To seek to preserve its ephemeral beauty indefinitely is precisely what prevents me from enjoying the fullness of the loaf’s beauty, which is revealed only in the act of eating. To save the bread, by neither consuming nor sharing it, is ultimately to lose it. After all, as a perishable thing, a loaf of bread must be enjoyed with relative haste to be enjoyed at all. Otherwise, I am left with something stale and desiccated at best, or if I am less fortunate, a moldy and putrid mess. 

The next saying inverts the first: not only will those seeking to save their life lose it, but those who lose their life will save it. This, too, fits our example. For it is precisely in giving up the bread – by eating it, or better, by offering it to others in a shared meal – that we save it. Save it from what? From the unavoidable loss that anything so perishable as a loaf of bread is bound to undergo. And – from a wide enough perspective – is not each of our lives, projects, and commitments just as perishable as a loaf of bread?

On this interpretation, the puzzling claim about preservation and loss seems less paradoxical. Indeed, it might even seem too obvious to be interesting. But the fact that these sayings concern not an artifact but our lives deepens the paradox. After all, when it comes to bread, we enjoy some distance from the thing we might seek to save. I am not the bread, and (assuming I have some alternative form of nourishment) I can survive quite easily without it. But when it comes to our lives, the logic of the saying becomes more elusive. It implies that I am somehow separable from my life, that I could somehow treat it – my life – as an object to be either saved or lost. But who is this I that somehow stands over against my life, possessing the ability to determine its fate. Am I not identical to the life I live? 

In this second saying, Jesus not only inverts the first, but also adds a new dimension. It is not merely losing one’s life that – in this strange calculus – preserves it. Rather, it is specifically those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, who will save it. This dimension of the claim has been significant for Christians for as long as the saying has circulated. Some early Christians took it to mean that voluntary martyrdom – even to the point of turning themselves into the authorities, which entailed certain torture and death – was the best means of following Jesus’s instructions and thus exchanging their earthly life for eternal life. Ignatius of Antioch, amid 2nd-century persecution of Christians, beseeched his followers, “Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through which I can attain God…. Let there come upon me fire, and the cross, and struggle with wild beasts, cutting and tearing apart, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body…. May I but attain to Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Romans, 4.1-5.3).

As the legal status of Christianity within the Roman empire evolved – becoming by the early 4th century the official state religion – this once-vexing question became a more speculative matter. Gregory, the 6th-century bishop of Rome, wrote: “This is not a time of persecution, yet our peace also has its martyrdom. Because even if we do not submit our necks to the metal sword, still we are putting to death the carnal desires in our hearts with a spiritual sword” (Gospel Homily 2).

For Christians in the contemporary U.S.– where Christianity is the de facto state religion, even if not explicitly established – Gregory’s position seems more immediately relevant than those earlier views. As in Gregory’s Rome, Christians in the U.S. are not persecuted in any systemic fashion, nor are Christian gatherings and liturgies targeted by the political authorities for being Christian. We might then follow Gregory’s lead in concluding that, in a context largely free from persecution, losing our lives for the sake of the gospel is best understood as gradually rooting out evil desires, replacing them with a pattern of life that better reflects Jesus’s gospel. Losing our life “for the sake of the gospel” would then mean not literally dying, but rather having our false sense of self – what is often called the ego – continually challenged and dismantled each time it reasserts itself.

The 20th century monk Thomas Merton wrote frequently of the “false self,” the “illusory person” that shadows “every one of us.” “All sin,” he claimed, “starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire…for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.” Yet “if we could let go of…what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear [God’s] call and follow in [God’s] mysterious, cosmic dance” (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34–35). This perspective offers an interpretation of Jesus’s demand that doesn’t require that we rush headlong into martyrdom: in the mode of the “false self,” we seek to sustain, protect, and defend the things we value so much that, in the very act of sustaining our life, we have undermined what is good about it. But in surrendering, in giving up our defenses, we are freed from the false self, and freed for a richer, deeper life. 

But this interpretation of Jesus’s sayings seems somehow too easy, especially given their literary context, coming immediately after Jesus’s prediction of his own rejection and violent death at the hands of the political authorities, and as an elaboration of the claim that his followers must “take up their cross.” Here, a dilemma emerges as we attempt to affirm two things at once: (1) as participation in “God’s cosmic dance,” life is fundamentally good, and the good news that Jesus proclaims ought to affirm and deepen that goodness, and (2) in proclaiming this good news, Jesus calls us to follow his example, even to willingly face a violent death.

While there is no easy solution to the dilemma, Merton’s life displays one way of harmonizing its two parts. In the 1960s, Merton felt increasingly compelled to address explicitly political issues, especially the racism and militarism that dominated the culture. This was not because he saw political activism as his proper calling, but because he felt that his own vocation to a life of prayer and contemplation naturally manifested in a deep commitment to peace and justice, thus requiring him to condemn the death-dealing projects of the U.S. empire both at home and abroad. Indeed, he came to see the work of contemplation – of “suffer[ing] in darkness and obscurity and helplessness,” thereby “allowing God to strip us of our false selves and make us into the new [people] that we are really meant to be” (New Seeds, 236) – as necessarily connected to what his contemporary Martin Luther King would call the “three evils” of racism, capitalism, and militarism. Merton’s response to this call was not without consequences. The U.S. government viewed Merton as a threat to the social order because of his outspoken condemnation of the war in Vietnam: like King, he was actively tracked by the FBI and CIA, and some have found evidence that a CIA agent may have killed him in Bangkok in 1968, as Merton sought closer solidarity with those most directly harmed by that war.

Despite their striking differences, the lives of Merton and King ultimately converged in a common surrender of their own self concern in order to proclaim Jesus’s kingdom. In 1968, both finally “lost their lives for the sake of the gospel,” ultimately relinquishing that false self whose tendency is either to ignore, or else to collude with forces of destruction, in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. In short, both “saved their life” precisely by challenging the empires of their day, though this entailed, for both, a very real possibility of a violent end. 

The terrifying reality is that following Jesus’s gospel into figurative martyrdom – the death of an egocentric “false self” – inevitably places us in conflict with state-sanctioned discipline, perhaps even to the point of violent coercion – the kind of literal death that Jesus himself underwent. Yet this “good news” – profoundly strange, even apparently morbid – promises that, in relinquishing our supereminent concern for the self, pursuing instead the way of peace and justice, we become so free that even a violent end may be an expression of an ultimately joyful reception of the gift of life – that is, it may be the way to save a life.

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