When I began seminary, I learned that the Gospel of Mark originally ended without Jesus coming back. Check the footnotes on Mark 16. Verses 9-20 were tacked on to resolve a confusing and terrible story – Jesus dies, the adventure is over, everyone scatters, and then there is an empty tomb. A terrible situation just got worse, and Mark originally ended with broken friendships and people on the run. Not the best way to end a story!
Scholars say that the Gospel of Mark was the key source of the gospels – Matthew and Luke are copies and expansions of Mark. They are dependent on Mark’s account, and may very well never have been written without it. Which makes me wonder on idle Tuesdays, what might Christianity have looked like if the story had ended with people running away in “terror” and “seized with amazement”? What would have happened if, so traumatized, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Christianity’s core message might have become the First Noble Truth of Buddhism – suffering exists. Some things leave us in shock and awe, too afraid to say anything. If the great story of Jesus ended with failure, would the subsequent centuries of storytelling look different? Would we allow failure to be a part of the story?
The Markan account of Jesus isn’t the only example of this idea in scripture. The Bible begins with failure. In Genesis chapter 2, God has failed and finds that creation is not good when we are alone. Chapter 3 ends with failure as the first people are evicted from the Garden. Chapter 4 ends with brother killing brother. Sometimes, theology is dependent on failure and we never even realize it.
The story of Ezekiel from the 6th Century BCE, begins with the ruin of Jewish identity – the country has been conquered, the people enslaved, and the center of worship, the Temple, so important to the Israelites, had been destroyed. In exile some 700 miles from home, Ezekiel falls down at the edge of the river Kabar in Babylon. His wife is now dead, his home has been lost, and he is no longer a priest in the Temple.
Sit with that a minute.
His wife is dead. He has no home. He has no job. He has no identity. And he’s 700 miles from anything familiar. What now? Where do go from there? This isn’t the Odyssey, or even Quantum Leap, where our rugged hero goes through hilarious shenanigans in the hope that he can find a way home. There is no home. There is no family to get back to.
Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus writes that the majority of biblical scholars see a profound similarity between the language of Ezekiel and the second half of Leviticus. Clearly, the two were written around the same time as a result of a change in theology. Imagine that – Ezekiel effectively re-wrote theology in the 6th Century. A shift takes place among the prophets and priests away from sacrifice towards acceptance of failure, and it was – and still is – a radical and unprecedented move in how humans understood their relationship to the heavens and each other. Religious thinking takes a gigantic leap forward towards a life lived for others, care for creation, and recognition that everyone fails. The fact that this insight comes while Ezekiel weeps at the river Kebar, allowing the full weight of All That Happened to crush him, sets the stage for him to finally see God and begin the process of recovery.
A theology of failure requires us to stop and let it be what it is – devastation. Ruin. Destruction. A burning of all our hopes and dreams and aspirations. We cry until we can’t cry anymore – until we are all cried out, with nothing left to give. We accept reality for what it is, not the thing we wish it was. We finally ask ourselves, “What do I really have left to lose?” and when there is nothing to answer that with, we begin again.
A theology of failure has the ability to do the thing we fear the most – it allows us to rewrite religion. This is a scary thing, but it can also cause us to take a leap forward, just like Judaism did. It affects not just us as individuals, but our communities of faith. Obviously, the ramifications are tremendous. The nature of Jewish thinking moved from ritual and sacrifice to concern for neighbors, living justly towards one another, taking care of the Earth, and talking things out to seek understanding instead of hard and fast rules. This kind of change to our theology requires a high degree of risk, but then again, what do we really have left to lose? If we are holding on to some hope of a bygone era, it’s over. Gone. It’s not coming back.
At the heart of all theologies of success is the idea that God is consumed with you winning and “reclaiming” something. This manifests in all kinds of destructive ways, not the least of which being the pursuit of personal security. But personal security undercuts the risky nature of religion. If we are so invested in the idea that God wants us to succeed, to dominate, to vanquish our enemies, then we’re still hypnotized by the idea that we really matter, that we’re supposed to be somebody, or do something, or be somewhere else while the world crumbles around us.
Theology of failure gives you the resolve to face up to what really happened, to give up the false projection before it destroys you, to develop an exit strategy before you are buried, and empowers you to get up one more time, not in a hologram of “victory” or some pathetic attempt at “winning,” but out of pure stupidity that refuses to allow anyone else to have the final word on your spectacular, colossal failure. Because you can rewrite the end of the story – just not the way you originally wanted or expected.
Rather than offer each other empty assurances, a theology of failure compels us to tell our stories, to fully own them and commiserate with others who have failed just like we have, and it also allows us – in telling our stories – to feel for a moment like we matter. To die with dignity. It offers some measure of hope that we are not alone, that we can get through this together, and in so doing finally realize that failure isn’t final.