Cy Twombly (1928-2011) was an American painter and sculptor. In 2007 his painting Phaedrus was vandalized. Phaedrus is a 2 piece installment. The above painting is the left side. The right side is a canvas painted entirely white. It was the white canvas that was vandalized.
How was it vandalized? It was kissed.The perpetrator paid over €1,500 in fines.
The only way we can make sense of this crime is to realize that the paintings were valued at over $2 million. The restoration costs were nearly $50,000. It was a masterpiece by a master artist. Only then can such a kiss be deemed criminal.
When considering topics related to violence (see the violence and desperation posts), we can make little headway without an underlying basis for human worth.
Different world views would locate and valuate human worth in different ways. It could be an naturalist view of evolutionary fitness or a pragmatic humanist view. Faith commitments tend to provide a spectrum of existential valuation paradigms. I tend to think people’s operational valuations are more intuited than anything; “I guess I just think human life is valuable.” Few would disagree with this basic premise.
I previously mentioned my definition of violence as,
“My life at the expense of yours.”
And, by this definition, violence can have innumerable expressions.
The underlying tragedy of everything from gossip and lying to murder and genocide, according to the Christian worldview is found in the concept of human worth.
The latin term for this is Imago Dei; the image of God. This could be familiar to you, but it should always and forever be an astounding proposition.
The 2nd Century Church father Irenaeus (AD 130-202) described it the following way:
“Gloria Dei est vivens homo!” [the glory of God is living man]
This comes from the first stanza of the Bible
“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” [Gen. 1:27]
This idea is almost defies comprehension; it’s implications are far-reaching. CS Lewis touched on it in his lecture The Weight of Glory:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
What has this to do with violence? Everything.
The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat, and carries the idea of due or deserving. It assumes a basic level of treatment all humans are entitled to.
NYC pastor Tim Keller makes the following observation in his book Generous Justice (which I recommend): “… mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights.”
And so we find in the Scriptural narrative that the first sober prohibition against murder is phrased the following way:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.” [Gen. 9:6]
Here God constructs the very rationale we’d expect; i.e., if you accept humans to be made in God’s image, you must understand the severity of anything diminishing of human life.
This understanding of justice and human worth actually shifts our ideas of wrong and right off of those harmful things we must avoid and into the realm of responsibility toward other humans—considerations of what we are leaving undone.
Thus we read in Proverbs 14:31,
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
So we find both the negative and positive basis for justice and mercy located in the same place; the imago Dei. The stakes are either contempt or honor toward God.
Our meta-narrative is of the utmost importance in this matter. It informs our concepts of who humans are; any and all humans.
It was in this vein that the lawyer for Cy Twombly (the artist cited above) could make the following statement:
“[The kiss] was aggressive as a punch…”
In this case, something as innocuous (even affectionate) as a kiss could be seen as unconscionably aggressive. When the focus shifts from the act (or lack thereof) to the subject being acted upon, if gives a whole new perspective.
Acts or absence of acts toward those made in God’s image must always carry a sacred level of responsibility. This is the underlying concept of Biblical justice.
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