Knowing Jesus

by James Alison, Templegate Publishers, 1993, 114 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

The brevity of this book by the Dominican Priest, James Alison, does not mean it is light reading. I have seldom read a book so densely packed with insights that offer an expanded vision of what it means to know Jesus. Alison writes from the context of a poverty-stricken Brazilian favela where victimization is more readily apparent than in wealthier settings. He finds both the personal sense of knowing Jesus felt as an emotional experience, as well as the more liberal notion of knowing Jesus by his memory, to be quite irrelevant in the desperate context in which he works. Perhaps the greatest gift that comes with this book is the opportunity to listen in on someone doing theology in a context quite foreign to our own.

Alison draws heavily on the theories of René Girard, a French critic and anthroplogist. In his book, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightening, Girard lays out the theory that the basis of violence in society stems from the practice of defining ourselves “over against others.” That is to say that individual and group identities are rooted in an understanding of being different from others. I am Caucasian, not Asian. I am Canadian, not American. I am rich, not poor. I am educated, not uneducated. I am Mennonite, not Baptist or Catholic. I am a Heppner, not a Wiebe. Girard argues that this process of defining ourselves as unique – over against all others – is the well-spring of violence in the world.

Alison draws on this argument to make a case for how Jesus brings an end to this way of defining ourselves, and in the process eliminates our propensities toward violence. Following his arguments brings some startlingly new and refreshing perspectives to our ideas about knowing Jesus – at least that is how I experienced it. I need to do some more thinking about what he says, but I sense that such reflection will serve to deepen my knowledge of Jesus.

The foundation of Alison’s thesis lies in his understanding of the resurrection. He notes that the resurrection irrupted into that network of tangled, sorry relationships that were jarring painfully by Easter Sunday. His appearance was entirely gratuitous, with no hint of reciprocity for how he had been betrayed by his followers. His very presence was a decree of forgiveness. The resurrected Christ, claims Alison, included both the life and the death of Jesus. And when he ascended into heaven as a crucified and risen man, being human was from then on permanently and indissolubly involved in the presence of God.

It is resurrection that gave the apostles the ability to go back over their experiences and finally begin to grasp what Jesus had known all along – but had eluded them. They could now see that Jesus had become a voluntary victim in a world that needs victims in order to survive. Even the Jews, God’s chosen people, had to expel from their midst someone who did not define himself as they did. But now the crucified and risen victim or scape-goat offers, through his own sacrifice, the possibility for humans to form a new society which does not need victims or exclusions in order for its sense of identity to be built up. Knowing Jesus, then, involves the unlearning of all those patterns of behavior which depend on, or tend to produce, victims of whatever sort. What Israel failed to demonstrate, is now made evident in the lives of those who truly know Jesus.

So in the end, it is not an emotional experience of Jesus or an identity with his memory that defines the one who truly knows Jesus. Rather it is the ability of the individual or group to live without any over-against, defining themselves against no one at all. It is understandable, that working within the Catholic tradition, Alison sees this truth being proclaimed most profoundly in the Mass. Jesus’ real presence in the elements is to us what his appearances were for his disciples after the resurrection. This understanding helps me understand why the Mass is considered so central in Catholic spirituality. I do wonder, however, whether that real presence can not be known in other ways as well.

As is quite evident by now, following Alison’s line of argument requires great concentration and focusing. Whether one agrees with him or not, the exercise of staying with him is worth it in the end. I found significant comfort in the fact that the theology of non-violence, according to Alison, is not rooted simply in a strict obedience to the command of Christ. Rather it arises from the very essence of who the resurrected Jesus is as he appears to us, as he did to his disciples.

Those interested in a light, easy read should stay away from this book.