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.

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.

Edge of Gospel

Last time I had fun reviewing two sci.fi. movies. This time it’s a sci.fi. and a fairy tale, Edge of Tomorrow and Maleficent. So, first a major spoiler alert, core plot details will be discussed! If you’ve not seen these movies and want to experience them first-hand read no further.

The sci.fi. genre always has freely imagined worlds, apt to show us something fresh about our human situation. But now fairy tales can get complete makeovers, and radically change their meaning. Abandoning their hallowed formats they too can become surprising mirrors of our condition. According to the argument of Virtually Christian–one I find confirmed over and over again–such imaginative movies may act as a kind of echo chamber and prism of subversive Christian possibilities. Especially the type of movie which pushes the envelope of intense violence and revenge is likely to flip into a one-eighty Christian mind-change (metanoia). Such a movie acts as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, smashing human particles into each other so hard they suddenly reveal entirely new human properties. Or–looked at another way–because our artistic matrix or seedbed is so infected with Jesus’ undoing of human violence, actual artistic creation will again and again show glimmers of this revelation. Movies become a spontaneous gospel distillation and public revelation, but outside formal doctrine or church.

Edge of Tomorrow is a cleverly crafted tale of a U.S. military officer, Major Cage, working in media relations, who suddenly finds himself drafted for a terrifying D-Day style assault on a French beachhead, against an Alien army of vicious spiderlike killing machines. He is almost immediately annihilated but then, in the key storyline, he wakes up directly to find himself back in the previous day and about to experience the nightmare all over again. He literally “dies daily” and it is this relentless succession of deaths and revivals which drives the plot both in events and meaning. He teams up with a famous veteran soldier, Sergeant Rita, to whom the same thing had happened previously. She explains to him that he has been infected with the blood of an “Alpha” Alien whom he killed just before being killed. As a result he shares the Alien capacity to reset time–whereby they are able to learn from what just happened and then go back and start over: in this way they can never be beaten. Tellingly the Aliens are called “Mimics,” and although the name is never explained it is tempting to interpret their ability to learn their enemies’ behavior, and then start over in time, as an endless loop of mimetic behavior. The Mimics continually reset in imitation of the enemy! Even so mimetic time is an endless repetition of the same-old-same-old.

Together Cage and Rita battle through a Sisyphean series of deaths and rebirths until they finally reach the “Omega” Alien, the neural core of the alien horde, the center where all the reset information is always telegraphed. Both Cage and Rita sacrifice themselves to destroy the Mimic bio-construct. However, in the process Cage is again infected with blood, and wakes up once more, but this time in the aftermath of the Mimics’ destruction.

As with all time-reset stories there are a few plot imponderables, but in a way they don’t matter. There is inevitably a sense of “resurrection!” The overriding sense of a radical interruption in mimetic time is what delivers the dramatic pay-off, and it works because there is an underlying Christ-motif validating such a break, one not achieved by military victory but by surrender of competitive violence itself. The Christ theme is signaled (in inverted form) in the “Alpha and Omega” language, and at one key moment of the narrative a  picture of Jesus as Sacred Heart remains in frame long enough to suggest itself thematically as a symbol of “dying for the other.” Moreover, if we compare the screenplay with the original Japanese illustrated novel (All You Need Is Kill ) there is a clear shift from sacrifice of the human other, to a self-surrender on the part of human first-persons, in order to break the cycle and bring about the qualitatively new. By virtue of this shift time itself is changed, no longer the repetition of the same-old-same-old, but given instead a sense of radical openness to a new, “resurrection” future. The very name of the movie calls attention to this shift in time. “Edge of Tomorrow” hints both at the never-ending mimetic conflict, but also at the in-breaking of a future that is genuinely new.

You might say that these gospel motifs are entirely superficial, grafted in simply to make the movie culturally familiar, and without structural significance. But this reflects a very prosaic, Augustianian view of secularity. In contrast, the overall Girardian argument is the culturally deconstructive power of the gospel, disclosing our violence and deeply pervading the saeculum. My intuition simply takes the argument one step further, claiming that the positive phenomenon of Christ’s nonviolence undergirds the disclosure, and is now continually emerging into view in and for itself.

Maleficent is just such a case of emergent symbolism (or re-symbolizing), not this time in terms of mind-bending science fiction, but by means of taking a familiar fairy-tale and overturning its most time-honored, satisfying tropes. Again the only credible cultural source for this astonishing turn is the gospel, in particular, the rehabilitation of the scapegoat. The eponymous Maleficent is the evil Fairy-Godmother of Sleeping Beauty  fame. She herself is the victim of betrayal and abandonment, and this provides the motive for her hatred and her casting of the evil spell on the king’s daughter. However, she feels obliged to keep an eye on the little baby until it comes of age, and little by little she is moved to compassion out of her own, fundamental “humanity.” She relents on her curse but she is not able to undo its exacting release clause. The delightful twist is to make the “true love’s kiss” come from Maleficent herself, rather than some callow boy-hero.

The fairy tale changes to become a story of conversion in the face of innocence (non-violence), an ultimate refusal to continue the cycle of victim-making. The larger-scale result is to bring the king’s realm of “greed and envy” into harmony with the fairy kingdom where apparently no violence is done. Riding on these traditional but reverse-engineered themes is a gospel-inspired narrative of compassion, forgiveness, and eschatological change. Once again “same-old” time is being shifted toward something beautiful and new.

The question then is, if our symbolic universe is being morphed frame by frame in this astonishing contemporary way, into a gospel-sans-writing, what is the response of the organizations that found themselves on the writing? Are they ahead of the curve, or behind it? How much time-bending surrender of violence is part of our Sunday screenplay?

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.

Watchface

 

The minute hand of my watch

Crossing the hour bows its head

In prayer, all the way to deep

Meditation at the meridian,

Headfirst into the abyss of six.

Almost without noticing

Its movement becomes

A rising up, to alleluia at eleven

And the full sundial glory of noon.

But the humble hour hand shadows

Everything, conserving every revolution

In its lower slower sweep, until

All time is gathered into love.

The second prays incessantly, up,

Down, it makes no difference,

The heart-attack tempo of our days

Ticking toward its truth

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation V : Science of Human Relationships

So far we have been trying to undo, or deconstruct, violent bible interpretation (eternal decrees, literalism, empire, commodified soul). Now we can turn to the constructive side: a positively nonviolent interpretation.

If we read Genesis holistically, rather than legally and piecemeal, we gain a completely different sense of the human condition. Rather than an isolated legal fault condemning all, there is a profound and extended description of anthropology. This is the biblical anthropology identified by Girard: a science of fundamental human relationships arising in the bible.

To take up Genesis this way is a radical hermeneutic, just as Luther’s “only faith and only scripture” was a radical hermeneutic for his time. But Luther depended on an embedded interpretation of Christ’s death, one that understood that death in legal terms of compensation. In this sense Luther did not challenge a violent hermeneutic; he may well have served to intensify it.

Luther derived his understanding of the “sin of Adam” from the powerful impact of Augustinian tradition. It is a “vice of origin” which brings eternal death. Augustine, in his argument with Pelagius, used a faulty Latin translation of Romans (Kirwan 131-32). At 5:12 he believed the text read “in him all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned.” Although this has been corrected in later translations it served to cement in tradition the notion of direct sharing in Adam’s personal sin.

It has been well said that Romans 5 is about a “communion of sinners” (with Adam) just as there is a “communion of saints” (with Christ). This idea stands in contrast to the thought of one man’s individual sin transmitted to all. The concept of original sin set the whole of humanity (and Christianity) on the wrong end of a legal judgment by God: rather than seeing it as trapped within a structural condition of desire and violence which it is God’s salvific intention to treat and reverse.

If you look at the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (Genesis 2-4) it is evident these stories are doublets or mirror images and cannot be interpreted separately. They have the following features in common: familiar conversation between God and humans, warning about a crime and its consequences, commission of crime and resulting curses, mitigation of punishment. Most of all they have instigation or provocation in common.

The presence of the serpent (snake) in the Garden is left unexplained. At the level of the story the snake is simply the most cunning of the creatures; there is no thought of a supernatural Satan. It is a story-telling device to introduce the language of rivalry to Eve. But from a mimetic perspective it is God who already established the relationship of rivalry by setting up the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree in the first place. (A “test” is always a “model-obstacle.”) This mimetic component is reinforced at the end of the story when God gives as reason for excluding the first parents from the garden, “Because the man has become like one of us…and…he might…take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever;” 3:22.)

The instigation is corroborated when we look at in the second story. God arbitrarily prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, without having given any ordinance for animal husbandry or animal sacrifice. He explicitly made Adam a tiller of the ground, not a pastor of sheep. God’s preference in fact can be seen to up the sacrificial ante for Cain, provoking him to kill his brother not a sheep. After this Cain has God’s sevenfold protection! It is no accident that Cain goes on to be the founder of the first city (4:17).

An unprejudiced reader cannot help but sense these subtle implications in the text. In other words, the story works to introduce problem themes of rivalry, violence and sacrifice as part of the actual process of becoming human. The thought of “God” is deeply implicated in the process and must therefore be understood as being subjected to deep questioning by the author. What is called the “historical grammatical” method, favored by conservatives, must surely recognize these textual features. It is only a secondary, imposed level of “interpretation” that can bend the meaning back to a simple legal matter of “original sin followed by bad consequences, and needing the sacrifice of Christ to forgive.”

A fundamentalist interpretation is itself an anthropology, since it depends on the law of mimetic exchange and displacement on the victim, implicit in substitutionary atonement. In other words it already makes God subject to a deeply human (anthropological) mechanism. God can’t just forgive: he has to provide a victim, for himself! As one member said, to forgive on condition of compensation (in particular the horribly violent death of a son) is not to forgive. The difference in the nonviolent hermeneutic is that it sees God subverting the mechanism itself, in order to transform actual humanity. Which then seems the more likely?

Another core aspect of Genesis 2-4 is its account of desire. The woman observing the fruit of the tree was awakened to desire on three levels: it was good to eat, good to look at, desirable for gaining wisdom. In a highly concise story this is a significant amount of text, developing a theme. It shows the author is fully alive to the issue of desire undergirding the whole drama. This is greatly reinforced in the Cain story where desire is described as so powerful that it has assumed a displaced, externalized role (4:7) : it is now itself the subject, desiring the figure of Cain who has abandoned his self to desire! As AA says, the disease of alcoholism is a subject in its own right, “cunning, baffling and powerful.” The intense commentary on human desire already evident in Genesis has, again, been passed over in favor of a purely legal interpretation.

Toward the end of our study someone made the telling point that the beginning of the human world for Jesus did not occur with Adam but with Abel (Lk. 11: 50-51). In other words for Jesus the story of Cain was the hermeneutic key for our human condition, not the story before it. But presumably he also read them together.

 

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation IV: Soul

Last time we looked at how a structure of military power (empire) was able to recruit Christian meaning (the cross) to its side. This time we looked at the way Christianity adopted a shaping concept from its surrounding milieu, one which quickly became the object of desire in a mimetic Christian worldview.

The Hebrew concept of soul (nephesh) is not defined in the bible but is presented in a variety of existential meanings. (Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon says nephesh is translated 44 different ways in LXX, grouped under four main headings, of “creature,” “person,” “life,” “desire.” ) In contrast the Greek concept of the soul is clearly defined, chiefly by binary opposition, by what it is not: i.e. immortal (not dying), immaterial (not matter), simple (without parts). This is an effect of mimetic construction, holding something back through desire, from forces which threaten it (death, decay, multiplicity). Add in intellect, and shazam, you have the immortal soul!

As someone in the group said this Greek way of thinking was “black and white,” while the Hebrews thought in fuzzy edges. The metaphysical or essential clarity of the concept helped in establishing it as supreme object at stake in a dispute between heaven and hell. Its core value as an individual thing or commodity helped turn Christian salvation into a salvationist business with rival companies offering competing deals.

Today neural science and Mimetic Anthropology show us that the human soul cannot be separated from the material relationships whereby the body identifies spontaneously and holistically with the other. The soul is whole-self human communication.

At Matthew 22:37 we see  clearly that Jesus is not thinking in Greek dualist terms, he talks of a tripartite humanity (heart, soul, mind). He uses these terms as aspects of the human self, but they are not fixed essences, neither are they exclusive. At Matt. 10:28 we hear “both soul and body” can be destroyed in Gehenna, i.e. death can be the outcome for personal human life (the soul) along with the flesh. Gehenna is an apocalyptic image, a place of fire, of endless violence, and must be understood in contrast to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom of life. Jesus’ words suggest the intense pain of the self when the God of life is refused in favor of endless generative violence. His image must also be understood from the present perspective of the apocalyptic moment and its clarity of choice now: the outcome of loss is “to be feared.” It is a precipice we stand upon, not the architecture of the precipice itself as became fixed in the imagination of the Middle Ages.

Paul makes no significant use of the concept “soul.”

Reading Tertullian’s De Anima (On The Soul) we saw how the distinctive Christian concept emerged. Tertullian describes the origin of the soul as separate but simultaneous with the origin of the body: a living immortal soul, passed down from Adam, arrives at the moment of sexual discharge at the same instant as the body is conceived. The body comes in the fluid, the soul in the warmth. “I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us? And do we not experience a faintness and prostration along with a dimness of sight? This must be the soul-producing seed…” (Chapter 27)

Tertullian (160–225CE) was strongly influenced by the materialist/spiritual “fire” of Stoicism. Augustine (354–430) was much more inclined to the other-worldly philosophy of Plato (specifically Neoplatoism) where the soul arrived individually from heaven. At the same time Tertullian’s “traducianism” (the soul passed down from Adam) had the huge advantage of explaining original sin. Throughout his life Augustine hesitated between versions of the-soul-from-heaven (pre-existent souls or souls specifically created by God for each act of conception) and traducianism. He never came down finally on one side or the other, and there has to be a reason. I believe he instinctively favored the heavenly soul, conforming to the Neoplatonic vision of the Confessions, and yet he adopted Tertullian’s theory of sexual generation to provide the scenario wherein original sin is transmitted. It was precisely the involuntary desire-led character of sexual arousal which signaled the fall of Adam and the communication of original sin. “(C)arnal concupiscence (libido), which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin…” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk. 1, see chapters 7 & 27.)

From Augustine onward the die was cast: the combination of a soul created directly in heaven and original sin generatively transmitted in sex became fixed teaching in Aquinas and was quietly assumed and carried over by Luther in his account of justification. The soul thus became the fearful battleground of church powers and crisis-ridden human conscience seeking salvation.

But today the soul is more and more inseparable from the body, a complex made up of billions of cells, individual propagating units, all in communication with one another via electrical and chemical signals. The meaning, function and purpose of this complex can be understood simply as communication, i.e. the soul. Jesus is a revolutionized human body whose communication (soul) is peace. As the Risen Christ he offers this new meaning to all bodies. As Risen his communication is also beyond death. We do not know how it works but we believe that at the point of death any human soul can reach out in communication with Christ and so find life. “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).


 [AB1]

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!