What Really Makes Us Unclean?

AndrewPreaching1Jesus pleaded for understanding when he threw out the words: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7: 15) He has just been debating with the Pharisees and lawyers about what is clean and unclean. He and his disciples had been accused of being unclean because they were unwashed, something that would make them unclean in today’s polite society as well. However, Jesus may not necessarily have been unwashed by our standards. The Jewish Law as understood by the Pharisees required a specific way of washing right up to the elbow and no other way of washing counted.

In a follow-up discussion with his disciples, Jesus shifted to the intake of food and said the food we take in does not defile us or make us unclean, but actions and attitudes that come out from the human heart can defile us. Mark adds that with these words, Jesus had declared all foods clean. Jesus is suggesting that certain foods had been scapegoated when they were declared unclean, with the foods being blamed for uncleanness regardless of what is in the human heart. Perhaps rejecting some foods as unclean is no big deal but Jesus is calling attention to our tendency to consider other people unclean, polluting.

With our mimetic resonance with the desires of other people, we ingest the desires of others just as we ingest food. If we experience desires that make us uncomfortable in any way, including those that should, we blame other people for arousing the desires in us and we protect ourselves by expelling them. Jesus is telling us that just as foods do not make us unclean, other people do not make us unclean either. It is what we do with the desires of other people that make us clean or unclean. We can indeed be corrupted by bad company but if we spew out the envy and slander and pride we ingested from others back at them, or, more likely, at others with fewer defenses, then we ourselves are bad company threatening to corrupt others.

This gives us another angle on Jesus’ famous warning that if we judge, we will be judged, because when we judge, we see the speck in the eye of the other but don’t see the log in our own. (Mt. 7: 1-5) We think that any envy, deceit or licentiousness we experience in ourselves comes from the other, and maybe we do catch these traits from another, like catching a virus. But a virus caught from another only hurts us if our own bodies react in destructive ways to make us sick. Likewise, the envy, deceit and licentiousness of another only make us sick if allow them to flare up inside of us. If we then expel them in the direction of others, they become the victims of what has come out of us. Even when defiling desires really are coming out of other people, our own defiling desires in response only magnify the impurity in the social atmosphere. That is, the uncleanness is neither in ourselves nor in the other. Defilement occurs only in relationships built upon projecting and expelling the perceived defilement of others.

If we should pull the logs out of our own eyes rather than judge others, then a strange alchemy can take place where what we take in from others becomes pure, or at least becomes a lot less impure than it was, and the social atmosphere becomes better. When the social atmosphere gets better, we can all breathe in the Holy Spirit.

Christian Community (6): The Church as Bride of Christ

NewJerusalemAnother biblical image of the Church is the Bride of Christ. Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of the water of the Word so as to present the church to him in splendor, without a spot or winkle of any kind.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Here, Paul interweaves the image of spouse with that of the family as a whole with its hierarchical aspects. Before taking too much umbrage at the apparent subordination of women to men in these verses, it is important to note the Christological dimensions of these admonitions. The husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. That is, the husband must first subordinate himself to Christ before he can properly function as the head of anybody else. By saying that Christ gave himself up for his bride, the Church, Paul makes it clear that subordinating oneself to Christ means subordinating oneself to the self-giving of Jesus, a self-giving that took him to the cross. This doesn’t leave any room for dominating anybody in a domineering manner. Indeed, although parents have authority over children, Paul cautions against “provoking them to anger.” (Eph. 6:4)

In Revelation, the seer sees a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:2) This deepens the Christological dimensions of the bridal imagery for the Church. Throughout this book, the seer sees imperial violence for the destructive force that it is and its inevitable collapse under its own violence. Meanwhile, although the Lion of Judah was announced to make an appearance, presumably to exact divine vengeance, which is what most people expect and hope for, what actually appears is “a lamb appearing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Rev. 5: 5-6) That is, just as Jesus confounded the peoples’ expectations of what kind of Messiah they would get, the risen Christ confounds these expectations yet again, which is precisely what the risen Christ died when he ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

There is a paradox in this bridal imagery because, although  spouses are fundamental to families, they share an intimacy that other members of the family simply cannot share. In fact, the fecundity of the spousal relationship, that most usually manifests in producing children but can take many other forms for nurturing other people, requires the unsharable intimacy at its core. I have noticed acts of intimacy among spouses that go beyond physical acts of affection that show the depth of their union, such as sharing food off each other’s plates at meals. This is something I notice when I am the table server at the monastery.

The Church, as Bride of Christ, is foreshadowed by Hosea who married a prostitute and remained faithful to her throughout her infidelities. The prostitute, Gomer, stands for unfaithful Israel and for unfaithful us to this very day. More positively, the Church as bride is also foreshadowed in the Song of Songs where the playful hide-and-seek games of the lovers celebrates the hide-and-seek games we play with God and God plays with us.

The stronger paradox of the image of the Church as Bride of Christ is that every member of the Church shares the marital intimacy with God. That is, we share marital union with Christ and with each other. In this way, the image of the church as “living stones” is personalized in a deep union through mimetic resonance with one another in Christ’s Body. It is this image we see acted out at the Wedding at Cana where Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the Bride. The deeper we move into brideship with Christ, the more subordinationism among humans melts away and we experience our fundamental equality and unity in Christ. Within this union, Christ is the head of each and every one of us in an intimacy beyond our imagining even at times we experience in in fleeting moments.

See also: Christian Community (3), Mimetic Resonance, Strange Wedding

Bread that is Enough

eucharist1In reflecting on the journey through the desert, Moses in Deuteronomy says that God humbled the people to teach them—and us—that we do not live by bread alone. (Deut. 8:3) So often we think that our needs are biological and if we can fill them we’ll be just fine. But somehow the daily bread we pray for every day is not quite enough. Actually, the Greek word epiousion usually translated as “daily” means something quite different. Literally it means super-substantial which is a philosophical mouthful. To add to the puzzle, no other use of the word has been found, not even among Greek philosophers. It has been interpreted as referring to the Eucharist which is both bread and more than bread, but it seems anachronistic to suggest that Jesus was sneaking some medieval scholastic theology into the prayer he was teaching his disciples. On the other hand, it is understandable that medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas would understand the word eucharistically. Obscure as the Greek word’s meaning is, the one thing that is moderately clear is that it suggests that physical daily bread that is enough to live on biologically is not enough and we need more. In this respect it could be a brief commentary on the just-quoted verse from Deuteronomy.

There are many ways we speak of needing more than bread, most often by noting our need for a meaningful life. After all, eating and sleeping doesn’t add up to very much no matter how good the food is. Given that, it is instructive that in the desert journey and in the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the wilderness, the people seem to be interested in more food  than in a sense of meaning to life. In John, in spite of the abundance of the feeding in the wilderness, the crowd demands to have this bread always. If we remain stuck at this level, various distortions follow.

The complaints that Moses should have left the people in the “fleshpots” of Egypt is an egregious example of this sort of distortion. Maybe the fare in the desert isn’t luxurious but the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and slave owners have never, in all of world history, gained any kind of reputation as servers of opulent meals to their slaves for all the work slaves might do in serving such meals to others. Further on, the manna appears as if from heaven and the Israelites gather it. Those who gathered more and those who gathered less all had “enough.” They were warned not to try to gather more than enough but many tried it anyway and the manna became foul and full of worms. Quite an apt image for what we get when we try to get too much. Our tendency to try to gather more of anything than we need is an indication that we need more than bread but we are trying to meet that need by gathering more bread. Usually what gathering “more” means is gathering more than other people for the sake of having more than other people. Once we want more than others, it is still never possible under any circumstances to have enough because if we already have more than others, we’ll still want more to make sure they don’t catch up.

In John, when Jesus says that he himself is the bread, he is clearly taking them to a meaning that would bring home the truth that humanity does not live by bread alone. If they really come to him, they will have enough: they will never hunger again. Or will they? Jesus says that they have to believe in him. Raymund Brown says that faith means giving their lives over to the way of Jesus. Will we do that? What is the life Jesus gives us like?

In Ephesians, Paul says that the life Jesus gives us consists of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with each other in love. We are to be one Body in Christ, the same body that we consume in the Eucharist. Being twisted to and fro and being blown about by every wind of doctrine is a powerful way of illustrating what it is like to be caught in the insatiable desire to have what everybody else wants and to have more of it. In contrast, the Body of Christ is solid, anchored. Where the winds of doctrine leave us famished no matter how much bread we have, in Christ’s Body we are gifted with being prophets, apostles, pastors, and teachers all being built together in Christ’s Body. That is, in Christ’s Body we all have enough because we are always feeding one another at all levels of our being as we build each other up in love. Sounds like life to me. Let’s try it.

Early Rejections of Sacrifice

Antigone_5369-MichelidesOne of the chief tenets of René Girard’s theory about sacred violence is that humanity was not capable of seeing the truth about what it was doing until Jesus revealed the truth in his passion and resurrection. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) This is quite a sweeping judgment but outside of the Hebrew Bible there is close to nothing that comes to mind to refute this generalization. Girard’s theory would predict this to be the case and Paul’s assertions that humanity is enslaved by sin too deeply to escape it without the help of Divine grace would also corroborate this position. One would have to have read everything written or recorded from history up to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection to have a basis for presenting an airtight case.  However, considering that we are all created by God with mimetic desire with its potential for good, one might think that some people may have caught at least to some extent.

An interesting phenomenon that occurred between the eighth and third centuries BC that is customarily called the Axial Age points to a collective awakening in humanity. In several cultures, there was a questioning of and withdrawal from sacrifice. It was the Hebrew prophets who were by far the most articulate on the subject and coupled their concerns with the revealing collective violence behind it. In India, the Brhamanas edged away from sacrifice as Girard pointed out and Brian Collins collaborated at greater length in The Head beneath the Altar. The Upanishadic tradition turned to intense inward meditation as did Jainism and Buddhism.  They all seem to have seen a smoking gun in sacrificial rituals. It is instructive that these new movements in India rejected the Vedic caste system although Jainism created a caste system of its own which was less hierarchal, at least relatively speaking.  In China, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu preached withdrawal from conflictive societies to seek union with the Tao. Confucius remained involved with society but developed an ethic seeking to limit mimetic rivalry. It occurs to me that the ancestral rites in honor of ancestors were an extension of filial respect in this life that could limit conflict between generations. Many examples of insights into the problem of mimetic violence could be noted. I will confine myself to two powerful examples.

One of the most memorable teachings attributed to the Buddha is the Parable of the Burning House in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. A dilapidated house catches fire while the children are playing inside. They are so absorbed in their games that they do not want to come out of the burning house, no matter how urgently their father calls them. In the end, he has to make extravagant promises of the rarest and greatest of toy chariots and oxen to entice them to come out. Once the children are outside the house and are safe, they wonder where the toys are. Their father, being very rich, gives them carriages of great size and beauty, way beyond their wildest, childish dreams. For one steeped in mimetic realism, it is not difficult to see the burning of a dilapidated house as an image of a society engulfed in mimetic violence that threatens  to destroy the society, much as the Flood in Noah’s time threatens to destroy humanity. Once taken outside the house, something done through deep meditation in Buddha’s teaching, all is calm. Given the phenomenon of scarcity caused by mimetic rivalry, it is instructive that once the children are outside the burning house, there is mind-boggling abundance such as the abundance Jesus created in the wilderness for the four and five thousand people. (See Mimetic Scarcity)

The other example is the Theban plays of Sophocles. Oedipus the King has been studied at length by Girard and Sandor Goodhart for the mimetic tensions and the scapegoating of Oedipus who is blamed for the plague, another image of a society in mimetic crisis. Goodhart argues in Sacrificing Commentary that Sophocles seems to believe that Oedipus is innocent and covertly gives clues for the reader or watcher of a performance to see this, but he is carefully subtle about it. After all, plays in Athens were performed at the Festival of Dionysius, a highly sacrificial god who was torn into pieces and whose devotees tore people into pieces during their frenzies. In Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke demonstrates that in Antigone, Sophocles takes his insights much deeper. Antigone shows a deep self-sacrificing love by burying her brother’s body against orders from Creon to desist. Since Antigone cannot actually dig a grave, she buries her brother by scattering ashes over his body, an image revealing the truth about death. She dies a sacrificial death for her defiance, but she dies not as a sacrificial victim but on her own terms, as Jesus died on his own terms and not those of Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas. Since Antigone dies outside of the city, she has died outside of the system of the persecutory polis. In this way, Reinecke suggests that she has become a figure of Christ.

Foreigners and Strangers

statueoflibertyI’m not going to brag about how great a country the United States of America is, but I’m not going to condemn it either. The lections assigned for this celebration tell us how to celebrate this day and that is how I’m going to do it.

In Deuteronomy (10:17-21), Yahweh claims to be the God of Gods. That is God is God of all nations, not just Israel and certainly not just of the United States. Yahweh goes on to remind the Israelites of their humble origins as escaped slaves and commands them to lend the same compassion to other foreigners. It is easy for us to forget that all of us here are descended from foreigners, even the Native Americans, although they go way back. Yahweh, who defends the poor and the fatherless, embraces the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free. As descendants of tired and poor teeming masses yearning to breathe free, we should open this country to those whom Yahweh loves and not just to the energetic, rich people who breathe easily. In order for a country to practice such radical hospitality, it is necessary to practice the same hospitality to all who already live here so that others may wish to come.

When we gather in any way, whether as a family, a community, or a nation, we need to be sure that our bonding is not at the expense of others. That is, we should not need enemies to know who we are or who we think we are. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, which amounts to not considering anyone our enemies, even if they think that of us. Jesus says that pagans greet those who are of “their sort.” Jesus asks much more of us than that. If God gives rain to all, then we should give peace to all. That is, we should treat those of other countries the way we treat our own, provided we treat our own as the passage from Deuteronomy teaches us.

The author of Hebrews (11:816) reminds us that our country, any country, is not ultimate, is not our final dwelling place. Even the most supposedly settled of us were nomads once and fundamentally we still are. We all should be looking for a “better country—a heavenly one” while we live as foreigners and strangers here. If we all live as foreigners, we will not be strangers to each other and we will be surprised at how pleasant our stopping place is on the Way to the better Home.

Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyWe are so used to passing the collection plate in church that we easily overlook the importance of the collection Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15 and elsewhere. The emotion and enthusiasm that gushes from Paul’s pen tells us that the collection was of the upmost importance to him. It behooves us to consider how important it was.

Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) while exhorting the Ephesians to help the weak through hard work. This concern for the weak in Jerusalem is one of the factors that inspired the collection. The joy Paul would have us take in giving is accentuated when we consider that Paul’s word for giving generously and joyfully is hilaritas. That is, we should give with hilarity.

Paul shamelessly spurs the Corinthians on to a bit of competitive generosity by boasting of how the Macedonians gave even beyond their means while urgently pleading “for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 8:5). Competition has its problems but I don’t think Paul is holding a contest for who could give the most to the collection. Rather, Paul is holding up the Macedonians as an example to follow, hoping that their enthusiasm will inspire a like enthusiasm in Corinth.  What Paul is urging is a chain reaction of generosity that will spread throughout the churches.

Paul emphasizes the importance of sharing out of abundance, or at least having enough for sustenance, with the hope that such generosity might be reciprocated if the roles were reversed. This is what Paul is getting at in advocating “equality.” In a helpful online article, Sam Marsh suggests that the reason this equality is important to Paul is because he does not want to set up anything resembling a patron-client relationship between the Gentile churches and Jerusalem. The Roman institution of patronage is one of many ways power remained entrenched with those who already had it. Paul is envisioning something very different: a matrix of mutual giving where there is need where everybody takes turns in giving and receiving.

The unity of the church also emerges as a principal motivation for the collection. When Paul met with the elders in Jerusalem, as reported in Galatians 2, Paul said he was admonished to remember their poor, which he very much wanted to do. The debate over admitting Gentiles without circumcision was decided Paul’s favor but later correspondence shows much lingering tension over the issue. If the Gentiles of Macedonia, Ephesus and Corinth should send what money they can spare to Jerusalem, it would be a powerful sign of fellowship uniting one church in Christ.  Paul’s making sure that representatives other churches accompany him to Jerusalem is another indications of mistrust of Paul in the church of Jerusalem.

Most important is the Christological dimension to the collection. Contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty could become rich (1 Cor. 8: 9). This verse has been enshrined in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. We can’t help but recall the famous verse in Philippians where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. This is a far cry from the billionaire who writes a few tax-deductible charity donations from the comfort of his or her mansion. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.

Given the eschatological overtones of Paul’s hope for union of Jew and Gentile, this collection may well have had eschatological significance for Paul, not in an otherworldly way, but as a seismic shift in human culture. The Jewish prophets exhorted the rich to give alms to the poor, but this is the first instance in human history that I can think of where a collection of money was taken up for the relief of those in need. Paul started something momentous. It is up for us to finish the job.

Mimetic Resonance

Xenia1If we desire through the desires of other people, do we have any freedom in our desires, or are our desires determined by the desires of others? And then are other people’s desires determined by ours? This starts to look like a vicious circle, similar to the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry where nobody started the fight; it seems that it had no beginning and maybe will have no end. Actually, this vicious circle of determining each other’s desires undergirds the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry. Nobody starts a cycle of desire; it was already there before it started, or so it seems. (See Human See, Human Want.)

Questions of free will and determinism are the staple of philosophy, often starting with Philosophy 101. Most of us are humiliated at any notion of not being totally free in our desires and our actions. After all, many of our ancestors fought for freedom and many of us are still fighting for it. Besides, if we are not free in our actions, we are not responsible for what we do and we can’t hold anybody accountable for anything. On the other hand, we there are well-known factors that seem to compromise freedom. Psychoanalysis often suggests we are determined by our subconscious, at least until we become more conscious of what is there. Social and environmental forces can greatly shrink options for many. St. Paul writes about how we are slaves to sin unless freed by Christ. What about mimetic desire?

Mimetic desire is often presented in small scenarios such as two people in a bookstore converging on the same book on the sale table. Were both determined by mimetic desire beyond any free will? In the broader scheme of things, many people model many desires to us to the extent that we simply cannot imitate all of them all of the time. That is, there is a lot more going on than two people converging on the sale table. Do we choose what model to follow when there are many of them? It seems likely that in such cases we do make choices, or at least we can and do make them some of the time. To the degree that mimetic desire is deterministic (if it is at all), the desire modeled by the most people will likely win out, or the desire modeled by the person with the greatest impact, such as a parent or best friend will have the strongest effect, maybe even a determinative one. If most of my friends like Mozart, chances increase that I will like Mozart. But then why do I hang out with a Mozart crowd instead of a Led Zeppelin crowd? Of course, this question only applies if both crowds are moving about in my environment.

One can speculate endlessly about such questions but I am going to cut to the chase with a suggestion that gives us a sense of direction for approaching them. The way mirror neurons seem to work is that they resonate with the visible intentions of others. (See Mirroring Desires) These intentions are fueled by desires. This resonance happens on a pre-conscious level. That is, we resonate with the desires of others before we know it is happening, and maybe we never realize it is happening. Our environments are complex and that means that we are resonating with many desires. Many of us working with Girard’s thought call this a field of desires, using an analogy with the gravitational field in Einstein’s physics. Just as moving objects exert a force on other moving objects, desires in a field move other desires in that field.   At this level, I wonder if “mimetic desire” is actually the best term for this phenomenon. Are we necessarily desiring what others are desiring at this stage? Maybe, at least in some cases. But maybe not. I suggest that we use the term “mimetic resonance” for this stage of interacting with the desires and intentions of others. This pinpoints the reality that all of these desires are exerting an influence on us while our desires are influencing them in return.

This mimetic resonance tends to be pre-conscious but it is possible to cultivate a greater awareness of this resonant mimetic field through self-discipline. Of course, the more people who model this self-discipline, the better the chances that I might. These resonances may pull us primarily in one direction or they might pull us in many, depending on how homogeneous or heterogeneous the environment. Sooner or later, usually sooner, we have to act on some of these ambient desires and that is where it is more meaningful to speak of “mimetic desire,” even if this mimesis is still not conscious. So when one person reaches for the book on the sale table that another had just looked, and the first person becomes more interested in the book than before, we are seeing mimetic desire in action, even if neither believe they area imitating the other.

So let’s consider introducing “mimetic resonance” into our vocabulary?