Healiang the Gods and the Social Body

purpleFlower1Two major YA series have just been just been completed. One is The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan, the other The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman. With one being a rollicking romp filled with deities and mythological monsters, the other a sober social critique, the two are very different but one thing they have in common is concluding with a strong measure of hard won reconciliation. The final volume in Riordan’s set is The Blood of Olympus and the finale of Shusterman’s is Undivided.

The Heroes of Olympus is the second set of five books dealing with adolescent demigods so it is a relief to have finished a set that is enough to give ADHD to anyone who doesn’t already have it. This second set adds Roman deities and their offspring to the Greek deities and their offspring of the first set. Not surprisingly, the demigods on each side have been feuding for a lot of centuries. The deities themselves suffer some identity crises as they are pulled from Greek to Roman manifestation back to Greek, etc. As a resentful Chronos rose up in the first set, an even more resentful Gaia is rising up in the second, sucking in the power from the long-standing resentments of giants, monsters and neglected deities. Needless to say, the demigods have to get over their feud if there are going to stop Gaia. My review of the third book The Mark of Athena in my blogpost Arachne, Athena and a Thousand Princes” explores these themes.

I discussed Shusterman’s series in my earlier blogpost “Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon.” Shusterman envisions an American society where a civil war was ended with an agreement to outlaw all abortion but allow the unwinding of troubled and troubling adolescents for the harvesting of their body parts to implant on other people. This violent, sacrificial situation accelerates in the last two volumes and this final volume brings everything to the cusp of change where several people have to respond rightly at the right time to lead to a peaceful end and not a bloody one. From start to finish, it’s a riveting and wrenching tale.

In both of these concluding volumes, tons of hate and resentment must be overcome if catastrophe is to be avoided. Of the two, Shusterman’s series is much the deepest and probing. He is among the most perceptive among all YA authors on issues of mimetic desire and rivalry. Riordan is undoubtedly a lot more fun for younger readers and the message should come across. Both series have much to offer. I’m not writing this post to analyze either series further but to draw your attention to them as important resources for young readers to help with these same issues in their lives,

Caring for the Dead (Thoughts for All Souls Day)

cemetery1The most solemn and moving chapter in Søren Kierkegaard’s remarkable book Works of Love is “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Throughout this Book, Kierkegaard models love on God’s agape, love that is not transactional and therefore requires nothing in return. After exploring such self-giving love in live human relationships at length, Kierkegaard avers that “the work of love of remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love.” This love, according to Kierkegaard is the purest love because it is nonreciprocal; the dead “make no repayment.” This is in contrast with love for newborn children who also cannot repay as the love freely given to newborns has the potential of being repaid in the future as the child matures.

However, the dead are not as dead as Kierkegaard seems to think as the dead continue to live in us in a dynamic way that can be enriching. Caring for the dead, as does caring for any live person, tends to lower resentment if there happens to be any to start with. This often begins when a person dies. We often say we should not speak ill of the dead. The instinct behind this adage is that sympathy for the dead person, warts and all, tends to kick in automatically, making the release of resentment and forgiveness free gifts from God that we can pass on to the dead. There is something about death that helps us see that person as God sees him or her, and God sees everybody, without exception, with forgiveness and freely-given love.

Resentment makes any relationship destructively static. God is completely boxed out of the relationship. Which is a way of saying the resentment creates an idol out of the one who is resented. That is, the resented person becomes central to one’s life and God does not. The lessening of resentment allows a relationship to change. This is just as true of a relationship with a dead person as it is with that of a person still alive. This dynamic allows us to understand aspects of the person we had never understood before. Giving this dynamic free reign with a dead person frees the dead person to reciprocate in a way because the dynamic of increased sympathy and understanding is so rewarding.

Caring for the dead includes commending them to God. When we do this, we become more aware of how deeply God loves both the dead and the living and that this love spurs a desire for change until one has reached the fullest potential (teleios in Greek, a word suggesting finality). If this is what God desires, then it should be what we desire for the dead and the living, including for ourselves. Of course, it also follows that the dead desire the same. And so it is that the dead, living with God, can give us much more in return for our care than we can give them.

See also “Living with the Dead.”

Renouncing Resentment

buddingTree1Since resentment keeps us locked into the groups and individuals who feel have hurt us, it behooves us to let go of our resentments, as I suggested at the end of my post “Resentment: the Glue that Keeps us Stuck Together.” As everyone who has tried it knows, letting go of resentments is one of the greatest challenges in life. Concentrating on letting go of our resentments is counter-productive as this technique keeps us focused on the very thing we are trying to get rid of. It is like the childhood game: Try to get through one minute without thinking of strawberry shortcake. Obviously, all one can think of for the next minute is strawberry shortcake.

The thing to do is think of something else, and/or think of the sources of our resentments in a new way. At the end of my last post, I gave an example of the latter by bringing in St. Paul’s recurring admonition to think of others and their needs ahead of our own. We can often gain a degree of sympathy of the people we resent if we see some of the brokenness they suffer and see our own brokenness mirrored in them. (It is this mirroring effect that often makes us wish to escape this truth through projecting it on to others.) The something else that is most effective for redirecting focus is, at least for a Christian like me, Jesus the Forgiving Victim. The emphasis here is on “forgiving victim.” Far too many Christians have used the memory of Jesus’ death as a cause for resentment with tragic results.

Actually, thinking isn’t really the way to handle resentment because resentment isn’t a matter of thought; it’s a much more visceral phenomenon. It isn’t that we decide to be resentful because it’s a nice thing to do and we can decide to stop being resentful at the drop of a wish. Resentment is something that grabs us before we know it has grabbed us and resentment does not loosen its hold on us easily. It is as if resentment, like a virus infecting one’s body, has its own blind urge for survival no matter what damage it does to anything else. So, when I talk about redirecting attention to Jesus the Forgiving Victim and to the people we resent in the light of Jesus who has forgiven them as much as He has forgiven us, I mean that we have to undergo a revolution of the whole, embodied person. I didn’t say that we should initiate the revolution; I said we should undergo it. That is, we have to let go in a very deep way so that the Desire of the Forgiving Victim can become our visceral desire, a desire much deeper than the desire of resentment which is locked into the same resentful desire of other people.

Basic spiritual practices such as liturgical prayer, deep reading of scripture and meditation (contemplative prayer) are, or should be, practiced at this same deep visceral level so that they can open us up to being filled with the Desire of the Forgiving Victim. Praying with others is a means of being in a group that gains cohesion by praying without resentment rather than persecution, which breeds resentment. The more solitary practice of meditation is still made in solidarity with others, thus seeking to relate us to God and other people without resentment. In a short blog post, renouncing resentment sounds like a simple matter. Well, it is simple, but it takes years of devoted practice.

Each time we allow the Forgiving Victim to remove any resentment we harbor, we glimpse a bit more of the new Heaven and the new Earth coming down from Heaven into the midst of our lives.

[I discuss spiritual practices in reference to the Rule of St. Benedict in my book Tools for 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

Human Swords, God’s Peace

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

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

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

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

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

A Risen Life Full of Forgiveness and Love

crosswButterfliesHere is my favorite thought experiment: Imagine that everybody around you ganged up on you, leveled incredible accusations against you, and rained savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?

Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed: gather God’s people in peace by peaceful means only. That is, after his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount: return evil with good, hatred with love. The fullness of Jesus ‘forgiving love can be as earth-shattering as an earthquake or as gentle as stepping through a wall.

If Jesus were dead and there was a body in the tomb for the women to anoint, chances are that Jesus’ disciples would either have remained in hiding or they would have reacted to the violent act of the crucifixion with violence. But in Luke the young men in white asked the women: “Why seek the living among the dead?” That is, God did not will the death of Jesus, God willed life for Jesus because that is what God wills for each one of us. As long as we stop at Jesus’ death, we also stop at the grief and anger and that leads to violence. If we move on to the life of Jesus, than there isn’t the same room for grief and anger because Jesus is alive and wants us to be alive in Him.

In short order, Peter passes on the same absence of revenge of Jesus’ persecutors and fullness of forgiving love for them when he tells the people in Jerusalem precisely what they had done, sticking to the bare facts and not adding irrelevant insults the way we usually do in such situations. When Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader. Peter had heard the cock crow, repented and accepted Christ’s forgiveness and love. Peter was a weak human being like the rest of us. If Peter is like us, we can be like him.

See also Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.