On Being the Grand Inquisitor

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 22, 2007

image The fifth chapter of The Brothers Karamazov–called the Grand Inquisitor–contains a parable that demonstrates our tendency to domesticate Jesus. In the parable, Jesus returns during the Spanish Inquisition. The people recognize him and flock around him. He compassionately heals several of the sick and lame. Knowing who Jesus is, an elderly cardinal (the Grand Inquisitor) promptly arrests Jesus. Jesus is dangerous. He threatens the status-quo. The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell, informing him that he is no longer needed. The Church, which is now allied with the devil, is better able to give the people what they need. Jesus is set free, but banished. The Grand Inquisitor will continue to use the name of Jesus, but has replaced his teachings for ones better equipped to meet the needs of the people.I’ll confess: I’ve been a Grand Inquisitor. In my first years of ministry, when I first began to lead Bible studies or preach sermons, I stumbled over the teachings of Jesus. They seemed too harsh or naive. And so, I filtered them through my common sense and gave the people what they needed. After all, you can’t let the words of Jesus remain as they are–they’re too dangerous as-is. We have to disarm his words so that they will be safe. Especially his teachings about money and enemies.

I was simply passing along to others what had been passed along to me. I was teaching people to marginalize the voice Jesus, just as I had been taught…

When I became a Christian at the age of 14, I was given a bible by my church. They told me to “read it and do what it says.” So I did. I think I skipped the Old Testament (it was so long and boring!). I spent most of my time in the Gospels. After all, it was Jesus who had gotten me into this mess. Being a bookish kid without many friends, it didn?t take long for me to read through the New Testament.

A few months after receiving my Bible, I was sitting in a youth Sunday school class. It was Memorial Day Sunday. At the end of the discussion, the Sunday school teacher asked for prayer requests. Based upon my new found biblical understanding, I proudly asserted: “I’d like to pray for our veterans; that God will forgive them for killing their enemies!”

Let me be clear: I was living in rural Minnesota. I lived on a farm. And my parents were conservative. This assertion of mine didn’t come from latent hippy tendencies or the hippy instructions of my parents. It came from a 14 year old’s read of the Gospels.

Obviously, I didn’t get to pray for the veterans that day. Instead, I was corrected…strenuously. The veterans were to be honored for their sacrifice. Loving your enemies only counts with our personal relationships. When it comes to countries, we must wage war for the common good. America is a country blessed by God. And so on. Later in the church service, the pastor had the veterans come to the front of the church and we prayed for them. We even sang patriot songs for the worship music.

What happens when someone who cherishes affluence encounters the lowly Jesus? What happens when someone who bleeds red-white-and-blue encounters the subversive Jesus? What happens when the contented consumer meets the simple Christ? One of two things: they either repent or find a way to make Jesus safe.

If we’re going to enjoy the fruits of the Empire–if we’re going to pursue the American Dream–then we’ve got to find a way to shut Jesus up. We don’t need lunatic Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers. We don’t need judgmental Jesus who wilts fig trees. We don’t need reckless Jesus who hangs out with unsavory people. No. Jesus exists for our fulfillment. He loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. And I already have an idea about what that wonderful plan is. He can help me with it if he likes.

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11 Responses to “On Being the Grand Inquisitor”

  1. geoffh on October 22nd, 2007 1:45 pm

    yes, so true. But I’m think the next generation (you know high school and college students) really doesn’t want to be the Grand Inquisitor. They are really open to seeing Jesus as he is.

    I was leading a discussion with the youth (not youth group or a youth bible study…we are too postmodern for that!), about Luke 4 (the jesus manifesto) and how it doesn’t talk about sin, death, hell, forgiveness, blood, or heaven. And these kids were really open to a bigger gospel. It was great.

    And last, Steve Long (i’m his teaching assistant) assigned yoder’s “politics of god”, and a bunch of these student were really getting it.

  2. Michael Enright on October 22nd, 2007 2:56 pm


    Don’t be so sure you aren’t substituting one version of a grand inquisitor for another. Just as you can’t take loving your enemies out of the Gospel, I doubt you can take sin, death, hell, and forgivness out either.

  3. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 22nd, 2007 3:56 pm

    Sure Michael. However, it does matter where you start with the telling of the Gospel. It seems to me that most tellings of the Gospel start with sin/hell/forgiveness and then treat the stuff Jesus talks about in Luke 4 as a sort of optional addendum. I would certainly agree that the reverse isn’t correct either. That is why, I believe, it is almost sinful (if not indeed entirely sinful) to boil down the Gospel to tracks or simple repeat-after-me prayers.

  4. R.O. Flyer on October 22nd, 2007 3:59 pm

    I like this post a lot. The Grand Inquistor is such a great chapter of the Brother’s K. I thought of Rowan Williams’ book Resurrection while I was reading this. Domesticating Christ occurs when he think we’ve understood him fully, when we begin to feel comfortable, and when his message ceases to become strange to us.

  5. geoffh on October 22nd, 2007 4:18 pm

    I got the same response in seminary when I suggest this line of thought. Or course you are right. But, along with Mark, I want to emphases that we are “Saved INTO…” life, peace, reconciliation, gratuitous generosity, etc, rather than the anemic “Saved FROM” sin, hell, etc.

    Rowan Williams is great (although I would not want to be him right now). Our church preached through the resurrection appearances two years ago using his book. That fact that Jesus has to evangelize his disciples again after his resurrection, before they can evangelize the world…brilliant!

  6. forrest on October 22nd, 2007 4:43 pm

    Re Michael Enright’s comment…

    “Hell?” Doesn’t seem to be in there, except as a metaphor for God’s potential power to destroy us utterly, in Jesus’ injunction not to fear human threats to our bodies.

    “Death?” Reversible, and not something we’re supposed to go out of our way to avoid. “He who would save his life shall lose it” fits right in with “Take no thought for tomorrow.” We’re talking about radical trust in God here! Not trust in some theologian’s recipe for averting God’s wrath.

    “Sin?” Certainly not the conventional American understanding of the word. We don’t have John Calvin walking around Galilee; we have Jesus speaking from within a Jewish culture in which “the Fall” never got invented. (The “Knowledge of Good and Evil” is a different concept. Although it is certainly a dangerous asset. As Raymond Smullyan quotes God: “The fruit in question is poisonous and the effects last for many generations.) Certainly “forgiveness” is crucial. But it isn’t offered on the basis of: “Follow me, and I’ll forgive your sins.”

    And it certainly is not, “Your sins will be forgiven as soon as I can get up on this cross here.” It’s flat out: “Your sins are forgiven.”

    What about the sort of “sin” that leads to things like worship of Mammon, or like wanting to have a nuclear bomb or two about the place (just to protect ourselves, you understand)? What about estrangement from God, which is truly an epidemic condition in our civilization?

    What I see Jesus doing in the gospels: He encounters people who are sick and wretched and despised because “Everyone knows they’re sinful; look at how sick they are.!” He tells them their sins are forgiven (A pious Jewish way of saying, “God forgives you”!) and they get better. He doesn’t enroll them in a 12-step program to cure their sinfulness; instead he tries to tell the rich and powerful that they’re riding a shopping cart to hell but just succeeds in convincing them that he’s dangerous. Which is basically what Mark is saying here.

  7. joe troyer on October 22nd, 2007 11:23 pm

    you know, i also liked to preach about the “safe jesus”. all the radical stuff jesus spoke about and did in the gospels i found ways to brush over with a stroke of americana or common sense. In the last year my eyes have been opened to the whole gospel in which jesus preached. as a youth pastor, i can’t wait for the youth to grab hold of this and run.
    at the same time, this view point isnt widely accepted in my congregation. it creates an interesting challenge for me. am i going to be true to the gospel of jesus as i understand it and believe scripture teaches? or am i going to cave to my fear of man and the power of conformity?

  8. Kyle on October 23rd, 2007 6:47 am

    Assuming that Michael believes what fundamentalists do about sin, hell, heaven, salvation, and an individualistic “gospel” doesn’t really add to the conversation, does it?

    Why is it so offensive to suppose that Jesus was a theologian, who actually thought about what he was doing?

  9. Lora on October 23rd, 2007 7:54 am

    Mark, when I clicked on the post on Heschel, Berry and the Sabbath, it brought up an error. I was so excited to read anything combining those three things. Has the post been lost? Will it be found?

  10. Lora on October 23rd, 2007 8:19 am

    Never mind, I think I just saw it before Andrew was completely finished.

  11. Maria Kirby on October 23rd, 2007 8:50 am

    I’m not surprised that people don’t want the radical Jesus. As I read the gospels we are forgiven to the extent that we forgive. We are forgiven so that we are enabled to forgive others. How many people truly want to forgive others? How many people are willing to forgive others who don’t apologized for the way they’ve injured others? How many people are willing to enter relationships they know will hurt them, just to be a conduit of love in those relationships? How many people are willing to be honest with themselves about their own behavior and attitudes? and are willing to apologize? Or is it too easy to see the plank in someone else’s eye?

    Those persons who are really wounded, who really need Jesus, can easily wound us back. How long are we going to put up with them hurting us? Can we even forgive seven times? How about seventy times seven? Or the implied every time? Aren’t we more likely to appeal to our interpretation of Church discipline and shun them as if they were pagans and tax collectors just because they didn’t listen to us? Is shunning really an improvement over physical violence?

    Wounds to the heart can be much more damaging than bodily bruises. Wounds to the heart can last a life time and affect so many more people. Wounds to the heart perpetuate the cycles of abuser/victim. Wounds to the heart are easier to ignore. They’re not as easy to see until they erupt into shooting sprees and terrorism. How is it that we have convinced ourselves that we don’t need to repent for the lives lost on 9/11? That some how every citizen in the USA is not responsible in some way that our government regularly ignores the golden rule, or rather tries to rewrite it as ‘those with the gold, make the rules’?

    Racism in this country is perpetuated by our fear of Black people. We have good reason to be afraid. It is rational that they would want revenge for all the things that Black people in this country have had to endure. We want them to forgive us, without our having to really apologize or change. How reasonable is that? We haven’t really changed and now we’re practicing the same kind of behaviors in other countries. Are we really surprised that they want to kill us?

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold people accountable for hurtful behavior. I just think that too many of us put down our crosses and get off the alter to do so.

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