Seeing with More than the Eyes

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of a man born blind in John’s Gospel (chapter 9) is much more remarkable than fixing the eyes so that they can see. In order to really see, the healed man would have needed a radical overhaul of his neurological system so that his brain could grasp what was being seen. John didn’t know about neurology but he did know that really learning to see involves at least as radical an overhaul of our human system to heal our deeper levels of blindness.

John shows us the blindness surrounding the blind man when the disciples ask Jesus if it was the man’s own sin or the sin of his parents that caused him to be born blind. The notion that the poor guy sinned before he was born should be enough to show us how blind this attitude is. This blindness was compounded by excluding the blind man from the religious practices of Judaism because he was blind. Neither the Jewish leaders nor even Jesus’ disciples could see any potential worth in the blind man.

That Jesus would take the man’s blindness as an occasion for revealing God’s work rather than for blame is to put mud on everybody’s eyes to recreate the world for us. The Jewish leaders react to the healing with anger. They seem determined from the start to discredit the healing rather than change their own way of seeing. Their search for blaming was rewarded when they discovered that the healing was done on the Sabbath.

It is important not to let Gospels stories such as this discredit the Jewish practice of the Sabbath. It was a great gift for Jews and for Christians who treat Sunday in a similar fashion, a day for renewal. That is the key: a day for renewal. The use of mud paste clearly refers back to the creation of humanity out of moist clay. The blind man is being recreated. In sharp contrast to the paralytic in John 5 who remained as paralyzed as he ever was no matter how much he carried his mat, the formerly blind man shows himself to be renewed at a very deep level. The clever way he handles the hostile questions from the Jewish leaders reveals a man with sharp intelligence and wit. Meanwhile, the Jewish leaders make it clear that their initial judgment that the blind man was a sinner and an outcast was immutable. As long as he was blind he was an outcast and once he could see, he was cast out for being healed by the wrong person in the wrong way. There can, of course, be no renewal, no re-creation if we insist on being immutable, neither can we see renewal or re-creation even when it takes place right under our noses.

But the man shows even more. James Alison’s concept of the “intelligence of the victim” suggests that the blind man had insight into what life was about and what God was about because he was blind and an outcast. He was given the opportunity of repudiating Jesus the way the paralytic did, which would have brought him approbation from the community, but instead, he staunchly defended Jesus, which landed him in the precise place of blame and expulsion as Jesus himself. It is in this place that the man really sees.

The disciples fade from the story after their question about who sinned, but far from really disappearing, their circle expands to include all of us who read and hear the story. This expansion forces us to choose: will we let Jesus re-create us in the place of shame shared with the man born blind, or will we hop out of the circle so that our lives will continue to be etched in stone?

Human Weakness the Cornerstone

peter healing cripple_RembrandtThese days we take ramps and handicapped parking spaces for granted. However, such considerations for people with special needs are quite a flip-flop from what such people experienced in the early days of humanity. In the social crises at the dawn of humanity as envisioned by René Girard, when everybody was at everybody’s throat, the choice of the victim was usually arbitrary, almost like a lottery. It could be anyone. However, if any person in this melee of undifferentiation should stand out in any way, that person would be the most likely victim. The person who stood out might be the most talented; a scenario often repeated today. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy: A Doxology) Many mythological victim/deities were great musicians or poets. Another way a person might stand out is by being handicapped. René Girard points out that a predatory animal will spot the weakest member of a herd and go for that one and that the same holds true of a society in crisis. One need only think of the many lame victims such as Oedipus or deities like Odin with only one eye.

The flip-flop started as soon as the Church, inspired by Jesus’ healing ministry, had the resources to build facilities for the sick and disable. As far as I can tell, hospitals are a Christian invention. We are so used to infirmaries that we think nothing of Benedict’s provision for an infirmary in his Rule, but Benedict was an innovator in his time. The teaching and ministry of Jesus that involved reaching out to the weak, the people formerly rejected by society, had become the cornerstone of Benedict’s monastic vision that consideration should always be shown to the weak. Of course, Benedict meant far more than sick and handicapped people with this admonition, as Benedict well knew that we all experience weakness in many ways. I have discussed care of the sick and its ramifications at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Many years ago, when I was a seminarian taking CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), one of the chaplains, who was legally blind, gave a talk on issues involving handicaps. He helped us greatly in sensitizing us to how people in his position felt with being helped either too much or not enough. He was also very honest about himself and he admitted that being handicapped did not necessarily make him any more sensitive to other handicapped people than anybody else. As an example, he told us of how he recoiled when introduced to a person with a withered arm.

To this day, even those of us who care for others experience this kind of recoil when we encounter others who are a bit different, especially if the difference is grotesque. But our treatment of alleged nerds and celebrities shows us that a difference in conspicuous talent raises the same sort of dread. If we notice ourselves in this respect, we can experience a kinship with our brothers and sisters who made sacrificial victims and then deities out of the likes of Odin.

Cast Out by the Outcasts

altarDistance1Jesus encounters the ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee. Luke often uses geography to point to a spiritual landscape and this is a particularly apt example. Jesus meets ten marginal people in a marginal space. The broader geography is that Jesus has “set his face” to Jerusalem, the center of meaning and power, where he will be crucified.

But some outcasts are cast out more than others. One of the lepers was a Samaritan who would presumably be marginalized by his marginal companions. Sort of a double whammy.  In this marginal place, Jesus tells the lepers to go to the center of power, to the very people who have declared them unclean, for validation that they are clean. I can’t help but suspect that Jesus was being sarcastic, grumbling at the lepers to find out how they really want to be “healed.” When they suddenly find themselves clean, only the marginalized Samaritan returns to Jesus, who is still standing in the marginal space. That the other nine would go straight to the priests, at the center of power, is the strongest indication of how the Samaritan was treated by them. The Samaritan was healed, not only of leprosy, but of the social and religious system that required that some people be declared unclean so that others can be “clean.” This is the healing that the other nine former-lepers miss out on.

Jesus and marginality come up so many times in the Gospels, giving us the occasion to preach about it many times, that it starts to sound like a cliché. Instead of falling asleep, we need to wake up and really listen. Surely the Gospels hammer this theme so many times because we need to be healed of being hard of hearing.

This story prompts us to reflect on what we do when we find ourselves in marginal positions, having been cast out and declared unclean in some way. Do we band together with other outcasts in a constructive way? Or do we band together in resentment at the establishment? Does our little outcast group amount to a mini-establishment with people divided between clean and unclean? Do we run back to the establishment that exiled us if we get a chance to do so?

That only the Samaritan returned to Jesus to thank him raises the question of what causes gratitude and what hinders it. I suggest that a system that divides people between clean and unclean inhibits gratitude. When we live with this kind of mindset, we inevitably feel entitled to our advantages and delude ourselves into thinking we have earned them. We also inevitably feel that lepers have “earned” their marginalization. If returning to the center of power is what we want, then gratitude is the last thing we feel if we manage to do just that.

Of course, the Samaritan had to advantage of not having the same option of going to a priest to be declared clean as his fellow lepers did. Being cleansed wasn’t enough to take him out of the margins. Remaining in the margins gave him the opportunity to give Jesus another look and let Jesus be the one who decides if he is clean or not. Giving Jesus this sort of authority is an exhilarating thing to do. It is also dangerous. Jesus just might tell us that not only is each one of us clean, everybody else is also clean and we have to live without our lepers.

Mimetic Desire and Truth (5)

???????????????????????????????????????????In my last post, I showed how the premiere place for perceiving truth, the place of the victim, has been distorted. The problem is, if a person in in the place of the victim deals with it by making victims of others, as so many abused people have done, then that person is no longer in the place of the victim and has lost “the intelligence of the victim.” Unfortunately, such people are so caught up in feeling entitled to make victims of others and with the mimetic rivalry I mentioned as to who is the greatest victim, that do not know that they do not have the victim’s “intelligence.”

The revelation of the true victim in the Gospels is very different. Jesus was not only the innocent victim; Jesus was the forgiving victim. No wishing for the limbs of his enemies to tremble or shake or that they be swept away, greenwood or dry, as the Psalmist wished for him! It is Jesus’ forgiveness which gives him a true view of humanity so that he saw the potential for Matthew and Zacchaeus and, after his Resurrection, of Paul when nobody else did. The place of the victim, then, is the place of truth when the victim is forgiving.

When the victim is forgiving, as Jesus was, is, and will be forever, then mimetic desire takes a sharp turn away from rivalry and moves again in the expansive direction of sharing. The forgiving victim does not pose as the greatest of victims; the forgiving victim only wants healing for everybody, including and, especially for the victimizers. The desire that the forgiving victim shares is a desire for the well-being of all, a desire that does not allow for rivalry as rivalry would undermine this desire of universal healing.

In a sense, we have come full circle from where I started with expansive mimetic desire that initiates young people into food and games and art and many other things that are good and desirable. This original mimetic desire, if we wish to call it that, is akin to the good of creation. We were created with mimetic desire for precisely this purpose. The universal fall into mimetic rivalry and its ensuing social crises is Original Sin. (Note the mimetic rivalry between Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and humanity’s rivalry with God by building the Tower of Babel.) The recovery of expansive mimetic desire through Jesus the forgiving victim is restorative and redemptive. St. Paul said repeatedly the Christ’s redemption did not return us to original good creation; it brought us to a whole higher level of well-being that is grounded in forgiveness.

Since truth is grounded in creation, it follows, as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated, that the truth of things resides in the mind of God. That is, God sees what God has made and knows the depths of all that God has made in all truth. Insofar as we humans see things as God sees them, we see them truly. Our growing awareness of mimetic desire, however, shows us that seeing the truth is not a solitary endeavor; it is a corporate matter. Only through the expansive mimetic desire of sharing what is desirable can we, together, have a reasonably accurate apprehension of truth. Since truth is grounded in God, God becomes a partner in this corporate effort. Given the fallenness of humanity through rivalrous mimetic desire, it is through the forgiving victim that we can recover a vision of the world as God sees it in all its profound desirability.

See Mimetic Desire and Truth Series

See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry for all posts on this topic