Posted by: rogermitchell | April 10, 2011

Katargesis

In Romans chapter three Paul describes the way that the life and death of Jesus provides a meeting place between God and man apart from the law, thereby bringing law to an end. He chooses the Greek word katargēsis to help explain what was happening. As he puts it “Do we then katargēo [nullify/ abolish/ destroy/ void] the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom 3: 31).

By introducing the word and questioning it at the same time, Paul achieves two things. He first of all makes clear that God’s mercy and unconditional love revealed in the incarnation really do bring the law to an end, and this was always what God’s use of the law was intended to achieve. But secondly Paul makes sure that we understand that this doesn’t rubbish everything that happened while the law was in operation but rather it brings anything good and merciful that happened under the old system to its fulness.

This is surely exactly what Jesus was getting at in the sermon on the mount when he said that loving your enemies and doing good to those that hate you is the precise, literal fulfilment of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Mtt 5: 17-20, 38-48). Rationally it sounds like the complete opposite. But not if God was taking the legal structure of the sovereignty systems of the fallen world and using them to reveal his mercy and unconditional love instead. In this way God abolished the legal systems of this world, but at the same time affirmed and fulfilled anything good that happened through them.

To use a more recent example, the First World War is generally agreed to have been sparked by a young terrorist who shot the Archduke of Sarajevo in the eye. A legal principle of reciprocal justice would have cost the young man an eye, or at the most his one life. To kill him would not to have been to show the fulness of incarnational mercy that Jesus showed the thief on the cross, which is the real basis of the justice of God.  But it would have been much better than the retributive conflagration that murdered some 16.5 million world wide. We can affirm that without suggesting that it would now be a good rule for anyone to live by.

When we understand that Christendom, that is to say the whole Western church and political system, was the result of the ecclesia turning back from the incarnation to trust again in law, it is not difficult to see how it is right now coming to a head. As Giorgio Agamben points out in his reflection on Paul’s use of katargēsis in his commentary on Romans The Time that Remains, the role of law in the contemporary West is really only the means to justify the overall power of money and is often suspended for this purpose, to create what Agamben calls a state of exception. This can be seen in the way that the British Coalition government makes cuts more important than past laws protecting the universality of the welfare state, or the way that the US administration sets aside the international laws on the rights of Afghani and other prisoners held in the Guantanamo gaol.

However despite this contemporary manifestation of the real purpose of law in the world system, namely to uphold empire, and our reaffirmation that it is over because of Jesus, it is important that we don’t just despise and annul everything that has happened since then during the Christendom partnership of church and empire. Rather we can say that the Western system has conserved some aspects of the potential and capacity of humankind although ultimately it is destroying the earth and its people.

To summarise, God has never been advocating the use of law to satisfy his sovereignty but because he knew it was a foundation structure of empire which he wanted to suspend, fulfil and abolish in order to bring the whole hierarchical deployment of power to an end by overwhelming it with unconditional love. It follows that a contemporary godly politics, or theopolitics, is about swamping law with unconditional love. This understanding of law can, I think, be applied in like manner to those other foundations of empire; monarchy and temple, which Jesus’ life death and resurrection similarly came to bring to a final end and fulness and which will be the subject of further posts in the coming days.

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Responses

  1. fabulous post Roger. My first thought is though that we need to really listen hard to God to be clear on what incarnational love is. It isn’t just allowing any old thing to happen or doing whatever I feel like. Incarnational love is not sweet sentimentality or feeling good all the time. It is deeper, wider, tougher than that. I love my cat and despite his protests I squirt thyroid med down his throat twice a day. It isn’t fun for him or me but I do it because I love him and he needs the meds. I think we only know what incarnational love is by staying very close to God, being alert to what He is doing at any one moment, and imitating Him. We need to listen well.
    c.

  2. I think your final statement is the key to all knowing and loving. It is surely why the parables of the kingdom are at once so simple and so opaque. They aren’t intended to impart knowledge without relationship. The incarnation needs listening to, the creation needs listening to. If love is relational knowledge, not theory, then listening is essential to it.

  3. Great stuff. I think sometimes it’s too easy to think that law is here to stay and lawmakers are the ones who need to change (which would be a good thing!). But, if everyone lived kenotically, laws would be irrelevant. Law and government must deconstruct in favour of justice and peace. This is katargesis to my mind: the things that law is reaching for are manifested while the autoimmunity of law (the way that it undermines itself) is permitted to outwork.

    This is why, perhaps unlike others, I am not in the first instance complaining about the removal of the security of the state as being for us financially. Of course if we have to have a hierarchical government I want it to be compassionate and just. But we don’t have to and it must undermine itself. The softening of the state is not the katargesis we are looking for – it is the widespread movement towards and manifestation of justice, love and peace that the creation is calling for. The politics we are being called to is positive and it is in and through all of creation, reconciling all things. Love doesn’t wait for permission (law); it simply loves regardless. It is without ‘why’. But we know that 🙂


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