On Following the God of All Victims

WilliamGuestsChurch1In our readings for today, we celebrate the Week of Christian Unity with the short narrative of Jesus calling his first disciples (Mt. 4: 18–22) and Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians for their discord and divisiveness (1 Cor. 1: 11–13). The light in the darkness proclaimed by Isaiah (Is. 9: 2) shines brightly on the first scenario but is much obscured in the second.

The situation in Corinth is aptly described by René Girard’s term “mimetic rivalry.” That is, the rivals are mirror images of each other. It is significant that Paul does not mention any issues of disagreement, even though we know from other sources that he had issues with Cephas (Peter.) Girard has taught us that when mimetic rivalry escalates, the issues fall away and we get the chaos of rivalry for the sake of rivalry. Girard goes on to suggest that in ancient societies this chaotic rivalry repeatedly resolved itself through suddenly focusing on one victim who was put to death. Peace, for a time, followed this atrocity. Girard goes on to aver that when this same scenario was committed against Jesus of Nazareth, the truth of this collective violence was unveiled to the extent that it could never again create peace, not even for a time, as it did before. Through Christ, God has presented us with the challenge of either renouncing our participation in chaotic mimetic rivalry or participating in the total destruction of civilization. [For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

When we look at the scenario in Corinth denounced in Paul, a scenario we can all recognize in our families, social groups, work places, charity organizations, and even (sometimes especially!) in our parish churches, it appears that Christianity has failed. Actually, the situation is more complicated than that. A big part of the problem is that Christianity has succeeded too well. Or perhaps we should say Christianity has succeeded in a way that threatens to make the situation worse and more dangerous.

The unveiling of collective violence by the Cross has led to an ever-accelerating increase in sympathy for victims. We see this early in Christianity through the charitable work to relieve poverty and disease with hospitals being one of the great Christian inventions. We fret, quite rightly, about serious problems with racism in contemporary America but we do well to remember that racism has been practiced by all people of all times and places and it is only in places where the Gospel has had an influence that anybody has seen racism as a problem and acted on that perception.

While to be a victim was such an unmitigated disgrace in the ancient world that one would do anything to avoid that stigma, preferably by victimizing somebody else, to be a victim has become a badge of honor. This is indeed a badge of honor for people like those who generously risked their well-being and lives during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, but it looks like shameless exploitation of real victims by those who feel victimized when called to account for injustices and crimes inflicted on others.

This division between real victims and imposters, a division that is often far from clear, is not the problem of division that concerns me during the Week of Christian Unity. The deeper problem is what I am inclined to call a chaos of victims. We have today a plethora of real, legitimate victims, even if the plight of some might seem more urgent than others. Here is the rub. Not only do we have the social chaos of those who continue to victimize others through brute force such as rape or economic exploitation, and the social chaos of many who just don’t care, we have the social chaos of advocates for victims and victims trying to ameliorate their own circumstances. Put in a nutshell: we have a chaos of mimetic rivalry between the favorite victims of some advocates against the favorite victims of other advocates. Here is the heart of the most serious divisions within Christianity in our time. This is not a chaos of those wanting or willing to hurt others; this is a chaos among those who willingly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that those of us concerned with the vulnerable and the helpless will be more sensitive to some victims more than others. This increased sensitivity to some victims can look like indifference to others and can become downright hostile in situations where equal advocacy between causes is difficult and sometimes impossible.

I am not saying this from outside the fray. I am very much inside it, very much involved in all the mimetic issues I am describing. I know that I respond to the needs of some victims more than others. The complexity of this tension among those of us who wish to help others is enough to lead to despair but we have a light in the darkness in the calling of Jesus to follow Him. Jesus is not a Messiah divided among many victims and their advocates; Jesus is a Messiah for all victims and their advocates. It is surely this call and not any intellectual or moral perspicacity of my part that makes it possible for me to even define this problem as I have. The call to discipleship is a call for repentance on many levels, ranging from our moral own violence and lassitude to the rivalry for the sake of rivalry such as at Corinth, to our rivalry over the causes of real victims. It is this very complexity that requires us to seek a conversion of society and not just our individual selves. Here is where I see the biggest challenge to Christian unity.

Sacrificing the Aztecs

Teotihuacan9The sacrificial rites of the Aztecs at the time of their conquest give a rich example of the institutionalizing of sacrifice. The horrific quantity of children sacrificed to bring on rain with their tears, and the men whose hearts were cut out to keep the sun alive leads us to dismiss them as civilized human beings. But they were highly civilized. In the book Sacrifice and Modern thought, two stimulating articles help us understand Aztec sacrifice. Both Laura Rival and David Brown help us sympathize with the Aztecs as human beings. Rival points out that human sacrifice was modeled on the deities who threw themselves into the primordial fire to create the fifth sun and set it in motion. This myth points to a noble disposition behind the sacrifice. It is not hard, however, to see this as a typical myth that hides the collective violence that laid the foundations of their culture.

David Brown summarizes clearly the “flower wars” that were part of the sacrificial system. These wars had become as highly ritualized as the sacrifices performed on the top of the pyramids. The whole purpose of these wars was to capture sacrificial victims in fair fights. The initial chaos leading to the myths and sacrificial rites had led to a complex, highly restrained structure of warfare.

Brown quotes a moving statement by an Aztec leader who says that the Spaniards did not understand “how vital it is for us to give blood to the gods.” As selfless as the sacrifices were, and the Aztecs believed they were rewarded in the afterlife, they were convinced that if they failed to continue these sacrifices, the gods would become angry and turn away from them. Here we have it: as with so many other early cultures, the Aztecs were caught in a sacrificial system that allowed no escape. If the gods are subject to anger and capriciousness, one does not dare turn away from the only rites that had a chance of deflecting the divine wrath.

The structure and restraint of the Aztecs is a dramatic contrast to the chaotic overrunning of their country on the part of the Spanish Conquistadors. Cortes justified these measures out of repulsion at the sacrifices carried out by the conquered people, but in a cruel irony, the Spanish made a cruel holocaust of the sacrificers. A comparison with the lynching of blacks in the United States shows us the same chaotic mob violence. (See Selling Postcards of the Cross.) In The One by Whom Scandal Comes, René Girard contrasts the fundamental way Satan works in archaic cultures and in modern cultures where some awareness of the Gospel has occurred. Among the Aztecs, as with so many other peoples, Satan was the transcendent principal of order. But with Satan cast out of the sky during the ministry of the Hebrew prophet Jesus, Satan acts imminently within human cultures as a disrupter.

In my last post, I noted how killing twins became part of a package of maintaining a satanic social order. (See Twin Killings.) All twins can be thankful that this order has been dismantled. Likewise, we can be grateful that we don’t have pyramids where people’s hearts are torn out. We are free of the satanic order, but we are not free of the chaotic violence that has been unleashed on to the world unless we actively seek the freedom we gain from being grounded in the God of Love who has gathered all Aztec victims into the divine fire that fills us all with eternal life.