An Enemy Woman as Teacher

peacePole1The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that includes three Gentile women and the story of three Gentile Magi coming to pay homage to the Christ Child. The Gospel concludes with Jesus commissioning the twelve disciples “to make disciples of all nations.” How did the life and teaching of this Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth lead to this framing of the Gospel? The enigmatic story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman gives us a clue.

Two things about the story are perplexing: 1) Jesus’ harsh words to a person in need, and 2) Jesus losing a verbal exchange with another and apparently changing his point of view because of that exchange. We are troubled by these points because we usually assume that the divinity of the human Jesus requires that he was sinless and omniscient. I would argue that being fully human means that Jesus was not omniscient but had to learn life skills and develop his understanding of life just like any other human. The ludicrousness of the notion that Jesus knew everything about carpentry as an infant and Joseph couldn’t teach him anything should convince of that. Since sin is not essential to human nature, Jesus could have been sinless and still been fully human, but being fully human would mean that he was born participating in the mimetic matrix of his culture with both its salutary elements and its unsalutary ones. This story helps us explore how Jesus came to terms with a problematic aspect of his cultural inheritance.

Calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies. They were enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua and they were periodic oppressors in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of the idols and sacrificial practices they embraced. In the time of Jesus, the woman was a Syro-Phoenician, as Mark designates her, which is to say she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, he would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak to a Canaanite (Syro-Phoenician woman who came to her for help the way he did. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.

The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the Centurion who asked him to heal his servant. That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gadarene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the “demon” possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the Canaanite “demon” that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today.

Jesus’ subsequent feeding of four thousand people in Gentile territory suggests that Jesus had learned to give the “crumbs from their master’s table,” using the twelve baskets left over from the feeding of the five thousand in Israelite territory. In a stimulating article called The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus, Grant LeMarquand suggests that Jesus’ delivering the Canaanite daughter of the demon and then feeding her people in the wilderness is a transmogrification of the conquest of Canaan by Jesus’ namesake. Jesus “lost” his exchange with the woman but gained a multitude of people to welcome into His Kingdom.

The Five Kinds of Prayer (3): Penance

sideAltarsIcons1Much of what is written about penitential prayer is centered on personal, individual sin. However, our tendency to desire according to the desires of others suggests that a more interdividual model is needed in our approach to penance. To begin with, sin is never personal in an individual way. Our own participation in sinfulness is intertwined with the sinfulness of others. As with petitionary and intercessory prayer, penitential prayer, confessions of our sins to God, is an important way of becoming aware of our own desires in their interactions with others and what we are doing with them. The old list of seven capital sins from traditional Catholic teaching is a handy structure for a brief look at how to confess these sins in the light of our participation in mimetic desire.

Lust and Gluttony are the sins most grounded in the physiological structure of each person. There is a physical craving involved with these sins, but our physical urges in these areas are pulled by the advertising media and cultural factors where we want a particular kind of sexual mate or food or drink because they are presented as more desirable than various alternatives. In my first post on Respect, I noted the rivalry that surrounds what often passes for love in human relationships. Gluttony is not subject to rivalry in the same way but some people seem to make a point of consuming more than others as a way feel that they are “winners” in the game of life.

Both lust and gluttony are subject to bodily addictions that are easily exacerbated by mimetic rivalry. The exasperation of people who live with addicted persons often amounts to a contest of wills. This is perhaps where the term enabler is most applicable. That is, the enabler adds to the tension caused by the addictive behavior so that the addict feels that he or she “loses” by giving up the addiction and being healed. In fact, many enablers fail to cope with healed addicts. Family systems thought illustrates the systemic elements of addictive behavior and it reaches for the jugular of the social system, not the individual who is addicted.

Envy and avarice are the most mimetic of the capital sins. Envy, of course, is pure mimetic desire, wanting what somebody else has and usually preferring to destroy what the other has if the envious one cannot get it. Avarice is envy in advance, or peremptory envy. An avaricious person wants what others want and tries to get it before anybody else can. Such a one, for that matter, often tries to anticipate what others will want, make that thing desirable, and then grab before anybody else can.

Sloth is a sin that can be committed with little or no reference to anybody else except that the failure to perform deeds others need or would appreciate affects them. The Latin word is accidie and it means a lot more than laziness, although it includes it. Accidie is primarily a lack of seeking the good; staying in the dumps rather than make an effort for the good, especially for the things of God. One way we are afflicted by sloth is by not noting how the desires of others are affecting us. When we do that, the default is that we just float along on others’ desires without taking any responsibility for our lives.

Anger is the opposite of sloth insofar as it is energetic while sloth is lethargic. While Sloth is uncritically floating with the social mimetic process, whatever it is, anger is an equally uncritical participation in mimetic movement but one that is overcome by the contagion of the crowd’s collective anger. Anger, of course, is the fuel for mimetic rivalry and most particularly for the desire for revenge. The more revenge is fueled by anger, the less examination as to the appropriateness of revenge. We tend to think of anger as personal because we feel it physiologically in our bodies but anger is always relational, even if it is in relationship with oneself. Because of the involvement of body chemistry in anger, it poses the danger of falling into a substance addiction.

Pride and his cousin vainglory have already been examined at length in the posts on humility. In examining ourselves in confessionary prayer we need to be especially alert to pride that begins with tempting us to claim our anger, our possessiveness, our lust as our own, something to fight for as much as the people and things we think we want. In all mimetic rivalry, there is a strong dose of pride.

Above all, we need to remember in our hearts the Gospel’s revelation of the truth of sacred collective violence. As the culture of lynching in the US reminds us, collective violence can easily slip into a cultural matter—the way we have always done it—therefore an eternal “truth” when the real truth is that it is the old lie of the devil who has been a liar and a murderer from the beginning.

The sacrament of confession is well-known as a therapeutic exercise, one that lifts a heavy burden from us. Even for those who do not believe in penance as a sacrament find it important to confess their sins to another to get them off one’s chest.

The mimetic dimension of our sinfulness also impresses upon us the necessity of turning to the Other who is outside the system of the mimetic process that constitutes the principalities and powers to gain an alternative to them. The story of Peter walking on water—or trying to—illustrates this turning. The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, he was pulled into the boat and taken safely to shore.

The Five Kinds of Prayer (2): Intercession

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[See The Five Kinds of Prayer (1): Petitionary Prayer]

Intercessory prayer is asking God to give something to another person rather than to oneself. In this respect it seems much more generous than petitionary prayer and often it is. But not necessarily. Our resonance with each other’s desires makes it difficult to know where our personal desires end and where another’s desires begin. There is inevitably some overlap and the considerations we made for petitionary prayer hold for intercessory prayer as well. Actually, the problem can be more insidious when praying for others than with praying for ourselves.

The biggest pitfall in intercessory prayer is praying to God to meet our needs in relationship to that person rather than to that person’s needs. That is, we project our desires, our needs, on the other and pray for that. More seriously, there is a chance of there being a hidden rivalry in intercessory prayer where we pray against somebody in a self-serving manner. The most common way to clothe concern for others in this way is to pray judgmentally, which is to put ourselves in the “superior” position. This soon falls into the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God for being better than that publican. Years ago, at a prayer meeting I attended, one man prayed to God to cure his brother of his “dirty, stinking habits.” I’m sure that if the man’s brother being prayed for (or against) really had one or more destructive habits, God would want that person to be cured. The thing is, God would be much more gracious in entering that person’s deepest self and offering strength to that person.

When we pray for others, we are, as when we pray for ourselves, entering into God’s Desire, only now we have expanded the field to include other people in their need besides ourselves and our own needs. Praying for ourselves opens us to the deep love God has for each of us. Praying for others opens us up to the deep love God has for other people. There is no room for judgmentalism in prayer since prayer is about humbling ourselves before God and before others.

At its best, intercessory prayer is a powerful participation in the desires of other people in a constructive way. Better still, it is a participation in God’s Desire for others as well as for ourselves. We share what is best in ourselves with the other for the good of the other and for the sake of the other. When we pray for others in this way and they pray for us in this same way, we create an expanding web of prayer that reaches out to everybody. This is what our built-in mimetic desire is for.

The Five Kinds of Prayer 1: Petitionary Prayer

FrJudeInChoir - CopySimply put: prayer is the meeting of our desires with God’s Desire.  Although God meets us with an infinitely simple Desire, we are not simple. That is why more than one approach to God is necessary for us.  There are five fundamental ways of prayer which Church tradition teaches, ways that give us a deeper immersion of our desires into God’s Desire. My professor of ascetical theology, Donald Parsons said that just as we need a balanced diet in our eating habits, we need a balanced diet of prayer. The five kinds of prayer give us this balanced diet.

I. Petition.

Petitionary prayer is about asking God to give us something for ourselves.  This is often considered the lowest form of prayer because it is considered selfish. Why should I want anything for me, myself and I? Well, God wants to give gifts to those of us who knock for the door to be opened. For that matter, God wants to give us gifts even when we don’t knock at all.

The thing is, we are filled with what James Alison calls our “smelly” desires whether we like it or not because we are made that way by God. Since we have these desires, we have to do something with them. Renouncing them is one of the things we can do, but we aren’t renouncing anything if we don’t know what we are renouncing.

The importance of petitionary prayer is that we bring our desires to God. In so doing, we increase our awareness of what these desires are, those that are smelly, those that smell like roses, and those that really stink. We may not like having our stinkier desires but we all have them and if we don’t become aware of them, they will rule our lives without our knowing it.  Of course, bringing our desires to God is tricky because we don’t always know what we want. What we think we want does not always turn out to be what we really wanted as all of us have found out many times when we did get what we wanted.

Knowing our desires is further complicated by mimetic desire, our tendency to desire through the desires of others. As we notice how our desires are entwined with those of others, we also become more aware of their rivalrous elements. For example, if we pray for our favorite baseball team to win the championship, we quickly realize that God is not going to play favorites and the best and/or luckiest team is going to win. That is, God’s Desire is not for one team or the other win but for everybody to enjoy the game no matter who wins and who loses. If we can’t enjoy a game when we lose, that’s our problem. The same applies to more serious issues in life such as personal relationships, especially those of a romantic nature. As we bring petitionary prayers of this sort to God, we find at the base of God’s Desire a will toward freedom. This is the freedom for the baseball to bounce the way it chooses and the freedom for people to react to us as they choose. It is often said that God answers a prayer with “No” and that can be the case, but not necessarily. Since God gives the rest of the world the same freedom God gives us, not everything is going to pan out the way God’s Desire might have it. The bombs dropping all over the world in spite of all our prayers that they cease are clear evidence of that.

Avoiding petitionary prayer for fear of being greedy may prove a greater danger than asking for the wrong things.  It could mean we give less import­ance to our­selves than God does.  If we think we are beyond caring about what we get in life, it is all the more important to search our hearts.  Chances are we are hoping for many things, but are denying these very hopes and then congratulating ourselves on our detachment.  More serious, we may be depending on ourselves for getting things in life, and not depending on God.

If we bring our desires to God in prayer, and let God sort them out, we gain some freedom from these desires.  God gives us a handle to make freer choices as to what we really want and how they can more constructively interact with the desires of others.  We might start out asking for a DVD Player and end up asking for help with a deeper need. That is, God educates us in learning to live with our desires when we bring ourselves close to God’s Desire in prayer. Far from being self-centered, petitionary prayer brings us out of the closed world of our natural desires and the even more tightly closed world of our rivalrous desires into the open Desires of God.

Continue to The Five Kinds of Prayer (2): Intercession

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.