[A 2001 published column by Bill Lewellis]
Midway through The Brothers Karamazov, (New York: The Modern Library, pp. 259-266), Dostoevsky deals insight-fully with the temptations Jesus rejected, temptations to carry out his mission by manipulation. He inserts in his novel the story of “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Jesus comes again to walk our streets, the story goes, as the embodiment of God’s dream (God’s kingdom). He brings good news to the poor… release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and lets the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18)
The Grand Inquisitor, a weary and crusty old man who embodies institutional concerns, has Jesus arrested. During the night he visits Jesus. Standing in the doorway of the prison cell, staring at Jesus, he sneers:
“Is it Thou? Don’t answer. Be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say… Art Thou come to hinder us?"
You made a mess of it once, the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus, and we (the institutional church) fixed it by taking freedom away from men and women. That’s what you should have done. It’s the only way they can be happy. We’ve completed your work. Have you come to mess things up again? Go, and return no more.
“Instead of taking men’s freedom, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering."
Free choice makes us unique in God’s creation? We are free to snub the God who created us. We are free to tell God to take a hike. But it is only because of that dreadful possibility that we are free also to love.
"God put freedom into his created universe,” the late Episcopal Bishop Stephen Bayne said, “in order that the universe could respond to his love with an answering love of its own...
“God put into the created universe a principle of choice; and paid a twofold price for that. First, he limited his own freedom to have everything his own way. Second, he committed himself to having to win out of freedom what he could perfectly easily have commanded as of right. Why? Because God is love, and because love needs an answering love for love's sake."
“Jesus of Nazareth is a troubling and troublesome figure,” Verna Dozier writes in The Dream of God (Boston, Cowley Publications, 1991), “and the church has never known what to do with him.”
It has been suggested that many “churchmen” were good and saintly people who loved Christ enough that they probably would have died for him. They just couldn’t trust him, and sought safer ways than his to do things. Discipleship, because it is about faith, is risky. We see through a glass darkly. We do the best we can. Tomorrow we may find out we were wrong.
“Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong,” Dozier says. “The God revealed in Jesus whom I call the Christ is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me… and bursts all the definitions of our small minds…”
Yet, “the great anomaly of Christianity,” according to biblical scholar Raymond Brown, “is that only through an institution can the message of a non-institutional Jesus be preserved.”
The institution at its best faithfully suggests that we put our trust first in Jesus.
What is the message of Jesus? Repent. The kingdom of God is at hand. Turn around. Don’t be seduced by values of the world. God has a dream, and God has chosen you to work toward its realization.
What difference does it make that you believe in God? Does God’s dream come any nearer to realization because of what you believe?