mimetic scarcity (2)

outsideSupper1The loosening of family and tribal bonds was a second and much longer term strategy for diffusing violence resulting from mimetic rivalry. (See mimetic scarcity 1 for context.) Up to the present day it has been effective enough to be considered a good thing. But it has its disadvantages. It has led to what Norman Geres, a writer cited by Paul Dumouchel, calls “a contract of indifference.” This contract has released from obligations for violence, such as the vendettas that have scarred many social groups. That is good. But this contract as also released us from obligations to care for the misfortunes of other people. That is, we are no longer our brother’s keeper. As an instinctive reaction to violence, the various effects were never planned out and they are still not easily visible. Most seriously, the contract of indifference is deleterious to social conscience. We don’t easily see a connection between our individual actions and their social consequences. To take one example: polluting the environment just doesn’t seem to get on the radar of those who use technology at a level that does just that. It supports an individualist spirituality where saving one’s own soul is the main thing and broader social issues are off the radar.

It is the scarcity created by this “solution” that forms the founding dynamic of capitalism. The basic argument, as I understand it, is that the scarcity gives humans an incentive to try and overcome the scarcity by increasing production so that there will be more material goods than there were. This works in the sense that more material goods are produced that can be consumed by people. But scarcity is not overcome because the increase of production increases desires for goods and when this leads to more increased production, desires increase still more. Material goods never catch up with desire. Mimetic desire, where we desire things because other people desire them, further intensifies this frenzy because whole inventories of perfectly wearable shoes disappear if only a few designs are in fashion. This is how this “peaceful” solution to violence leads directly to the quiet, hidden, sacrifice of many people on the hidden altars of indifference. Indifference is just as contagious as mimetic violence. The ennui of modern humanity analyzed by legions of philosophers and social commentators witnesses to the extent of this contagion.

If Paul Dumouchel is right in suggesting that creating scarcity has roots in early humanity, created scarcity has become much more prominent in modern times. I will make only a brief historical detour to consider the Jewish tradition. The prophets exposed the truth of collective violence much more deeply and clearly than other cultures, thus attenuating the efficacy of sacrificial religion. (“I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” Hos. 6:6) Did this prophetic exposure increase use of the solution of scarcity to limit violence? The countless oracles against oppression of the poor suggest that scarcity was alive and well in early Jewish society. Perhaps the surrounding cultures, still grounded in sacrificial religion, still had stronger social bonds for caring for each other’s’ needs. Maybe. An historical study of this matter would be welcome.

In pleading for the poor and oppressed, the Jewish prophets were clearly aware of the problems created by scarcity and loosening social bonds and so were trying to increase the scope of “family.” That is, far from loosening ties, we are to strengthen them and extend them. By inviting all of us into being siblings of him, Jesus also encouraged us to be brothers and sisters of one another: the whole church, all of humanity is family. Jesus is most explicit in this teaching in Matthew 25 where “the least of these” are all part of Jesus’ family and therefore ours as well. It is this sense of family that motivated St. Paul to take up a collection in his various churches so as to give famine relief to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

This is a hard saying. First the Jewish prophets and then Jesus, by his death as a result of collective violence, throws a monkey wrench into the first “solution” to violence. But before he died, Jesus, along with the prophets who preceded him, threw another monkey wrench into this second solution. We are given an ascetical double whammy. We have to renounce the solidarity that leads to mimetic strife and then to collective violence, but not only must we retain these same ties, we must strengthen and extend them when it comes to providing for others. That is, the borders that made providing for family tenable have been exploded. Not only that, but if these are “solutions” to violence resulting from intensified mimetic rivalry, and both have been exploded, then we have to discipline ourselves to renounce that rivalry. In analyzing the land enclosures in England, Dumouchel noted the mimetic rivalry of the lairds that caused them to desire better productivity of their lands that brought on scarcity without reducing any material goods in their environments. Make no mistake. I am not suggesting we have to renounce capitalism. We have to exchange goods and services somehow. But renouncing mimetic strife will change the social complexion of capitalism as it changes everything else.

One of the reasons this social demand for social solidarity seems so onerous is because we tend to hear it through the filter of “the contract of indifference.” That is, we think the entire burden falls on each of us individually. We forget even before we hear it that we are invited into a family, a family that is the Body of Christ. We do not have to take responsibility for others, each on our own little lonesome. That would be rugged individualism all over again. Instead, we are encouraged to take responsibility as members of a Body. Jesus reaches out to everyone through each and every one of us. Our personal responsibilities are collective responsibilities.

Christian Community (1)

guestsNarthex1The French modernist theologian Alfred Loisy famously quipped: “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and got the church.” This dictum pits the Jesus movement against the church that followed.

The Gospels attest to Jesus having many people gathering around him for healing and to listen to his teachings. Except for the twelve apostles and the women who, according to Mark, provided for him when he was in Galilee and followed him to the cross in Jerusalem, there is no indication of how stable the group of followers was. Since many of them had to eke out hard livings on the land, probably most people gathered around Jesus when he was in town and that was about it.

The teachings of non-retaliation and forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount and in other parables were clearly on a higher plane than his listeners could have been used to. They pose such a severe challenge that many of the greatest Christian writers have relegated these teachings to the margins and re-instituted retaliation both in moral theology and dogma. Maybe monks and nuns could turn the other cheek if a fellow monk or nun insulted them, but that was about it. No wonder Alfred Loisy and many others have grumbled about the church. Did the people who listened to Jesus and tagged along at least for a while catch on to the preaching of the kingdom based on peace and forgiveness in the midst of a world just as violent as our own? The indications I can see suggest that they probably did not.

Jesus’ closest followers consistently failed to understand and absorb Jesus’ teachings. Peter’s question as to whether or not he should forgive a brother or sister as much as seven times betrays this incomprehension. The constant bickering among the disciples as to who was the greatest further exposes their incomprehension. Mark juxtaposes this inner fighting with predictions of his crucifixion three times. Three is universally the number standing in for infinity so probably this didn’t happen just three times but an uncountable number of times. Moreover, when Jesus was arrested, he had to tell Peter to put his sword away.

The man who asked Jesus to make his brother share their inheritance equitably, only to be rebuked (along with his brother) for avarice, suggests that his listeners weren’t giving up rivalry over possessions at the drop of Jesus’ words. The crowd’s seizure of Jesus right after he had fed them bread from heaven seems to be John’s retrospective image of what Jesus’ listeners understood and hoped for.

The mysterious reversals of the crowd during Jesus’ last week are especially astonishing until we reflect on what the Gospel writer teach us about crowd psychology. All of the synoptic Gospels emphasize the fear the Jewish leaders had of the crowd. They wanted to put off the arrest until after the Passover at which point the crowd would disperse. When Jesus forced their hand, they had to do their own crowd manipulation. None of that would have worked if Jesus had spoken before Pilate. I suspect that Jesus chose to be silent because any words at all, no matter what they were, could have been construed as an encouragement to start an uprising. In the wake of Jesus’ silence, the disappointed crowd who had wanted to make him king were ready to be turned against him.

It is not productive to knock these people for being stupid, obtuse, and hard of heart. The truth is that we imitate their very stupidity, obtuseness, and hardness of heart more often than not. The followers of Jesus during Jesus’ earthly life do not give us very good models for how to listen and act. All except the few faithful women and the Beloved Disciple had deserted Jesus by the time he died. The rest of Jesus’ “followers” are very accurate mirrors that continue to stare us in the face. Then something happened. Jesus met up with the women to begin the process of re-gathering a following. Will we gather with them this time around?

Go to Christian Community (2)

Accepting the Cross

crossRedVeil1Jesus’ words that “whoeverdoes not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37) are disturbing on two counts. We don’t like the idea of taking up the cross and we don’t like the idea of being rejected by God for not doing it.

It is worth pausing to note the question of whether or not Jesus could have said these words since they seem to read Jesus’ future back into this point in his life. As with the predictions of his suffering and death on the cross, I think it highly plausible that Jesus knew what was going to happen to him if he continued to teach and minster as he did if most people, especially those in power, persisted in rejecting his teaching and ministry. After all, Jesus had the example of Jeremiah and the other prophets to warn him. He did not need a crystal ball nor did he need to tap into his divine omniscience to foresee his destiny.

When Jesus said that “a disciple is not above the teacher,” he implied that we should expect the same results of imitating Jesus that Jesus himself had. This is a hard choice, one that entails renouncing worldly power and embracing the helplessness of the victim, but the alternative is to side with the oppressors either by actively joining them or silently allowing them to oppress others without challenging them.

The harsh words in Matthew suggest that God will definitively reject any of us who ever fall beneath this standard but the way Jesus treated Peter who failed miserably in this regard, not to speak of Paul who actively persecuted Jesus’ followers, suggests quite the opposite. There is a strong element of self-selection and self-judgment in rejecting the way of the cross. It is as when we speak badly of somebody or deny somebody, it tells a whole lot more about us than it does about the one we are speaking badly about. As the examples of Peter and Paul make clear, such states are not necessarily permanent unless we persevere in our rejection. It is simply the case that Jesus has a certain way of living that eschews violence and power in favor of weakness and the place of the victim. If we do not accept this way of Jesus, then we are simply not on Jesus’ way. Blaming Jesus for rejecting those who deny him is like blaming Jesus for the division his teaching and life brings about when such division is not Jesus’ intent but human decisions. (See Human Swords, God’s Peace.)

Jesus knows how hard it is to choose the way of the cross from his own experience and his sensitivity to any who might follow him. This is why he reassures us by saying that every sparrow that falls to the ground is known by the Father and that every hair on our heads is counted. Maybe the notion of sparrows falling to the ground is not so comforting but Jesus, in saying that we humans are worth more than sparrows, is assuring us that even when we fall to the ground, we are counted. This is what Jesus is getting at when he says that by trying to save our lives by denying the cross, we lose our lives and that by losing our lives we gain them when God catches us, just as Jesus catches every sparrow that falls to the ground. It is out of love for us that Jesus embraces the cross and it is our love for Jesus that leads us to do the same. Maybe we are worth more than sparrows, but sparrows are worth an awful lot as well.

What Humans Willed: the Passion Story

crucifix1At the abbey where I live, I preach at the Maundy Thursday liturgy and the Easter Vigil. I do not preach on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the two liturgies where we chant the Passion. The Passion is long enough without added sermons and the Passion speaks for itself. That is, it speaks for itself as long as we don’t add things it does not say that undermine what the Passion does say.

To belabor what should be the obvious, the Passion Story tells us what human beings chose to do. Jesus chose to drive the money changers from the temple and teach the people there. The Jewish authorities chose to plot to have Jesus arrested and handed over to the Roman authorities. Judas chose to betray Jesus, thus facilitating the arrest and handing over. Pilate, to varying degrees in the four Gospels, vacillated but in the end chose to sentence Jesus to crucifixion. Meanwhile, the people who had cheered Jesus upon entering Jerusalem ended up crying for his crucifixion. The Roman centurions nailed Jesus to the cross where he died. The Passion narratives say nothing to suggest that anything that was done to Jesus, from the arrest to harassment and flogging to nailing him to the cross was in any way the will of God.

In all this, God does not do anything. Why do I bother to make a big point of this? The reason is that many Christians have suggested that God positively willed the sacrifice of Jesus for some cosmic purpose, usually because God was upset with wayward humans and was somehow incapable of forgiving humans unless somebody took the punishment for human sin. If Jesus, innocent of sin, should take the punishment, well and good. Well, not well and good. What kind of god demands punishment and doesn’t care who gets punished as long as somebody does? The Passion Story never says anything of the kind.

If God did not will Jesus’ violent death, what did God will? What was God’s plan? Jesus understood the heavenly Father’s plan to be that he Jesus knew that if he defeated Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate with force would only keep the world forever embroiled in retaliatory violence. The only way to avoid that was to gather people peacefully no matter the outcome, even if it meant death.

But Death, much as it was the plan of humans, was not God’s plan as a group of women found out early in the morning on the first day of the week.

See also Two Ways of Gathering

 

Crying out with Palm Branches in our Hands

AndrewPalmSunday1Jesus entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of crowds strewing branches before him and proclaiming him the king. A few days later, the same crowd gathered before Pilate to cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion. What happened?

Before answering this question, it is helpful to recall another crowd that went out into the desert to see John the Baptist. “What did you come out to see?” John asked them. “A reed blowing in the wind?” John suspects that people have come out in droves because people were coming out in droves. That is, it was the “in” thing to do. Fast forward a few months and we have a crowd at Herod’s palace supporting Salome’s request for John’s head on a dish. What did they come to see?

The post Ignominious Glory—Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology goes a long way in explaining this phenomenon. One can’t help but suspect that people are crying out because everybody else is crying out, no matter what the outcry is about. Advertising usually does not advertise the product but its alleged popularity. Political campaigns do the same thing. What would happen if people stopped to listen to what people were actually saying instead of crying out what they think everybody else is crying out?

It so happens that the Gospels do precisely this. The suggestion that the Gospels are Passion narratives with long introductions gives short shrift to what the Gospels are about. What these “long introductions” do is tell us at great length what Jesus actually said and what he taught. They also tell us what Jesus did before he was nailed to the cross, i.e. he healed people and cast out demons and he unilaterally forgave sins. These “long introductions” also tell us why the power brokers in Judea and Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead. By reading these “long introductions” to the Passion narrative, we are drawn away from crying out what everybody else is crying out and waving signs that only proclaim what the current fashion is believed to be. Instead, we are drawn into a very different social mimetic process, a process that builds up mutual respect between people, seeing people as they really are and as they really can become when they receive the unilateral forgiveness that Jesus gives them, a social process of not retaliating for wrongs done, a socially mimetic process of forgiving debts, of sharing what we can, of offering healing to others.

It is instructive that the Palm Sunday liturgy begins with everybody playing the part of the crowd welcoming Jesus with palms and then, a bit later, we hold these palms while acting the part of the crowd in crying out for Jesus’ death during the reading or chanting of the Passion. What we need to do afterward is return to the “long introductions” to see what the fuss was about and hopefully, hear the cock crow as did Peter.

I develop these ideas in my book Tools for Peace.