PETER AND PAUL: The Church’s Quest for Mimetic Unity

Sts_Peter_and_PaulThe presence of two strong personalities roughly the same sphere of influence is a perfect recipe for mimetic rivalry that can tear the social fabric apart until it is resolved either through implosion or collective violence against a victim. There is evidence that precisely these sorts of tensions played out between Saints Peter and Paul but there is also evidence of attempts at reconciliation between the two and further reconciliation on their behalf in the early Church to provide a very different model for the relationship between two strong outstanding personalities.

In the Acts of the Apostles Luke seems to have taken great pains to balance the impact of the missionary work of these two apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That Peter drops out of the narrative half way through the book and the seemingly abrupt ending with Paul awaiting trial in Rome diminishes the importance of even these great saints and emphasizes their subordination to the Holy Spirit. At the momentous Council of Jerusalem where the two apostles meet, at the heart of the book, the situation is ripe for conflict, but Luke presents the Council as an amicable solution to their conflict. Luke heightens the reconciliation by having Peter speak up Paul him in with words that sound a lot like a speech Paul could have made himself. That is, Peter imitates Paul to support his position at a time when he could have become a mimetic double in conflict with him. Peter’s earlier struggle over the appropriateness of preaching to of the Gentiles resolved by his vision of a sheet coming down from Heaven with both clean and unclean animals on it sets up this reconciliation. James plays the role of the mediator who states the amicable solution that allocates a separate sphere for Jews and Gentiles so that the two groups need not compete but are given space to follow the guidance of the Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells a different story full of tension. Although Peter and gave Paul received “the right hand of fellowship” in Jerusalem, he later found it necessary oppose Peter “to his face” for rejecting table fellowship with Gentiles. Perhaps Peter had suffered a relapse of his own tendency to be swayed by the wrong mimetic crowd, such as happened to him in the courtyard of the high priest when he was surrounded by fellow Jews were against that fellowship. We never learned if this quarrel was ever healed between them in this life before it was healed posthumously in the hagiography and liturgy of the Church but there are hints that it probably was.

In writing to the Corinthians, Paul took pains to quell rivalry that had triangulated him with Peter by taking them severely to task for using such slogans as: “I am for Paul,” “I am for Cephas.” Far from fanning the flames of conflict, Paul distances himself from it in no uncertain terms and renounces any possible gain he might get from the “Paul” Party in Corinth. Although Peter is not believed to be the author of the Second Epistle bearing his name, it is significant that he refers to “our brother Paul, who is so dear to us.” At the very least, these words attest to the Church’s corporate effort to maintain a peaceful relationship between the two apostles. Peter says that Paul wrote “with the wisdom that is his special gift,” but then he cautions his readers that some points in Paul’s letters are hard to understand and are “easily distorted by uneducated and unbalanced people.” Tension and reconciliation between the two great apostles are themselves held in close tension here. A generation later, St. Clement of Rome writes the Corinthians to rage over an “abominable and unholy schism” in the community fueled by jealousy and envy. As a counter-example, Clement describes the deaths of Peter and Paul, stressing the harmony between the two great apostles. A century or so later, St. Ireneaus called the Church of Rome “the greatest and most ancient Church, founded by the two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” Archaeological investigations along the Appian Way have unearthed rooms with inscriptions honoring both saints together and a bronze medal dating from the first half of the second century pictures the heads of the two saints on the same side of the medal.

The Golden Legend, a 13th century compilation of saints’ lives by Jacob of Voragine is not the book one goes to for the most accurate history of the early church or anything else, but it is one of the best books for studying the way saints have been presented as models to the faithful. In his entry on Paul, Jacob explicitly curbs the alleged rivalry with St. Peter when he says: “We find that at different times Paul is portrayed as Peter’s inferior, as greater than Peter or as Peter’s equal, but the fact is that he was inferior in dignity, greater in preaching, and equal in holiness.” Jacob seals this unity by affirming the early Church’s legend that they were martyred under Nero on the same day. Before they were parted for their executions, Jacob records that Peter and Paul exchanged benedictions of each other.

This reconciliation between these two apostles is effected by their sharing the same feast day on June 29 when the other apostles get a day each for themselves. The Magnificat antiphon for First Vespers of this feast says: “Peter and Paul were at one in their love of the Lord: neither in life nor death were they divided.” The second half of this text comes from David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:23), so that a verse referring to the protracted mimetic struggle between David and Saul is applied to another problematic relationship to heal whatever division there may have been in real life and offer the Church a model of mimetic amity.

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Dispossessing a Town Possessed: The Gerasene Demoniac

peacePole1The story of the Gerasene demoniac and the herd of pigs running off a cliff bewilders modern readers. In his book The Scapegoat, René Girard offers an anthropological interpretation based on the concept of mimetic desire. According to this theory, the desires of all the people in any town, not just Geresa, are intertwined. That is all of the people are possessed by each other. If one person stands out as being “possessed,” that person is possessed by mimetic rivalries in the town that have reached (or sustain) a crisis level  that is pushed into one victim, the “designated patient,” to use the term of Ed Friedman.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive on the scene, they are not greeted by the mayor or any of the “normal” people; they are greeted by the demoniac who begs Jesus not to torment him (them). That the demon(s) gives its name as “Legion” confirms that this man is possessed by the community, including political possession of the Romans as possession by an invader increases the tensions within a local community. The demoniac is regularly chained but regularly breaks free in a pattern that mimics the repetition of ritual. That is to say, this pattern represents the town’s sense of stability, much as the incarceration of multitudes of black youths from the ghettos gives the US a similar sense of stability today. 

Jesus sends the demons into the herd of pigs that then runs off a cliff into the sea. We have here an interesting reversal of the scapegoating mechanism since usually it is the town that drives a single victim off the cliff, a fate Jesus has narrowly avoided himself. Upon seeing the formerly possessed clothed and in his right mind, the townspeople ask Jesus to leave. One would think that they would be happy to see a sick person cured and would ask Jesus to stay and cure everybody else of whatever ails them. But they don’t. Why? Because the people of the Gedarene region are not happy over being robbed of their victim. The demons requested that they not be expelled from the town because the people, possessed by their rivalries, wanted to remain possessed. When robbed of their victim, the possessed town implodes in its collective violence and becomes the sacrificial victim.

The anthropological dimension of this story can be seen more clearly by comparing it with the Samaritan woman at the well, which has none of these mythological trappings. It is the woman at the well, and not any of the other people of Sychar, who greet Jesus. The woman is alone at the most social place in town, an indication that the woman is the town’s scapegoat. There is no exorcism but the woman eventually becomes possessed by Jesus when she drinks the water he has to give, just as the Gerasene demoniac became possessed by Jesus. The woman goes to tell the townspeople about Jesus as the Gerasene demoniac was told to spread word of what Jesus had done in his own area. The story in Sychar has a happier ending in that the people come out to listen to Jesus, a mimetic process where they give up their collective victim in exchange for the water of rebirth that Jesus has to give. Perhaps this foretells a happier ending for Gerasa someday and a happier ending for our own society.

 

Contemplative Prayer as a Pearl of Great Price

indwellingcover_tnBecoming conscious of mimetic desire, our inborn and pre-conscious tendency to copy the desires of other people (See Human See, Human Want) poses a large challenge to our daily living. When we bring in the tendency to fall into rivalry with other people and how that can lead to collective violence (see Two Ways of Gathering) then we need tools to live with this challenge.

I wrote Tools for Peace to suggest ways that the spiritual practices from the monastic tradition and the Rule of St. Benedict in particular can help us with this challenge. Contemplative Prayer, although important in monastic practice, has a small place in the Rule of St. Benedict and so there is not a detailed discussion of the practice in this book, although I have a few comments about it.

Many years ago, I wrote a pamphlet called “The Indwelling God” to introduce the practice of contemplative prayer and give practical suggestions for initiating and sustaining this practice. Last year, I wrote an article for our Abbey Letter called “Resting in God’s Desire” which discusses contemplative prayer specifically in connection to mimetic desire. The Divine Office is indeed the heart of Benedictine spirituality, but praying in silence, just being before and with God, allowing God to contemplate us, as Saint Gertrude and other writers have suggested, is a pearl of great price, a pearl worth some of our valuable time and worthy of much room in our hearts.

This pamphlet has been available in hard copy and is still available in that form, but I have just had a eBook made of it to make it available in that form since many readers are using that medium. I have coupled the pamphlet with the essay “Resting in God’s Desire” as they make good companion pieces.

“The Indwelling God” with its companion article can be purchased on the abbey’s website at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/digitalpubs.html   A hard copy version which has only “The Indwelling God” is available at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/orderpage.html

May we all give of ourselves to receive this pearl of great price.

Recovering Racists

crucifix1I have just returned from the 2013 Theology & Pace conference held in Chapel Hill, NC on “Lynching, Scapegoating and Actual Innocence.” The subject is difficult to work with but becoming aware of what we have done in our own country is a necessary step to finding ways to preventing the same kind of thing happening again. Two factors were particularly important to making the workshop a positive experience. One: a sense that we were exploring the issue as a group and coming to terms with it as a supportive group. Two: the forgiving tone of the speakers. Julia Robinson, who read a paper specifically on the history of lynching and the violent atonement theology that supports it, delivered her presentation in a gentle but firm voice, embodying forgiveness not only in word but from the depths of her being. Such an approach is modeled on the Gospel where Christ the victim forgives us so that we can begin to see our sin clearly and turn from it.

Paul Nuechterlein, the one speaker who was white, confessed to being a racist. This might sound strange, coming from a man who is active in race relations, but it echoed the same admission of a biology professor I had in college many years ago. As it happens, I have never heard a person who actually did show a racist attitude make this admission. It is sobering, but important, that it is not until we repent that we begin to see what we are repenting of and enter into recovery.

The most important thing about repenting and recovering is that we take personal responsibility for ourselves. We cannot take responsibility for the attitudes of others whom we consider racist. I remember telling a person what I had learned about the effect of racial discrimination on a daily basis and that person countered by telling me about a company run by black people who won’t hire whites. I cannot take responsibility for that company but that does not absolve me of taking responsibility for myself.

In entering into recovery from racism and sustaining that recovery, I need to become aware of small things where my own blindness emerges. An example of this blindness on my part came in an earlier entry on this blog post called “Selling Postcards of the Cross” where I wrote about James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I used the phrase ‘”Cone shows us this truth in spades.” (I have now edited that sentence.) Of course, using this phrase about any writer who is not black would be the complement I intended it to be. I suppose one could say that some people are too sensitive about these things, but I have come to the conclusion that the important thing for me is to be more aware and sensitive and let other people take care of their own sensitivities.

Taking personal responsibility for being a recovering racist can only be done by increasing our awareness of the interaction of our own desires with those of others. Insofar as racism continues to be a strong element in our society, racist desires continue to seep into us at a pre-conscious level. On a more hopeful note, the desires of others to overcome racism also sink into us at this same pre-conscious level. By watching our thoughts, we can become more aware of what desires we are importing and seek to affirm the desires that seek to overcome prejudice, the desire to feel superior to some people, and complacency with misuse of power that keep some people down. Most of all, we must support one another.

See also: Knowing the Wild Things Between Us

Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon

wreckedTrees1Among writers of Y/A novels, Neal Shusterman has shown some of the most acute insight into social processes. Nowhere is this stronger than in his novel Unwind and its sequel Unwholly. In this dystopian novel, a civil war in the U.S. over reproductive  was suddenly brought to an end with an agreement that abortion would be illegal under all circumstances, but that all young people between the ages of thirteen and eighteen could be handed over by parents or guardians to be unwound, a harvesting of 98% of body tissue for medical transplants to other people.

This scenario is a classic example of a violent society making peace at the expense of victims. In Unwind, a troubled teen boy whose parents found too troublesome when they had such an easy out, a girl raised in a state orphanage where many surplus babies go who wasn’t quite talented enough to be worth keeping when the facility needs space for other surplus children, and a boy who was a tithe, the tenth child in a family in a group that gave the tenth child in a family to be unwound as a gift back to “god” and society.

Although the reader may rightly react to the idea with horror, the dystopian “solution” is not that surprising to anyone who has studied René Girard and his colleagues who have demonstrated that this type of “solution” to conflict is common in almost all societies since the dawn of humanity. This novel and its sequels is as a midrash on the Judgment of Solomon, a story Girard cites as a prime example of the Hebrew Bible’s revelation of sacrificial violence. The two disputing mothers became indistinguishable mirror images of each other until Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the baby be cut in half. One woman preferred the slaughter of the child to letting the other have it, but the other woman preferred the other woman have the child and so that it could live. The biblical story thus has a happy ending. Shusterman’s novel shows us what the triumph of the sacrificial woman is like for a society. As a mini-parable within the story, one of the boys on the run was signed over for unwinding because his parents were going through a bitter divorce and could only agree that they would rather nobody had their son than that the other had him and he lived.

Shusterman also shows, especially in the second book, how the culture has become highly sacrificial, with unwinding having become a way of life. The political advertising media pushes unwinding by encouraging a sense of entitlement not only to a new hand if the old is cut off, but of better, more athletic and better-looking body parts and a “brain-weave” to make one smarter. In Unwholly, a Frankenstein-like experiment has resulted in the creation of a “new” person out of unwound body parts. Sacrifice has created a sacrificial youth. Sacrifice of others has become an end in itself.

Abortion is a topic that many people have very strong opinions about. Even when one’s opinion is mixed, each part of the mix is powerful. The hazard of navigating such a severe debate is that of being so passionately sensitive to one potential victim as to harden one’s heart to others. The Judgment of Solomon and this series of novels is a solemn warning of the dangers of losing ourselves so deeply in conflict that we do not see the victims we create.  A violent situation such as the sacrificial system depicted here adds the problem of how to break the system without violence that creates more sacrificial victims. This growing problem is something Shusterman will be exploring in the subsequent volumes of the series.