On Sacrificing a Cup of Water

sacrifice of IsaacWhen the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac was first told to me in Sunday school, the teacher prefaced the story by saying that in biblical times there were people who made sacrifices to “god” and some people even sacrificed their own children, but God decided to teach Abraham that he should not do that. The story was troubling but it was comforting to know that God did not want such an awful thing. Between that and being told around the same time the story about Jesus inviting the children to come to him did much to instill in me a trust in God as deeply loving from an early age. Since then, I’ve come across many learned scholars who think such an interpretation of the Isaac story is simplistic. Who’s right?

Christian exegetes in the early Christian centuries softened the story to some extent through a Christological interpretation where Isaac is an antitype of Christ, the Son who was willing to lay down his life. Such an understanding continued in folk tradition where the English Miracle plays dramatized the story of a pleading child wondering if he really was that naughty and then becoming reconciled to his fate.

Such an approach is still troubling but it makes some effort to draw back from the notion of an violent and arbitrary “god” who really would make such a command to Abraham. Unfortunately, later medieval and Reformation theologians shifted the emphasis back to Abraham and his anguished “obedience.” Such an emphasis falls deeply into the tragic pitfall of a sacrificial atonement. While even St. Anselm, who set in motion this theological tendency, still emphasized the Son’s love of humanity in laying down his life, Luther and Calvin emphasized the Father’s sacrifice of his Son with severe violence with the Father taking his anger over human sin out on his Son. Martin Luther, for example was very stern in saying that in no way was it legitimate for Abraham (or us) to question what God orders, no matter how unethical the command. In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author calls this kind of obedience “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” Many think Kierkegaard supported that position but in fact, this suspension of the ethical is not faith. Abraham is a “knight of faith” because he does not kill his son but receives him back from God. This treatise then is actually Kierkegaard’s first salvo in dismantling a sacrificial understanding of atonement such as Luther’s. The highly convoluted arguments of this book end up in roughly the same place as my Sunday School teacher.

The French thinker René Girard is very helpful in helping us deal with this troubling story. He theorizes that since the dawn of humanity, societies have dealt with systemic conflict through uniting against a victim who is blamed for the crisis. This initial act of mob violence, repeated time and again was institutionalized into rites of sacrifice. Children were frequently among the victims. The Maya, for example, thought that the children’s tears would bring much-needed rain. This social factor is a startling contrast to the narrative of Abraham where he and Isaac are alone save for a pair of servants. Girard would have us see Abraham’s dilemma in terms of his surrounding culture where everybody else was sacrificing their children so that it seemed the religious thing to do. For Girard, God breaks through the collective so that Abraham, as an individual hears God’s true desire, not as an individual genius, but as a human related both to God and to Isaac and the many offspring in faith that he would beget through Isaac. So Girard also agrees with my Sunday school teacher.

When Paul says: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom 6: 12) we tend to understand these words as lone individuals each struggling against our sinful hangups. But for Paul, the dominion of sin is the human culture that perpetuates itself through collective murder and sacrifice. This is the Gospel story Paul preached: not a story about individuals who sin, but a society that swarms with violent passion in troubled times. Such as our own time. This is why the end of sin is death. Literally.

Before the movers and shakers and the crowd coalesced to put Jesus to death, Jesus told us that; “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt. 10: 42) Simple. It doesn’t take a professor with several degrees to understand it. And yet, the “little ones,” not just children but vulnerable people in many inner cities, do not get a cup of water that is not dangerously contaminated. Flint, Michigan is everywhere. This is the power of sin’s dominion that holds society in thrall. Jesus is telling us, as God told Abraham, that we should not sacrifice our “little ones,” but we should nurture them. Like Abraham, we have to move out of the crowd that continues to sacrifice children and then regather with those who will bring drinkable water to those who need it. My Sunday school teacher got it right.

See also: Abraham out on Highway 61

For an extensive discussion on the story, including the quote from Martin Luther, see:

Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Proper 8, Year A

For an introduction to René Girard, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God

and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

 

John’s Offended Puzzlement

Mattia_Preti_-_San_Giovanni_Battista_PredicazioneJohn the Baptist is so closely associated with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that it’s easy to see them as two of a kind. Both preached repentance. Both died the death of a martyr.

But if the two of them saw eye to eye, why would John send his disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus was “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11: 3) As is usually the case when asked any kind of question, Jesus gives only an indirect answer. He lists the miracles that are happening such as the blind receiving their sight and the lame walking. Then he caps it off with the cryptic and seemingly incoherent words: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mt. 11: 6) The implication is that John is taking offense at Jesus, or is in danger of doing so. If Jesus is concerned that John, his onetime mentor, might take offense at him, what about his followers? What about us?

The Greek word used here for “offense” and throughout the New Testament is skandalon. We get the English word “scandal” from it. The word means “a stumbling block” and it particularly applies to conflictual circumstances. In the thought of René Girard, two or more people in conflict are stumbling blocks to one another. In his important book The Scandal of the Gospels, David McCracken examines the concept of scandal at length. Jesus’ challenge in his reply to John’s followers is central to McCracken’s argument that faith and scandal are inextricably entangled. What this amounts to is that “only when the possibility of offense exists will the possibility of faith exist.” Being offended, scandalized by Jesus takes us half-way there. One who is not offended because of indifference has not even started. (McCracken 1994, p.82) On the other hand, someone who is stuck in being scandalized for the sake of being scandalized is not likely to move forward either. The people who were scandalized by both John and Jesus, although for opposite reasons, fit this profile. (Mt. 11: 16–19)

So why might John or we take offence at Jesus? Both Jesus and John called for repentance but John’s warnings were accompanied by images of wrath: an axe at the tree, a winnowing fork, fire. John’s preaching can be heard as a renewal of Isaiah’s prophecy of hope: creating a highway through the desert as God did to bring the Jews back from the Babylonian exile, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, coming with vengeance and “a terrible recompense.” (Is. 35) If we tick the boxes of Jesus’ ministry, there is a check mark for each item except for the “terrible recompense.” There are also no axes, winnowing forks, or fire in Jesus’ preaching. Perhaps John felt like an emcee announcing a dramatic act only to get a puff when he thought he’d get an explosion.

When we think of the people in our lives and public figures who affect us that we sincerely think are “a brood of vipers,” do we want the wrath they are fleeing to fall on them? Are there people we think should be chopped down and thrown into the fire? If we harbor the same vengeful feelings, we are scandalized by these people. How then do we feel about a preaching ministry where the poor and the peacemakers are blessed and we are asked to forgive those who scandalize us? Are we scandalized at the idea of renouncing vengeance against these people? If so, then we are taking offense at Jesus and we are not blessed.

The earnest moral sense and integrity of John the Baptist represents the best humanity has to offer but “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That is, as soon as we take even the smallest of baby steps in the way of forgiveness and not being scandalized by seriously scandalous people, we are better than the best humanity can offer. There’s nothing to be proud of here. Jesus healed the cripple when he forgave his sins. This same forgiveness heals us and gives us the strength to take these baby steps into the Kingdom of God.

The Place of Jesus

crossRedVeil1When Jesus warns of wars and insurrections fought by nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom, he is painting an image of humanity divided by violent conflicts on a grand scale. These conflicts are coupled with catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes, plagues, and famines. .(Lk. 21: 9–11) Jesus then goes on to warn his followers of persecutions on an equally large scale involving kings and governors, clearly suggesting a strong connection between strife and persecution. In the late twentieth century, the French thinker René Girard speculated that humanity suffered the same dangerous conflicts at the dawn of civilization and it instinctively resolved the conflicts by persecuting a victim or small group of victims. These victims were blamed for both the violence and the earthquakes and the plagues and famines. Blaming the victims entailed falsifying the reality of what had happened. Persecution and lies are inseparable. It is not difficult to see that Jesus saw clearly the truth in his time that Girard was to articulate in ours.

When warning of persecution, Jesus advises us not to prepare a defense in advance because Jesus will give us words and a wisdom that “none of [our] opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk. 21: 15) How is this so? Since persecution requires falsehood, then it follows that truth is found in the perspective of the victim of persecution. That is, the victim is in a highly privileged position to see what others, clouded by the accusations of persecutors, do not see. This is a dubious privilege since the place of the victim is excruciatingly painful and sometimes does not last very long.

But this is the place Jesus occupied and this is the place where any of us who would be followers of Jesus also have to be ready to occupy. Jesus knew that, barring a massive social act of repentance, the volatile situation in his time and place was going to result in the persecution of a victim. Jesus made sure that he, and not somebody else, would be that victim. This is what it means to say that Jesus died for us; not that Jesus died to deflect the alleged wrath of God.

In this place of the victim, reality is crystal clear in a way that it is not in any other place. This is why we really do not know what to say, how to say it, how to act, what our bearing should be until we are actually there. Presumably, Jesus had no script for facing Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. He knew what to say and what not to say only when he stood in that position. And only if and when we stand in that same position will we know what to say, how to say it, and what not to say.

The position of the victim is not one that involves calling for vengeance, hoping that God will burn the bad guys into stubble, but instead, one only prays for “the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings.” (Mal. 4: 1–2) To wish vengeance is to wish to become a persecutor if the opportunity should arise. Jesus himself did not call for vengeance, and when he was raised from the dead and could have inflicted vengeance, he did nothing of the kind. Jesus assures us that, in this place of the victim where we may be betrayed and even put to death, not a hair of our “heads will perish,” and by our endurance we will “win our souls.” (Lk. 21: 18–19)

Winning our souls can be understood in many ways, but in the place of the victim, winning our souls means seeing God as God truly is by being like God in the same place as God, like the sun with healing in its wings. (Cf. 1 Jn. 3: 2) This winning of souls is precisely what we see in the story of the 21 Coptic Martyrs in 2015, whose story has been told by Martin Mosebach. In interviewing the families of these martyrs, Mosebach encountered grief but also rejoicing in their loved ones’ rising in Christ. In losing sons, brothers, husbands, these people were also in the place of the victim. Mosebach said in his many conversations: “never once did anyone call for retribution or revenge, nor even for the murders to be punished.” This is what it means to be in the place of the risen and forgiving Victim.

It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

On Being Called by God

AndrewPreaching1The narratives of the call of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter bring to mind my own experiences of God’s call. In my case, it wasn’t quite like being attacked by a Cherubim in church, getting knocked down on the Road to Damascus or being told to throw out the fishing nets one more time and being overwhelmed by the catch.

I did quite a lot of fishing as a child for the simple reason that my father loved it and my family spent most summer vacations at a fishing lodge. I lost interest in fishing by the time I was a teenager but the contemplative aspect of fishing stayed with me as I became a monk. While praying the Divine Office and praying silently in the Abbey Church, I constantly sense God calling me out of my self-preoccupations and self-indulgence to the wider concerns of God.

I had the call of Isaiah memorized when I was a choirboy because I sang an overwrought anthem to that text, ending with the prophet’s quiet volunteering to be sent by God. Even then, I had intimations that I might be called to the ministry although I was put off by how much kneeling I would have to do. Even so, one Sunday when our whole family was too sick to go to church, I led the four of us in the Office of Morning Prayer. As for kneeling, liturgical renewal dealt with that.

During my late high school and college years, I was a self-styled religious rebel who didn’t like the way God ran the universe. Like Paul, I was quite vocal about saying what I thought to anyone who would listen and to others who would rather not. By hindsight, I realize that I was being called all that time until I listened sufficiently to get on the track that led me to St. Gregory’s Abbey. By then I had come to realize that God doesn’t try to run the universe but God has pointed out ways we can run it better than we’re doing it if only we would listen.

It is tempting to think that one is special if one senses a call from God, as if God would surely call a superior person such as myself. But Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter all felt differently when approached by God. In each case, the call convicted them and pulled them out of the way they were living to a radical change of attitude and activity. In my case, I had to realize that a seminary I went to after graduating from college was the wrong choice for me, one fueled by my rebellious attitude. Only then could I hear the call to a seminary much better suited for me.

In God’s mission charge to Isaiah, God tells him to tell the people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” (Is. 6: 9) Jesus uses these same words to characterize the response he got from his own preaching. Some way to be “ catching people.” (Lk. 5: 10) There are many ways one can understand what it means to be a person of unclean lips living “among a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6: 5) René Girard writes of the human tendency to share desires so intensely that they become rivalrous. When that happens, we may have ears but we will not hear what other people are saying and we will not hear what God is saying to us. In my case, I had cast myself so deeply into rivalry with God that I drowned out the direction of my call for many years. Since the most vulnerable people in a society bear the brunt of the rivalry of the powerful, deafness to the cries of the poor go unheard with only prophets like Isaiah to defend them.

Paul received his call from the resurrected Christ who asked Paul why he was persecuting him in the act of persecuting his people. John’s Gospel has a variant of the story of the overwhelming catch of fish placed after the Resurrection which raises the intriguing question of whether or not Luke placed a resurrection narrative in an early chapter of his narrative. In any case, after deserting Jesus, the disciples did need to be called a second time by the resurrected Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead because first he was killed in an act of collective violence, the sort of persecution Girard argues is the result of a society allowing itself to be swamped in rivalry where we have ears but fail to hear.

Since God’s call to each of us entails preaching the Word and, much more important, witnessing to it in our ways of living, we are fundamentally spreading our repentance to others to open their ears as well. The hazard is that a sense of rivalry can enter through the back door if we treat our ministry of witnessing as a contest in which we try to “defeat” the other and win a “victory.” What we need to do is listen to ourselves in God, and listen to others as God listens to them, and use our listening skills, based on repentance, to help other people learn to listen.

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God  and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

The Eleventh Commandment

monksinChoir1The rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life and then walked away grieving when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned (Mk. 10: 21) is a warning to all of us, rich or poor. Jesus’ added warning that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” only makes the warning all the more dire. Paul strengthens the warning further when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” (1 Tim. 6: 10) Bucking these warnings is our formation from earliest childhood that money is both good and necessary and more of it is always better than less.

Money is not an individual matter; money is a system. It has to be if it’s going to be a medium of exchange. As a system, money gains power over all of us who use it. This is a power that easily distorts the moral conscience. In this regard, it is telling that in the commandments Jesus lists to the rich man, all are from the Ten Commandments except “You shall not defraud.” (Mk. 10: 19) Perhaps this is an eleventh commandment, or perhaps it is a version of: “You shall not covet.” (Ex. 20: 17) The more power money gains over us, the more likely it is that we will defraud others in order to get more of it. Indeed, most rich people in Palestine gained their wealth at the expense of poor farmers during hard times. Amos denounces those who “ trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.” (Am. 5: 11) Such people turn “justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground.” (Am. 5: 7) Here we see courts of justice and the spoken word brought in with oppression of the poor as one knotted system.

The thought of the French thinker René Girard demonstrates that economic systems, like other interlocking social systems, are part of an all-pervasive system generated by what Girard called “mimetic desire.” That is, when one person wants something, other people are more apt to want it. The more somebody wants something, the more other people want it, not because of the intrinsic vale of whatever is valued but because something is valued. The interlocking of shared desires permeates society, making society a more tightly knotted system than the economical one. This is what the tenth commandment not to covet is all about. Jesus’ eleventh commandment deepens the tenth: you shall not steal what you covet because you have the social and economic power to do so. Coveting is not a vice only for the rich. I am among those who are seriously offended by what some preachers call “the Prosperity Gospel,” which seems to contradict Jesus’ words to the Rich Man. Somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember where), I read that many people who are attracted to the “Prosperity Gospel” are not rich but poor. In mimetic desire, other people model desires for other people. That is, other people tell me and show me what to desire. In the case of the “Prosperity Gospel,” rich people model to the poor what they should desire. We see the same phenomenon among Jesus’ disciples when, after being told how hard it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, asked Jesus: “Then who can be saved?” (Mk. 10: 26) The economic system, then, is fueled by the deeper system of mimetic desire wherein everybody wants to be like the rich landlords who break the tenth and eleventh commandments.

Jesus, then, is not inviting one person who happens to be rich to change; Jesus is asking all of us to change in such a way that the system is changed. The omnipresence of mimetic desire makes it clear that, important as it is to reform economic structures, it isn’t enough to do the job on its own. Our hearts need a makeover individually and collectively. It is this new system of the heart that Jesus inaugurated at the beginning of his teaching ministry when he proclaimed a Jubilee of freedom from being either a debtor or a creditor. (Lk. 4: 16–21)

St. Paul’s collection for the Church of Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8: 1–15) can be seen as an example of what economy can look like if we give our hearts to the tenth and eleventh commandments. Interestingly, the Macedonians, out of their poverty “overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” (2 Cor. 8: 2). This makes one wonder if the Macedonians were more able to thread the eye of the needle than the Rich Man. Paul adds a Christological dimension with the example of Jesus who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. (2 Cor. 8: 9) Jesus was asking the Rich Man and each of us to do what He Himself had already done by coming into our world and its systems driven by mimetic desire. Here mimetic desire becomes redirected to desiring the good of other people, giving new vitality to Jesus’ famous words quoted by Paul: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20: 35)

See also my blog post: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem.

For an introduction to René Girard and his theory of mimetic desire, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

Eating Together

garden1Eating is among the most fundamental activities of civilization, perhaps the most fundamental. It is the practice that brings people together to share in nourishment and social nurturing. And yet, throughout the animal kingdom, sustenance requires feeding on other living beings. Sometimes it is other animals, sometime plants. That is, a group bonding through eating inevitably bonds at the expense of other living beings.

The Christian Eucharist builds on the social bonding with its celebration of a meal that binds people together. Being bound up with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a sacrifice made so that all other people may live, it is a meal of human sacrifice. Yet it is made a bloodless sacrifice by the serving of bread and wine that in some mysterious way are identified with the body and blood of Jesus, thus sanitizing the Eucharist of the violence in the story that is told in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus’ strange words in his long monolog that follows the feeding in the wilderness connects this feeding with the Eucharist in words that are both comforting in that they promise a deep union with Jesus, but disturbing by thrusting the violence of Jesus’ death in our faces. English translations inevitably lose much of the force of the words as there is no English word that catches the connotations of trogein.“Gnaw” comes closest but even that is not strong enough. The German word fressen, which refers to the eating of non-human animals, comes much closer. When I used the word flippantly in conversation with a German acquaintance, his reaction was very strong, about as strong as our reaction to Jesus’ words ought to be. Which is precisely the way “the Jews” react to Jesus’ words.

In reply to “the Jews’s” anger, Jesus promises that his flesh and blood are “real food” and “real drink” without which we have no life in us. Jesus goes on to make the even more audacious claim that his body and blood do not nourish us as meat and vegetables nourish us. Such nourishment is not lasting and needs to be renewed by further eating and drinking as the manna God fed the Israelites in the desert needed to be re-gathered every day. But Jesus’ own flesh and blood feeds us in such a way that we will live forever.

If Jesus can be our food in a way that sustains us everlastingly, then his own life must also be constantly renewed. This is the claim he makes when he says that he abides in his Father and his Father abides in him. This amounts to the astounding claim that it is possible to be nourished in a way that it is not at the expense of any living being. How can this be?

Since Jesus’ promise of everlasting nourishment is tied so closely to his painful death, we might get some understanding by looking at sacrifice. Sacrifice is closely tied to eating. Deities feed on animals or vegetation, or at least the aroma of them, and the sacrificers usually eat the food that was sacrificed. The Passover lamb is sacrificed both to spare the Israelites from the plague that strikes the first-born of Egypt and a sacrifice to physical hunger, and thus a source of nourishment as well. Sacrifices need to be repeated, as the author of Hebrews says. (Heb. 7: 27; 9: 6) In his sacrificial death, Jesus has obtained “eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9: 12) Thus, this author is making the same claim on behalf of Jesus that Jesus is making in John’s Gospel.
René Girard is helpful here. His thesis that civilization is founded on sacrifice and thus needs to be fueled by repetition of the same alerts us to the ongoing “nourishment” civilization receives through the periodic deaths of victims. One sacrifice lasts only for so long and then social tensions require another. Caiaphas intended Jesus’s death to be such a life-giving sacrifice for the people, (Jn. 12: 50–52) but Caiaphas got more than he bargained for. Jesus was raised from the dead and so became empowered to continually offer his life for others while no longer being subject to death himself. This is how Girard would have us understand the Church’s claim that Jesus’ sacrifice is the final sacrifice. There is no longer a need for sacrificial victims because the way has been opened for us to be everlastingly nourished by the life that was given once for all.

The death and resurrection of Christ, then, are a pledge of the heavenly banquet where we will be nourished without need of taking any life, not even that of plants, but in this life, we still need to eat living beings of some sort. Even Lady Wisdom has to slaughter animals for her banquet. What we can do is let Christ nourish us deeply in the here and now so that we do not need to sacrifice other people as we are prone to do, but rather will feed others in anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

Living with Mimetic Desire through Meditation: An Introduction to a Practicum Workshop on Contemplative Prayer

FrJudeInChoir - CopyRené Girard’s Mimetic Theory has given us many important insights into the roots of human violence, both in the human heart and at the root of civilization. By revealing the entanglements of our desires with the desires of others and the way this entanglement easily and quickly leads to rivalry, even in people of good will, Mimetic Theory places strong demands upon us. Being a scholar and thinker, Girard wasn’t the sort of person to work out practical disciplines that might help us live by his theories, although his overall character as known to me suggests that he lived by his ideals very well. I have heard of one telling moment when he was asked how to live by his theory. René answered that it requires sanctity. There are many saints over the centuries who have taught spiritual practices that help us live with the challenges that Mimetic Theory brings to light.

Girard analyzed the interaction of human desires on a horizontal level where the workings of mimetic desire in a social matrix can be quite claustrophic. Here we can get hemmed in by the pressure of strong desires that either conflict or draw everyone in one direction that usually ends in persecution. It is this scapegoat mechanism committed at this horizontal level that is the basis of civilization. Given the mendacity that civilization so established requires, civilization has been built on lies since the beginning. This suggests that relief can only come from outside the system, from a desire vertical to the horizontal matrix. The question is, how do we tap into a vertical reality that rises above human mimetic rivalry and offers us an alternative to it?

Of the many disciplines that have been developed in the world’s wisdom traditions that help us tune in to reality outside the human mimetic system, I wish to focus on meditation, known as contemplative prayer or centering prayer in the Christian tradition. One of the earliest and most developed contemplative traditions arose within Hinduism by the sages whose teaching were recorded in the Upanishads. It is surely no coincidence that this withdrawal into meditation was accompanied by questioning and sometimes rejecting Vedic sacrificial rituals. Out of Hinduism, Buddhism arose, a tradition in which meditative practices remain fundamental. Buddhists treatises on meditation often show deep insight into the working of mimetic desire and the need to escape its violent aspects.

There seems to be a contemplative element to much ancient Greek philosophy but I haven’t found much in the way of contemplative practices there except perhaps the Pythagorean community, for which information is scanty. Judaism also produced little in this regard but the many references to meditating on God’s Torah, especially in Psalm 119, suggest that the study of Torah may have included a meditative aspect.

By the fourth Christian century, monasticism had become a highly organized institution. The earliest monastic literature of pioneers such as Anthony of Egypt and Pachomius refer to free-lance ascetics who initiated them into contemplative practices., suggesting that practitioners of contemplation go back to Christianity’s earliest years. The many challenges in Jesus’ teachings involving self-knowledge and self-discipline, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were enough to drive many people into the desert just as Jesus himself was driven out into the desert to prepare for his public ministry. The Beatitude “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” was among the most meditated on verses in all scripture in this early monastic movement. There are many ways this beatitude can be understood, but surely one of them is that the less a person is affected by rivalrous mimetic desire and the more attuned to the non-rivalrous model of Jesus’s Desire, the more pure of heart one is.

Contemplative prayer did not develop in Christianity as an antidote to mimetic rivalry. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to reach union with God through Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Even so, the more we learn of mimetic desire, the more we realize that union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit is a powerful means of withdrawing from mimetic rivalry and developing habits of the heart that foster nurturing other people.

Among the differences in contemplative disciplines in various traditions, there are many similarities. The greatest of these is that the nuts and bolts of contemplative prayer, if you will excuse such a mechanical image, seem to be roughly the same across the board. In these traditions, including that of psychologists who recommend meditation for the sake of mental health, the primary technique is a gentle focusing of the mind that collects a person and leads to a withdrawal from the inner noise that plagues us most of the time and often fuels mimetic rivalry. Zen Buddhist masters aptly call it the monkey mind. The approach to focusing should always be gentle. When the monkeys in the mind get active, they are irritating and it is tempting to get angry at them and try to swat them away. In this way we easily get caught up in mimetic rivalry with the monkey mind, which is the opposite of meditating. More problematic, when we try to quiet the mind in order to meditate, we often find our minds filled with rivalrous thoughts where every little grudge or slight blows up and takes center stage. It is enough to make us think that trying to meditate makes us more rivalrous than we were before. That is not the case. What is happening is that rivalrous desires and actions that were below our radar have become more visible in the quiet space we are clearing within us. The noise of mimetic rivalry does not like silence so it makes a huge racket to try and draw us back into the fray until we take it for granted once again. As with monkey mind distractions, it is self-defeating to engage in battle with rivalrous thoughts. We must do the opposite: let the racket continue on its own steam without any fuel from ourselves. Of course, it won’t do to try not thinking about whatever distracts us. We must return to whatever focus we are using for our meditation.

It is when we look at how we focus or what we focus on and the world view we bring to contemplative practice, that we see the differences between traditions. A Christian’s primary focus is Jesus Christ crucified and risen as the normative example to follow. Even if a Christian does contemplative practice without images, the Christian is moving inside the example of Christ. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola use structured meditations that often involve putting one in a Gospel scene, reliving it interiorly, and making a resolution to apply the fruit of the meditation. Much Buddhist meditative practice is without images but within Tibetan Buddhism, many elaborate mandolas have been devised to focus meditation. Whatever examples we have in our traditions, we open our hearts to invite them to enter deeply within us so that their desires can resonate within us.

The type of focus that mainly, or totally eschews images turns up in just about every contemplative tradition but there is usually a means of focusing that is not tied to images. Many Zen practitioners use a koan, Hindus a mantra, Islamic Sufis practice dhikr. Repetitive prayers turn up in the desert monastic tradition in Christianity, with many of these monastics saying a Psalm verse over and over again. The opening verse of Psalm 70: “O God make haste to help me” was a favorite, noted in the writings of John Cassian. The Eastern Orthodox tradition fostered the Jesus prayer which involves repeating the name of Jesus. The anonymous 14th century English classic The Cloud of Unknowing suggests focusing on a prayer word such as “God” or “Love.” Contemporary teachings on centering prayer are deeply indebted to this treatise. Whether a focusing technique begins with images or without, over time, contemplative practice moves beyond images, beyond thought, and sometimes beyond the focusing technique into a state that is paradoxically called both emptiness and fullness. If and when such a state happens, there is nothing to do but just be.

I have used the word tradition many times. That is because the practices I have been talking about have developed in traditions where teachings were handed down from generation to generation. In these traditions, contemplative practices are deeply grounded in scriptures, teachings, and liturgical practice. Contemplative practice is best performed within a tradition accompanied with respect for other traditions. This has become a problem for many people in modern and post-modern times where a sense of tradition is eroding. Sometimes this erosion can be blamed on people desiring to be autonomous, a trait that Mimetic Theory warns us makes us all the more susceptible to mimetic movements in society. Many times, however, it is a result of scandals within the various traditions where trust has been compromised. In any case, awareness of the traditions in which contemplative practices are embedded is important and can be enriching. The more one can participate in an deep tradition, even if marginally, the better.

Contemplation is an exercise in letting go and letting God, to use a phrase made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is worth noting that contemplative meditation is one of the twelves steps of recovery for addiction. In renouncing the monkey mind, we are also practicing the renunciation of mimetic rivalry. This is a practice that can have real effects in our lives as it gives us practice in renouncing mimetic rivalry in our day-to-day encounters. Mimetic Theory teaches that we are connected to everybody through the interaction of our desires. In rivalrous encounters, we are stuck together in rivalry. Contemplation opens us up to all other people through God’s Desire that is outside of the system. This divine Desire invites us to union with all sentient beings through the Desire that set all of Creation into motion at the beginning before the beginning of civilization.

[For a much more detailed discussion of contemplative prayer see Moving and Resting in God’s Desire]