By R. William Carroll
“Then promise me, if you should become queen, to GIVE ME YOUR FIRSTBORN CHILD. “
“Who knows whether that will ever happen,” thought the miller’s daughter, and, not knowing how else to help herself in this strait, she promised the little man what he wanted, and for that he once more spun the straw into gold.
And when the king came in the morning, and found all as he had wished, he took her in marriage, and the pretty miller’s daughter became a queen.
A year later, she brought a beautiful child into the world, and she never gave a thought to the little man. But suddenly he came into her room, and said, “Now, give me what you promised.”
The queen was horror-struck, and offered the little man all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her the child. But the little man said, “NO, something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”
(For this translation, I’ve adapted a little.)
That’s not how the story ends, of course. The young woman gets out of this horrible deal by guessing that the little man’s name is Rumpelstiltskin. Not all the Grimm’s fairy tales end so happily. It is, in fact, amazing to me that we share some of these stories with children. Perhaps it’s a way to talk with them about the violence that pervades our world. Our world, after all, is one in which children are still bought and sold. In any case, these stories are no more violent than the popular entertainments that charm us today.
Bible stories can be similarly horrifying. Just look at a few from Genesis. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to a foreign king. Lot’s daughters seduce their father. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, so Esau tries to kill him. Even stories like Noah’s Ark are hardly G-rated. Who can really dwell on the way it begins? Who could share that with a child? And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” In the flood story, God proposes to kill’em all and start over.
Perhaps we have told this story to a child—even if we do race through it to get to the good parts. There are churches that relish the horror in this kind of story, and which are not afraid to use it to scare the hell out of kids, as well as adults. But we Episcopalians don’t tend to dwell on it. And properly so. We prefer the smelly menagerie, the bird with an olive branch, and the rainbow.
And yet, if the problematic beginning of this myth remains unspoken or repressed, the story is robbed of its power. We also fail to come to an adult understanding of it, since it is ripped out of its context in Genesis—a saga of creation, fall, and decline, as well as God’s unbreakable commitment to save the world. Repressing the story’s beginning also allows us to forget which particular sin it is that calls down God’s displeasure. It is the VIOLENCE of humankind that provokes the flood. We need to know that our violence is offensive to God. That it reeks in God’s nostrils. And that God is offended enough by our violence that, but for God’s goodness, God could be tempted to wipe the slate clean.
If we don’t hear this, the promise at the end makes little sense. Why else does God make a covenant with all flesh and set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of this relationship? Except to show us that God will never abandon us to the ways of sin and death. The remarkable thing in the story, which is like other flood myths of the ancient Near East in many respects, is this: God finds a way out of the cycle of violence, and promises never again to respond to our violence by destroying the world.
If we’re honest, we know that even a child is aware of violence. Unless of course we romanticize that child to the point of dangerous denial. In the schoolyard if not the family, the child is initiated into our rituals of domination, soul-murder, and exclusion. Even a child needs to hear that this violence is offensive to God. That God rejects this violence. And that God is not powerless to act.
Is there a danger in speaking thus of God? Does not the story project our own revenge fantasies on to God and involve God in the very violence it is trying to confront? Are we not in fact portraying God in an unworthy manner? Yes, of course. But there is an even greater danger in not speaking. All our words are inadequate. But it is only through stories—broken, human stories—that we can we convey something of the Holy One who creates and saves the world. And the realism of these stories draws us in and offers us new possibilities. The overall Biblical story, for all its contradictions and problems, testifies to God’s faithfulness, even when we have gone astray. We return to it again and again, so that we may wrestle with the loving God who meets us there.
I’ve dwelt a bit on the dark underbelly of Noah’s Ark, because I think an adult grappling with this story sheds some light on Paul’s theology of the atonement. The doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice is often presented, especially by evangelical Christians, as a kind of war between God’s justice and mercy. God wants to condemn the world and everyone in it, but saves a few, because Christ was punished in their place on the cross. The worst of the lot are the “five point Calvinists,” who believe that God died only for the chosen, the elect. The rest of humanity will burn in hell forever, just as surely as the untold multitudes whom God drowned in the days of Noah.
I believe this is blasphemy—which is untrue to Paul’s Gospel and fails to account for the point of the flood story. The problem with many so-called evangelicals is that they are not evangelical enough. The evangel is the Gospel, and it is good news for fallen humanity.
As in Genesis, Paul believes that God has found a better way out of the predicament of human violence and sin. Rather than purging the world of evildoers, God has chosen to make sinners holy through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has chosen the one man Jesus, rejected and despised by others, so that in him, God might choose us all. As Rene Girard and James Alison have taught us, Jesus is the sacrifice who brings the whole system of sacrifice and victimization to an end. The message of Romans is about God’s righteousness and mercy, which restores fallen sinners to fellowship with God. It is a direct corollary of the “covenant with all flesh” that God makes with Noah and his descendents. God has always desired, as the prophet Ezekiel teaches, “not the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner turn from wickedness and live.”
Jesus Christ is God’s human offer of mercy, in a world in which we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is no conflict between God’s mercy and justice. They are one and the same, and they come together in the righteousness of God, which operates not by revenge but by forgiveness. The same forgiveness which Jesus lived out throughout his ministry. Could we choose to reject this offer and forever exclude ourselves from God’s presence? I suppose maybe we could. But I believe that, in the end, NO ONE ACTUALLY DOES.
There is Good News hidden in the doctrine of sin. Sin is the great equalizer. Sin levels the playing field and throws us back on God’s loving kindness. In Paul’s vision, Jews are no better and certainly no worse than Gentiles. In other words, insiders are neither better nor worse than outsiders. We have been called but not because we deserve it. We have been chosen—not for privilege but for service.
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”
The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson.