The Angel of Death and the Bloody Doorway

Yesterday we talked about the crucifixion and how people in our community wrestle to find meaning in it in our modern world. You can find that article here. Tomorrow I will share an article with you about the history of how that story has been interpreted and some of my own views on it.

Today I would like to share a guest post with you from my friend Michael Petrow. Michael is a spiritual director and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology currently living in New Mexico. He works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance. He has written a brilliant reflection on violence in our religious narratives and how they affect our current social climate.

We hope you enjoy it!


Recently I saw a woman claiming she could defy social distancing regulations because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus.” Does that trigger a reaction in you?

Ok let’s take a breath and shake that off for a moment.

Yesterday was the first day of Passover. I can’t help but notice there is a certain timeliness to a story and ritual about families isolating themselves indoors in the hopes that the death all around them will pass by.

I find the ritual and practice of Passover—the little that I have access to it as I am not Jewish—to be profoundly beautiful. The story that it is based on however—that the angel of death is sent by God to slay the first born children of all of Egypt, but passes over the children of Israel who have covered their doors with blood—this is a very, very tough one for me. I struggle especially when Christians celebrate it as an example of God’s avenging justice.

It’s one of those tales that Origen would say is so morally reprehensible that it creates a scandal in the soul. But he said this scandal should function like a koan of sorts for the soul, to force us to go past the literal level and dig deeply for dark meaning. Gregory of Nyssa, one of Origen’s spiritual and intellectual disciples, addresses this issue in his book The Life of Moses:

Both things—the death of the first born and the pouring out of the blood—did not happen to the Israelites.

Rather than think of this story as history, we should look at it as a myth, an allegory, or even a parable, and approach it with “contemplation…concerning the destruction of evil”

Like modern day depth psychology, this approach asks us to see the story taking place within ourselves, between disparate bits of our own psychology. Nyssa believed that the “killing of the first born of the sins of the Egyptians” (not the sons) meant searching deep within the “appetitive” parts of our soul—what we would call the unconscious—to seek the origins of our selfish or harmful acts.

Now everything about that image might still be ugly, and very triggery for many of us. I cringe a bit. But nonetheless Nyssa leads me to unpleasantly acknowledge our own unconscious urges for violence and destruction. Here I cannot help but think of Freud’s notion of the Death Urge at work in our collective unconscious. He claims

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self destruction.

Suddenly I find myself reading the Angel of Death very much as the this Death Urge. And the very fact that so many read this story literally—and are perfectly content that the Egyptians got what they deserve— paradoxically proves to me our capacity for bloodlust and vengeance, what some call retributive justice. I see this right now as so many gleefully pronounce the Corona virus to be the vengeance of an angry God.

Granted today we understand that much of this inherit impulse for destruction is not natural to the human soul, but the result of the traumas inflicted upon us, the triggers that cause us to “do not as I want to do, but to act as I do not want to do” (Rom 7:15-20). But nonetheless this thirst for the good guys to destroy the bad guys still plays out in our obsession with Hell, the Apocalypse, and even American Exceptionalism. Likewise this plays out in the rage and selfishness we see on display presently.

Some care only about blaming others for this—it’s the Chinese! The media! 5g networks! The President! (Well ok maybe the Trump/Pharaoh comparison is hard to step over: “What plagues?” “What pandemic?”)

Still others outright refuse to isolate, more concerned about their own rights than the well being of their neighbors. Others hoard supplies for themselves, uncaring about those outside their own home, so long as they themselves are “passed over.” Record numbers are purchasing firearms, ready to bathe the door way of their homes in blood if need be. And all too often this behavior is justified by those who claim to be “covered in the blood”–and are simply content that bad things will be happening to the great unwashed.

Interesting.

If on any level this Passover story allows us to feel into the moment we are in, then perhaps it can help us to take a step back, to contemplate, and to reengage. Is the urge to preserve myself at the expense of others really the death urge in disguise?

Is there hope for any of us, if we aren’t hoping for all of us?

OK if the story lets me feel into this, what about the ritual it describes—the reenactment of the story? What would it mean for me to use ritual to consciously confront the aggressive and destructive components in myself and my little community? To symbolically put the “blood” lust right out there on the door way, instead of in the closet? Would this allow us to name the collective death urge and see it “pass over” us, rather than possessing us and driving us into our own literal mutual destruction?

Would it also let me have sympathy even for my oppressors, knowing that for those who cannot somehow make this death urge conscious, even their children are born into a living death, destined to unconsciously repeat the cycle, in which even the oppressors are slaves to Thanatos?

Friends do bloody and violent stories and rituals like the Passover and the the Pascha (or Passion) force us to face this ferocious fallacy? If so how do we get past the warped perspective that uses them to justify the very things they ought to critique?

I find anymore, I tend toward the timid in my spiritual reading, and have left these stories in the hands of those who use them for violence. Or worse those who claim to be “covered in the blood”, and thus entitled to be selfishly ignorant of the reality that symbol itself points to. Do we need to take them back?

Even now as we face the hardship and crisis of the corona virus, we stand at the brink of facilitating our own self-destruction. I cannot help but wonder if we need to learn once again to face bloody and violent myths and rituals symbolically. Can these old off-color stories help us to engage our own capacity for self destruction, consider the consequences of our actions, and recognize our own unconscious motivations as we wrestle with them and redeem them?

Can we take back these myths in a mature fashion? Do we need to? Or is it too dangerous and are these stories too much tainted by toxic religion?


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3 thoughts on “The Angel of Death and the Bloody Doorway

  1. I’ll be thinking about this for a while, and gratefully. I have a hard time willfully interpreting the Passover as a myth — strict literary definitions are my default setting, meaning Gen 1-11 as myth, the rest of Gen as legend, and the rest of Torah as history, albeit an unreliable history (like the Roman Herodotus). Still…this interpretation has psychological depth that I like!! And it reminds me a lot of when Jesus told his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and they had a fit thinking he was mad about his dinner! He was so frustrated that they, with all their time learning at his feet, still refused to think spiritually and figuratively, at a level of personal psychology rather than external order and rules. Perhaps he was trying to train them (and us of course) to always dig deeper and in a symbolic sense. And it raises a huge question that will nag me a long time: Does what “really” happened really matter?? From politics to religious history, how important is factual knowing? I don’t know (laughing at my own answer)!

  2. Thank you for these thoughts. I like to learn how others “view” the topics . I have never thought about these things ( Passover, Crucifixion.) . Your sharing has opened my mind…..again….Be Blessed this day, Justin

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