Jesus as the Way

WilliamGuestsChurch1Jesus’ famous words in John: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14: 6) have inspired many Christians, including me, but they tend to cause some consternation in an age where many seek to be inclusive and affirming of diversity. Now that René Girard has greatly increased our awareness of mimetic rivalry, the worry grows that we might understand a verse such as this as meaning “my god is better than your god.” Such a reading projects our own rivalry onto Jesus so as to make Jesus a rival against other “gods.” Which is to turn Jesus into an idol of our own making.

In mimetic rivalry, as Girard articulates it, two rivals become mirror images of one another as they become so entangled in their struggle that the original bone of contention disappears. The two rivals are no longer fighting over a car or a dating companion but are directly tearing each other down and apart. Even ( perhaps especially) with people not so caught up in fighting for material possessions, rivalry over seemingly threatened beliefs can be extraordinarily fierce as we often stake our very being on our beliefs—whatever they are. If we engage in rivalry with people who hold beliefs other than our own, or with people with different understandings of Jesus, we lose sight of Jesus in the very act of defending Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus rebuked his disciples when they fought over who was the greatest. Surely Jesus himself was not fighting with anybody over who was the greatest and he doesn’t want us to do that on his behalf.

I think we start to get a better understanding of this verse when we note that it leads up to Jesus’ proclamation: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14: 9) This verse tells us that there is not the faintest trace of mimetic rivalry between Jesus and the Father. That is why Jesus is so transparent that we can see the Father through his actions and words. Later in this chapter, past what was read for today’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send “another advocate” to guide them into the truth. (Jn. 14: 16) This fills out the Trinitarian dimensions of divine transparency that attests even further to the lack of mimetic rivalry in God. Since Jesus says that he is sending “another advocate,” the implication is that he also is an advocate for us and his advocacy images the Father’s advocacy as well. This means we have three advocates who are advocates for everybody, including any person we might be in rivalry with. Not only is there no mimetic rivalry within the Trinity, there is no mimetic rivalry on the Trinity’s part with us. Any mimetic rivalry we experience comes from our human relationships.

To follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to renounce all mimetic rivalry. This is a huge challenge because we feed on our rivalries so constantly that we often can’t imagine life without them. Much is said by theologians about how mysterious and incomprehensible God is. Often this mystery is couched in terms of God’s infinity and our finite minds. That is true, but for practical purposes, the divide between our mimetic rivalry and God’s total lack of it is the source of our incomprehension of God in our daily lives. This is why we are so prone to pitting God as a rival with others with whom we just happen to be in rivalry with. Renouncing rivalry is one of the ways we die to sin so as to rise to new life. Insofar as we manage to renounce our rivalries so as to follow Jesus as the Way that leads to life, we ourselves become life-givers who show the way and the life and truth that we receive from the Persons of the Trinity.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

The Strangest Victory of All

Cemetary2Easter is a great celebration, but it is a strange celebration. It isn’t like celebrating an election won or winning the World Series. It most certainly isn’t like celebrating victory in war. But if we have trumpets and kettle drums to augment the shouts of Alleluia!” we might forget the strangeness sometimes and get carried away by a sense of triumphant victory.

The sober but profound truth is that we are celebrating the resurrection of a loser. Jesus was not voted into office; he was handed over to the authorities who put him to death. Jesus did not win a war; he refused to fight one. His disciples were downhearted because they thought Jesus was the one who was going to restore Israel, and he obviously didn’t do it. When he rose from the dead, some of his disciples thought he might restore Israel after all, but he still didn’t. All Jesus did was have quiet meetings with his unfaithful followers who had trouble recognizing him. During those meetings, Jesus explained the scriptures to try to help us understand why he could only win by losing. We still have trouble understanding this.

Jesus did win a victory; a great victory. But it was a victory Jesus won by losing. That is, if Jesus had defeated the Roman Empire by force and restored Israel in that way, Jesus would have lost, and so would everybody else. For defeating an enemy by force is the way the world normally works, so if Jesus had won in that way, the world would not have changed and the rule of defeating one another by force would continue to rule the world as it always has. But Jesus triumphed over triumphalism, thus defeating trimphalism for all time.

The Resurrection proves that it is Jesus who rules the world and not those who defeat others by force, least of all empires. If that is the case, then Jesus rules in an odd way. For Jesus does not give marching orders and intimidate people to do what he wants. (Unfortunately, many pastors do that on Jesus’ behalf.) Jesus rules the world by gathering those who will join him into a community of vulnerability and forgiveness. Of course, the vulnerable and forgiving lose in the game of life which is ruled by force.

It is frustrating to see the powerful prey on the weak and not only not does Jesus not tear the oppressors apart but Jesus teaches us not to do that. But the victory Jesus won on the cross was the victory of losing and the victory of Jesus’ Resurrection is the continuation of Jesus’ losing ways. What is so frustrating is that there is so much forgiving to do that it is overwhelming. Many of the news stories I read about make forgiving very difficult for me. The worst thing about these news stories is that they show how unforgiving our society is. Given that, it is a blessing beyond imagining that Jesus is gathering us in a different way. If Jesus had not won by losing, we would all be losers without even knowing how deep our loss is. But Jesus has won the great victory so that He can give us his life of mercy and love for us to pass on to others. We also are relieved of the responsibility to “win;” we only need be faithful in works of mercy. This is the way to life for ourselves and for all other people. This is the restoration of Israel. This is what we celebrate when we cry out: “Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

Jesus Between the Prisoners

crossRedVeil1We rightly meditate on the sufferings of Jesus during Holy Week. But in Matthew 25, Jesus made it clear that the sufferings of others were also his sufferings. So it is also suitable to meditate on the sufferings Jesus bears with others.

There is such an epidemic of violence and oppression at this time that one hardly knows where to start. But denouncing violence and oppression in general is not helpful, so I will focus on something that I have been reflecting on lately: the US prison system.

Out of sight is out of mind for many things but it applies to the US prison system more than most. There are many who prefer it that way. Not only those who benefit from the prison system but also those who don’t want to know. I can understand not wanting to know. I would be much happier if I knew a lot less of the US prison system. The problem is, Christian charity requires knowing when people are being treated like Christ–as in Christ being brought before Caiaphas and Pilate and then nailed to the cross.

In a series of essays recently published in honor of the social activist Will D. Campbell And the Criminals with Him, and in other books I have read, the systemic horror and dehumanization of almost everybody involved in the prison system has been brought home to me. The incarcerated are vulnerable to their wardens and guards in ways that make human dignity very hard to retain. What disturbs me most is the social vengeful spirit that feeds the prison system. It is this vengeful spirit that drives the incarcerated out of sight and out of mind. There is no room for forgiveness. I don’t mean that forgiveness means letting people go free without any consequences; forgiveness means seriously rehabilitating people and giving them a chance when they are released. We forget that Christian ethics teaches that all people deserve to be treated with dignity at all times. Treating people with dignity includes making people accountable for what they do. Huge sentences without parole or reducing prisoners to one meal a day do not accomplish that.

Rather than scold ourselves for our prison system, however, I would rather spread encouragement through a story I heard at a conference over a year ago by Preston Shipp, who repented of being a prosecuting attorney in Tennessee. While he was still holding that position, he was asked by a professor he had had at Lipscomb College, to teach a course in the woman’s prison on criminal justice. This is a program where half the class consists of Lipscomb students and half the class is made up of inmates of the prison. The best and most perceptive student in the class was an inmate named Cyntoia Brown. It was a shock to Preston when he got a finalized brief on the case of Cyntoia Brown and discovered that he himself had denied the appeal without, obviously, really examining the case. (Cyntoia had murdered a man who was abusing her at the age of sixteen.) Talk about not knowing what one is doing, as Jesus said on the cross. In the book I mentioned above, we also get the story from Cyntoia’s point of view. She said that she had her own stereotypes about what a prosecuting attorney teaching the class would be like only to have those stereotypes knocked away by this highly affirming man whose teaching opened the door for her to feel human again. But then she got her copy of the brief denying the appeal of her sentence. She felt deeply betrayed and Preston hardly knew how he could face her, but he did. Yes, in the midst of this unforgiving prison system, Cyntoia forgave Preston and Preston accepted her forgiveness. Can we follow her example along with that of Christ?

A video of the incident is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=dQpQlqN8EY0

On Following the God of All Victims

WilliamGuestsChurch1In our readings for today, we celebrate the Week of Christian Unity with the short narrative of Jesus calling his first disciples (Mt. 4: 18–22) and Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians for their discord and divisiveness (1 Cor. 1: 11–13). The light in the darkness proclaimed by Isaiah (Is. 9: 2) shines brightly on the first scenario but is much obscured in the second.

The situation in Corinth is aptly described by René Girard’s term “mimetic rivalry.” That is, the rivals are mirror images of each other. It is significant that Paul does not mention any issues of disagreement, even though we know from other sources that he had issues with Cephas (Peter.) Girard has taught us that when mimetic rivalry escalates, the issues fall away and we get the chaos of rivalry for the sake of rivalry. Girard goes on to suggest that in ancient societies this chaotic rivalry repeatedly resolved itself through suddenly focusing on one victim who was put to death. Peace, for a time, followed this atrocity. Girard goes on to aver that when this same scenario was committed against Jesus of Nazareth, the truth of this collective violence was unveiled to the extent that it could never again create peace, not even for a time, as it did before. Through Christ, God has presented us with the challenge of either renouncing our participation in chaotic mimetic rivalry or participating in the total destruction of civilization. [For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

When we look at the scenario in Corinth denounced in Paul, a scenario we can all recognize in our families, social groups, work places, charity organizations, and even (sometimes especially!) in our parish churches, it appears that Christianity has failed. Actually, the situation is more complicated than that. A big part of the problem is that Christianity has succeeded too well. Or perhaps we should say Christianity has succeeded in a way that threatens to make the situation worse and more dangerous.

The unveiling of collective violence by the Cross has led to an ever-accelerating increase in sympathy for victims. We see this early in Christianity through the charitable work to relieve poverty and disease with hospitals being one of the great Christian inventions. We fret, quite rightly, about serious problems with racism in contemporary America but we do well to remember that racism has been practiced by all people of all times and places and it is only in places where the Gospel has had an influence that anybody has seen racism as a problem and acted on that perception.

While to be a victim was such an unmitigated disgrace in the ancient world that one would do anything to avoid that stigma, preferably by victimizing somebody else, to be a victim has become a badge of honor. This is indeed a badge of honor for people like those who generously risked their well-being and lives during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, but it looks like shameless exploitation of real victims by those who feel victimized when called to account for injustices and crimes inflicted on others.

This division between real victims and imposters, a division that is often far from clear, is not the problem of division that concerns me during the Week of Christian Unity. The deeper problem is what I am inclined to call a chaos of victims. We have today a plethora of real, legitimate victims, even if the plight of some might seem more urgent than others. Here is the rub. Not only do we have the social chaos of those who continue to victimize others through brute force such as rape or economic exploitation, and the social chaos of many who just don’t care, we have the social chaos of advocates for victims and victims trying to ameliorate their own circumstances. Put in a nutshell: we have a chaos of mimetic rivalry between the favorite victims of some advocates against the favorite victims of other advocates. Here is the heart of the most serious divisions within Christianity in our time. This is not a chaos of those wanting or willing to hurt others; this is a chaos among those who willingly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that those of us concerned with the vulnerable and the helpless will be more sensitive to some victims more than others. This increased sensitivity to some victims can look like indifference to others and can become downright hostile in situations where equal advocacy between causes is difficult and sometimes impossible.

I am not saying this from outside the fray. I am very much inside it, very much involved in all the mimetic issues I am describing. I know that I respond to the needs of some victims more than others. The complexity of this tension among those of us who wish to help others is enough to lead to despair but we have a light in the darkness in the calling of Jesus to follow Him. Jesus is not a Messiah divided among many victims and their advocates; Jesus is a Messiah for all victims and their advocates. It is surely this call and not any intellectual or moral perspicacity of my part that makes it possible for me to even define this problem as I have. The call to discipleship is a call for repentance on many levels, ranging from our moral own violence and lassitude to the rivalry for the sake of rivalry such as at Corinth, to our rivalry over the causes of real victims. It is this very complexity that requires us to seek a conversion of society and not just our individual selves. Here is where I see the biggest challenge to Christian unity.

Sharing God’s Riches

creche1-copyLike every culture, the Jews had to face fundamental decisions as to how open or closed they would be to others. The default mechanism tends to be flight or fight. In discussing remaining social groups living close to the level of what he calls “traditional” societies, Jared Diamond observed this phenomenon. A stranger wandering into the territory of a different tribe had better come up with a common ancestor or the encounter could prove fatal.

The type of encounters with other nations has an effect on such decisions. In the case of the Jews, most encounters were bad. Slavery in Egypt was followed by both cultural and military threats from the Canaanites who tempted the Jews to forsake the God who had delivered them from Egypt. Encounters with the Assyrians and Babylonians were catastrophic. But then the Persians destroyed the Babylonian Empire and invited the Jews to return to their homeland and revive their cultural and religious traditions. It is surely no accident that the return from Babylonian exile and resettlement back in their homeland coincided with the first expressions of openness to other cultures on the part of the Jews such as we have when Isaiah proclaims: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:3) With Isaiah, we have the breakthrough insight that the God who brought them out of Egypt and then delivered them from Babylon was the God for all people and not just them. Although Adam Smith took the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations from Isaiah 60:5: “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” the prophet encourages a much more profound exchange than that of capital: an exchange of the riches of the Jews’ religious tradition for the riches other nations can bring to that same tradition. Unfortunately, retrenchment followed, climaxed by the expulsion of all foreign wives at about the time of the building of the second temple.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, the other nations, was complex and tense. Their religious traditions were mostly tolerated but at times menaced by the Romans. Although some individual Gentiles became God-fearers, practicers of Jewish piety such as the Centurion who built the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 7: 4-5) there were few friendly relations between Jews and Gentiles. And yet in the face of this tension, Matthew sees in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the exchange of wealth between the two peoples.

It was for St. Paul to return the gifts to the Magi. After his dramatic conversion, he was called to preach the Good News of Jesus, a Jew, to the Gentiles. To the surprise of many Jews who followed Jesus, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3: 6) That is, Jesus dissolved the fundamental division between Jew and Gentile when he was crucified by a collaboration between the two peoples who had suddenly come together for that brief moment. But when Jesus was raised from the dead as the forgiving victim, he bridged the gap between nations with one comprehensive act of forgiveness.

Ever since Paul’s commission, the Church has been tempted to retrench herself as the Jews did after building the second temple. This is to fall back into the default hostility to the stranger that Jared Diamond saw as part of “traditional” humanity. What the feast of Epiphany celebrates is the generosity of God who shares God’s riches with all so that all people can share this same richness with all others, not least with strangers who can then soon cease to be strangers.

God-Is-With-Us: A Christmas Eve Meditation

creche1-copyTonight, we celebrate the birth of a child. Usually, there is rejoicing when a child is born. One of my family stories is that my grandmother was so excited about my birth that she burned two pots of beans.

When we celebrate a birth, we celebrate the fact that a baby is. The simple act of coming to be is a cause of wonder and joy. So it is that we celebrate Jesus before he did anything at all except come out of his mother’s womb and maybe cry a bit and suckle some milk. As a friend of mine said once about newborn babies: “They don’t do much at that age.” We also celebrate our hopes for the future and for the future of that child. We know that in the case of Jesus, the future wasn’t all rosy. That Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for him and his family and that Herod would be out to get him as soon as he found out about him shows that there was cause for anxiety from the very start. Unfortunately, many babies being born right now are born into much the same sort of anxiety that is mingled with hopes for the child. So not every birth leads to unequivocal rejoicing. Such anxiety is exacerbated by our tendency to focus on those who stir up fear in us, goading us on to adding further fuel to the violence growing all around us. We can see in news reports, Twitter, and Facebook that we are locked in violent systems of condemnation that stoke our fears exponentially.

Although we celebrate tonight the very being of Jesus, that Jesus is, when Jesus was apparently not doing much, God was and is already doing a great thing, an unprecedented thing: God had entered humanity. God chose to share, in frail human flesh, the very threats and anxieties that we all share. God has not left us to the human powers over which we have little or no control, powers we doubt we can trust with our well-being. Moreover, God shares the vulnerability other humans suffer from us on account of our fears and our own violence that we cannot see. In this way, God, in Jesus, lives up to the name: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God’s presence among us means many things. Tonight I will touch on one of them. By entering humanity, God has opened our human nature to God’s nature. We are no longer as trapped in our own human fear and violence as we often think we are. Later in life, Jesus spoke about God coming “like a thief in the night” but at the time of Jesus’ birth, God had already broken into the household of our humanity and started to sneak around, taking away bits of fear and violence and leaving bits of love behind.

This Christmas, let us celebrate the sneaky child who is already crawling around in the dark places of our lives, taking away the things we need to lose and giving us the gifts we need the most.

Zacchaeus and his City

zacchaeusThe French thinker René Girard has argued that since the dawn of humanity, we have tended to solve social tensions through persecuting a victim who absorbs these tensions and suffers for them. Girard has also argued that the Gospels unveil the truth of this scapegoating mechanism in their narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection where Jesus opens up new possibilities for humanity to gather through the forgiveness of the Risen Victim. It happens that the Gospels show Jesus unveiling these very same dynamics in his earthly ministry. I analyzed our such stories in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire. Here is what I have to say about Zacchaeus:
When Jesus came to Jericho, he was famous, or notorious enough, that something of a hubbub arose as a result of his passing through the town. People gathered and crowded one another to gawk at the man and his followers. Why the stir? The mayor wasn’t exactly giving him the key to the city. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was set upon by Pharisees and scribes and questioned in front of the crowd. Such questioning, of course, was made with the intention of publicly discrediting the freelance itinerant preacher who was becoming famous for his clever retorts. The result was bound to be entertaining. The scribes and Pharisees were surely on the prowl in a town that large. Zacchaeus’s act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus need not be taken as an indication that he was inclined to have his life changed by this stranger. His eagerness to see and hear the duel is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why? Because Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town were there to be seen by a person with eyes to see.
That Jesus had discerned the social matrix of Jericho rightly was immediately manifest when Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to that man’s house. St. Luke says that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (Lk. 19:7) Here is another example of Luke’s astute anthropological insight. It isn’t just the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Zacchaeus. Everybody grumbles about him. Like Simon when confronted with the Woman Who Was a Sinner, (Lk. 7:36–50) the people of Jericho were thinking that if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this was who was sitting up in a tree—that he was a sinner. One doesn’t have to be a demonically possessed man or a sinful woman to be a communal scapegoat. A rich man who is a traitor to his people can hold the same position. And deserve it. After all, he was treading down the downtrodden. For scapegoating others, he deserved to be scapegoated. As it happened, Jesus did know what kind of man Zacchaeus was. It is through showing us that anybody can be the scapegoat and anybody can be a persecutor that Luke shows the communal scapegoating phenomenon for what it is. Given the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem with a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen to him there, it behooved Jesus to give his followers every opportunity to see how collective hostility against one person works, in the hope that they would learn to recognize the process when it happens in the Holy City, and that is what he has done here.

As with the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus performs an exorcism of the communal scapegoat, a quiet one this time, but just as effective. The result is that the homeostasis sustained by the scapegoating process is destabilized. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus or if he had repented earlier but nobody believed it. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he is already doing these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is better, or less terrible, than he has been made out to be. I think our best bet is to look at the implications of either interpretation of the verb tenses.

If Zacchaeus has been converted on the spot by Jesus, and we assume that Jesus did not zap people with a magic wand to override their free will, then we may ask ourselves how this conversion happened. The information in Luke suggests two possibilities. As the communal scapegoat, Zacchaeus had “the intelligence of the victim” and perhaps that intelligence led him to understand what it meant to other people to be the victim of his tax collecting. The other possibility is that an undeserved commendation from Jesus freed Zacchaeus from the necessity of acting in such a way as to justify his designation as communal scapegoat. It is more than likely that both factors played their part here. On the other hand, if Zacchaeus was speaking in the present tense, the implication is that the collective attitude of the townspeople was unjust, which would underline the arbitrary aspect of scapegoating. Generous actions on the part of a rich person who has drawn the collective resentment of the community often do not diminish resentment against him or her. It is also possible, of course, that Zacchaeus is trying to make himself look better than he really is. That is, he is boasting of his good deeds while overlooking the unjust means used for gaining the wealth that he uses for his acts of largesse. If I am right in taking this story as being primarily concerned with communal scapegoating, then the ambiguity enriches the story and there is no need to solve the grammatical problem once and for all.

The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person. It extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. Whether or not Zacchaeus needed to be converted and, if so, whether or not he did change his life, is immaterial for the greater challenge. Either way, by singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man’s house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat. The unanimity has been irretrievably broken. That everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on the way to becoming a unanimous object of hatred. Since Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he would, once again, become the object of hatred, it is no surprise that it should happen in Jericho, while he was on the way to the Holy City. This development does not bode well for Jericho becoming a social climate of healing.