Blind from Birth

Blind from Birth

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

March 2, 2008

Scripture: Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-14

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” — John 9:5

There is hardly anything that annoys our culture more than the Christian teaching of original sin, poetically presented in our Gospel reading by the statement that the man in question was blind from birth, that is, that his was an original blindness. Blindness from birth is as radical a visionary affliction as there is. Some of you might remember a night at the Woodside church when in our Bible study class Prof Bill Newsome, the foremost authority in the world on the neuroscience of perception, told us how blindness that has never, ever seen, can only be overcome by a laying of all kinds of physiological and anatomical foundations de novo. I remember at this point the phenomenon of Helen Keller who went blind and deaf before the age of one year, and although consequently aphasic as well, could write an autobiography full of vivid visual imagery. Her loving mentor Annie Sullivan must have mediated the world to her, which is remarkable enough, but if she had never seen at all, had been blind from birth it would have been impossible, without a miracle, for her to perceive what she wrote about.

Or is there more to perception than the sense of sight alone, and by extension, the other senses? Is it possible to enjoy not extra-sensory perception but para-sensory perception, that is that the perceptual process, which is a function of the brain, is not wholly dependent on the eyes? Who says it is a law of nature that perception must go only through the senses? As we learn more about the brain so we learn that the 19th century scientistic fundamentalism, of the kind Richard Dawkins and the other “Brights” represent, might be wrong and misleading.

I must resist being drawn into this fascinating byway of the recently emerging new understanding of processes of perception in the brain and their unsteady link to the senses, and hurry back to the point of our lesson, which is that Jesus can enlighten the dark world of one born blind, that is, Jesus, the light of the world, is the antidote to original sin, the original, congenital darkness of the world. Thus we return to our opening topic, the teaching of original sin. The imagery in both our lessons uses the fundamental symbols of light and darkness to express good and evil, and in the Gospel, the symbol of darkness is the man born blind, that is originally blind, and the symbol of light is Jesus Christ the light of the world. Let us choose this one point to focus on out of the many one might treat in such a rich passage, the darkness of congenital blindness and the God/Man who is the light of the world.

Darkness, especially in the human form of radical blindness, is a vivid symbol of self-deception. The Gospel tells us that we are radically self-deceived from the day of our birth, that darkness, in the sense of a fundamental fraudulence about who we are and what the world we live in is like, is historically speaking our “natural state.” On the 12th of this month I am to speak at the First United Methodist Church in PA on the meaning of the Cross of Christ. The first version of the notice that announces this event included the question, “Is there a link between the Cross and the violence of the 21st century?” I changed it to “What is the link?” because I assume such a link, as I believe the gospel does, and more than that, I believe that the Cross on which a young man is being tortured to death by church and state together, is the first true word to be spoken about who we are, not “they” but “we,” you and I.

I plan to give my presentation the title, “From Golgotha to Guantanamo,” or “From Joseph Caiaphas to Dick Cheney,” and that is not mere poetry, it is a fact. The goons of Guantanamo and Cheney the Vice, our own American Caiaphas, are torturing and blaspheming the living Christ as he dies right now under the weight of our congenital sin, which is scapegoating violence. “In as much as you have done it to the least of these my brothers you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40 &45), is not a metaphor, or symbol, but a spiritual fact; when you torture others you torture Christ. So when this Lent you look on the Cross think “Guantanamo.” (Is it any wonder then that the people who do such things lose their souls, shrivel up and die long before their biological system stops working?)
Clearly the image, now not a symbol by an historical fact that reveals who we are, of a young man in the throes of being tortured to death, which is one of the central iconic proclamations of our faith, and I can’t think of the others, that image says that the Christian revelation is primarily a revelation to a self-deluded species, of the fact that we are violent to the core and have always gotten our jollies by torturing people to death, and it is a revelation of who God is, namely, the self-sacrificial presence that offers himself to our violence in one finally effective sacrifice, of himself and not of another, to bear our violence and to bear it away.

Such is the darkness of those who are blind from birth, and who are they? They are you and I, original and unoriginal sinners. Let me emphatically rank myself with those who sit in darkness, whose self-esteem is self-delusion, whose natural reaction to all threats and all challenges is violence; up there with Cheney and Caiaphas, and the Guantanamo goons, write my name, Robert Hamerton-Kelly (and be sure to spell it correctly, only one m!).

As I was sitting there in my congenital blindness, congratulating myself because I could see no evil and refused to hear any evil, certainly not of myself, I saw a great light, and I heard a scream of anguish that rang around the stars; I saw the light of the world, and I heard his Calvary cry of pain as all the agony of our cruel race pierces his loving heart, and all our rage breaks against his proffered chest, and all the violence we receive and pass on to others, by some miraculous reorganization of time, all my violence, and my children’s children’s, and a my father’s father’s, falls on him, and he bears it away so that in that day when the new Jerusalem descends, “…God himself…will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

We resist seeing ourselves as we really are because we do not believe that Christ can deal with our violence. We sit in the dark (Remember how many Jewish mothers it takes to change a light bulb” Don’t bother I’ll just sit here in the dark”) and because we think there is no alternative, we call the darkness light. If all you have is darkness your religion will take the form of so much hyper-moralistic preaching that I hear, which goes, “There is nothing wrong with you and the world that a bit of human effort cannot remedy, so cheer up, get up and get to work changing the world.” Let me not at this late date start on what is wrong with this approach. Let it suffice to notice just the burden of guilt it lays on us. I save the world? I can barely get through it!

No, we can joyfully accept the revelation of ourselves and God in the Cross of Christ, we as torturers and crucifiers, monsters of the dark, God as the light of the world and our healer and redeemer, the lover of monsters. Let me end with this passage from Revelation 22:1-5. It is the miracle of the healing of the man born blind in another style and on a larger canvas, but essentially the same.

“Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever.” Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world (John 9:5).” “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).”

Let the light of the Cross show you who you are and who God is, and rejoice, for there is no greater love than what is realized here, so why should we hide from it in our moralistic pride or the darkness of our self congratulation. I am that man born blind and Jesus has applied the mud he made with his spittle to my sightless eyes, and I ca see, for the very first time. Praise Jesus not yourself, and come forth into the light of the New Jerusalem.


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