Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem“Jerusalem, Jerusalem´ was the outcry of Jeremiah in his Lamentations, and of Jesus when he was rejected by the leadership in in the holy city. James Carroll’s searingly excellent book of this title is an extension of this outcry with historical, theological and spiritual depth.

This book is not so much a history of Jerusalem as a history of the idea of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the imagination. The history of the city itself, of course is deeply affected by the ideas and imagination projected on it, almost always to its detriment. Jerusalem is an image of the ideal, the perfect city and yet this great ideal has shed more blood than could fill an ocean and at the present day the ideal threatens the survival of humanity and the planet we live on. How can this be?

Carroll finds the groundwork for an answer to this troubling question in the thought of René Girard. The anthropological insights into mimetic desire and the resulting rivalry often arising from it is most apt a framework for working through the troubled history of the city on the hill. Carroll’s introduction of Girard’s thought is concise, pointed, and highly insightful even for those familiar with Girard’s thought. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

The sacrifice of Isaac, imagined to have been nearly committed on the rock where the temple was later built, is another underlying motif of the book and is a powerful illustration of how God’ revelation of peace and love gets twisted towards violence. A story that almost certainly was intended to reveal the wrongness of human sacrifice got twisted to praising the obedience of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son which then lead humanity to be willing to sacrifice its children, not just “half the seed of Europe” but at least half the seed of the whole world, “one by one” in the words of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem on this story. (See Abraham out on Highway 61.)

The Jerusalem of the imagination is narrated through the Jewish establishment of the city as the capital of Judah, a city that became loved when it was lost during the Babylonian exile. It is the city where Jesus ended his preaching ministry and died under the Roman authorities. It is the city the first Moslems wanted because of their share in the tradition of Abraham and the prophets. It is the city that swirled through the Christian imagination, spurring a virulent anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the Shoah. Jerusalem inspired the crusading ideal that lead millions of soldiers and civilians to their deaths. The Battle Hymn of the Republic powerfully sings this violent ideal of the crusade in its purple poetry and Hubert Parry’s noble hymn tune gives force to the ideal of conquering the holy city anew.

It is not possible to do justice to the scope and depth of this book. Anyone interested in religious studies, theology, history, human culture and almost anything else would do well to give the reading of this book a high priority and to read it slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. I do not agree with quite every detail in Carroll’s analysis. Some of his interpretations of the New Testament seem to confuse the content with its reception history, although his analyses of the reception history is fully accurate. The overall thrust is highly compelling and will give every reader, whether Jewish, Christian, Moslem, atheist, or anything else a stiff challenge to one’s thinking, imagination, and relationship to violence, most especially supposedly “noble,” “redemptive” violence.

Jesus the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds

field1Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds inflicts on us the discomfort of being told that we have to put up with the people we don’t like but the end of the parable and the explanation of it afterwards give us the comfort of knowing that the people we don’t like will get it in the end. But does Jesus really mean to give us this “comfort?”

When we consider the workings of mimetic desire, the image of a field densely filled with plants intertwined with each other is easily seen as an image of our entanglement with the desires of other people, some of whose desires we covet, others we try to separate ourselves from. Of course, each person who wants something we want and we don’t think it can be shared, is an enemy, a weed who should be pulled out, expelled from the garden. In such a situation, each of us is prone to considering ourselves to be one of the intended, desirable plants while the others are weeds. Of course, when we are preoccupied with how “weedy” everybody else is, we are totally wrapped up with them in our hostility. It is easy, then, to understand this parable as teaching us to mind our own business and not worry about everybody else. The trouble with this interpretation is that we are all in the thick of this garden whether we like it or not and we need to find a constructive way to live with everybody else in it. A deeper interpretation that is often offered, and one I have much sympathy with, is that we should commend everybody else to God and let God deal with them. To make this work, we have to commend ourselves to God as well, or we think we are commending those bad guys to God but we are good guys who can take care of ourselves. Moreover, the word for “letting” the weeds grow is aphete, which also is used in the New Testament to mean “forgive.”

If we give this parable a Christological interpretation, everything looks different. In being the stone rejected by the builders, Jesus was a weed. That’s the way Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and Herod saw him. Jesus identified himself with a lot of “weeds” on the way to the cross such as the woman with a bad name in town who washed his feet at Simon the Leper’s house and the tax collectors Zacchaeus and Matthew. Every planter knows that it can be difficult to tell an intended plant from a weed. This is why well-intentioned but uninformed “helpers” are the bane of gardeners. If we try to weed out the garden based on our own judgment, we are likely to weed out Jesus himself.

The explanation of the parable seems to be at cross-purposes with the parable itself. Many scholars absolve Jesus of having ever given it, relegating the explanation to a later redactor to the text finalized in Matthew, as Simon Joseph argues with such vengeful texts in The Nonviolent Messiah. Or, we can argue that Jesus was giving us a parody of what an obtuse listener who lacks ears to hear takes away from the parable, as Paul Nuechterlein suggests on his site Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. The trouble is, self-righteousness takes us to such extremes that it is impossible to parody. Let’s take a look at where the “explanation” takes us. First, we become preoccupied with weeding out the undesirable plants. Second, we identify with the angels who weed the garden. Third we think we shine in righteousness that blinds us to our self-righteousness. That is, we play the role of God, which is idolatry. The end result is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for everybody and no harvest for anybody.

If we look forward to harvesting as opposed to weeding, we get a totally different scenario that fits well with the parable itself. When it comes to harvesting, weeds just don’t matter. The only thing that does matter is picking the fruits and bringing them in so they can offer sustenance to others. When it’s all about harvesting, things start to look a lot like the heavenly banquet that all of us can share without worrying about who is wheat and who is a weed.

The Nonviolent Messiah

KatrinaCrossAbraham1Simon Joseph’s book The Nonviolent Messiah is another helpful study on the question of whether or not Jesus truly preached peace and is a complementary study to A Peaceable Hope by David Neville. Whereas the latter worked from the final version of the New Testament and made a mathematical study of how much violence there was and how much peace, with peace being much the more preponderant element, Joseph uses examination of the Q document and the Adamic model of the Messiah in Enochic literature to argue that the historical Jesus consistently preached peace.

Like some atomic particles that are never seen but are inferred from visible reactions, Q has never been seen but is inferred from a study of the canonical Gospels and other non-canonical material. There may be some guess-work and there remains controversy as to what actually is in Q but there is enough evidence to work with what we have so far.

With a stress on the inaugural sermon in Q which would include the proclamation of the Jubilee and material used in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, Joseph builds a case that Jesus preached nonviolence and a violent eschatology was added later by the Q community.

The lesser known Enochic literature is examined for a lesser-known element: the Adamic model that emerged in some of this literature in contradistinction to the Davidic Messiah who would be a political and military figure. The Adamic model posits the hope of a renewed creation that would involve all people and would be achieved by totally peaceful means. The Animal Apocalypse, so-called because animals signify the figures, is a particularly strong example of this. We can easily see the influence of this model on Paul’s use of the New Adam in his epistles. Joseph provides much evidence to suggest that this Adamic model, which was very well-known at all levels of Jewish society in Jesus’ time, strongly influenced Jesus’ self-understanding of the kind of Messiah he was.

If we take Joseph’s historical-critical work and bring it to the final result analyzed by Neville, he get the following plausible historical trajectory on the issue of peace in the formation of the New Testament: 1) The early Q community with its collections of sayings by Jesus preaching peace, 2) The community of Mark’s Gospel proclaiming the peaceful, crucified Messiah, 3) the preaching of Paul stressing peace & using the Adamic model of Messiah, 4) a later stage of the Q community where persecution and rejection led to a vengeful eschatology where God would do the vengeance, 5) The community of Matthew’s Gospel using Mark & Q, including the vengeful material but also the peace teachings, 5) The community of Luke’s Gospel mostly rejecting the violent eschatology & stressing peace with many unique elements stressing peace, 6) community of John’s Gospel with a very strong emphasis on peace.

Although a meticulous examination, the book is readable and is an important contribution to the investigations on Jesus’ attitude to peace and violence.

St. Benedict: a Personal Sketch

BenedictChurchStatue1In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory I said that Benedict could not “otherwise teach than he himself lived.” Taking Gregory at his word, I will celebrate our holy father Benedict by drawing out of the Rule what we can glean about the kind of man he was.

The way Benedict carefully outlined the way the Divine Office should be done, listing what psalms should be done when, shows an ordered man who appreciated discipline and having everything and everyone in place. We see the same care in the way Benedict outlined the daily schedule for a balanced life. However, Benedict showed flexibility when he said that one can rearrange the office psalms if that should be deemed expedient. Although he wanted his monastics to be on time for the office, he cut some slack by allowing them to come before the Venite (Psalm 95) is recited, for which reason it should be said as slowly as possible. Although Benedict disapproved of boisterous laughter, he had a dry wit.

Benedict was anxious about infractions of the Rule such as hording unauthorized possessions. He cut out loopholes by compulsively listing everything he could think of that a monastic might try to keep on the sly, understanding the favorite monastic evasion: “There’s nothing in the Rule against it.” The way he went on about disciplining a dean, a priest, or the prior of the monastery who got puffed up suggests that Benedict had deep fears about what power and responsibility could do to a person. The fearful admonitions to the abbot to remember how accountable he is to God for the misdeeds of his monastics suggests that he was anxious over his own weaknesses and potential for misusing power. For all his exasperation for delinquent monastics, the convoluted nature of his chapters on punishment show the problem to be one for agonizing rather than self-righteous smugness. Punishments should not be vindictive but remedial, ending in reconciliation to the community if at all possible. In quoting the parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to after the stray he showed a deep solicitude for those who had fallen out of line.

Benedict had a flexible sense of fairness, believing that the abbot should treat each monastic appropriately, cajoling one, and scolding another, depending on the personality. In general, he really cared about the individuality of each person. He made a point of listening to what each member of the community had to say at a meeting, even the youngest person. He also wanted his monastics to share frankly their heavy burdens and ask for relief even if, under some circumstances, that might not be possible.

In general, Benedict had compassion and concern for the weaknesses of other people, surely out of an awareness of his own weaknesses. The weaknesses of the sick were of special care for Benedict and it was important to him that they were properly looked after. He felt the same way about guests who were also vulnerable, especially those who were poor. His concern that jobs be done competently was closely tied to his concern for the care of others, especially the weak. His worries over the abuse of power were motivated at least in part by the need to protect the vulnerable from the fallout of power plays in the monastery.

Late in life, Benedict’s compassionate concern for weaknesses deepened. In the second chapter on the abbot at the end of the Rule, surely a later addition, he quotes Isaiah’s words that the bruised reed should not be crushed and Jacob’s words that he shouldn’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. He warns against rubbing the vessel too hard so that it breaks. While in his younger years Benedict seems to have wanted to be feared at least a little, in the later chapter, Benedict greatly prefers to be loved rather than feared.

In following the first step of humility—to be constantly mindful of living in God’s presence–Benedict lived a recollected life. In this recollection, he sought God’s presence in everything and everybody: the guests, the sick, the tools of the monastery. He believed that both tools and people should be treated as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. In this practice, Benedict sought to arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear with his “heart overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Difficulties in Forgiving: Joseph and his Brothers

Joseph_and_His_Brethren_Welcomed_by_PharaohThe story of Jacob’s return to Esau illustrates the difficulty of believing in, let alone accepting forgiveness. (See Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau) The story of Joseph and his brothers takes us primarily through the difficulties of forgiving.

As a youth, Joseph is a victim of collective violence. As is often the case with such victims, Joseph has been singled out both for adulation (by his father) and opprobrium (by his brothers). In contrast to the origin of collective violence as envisioned by René Girard there are a couple of cracks in the unanimity to kill the victim. Both Reuben and Judah differ and try to save Joseph but their plans are foiled. If either had had the courage to stand up to the other brothers, each would have had an instant ally and together they would likely have turned the tide and saved Joseph from his near-death in the pit.

Joseph’s serene words that it was God, not his brothers, who had sent him to Egypt and that although they had meant him harm, God had used it for good, taken by themselves, suggest an easy forgiveness on the part of Joseph, but the story is—well—another story.

While Esau welcomed Jacob back with open arms in spite of the harm Jacob had done him, Joseph does no such thing. Like Esau, Joseph has done very well in spite of his brothers’ intent to hurt him, in fact he benefitted in the end from what they had done to him, but Joseph holds back and remembers his youthful dream where his brothers bowed to him. Joseph goes on to play an elaborate series of mind games that amount to torture. It is possible that Joseph’s harsh way of speaking to his brothers was an act, the beginning of an educative process, but I can’t help but feel that the anger was very real and at least a little raw. As a test to see if they can treat the youngest, Benjamin, better than they treated him, it was hardly necessary to lock Simeon in prison for a year and threaten his own family with starvation if they didn’t obey all of the demands that could make little sense to them. Joseph’s father Jacob also suffers because of this treatment, which may also be intentional. In my pastoral experience, I have found that one who was a favored child carries a heavy burden from this favoritism rather than finding it a blessing. Sadly, while Jacob never showed any repentance for the way he treated Esau, Joseph’s brothers have such a guilty conscience that they think that their suffering at the hands of Egypt’s steward is a just punishment for what they had done to Joseph.

As things turn out, it is Judah, not Joseph, who triggers Joseph’s forgiveness by offering himself as a slave to spare Benjamin that fate. Since Judah had wanted to save Joseph in the first place, he is not a reconstructed persecutor but a man showing a compassionate heart for a younger brother that he has always had. The difference is that while Judah was cowardly before, he is brave this time around and his bravery is awarded. Joseph is won over and he forgives his brothers, but not until he has worked through tons of anger on his own part. It was his intention to put his brothers to the test, but in a sense he himself was put to the test by Judah. Fortunately, Joseph had the grace to give up his control of the situation which he had lost anyway and cry on the necks of his brothers.

Following carefully in our own hearts Joseph’s steps to forgiveness: his anger, his pride, his manipulations, and but also his crucial willingness to accept help from a brother when he needed it, can be a way for us to track our own difficulties of forgiving the hurts we have received in life and move through them to an awareness that although certain people intended us harm, God has used these harmful actions for good.

For more on the difficulties of forgiveness see A Miserable Gospel.

The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauWe are commanded to forgive by the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us to pray that we forgive those who wrong us as we forgive them for their wrongs against us. The petition in the Our Father for forgiveness suggests that accepting forgiveness can be at least as difficult as forgiving. Remaining oblivious to this latter difficulty reflects our prior difficulty in forgiving and I suspect it makes it all the harder for us to forgive. The two stories that conclude the book of Genesis help us move through our own difficulties by following through the difficulties experienced by Jacob and his son Joseph. We all know how difficult it is to forgive. We tend to overlook how difficult it can be to accept forgiveness.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a telling illustration of the difficulty in believing in forgiveness, let alone accepting it. Jacob had patently wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing and Jacob fled for his life with a guilty conscience. Years later, after similar wrangling with Laban, Jacob returns with his wives, his children and his flocks which had all grown too plentiful for Laban’s taste. Jacob has every reason to fear what will happen when he meets up again with Esau. Hearing that Esau is coming with four hundred men was not reassuring. The nighttime struggle with a dark figure seems to project Jacob’s combatant personality. Still the shifty coward he’s always been, Jacob puts the wives and children he cares about least in the most vulnerable positions in the front so that he can escape with his favored sons if need be.

What happens is an amazing surprise. Esau embraces Jacob with no reservations and not the slightest sign of resentment. No matter how many times one reads or hears the story, it is hard to believe. Jacob doesn’t believe it. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t really Jacob’s things. Jacob’s words: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” are among the most profound words in the entire Bible for the ultimate revelation is Divine Mercy in a human face. But, as I said, Jacob can’t believe it even after this warm greeting. Jacob turns down the invitation to travel with Esau, using the excuse that he can’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. (Benedict quoted this verse in his Rule to illustrate the need for the abbot not to drive his monastics too hard!) Jacob, still shifty and cowardly, manages to avoid ever meeting up again with his brother for the rest of his life. Think of the years of friendship and companionship they missed out on!

The story is complicated by the later history of Edom, the people descended from Esau which reach a climax in Paul’s quoting, In Romans, Malachi 1:3: “Yet I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” In spite of Esau’s forgiveness narrated in Genesis, Edom has not been forgiven by Israel for its siding with their enemies in several wars. That Edom never recovered from the Assyrian invasion seemed to confirm that. The unflattering portrayal of Esau as a stupid, hairy oaf who sells his birthright for a pot of soup is perhaps another way of expressing Israel’s grudge against Edom. And yet this stupid hairy oaf suffered a terrible wrong from his unrepentant brother, moved on and built up his own flocks rather than spending his life in resentment, and forgave his brother. The story of these two brothers is often presented, including by Paul, to illustrate the mystery of God’s election. Jacob is the one chosen to carry on the Covenant, but the rejected brother, Esau, is the one much more in the place of Christ both in his rejection and in his forgiveness. Can repentance and forgiveness be strong enough in our lives for us to believe forgiveness when we see it?

See also Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2)

A Peaceable Hope

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The strongest tension in the New Testament is that between the teachings of non-retribution and forgiveness on the one hand and eschatological retribution threatened for those who fail to follow the way of forgiveness and non-retribution on the other. The first problem is that it sets up a double standard between God and humans. We should be meek and mild but God will throw the bad guys into unquenchable fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The second problem is that Jesus’ accepting death on the cross turns out not to be the ultimate revelation of God that Christianity usually teaches; violent retribution at the end of time is the last word. The third problem is that if violent retribution on the part of God is the last word, the hard practice of non-retribution doesn’t seem to be worth it.

David Neville’s fine book A Peaceable Hope is an indispensable examination of precisely these issues. He sees the divide primarily between some parables and some retributive sayings in Matthew and pretty much the rest of the New Testament. The tension, then, is strongest in Matthew since it includes the Sermon on the Mount and a stress on Jesus being the silent lamb led to the slaughter but also has many threats against those who do not live by these standards. So lopsided a division suggests that the weight of the New Testament as a whole comes down firmly on the concept of God as totally without violence. Neville draws the tension in Matthew and contrasts this Gospel with the three other canonical Gospels, all of which are strongly peaceable in its eschatological teaching to various degrees with John being the strongest on peace themes. The reception history of Revelation has often taken the book to teach retributive violence by God but Neville builds a strong case that the slaughtered lamb is the guiding image for the book as a whole.

Neville doesn’t try to speculate why Matthew would have as vindictive an eschatology as he does. We can make some educated guesses based on our own experiences with rejection and injury. If we can’t or won’t strike back, we like to think somebody bigger than we and our adversaries will come and tear them to pieces on our behalf. There are alternate ways of understanding these violent passages in the New Testament, among them the suggestion that they use firm imagery to show the consequences of rejecting Christ and Christ’s way. Raymund Schwager, for example thinks along these lines in Jesus in the Dram of Salvation. In such a reading, God is not actively acting out revenge on those who reject him; they are suffering the alienation and violence by which they have lived.

Neville’s careful and thoughtful exploration of this difficult issue is valuable for anybody who wants a firm biblical basis for believing in and teaching a God of peace.