On Hearing God’s Silence in the Storm

Jesus walking on waterIt is highly significant that Elijah did not find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but only in a “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kg 19:12) It happens that Elijah had just run away from fire and storm when he heard this sound of silence. Since Elijah had just “won” the battle with the priests of Baal, one might have thought that God had spoken through wind and fire that time, but the result of “winning” that contest was needing to run for his life because Jezebel was out to get him. So it seems God had not spoken in the wind and fire on Mount Carmel after all. If we stop the story with the “sound of sheer silence,” we are edified, but when we read on to the words Elijah heard, we are seriously troubled. At least I am. Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to be his successor prophet. So far so good. But Elijah is also told to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel. The narrative of Jehu’s cold-blooded coup d’état is chilling to say the least. (2 Kg. 9) More chilling are the words Elijah heard: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” (1 Kg. 19: 17) After the violent rivalry between Elijah and the priests of Baal, we get the crossfire of the violent rivalry between Hazael and the House of Ahab: more storm and fire. I have a hard time hearing this storm in the “sound of sheer silence.”

We have more storms in the story of Jesus’ disciples taking a boat across the lake. As almost always with Jesus, there were some human storms. Jesus had just learned of the ignominious death of John the Baptist as a result of a sophisticated mob violence at court. Afterwards, Jesus fed a mob of people who were hungry both for food and God’s Word. Matthew doesn’t mention this mob’s attempt to take Jesus by force to make him king but one can’t help but think that Jesus went off alone to pray because he needed to center himself again on his heavenly Abba after what had just happened. I’m inclined to see in the storm at sea not only a natural phenomena but an interpersonal phenomena as well. I wrote in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: “The story of Peter walking on water — or trying to — also illustrates this aiming [to be centered on God]. (Mt. 14:28-33) The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, Peter was pulled into the boat and the sea grew calm.”

[Tom and Laura Truby develop these thoughts with excellence in their sermon The Raging Storm of Our Own Making.”]

Both of these scripture readings make it dramatically clear that being truly focused on God and God’s peace beyond human understanding is very difficult. Elijah shows how it is very possible to hear the “sheer silence” and yet also “hear” the violence unfolding in his generation. That Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, makes it understandable that Elijah would hear, even in the “sheer silence,” his own anger and fear towards Ahab’s royal house. Likewise, the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea are so caught up both in the natural storm and the storm of their own disputatiousness that even Jesus himself appears as an object of horror rather than peace. We should take this as a warning of how our prayer in trying times can be distorted by our own anger and anxiety.

There is no simple solution I can offer for this difficulty we all face. In principle, it seems simple to say that we should turn to Jesus and stay turned to him. The problem is that this “simple” solution is difficult minute by minute, second by second. We look at the chaotic waves of the water and sink back into our fears, resentment, and rage. It is a huge help if we remain aware of this weakness and don’t mistake the storms inside ourselves for the word of God. When we fall into our rage, the storm continues, for Jesus calms the waters; he does not stir them up. It takes time and discipline to keep even enough focus on the “sheer silence” to help us see the rage we keep hearing for what it is. Imitating Peter by crying for mercy is essential as this is a cry of repentance of our violence that is the first step to living in the peace of Christ.

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Jesus’ Yoke

eucharist1Jesus’ invitation to come to him with our burdens so that he can give us rest and take his easy yoke upon ourselves sounds like an irresistible blessing. But the troubling words skipped by the lectionary suggest that Jesus’ offer is highly resistible. Here, he bemoans the rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Given the horrifying hardness of heart shown in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, it boggles the mind that Jesus thought those people might have responded better than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus’ first miracles of healing.

How can Jesus’ offer to free us of our burdens be so resistible? We get some hint of this in the powerful, if dense, passage in Romans 7 where Paul cries out against the burden of sin that makes him do what he does not want to do. Most of us think the problem is that the burden of sin renders us powerless. There is something to that, especially in the case of addictions. But the deeper problem is that we have great difficulty knowing what we really desire. The French thinker René Girard has helped us greatly towards an understanding of this problem with his insight into what he called “mimetic desire.” That is, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. Since the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the sin most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus us getting at in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

Girard argues that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The latter is the story told in the four Gospels. However, it is not only the story of the Gospels; it is the story told numerous times in the Hebrew Bible starting with the dawn of humanity. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, in another verse not included in the lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. In rabbinic literature, the yoke is used as an image for a Jewish student’s relationship with his or her rabbi. Jesus, as a rabbi, offers such a yoke. Being yoked to Jesus means being yoked to a Messiah who rides on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The Greek word translated as “gentle” is praus, the same word used in Matthew’s quote from Zechariah to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us in the power of sin within us that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. As Paul discovered, it is impossible without the grace of Christ who offers us his yoke in place of the yoke of sin. The harsh words against Capernaum and neighboring towns actually offer us hope. If Jesus could envision the possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah converting to Jesus’ yoke if they had seen the wonders done at Capernaum, although the people in these towns united to persecute Lot and his guests, surely Jesus can envision the same for our persecutory society. Can we cast the burdens of fear, anger, and vengeance on Jesus and accept the yoke he offers us, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

[For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

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.