God’s Reconciliation: A Thought on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulIt is interesting and a bit ironic that we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same day. Although there are famous icons of the two embracing one another in Christian love, the two seem not to have had an easy time getting along in real life. Although the two appeared to have been somewhat reconciled at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he opposed Peter “to his face” for backing down from what he thought they had agreed on. (Gal. 2: 11) The final chapters of John’s Gospel suggest tensions between the “Beloved Disciple” and Peter, and/or some tension between the two communities derived from them. The Beloved Disciple rests on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper while Peter stubbornly tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. In her book Courting Betrayal,” Helen Orchard argues that Peter was resisting the slavish action of Jesus in washing his feet because he did not want to stoop so low himself. The episode of the Empty Tomb in John shows a rather awkward dance between the two where the Beloved Disciple gets there first but waits at the entrance and allows Peter to go in first. In this little tangle of a narration, both seem to have been first but not in the same way; which suggests some attempt to overcome the tension. In the final chapter of John, after the threefold question to Peter: “Do you love me?,” Peter points to the Beloved Disciple and asks” What about him?” Jesus answer basically tells us it is none of his business.

Peter is redirected to the threefold command he has just been given: “Feed my sheep.” Here is the key for overcoming tension and competition. When we compete with another, we become preoccupied with our rivals and nobody else. What does this do for pastoral care?  The preoccupation of rivals with each other answers the question quite clearly. It is tempting to say that pastors should never fight so as not to undermine their ministries, but there are times when we do have to stand up for the people we minister to. Paul stood up to Peter because he was paying close attention to the pastoral needs of the Galatians and other Gentiles he preached to. There are times in his epistles when Paul comes across as disputatious and rivalrous but in this instance, he was holding his focus on how to feed the sheep entrusted to him and trying to help Peter see the need of the Gentile sheep for himself.

Scripture does not tell us how this conflict ended as far as these two men are concerned although subsequent tradition claims that they were indeed reconciled. Likewise, the Johannine literature stemming from the Beloved Disciple was integrated into the New Testament, creating a deeper unity then Peter and the Beloved Disciple seem to have had. The art of differing and reconciling with others is much too complex to be taught in a brief sermon, but we have a couple of basics to get us started. 1) Keep our attention focused on those who depend on us for pastoral support; 2) Remember that Divine Providence can and will work out a deeper harmony underlying our conflicts and it isn’t always up to us to solve them, which means that, as Peter was told to stop worrying about his rival, we should stop worrying about our own rivals quite so much. And now for a third thought: Both Peter and Paul had much to repent of and they did just that. Can we do the same?

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Care for the Small Child

HolyFamilybyGutierrezIt is well-known that humans can be competitive, sometimes just for the sake of being competitive. Competition tends to draw rivals close together, even if, and perhaps especially if they really hate each other. People who are close to each other to start with are often competitive just because they are close to each other. Sibling rivalry is an old story as the story of Cain and Abel tells us. René Girard attributes this phenomenon to mimetic desire. The reason for the rivals’ competition is because they want the same thing. This does not happen by chance. The desire of one person inspires the desire of another. Often the mutual desire is instantaneous, or at least seems so. In any case, when two or more people fight over who is the greatest, each person thinks it is the others who are copying him or her and never the other way around. Girard further suggests that when this kind of rivalry spreads through society, it leads to a social meltdown that is usually resolved by the mimetic desire focusing on one person who is blamed for the crisis and who becomes a victim of collective violence. We see all these elements in a nutshell in today’s reading from Mark. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be betrayed “into human hands” and put to death. And then the disciples fight about who is the greatest, the very thing that has been happening on a broader scale in first century Palestine and so has made Jesus the designated victim of the social tensions around him.

All of this suggests that mimetic desire is a bad thing but that is not so. Mimetic desire is built into humanity by our Creator and therefore, in itself, it is good. It is good because it is the basis of deep connections between people. It is through mimetic desire that our parents and other caregivers initiate us into the world by sharing their desires for certain foods and learning to share desires for the well-being of other people. This is the significance of what Jesus does when confronted with the tense silence that greets his question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus places a child in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus doesn’t reprimand his disciples as we think he should and as most of us would in his sandals. What Jesus does is very simple. Caring for a small child is the deepest manifestation of positive mimetic desire. Jesus subtly breaks up the closeness among the disciples that is brewing through their discord and instead unites them in their desire to care for the small child. This story puts before all of us the choice of how we will connect with the desires of other people: Will it be in rivalry or in nurturing others?

Twin Killings

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauIn baseball a twin killing is a double play: two outs on one batted ball. “Two for the price of one,” as the great Detroit Tigers great sportscaster Ernie Harwell called it. Double plays are a legitimate part of baseball. But there is another kind of twin killing that has been a part of humanity until close to the present day that is not legitimate: the killing of twins.

Why was one, and sometimes, both twins been killed in early societies? René Girard suggests that it was the fear of what he called “mimetic doubles,” two people united through conflict. After the social chaos was resolved by collective violence, societies created structures to prevent the repeat of the chaos as much as possible. Twins, especially identical twins, were too much of an image of the indifferentiation that lead to conflict. They could not be allowed to live. During the time of chaos, indifferentiation was precisely the problem as differences between people melted in the heat of conflict. It is obvious to us now that these babies were innocent victims of society’s fear of mimetic doubles, but in today’s society where social differences are dissolving, perhaps we should fear, not twin babies, but mimetic doubles.

The authors of Genesis had no illusions about the danger of mimetic doubles. Brothers paired off against each other are the driving force of the book, culminating in Joseph’s brothers ganging up on him. Jacob and Esau were twins. The conflict that kept them apart for many years finally resolved in an uneasy reconciliation as Esau turned out to be more forgiving for the wrongs done him than Jacob ever believed possible.

Lois Lowry’s chilling dystopia The Giver also has a twin killing. The society is shown to be peaceful but colorless. (Literally so, as we learn when the protagonist, Matthew, begins to see colors.) It becomes apparent that everything is designed to prevent conflict. There is no courtship or sex; medication stifles the latter and babies are grown in test tubes, implanted in adolescent girls, and distributed to couples, each of whom gets one boy and one girl. Not surprisingly, the cost of this “peaceful” society is high. When Matthew is apprenticed to the Giver, he learns that it is his job to keep track of everything that is happening via TV monitors but to do nothing unless asked, as the job is consultative only. A day or two before Matthew makes his escape, he watches his own father “release” one of two twin babies with a lethal injection, the normal way of releasing somebody. (The elderly are so released at a certain age after a celebration of their lives.)

Much else is shown to be wrong with this society but the killing of a twin shows clearly enough that preserving the peace by squelching mimetic doubles inevitably institutionalizes violence, even if, as in Lowry’s society, it is kept invisible. René Girard would argue that one of many effects of the Cross and Resurrection is that we don’t kill twins and we have the freedom to build God’s kingdom where we actualize the freedom shown by Esau to forgive and then later by Joseph to his brothers. It is no longer possible for social structures to contain the potential violence of mimetic doubles in conflict. It is possible, and in our times, necessary to renounce conflict, even if it means forgiving the theft of a blessing. This renunciation leads to its own blessings. After all, Esau had done pretty well for himself while Jacob was away.

Eucharist (3): Discerning the Body

eucharist1St. Paul solemnizes his recounting of Jesus’ breaking bread and passing the cup of wine by saying that he is passing on to the Corinthians what he had received from the Lord. The words Paul uses here are specialized terms for receiving and passing on a sacred tradition. The only other time Paul uses these terms is to testify to Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. Resurrection and eating and drinking to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” go together. After all, does not the Lord come every time we eat the bread and drink the wine?

These solemn words are an island of peace and tranquility in the middle of a storm of human passions amounting to farce. Preceding them is Paul’s denunciation of the insensitive and chaotic eating habits where some people bring opulent meals to church and eat in front of poorer members who have little or nothing to eat. The deterioration of the sharing in the wilderness that began in John’s Gospel has only gotten worse. After holding up Jesus’ shared meal as a model, Paul warns against eating and drinking judgment by “not discerning the body.” Paul may be warning us not to fail to discern Christ’s body in the bread, but he is not thinking in individualistic terms. Christ’s body surely refers to the church and, given the context, Paul is concerned with failure to recognize this corporate body in the way we share, or fail to share what we have with the community. In his fit of tempter, Paul seems to suggest that the Body and Blood of Christ make people sick cause some to die. But considering how strongly Paul insists on God’s freed Gift of grace, Christ Body and Blood can only be more free grace and forgiveness. However, when we fail to see the Body and Blood in Christ in others, sickness, hunger and many more social ills will abound.

With a church in shambles, is the miracle of the Feeding in the Wilderness a distant memory? I noted in the first article in this series that memory is not just recalling something in our heads. Memory is making present. When we eat the death of Jesus, we enter into our own discord that tears the Body apart with cries such as “I am of Cephas!” “I am of Apollos!”  When we eat the Resurrection of Jesus, we eat the forgiveness with which Jesus greeted is disciples to gather them back together. We also eat the feeding in the wilderness and Jesus’ Desire to heal the people brought to him.

We are not left as orphans who have to try to stuff some ideal of human relating into our heads. We are invited to act with others the human drama of entering into God’s Desire for ourselves and all others. Most important, we are fed with the substance of God’s desire to quicken us on the way.

 Eucharist (1): Christ our Passover

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert

Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)

Xenia1In my last post in this series, I noted the example of Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale who showed a reasonably accurate view of reality by praising the qualities of Hermione, but that the jealous rage of her husband Leontes distorted the reality deeply. It is the same distortion that happens in the nursery when children fight over one toy as if it were the only one when the reality is that there are many toys to play with. Mimetic rivalry over romantic partners will likewise distort the human reality in a school or other social setting. In a non-rivalrous situation, girls can imitate each other in finding various boys desirable and, like Polixenes, can admire the choices their friends make. But if two or more girls are in rivalry with each other, perhaps over something such as the position of captain on the girls’ field hockey team, then they will cease to see the qualities of the boys more or less for what they are. It is often said that love, especially infatuations, is blind, but conflicted mimetic desire is much more blind than that.

It is important to distinguish honest disagreement from rivalry. In both cases, there is mimetic desire but in the former case, it is a shared desire to arrive at truth or discernment of right action. In the latter case, the two people are trying to outdo each other for the sake of outdoing each other. The shared mimetic desire is a victory over the other and truth and right action fall by the wayside.

The movie “Doubt” is an excellent illustration of this kind of situation. With Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are permanently locked in mimetic rivalry, it is not possible that the truth of whether or not the priest has abused Donald Miller, the Afro-American boy in the parish school, can be known and that is why the movie never resolves the question. Donald Miler, of course, is clearly a victim of this strife regardless of what has or has not really happened.

There is a qualitative difference between honest disagreement and rivalry but it is also a fine line between them.  We can easily start with honest disagreement and fall into rivalry if we allow ourselves to become more obsessed with the person we disagree with than with trying to see what is true and what should be done. This matter calls for constant self-examination where we continually ask ourselves as honestly as we can: What side of this line am I on? How far on that side am I? We also have to keep alert to whether we are actually listening to what the other is saying or if we are only thinking about what we want to say. If we neglect this self-examination, we are pretty certain to fall over into the wrong side of this divide and become lost in mimetic entanglements.

A shared mimetic desire for truth does not guarantee that truth will be reached since our viewpoints cannot encompass all relevant realty but it is a sine qua non for reaching some semblance of the truth. On the other hand, when we are locked in mimetic rivalry with others, it is not just some abstract principle of what is true that is a casualty, but real human beings will suffer as victims, like Donald Miller in “Doubt.”

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (4)

See Mimetic Desire and Truth Series

See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry

Human Swords, God’s Peace

vocationersAtTable1Jesus’ words that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matthew) or division (Luke) are startling, coming from a man who is commonly referred to as “the Prince of Peace.” Does this mean that Jesus is a war-god of some sort after all? Since Jesus never used a sword and rebuked Peter from using one at Gethsemane, and died rather than call on legions of angels to defend him and beat up his enemies, and approached his disciples and even the persecutor Paul with forgiveness after rising from the dead, it is fair to assume that Jesus is not in the least encouraging swords and divisions, but is warning us that we will have both as long as we experience the world in terms of us vs. them.

The approach to scripture inspired by René Girard and colleagues such as Raymund Schwager and James Alison is strongly committed to an unequivocally loving God who seeks only peace as opposed to any two-faced Janus-like deity who is capriciously loving one moment and wrathful the next. This approach tends to interpret “wrath” associated with God as human projections that distort the truth of God’s unconditional love. Basic to Girard’s thinking is the conviction that humans tend to unify conflictive societies through scapegoating vulnerable victims with collective violence. Society has regained peace—for a time—but at a cost to at least one person. This sort of a peace simply has to be disrupted once and for all by a God who is unequivocally loving and who wishes that not even one person be lost. According to Girard, this is precisely what Jesus did by dying on the cross and exposing the reality of collective violence for what it is.

As a result, we now have a world where there is an ever heightening awareness of victims, but a serious lack of anywhere near a corresponding awareness of the need for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, awareness of victims increases resentment and escalated conflict. Since the awareness of victims does not allow collective violence to bring peace to a society, there is nothing to stop the escalation of violence. As resentment grows rampant, it infects every level of society including the family so that family counselors are in great demand to try and talk people into giving up their resentment against those closest to them. They often fail as much as conflict mediators in political hotspots and for the same reason. Resentment becomes a defining factor of many lives and defining factors are not easily given up. So it is that the coming of Jesus the forgiving victim has brought swords and divisions.

The offer of peace and forgiveness, for all of the divine love behind it, inevitably causes division between those who accept it and those who don’t. There are two possible reactions to such a choice and a unanimous conversion to God’s peace wasn’t in the cards then any more than it is today. (Of course we humans stack the deck heavily against peace.) For those of us who seriously try to choose peace, it is tempting to think we are on the “peaceful” side of this division but we need to realize that the Word, the forgiving victim, is a divisive two-edged sword “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” and “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” as the author of Hebrews puts it. That is, the pure forgiveness of the divine victim shows up the least bit of resentment we allow ourselves to harbor in the farthest, darkest, corners of our souls.

The escalation of violence occurring right at the time of this writing is a sure cause of discouragement. What we can do is take hope, primarily for ourselves, but also for our personal relationships and for humanity as a whole that the offer of peace from the forgiving victim remains open to all of us at every time of day and night and this offer will never end no matter what we do with our swords and divisions.