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.

On Expelling the Accuser, not the Victim

It seems that every time a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes, there are some religious leaders who proclaim that the disaster was a punishment from God. This is an old game. During the Middle Ages, for example, plagues were routinely blamed on the Jews or on those who tolerated their existence in the city. Interestingly, such accusations are still leveled mainly at unpopular minorities, such as homosexuals. If God is punishing New York for its wickedness, why not suggest God is punishing the city for the misconduct of financial leaders?

Does Jesus go for this sort of blaming game? On the contrary, Jesus insists that the eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse sinners than the rest (Luke 13:4). Jesus sounds threatening when he says others will likewise perish if they do not repent, but Jesus is not exasperated by the people killed by the falling tower, but by the people who thought the victims were greater sinners. Jesus is reminding us that the disasters that fall on other people can just as easily fall on us, regardless of how good or bad we are.

A stronger repudiation of this blaming theology comes in John 9 when Jesus’ disciples ask if it was the blind man’s parents who sinned or the blind man himself that he was born blind. Jesus replies that neither were to blame, but the man was born blind that so the “works of God might be manifest in him.” That is, nobody was blamed for the blindness, but Jesus responded to the situation by giving the man his sight.

Most important of all, Jesus was executed because he was blamed for the social unrest in Jerusalem when any historian can see numerous causes that had nothing to do with Jesus. When Jesus rose from the dead, he did not cast blame on his killers, but returned as the forgiving victim. Is it credible that Jesus would encourage his heavenly father to send hurricanes to people who don’t measure up to his standards?

On the contrary, the story of the man born blind makes it clear that that the proper response to catastrophes is not blaming but compassion. That is, we should do everything we can to manifest God’s works in the face of these catastrophes. The name Satan means “Accuser.” In Revelation 12, Satan was cast out of Heaven when Jesus was raised into Heaven. With Jesus, there is no room for accusation. There is only room for healing the afflicted and doing everything we can to prevent or mitigate further catastrophes.

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