September 20, 2010

are you THE ONE?

Jesus ComicIs Jesus THE ONE? Do we really know? Wherever Jesus went, people hounded him, demanding to know, “Are you THE ONE?”  Why were they so obsessed with this question? Maybe it’s human nature - a perennial longing for a messiah, some need for a superhero to deliver us.The Matrix Movie Poster Or maybe the question of Jesus’ identity was just a ploy, a literary device, used by the biblical writers to capture the reader’s imagination? It works in the movies: The MatrixStar Wars, Dune, the TV Series Legend of the Seeker…  they even used it in the final season of LOST. But why? What is it about THE ONE? Why does this messianic figure hold so much power over our imaginations?

In John 10:22-30 [link] Jesus actually refuses to answer the question: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” In fact, his response seems to lead them on:

“I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

people question jesus in         templeIf Jesus is THE ONE, if he’s all that the church creeds have claimed him to be (the Messiah, the Son of God, half Legend of the Seeker Posterhuman, half divine) why not admit it and get on with the business of saving the world? Why keep us in suspense this way?

Maybe the author of John’s gospel was afraid to divulge the answer too soon, knowing just how quickly we might lose interest in the story. Or maybe Jesus himself, understanding the power of suspense, utilized it to his advantage as a way to draw followers. Not only is he evasive, he taunts his interrogators, telling them that the reason they don’t GET IT, the reason they don’t BELIEVE, is because they don’t BELONG to his SHEEP. Isn’t this the same as saying, “you don’t BELONG to the club,” or “you’re not one of us, so you don’t get to have eternal life”? Jesus sounds like a manipulative jerk, or worse, some sort of cult leader.  But isn’t it also true that’s there’s something in our makeup that allows messiah sorts to make their claims, which allows the script writers and the TV producers to play that card in the first place?

Look at the The Matrix. It grabs our attention in the very first scene. Before any action, before we encounter a single person or face, we hear the line, “Morpheus believes he [Neo] is THE ONE.”  One line and we’re hooked.  We watch the entire movie waiting to find out - is it Neo, is he THE ONE? There’s no need to ask ourselves what it means, we all seem to GET IT from the start. Grasping  at every clue, we hold our breath in anticipation, waiting for the evidence that will prove beyond all doubt that Neo (Keanu Reeves) is really it. And sadly, when we finally got the answer, the rest of The Matrix trilogy seems to lose its steam.

Neo stops bullets in mid airFrom the beginning, the primary characters, Morpheus, Trinity, and Cipher, are focused on this single question of THE ONE’s identity. Morpheus tells Neo, “You are THE ONE Neo… I’ve spent my entire life looking for you,” that person, who according to the Oracle’s prophesy, will free humanity from the Matrix. Morpheus BELIEVES his search is finally over -  how can he be so certain?

Upon meeting Neo, Tank, a member of Morpheus’ crew exclaims, “God damn, I got to tell you I’m very excited to see what you’re capable of. If Morpheus is right – I’m not supposed to talk about this – but if you are… it’s a very exciting time.”  Their expectation becomes even more heightened when Neo begins to demonstrate almost superhuman powers - he must be it!

However, just when they begin to BELIEVE it’s true, that Neo is THE ONE, Neo goes to see the Oracle [watch]. She like all the others asks Neo if he’s THE ONE. Acting totally clueless (in Neo flyingtrue Keanu Reeves fashion) Neo replies, “Honestly, I YouTube Oracledon’t know.” After questioning him further the Oracle tells Neo, “Sorry kid, you got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something.” Neo asks, “For what?” Turning her back on him, the Oracle replies, “I don’t know, another life or something…”

What’s going on here? Neo has all the powers you’d expect THE ONE to possess. Morpheus is convinced it’s true. Trinity is convinced it’s true. So, what’s the Oracle playing at? And what is Neo’s hang-up? Why won’t he take on the role everyone expects of him. What’s holding him back? Is this just another scriptwriter’s ploy?

Neo wakes up in the matrixBut in fact, there IS a very real problem: Neo does not BELIEVE he’s THE ONE; and as long as HE thinks this way, he can’t be it, because he, like most of the characters in the movie, is passively waiting for someone else to step up to the plate. Morpheus, however never loses hope, he insists that when Neo is ready, he won’t have to dodge bullets. Morpheus tells Neo, “I told you that I would show you the door. You have to walk through it… you must free your mind,” but not  in the way Morpheus expects.  Neo may be physically freed from the Matrix, but he is still trapped within a mental ENCLOSURE, one which continues to render him and all the others passive, as passive as SHEEP.

Slavoj ZizekSlavoj Zizek, a philosopher with a knack for picking apart movies, provides an important clue: “when some of the people ‘awaken’ from their immersion into the Matrix controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not the opening into the wide space of the external reality, but first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a fetus-like organism, immersed in the pre-natal fluid.” But “this utter passivity” is itself the fantasy, “the notion that we are instruments” of the Matrix, controlled by machines, “sucked out of life-substance like batteries.” As Zizek says, “we should turn around the state of things presented by the film.” (Zizek, “The Matrix: Or The Two Sides of Perversion,” The Matrix and Philosophy, 264) [watch Neo’s wake up scene]Neo Wakes Up Within the Matrix

We construct the Matrix, the virtual ENCLOSURE or symbolic order  in which we live out our lives safe and secure, protected from any real responsibility for our actions. We choose to be passive victims of this fantasy, so passive that we forget that we are the one’s who constructed it in the first place. No wonder we require someone with super human powers to bail us out, to fix things when something goes awry. Heaven forbid, we take responsibility ourselves.

And to be honest, churches are often prone to this sort of fantasizing. We construct the same sort of SELF-ENCLOSURE: we tend to rely on CREEDS and  DOCTRINES, which allow us to feel safe and secure in BELONGING. Seems harmless enough… but the Matrix can only be sustained as long as everyone submitssheep coral to the fantasy, all the members of the FLOCK must be unanimous in BELIEF. Individuals or groups who doubt this reality or desire to get free are often viewed as a threat. But few communities, even so-called “Christian” ones, can admit this consciously. Instead we convince ourselves that we’re just following orders, that we don’t make the rules, that GOD or the MACHINES are in charge, and THEY decide who’s in and who’s out, they police the borders, THEY take care of problem-makers and gate-crashers. We blame the machines for the violence done to maintain The Matrix, to protect the FLOCK… and all the while, we remain PASSIVE SHEEP.

Rene GirardThus getting free from the Matrix entails much more than unplugging from the hardwiring of the system, we must recognize that we are the true architects of the system. We we are the architects of the Matrix. Contemporary thinker Rene Girard adds another clue: constructing the Matrix allows us to protect the FLOCK, but it’s not as simple as  just fencing it in and casting out trouble makers.  Every community must deal with the inner tensions that arise naturally from competition, jealousy and envy. In many cases peace and stability is achieved by channeling these tensions upon a sacrificial SHEEP, a scapegoat. That person or animal, chosen from within the community, acts as a SUBSTITUTE, bearing responsibility for the “crimes” of the entire community.

Agent SmithBut again, we tell ourselves it is God’s will; we blame the machines, or external forces like poverty, for singling out those unlucky few. We insist that they are guilty in some way: they’re trouble makers, they don’t fit in, they’re lazy, or a threat to society. The machines make sure that no one challenges these BELIEFS or disturbs the fantasy, leaving us free to go about our day to day lives, getting to work on time, taking the kids to soccer practice, watching our favorite SCI FI thrillers in the evenings, and without ever having to take notice of those who are rejected, cast out, or exterminated, all for our sake. As Agent Smith says to Morpheus, “Billions of people, living out their lives, oblivious.”  neo-down-the-abyss.jpg

In fact, Neo is one of those sacrificed to maintain the fantasy.  Refusing to conform with the system, Neo instantly goes from being one of the protected FLOCK, snuggly plugged into the Matrix, to the category of the SUBSTITUTE, the SACRIFICIAL SHEEP. The machines “hired” or appointed to watch over the FLOCK, dump Neo supposedly to his death, to be ground up and liquified into food for the living.  Sadly it is precisely this sort of experience which makes someone aware that there are OTHER FLOCKS: those sacrificed to protect the living.

Reading John’s gospel within this framework, all these references to SHEEP, FLOCKS, SHEEP GATES, and SHEPHERDS take on all sorts of new dimensions.  In the biblical tradition, SHEPHERDS sacrificed the first-born SHEEP to guarantee the safety of their FLOCKS. In Jesus’ day, these first-born SHEEP were kept in a coral outside the SHEEP GATE, which they passed through on their way to be sacrificed in the Temple. This allows us to read Jesus’ enigmatic statement: “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my SHEEP,” in a new light. Which sheep does he mean? On the one hand “my SHEEP” can be read as the passive SHEEP belonging to the protected FLOCK, or on the other hand it can be read as those SHEEP singled out and coralled for sacrifice. How many of us are even aware that the latter FLOCK exists? We tend to identify with the former FLOCK: those kept safe and secure within the fold, while those sent out through the GATE to be sacrificed are forgotten, never sheep flockto be seen again.

Could it be that our concept of the messiah, THE ONE, depends on what kind of FLOCK we belong to?  Those questioning Jesus might as well belong to the Matrix, they are passive SHEEP waiting for someone to fix the symbolic order.

But what if, as Girard says, Jesus intentionally takes the role of the sacrificial SHEEP, and becomes a member of the sacrificial FLOCK? In doing so he disturbs the peace and security of the protected FLOCK, first by exposing their complicity in the system, and second by turning their awareness towards the plight of the excluded, the scapegoats, the sacrificial SHEEP. In the process, Girard says, we gradually lose our taste for sacrifice.  However, as this increased awareness of exclusion and scapegoating breaks down so manyArizona Border fences, letting the sacrificial SHEEP go free, the passive SHEEP tend to grow more anxious, their need to reinforce the fences and protect the FLOCK from outsiders becomes more accentuated.  We see this happening on the Arizona border, and in Europe with exclusion of the gypsies.

[link to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church Pastoral Letter on Immigration]

Star Wars posterIn fact the more desperate we are to protect the FLOCK, to repair the fences and fix the crumbling system, the less likely we are to recognize THE ONE. As emerging church leader Peter Rollins says, “In Star Wars the Christ figure (Darth Vader) is a force for evil (as he must be in a pagan universe)… ” because he is “the one who brings imbalance,” [link to Peter Rollins’ blog] or as postmodern philosopher John Caputo says “if the Messiah did show up he would ruin everything.” He would be an interruption, someone who disturbs the status quo. (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 60) Those of us who want to remain passive and safe in the Matrix or in the Church would experience him as a Darth Vader, a threat to the system, not as a Luke Skywalker, or the sort of savior we claim to believe in.

Does this mean that our longing for a messiah, for THE ONE, is completely misplaced? Jesus the First Super HeroNo. The problem, as Caputo says, is that we long for the MESSIANIC, but what we end up with is MESSIANISM. “It is in the end a mystification to treat these figures and images literally - even a dangerous mystification - if the result is to get us in the habit of depending upon a bail out by this divine superbeing at critical moments when things threaten to go wrong. The name of God is the name of an unconditional claim, a call and an address, but it is not the name of a superhero… coming over the hill in the nick of time to bail us out.” (Caputo, After the Death of God, 187-188n)

Superman Comic Book Cover

Furthermore, “Hope is not hope in an afterlife.” (Caputo, The Weakness of God, 251) The messianic doesn’t rescue us from this life and whisk us off to some other world or plane of existence, or to a reality outside of the Matrix. It addresses us in the here and now, in our flesh and blood reality.

John CaputoNeo is THE ONE, but not because of his ability to dodge bullets or outmaneuver the agents, as impressive as that might be.  As Caputo warns, “it would be magic, supernaturalism, …idolatry to confine this event within… the confines of some sort of of superentity that can outthink, outwill, outpower, and generally outdo anything we mortals here below can come up with.” (After the Death of God, 65) When Neo went to visit the Oracle, there were plenty of potential candidates able to perform miracles, but not one was qualified to be THE ONE.  For the MESSIANIC “takes the form of a call, an address, or solicitation, of a force that lays claim to us, addressing us unconditionally, but without the benefit of a terrestrial army or arsenal of weapons or of some celestial metaphysical power in the heavens.” (Caputo, After the Death of God, 65)

Neo becomes THE ONE when he responds to just such a call, when he allows the unconditional to lay it’s claim on him.  At the crucial moment in The Matrix when the crew is forced to decide between Morpheus, someone they care neo-lifted-through-gate.jpgabout, or protecting Zion, the last human city. They decide to sacrifice Morpheus to save the FLOCK. Neo interjects: “NO!” He says he BELIEVES, not in a person, but in a possibility, that he can save Morpheus, just as Morpheus once sacrificed himself to save him. Neo decides to re-enter the Matrix, and risk almost certain death, to pass by way of impossibility. In the face of these overwhelming obstacles, with no hope of survival, and unable to foresee the outcome, he refuses to condemn Morpheus, and thus opens up the POSSIBILITY for the MESSIANIC.

It is then that Neo frees his mind, that he finally walks through the door, by intentionally passing through the Morpheus breaking freeSHEEP GATE through which the SUBSTITUTES, the sacrificial animals, have been made to pass against their wills. But this time, Neo, like Jesus passes through it by his own choice. Bearing responsibility himself, he refuses to passively allow another to be sacrificed in his stead. As Jacques Derrida has taught us: “in this messianic time we are required to make every moment of the present a ’strait gait’ through which the Messiah might enter.” (Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 352n1)

open gateWhen each person recognizes thier responsibility for all the others, then the fantasy, the Matrix, and all that superstitious MESSIANISM begins to lose its power to bind the community - to coral the FLOCK, so to speak.  When we refuse to blindly conform, when we take risks, when we make strait the gate, and if it so happens, we pass through it -  when we give up passively “waiting” for the THE ONE - we may realize we no longer require a messiah with superhuman powers to save us in the eleventh hour. If we, like Jesus, or like Neo, are able to decide, in the  moment, to respond to the call which places its unconditional claim on us; if we, in the face of overwhelming obstacles, can place our faith in the impossible possibility, in the MESSIANIC - then I hope and pray that WE, YOU and I, become THE ONE. For WE are THE ONE, we are THE only ONES able to respond to the cries of those, who like so many nameless SHEEP led to sacrifice, are still denied their full reality. In that moment when and if we pass through the gate, which means like Neo to “pass by way of impossibility,” we can only hope that we will somehow, in some way open it.  - Sue Wright

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