By Micah Hogan
From all disordered and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.
— The Great Litany, BCP 1979, pg. 149.
If your interactions with contemporary Christian culture have been anything like mine, you know the dangers of the flesh. We know that the cause of “quarrels” and “fights” is the fact that our passions are “at war” within us (James 4:1). And we know that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17), and that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).
Now, even though the classical Western dark trifecta also includes “world” and “devil,” at least my experience has been that these other two deceivers don’t seem to get the same air time in sermons as “the flesh.” I have a hunch that we focus on the flesh in particular for two reasons. The first is sex. The war over sexual ethics in the Church in recent years, for obvious reasons, has drawn attention to “the flesh” in matters of sin. But second, the idea of sin arising from “the flesh” fits well with American preconceptions and values.
I think our unconscious reasoning often goes something like this: (1) sin comes from the flesh, (2) my flesh is me, (3) therefore I am responsible for my sin, and (4) therefore I can fix my sin. After all, we certainly aren’t the world and we’re not the devil, but if we are our flesh then evil is something we can control. In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: “I am the one thing in life I can control.” On this picture, my sin is about my identity, who I am. Just as my flesh is different from your flesh, so my sin is different from your sin, and each of us is responsible for dealing with our own sin. I strongly suspect that the reason we often talk about sin in terms of the flesh is because it fits nicely in our “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” way of thinking.
And of course, this is all partly true. The flesh is one of the deceivers from which we must pray to be delivered, and each of us does have an individual responsibility for our own soul before God. But when we turn to the Church’s theological tradition, we begin to find (ironically) that sin isn’t actually reducible to what we call culpability.
According to the Christian tradition, people find themselves as victims in this world and of this world. Genesis tells us that the newly-created Adam and Eve, who had no knowledge of good or evil, weren’t alone when they sinned. Instead, they were lied to and tempted by a creature who knew better. Irenaeus, only two generations removed from the Apostle John, brings out the latent implications of this fact:
The man [Adam] was a young child, not yet having a perfect deliberation, and because of this he was easily deceived by the seducer. … This commandment [not to eat of the tree] man did not keep, but disobeyed God, being misled by the angel who, because of the many gifts of God, which He gave to the man, became jealous and looked on him with envy, and [so] ruined himself and made the man a sinner, persuading him to disobey the commandment of God. So, the angel becoming, by falsehood, the head and originator of sin, was himself struck, having offended God, and caused the man to be cast out of Paradise. (On the Apostolic Preaching, I.12; I.16)
For Irenaeus, Adam and Eve are still children when they are tempted. They are not yet mature human beings; they still need to be “taught” by the Word (I.12). Because of this, they are easily seduced. Irenaeus even says that the angel “caused” the man to be cast out of Paradise, and so also became the “head and originator of sin.” It was then that wickedness “seized the entire race of men,” and angels taught humans skills like metallurgy, cosmetics, and witchcraft, which furthered the chaos on earth (I.18). For Irenaeus, it seems as if the angels are more to blame for human sin than humans are. Adam and Eve are of course guilty of sin, but this is only part of a bigger picture; in the grand scheme of the cosmos they are only very little children who were taken advantage of and willfully tricked by a creature who knew better. For Irenaeus, Adam and Eve and all their descendants, while culpable, are ultimately victims.
This perspective may shock us at first, but the more we attend to the Scriptures with Irenaeus, the more things make sense. If you open your Bible at a bit before center you will find yourself in the Psalms, a book of the victims. Here we find a book written by victims, for victims. Only those who embrace the victim mentality of the Psalms can read them as their own, as Scripture. The conqueror cannot read Psalm 10, the oppressor cannot say Psalm 5. Jews and Christians have always read the Psalms as comprising the emotions of righteous humanity as they are before God, and it should tell us something profound that so many of them are written by the wronged. The Psalms teach us that among other things, the righteous think of themselves as victims.
And the New Testament only continues and furthers this way of reading the Psalms: Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross; St. Paul characterizes the new Christian community as “sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36, Ps. 44:11). If Christians sometimes have a persecution complex, we certainly come by it biblically. In fact, we find that when we begin to see ourselves as victims, we begin to find our place within the narrative world of Scripture. Suddenly the words come alive to us. We are all experiencing “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2), we are all dealing with a world we cannot control or understand. Part of what the Daily Office does for Anglicans is to daily school us in our victimhood.
And when take this posture, the posture of the victim, we find ourselves as those who need to be defended, redeemed, justified. With the psalmist we ask “why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1). But as we embrace our victimhood and call out to God to show himself, it is precisely here that we meet Christ, Christ on the cross, Christ who says to us even in our sin “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In Christ’s love, the love that took him to the cross, we become what we always have been: “little children.” Jesus teaches us to address God not as “our judge” but “our Father.” At the cross we know ourselves as if for the first time as God sees us, as his little children, made in his only Son. And here we finally begin to shame the devil and tell the truth. As victims and as children we grieve. We lament. And only then, on the cross, do we find the strength, the creativity, the love to trust like a child: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). From the cross, Jesus woos us back from the envy of the serpent by himself becoming the bronze serpent on the cross. Jesus is the true serpent, who outwits the serpent in his scheme by giving freely what the serpent tricked man into taking by force. And where the serpent lies, Jesus tells the truth. The serpent says, “You shall not die.” Jesus says, “Take up your cross.”
For here on the cross is the true human, the true victim. The only victim who is not also a victimizer, and the only victim who chose to be a victim — who counted not equality with God a thing to be grasped (as Adam and Eve did), but emptied himself. For here in Christ we find the one and only perfect victim, who is once the perfect priest. For in him passion becomes victory and suffering becomes active. Justice endures injustice and life descends to the dead. In baptism, our victimized humanity is joined to his, and with him we become priestly victims, active victims, victims who offer up our victimhood in love to God.
And in this priestly victimhood, in this act of offering from the cross, we finally learn mercy. Not only ourselves, but everyone we meet is a victim. Everyone we meet, like Adam and Eve, are lost, deceived, used and abused children, children in need of love, in need of mercy, the children Jesus Christ has come to save. For to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
To strengthen those who stand; to encourage the faint-hearted; to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord. — The Great Litany, 1979 BCP, p. 152
The Rev. Micah Hogan is a transitional deacon in the ACNA Diocese of San Joaquin. He is a graduating senior at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and an incoming PhD Candidate in Historical Theology at Marquette University.