Our Heavenly Father and Teacher

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe denunciations by prophets like Micah of the rulers “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Mic. 3:9) and Jesus’ denunciations of Pharisees in Matthew 23 tend to curl our mouths in a snide smile as we think about how much better we are than they. But while Jesus is still warming up for his fiery words to come, he slows down and says: “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (Mt. 23: 9–10) When Jesus goes on with words of woe for the scribes and Pharisees, we are apt to conveniently shove these words aside, but, I think we should linger over them a bit before enjoying the scolding of “other” people.

That the false prophets and wayward rulers, the Pharisees and the scribes are not worthy of being called “Father” or “Teacher” or Leader” is understandable. The broader implication of not calling other people “father” is that we are all brothers and sisters. That is, Jesus is leveling the field among humans so that all of our relationships are fraternal, including relationships with people we usually think are “higher” or “lower” than we are, such as the relationship between parents and children and leaders and their followers. That is, we are all equal but we have a tendency to try to be more equal than others. And that is where we have problems.

Jesus scoffs at those who want the best places in the synagogues and banquets and who want to be greeted with fawning respect in the marketplace. We scoff at them too since mocking the foibles of our leaders and putting them down is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Which is to say that it is not just false prophets and ruthless leaders and scribes and Pharisees who do these things. We all do them. We all try to be a little more equal than other people in little and big ways. It is this desire to be more equal than others that causes us to lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and not “lift a finger to move them.” After all, putting a weight on another makes the person stoop, lowering that person. So why do anything to help the lowered person rise up?

The lectionary spares us the rest of Jesus’ harsh words as he dissects the ways we interpret law and morality to our own advantage and the disadvantage of others. Jesus reaches his climax with the charge that we persecute the prophets and so that “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” will be on our heads. (Mt. 23: 35) Jesus is warning us that the pushing and shoving to get the best seats at the banquet lead to the violence perpetrated against the prophets sent by God.

Forgotten in all this rivalry is Jesus’ teaching: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt. 23: 11) This is quite the opposite of laying burdens on other people to make them bow down to us in public places. Jesus is also accepting the fact that some humans naturally take more responsibility for others and do act as leaders. Paul, for example, was called to preach the Good News of Jesus and naturally went on to help people organize their churches. But when preaching in Thessalonika, Paul took the burdens on himself and worked hard so as not to be a burden on others. And he dealt with the Thessalonians like “a father with his children” in trying to lead them in a way worthy of God’s kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. W: 11–12) That is, a leader has to make everyone else more important than oneself.

This is what Jesus did, even to dying on the cross. And this is why Jesus is our teacher and guide to his heavenly Abba.

Tending God’s Vineyard

Cemetary2I have discussed the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire where I suggest that Jesus was warning his listeners of impending collective violence. I also have used this parable as Exhibit A for René Girard’s thesis that humans have a tendency to establish culture in the midst of social crisis through rounding on a victim who is killed or expelled. This time I want to take the parable in a different direction.

The cue for my changed direction is the end of the Parable of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5 on which Jesus’ parable is modeled. In both parables, the owner of the vineyard has taken great trouble to set up the vineyard for maximum productivity, but things still go awry. In Isaiah’s parable, there is not the cycle of violence described in Jesus’ parable, but the well-planted grapes grow wild. The owner (Yahweh) “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Is. 5: 7) Isaiah goes on make it clear that the violence he is complaining about is about those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Is. 5: 8) We could update this verse by adding those who add company to company and conglomerate to conglomerate.

Bringing this background into Jesus’ parable prods us to understand this parable, too, as referring not only to collective violence such as that threatened against Jesus but the ongoing social violence of the religious and political leaders. Properly tending the vineyard of the Lord is about properly caring for all people in society, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Jesus was seeing quite the opposite in his time and the Risen Christ continues to see this systemic injustice continuing unabated in our time.

The stone rejected by the builders that Psalm 118 says becomes the cornerstone is rightly taken as referring to the persecuted prophets and then to Jesus who, rejected by the builders of society, has in his Resurrection become the cornerstone of the Church. But when we take into account the concluding parable in Matthew 25, it becomes clear that what is done to “the least of the members” of God’s family is done to Jesus. That is, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor are the stones rejected by the builders of society, the same builders who put stumbling blocks before those who try to better themselves. But in the eyes of Jesus, it is those rejected by the builders who are the true building blocks of God’s kingdom.

When Jesus asks his listeners what they think the owner of the vineyard will do, they say that the owner “will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Mt. 21: 41) So it is that those committing social oppression embody an unforgiving attitude. Today, we hear many of the rich and powerful demonize the poor and vulnerable for their situation, blaming the victims of their oppression.

Yet, as Raymund Schwager points out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, the risen Christ did not come with vengeance against the evil workers in the vineyard. Instead, the risen Christ came in peace with forgiveness. Those experiencing oppression are often scandalized by the notion of forgiveness, but we see in the unforgiving attitude of the Jewish leaders who are the oppressors that forgiveness is even more scandalizing for them. We often overlook how easy it is to hold unforgiving grudges against those people whom we have wronged in some way. The reason that we blame our victims is because accepting forgiveness from the risen Christ implies acceptance of our own wrong doing. No matter how gentle the Lamb of God is, forgiveness is still an accusation, and accepting forgiveness can only be done in a spirit of penitence. Looked at this way, the gift of forgiveness is not necessarily easy to accept. Yet overcome this difficulty we must if we are to avoid the cycle of violence that the Parable of the Evil Workers warns us against.

[For quotes and references to Moving and Resting in God’s Desire and Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, see Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary Proper 22A]

[For an introduction fo René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God]

What We Should Fear

Statue_of_Dame_JulianMany of the words in today’s Gospel are fearsome but many events in the past couple of weeks have also been fearsome so they fit right in. We are rightly anxious about Terrorism although I personally find the hateful and fearmongering rhetoric of some politicians around the world, not least in the US much scarier.

I think it highly likely that Jesus is speaking about earth-shattering events in the sense that major terrorist attacks are earth-shattering. When such things happen, it feels like the sky is falling but it isn’t really. Since the prophets similar such language for horrific events, it makes sense to understand Jesus’ words in this way. This hardly takes the edge off the words or the events happening in our time. This point becomes all the stronger when we look at Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter. Jesus begins by warning that “not one stone will be left on stone” of the temple his disciples are admiring. For the Jews, the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 was indeed earth-shaking, to put it mildly.  Jesus goes on to warn of wars and rumors of wars and people all over the place claiming to be the Messiah, just like what is happening all around us today. Jesus goes on with persecutions and refugees fleeing violence, again an up-to-date report on what is happening. So, there is much reason to be afraid.

And yet Jesus tells us to hold our heads high because redemption is near. He further assures us with the little parable of the fig tree that will bear fruit in due season. The fruit may not be visible now but it is latent in the tree and the fruit will come.

Veronica Mary Rolf, a leading scholar of Julian or Norwich, has posted a timely article on her blog about what Julian has to say about fear. Julian faced the same fears we do so her words are most apposite. We can be afraid of 1) sudden alarms, such as a terrorist attack; 2) physical or spiritual pain, such as fear of sickness or fear of Hell; 3) “doubtful dread,” the fear that God’s forgiveness may not be complete These fears can have their uses but they should be overridden by “rightful fear,” which can also be called “reverent dread” or “holy awe.” This is awe of God’s lordship and God’s gift of salvation. We should shun the first three fears in favor of the fourth. The more deeply we are rooted in “rightful fear,” the less we will experience the first three.

Clearly, it is “rightful fear” and “holy awe” that gives us the power to hold our heads high amid the swirl of violence around us. Fear-mongering that would have us close our hearts to refugees and other people in dire need is clearly rooted in the first three fears with not a trace of the fourth. But with “rightful fear,” what we fear most is to fall short of the love God has for us and for all others, especially those fleeing violence in the dead of night. This is the fear that bears fruit when the season for it comes. John says that perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18.) The obverse is true: perfect fear of the first three types casts out love. What will be our choice of fears?

American war Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1The escalation of militarized violence has reached bewildering levels in the USA. Kelly Denton-Borhaug gives us an important theological response centered on the theme of sacrifice.

First, Denton-Borhaug surveys the militarization of our society which will be an uncomfortable eye-opener for most of us. Recruitment is taking place in our public schools and has infiltrated our computer games which are being more and more designed to train us for real war that is no game—or shouldn’t be.

One of the most disconcerting elements of our society’s militarization is the large number of Christians who are avidly supporting our wars. Denton-Borhaug zeroes in on the rhetoric of sacrifice which she suggests is the keystone of the presidential speeches since 9/11. The sacrifice being made on our behalf by those serving in the military is noble, sanctified. How dare we oppose those who make these great sacrifices? Well, there is the matter of the countless people “over there” who are being sacrificed without having enlisted with the US military for the job. These deaths are countless because the US military does everything it can to prevent counting their deaths.

Denton-Borhaug analyzes the Christian theologies of sacrifice, especially substitutionary atonement, that makes Jesus’ death a sacrifice required by the Father, or at least the cosmos. What has been happening is that political rhetoric is syphoning off the Christian resonances of sacrifice, corralling the sacrifices required of war as if the god of war were the God of Christ. Much of this works on subliminal levels.

Those of us working with the thought of René Girard and his colleagues see ourselves in a different place regarding sacrifice, but Denton-Borhaug has problems here as well. Girard himself she mentions almost in passing, only to suggest that Girard sees it as human nature to be violent so not much can be done with it. Mark Heim’s fine book Saved from Sacrifice is examined in some depth. Although Denton-Borhaug respects Heim’s attempt to get away from a theology of sacrifice, she thinks he fails. The failure hinges on Heim’s (and Girard’s) notion that only through his sacrificial death could Jesus reveal the truth of sacred violence.

I think Heim and Girard are right about this but Denton-Borhaug has pointed to an important point. If Jesus’ death is considered “necessary” in any way whatever, then it is vulnerable to the military rhetoric that proclaims the sacrifices of war as “necessary.” Girard avoids philosophical and theological terminology and so does not consider the category of contingency. This is where theological analysis is necessary for Girard’s anthropological insights. Granted, the power of mimetic desire analyzed by Girard was highly likely to lead to the violent outcomes of collective violence leading to sacrificial rites. But to retain any sound doctrine of Original Sin, we must insist that this violent outcome at the dawn of humanity was contingent. The same applies to Heim’s analysis of the Atonement. Heim is as clear as it can be that Jesus’ death was not necessary as far as God was concerned. If it was “necessary,” it was “necessary” for humans. Given the weight of history and the situation in Judaea at the time Jesus lived, it seems highly unlikely any other outcome was possible for Jesus’ earthly ministry but we have to insist that the death of Jesus was contingent. That is, the truth of sacred violence could have been (and actually was) revealed through Jesus’ teaching. It was not “necessary” for Jesus to be killed to reveal this truth, but that is what happened. Knowing Mark Heim as I do, I am almost certain this is his position. I have taken the time to go over this section of the book in more detail to show how the challenge from Denton-Borhaug can help those of us who use Girard’s thought to sharpen our thinking in this area.

In a broader sense, Denton-Borhaug has trouble with sacrifice and for good reason, since the militarized rhetoric is such a powerful form of emotional and spiritual blackmail that really has ruined many of the brightest and best of our younger generation. One need only note the traumatized lives, high rate of homelessness and suicides of our veterans to see how thoroughly they have been made sacrificial victims. Denton-Borhaug has trouble understanding the nobility of Christian martyrdom in the early centuries, not realizing the degree to which it was nonviolent resistance to the Empire. In fact, her practical suggestions are along the lines of actively making peace, a “theology of work” she calls it which amount to much sacrifice as well as resistance to violent political structures.

A thought-provoking and important book that helps us grapple with a major ongoing crisis in our time.

For an introduction to René Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem“Jerusalem, Jerusalem´ was the outcry of Jeremiah in his Lamentations, and of Jesus when he was rejected by the leadership in in the holy city. James Carroll’s searingly excellent book of this title is an extension of this outcry with historical, theological and spiritual depth.

This book is not so much a history of Jerusalem as a history of the idea of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the imagination. The history of the city itself, of course is deeply affected by the ideas and imagination projected on it, almost always to its detriment. Jerusalem is an image of the ideal, the perfect city and yet this great ideal has shed more blood than could fill an ocean and at the present day the ideal threatens the survival of humanity and the planet we live on. How can this be?

Carroll finds the groundwork for an answer to this troubling question in the thought of René Girard. The anthropological insights into mimetic desire and the resulting rivalry often arising from it is most apt a framework for working through the troubled history of the city on the hill. Carroll’s introduction of Girard’s thought is concise, pointed, and highly insightful even for those familiar with Girard’s thought. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

The sacrifice of Isaac, imagined to have been nearly committed on the rock where the temple was later built, is another underlying motif of the book and is a powerful illustration of how God’ revelation of peace and love gets twisted towards violence. A story that almost certainly was intended to reveal the wrongness of human sacrifice got twisted to praising the obedience of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son which then lead humanity to be willing to sacrifice its children, not just “half the seed of Europe” but at least half the seed of the whole world, “one by one” in the words of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem on this story. (See Abraham out on Highway 61.)

The Jerusalem of the imagination is narrated through the Jewish establishment of the city as the capital of Judah, a city that became loved when it was lost during the Babylonian exile. It is the city where Jesus ended his preaching ministry and died under the Roman authorities. It is the city the first Moslems wanted because of their share in the tradition of Abraham and the prophets. It is the city that swirled through the Christian imagination, spurring a virulent anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the Shoah. Jerusalem inspired the crusading ideal that lead millions of soldiers and civilians to their deaths. The Battle Hymn of the Republic powerfully sings this violent ideal of the crusade in its purple poetry and Hubert Parry’s noble hymn tune gives force to the ideal of conquering the holy city anew.

It is not possible to do justice to the scope and depth of this book. Anyone interested in religious studies, theology, history, human culture and almost anything else would do well to give the reading of this book a high priority and to read it slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. I do not agree with quite every detail in Carroll’s analysis. Some of his interpretations of the New Testament seem to confuse the content with its reception history, although his analyses of the reception history is fully accurate. The overall thrust is highly compelling and will give every reader, whether Jewish, Christian, Moslem, atheist, or anything else a stiff challenge to one’s thinking, imagination, and relationship to violence, most especially supposedly “noble,” “redemptive” violence.

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.