Wednesday 8 April 2009

Alfred Hitchcock, the Church, and the silence of Jesus

A post by Scott Stephens (a longer version of a piece published this week in Eureka Street)

The films of Alfred Hitchcock are often regarded as a master class on the grotesqueries of Western society. To be sure, The Birds (1963), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), not to mention the lesser known Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948) and even Marnie (1964), all point to a kind of monstrous underbelly that disrupts the tranquility of everyday life. But it was with his first attempt at cinematic realism, in an attempt to depict the true story of a wrongfully accused man, that Hitchcock managed to create a horror far worse than any Norman Bates.

In The Wrong Man (1956), Manny Balestrero (played by Henry Fonda) is arrested in an unfortunate instance of mistaken identity, and, with little or no explanation, is quickly arraigned on charges of armed robbery. The central sequence of the film follows Manny as he is led through the opaque, impersonal legal apparatus that will determine his fate.

In a particularly poignant moment, Manny, his face still fixed in a look of terrified bewilderment, clutches a silver crucifix and silently prays. All the while, lawyers spew their jargon-laden bile at one another, as the disinterested jury talk among themselves. The entire courtroom scene appears to Manny as simultaneously all-powerful and completely impersonal. It is in control of his life, and it couldn’t care less. And that’s the obscenity of the entire ordeal. There is no slick dialogue or high courtroom drama in The Wrong Man – just the brutal enactment of an insane system that is convinced of its own rectitude.

While it might seem a little strange to invoke Hitchcock at Easter, I’d nevertheless suggest that we can see a similar horror at work in the trial of Jesus. The Gospel narratives depict Jesus as being paraded, like some freak at a carnival, before Pilate and then Herod, both of whom taunt and goad Jesus to accept their supposed power over him and thus to join in their insanity. They want Jesus to be part of their world, to quiver before them, or at least to rage against them. But instead, Jesus remains silent. And like Manny Balestrero’s bewildered innocence, Jesus’ silence has the effect of throwing the madness of his would-be judges into the sharpest relief. His refusal to join in their grotesque chirade creates the space, the possibility of a freedom that was unimaginable to all those freedom-fighters who tried to oppose violence with violence.

In his remarkable book, Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams suggests that what we mean when we speak of God’s transcendence ought thus to be refracted through what he calls the ‘obstinate uselessness’ of Jesus’ silence before his accusers.

‘If we are really to have our language about the transcendence – the sheer, unimaginable differentness – of God recreated, it must be by the emptying out of all we thought we knew about it, the emptying out of practically all we normally mean by greatness. No more about the lofty distance of God, the sovereignty that involves control over all circumstances: God’s “I am” can only be heard for what it really is when it has no trace of human power left to it.’

It is in this way that Jesus’ silence could begin shaping the practice of the Church. To participate in Jesus’ silence would mean to commit ourselves afresh to an alternative, non-instrumental mode of communal life. It would require that we abandon that perverse moral calculus that implicitly – and, at times, even explicitly – determines what is worthwhile and useful and constructive in Western society.

That is how I understand Stanley Hauerwas’ oft cited axiom: that the first task of the Church is not to make the world a better place, but to make the world the world. In other words, the sheer difference of the Church’s common life – what one might call our sacramentality – represents a kind of refusal to convey upon our given social, political and economic structures any moral legitimacy. It stands for the refusal to resign itself to the soulless Realpolitik that now structures and defines our societal sanity.

I doubt that there has ever been a more important time for the Church’s practice to be marked by a kind of sacred uselessness, or, to give it its more biblical designation, by charity. For charity, as the very ethical substance of the Church, would demand that the Church doesn’t ‘function’ in the way that the myriad of our state apparatuses ‘function’. Above all, it would prevent it from succumbing to the temptation to gain a place among the other state-sanctioned service providers, and thereby be required to sell its soul in exchange for recognition and federal funding. I’d contend that any such a Faustian pact with the state would constitute buying into the insanity, the pervasive nihilism that has progressively emptied our civil institutions of their capacity to act with compassion and to achieve the Good.

Like Jesus’ silence, the Church’s refusal to participate in the state’s normalized madness would go a long way toward removing the quasi-moral veneer, the unquestioned confidence in its own rectitude, whereby the state confers upon itself and its functionaries the power to pronounce any alternative as ‘mad’, abusive, extreme, impractical, or (worst of all) not conforming to ‘best practice’. Thus confronted by the sheer difference, the ‘obstinate uselessness’ of the Church’s charity, the monstrous character of our state and civil institutions might finally become clear: from the institutionalized ennui and decrepitude of federally funded disability services, to the sterile self-righteousness of the Family Law Court; from the banal instrumentalization of higher education, to the cynical politicization of indigenous affairs.

And all this in the hope that the God who vindicated Jesus’ silence, who raised the Crucified from death, would breath fresh life into a world obsessed with its own nullification.


Marty said...

Dear Scott,

Thanks for your thoughts. Are you implying that the state is always wrong if the Church is to refuse participation in it's "normalized madness"?

Blessings bro,


Robert Angison said...

This is an awfully well written piece. There is a tension between the social responsibility of the state and of the Church. How we, in the Church, reconcile ourselves to operate within or without the state's involvement often determines how honest our endeavors for charitable ministry extend.

If the Church did more what Christ commanded (serving the widows, poor, hungry, etc) and less of what man demands (larger steeples, broader programs, etc) we would see marked decline of need for governmental services. Just my opinion

You are the Church!
Robert Angison

roger flyer said...

Please refer to the Grand Inquisitor scene from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

Anonymous said...

A relevant quote from Christopher Isherwood.

"Whenever a movement has its objectives within time, it ALWAYS resorts to violence."

Scott Stephens said...

Thanks Roger, but it is safe to say that this little piece is a commentary on "The Grand Inquisitor" - written in the margins, as Derrida might have put it. I've been reading Dostoevsky extremely closely of late ... mostly in connection with Easter.

roger flyer said...

Hi Scott-
Nice commentary in the margins. Just wanted to make sure we all keep Fyodor's estate in business.

Surprised that I'm sharp enough to catch the drift...

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