Selling Postcards of the Cross

crucifix1“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown.”

White boys like me mostly didn’t know what Bob Dylan was singing about when “Desolation Row” first came out on “Highway 61 Revisited.” James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree tells us it was about lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle where people took pictures and made postcards out of them.

Cone goes on to argue that the lynching tree was a series of grisly re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus. He also demonstrates on how very difficult it has been and still is for Americans to see this truth. Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the greatest American theologian was, in spite of his social concerns, blind to this reality. Even black people have had trouble seeing this connection, though Cone shows how some black women, especially Ida B. Wells articulated it powerfully. He contrasts Niebuhr and all white liberals with Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line.

The dynamics of lynching as analyzed by Cone provide powerful confirmation of the theory of collective violence of René Girard. (See my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Girard argues that perpetrators instinctively fail to see what they are going. Cone shows us this truth in a powerful manner.

Dylan goes on to sing that “the circus is in town” and then catalogs Western Civilization turned topsy-turvy, suggesting that lynching does this, thanks to the “blind commissioner.”

Cone is right about whites’ blindness to this truth, but Dylan did write “The Ballad of Emmett Tell” in 1963, telling the story in stark terms, though without any Christian reference except to complains that the human race has fallen “down so god-awful low.” Then there is Mark Twain who wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom,” calling lynching for what it was and clearly discussing the human mimesis just as Girard was to do half a century later.

Cone’s book is written calmly, even gently. There is no mincing of words, yet the words are somehow full of forgiveness. The forgiveness in Cone’s words, the forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus, should be enough to undermine our trust in ourselves and our ability to see what we are doing. We must repent not only of lynching, but of our collective hatred of enemies today.

A Risen Life Full of Forgiveness and Love

crosswButterfliesHere is my favorite thought experiment: Imagine that everybody around you ganged up on you, leveled incredible accusations against you, and rained savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?

Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed: gather God’s people in peace by peaceful means only. That is, after his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount: return evil with good, hatred with love. The fullness of Jesus ‘forgiving love can be as earth-shattering as an earthquake or as gentle as stepping through a wall.

If Jesus were dead and there was a body in the tomb for the women to anoint, chances are that Jesus’ disciples would either have remained in hiding or they would have reacted to the violent act of the crucifixion with violence. But in Luke the young men in white asked the women: “Why seek the living among the dead?” That is, God did not will the death of Jesus, God willed life for Jesus because that is what God wills for each one of us. As long as we stop at Jesus’ death, we also stop at the grief and anger and that leads to violence. If we move on to the life of Jesus, than there isn’t the same room for grief and anger because Jesus is alive and wants us to be alive in Him.

In short order, Peter passes on the same absence of revenge of Jesus’ persecutors and fullness of forgiving love for them when he tells the people in Jerusalem precisely what they had done, sticking to the bare facts and not adding irrelevant insults the way we usually do in such situations. When Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader. Peter had heard the cock crow, repented and accepted Christ’s forgiveness and love. Peter was a weak human being like the rest of us. If Peter is like us, we can be like him.

See also Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.

What Humans Willed: the Passion Story

crucifix1At the abbey where I live, I preach at the Maundy Thursday liturgy and the Easter Vigil. I do not preach on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the two liturgies where we chant the Passion. The Passion is long enough without added sermons and the Passion speaks for itself. That is, it speaks for itself as long as we don’t add things it does not say that undermine what the Passion does say.

To belabor what should be the obvious, the Passion Story tells us what human beings chose to do. Jesus chose to drive the money changers from the temple and teach the people there. The Jewish authorities chose to plot to have Jesus arrested and handed over to the Roman authorities. Judas chose to betray Jesus, thus facilitating the arrest and handing over. Pilate, to varying degrees in the four Gospels, vacillated but in the end chose to sentence Jesus to crucifixion. Meanwhile, the people who had cheered Jesus upon entering Jerusalem ended up crying for his crucifixion. The Roman centurions nailed Jesus to the cross where he died. The Passion narratives say nothing to suggest that anything that was done to Jesus, from the arrest to harassment and flogging to nailing him to the cross was in any way the will of God.

In all this, God does not do anything. Why do I bother to make a big point of this? The reason is that many Christians have suggested that God positively willed the sacrifice of Jesus for some cosmic purpose, usually because God was upset with wayward humans and was somehow incapable of forgiving humans unless somebody took the punishment for human sin. If Jesus, innocent of sin, should take the punishment, well and good. Well, not well and good. What kind of god demands punishment and doesn’t care who gets punished as long as somebody does? The Passion Story never says anything of the kind.

If God did not will Jesus’ violent death, what did God will? What was God’s plan? Jesus understood the heavenly Father’s plan to be that he Jesus knew that if he defeated Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate with force would only keep the world forever embroiled in retaliatory violence. The only way to avoid that was to gather people peacefully no matter the outcome, even if it meant death.

But Death, much as it was the plan of humans, was not God’s plan as a group of women found out early in the morning on the first day of the week.

See also Two Ways of Gathering

 

The First Supper

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyBy the time Jesus gathered with his disciples for what is called “the last supper,” not only had the social tensions in Jerusalem reached a point where all parties agreed that Jesus must be put to death, but the tensions among Jesus’ disciples had formed against him as well. The disciples’ fighting over who was the greatest, their incomprehension of his predictions that he would be put to death and their collective disapproval of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil all led to this point. In their current collective frame of mind and heart, there was a real possibility that all of them would either join the crowd in crying for crucifixion, or would band together after his death as a tightknit rebellious group united by resentment over the death of their leader, thus thwarting the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim. Jesus had one last chance to do something that would keep his life and intentions alive for his disciples. He did two things.

The first thing Jesus did was wash the feet of his disciples. The act was so simple that anybody could do it, even a child. If the disciples follow this simple command, they will not have time to harbor resentment over their master’s death and plot vengeance for the deed. Instead, this simple act that embodies love and concern for others will cause that love and concern to grow within their hearts and drive out resentment and a desire for revenge. If more and more people imitate each other in imitating Jesus in this action, then the entire social order of the day will crumble around the communal life that emerges through this simple action.

The second thing Jesus did was tell them to eat bread that was his body and drink wine that was his blood in remembrance of him. Jesus was not just telling the disciples that he was about to die for them. That would be comprehensible, if unsettling. Rather, Jesus was telling them that his very life was being given to them. Jesus was not giving himself as a corpse in the hope that the world might become a better place if enough people felt bad about killing him. Jesus was giving himself as a living being. Only when Jesus disciples broke bread and passed the cup of wine in memory of Jesus would they begin to realize the extent to which the living Jesus was giving them his life, life that he possessed in abundance in spite of the fact that he had been nailed to a cross and left to hang there until dead.

This is why Jesus was hosting the first supper of a new beginning for us all.

For comments on Passover see Eucharist (1) 

Crying out with Palm Branches in our Hands

AndrewPalmSunday1Jesus entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of crowds strewing branches before him and proclaiming him the king. A few days later, the same crowd gathered before Pilate to cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion. What happened?

Before answering this question, it is helpful to recall another crowd that went out into the desert to see John the Baptist. “What did you come out to see?” John asked them. “A reed blowing in the wind?” John suspects that people have come out in droves because people were coming out in droves. That is, it was the “in” thing to do. Fast forward a few months and we have a crowd at Herod’s palace supporting Salome’s request for John’s head on a dish. What did they come to see?

The post Ignominious Glory—Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology goes a long way in explaining this phenomenon. One can’t help but suspect that people are crying out because everybody else is crying out, no matter what the outcry is about. Advertising usually does not advertise the product but its alleged popularity. Political campaigns do the same thing. What would happen if people stopped to listen to what people were actually saying instead of crying out what they think everybody else is crying out?

It so happens that the Gospels do precisely this. The suggestion that the Gospels are Passion narratives with long introductions gives short shrift to what the Gospels are about. What these “long introductions” do is tell us at great length what Jesus actually said and what he taught. They also tell us what Jesus did before he was nailed to the cross, i.e. he healed people and cast out demons and he unilaterally forgave sins. These “long introductions” also tell us why the power brokers in Judea and Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead. By reading these “long introductions” to the Passion narrative, we are drawn away from crying out what everybody else is crying out and waving signs that only proclaim what the current fashion is believed to be. Instead, we are drawn into a very different social mimetic process, a process that builds up mutual respect between people, seeing people as they really are and as they really can become when they receive the unilateral forgiveness that Jesus gives them, a social process of not retaliating for wrongs done, a socially mimetic process of forgiving debts, of sharing what we can, of offering healing to others.

It is instructive that the Palm Sunday liturgy begins with everybody playing the part of the crowd welcoming Jesus with palms and then, a bit later, we hold these palms while acting the part of the crowd in crying out for Jesus’ death during the reading or chanting of the Passion. What we need to do afterward is return to the “long introductions” to see what the fuss was about and hopefully, hear the cock crow as did Peter.

I develop these ideas in my book Tools for Peace.

A City Consumed with Buying and Selling

guesthouse1“If there was just one person who could show everyone there is another way. . . . If someone stood up in the middle of the city, with everyone watching, and did something that brought them nothing in return, and happiness to others . . . it might start something that couldn’t be stopped.”

These words are spoken by a 13-year-old girl in The Midnight Charter, the first volume of the Agora Trilogy by David Whitley. These words are a powerful statement of a positive use of mimetic desire (see Human See, Human Want). Lilly says these words in a city called Agora (Greek for market), a city where everything and everybody is bought and sold and all receipts are stored in the city bureaucracy. Even emotions can be bought and sold thanks to a strange technology developed for the purpose. A sort of capitalism gone mad. This shows how deep competitive mimetic desire can be, as René Girard demonstrates. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

While Lilly starts to put her idea into practice by starting an almshouse, something unprecedented in the city, her friend Mark is consumed by a mimetic process that puts him at the pinnacle of the society while too young (thirteen) to realize how delusionary it was until it was too late. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy.)

The fortunes of these two protagonists and the powerful social forces that surround them are explored with ever-increasing depth in the second and third books of the trilogy. In Children of the Lost, Lilly and Mark, suddenly thrust out of Agora, enter a wilderness where the subconscious (the “Nightmare”) engulfs the villagers who live there. Well, the emotions bought and sold in Agora have to go somewhere. The nightmare shows itself most strongly in an act of collective violence, the end result of the denial of mimetic desire. In the midst of all this, Mark begins to really learn how to be a caring human being.

The final volume Canticle of Whispers brings the trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Here, we meet another society, this one living underground, that turns out to be a collective puppet for the fragmented desires of those who live above them until they are freed by Lilly and Mark. The mimetic process started by Lilly in Agora continues in her absence because other people have imitated her desire to help others. One of the greatest strengths of the series is that many characters who seem fairly insignificant emerge in unexpected ways to have great significance, sometimes for ill, sometimes for good.

This trilogy shows us that here are Y/A novels out there that can instruct young readers and older seasoned readers as well, into the depths of mimetic desire. I strongly urge anyone working with youth to take notice.

“Stupid” Galatians, Stupid Us

peacePole1Galatians Re-imagined by Brigitte Kahl gives us a major and salutary paradigm shift in our understanding of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

1)      Kahl explores the extent (considerable) that the Celtic tribes, known collectively as Galatians were archetypal designated enemies of the Roman Empire, i.e. representative of lawlessness vis-à-vis Roman lawfulness. (Never mind how violent Roman law was.) The many sculptures of dying Gauls attest to Roman dominance of their designated enemies.

2)      The Pergamum frieze (likely what St. John the Divine called “the seat of Satan”) depicting the defeat of the “giants” by the Olympian deities is analyzed as an embodiment of Greek & Roman dominance of demonized enemies, i.e. the Galatians. Kahl also gives a chilling analysis of the sacrificial nature of gladiatorial games and how social mimetic tensions were channeled into these games.

3)      After several genocidal conquests, the Galatians in Asia Minor were “tamed” & integrated (uneasily) into the Roman power structure where they do to other enemies of the Empire what the Empire had done to them.

4)      Kahl then analyzes the uneasy status of the Jews in the Empire, allowing them to avoid direct participation in the Emperor’s cult in exchange for Jewish support of the Roman power structure.

5)      This provides the background to the bitter debate over circumcision in the epistle. For Paul, Jews and Gentiles are only fully reconciled in Christ if the two remain distinct while united, i.e. Jews are circumcised and Gentiles are not. To the Roman power structure, the notion of an uncircumcised person not participating in the imperial cult was an abomination, a confusion of categories. For those Jews who had accommodated themselves to the Roman Empire, this was a source of anxiety as it could jeopardize their fragile standing with the Empire, which proved to be the case.

6)      If Kahl is right, then Paul was not battling a Judaizing tendency but rather was battling an accommodation to the imperial structures, thus allowing the Roman Empire to define the relationships between Jews and Gentiles on their terms. This is why Paul is so insistent that the relationship between the two must be on Christ’s terms. The “stupid” Galatians were not in danger of backsliding into Jewishness but into the tyranny of the Empire, a danger we all face when tempted to allow contemporary imperial structures organize our outlook instead of Christ. Allowing the Empire to define our relationships assures that they will be violent because violence is the essence of Empire. (Divide and conquer.) Caring for one another in the reconciliation of Christ threatens imperial violence.

This list hardly does justice to the thorough research of this book. I strongly recommend it for its fresh and vital understanding of this important epistle of Paul, one that gives us a deep vision of the new humanity in Christ Paul was longing for.