Escaping Law and Order Christianity: From Interpassivity to Intervention into the Law

In Tibetan Buddhism the supplicant writes his prayers or mantra on a piece of paper and attaches the prayer to a prayer wheel and spinning the wheel is the equivalent of chanting the mantra or saying the prayer. The prayer wheel does the chanting or praying and one is freed up to think of other things. Slavoj Žižek compares it to the laugh track on television sit coms. It is not simply that hearing the laughter you will know this is a funny joke, but the laugh track does the laughing for you. Just as the prayer wheel prays for you, or ancient weepers could be hired to weep at the funeral for you, the laugh track relieves you of the effort of laughing. The story is told that a visitor to the house of the famous scientist, Niels Bohr, upon seeing a lucky horseshoe said to Bohr that he was surprised that such a great man would believe such nonsense. Bohr snapped back: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works even if one does not believe in it!” The act of hanging the horseshoe relieves one of having to directly believe – it is enough to have nailed it to the wall. This is the way religion works in Japan: if you would interrupt someone at their prayers at a shrine and ask if they believe in the religion, they would likely deny that they are in any way religious. Belief is not a necessary part of the religion as the rituals, the priests, the regular observances, relinquish one of having to directly believe. Robert Pfaller has coined the term “interpassivity” to capture the paradox of this distancing of the self from one’s own beliefs. What one does – nailing the horseshoe, spinning the prayer wheel, employing weepers or laughers – frees from direct engagement in what one is doing. There is relief from the superego injunction to obey, to believe, to enjoy, which is, of course, Paul’s picture of our orientation to the law. There is an incapacity of the “I” or will which arises in this internal distancing – “I am not able to do what I want,” Paul says.

Jeff Sessions disavowal that Trump had created the policy, and that the law was automatically separating families and hurting children, illustrates the potential for evil in this interpassivity. It reduplicates Adolph Eichmann’s plea that he was not killing Jews or was in any way responsible for the Holocaust – he was simply “obeying the law.” It is precisely this incapacity – professed and justified by various religions and belief systems – which gets at the root of human evil. “The law is doing it” – it is hurting the children, oppressing women, keeping the disenfranchised – the sick, the paralyzed, the halt and lame, in their place. The law is a force unto itself and nothing is to be done – so the pharisees of Jesus’ day and our own argue.

In the sabbath controversies in the N.T., Jesus continually forces the question, “Which is preferable, to do the right thing or, by doing nothing, to obey the law?” Is the law an end in itself, such that all that is necessary on the Sabbath is to cease all activity and take a passive stance. The paralyzed man, in John 5, had only to remain paralyzed, lying on his mat, in order to keep the Sabbath. His paralysis describes where the Pharisees stand in regard to the law – not only is there nothing that can be done but nothing should be done (“Who told you to carry your pallet?” they ask the paralytic). Jesus counters this passive stance: “My Father and I are both working up until now.” The point of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath is to directly intervene in their notion of interpassivity – the notion that law works God and not the other way around.

The Jews understood that Sabbath did not exclude God’s providential care for the universe. What they could not understand was this providence is not mediated through law.  “My father and I are both working.” The one who cares for creation is now exercising this care specifically – for the paralyzed man, for the sick, blind, lame, withered, and waiting. The providential and redemptive activity of God are brought together in Christ. The universal power behind the law, which the Jews recognized, rendered specifically in the man Christ is unrecognizable due to its personal, active nature. The Jews clung to the particular laws, the pointer, the sign, and in so doing rejected the one signified and pointed to by the law. John tells us that the law of Moses (beginning with creation) and the whole Jewish context is a witness to Jesus, the Son of God. Creation itself, the theophany at Sinai, the Temple and its sacrifices, point to this Logos/Son. The observances of Sabbath, the Jewish festivals, purity laws, are no longer binding, since the divine purpose which is behind these specifics is present in Logos (the Lord of the Sabbath). The Jews preferred their interpassivity before the law: “For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (5:16). “The law is doing it so we should do nothing.”

The tragic irony is that there is a “Christianity” which would reinforce this passive subservience to the law.  There is a disavowal of the power given over to the law in a Christianity which pits grace against law. The two domains, law and grace, are posited as incommensurate and in turn, the problem of the law (in all of its various forms) is not addressed. Not only is Christ’s direct engagement with and suspension of the law obscured (along with the death dealing orientation to the law) but the Christian challenge to the principalities and powers is rendered inoperative. In a law versus grace Christianity, the “law is doing it” is allowed to stand, as there is a disavowal that Christianity addresses law at the cosmic level (as in John’s notion of the dark cosmos). In turn, the law (the law of sin and death) within the microcosmos of the individual is allowed to run its course. At this level the passivity of the individual might be captured in the notion that “grace is doing it” so that I do not have to. The church, the sacraments, the preachers and priests, do my believing for me in the sense that there is a disavowal of the interior work of the law and the need to counter it. Imputed righteousness and grace are “doing it for me” so I need not “work out my salvation with fear and trembling.”

A Christianity that does not recognize that Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament, suspend this power of the law duplicates this interpassive orientation. This “law and order” Christianity imagines faith obliges passive submission to the law of the land and it fails to address the law of sin and death working within. If Jesus had obliged this interpassivity, he would not have challenged the Jewish authorities regarding the sabbath and he would have ceased healing on the sabbath. If Jesus had obeyed the authorities he would not have died and would have simply been another good Jewish citizen. He would not have broken the Roman seal on his tomb demanding it remain closed and he would not have gone into the temple to challenge the authorities.  He would not have challenged Pilate and the Roman authorities with his notion of being a King. If Jesus had simply obeyed the authorities there would be no Christianity. Christianity intervenes in and challenges the notion that “the law is doing it” so there is nothing to be done.

If the Apostles had obeyed the authorities they would have immediately ceased preaching and gone back to fishing. They would not have suffered martyrdom. Paul would not have been beheaded if he were obedient to the authorities. If Christians were obedient to the authorities there would be no Christian martyrs.

Intervention into this passive orientation to the law is not a side note to redemption. If Christians were obedient to the “powers that be” there would have been no world revolution in which slaves are freed, women are no longer to be oppressed, and children are no longer to be treated as disposable. An obedient, subservient, unquestioning Christianity is no Christianity at all.  A Christianity that can endorse hurting children, that can support imprisoning women and children, that can endorse evil – falls short of the very redemptive purposes for which Christ came.

When it is understood that sabbath pertains to the very meaning of the cosmos, the sabbath controversies can be read as a question about the meaning of the whole and how God relates to the cosmos and people. Is creations purpose realized in following a principle, a law, a theory, or a proposition? Isn’t it the case that we only know God on the basis of law and order? This is the central question, not simply of a particular event in the life of Christ, this is the fundamental question the New Testament challenges.

Paul’s most extensive theological treatise, Romans, is concerned with answering this question. The problem is that law, consciously or unconsciously, replaces God in people’s lives so that life is thought to be “had” in and through the law. Life becomes an agonistic struggle in which one is ultimately incapacitated (rendered interpassive) in what Paul calls “the body of death” and which he describes as “the law of sin and death.” This law consumes life in the individual’s attempt to gain it and this is definitive of the deception of sin. This is not simply one of the problems with which the New Testament deals, this is the human predicament Christ addresses.

The resounding answer Christ provides is that creation’s purpose (the point of the Sabbath) is found in Him and not in law and order. Thus, Christ is crucified outside of the city, not to accommodate the human orientation to law, but to challenge it and to defeat it. The law is not doing it, we are, and Christ exposes the lie of our passive subservience. Christ calls us out of the constraints (inclusive of walls and borders) of the city, with its principalities and powers and its law and order, so as to suspend its death dealing interpassivity.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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