Opposing Faiths: “Free Market” vs. Easter

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth [‘mammon’].” — Matt. 6:24; par. Luke 16:13

The first Easter morning reveals how different these two masters are. It’s not so much a matter of a logical contradiction of following two masters. Clearly, it’s an existential contradiction due to the fact that these masters are revealed to be polar opposites — such that any normal human being should be disposed to hate one and love the other. The gods of wealth have always been on the side of this world’s most successful people, the winners. The God of Jesus the Crucified and Resurrected Messiah reveals true divinity to be beyond taking sides in human affairs by siding with one of this world’s biggest losers — a man duly tried and executed as being against the reigning cultural religions.

Mimetic Theory helps to sharpen our understanding of the false masters of our evolution, gods who structure everything in dualisms of us-them, blessed-cursed, winners-losers, wealthy-poor, et. al. Jesus’ self-sacrifice as an executed loser is the only way a nonviolent God has of breaking through all of our false transcendences to reveal the true God as beyond all of the dualisms — revealed precisely through God’s Easter vindication of one deemed as an outsider to our false gods. “Blasphemer!” “Insurrectionist!” No, the Revealer of God as a power of love that can even heal our many us-them divisions.

But such healing must overcome the obstacle of our first evolution. Easter is the pivot-point of a re-evolution. As Paul says, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made just” (Rom 5:19). It’s interesting that Paul uses the past and future tenses in the two clauses of this statement. The disobedience is in the past at the point of our origins. Then, it is understood in Paul’s theological context that the “one man’s obedience” has already happened in the cross, revealed as obedience in the resurrection, but the work of making the many just is apparently ongoing and yet to be completed. We live in an era characterized by an overlapping of the original disobedience and the new obedience, each with its own master. We cannot serve both — unless we misrecognize the difference between false and true transcendence, idols and God.

So as creatures who evolved with the experience of transcendent power, the key to our re-evolution is conversion in obedience to the true master. Which god commands our obedience? The gods of our evolution who divide the world between winners and losers? Or the God who graciously offers re-evolution through the obedience of Jesus the Loser Messiah — the one who seeks to heal those divisions by constantly identifying with this world’s losers (such as the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned, and immigrant of Matt 25:31-46)?

The title of this blog suggests that our modern North American form of trying to serve two masters involves elevating the “free market” to a status of false transcendence. Let me be clear: The way that markets operate in our economics is a power transcendent to our realm as interdividuals. Markets are mechanisms with power higher than any one person. But their transcendence only remains truly perceived when they are given a wholly anthropological grounding in a realm of transcendence created by human interaction. The problem comes when the “free market” is given an interpretation that goes beyond the anthropological, when it is viewed as some force of nature with a power governing human relations, rather than as a power wholly grounded in human relations. It is like Jesus said of the sabbath, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Similarly, markets are made to be governed by humankind, not humankind by the markets.1

But our current iteration of capitalism — especially in the conservative Republican version of it, since the advent of “Reaganomics” — seems to oppose governance and markets. Governments need to get out of the way of markets, according to this economic philosophy, and let them ‘freely’ operate. I propose that this is an approach to economics which crosses the boundary into a false transcendence, letting markets supposedly rule us instead of the other way around. And the deeper truth behind this “Reaganomics” is that it is a ruse to let those who have the wealth make the rules behind the scenes, such that markets work in their favor. Markets are never “free” in the sense of being completely unbound by any human rules to simply work as a force of nature akin to the naturals laws put into place by the true Creator. The creator of markets are human beings, and it will always be human rules that dictates their workings. So if government ‘gets out of the way’ of setting the rules, then some other governing body of human beings are the ones ‘free’ to set the rules. In our current form of “Reaganomics,” that governing body becomes by default those who already hold the most economic power . . . the wealthiest oligarchs. Should this trend continue, the United States will further descend from its democratic ideals into an oligarchic reality.

Reich - Saving CapitalismI have used quotes around the phrase “free markets” following the convention of Robert Reich in his “big-league” important book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. I highly recommend this book as a guide for learning effective articulations critical of Reaganomics. His basic point is consonant with what I’m saying in terms of false transcendence — and so he is seeking a ‘redeemed’ capitalism properly governed by the many, instead of a version that is falsely transcendent in order to cover for the kleptocracy of the wealthiest. Markets are never free. ‘Markets are made for humankind, and not humankind for markets.’

Reich writes contra to the “prevailing view” that pits “free market” against government,

But the prevailing view, as well as the debate it has spawned, is utterly false. There can be no “free market” without government. The “free market” does not exist in the wilds beyond the reach of civilization. Competition in the wild is a contest for survival in which the largest and strongest typically win. Civilization, by contrast, is defined by rules; rules create markets, and governments generate the rules….

A market — any market — requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game. In most modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts. Government doesn’t “intrude” on the “free market.” It creates the market.

The rules are neither neutral nor universal, and they are not permanent. Different societies at different times have adopted different versions. The rules partly mirror a society’s evolving norms and values but also reflect who in society has the most power to make or influence them. Yet the interminable debate over whether the “free market” is better than “government” makes it impossible for us to examine who exercises this power, how they benefit from doing so, and whether such rules need to be altered so that more people benefit from them. (pp. 4-5)

Mimetic Theory offers us a lens to the sacred violence in our current economics: human beings move-in to manipulate people through the false transcendence, in this case leading the majority to believe in a myth of “free markets.” Reich, who as far as I know is not aware of Mimetic Theory, nevertheless describes the process well:

The “free market” is a myth that prevents us from examining these rule changes and asking whom they serve. The myth is therefore highly useful to those who do not wish such an examination to be undertaken. It is no accident that those with disproportionate influence over these rules, who are the largest beneficiaries of how the rules have been designed and adapted, are also among the most vehement supporters of the “free market” and the most ardent advocates of the relative superiority of the market over government. But the debate itself also serves their goal of distracting the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, their own power over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results. In other words, not only do these “free market” advocates want the public to agree with them about the superiority of the market but also about the central importance of this interminable debate. (pp. 6-7)

Sung - Desire, Market, and ReligionI would like to conclude with another book recommendation, one that brings us back where we began, with the opposition of Easter faith with “free market” faith. Brazilian liberation theologian Jung Mo Sung is a reader of Mimetic Theory who, in his book Desire, Market, and Religion, applies some of its insights to a theological evaluation of market economics. He begins by elaborating just how much current versions of capitalism operate akin to a religious faith, with principles and doctrines that require faith not unlike religious doctrines.

A brief example in line with what we have talked about here would be the way in which recent proponents of capitalism present the “free market” with “market laws” akin to natural laws governed by forces outside human control. In commenting on F. Fukuyama’s faith in finite human beings to embark on unbounded progress, Sung writes,

Fukuyama, like many other liberal and neoliberal thinkers, credits this magic capacity to technology; not any technology, but technology that was developed “in accordance with certain defined rules [that were] laid down not by man, but by nature and nature’s laws.” And what is this nature that is able to generate such a powerful science? It is the same nature that, according to Fukuyama, moved the evolution of history in the direction of the market system. Likewise Paul A. Samuelson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, says that the capitalist market system “merely evolved, and, as in the case of nature, is undergoing changes.” (p. 14)

We see that markets created and governed by human beings are viewed instead as created and governed by transcendent powers beyond humankind. In light of Mimetic Theory, this is the familiar story of sacred violence justified by “orders of creation.” “Free market” capitalism thus operates in ways similar to the sacred violence behind other isms, like racism and sexism. Inequality is portrayed as something created beyond human control in a state of nature:

  • Men are ‘naturally’ superior to women and should rule over them.
  • White people are superior to People of Color and should rule over them.
  • Wealthy people are selected by the “free market” to succeed, and poor people are ‘necessary sacrifices’ to the good order of market capitalism.

It is no coincidence that all the isms are intersectional in their oppression. All of it is grounded in faith that the world is ruled by gods who select winners and losers.

And so I give the last word to Sung, who poses the Easter faith contra to faith in the “free market”:

The Christian faith is not grounded in this conception of a God who is always on the side of the righteous winner. On the contrary, it is grounded in the confession that Jesus of Nazareth is risen. That is the centre of our faith. To confess that Jesus — defeated, condemned and killed by the Roman Empire and the Temple — is risen is to believe in a God who is not partnering with the winner (the Empire and the Temple). This faith allows the distinction between victory and the power of truth and justice. (p. 24)

Notes

1. For a similar move writing on economics from Luke 16:13, on serving two masters, to Mark 2:27, the sabbath serving humankind, see Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 240-41.

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Can theology lead to a more peaceful world?

Susan Wright, president of the Theology & Peace board, was interviewed by Adam Ericksen of  the Raven Foundation: A Discussion of the Upcoming Theology & Peace Conference: “Embracing We-centricity: Practices to Nurture the Common Good,” May 22-25 in Chicago. Below are the responses Susan wrote in response to Adams questions:

Adam: How did you first come across mimetic theory? 

Susan: I audited a course in New Testament at Syracuse University taught by a then grad student in religion, Tony Bartlett. Tony was writing his doctoral dissertation which later became his first book, Cross Purposes. I remember well the day Tony introduced me to Mimetic Theory. I accompanied him and his wife Linda on a trip to Washington DC to visit Gordon Cosby and Church of the Savior. On the car ride down I shared with Tony and Linda my recent disillusionment as a community activist: that too often the work we were engaged in was undermined by internal rivalry. It was then that Tony told me about Rene Girard and Mimetic Theory.

Shortly after that Tony introduced me to his doctoral advisor, which happened to be James Williams. Jim gave me some books by René Girard and Raymund Schwager, including The Girard Reader. We spent hours discussing those books, as well as Dostoyevsky, and Thomas Merton. I was very lucky, I received in an intensive course in Mimetic Theory from one of René Girard’s closest academic associates.

Adam: Why is mimetic theory important to you?

Susan: I was the child of a teenage mother. Single and living on welfare, my mother had three children by the time she was twenty years old. Born into that situation, my sisters and I had a very difficult childhood. We experienced things children never should. Before I could even read, I discovered a cruel reality — that when confronted with suffering or injustice most people look the other way. Those few people who do help, they make all the difference!

The truth is, there are negative consequences to living in a free society where everyone is preoccupied with their own lives. Paul Dumouchel one of the best political theorists working with Mimetic Theory, explains that the moral distance, the space between us and our obligation to others, has become maximal. The social networks, which once induced people to care for those within their social group, have disappeared. “We have no reciprocal obligations with respect to one another, except perhaps with respect to family members and close friends. We are free with respect to one another. This is why we can be indifferent to the fate of others….” (The Barren Sacrifice, 27) We’re aware that thousands of elderly are abandoned to nursing homes, we’ve heard the statistics about the mass incarceration of black men, we know that poverty is on the rise, we know that there are millions of displaced refugees living out the worst kind of nightmare… but because we’re not obligated to do anything about it… because we’re busy with our own lives… as long as it has no direct impact on me, for the most part, we ignore it.

By the time I was eighteen I was haunted by a negative image —- an abyss at the core of American society. I wondered, how is it possible that in the wealthiest nation on earth, a democratic nation founded on the ideals of justice, freedom, and equality that the most vulnerable people, children, teenage mothers, the elderly, the mentally ill and impaired, people of color, and immigrants are allowed to fall through the cracks and disappear into oblivion? Already as a young person I was bitterly aware of the contradictions haunting our corporate life.

Because of financial aid, I went to college. I majored in history, but I also took courses in political science and anthropology… I needed answers. But the more I learned the sort of things they don’t teach you in grade school, the more it deepened my existential crisis. After college, I turned to activism, to building alternative economic communities grounded in social justice. Despite everything I still believed in democracy, in a sense democracy was my religion, it still is.

I wasn’t raised with religion, but in a secular environment where theology was pretty much a bad word. The adults that raised me were liberated from so-called superstitious thinking, they were willing to admit that Jesus was a good man, but beyond that they had no use for Jesus or his religion.

When I was twenty, quite accidentally, I picked up the bible and read John’s Gospel… I can’t tell you the impact it had on me… I was reading all the time… at that time it was Thomas Hobbes, and the Enlightenment thinkers, searching for answers, I encountered in the bible a concern for the weak, the poor, the outcasts that I had rarely, if ever, experienced in my day to day reality. Even so it wasn’t until my encounter with Mimetic Theory that I decided to become a Christian, to join the Episcopal Church and go to seminary. Today theology and Mimetic Theory comprise a large part of my life’s work.

Mimetic Theory was a game changer, because it gave me the language not only to identify the WHY of what’s wrong with American society, it gave me a practical methodology that cuts deep enough to address it, to formulate answers.

I first read Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard’s break out book, which was published in French in 1961. I’ll never forget reading the title of the first chapter, “Triangular Desire…” It introduced me to the world of mimesis, that is, imitated desire. Girard, a literary theorist, realized what the great novelists intuited that they, like the characters in their novels, were trapped within desire’s mimetic web. They experienced a kind of conversion, a point in their writing when they could no longer heroize the myth of spontaneous desire, but instead revealed in their works that all desires are borrowed. We do not chose for ourselves the objects of our fascination. We desire those objects because they are first desired by another.

It’s such a great read! Girard describes in fascinating detail the mimetic intrigues and passions which take hold of our lives: the love triangles, the disastrous rivalries, the hidden resentments we harbor, and the moments of transcendence. The long and short of it is: whenever two or three are gathered, mimetic desire presents a significant challenge to peaceful coexistence. Imitated desire leads to competition over objects. Competition over objects erupts into a contagion of rivalry and reciprocal violence. Reading it, I immediately made connections to dynamics which undermined our activist work. It would apply to any work situation, to our church communities — it’s the best manual I’ve read for understanding our human interaction.

Over the course of his subsequent books, Violence and the Sacred (first published in 1972) and The Scapegoat (first published in 1982), Girard develops an incredibly useful hypothesis on the origins of culture. (I say hypothesis because we’ll never really know what happened way back there at the dawn of time). He describes a prehistoric scene, when our ancestors, in a fit of violent mimesis, channeled all the reciprocal aggression threatening to engulf the community onto a single individual, someone expendable to the group. What then becomes a mimetic convergence of all onto a single victim provides cathartic release. The community is delivered from the disastrous effects of it’s own violence, in what would have felt like a miraculous moment. They’ve been saved!

But there’s a catch, the community can’t admit to having just scapegoated someone… that would deprive them of the peace just miraculously received. Prehistoric communities reenacting that original moment in sacrificial rituals repackaged it in mythological stories in which the gods’ demand the sacrifice… Today we dehumanize the scapegoat, rationalizing their treatment as necessary to protect our own safety.

That, for Girard, is the birth of the violent sacred and the foundation of culture. When we read ancient texts or look at the archaeological record, it becomes very clear that the fear of violent contagion led archaic societies to contain mimesis and its effects through prohibition and ritual. That is, strict rules regulating desire paired with rituals to redirect violence onto a sacrificial vicim. MT clarifies why, with the advent of modern nation states, citizens willingly relinquish power, most notably the right to seek retribution, recognizing the state as the only legitimate force. If some one, whose envious of their neighbor, kills their neighbor and steals their stuff, they’ll be punished by the state. The state liberates its citizens from the fear of violent contagion. In a democratic society, this leaves us free to pursue our desires, it unleashes consumerism on a massive scale… we can imitate each other without fear of conflict… and imitate each other is exactly what we do!

Freedom to pursue our desires sounds great, doesn’t it? Except we must never forget that modern nation states are founded upon systemic scapegoating and continue to achieve peace by redirecting internal tensions onto scapegoats.

Mimetic Theory equips us with a powerful diagnostic tool. It allows us to deconstruct the lies which have rationalized the worst political crimes: the extermination of indigenous people, following the Civil War Jim Crow laws in the south, today the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. And it explains why in the United States of America, we have a history of blaming the weakest members of society for their plight, as if it has ever been a fair playing field, and how politicians to this day are able to wield the scapegoating of the weak as a rallying point.

MT can play a significant role detecting those instances, like now, when America is tempted — let me reframe that — when America may be mimetically induced to scapegoat again. In his book Violent and the Sacred, Girard sheds an uncanny light on politics: sometimes we choose leaders not for their high moral character but for their willingness to name scapegoats upon whose head we can discharge all our internal tensions.

All of this sounds so depressing. Yes, it is. People get angry when you for challenge the myth that America can do no wrong. In my case I wasn’t being stripped of any cherished notions about my beloved homeland. Years of activism had already deprived me any naive idealism… I had experienced so much rivalry within the peace and justice community. In my mid-thirties I had to quit activism for awhile, I was exhausted… that’s when I met Tony Bartlett and Jim Williams… it couldn’t have been better timing. Reading Girard for the first time, one book after another, I felt like someone who, after years of wandering lost in the desert, had just been handed a road map.

In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (published in 1978), Girard reading Hebrew and Jewish scriptures, discovers that these texts are shaped by an awareness of mimesis, of rivalry, the various authors of the Hebrew texts understood, in one sense or another, the threat of violent contagion and our proclivity to scapegoat. Out of their own context of suffering, those writers developed a unique sensitivity to the plight of the victim. The Hebrew and the Christian texts may be read within the struggle to get free of our reliance on scapegoating. Now that was a revelation! Something that matched my own experience and answered a deep longing in my own heart.

When I eventually returned to activism, I did so with the awareness that we’re all mimetic creatures, prone to selfishness, rivalry and scapegoating… rather than walk away in disillusionment, I now recognize that that’s starting place from which our real work begins.

I haven’t lost hope or my belief in democracy… I still love my county. Hope forged out of a realistic understanding of what’s wrong does not abandon you when things get rough. In moments of setback you make use of what you learned, you steer clear of the the crowd intent on scapegoating and you seek another witness, a better option for people to gravitate to.

The way I see it, human beings, both individually and collectively, lack self-awareness… that is the root of our evil. To paraphrase Jesus on the cross, we know not what we do. They need to be given a better set of options.

Adam: What is the mission of Theology and Peace?

Susan: Theology and Peace was formed ten years ago by Tony Bartlett, a professor of theology at Bexley Hall, the then Episcopal seminary in Rochester NY, Michael Hardin, the director of Preaching Peace, and Tom Nicoll, an Episcopal Priest in Larchmont, New York. At this year’s conference we’ll celebrate our tenth anniversary! At the time they recognized the need for a forum where we could focus unapologetically on the implications of Mimetic Theory for Christian theology and praxis. COV&R, the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, the academic organization founded over 25 years ago invites scholars from diverse disciplines to discuss the continued application of MT in their various fields. A number of us on the board are members of COV&R. Theology & Peace invites pastors, lay people, theologians and activists to explore what many of us have discovered: that Mimetic Theory provides a much needed source for the renewal of Christian discourse and it’s engagement in the world. We host an annual conference. This year it will be held May 22-25 in Chicago. We host ongoing forums on our website and on our Facebook pages.

That’s where we started. Over the course of ten years our mission has evolved… our engagement with Mimetic Theory has drawn us into places we might not have otherwise ventured. Like Jesus, we’ve gone to the place of crisis. We tend to host our conferences in cities where the violence is front page news: in 2013 & 2104 we went to Baltimore, in 2015 & 2016 we gathered in Raleigh North Carolina just as the Moral Mondays protests were getting underway. This will be our third consecutive year in Chicago.

Looking back, I realize that in 2011 Theology & Peace made a signifiant decision, what I like to term our turn to the issue of racism. That year we chose to go to Baltimore. Board members Tony Ciccariello and Anthony Bartlett sought out personal connections in Sandtown, the neighborhood which, a few years later, erupted in protest after the death of Freddie Gray, a member of the Sandtown community who died while held in police custody. There Tony C and Tony B encountered Newborn Ministry and Elder CW Harris and Wendall Holmes, leaders of that community. Since then members of the Sandtown community have been important contributors to the work of Theology & Peace.
In 2013, planning our 6th annual conference, the Theology & Peace board made another important decision which had a profound impact on our collective sense of our mission. Despite some hesitation and a bit of trepidation the board chose a conference title which included the word: “Lynching” — “Lynching, Scapegoating & Actual Innocence.” There were concerns that that word was too strong and would scare people away.

Last year was the fourth year we addressed the issue of racism. And we’re not finished. Having shared conversations with black theologians, community activists, and people on the inside of the justice system, we’ve gained a tangible sense that we can change our “collective intentionality” (a term I got from psychologist Ann Kruger, one of our presenters in Raleigh) not just in our church congregations, or in our activist communities, but at the very heart of the sacrificial system — our justice system, beginning at ground zero so to speak, with encounters between people and police in our American cities, where intentionality has been left to chance and police and people are ill equipped to respond to each other in heated moments of conflict, when all the accumulated trauma, fear and tensions accumulated over this country’s history of racism reach the flash point and erupt. This is one area in which the practical application of Mimetic Theory could create real change.

Part of our mission is to challenge the status quo, especially the assumption that systemic scapegoating is too entrenched… for instance: racism’s appearance of intractability, forms part of the collective lie which allows the American people to maintain their anonymity — “I’m not a racist.” — “I hate racism, but I can’t begin to change such a deeply entrenched structure.”

Mimetic Theory helps us identify the ways that this nation is founded upon the scapegoating of black people, especially young black men. We recognize the historical stereotypes of blackness, black men which today is perpetuated by the media as means for designating an entire population as scapegoats. Likewise, it’s equally important that we don’t demonize those working in the justice system. We understand that those caught in the cross fire, so to speak, both the people and the police, are victims of this nation’s collective violence.

As Mimetic Theorists and readers of René Girard, Theology & Peace brings an important element to the discourse on race, the question of immigration, the refugee crisis, Christian/ muslim relations. In response to these crises, we, through practices that cultivate of self-awareness, an opportunity to back away from our collective tendency to scapegoat and create an alternative witness.

Adam: The name “Theology and Peace” is a great name for the organization. The words theology and peace seem like they are obviously connected. But for an organization to make the connection in such an obvious way, maybe the connection isn’t so obvious. The leads me to a two-part question – First, how has theology been connected to violence? Second, how can Theology and Peace help us into a more peaceful theology?

Susan: So many people are abandoning religious institutions because theology not only feels like a dead language with no practical applications for their lives, it is hopelessly implicated in a history of bloodshed. There’s no denying it, theology has produced some of humanity’s greatest evil, but it is also responsible for some of the greatest good. The same can be said about the word “Peace.” A lot of evil has been committed in the name of Peace, in the name of God, in the name of Freedom, Justice and Democracy. Nevertheless we need these words, because, as one of my favorite philosopher/theologians John Caputo says, they continue to place a demand on us.

Mimetic Theory allows me to distinguish, in a sense, between a good peace and bad peace (but not in any fixed dualistic sense), that is, between a peace that’s established through some sort of scapegoating, like the peace between Pilot and Herod, and a peace that is trying its very best to free itself from scapegoating. The same can be said of God: we can distinguish between angry spiteful images of God, and a loving, compassionate image of God, concerned with the plight of the victim. In fact theology can become the study of the difference between these various images. Why do we choose one over the other? How do we free ourselves from our reliance on the retributive god? To the extent that we engage with a theology founded in the image of a compassionate, loving god concerned for the weak, the more we find ourselves transformed by that image, becoming that image for others. So in a sense, I feel we need to redeem those words, Theology & Peace, put them back into play in a truly fruitful way. I can’t think of any other words I’d rather use.

Adam: Justice is also a major theme within theology and peace. Desmond Tutu once claimed that “… peace without justice is an impossibility.” Yet, Rene Girard rarely talked about justice. What do you think is the role of justice in creating peace?

Susan: The nations always seek peace. But too often peace comes at the at the expense of the weak, the vulnerable, or someone different from us. Powerful nations and their leaders sign treaties and call it peace, they may even call it justice, but if it doesn’t build a peace that includes all members of a society, if it doesn’t show mercy on all sides, it is a violent, unjust peace. When I think of justice I think of Zechariah 7:10:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.’ But they refused to hearken, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears that they might not hear.

And Matthew 25:45 comes to mind:

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’

A peace built on scapegoating is not a lasting peace, an economy that does not benefit all the members of society, is not sustainable, at some point the violent structures collapses upon themselves. Girard saw this. In Zechariah, because they refuse to listen the people are scattered and the nation is left desolate. Whatever your cosmology might be, Girard understood that there can be no rest, no true enjoyment of this world or the next, until we give up our sacrificial systems in the here and now.

Justice requires that we invite everyone to the table, including our enemies. We can be angry with Donald Trump, but it’s important that we recognize his humanity and treat him with respect. We need to change the culture which accepts the name calling in the media and back and forth accusation as normal… Mimetic Theory understands that accusation iniates the unconscious dymanics I described earlier, which trigger the lynch mob mentally. Our brains are habituated to recognize those cues… before you know it, people are converging on a victim. We can access other neural pathways in our collectively wired brains, pathways responsible for compassion and empathy, cultivate those by stretching ourselves in new directions. This requires we steer clear of accusation and find other ways to repond to those we disagree with. We must quiet our fear reflex and invite Muslims, immigrants and refugees to the table. Can you imagine what it feels like to be a young person growing up in an immigrant family… what would it do to your self concept to hear the ugly accusations made in the media, made by public officials?

And while in the current context it appears we’re headed as a nation in the wrong direction, I still believe that history does not have to repeat… there is still a chance to respond to the demand for justice and mercy, to dream the dream of democracy!

Adam: What is the theme of this year’s conference?

Susan: “Embracing We-Centricity: Practices that Nurture the Common Good.” I believe the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese coined the term “We-Centricity” to describe our inherent openness to the other.

…every time we relate to other people, we automatically inhabit a we-centric space, within which we exploit a series of implicit certainties about the other. This implicit and pre-theoritical, but at the same time contentful state enables us to directly understand what the other person is doing, why he or she is doing it, and how he or she feels about a specific situation. (Vittorio Gallese, “The Two Sides of Mimesis,” Mimesis and Science, 100.)

I don’t know how any of us can still believe in the myth of individual autonomy. Vittorio Gallese, one of the neuroscientists to discover mirror neurons, and connect that discovery with a theory of Social Cognition (how we understand each others’ emotions, intentions, and desires) has used this same research to identify the brain structures responsible for mimesis.

According to Gallese and others we are wired for mimesis. From the moment of birth, the human brain, through the observation, interpretation, and imitation of others’ actions, is ever grasping for opportunities to learn the skills necessary for life. That means, for good or for bad, we are inescapably connected to each other. There is no such thing as the autonomous individual.

Some may say that our conference theme and our name, Theology & Peace, sound naive… but really they’re not. In a funny sense that’s the key to our work. Mimetic Theory allows us to recognize why we-centricity is always problematic…why the common good, has historically bad thing for those being excluded — if left to our unconscious collective dynamics our inherent we-centricity leads to scapegoating … then it’s violent. However, in recognizing this, in understanding how our tendency to scapegoat infects so much of what we do, we can turn that understanding to build communities intentionally seeking to get free of scapegoating, then we-centricity and the common good become a positive goal. In a sense it’s an impossible vision, but it’s the only vision really worth having. Others have shared that vision, they’ve given everything for it: Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela, Oscar Romero — just being in their presence, hearing their words — we get a sense that a common good is a possibility out there, beckoning us. Those individuals keep opening the door to that possibility, inviting us to join them.

Adam: Who are the speakers and what will they be speaking about?

Susan: All of our speakers will engage us in practices to essentially rewire our brains. To train in us new habitual ways of being together. Who says it? Maybe it was Cynthia Bourgeault “Neurons that fire together wire together,” a phrase borrowed from Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist.

For our first plenary session Theology & Peace board member, Sereta Richardson, will present on Circle Processes. Sereta is a young black woman, a single mother, and an ex-police officer from Mississippi. She is one of the most eloquent spokespeople for Mimetic Theory that I have yet to meet. I would guess that her eloquence is born of life experience. I think she’s our youngest board member, but she may be the wisest. She will set the stage for this year’s conference by leading us in Circle Process. Leaders in Circle Process draws on the ancient Native American tradition of the talking piece and combine that with concepts of democracy and inclusivity. It utilizes powerful images to invite us into inclusive community structures:

Our ancestors gathered around a fire in a circle, families gather around their kitchen tables in circles, and now we are gathering in circles as communities to solve problems…

Recommended Reading: Kay Pranis, The Little Book of Circle Processes: A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking ( New York: Good Books, 2005). A title in The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding Series.

Brian Robinette and Father Martin Laird will lead us in a session on Contemplative PracticeBrian Robinette is Associate Professor and Co-director of the Joint MA in Philosophy and Theology at Boston College. In my mind he is one the most important thinkers working with Mimetic Theory who has thought and written extensively about the Christian contemplative tradition in light of Mimetic Theory. I’ve heard Brian speak before. He never fails to offer the most amazing insights:

When we turn our gaze inward, we can learn to recognize all the forms of desire within us!
The contemplative life is not opposed to the active life, it is freedom from the reactive life.
By cultivating stillness  we let go of our neighbor as mimetic hook!

Father Martin Laird is a Professor of Theology at Villanova University. He has extensive training in contemplative disciplines and gives retreats throughout the United States and Great Britain. I am very excited that Martin Laird will join us. When it comes to Christian contemplative practice and its ability to free us from the endless mill of suffering, from anxiety and depression — I think of Martin Laird.

Father Martin is the author of A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (2011), Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith (2007) and Into the Silent Land (2006). Into the Silent Land is one of my very favorite books on contemplative practice, a book  I like to purchase and give away to friends.

This will be an incredibly important session. If you take for instance, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, as your manual outlining all the ways mimetic desire hooks us and you pair it with contemplative practice as understood by Brian Robinette and Martin Laird, I would say, you’ve equipped yourself with probably the best practice to retrain your brain, to step back from many mimetic hooks we encounter on a daily basis and simply let them pass down the stream of conscious awareness.

Jonathan Brenneman present on Christian Peacemaking and activism. Jonathan is Coordinator, Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USAHe comes from a long line of Mennonites on his father’s side and a prominent Palestinian Christian family on his mother’s side. He grew up in a small town in Ohio. After attending Huntington University, where he studied History and Philosophy, he worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams Palestine (CPT) Project in Hebron. CPT’s mission is to build partnerships to transform violence and oppression. Jonathan worked on the ground with Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers, and organized in the USA to challenge oppressive Israeli policies. Most recently Jonathan completed a master’s degree in Peace Studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute. That program included a six month internship with Ndifuna Ukwazi in Cape Town South Africa, an organization which advocates for more just land policies. He currently works for Mennonite Church USA, coordinating educational opportunities about Israel-Palestine.

Adam: What do you see as the role of Theology and Peace in our current cultural climate (Trump, politics, religion …)?

Susan: A year ago, this time, the Theology & Peace board recognized that whatever the turnout of the Presidential election, this country would be deeply divided. We are a nation sick with rivalry. While the political parties engage in what Girard terms a model-obstacle obssession with other, they’ve lost sight of the role the were commissioned for. No wonder an increasing portion of the electorate no longer feel that their elected officials, the government as a whole, nor the economy are working for their benefit. Indeed, the electoral vote, like any object of rivalrous realtionship, quickly disappears from sight as the rivlary between the political parties continues to intensify.

I’m not sure how I would react right now. I might despair if I didn’t have thinkers like René Girard, Paul Dumouchel, or postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida (another thinker who is for me as important as Girard) to help me think my way through this crisis. But even more important how would I feel if I wasn’t part of a community, like Theology & Peace, which is trying to translate the wisdom cultivated from MT into actual practice? Our churches, our synagogoes, our work places, every place where two or three are gathered… can be that… a witness to a better way of being human together. My hope is that more people could come in contact with this…

Democracy is up against it limits, we all know it, but again it’s from that position that we can engage in the real work of creating an inclusive society. Anyone who has made strides in that direction, the political saints of the past, have done so there at the limit point.
In a world that is increasingly prone to pessimism and despair, we’re tempted to give up on democracy, on justice, on truth… leaders willing to scapegoat as a path to power will take advantage of the situation, it’s the perfect breeding ground for tyranny. In this climate we must continue to use words like democracy, freedom, liberty, justice, equality… I say that without hesitation. They are still the best words we have, the greatest dreams we dream. It’s our work with Mimetic Theory that allows me to say this, and I think I speak for everyone on the board of Theology & Peace. In all my years of activism, in the church, in divinity school I have never encountered a group of people more invested in those dreams… we’re in it for the promise that till beckons us —- that this nation can be “great” to the extent that it continues to responds to that call: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

For sure, US history has a very checkered past: marked by genocide, by slavery, and imperialism we have so far to go in equal rights for all people. With the increasing divide betwen the rich and EVERYBODY else, more people are feeling that the American dream has gotten too far out of reach… So many of us who thought America was on an upward path, are feeling demoralized. Not to mention that false new has us left in a tail spin.
But Mimetic Theory has some tools to cope with this… it understands the untruth of the crowd (a phrase taken from Kierkegaard) Untruth is nothing new for those who’ve been maligned because of their race or creed. It’s difficult for white, middle class Americans to suddenly find themselves subjected to obvious lies. But again it’s the oldest game.

Girard always considered himself a realist. For him there’s nothing more real than the blood of the victim spilled on the ground. Not as a rallying point for revenge, but as a kind of reality check. Two summers ago when the body of Michael Brown, an armed black man, age 18, fatally shot by police, was left for four hours face down in the middle of the street, blood streaming from his head.… it doesn’t get more real that! The NY Times made precisely that point in this video https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/us/michael-brown-a-bodys-timeline-4-hours-on-a-ferguson-street.html

What does that say about our nation? It speaks volumes.

We-Centricity becomes a positive reality, rather than a negative one, when we become aware of our deep seated tendencies to scapegoat, when we cultivate, through daily practice, our ability to step back from the mimetic dynamics that lead to scapegoating, so that at some point inclusivity becomes our habitual way of being together rather than opposite.

Mimetic Theory’s insights don’t end with diagnosis, it also teaches us that change doesn’t have to come from those in power… but most likely occurs through our connectedness. As Nelson Mandela taught us, it can come from within the mist oppressive structures, from those condemned to the status of the scapegoat… Mandela in his day to day responses to those who held him captive not only changed the “collective intentionality” of his prison community, he eventually changed the “collective intentionality” of an entire nation. That’s where it’s at!

Please register at Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/theology-peace-10th-annual-conference-embracing-we-centricity-tickets-21595441547

 

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The Most Important Passage in the Bible

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)

I nominate Matthew 5:38-48 as the most important passage in Scripture for our time. It conveys the element in Jesus’ teaches ministry which most distinguishes him in human history. Has there ever been anyone else prior to Jesus to teach that perfect love reaches out to include even enemies?

It is also implies the theology that stands out as transcendent to the default theology of human evolution. The latter is the god of our tribe, our nation, our group — the god-on-our-side. But a God who teaches to love even enemies pushes humankind toward experiencing God anew as the God who embraces all human beings — the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Paul the Apostle extends this theology to make God’s action in Jesus the Messiah to be about making peace, in what I consider a close second as the most important Scripture for our time:

For [the Messiah] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace… (Eph. 2:14-15)

There is no longer us and them; there is only us. And we meet a God for all, no longer any god-on-our-side. This dawning peace brings “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” to its logical conclusion.

From the perspective of Mimetic Theory, isn’t this the crucial pivot point of our human evolution? We evolved with the Scapegoat Mechanism at the foundation of all our human cultures, meaning that all our cultures are structured on an us-them basis and then justified by the god-on-our-side. Paul in Romans 5:12-21 maps this pivot in the typology of the First Anthropos, Adam, and the Second Anthropos, the Messiah. One is formed in disobedience and the second opens the possibility of obedience: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). What constitutes obedience? The Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:38-48. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Love your enemies.

This points to the anthropological and theological revolution which has yet to take place. Christendom lapsed back into the god-on-our-side of empire, and Christians are still struggling to recover. Many American Christians, especially white Christians, are eager to embrace the nationalistic message of a Donald Trump, in which everything is deeply structured in terms of an us-and-them. Following Donald Trump precludes following Jesus the Messiah in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. Elements of our situation are eerily similar to the nationalism of the Nazi movement, and Luther Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found that his go-to text in the face of rising Nazism was the Sermon on the Mount (see one of the few books he was able to publish before being martyred by the Nazis, Discipleship.)

An irony of history, one that follows the paradox of a Crucified Messiah (an outsider to everyone’s culture!), is that first significant glimpses in our time of obedience to Jesus’ teaching came through a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi. In my last blog on these pages (“Have a Courageous New Year”), I even suggested that God sent Gandhi with perfect timing. At the very moment in history when human beings created weapons capable of self-annihilation, God sent us a man who could, in obedience to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, give us a nonviolent way of waging war. It is a way of waging war “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It is a way of war that seeks not to defeat human enemies but to turn enemies into friends. As Rev. Dr. William Barber II puts it, “A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle” (The Third Reconstruction, p. 93).

I offer these reflections on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A, the only Sunday in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary that takes Matthew 5:38-48 as its Gospel Reading. If I were to propose one change to the RCL it would be to find a way to use this passage on a more regular basis. Acts 10:34-43 — the very important opening of Peter’s sermon in the home of Cornelius — is used four times in the RCL — the Baptism of Our Lord A, and all three years on Easter Day. We need to find another day to use Matthew 5:38-48 in a similar fashion. And the shortcoming of the RCL on this score is accentuated by the fact that the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany A is skipped over more often than not. It’s appearance relies on having a date for Easter that is late (at least three Sundays into April). In recent years, for example, there was a 21-year gap between appearances! — 1990 to 2011 — the intervening five cycles of Year A falling when Easter was too early. (Strangely, Easter has been late enough the last three cycles of Year A — 2011, 2014, 2017.) In any case, I leave you with my webpage for Epiphany 7A, as well as my sermon on this text which echoes this blog (especially making use of Brian McLaren’s treatment of the passage in The Secret Message of Jesus), “The Most Important Passage in the Bible.”

Happy Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany! May God in Jesus Christ make us perfect in love!

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Have a Courageous New Year! —Belatedly

A Challenge to Girardian Peacemakers to ‘Up Our Game’

trump-in-the-twilight-zoneI’ve been working on this blog for more than a month. It began with my struggle to muster the customary “Happy New Year!” this year. Under the shadow of Donald Trump as president, I don’t have normal expectations for a happy 2017. It feels like we are entering the Twilight Zone.

And if it is a time of anxiety for many white males like myself, I can’t imagine what it is like for the millions of people in the myriad groups of folks who were disrespected, degraded, and further marginalized throughout Trump’s lengthy campaign — and thus far in his presidency. It is on behalf of all those folks that — if it’s not too late, a month in — I wish us a Courageous New Year. As we stand together against the kind of hatred and disrespect Trump has marshaled, the good that can come this year is for peace and justice advocates to find ways of uniting in meaningful peacemaking activities as never before. In short, we need determination to ‘up our game.’

‘Upping our game’ as practitioners of Mimetic Theory is what has led to a longer roll-out of this blog. I find myself in the beginning processes of trying to re-evaluate elements of Mimetic Theory as we’ve attempted to articulate and live them thus far. This can be a dangerous comparison, but my experience the last several months might be similar to what Bonhoeffer was feeling in the 30’s, asking, ‘Is my theology up to the task of standing in the shadow of increasing Powers of authoritarianism and imperialistic oppression?’ As a person who has been and continues to be convinced of the world-changing potential of Mimetic Theory, I’m nevertheless pondering whether there are elements of it that need strengthening and further elaborating in order to meet the test of a time when the Powers are looming large.

Here’s the bottom line of my gathering struggle: Mimetic Theory is a wholistic anthropology that gives us tools of understanding and access to what is human in all its dimensions, ranging from the personal/interdividual dimensions of our relationships all the way to the institutional and cultural dimension of human relations. It is a theory that dares to hypothesize as to what generates human culture — all the transcendent realities (e.g., religion, government, economics) which those relations found and undergird. But this past month it has seemed clear to me (and I value the feedback of colleagues on this) that the center of the current state of Mimetic Theory tends to fall more toward the interdividual side of the spectrum. And if we are to stand in nonviolent engagement with the Powers that represent the cultural side of the spectrum, do we need to pay more attention to that cultural dimension of our anthropology?

wink-engaging-the-powersI find myself, for example, going back to the work of Walter Wink on the Powers, who helped found COV&R in the early years but then gradually decreased his participation. Did he sense a weakness in Mimetic Theory when it came to the Powers? One of the highlights often pointed to in Girard’s work is that the importance of personal conversion is present right from the beginning, anchoring his first book (see “The Conclusion” of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). But have we ever seen much represented in Girard’s work in terms of the ‘conversion’ or transformation of human reality in the cultural dimension? He speaks apocalyptically of the Scapegoating Mechanism as being exposed and losing its effectiveness, but does he ever speak in terms of its being redeemed? Wink, by contrast, sums up his overall thesis of his Powers trilogy:

The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers are being redeemed.
(Engaging the Powers, p. 10)

girard-battling-to-the-endI think that Girard’s Battling to the End provides a good illustration of what I’m talking about. He is analyzing the Scapegoating Mechanism as revealed in modern militarism but he is decidedly doing so, using Carl von Clausewitz’s On War as his guide, on the level of interpersonal dynamics, and not on the level of the Scapegoating Mechanism. He uses Clausewitz’s analogy of the duel to unpack the dynamics of history in terms of an escalation of mimetic desire between nations and cultures. An underlying assumption seems to be that this is legitimate because the Gospel has crippled the Scapegoating Mechanism with the result that interpersonal forms of conflict take over. The Scapegoating Mechanism is no longer a major part of the analysis except in noting the apocalyptic effects of its demise.

So what can we do, what can we hope, in the face of such threatening forces in human history? It seems that there is nothing we can do beyond personal conversion. If Battling to the End is not the place where Girard gives us something beyond that, then I don’t know where else to look. (And I’ve read more than 90% of his corpus.) It would seem that our best hope is to model someone like Friedrich Hölderlin — in short, not much basis for hope.

With Walter Wink’s approach to the Powers in mind, on the other hand, it becomes more obvious who is missing from Battling to the End. When the possibilities for conversion expand beyond the personal to the cultural, when we allow for ‘redeeming the Powers,’ the obvious person who should be in a book about the modern history of war is Mahatma Gandhi. In the age-old chronicle of human warfare, he is the one person who truly brings new insight, not Clausewitz. In my opinion, the absence of Gandhi in Battling to the End is glaring indeed. Girard is giving us a sketch of modern warfare coming to an escalation to extremes. But because he isn’t looking for redemption on the level of the Scapegoat Mechanism, he misses the person I believe God has sent us just in the nick of time — the moment at which our technology presents us with the reality of self-destruction. Girard sees the matter only on the interpersonal level, so his only solution to this dire situation is that humanity undergoes personal conversion enough to cease fighting. But with Gandhi it’s not a matter of ceasing to fight — not as long as the Powers continue to destroy and oppress. It is a matter of ‘fighting’ in such a different way that it becomes something different than any previously human way of fighting. It is Jesus’s Third Way. It is not ceasing to ‘fight’ in terms of the Powers continuing to threaten the most vulnerable and the need of peacemakers to stand in the breach. Our call is closer to ‘fighting’ than it is to running away, or not showing up. But the ‘fighting’ is an engaging of the Powers armed only with love, forgiveness, and nonviolence — a willingness to be harmed along with a steadfast commitment not to do harm. The enemy is not flesh and blood (Eph. 6). It is the Powers. And love of enemies means that one’s actions bear the hope of redeeming even the Powers.

So I pray a courageous New Year for all those who anticipate the damage that a Donald Trump presidency is likely to inflict on the vulnerable. We have already seen it, less than three weeks in, with many of his Executive Orders. And for those of us who are guided by Mimetic Theory, I believe it involves a both-and. By all means, we must avail ourselves of all the practices which orient our ongoing personal conversions to compassion, forgiveness, and a pledge to nonviolence. But I believe we need to ‘up our game’ when it comes to understanding the Powers and imaginatively finding ways of engaging them in the hope of cultural conversion. (God’s Culture has arrived in Jesus the Messiah!) The most vulnerable among us depend on us to find that Third Way, the way of doing battle with the Powers in loving self-sacrifice.

barber-the-third-reconstructionFor those of you who know me, you know that I believe the overriding manifestation of the Powers in our American setting is White Supremacist Racism. So my reading and spiritual preparations for action will be heavy on that issue as a guide to engaging the Powers. One of the books I’ve read this first month of 2017 is by a leader of the Moral Mondays fusion coalition in North Carolina, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear, by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. I give the last word to Rev. Dr. Barber:

The greatest threat to our coalition was not the power of our opposition. They could threaten us. They could hurt us. They might, in their blind hubris, even try to kill some of us. But they could not, in the end, deny us. Because ours was a moral struggle, we knew we would win if we didn’t give up.

The only question was how long the fight would go on — which was why the greatest threat to our coalition was the temptation to forget what we had learned about our identity. A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 93-95)


Brief Addendum: I believe that another essential guide to understanding the task of engaging the Powers is to build on Brian Zahnd‘s brilliant reading of Matthew 25:31-46 in A Farewell to Mars. For more on this, see my webpage on this passage, Christ the King Sunday A.

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Christmas and Becoming Human

The significance of the Christmas season of celebration took on new clarity for me in encountering a quote from the influential New Testament scholar Walter Wink (who was also among the founders of the Girardian ‘guild’, the Colloquium on Violence & Religion). His body of work climaxed in a very real sense with a distinctively anthropological turn to his overall reading of Scripture with his book The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man. And then his autobiography followed suit: Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human. I offer you this Wink quote as the essence of what we celebrate at Christmas:

“And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, p. 102; and a parallel in The Human Being, p. 26)

In short, Jesus alone is Human Being. You and I are Human Becoming more than Human Being.

I also propose that this constitutes a startling and concise statement of the importance of Mimetic Theory, as helping to bridge the gap between the Christian anthropological revelation and the human sciences’ ability to guide us into more broadly and deeply understanding what it means to become human.

(For more, see my webpage for Christmas; and this sermon from John Davies in 2015, “Becoming Human: The Shepherds’ Instinct, the Magis’ Hunch,” offered with these reflections in mind.)

The notion of ‘becoming human’ presumes an ongoing conversion process, which in turn implies practices that continually open us to conversion. Join us for our 2016 Theology & Peace Annual Conference, “Embracing WE-CENTRICITY: PRACTICES that NURTURE the COMMON GOOD,” as we explore and nurture such practices.

Theology & Peace wishes you a Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Bill Fried’s Powerful Reflection on the 2016 Theology & Peace Conference: People & Policing

img_1149I attended the Chicago Theology and Peace Conference prepared to videotape people of faith on criminal justice and drug policy. Having never even heard of René Girard, I was not prepared for the remarkable extent to which his mimetic theory illuminates—virtually prophesizes—current drug policy.

Though James Warren’s remarkable book, Compassion or Apocalypse, never mentions the War on Drugs, I’ll use—and stretch—a sampling of text (in italics) that highlights the mimetic foundations of drug prohibition, itself the single most powerful obstacle to self realization in minority communities.

The romantic lie

What we commonly refer to as “identification” is really a form of mimesis. What I call my “self” is anything but self-contained. It is not that I have no self, but I am not self-possessed. I am permeable.

This claim is a forceful rebuke to our overemphasis on the myth of the rugged (or deeply flawed) individual or group. It reminds us not to focus overmuch, for example, on the “culture of poverty” when analyzing rates of incarceration among certain populations. There is nothing inherent in Italian, African, or Latin cultures that predicts the rise of their street gangs over the years. It is the prohibitionist script—the motivations and opportunities created by the policy of prohibition—that sets the stage upon which they act.

Change the script and watch the behavior change, but I get ahead of myself…

The scapegoat mechanism

Through the scapegoat mechanism people transfer blame onto the victim who became the monstrous embodiment of the chaos of a non-differentiated world.

The scapegoat mechanism begins with the illusion of the need to kill the monster, and ends with the propagation of myths…the whole thing is a shared, group delusion.

A central Girardian claim is that culture and social peace were initially created by acts of very human violence, a lynch mob targeting individuals or groups, creating an us/them division. The targets were essentially arbitrary, though it is historically predictable that they be identifiable, different, vulnerable. James’s book underscores the unthinking, escalating, herd mentality of this process and the larger than life qualities attributed to the scapegoat who must be seen as a threat to the established order in order to justify mob violence.

This cynical, almost one-dimensional view needn’t carry the weight of explaining all things human to be strikingly relevant to the War on Drugs. Indeed the history of all hitherto existing drug prohibitions fits with hardly a murmur of protest into this frame.

Threat to the established order? Think of recent revelations about the anti-black, anti-protestor motivation for Nixon’s drug policy, which compliments our historic turns against Mexican and Chinese citizens by criminalizing the drugs they were associated with. Who they were and what drug they were said to be using was inherently unimportant. What was not critical was that they were identifiable, isolatable, vulnerable. They were them, not us. They served a purpose when their labor was needed. They served a purpose after it was needed.

Larger than life? Think of the stunning things said about people under the influence. Think of the term, “Drug Lord.”

Threat to hierarchy and differentiation? Think of the gentle, long-haired male hippie to reviled for being so hard to “tell apart” from the female. Think of the sharing.

Forbidden fruit? By erecting a prohibition it becomes an obstacle that becomes a model suggesting the very thing it seeks to prohibit. It exerts a powerful fascination, which invokes an inflamed desire to perform the banned act. Think of youthful fascination for drugs even their parents are not allowed to use.

Mimetic rivalry? There are always at least two beings who posses each other reciprocally, each of them the other’s scandal, each the other’s demon. Think of Hank and Walt in Breaking Bad. Think of drug taskforce warriors and drug dealers, circling one another, mutually obsessed, mutually destructive, endlessly escalating, endlessly violent. Endlessly co-dependent.

Myth

The scapegoat mechanism begins with the illusion of the need to kill the monster and ends with the propagation of myth.

Girard calls myths persecution texts written from the point of view of the persecutors, based on something real which it distorts. Think of endless TV drug busts with stern, arms crossed cops and prosecutors behind a mass of guns, drugs, and money. Over and over, the myth of “cleaning” up the street. Again and again, the real damage done by these raids and the treadmill of incarceration is dressed up in antiseptic, mythic garb—
concealed.

Think of reefer madness, which continues with modification to this day: IQ points said to drop; schizophrenia said to be caused; gateways said to open. Stunningly bad science that only can be propagated by ideologues with something to hide.

Think of the countless movies and TV shows that identify any and all drug use as evil and destructive, and those selling those drugs as deserving of our collective rage. Think of the one-sided violence of over 50,000 SWAT raids each year retold in mythic form as heroic efforts against an infinitely armed, infinitely evil foe.

Reform

The substitution of animals for human victims was a major step in human history.

James points to various substitutions for human sacrifice; body parts, money, animals, as civilizing movements away from the worst of the ancient sacred. But he points out that while they modify its most egregious features, they didn’t fundamentally challenge the underlying violent sacred.

These reforms are echoed today by local reform efforts that trim but don’t fully eliminate punitive, punishing drug enforcement powers. There is, for example, the growing movement to help the opioid addict combined with a renewed determination to hunt opioid sellers. This actually hurts the addicted, as was the case with Prohibition, where it was not illegal to buy or drink, but it was illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol, with disastrous results.

Partial reforms are humanely motivated but ultimately inadequate. As James puts it, One cannot fight mimetic rivalry piecemeal. One cannot simply cut off its tail one must resolutely crust its head.

Revolution

Christ’s whole ministry was a revelation of people’s bondage to mimetic desire, and a demonstration of the way out

Once the gospel penetrated a culture, it inaugurated a more or less permanent, more or less acute sacrificial crisis because it revealed the victimary mechanisms and violence upon which the sacrificial rituals, myth, and taboos of the society were based.

Ancient societies, not unlike us, were like fish oblivious to the existence of water. Up to a point there were always sacrifices and angry gods to placate. Up to a point there has always been a drug war and punishing laws to fear.

James notes that the ancient system could not withstand illumination, hence the power of the Gospels to reveal the fetishizing of the Temple and the human, not divine, roots of violence. They gave voice to the innocent victim, even while on the cross. Similarly, drug reformers today open the curtain on an approach that cannot withstand rational, humane scrutiny.

The subsequent revolution includes liberation from slavishly following obscene restrictions: back then, Jews punished for marrying gentiles; today, people jailed for naughty plants. Back then, liberation from a wrathful, violent god; today, liberation from SWAT teams and a punishing court system. Then and now, it means being at one with the weakest among us—the victims of scapegoating.

Saul had read the Scripture with violent eyes as many others did. One can appreciate the blinding shock it must have been to be struck suddenly with the epiphany that exactly the reverse was true, that he was actually a persecutor.

This resonates strongly with our former cops, judges, and prosecutors who indeed had the scale fall from their eyes as they saw the light and repented. Their inescapable mission forevermore is to spread the gospel of legalized regulation, of ending the unthinking, blunt force oppression brought about by drug policies based on fear and scapegoating. He is not talking about a more perfect achievement of the same kind of righteousness, but a righteousness of a completely different quality, a transformation of the heart.

Conclusion

Sometimes the disease contains within it the seeds of its own cure. Our mirror neurons—the physiological unpinning of our ability to identify with others—has helped turn people against the War on Drugs. Suddenly—and it sadly needed the victims to change color and geographic location—we can identify with the addicted, those we recently dismissed as worthless, evil, “other.” Suddenly we can feel their pain.

And, paraphrasing James, we are on the “wrong” side of history to no longer feel their pain. We need to be one with the policy changes, as we are one with victims of this ancient, violent approach to drug use and misuse. We need to end this servitude in a joyous manner as we transform the unthinkable into commonsense, humane policy.

I don’t normally talk like this, but I really did feel blessed to be at the conference, to read James’ book, and to interview so many delightful, intelligent, and righteous (but never self righteous) folk.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Bill Fried

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The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry

As I read this Sunday’s Gospel of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), I’m also reading and digesting N.T. Wright‘s brand new book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Based on a thorough reading of Scripture, Wright consistently critiques on three fronts the popular reading of the cross in recent generations of Christianity:

  • A Platonized goal, or eschatology (doctrine of end-times): that the cross’s goal is to enable believer’s souls to “go to heaven.” A properly Jewish eschatology reads the cross and resurrection as the launching of the New Creation, or heaven coming to earth.
  • A moralizing view of sin, or anthropology (doctrine of being human): that the cross addresses the problem of sin as the breaking of moral codes. A closer reading of scripture sees the problem of sin as much deeper: idolatry. Human beings worship other gods/powers of this world and give up their vocation of being “image-bearers” of the Creator.
  • A paganized version of the solution, or soteriology (doctrine of salvation): that the cross is appeasing the wrath of God for human sin (as breaking the moral code). A Jewish-Christian reading of scripture reveals a God who faithfully forgives sin and rescues God’s people in a New Exodus.

Wright does the church a great service in reading scripture to give us this desperately needed three-fold correction in our theology of the cross — and making it thoroughly grounded in reading the Bible.

But I’ve been mulling over what I see as a major misstep in his reading — one that I think is informed by this Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. In a 400-page book that reads all of Scripture for these themes, he devotes by far the largest chunk, 92 pages, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans alone. And I believe he commits a huge error by resisting Douglas Campbell‘s thesis of Paul having represented the views of a Jewish-Christian opponent within Romans, most notable in Romans 1:18-32. (For more on Campbell’s thesis see “Nuechterlein on Reading Romans 1-3 in a New Way.”)

Instead of taking Romans 1:18-32 as Paul voicing the view of a Jewish-Christian opponent (including Paul’s former self as a Pharisee!), Wright reads this passage as the quintessential description of human idolatry — as precisely the correct, robust picture of sin that Wright proposes. And the corollary, I believe, to this grave misstep is to virtually ignore in his reading the pivotal nature of the verses that immediately follow 1:18-32:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (NRSV Romans 2:1-2)

I propose that St. Paul gives us in Romans 1:18–3:26 a theologically argued version of the picture in Jesus’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 portrays a Pharisee focusing on someone else’s sin — namely, a Jewish perspective on Gentile idolatry. It is a picture of focusing on someone else’s sin and missing one’s own. Paul in Romans is trying to get to the thesis that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). To do that he has to expose his own previous sin of idolatry which was to violently (the “wrath” in Rom. 2:5) judge the idolatry of others. (See also Nuechterlein on the “Wrath of God” in Romans.) Isn’t this Jesus’s same move in this parable: in contrasting positions of someone focusing on the sin of others vs. someone who recognizes one’s own sin? But Paul extending it within the framework of “all falling short” and needing God’s grace? By resisting Campbell’s thesis about Romans 1:18-32 and ignoring the pivot of Romans 2:1-2, I believe that Wright has missed the full, deeper picture of human idolatry.

And it thus falls short of fully confronting the sacred violence done in the name of focusing on the sin of others. Specifically, in the case of holding onto Romans 1:18-32 as Paul’s own view of idolatry, it leaves open the idolatrous sacred violence of heterosexism — the heterosexual majority suppressing the freedom of LGBTQ persons to flourish and be who God created them to be. Reading this passage as Paul’s own view holds onto verses 26-27 as proof-texting against alleged ‘homosexual sin.’ And for someone like Wright it even comes within a deeper analysis of sin as idolatry, not simply the breaking of moral codes.

But I’m proposing that Wright’s reading misses the pivot Paul is making by exposing the idolatry of making an idol out of someone else’s sin, and so he misses the deeper truth about human sin as idolatry. Wright is correct to understand the Jewish insight into sin as idolatry. But then he misses Paul’s insight into what form Jewish idolatry takes. A Jewish person’s idolatry is different from that of a Gentile’s precisely because it sees sin as idolatry. A Jewish person could often boast that they were righteous by virtue of avoiding Gentile idolatry (hence, Paul’s theme against certain kinds of boasting in this portion of Romans).

As formerly a Pharisee who lived out his anti-idolatry in persecution of the church, Paul did not miss his own former idolatry. In order to expound the view of all people falling into sin, Paul has to go to extra lengths to expose the idolatry of the typical devout Jew, whose devotion manifests itself precisely in being against Gentile idolatry. So he speaks the position of a Jewish Christian railing against Gentile idolatry in 1:18-32 and then makes the pivot in 2:1-2 that that railing is its own form of idolatry — the idolatry of judging other people’s sins.

In our modern context, we are coming to allow for LGBTQ brothers and sisters to judge for themselves whether their sexual identity is sinful idolatry or a manifestation of the diversity in God’s wonderful Creation. As they choose the latter expression of their identity, for others to continue to judge it as sinful idolatry continues the sacred violence that the Gospel exposes as satanic accusation — in short, one of the Powers that Wright so eloquently speaks against. Many Christians are finally coming to name one of the Powers as “heterosexism.” Rather than speaking against ‘homosexual sin’ in Romans 1:26-27, the wider passage of Romans 1:18–3:26 can be read in today’s context as exposing the Powers, and precisely including “heterosexism” as one of those Powers. It flips the reading to see an out-of-context prooftexting of 1:26-27 as an instance of the deadly Powers that work themselves out as judgment and wrath against one another.

To tie a bow on these reflections I point to a particularly apropos moment in the corpus of Mimetic Theory: Sandor Goodhart‘s reading of the Book of Jonah in his book Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (ch. 5, pp. 139-67). I suggest that it has the same structure as my reading of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector and Romans 1:18–3:26, but that it also gives us wonderful language to name it. Goodhart proposes that if Jewish Torah is quintessentially the “law of anti-idolatry,” then the story of Jonah gives us the Jewish prophetic reading of Torah in Jonah as the “idolatry of the law of anti-idolatry,” or more simply, the idolatry of anti-idolatry. I highly recommend reading Goodhart’s essay.

I don’t want to conclude these reflections without making clear my highest recommendation for Wright’s new book. I have a major bone to pick with it (and a renewed invitation for Bishop Wright to complete his elaboration of biblical anthropology by reading the work of René Girard), but the overall importance of The Day the Revolution Began for the church’s theology of the cross is immense. In addition to the threefold critique of popular readings of the cross sketched above, the last two chapters (Part IV,  “The Revolution Continues”) brilliantly describe our “cruciform mission.” Ours, as disciples of Jesus, is the vocation of participating with God in the furthering of New Creation. The Powers continue to put up a fight, which means that this vocation will continue to come precisely through suffering (which our consumerist lifestyle resists). But the suffering can be endured for the joy of knowing that the complete and final victory will belong to God’s Power of Love. Love wins!

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