Respect (2)

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[A continuation of Respect (1)]

The importance of respect can be easily seen when we think of routine encounters. Love is too freighted a term for the way we interact with, say, the person at the checkout counter of a store. It is obvious that courtesy and respect are called for but not love as it rests (and twists and turns) in the popular imagination. We all know how much we appreciate doing business with people who are respectful and how much we avoid doing business with those who aren’t. In such cases, respect isn’t much of a feeling but it is a set of actions and a manner of speaking. Although receiving respectful treatment gives us a low grade sense of well-being, disrespectful treatment tends to make us instantly angry and all sense of respect flies out the window or through the wall. Disrespect makes the smallest exchanges seem big and highly significant while we don’t think of much of respectful encounters. The thing is, both respect and disrespect are highly contagious but the latter is especially so. We tend to think we are owed respect just for being people and feel violated if we are not treated respectfully. Yet we are apt to think other people should earn our respect. This looks like a double standard but I can sympathize. This sort of attitude comes naturally to me. However, if God’s unconditional love for us is taken as a model for human relationships, it follows that we should give unconditional respect, which is harder. We can fool ourselves into thinking we only hate the sin but love the sinner, but how about respecting the sinner while hating the sin?

The chapter on the Cellarer of the monastery in the Rule of St. Benedict (Chapter 31) is the most concise and articulate view of respect and courtesy that I know. The cellarer is the monk responsible for providing for the community and guests. To do that, he needs to respect the tools and all other material goods to the extent of treating them as if they were “sacred vessels of the altar.” Here is an indication of the continuum from respect to God in prayer to respect for material reality in one’s work. The cellarer should provide “the allotted amount of food without any pride or delay lest they be led astray.” That is, the cellarer should be respectful of the needs of others and should not take advantage of his position to play petty power games with people the way some bureaucrats will with their tiny turfs. The Latin for “leading them astray” is scandalizaverit which means scandalize, place a stumbling block before the other. “Scandal” is a word imported from the Greek New Testament and is the word Jesus used when he warned against causing his “little ones” to stumble, a verse Benedict goes on to quote. Jesus and Benedict are alerting us to a human tendency that René Girard has more recently pointed to: the human tendency to make oneself a stumbling block for another by making a simple encounter a contest of wills. This is precisely what Benedict wants the cellarer to avoid. (I discuss scandal in Girard and Benedict in my book Tools for Peace.)

On the contrary, if the cellarer does not have a requested item, he should “offer a king word in reply.” When I was guestmaster for the monastery, there were times when I did not have room to accept any more guests and I kept this admonition in mind and tried to speak kindly and give encouragement for coming at another time. If the cellarer should be the one who suffers discourtesy, he should “reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” The onus is on the cellarer to stem an escalation of disrespect by treating even a disrespectful person with respect.

Continued in Respect (3)

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Respect (1)

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyHumility and respect are the two fundamental attitudes that are most conducive to living constructively with mimetic desire and avoiding its more destructive potential. Both attitudes need to be habitual dispositions to be effective. Such habitual dispositions are not automatic the way many habits (especially bad habits) tend to be. They need to be renewed every day, every hour, or they will fall away.

Although St. Benedict attaches great importance to outward action, both in manual work and what he calls “the Work of God,” i.e. the Divine Office, Benedict also attaches much importance to the inner disposition supporting these outward observances. In his short chapter 20, “Reverence in Prayer,” Benedict says: “Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” When the Gospel is read at the end of Sunday Matins, the worshippers should “stand with respect and awe.” After each psalm, we should stand in honor of the Trinity.

Humility and respect are so intertwined that it is hard to separate them. They are inseparable in the sense that one cannot have one without the other. However, there is some distinction between them in that respect is directed towards the other, whether God or our neighbor whereas humility is rooted in the self. I want to deal with respect first and then move on to humility.

The first question that comes to mind is: Why respect instead of love? Isn’t Love the primary Christian virtue? Yes, love in the sense of agape is the primary Christian virtue but I think we need to start with respect. It is a case of serving milk before solid food to make sure we are ready for it, trained “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). That is, respect is a prerequisite for love. If we try to leapfrog this prerequisite, there is a real possibility of mistaking lust and other noxious attitudes for love. A tragic example in the Bible is Amnon. He probably thought he loved Absalom’s sister Tamar but his use of force to rape her and his callous rejection of her afterwards makes it clear he had no respect for her and therefore no love. Love is often spoken of as a conquest or an attempt at one. Amnon conquered Tamar through a clever but devilish plot. Don Giovanni made such conquests by the hundreds If Leperello is to be believed. But does Don Giovanni show respect for Donna Anna, Donna Elvira or Zerlina in Mozart’s great opera? Not in your life. What erroneously passes for love sidesteps respect entirely and sidesteps love as well.

One never tries to win respect by conquest. There is no contest with respect, neither is there any mimetic rivalry in respect. Whereas love without respect tries to woo another person into conformity to one’s feelings for that other, respect does no such thing. Respect does not require that another person feel the way I do about anything. Respect is about relating to another, not winning anything. Maybe relating doesn’t seem like much compared to conquering another person. Actually, relating is quite an accomplishment because it involves conquering oneself.

Continued in Respect (2)

The Earthquake that Saves

abyssIn Matthew’s Gospel, the Resurrection of Jesus causes an earthquake. Just as an earthquake shakes up the earth, the Resurrection shakes us up, fatally undermines the way we have lived our lives, and gives us a radical reorientation. But did the Resurrection have to be an earthquake? Could it possibly have been a smooth transition from a good quality of life to a better one?

According to seismology, an earthquake is caused by one or more faults under the surface of the earth. A fault can hold its position for some time but it is inherently unstable and it will slide sometime or other and cause the earth to shake. The Resurrection could not help but cause an earthquake because there were faults in human culture just waiting to shift when the event occurred. A look at the Old Testament readings we read during the Vigil can point out where the faults were and still are.

The story of the Flood shows us what Cain’s murder of Abel led to: a society overwhelmed with violence. They did not need God to create a flood to carry them away; their own violence had overwhelmed them like a flood. The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham refers to the institutionalization of sacrifice to stave off the meltdown of the Flood. The people were convinced that somebody must die in order that the people might be saved. That is what Caiaphas said to justify the execution of Jesus. Abraham thought somebody must die until an angel (messenger) of God told him otherwise. In Jesus Risen in our Midst Sandra Schneiders points out that God wanted neither Isaac nor Jesus to die, but while Abraham obeyed God, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate decided otherwise. Pharaoh’s Egypt was a society held together through institutionalized sacrifice: the enslavement of the Hebrews. When plagues struck, Pharaoh blamed the Hebrews and drove them out. God transformed the event into a deliverance from slavery. Like the people in Noah’s time, the Egyptians were overwhelmed by their own violence. (When Jesus welcomed the children that his disciples tried to keep away, he showed for all time that God is not a child killer.) These are the fault lines that could only slip and shake the earth when the angel of the Lord “descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” The guards, representatives of the sacrificial culture, became “like dead men.” Death is what sacrificial cultures lead to.

The angel’s words “Do not be afraid” are at least as earthshaking as the earthquake. These words of peace turn us upside down and around in circles. What is the man we killed to stabilize society going to do to us now that he is out and about again? Why would he tell us not to be afraid? What is this world coming to? Two women both named Mary who live on the margin of the society of their time, a society that would not let them testify in court as witnesses, are asked to be witnesses to this momentous news, to the momentous presence of life. They run off with “fear and great joy.” Mary and Mary don’t get far before they meet up with Jesus who greets them and repeats the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus de-centers us once again by taking us from the center of religious and political power to that backwater Galilee where he will start a new life for us. St. Paul says of the Hebrews who were delivered from Egypt that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) When we renew our baptismal vows, we renewed our commitment to being overwhelmed by God’s deliverance from a sacrificial culture that creates fault lines to a new culture based on the forgiving victim. These words are spoken not just to the two women but to the two guards and to each one of us. Sandra Schneiders says: “In the Resurrection God gave back to us the Gift we had rejected. Can we accept the gift of peace this time around? Can we spread the news to others and, most important, to ourselves that we have been delivered from the flood waters of our violence to a new land, a new way of living where we do not need to be afraid?

Escape from the Denial of Death

cemetery1Richard Beck’s new book The Slavery of Death works with the powerful thesis of Ernest Becker which states that fear and denial of death fuels human aggression. I have read both of Becker’s books (Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) and I find Becker’s analysis of this phenomenon compelling. Moreover, much scientific testing has verified Becker’s theory. Beck outlines Becker’s demonstration this existential fear of death and its subsequent denial leads to striving for heroism. For Becker, heroism is a compulsive drive to succeed, to prove that one matters, and to gain recognition for one’s efforts. One might think that there is nothing wrong with any of this but this neurotic striving for “heroism” comes to the expense of other things in life such as family and friends. Moreover, the social settings for such striving tend to magnify aggressive behavior so that not only fearful individuals but the social groups as well persecute others to validate themselves.

Impressive as Becker’s insights are, they are very bleak and they don’t offer humanity any constructive way out the denial of death except, perhaps, a heavy dose of Stoicism. Most humans find this cold comfort at best and an impossible prescription at worst. Might as well join Jean-Paul Sartre in a life of existential despair.

Richard Beck brings Christian theology and spirituality to Becker’s insights which brings us into a whole new ball game. To begin with, he notes the importance the Eastern Orthodox Churches give to Death, rather than Sin being the prime enemy that Jesus must destroy. He adds depth to the slavery to “heroism” by comparing it to the “principalities and powers” of the world denounced by St. Paul. Beck then uses the social and anthropological thought of Walter Wink and William Stringfellow (who deserves to be much more remembered than he seems to be) to help us see the strength of social forces that pull us into a “heroic” mode. Much more important, Beck shows how an eccentric life can pull us out of this death anxiety so as to live a healthy, loving life. Beck is not talking about being somebody’s eccentric uncle; he is talking about living a life centered outside the self. He uses Arthur McGill as a resource for understanding how love and concern for others benefits the one doing the loving by pulling us out of ourselves. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example of eccentric living. Jesus was positioned fully out of himself out of concern for others and also his grounding in his heavenly Father. That is why, although he feared the painful death to come in Gethsemane, he had the courage to endure it. Lest one be overly daunted by the extent of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and that of people like Teresa of Calcutta, Beck also shows how important small sacrifices on a daily basis are for eccentric living. These are within reach of everybody. The “little way” of Thérèse of Lisieux is are stirring and practical example. For Thérèse, eccentric living can be as simple as pushing a wheelchair of an elderly sister who complains bitterly over every bump on the way. It is such eccentric living that leads to Jesus’s resurrected life which we are all invited to share.

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2): Abraham’s Offspring

Jacob_Blessing_the_Children_of_Joseph_-_WGA19117[Continuation of Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

God promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as the dust of the earth. (Gen. 13:16) I like the later image of the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17) but the earlier image ties in with the creation of humanity out of dust, thus making it clear that descendants of Abraham (like us) are part of God’s ongoing creation. That’s how expansive God’s blessing and being God’s blessing can be.

When Abraham and his nephew Lot found there was tension between their herdsmen, Abraham suggested that they separate and he gave Lot the choice of taking the land to the left or the land to the right. This is quite the opposite from what most of us do which is the first see what the other desires and then desire it for ourselves. Instead, Abraham renounces desiring what his nephew desires and goes in the other direction. (The better-looking land turned out to have its liabilities but that is another story.)

Unfortunately, Abraham does not renounce mimetic desire and rivalry when it comes to his sons Ishmael and Isaac. In spite of being called to be a blessing and promised as many descendants as the dust of the earth, Abraham fails to believe that both of his sons can inherit the blessing he has been given by God. Far from fighting each other, Ishmael and Isaac play well together but they fall victim to the rivalry between their mothers. (Women are equal participants in the mimetic rivalry game in Genesis.) Abraham casts Ishmael out so that his favorite son born of Sarah can inherit the blessing. God, however, makes it clear that there is a blessing for Ishmael, too, even if Abraham did not believe it.

Following his father’s example, Isaac assumes that only one of his two sons can receive his blessing and, like Abraham, he wants to give it to his favorite son. Rebekah’s involvement in this rivalry causes this Isaac’s scheme to misfire. This time, it is the son who receives (takes) the blessing who is exiled where Jacob spends many years in rivalry with his kinsman Laban. When Esau re-enters the story on Jacob’s return, we can see that Esau has done well for himself and has no need to envy his brother’s success. Apparently there was a lot more of a blessing left for Esau than Isaac thought.

Jacob stubbornly upholds the family tradition of disbelief in the scope of God’s blessing and singles out his favorite, Joseph, over/against his ten older brothers. This time the fratricidal strife has enough brothers to create a scenario of collective violence. In contrast to the primitive sacred, however, the unanimity is not complete. Both Reuben and Judah, separately, make plans to save Joseph but they both fail. If they had stood up to their brothers, the mimetic process would likely have been redirected in a peaceful direction. The upshot of the story is that Joseph ends up becoming a blessing to Egypt and to lands far beyond and he saves his own family through his foresight in collecting food during the years of plenty. (Joseph’s making the Egyptians buy back the food that had been taken from them does make Joseph less generous than his God.)

Before he dies, Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. He crosses his hands to indicate that Ephraim will be greater than his elder brother, but he gives both boys the same blessing. Finally, through excruciatingly painful experience, Jacob has learned that God has blessings for all of Abraham’s offspring.

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609Fratricide is a running thread throughout Genesis. The rivalry portrayed in its stories do not involve romantic triangles as in novels and plays, but rather, the disputes are over blessings, the other running thread throughout Genesis.

In Creation God blesses humanity with all that God has created, but humanity rejects that blessing for the sake of one tree that then shrank to a barren landscape. To begin the process of re-gathering a scattered humanity after the Tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to leave his father’s house, i.e. the scattered, rivalrous civilization he was born in, and move to a land God will show him. When Abraham leaves the entanglements of mimetic rivalry behind, whole new vistas of possibilities suddenly present themselves.

God then tells Abraham:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” and by him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12: 1-3) We are so habituated to getting (or taking) blessings that we often fail to notice that God said Abraham would be a blessing and a blessing not just for him and his household but for all households. The intervening verse that God will curse those who curse Abraham is discordant. If God really is in the business of blessings, then God is not in the business of cursing. After all, Jesus did not curse those who cursed him and worse. However, we could say that when we curse someone who is a blessing, and through Abraham everybody is a blessing, then we are consumed by our own cursing.

We see all this already at play in the story of Cain and Abel who fight over a blessing and the supposed lack thereof. Genesis does not tell us why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. Girard’s theory of collective violence founding culture leads me to suggest that tilling the ground was a factor. There could have been mimetic rivalry among nomadic herders of sheep but tilling the ground like Cain was all the more conducive to rivalry over particular plots of land, such as Ahab’s coveting Naboth’s vineyard. The proliferation of vegetative dying and rising deities in mythology suggests that landed economy lead to mimetic crises and their resolution through collective violence. On the other hand, when we note the alleged zero sum blessings in the fratricidal strife that follows, maybe Cain jumped to the conclusion that when Abel was blessed, there could be no blessing for him.

What is decisive is that when Cain’s offering was rejected, or he thought it was, he embroiled himself with Abel, which was also to exile God. God called out to Cain, something God continues to do with violent humans to the end of time, but Cain would not let go of his preoccupation with his brother until he had killed him.

Afterwards, Abel’s blood cried from the ground. This is a marked contrast with the fratricidal myth of the founding of Rome where the blood of Remus was silent. Like Romulus, though, Cain was a founder of culture while Abel was the first prophet as defined by Jesus in Mt. 23:35, that is, a prophet is a victim. Abel’s blood seems to have cried for vengeance. The author of Hebrews, however, says that the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” More proof that God is in the business of blessing and not cursing.

Proving Shylock Right—Or Wrong

ShylockThe first thing that usually pops into anybody’s mind when Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes up is the cardboard stereotyped Jew Shylock. After Auschwitz, we cannot slip into enjoying this caricature the way earlier audiences might have if so inclined. On the contrary, we are apt to dismiss the play now that we realize how lethal such stereotyping can be. The second thing about the play that usually comes to mind is Portia’s set of three boxes where it is not the gold or silver covers that lead to her riches, but the unattractive lead cover. Appearances can be misleading and so perhaps it will be worth looking for what is beneath the ugly stereotyping.

It’s hard to find any gold under the ugly exterior of Shylock’s behavior, but it is equally hard to find any gold under the apparently more attractive exterior of Antonio’s behavior. Antonio is noble in that he is willing to give surety to a loan for his friend Bassanio, thus accepting the risk, but the way he treats Shylock is shameful. In one respect, Shylock is offering to do good to an enemy, but in another, he is hoping that the interest-free loan will lead to Antonio’s downfall by the extraction of a pound of flesh. It is important to realize that both men are mimetic doubles, rivals in the quest for increasing wealth for the sake of wealth.

In Shylock’s famous speech, when he is taken to task for his vengeful terms, he insists he is exactly the same kind of man as any of his Gentile rivals:  “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Which is what would happen to Antonio if a pound of flesh is cut out of him. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” Shylock’s detractors are trying to distinguish themselves from Shylock because they are merciful, but mercy is conspicuously lacking in their treatment of Shylock.

Meanwhile, Bassanio is often thought to have proven himself wise by choosing the lead casket, which wins him the hand of Portia in marriage. The speech he makes before making the choice, however, shows that he is not wise by cunning and calculating in his own desire for wealth. “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore/To a most dangerous sea.” Bassanio is so used to disseminating that dissemination is what he expects of Portia. And he is right.

The famous trial scene features Portia’s famous praise of mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” This is as golden a speech as any in Shakespeare. But—mercy is—again!—lacking in dealing with Shylock. By the end of the trial, he has lost his wealth, his livelihood and his religion. Portia’s words seem to echo Ecclesiasticus 35:20: “Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction as clouds of rain in the time of drought.”  But her actions belie the beautiful words, thus proving Shylock right when he says that when wronged, Christians revenge—just like Shylock. Unfortunately, we have a golden casket with nothing rich inside. The words, however, really are golden and invite any of us who rejoice in Shylock’s downfall to open our hearts to accept this gift from heaven.