Bewitched, Bothered, and Repentant

???????????????????????????????????????????The persecution of so-called witches in Salem Massachusetts in 1693 is well-known as a notorious event in American history. Not so well-known is the spiritual journey of one of the judges on the panel that ordered the execution of the twenty convicted prisoners. The biography of him by Eve Laplante is not a particularly good book with its chronological skips and copious details that are of not great interest, but she does bring the remarkable land telling story to light.

Samuel Sewall was a good and generous and devout man. Bracket out his voting for the twenty executions and one finds nothing reprehensible about him and much to commend. What happened?

The type of Calvinistic spirituality in colonial Boston posited a God of boundless mercy but a god who could just as quickly break out in wrath. When several of his children died in infancy, Sewall wondered what he had done to deserve this grief. When the English government revoked the colonial charter and  then French and Indians attacked and destroyed coastal cities to the north, he wondered what the community had done to deserve these calamities.

Laplante describes Salem Village as “beset with squabbles” where “neighbor battled neighbor over land boundaries, crops, and grazing rights.” Moreover, the congregation habitually battled with successive ministers over due compensation for their work. Not surprisingly, the witchcraft accusations started in the home of the incumbent minister, Samuel Parris. Many of those accused were involved in the various ongoing disputes and many of the accusers were servant girls suddenly empowered to get back at those who were normally their social betters.

Samuel Sewall, accepting the social advancement that came with the appointment to the panel of judges, was among those trying the cases. All of those condemned were convicted on what was called “spectral evidence.” This was the phenomenon of one or more witnesses seeing a spectral image of the accused person committing foul deeds of the devil. There can be no more powerful image for the mirage thrown up by what René Girard calls the skandalon, the stumbling block. One’s rival has been transformed into a spectral image of wickedness.

In the days of the primitive sacred, according to Girard, one death was enough to reconcile a community. In Salem, twenty deaths and counting wasn’t nearly enough. Girard leads us to expect this to be the case in the wake of the Gospel’s unveiling of the truth of collective violence. There are two fundamental reasons the witch trials ceased and the remaining prisoners were all freed. 1) There was never any unanimity that the witches were guilty. One judge had resigned early on in protest. Sewall’s own minister at Third Church was among the clergy who opposed the persecutions. 2) There was no end in sight if the persecutions continued. Anyone at all could be accused regardless of social position.

Although Sewall kept a thorough diary of events and thoughts, the months during these witch trials are surprisingly and dismayingly empty. This is a huge disappointment for one who would like more insight into Sewall’s reflections at the time, but the empty pages speak volumes that no amount of words could tell. Sewall could not face what he was doing.

There are some hints as to what lead to Sewall’s public declaration of guilt and remorse during worship at Third Church. Sewall had been publically snubbed by his minister on more than one occasion. That probably made him think. During a family funeral service for yet another dead child, his eldest son read from Matthew the verse that includes: “”I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” a key verse for the unequivocal love of God and total rejection of persecutory violence.

Through this sobering experience, Sewall went on to show insight into two major issues way beyond that of almost all of his contemporaries. 1) In spite of the Indian attacks that had been the scourge of the colony, Sewall wrote of the inherent dignity of native Americans as worthy of salvation on an equal footing with his own race. 2) Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery treatise composed on North American soil, using the story of Joseph as his proof-text.

Like St. Paul, Samuel Sewall learned some things about victimization from being a persecutor. We can all learn from the man who stood in the midst of his congregation with his head bowed while his minister read his confession.

Mimetic Desire and Truth (2)

yellowTulips1We tend to think our likes and dislikes and beliefs and unbeliefs are our own. “I like apple pie.” “I hate pickles.” “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” “I don’t believe in a conspiracy of interplanetary lizards to take over the planet earth.” As I admitted in my first post in this series, I reflexively think in these terms in spite of all the reading and reflection on mimetic desire that I’ve done. But if desire is mimetic, then all of our likes and dislikes, beliefs and unbeliefs are connected with those of other people.

There is, of course, a distinction between appetite—our bodily needs and gut reactions to various things—and desire, which is mimetic, but pinpointing the distinction in our ongoing experience is sometimes tricky. We all need to eat, but the specific foods we desire are colored by desires of others for specific foods. What we eat may depend on what is available, but when there is a choice, although individual preferences may be present, the desires of other people tend to make some foods more desirable than others. My parents encouraged a desire for roast beef and shrimp. The former never take that much but the latter sure did. Even so, during an impressionable period of my life when I was just starting to live into my conversion back to Christianity, a couple of my best friends were so strong on the desire for steak that I fooled myself into falling in with their desire when I really would have preferred crab cakes. I wasn’t really put under pressure or anything; it was just the ambient desire trumped what I more naturally liked.

In non-rivalrous situations, this imitation of desire is not a problem and is often a good thing. It was the sharing of a desire for good music in the church choir I sang in as a boy that awoke my own interest in music. One could speak of this as an individual choice in that not all choristers got interested in music to the extent that I did, but following up this interest brought me into the community of music lovers. Books, such as The Victor Book of the Symphony and people I knew introduced me into the “canon” of classical music and instilled in me a desire for the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and others. I was dismayed and disappointed when the Symphonie-Fantastique by Berlioz didn’t take and it leaves me cold to this day. In those days, Gustav Mahler’s canonicity was in dispute until Leonard Bernstein put him in the composers’ hall of fame so I had to make a choice. It was a no-brainer as soon as I heard one of his symphonies.  Even so, my growing sense of what I liked and disliked was never unaffected by the mimetic desire floating about in my musical ambience. When a sophisticated friend of mine dismissed some great works, it was difficult for me to see beyond his prejudices and get a sense of what was true about the music.

It is also more possible to see the truth of other people in a non-rivalrous situation than one fraught with rivalry. In such a situation, two young men can appreciate the qualities of the young woman who is currently coupled with his friend, sharing gently in his friend’s desire but not becoming a rival. This is the situation in the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaIe. Polixenes appreciates the qualities of his friend’s wife Hermione without envy, but Leontes projects is own jealousy on his friend with terrible results. That is, with the entry of envy and rivalry, the truth ceases to be expansive and shared; it becomes distorted. I will examine this distortion in my next post in this series.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)

See also Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry

Mimetic Desire and Truth (1)

eucharist1Truth is an important matter but one we often take for granted. We often think we know it or, like Socrates, know that we don’t know it. We often treat truth like the air we breathe. We assume it’s there and we’re taking it in every time we kick a stone in front of us. The question of truth can easily make us as cynical as Pilate.

Although we might cavalierly think of truth as the air we breathe, we think of truth as an individual matter with each of us, as individuals, kicking a stone. I should talk—or write—I do the same thing myself out of force of habit.

Girard’s teaching on mimetic desire puts the question of truth into a whole new ball park where a new game is played by different rules. More accurately, Girard is pointing out that we have been in the wrong ball park, playing the wrong game with the wrong rules since the dawn of civilization.  We could dismiss Girard as a cranky Frenchman and me as a quixotic Benedictine monk, or we could look around at this new ball park and new game to see what riches are there, riches that actually have been gathered for us by many people who have helped Girard and the rest of us see this old game for what it is so that we can play a new game. Sort of like new skins for new wine.

In this new ball game, we realize that desire is not individual, but mimetic. That is, we copy the desires of other people and they copy ours. This simple but subtle truth means that we do not, cannot, see anything in the world as me, myself and I seeing this thing, but we only see things through the desires of other people. Take something simple like shoes. A shoe is a shoe is a shoe. But that’s not the way it works out. Some shoes are fashionable while some are not. A friend of mine told me how the shoes his son wore to school were a social problem because they weren’t the style other kids wore. Not surprisingly, the shoes in style were rather expensive, forcing my friend to choose between added financial hardship and hampering his son’s social life.

The old Negro spiritual says: “all God’s chillin’ got shoes.” But do they? If they did, they wouldn’t be such a big deal in Heaven. The bare feet of black slaves is a result of mimetic desire that lead many white people who had the money and social power to own other people and choose whether or not they would have shoes.

This is the first of a series of blog posts on this topic.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (2)

For those unfamiliar with the idea, see Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry.

New page for collecting posts by Topic

vocationersAtTable1I have just started a page that collects blog posts by topic. This will save me from cross-referencing posts to help orient the reader, especially on the topic of mimetic desire that I have written on often & will have much more to say as I reflect more and more on this phenomenon. I now have a page collecting articles on mimetic desire that are available here.

Essay on spiritual renewal

buddingTree1I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.

Human Swords, God’s Peace

vocationersAtTable1Jesus’ words that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matthew) or division (Luke) are startling, coming from a man who is commonly referred to as “the Prince of Peace.” Does this mean that Jesus is a war-god of some sort after all? Since Jesus never used a sword and rebuked Peter from using one at Gethsemane, and died rather than call on legions of angels to defend him and beat up his enemies, and approached his disciples and even the persecutor Paul with forgiveness after rising from the dead, it is fair to assume that Jesus is not in the least encouraging swords and divisions, but is warning us that we will have both as long as we experience the world in terms of us vs. them.

The approach to scripture inspired by René Girard and colleagues such as Raymund Schwager and James Alison is strongly committed to an unequivocally loving God who seeks only peace as opposed to any two-faced Janus-like deity who is capriciously loving one moment and wrathful the next. This approach tends to interpret “wrath” associated with God as human projections that distort the truth of God’s unconditional love. Basic to Girard’s thinking is the conviction that humans tend to unify conflictive societies through scapegoating vulnerable victims with collective violence. Society has regained peace—for a time—but at a cost to at least one person. This sort of a peace simply has to be disrupted once and for all by a God who is unequivocally loving and who wishes that not even one person be lost. According to Girard, this is precisely what Jesus did by dying on the cross and exposing the reality of collective violence for what it is.

As a result, we now have a world where there is an ever heightening awareness of victims, but a serious lack of anywhere near a corresponding awareness of the need for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, awareness of victims increases resentment and escalated conflict. Since the awareness of victims does not allow collective violence to bring peace to a society, there is nothing to stop the escalation of violence. As resentment grows rampant, it infects every level of society including the family so that family counselors are in great demand to try and talk people into giving up their resentment against those closest to them. They often fail as much as conflict mediators in political hotspots and for the same reason. Resentment becomes a defining factor of many lives and defining factors are not easily given up. So it is that the coming of Jesus the forgiving victim has brought swords and divisions.

The offer of peace and forgiveness, for all of the divine love behind it, inevitably causes division between those who accept it and those who don’t. There are two possible reactions to such a choice and a unanimous conversion to God’s peace wasn’t in the cards then any more than it is today. (Of course we humans stack the deck heavily against peace.) For those of us who seriously try to choose peace, it is tempting to think we are on the “peaceful” side of this division but we need to realize that the Word, the forgiving victim, is a divisive two-edged sword “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” and “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” as the author of Hebrews puts it. That is, the pure forgiveness of the divine victim shows up the least bit of resentment we allow ourselves to harbor in the farthest, darkest, corners of our souls.

The escalation of violence occurring right at the time of this writing is a sure cause of discouragement. What we can do is take hope, primarily for ourselves, but also for our personal relationships and for humanity as a whole that the offer of peace from the forgiving victim remains open to all of us at every time of day and night and this offer will never end no matter what we do with our swords and divisions.

Mary’s Blessedness, Everybody’s Blessedness

MaryMary has been both deified and vilified. It seems the main reason she has been vilified is precisely because she has been deified. The dogma of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, traditionally celebrated by Roman Catholics on this day, tends to suggest deification and thus provoke a corresponding denigration. Why should this particular Jewish girl be raised to such heights? Sound theology has always been clear that Mary was a human being and not a deity. Any glorification of her is a glorification of her divine son who gave his mother whatever glory that she has. Like the rest of the world, Christianity has had its superstars who are put on a pedestal and everybody on a pedestal draws detraction as a matter of course.

Mary’s real glory is that she was a human being every much as the rest of us. That is, she was and is a Jewish girl. Mary is, of course, inseparable from the Incarnation of the Word in her womb. Although Mary’s son was (and is) divine, Jesus was (and is) fully human, like you and me. In his excellent book Sheer Grace, Drasko Dizdar says that Mary, far from being a deity or demigod, “is the utterly and simply human subversion of this deification of human “archetypes” into the divine feminine.’” This is what the famous words of Mary in the Magnificat are all about when she says God “has cast down the mighty from their seats and has lifted up the lowly.” If such words simply mean other people become just as mighty as the ones who were cast down, then the words change nothing for humanity. The ones who are raised up are lowly and continue to be raised up only by remaining lowly. The proud are scattered in the “imagination of their hearts.” The rich are sent away empty because their hearts are too full of their desires to have room for God. What is so subversive about Mary, then, is her humanity. While other humans try to make themselves more than human by being movers and shakers, Mary is blessedly content to be human. As Dizdar says, Mary is a whole human being “as God has always intended the human creature to be as creature.”

Throughout, the Magnificat is a song of praise of God, not of Mary herself. All generations call her blessed because of what God has done. Mary only did what every human being should do, rarely as it actually happens: She said “Yes;” she didn’t say “Maybe,” or “No.” Saying “Yes” is what is so extraordinary about Mary. If this simple response makes her so singular among human beings, it only shows how the rest of us fail to be human beings. Far from isolating herself, Mary proclaims her solidarity with all God’s people, the promise made to all Abraham’s children.

Does all this relegate the belief in the Assumption of Mary to mere mythology that must be discarded in our modern age? Not at all, if we open our hearts to the Love God shows to the created world in its sheer materiality. Dizdar says that God’s love “is so concrete (‘body’) and complete (‘and’ soul’) that it draws into itself (‘assumes’) our happily (‘blessed’), sovereignly free (‘virgin’) and simple, created humanity “(‘Mary’), into the very life of God (‘heaven’).”  If we glorify Mary for an allegedly singular grace or denigrate her for allegedly getting “special treatment,” we only show how readily we project our rivalrous desires on Mary and God. Far from being a special grace, the Assumption is God’s invitation to all of us to enter the depths of our created humanity that God loves unconditionally.