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.

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.

God’s Kingdom as Gift

treeBlossoming1There is only one simple qualification for being a disciple of Jesus: give up everything. That’s one whale of a qualification. So hard is this qualification that earnest Christians have thought of many ways to soften Jesus’ words without washing all meaning and challenge out of them. My New Testament professor at Nashotah House, O.C. Edwards, suggested that this qualification means we have to give up everything that comes between us and God. That is, if parents, children, spouses, friends, or fellow members of a community help us draw closer to God, we don’t have to give them up. The same would go for material possessions. Even Benedictine monks have to use things in this world in order to live so we can’t give up having anything at all. The trick is to use things in such a way that the work and recreation we do with them draws us closer to God rather than farther away.

We could phrase this approach by saying that the problem is not possessions but possessiveness. God gives us parents, children, siblings, and friends as gifts. Likewise we should give each ourselves as gifts to other people. The things we use in the world are likewise gifts from God and should be treated accordingly. The problem comes when we prefer to take other people and things rather than receive them. In such cases, the intensity of love we feel for others is actually possessiveness rather than love. We are told to “hate” parents, children, siblings, and friends so as not to be possessive of them. Taking people and things is the result of putting ourselves in competitive relationship with other people. When we compete with others, we have to win and a victory is something we earn, not a gift. This same competitiveness carries over to our attitudes toward possessions. As the French thinker René Girard teaches us, we often want things that other people have or want to have things at the expense of others so that we can claim a victory over them. Of course, competitiveness is a bottomless pit. If we win one round, we always fear losing the next. If we have to have more than other people, or at least as much, we have to keep on accumulating more things no matter the damage our hoarding does to others. In all this, the people we try defeat and our lust to win through possessions become stumbling blocks between ourselves and God. This is what we have to give up.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates this point very well. Slavery, very common up to the present day (although now other terms such as “trafficking” are often used for it), is perhaps the ultimate in possessing other people. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul experienced Onesmimus, not as a possession but as a gift, a person who freely gave of himself to serve Paul while he was a prisoner. Paul is tempted to be possessive and keep Onesimus for himself but he offers Onesemus to Philemon as a gift, clearly hoping that Philemon will give Onesimus back to Paul as a free gift. Paul makes it clear that he is not giving Onesimus back as a slave; instead, he is giving Philemon back as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philem. 16) If Philemon receives Onesimus as a brother in Christ, he can hardly continue to possess him as a slave.

I’ve always seen Paul’s letter as an artful piece of emotional blackmail, but for all his manipulative rhetoric here, Paul is basically passing on to Philemon Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom with its one qualification. This sounds simple, but in the heat of daily battles, we find that the possessiveness born of competitiveness is very hard to renounce and it amounts to carrying our cross daily. If we can daily renounce our possessiveness, we will indeed receive everything from God and from others as Gift.

The Burglar Who Serves

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe first verses of today’s Gospel (Lk. 12: 32–34) pick up from where we left off last week. That reading ended with Jesus’ little parable about the rich fool who tore down his barns to build bigger barns (Lk. 12: 12–21) only to find that his life was being demanded of him. This reading begins with Jesus’ soothing admonition to “sell our possessions and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Lk. 12: 32-33) This is quite a contrast to two brothers fighting over an inheritance or a rich person gloating over fabulous amounts of wealth. Lest we think Jesus is asking us to make ourselves miserable, Jesus assures us that it is our heavenly Abba’s pleasure to give us a treasure that is the kingdom. If this treasure, the kingdom, is the Abba’s pleasure, then it is our pleasure as well.

It is important to see that Jesus is not telling us to give up desires. The heavenly Abba has a profound Desire for a deep union of love with each of us, a union God would have us share with each other. If God is comprised of God’s Desire, than it follows that we creatures are created with desires. What Jesus is doing here is redirecting our desires from the desires of rivalrous avarice towards God’s Desire that is without rivalry. Isn’t every fight, ultimately, over what we think we are entitled to as our inheritance? Yet aren’t we all offered the whole world to be an inheritance rather than a bone for contention? Since these rivalrous desires embroil us with our rivals, the material inheritance we are fighting for is destroyed as if by moths. Of course, each rival blames the other for being the thief that has stolen the treasure.

Jesus then shifts to an admonition to be ready for the Master’s “return from the wedding banquet.” (Lk. 12: 36) If we servants are alert and ready to greet the master, the master will wait on us as Jesus waited on his disciples at the Last Supper. This little feast shared by master and servants is an image of the treasure our hearts should be set on. The progression of vignettes and admonitions throughout this chapter suggests that the best way to be prepared for God’s coming is to set our hearts on treasure that moths cannot consume and thieves cannot steal. Fundamentally, being alert for the “master” consists of serving one another in the same way that the master serves us when he comes.

The following little parable is comical and a bit threatening. The master who serves those who wait for him is transformed into a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night. (Lk. 12: 39–40) If our hearts are not set on the treasure of serving one another, but instead we fight over our inheritance and try to gather it into bigger barns, then the God who serves us will be quite alien to us and will be perceived as a thief, a burglar. If our rivalry deepens as it does in the still more threatening parable that follows, so that our rivalry causes us to “beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,” (Lk. 12: 45), then the gracious master will indeed rob us of our victims.

God is both a burglar and a gracious master who serves. God only breaks in to take away all that draws our hearts away from God and from each other. What this burglar leaves in return is a treasure well worth setting our hearts on.

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.

In Memorium: René Girard 1923-2015

GirardIt has been a couple of bittersweet days of memories since getting the news of René Girard’s death. I have the feeling that many of us are cybernetically sitting around the fire sharing memories. Here are some of mine.

For many years, pretty much ever since I became a Benedictine monk (Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic) in 1972, I fretted about the close proximity of religion and violence. Given the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze and others, it didn’t make sense. Thomas Merton’s polemics against violence written from his hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky inspired me and assured me I was fretting about something worth fretting about. This concern eventually led me to René Girard. It took a few years and the help of others such as James Williams to realize that Girard provides the most cogent hermeneutic for understanding scripture as the unveiling of a loving, nonviolent God. More important, his anthropological insights impressed me with their explanatory power as to why religion had been connected with violence from the start and why it still happens. As a sidelight, during the 80’s, I was searching for a sense of direction as to how I was to evaluate postmodern thought, especially deconstruction as a Benedictine. I talked to the abbot of St. John’s Collegeville about visiting to meet with some of the Benedictine professors in the college, but I dropped that when I grasped Girard enough to realize that he gave me the sense of direction I was looking for and that many companions on the way were at hand. A couple of times, I heard Girard put that sense of direction in a nutshell when he told deconstructionist type thinkers that the solid reality under the deconstructive flux is the reality of the victim.

I first met René close to the turn of the millennium in San Francisco at a meeting of the AAR/SBL when he read what has turned out to be one of his most important papers: “Are the Gospels Mythical?” I was in the process of writing a lead review essay on Girard for the Anglican Theological Review and I was hoping to meet René and ask him some questions. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.) I got more than I expected. I was introduced to René after the lecture by James Williams, who had helped me with logistics for getting to the meeting, and I was invited to lunch along with several other people. I was placed across the table from René so that could discuss his ideas and get the clarifications I was looking for. When a question was outside his areas of expertise, he referred me to others who could help me. Over the years, as I managed to attend several meetings of COV&R while René was still at large, I had stimulating conversations with him, some short, some longer. There was a lot of friendly competition to get bits of time with René but he was amazingly approachable for a person who had become an intellectual leader for so many and one could talk to him in a relaxed way because that is how he talked.

Inspired by Girard and my Benedictine tradition, I wrote a book called Tools for Peace: The Spiritual Craft of St. Benedict and René Girard. I sent an advanced draft in manuscript to him for comments. When I received a letter a month later, I thought it was an amazingly prompt response. Yet René apologized for the delay, explaining that he had just gotten home from Avignon and he read the MS. first thing. His comments were generous and helpful.

I came to see, not surprisingly, that there was nothing unique in the way he treated me; it’s the way I’ve seen him treat everybody. I have seen him encourage everybody who works with his ideas whether or not he is personally sympathetic to their direction. I get the feeling that he knew his theory was much greater than him and it wasn’t anything he “owned” by a long shot. Along the way, I realized that Girard does not have followers; he has colleagues. That’s how he treated people. And not only colleagues, but friends.

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.