The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauWe are commanded to forgive by the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us to pray that we forgive those who wrong us as we forgive them for their wrongs against us. The petition in the Our Father for forgiveness suggests that accepting forgiveness can be at least as difficult as forgiving. Remaining oblivious to this latter difficulty reflects our prior difficulty in forgiving and I suspect it makes it all the harder for us to forgive. The two stories that conclude the book of Genesis help us move through our own difficulties by following through the difficulties experienced by Jacob and his son Joseph. We all know how difficult it is to forgive. We tend to overlook how difficult it can be to accept forgiveness.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a telling illustration of the difficulty in believing in forgiveness, let alone accepting it. Jacob had patently wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing and Jacob fled for his life with a guilty conscience. Years later, after similar wrangling with Laban, Jacob returns with his wives, his children and his flocks which had all grown too plentiful for Laban’s taste. Jacob has every reason to fear what will happen when he meets up again with Esau. Hearing that Esau is coming with four hundred men was not reassuring. The nighttime struggle with a dark figure seems to project Jacob’s combatant personality. Still the shifty coward he’s always been, Jacob puts the wives and children he cares about least in the most vulnerable positions in the front so that he can escape with his favored sons if need be.

What happens is an amazing surprise. Esau embraces Jacob with no reservations and not the slightest sign of resentment. No matter how many times one reads or hears the story, it is hard to believe. Jacob doesn’t believe it. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t really Jacob’s things. Jacob’s words: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” are among the most profound words in the entire Bible for the ultimate revelation is Divine Mercy in a human face. But, as I said, Jacob can’t believe it even after this warm greeting. Jacob turns down the invitation to travel with Esau, using the excuse that he can’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. (Benedict quoted this verse in his Rule to illustrate the need for the abbot not to drive his monastics too hard!) Jacob, still shifty and cowardly, manages to avoid ever meeting up again with his brother for the rest of his life. Think of the years of friendship and companionship they missed out on!

The story is complicated by the later history of Edom, the people descended from Esau which reach a climax in Paul’s quoting, In Romans, Malachi 1:3: “Yet I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” In spite of Esau’s forgiveness narrated in Genesis, Edom has not been forgiven by Israel for its siding with their enemies in several wars. That Edom never recovered from the Assyrian invasion seemed to confirm that. The unflattering portrayal of Esau as a stupid, hairy oaf who sells his birthright for a pot of soup is perhaps another way of expressing Israel’s grudge against Edom. And yet this stupid hairy oaf suffered a terrible wrong from his unrepentant brother, moved on and built up his own flocks rather than spending his life in resentment, and forgave his brother. The story of these two brothers is often presented, including by Paul, to illustrate the mystery of God’s election. Jacob is the one chosen to carry on the Covenant, but the rejected brother, Esau, is the one much more in the place of Christ both in his rejection and in his forgiveness. Can repentance and forgiveness be strong enough in our lives for us to believe forgiveness when we see it?

See also Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2)

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Blueprint of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essay on spiritual renewal

buddingTree1I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.

Meet Some Desert Monastics

220px-St_Macarius_the_Great_with_CherubI have just posted an article called “The Desert Monastics ad Hidden Models.” Some of the stories in the article are stories I have already shared on this blog, but other stories are new to this blog. These are old stories so maybe some of you know them. If you don’t know them, you will be glad when you do. This paper was composed for the meeting of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) meeting at Cedar Falls, IA July 10-14.

The Holy Spirit’s Fiery Desire

outsideSupper1What is the Holy Spirit? Wrong question.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, not an ït.” Our difficulty in thinking of the Holy Spirit as a person is a symptom of our cultural problem of really seeing other persons as persons.

“Many terms and images are given for the Holy Spirit: a roaring wind, tongues of fire, breath, gift, counselor, consoler, teacher, guide, and the bond of love, to list a few. Some of the terms are personal, some not. This only adds to the confusion unless we get beneath the impersonal images to realize that breath requires a breather, a person’s temperament can be fiery, and a bond of love can’t really love unless that bond is a person who actually loves. Teaching and guiding, though done with personal agency, can be mechanical if they are only conveying information and or getting us from one place to another.

The Holy Spirit adds to our difficulty simply by being so shy. Jesus shows us the Father, the Holy Spirit shows us Jesus. Who shows us the Holy Spirit? Look behind you and the Holy Spirit is still behind you. Look deeply in yourself and the Holy Spirit is deeper yet. If we want to know the Holy Spirit, we have to be as shy, as hidden as this Person. Most of us think it important to be more assertive than that.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is hidden in much the same way as mimetic desire is hidden. (See Human See, Human Want.) Our imitation of other peoples ‘desires occurs below our conscious awareness. The Holy Spirit does the same. Is there a connection between the two? As our teacher and guide, the Holy Spirit conveys the Desire of God.  More than that, the Holy Spirit is the Desire of God. What is this Desire of God? The image of a fiery wind burning all of God’s people without consuming us gives us a hint of God’s fundamental Desire: that we all may be one as the Father and the Son are one. (There is the Holy Spirit hiding again! The Spirit is just as much one with the Father and the Son as the other two Persons of the Trinity.)

Let us try thinking of the Holy Spirit as the Gatherer with fiery arms of Love. Mimetic desire unites us with other people whether we like it or not, or will it or not. Mimetic desire deepens our lives when we share desires in mutually enriching ways, but when mimetic desire falls into conflict, it unites us to that person in the bad sense of being stuck together.  The Holy Spirit weaves through the swirl of other peoples’ desire with God’s Desire, teaching us and guiding us with fiery love how to fill all these desires between us with tongues of fire that deepen our communion with others beyond what words can say.

Knowing the Wild Things Between Us

buddingTree1Just about all of us talk about the subconscious as if it were familiar territory. By definition, the subconscious, assuming there really is such a thing, is precisely what we are not familiar with, what we don’t know about ourselves.

Pop psychologists, and real psychologists for that matter, along with those of us committed to the spiritual journey, think that it is better to know more about ourselves rather than less. Exploring the unknown may be an exciting challenge at times but it is also threatening. Much talk about the subconscious that has floated around since Freud took up his pen gives the impression that the subconscious is full of horrible monsters and some of them are us. In the simple story Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak shows us what great friends the inner monsters can be if we get to know them.

René Girard has given us a whole new dimension to explore in the subconscious by suggesting that it is primarily mimetic desire that we find there. (See Human See, Human Want) Mimetic desire, the desire of others that has infiltrated us since birth, gets under our skin and deep into our hearts. Hence the importance of the desires we surround small children with to absorb. What keeps mimetic desire in our subconscious is our defiant pig-headed conviction that our desires belong to each of us alone and to nobody else. The stronger this sort of conviction, the more likely the desire is entangled in serious rivalry with somebody else; maybe a lot of somebodies. Somehow, we feel threatened at the idea that our desires are intertwined with the desires of everybody else and we push them away, only to have them manipulate us at very deep levels.

The “wild things” within may not be so much are own personal monsters but the monsters that grow out of the mimetic desires between us. The monster isn’t me, it’s us. These wild things can also be the source of great opportunities for personal and spiritual growth if we get to know them. The web of mimetic desire is not, in the hands of God, elaborate chains to imprison us but links to connect us. That is, mimetic desire is the gravitational field among persons pulls us into relationship with each other. The more we are aware of this field, the more freedom we have to live in it with friendship and sharing instead of hate and rivalry.

Self-examination is a time-honored practice for spiritual growth in all religious traditions. Unfortunately, when this practice is centered on the self, it inevitably creates some distortion because it keeps mimetic desire in the subconscious. It isn’t so much our selves that need examination as it is our relationships. The individual self can look just fine right when relationships are destroying the web of our interrelated desires.

Girard tends to examine mimetic desire in the present tense, and there is always much going on with our interrelated desires in every moment. However, as Per Grande pointed out in his fine book Mimesis and Desire, we go through life interacting with the desires of others in our past just as much, if not more, than those in the present. So it is that we have to increase our conscious awareness of our past as well as the present.

So much attention has been paid to monstrous wild things in the human subconscious that we don’t realize that deeper in the subconscious that any wild desires flaring up between us and other people both in rivalry and ecstatic love and friendship is God’s desire. No matter how entangled our mimetic desires with other people, God holds all of the links in unconditional love, all the while calling each of us to open our outer and inner eyes to see how wild divine love is.

Rising to the Life of Christ

crosswButterfliesWhen St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Jesus’ death, what kind of death are we baptized into? An aged person drifting off while asleep? A ritual death with no consequences? No, we are baptized into the death of Jesus. This particular death, the one we are baptized into, is a judicial death resulting from collective violence. This is the shameful death of an alleged insurrectionist at the hands of an Empire. This death was caused by the meltdown of rivalry in the society of first century Jerusalem, exacerbated by the betrayal and cowardice of Jesus’ closest followers.

Once we know what death we are baptized into, we know what life we are raised to. In his risen life, Jesus showed no resentment or vengeance to those who had gathered to put him to death or had dispersed out of cowardice.  Moreover, Jesus was not entangled in any of the rivalrous feuds that are a way of life for most humans. Imagine living without all the entanglements and resentments swirling around and inside of us. Hard to do, isn’t it? That is how radically different the risen life is from the life we live now.

If our “old self” is crucified with Jesus, then we have, like Jesus, died in the place of the victim. That means we have died to our tendency to fuel resentments and resolve these resentments through gathering against the victim, as Paul himself repented of having held the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and openly approving of what they did.

None of this means that repenting of personal sins and faults doesn’t matter and that becoming free of them is part of the resurrected life. However, Christian teaching has a strong tendency to stress personal renewal to such an extent that horrifyingly sick participation in collective persecution goes unnoticed. That hundreds of thousands of Christians could lynch thousands of black people shows us now, now that the lynching era is over, how easily this sort of group contagion can take over in what is often called an “enlightened” and “civilized” era.

Rather than congratulating ourselves on giving up lynching after roughly a hundred years of the sport, I suggest we take careful note of the growing polarization in our country over social and religious issues. Honest disagreement is not a problem; it’s a good thing, something that keeps us honest. But polarization tends to be conflict for the sake of conflict so that conflict feeds itself and it feeds each one of us. Never mind that polarized conflict is as nourishing to humans as sawdust and glue. What is really dangerous about this polarization is that it easily collapses into collective violence as a way of resolving the tensions.

If we wish to be serious about living the risen life with Christ, we must be baptized by the love and forgiveness of the risen Christ and allow him to gently but firmly remove all the resentments we feed on so as to feed on body and blood of the Lamb of God who reaches out to everybody with vulnerable love.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you be overwhelmed by such a thing in baptism?