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.]

On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

Saints as Models: We Can Be One Too

vocationersAtTable1On the Feast of All Saints we are often encouraged to look up to the saints as models. Usually we point to St. Benedict or St. Francis and say: Follow his example. However, this feast is actually about us, the ordinary saints who didn’t make the cut for canonization in the Catholic Church or the Anglican calendar.

That is to say that this feast draws our attention to what we model to each other and what we do with what is modeled to us by others. René Girard has given us much insight into this matter. He is well aware, of course, of the importance of setting good examples in our actions but his concept of mimetic desire takes us much deeper into what modelling is really about. We do not just copy each other’s’ actions, we copy each other’s desires. We tend to desire what we see other people desiring. In this way, other people are constantly acting as models for us, usually without realizing it. Likewise, we are models to other people through what we desire. Putting it this way raises the question of who models to whom. This is actually a chicken and egg kind of question, especially since this whole process is usually unconscious. We are usually more conscious of what we desire then what we pick up from another person’s desire. The result is that we each thing we desire what we desire and we claim ownership of that desire.

Girard has demonstrated how this copying of each other’s desires, what he calls mimetic desire, can easily lead to rivalrous situations. This is especially true with things that cannot be shared. But once mimetic desire has become mimetic rivalry, it seems that nothing can be shared. So it is that Cain and Abel and Isaac and Jacob fought over blessings, thinking that blessings couldn’t be shared, and this after God had made Abraham a blessing for everybody. In scenarios of mimetic rivalry, each person is the model for the other, but a model who also has become an obstacle. This is a tight situation where at least one person loses. Actually, many lose in the crossfire of this kind of rivalry.

There is a different kind of modelling and that is what this feast calls our attention to. Jesus modeled behavior that was never rivalrous but was always expansive and generous. In this, Jesus was modelling his heavenly Father’s Desire which also is expansive and generous. To be a saint is to imitate Jesus but it isn’t primarily a matter of external imitation. To model ourselves on Jesus means to model ourselves on Jesus’ desires. If we want what Jesus wants, we find ourselves wanting the good of other people. To begin with, we realize there are plenty of blessings to go around and we want to be blessings to other people the way Abraham was made a blessing for everybody by God.

There is an element of choice in whom we choose as our models. The disciples, for example had Jesus modelling non-rivalrous desire right before their eyes but they still modeled to each other rivalrous desires as to who was the greatest. We all know how easy it is to be caught up in rivalry so that we are tied up in knots over it with no escape unless someone else comes along to untie the knots. Untying the knots for other people is one way to model Christ. Such people have to be pretty good at not getting tied up in knots themselves to be good at it. This is one of the qualities of saints such as Benedict and Francis who provide models in generous desiring. Those of us who follow them, when at our best, or at least not our worst, are individual variants of their personalities.

René Girard said that when he first met Raymund Schwager, a theologian who worked fruitfully with Girard’s ideas for many decades, he said that Raymund made him doubt his theory because Raymund had no mimetic rivalry in him. That was my experience with him as well. The professors at Innsbruck who studied under him show the same qualities. Not only do they imitate Schwager’s thinking but they also imitate his desires for the good of other people. This is how we can be saints in ordinary ways in our ordinary lives.

The Affirmative Way

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyIn Christian theology and much more so in mysticism the negative or apophatic way and the affirmative way are posited as a fundamental contrast but actually they are two sides of the same coin. We can’t get anywhere if we can’t say anything about God and yet everything we say about God has to be wrong. God isn’t a rock on somebody’s front lawn any more than God is Pure Being. The dark cloud on Mount Sinai, the Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night all indicate negation and yet dark clouds and dark nights are still images that have to be denied. With that said (or unsaid) I will focus on the affirmative way even as I have to negate it at every turn and I will relate the affirmative way to mimetic theory.

Many see God in nature.  Even unbelievers tend to feel some reverence when they see mountains and trees and squirrels scurrying about.  The stars in the sky and stones and lakes and growing things all resonate with God’s Desire. God has profound respect for even the smallest pebble and hazel nut because God willed them to be. The more we participate in God’s Desire, the more we also will respect what is in nature and, although we must use nature, we will use nature in a sharing way rather than dominate it. Nature does not grasp at anything. It just is. This is why nature can teach us to desire in a non-rivalrous way.

The affirmative way is often experienced in human relationships. We see Christ in other people even though they do not always (or often) act like him. While the lilies of the field do not strive for the things of tomorrow, people do. In marriage, at least when it works reasonably well, one’s spouse is the primary image of God to the other. There is nothing romantic here as each partner knows very well the foibles and vices of the other. In community life, such as in a monastery, there is not, of course, the focused spousal relationship (except with God) but we have daily opportunities to see Christ through the struggles and kindnesses of others in the community. The image of Christ in the Gospels helps us straighten out the distortions that other people create even as Christ plunges us deeply into his presence within them. Learning to resonate constructively with the desires of other people is part and parcel of learning to resonate with God’s Desire.

rouault clown

One way we participate in God’s image is by creating art. No Lilly pad looks like a painting by Claude Monet but the dissolving images of lily pads on his canvases cause us to resonate with the inner life of these lily pads and to see them in real life in ways we never would otherwise.  The flowers in Georgia O’Keefe’s painting are atomic explosions. Thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his Ents we know how God feels in the rumbling roots of trees. Our sense of the sorrows of others is never the same after seeing any of the mournful clowns in the paintings of Georges Rouault, not to speak of the overwhelming agony in his paintings of Christ. We resonate with a certain deep level of Christ’s love through Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Prodigal Son.

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Probably no person experienced Divine Love through a human being as the fictional Dante did with Beatrice in The New Life and the Divine Comedy. In real life Dante seems to have had no more contact with Beatrice beyond being waved at while passing in the street. But in Dante’s imagination the ever deepening smile of Beatrice as she leads Dante to the heights of Paradise transfigure the smiles of those we love on earth.

Music is quite apophatic in that, in itself, it has nothing to do with images and refers to nothing beyond itself. Although music might be set to words, it resists being explained in words. There is a sense of mystery caught in the motets of Thomas Tallis that is not caught in any other way. The constantly shifting keys and moods in the Schubert piano sonatas defy explanation. Music is, however, highly sensuous and it resonates deeply with our mirror neurons. Simple hymns are magnified throughout our bodies when sung in congregations.

Scripture, and not least the Gospels, are filled with images that must both be posited and negated. We know God is not a fretful woman who loses her money and people are not small round metal objects. But the Parable of the Lost Coin teaches us how solicitous God is for us and how precious we are in God’s sight. In John, Jesus says he is the bread from Heaven but resists being taken as only a distributor of bread.  In the Eucharist, we know Jesus is not bread and wine and yet we taste Jesus in the bread and wine and are fed by him so that Jesus penetrates into deep layers inside us that we will never know of except through a glass darkly.

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?

What Really Makes Us Unclean?

AndrewPreaching1Jesus pleaded for understanding when he threw out the words: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7: 15) He has just been debating with the Pharisees and lawyers about what is clean and unclean. He and his disciples had been accused of being unclean because they were unwashed, something that would make them unclean in today’s polite society as well. However, Jesus may not necessarily have been unwashed by our standards. The Jewish Law as understood by the Pharisees required a specific way of washing right up to the elbow and no other way of washing counted.

In a follow-up discussion with his disciples, Jesus shifted to the intake of food and said the food we take in does not defile us or make us unclean, but actions and attitudes that come out from the human heart can defile us. Mark adds that with these words, Jesus had declared all foods clean. Jesus is suggesting that certain foods had been scapegoated when they were declared unclean, with the foods being blamed for uncleanness regardless of what is in the human heart. Perhaps rejecting some foods as unclean is no big deal but Jesus is calling attention to our tendency to consider other people unclean, polluting.

With our mimetic resonance with the desires of other people, we ingest the desires of others just as we ingest food. If we experience desires that make us uncomfortable in any way, including those that should, we blame other people for arousing the desires in us and we protect ourselves by expelling them. Jesus is telling us that just as foods do not make us unclean, other people do not make us unclean either. It is what we do with the desires of other people that make us clean or unclean. We can indeed be corrupted by bad company but if we spew out the envy and slander and pride we ingested from others back at them, or, more likely, at others with fewer defenses, then we ourselves are bad company threatening to corrupt others.

This gives us another angle on Jesus’ famous warning that if we judge, we will be judged, because when we judge, we see the speck in the eye of the other but don’t see the log in our own. (Mt. 7: 1-5) We think that any envy, deceit or licentiousness we experience in ourselves comes from the other, and maybe we do catch these traits from another, like catching a virus. But a virus caught from another only hurts us if our own bodies react in destructive ways to make us sick. Likewise, the envy, deceit and licentiousness of another only make us sick if allow them to flare up inside of us. If we then expel them in the direction of others, they become the victims of what has come out of us. Even when defiling desires really are coming out of other people, our own defiling desires in response only magnify the impurity in the social atmosphere. That is, the uncleanness is neither in ourselves nor in the other. Defilement occurs only in relationships built upon projecting and expelling the perceived defilement of others.

If we should pull the logs out of our own eyes rather than judge others, then a strange alchemy can take place where what we take in from others becomes pure, or at least becomes a lot less impure than it was, and the social atmosphere becomes better. When the social atmosphere gets better, we can all breathe in the Holy Spirit.

Christian Community (6): The Church as Bride of Christ

NewJerusalemAnother biblical image of the Church is the Bride of Christ. Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of the water of the Word so as to present the church to him in splendor, without a spot or winkle of any kind.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Here, Paul interweaves the image of spouse with that of the family as a whole with its hierarchical aspects. Before taking too much umbrage at the apparent subordination of women to men in these verses, it is important to note the Christological dimensions of these admonitions. The husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. That is, the husband must first subordinate himself to Christ before he can properly function as the head of anybody else. By saying that Christ gave himself up for his bride, the Church, Paul makes it clear that subordinating oneself to Christ means subordinating oneself to the self-giving of Jesus, a self-giving that took him to the cross. This doesn’t leave any room for dominating anybody in a domineering manner. Indeed, although parents have authority over children, Paul cautions against “provoking them to anger.” (Eph. 6:4)

In Revelation, the seer sees a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:2) This deepens the Christological dimensions of the bridal imagery for the Church. Throughout this book, the seer sees imperial violence for the destructive force that it is and its inevitable collapse under its own violence. Meanwhile, although the Lion of Judah was announced to make an appearance, presumably to exact divine vengeance, which is what most people expect and hope for, what actually appears is “a lamb appearing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Rev. 5: 5-6) That is, just as Jesus confounded the peoples’ expectations of what kind of Messiah they would get, the risen Christ confounds these expectations yet again, which is precisely what the risen Christ died when he ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

There is a paradox in this bridal imagery because, although  spouses are fundamental to families, they share an intimacy that other members of the family simply cannot share. In fact, the fecundity of the spousal relationship, that most usually manifests in producing children but can take many other forms for nurturing other people, requires the unsharable intimacy at its core. I have noticed acts of intimacy among spouses that go beyond physical acts of affection that show the depth of their union, such as sharing food off each other’s plates at meals. This is something I notice when I am the table server at the monastery.

The Church, as Bride of Christ, is foreshadowed by Hosea who married a prostitute and remained faithful to her throughout her infidelities. The prostitute, Gomer, stands for unfaithful Israel and for unfaithful us to this very day. More positively, the Church as bride is also foreshadowed in the Song of Songs where the playful hide-and-seek games of the lovers celebrates the hide-and-seek games we play with God and God plays with us.

The stronger paradox of the image of the Church as Bride of Christ is that every member of the Church shares the marital intimacy with God. That is, we share marital union with Christ and with each other. In this way, the image of the church as “living stones” is personalized in a deep union through mimetic resonance with one another in Christ’s Body. It is this image we see acted out at the Wedding at Cana where Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the Bride. The deeper we move into brideship with Christ, the more subordinationism among humans melts away and we experience our fundamental equality and unity in Christ. Within this union, Christ is the head of each and every one of us in an intimacy beyond our imagining even at times we experience in in fleeting moments.

See also: Christian Community (3), Mimetic Resonance, Strange Wedding