Rising to a New Humanity

crosswButterfliesSt. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it. St. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes it clear that what seem to be personal sins are embroiled in the matrix of human desires where what is disordered within us spurs on what is disordered in other people and vice versa. It isn’t personal sin but the interpersonal sin of basing culture on the rejection of God that has us in thrall. In the grip of social sin, we choose a foundation of persecution that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus. Persecution is based on lies, lies that are woven into our deepest being. The great Afro-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois knew what it is like to be among a people caught in a system of lies. He described the “double life” of being both black and American when he wrote: “Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.” After developing these thoughts further, Du Bois says bluntly: “The price of culture is a lie.” (W.E.B. Du Bois and the Sociology of the Black Church and Religion, 1897–1914, p. 156–157) Here we can see how the culture of persecution defines us so that this shared desire feels like the natural order of things. At this point, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as personal sin. What seems personal is too caught up in our social matrix to be personal in an individualistic sense. We are not lone sinners, we are social sinners.
The Eucharist with its background in the Passover is fundamental to St. Paul’s understanding of the death and Resurrection of Christ. (See A New Passover—A New Life) As the Jews were delivered from a persecutory culture and given the chance to begin culture anew, Christians, in the renewed covenant, are offered the same chance to base culture on the forgiving victim rather than the unforgiving persecutory crowd. As the Passover was a repudiation of enslaving other humans in any way, the renewed covenant also repudiates enslavement. The failures to make such a new start have been painfully obvious for centuries. The cryptic and disturbing narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection in Mark prophesies this frustrating failure. It seems highly unlikely that the fear on the part of the woman who went to the tomb was consciously a fear of being thrust suddenly into the beginning of a radically new culture. But fear based on the weirdness that a man should have been raised from the dead does not seem to account for all of their fear either. In any case, such an unprecedented event with so much power must have been seen as the game changer Paul took it to be. It was perhaps all the more frightening that they could have had no idea at the time how the game of life was being changed.
This seems like a lot of doom and gloom when we are supposed to be celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord, but we really can’t begin to understand and appreciate what the Good News of the Resurrection is all about, let alone truly celebrate it,  until we know the bad news about death from which we are being delivered. In the Paschal Troparion of the Greek Orthodox Church, worshipers sing:
Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!
The persecutory society requires death as its foundation and maintenance. Jesus’ Resurrection tramples this death and tells us to go to Galilee where Jesus is always waiting for us to make a new beginning in building the kingship of God. (Mk. 16: 7) This is what it means to say that death is conquered and we are free.


These thoughts are developed in more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire

On Being Lifted up for Us

crosswButterfliesAs we draw near to Holy Week, the lections focus on Jesus’ anticipation of his Passion. Jesus’ famous response to the Greeks about the grain dying in the ground in order to bear fruit suggests a good deal of serenity on Jesus’ part. But one can imagine personifying a grain suddenly experiencing the pain of being ripped apart from within and panicking that it is dying before blossoming out into a new life beyond imagining. If somebody had quoted Jesus’ words to the grain before it happened, would the grain have been serene about what was to come? A brief reflection on our own nervous state about such an occurrence probably gives us the answer to that question.

Jesus seems less serene when he says that his soul is troubled and raises the question if he should ask his Father to save him from this hour. But Jesus’ resolution returns in the very next verse: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “ (Jn. 12: 27) The clear echo of Jesus’ anguished prayer at Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels comes to mind here. Luke is particularly dramatic with the drops of blood dropping to the ground. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses Jesus’ anxiety more than the Gospels: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb. 5: 7) It is significant that, although Jesus was not saved from death, his prayer was heard. Or was Jesus saved from death?

After his Gethsemane-like words in John, Jesus says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Jn. 12: 32-33) I agree with the many scholars who take this verse and similar ones in John as conflating the cross and resurrection. John abounds in word plays and here John gives us a double meaning to “lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. This conflation has the danger of minimizing the reality of Jesus’ death, making it a quick and easy passage to the resurrected life. However, I see a strong tension in the way that John makes the expression “lifted up” do double duty. After being lifted up on the cross, the crucifixion remains an enduring reality even after Jesus is lifted in the resurrection. That is, it is not only the Resurrection but the crucifixion that draws people to Jesus. John gives a powerful stress on the victimization of Jesus as the focal point when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (Jn. 12: 31) The crucifixion judges the persecutors and the resurrection drives out the persecutory mechanism that has ruled the world. It is because, as the author of Hebrews said, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb. 5: 8) that he has the power to draw us to him. That is the say, the conflation can work both ways. It seems to dilute the experience of Jesus’ death but it also retains the painful death in the glory of the resurrection. This conflation shows how vital both elements are. Jesus was raised up on the cross as a victim of grave social injustice. God raised Jesus to vindicate Jesus and to demonstrate that the crucifixion, a disgrace in the eyes of the persecutors, was in truth the glory of God. (The Greek word doxa is another double entendre as it means both disgrace and honor.)

We can speculate on how Jesus himself actually experienced his approaching death but can arrive at no definitive answers. Even the New Testament writers who dealt with it give us varying portrayals. It stands to reason that Jesus’ own emotions were at least as complex as the sum of depictions in the New Testament. But, as the author of Hebrews said many times, Jesus is the forerunner into persecution and death to give us the courage to face both ourselves.

Christian Community (5)

guestsNarthex1Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Church without saying something about institutions called churches. I also can’t overlook the unfortunate fact that although the word “church” has six letters in it, for some it is a four-letter word.

A common distinction is made between the visible Church and the invisible Church. The former is made up of people who wear clerical collars and vestments and those who sit or stand or kneel in pews and sing hymns or songs of praise. The latter is made up of those who actually have their hearts and minds conformed to Christ regardless of whether or not they place their bodies in buildings with a cross on it. In such a distinction, the invisible Church is the real Church, although people invested in the visible church (sorry about the pun!) hope that at least some of them are in the real, invisible Church as well. Of course, this invisible church isn’t really invisible. It is perfectly visible to God and it is visible to all people who have eyes to see. In my earlier posts on the subject of Church, I have suggested that the essence of Church is to be aligned with the forgiving love of Christ that brings us to the place of the victim in opposition to the principalities and powers that feast on victims. Acting out the role of Church in this way is quite visible, just as visible the people who sing hymns and preach in buildings that we call churches. Again, we hope there is at least some overlap between the two, but we all know that the two hardly coincide.

The Church is, then, visible in acts of worship and in charitable acts such as ministering to the poor. The disconnect between these two visibilities is a cause of dismay and downright confusion. Some people who are devoted to both might find that the people they worship with and the people they work with in ministry are very different. This problem becomes particularly acute when a “church” openly allies itself with Empire. To this day, there is concern that when the Roman Empire theoretically converted to Christianity, Christianity was actually converted to the Empire. The establishment of what was called “Christendom” tended to institutionalize the violent tactics of Empire. The Inquisition was a particularly notorious example of this. In more recent history, the Nazi government of Germany ordered the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church to expel all members of Jewish descent from leadership positions. Complying with this demand was a betrayal of their own members and of Christ. The Confessing Church which seceded in protest was a remnant of the Body of Christ.

The disunity and discord among Christians is a further cause of scandal to many. That there should be many ecclesiastical bodies with long or sometimes short traditions is not a problem to me. People are different and cultures are different. It is sad, however, that most churches, were founded in protest against the ecclesiastical body they left. Many of the long-standing debates have been resolved and many ecclesiastical bodies work together charitably in matters such as world relief. Many of the divisions, however, smack of emulating the disciples who argued about who is the greatest and/or the slogans in 1 Corinthians: “I am of Apollos!” “I am of Cephas!” Many of the theological debates in the early Christian centuries over the Trinity and the Natures of Christ could have been carried on with less rancor if church leaders had not been so afraid that God would eternally torture anyone who didn’t get the formulas just right. Getting the theology right just isn’t enough when we get the Love of God wrong.

The scandal of Church for so many of us tempts us to chuck it all and try to go it alone. If Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is true, that is simply not possible. We are affected by the desires and intentions of others whether we like it or not. If we set ourselves over against everybody else in defiance, that very defiance makes us totally dependent on the people we are defying. After all, if we aren’t defying people, we aren’t doing much in the way of defying. The deeper problem is that when we make ourselves that dependent on other people, we are easily sucked into the power of persecutory mechanisms when they occur. A lone individual can’t hold out against such a thing.

So there is need to connect with others. This is a point I illustrate in some of the stories I’ve written, most particularly in Merendael’s Gift. The protagonist can’t stand up to social pressures of the kids he hangs out with until he allies himself with other children who band together to befriend this strange visitor from another planet. This group becomes an analogy for the Church as the Body of Christ. In real life, we have to be alert to the people who are sincerely and humbly entering the place of the Victim. (I say “humbly” because some people pridefully use “victimhood” to manipulate others.) We can only hope that some of these people actually are in a church in the ecclesiastical sense.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the rivalry and sacrificial violence it can lead to suggests that they greatest division among Christians is along the lines of a theology and practice that is sacrificial on the one hand and one that is grounded in Jesus the Forgiving Victim on the other. Girard’s theory shows us how easily followers of Jesus’ Kingdom could easily slide back into remnants of the primitive sacred. The Body of Christ looks like the Body of Christ when it is embodied by people who stand up to the persecutory mechanism whenever it occurs. Unfortunately, any of us can easily fall into embodying instead the Satan who is the Accuser. That is to say, this schism between sacrificial and forgiving members can split right down the middle our own selves. This is why we need to strengthen ourselves with the practices of Church such as worship and interior prayer and mutual encouragement.

I Me Me Mine

abyssEach of us knows what my own self is, right? Yeah, my self is right here, right inside of me, running my life. My self is who I am. What could be more obvious? “Everyone’s weaving it, coming on strong all the time!” Hmm. Who is doing the driving, who the weaving. “I-me-me-mine” is doing it according to George Harrison put it? So where is my self in all this?

If René Girard is right, then the human self is not in the midst of our desires, I-me-me-mine, where we tend to locate it. Rather, we derive our desires from the desires of other people and they from us. (See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry) Well, we don’t want other people driving our desires or snatching ours away, so we fight back, insisting that I-me-me-mine is the one who wants whatever it is and others are copying I-me-me-mine. The problem is, the whatever-it-is falls away as a desire defining the self and the entire self of I-me-me-mine is embroiled with this rival. Some autonomy. So, I-me-me-mine will try refusing to desire what anybody else desires. This is resentment. Of course, resentment I-me-me-mine me into the enemy’s desire since opposition to a desire is as strong a driving motor as combat over the desire. (See Resentment)

This spiral of desire tilts I-me-me-mine to the abyss that shows this desiring self to be an illusion, a void. While reflecting on Chuang Tzu’s Taoist writings, Thomas Merton suggested that “it is the void that is our personality, and not our individuality that seems to be concrete and defined by present and past, etc.” This “not-I” is seen by Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton as a source of freedom, but “we are completely enslaved by the illusory.” (Merton & the Tao)

In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton warns us that “every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be who cannot exist, who cannot exist because God cannot know anything about him.” The false self a.k.a. I-me-me-mine, is constantly in rivalry with other false selves who have the same alias. “All through the night, all through the day, everyone’s saying it, flowing more freely than wine.” Like Merton, George Harrison warns us that an epidemic of desire threatens to flood the whole world.

We aren’t lost in this abyss of “not-I.” If we let go of the matrix of desires that I-me-me-mine clings to, than we find ourselves called by name. This calling voice asks us why we are persecuting him? Persecuting? We weren’t doing nuthin’. I-me-me-mine’s desire machine blinds us to what we are doing to other people, all of whom Christ identifies with.

When we answer with our names to the voice in the abyss, the self is still not-I, but that does not matter because the Persons of the Trinity are filling this void with their forgiving love that clarifies what all this forgiveness is about.

Well, Jesus did say something about dying in order to live.

Rising to the Life of Christ

crosswButterfliesWhen St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Jesus’ death, what kind of death are we baptized into? An aged person drifting off while asleep? A ritual death with no consequences? No, we are baptized into the death of Jesus. This particular death, the one we are baptized into, is a judicial death resulting from collective violence. This is the shameful death of an alleged insurrectionist at the hands of an Empire. This death was caused by the meltdown of rivalry in the society of first century Jerusalem, exacerbated by the betrayal and cowardice of Jesus’ closest followers.

Once we know what death we are baptized into, we know what life we are raised to. In his risen life, Jesus showed no resentment or vengeance to those who had gathered to put him to death or had dispersed out of cowardice.  Moreover, Jesus was not entangled in any of the rivalrous feuds that are a way of life for most humans. Imagine living without all the entanglements and resentments swirling around and inside of us. Hard to do, isn’t it? That is how radically different the risen life is from the life we live now.

If our “old self” is crucified with Jesus, then we have, like Jesus, died in the place of the victim. That means we have died to our tendency to fuel resentments and resolve these resentments through gathering against the victim, as Paul himself repented of having held the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and openly approving of what they did.

None of this means that repenting of personal sins and faults doesn’t matter and that becoming free of them is part of the resurrected life. However, Christian teaching has a strong tendency to stress personal renewal to such an extent that horrifyingly sick participation in collective persecution goes unnoticed. That hundreds of thousands of Christians could lynch thousands of black people shows us now, now that the lynching era is over, how easily this sort of group contagion can take over in what is often called an “enlightened” and “civilized” era.

Rather than congratulating ourselves on giving up lynching after roughly a hundred years of the sport, I suggest we take careful note of the growing polarization in our country over social and religious issues. Honest disagreement is not a problem; it’s a good thing, something that keeps us honest. But polarization tends to be conflict for the sake of conflict so that conflict feeds itself and it feeds each one of us. Never mind that polarized conflict is as nourishing to humans as sawdust and glue. What is really dangerous about this polarization is that it easily collapses into collective violence as a way of resolving the tensions.

If we wish to be serious about living the risen life with Christ, we must be baptized by the love and forgiveness of the risen Christ and allow him to gently but firmly remove all the resentments we feed on so as to feed on body and blood of the Lamb of God who reaches out to everybody with vulnerable love.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you be overwhelmed by such a thing in baptism?