Category Archives: Anthropo-theology

This is where I both explain and develop the anthropology which underpins a revolutionary new style of theology.

Primal Soup for Emerging “New Cell” Christianity

I had a conversation with a priest friend. He described a more or less perfect “church campus” in a small North Eastern boutique town. There is the venerable town-center worship center, behind it an education facility, a couple of blocks away a rural poverty support program, and on the corner a second-hand store helping fund the social-service outreach. But despite its evident virtue the church campus is not attracting newcomers. The church is stagnant, in fact slowly dying.mr_00089689

What are they doing wrong?

Church and worship have to do with the in-breaking of transcendence, and it seems that the average citizen of the small town finds her transcendence elsewhere; or nowhere.

In fact old transcendence itself seems to be dying, and perhaps directly under the cultural impact of the gospel. Gone is the great-deity-on-high and with it the threat of eternal consequences, and instead there is a questioning of power itself and the violence that underpins it. The question could take us on several related rabbit trails (e.g. some churches specialize in preserving or restoring that sense of violent power within the four walls of their building), but let me stick to an image that struck me and I shared with my friend.

Life in an evolutionary sense emerged from a soup of proteins that somehow combined into the primitive single cell. The “somehow” is not the question. What is relevant is the background chaos of materials which provided the necessary environment from which life came. unnamed It is the “culture medium” which is critical in producing life.

The account of the first Pentecost tells us the Spirit created the first primitive church out of a babble of tongues. It hearkens us back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. According to Walter Brueggemann the scattering that the Lord brought about, produced by the confusion of tongues, was for the sake of a larger creative purpose of ingathering and unity. And of course we see that in the outpouring of Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit of boundary-breaking nonviolence overcoming difference and separation in forgiving love.

What if today we are witnessing another kind of scattering? One not signaled by diversity of languages (we have facebook to translate for us), but by the breakdown and chaos of even more closely identifying structures of specialness and difference. We have a fragmentation and dissonance within “natural” unities such as race, nation, gender, along with a media which heightens the discord with every voice, opinion and “alternative fact” as valid as the next. Fake news is the news: there is a breakdown of “truth” itself. And with that, of course, there is the critically heightened sense of violence, precisely because unified structures of meaning and truth–single narratives–are there to protect against rivalry and conflict, against violence itself.

This then is the culture medium where the gospel word should be searchoperating, in which it announces its alternative truth of unbounded love in the space of agitation and disarray. Respect for difference is not enough: there has to be the positive experience of transforming love “by which everyone will know you are my disciples.” This kind of love reaches out as well to those who feel impelled to recreate old unities for the sake of fending off the sense of violence. The fragmentation of “natural” unities is, therefore, in order to bring about a new kind of humanity. It is the creative space, like the confusion of languages, in which a genuinely new life of positive love can emerge. Without this present-day chaotic medium we would never be moved to produce this self-replicating “cell” of new human being.

Paradoxically, the gospel’s most natural sphere is not the settled order, but the place where the apparent virtues of such an order break down–in the lives of individuals who experience it as hurt and violence: the marginalized, the violated, the oppressed. The fact that the church campus I described is concerned for the poor cannot preclude that at some point it belongs itself to macro structures which create the poor (e.g. privilege, war, class etc.) The poor have always been blessed by the gospel, but today we have all entered a new kind of poverty where violence itself impoverishes our existence. And so that other beatitude, which is ineptly translated “blessed are the meek,” becomes first in significance. “Blessed are the nonviolent” is the joyful meaning of the gospel for those who consciously opt for it, out of a culture of violence, out of the generative roots of culture exposed to the light as violence.

So the gospel becomes the ability to live in this space with transcendent love, forgiveness and peace. Blessed are the nonviolent for they shall inherit the earth! 6273465171_a7b0885a35_b

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

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.

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.

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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.

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.

Reading Eden

My-Bible-Story-Book1-189x300 EditTo read Genesis 3-4 you have to rid yourself of simplistic assumptions.

This is not a straightforward tale from a children’s picture book.

The author is actually trying to answer Ecclesiastes’ question:

“Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? (7:13)

She is trying to explain God’s actions, at the same time as human actions which interact with God’s actions.

So it gets complicated.

Other authors in the Old Testament showed little concern for this narrative; unlike for Christians, beginning with Paul, who made the figure of Adam pivotal. For the Hebrew writers it was Exodus which played the key role, not Genesis. They did not fossilize and absolutize the meaning of the Genesis text the way we did.

For example, should we not ask the question why did God put the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden in the first place (3:3)? He could hardly have made it more noticeable and intriguing! And if we say this was a test, why was a test needed at all? Adam and Eve were happy, they enjoyed God’s company, and presumably he enjoyed theirs. Unless perhaps he wanted something more from them?

Perhaps he wanted to offer them freedom, to see if they would love and obey him even when they were free?

And right there comes the first complication. How could God offer Adam and Eve freedom without making the possibility of disobedience absolutely real to them? A live option? In which case it was God himself who introduced knowledge of good and evil to humankind.

Our first parents acted on this knowledge, but it was there before them. You see what I mean? Adam and Eve had no cultural models. They were as fresh and innocent as dew on a buttercup. They were children who’d never had a candy, or seen T.V., or heard their parents quarreling. Their only model was God.

Or the serpent…

Whoa! A second complication! “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (Standard Version) The serpent or snake is compared to other animals–there is no hint of a supernatural being. If it was a supernatural being there would of course be no question of its intellectual ability or wits. So God made this creature along with the other animals and placed it in the garden. Where is the explanation of this particular creature’s presence, given its devious attitude? There is none.

We have to wait until the last book of the Christian bible, the Book of Revelation, to learn that the serpent is the same as “the devil”. There is a question of course about what the author of Revelation himself means in his context, but at the level of the story in Genesis, and its original meaning in the Hebrew setting, it is not useful at all to rush in and conclude we’re talking about an other-worldly master of evil somehow using the mouth of a snake to speak.

In other words, there is in the Genesis story a very strong implicit suggestion that it is God himself who introduced the snake into the mix, just as he set up the tree in the middle of the garden.

Furthermore, if we compare this story with the following one, of Cain and Abel, we see that there is a unique parallelism between these two stories (familiar conversation of God and humans, crime and punishment, curses etc.). And in both accounts God somehow digs the ditch which humans fall into (God “prefers” Abel’s sacrifice without any cogent explanation of why this should be the case).

To deny all this is to ignore the different levels of the text and interpret it in an extremely narrow legalistic sense. Those who did this in the Christian tradition, formulating the heavy-handed doctrine of “one original sin”, did so out of a culture of Roman law. These fathers of the church ignored, I think, or were insensitive to, the more feminine Wisdom framework of thought in the Old Testament. If we connect the Genesis story with this framework we get a much richer, more provocative account of the human problem and condition.

Wisdom writing is concerned with how human life might turn out well, with how it might be lived successfully. We know that the author of Genesis 3 had a wisdom perspective (3:6), so what if the overall story is not about figuring out one catastrophic original crime and its supernatural penalties, but a much more wide-ranging and daring discussion on the sources and meaning of our actual human alienation and suffering?

The root problem seems to be desire itself and the deadly competition and rivalry it leads to. The story tells that the first parents were not “made” with desire but desire emerged in the process of their becoming human. And God took a direct hand in this. The very set-up of the Garden of Eden has to be God’s education of the infant-like Adam and Eve. He was teaching them their humanity, the possibility of desire. The fact that they failed their exams does not negate the fact they were in school. And, despite failing, what they took away with them and would always remain with them was indeed desire. God awakened desire in them and God’s purpose was that they might desire God! They took the more glittering path of desiring “stuff”, the fruit of the tree. So then God took violent measures against them–he expelled them from the Garden. But that action by God is predicated on the kind of humans they had become–full of rivalry and violence! And as a result they got the kind of God they asked for–one who expels and likes blood sacrifice!

But the writer knew this could not be the end of the story. The picture of God she presents is ironic, unsatisfactory, unfathomable. There has to be more to come, a deeper design at work.

And so, yes, there is this verse. At 3:15 God addresses the snake, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike you head, and you will strike his heel.” Who is the woman? It can only be Wisdom; and her offspring will strike at the head of the snake, meaning they will reject the logic of violent desire which the snake had so eloquently expressed. And the snake will retaliate in the only manner it knows how.

What the author of this story is looking for is a way to deal with desire and violence and really she hasn’t the foggiest idea of what that could be in practice. BUT she does know the crucial questions to ask and she does so in a subtle, profound way. And it is this deep wisdom which also gives confidence to predict the coming of a human one who would reverse the logic of violent desire. The author knew that God created us with desire so that one day would also come its transformation.

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation VI: Gospel = Theological Nonviolence

To conclude a series on nonviolent interpretation of the bible we turn necessarily to the man from Galilee.

Jesus as cultural figure is so commonplace (both as doctrine and meaning), it is very difficult for us to get behind him, to identify a sense of his extrordinary novelty and singularity. Further below is a small thought experiment to try recapture this.

Jesus made a pivotal intervention in human history, explicitly teaching nonviolence (“turn the other cheek”), but even more crucially, displaying it in extreme, primordial circumstances.

The gospels set out the singularity of Jesus in terms of his identity as the Christ and of his relationship to the Father. The latter issue preoccupied the first centuries of Christianity and they understood the Christ/Messiah very much in the light of Jesus’ divinity.

But the relationship was conceived in Greek ontological terms, of being (“one being with the Father”), rather than the quality of the relationship, its phenomenology, as transformation of the nature of relationship itself.

Hence, the experiential basis of Jesus’ uniqueness was swallowed up in a doctrinal metaphysics of being, and we lost a human sense of why these immense claims were or could be made about him.

At Matt. 11: 25-27 we hear Jesus say, “Thank you Father that you have revealed these things to the simple, not the wise or intelligent.” The root meaning of nepios is those without speech or words (Latin infans), i.e. the pre-cultural child or unlettered adult. Jesus is saying clearly that his stuff is not revealed to those invested with conventional cultural knowledge, but to those ready to be humanized from the ground up. Those who are speechless in the old way, who are ready for a new human start.

He goes on directly to say no one “fully knows” or recognizes the Son except the Father, and no one recognizes the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. In other words, it is not possible to know the Father/Mother within the established cultural order. It is only in the revolutionary relationship that Jesus establishes that it is possible to begin truly to know God. What could possibly explain this exceptionality about himself?

If it is not some arbitrary demand to confess “Jesus as Lord” it has to be the radical nonviolence of God which cannot be known without the radical nonviolence of Jesus.

Conversely, when Jesus asks at Matt. 16:13-17 “Who do men say that I am?” and Simon Peter answers that he is the Christ, Jesus comments that it is “not flesh and blood that has revealed this, but the Father.” Flesh and blood is the universal cultural system we are in, and to recognize the Christ/Messiah is to be moved by the Father/Mother. Thus the nonviolent God also works to make known in our hearts the Messianic nonviolence of Jesus and allow us to confess him as the Christ-of-nonviolence.

Scholars uncritically assume that what is currently in their heads, and the heads of half of humankind, was always there, but it wasn’t. The affirmation of a crucified teacher of nonviolence as the key to history could not have happened without a transcendent event. Let’s try this thought experiment.

Imagine MLK Jr., that his fight wasn’t with racism, or militarism, rather with the religion of his own people. They possessed a national territory which they had achieved by exodus from the rest of America after the end of slavery, let’s say somewhere like California. There was a central institution, a temple, which everyone attended at regular intervals, by obligation. The people believed God had led them to California and the temple was the place he had chosen for his worship. However, the territory was currently occupied and under the control of the Nazis who began in Germany but were now in power everywhere. To fight the Nazis was like taking on the world order itself. But the people could never quit resisting, because the presence of the Nazis in the land was a blasphemy to God. At the same time there was the belief that the presence of the Nazis was a judgment by God on the sins of the people. So there was the added sense among opinion leaders that they now had to be absolutely faithful to God’s rules, in order to end the terrible Nazi curse they were under.

MLK began to preach: he behaved as if none of this mattered, the land, the temple, the rules, the Nazis. All that was important was a totally new move by God that had to do with him and his preaching, with relationship to him. Through this relationship there was the possibility of love, nonviolence and forgiveness for everyone around you. This was God’s move in the world.

What would people say?

The matter did not end there. MLK clearly had enemies among the temple and rules people. But instead of hiding out in the desert and spreading his teaching untroubled by authorities, he headed to the temple and he shut it down, claiming full authority over this central symbol. All the people gathered round him, hanging on his every word. They expected something overwhelming: that this totally new outrageous teaching would get a sudden all-powerful confirmation from God, so that it would wipe out all opposition, including the Nazis. At this point the temple authorities understood a direct challenge has been made and they decided to take MLK out. For some inexplicable reason he did not protect himself or even hide sufficiently carefully, but allowed himself to be discovered and captured. His followers are disoriented and scattered, the crowd turns against him. The temple authorities hand him over to the Nazis who torture and humiliate him in the most horrendous and public way, making him a joke and a disgrace to the whole world. He is strung up in a public place and dies a slow, crushing death. He shows great courage and perseverance but he dies all the same. Next day is Sunday. He remains dead. The only possible conclusion: this man suffered from terminal religious delusion.

From where then will come the psychological resources to assert not only the teaching of this man, but that he does indeed represent the true meaning of God? The man who preached these things had entered a pit of unmediated horror and all that could be felt was the echoing brute triumph of violence. It beggars belief that unlettered disciples could invent the gospel out of violated, condemned hearts, and afterward continue peacefully in nonviolence and forgiveness.

To entertain this understanding in respect of Jesus is willful a-historicism, projecting on first century Galilean Jews the default sense of Christian truth embedded after two thousand years of slow-drip cultural presence. As one of our group said, Christian meaning is imprinted in people’s minds today as a kind of collective myth, and they assume it would always have been as easy to embrace the story culturally as it is now. They don’t recognize how profoundly they have been shaped, and how impossibly this easy acceptance could have occurred originally: absent the transcendent event of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is the unnegotiable affirmation of theological nonviolence, and it could not have been imagined into existence! It is only when we understand the profound newness represented by Jesus and his death that we also recognize the organic truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection is understood simply as a confirmation that Jesus is divine then the suspicion will at once arise that it’s a religious fiction. In its proper context, of Jesus’ revelation of theological nonviolence, it becomes unavoidable.

Finally, a key aspect of the gospel narrative is Jesus’ mental suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. Matt. 26: 36-46 shows his horror facing the cross. The fact that the Father/Mother wills it does not demonstrate a perverse will to punish, rather the converse: because the Father/Mother is given over entirely to the risk of creation and its violent self-affirmation, so in imitation Jesus must surrender to the generative violence of human culture, in order to transform it. Jesus removes himself three times from his disciples, separating himself from actual humanity to do something new. Mark’s exthambeomai is to be out of one’s mind, paralyzed with terror. Matthew uses the standard word for grief (unto death), but keeps Mark’s ademoneo, the strongest word in the NT for depression and stress, a loathing for existence. These are very powerful words and they represent the depth of Jesus’ alienation from life as he faces the truth of human culture and its bottomless foundation in violence. Jesus must enter this human hell in order to bring it to love from within. The narrative of Jesus’ internal agony is unique in  ancient and classical literature: no other hero is shown to undergo such terrifying loss of self-meaning. But it is precisely this interiority or subjectivity in crisis that guarantees Jesus has entered the core of our violent existence in order to bring it to love.

It is the infinite gesture of self-giving in Gethsemane that is raised up in resurrection. Gethsemane is the phenomenological core of resurrection: the story of one is not credible without the story of the other.

To confess Jesus, therefore, is to confess the dramatic in-breaking in human history of theological nonviolence.

Beloved Lies and Lepidoptera

butterflies[1]Nature has provided for butterflies a bush of special delight. It is called Buddleia and in high summer it can be found crowded with the showy-winged insects all attracted by its sweet yet faintly rank scent. When numbers of them start feeding it’s a riot, as if they can’t get enough of the stuff. In my yard in England we had a bush, while two yards down there was another one. When mine was crowded the other one was too.

When there’s the threat of war, when the world begins to sweat the scent of violence, the news media flock like common butterflies to their backyard bush loaded with all that deadly nectar. They tell their breathless stories, fluttering their bright wings, highlighting all the violence as if it was naturally and singly on tap in their bush and their version is the only possible one. They do not see, don’t want to see, that just a couple of yards down there’s another bush with another riot of butterflies telling the same story of violence but from a completely different perspective.

Even worse–and this is where simple Mother Nature can no longer guarantee the metaphor and we have to allow in a specifically human element–one set of butterflies is secretly sipping from the very same poison nectar as the other. The more one riot of fluttering wings tells the story from their point of view the more the other riot of wings, two yards down, drinks excitedly from the purest well of the same violence! The more the story is told from one point of view, the more its content is imitated, but precisely from the other point of view!

Western news media depict Russia as aggressors in the Ukraine just as surely as Russian news media depict the West in the same way. And the more one side flutters feverishly the more the other, glancing covertly behind them, does the same. Even as you read this I am sure the thought is suggested, well, really aren’t the Russians aggressors? But that is simply our in-built response to the whole systemic rivalry between “Russia” and “the West” outside of which the massive interests of cultural institutional violence will not allow us to think.

Thanks be to God through Christ we can become free of this thinking! One day the earth will wake up to the horrible untruth of systemic rivalry, be it between individuals or political powers. Systemic rivalry is the original sin of our human condition and people feel it gives special meaning to existence. But it is more and more implausible the more it pushes us toward disaster. One day we will wake up to the possibility of peace as the meaning of existence, and toss our beloved lies into the dustbin of history!

Salt Solution

In Syracuse N.Y. salt is ubiquitous, in the names of the roads, in its salt-springs history, and at this time of year just about everywhere you look. Anything that goes on wheels, or upon which wheels go, is encrusted in a thick grime of salt. After big storms, followed by melts and cold snaps, the roads are white, not with snow, but an astringent paste of the briny stuff, one you can taste in the air.

Jesus famously described discipleship in terms of salt losing its savor and being thrown out to be trodden underfoot (Matt.5:13). Commentaries say it’s strange, the compound NaCl is not known to lose its flavor, so what was Jesus talking about? My guess is on the steep inclines of Nazareth and Jerusalem people did just what they do now, on the occasions it did snow and freeze they put salt on steps and gradients. And when the wind blew and you got a tongue-curling taste of the stuff it was just like it is now, dull, cloying, unpalatable.

What Jesus was talking about was not salt losing its flavor in a chemical sense, but losing its precise human quality as seasoning. Too much salt and it’s no longer edible. Actually, it’s disgusting. A literal sense of the Greek word “to lose flavor” is “to become stupid, dull, doltish”… so Jesus is saying that when salt is spread underfoot it loses its tang, its meaning as salt and, instead, tastes, well, stupid, just a bad parody of its table self. All he did was reverse the order of events–first “no tang/bad parody” then “thrown out,” for the sake of his parable.

So, what does it mean for today’s disciples, intended to be “the salt of the earth,” but subject to the possibility of becoming bad parodies fit only to be trodden underfoot?

In many ways Christianity is already spread universally underfoot. In the West it has a massive historical and cultural presence which makes it appear part of the geography, of not much more vital significance than an old road paved over or an outline of ancient walls in an archeological site. Back in 2004 the announced European Constitution did not mention Christianity, prompting bitter complaints from the Vatican. An alliance that progressively emerged between the pope emeritus, Benedict, and some European atheists, for the protection of Christendom against Islam, only serves to highlight the parody-like version of Christianity that was being defended, one that has already ended under foot!

Here in the U.S. Christianity may appear more vital and contemporary but the same underfoot quality is all around us, evidenced by the now European style decline in many mainline churches, particularly and tellingly among young whites. At the same time the barely hidden undertow of violence revealed in many attitudes and situations in fundamentalist Christianity is its own unwitting but evident parody of the Sermon on the Mount where the salt parable appears. (http://m.rollingstone.com/culture/news/love-and-death-in-the-house-of-prayer-20140121)

It seems we are failing the salt test.

What would it mean to seek to be table-salt Christianity today? How is it possible to be salt that dramatically changed the taste of human life for the better, giving life to the earth in the 21st century? To answer this question you have at once to take into account an entirely other perspective about the “spread abroad” quality of inherited Christianity. Elsewhere I have argued that Christianity has had such a profound cultural impact it decisively and progressively affects our underlying responses and opinions, above all in our recognition of the victim through an undertow of Christ’s compassion. This paradoxical impact explains why there is in fact so much implicit Christianity in so-called secular culture and why it is so easy to find a kind of diffused humanism and spirituality entirely away from the churches. For this kind of thing Jesus used parables of seed and its amazing, unstoppable growth. If we take the liberty of mixing this phenomenon with the image of the salt, it’s as if the whole world is suspended in a kind of saline solution! Everything today is mixed with Christianity.

However, this is of very little comfort when there are also many accumulated crises facing humanity. As a planet we have desperate decisions to make about inequality, poverty, the climate, weapons and war. Never in fact has the need for genuine disciples been more critical. I would say, therefore, that it’s the single tangy grain of salt resting in the water which reveals what the whole medium really is.

A grain of salt is by definition a small thing, but a passionate condensation of salt in an ocean enables all the water around to know what its life really is and to be more and more drawn to it. It enables the whole solution to come alive in the life that already is its own.

Such a single grain can be achieved only in direct relationships where it is possible to see the qualities of compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness and peace at work. It is a challenge, and failure and false-starts are a constant possibility. But we know for sure it cannot happen in the big Christendom-style operations based in power relations and which today are more and more simply thrown-underfoot. The objection is sometimes made that small communities do not have the sociological presence and effect of the big operations so you absolutely have to replicate them. This kind of thinking does not understand the seasoning power of a single grain of salt, that tangy thing Jesus was talking about!

Tony Bartlett