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.

Zacchaeus and his City

zacchaeusThe French thinker René Girard has argued that since the dawn of humanity, we have tended to solve social tensions through persecuting a victim who absorbs these tensions and suffers for them. Girard has also argued that the Gospels unveil the truth of this scapegoating mechanism in their narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection where Jesus opens up new possibilities for humanity to gather through the forgiveness of the Risen Victim. It happens that the Gospels show Jesus unveiling these very same dynamics in his earthly ministry. I analyzed our such stories in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire. Here is what I have to say about Zacchaeus:
When Jesus came to Jericho, he was famous, or notorious enough, that something of a hubbub arose as a result of his passing through the town. People gathered and crowded one another to gawk at the man and his followers. Why the stir? The mayor wasn’t exactly giving him the key to the city. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was set upon by Pharisees and scribes and questioned in front of the crowd. Such questioning, of course, was made with the intention of publicly discrediting the freelance itinerant preacher who was becoming famous for his clever retorts. The result was bound to be entertaining. The scribes and Pharisees were surely on the prowl in a town that large. Zacchaeus’s act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus need not be taken as an indication that he was inclined to have his life changed by this stranger. His eagerness to see and hear the duel is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why? Because Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town were there to be seen by a person with eyes to see.
That Jesus had discerned the social matrix of Jericho rightly was immediately manifest when Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to that man’s house. St. Luke says that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (Lk. 19:7) Here is another example of Luke’s astute anthropological insight. It isn’t just the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Zacchaeus. Everybody grumbles about him. Like Simon when confronted with the Woman Who Was a Sinner, (Lk. 7:36–50) the people of Jericho were thinking that if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this was who was sitting up in a tree—that he was a sinner. One doesn’t have to be a demonically possessed man or a sinful woman to be a communal scapegoat. A rich man who is a traitor to his people can hold the same position. And deserve it. After all, he was treading down the downtrodden. For scapegoating others, he deserved to be scapegoated. As it happened, Jesus did know what kind of man Zacchaeus was. It is through showing us that anybody can be the scapegoat and anybody can be a persecutor that Luke shows the communal scapegoating phenomenon for what it is. Given the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem with a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen to him there, it behooved Jesus to give his followers every opportunity to see how collective hostility against one person works, in the hope that they would learn to recognize the process when it happens in the Holy City, and that is what he has done here.

As with the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus performs an exorcism of the communal scapegoat, a quiet one this time, but just as effective. The result is that the homeostasis sustained by the scapegoating process is destabilized. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus or if he had repented earlier but nobody believed it. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he is already doing these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is better, or less terrible, than he has been made out to be. I think our best bet is to look at the implications of either interpretation of the verb tenses.

If Zacchaeus has been converted on the spot by Jesus, and we assume that Jesus did not zap people with a magic wand to override their free will, then we may ask ourselves how this conversion happened. The information in Luke suggests two possibilities. As the communal scapegoat, Zacchaeus had “the intelligence of the victim” and perhaps that intelligence led him to understand what it meant to other people to be the victim of his tax collecting. The other possibility is that an undeserved commendation from Jesus freed Zacchaeus from the necessity of acting in such a way as to justify his designation as communal scapegoat. It is more than likely that both factors played their part here. On the other hand, if Zacchaeus was speaking in the present tense, the implication is that the collective attitude of the townspeople was unjust, which would underline the arbitrary aspect of scapegoating. Generous actions on the part of a rich person who has drawn the collective resentment of the community often do not diminish resentment against him or her. It is also possible, of course, that Zacchaeus is trying to make himself look better than he really is. That is, he is boasting of his good deeds while overlooking the unjust means used for gaining the wealth that he uses for his acts of largesse. If I am right in taking this story as being primarily concerned with communal scapegoating, then the ambiguity enriches the story and there is no need to solve the grammatical problem once and for all.

The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person. It extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. Whether or not Zacchaeus needed to be converted and, if so, whether or not he did change his life, is immaterial for the greater challenge. Either way, by singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man’s house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat. The unanimity has been irretrievably broken. That everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on the way to becoming a unanimous object of hatred. Since Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he would, once again, become the object of hatred, it is no surprise that it should happen in Jericho, while he was on the way to the Holy City. This development does not bode well for Jericho becoming a social climate of healing.

Salvation as Communal Healing

anointingJesusFeetWe have a tendency to think of salvation as a personal matter. To some extent it is, but the way salvation is presented in scripture, it is never personal in an individualistic sense. In the case of the famous story of “The Sinful Woman,” we easily focus on the woman whose dramatic action is enough to grab our attention. However, her act is a public drama. Moreover, in very few words, Luke paints the social context of the woman’s behavior. She is a “sinful woman.” We are not told the nature of her sinfulness, so that is not relevant to what we should learn from the story. Simon, Jesus’ host at the dinner, assumes that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and he should not have allowed her to anoint and dry his feet with her hair, actions that further proved the woman’s sinfulness in Simon’s mind. Simon may have been expecting Jesus to have supernatural discernment, but he may have simply expected Jesus to know who had a bad reputation and who didn’t.  In any case, it is a social judgment that has labeled this woman as sinful. That is, this woman shows all the signs of being the community scapegoat who helps everybody else feel good about themselves.

Jesus’ brief parable of the two debaters can be understood as presenting salvation in a social context. The two debtors gives us, in miniature, an image of society where everybody is in debt in the sense of being sinful, even if the sinfulness of each person is not equal. We can see this indebtedness on a horizontal level as each person has wronged somebody else. In a religious culture, such as the Jewish one, the notion of everybody being indebted to God would, of course, also come to mind. The problem with Jesus’ parable is that if we see ourselves as parts of a society full of moral debt, then scapegoating one particular sinner ceases to be viable.

Simon’s grudging answer to Jesus’ question that the one who owed more would love more suggests that Simon is beginning to see the implication of the parable and it is making him uncomfortable. Jesus’ proclamation that the woman’s sins are forgiven leads to muttering and outrage from Simon and his other guests. If the moral debt of even one person is forgiven, then how can the community have a scapegoat? Forgiving the scapegoat was totally unforgiveable! The important thing is that it was not just the woman as an individual who was offered forgiveness, but everybody in the social system. The catch was, and is for us today, that we have to renounce the “comfort” that a social scapegoat gives us before our communities can be healed. As with so many of his parables, this story in Luke leaves us hanging. Will Simon and his friends accept forgiveness, or will they remain outraged by it, thinking that they don’t need it. The same question faces us as well.

Liturgical Animals (1)

monksinChoir1The reality of mimetic desire guarantees that we will engage in liturgical activity. What kind of liturgical activity and for what end leads to many possibilities. However, since we instinctively react to the desires and intentions of others, we also instinctively move and sing with each other and act together. Since we are mimetic animals, we are also liturgical animals. Much liturgy takes place in churches and temples but liturgy can be done anywhere at any time and it is indeed done all over the place. René Girard’s theory of scapegoating violence places the origins of ritual and liturgy in the spontaneous mob violence against a victim that “solves” a massive social crisis. At first thought, one would think there is nothing liturgical about collective violence; it just happens. But actually collective violence is a very predictable phenomenon that consistently works in a certain way once it gets started. We all know that once the persecutory ball gets rolling it is almost impossible to stop until blood has been spilled. The relatively few instances where the persecutory wave is stopped short of bloodshed also follow a predictable pattern. In essence, the mimetic contagion of a mob has to be redirected into another direction, one less destructive. This is what Jesus did when the Jewish elders were gathered around the woman caught in adultery. This is what Christians do to this day when celebrating the Holy Eucharist. Although I think it likely that sacrificial rituals have their origins in collective violence as Girard suggests, I think that ritual in itself is rooted more deeply in human nature. Since we humans are imitative creatures, we would instinctively coordinate our bodily movements with those of others. This sort of mirroring is instinctive to mothers especially in their interactions with their babies. It is this coordination of movement that would unify a family and then a clan and then a tribe. These coordinated movements would naturally turn into communal dancing and singing. Such coordinated action would naturally move into reenactments of primal collective violence once that occurred, but there is nothing in this instinct for coordinated movement that requires that it move in that direction. This is to say that collective violence and its continuations in sacrifice and institutionalized violence are not of the essence of humanity. There is nothing necessary about it; it’s just something that happens most of the time. What is necessary in the sense of being of the essence of humanity is coordinated movement. Our built-in mimetic desire guarantees that it will happen. There are practical reasons for this trait, among them coordinating movements during hunting expeditions, the way soldiers do military drills to facilitate coordination in battle, and the way football teams synchronize their actions, not to speak of the rituals performed by their fans. Singing together over common work such as gathering fruits and preparing meals might not be as necessary for success as the coordinated movement of hunting parties, but perhaps are as necessary at another level. Maybe nobody dies of boredom but we often feel that we can, and maybe we do in the sense that lack of interest in life isn’t conducive to living a long life. It is singing and dancing together and moving together in other ways that would have given our earliest ancestors an interest in living and it is these activities that spark our interest in life today. Many people today may think they are dismissive of liturgy because they think of stuffy church services or masonic rituals. But the ways we greet people, especially when introducing people to strangers or meeting them, are little rituals that we take so much for granted that we don’t think of them as rituals. When I was young, many people who never darkened the door of a church linked arms in the streets and sang the hymn “We Shall Overcome.” All this is to say that humans are liturgical animals. Gathering with others always has some liturgical overtones in the sense of repeating actions we are used to doing together. Drinking parties tend to follow the same patterns for those groups in the habit of gathering for that purpose. Given this human trait to gather through ritual, it is inevitable that any who wish to gather with others in memory of Jesus would gather liturgically. Liturgy is discussed at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Proceed to Liturgical Animals (2)

The Class Comedian

sideAltarsIcons1When I was in grade school, we had a class comedian. I took it for granted that there would be a boy in our class who would cut in with funny remarks that more often than not raised our teacher’s ire. It seemed normal to me that this would happen. I was glad to have a class comedian for a couple of reasons. One, he was entertaining. Since classes could be tedious at times, it was nice to have things lightened up from time to time. Two, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing one kid in our class being the one who got in trouble frequently as long as that person wasn’t me.

It so happened that the came when our comedian announced to our teacher and the class that he was moving to another school district and a few days later, he was gone. I remember consciously thinking that we would need a new class comedian and I even knew who it was going to be. I was right on both counts. The very boy I expected to move into the role did that just. (He had acted a bit the part of understudy before this.)

When I think back on all this, it becomes clear that the class comedian, although disruptive at times, was actually a nice kid. He was never mean to anybody as far as I can recall. He didn’t have much in the way of friends although I spent a little time with him. He deserved better in that respect. I knew his family was broken and that sort of thing leads to some children acting out. Much the same could be said for the boy who took over the role of comedian, although he had a bit more of an edge to his personality.

I suppose one might say my insight was a bit precocious; I really don’t know how many other kids in my class had that awareness, if any. On the other hand, any pride over this insight drops down precipitously as I admit that I consciously participated and inwardly affirmed this situation.

Like many children, I was not a stranger to scapegoating activity. I was myself the butt of scapegoating among these same children. That did not happen during class where I was very docile and obedient and rarely in danger of being on object of opprobrium from a teacher. My social adjustment as a child was not particularly smooth and it became harder when my strangeness got connected with my surname so that I was “the man from Mars.” Perhaps it made me feel better that someone else was the class scapegoat in certain respects. Maybe it made it easier for me to be docile because somebody else was acting out on my behalf.

A year or two later, there was a different scapegoat. He wasn’t a comedian or a disruptive presence. He was not as attractive as some kids. Somehow, he rubbed our teacher the wrong way and this boy never had a chance to make it right. I didn’t get the same satisfaction from this boy’s scapegoating; it was not entertaining and at some level it seemed unfair. I suppose I might have been more troubled if I didn’t happen to have a pretty good relationship with this teacher myself. I know see this favoritism as unfair and that I was overrated by this teacher, to detrimental effect in junior high where my limitations showed up. In many ways, he was a good teacher, but the pattern of there being a class scapegoat showed up with other classes he had. One of the most hurtful things that ever happened as a child was at the hands of the music teacher at our school who was also prone to scapegoating behavior. She singled me out for ridicule by showing the class a man on a flying carpet and telling the class that this was me, flying off to dreamland. Another example of a teacher being the scapegoater.

All of these reflections show how easy and insidious for a social group like a class in school, to instinctively gather unity through scapegoating one person or another. It is all the more disturbing to realize that teachers fall into the role of scapegoaters, reinforcing what the children are doing. We all need to get in touch with memories such as these to understand ourselves and to help us overcome the systemic needs that continue to haunt us

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (2)

lakeGray1Two dramatic events from the Hebrew Bible have been interpreted as prefiguring baptism are the Flood and the deliverance at the Red Sea. Both are deliverances from highly dysfunctional societies.

Genesis 6 portrays human society as consumed with violence. No wonder if everybody was like Lamech and inflicting seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anybody whom he thought had wronged him. In his second epistle, believed by many scholars to be a baptismal homily, Peter says that the deliverance of Noah and his family corresponds to baptism which saves us now through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 3:21) René Girard has suggested that a flood is an apt image for a society overwhelmed with retaliatory violence. In such a scenario, a man who tried not to be a part of this violence would be an obvious choice of a victim to unite the fragmented society. The Christological interpretation in Peter’s epistle suggests by being baptized into Christ’s death, we are brought out of society consumed with violence and given the chance to begin life anew, the chance that Noah and his family had after the flood waters receded. It is worth noting that when referring to Jesus descending into hell (Sheol), Peter does not say Jesus just brought out righteous people like Abraham but that he preached to the very people who had brought humankind to the boiling point while Noah was building his ark.

St. Paul says that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) Once again we have an overwhelming flood. Moreover, we have a story of a people delivered from a violent and oppressive society. In his book Jesus: the forgiving Victim, James Alison suggests that the Jews were expelled after being blamed for the plagues scourging the country. If the Jews were expelled, why would the Egyptians runs after them to bring them back? Perhaps they realized they would implode without the victims who were deemed responsible for their turmoil. This is what seems to have happened with the Gerasenes when their demoniac was cured by Jesus. One could take the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh as indicating this same tension. (See Dispossessing a Town Possessed) Being overwhelmed by the waters is, again, an apt image of a society succumbing to its own violence once the scapegoats are gone.

Unfortunately, neither new chance at a new life went well. Noah’s drunkenness and rivalry among the brothers that made Ham a scapegoat set humanity on a course where the curse laid on him was used to justify slavery and lynching. The people delivered at the Red Sea suffered from chronic social unrest, leading to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the desert to stop the plague of violence. Likewise, the church continues to fall back into the same rivalry and persecution. Most lynchers, unfortunately, were Christians. A tendency to see baptism as deliverance from personal sin surely reinforces such backsliding. Baptism is not a magical deliverance from personal sin but is a constant invitation to be reborn into the new social life of God’s kingdom centered on the forgiving victim who, like the bronze serpent, was raised up to draw all people to himself.

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (3)

Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ’s Love (1)