On Expecting Patiently in God

simeonThe Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a belated closure to the Christmas Season. Since the excitement of Christmas and New Year’s Day is long past, we may have assumed Christmas was over, but the Presentation of Jesus is the last of the Infancy Narratives. The Christmas Cycle began with Advent, the time of expectation of God’s coming to us. In Simeon and Anna, we come full circle with two more people who were waiting for the consolation and redemption of Israel. Anna had been waiting for 57 years, with nothing to show for it until that day.

To wait in expectation as Anna did takes much patience. For most of us, expectation is coupled with impatience. If we expect something, we expect it now. There should be no delay when it comes to what I expect. God’s time is shown here to be different than ours. The many centuries during which Israel had been expecting consolation and redemption were a lot more years than Anna had spent coming to the temple fasting and praying.

Expectation can lead to rivalry and even violence. This is all the more likely when expectation is coupled with impatience. The more impatient we are, the more likely we are to act precipitously to bring about the consolation and redemption of our own people. This is what happened in Israel. Few, perhaps nobody at all, had the patience of Simeon and Anna and were violently hastening the redemption and consolation of Israel. This haste resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Expectation is, however, quite different when we give ourselves over to it in patience and in God. The patience and presence of God wear away the trap of violent rivalry. Patience in God also made Anna and Simeon responsive to the Holy Spirit so that they came to the Temple at the right time to see the Christ Child.

More important, patience in God broadened the expectation of Anna and Simeon. Although Simeon had been waiting for the “consolation of Israel,” when he held the child in his arms, he said that he had seen the salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Not only was this child the glory of God’s people Israel, he was “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles,” the very people from whom they were expectantly waiting for deliverance.

Patience in God also deepened the expectation so that Simeon realized that Jesus would be a “sign that is opposed,” one who would reveal the “inner thoughts of many.” This child, then, was not destined to be a consolation and redemption of Israel in a comfortable or cosy way, but would console and redeem Israel and the Gentiles (i.e. everybody else) by revealing the truth of how we build human culture on collective violence and then offering us redemption through embracing this truth.

We also see patience on the part of Joseph and Mary who offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons as required of the Law for those who were poor. Many years later, Jesus would again make the offering of a poor person who had been opposed and so “reveal the inner thoughts of many” as they “look on the one whom they have pierced.” (Zech 12: 10)

Faith as Faithfulness

altarDistance1Faith is often presented as conformity to a set of doctrines like those laid out in the Nicene Creed. I believe in what the Nicene Creed says but believing it isn’t faith. If we turn to St. Paul we find something different. It is often believed that Paul says throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, suggesting that if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we will be saved. That is, we substitute a more primitive Creed for the Nicene. But this is not what Paul said. In his exhaustive and exhausting book The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell argues that Paul’s phrase should not be translated faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. This doesn’t seem to make much sense because Jesus couldn’t have believed in any kind of doctrine. Paul must be talking about faith in some other sense. That is what Campbell thinks when he suggests that a better translation of the word Greek word pistis would be “faithfulness.” That is, Jesus’ faithfulness to his heavenly Father by enduring the mockery of humans and the cross and then being raised from the dead saves us. That is, the faithful acts of Christ save us. We are not saved by our faith; we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness. This also fits the understanding of “faith” in the Hebrew prophets. When Habakkuk said that “the righteous live by their faith,” (Hab. 2: 4) he was saying that the righteousness live by acting in faithfulness to Yahweh. When James said that faith without works is dead, he was really saying that if there are no works there is no faith because works, the acts of faithfulness, is an integral part of faith.

We can see this point more clearly when we reflect that for Paul Abraham is the father of faith because of what he did when God called him by name. Abraham was told to leave the only life he had known and move to a land God would show him. This is precisely what we are called to do in baptism. We are to leave the life we have known, the life that has formed us and clothed us in what Paul calls “the old person” and move to a life we have never known, a life that will form us and clothe us in “the new person.” This may seem laughable to those of us who were baptized as infants but the baptismal vows of renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil, even if made on our behalf, are still our responsibility as we come of age. We find ourselves formed by the social matrix around us which René Girard argues is run primarily by mimetic rivalry and sacrificial mechanisms and we are called out of these social matrixes into a way of life grounded in the Forgiving Victim.

What makes Abraham’s journey so remarkable is that he was travelling into uncharted territory. He moved out of a culture based on sacrificial violence without a New Testament in his hip pocket to tell him what kind of story he was entering. In this way he was a pioneer of faith about as much as Jesus. Both put their lives on the line, though in different ways. Abraham only had a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, although he had born no children up to that time. Jesus hoped to receive from his heavenly Fathers descendants just as numerous (Jn. 17: 10) although it looked hopeless when even his disciples deserted him at the end. Abraham’s wife Sarai went with Abraham on this journey, making her also a great pioneer of faith. I doubt that either of them could have done it alone. It is because this pioneering move is so fundamental to Abraham’s faithfulness that Paul denies that being circumcised constitutes the faith that was reasoned as righteousness. (Rom. 4: 9-12) That is, Abraham was circumcised after he had set out for a new land.

Abraham’s geographical move was not enough, of course. Indeed, if faith has to do with migrating from a sacrificial culture, it is the spiritual geography that matters. After all, Canaan was as in the thrall of sacrificial culture as Ur of the Chaldeans. The real act of faithfulness was bringing Isaac back from Moriah. In a culture that demanded sacrifice so powerfully that even Abraham thought he had to participate in it, he listened to the voice from outside the system that told him not to lay a hand on the lad. On his way to Calvary, Jesus as a pioneer of faith (Heb. 12:2) had to believe that he had been sent from outside the sacrificial system and would return to a place outside that system after having cracked the structure for all time.

[For more on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, see Abraham out on Highway 61]

Proceed to Hope as Inheritance

Early Rejections of Sacrifice

Antigone_5369-MichelidesOne of the chief tenets of René Girard’s theory about sacred violence is that humanity was not capable of seeing the truth about what it was doing until Jesus revealed the truth in his passion and resurrection. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) This is quite a sweeping judgment but outside of the Hebrew Bible there is close to nothing that comes to mind to refute this generalization. Girard’s theory would predict this to be the case and Paul’s assertions that humanity is enslaved by sin too deeply to escape it without the help of Divine grace would also corroborate this position. One would have to have read everything written or recorded from history up to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection to have a basis for presenting an airtight case.  However, considering that we are all created by God with mimetic desire with its potential for good, one might think that some people may have caught at least to some extent.

An interesting phenomenon that occurred between the eighth and third centuries BC that is customarily called the Axial Age points to a collective awakening in humanity. In several cultures, there was a questioning of and withdrawal from sacrifice. It was the Hebrew prophets who were by far the most articulate on the subject and coupled their concerns with the revealing collective violence behind it. In India, the Brhamanas edged away from sacrifice as Girard pointed out and Brian Collins collaborated at greater length in The Head beneath the Altar. The Upanishadic tradition turned to intense inward meditation as did Jainism and Buddhism.  They all seem to have seen a smoking gun in sacrificial rituals. It is instructive that these new movements in India rejected the Vedic caste system although Jainism created a caste system of its own which was less hierarchal, at least relatively speaking.  In China, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu preached withdrawal from conflictive societies to seek union with the Tao. Confucius remained involved with society but developed an ethic seeking to limit mimetic rivalry. It occurs to me that the ancestral rites in honor of ancestors were an extension of filial respect in this life that could limit conflict between generations. Many examples of insights into the problem of mimetic violence could be noted. I will confine myself to two powerful examples.

One of the most memorable teachings attributed to the Buddha is the Parable of the Burning House in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. A dilapidated house catches fire while the children are playing inside. They are so absorbed in their games that they do not want to come out of the burning house, no matter how urgently their father calls them. In the end, he has to make extravagant promises of the rarest and greatest of toy chariots and oxen to entice them to come out. Once the children are outside the house and are safe, they wonder where the toys are. Their father, being very rich, gives them carriages of great size and beauty, way beyond their wildest, childish dreams. For one steeped in mimetic realism, it is not difficult to see the burning of a dilapidated house as an image of a society engulfed in mimetic violence that threatens  to destroy the society, much as the Flood in Noah’s time threatens to destroy humanity. Once taken outside the house, something done through deep meditation in Buddha’s teaching, all is calm. Given the phenomenon of scarcity caused by mimetic rivalry, it is instructive that once the children are outside the burning house, there is mind-boggling abundance such as the abundance Jesus created in the wilderness for the four and five thousand people. (See Mimetic Scarcity)

The other example is the Theban plays of Sophocles. Oedipus the King has been studied at length by Girard and Sandor Goodhart for the mimetic tensions and the scapegoating of Oedipus who is blamed for the plague, another image of a society in mimetic crisis. Goodhart argues in Sacrificing Commentary that Sophocles seems to believe that Oedipus is innocent and covertly gives clues for the reader or watcher of a performance to see this, but he is carefully subtle about it. After all, plays in Athens were performed at the Festival of Dionysius, a highly sacrificial god who was torn into pieces and whose devotees tore people into pieces during their frenzies. In Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke demonstrates that in Antigone, Sophocles takes his insights much deeper. Antigone shows a deep self-sacrificing love by burying her brother’s body against orders from Creon to desist. Since Antigone cannot actually dig a grave, she buries her brother by scattering ashes over his body, an image revealing the truth about death. She dies a sacrificial death for her defiance, but she dies not as a sacrificial victim but on her own terms, as Jesus died on his own terms and not those of Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas. Since Antigone dies outside of the city, she has died outside of the system of the persecutory polis. In this way, Reinecke suggests that she has become a figure of Christ.

Abolishing Sacrifice to Establish Mercy

Jesus_cleansing_templeThe story of Jesus knocking over the tables in the temple and driving out the animals shakes us up but then we wonder what we should be all shook up about. Jesus’ act can be seen as the climax of repeated protests of the Hebrew prophets against the sacrificial cult in the temple. Jeremiah mocked his listeners who jabbered: “This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!”  (Jer. 7:4). Then there is God’s mocking question from Psalm 50 and repeated elsewhere: “Do you think I eat the meat of bulls and drink the blood of goats?” Amos proclaims God’s hatred of festivals. Most telling are the words of Hosea that Jesus quoted: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6.) There is much debate as to whether the prophets wanted the abolition of the sacrificial cult or a reformation that would bring it in line with moral values. In driving out not only the money changers but also the animals about to be sacrificed, I think Jesus is doing a bit of guerrilla theater to prophecy the end of the temple cult, a prophecy fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the combined violence of militant Jew and the imperialistic Romans resulted in its destruction.

When asked to explain his actions, Jesus said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) This literalist interpretation is promptly debunked by the evangelist when he says that Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2: 21). So much for biblical literalism. The implication that Jesus is replacing the temple with his risen body is a strong indication that he intended to abolish the sacrificial cult. What was wrong with the sacrificial cult? The quote from Psalm 69 “zeal for your house will consume me” shows us the problem if we note the context. Psalm 69 begins with “Save me O God for the waters have risen up to my neck.” The psalmist tells God that he is suffering the same reproach people level against God: “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” This psalm is referred to as one of the “passion psalms” and has been interpreted as a prophecy of Christ. However, I don’t think the psalmist was gazing into a crystal ball and seeing Christ’s Passion; I think the psalmist was complaining about collective violence that was happening to him at the time. The number of persecution psalms and the fate of many prophets, suggests that the Gospels are revealing the human tendency to solve social conflicts by uniting against a victim which is precisely the outcome Jesus predicts when he explains his actions at the temple. T

he prophets consistently denounced the sacrifices made on the “high places,” pagan sacrifices to deities like Moloch who even required the sacrifice of their children. The sacrifice in the temple was more humane in that it was restricted to animals, but the practice derived from the notion that “god” was angry and would be appeased only by sacrifices. The prophets’ denunciations of the temple cult were consistently coupled with denunciations of social violence and injustice where the poor were sold for a pair of sandals as Amos complained. Although it is argued that the prophets thought the temple sacrifices were acceptable, maybe even laudable, if accompanied with righteous actions in the social sphere, but they seem to have a sneaky suspicion that the practice of sacrifice tends to encourage social injustice. The temple setup was, after all, a terrible financial burden on the poor. (I think Jesus was not edified but outraged over the widow who gave the last two coins she had to live on.) The logic of sacrifice was that some living being was always dispensable precisely as the victims of collective violence at the times of social crises were dispensable and their deaths “necessary.” Caiaphas stated the sacrificial logic baldly when he said that it was better “to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50) In modern times this sacrificial logic is expressed by the regretful term “collateral damage.” These considerations suggest that the prophets were convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with sacrificial rites.

Jesus, on the other hand, has a totally different, opposite logic; a logic that Paul says is foolishness to the rest of the world. In John 6, Jesus says that everybody the Father gives him will come to him and nobody who comes to him will be driven away. The parable of the lost sheep makes the same point that it is not the will of our Father in Heaven that even one of his “little ones” should be lost. Jesus believed this so strongly that he would accept death on the cross to make the point and, more important, return as the forgiving victim to gather all who will come to him so that none of us should be lost. The pagan deities wanted sacrifices made to them. The prophets kept trying to get it across to everybody that God pours out sacrificial love to all of us through creation and redemption and that God wants the mercy God gives us in return, not sacrifices .  Caiaphas was willing to sacrifice Jesus and anyone else who put a spoke in the wheel of the sacrificial logic. Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself rather than sacrifice any of us. That is why we do not slaughter bulls on this altar but pass around the bread and wine through which Jesus gives His very self to each one of us.

American war Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1The escalation of militarized violence has reached bewildering levels in the USA. Kelly Denton-Borhaug gives us an important theological response centered on the theme of sacrifice.

First, Denton-Borhaug surveys the militarization of our society which will be an uncomfortable eye-opener for most of us. Recruitment is taking place in our public schools and has infiltrated our computer games which are being more and more designed to train us for real war that is no game—or shouldn’t be.

One of the most disconcerting elements of our society’s militarization is the large number of Christians who are avidly supporting our wars. Denton-Borhaug zeroes in on the rhetoric of sacrifice which she suggests is the keystone of the presidential speeches since 9/11. The sacrifice being made on our behalf by those serving in the military is noble, sanctified. How dare we oppose those who make these great sacrifices? Well, there is the matter of the countless people “over there” who are being sacrificed without having enlisted with the US military for the job. These deaths are countless because the US military does everything it can to prevent counting their deaths.

Denton-Borhaug analyzes the Christian theologies of sacrifice, especially substitutionary atonement, that makes Jesus’ death a sacrifice required by the Father, or at least the cosmos. What has been happening is that political rhetoric is syphoning off the Christian resonances of sacrifice, corralling the sacrifices required of war as if the god of war were the God of Christ. Much of this works on subliminal levels.

Those of us working with the thought of René Girard and his colleagues see ourselves in a different place regarding sacrifice, but Denton-Borhaug has problems here as well. Girard himself she mentions almost in passing, only to suggest that Girard sees it as human nature to be violent so not much can be done with it. Mark Heim’s fine book Saved from Sacrifice is examined in some depth. Although Denton-Borhaug respects Heim’s attempt to get away from a theology of sacrifice, she thinks he fails. The failure hinges on Heim’s (and Girard’s) notion that only through his sacrificial death could Jesus reveal the truth of sacred violence.

I think Heim and Girard are right about this but Denton-Borhaug has pointed to an important point. If Jesus’ death is considered “necessary” in any way whatever, then it is vulnerable to the military rhetoric that proclaims the sacrifices of war as “necessary.” Girard avoids philosophical and theological terminology and so does not consider the category of contingency. This is where theological analysis is necessary for Girard’s anthropological insights. Granted, the power of mimetic desire analyzed by Girard was highly likely to lead to the violent outcomes of collective violence leading to sacrificial rites. But to retain any sound doctrine of Original Sin, we must insist that this violent outcome at the dawn of humanity was contingent. The same applies to Heim’s analysis of the Atonement. Heim is as clear as it can be that Jesus’ death was not necessary as far as God was concerned. If it was “necessary,” it was “necessary” for humans. Given the weight of history and the situation in Judaea at the time Jesus lived, it seems highly unlikely any other outcome was possible for Jesus’ earthly ministry but we have to insist that the death of Jesus was contingent. That is, the truth of sacred violence could have been (and actually was) revealed through Jesus’ teaching. It was not “necessary” for Jesus to be killed to reveal this truth, but that is what happened. Knowing Mark Heim as I do, I am almost certain this is his position. I have taken the time to go over this section of the book in more detail to show how the challenge from Denton-Borhaug can help those of us who use Girard’s thought to sharpen our thinking in this area.

In a broader sense, Denton-Borhaug has trouble with sacrifice and for good reason, since the militarized rhetoric is such a powerful form of emotional and spiritual blackmail that really has ruined many of the brightest and best of our younger generation. One need only note the traumatized lives, high rate of homelessness and suicides of our veterans to see how thoroughly they have been made sacrificial victims. Denton-Borhaug has trouble understanding the nobility of Christian martyrdom in the early centuries, not realizing the degree to which it was nonviolent resistance to the Empire. In fact, her practical suggestions are along the lines of actively making peace, a “theology of work” she calls it which amount to much sacrifice as well as resistance to violent political structures.

A thought-provoking and important book that helps us grapple with a major ongoing crisis in our time.

For an introduction to René Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609Fratricide is a running thread throughout Genesis. The rivalry portrayed in its stories do not involve romantic triangles as in novels and plays, but rather, the disputes are over blessings, the other running thread throughout Genesis.

In Creation God blesses humanity with all that God has created, but humanity rejects that blessing for the sake of one tree that then shrank to a barren landscape. To begin the process of re-gathering a scattered humanity after the Tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to leave his father’s house, i.e. the scattered, rivalrous civilization he was born in, and move to a land God will show him. When Abraham leaves the entanglements of mimetic rivalry behind, whole new vistas of possibilities suddenly present themselves.

God then tells Abraham:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” and by him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12: 1-3) We are so habituated to getting (or taking) blessings that we often fail to notice that God said Abraham would be a blessing and a blessing not just for him and his household but for all households. The intervening verse that God will curse those who curse Abraham is discordant. If God really is in the business of blessings, then God is not in the business of cursing. After all, Jesus did not curse those who cursed him and worse. However, we could say that when we curse someone who is a blessing, and through Abraham everybody is a blessing, then we are consumed by our own cursing.

We see all this already at play in the story of Cain and Abel who fight over a blessing and the supposed lack thereof. Genesis does not tell us why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. Girard’s theory of collective violence founding culture leads me to suggest that tilling the ground was a factor. There could have been mimetic rivalry among nomadic herders of sheep but tilling the ground like Cain was all the more conducive to rivalry over particular plots of land, such as Ahab’s coveting Naboth’s vineyard. The proliferation of vegetative dying and rising deities in mythology suggests that landed economy lead to mimetic crises and their resolution through collective violence. On the other hand, when we note the alleged zero sum blessings in the fratricidal strife that follows, maybe Cain jumped to the conclusion that when Abel was blessed, there could be no blessing for him.

What is decisive is that when Cain’s offering was rejected, or he thought it was, he embroiled himself with Abel, which was also to exile God. God called out to Cain, something God continues to do with violent humans to the end of time, but Cain would not let go of his preoccupation with his brother until he had killed him.

Afterwards, Abel’s blood cried from the ground. This is a marked contrast with the fratricidal myth of the founding of Rome where the blood of Remus was silent. Like Romulus, though, Cain was a founder of culture while Abel was the first prophet as defined by Jesus in Mt. 23:35, that is, a prophet is a victim. Abel’s blood seems to have cried for vengeance. The author of Hebrews, however, says that the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” More proof that God is in the business of blessing and not cursing.

Principalities and Powers

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

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

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

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

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

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