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.

“The Greatest of These Is Love”

outsideSupper1Paul’s famous Hymn of Love zeroes in on what love, as agape, is all about: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:4–6) In these qualities, we can see love as a deep renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Insisting on our own way, being resentful, rejoicing in the shortcomings of others, are all ways of putting ourselves on top of other people. Surely this short list is meant to stand for any attempt to put ourselves above other people. As long as we try to “win,” we lose at love. When we are willing to “lose,” we win at love.
In Works of Love, Kierkegaard plunges the depths of what it means for love to “believe all things” and “hope all things.” (1Cor. 13:7) Kierkegaard’s first axiom is: “Love believes all things—and yet is never deceived.” Believing all things is a tall order when we know, with the Psalmist, that “Everyone is a liar!” (Ps. 116:11) Kierkegaard examines the lengths we go to avoid being deceived by another. Such a one practices much cleverness in this task. For Kierkegaard, cleverness is not a good thing; cleverness is the trait that cuts us off from other people and, most particularly, from God. If we think we love while we calculate possible deceptions of the other, we are deceiving ourselves. If we abandon ourselves to love to the extent of believing the other person and that person deceives us, it is this other person who has deceived him or herself. A second axiom is: “Love hopes all things—and yet is never put to shame.”  As with believing all things, hope is hoping all things for oneself and other people. As with believing all things, Kierkegaard explores the cleverness with which we lower our standards in relationship with God and so are put to shame because we did not love enough to hope all things. If even the prodigal son should, in the end, be lost, the father who remains steadfast in love has not been put to shame. It is only the lost son who remained lost who is put to shame. In hoping for the salvation of other people, we are renouncing all mimetic rivalry that might tempt us to loosen this hope even a little bit. With these two axioms, Kierkegaard has shown us how love fulfills the other two theological virtues of faith and hope so that “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

Abolishing Sacrifice to Establish Mercy

Jesus_cleansing_templeThe story of Jesus knocking over the tables in the temple and driving out the animals shakes us up but then we wonder what we should be all shook up about. Jesus’ act can be seen as the climax of repeated protests of the Hebrew prophets against the sacrificial cult in the temple. Jeremiah mocked his listeners who jabbered: “This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!”  (Jer. 7:4). Then there is God’s mocking question from Psalm 50 and repeated elsewhere: “Do you think I eat the meat of bulls and drink the blood of goats?” Amos proclaims God’s hatred of festivals. Most telling are the words of Hosea that Jesus quoted: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6.) There is much debate as to whether the prophets wanted the abolition of the sacrificial cult or a reformation that would bring it in line with moral values. In driving out not only the money changers but also the animals about to be sacrificed, I think Jesus is doing a bit of guerrilla theater to prophecy the end of the temple cult, a prophecy fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the combined violence of militant Jew and the imperialistic Romans resulted in its destruction.

When asked to explain his actions, Jesus said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) This literalist interpretation is promptly debunked by the evangelist when he says that Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2: 21). So much for biblical literalism. The implication that Jesus is replacing the temple with his risen body is a strong indication that he intended to abolish the sacrificial cult. What was wrong with the sacrificial cult? The quote from Psalm 69 “zeal for your house will consume me” shows us the problem if we note the context. Psalm 69 begins with “Save me O God for the waters have risen up to my neck.” The psalmist tells God that he is suffering the same reproach people level against God: “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” This psalm is referred to as one of the “passion psalms” and has been interpreted as a prophecy of Christ. However, I don’t think the psalmist was gazing into a crystal ball and seeing Christ’s Passion; I think the psalmist was complaining about collective violence that was happening to him at the time. The number of persecution psalms and the fate of many prophets, suggests that the Gospels are revealing the human tendency to solve social conflicts by uniting against a victim which is precisely the outcome Jesus predicts when he explains his actions at the temple. T

he prophets consistently denounced the sacrifices made on the “high places,” pagan sacrifices to deities like Moloch who even required the sacrifice of their children. The sacrifice in the temple was more humane in that it was restricted to animals, but the practice derived from the notion that “god” was angry and would be appeased only by sacrifices. The prophets’ denunciations of the temple cult were consistently coupled with denunciations of social violence and injustice where the poor were sold for a pair of sandals as Amos complained. Although it is argued that the prophets thought the temple sacrifices were acceptable, maybe even laudable, if accompanied with righteous actions in the social sphere, but they seem to have a sneaky suspicion that the practice of sacrifice tends to encourage social injustice. The temple setup was, after all, a terrible financial burden on the poor. (I think Jesus was not edified but outraged over the widow who gave the last two coins she had to live on.) The logic of sacrifice was that some living being was always dispensable precisely as the victims of collective violence at the times of social crises were dispensable and their deaths “necessary.” Caiaphas stated the sacrificial logic baldly when he said that it was better “to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50) In modern times this sacrificial logic is expressed by the regretful term “collateral damage.” These considerations suggest that the prophets were convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with sacrificial rites.

Jesus, on the other hand, has a totally different, opposite logic; a logic that Paul says is foolishness to the rest of the world. In John 6, Jesus says that everybody the Father gives him will come to him and nobody who comes to him will be driven away. The parable of the lost sheep makes the same point that it is not the will of our Father in Heaven that even one of his “little ones” should be lost. Jesus believed this so strongly that he would accept death on the cross to make the point and, more important, return as the forgiving victim to gather all who will come to him so that none of us should be lost. The pagan deities wanted sacrifices made to them. The prophets kept trying to get it across to everybody that God pours out sacrificial love to all of us through creation and redemption and that God wants the mercy God gives us in return, not sacrifices .  Caiaphas was willing to sacrifice Jesus and anyone else who put a spoke in the wheel of the sacrificial logic. Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself rather than sacrifice any of us. That is why we do not slaughter bulls on this altar but pass around the bread and wine through which Jesus gives His very self to each one of us.

Liturgical Animals (2)

eucharist1In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul brings us to the heart of Christian worship that Jesus inspired at what we call his Last Supper. His followers were doing what he told them to do: Do this in memory of me. While both the myths and rituals obscured the sacrificial stories on which they were based, the Eucharist clearly tells the story on which it is based:  the betrayal of Jesus, his subsequent crucifixion, and his rising from the dead.  This earliest account of the Eucharist, predating all of the Gospels, enshrines the Words of Institution that are repeated in celebrations of the Eucharist two thousand years later. The Eucharist teaches us through its story but it also teaches us at a deeper, more substantial level through actually feeding us with the Word of God so tangibly that we chew on it and swallow it. Celebrating the Eucharist places our desires into Jesus’ Desire for us to gather with him and the other Persons of the Trinity.

The meal is probably the oldest of rituals performed by liturgical animals. Eating is the first activity that immerses us into mimetic desire as we imitate the desires of our caregivers to desire food and, by the time we are old enough to be conscious of what we are eating, to desire certain foods because those around us desire them. However, as much as meals have to do with providing necessary bodily nourishment, they are always more than that. An intrinsic part of learning to eat is learning how to eat in the company of others. It may be culturally arbitrary whether we use eating utensils and plates or large leaves and fingers, but in every culture I have ever heard of, there is always a way of eating that is learned. The shared desire for food extends to a shared desire for the way of eating it. By rooting liturgy in a meal, the Eucharist roots worship in the sensuous act of eating; of tasting food and drink on our tongues.

In this same letter, Paul brings up the manner of table manners in regards to the Eucharist. He berates the richer members of the congregation for their insensitive treatment of those who are more economically challenged. To flaunt their superior food in front of those who cannot afford it without offering them anything was a serious violation of everything the Eucharist stands for. This desire shared by one group in the congregation to demonstrate their superiority over others, to put them in their places, breaks the unity the feast is supposed to create and strengthen. Paul makes it clear that there is much more to worship than saying or singing words together while celebrating a sacrifice. If people are not treated well, worship is diminished if not rendered nonexistent.

John’s version of the feeding in the wilderness brings all of these themes together. The event is explicitly brought into the context of Yahweh’s feeding the Jews in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. Raymond Brown pointed out that rabbinic teaching interpreted the manna as symbolizing the Torah, thus uniting food and teaching, something the Eucharist also does. While Matthew and Mark recount two feedings in the wilderness, one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, John has one story of feeding for all people. Jesus’ blessing of the bread and fishes has ritual overtones although the feeding is taking place in the open air, away from temples, synagogues and churches. The social unity that Paul enjoins is embodied in John’s vision where it gains a deep universality. Unfortunately, the people then unite in trying to make Jesus king, which destroys the social vision as surely as the Corinthians did.

The Eucharist teaches us that we don’t outgrow our earliest lessons: table manners. Without them, we don’t grow up.

Christian Community (3)

vocationersAtTable1The best-known image of the Church in the New Testament is the analogy of the human body with the Church which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-28). The implication is that as the various parts of a body add up to a unity, the various members of the church, different as we are, also make up a body. This analogy suggests each part must be well-coordinated with all the others. We can see this readily—and impressively—in athletic maneuvers such as acrobatics or in the artistry of a ballet dancer or musician. This image suggests a deep intuition on St. Paul’s part into mimetic desire. Just as each part of the human body must be sensitive and synchronized with each other, so must each member of Christ’s Body resonate with one another. As with the body, this resonance needs to be preconscious, an ongoing awareness of and sensitivity to the other members. The most essential elements of this sensitivity are accepting the other members and not overstepping limits. St. Paul says one part cannot say it doesn’t need another part. His extension of the analogy to a list of various ministries in the church makes it clear that if a foot wants to be a hand, the body won’t walk very well. Neither will the body work well if a foot is amputated. These destructive outcomes happen if the parts of the body fall into mimetic rivalry. The comic character Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of overstepping boundaries. At the rehearsal of the play to be performed before the Duke’s court, Bottom first accepts the part assigned to him but then demands every other part as it is doled out to the cast. The absurdity of Bottom’s demands is clear enough if we try to imagine him doing all the parts in the play himself. It is the same absurdity if the neck tried to do all the walking.

Another image of the Church comes in the First Epistle of Peter. The author envisions the community of Christ as a “holy house” made out of “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) This image reminds us of St. Paul’s admonition that individually and corporately we should each be a Temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:16) It is significant that Peter calls the building a house and not a temple although it is a place where priestly ministry takes place. I see here a hint that Christ’s household is not a place set apart but a place for everyone, sort of like the City of God that doesn’t have a temple because the whole place is one. We have a sense of unity-in-diversity in this image as well. There are many stones and each has to be in its proper place or the house collapses. The stones are not inert but living, vibrant. Again each living stone should resonate with all the other living stones, another powerful image of mimetic desire working constructively.

Another biblical image that I don’t recall seeing used as an image of the Church, but one that could be, is that of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-9).Here, we are all to be connected with one another through our rootedness in Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the Desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s Desire.

These images of the Church complement one another. The Body of Christ has possible pantheistic overtones if taken too far so that the distinction between us and Christ is blurred. But we are, all of us, called to act the part of Christ in the world. The body is dynamic. It can be still for a time to meditate, but usually it is going places and doing stuff. This body and should go out and minister to people in need. The image of the holy house made of living stones is more static. The dynamism is in the living stones while the building stays in one place. This holy house is to be open for the Holy Spirit to fill it and just as open for people to enter and be in it. That is, we are to be living stones creating a loving environment of hospitality for all. The image of the vine and the branches is the most contemplative. While the other two images emphasize the relationships between the members, the image of the vine and the branches emphasizes the grounding of all members in God. It is an important corrective to the pantheistic pitfall of the Body of Christ image.

In themselves, these images are inspiring ideals. The reality is something different. St. Paul himself knew this full well. Just before presenting the Church as the Body of Christ, he had castigated the Corinthians for their disorderly and exclusionary suppers where some gorge themselves in front of their poorer and hungrier brothers and sisters. This same epistle began with Paul’s outrage over the divisions within the church with its party slogans that reinforced the divisions. Likewise, Luke’s claim that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) was wishful thinking as the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear. Rather than throwing out these images as unrealistic, we need to keep them before us as models we constantly fail to live up to. Without these images, we would just act like the Corinthians without a second thought. We will have to look again at the reality in relationship to these ideal images.

Then there is the matter of the stones. These living stones aren’t just any stones. The cornerstone had been rejected by the builders. What does this mean for the other living stones we are supposed to be? That is another question for further reflection.

Go to Christian Community (4)

Blueprint of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

lakeGray1All of the biblical types of baptism that I have reviewed in the first two posts of this series stress the social nature of this sacrament. In the Paschal Mystery, we die to one way of relating (or misrelating) with people to live to a totally new way of relating to others. The traditional triad of renunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil confirms this social element of baptism. The three are nearly synonymous but their varying shades of meaning are illuminating.

The New Testament word kosmos (world) has mainly negative connotations, especially in John’s Gospel where it means, not the material world as created by God, but the social world organized in opposition to God. In baptism, then, we renounce organizing ourselves socially around scapegoating and persecution. It is important to remember, though, that it was this very kosmos that God loved so much that God gave his only son so that this kosmos might not perish. As Jesus was overwhelmed by the kosmos in his death, we, too, may be overcome by it if we renounce it.

Flesh does not refer to the material aspect of our existence, but rather to the tendency live our embodied lives without reference to God. When we live in the flesh, our social lives are dominated by mimetic rivalry that consumes us. The contentions that Paul denounced in his first letter to the Corinthians was cited as an example of living by the flesh. If we renounce the flesh, we renounce this contentious way of relating and we allow our embodied lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit in whom there is no rivalry or resentment.

Renouncing the devil does not mean renouncing a wicked supernatural creature with horns and a pitchfork. The New Testament word skandalon refers to no such thing. Rather this word means a stumbling block, an obstacle. When we live according to the flesh, we allow other people to be stumbling blocks to our desires and we do the same to them. That is, our rivals become the organizing principles of our life rather than God. In scripture, the Satan is also the accuser, which is what rivals do. They accuse each other endlessly as opposed to praising God endlessly.

The renunciations as formulated in the 1976 Book of Common Prayer amount to much the same thing. Renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” may seem to imply supernatural forces. I do not rule out such angelic beings who, themselves, put themselves into mimetic rivalry with God, but the anthropological level is what is most important to us in renouncing skandalons in this life. The opposition of such stumbling blocks can seem so strong that they seem transcendent but are really an accumulation of human desires out of control. Renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” acknowledges the systemic evil of the kosmos which we must renounce and “the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” point to our own responsibility to do what the fourth question asks of us, to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] savior” and “put [our] whole trust in his grace and love.”

As noted in my last post, the new beginnings promised by the deliverances from the Flood and from the Red Sea were so daunting that, in both cases, those who were delivered returned to the old way of relating with each other and the same has happened with the Church. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament in the sense of being an initiation, that is a beginning. A beginning is just that; it is not the middle and certainly is not the end. Baptism is a beginning that must be sustained day by day, hour by hour. St. Paul’s admonition to “take off” the old person and “put on” the new person are verbs used for taking clothing on and off. Living by the Spirit in baptism, then, is allowing Christ to clothe us rather than the rivals who are usually the ones who define us. Being renewed in Christ leads us into a quality of life that we don’t easily imagine. These new clothes seem much too big for us and we get lost in them. Can we allow Christ to stretch us to fit into the new clothes of the resurrected life?

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (1)

See Baptism: Overwhelmed by the Love of Christ (2)