Sight and Vision Recreated

sideAltarsIcons1When I last posted a blog post on the story of Jesus healing a man born blind (Jn. 9), I suggested in passing that Jesus’ daubing the man’s eyes with mud mixed with his spittle and asking him to wash it at Siloam recalled the creation of the first human out of clay in Genesis 2. This time around, I noticed that this detail is repeated three times to give it a strong emphasis. First when John narrates the action, second, when his neighbors ask him how it is that he can see, and third, when the Pharisees question the man. This is three times in the span of nine verses. Then, after confirming with the man’s parents that he had indeed been born blind, the Pharisees ask him again how he regained his sight. The man offers to tell his story yet again but the Pharisees cut him off. Even so, we have been reminded once again of what Jesus has done. That’s a lot of emphasis.

This thrice and almost four-times repeated telling alerts us to the importance of the link between this miracle and creation, thus making it an act of re-creation. The obvious symbolism of blindness and sight suggest that Jesus is re-creating something more than eyesight for the man born blind. What blindness is Jesus healing? According the French think René Girard, humanity has been blind since its birth by what he calls the “scapegoat mechanism.” That is, since the dawn of humanity social tensions have been solved through suddenly uniting against a victim. Girard also says that this scapegoat mechanism only worked for early societies because people were blind to what they were doing. Girard then argues that it is the Gospels that have definitively revealed the truth of the scapegoat mechanism. (For an introduction to Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

This story indeed thrusts us right in the middle of the scapegoat mechanism and the blindness it causes. We can see the ever-increasing circles of persecutory violence depicted in this story from the disciples’ assuming that the man was born blind because somebody sinned to the Pharisees expelling the healed man from the synagogue and setting their sights on Jesus.

For those of us who had something of a “eureka!” experience upon encountering Girard’s thought there is the danger of thinking that this insight into the scapegoat mechanism is a quick fix. Now we know the problem; we can fix it and stop persecuting people any more. It doesn’t work that way and the creation imagery in John’s story tells us why. John is telling us that we need the same radical make over in order to see that a person born blind needs in order to gain intelligible sight. If we need to be recreated in the same way, then the preliminary insight into the scapegoat mechanism is only the beginning of a long journey of being re-formed into Christ. The baptismal imagery of the water washing the clay deepens this need for re-forming.

Those of us working with Girard’s thought now have a history if several decades of struggling to become more and more aware of ways that we scapegoat others. One of the more dangerous pitfalls is what we call “scapegoating the scapegoaters.” This sounds and feels so righteous, but it falls into exactly the same pattern as the Pharisees we are denouncing in this story.

Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism is not a quick fix; it is a very slow fix that takes a lifetime of prayer, meditation, alert practice in our social relationships and, most of all, constant vigilance over our inner pull toward scapegoating others. All this time, we have to be as malleable as moist clay so that God can re-create us and re-form us in God’s Desire for us and for humanity.

Two books I have written dealing with the practicalities of spirituality are Tools for Peace and Moving and Resting in God’s Desire.

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Liturgical Animals (1)

monksinChoir1The reality of mimetic desire guarantees that we will engage in liturgical activity. What kind of liturgical activity and for what end leads to many possibilities. However, since we instinctively react to the desires and intentions of others, we also instinctively move and sing with each other and act together. Since we are mimetic animals, we are also liturgical animals. Much liturgy takes place in churches and temples but liturgy can be done anywhere at any time and it is indeed done all over the place. René Girard’s theory of scapegoating violence places the origins of ritual and liturgy in the spontaneous mob violence against a victim that “solves” a massive social crisis. At first thought, one would think there is nothing liturgical about collective violence; it just happens. But actually collective violence is a very predictable phenomenon that consistently works in a certain way once it gets started. We all know that once the persecutory ball gets rolling it is almost impossible to stop until blood has been spilled. The relatively few instances where the persecutory wave is stopped short of bloodshed also follow a predictable pattern. In essence, the mimetic contagion of a mob has to be redirected into another direction, one less destructive. This is what Jesus did when the Jewish elders were gathered around the woman caught in adultery. This is what Christians do to this day when celebrating the Holy Eucharist. Although I think it likely that sacrificial rituals have their origins in collective violence as Girard suggests, I think that ritual in itself is rooted more deeply in human nature. Since we humans are imitative creatures, we would instinctively coordinate our bodily movements with those of others. This sort of mirroring is instinctive to mothers especially in their interactions with their babies. It is this coordination of movement that would unify a family and then a clan and then a tribe. These coordinated movements would naturally turn into communal dancing and singing. Such coordinated action would naturally move into reenactments of primal collective violence once that occurred, but there is nothing in this instinct for coordinated movement that requires that it move in that direction. This is to say that collective violence and its continuations in sacrifice and institutionalized violence are not of the essence of humanity. There is nothing necessary about it; it’s just something that happens most of the time. What is necessary in the sense of being of the essence of humanity is coordinated movement. Our built-in mimetic desire guarantees that it will happen. There are practical reasons for this trait, among them coordinating movements during hunting expeditions, the way soldiers do military drills to facilitate coordination in battle, and the way football teams synchronize their actions, not to speak of the rituals performed by their fans. Singing together over common work such as gathering fruits and preparing meals might not be as necessary for success as the coordinated movement of hunting parties, but perhaps are as necessary at another level. Maybe nobody dies of boredom but we often feel that we can, and maybe we do in the sense that lack of interest in life isn’t conducive to living a long life. It is singing and dancing together and moving together in other ways that would have given our earliest ancestors an interest in living and it is these activities that spark our interest in life today. Many people today may think they are dismissive of liturgy because they think of stuffy church services or masonic rituals. But the ways we greet people, especially when introducing people to strangers or meeting them, are little rituals that we take so much for granted that we don’t think of them as rituals. When I was young, many people who never darkened the door of a church linked arms in the streets and sang the hymn “We Shall Overcome.” All this is to say that humans are liturgical animals. Gathering with others always has some liturgical overtones in the sense of repeating actions we are used to doing together. Drinking parties tend to follow the same patterns for those groups in the habit of gathering for that purpose. Given this human trait to gather through ritual, it is inevitable that any who wish to gather with others in memory of Jesus would gather liturgically. Liturgy is discussed at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Proceed to Liturgical Animals (2)

Difficulties in Forgiving: Joseph and his Brothers

Joseph_and_His_Brethren_Welcomed_by_PharaohThe story of Jacob’s return to Esau illustrates the difficulty of believing in, let alone accepting forgiveness. (See Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau) The story of Joseph and his brothers takes us primarily through the difficulties of forgiving.

As a youth, Joseph is a victim of collective violence. As is often the case with such victims, Joseph has been singled out both for adulation (by his father) and opprobrium (by his brothers). In contrast to the origin of collective violence as envisioned by René Girard there are a couple of cracks in the unanimity to kill the victim. Both Reuben and Judah differ and try to save Joseph but their plans are foiled. If either had had the courage to stand up to the other brothers, each would have had an instant ally and together they would likely have turned the tide and saved Joseph from his near-death in the pit.

Joseph’s serene words that it was God, not his brothers, who had sent him to Egypt and that although they had meant him harm, God had used it for good, taken by themselves, suggest an easy forgiveness on the part of Joseph, but the story is—well—another story.

While Esau welcomed Jacob back with open arms in spite of the harm Jacob had done him, Joseph does no such thing. Like Esau, Joseph has done very well in spite of his brothers’ intent to hurt him, in fact he benefitted in the end from what they had done to him, but Joseph holds back and remembers his youthful dream where his brothers bowed to him. Joseph goes on to play an elaborate series of mind games that amount to torture. It is possible that Joseph’s harsh way of speaking to his brothers was an act, the beginning of an educative process, but I can’t help but feel that the anger was very real and at least a little raw. As a test to see if they can treat the youngest, Benjamin, better than they treated him, it was hardly necessary to lock Simeon in prison for a year and threaten his own family with starvation if they didn’t obey all of the demands that could make little sense to them. Joseph’s father Jacob also suffers because of this treatment, which may also be intentional. In my pastoral experience, I have found that one who was a favored child carries a heavy burden from this favoritism rather than finding it a blessing. Sadly, while Jacob never showed any repentance for the way he treated Esau, Joseph’s brothers have such a guilty conscience that they think that their suffering at the hands of Egypt’s steward is a just punishment for what they had done to Joseph.

As things turn out, it is Judah, not Joseph, who triggers Joseph’s forgiveness by offering himself as a slave to spare Benjamin that fate. Since Judah had wanted to save Joseph in the first place, he is not a reconstructed persecutor but a man showing a compassionate heart for a younger brother that he has always had. The difference is that while Judah was cowardly before, he is brave this time around and his bravery is awarded. Joseph is won over and he forgives his brothers, but not until he has worked through tons of anger on his own part. It was his intention to put his brothers to the test, but in a sense he himself was put to the test by Judah. Fortunately, Joseph had the grace to give up his control of the situation which he had lost anyway and cry on the necks of his brothers.

Following carefully in our own hearts Joseph’s steps to forgiveness: his anger, his pride, his manipulations, and but also his crucial willingness to accept help from a brother when he needed it, can be a way for us to track our own difficulties of forgiving the hurts we have received in life and move through them to an awareness that although certain people intended us harm, God has used these harmful actions for good.

For more on the difficulties of forgiveness see A Miserable Gospel.

Principalities and Powers

WilliamGuestsChurch1Jesus was not crucified by just one person; he was crucified by a social system. The Gospels and the apostolic preaching in Acts show clearly how hostile social systems in Jerusalem came together to create a larger social system that was united solely by the agreement to put Jesus to death. By quoting from the persecution psalms, these sources suggest that persecutory social systems have always been a part of humanity. René Girard has demonstrated how mythology covers up and yet still points to this same persecutory mechanism. It is such social systems that Paul calls the “principalities and powers” of the world. These principalities get their power from the collective cohesiveness of persecution. This collective power is overwhelming to the individual within this system. Hence the transcendent power they have for Paul. However, Paul also says that the principalities and powers have been dismantled and nailed to the cross by Jesus. The forgiving victim is gathering a radically different social system that not only does not require the sacrifice of the victim but totally precludes such a thing. Paul says that if the principalities and powers had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Because they did, we have some ability, by the grace of God, for seeing the fundamental signs of a society that is still run, at least in part, by the principalities and powers and for seeing what are the signs of the Kingdom that the Risen and Forgiving Victim has opened up for us.

A society run by the principalities and powers is punitive. Some people may think that is a good thing, but in  a punitive society, somebody must be to blame whenever anything goes wrong or even seems to go wrong. That is, somebody must be punished. When a society needs to have somebody punished, then this need takes precedence over justice. It is better for an innocent person to suffer than for the corporate rage of the society to suffer for lack of an object of that rage.  It follows that the Law of Tit for Tat reigns. There is no room for mercy. Every offense must be met in equal measure. As long as this Law reigns, there is no end in sight to the spiral of retaliation. In Jesus’ Kingdom, restoration of relationships is the corporate desire when things go wrong. The pain of this restoration might feel like punishment for some, but the pain is remedial, moving toward reconciliation.

In the society of the Principalities and Powers, somebody is always expendable. Caiaphas’ dictum that it is better that one person die than that the whole nation should perish is “gospel.” Collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay for objectives deemed good to those who are running the show. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd seeks until he finds it and brings it back to the fold shows that in Jesus’ Kingdom, nobody is expendable.

The society of the Principalities and Powers is dualistic.  There has to be an “in” group and an “out” group. The society’s identity is based on what is wrong with those people, the enemy.  If we are to love our enemies, as Jesus teaches, then enemies do not define us in any way.

Most devastating of all, the society of the Principalities and Powers is mendacious. The need to cover up the truth of collective violence in primitive societies carries over to the most sophisticated of modern societies. Part of this mendacity is to blame the victim. The blame that many US politicians cast on women who are raped is a particularly grisly example. Victims of lynching, too, were blamed for what happened to them.

Here is the choice. Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?

Myth Become Fact

crosswButterfliesOne of the more memorable phrases culled from C.S. Lewis is Christ is “myth made fact.” The notion kind of sneaked up on Lewis during the process that lead to his conversion to Christianity.  An offhand remark by his friend T.D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis at the time an avowed atheist, made a deep impression on him over the years: “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. It almost looks as if it really happened once.” Of course, that is precisely the claim of the Gospels.

Lewis’ insight is worth comparing with René Girard’s view of Jesus in relation to mythology. Girard, of course, also studied Frazer’s writings about deities, mainly vegetative deities, dying and rising. Frazer, seems to have absorbed Jesus into the other myths, blurring the distinction between them. Girard, on the other hand, believes that both the myths and the Gospel accounts refer to real events. Here, he also differs from Lewis who seems to have thought of myths as something like cosmic poetry, dealing with timeless truths, such as the vegetative cycle in temperate climates where nature, like Persephone, dies and then rises again. For Girard, all myths, in their origins, are made fact.

Girard’s thesis of sacred violence asserts that social tensions in early societies were resolved, if they were resolved at all, by collective violence that was very real. Mythology then became something of a cover up of this event while still alluding to it. The rising from the dead in such mythology would be the deification of the victim who, in retrospect, was seen as the solution for the problem for which the victim was earlier blamed. Tying such mythology into the vegetative cycle raises suspicions for me that this development, if it did not originate in agricultural societies, was greatly furthered within them. After all, the claiming of land by a tribe would easily inspire other people to desire that land. In such a setting, social tensions leading to the victimage mechanism would happen much quicker than in hunter/gatherer societies. Girard’s thesis also suggests that the real cycle is not in nature but in human activity. That is, an act of collective violence holds a society together for only so long before it needs to happen again. The mythological cycle, then, is a vicious cycle.

For Girard, then, the Gospel narrative of Jesus dying and rising is not the historicization of a timeless truth, but an instantiation of a scenario that had been happening in reality, in time, since the dawn of humanity. What’s new about the Gospels is that the story is told straight out and the victim is claimed to be innocent and was unjustly murdered. For Girard, it isn’t so much a case of myth become fact as the truth behind myth revealed.

As a Christian, Lewis retained sympathy for the myths of dying and rising deities, regarding them as great poetry. Girard, of course, is not so affirming of mythology, as he sees it as obscuring the truth. However, Girard’s point of view does not necessarily mean that myths are bad poetry. Moral goodness and ascetic goodness are not equivalent, after all.

There is a deeper reason though for being open to Lewis’ sympathy. It was the pathos of a deity like Balder who was killed through collective violence that moved Lewis, and it was the same sensitivity that should make the passion of Jesus deeply moving as well. (Interestingly, Lewis went through a period where the dying pagan deities moved him more than the story of Christ; perhaps a residue of his resistance to conversion.) Although a myth such as that of Tiamat, who was blamed for Babylon’s primordial chaos and torn to pieces, does not try to inspire sympathy for a victim the way the Psalms of Lament do, we can see a woman victimized by the people who made a strenuous effort to avoid seeing what they were doing.

There is a deeper reason for sympathy for myth. Deplorable as the countless acts of collective violence were and continue to be, Girard’s thesis also demonstrates how profoundly people were caught up in this mechanism so that they could not escape without intervention from God. It is precisely this intervention from God to free humans in bondage that Paul celebrates time and again in his epistles. If we need this intervention from God in Christ, then we are hardly in a position to be judgmental against the first humans that fell into the same traps we do.

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)

lakeGray1“We were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Rom. 6:4

If baptism is our initiation into Christ, our entry into the Paschal Mystery, then baptism is the underlying, ongoing dynamic of our lives in Christ. Dying and rising with Christ is something we need to do every day. The Greek word baptismo means to be overwhelmed, inundated. In baptism we are overwhelmed by and inundated with the Paschal Mystery. I will explore this mystery by looking at a few key scripture passages that give us variations on this one theme.

Jesus himself was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. For John, it was a baptism of repentance from the violent society of his time, to prepare for God’s winnowing fork in “the wrath to come.” But when Jesus comes, he does not bring a winnowing fork; he only brings himself and asks to be baptized. As he is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

These words refer to two key verses in the Hebrew Bible that tell us what baptism is all about. These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. The inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other. In Jesus, we too are drawn out of this inundation in the sense of being freed from raging against everybody else. We are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath. These same words also refer to Isaiah 42:1, the first line of the first song of the Servant of Yahweh. Throughout these songs, we find that the servant has been called out of a violent society and becomes the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Servant does not retaliate in any way against the violence inflicted on him. In baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but then we are overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

John’s Gospel does not narrate the baptism of Jesus but, as in so many other instances, John shows us the underlying story in a different key. When Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Holy Spirit. Jesus seems only to compound Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness. However, the bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis in the form of a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of the violence as Jesus is himself.

This is the context of the famous words that follow: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

See Part 2