Facing the Abyss

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 1
January – February 2018

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As it so often happens, the deepest question, the most worrisome concern, finally emerges when the conversation seems about to end. There is a pause, a hesitation, and then a quiet venturing. This was what we were slowly edging towards, awkwardly getting around to, perhaps even backing into it unwittingly. We finally ask: what is our ultimate fear?

Often in Jesus Seminars on the Road this question arises as we make the move from the profiles of the first century into the no man’s land of the twenty-first. We have seen possible analogies between life in the Empire under Rome and life in our own imperial period. We have noted the cruelties of each, the fevered temptations of each. We have taken stock of the ways in which the early Jesus followers creatively responded to the crushing forces of Rome. But then, when we turn our gaze upon our own situation, we slow down, become hesitant. Our steady historical pace stiffens as we enter our own world.

We finally ask: what is our ultimate fear?

Some would provide their wisdom. We slow down, we pause because we sense that, if we go on, we shall lose something. That’s the great fear, isn’t it, that we lose what we have achieved? Didn’t contemporary wags once declare that life’s winner is the one who dies with all the toys? But doesn’t it all go? Still, there are others, echoing the Buddha, who would precisely counsel letting go. Do so and you can take a deep breath, do so and you can maneuver about. Do so and you travel light.

Yet these philosophical interventions do not get to what I sense is unsettling in this American Empire. It would be delightful, given the vulgar and tawdry atmosphere of our country, to let it go, just let it go! Toss Twitter and all the entangling social media away and feel free for a few hours at least. But we know that is a Disneyland distraction, that would keep us from facing our winter of discontent.

It is important that we do not lose the public aspect of this anxiety. Polls continue to underline the loss in trust we have towards our political leaders. At the same time the financial figures are grim. As the wealthiest percentage of our nation continues to enjoy an accelerated income, the middle class has become a fading aspiration, and the nation as a whole begins to take on the demimonde dimensions of a banana republic. What once was possible for many—education, health care, a humane retirement—will soon be reserved for those who can afford it. What was once understood as a social contract with all in our society is being redrawn to insulate the privileges of the elite. In fact, some of the politicians who seem to speak to the very needs of those feeling injustice use their won positions to maintain a corporate stranglehold on their very constituents.

It is not losing everything that is the worst. It is not letting go of what we value. All that is difficult. But what is hardest of all is the sense of abandonment.

Precisely when we get to this point in our conversation, our ultimate fear becomes almost palpable. It is not losing everything that is the worst. It is not letting go of what we value. All that is difficult. But what is hardest of all is the sense of abandonment. Indeed, psychologists point out that young children’s greatest fear is exactly that. They will turn all this into jargon about “object permanence.” But we know what it means. This fear does not leave us as we grow. We can taste that devastating feeling that no one is there for you, no one when you are most needy.

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I would contend that this is at the base of our health care situation as well as of our short-sighted and crude financial ventures. The rich think they can solve this by amassing more and more wealth. But, even among the rich, there is that sickly fear. The poor have no buffer zone. They simply shudder at the possibility. Or they get drunk. Or take opioids.

Mark’s Jesus enters into humanity’s deepest fear, the experience of abandonment.

This ricochets me back to that jarring scene of abandonment in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34). Commentators quickly note that this is the beginning of Psalm 22 and that, if you care to read the rest of it, things work out. But do they? It is fine for commentators to leave the scene of the crime and provide a slick solution to a troubling passage. But the listener cannot simply stop there. The reader soon hears, “Jesus let out a great shout and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). What so many miss is that when Mark’s Jesus dies, he is possessed. With a final “loud shout,” he expires. The only other characters in Mark who deliver loud shouts are the demons (e.g., 1:23; 5:7). I remember one woman who became downright angry at the thought that such could be the fate of Jesus. But consider what this scene attempts. The writer of this Gospel has taken the Jewish wisdom tale of the suffering innocent and has interpreted the death of Jesus as someone who dies in solidarity who all other innocent sufferers. At the same time, he intensifies the depth of the story. Mark’s Jesus enters into humanity’s deepest fear, the experience of abandonment. For a Jew the worst would be divine abandonment. All the social bonds have been broken by this Roman execution. And now even God goes. The powers of diminishment have taken over. This is possession at its worst.

Can we explore the abyss of our days?

There is no way around this. Nor should we look away from our present fears. What Mark does challenges us. Can we explore the abyss of our days? Mark does give us a hint. A paradox. We can face that dreaded night of our lives—together— telling uncanny stories.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 28-2

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