Principalities and Powers

WilliamGuestsChurch1Jesus was not crucified by just one person; he was crucified by a social system. The Gospels and the apostolic preaching in Acts show clearly how hostile social systems in Jerusalem came together to create a larger social system that was united solely by the agreement to put Jesus to death. By quoting from the persecution psalms, these sources suggest that persecutory social systems have always been a part of humanity. René Girard has demonstrated how mythology covers up and yet still points to this same persecutory mechanism. It is such social systems that Paul calls the “principalities and powers” of the world. These principalities get their power from the collective cohesiveness of persecution. This collective power is overwhelming to the individual within this system. Hence the transcendent power they have for Paul. However, Paul also says that the principalities and powers have been dismantled and nailed to the cross by Jesus. The forgiving victim is gathering a radically different social system that not only does not require the sacrifice of the victim but totally precludes such a thing. Paul says that if the principalities and powers had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Because they did, we have some ability, by the grace of God, for seeing the fundamental signs of a society that is still run, at least in part, by the principalities and powers and for seeing what are the signs of the Kingdom that the Risen and Forgiving Victim has opened up for us.

A society run by the principalities and powers is punitive. Some people may think that is a good thing, but in  a punitive society, somebody must be to blame whenever anything goes wrong or even seems to go wrong. That is, somebody must be punished. When a society needs to have somebody punished, then this need takes precedence over justice. It is better for an innocent person to suffer than for the corporate rage of the society to suffer for lack of an object of that rage.  It follows that the Law of Tit for Tat reigns. There is no room for mercy. Every offense must be met in equal measure. As long as this Law reigns, there is no end in sight to the spiral of retaliation. In Jesus’ Kingdom, restoration of relationships is the corporate desire when things go wrong. The pain of this restoration might feel like punishment for some, but the pain is remedial, moving toward reconciliation.

In the society of the Principalities and Powers, somebody is always expendable. Caiaphas’ dictum that it is better that one person die than that the whole nation should perish is “gospel.” Collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay for objectives deemed good to those who are running the show. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd seeks until he finds it and brings it back to the fold shows that in Jesus’ Kingdom, nobody is expendable.

The society of the Principalities and Powers is dualistic.  There has to be an “in” group and an “out” group. The society’s identity is based on what is wrong with those people, the enemy.  If we are to love our enemies, as Jesus teaches, then enemies do not define us in any way.

Most devastating of all, the society of the Principalities and Powers is mendacious. The need to cover up the truth of collective violence in primitive societies carries over to the most sophisticated of modern societies. Part of this mendacity is to blame the victim. The blame that many US politicians cast on women who are raped is a particularly grisly example. Victims of lynching, too, were blamed for what happened to them.

Here is the choice. Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?

Blueprint of the Kingdom

buddingTree1The blueprints for a building are a lot less exciting and interesting than the building itself. However, blueprints are useful for showing the fundamental shape and structure of the building at a glance. The readings for Epiphany 3A are more like a blueprint for the Kingdom of God than a tour of the Kingdom in its fleshed-out form.

In Mt. 4:17, Jesus says:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting does not mean to make a laundry list of our little sins and try to stop doing them. Repenting means to turn around, to switch our minds and our hearts, to see life in a new way. This is the fundamental thrust of the Kingdom. But what specs can we get from the blueprint?

The quote from Isaiah, especially the part about Zebulun and Naphtali may not seem exciting but they show some important shapes in the blueprint. These places in Galilee are Gentile territory, lands of the enemies of Israel, lands that were occupied by the Assyrians in their invasion of Israel. The darkness has to do with the power and might of military occupation and enmity between peoples. Isaiah’s saying that God broke the rod of the oppressor as on the day of Midian suggests that God’s Kingdom will free us from military force that inevitably creates darkness. Reconciliation with the Gentiles involves forgiveness for past wrongs, even past atrocities such as those committed by the Assyrians and then the Romans in Jesus’ day. Matthew notes that Jesus moved to this area of Galilee after Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist, another instance of Roman oppression. One might feel this is not applicable to most of us because most of us are not high government officials or military leaders. However, all of us live either in a country bursting with military might or in a country that is in some way, perhaps economically, occupied by another. That means we need to turn away from anything that contributes to the enmity this situation creates and start breaking the yokes we impose on each other.

In First Corinthians, Paul gives us another example of darkness that is very close to everyday life for all of us. The church is in conflict with its members using slogans such as: “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” One could say that this is war on a small scale but the darkness is the same as that created by the Assyrians and the Romans. Paul suggests that the light of the kingdom which Jesus is bringing near is to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose,” which for Paul is the mind of Christ, whose cross is foolishness for those who are perishing in the darkness of violence but is the power of God for those being saved.

The “power of God” doesn’t look much like power as we usually understand it. It isn’t exactly a large-scale military invasion like D-Day. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But the cross is power in the sense of shedding light in the darkness which John says the darkness cannot overcome. The light reveals the darkness of the military might of the Assyrians, the Romans and all else who imitate them. The light also reveals the hatred of victims for their oppressors, however understandable, for what it is: a wall of enmity that perpetuates divisions between people. As I struggle with my almost constant anger at many politicians in this country for their misuse of power and the public trust, I have to repent of this anger minute by minute.

Where does this darkness come from? Isaiah and Matthew are not portraying darkness as part of the created order in the sense that night time is natural. This is not darkness that God made, or in fact had anything to do with. This is darkness as a human creation. It is human beings who organize armies to oppress people or who tear congregations apart with petty party politics. This sort of behavior is highly contagious. The more people build walls or fight, the more people feel the need to build walls and fight.

What does the Kingdom of God, founded on the foolishness of the cross look like? The blueprint we have in these readings doesn’t look like much, but then a crucified criminal in Roman times doesn’t look like much either. When we read just a bit further in Matthew, we enter the real-life rooms of the Kingdom outlined in the blueprint. We find many rooms, many mansions, all of which offer contagious possibilities such as being blessed for being poor or for being a peacemaker, or turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile, and then finding in these weaknesses the rock that supports the house of faith we are building against the storm of Rome and Assyria and the power brokers of our time.

Myth Become Fact

crosswButterfliesOne of the more memorable phrases culled from C.S. Lewis is Christ is “myth made fact.” The notion kind of sneaked up on Lewis during the process that lead to his conversion to Christianity.  An offhand remark by his friend T.D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis at the time an avowed atheist, made a deep impression on him over the years: “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. It almost looks as if it really happened once.” Of course, that is precisely the claim of the Gospels.

Lewis’ insight is worth comparing with René Girard’s view of Jesus in relation to mythology. Girard, of course, also studied Frazer’s writings about deities, mainly vegetative deities, dying and rising. Frazer, seems to have absorbed Jesus into the other myths, blurring the distinction between them. Girard, on the other hand, believes that both the myths and the Gospel accounts refer to real events. Here, he also differs from Lewis who seems to have thought of myths as something like cosmic poetry, dealing with timeless truths, such as the vegetative cycle in temperate climates where nature, like Persephone, dies and then rises again. For Girard, all myths, in their origins, are made fact.

Girard’s thesis of sacred violence asserts that social tensions in early societies were resolved, if they were resolved at all, by collective violence that was very real. Mythology then became something of a cover up of this event while still alluding to it. The rising from the dead in such mythology would be the deification of the victim who, in retrospect, was seen as the solution for the problem for which the victim was earlier blamed. Tying such mythology into the vegetative cycle raises suspicions for me that this development, if it did not originate in agricultural societies, was greatly furthered within them. After all, the claiming of land by a tribe would easily inspire other people to desire that land. In such a setting, social tensions leading to the victimage mechanism would happen much quicker than in hunter/gatherer societies. Girard’s thesis also suggests that the real cycle is not in nature but in human activity. That is, an act of collective violence holds a society together for only so long before it needs to happen again. The mythological cycle, then, is a vicious cycle.

For Girard, then, the Gospel narrative of Jesus dying and rising is not the historicization of a timeless truth, but an instantiation of a scenario that had been happening in reality, in time, since the dawn of humanity. What’s new about the Gospels is that the story is told straight out and the victim is claimed to be innocent and was unjustly murdered. For Girard, it isn’t so much a case of myth become fact as the truth behind myth revealed.

As a Christian, Lewis retained sympathy for the myths of dying and rising deities, regarding them as great poetry. Girard, of course, is not so affirming of mythology, as he sees it as obscuring the truth. However, Girard’s point of view does not necessarily mean that myths are bad poetry. Moral goodness and ascetic goodness are not equivalent, after all.

There is a deeper reason though for being open to Lewis’ sympathy. It was the pathos of a deity like Balder who was killed through collective violence that moved Lewis, and it was the same sensitivity that should make the passion of Jesus deeply moving as well. (Interestingly, Lewis went through a period where the dying pagan deities moved him more than the story of Christ; perhaps a residue of his resistance to conversion.) Although a myth such as that of Tiamat, who was blamed for Babylon’s primordial chaos and torn to pieces, does not try to inspire sympathy for a victim the way the Psalms of Lament do, we can see a woman victimized by the people who made a strenuous effort to avoid seeing what they were doing.

There is a deeper reason for sympathy for myth. Deplorable as the countless acts of collective violence were and continue to be, Girard’s thesis also demonstrates how profoundly people were caught up in this mechanism so that they could not escape without intervention from God. It is precisely this intervention from God to free humans in bondage that Paul celebrates time and again in his epistles. If we need this intervention from God in Christ, then we are hardly in a position to be judgmental against the first humans that fell into the same traps we do.

The Class Comedian

sideAltarsIcons1When I was in grade school, we had a class comedian. I took it for granted that there would be a boy in our class who would cut in with funny remarks that more often than not raised our teacher’s ire. It seemed normal to me that this would happen. I was glad to have a class comedian for a couple of reasons. One, he was entertaining. Since classes could be tedious at times, it was nice to have things lightened up from time to time. Two, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing one kid in our class being the one who got in trouble frequently as long as that person wasn’t me.

It so happened that the came when our comedian announced to our teacher and the class that he was moving to another school district and a few days later, he was gone. I remember consciously thinking that we would need a new class comedian and I even knew who it was going to be. I was right on both counts. The very boy I expected to move into the role did that just. (He had acted a bit the part of understudy before this.)

When I think back on all this, it becomes clear that the class comedian, although disruptive at times, was actually a nice kid. He was never mean to anybody as far as I can recall. He didn’t have much in the way of friends although I spent a little time with him. He deserved better in that respect. I knew his family was broken and that sort of thing leads to some children acting out. Much the same could be said for the boy who took over the role of comedian, although he had a bit more of an edge to his personality.

I suppose one might say my insight was a bit precocious; I really don’t know how many other kids in my class had that awareness, if any. On the other hand, any pride over this insight drops down precipitously as I admit that I consciously participated and inwardly affirmed this situation.

Like many children, I was not a stranger to scapegoating activity. I was myself the butt of scapegoating among these same children. That did not happen during class where I was very docile and obedient and rarely in danger of being on object of opprobrium from a teacher. My social adjustment as a child was not particularly smooth and it became harder when my strangeness got connected with my surname so that I was “the man from Mars.” Perhaps it made me feel better that someone else was the class scapegoat in certain respects. Maybe it made it easier for me to be docile because somebody else was acting out on my behalf.

A year or two later, there was a different scapegoat. He wasn’t a comedian or a disruptive presence. He was not as attractive as some kids. Somehow, he rubbed our teacher the wrong way and this boy never had a chance to make it right. I didn’t get the same satisfaction from this boy’s scapegoating; it was not entertaining and at some level it seemed unfair. I suppose I might have been more troubled if I didn’t happen to have a pretty good relationship with this teacher myself. I know see this favoritism as unfair and that I was overrated by this teacher, to detrimental effect in junior high where my limitations showed up. In many ways, he was a good teacher, but the pattern of there being a class scapegoat showed up with other classes he had. One of the most hurtful things that ever happened as a child was at the hands of the music teacher at our school who was also prone to scapegoating behavior. She singled me out for ridicule by showing the class a man on a flying carpet and telling the class that this was me, flying off to dreamland. Another example of a teacher being the scapegoater.

All of these reflections show how easy and insidious for a social group like a class in school, to instinctively gather unity through scapegoating one person or another. It is all the more disturbing to realize that teachers fall into the role of scapegoaters, reinforcing what the children are doing. We all need to get in touch with memories such as these to understand ourselves and to help us overcome the systemic needs that continue to haunt us