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

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

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.

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.

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.

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.

New Story about a Strange Plague that Hits a Town

???????????????????????????????????????????I have just posted a new story called “The Gray Plague.” It tells the story of Jimmy Peppersap and the other people in his town where a plague strikes without any explanation. The first version of this story was written years before I was aware of René Girard’s thought but even back then it showed some intuition of the social dynamics Girard has analyzed so well. To read this story and reflect on what it has to tell us, click Here.