Terrified of Mercy
I’ve always been fond of those illusion pictures (like the old woman or young lady image). There is always an image that one sees first and it takes time and training to see the other perspective – but once one does it is impossible to not see both. That shift in part describes my experience with Christian art after having encountered Rita Brock’s work.
I’ve heard Rita speak and have read some of Saving Paradise. In her work, she explores the ways early Christian art focused less on the crucifixion of Christ and instead on the ways Christ redeems and baptizes the world. While later Christian art is full of crucifixion images and accompanied a theology that saw this world as an evil from which we must escape, earlier art presented Christ in his glory using baptism as an entry point into the paradise of this world. This baptized world is not perfect of course, but it is a place to struggle together in the process of becoming more like God. As Brock suggests, this early art — which included images of water flowing from Christ over the earth — conveys the theology that everlasting life begins at baptism (not when we die and escape) and invites us to live as Christ lived even in the present.
Brock points out that most commentaries on Christian art ignore these images of baptism and the theology they imply. But after seeing her point out in images the presence of water flowing from Christ, it is hard now not to see it. And it is exactly what I encountered when I was in Los Angeles recently and had the opportunity to visit the Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages exhibit at the Getty Museum.
My experience of the exhibit began as I was walking in and overheard a child asking her father what the title of the exhibit meant. His response was that the church used to use the idea of hell to frighten people into doing what they wanted and that these were some of the images they used to do so. I cringed at his explanation, but then encountered basically the same idea in the commentaries posted by each image. Each one seemed to be explained as “Christ sending sinners into everlasting punishment in hell. Used to convince people to obey the church so that they could avoid such when they died.”
The problem is that is not what I was seeing in those images. I was seeing the baptismal waters of Christ. Even as people were being pulled into the torment of hell by death, the baptismal waters were still covering them and in some it was obvious Christ was rescuing them (see my rather blurry examples). I found it fascinating that these aspects were not mentioned in the commentaries, but that the narrative of Christ punishing bad people by sending them to hell has so infiltrated our cultural imaginations that it is near impossible to admit to alternative narratives. We in our retributive and manipulative culture seem to relish the idea of the wicked getting what they deserve and those who follow the “right” set of rules being rewarded. But, I wonder, how much more poignant (in the full heart-wrenching sense of that term) is the idea of Christ redeeming the world and inviting all into abundant life beginning now?
Forgiveness and mercy aren’t cheap or easy. The wicked are never let off the hook when they are redeemed. If we ignore life in this world and focus on just the punishment or reward of some afterlife, we miss the struggle that walking in the way of Christ involves. If baptism invites us to enter into the earthly paradise where although evil is yet present, we still can struggle along together toward our mutual spiritual flourishing, we are not in for an easy journey. Living in the way of Christ instead of the greedy consuming ways of the world is the hardest path we can ever follow. Punishment is easy because we can remain our selfish selves as we are cast out; mercy is hard because it forces us to change. Not getting what we deserve is truly the most devastating yet beautiful thing that could ever happen to us.
There is a fantastic scene near the end of the Doctor Who episode Last of the Time Lords that illustrates this devastating baptism of mercy perfectly. After the character The Master attempts to take over the universe and nearly destroys the earth in the process, the Doctor yet again saves the day. At one point the Doctor is filled with the glory of all space and time and appears transfigured in all his power before the Master to confront him with his deeds. The Master first tries to attack the Doctor and yet his attacks are futile. He then cowers in a corner as the Doctor hovers above him with a look of infinite sorrow on his face and they have this exchange –
The Doctor: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…
The Master: You can't do this! YOU CAN'T DO THIS! IT'S NOT FAIR!
The Doctor: Then you know what happens now.
The Master: [scared] No! NO! NO! NO!
The Doctor: [serious] You wouldn't listen…
The Master: [cowering] NO!
The Doctor: [serious] 'Cause you know what I'm gonna say.
The Master: [terrified] No!
[the Doctor touches down, the glow of light vanishes, the Doctor kneels next to the Master and puts his arms around him]
The Doctor: I forgive you.
The Master is heartbroken to unfairly receive mercy and an invitation to live differently with the Doctor – healing instead of dominating worlds. As I watched that episode recently, that scene reminded me of that exhibit at the Getty where the obvious in art is ignored because we simply do not want to accept that perhaps it is mercy and invitation instead of death and punishment that Christ is actually offering. We are terrified to think that perhaps this life does matter, that we must choose a much harder path than merely assuming we chose the right religion. Accepting the baptism of this life is devastating, so we ignore it in our art, label it heresy in our churches, and go on living exactly as we wish. Yet, Christ is there baptizing us anyway, saying “I’m sorry, I am so sorry. I forgive you.”