Hope as Inheritance

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe faithfulness of Jesus opened up a new way of living, a way hitherto inconceivable. In this way, Jesus is a pioneer of faith, as the author of Hebrews tells us. (See Faith as Faithfulness) A pioneer blazes a trail that others can follow which otherwise would be either very difficult or downright impossible. In some ways, Abraham had a harder time blazing the trail in that he didn’t even have Jesus to follow, but as Jesus says in John, Abraham followed Jesus’ trail retroactively by seeing Jesus and rejoicing. Abraham rejoiced in Jesus when he saw the ram caught in a thicket by its horns and understood what that meant. As Kierkegaard argued, it was not the willingness to give up Isaac that constituted faith but his belief in the promise made to him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the particles of dust on the earth.

Abraham’s faith was grounded in hope, but it was not hope in the subjective sense in which we hope things will turn out okay. That is the hope we have when we read a story, say a story about a boy or young man who is about to be sacrificed, and we hope the boy somehow escapes that fate. Likewise, we might read the Gospels hoping that the hero escapes the cross, but he doesn’t and our hope is dashed. But hope is not dashed at all.

In a provocative paper, James Alison helps us redefine hope. By that I mean Alison helps us see how Jesus has redefined hope. To begin with, redefined hope is grounded in the death of Jesus that seemed to blot out all hope. Jesus’ being raised from the dead might be enough to revive hope in the subjective, “hopeful” sense but that did not redefine hope. What does redefine hope is that the risen Jesus adopted all of us as brothers and sisters so as to make all of us adopted daughters and sons of Jesus’ Father. Alison picks up on the dynamics of inheritance and runs with it. When his mother died, the family inheritance entered the process of coming to him and his two siblings, same as it does when we inherit from our parents. Alison and his brother and sister had not actually inherited the estate right away, but they already were placed in new status because the transition of transferring the estate was in process and one day it would be completed, which it was one fine day. They weren’t “hoping” they would get the estate; the estate was already theirs.

If we return to Abraham and Sarah, we see that their faith became strengthened by hope when they understood that the promise of heirs meant that they had already been made the progenitors of countless descendants even before the first descendent was born. It was because of his prearranged status as a forebear that Abraham could see the ram for what it was, at which point he also understood what the culture he was being led to was all about: that it was about sparing the sacrificial victim. Even when it looked like he would have no heirs after all, Abraham acted like the progenitor God has already made him to be and so he spared Isaac.

With us, the pre-established status is the opposite. We are not progenitors but heirs. This is why faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1) The substance is the testament of our inheritance. Alison says this substance is a demonstration of what is not seen. The change of status as an heir has already changed us: “At the testator’s death, the promised inheritance is substantially mine even when it is not yet in my possession, and because of that, I already now find myself starting to become a publicly visible demonstration, a reliable sign of what is on its way. Who I am is objectively being altered as someone else’s promise, their desire, moves towards its fulfilment in my reception of it.”
Let us follow this anthology further. Imagine a ten-year-old son of the owner of a vast estate who is the heir of that estate. Because of this status, although he is not yet the owner of the estate, his father takes him around to begin teaching him how to run the estate: how to handle the workers, make sure the foremen order supplies at the right time, etc. This boy spends time learning these things because he is the heir.

Now let us change the story the way God changed it. Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate who is sweating profusely while the well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir. Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the son you had killed shows up at the court, very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still there. This really has you shaking in your boots. But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son assure welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like an heir who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that they will never run out. So it is that hope, far from wishing for a happy ending to the story of the workers in the vineyard, is, in Alison’s words, “ a realignment of our whole way of being towards what really is, as what really is begins to manifest itself in us.”

Proceed to Love as Ultimate Respect

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?

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)

Jesus Explodes with Life: His Reply to the Sadducees

buddingTree1When the Sadducees approach Jesus in the temple with their question ridiculing resurrection from the dead, they are part of the collective violence surrounding Jesus. This is not a polite debate to entertain viewers on evening TV. The Pharisees have just asked their question to entrap Jesus and triangled in the Roman authorities to boot. Groups of people who normally hate each other but have united against Jesus.

Their question zeroes in on the practice of Levirate marriage, where the younger brother of a man who dies childless marries his brother’s widow. This practice presupposes that one is dead when one dies and that immortality is gained only through one’s offspring. Even this ploy fails in this case as all seven brothers die childless after having married this poor widow. No immortality there. Jesus is trapped. Or is he?

Jesus reply, referring to the words spoken by God through the burning bush, is universally admired for its clever exegesis of a text from Torah that the Sadducees would have to accept as authoritative. But there is much more here than declaring that God is a God of the living. In Raising Abel James Alison explodes this reply by saying that the power of God which the Sadducees do not understand “is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead;’ it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death.”

These words pack a wallop that throws us through at least seven spheres of being teeming with life. Alison is surely not suggesting that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are counting the days off their celestial calendar! This is about quality of life, eternal life as Jesus means it in John’s Gospel.

Let us revisit the question with these stirring words in mind. There is a second way that marriage is used as a way to defeat death besides having offspring. Marriage is a means of restraining mimetic rivalry by placing the partner off limits to all others. Otherwise, everybody might kill everybody fighting over sexual partners. In the context of seven brothers, this is especially important and incest laws add extra restraint on the brothers of the bride who might be especially presupposed to rivalry. The premature death of the older brother changes the picture and suddenly the wife goes to the next brother in line. This is not a good way to win a game of mimetic rivalry, however, as the offspring still belongs to the older, the dead brother and not to the younger brother who is still alive. The Sadducees’ hypothetical case adds to the mockery by imagining that the seven brothers meet up with this poor widow in the resurrection and fight over her like dogs fighting over a bone, presumably with no end in sight. (The widow doesn’t matter much in this scheme of things.)

Jesus explodes all this by saying that there is no marrying or giving of marriage in Heaven. There is no bride to fight over after all. There is no longer anything whatever to fight over. Just try to imagine life without having something to fight about! The image of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church (that’s all of us) as the bride suggests that the intimacy of marriage is a good shared by all without need of restraints of any kind. Like the Sadducees, we are profoundly mistaken about the power of God as long as we cling to the rivalries of the seven brothers.

The Good Shepherd in the Desert

goodShepherdIf Jesus is the “living interpretive principle of scriptures, as James Alison says, then the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search out the one lost sheep should be a powerful and accurate interpretive lens for other passages in scripture.

In the RoCa lectionary, this Gospel is coupled with a tense episode in Exodus 32. As he comes down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he finds that Aaron has set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God tells Moses to get out of the way so that his wrath can “burn hot against them.” Doesn’t sound like a good shepherd.  Instead, it is Moses who acts out the part of the good shepherd by interceding with God, as Abraham did earlier to avert the divine wrath from the people. At the end of this same chapter, there is another narration of Moses coming down the mountain. This time, he is so furious he breaks the tablets and then rallies the Levites to his side to slay thee thousand people who were worshipping the golden calf. Although Moses claims to be doing God’s work, what we have is a narrative of human rather than divine violence. Moses doesn’t look like a good shepherd this time, but the morning after this monstrous slaughter, Moses intercedes with God to forgive the people although it is a bit late for the three thousand who were slain. This strange doubling of narrations seems to point to a debate in the Jewish tradition moving in the direction of unveiling God’s love for God’s people.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul refers to this incident by saying “we must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (He ups the death toll.) In isolation, this is about the chilliest verse in the Pauline epistles but in its sacramental context, it is much more in keeping with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Leading into this verse, Paul says that “we were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” This, in turn, recalls the reinterpretation of the Flood in 1 Peter where the water corresponds to the baptism that delivered Noah and his family and delivers us now. The Genesis story clearly indicates a social meltdown with a few, probably the intended victims, escaping. The Exodus story refers to the social meltdown in Egypt that lead to the expulsion of the Israelites. In the desert, the Israelites had their own social meltdown centered around rivalry between Moses and Aaron. (Arnold Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aron portrays this rivalry with great insight.) For both Peter and Paul, baptism is the deliverance from the surrounding sacrificial society into the Kingdom centered on the Eucharist, the new way of gathering without need of victims and certainly not needed the slaughter of three thousand. Paul is not, then, warning his readers against a wrathful deity but against a wrathful society that will engulf them if they return to its sacrificial ways, just as a relapse into the wrathful society of Egypt lead to a meltdown in the camp and the deaths of thousands.

Jesus the Good Shepherd does not strike dead those who re-enter a sacrificial society that today manifests hardness of heart to the extent of trying to prevent fundamental ministries such as feeding the hungry. Instead, Jesus enters into the heart of the society to bring back all who are lost. Rather than starting a bloodbath, we should intercede for all such people as Moses did and follow Jesus in searching for the lost.

See also: The Communal Good Shepherd

Human Swords, God’s Peace

vocationersAtTable1Jesus’ words that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matthew) or division (Luke) are startling, coming from a man who is commonly referred to as “the Prince of Peace.” Does this mean that Jesus is a war-god of some sort after all? Since Jesus never used a sword and rebuked Peter from using one at Gethsemane, and died rather than call on legions of angels to defend him and beat up his enemies, and approached his disciples and even the persecutor Paul with forgiveness after rising from the dead, it is fair to assume that Jesus is not in the least encouraging swords and divisions, but is warning us that we will have both as long as we experience the world in terms of us vs. them.

The approach to scripture inspired by René Girard and colleagues such as Raymund Schwager and James Alison is strongly committed to an unequivocally loving God who seeks only peace as opposed to any two-faced Janus-like deity who is capriciously loving one moment and wrathful the next. This approach tends to interpret “wrath” associated with God as human projections that distort the truth of God’s unconditional love. Basic to Girard’s thinking is the conviction that humans tend to unify conflictive societies through scapegoating vulnerable victims with collective violence. Society has regained peace—for a time—but at a cost to at least one person. This sort of a peace simply has to be disrupted once and for all by a God who is unequivocally loving and who wishes that not even one person be lost. According to Girard, this is precisely what Jesus did by dying on the cross and exposing the reality of collective violence for what it is.

As a result, we now have a world where there is an ever heightening awareness of victims, but a serious lack of anywhere near a corresponding awareness of the need for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, awareness of victims increases resentment and escalated conflict. Since the awareness of victims does not allow collective violence to bring peace to a society, there is nothing to stop the escalation of violence. As resentment grows rampant, it infects every level of society including the family so that family counselors are in great demand to try and talk people into giving up their resentment against those closest to them. They often fail as much as conflict mediators in political hotspots and for the same reason. Resentment becomes a defining factor of many lives and defining factors are not easily given up. So it is that the coming of Jesus the forgiving victim has brought swords and divisions.

The offer of peace and forgiveness, for all of the divine love behind it, inevitably causes division between those who accept it and those who don’t. There are two possible reactions to such a choice and a unanimous conversion to God’s peace wasn’t in the cards then any more than it is today. (Of course we humans stack the deck heavily against peace.) For those of us who seriously try to choose peace, it is tempting to think we are on the “peaceful” side of this division but we need to realize that the Word, the forgiving victim, is a divisive two-edged sword “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” and “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” as the author of Hebrews puts it. That is, the pure forgiveness of the divine victim shows up the least bit of resentment we allow ourselves to harbor in the farthest, darkest, corners of our souls.

The escalation of violence occurring right at the time of this writing is a sure cause of discouragement. What we can do is take hope, primarily for ourselves, but also for our personal relationships and for humanity as a whole that the offer of peace from the forgiving victim remains open to all of us at every time of day and night and this offer will never end no matter what we do with our swords and divisions.

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.