Stumbling over Living Stones

Cemetary2With the help of a Salvation Army-style trombone, Bob Dylan sings with his wry humor that “they” will stone you for “trying to be so good” or when you’re “tryin’ to go home,” for “walkin’ on the floor,” for “walkin’ out the door,” and even when you are “young and able” or sitting “at the breakfast table.” Given the way his fans turned on him time and again for not singing what they wanted, it’s no surprise that “they” will stone you “when you’re playing your guitar.” Seems like “they” will stone you no matter what you do or don’t do. Then, after stoning you, they “will say you are brave” and then “they’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.” As if “they” haven’t stoned you enough already. In the refrain, Dylan sings that he “wouldn’t feel so all alone/Everybody must get stoned.” Usually, persecution is “they” (i.e. everybody) against a victim, such as what happened in the stoning of Stephen. But if everybody gets stoned, then everybody is a victim and there’s nobody left to be “they” who will stone you. If we all become Stephen, not only do we get stoned; we “see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). This was the moment of epiphany for Stephen that transformed him into a forgiving victim like Jesus. In his speech to the Sanhedrin that outraged his listeners, he was not exactly a model of tactful diplomacy.

In his first epistle, Peter identifies Jesus with the living stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone in Psalm 118. Jesus identified himself as this cornerstone at the end of his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard who ganged up on the owner’s son and killed him. (Mt. 21:33-41) Stephen was killed by stones the builders rejected and left outside of Jerusalem when they were building the temple. Jesus was threatened with stoning several times and escaped until his time had come and he gave himself up to the cross. When Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life and that nobody can come to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6), he is saying that the only way to God is by way of the stone that was rejected. Rejected by whom? If we think it is other people who have rejected this living stone, we are probably right but we fail to understand ourselves in this. Moreover, we are rejecting the people we blame for these rejections and so we stumble over them and they stumble over us. Speaking for myself, I don’t like being rejected and I don’t instinctively feel that being rejected is the way to God. I would rather be the keystone in my own scheme of things. So, actually, I reject this living stone all the time and I stumble constantly over my fantasies of being the cornerstone of my own life. Much as I like Bob Dylan, I’d rather leave him all alone rather than get stoned.

But Jesus the living stone is abundantly forgiving and he waits for us to stop stumbling around and come to him. Peter tells us that it turns out Jesus is building “a spiritual house,” “a holy priesthood” out of each one of us and he is building it out the parts of us that we reject, out of our failures, not our successes, which makes our failures our successes. Well, Dylan said “there is no success like failure and failure is no success at all.” Stones can be hard and dead, useful only for stoning people. Our hearts can be just as hard and we stumble on our stony hearts until we come to the living stone who wants to make us living stones. Living stones don’t pick up stones to throw at other people; they pick up stones to build into the spiritual house. In this spiritual house, there are many dwelling places where there is room for us to grow further into the abundant life of Jesus the living stone, enough room that we do not need to stumble over one another and yet a house where we are all together and we don’t have to be so all alone.

Hospitality Initiative

WilliamGuestsChurch1On May 3-4 I will be attending the Hospitality Initiative hosted at Oakland University in Oakland, MI. The convener is Charles Mabee, a scholar who works with the thought of René Girard. This is a multi-faith gathering where papers from a wide variety of spiritual traditions will be represented by the presentation of papers. I will be presenting a brief paper called “Mimetic Hospitality: Guests and Community in the Rule of St. Benedict.” Some of the content overlaps with my blog post Cleaning up our Unclean Acts which introduces some of the thoughts I develop in this paper. You can read my paper here.

Selling Postcards of the Cross

crucifix1“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown.”

White boys like me mostly didn’t know what Bob Dylan was singing about when “Desolation Row” first came out on “Highway 61 Revisited.” James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree tells us it was about lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle where people took pictures and made postcards out of them.

Cone goes on to argue that the lynching tree was a series of grisly re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus. He also demonstrates on how very difficult it has been and still is for Americans to see this truth. Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the greatest American theologian was, in spite of his social concerns, blind to this reality. Even black people have had trouble seeing this connection, though Cone shows how some black women, especially Ida B. Wells articulated it powerfully. He contrasts Niebuhr and all white liberals with Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line.

The dynamics of lynching as analyzed by Cone provide powerful confirmation of the theory of collective violence of René Girard. (See my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Girard argues that perpetrators instinctively fail to see what they are going. Cone shows us this truth in a powerful manner.

Dylan goes on to sing that “the circus is in town” and then catalogs Western Civilization turned topsy-turvy, suggesting that lynching does this, thanks to the “blind commissioner.”

Cone is right about whites’ blindness to this truth, but Dylan did write “The Ballad of Emmett Tell” in 1963, telling the story in stark terms, though without any Christian reference except to complains that the human race has fallen “down so god-awful low.” Then there is Mark Twain who wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom,” calling lynching for what it was and clearly discussing the human mimesis just as Girard was to do half a century later.

Cone’s book is written calmly, even gently. There is no mincing of words, yet the words are somehow full of forgiveness. The forgiveness in Cone’s words, the forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus, should be enough to undermine our trust in ourselves and our ability to see what we are doing. We must repent not only of lynching, but of our collective hatred of enemies today.

Ignominious Glory—Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology

Since when is glory ignominious ? Probably since humans first became concerned about what others thought of them. Seeking glory from others is a sure way to get its opposite as  celebrities know all too well. In the New Testament the Greek word doxa is sometimes translated as “glory,” sometimes with “shame.” How can one word mean two opposite things. James Alison says that is because the word means “reputation.” What kind of reputation? Any kind of reputation.

The Harry Potter books give some interesting examples of the double-edged meaning of doxa. Harry arrives for his first year at Hogwarts as a celebrity, not for anything he had done but because he had survived Voldemort’s attack when his mother gave her life to save him. In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry is blamed by many for an epidemic of people turning into stone although he had done nothing to earn this ignominy than he had done to earn his celebrity status. In the fourth book, when Harry’s name is entered in the competition in a questionable way but through no fault of his own, there is bad feeling towards him from students of all three schools involved. (Spoiler alert!) His defeat of Voldemort has no external fireworks and he ends up with a quietly respectable position in the wizard world without celebrity status.

Bob Dylan has been praised as one of the greatest poets and songwriters of our time but he has also been the object of much ignominy with every turn in his career. He did not receive it for drugs or sex, but for using electric guitars instead of a simple acoustic guitar like a true folk singer. Then he got it for seeming to relax and live an ordinary life, as if living an ordinary life is a scandal! The worse ignominy was for turning to Christ and doing some Gospel albums.

Speaking of Christ, in his Gospel, John plays with both sides of the meaning of doxa in relation to Christ. Jesus seeks doxa from his Father while the people who put him to death or keep their sympathy for him a secret because  they seek doxa from other people. So it is that doxa inevitably falls into sacrificial violence if reputation is sought from people instead of from God. The raising of the cross is Jesus’ doxa. That is why God has such a bad reputation nowadays. Where do we look for our own reputations?