Henry Nouwen’s classic treatise on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer, highlighted an ambiguity of pastoral care: that many who care for others are themselves damaged and wounded. In doing so, he stripped away the pretension that carers must be perfect, superhuman beings, but rather could function effectively as agents of healing and transformation in spite of their own weaknesses and limitations. It is a book which enabled many carers to accept their own weakness and limitation and use their own suffering as a vehicle for healing. It is one of those rare books which stimulate a paradigm shift: a fresh approach to a longstanding phenomenon.
The abuse scandals within our church have stimulated another round of deep reflection, for which we must turn to scripture to assess. This potential of scripture has been recognised by, among others, Gerald O. West in his account of texts such as 1 Samuel 13:1-22 being used for social transformation when community workshops address violence against women in South African contexts. Here, the use of Scripture enables a subject usually considered taboo to be named and addressed. In this vein we turn to the episodes of the Bronze Serpent.
The Bronze Serpent: The Lifted Healer
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15, NRSV)
The character of the serpent may be immediately off-putting or negative a feature which serves well to illustrate the response that trauma may have had on the onlooker. As such it may provoke a reminder that the stuff of faith can be turned to harm. But, as the bronze serpent is an image of healing, it must be remembered that the ancients knew that medicine and poison are never far apart.
Derrida could identify three related characteristics: “not only pharmakos (victim or scapegoat) and pharmakon (medicine/poison), but also pharmakeus (sorcerer or magician)”. Indeed, antiquity knew multiple symbolic meanings for the serpent: sixteen which might be classed as negative, and twenty-nine as positive. The gospel belongs to a world which could use serpent symbolism positively. Indeed, it might be used to indicate any of divinity, life, immortality, and even resurrection: the bronze serpent may be understood as divine, a healer, or both. This is not as alien to our modern world as it might first appear: the caduceus (the staff of Hermes with intertwined snakes) remains, up to the present, a sign of healing.
This text provides a distinctively Christian focus for reflection on the nature of healing by drawing on an incident from the history of Israel (Numbers 21: 49) to articulate and understanding of the lifting up of Jesus. The event has a chequered reception within Judaic tradition: 2 Kings 18:4 describes the smashing of a bronze serpent by Hezekiah, whilst Wisdom 16:6 describes it as a “symbol of salvation”. John follows this positive assessment.
The verses highlight an analogy between Jesus and the bronze serpent: both are “lifted up”. The identification of Jesus as the Son of Man has already been made (John 1:51), and will be re-iterated (John 8:28; 9:35-37; 12:32-34). John makes belief in this lifting up of the Son of Man the basis for receiving “eternal life”, his preferred term for a superior mode of existence, distinguishable from natural life as now lived.
Whilst “lifting up” has frequently been identified with the Crucifixion, this identification does not exhaust its full range of meaning. The ambiguity of “lifted up” also stresses the idea of benefit, as the Greek hypsoun/hypsousthai may include a positive meaning: of being exalted. It thus may include both the notions of Crucifixion and “return to the Father in glory”. This allows Jesus’ “lifting up” to be a paradox: his debasement marks his exaltation or glorification.
A reading which uses the motif of “raising up” to connect Crucifixion and exaltation is to be retained. It gives the believer, or reader, confidence and hope because it is based on an event which has already taken place by the time of reading. John does not base hope on propositions about God but roots them firmly in the past events which he describes. The gospel, in its received form, goes even further, making these claims witnessed by the Beloved Disciple (John 21:24). These provide the stuff which makes confidence in Jesus’ identity and promises sure - not speculation, or mythic imagery alone.
Those who have experienced trauma because of the church, or themselves are wounded healers, are highly likely to look askance at it as a source of healing. The bronze serpent, too, initially seems an unlikely source of healing, given our innate instinctive reaction to snakes. However, gazing on the serpent who becomes identifiable as the crucified and risen Christ becomes the means to eternal life. Enabling this gazing in faith through the provision of resources and rituals which allow the Risen Christ to heal allows those who have been wounded to overcome their initial repugnance at the church and be transformed as they look beyond the church to Christ. The image also allows the church to remember its potential to repulse, and strive intentionally to replace the behaviours which provoke, enable, ignore, or deny abuse with those that are genuinely life-giving.
How are you looking to the lifted healer to achieve healing?
Fergus King is the Farnham Maynard Lecturer in Ministry Education at Trinity College, and previously missionary in Tanzania.
This study is an abridged academic article, references have been elided and available on request.