Transfiguration on to Way to the Cross

crossRedVeil1The transfigured light that radiated from Jesus has inspired many as an image of our potential for holiness. Some Eastern Orthodox spiritual writers such as Gregory Palamas and St. Seraphim of Sarov believed that they saw the light of Mount Tabor within.

Jesus’ self-designation “the Son of Man” is also rich in possibilities for humanity. Walter Wink famously suggested that the phrase “Son of Man” refers to a newly created humanity in Christ. This fits well with St. Paul’s use of the phrase “New Humanity” in Romans 5. For the likes of the disciples and us entry into the new humanity in Christ is not smooth sailing into transfigured light. The disciples quickly return to arguing about who is the greatest. We all know the anger and other discordant feelings that overtake us quickly every time we sense any hint of the transfigured light in our lives. Even Moses and Elijah were both compromised with violence which they had to overcome in the same way we have to overcome our own violent impulses, petty as they often are.

Jesus’ transfiguration is linked to the journey he is about to make to Jerusalem and we know what happened to him there. Jesus was transfigured, then, because he was willing to die in Jerusalem if that turned out to be necessary for opening the way to a new humanity. Jesus tells his disciples as much when he admonishes them not to tell anyone what they have seen until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Mt. 17: 9) At that time, Jesus opened the way for a new humanity that would not require human bonding through the death of one for the sake of the people as Caiaphas would have it, but a new humanity that would join in seeking for even one lost sheep, strenuous and dangerous as such seeking could be, and then rejoicing when that sheep was found. (Lk. 15: 3–7)

That the Transfiguration takes place on a mountain recalls Mount Sinai, where God began the renewal of humanity. The first Commandment that “you shall have no other gods before me” and the last one “you shall not covet” cover our relationships with God and neighbor and create a sandwich with the eight other commandments. More recently there is the Mount where Jesus preached his sermon to renew humanity through non-retaliation and forgiveness, precisely the human qualities Jesus himself showed as the risen forgiving victim. This is the transfigured light that shines in the darkness so that the darkness cannot overcome it. (Jn. 1:3)

 

See also: How is the Gospel Veiled?  and The Transfigured Glory of God’s Children

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The Process of Forgiveness (2): Letting Go

purpleFlower1Owning the hurt of injury is the beginning of letting go of the hurt that strangles us. For some people some of the time, letting go and forgiving happen simultaneously so as to seem like one movement.(See The Process of Forgiveness 1)  For most of us most of the time, the two are distinct, though closely related. This is most clearly the case when a kind of reverse psychology allows a letting go that leads to forgiveness. I have already noted that pressuring somebody to forgive horrendous injury such as childhood molestation because it is the “Christian” thing to do intensifies the pain of the injury with guilt for not being able to forgive it. In such cases, absolving the victim of forgiving the hurt allows that person to let go of it. Letting go removes the hurt from the center of our lives where it has been a major, often the central organizing principle of our lives and gives us the freedom to move on. Letting go does not mean that the hurt doesn’t hurt, but letting go loosens the hold the hurt has on us.

The most important element in letting go is non-retaliation. Here is where the famous admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount come into play: turning the other cheek, walking a second mile etc. It is important to note that non-retaliation, in itself, is not forgiveness. Withholding a counter punch that one is capable of delivering does not necessarily mean that one has forgiven the injury to the cheek. What non-retaliation does is push the pause button on violence that keeps it from escalating out of control, a scenario that makes forgiveness harder for everybody.

Letting go, especially in its form of non-retaliation, is a renunciation of trying to “win” a situation and instead assumes the position of the “loser.” This also makes the renunciation of retaliation a renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Remember that seeking revenge is fundamentally an attempt to “win” a struggle against the other and thus it perpetuates mimetic rivalry. In the heat of battle, winning is everything. When the battle is over and we are scarred more than ever or worse, winning turns out to be nothing but the burden of holding on to the hurt. After all, we haven’t let go and so the hurt keeps us in its relentless grip.

This is where humility comes in. Humility is the willingness to be a “loser” in the hope that we might win the person injuring us. Humility is particularly important here because not retaliating tempts us to think we have taken the higher moral ground. The tricky thing is that we have taken the higher moral ground but if we pat ourselves on the back for that, we become obsessed with ourselves and so turn the situation back into a contest of wills, which is mimetic rivalry. This is a case where it is important that the right hand not know what the left hand is doing.

Proceed to The Process of Forgiveness (3)

The importance of non-retaliation is that it gives us a tangible means of letting go that tells us if and when we really have let go of the hurt. If we slug the person back or sincerely wish we had, we have not let go. If we refrain from slugging the person back and don’t wish we had done it, we have let go. Simple as that.

Non-retaliation has been extolled by some, most notably by Walter Wink, as a strategy for resistance to the Empire. Wink suggests, for example, that turning the other cheek puts the aggressor in the awkward position of having to strike back-handedly. This take is attractive to many and it may be right, but insofar as turning the other cheek is intended as a strategy to muck up bullying behavior, it is not forgiveness. On the other hand, insofar as imperial politics requires reciprocal violence, any act that opens the way to forgiveness is an act of resistance to any Empire.

The most important thing to realize about letting go is that we are not cutting the connection between us and those who injure us. Trying to do that is futile. Our mirror neurons see to that. What letting go does is loosen what had been a tight, strangling connection to the other. Letting go gives each of us room to maneuver and to change the situation. We can’t, of course, take responsibility for what the other person does with the room this loosening gives. We can only take responsibility for ourselves. That is all we can handle anyway. More important, non-retaliation provides room for God to enter into the broken relationship and fix it.

After letting go of the hurt, the next step is to make sure we don’t grab it back and that we leave ourselves open to the mystery of forgiveness itself.

Escape from the Denial of Death

cemetery1Richard Beck’s new book The Slavery of Death works with the powerful thesis of Ernest Becker which states that fear and denial of death fuels human aggression. I have read both of Becker’s books (Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) and I find Becker’s analysis of this phenomenon compelling. Moreover, much scientific testing has verified Becker’s theory. Beck outlines Becker’s demonstration this existential fear of death and its subsequent denial leads to striving for heroism. For Becker, heroism is a compulsive drive to succeed, to prove that one matters, and to gain recognition for one’s efforts. One might think that there is nothing wrong with any of this but this neurotic striving for “heroism” comes to the expense of other things in life such as family and friends. Moreover, the social settings for such striving tend to magnify aggressive behavior so that not only fearful individuals but the social groups as well persecute others to validate themselves.

Impressive as Becker’s insights are, they are very bleak and they don’t offer humanity any constructive way out the denial of death except, perhaps, a heavy dose of Stoicism. Most humans find this cold comfort at best and an impossible prescription at worst. Might as well join Jean-Paul Sartre in a life of existential despair.

Richard Beck brings Christian theology and spirituality to Becker’s insights which brings us into a whole new ball game. To begin with, he notes the importance the Eastern Orthodox Churches give to Death, rather than Sin being the prime enemy that Jesus must destroy. He adds depth to the slavery to “heroism” by comparing it to the “principalities and powers” of the world denounced by St. Paul. Beck then uses the social and anthropological thought of Walter Wink and William Stringfellow (who deserves to be much more remembered than he seems to be) to help us see the strength of social forces that pull us into a “heroic” mode. Much more important, Beck shows how an eccentric life can pull us out of this death anxiety so as to live a healthy, loving life. Beck is not talking about being somebody’s eccentric uncle; he is talking about living a life centered outside the self. He uses Arthur McGill as a resource for understanding how love and concern for others benefits the one doing the loving by pulling us out of ourselves. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example of eccentric living. Jesus was positioned fully out of himself out of concern for others and also his grounding in his heavenly Father. That is why, although he feared the painful death to come in Gethsemane, he had the courage to endure it. Lest one be overly daunted by the extent of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and that of people like Teresa of Calcutta, Beck also shows how important small sacrifices on a daily basis are for eccentric living. These are within reach of everybody. The “little way” of Thérèse of Lisieux is are stirring and practical example. For Thérèse, eccentric living can be as simple as pushing a wheelchair of an elderly sister who complains bitterly over every bump on the way. It is such eccentric living that leads to Jesus’s resurrected life which we are all invited to share.