The Spectacle of Compassion

And when all the people who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home beating their breasts. (Lk. 23:48)

Two movies about war are currently in the theatres. One directed by Ang Lee, the other by Mel Gibson.

At the heart of both movies is an intense and powerful spectacle around which the rest of the story revolves and which rivets attention. Of course all movies are spectacle, and war is so often the subject of movies because it provides such concentrated material for spectacle: what can be more gripping to an observer than the sight of many people dying? Examples multiply in the memory:  All Quiet on Western Front, Lawrence of Arabia Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Cross of Iron, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Fury. The list goes on and on

But there is something much more deliberate and reflective in both these recent offerings.

The first, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pivots on a halftime show at a Thanksgiving Football Game in Dallas, Texas.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), dancers, and Alabama State Marching Hornets in TriStar Pictures' BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK.

The other, Hacksaw Ridge, climaxes in a set-piece WW2 battle on Okinawa Island, happening at the top of the eponymous ridge which looms up on screen like a terrifying stage seen from the orchestra pit, a huge escarpment which the soldiers must finally climb to make their appearance and be blown to bits.

hero_hacksaw-ridge-2016 A sense of spectacle as spectacle undergirds both movies, a conscious meta-awareness of what exactly it is we are waiting for and watching when we watch.

A philosophical group called “Situationists” argued that society itself has devolved into spectacle. And they said this before the internet age. One of their leading figures, Guy Debord, explained “The spectacle is not a collection of images rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” He saw the enormous upsurge of electronic images as a manipulation of life by consumer culture, not real relationships. There is truth in this (especially from a mimetic perspective), but what he perhaps missed was the fact that society has always been based around the spectacle of sacrifice. The original or ur-spectacle is the killing of the collective victim. What is different today is that almost everything is spectacle. But at the same time–as these two movies illustrate–spectacle is coming consciously to recognize the violence and victim at its heart. It does so by means of the lightning strike of a radical human alternative– compassion.

The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, focuses on a squad of soldiers who were involved in a vicious firefight caught on camera in Iraq. The news footage made them heroes, and they return stateside on a promotional tour, fawned on and feted, driven round in a stretch Hummer by a movie agent who never stops talking up a deal on the phone. Everything leads to their centrepiece appearance at the halftime show, directly following a song from the early Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child), “Soldier.”  There is a seamless continuity between the war and the entertainment industry, while the men who were actually in the battle seem almost psychotically detached from what is going on around them. There is a constant sense of danger in this detachment, until at one crucial moment the key soldier who provides the main narrative thread breaks and begins to weep. A tear on the face of this once-innocent soldier breaks the manic continuity and rips it apart. billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-joe-alswynI have called moments like this in other movies “the photon of compassion,” the point where the dizzying vortex of violent images suddenly opens to the new transcendence of compassion arising historically from the Risen Crucified.

Spectacle itself is in crisis. It is no longer able to bring sacrificial resolution; so it is always amping up the images, the violence, the desire. But then, out of the intolerable danger, compassion appears.

Next, Gibson.

No one does violence like Gibson does. There is a transparency, a visibility of violence that is in many ways unique to Gibson. It is not pleasant. It is not moral. It is structural.

Watching a movie by Gibson is as if the human tissue itself is stretched out as screen and image. It is as if the Girardian foundation of culture in the body of the victim has become violently visible in the function of the movie camera itself: the body of the victim is rendered in and as the apparatus of spectacle. Directors like Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) and Tarantino (Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained) are known to create an aesthetic out of violence.  The vivid glaze on the surface of the screen is made out of blood and cruelty. Even with these directors there is something revelatory. But it is too slick, too knowing and collusive. With Gibson there is a deep structural unease, a deliberate lack of comfort. As the body count rises and the flesh wounds multiply we find it more and more difficult to collude. The glaze is too layered, too thick! We HAVE to notice it. This has been interpreted as bravado, as a sheer liking for violence. This is even possibly true. But his three last movies, Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and now Hacksaw Ridge, all have an explicitly biblical-revelatory frame, which makes it impossible to avoid spiritual responsibility for what we are watching. The Passion of the Christ is seen among liberal Christians as reflecting an appalling atonement theology: violence before God saves us from our sins. This, I think, is a mental alibi showing zero sense of the art and meaning of cinema. The biblical framework in these Gibson movies is an explicit affirmation of a revelatory process that is working itself out in the cinematic representation of violence.

Girard actually made this point about Gibson’s movie, comparing its graphic realism to the work of Renaissance artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, and Caravaggio. (He doesn’t mention the 20th century Irish artist, Francis Bacon, but Bacon’s visceral crucifixions would surely provide a bridge between Renaissance art and Gibson’s bloody cinema:  Bacon said, “it was just an act of man’s behaviour to another.” )

Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge lacks the teardrop of compassion. (The end of The Passion had a giant one falling from the sky: was it God, the universe or cinema itself which wept?) What Hacksaw does have is the prolonged, death-defying action of the central character, a medic who refuses to carry a gun but carries a bible and bears 75 wounded men to safety during the course of the battle. The movie is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, Seventh Day Adventist who joined the army but refused to carry a weapon. At the end of the movie Doss, himself seriously wounded, is lowered on a stretcher from the ridge. The camera pans below the body as it is stretched out in the sky above. It is a moment of gospel transcendence, the photon of compassion.

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

These two movies are scintilla of that sign, glimmering in the semiotic sky of the movies.

Resurrection in a Time of Victims

Resurrection is the beginning of another earth. And another heaven.

Resurrection–despite its general amazement factor as a miracle–has remained the poor relation of gospel theology: e.g. “incarnation” and “atonement.” crucifixion_Francis_Bacon_1933

For “the Second Person of the Trinity” resurrection kind of goes with the territory, and when it comes to dealing with human sin Jesus’ death is what really counts.

To understand the importance of the resurrection of Jesus, we must first make clear that resurrection cannot be separated from the cross. It is the resurrection of the Crucified victim.

See Paul’s famous statement in Philippians.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, being conformed to him in his death, so that I may somehow attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

You see here how entangled are the two themes. The statement is chiastic, with the resurrection at both ends, and the suffering and death as the cross-over in the middle. You cannot separate the two–they are like two twined strands of DNA. search

The Crucified is raised! And we have always to maintain this structural reality: it is the total overturning, through nonviolence, of a death sentence imposed by the powers of this world. Only on this basis can we understand Girard’s famous revelation of the victim. In terms of the gospel, it is only because the Crucified is raised as peace that we know the victim of collective human violence is innocent.

But today because the victim stares us in the face everywhere we continue to forget the structural event that made it happen. We separate the Crucified from Resurrection.

As hinted above, a lot of the blame for this must fall on past theology. In the past the teaching of resurrection was swallowed up by the function of the death. The death, not the resurrection, had exchange value. Jesus’s death was our substitution, not the resurrection. This death was in fact a meaning the world understood–it could deal with it and use it: an exchange with God through violence meant that violence still had a role. So then the resurrection becomes an afterthought, a remainder we are not sure what to do with, despite the fact that one part of the mystery of Christ’s act of redemption makes no structural sense without the other.

The resurrection is the culture of the New Testament in every sense.

The New Testament dwells within the Resurrection. It is unthinkable outside it. Every page, every word vibrates with its pivotal meaning. kellsfol032vchristenthroned

The resurrection of Jesus is a new language of human being. It is a definitively new point of reference in contradiction of the world. It is another fabric of being not dependent on scapegoating and victims.

That is why the early Christians were able to offer forgiveness and nonviolence without a second thought–because they had entered a totally new experience of being human.

It is essential to grasp this. We cannot stop being human beings by mere moral command. We cannot stop collectively scapegoating if our very humanity depends on it, which it does! The only way to stop is if there is a new collective basis of humanity revealed; if the revelation is sufficiently dramatic and shared to make a new community possible. This is resurrection. It is the in-breaking into history of indestructible forgiveness and nonviolence.

Now, with a political triumph of exclusion and othering, resurrection as the basis for new humanity has never been more crucial. The negative half of gospel anthropology–the disclosure of the victim–has taken the world by storm, and everyone now instinctively sides with the victim and claims to be the victim. It is time for the positive half–the resurrection humanity of love and forgiveness–to become equally well known. The whole world can learn this new thing (and in many ways is learning it). But it is surely down to those who claim to be church–Christian community–to show themselves as compelling examples.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that everyone who believes in him shall not be wiped out but have unbounded life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save the world through him.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       resurrection

LOVE’S TIDE

 

If you were walking on the line

Namibian desert dunes

Of a vast and mighty strand

Where all the sea had fled away

And all you knew was sand

You might ask from where it was

These grains of rock took birth

And whence indeed th’uncanny wind

Which breathes of sea to earth

Then all at once as you walked

A tide came skipping onslightly_high_tide_splash_by_brichards85-d4kkt3g

A million million rivers flood

To lift the rocks with song

Then you saw those wastes of stone

For the shoreline that they were

The ancient ebb of an ocean deep

A Springtide long deferred

 

Even so the universe

And all worlds that may be

Feel within the deep defect ofsearch

Some long departed sea

Yet suddenly the rocks may spin

And sense their endless night

As both decoy and the deed

Of love hidden in plain sight

 

And all at once that love will rise

That long did hide its face–

For love will not be bargained for

But must know its own embrace–

And the sea, the sea, is running in

To arms held open widesearch

A million milion rivulets

Of love’s returning tide!

 

Sketched Thesis for a Dying Planet That’s Not Yet Been Born

It’s a slight argument, one that might seem not to amount to much, plus quite abstract. But I have a feeling that inside it, trying to get out, is something quite extraordinary.

One. The universe of things is contingent–it may or may not be. All the evidence points against anything eternal in it. Another, empirical, way of saying the same thing is that the energy of the universe is finite and so, ultimately, it will be reduced to entropy and dust. (To posit a multi-verse is to create a regression; that too must eventually end in exhaustion.) If this is the universe’s nature and destiny we have no explanation or reason for its existence in the first place.450px-HubbleDeepField.800px

Two. On the other hand, if we cannot explain the universe and nevertheless it is, its factual being provides an example of something we cannot explain and yet is. As far as we are concerned, therefore, it is equally possible that there is an eternal living creator whose existence we cannot explain. (Note that this is not an argument for a god as first cause of the world, but of the possibility of such a being.)

In other words, all things are equally im/possible (possible not to be) and possible–as far as we are concerned!

Three. At the same, this kind of philosophical discussion about the possibility of a divine creator has little or no bearing on the traditional anthropological function of a god. According to Rene’ Girard the origin of the god is nothing to do with abstract possibilities, it is rather the sacred vessel of the group’s violence, the ur-symbol of primitive human order. The philosophical questions about the existence of God are in many ways a result of the loss of trust in these primitive mechanisms under the influence of the gospels (Girard’s argument of cultural influence).

Girard allows us, therefore, to approach these traditional questions in a new way. Letting go of violence at the source of human meaning allows us to fill the universe with a new possible meaning.

Four. Jesus is the paradigm for human being who rendered the possibility of the creator into the possibility of love. He took the ancient signifier “god” and filled it with love.  He said, “Yes, there is a Creator God. He is my Father, a God of Love.”

Through his teaching, life, death and resurrection he translated the figure of God into love. He anchors the universe in love. The testimony of Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of this transcendent change in his followers. Whatever we think of the resurrection–physical event, emotional event, constructed event–there is no doubt that Jesus’ revolution of love became part of the very fabric of being for his followers and progressively part of the universal history it helped create.

Five. To embrace Jesus’ translation of the im/possibility of God, turning it irrevocably into love, is to take responsibility for a contingent universe and existence, placing our bets on love. We have no way of knowing how this will turn out, but it seems the most responsibly human thing to do. Through love we not only answer the conundrum of existence but we give love a throne which at a profound experiential level it already has: the one true thing which is eternal.

Easter as Compassion, Compassion as Truth

What is there to say of compassion?

A man desires it without measure in his own case, and exacts strict measure in the case of just about everyone else.

It is receptive generosity, and expressive meanness.   desktop-1408465058

Divine compassion, on the contrary, is not about who is worthy. Worthiness is a human and arbitrary thing, dependent on the state of our hormones or digestion. Or the amount of coverage a human disaster gets on T.V.

Who other than God is able to gaze on humanity and see all the way through to our fundamental weakness and helplessness undisguised by surface arrogance, power and violence? “Father forgive them…”

This is what I sought to express in Cross Purposes. I called it “abyssal compassion,” going all the way to and beyond the very depth of our human dysfunction. Or, as Heather, the leader of our Jesus Yoga, likes to say as we lie on the floor practicing shavasana : “Jesus never looks away. His love will always be lower than us, so there is nothing we can do to place us beneath his love.” Grunewald_Crucifixion

But what does this mean in respect of God’s self, God’s being?

We are used to describing God in power motifs, all-this, all-that, everywhere, infinite, omniscient. These attributes go along with Greek philosophical notions, constructing God in concepts of measure, knowledge, power, and then denying limit to them.

The gospel does not work like that.

The cross is God’s lesson in God’s identity as nonviolence and compassion.

To gaze directly at the face of Christ’s forgiveness as nonviolence–rather than legal substitution in a higher order of violence–is to look deep in the well of God’s being; and at the same time in a mirror of infinite human transformation.

Compassion becomes something much more than a simple neural response without transcendent meaning. On the contrary, it is the divine character bar none.

Compassion is the pouring out of self for and to the other. As revealed and practised by G-d it is a mode of being which overtakes being itself. Compassion is more than being. It transforms the ultimate, most irreducible form of being–death, into life.

The biblical God has never been a monolith, a super-perfect crystal being, entirely in and for itself, without the other in any part. The moment God, Yahweh, Allah reaches out to human beings in any kind of historical commitment that God has introduced otherness into the divine self. God becomes other to Godself by placing God’s life in relation to the other. The genius of Christianity is to say clearly and unequivocally that divine self-otherness is not just a contingency of historical involvement but belongs intrinsically to divine being. So it is that before being there is divine self-other.

But because of the detour of Christian theology through philosophical categories this personal character of God is missed. Or at least misunderstood, on the analogy of the vagaries of human compassion.

But if G-d is essentially compassion then there is no depth that is deep enough to hold G-d or any concept able to grasp God. G-d is formally unknowable as compassion; but G-d is lovable as compassion, and this indeed is the true way to know G-d, and all we need to know.

crucifixion_Francis_Bacon_1933By love we know G-d as compassion; and because of that we can say, at a second moment, compassion is truth. Or being crosses over into compassion.

Compassion becomes the ultimate character of the universe. How exactly this works we are not sure. But Easter declares it. And it is a truth to live by.

GOD’S HONEYCOMB

thFG797T2PA couple of years before I came to the U.S. I took a trip to Sicily. I used a beautiful book as guide, one that stands as a classic for travel in that mysterious island, half Africa, half Europe. It was Vincent Cronin’s The Golden Honeycomb and its title refers to the legend of a honeycomb cast from wax by Daedalus, the famed craftsman and father of Icarus. This holy grail of antiquity was reportedly last seen in the city of Syracuse on the Mediterranean isle.  The author’s guide was a spiritual quest for the honeycomb, if not a physical one. For me fetching up in Syracuse, New York, had quite some irony in light of that earlier journey. I wondered whether, like Cronin, I was searching for a golden honeycomb!

Did I find it?th[6]

The honeycomb has always been a fascination. Its hexagonal cell structure caught the attention of Greek mathematicians and was used by Roman architects. The way it is put together by a collective of small insects working together without blueprint is a parable of the amazing possibilities hidden in life itself.

The truly beautiful thing, however, is the end quality of the honeycomb’s overall design–it is a dense gathering of empty spaces. An ingenious architecture of emptiness, providing maximum space with minimum material. It seems totally fitting that into this amazing space something as fabulous as honey should be poured. An architecture of emptiness for a sweetness of the gods! th[6] (2)

 

Today, however, the vastness of outer space beckons us to darkness. What possible importance or meaning can we have in something so crushingly big? Meanwhile, at the other end, the saw of science cuts down to the smaller and smaller, and there seems to be absolutely nothing between the enormous orbits of neutrons and electrons! All this nothing is terrifying and threatens to suck our souls into endless, pointless…nothing.

But we should not step so quick! Somewhere along the line those electrons and neutrons resulted in the honeycomb, and at least at one point in the universe the point of empty space was given as sweetness.

atom-electrons[1]

We are faced with a challenge. The human imagination is itself a super honeycomb–a hundred billion cells inside the head folded over and around each other in impossible polygonal structures and sequences. What intricate pathways of thought are provided by our mind and our world! But is there a cast of thought which still remains to be wrought? Is there a sweetness to come, hardly yet dreamt?

We can imagine certainly that all this empty space is in order that it be filled with love. For love is the greatest sweetness we know, and it has its own special relationship to empty space.

Love is movement into empty space, taking the risk of movement to the other. Only empty space will make for love–to reach out to the other you have to cross empty space toward her. Indeed, love thrives on the nothing it crosses, in order to be truly itself. But, then, once it crosses the space, the space is changed. It is no longer nothing. It has become filled with something wonderful and new–the unique unconditional sweetness of love. Our hearts (which is just a word/metaphor for the deep sequences of the neural honeycomb in our heads and bodies) know and experience this.

Thus the architecture of empty space is the condition for the experience of love. The honey supposes the honeycomb. Can we say it the other way round, that the honeycomb begs the prior existence of the honey, in the metaphorical meaning we have given it? That empty space presupposes love? No, despite the attraction of the metaphor, that is an argument that takes condition to be cause. And if indeed we could say that and be sure–that the empty space proves the prior existence of love–then there would no more be empty space. It would be filled with a definite metaphysical something, and we would never truly learn to love. On the other hand, to take the empty space as the final definition of reality, and love as a noble but self-exhausting gesture into that dark night, that is also to go too far, and another form of metaphysics. How can we conclude with certainty that in the end love will not win? That it will not fill everything with the unconditional giving of love? That the honeycomb will not be crammed with honey? Indeed, to reach this conclusion goes against the character of love itself–which “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Perhaps, therefore, what we could and should say is this: if one were to set up a universe for the sake of love, this is precisely the kind of universe you would have to set up. There is a love-fittingness to our universe!

For love continues to urge toward its further pouring out, just as the beekeeper will decant the honeycomb into a jar. And because it continues to urge to be poured out we get a sense of its eternity: its self-dispossessing, paying-it-forward going on forever. Love has to be eternal in this endlessly forward giving sense. And once we practice and feel the future eternity of love it creates its own modality of the past, pulling the past behind it. For love cannot arise out of the self-consuming entropy of present being. It demands its  own dynamic “before” to self-dispossess, and so create a love that would go on to self-dispossess, and so on.

That is why, I think, John’s Gospel has the audacity to say that “in the beginning was the Word. ” Because the Word was made flesh and experienced in Christ as the authentic movement of love, then for that to be possible the love must somehow always have been there.

th[8]

One day studying in Syracuse I came across a saying of the Stoics: “God drips through the universe like honey through a honeycomb.” Christianity was born in a world where Stoicism had a huge influence on the educated classes. It was one of the ways in which the Gospel gained purchase in Roman society and culture. Today we lack this cultural matrix; rather we have the emptiness of space. But, as I said, a metaphysical doctrine, like that of the Stoics, can now be seen as an obstacle to love. So our culture today is tailored for actual love not metaphysics. To seek to fill your particular appointed hexagon with honey, is that not the best chance of one day discovering the whole honeycomb of love? Of one day looking up and seeing those inconceivable reaches of space an endless artwork of gold?

Jesus And The Single Terrorist

Terrorism is not an enemy. It is the state of imagining an enemy, while the agent of terror does everything in his or her power to provoke that imagination.

An enemy is an opponent who seeks to take something from me, something tangible and factual. It is possible to see his face and watch the direction of his eyes and body for the thing he desires and wishes to take into his possession. Even though terrorists may ultimately seek something tangible and factual, their practice is to hide their faces and bodies before and as they attack so that we imagine them first: amorphous, monstrous, unappeasable.

th[4]

Terrorism is the pure metaphysics of violence. It is violence “itself.” The terrorist wishes to take away my peace, my whole world, not just part of it. Terrorism is the battle of the dispossessed against the whole world which dispossessed and excluded them in the first place. A terrorist is a mirrorist.

Terrorism is a way of being in a world where institutions have failed. Armies, uniforms, governments, universities, books, laws and lawyers, all that is irrelevant to the pure imagination of the terrorist.

If we direct our anger against named groups like Isis or Al Qaeda, with governmentsthYH2NU9P1 declaring war against them, we lose the underlying dynamic of terror. Attacking hard targets mistakes the phenomenon of Isis for a conventional enemy. The U.S. understands this. This is why the U.S. air strikes have made no difference and were never intended to make a difference. Why is the U.S. just now attacking oil trucks  while they could have consistently done this before if they thought they were realistically at war? Russia and France believe they can do a better job, and it is probably now just window dressing on the part of the U.S. in response. There are many who believe the U.S. actually created Isis for strategic purposes. Whatever the case the U.S. seems content with a low level permanent war, one that exists on the basis of the metaphysics of violence. There appears to be a synergy between the military industrial media complex and the metaphysics of violence. As Girard says, “Choose your enemies carefully, because you will become like them.” But after a while it is difficult to say who is choosing whom. thLD1NNCEH

The truth is that terrorism is a condition of chaos and it exists at many levels. It belongs to the loss of authority and the loss of meaning inherent in the collapse of sacrificial foundations. It is a way of being in the world, and the most knowing elements in international arms and politics understand this and exploit it. In comparison Putin is an old-fashioned cold war balance of power rationalist.

Girard in his way is a similar rationalist. In his final book, Battling to the End, he presented the rivalry between the great powers as the ratio of a duel, which becomes a final irrationality as they fight “to the end.” However, the terrorist is not a rival in this sense. He is militarily, materially, financially and politically no match for the great powers. And yet culturally he is. Why? Because by the use of modern media, brutal personal violence and the choice of soft targets at the heart of Western secularism he is able to achieve a reverberating symmetry with his cultural rival. Girard did not see the extreme asymmetry/symmetry or non-ratio/ratio of terrorism, and thus he did not appear to see the particular character of the crisis that resides, not simply at the end of rivalry, but in a paradoxical opposition of the single individual to the whole. It is precisely at this point that a solution begins to offer itself.

The single individual removed from the whole is a deeply Christian phenomenon. It goes back to the early nonviolent martyrs and, of course, to Jesus himself. Kierkegaard made it a central theme, in contrast to the Hegelian system. In our contemporary world Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are powerful examples, and even the present pope, Francis, may be interpreted as such in relation to the Vatican curia and hierarchy. Thus within the depth of terrorism we might say there is the seed of its own overcoming. Not with the force of bombing or a vast army on the ground in the Middle East (the 21st century crusade that Islamic metaphysicians are longing for). None of that will counter the rivalry of the individual against the hegemonic whole. But the example of the nonviolent individual who is prepared to stand in dynamic contrast to the world, without entering into rivalry with its metaphysical violence, this is an irreducible point of meaning–one that can only continue to grow in power.

It is not the suicide bomber who is the real antagonist of the hegemonic state (he is already thoroughly co-opted). It is Jesus who has taught us how to be individuals, even the extremists who abuse the gift. His nonviolent assymetry/symmetry is an act of love which calls the whole to love. Jesus sets himself over against the world, not in violence but love. He is the original mirrorist, but with an impossible mirroring of love. Only love can mirror something that is not there in the first place.

Of Gods And Violence

(Spoiler alert: plot themes and details discussed.)

DF-00830R.JPGIf you’re looking for religious uplift don’t go to see Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Gods and Kings. If on the other hand you want an anthropological reading it really is a five-star movie.

About halfway through, the Pharaoh, Ramesses II, speaks these words to Moses: “What is your god, a killer of children? What kind of fanatics would worship a god like that?” Ramesses is no slouch at killing himself, but in his words there is the genuine sense of outrage that any civilized Westerner must share at the killing of the firstborn.

Once again a film-maker returns to a biblical scene to worry the pleated skirts of the central Western story. What really was going on? What was important? What images can be distilled so that we may perhaps find ourselves with a different perspective leaving the cinema?

Scott and the screen-writers have a certain vision right from the outset. It is about violence and its mimetic essence–although a concept like that is of never mentioned.

MV5BMTc2MjQwMzI2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQzNjUxMjE@._V1._CR41,12,2916,1943_SY100_CR25,0,100,100_AL_[1]Near the beginning Seti I, the old Pharaoh, gives the two “brothers,” Ramesses and Moses, fabulous gold-inlaid swords inscribed with their names. For a moment they believe they have been given the wrong swords, each with the wrong name. But Seti insists: you have the sword with the other’s name in order that “you might take care of each other.” Despite the fatherly solicitude we sense that the truth is rather the inverse. At once the theme of mimetic doubles intrudes, a theme that is absolutely biblical. The “brother” is so close to me, and so much my rival, he takes away “my identity,” my standing, my inheritance, and the outcome is a simmering mirroring violence.

But the rivalry between brothers is just a foil for something far bigger, something that seems to be the real rivalry–that between Pharaoh and the God of the Exodus. In a brilliant stroke of theatre the figure of God is cast as a ten-year-old, a spiteful, narcissistic boy. The only thing that stops him officially being a sociopath is that he is a child–one badly in need of parenting!

God directs Moses back to Egypt to set his people free, and Moses sets out in conventional fashion, beginning a guerilla war attacking Egypt’s food supplies. He says it is a “war of attrition” and will take many years. God tells Moses that he’s wasting time and instead he should just step back and watch what He can do! By introducing the motif of a guerilla war–not in the bible–Scott suggests that this is in fact the nature of the plagues: a guerilla campaign. God mimics Moses’ war, simply doing it much better. In other words, the God of the Exodus imitates human violence.

In a way this a fairly banal point until you get to the slaughter of the firstborn. The naturalistic sequence of crocodiles attacking en masse, spilling blood in the water, followed by frogs, flies, boils, death of cattle, hail, locusts, darkness, all seems par for the course: if control of the natural environment is God’s purview then this “step aside and see what I can do” seems fairly reasonable. It is when God overhears Pharaoh talking to himself and planning to drown all the Hebrew children, and then resolves to act first that it gets truly nasty. As Stalin famously said, “When a million die it’s a statistic; a single death is a tragedy,” and throughout the movie we have been cued to feel empathy for Pharaoh’s infant son due to his evident love for the child. When the Angel of Death passes over and the baby stops breathing from one moment to the next, it is then that we feel how truly horrifying mimetic violence is. And it is God doing it!

The following scene reinforces the point. Pharaoh carrying his dead baby faces Moses now become strong and saying “None of the Hebrew children died.” The roles are reversed. Moses and his God are now the conquerors and Pharaoh tells him and the Hebrews to leave Egypt, to go, get out of here…. But then God–or mimetic violence–“hardens Pharaoh’s heart” once more. And he decides to chase down the Hebrews with his chariots, providing the supremely cinematic climax. This time, however, it does not seem heroic, not at all Charlton Heston’s pious parting of the seas. It feels sick-making, as if we’ve seen all too much violence, and the tidal waters of the Red Sea returning on Pharaoh’s army cannot wash that feeling away. exodus_4-1[1]

Something has happened between Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 telling of the story, The Ten Commandments, and now. The confident moralism, the mythic divine violence, the majestic maleness, this has been replaced by spite, fanaticism, revenge. Actually the imperial state, in the figure of Pharaoh, is prepared to kill children, and God in his guerilla-terrorist tactics simply seeks to outdo the state at its own game. There is not a whisker to choose between them.  To have this so clearly presented on screen is a crisis both for the state and religion.

Tony Bartlett

Systemic Racism Is Real But It’s Not The Root Problem.

The recent national uprising up of anger and anguish stemming from Ferguson and Staten Island–the killings by police of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the failure of grand juries to indict the officers responsible– might suggest the beginning of a national debate on police and race and even the possibilities of a new civil rights era. But we wouldn’t want to hold our breaths.vaQyQBzSIsTQDou-580x326-noPad[1]

As has been more than once pointed out (e.g. here and here) the way things stand in the U.S. the police have almost complete impunity when it comes to interpreting when they are at risk, and then responding with deadly force. The issue of life and death is decided in a matter of seconds and it is almost inevitable it will be that way.

The U.S. runs on violence. Best guesses of how many guns there are in private ownership is one for every man, woman and child. Roughly 350 million. The US has been continually at war from year one of the 21st century, on top of the ongoing trauma from the 20th century’s two world wars, plus Korea and Vietnam, and prior to that the prolonged war against the Native American peoples across the continent. There are well over 200 U.S. military bases in foreign countries across the world, to say nothing of those on home soil. There are fabulously wealthy people in this country who do not feel they have any responsibility to the poor and marginal, unless perhaps it comes as largesse not justice. (See estimate of the Economist, that 160, 000 families, 0.1 % of the nation, own 22% of the wealth, an average of $73 million each, almost equal to the bottom 90% entire, the disparity between rich and poor a little shy of the all-time gulf immediately before the 1929 crash.) The central narrative of our time is controlled by a media which cannot step back an instant from the constant back-answering of argument and hostility between polarized commentators. The despairing assertion that the truth somehow lies in the middle is itself an illusion: the resolution of the antagonisms displayed between so-called right and left is so off the charts of the existential reality of either side, on whatever issue, as to be another kind of world altogether. It is the antagonism itself which motivates our news cycle of information and meaning, and it is this condition which is now the specific character of the 21st century. If “the war to end all wars” kicked off the 20th, permanent war grips the 21st.

Beginning with Augustine of Hippo we have been trained to see violence in a moralized and legalized way, as discrete, separate actions each evaluated according to a rational calculus of “justified” and “unjustified”. The courts and political rulers are supremely equipped to make this calculus.

Since Rene’ Girard that has changed. Violence can never be discrete because it is mimetic. It is a plasma of imitation which runs between people at the speed of electricity and will continue to grow exponentially until it is discharged in at least one victim. The courts and political rulers are just as much in its field of force as all other individuals. In the past sacrificial rituals, including war itself, served to keep the plasma in check, discharging it in organized fashion. But today the anti-sacrificial narrative of innocence is so universally recognized and used–against the secret sacred function of violence, but not against violence itself–any discharge is almost immediately rendered ineffective. And the plasma floods back into society and the body politic.

The police are one of the front lines in this anarchic situation. By the very nature of their job and the weapons they carry their fingers are swift on the trigger to squeeze out a sacrificial solution. They don’t even think about it, don’t even know it, but mimetic theory says it is so. However, even though they may kill with impunity the solution fails at once. Even though the bullets fly they re-enter the collective reality at once and cannot terminate the victim. The situation is always worse.

The media is another front line. Except its members are now aware that the plasma itself is the news. Everywhere it shows up, from a video phone recording of a police killing, to one political commentator slapping down another, that’s network news! Not so much information as Ultimate Fighting!

And what about racism? So much of the historical plasma in the US converges on people of color and it does not want to let go. There was a Civil War over the issue, but really it did not resolve it, because the plasma cannot be contained. It continues to seek out places where it has previously been institutionally comfortable. As has been noted by some, these killings of black men, especially Eric Garner, are contemporary lynchings.

But the radical issue is not racism, rather the plasma of violence itself. If Christians and Christian pastors wish to make a difference around the memories of Brown and Garner and others like them, they will want to shift their message into transformation rather than transaction. From a Jesus who pays a price so we can get to heaven and the-devil-take-the-hindermost, to a Jesus who seeks to change our human condition itself and who sets us free from the “devil,” the age-old system of the “adversary”, once and for all.

GRAVITY OR GLORY

(Warning: some plot theme spoilers.)

The release of Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, prompts  immediate                comparisons with last year’s orbital movie hit, Gravity, and for several reasons.

A ringed spacecraft revolves around a reflective sphere.

There is the suffused religious tone of both films, pitching audiences headfirst into             the cathedral geometries of outer space. Gravity also plays a key role in each storyline.

In the case of the eponymous feature almost the whole thing consists of the accelerating effects of gravitational force, as the spinning earth pulls matter around it or toward it in a constant terrifying plunge. In Interstellar gravity acts as some kind of unifying field allowing improbable “ghostly” communications across the galaxy.

Gravity Poster.jpg

In addition a family team wrote the story and screenplay for each of the films: father and son, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón, in the case of Gravity, and two brothers, Christopher and Jonathan, in the case of Interstellar. It seems that blood relationship allows the trust and shared imagination for these cosmic explorations.

There is certainly a trend. Space allows for visual hints of a great Other hidden somewhere in those trackless spaces and possibly in relationship to us. Is there not a person or persons watching us unseen from the depths of this dark cosmos? In Gravity two of the spacecraft entered in the course of the action have religious icons, a Buddha in the Chinese space-station, and an Orthodox Virgin and Jesus in the Russian module. In Interstellar the space-mission is named “Lazarus”, using the gospel story as metaphor for the possibility of finding a new planet to sustain life when the present one is dying.

But right there is the rub, a vast difference between the two movies. In Gravity everything pulls you back to earth. When the female astronaut, Stone, acted by Sandra Bullock somehow survives her fiery re-entry and emerges from her module into a shallow lake and then onto land she grasps a handful of mud and mouths “Thank you.” The earth here is our home, filled with life and hope. Nothing in that vast blackness up there could compare to it.

In contrast, in Interstellar, the earth is cooked, fried, a roiling dustbowl of failed crops and certain starvation. Our only hope is to begin again somewhere else, in some alternative planet reached via quantum anomalies which somehow appear in our solar system. You could say the first movie is Hebrew biblical: God created the earth as good and did not     intend it to be a waste (Genesis and Isaiah). The second is Gnostic and Greek: our destiny is always away from here, up in the sky, guided by beings who belong on a supernal plane far beyond.

These are alternatives with a two thousand year pedigree. And along with them goes a parallel division, although not quite so marked. The transformation of the earth requires a theology of the cross, it requires self-giving. In Gravity the male astronaut, Kowalski, has to let go of his life in order that Stone might survive and return to earth. In Interstellar Cooper, the lead astronaut acted by Matthew McConaughey, has to take an enormous risk but in true hero fashion he ultimately survives and finds glory.

This underlines the difference. We can only remain on earth with our seven billion brothers and sisters if we’re prepared to surrender some things. Otherwise it could be the way of Nolan and the Gnostics, with a few hundred thousand of us floating gloriously somewhere else in space.