Christian Community (4)

AndrewPalmSunday2I am becoming more and more convinced that we have to pay close attention to the historical fact that Christianity began in the shadow of an empire. Not just any empire but the Roman Empire, the biggest Empire in world history up to that point. This is also true of the Jews. Although they had a brief period of some independence under David and Solomon, the rest of the time, Juda was under the thumb of one empire or another at best and squashed by the boots tramped in battle at worst.

Of the Gospel writers, Luke in particular takes pains to locate the life of Jesus in history. He says that Jesus was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Some scholars have doubted the historicity of this particular census, but it is the sort of thing Empires do for the sake of social control and it sets the stage for the story. Later, Luke says that the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” (Luke 3: 1) Here we have a list of the very people who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. These were the builders who rejected the cornerstone, the body of a man who is the Body of Christ.

Most people don’t like to think of cold hard politics at Christmas time, but the angels’ song to the shepherds was a political statement. Augustus Caesar claimed to be the peace broker for the Empire. Luke claims that the new-born Christ is the real peace broker. Thirty-three years later, it becomes clear that the Roman peace is kept through tactics such as crucifixion. Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew’s version helps us draw the contrast between Church and Empire.

Jesus also draws the distinction between Church and empire in his reply to the question designed to entrap him: Must we pay taxes to the emperor or not? The most important element of this little story is that Jesus asks his questioners to bring a coin because he does not have one. He has withdrawn from the economical system. This reminds us that Empire isn’t necessarily about politics; it is also about economics. Jesus’ lack of a coin suggests that the Parable of the Talents, in Luke’s version that portrays the master as violent, the servant who buried his talent might be the figure of Christ who dropped out of the economic order and was cast out. (I believe we should make the most of the talents given us by God; I’m just not so sure any more that this parable, at least in Luke’s version, teaches us that Jesus does not teach that God demands that his enemies be torn to pieces—a sacrificial act.)

What Empire is about fundamentally is power that must be sustained by sacrifice. This brings us back to the first post in this series where I discussed the contrast between Jesus’ way of gathering people and the Empire’s. Empire isn’t just about size. We all know of little fiefdoms all over the places, including (especially!) religious institutions. Since Empire is all over the place in all sizes, we need Church (not limited here to a single faith tradition) of all sizes in all places.

Being Church is not about dropping out of an imperial society. Jesus was living in the Roman Empire whether he liked it or not (and he probably didn’t) and we live in empires whether we like it or not, which I hope we don’t like. The fundamental thing to do is live and act grounded in the love and forgiveness of Jesus, the Risen Forgiving Victim. Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Collegeville during the Depression years was a strong advocate of creating parallel economic structures that would be nurturing for everybody involved. If I remember a lecture I heard about him some years ago rightly, Michel invented, or helped invent the credit union. As a leading member of the Roman Catholic Liturgical Movement, he envisioned liturgy as a springboard to social action.

Most fundamentally, Empire cannot be resisted in the Empire’s terms, which is the use of violence of any kind. This is what Jesus showed us in his silence before Pilate. If Jesus really is the wedding guest thrown out into the outer darkness and the penniless servant thrown out in the same way, then we can all join him in the outer darkness which will then lighten up with some help from the Light of the World.

See also: Stupid Galatians, Stupid Us

Healiang the Gods and the Social Body

purpleFlower1Two major YA series have just been just been completed. One is The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan, the other The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman. With one being a rollicking romp filled with deities and mythological monsters, the other a sober social critique, the two are very different but one thing they have in common is concluding with a strong measure of hard won reconciliation. The final volume in Riordan’s set is The Blood of Olympus and the finale of Shusterman’s is Undivided.

The Heroes of Olympus is the second set of five books dealing with adolescent demigods so it is a relief to have finished a set that is enough to give ADHD to anyone who doesn’t already have it. This second set adds Roman deities and their offspring to the Greek deities and their offspring of the first set. Not surprisingly, the demigods on each side have been feuding for a lot of centuries. The deities themselves suffer some identity crises as they are pulled from Greek to Roman manifestation back to Greek, etc. As a resentful Chronos rose up in the first set, an even more resentful Gaia is rising up in the second, sucking in the power from the long-standing resentments of giants, monsters and neglected deities. Needless to say, the demigods have to get over their feud if there are going to stop Gaia. My review of the third book The Mark of Athena in my blogpost Arachne, Athena and a Thousand Princes” explores these themes.

I discussed Shusterman’s series in my earlier blogpost “Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon.” Shusterman envisions an American society where a civil war was ended with an agreement to outlaw all abortion but allow the unwinding of troubled and troubling adolescents for the harvesting of their body parts to implant on other people. This violent, sacrificial situation accelerates in the last two volumes and this final volume brings everything to the cusp of change where several people have to respond rightly at the right time to lead to a peaceful end and not a bloody one. From start to finish, it’s a riveting and wrenching tale.

In both of these concluding volumes, tons of hate and resentment must be overcome if catastrophe is to be avoided. Of the two, Shusterman’s series is much the deepest and probing. He is among the most perceptive among all YA authors on issues of mimetic desire and rivalry. Riordan is undoubtedly a lot more fun for younger readers and the message should come across. Both series have much to offer. I’m not writing this post to analyze either series further but to draw your attention to them as important resources for young readers to help with these same issues in their lives,

Christian Community (3)

vocationersAtTable1The best-known image of the Church in the New Testament is the analogy of the human body with the Church which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-28). The implication is that as the various parts of a body add up to a unity, the various members of the church, different as we are, also make up a body. This analogy suggests each part must be well-coordinated with all the others. We can see this readily—and impressively—in athletic maneuvers such as acrobatics or in the artistry of a ballet dancer or musician. This image suggests a deep intuition on St. Paul’s part into mimetic desire. Just as each part of the human body must be sensitive and synchronized with each other, so must each member of Christ’s Body resonate with one another. As with the body, this resonance needs to be preconscious, an ongoing awareness of and sensitivity to the other members. The most essential elements of this sensitivity are accepting the other members and not overstepping limits. St. Paul says one part cannot say it doesn’t need another part. His extension of the analogy to a list of various ministries in the church makes it clear that if a foot wants to be a hand, the body won’t walk very well. Neither will the body work well if a foot is amputated. These destructive outcomes happen if the parts of the body fall into mimetic rivalry. The comic character Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of overstepping boundaries. At the rehearsal of the play to be performed before the Duke’s court, Bottom first accepts the part assigned to him but then demands every other part as it is doled out to the cast. The absurdity of Bottom’s demands is clear enough if we try to imagine him doing all the parts in the play himself. It is the same absurdity if the neck tried to do all the walking.

Another image of the Church comes in the First Epistle of Peter. The author envisions the community of Christ as a “holy house” made out of “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) This image reminds us of St. Paul’s admonition that individually and corporately we should each be a Temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:16) It is significant that Peter calls the building a house and not a temple although it is a place where priestly ministry takes place. I see here a hint that Christ’s household is not a place set apart but a place for everyone, sort of like the City of God that doesn’t have a temple because the whole place is one. We have a sense of unity-in-diversity in this image as well. There are many stones and each has to be in its proper place or the house collapses. The stones are not inert but living, vibrant. Again each living stone should resonate with all the other living stones, another powerful image of mimetic desire working constructively.

Another biblical image that I don’t recall seeing used as an image of the Church, but one that could be, is that of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-9).Here, we are all to be connected with one another through our rootedness in Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the Desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s Desire.

These images of the Church complement one another. The Body of Christ has possible pantheistic overtones if taken too far so that the distinction between us and Christ is blurred. But we are, all of us, called to act the part of Christ in the world. The body is dynamic. It can be still for a time to meditate, but usually it is going places and doing stuff. This body and should go out and minister to people in need. The image of the holy house made of living stones is more static. The dynamism is in the living stones while the building stays in one place. This holy house is to be open for the Holy Spirit to fill it and just as open for people to enter and be in it. That is, we are to be living stones creating a loving environment of hospitality for all. The image of the vine and the branches is the most contemplative. While the other two images emphasize the relationships between the members, the image of the vine and the branches emphasizes the grounding of all members in God. It is an important corrective to the pantheistic pitfall of the Body of Christ image.

In themselves, these images are inspiring ideals. The reality is something different. St. Paul himself knew this full well. Just before presenting the Church as the Body of Christ, he had castigated the Corinthians for their disorderly and exclusionary suppers where some gorge themselves in front of their poorer and hungrier brothers and sisters. This same epistle began with Paul’s outrage over the divisions within the church with its party slogans that reinforced the divisions. Likewise, Luke’s claim that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) was wishful thinking as the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear. Rather than throwing out these images as unrealistic, we need to keep them before us as models we constantly fail to live up to. Without these images, we would just act like the Corinthians without a second thought. We will have to look again at the reality in relationship to these ideal images.

Then there is the matter of the stones. These living stones aren’t just any stones. The cornerstone had been rejected by the builders. What does this mean for the other living stones we are supposed to be? That is another question for further reflection.

Christian Community (2)

guestsNarthex1In essence, the kingdom Jesus encouraged his followers to enter is based on peace and forgiveness. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus announced that the kingdom was about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor, to use the summary Jesus draws from Isaiah in his inaugural sermon in Luke. The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the Jubilee year, the year that debts were to be forgiven. We should not forget that the petition in the Our Father about asking forgiveness of our sins is also about forgiving our debts. Letting the oppressed go free refers to God’s command to Pharaoh to let God’s people go. This command applies to all of us insofar as we keep even one person in bondage to us in any way, including emotional blackmail. Years ago, at a Benedictine abbots’ workshop, I head a series of conferences on biblical spirituality by Demetrius Dumm, a seasoned monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey. He said with deep solemnity that he was afraid that at the Judgment, we would each be asked one question and one question only: “Did you let my people go?”

These teachings are the primary blueprint for a community based on Christ, what some call Church, but this community that Jesus clearly tried to form did not happen in his lifetime, as recounted in my earlier post. (See Christian Community (1) This suggests that, important and fundamental as Jesus teachings are, they are no enough to form a community based on these teachings. What did form such a community was Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. But it was not just the Resurrection itself that formed the community; it was the radical preemptive forgiveness with which Jesus approached his scattered followers. If Jesus had just bashed in the heads of his persecutors, everything would have been the same and we humans would still have no alternative but to cohere through the persecution of a victim. The church was not founded on the teachings of Jesus; the Church was founded by Jesus himself acting on his teachings. In short, Jesus forgave the Church into existence.

Note that Jesus did not forgive individuals and leave them as individuals. Jesus forgave all of us as the community of humanity. Jesus could stand alone against the persecutory crowd. We cannot. Only a community gathered on a radically new principle can counteract the old human community gathered the old way. This is what St. Paul was getting at when he said we have to become members of a new humanity in Christ.

I am not talking about the church as a set of institutions with their paraphernalia of miters, Geneva gowns, pointed steeples and mega buildings. I am talking about people who consciously seek to gather in the radical forgiveness of Jesus, a gathering that precludes the persecutory mechanism as a means of binding people together. This radical act of forgiveness on the part of Jesus was made for all people at all times. This means that everybody everywhere and any time who gathers in forgiveness is within the Church regardless of what ecclesiastical cards one might or might not carry in one’s wallet. Of course, most of us gather through forgiveness some of the time at best. That means that most of us are partly in the Church and partly outside of it. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is about the world, the institutional church and each one of us. (See Christ  the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds.)

The New Testament word for Church, ekklesia, literally means “calling out of.” In this respect, everybody is in the church because everybody, without exception, is being called out human community based on persecution and called into human community based on forgiveness. Of course, some people respond to this call and some don’t. Actually, most of us respond to the call some of the time at most. Such is the case of those of us who are members of an organized church and those who wouldn’t go through a church door under any circumstances. Not even as unifying an act as pre-emptive forgiveness by the risen Jesus can avoid causing division for the simple reason that each of us is divided by a choice we have to make day by day. There is much more to a theology of Church than this, but without the attempt to gather in the risen Jesus’ radical forgiveness there is no real church at all.

 Go to Christian Community (3)

Christian Community (1)

guestsNarthex1The French modernist theologian Alfred Loisy famously quipped: “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and got the church.” This dictum pits the Jesus movement against the church that followed.

The Gospels attest to Jesus having many people gathering around him for healing and to listen to his teachings. Except for the twelve apostles and the women who, according to Mark, provided for him when he was in Galilee and followed him to the cross in Jerusalem, there is no indication of how stable the group of followers was. Since many of them had to eke out hard livings on the land, probably most people gathered around Jesus when he was in town and that was about it.

The teachings of non-retaliation and forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount and in other parables were clearly on a higher plane than his listeners could have been used to. They pose such a severe challenge that many of the greatest Christian writers have relegated these teachings to the margins and re-instituted retaliation both in moral theology and dogma. Maybe monks and nuns could turn the other cheek if a fellow monk or nun insulted them, but that was about it. No wonder Alfred Loisy and many others have grumbled about the church. Did the people who listened to Jesus and tagged along at least for a while catch on to the preaching of the kingdom based on peace and forgiveness in the midst of a world just as violent as our own? The indications I can see suggest that they probably did not.

Jesus’ closest followers consistently failed to understand and absorb Jesus’ teachings. Peter’s question as to whether or not he should forgive a brother or sister as much as seven times betrays this incomprehension. The constant bickering among the disciples as to who was the greatest further exposes their incomprehension. Mark juxtaposes this inner fighting with predictions of his crucifixion three times. Three is universally the number standing in for infinity so probably this didn’t happen just three times but an uncountable number of times. Moreover, when Jesus was arrested, he had to tell Peter to put his sword away.

The man who asked Jesus to make his brother share their inheritance equitably, only to be rebuked (along with his brother) for avarice, suggests that his listeners weren’t giving up rivalry over possessions at the drop of Jesus’ words. The crowd’s seizure of Jesus right after he had fed them bread from heaven seems to be John’s retrospective image of what Jesus’ listeners understood and hoped for.

The mysterious reversals of the crowd during Jesus’ last week are especially astonishing until we reflect on what the Gospel writer teach us about crowd psychology. All of the synoptic Gospels emphasize the fear the Jewish leaders had of the crowd. They wanted to put off the arrest until after the Passover at which point the crowd would disperse. When Jesus forced their hand, they had to do their own crowd manipulation. None of that would have worked if Jesus had spoken before Pilate. I suspect that Jesus chose to be silent because any words at all, no matter what they were, could have been construed as an encouragement to start an uprising. In the wake of Jesus’ silence, the disappointed crowd who had wanted to make him king were ready to be turned against him.

It is not productive to knock these people for being stupid, obtuse, and hard of heart. The truth is that we imitate their very stupidity, obtuseness, and hardness of heart more often than not. The followers of Jesus during Jesus’ earthly life do not give us very good models for how to listen and act. All except the few faithful women and the Beloved Disciple had deserted Jesus by the time he died. The rest of Jesus’ “followers” are very accurate mirrors that continue to stare us in the face. Then something happened. Jesus met up with the women to begin the process of re-gathering a following. Will we gather with them this time around?

Go to Christian Community (2)

King’s Banquet — God’s Banquet

wineTableFeast1The parable of the Wedding Banquet has often been understood as illustrating God’s offer of salvation that some people reject and so miss out on the fun. That understanding seems to work in Luke’s version but it doesn’t work out so well in Matthew’s. Here, the king’s invitation is met with violence which the king reciprocates with interest and then he bounces a man who isn’t dressed properly and has him thrown out into outer darkness. The severe dissonance of these details inclines me to consider alternate interpretations of this parable.

Marty Aiken has written a detailed paper arguing for just such an alternative understanding. (See “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.” He argues that Jesus’ listeners would have immediately thought of King Herod when they heard the parable. The king in the parable certainly acts like Herod. These listeners would have remembered Herod bringing an army to Jerusalem and asking the people to accept him as king. If the offer was accepted, Herod would have consummated the deal by marrying the granddaughter of the high priest Hyrcanus. There’s our wedding feast. The people of Jerusalem turned down the offer. Herod withdrew but then came back with his army and stormed the walls without stopping to negotiate. Antigonus, a descendent of the royal family, gave himself up to quell a violent situation. He was carried off in chains and beheaded by the Romans to give him a particularly humiliating death.

With this background in mind, we can see the guests who “made light of” the invitation as representing those who went home when Herod came calling and hoped everything would blow over and they could get on with business as usual. The other invited guests represent those who resisted Herod with violence. Both groups of guests are met with violent reprisals from the king in the parable. The rounding up of guests to replace the first lot is not, then, an act of charity for the poor but a forced gathering of whoever the king’s slaves could find.

With this interpretation, the cryptic scene of the man without a proper wedding garment makes sense as being the second part of the same parable and not a separate parable tacked on to this one. The king seems to be looking for a victim and he finds one handy, one who stands out by his attire. Like most kings, this one knows that the quickest way to unite a people is to focus on a victim. Moreover, this guest seems to be what we might call a nonviolent protestor, which obviously is threatening to the king. This guest’s eerie silence suggests Jesus’ silence before Pilate which Matthew emphasizes. Aiken points out that grammatically, the king could have been the speechless one, which would refer to Isaiah 52: 15 which says that kings will “shut their mouths” because of the suffering Servant. The fate of this guest is the fate Jesus himself suffers which had already been the fate of Antigonus. The Kingdom of Heaven, then, is not the banquet but the place of the victim who is cast out. Aiken recalls Jesus words in Mt. 11: 12, that up to this time, the kingdom has “suffered violence.” And so it does.

All of this is disappointing for those of us who are edified by the idea that God throws a heavenly Banquet and invites all of us to it. I find this image appealing and I don’t want to give it up. We don’t need to. The theme of what scholars call “the Messianic Banquet” is very real. The reading from Isaiah 25 is one example but treading the Moabites down into the dung pit smacks of Herod more than God. The invitation to the banquet in Isaiah 55 is much more positive and clearly is extended to everybody, presumably even the poor Moabites.

The real image of the Messianic Banquet in the Gospels is the feeding of the five thousand and four thousand in the wilderness. Here is a generous feeding to all comers with no reprisals for anybody who happened to stay away. No political force is exerted in the invitation. Nobody gets thrown out for being badly dressed. The poor are not afterthoughts, invited only the replace ungrateful aristocrats. The poor as well as the rich are all invited right from the start. The banquet offered by Jesus in the wilderness, away from the centers of worldly power, shows up the king’s banquet in the parable for what it is. Instead of an offer we cannot refuse, we are given an offer that we do not wish to refuse. This really is a cause for rejoicing always in the Lord, as St. Paul admonishes us.

Receiving Forgiveness

buddingTree1As we have noted several times, granting forgiveness and receiving forgiveness go hand in hand. Although receiving forgiveness wasn’t listed in the process of forgiveness, it is receiving forgiveness that completes the new cycle and breaks the cycle of revenge. In looking at the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we stressed the need to grant forgiveness in order to receive forgiveness. The circle works in the other direction just the same. We have to receive forgiveness in order to grant it.

Receiving forgiveness as a free gift sounds like a good deal until we remember that receiving forgiveness necessarily entails becoming aware of what we are being forgiven for. If we are convinced we have done nothing wrong, then we do not receive forgiveness no matter how often and ardently forgiveness is given us. If somebody tells us we have been forgiven, it implies that we have done something wrong to merit punishment as well as the forgiveness that is given us instead. That is to say, receiving forgiveness only makes sense when one is penitent. This does not negate the peremptory forgiveness given by God and imitated by those who imitate God as deeply as this. God’s peremptory forgiveness reveals the truth of the wrongs we have done and this forgiveness strengthens us to live up to the challenge to amend our lives.

I noted earlier that a major component of granting forgiveness is to renounce mimetic rivalry. The desire for revenge is a desire to win a victory against the person who has “defeated” us through personal injury. It is this desire to “win” that is renounced with forgiveness. There is a similar, but not identical renunciation of mimetic rivalry in accepting forgiveness. In committing sin that requires forgiveness, mimetic rivalry in the sense of seeking to dominate other people is often involved. This quest for dominance is one of the major things that need to be repented of in receiving forgiveness. Just as one becomes a “loser” in granting forgiveness, one becomes a “loser” in receiving it. This is the difficulty that Javert had in Les Miserables. (See A Miserable Gospel.) This gendarme had placed himself in perpetual mimetic rivalry through his determination to catch out Jean Valjean and bring him back to prison. This vendetta started at the moment of his release, without giving Valjean any opportunity to prove himself worthy of his release—or not. This mimetic rivalry on the part of Javert, which was never reciprocated by Valjean, made Javert relentlessly unforgiving and it made him just as relentlessly incapable of receiving forgiveness. He could not renounce his irrational quest to “win.” And so he lost everything.

Receiving forgiveness is essential for one who grants forgiveness. The temptation in granting forgiveness is to claim the higher moral ground over the one forgiven. If we think we have no need for forgiveness ourselves when we forgive others, we put ourselves above those we forgive, which is pride and, more importantly, a short-circuiting of forgiveness. This is why the Lord’s Prayer pairs praying for forgiveness with praying to receive it.

These considerations help us understand the puzzling verse in Romans 12:20. Paul tells us feed our enemies who are hungry and give water when they are thirsty for by doing this we will heap “burning coals on their heads.” Paul is quoting Proverbs 25: 22 here, which only pushes the puzzle back to the Wisdom Sage. If we are truly forgiving one who has wronged us and have renounced the desire for revenge or for someone else (God) to avenge us, then we truly wish to restore connections to the person who wronged us and to enhance that person’s well-being. Feeding and giving water to such as these as much as we give them to our own family and friends is enhancing their well-being. But what of those who cannot or will not forgive and cannot or will not receive forgiveness? Javert is an example of one who experienced a free act of forgiveness as the heaping of burning coals on his head. Valjean’s forgiveness seared his soul. Paul, and the Wisdom Sage before him, realized that forgiveness will burn the person who does not accept it. Such is the teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who was not tortured by the master but by his own inability to give and therefore receive forgiveness.

Receiving any kind of gift puts us in an inferior position to the one who gives the gift. Since forgiveness is rooted in God’s Desire, receiving forgiveness as a free gift always puts every one of us in an inferior position before God. Likewise, receiving forgiveness keeps us on the same level with other people as we forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. The Satan’s kingdom, the Empire, is fueled by the cycle of revenge. God’s Kingdom is fueled by the cycle of forgiveness. Both cycles are just as infinite but the cycle of forgiveness is infinitely larger than the other.