Eating the Being of Jesus

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe Holy Eucharist has been accused of being a cannibalistic rite. René Girard would accept the accusation. In a snippet from an unpublished interview, he suggests that the Eucharist recapitulates the entire history of sacrifice and its violence and that history includes cannibalism. When I took a college course on African and Oceanic religions, one of the essay questions I was confronted with on the final exam was to discuss a few anthropological eyewitness accounts of cannibalistic practice. This was the first time I had encountered anything like it. What struck me about the accounts was how these people were intentionally absorbing, through ingestion, the being of the person, sometimes in mockery but more often in respect. (My take on these documents was affirmed by my professor with a top grade.) This is also Girard’s take. He ties this data into his analysis of the dynamics of mimetic rivalry where a rival moves beyond envying the possessions of another to envying the very being of the other. Interestingly, Jesus himself seems to agree with Girard and the anthropologists on this matter. In John 6, he uses strong language when he tells us that we must eat his body and drink his blood, words that suggest cannibalism and seem to have been interpreted as such by his grossed out hearers who, for the most part, went away so as not to hear anything more about it.

Cannibalistic language is often used figuratively in human speech and that is true of Holy Scripture as well. The psalmist affirms God’s deliverance from people who assail and devour his or her flesh (Psalm 27:2). St. Paul warns the Galatians that if they “bite and devour another,” they should take care that they “are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5: 15). These examples refer to situations of serious mimetic rivalry and even if the psalmist’s enemies and the people of Galatia are “civilized” enough to rescind from literal cannibalism, they are indulging in the essence of that practice.

In what I have called the First Supper, Jesus reverses the cannibalism of devouring another person by freely offering himself, body and blood, in the bread and wine so that we may receive the being of Jesus as a free gift rather than as the spoils of a violent victory. This implies that his death on the cross is a Gift he gives to humanity and is not booty taken away from him against his will as is the booty taken by a conqueror.

What kind of personal being are we receiving when we receive the being of Jesus? In the early human centuries, people were absorbing the bravery and fighting skills of a worthy enemy who was defeated. With Jesus, what we get is something very different. This something very different is demonstrated in Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples as a sign that we should serve one another in all ways. The personal being we receive in the Eucharist is one who, far from wishing to devour another person figuratively, would wish to build up another person in actuality. When we receive the being of Jesus, we receive personal courage beyond imagining, but it is not the courage of one who fights and wins battles against violent foes, but the courage of one brave enough to serve others, even to death on the cross.

Banished Messiah

crucifix1Banished Messiah: Violence and Nonviolence in Matthew’s Story of Jesus by Robert R. Beck is an intriguing and stimulating take on Matthew’s Gospel. He structures the book on the structure of the Banished –Prince-Returns-to-Claim-his-Throne story motif. He outlines this motif in animated movies such as The Lion King to make the outline clear before proceeding to Matthew with ongoing comparisons with other classics such as The Odyssey and Hamlet.

The first stage of the story motif is usurpation which Herod has done very well, although ultimately the usurper is the Roman Empire. The royal claim made through the genealogy strikes me as being as anti-imperial as Luke’s song of the angels the night Christ was born. The exiled prince then grows up in obscurity.

The second stage is the imposter. Beck discusses the ambiguous situation of an exiled prince. As with the case of Odysseus, validating the real McCoy from a Pretender is not easy. In this section Beck discusses the struggles with the Pharisees from a post-colonial perspective. The strife between them has to do with how to resist the Empire. The Pharisees tried to broaden recent techniques—making the whole people a priesthood following ritual purity. Jesus went back deeper in the Jewish tradition for the renewal. More important, the Pharisees were complicit with the Empire, as their having coins with Caesar inscribed demonstrated. Jesus’ resistance to the Empire was total, even to the point of not carrying any money issued by the Empire.

The third stage is the Mentor. John the Baptist fulfills this role. Beck discusses the tensions the mentor’s role often has. John the Baptist does seem to have oriented Jesus to his mission and he baptized him, but Jesus broke with John over the question of violence and judgment, preferring healing to divine vengeance. Athena urges Odysseus to kill the suitors and the ghost of Hamlet’s father complains that he is in a sort of purgatory until his death is avenged—a rather screwy view of Purgatory as Shakespeare surely realized.

The final stage is the return and reckoning. Normally this takes place in two stages: cleansing and revenge. Here is where Matthew breaks off from the story motif, defying our expectations. (Think of how many meek and mild literature professors berate Hamlet for not getting the job done!) The entry into Jerusalem is the return. In Matthew, Jesus immediately goes to the temple and cleanses it. This is a non-violent, symbolic act. In a real cleansing, a lot of blood would have been flowing. Instead of revenge, we get the arrest of Jesus who tells Peter to put the sword away and gives himself up to the soldiers although he could have called on ten thousand legions of angels.

Beck brings in Girard at the end but he misreads him on the crucial point, saying that Jesus was a helpless victim while Girard argues for Jesus’ intentionality here as does Beck. It is Jesus’ renunciation of revenge, breaking the revenge story motif that reveals the truth of God. The commission to the disciples at the end of the Gospel is anti-imperial, a commission to create an entirely new style of human community than the power-structure of Empire.

A Peaceable Hope

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The strongest tension in the New Testament is that between the teachings of non-retribution and forgiveness on the one hand and eschatological retribution threatened for those who fail to follow the way of forgiveness and non-retribution on the other. The first problem is that it sets up a double standard between God and humans. We should be meek and mild but God will throw the bad guys into unquenchable fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The second problem is that Jesus’ accepting death on the cross turns out not to be the ultimate revelation of God that Christianity usually teaches; violent retribution at the end of time is the last word. The third problem is that if violent retribution on the part of God is the last word, the hard practice of non-retribution doesn’t seem to be worth it.

David Neville’s fine book A Peaceable Hope is an indispensable examination of precisely these issues. He sees the divide primarily between some parables and some retributive sayings in Matthew and pretty much the rest of the New Testament. The tension, then, is strongest in Matthew since it includes the Sermon on the Mount and a stress on Jesus being the silent lamb led to the slaughter but also has many threats against those who do not live by these standards. So lopsided a division suggests that the weight of the New Testament as a whole comes down firmly on the concept of God as totally without violence. Neville draws the tension in Matthew and contrasts this Gospel with the three other canonical Gospels, all of which are strongly peaceable in its eschatological teaching to various degrees with John being the strongest on peace themes. The reception history of Revelation has often taken the book to teach retributive violence by God but Neville builds a strong case that the slaughtered lamb is the guiding image for the book as a whole.

Neville doesn’t try to speculate why Matthew would have as vindictive an eschatology as he does. We can make some educated guesses based on our own experiences with rejection and injury. If we can’t or won’t strike back, we like to think somebody bigger than we and our adversaries will come and tear them to pieces on our behalf. There are alternate ways of understanding these violent passages in the New Testament, among them the suggestion that they use firm imagery to show the consequences of rejecting Christ and Christ’s way. Raymund Schwager, for example thinks along these lines in Jesus in the Dram of Salvation. In such a reading, God is not actively acting out revenge on those who reject him; they are suffering the alienation and violence by which they have lived.

Neville’s careful and thoughtful exploration of this difficult issue is valuable for anybody who wants a firm biblical basis for believing in and teaching a God of peace.

Resentment: the Glue that Keeps us Stuck Together

fireworksBeing carried away by the contagion of the crowd is an obvious enough danger to some of us try to escape this danger by avoiding whatever the Crowd does. People who reject the Crowd are often people who have been rejected by the Crowd, such as those of us who failed to be in the “in” group at school. The position of an outsider easily becomes a jaundiced view, a “sour grapes” kind of view that sees how silly the Crowd is or how dangerous it is or could become if it needs to reinforce its cohesiveness through going beyond ostracism to persecution. For one who sees these dangers, it seems that all one has to do is reject the Crowd and become independent, free of the contagion that has engulfed everybody else.

But how free are we when we reject the Crowd? Not as free as the one who tries it thinks. Rejecting the crowd sucks us back into it at least as firmly as it sucks those who mindlessly allow themselves to be carried away by it. Actually, the attachment is usually even stronger than it is for the one who is carried away because rejecters are obsessed with what they reject. The name for this attempt at alienation is resentment.

What I have said about mimetic desire and the connections it creates with other people as soon as we are born and are capable of conscious thought tells us that we simply cannot, no matter how hard we try, break off these connections with others. Trying to pull away only adds to the tension, like a stretched rubber band, only the rubber band of mimetic desire is unbreakable. This is why children and teens who are relegated to the “out” group remained tied to the people who rejected them. Both the rejecters and the rejected use each other to define themselves. It is the scenario of the royal family who does not invite their unpopular relative to the child’s christening and the rejected relative comes anyway, bearing a curse that immobilizes the kingdom. Likewise, the tension of resentment freezes a social system, leading to a breakdown such as happened with the US government this month.

Resentment, then, tends to make the resenter the mirror image of the crowd. The resenter hates everything the crowd likes and does because the crowd likes it and does it. The resenter is prone to persecuting the crowd in thought and sometimes, tragically, in deed as much as the crowd persecutes its victims. When resenters get together to form their own anti-group, they tend to reproduce the persecutory dynamics of the crowd. I should, know, my high school memories are filled with this sort of thing from the viewpoint of a resenter.

The bottom line is that we cannot gain freedom from others by pulling away. We only tighten their hold on us and ours on them. Neither can we gain freedom by seeking power over the crowd by being the one who sways the crowd. The crowd sways the leader as much as the leader sways the crowd. The only way out I can see is to seek to gain freedom with other people. Following St. Paul’s admonition to think of the needs of others is the way to do this. In seeking the needs of others, we seek their freedom. We can only do this by letting go of resentment. Seeking the freedom of others leaves us vulnerable to those who do not reciprocate. However, by renouncing our own resentments, we already gain a measure of freedom that cannot be taken away from us. It is this freedom that makes it possible for us to use our connectedness to others to move the social system in a dynamic of mutual giving and receiving.

See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry

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

Mimetic Desire and Truth (4)

crucifix1In my last post in this series, I noted that mimetic rivalry inevitably distorts truth and that it creates victims. The mutual involvement of rivals with each other precludes their seeing each other truly and it makes them oblivious to the people who are affected by their rivalry. René Girard has demonstrated about as well as it is possible when examining the human behavior at the dawn of civilization that social meltdowns were resolved by collective violence that were covered up by myths that obscured the reality of what had happened. When Jesus said that the devil is a murderer and a liar from the beginning (John 8:44) he was not talking about a supernatural figure who was doing the damage; he was making an anthropological statement about human responsibility. That is, the violence of mimetic rivalry inexorably leads to mendacity. Philosophers might quibble with each other about where the limitations of the human intellect are for perceiving truth, but the real problem with perceiving the truth is rooted in the human will. The more involved we are in mimetic rivalry, the less truth we can see.

These considerations lead to the conclusion that truth is found, not in some fancy theory of human knowledge, but in the reality of the victim. It is this reality that is revealed in the numerous psalms of lament where the psalmist is constantly surrounded by enemies who blame him or her for all of the calamities inflicted upon the people. This truth is definitively revealed in the Passion narratives of the Gospels where Jesus is revealed as the innocent and forgiving victim vindicated by God. Andrew McKenna called it “the epistemological privilege of the victim.” Some privilege! James Alison coined the term “the intelligence of the victim.” René Girard consistently deflects postmodernists who insist there is no center of truth anymore by pointing to the reality of the victim as the starting point for perceiving truth.

This sounds simple but mimetic rivalry has twisted this truth in some subtle ways. In a way, the Gospels did the job of revealing the truth of the victim too well. As far as I can tell, nobody, not even Socrates, cared to be in the place of the victim before the Gospels were written. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most intense mimetic rivalry is precisely over who is the greatest victim. Everybody, every social group wants to be the most victimized victim and to hold that position at the expense of all other victims. CEO’s who rake in millions of dollars in bonuses while they ruin the finances of thousands of people claim to be victims when they become objects of opprobrium. Well, objects of opprobrium are victims, but they don’t know what they are doing. In every conflict between social groups or between individuals, each side, each person is very much aware of the truth of their own victimhood. What none of these people see at all is the truth of the victimhood of their enemies. Least of all do rivals over victimhood see the victims that their rivalry is creating.

The key to truth, then, has become violently distorted in our time. Fortunately, there is more to this key than what we humans have done to it and we will revisit this key in the final post of this series.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (5)

See Mimetic Desire and Truth Series

See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry for all articles on this subject

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