January 24, 2010

Do You Believe in BABY JESUS?

I’m sorry, no matter how cute BABY JESUS might have been, you can’t tell me that the Three Wise Men (or Magi) knew just by looking at him that he was the messiah. How could an infant be GOD IN THE FLESH? And yet that is what many Christians believe took place, the very EVENT we commemorate during the Season of Epiphany [read more].bay jesus

Traditionally Epiphany begins on January 6th, which celebrates the visit of the three Magi and concludes on February 2nd with the Feast of the Presentation, which marks BABY JESUS’ first official visit to the Temple. In many of these stories certain key individuals, like the Magi, recognize BABY JESUS’ true identity.  Thus throughout this season Christians celebrate this realization that God had come to dwell among us.  But if it’s true, that BABY JESUS was in fact GOD IN THE FLESH, why, 2000 years later, does God appear so absent?

One look at the news headlines makes my point: bottle necks in Haiti prevent the delivery of aid to earthquake victims, while poorly dug mass graves leave thousands of bodies exposed, displayed across our TV screens.  Almost daily a suicide bomb kills civilians in Iraq or Pakistan, while rumors circulate that the Sudan is once again on the edge of civil war.  In light of all this, why should we believe that BABY JESUS’ arrival changed anything?

Boy Jesus at TempleThe idea that even as a baby Jesus was immediately recognized as the fulfillment of the people’s longing and expectation sounds Jesus impresses his elders like an exaggeration born of hindsight.  Not to mention all those bible stories  which recount Jesus’ early childhood -  they’re downright silly -  sounding more like myths, than anything grounded in reality.

Recently however I encountered a news headline, which made me think that finally something had occurred which could be taken as the fulfillment of one these stories:  A federal court ordered the state of California to release nearly a third of its prison inmates! [link] In Luke 4:14-21 [link to text], the gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus, early in his ministry, stands up before the entire synagogue and read from the Prophet Isaiah:Guantanamo Bay

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After reading this, Jesus closes the scroll and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  True, the New Testament says that Jesus preached to the poor; he consorted with prostitutes and all manner of outcasts. It says he healed the blind, and raised the dead, but other than that, the bulk of the evidence appears to contradict Jesus’ statement.

Just look at the continued prevalence of prisons not only in Jesus’ own time, but in our own society.  No wonder John the Baptist, held captive in a prison, doubted Jesus’ identity; he sent his disciples to question Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come? If it’s true, why am I stilled locked up in this dingy cell?”  Again Jesus replies: “Go ahead and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them…”  I wonder, to what extent do we witness such thingsincarceration by countryJohn the Baptist today? In Haiti? In Sub-Sahara Africa?  In the inner-city ghettos? Why is it that today the United States, a so-called Christian nation, imprisons more people than any other country in the world?

One could say that prisons are a necessary evil, which play an important role in maintaining a stable society.  That anyone expecting a miraculous turn around, will necessarily be disappointed.  Especially since God rarely, if ever, descends to earth to Jesus in prisontear down prison walls… indeed, no one ever came to John the Baptist’s rescue, instead he was beheaded by his captors.  Jesus himself was arrested, taken prisoner, and tortured.  He was tried in the middle of the night and brutally executed the next day.  And, as it happens, the State of California, in response to public demand, has refused to release its prisoners.  It has filed an appeal to reverse the federal court order, delaying the process indefinitely. So much for the fulfillment of that prophecy…

And yet, in spite of this, the process to free the prisoners, indeed, the process to free all us from oppression, from whatever binds us, has been put into motion.  As contemporary thinker Rene Girard explains, it did not come from a God on high, “the dominating God…that is incarnated in paternal, hierarchical difference.”man in prison  Jesus allowed himself to be taken captive, he intentionally submitted to imprisonment, to oppression, and execution, his humanity utterly destroyed, erased, denied.  But in doing so “a perfectly unknown god arises” with what Girard calls “the consenting scapegoat.”  He is “the one that is most outside yet also the most inside common humanity.” (Rene Girard, Battling to the End, 50) Jesus allowed himself to be taken captive, in the crazy hope that he could unlockOen Prison Door the prison doors from within, that the way to free the prisoners was to dismantle the closed social structures  from the inside. The problem is, we are so reliant on these institutions, there are so many encrusted layers which enclose us, it is difficult for us to imagine how a stable society could function without them. But this renders us blind to the plight of those held captive, to the extent that we are not even aware of their existence.  Which is why  2000 years later the process of freeing the prisoners is still underway.

tree in the trashWe have this idea that Christianity was born, pure and simple, in a single event - a birth that changed everything - an assumption that postmodern philosopher Jean-luc Nancy calls the “Christmas projection” (Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 145).  When Jesus proclaimed that the prophecy had been fulfilled, he announced an opening in the closed structures which imprison people, a small crack in the prison walls that was not visible prior to this - a crack in the very foundation of Western culture - not to tear it down, but to free those trapped inside, to set free their reality, that which had always been denied.

We assume that the contemporary dissatisfaction with the Church and traditional social structures is “the effect of a modern transition toward a rationalized, secularized, and materialized society.”  And in large part society has turned its back on Christianity and the Church.  Certainly there’s plenty of reasons to do so.  But as Nancy says, the outright rejection of Christianity itself is just not possible, since “the modern world is itself the unfolding of Christianity;” to deny it “amounts to forbidding the modern world to begin to understand itself.” (Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 143-144) There “is perhaps something to be brought to light… something Christianity may not as yet have freed.” (Dis-Enclosure, 149)

prison breakThe decline of traditional social structures, the cracks in the facade of the institutional Church, and the criticism of its time honored doctrines, like the federal court’s demand to free the prisoners, may be unavoidable for this process of opening to occur.  Christianity calls to us, not from the Church steeples, nor  from the hidden recesses of its stone vaults, but from the prison cells, from the mass graves, begging us to hope for a future in which prisons and executioners play a  far lesser role in maintaining the social fabric.  “As long as we do not grasp the full extent of this situation… we will remain prisoners to something that has not been elaborated in such a way as to be adequate to that history and that destiny,” (Dis-Enclosure, 148) - we are all held captive to some extent.

Indeed, the crisis with the California prison system may provide the opportunity for something unpredictable, some new realization that can only be gained through the recognition of the suffering of those whose humanity we’ve denied. Afterall, the prisoners slated for release are not hardened criminals, they are drug addicts and those convicted of nonviolent crimes.  As long as they remain locked behind prison walls the rest of us can go on with our lives, believing that all is right in our world… I wonder, what is it, what experiences are locked up and contained within their broken and damaged lives, from which we so desperately want to hide?

debtor’s prisonWe have made progress since Jesus’ day.  He was condemned for “religious” crimes: violating the Sabbath, threatening to tear down the Temple, acting and speaking as if debtor's prisonhe were God.  He directly challenged the closed religious structures of his day. Luckily, we no longer imprison people for those specific crimes, at least not in this country.  And yet, only a century ago, entire families, women and children, were locked up in debtors’ prisons.  Imagine how many would be jailed today, if that was still the case. So many Americans are imprisoned by indebtedness, a crushing reality, which most of us no longer consider a crime.  Indeed, increased awareness of their suffering has led the Obama Administration to bring forth legislation which will begin to alleviate their plight.

Paul and Silas in PrisonFor hope itself is born, not just once within a manger, but from within these very sorts of prison cells, in the very places where, historically, hope has always been extinguished.  Its birth, wherever and whenever it occurs, is a wondrous event, and its proclamation continues to be good news - a light in the darkness, a process ofRene Girard opening from within hidden depths of human suffering, the revelation of the divine as opening itself. Describing THE BIRTH in these terms, makes far better sense than the “Sunday school” stories the Church continues to tell. “It is the Open as such, the Open of the proclamation, of the project, of history, of faith, that, by the living God, is revealed at the heart of Christianity.” (Nancy, 144) Reading Nancy I see that the first indication of this opening was the birth of Christianity, that the essence of Christianity is this opening, the structure of opening as an indefinite movement that does not cease opening itself  (Nancy, 146).

John CaputoJohn Caputo speaks in terms of the EVENT, “a summons, a call, demand, claim or appeal, as well as a promise…” (Caputo, Weakness of God, 28-29). When Jesus entered prison, when he was taken captive, he unlocked the gates from within, he released an EVENT which broke open the closed religious and political structures, which delivered an unprecedented shock to the system, an EVENT which set off “unforeseeable and disruptive consequences.” This EVENT “need not be delivered by a thunderbolt. It gradually, quietly overtakes us, grows on us, until at some point we realize that The Wireeverything has been transformed.” (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 26-27) What does this mean in 21st century terms? It must concern those we continue to criminalize:

“The people Jesus had in mind when he announced his mission, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’ (Luke 4:18) - is the drug scene in the inner-city ghettos”

Like those in Baltimore, “whose grim violence is unforgettably etched in our mind by the stunning cinematography of  The Wire [link],” the critically acclaimed HBO series which ran from 2002-2008. “In the midst of the mindlessness of much of commercial television, there are artists willing to speak the truth.”  (Caputo, 28) Like the debtors prisons, it is time to release the lives trapped inside, the women and children afflicted by poverty, the young men without hope, the drug addicts.

In a couple of weeks, on February 2nd, Christians will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, when they retell Luke’s story of the first time Joseph and Mary formally presented the BABY JESUS in the Temple.  Looking upon the infant, Simeon, a holy man who refused to die until he had seen the messiah, utters his last words:The Presentation of Jesus  at    the Temple

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory of your people Israel.” 

We can chose to read this literally, or dismiss it as just another mythological account of God’s appearance on earth in the form of an INFANT.  But I prefer to look, as John Caputo does, for “the event that’s transpiring in the name of God,” (see Caputo, After the Death of God, 85, 160), in the name of BABY JESUS . The stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood are one way to describe the highly anticipated, yet completely unpredictable event that interrupts, as Captuo says, the normal course of human history. In the case of the Epiphany stories, a PROMISE and a HOPE which Jesus, as the “consenting scapegoat,” the willing captive, the executed prisoner, let loose in Luke’s own place and time.

That PROMISE, “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free,” is alive today. That PROMISE continues to call us, because, as Caputo says, “it is the very structure of hope,” an “unconditional demand” that becomes the process of opening itself, the breaking open to unforeseen possibilities in those places where hope and possibility is too often denied. To experience this, the BIRTH of this HOPE WITHIN US, could be very similar to those moments of recognition, those moments of Epiphany, what the biblical writers took to be GOD IN THE FLESH.    - Sue Wright


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January 6, 2010

Now that Christmas is finally over… did Santa bring you what you asked for?

Christmas Anticaption Was your holiday christmas listeverything you hoped it would be?

That may depend on whether you got a new laptop, a Wii, or that large screen TV you’ve been longing for…  Its hard to imagine how Santa loaded all those electronics on his sleigh.  I wonder what he really thinks when he’s reading those lists, and checking them twice.

But is that the true meaning of Christmas? How many Christians really celebrate the coming of the Messiah, does anyone still believe he’s going to intervene once again in human history?  Aren’t most of us just waiting for Santa and his twelve reindeer?  When I think about all that gift-giving frenzy that takes place during the holidays I can’t help but ask the question: if Christmas is really just about the presents under the tree, why bother with all that pretense about Jesus and the birth of the messiah?  Hasn’t the Santa tradition won out?Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Honestly, can you blame anyone?  So many of the biblical stories told in preparation for the Christmas gift buying frenzyholiday are full of threats of punishment.  For instance, in Luke 3:7-18 [link to text] John the Baptist warns the people not to run from the wrath to come:

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The Greek word Luke uses for wrath is ὀργή or orgē [link].  It means anger, violent emotion, anger demonstrated in punishment.  John’s use of the word “wrath” gives the people such a fright they immediately ask him what they need do to save themselves.  He replies by offering the following instructions:

FJohn the Baptistirst to the crowdtwo coats in general, he says,

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Then to the tax-collectors:

“Collect no more than the amount prescribed you.”

And finally to soldiers:

“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

In all four gospels John the Baptist announces the coming of the Messiah who will judge the people. But in Luke, “John’s preaching is taken beyond mere warning of impending judgment to provide some guidelines for living in the meantime.  Though the crowds in general are said to pose the question, the response is directed specifically to those wealthy enough to have extra food or clothing.” (Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, 53)  In Luke, unlike the other gospels, John the Baptist returns to some of the oldest biblical traditions concerned with economic justice. In a world where most people were lucky to own even one coat, some might thin he was demanding a new economic order.  In fact, we often think of John as a radical extremist, a sort of revolutionary, who prepares the way for a Messiah that will intervene on behalf of the weak and the poor.  John even repeats his threats: if the people refuse to follow his instructions, the coming Messiah will burn them as chaff with unquenchable fire.Scroogenomics

But, honestly, I’m tired of the message: “do it, or else… Feed the poor, or face the consequences of your greedy lifestyle.”  All too often its stated as a threat, a “should” dictated by liberals who sound more like angry tyrants, using scare tactics to force us to comply.  For instance, it was such a downer this holiday season listening to all the politically correct naysayers denounce our penchant for gift-giving.  Like Scrooge or the Grinch, they seem intent on robbing us of all the joy of Christmas.Santa Arrives

But maybe there’s a reason to be frightened.  Rene Girard, one the most important thinkers on the relationship between violence and religion, warns, the wrath to come is a very real threat that looms on the horizon.  Rather than punishment inflicted by a cruel God, it is the result of an escalating crisis in which everyone competes for wealth and privilege, generating anger and resentment on all sides, which unchecked, erupts in violent chaos (see Rene Girard’s recent book: Battling to the End, 211).

[read more Girard on John the Baptist]

In Luke’s story, the crowd, which in Greek also translates as throng or mob, is desperate for someone to take charge and resolve the mounting tensions.  Whether they’re rich or poor, a member of the status quo, or someone longing for economic justice, they are all united by their fear of the wrath: the violent chaos which they interpret as divine punishment for their sins.  And since they refuse to take responsibility for the actual sources of that violence the crowd seeks out a leader, a “savior,” who will pronounce judgment and bring the situation under control. Is it any wonder they mistake John for the Messiah: his angry rhetoric seems to fit the bill.
 
We witness a similar crisis today, in which the refusal to equitably distribute the worlds’ resources breeds anger and resentment across the globe: the East accuses the West of being “greedy imperialists,” while the West insists the terrorists are “jealous of our freedom.”  As these tensions continue to build, they accumulate as a form of wrath, which threatens to erupt in violent upheaval.  In the give-to-the-poor.jpgpast, biblical laws which demanded some sort of redistribution of wealth helped to limit the excess of greed and prevent violent eruption.
 
Today acts of generosity on the part of the wealthy nations have the same potential to alleviate mounting global tensions, but that generosity, as we know, falls far too short, leaving too many people without the basic necessities of life.  Meanwhile greed goes unchecked, reaching proportions that have outstripped any and all limitation.  Surely our over-consumption of goods, which reaches its most frenzied pitch during the holidays, heightens the problem.  Should we, like the crowd in Luke’s story, be afraid?  After all, by John the Baptist’s standards the ax cannot be too far from the tree… Solomon quoting Proverb 22:16
 
While its true that John addresses the problem of human greed, he is far less “revolutionary” than we tend to assume.  In fact his approach is not all that novel.  For instance, Proverbs, portions of which were written in the time of King Solomon, advises the wealthy person not to oppress the poor, not to extort through excessive interest, and to treat one’s enemies with kindness.  Material prosperity is understood to be a good thing, but warns that those who are stingy with their stuff will end up losing it.  
 
John’s language in Luke 3:7-18 is also reminiscent of Ezekiel chapter 18 [link to text].  The prophet Ezekiel, who lived three centuries earlier than John, promises that those who engage in generous acts, will be rewarded with a prosperous life.  If the wealthy person turns from selfish behavior and takes personal responsibility for fulfilling the promise of the law: do not oppress the poor, do not repay violence with violence, return the pledge of a borrower, and do not charge excessiveEzekiel 18:12-13 interest, he will escape the violent eruption. But, like John the Baptist, the prophet goes on to threaten the one who does not repent:
he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him. (Ezekiel 18:13)
The severity of these threats demonstrates an awareness, conscious or not, that the coming wrath, the cycle of accumulated anger and resentment, must be avoided at all costs.  It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the effects of greed in check. As Girard says, John the Baptist is very aware that the cycle is building again, that violence looms on the horizon.  John responds by offering the same old solutions, which may calm things down for a bit, but only temporarily.
 
So is there any hope for us?  Can we escape the wrath to come?  All four gospels agree that John the Baptist is to be followed by someone greater.  John, trapped in the old way of seeing things, assumes this person will punish those who do not repent - not a very motivating or hope-filled vision… 
 
Luckily Jesus ends up being a very different Messiah than either John or the crowd expect.  In fact, there is a very important difference between John and Jesus, especially when it comes to social and economic justice; it is the same difference that postmodern philosopher John D. Caputo draws between an economic order, no matter how just, and the simple act of gift giving. If we compare John the Baptist’s instructions to those given by Jesus three chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount), we get a sense of it:Luke 6:30
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
jesus teaching on wealthWhere John says to tax-
collectors:  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Jesus goes further saying: “lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35)   While John is rigid and threatening in his approach to economic justice, Jesus is caught up in what Caputo describes as the “excess,” the “madness” of gift-giving. (John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 70-71, 84).

So maybe we should think twice before rejecting holiday gift giving.  Especially since we love gifts, not just because we are selfish and hope that by giving a gift, we will get one in return, but because the pure gift, the gift given entirely out of love, as impossible as it seems, is the very thing we long for (Caputo, 70-71).

Advent ConspiracyFor instance, instead of squashing our gift-giving mania, the Advent Conspiracy [link] taps into all that holiday good will, redirecting it into projects which help the poor and underprivileged. By asking their congregations to to spend less on Christmas gifts, churches have raised money to build wells in places where clean water is hard to come by.  These efforts certainly deserve to be applauded, but at the same time they must remain mindful of their rhetoric [link].  There’s always a risk it could turn to self-righteous indignation, and the sort threatening language Ezekiel and John Baptist were unable to avoid.

Burgermeister confiscating toysAfterall, we don’t want to end up like “Sombertown” in the Christmas TV classic, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, in which Santa Claus is arrested for delivering toys to the village children whose lives are dreary, because the burgermeister, who hates toys, has outlawed them:

“outlaw the dolls and sink the boats… every jack-in-the box be sealed… stuffed animals, unstuff them, any child that complains, rebuff them.”

Who knows, maybe he’s afraid that competition over the toys will get out of hand and create chaos?  In fact, when Santa first arrives in the village to deliver toys, the towns people are so frightened they hide in their homes.  But the children, who are more open-minded than their parents, quickly respond with joy toWinter Warlock the unexpected generosity of these gifts.  Even the threat of severe punishment cannot block or inhibit the effect the toys have on all the town’s children who immediately start playing.  Slowly this joy impacts the adults, even melting the heart of the Winter Warlock.

The burgermeister, on the other hand, becomes increasingly disturbed by the interruptive power of Santa’s gift-giving; which proves impossible to Jessicacontain.  In fact, Santa’s generosity ruptures the town’s rigid order, not only undoing every attempt to prohibit the toys, it finally unlocks the adults’ repressed longing for things they’ve been denied since childhood: a china doll, a yo-yo, a toy train. I admit, the idea that there is one toy or object that will make us happy is ridiculous - as Rene Girard says, we do not have autonomous control over our desires - we desire what others provoke us to desire: this year its a Wii, or a large screen TV, next year it will be something else... Sadly enough, now that the lights on the Christmas tree have dimmed, some of those presents we received Christmas Day have already lost their luster.burgermeister receives yo-yo

However, this in no way denies the fact that we continue to long for a gift that is, in a sense, indestructible.  “The gift is what we love and desire with a desire beyond desire, in which we hope with a hope against hope,” the gift that “is given with love,” even if the one giving is “not loved in return.” (Caputo, 72) This can’t be limited to any single object, to a single instruction, or calculation, or act of charity, but is the event of gift-giving itself.  Its not the toys which breath new life into “Sombertown,” but the excessive nature of Santa’s generosity, which despite the cost to Santa himself, keeps on giving, asking nothing in return.  Because the gift always exceeds our expectation, it invites our participation, calls us forward (Caputo, 71), towards a less rigid order in which people are more generous, more forgiving, less angry and resentful. Initiatives like the Advent Conspiracy, though not the gift itself, are examples of this, of an expansion of Christmas to include those once left out.

Santa replacing Christ on the CrossFor John the Baptist, or Ezekiel, this joyful interruption of gift-giving in the midst a threatening order would have arrived as an unforeseen possibility.  It is the “madness” that Jesus unleashes on the Cross (Caputo) when he gives of himself so completely.  This event exceeds their expectation, for not only does Jesus expose us, and our actions, as the source of violent wrath, at the same time Jesus saves us from the threat of violent upheaval, by giving us what can only be called a gift: the impossible possibility of a human response free of jack in the box santaall anger and resentment, born of the most profound commitment to love the very ones who persecuted him. For this reason we can claim Jesus’ action on the Cross as the messianic event so many have longed for.

Has Santa Claus usurped Jesus?  No way… it’s just not possible, since Jesus was the one who got this whole Christmas gift-giving madness going in the first place.  When we participate in this kind of generosity, we open ourselves and each other to gifts we can not foresee, but so desperately need.  What if we built wells, not only for the poor in Africa, but for the Iranians, the Afghans, the North Koreans?  Like a jack-in-the-box, the accumulation of anger and resentment, and the rigid order that wants to contain it, could break open (even if just for a moment) and we’d glimpse some human possibility which is truly wondrous.   - Sue Wright


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November 9, 2009

Little Babies’ Eyes

baby photosHave you received those e-mails forwarding photos of babies dressed up in costumes? Or depicting babies sleeping in flower blossoms?  Its one of those popular fads circulating online. I have to admit the photos are totally irresistible.  What is it about babies?  No matter my mood, when I look at one those cute smiling faces, I have to smile right back.

But even as I was smiling at a picture of a baby in a pink flamingo costume, I could hear the lyrics to one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “I Will” [Watch on YouTube] echoing in my mind.  Unlike the baby photos the song is not nearly as uplifting.

radioheadI will white elephantlay me down

in a bunker
underground

I won’t let this happen to my children
meet the real world coming out of your shell
With white elephants
sitting ducks

I will
rise up

Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes

baby-sleep-flower-2.jpgWhile the song is intentionally written to sound like a lullaby, it refers to something much more serious: an act of transference which allowed us to shift a huge white elephant, all the fear and anxiety generated by 9/11, onto a sitting duck: Iraq.   This is part of the dynamic of scapegoating defined by René Girard, one of the most important thinkers on the relationship of violence and culture [more on Girard].  Girard explains: scapegoating allows us “to elude problems that seem intractable.”  It’s never a conscious activity.  We didn’t knowingly transfer all our emotional trauma onto the Iraqi people.  Its just that its extremely difficult to retaliate against terrorists, never mind bringing the problem of terrorism to some sort of resolution.  baby-sleep-flower.jpgInstead we redirected all that tension onto an easier target and ended up doing to the Iraqis what had been done to us.

The idea that “shock and awe” would somehow spare the population was a delusion.  Not that we understood that at the time.  We convinced ourselves every step of the way: insisting that we were liberating the Iraqis, that there would be minimal loss of life, that our soldiers would return home quickly, safe and unharmed, and that the whole thing would be wrapped up in a matter of months.  As Girard says, “we are all cute-baby-2.jpgprone to that delusion.”  This is proven by the paradox that “all of us can observe and denounce numerous examples of scapegoating we have personally observed, yet none of us ever identify past and, above all, present instances of [our] own involvement in scapegoating.” (Violent Origins, 74)shock and awe

In fact its easy to identify other examples, wars or acts of genocide in which those who initiated the violence felt completely justified. It seems to happen all too often. How is it that an entire population can delude itself this way and what, if anything, has the power to break through such delusions?  For instance, what would allow us to recognize the incredible amount of suffering inflicted upon the Iraqi people, especially on all the innocent children who spent their nights in bunkers underground, as their world exploded all around them?  What, for instance, would we see if we actually looked into their eyes?Mirroring People

In the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that babies‘ eyes hold important clues for understanding the evolution of the human species.  Scientists now have evidence that we are hard wired for empathy, a capacity that begins to develop in the first moments of life. Its not just the fact that babies are so cute that compels us to smile; when we see a baby smile our brain has the same neurological response that thebaby imitating facial movements baby does.  This is due, scientists say, to mirror neurons.

To view a video clip describing  mirror neurons  [Link Here].

From the first moments of life, babies mirror their parents’ facial expressions.  Scientists observing the effects of this behavior on babies’ brains have discovered that all that imitation stimulates the development of the neurological systems which enable human beings to experience the emotions, the intentions of others, as if those emotions and intentions were our own.  The more I smile at a baby, the more it smiles back.  Before I know it I’m engaged in a back and forth game of imitation, poking out tongues and making silly faces.  Scientists say that this process of mirroring is necessary for social connectedness.

After testingmonkey-imitation-1.jpg babies, neuroscientists performed similar tests on newborn monkeys, and discovered that they have the same ability, but to a far lesser extent.  For instance, in the first day of life baby monkeys imitate their mother’s facial movements allowing themonkey-imitation-2.jpgir brains to adapt to their social environment. [Link to Journal Article]  Scientists see this as evidence of a crucial link in our evolution.

Indeed, some are labeling the discovery of mirror neurons as the most significant breakthrough in the last decade, with the power to transform other disciplines:  “Have you heard of neuroethics, neuromarketing, neuropolitics?  You will in the years and decades to come, and research in these fields will be rooted, explicitly or otherwise, in the functions of mirror neurons.” (Iacoboni, Mirroring People, 7)

While others, including a few New Atheists, have identified mirror neurons as a biological basis for morality [link] [link].  As tempting as that optimism might be, after all “it follows that good imitators should also be good at recognizing emotions, and so endowed with a greater empathy,” (Iacoboni, Mirroring People, 112), I can’t help but wonder…  If we’re wired for empathy, and if its true that’s its part of our DNA, then why aren’t we better off as a species? Dot Project Animated Version of I Will Why, for instance, can Jack on 30 Rock state the truism, “human empathy, its as useless as the Winter Olympics.” (30 Rock, “Audition Day,” Season 4, Episode 4) 

In fact, Mark Iacoboni, neuroscientist and author of the popular book Mirroring People, says they have discovered amother-with-baby-2.jpg negative side to mirror neurons, which, I’ve noticed, the media has been far more hesitant to report.  The same neurons which allow monkeys to adapt so quickly to their social group and surroundings, have, over the course of human evolution, acquired some bad habits. Iacoboni believes that at some point in the development of our species we acquired super mirror neurons, which enabled complex forms of imitation, which are far more complex than the basicfamily unit mirroring found in monkeys: “In which individuals observing aggressive behavior not only acquire complex coordinated motor behaviors that make them aggressive and violent but also become convinced in the process - in an unconscious way - that such behavior is a good way of solving social family-on-eve-of-war.jpgproblems.” (Mirroring People, 211)  We resist such ideas, because “we are naturally inclined to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals who are not going to be influenced in any direct, slavish, monkey-see, monkey-do way by what we see. The data on imitative violence clearly threatens thisfather-goes-to-war-2.jpg precious notion.” (Mirroring People, 212)

family-affected-by-war.jpgIacoboni says “we have seen how mirror neurons can undoubtedly be good for us, enabling feelings and actions of empathy for others, but they also provide a compelling neurological mechanism underlying imitative violence…” (Mirroring People, 211) We live in a world “filled with atrocities every day - and this despite a neurobiology wired for empathy and geared toward mirroring and sharing of meaning.  Why is this?”  Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that “the same neurobiological mechanisms facilitating empathy may produce, under specific circumstance and contexts, a behavior that is the opposite of an empathetic behavior.” (Mirroring People, 268-9).

Part of the answer lies in the fact that mirroring is pre-reflective, we respond before we are able to think about the choices we are making.  Iacoboni focuses, and rightly so, on the effects of video games, advertising and addiction, which exploit and reinforce negative imitation. But in my opinion, the neurological mechanism he describes is no more evident, and no more frightening, than in the act of transference described by René Girard, that which led our entire country to war in Iraq.

Iacoboni believes we can use our knowledge of the mirror neuron system and its automatic mechanisms “to prevent evil.” (210)  Some of the New Atheists would agree, that we can extend simple acts of empathy, like smiling at babies, to encompass the children of our so-called enemies.  But how is this possible, if we are unable to resist or interrupt, even for a moment, those more complex forms of transference and scapegoating which override empathy?monkey see monkey do  Especially given the evidence   that our evolution goes hand in hand with our ability to nurture and protect babies over the course of their development, when their mirror neuron system is being formed. As traditional social structures which historically contained violence with violence (war, for instance) prove so disastrously futile in solving the worlds problems; more and more children baby in pumpkin costumeare exposed to traumatic events which interrupt the development of empathy.  When we consider the effects of war, of “shock and awe,” or starvation, ethnic cleansing, or even the plague of violence infecting our schools, on children’s brains, it becomes obvious that we need to find other ways to make the world safe for our children.  It is time to break free of the complex neural structures which allow for transference, but in a culture saturated with violence, its impossible to imagine where to begin.  In a sense we are brought to a standstill, to a deadlock in our own evolution.

Benjamin West Christ showing a little child as the emblem of heavenIn Mark 9:30-37 [link to text] the author says that Jesus “took a little child in his arms and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.’”baby in monkey costume  Jesus actually engages us in a trajectory, which is the opposite of scapegoating, because he identifies not only himself, but the one who sent him with the helpless, innocent children, the victims of our delusions.  But that’s not all…

The lyrics to the Radiohead song suggests that the bunkers built to protect people are really tombs.  Not only are they the underground, hidden recesses where so many Iraqi children spent their evenings, some even losing their lives (to this day, the trauma they suffered remains invisible to the rest of world), the effects to all of us are far reaching, for it guarantees that we will continue to mirror the motor responses that turn normal, rational human beings into violent and aggressive people.

As I read Mark, Jesus not only reminds me just how lacking our empathy can be, I see that babies’ eyes hold the key.  Not only do they engage us in the most basic acts of empathy, stimulating the neurons in our brains to smile at them, they beckon us, as ambassadors of the future, towards positive alternatives for the continued evolution of the human race, possibilities we have yet to imagine.  Maybe then we’ll compose some new lullabies to sing our children to sleep.  Isn’t it time to rewrite some of those traditional lyrics, at least the ones which tend on the morbid side: “Rock-a-by baby on the tree top…”?  Think about it, its no accident that the first lines of the Radiohead song echo the children’s bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  

- Sue Wright

For more info on Mimetic Theory and Mirror Neurons: [Link here] to Imitatio.org and scroll down to the articles listed under Natural Sciences.

I highly recommend Marco Iacoboni’s book, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (2009).


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August 28, 2009

the possessed

michael jackson thrillerWhy do we create idols?  Only to destroy them?  Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Elvis, they all literally died for fame… and the list goes on. Some would say they paid the ultimate price for climbing too high, but are they really the only ones to blame for their tragic fate?

After watching Michael Jackson’s superstar status devolve into a media circus focused almost entirely on his bizarre behavior, his trials and subsequent death, I have to ask whether the whole world has gone insane?  I can’t shake this sneaking suspicion that somehow we are all responsible for the death of the “King of Pop.”Britney’s New Look

When I shared my suspicions with a friend, she insisted I watch the South Park episode “Britney’s New Look,” which depicts the American public ritually sacrificing Britney Spears.  [watch episode] [read synopsis]

When Kyle, one of the main characters, asks why Britney has to die, various members of the crowd explain that “nobody wants her to die, young man, we all just simply need her to…. Throughout history humans have found it necessary to engage in human sacrifice…  But since Americans no longer like to do the killing themselves, we rely on the celebrity to kill itself… Britney was chosen a long time ago, built up and adored, then sacrificed for the harvest.”  [watch clip]Britney Spears ritually sacrificed by the American public

In a brilliant scene by South Park’s writers, the crowd surrounds Britney as if ready to stone her, but in the very moment you expect some anonymous member of the crowd to throw the first stone, one by one they begin to kill her with camera shots [watch clip].harvest angel  Members of the crowd explain that Britney was to supposed to kill herself a while ago, so now she has to be sacrificed in time for the corn harvest.  And indeed that is a fairly accurate portrayal of how sacrifice functions in primitive cultures.  My favorite French thinker, René Girard, explains: the sacrificial victim “is a substitute for all the members of the community… The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric,” by redirecting the violence and discord that arises from conflicting desires and the competition over resources (Violence and the Sacred, 8).

Thus in South Park, the members of the crowd explain “its not just the press, everyone agrees she has to die… It’s all America, we’re all apart of this together.”  However, we are more civilized than our primitive ancestors. We have economic and government institutions which insure the peaceful distribution of the “harvest,” so that we don’t have to compete over goods, but we still have the fundamental problem of desire.   As Girard says, we no longer offer human sacrifices to appease the gods, but our need for idols does not disappear.

choke movie poster

 Another master of irony, Chuck Palahniuk, offers us a further clue in his novel, Choke. The main character, Victor, who’s convinced he’s the latest incarnation of Jesus, thinks he’s about to be stoned to death by the crowd.  Victor, as much as he might want to be, is not a celebrity.  He is however the momentary object of everyone’s fascination.   When they discover that he’s been misleading them, the crowd quickly turns into a murderous mob.  But instead of killing Victor, they tear down the edifice of his self-delusions, all his attempts to get attention, to be other than what he really is. For an actual celebrity the loss of their inflated image is probably more than they can bear, but for Victor it provides a rare opportunity to discover his identity for himself.  But ironically, in a society which claims that we can be who ever we want, that we can have whatever we want, few people have the courage to really pursue this.

Instead, we prefer to worship celebrities.  All the media hype magically grants them an irresistible allure, allowing the public to focus all their desire on the star.  What would we do without them?angelina jolie and brad pitt  We’d have to find satisfaction and fulfillment in our day to day lives, in our actual relationships.  By channeling all our desire through the godlike images the media creates for us, we don’t have to confront our reality, our mediocrity, our flaws, all our shortcomings. We don’t have to face that secret fear that no one could possibly be attracted to us as we truly are?  We don’t have to risk rejection.

We Lindsay Lohanleave all the risk to the celebrities.  But since they’re only human, they can’t keep up the show indefinitely.  In South Park both the media and the public constantly criticize Britney: “she’s gained weight,” she’s “chubbed up,” has zits, scars from plastic surgery and “is obviously lip-synching.” Once the celebrity’s image has cracked, its just a matter of time before she’s gotten rid of and quickly replaced.  As long as our appetite is fed without interruption, we won’t have to notice the human flaws in each other.nit picking britney  But what really seals their fate: is the fact that all the love and admiration we initially lavish on them inevitably turns to hidden hate and resentment, because we all know in the back of our minds that we, like Victor, will never be the center of so much attention and desire.  Obviously, we never admit this to ourselves, but instead find plenty of reasons to blame the celebrity.

[Link to example: Celebrities We Love to Hate]

It reminds me of one of those frenzied scenes in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed (also translated Demons), in which the entire town consumed with envy, is caught up in a murderous spree.  In the novel Nicholas Stavrogin, who has an extraordinary mix of intelligence, gooparisd looks and aristocratic breeding, achieves a sort of celebrity status.  As a young man, he is admired by all and quickly rises to the height of society.  However all the attention and success thrown his way leads him not as one would expect to a long and brilliant career as a social or political leader,  but to a series of bizarre and offensive acts.   Like Britney Spears and Michael Jackson the constant media attention eventually turns our idols into freaks.britney pushed to the edge

Once this happens, there is no turning back.  The gossip surrounding Nicholas spreads like wildfire, but instead of ruining his popularity, it actually increases it exponentially, with the result that his admirers and even his close friends begin to treat him as a god.  But this leaves him no way of knowing whether his exalted status is based on anything concrete in his own person, or whether its a vicious game in which he is the ultimate victim.  Once he achieves this status, he can not conceive of returning to normal life.  Instead he dreams of escapJackson arrives at court in pajamasing to a remote mountain hideaway, to live out his life in isolation, but never does so. Wishing to be free of his admirers, he remains dependent on them for his very being, but that being doesn’t really exist.

As we know Michael Jackson was from a very young age deprived of a normal life; a painful reality from which even his music could not protect him.  Indeed, the public fascination with Jackson’s eccentricities completely overshadowed his incredible talent. crowd out to stone jesus And despite the fact that he worked tirelessly for the comeback which would restore him in the public eye, tragically it was not until his death that suddenly everyone, everywhere began to play his songs again.

Even Jesus struggled with celebrity status.  Aware of the dangers, he consistently deflected the crowd’s attention.  Even so, he was followed everywhere he went. For instance, in Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 [link to text] Jesus tries to escape the crowds, but is quickly outmaneuvered.  Mark says he took compassion on the crowd and healed them of their sicknesses.  Maintaining his distance and refusing to be an idol is the only way he can continue to care for them, it is the only way to escape the love-hate relationship.

paparazzi.jpgThe moment celebrities seek isolation they are hounded and criticized for it.  In South Park Britney tries to escape the paparazzi by going on a camping trip in the Colorado Rockies, but is quickly discovered.  In fact the possibility of escape creates its own problems.  Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, publicly admits he hates his celebrity status.  He writes in his blog, that the moment he gets a break, he quickly loses his sense of identity and purpose and sinks into deep depression.  As Girard warns, “the affirmation of the self ends in the negation of the self.”  To allow oneself to be raised to the status of a god inevitably brings about self-destruction, because the celebrity’s identity is only ever a projection of the public’s desire.  Few stars discover this reality before its too late.

Rene GirardGirard says, “it is Stavrogin,” not his followers, “who bears the heaviest cross.” As with Michael Jackson, Dostoyevski’s reader is unable to decide just how human Nicholas really is, whether he feels desire, or whether he is completely cut off from his own humanity, being denied as he is, any Michael Jackson's disfigurementreal intimacy in his life.  In Michael Jackson’s case, we watched him, over the course of his career, become sexless, even featureless, losing the distinct features of any palpable personality.  Isn’t it incredibly sad that the more closely Jackson was imitated, the more slowly, but surely he destroyed his own appearance?

In a similar way Nicholas Stavrogin sets out on a path of self-destruction, possibly in a desperate attempt to free himself.  Girard explains that Nicholas “is beyond desire.  It is not whether he no longer desires because Others desire him or whether Others desire him because he no longer desires.  Thus is formed a vicious circle from which [he] cannot escape… he becomes the magnetic pole of desire and hatred” (Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 163).  Unfortunately, public demand for an idol is insatiable and those stars who chose to go this route, are inevitably consumed by it.

victor and paige

In Choke, Victor and Paige, his equally self-deluded partner, survive the crowd’s destructive furor, and are able for the first time “to see each other for real.”  Freed not only from their own delusions, but also from allowing the world to define them as flawed and less than desirable, they have the chance not only to create some other reality, they are able to detect just a silhouette of their being in each other’s eyes.Miley Cyrus next sacrifice

So maybe folks shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Thom Yorke, for his coldness (he’s notorious for just walking away from admirers without response) [link to criticism].  Maybe he’s aware of the precarious position he’s in.  It comes from time to time in Radiohead’s songs.  “Life in a Glasshouse” is just one example [video] [lyrics], in which Yorke sings: “Of course, I’d like to sit around and talk, but someone’s always listening in,” and once again the crowd “is hungry for a lynching.”michael jackson

For some reason Yorke’s resistance makes people furious, including other celebrity wanna-bees like 15 yr. old Miley Cyrus, who drummed up lots of publicity in 2009 by complaining about Yorke’s rudeness [link]. Sadly, she has no clue that she’s playing right into the public’s obsession. I truly hope that someone warns her that at the end of the South Park episode, she’s identified as the next one on the way to becoming a major superstar [watch clip].

The good news is, if South Park can make an episode exposing the true nature of the public’s fascination with celebrities, we, like Victor and Paige, may chose to give up this obsession with attention and fame, maybe then fewer childhood pop stars will have to self-destruct before our eyes.

-Sue Wright


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July 14, 2009

just another transformer?

transformers as large as skyscrapersWhat would summer be without the release of an action packed, blockbuster movie?  We’re a culture addicted to displays of power, the proportions of which seem to be increasing, as special effects, high tech weapons and machines get more and more spectacular. Compare, for instance, the original Transformers TV Series with the newly released Transformers 2.transformers first episode

[watch movie action trailer]

[watch first TV episode]

Is it me, or have the those robots gotten a bit more intimidating?  For folks who aren’t sure what tranformers are: they’re a popular toy and TV cartoon introduced in the mid-80s, which spinned off a comic series, games and more recently a couple of movies.  Transformers are alien robots from the planet Cybertron.  They can ‘transform’ themselves, rearranging their bodies into everyday objects, usually vehicles.  At times they will transform into devices or animals. [more info] bumblebee.jpgUnsuspecting humans have no ultimate_bumblebee_battle_charged__vehicle_.jpgidea that their supposedly harmless cars, trucks or bull-duzors, are actually not what they appear to be.  That is until, on a moment’s notice, they transform into dangerous alien robots.  [watch demonstration]

I think human beings are capable of the same sort of thing.  For instance, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 [read text] Paul is embroiled in a rivalry with other teachers who claim to be Christian apostles.  In chapter 11 Paul, being ironic, labels them “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) for boasting of superior abilities and talents and for claiming miraculous powers of healing.  Paul says they have  “deceived” the Corinthians and led them astray.  In 2 Cor. 11:13-15 Paul goes even further, and accuses his rivals of being ministers of Satan who have “transformed” themselves into apostles of Christ.satan disguised as angel  To stress this point he uses the same word three times:

μετασχηματίζω  metaschēmatizō: to transform the figure of something [link]

On the other hand, Paul too may be labeled a “transformer.” Postmodern philosopher, John Caputo in his book The Weakness of God [link] cites Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 12:10, as the moment in which he, Caputo, quietly takes his leave of Paul.  After a long list, boasting of his weaknesses, Paul makes an incredible claim:

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2Cor. 12:10)

paul.jpgoptimus-prime.jpgCaputo responds, “Paul inscribes his idea of the weakness of God that is revealed in the cross in a larger economy of power.”  (Weakness of God, 42) For Paul insists that his weakness is not really what it appears to be, but instead “transforms” it into a power play: just another transformer, one that some philosophers claim is a far more dangerous stunt than anything those “ministers of Satan” could have conjured.   As Caputo says, “the power ofchrist-crucified.jpg God is embodied in the helpless body whose flesh is nailed to the cross…” (Weakness, 54) it requires the full renunciation of any and all power tactics, however well disguised. This leaves me begging the question, how are we to tell the transformers apart from the real apostles, if they even exist at all?

In the Transformers first TV episode the story is immediately founded on a rivalry between the forces of good and evil.  They are divided into two factions: the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, who protect humans, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, who wants to take over the universe.  However each side relies on power to overcome the other.  As long as this is the case, displays of power always provoke new rivalries.  This is precisely the case in this first episode, when one of the Decepticons, jealous of Megatron’s status and authority, boasts that he will take his place some day.

transformers rivalry

Granted, the Autobots (or “good” robots) seem very willing to spend much of their time as cars or trucks, as good citizens so to speak.  Even so, the moment a rival transformer appears on the scene they immediately transform themselves into ultra-powerful robots.  The conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons led to the destruction of their home world Cybertron, and now the escalation of their rivalry threatens Earth too.

In 2 Corinthians Paul is being pushed to the limit.  His rivals have clearly gotten the upper hand with the Corinthians, impressing them with their superior display of power.  But this is precisely what identifies them as anything but apostles.  By claiming to possess special knowledge and miraculous powers, they demonstrate that they’re just the same-old pagans in disguise, who have transformed themselves as Chrtransformers rivalryistians (Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 66).   Like the Emperor boasting of his victories in battle, making such claims as proof of one’s power or authority is first and foremost a power play, and a continual source of rivalry and conflict which undermines the entire community. Paul, on the other hand, chooses a very different tactic.  As biblical-scholar Robert Hamerton-Kelly says, “Rather than enter into rivalry by imitating the opponents’ desire for power and prestige, he enters ironically by imitating the weakness and humiliation of Christ…In weakness the power of Christ to diffuse…. rivalry is most effective; so it is not despite his affliction that Paul is a successful apostle of Christ, but precisely because of it.” (Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 175)paul-damascus.jpg

For instance, in 2 Cor. 12: 1-5, Paul responds to his rivals’ claims of mystical experiences, a typical claim to knowledge and authority in the ancient pagan world.  Whether or not Paul actually had such an experience, receiving a special communication from God, he, unlike his rivals, is unwilling to boast of it.  First, as we have already noted, to boasting is a power play, which always creates more rivalry, but more importantly, whatever encounter Paul did have with Jesus, or God, it had a negative, rather than a positive effect upon his confidence.  Like Peter, who can never forget that at the crucial moment, he betrayed Jesus three times, Paul full of boasting, in his most arrogant moments, when he was totally convinced he was in the RIGHT, was doing the worst kind of WRONG.  As the 19th century theologian Søren Kierkegaard says, Paul guarded the coats of the executioners while they stoned Stephen, an innocent man, to death (Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 341) .humans-run-from-transformers.jpg

For Paul, to encounter the crucified God, is to realize that his own ego, his own judgment, his understanding of right and wrong cannot be trusted. When Paul says he is given a “thorn in the flesh,” sent by a “messenger of Satan,” he refers to the knowledge of his own guilt, which he can not forget (Kierkegaard, Eighteen, 340).  That he, sick with rivalry and heady with power, was on a moment’s notice transformed into a murderer.  The only confidence he is left with is his confidence in his own weakness, which finally allows him to identify with the victim on the cross.   Therefore, the only good he can accomplish, as Kierkegaard says, is in keeping this thorn ever present in his mind.

We are each one of us, alien robots, capable, at a moment’s notice, of being transformed into rivals of our fellow human beings.  When that happens, watch out, it doesn’t matter if you’re an Autobot or a Decepticon… without the self-awareness and humility that Paul has learned, we end up wreaking destruction, doing more evil than good.  -Sue Wright


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May 31, 2009

Jesus freaks?

What is speaking in tongues?  It just sounds like babble to me, its not even a language that can be understood.  I have to admit, when I read in the Book of Acts, that “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages,” (Acts 2:3-4) it kind of freaks me out.speaking in tongues

Glossolalia, as its often called, is big among Pentecostals who claim its a gift of the Spirit; evidence that they’re saved. [see explanation and example] That may work for them, but honestly, its just a bit much for me to take. Not to mention, that it could be used to exclude those who for whatever reason haven’t been “baptized in the spirit”.  I’ve never spoken in tongues; I just don’t think I can go there.  Does that mean I’m not really a Christian?speaking in tongues for the deaf

That said, I have to admit there’s one thing about these stories in Acts that does interest me.  There appears to be a connection (in the text) between speaking in tongues and the Christians’ ability to love each other.community of believers

In Acts Chapter 2 [read text] wealthy and sophisticated diaspora Jews, who had come from all parts of the Roman Empire to settle in Jerusalem, end up rubbing elbows  with uneducated rural fishermen, those they would normally have dismissed as backwards and beneath them.  (Martin Hengel)  They are even willing to accept Peter’s authority as a teacher, shocking given that the diaspora Jews were devoted to the synagogues, where they studied with highly trained rabbis and maintained a strict adherence to the Sabbath codes.  Incredibly,  however, they are, seemingly out of the blue, willing to set aside their prejudice and step outside the boundaries.  The result of all this is a new found fellowship:   “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

Once it was unleashed this radical hospitality could hardly be contained within the boundaries of the ancient Hebrew religion; so much so, that in subsequent chapters of Acts, the horizons are expanded to include the Gentiles (non-Jews): an even more shocking event.

Acts 10In Acts 10:44-48 [read text] “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”  After this the Gentiles were welcomed into the community.  Was it simply because they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit? Was speaking in tongues evidence that they too had been saved?  That explanation is just not good enough.community of believers

When the first Christian communities gathered people from all walks of life, economic, religious: wealthy Romans, slaves, prostitutes, religious leaders, fishermen, they shared one thing in common: a moment of openness to each other, in which their worldly status, however high or however low, was overwhelmed by something else, something that can only be described as a gift.

Whatever it was, it breached the walls, the social barriers that keep people divided, which make it difficult for people on either side of those barriers to understand each other.

hospitalityWe know that Jesus welcomed all sorts people into fellowship with him, including prostitutes and tax collectors.  The same sort of hospitality is inextricably linked to this new event, which is described in Acts as the gift of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.  And as much as I’d like to pinpoint the cause, its like the chicken and the egg, its impossible to say which came first, but one thing is for certain, in these stories speaking in tongues is more related to openness to others, and not simply my own personal salvation.

church hierarchyWhat I find really interesting is that for about 2,000 years, speaking in tongues completely disappeared.  Over time, as the church became more structured, speaking in tongues faded into the past, so that by the 4th century it was considered an ancient bygone. Augustine and other church leaders of the time explain it away as inevitable…. but I’m suspicious.  To this day Christians commemorate Pentecost as the founding of the church, as if that moment has been perfectly reproduced, without interruption from then until now, when in fact its the opposite.  The church slowly but surely rebuilt the walls that had been torn down by the radical hospitality described in Acts.  The openness that had brought people together was lost, and to this day the churches have yet to recover it.the hospitality of abraham

And whether they do or not may already be a moot point, since we now live in the post-Christian era.  Even so, while the traditional structures of church and even family are crumbling all around us, we may, in fact, have found better walls to replace them.  For centuries, intimacy within the family, where people lived in the closest possible proximity, was carefully controlled by the rules of patriarchy.  Now in postmodern societies, like our own, who I get close to is all too often a matter of appearances, determined by what a person wears, by the music they listen to, or by what they buy.home security Couples about to marry relate to each other through the consumption of consumer goods.  Composing the gift registry is more important than composing the marriage vows.  People are increasingly isolated within their neighborhoods, their homes, where high-tech security systems keep strangers out.  In the process we are safely cordoned off from each other, never having to broach the issue of real intimacy, and what it would be like to relate to each other, our spouse, or our neighbor, if all of those external barriers suddenly disappeared.van Dyck, The Descent of the Holy Spirit

But what if we try to imagine it? Would it be heaven or hell?  Total chaos or the moment of new possibilities?  The words, the titles, the outward appearances by which we categorize each other, through which we create meaning and differences, would lose some of their power.  Language itself would be stretched to its limits.  What would we do? Would we immediately set out to define new barriers or would we open ourselves and attempt to communicate with those with whom relationship had previously been unimaginable?

In any case, we may have no choice in the matter: the world is changing at a rate far greater than many of us have the ability to cope with.  What the future holds will probably depend on our capacity for welcoming each other as new spaces open up between us.  If we actually succeed and find a way to relate, free of divisive barriers, it would feel like a tremendous gift, a new reference for reality.  This is what the people listening to Peter must have experienced that day, when all of a sudden people from across the Roman Empire could understand each other.

What do you think?  Do I sound like a Jesus Freak?


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May 7, 2009

Enough Already!

Must we always live in fear of our enemies:  Iran, Syria, and all those terrorists plotting to strike at any moment?  It wasn’t long ago that we were afraid of Russia, Libya, and Cuba.  cold warI think I detect a pattern…  What will it take to break this never ending cycle of anta- gonism and violence?

Recently President Obama, extended his hand and offered renewed relations to Iran [link to BBC story], a nation the previous administration had labeled the “axis of evil”. Some have criticized Obama as naive, as being too soft on our so-called enemies.  But I see his action as a breath of fresh air.  When will we finally learn that targeting others as the enemy is one of the worst ways to galvanize our nation?  That political leaders who use those sorts of accusations as a basis of power lock us all into no win situations, which only ever lead in one direction: towards conflict.

Obama, on the other hand, says he’s seeking an opening, some way to avert the growing threat of conflict fueled by the previous administration: “With the coming of a new season, we’re reminded of this precious humanity that we all share. And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning…”  But again critics claim that Obama’s gesture will prove useless if Iran does not desist in aggressive behaviors.Peter and John arrested

In Acts 4:5-12 [link to text] the Apostles, have been arrested for healing the sick and for preaching the resurrection.  They are brought before the most powerful people in Jerusalem: “the rulers, elders, and scribes… with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.”  This is the apostles’ first confrontation with the very people who plotted to kill Jesus, who are most likely considering the same fate for Peter and John.

Peter and John before the Sanhedrin

The political and religious leaders interrogate the disciples:

“By what power or by what name did you do this?”  The rulers demand to know who or what has given them this authority? In other words, “Who do you think you are?”  But Peter doesn’t take the bait.  Instead, “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” he responds:

“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…”.

This is not the sort of response the rulers are used to.  For instance, the apostles demonstrate none of the bravado that Mel Gibson displays in the movie Braveheart.  Who can forget that famous scene in which William Wallace (Braveheart) challenges his English oppressors with his weapon raised high?  Or his freedom speech [watch on youtube]. Not to mention that scene at the end of the movie, when Braveheart, during his gruesome execution, screams “freedom” [watch on youtube]It was in his memory, in his name, that the Scots finally drove the English from their land, but at what cost?Braveheart captured

Peter makes no inflammatory statements in the name of freedom or justice.  Nor does he claim that his authority comes from a God who is more powerful, or in whose name, he threatens vengeance on his persecutors.

On the contrary, Peter immediately identifies Jesus as the one “whom you crucified”. He says this, not to incite antagonism, or as a demand for revenge for the death of their leader.  Instead he does something quite unexpected, he offers healing: the same healing that the God of the Old Testament had offered the Jews for centuries.  He makes one demand: repent, give up your antagonism, “so that times of refreshing may come” (Acts 4:20) when and if the cycle of violence is broken.   He doesn’t ask for justice, he doesn’t even ask for an apology. This is an incredible offer which is only possible because Peter has already given up his own antagonism and has forgiven them despite the fact that the High Priest and his cronies don’t for a moment regret what they have done, and  would certainly kill Peter and the apostles if they could.  Forgiveness is given regardless of whether they repent or not.

I can imagine the rulers’ reactions: they thought they had gotten rid of Jesus once and for all.  By preaching Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles have tappedthe stone rejected into a whole new basis of power, one which overrides that of the powerful elite and their gods of power.  As Peter’s says to them:

`the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’

No wonder the political and religious leaders are worried; they’ve just been deprived of their most effective means for squashing their enemies: execution.  But Jesus’ resurrection in of itself is not sufficient: it arises out the moment of his crucifixion, when Jesus, quite unlike Braveheart, forgave those still intent on killing him.

Resurrected Jesus appears to the disciplesThe act of forgiveness is then repeated when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the disciples who had also rejected him in his darkest hour, he extended his hand in reconciliation,  transforming their darkest hour into an offer of healing.  [see Luke 24:36b-48] In John’s Gospel, Jesus said to them “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” Jesus then breathed the Holy Spirit on them, which in turn enpowered them to offer healing to their enemies. [see John 20:19-31]

It is for this reason that Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  This is not a claim that Christianity is the one true religion.  Quite the opposite, Jesus has founded a basis for power that has no need to malign anyone, but instead extends itself to everyone, saving the oppressor and the oppressed, from antagonism on both sides.  This is no small accomplishment.  Indeed Jesus’ action interrupts the old order of events, it opens a space in human relations, creating an opportunity for healing that had previously been impossible, even unimaginable.

The High Priest, the elders, and scribes, are left speechless.  Luke says they are amazed by Peter’s speech because he is uneducated, a fisherman, untrained in the art of speaking (which was a big deal in the ancient world).  But I say it is his offer of reconciliation even at the moment that the authorities are plotting to kill him.  More than once they threaten the apostles, but their threats no longer have any power, not because the disciples believe that God will restore them to life, making them indestructible like the Terminator, but because forgiveness has freed thealing for the nationshem, and can free us, from the power that death holds over humanity; it becomes a new “cornerstone” for meaning and action in the world - a new source of life.Forgiveness

When Luke says that Peter is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, he describes one freed from the cycle of antagonism and violence, one who, at the crucial moment, has the ability to offer his outstretched hand.  He has no need to fear his enemies, in fact, as far as Peter is concerned, he has no enemies.

I hope that Obama, in the spirit of forgiveness, can give up all the antagonism he’s inherited, and in the process open a space for refreshment, for healing for the nations of the world.    -Sue Wright


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November 14, 2008

tired of keeping your spirituality to yourself?

coffee hour conversationsWhy is it so difficult to discuss spiritual matters at church?     Being social, I have to admit I love to attend coffee hour at church on Sundays, but I can’t help but notice that we talk about everything BUT god.  coffeehouse spiritualityIn fact, I find that all the really interesting conversations about spiritual stuff take place outside the church: for instance, with friends at our favorite coffeehouse sharing the poetry we’ve written or discussing the latest movies we’ve seen.  In my search for relevant and interesting  conversations about God and spiritual things, I’ve even gone so far as to join a Facebook group Coffee Mystics [more info].  Not to mention the discussions I’ve had with folks from other traditions.  For instance, I have a friend who was raised Hindu and who practices Eastern forms of meditation: we can talk at length about our spiritual stuff.  private spirituality

But why can’t I have that same experience in the church?  I’m sure that the folks in the pews have personal beliefs about god and spirituality.  They just keep it to themselves.  Could it be that within the mainline churches, individual faith life has become so privatized, we no longer have permission to discuss it? Is it any wonder then that the church is often perceived as lifeless or just plain irrelevant?  communing with natureIf going to church means keeping my spiritual life to myself, I might as well spend my Sunday mornings communing with nature, or sleeping in.

I have a friend, in her early twenties, I met during an open house at the downtown cathedral, which I attend. She and a group of friends entered the church foyer for the first time, where she announced “I don’t think I can go along with all your dogma, is that a problem?”  While most of the greeters were flabbergasted, I stood up from my seat near the door and said, “No, I don’t have a problem with that.” I felt totally energized and thought “Finally, a chance to discuss the stuff that really matters!”

She sat down and told me about her experiences in Latin America.  She asked me why I thought there were so many crucifixes in Mexico which depict so graphically Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  pub-poster.jpgI was impressed with the question and told her I thought it provides the people, whose lives are full of hardship, with a sense of compassion, because they believe Jesus identifies with their suffering. She seemed to like that.  Then she asked why we place a stain glass window behind the altar, “was it designed to lead people towards the light?”  I answered, “That must have been part of the intended effect.”  And thinking to myself, if only we could see it that way.

What impressed me most was that she was so uninhibited in her conversation.  And in those questions, I sensed that she had already undergone some sort of transformative, spiritual experience.  At the same time she showed a disregard for stale doctrines which can’t possibly communicate that experience.the cost of privatized spirituality

Recently, at Pub(lic) Spirituality [more info], a pub gathering attended by mostly twenty-somethings, the majority of which don’t attend any sort of church, someone just threw out the question, “Does god punish us for our sins, or just let us suffer the consequences of our own behaviors?”  This led to an hour long discussion!  At an Emergent Matrix meeting [more info] which gathers monthly at another downtown pub, the group, a mix of people from different backgrounds, discussed whether or not the Bible has any relevance in today’s world. The conversation was so animated, you couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.  Why can’t we do THAT in the church?facing life's issues alone

Recently a fellow parishioner, a life long Episcopalian, told me she’s thinking of converting to Buddhism, because she longs for that sort of contemplative life.  I immediately responded that Christianity has its own contemplative tradition which is very ancient and profoundly rich.  But as soon as I said it, I realized I sounded like a whole lot of hot air: unless that spiritual practice and the transformative experience it provides is visibly alive in our church, it might as well be nonexistent.

Indeed, slowly but surely the privatization of spirituality has had a corrosive effect on the life of church communities.  Without a shared spiritual life we find ourselves at the mercy of the social forcesfaith should not be private which isolate and separate people.  With the result that no matter how many people surround us in the pews, we end up facing the greatest challenges of life on our own.  The reasons I go in search of conversations with others and why self-help books just won’t cut it has less do with my extroverted nature than with the simple fact that I need hope and inspiration to cope with all the anxiety and uncertainty that plagues contemporary existence.  I just can’t access it on my own, and believe me I’ve tried.

barren tree

I need to hear it articulated by those who have shared the same pains and trials that I’ve had to face in this crazy mixed-up world we live in.  And whatever the source of that hope might be, I need to experience its transformative power in my relationships: which leaves me asking, “why not at church?  As long as we continue to keep our faith lives private, we lose a common life centered around those very things: we lose touch with the central experience of what it is to be a Christian.

emergent.jpg

As John Zizioulas, one of my favorite theologians says, “Individualism is incompatible with Christian spirituality.  None can possess the Spirit as an individual, but only as a member of the community.” (”The Early Christian Community,” Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, 27) Contrary to the trend to treat one’s spiritual life as a private matter, Zizioulas says that the Early Christians understood that  “it was through personal relationships that the human person’s union with God was realized.” (”The Early Christian Community,” 23.)

How are we to regain that shared experience of spiritual transformation?  It may be as simple as returning to some of those ancient practices of the Early Church.  So for instance, in my parish we’ve started to practice Lectio Divina in a group[link to Contemplative Outreach for explanation of Lectio Divina]  Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and leading exponent of Lectio Divina claims that “Praying the scriptures in common,” on a weekly basis,  “has proved to be a valuable experience and an occasion of bonding the members together in faith and love.”  As we listen to scripture in the group and wait for the Spirit to create a response in us, some of the most profound spiritual insights have come not necessarily from those who have a seminary education, like me, but from everyday people who have suffered and in that suffering have experienced the power of compassion to lift them from that place.  This is precisely the ray of hope that draws me out of the isolation and toward the light.  - Sue Wright

 


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September 9, 2008

life beyond the abyss?

sinners falling into hell

Does anyone really believe in heaven and hell anymore? After all, its just an old-fashioned superstition, an out-moded scare tactic to get people to church. movie poster for Dante's Inferno

In the Middle Ages the threat of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell held so much power over people’s imaginations, they were both fascinated and afraid of it. For instance, the most popular book written in the medieval period, Dante’s Inferno [link], describes in vivid detail the punishments used to torture sinners for eternity in the depths of hell: corrupt politicians are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, thieves are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards, while blasphemers and homosexuals are trapped in a desert of flaming sand where fiery flakes rain down from the sky upon them.  dante's infernoThe nastiest punishments are reserved for those who committed the worst possible crimes. They are condemned to the bottom most depths of hell where, Satan, depicted as a beast, is held in chains. Satan has Judas in his teeth and rips at Judas’ skin with his claws.  Pretty gruesome.  Thank God, we’re beyond all that superstitious thinking…. or are we?

Come to think of it, the medieval obsession with hell reminds me of our contemporary addiction to graphic horror films, tragic news stories and the like. Could it be we’re hung up on the same things?  After all, our society still divides things up in very similar ways: rewarding good and punishing evil. In fact, that model is so deeply rooted in our cultural psyche, our world-view, which determines how we understand the created order, that its almost impossible to imagine another vision of reality. We just assume its natural.nocountryforoldmenr1art.jpg

Except that lately that order appears to be breaking down: the “bad guys” or the “monsters” don’t seem to know their place.  For instance, in the movie “No Country for Old Men,” which won the academy award for best picture,  the so-called “good guys” (the cowboy who finds the money and the sheriff investigating the case) are pretty powerless in the face of the ultimate “bad guy” who is totally unstoppable.  He is literally the sheriff’s worst nightmare.  Watching the film you can’t help but wonder, what on earth is this guy doing: wandering around and messing with regular people’s lives?  Who let that  monster out of hell?  Needless to say, the movie is very disturbing…blake's fall of the angel

One reason for this is that it breaks down the clear divisions which make people feel safe. Its not just a matter of locking up the really nasty criminals and throwing away the key, separating the “good people” from the “bad people” has always been one of the primary building blocks for ordering society. denial of the abyss

So while many of us assume that in this present day and age we no longer believe in heaven and hell, it could it be that images of the fiery abyss are still so real for us that we’re really just living in denial.  Maybe we never got over our fear of hell, we’ve just had a lid on it. As long as people play by the rules and don’t commit any crimes, they assume they don’t have to worry about it.

But what about all those actually condemned to the bottomless pit?  All the black men in prison, out of sight and forgotten by mainstream society? What about the mentally ill wandering the streets because no one will care for them? Or the countless lives lost in Iraq, that the media refuses to talk about?  What about the teenagers at risk, who are convinced the world around them could care less; or the elderly confined in nursing homes, without family or friends to visit them?    When I think of the utter abandonment experienced by those who have been condemned, in one form or another, to non-existence, I wonder what on earth did they do to deserve such punishment?Edvard Munch, Anxiety 1894

We may be the lucky ones, with a good job, a home and a loving family, but can we ever feel entirely safe, when there are those around us, who are not so lucky? Indeed, the more we deny the abyss in our midst, the more power it holds over our imaginations, feeding those nagging feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that plague contemporary life. Until we can envision our world, and the social order structured in some other way, we will live in fear, conscious or not, that we could be the next unlucky person to slide down the slippery slope into its depths, unnoticed and forgotten by the rest of humanity.  The result is that we too are held captive, both fascinated and afraid that somehow those “monsters” could get loose.jesus walks on the water

Contrary to common assumptions, parts of the New Testament actually challenge us to consider another vision of reality. It not only contradicts the old-fashioned understanding of heaven and hell, but exposes our contemporary superstitions too.  In Matthew 14:22-33 [link to text] Jesus walked on the water. This action was more than a simple miracle; it was a highly symbolic gesture. For the ancient Jews, the watery abyss was the mythological equivalent to the medieval fiery depths of hell.  In the Psalms, for instance, the sea appears as a synonym for the pit, the place of desolation and abandonment from which the writer of the psalms cries out to God for deliverance:the psalmist cries from the abyss

I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead… (Psalm 88:4-5)

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me…

Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. (Psalm 69:1-2, 15)

god casting the serpents into the watery abyssBelief in the watery abyss, was closely connected to the Hebrew creation story. In Genesis 1:6-8 the waters are depicted as the source of chaos, which God divided to create the dry land, the basis for the created order. For centuries people assumed that God accomplished this by slaying all the evil demons and throwing them to the bottom of the watery pit. Thus in Jewish mythology the sea was feared as the place where demons, monsters and ghosts reside.

It is highly symbolic then that Jesus not only walked over the face of the watery abyss, he chose to do much of his ministry on or next to the sea. He also chose fishermen as his disciples, those whose life circumstances forced them to live daily on the edge of the abyss. This also explains why the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus approaching them from across the water: they thought he was a ghost.  Jesus immediately responded, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” For when Jesus walked over the water, it was not merely to perform a miracle or demonstrate that he was Lord over its depths, but more importantly to offer a new vision of the created order itself.

jesus rescues peter from watery abyss

Even so, the disciple’s fear of the pit was still too powerful.  When Peter got out of the boat (out of his comfort zone?) and tried to walk to Jesus over the water, he became afraid and immediately began to sink into its depths. After reaching out his hand to save Peter, Jesus scolded him for his lack of faith; not because Peter did not believe in the miracle, but because Peter still believed in the power of the abyss and the sort of god which creates order by rescuing some and condemning others. Thus Jesus realized that to destroy the power the abyss held, and continues to hold, over people’s imaginations, he had to go one step further.

christ of the abyssUnlike Genesis 1:6-8 or even Moses at the Red Sea, Jesus did not divide the waters, he did not create order by condemning all the sinners to hell, or casting some new demon into the abyss. Instead Jesus allowed himself to be sentenced and executed as a criminal, and actually descended to the depths of hell, to the very bottom of the watery abyss.  He intentionally took the role of the one condemned to the pit in the Psalms, and suffered all the pain and abandonment experienced by those forced to reside there.  As my past professor Tony Bartlett says, Jesus’ own cry from the abyss, is not one of “defiance or despair, but [of] yielding up, the letting go, the for-giving and release of the spirit, his breath” (Bartlett, Cross Purposes, 246). He did this to expose once and for all the presence of the abyss as a false basis for social order, and to blow the lid off our denial, by demonstrating that the abyss does not really contain demons or monsters, creature from the black lagoonbut holds captive all those who have been sentenced to non-existence.

For an important exploration of “the abyss” and Jesus’ “abyssal compassion,” see Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, especially chapter one [Link].

Indeed, the abyss is the domain of all those who have been forgotten, but who continue to lurk in our imaginations, in popular horror films, in urban legends.  Jesus breaks the power of the abyss by demonstrating what it really is; kind of like shining a light under the bed only to discover a dirty sock instead of a monster. monster under the bed

Thus Paul could say that Jesus answers those who cry out to him from its depths:

For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” [link to text]

Just reaching out his hand and pulling Peter out of the water, as “a hand proffered from on high, (Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, 24),  would not have been enough.  It was only by descending to its depths that Jesus is able to rescue anyone.  And it is precisely for this reason that Jesus is able to respond to every person, no matter their past failings, or their supposed crimes. No plea goes unanswered. As Bartlett says Jesus’ gesture in the abyss is “available to everyone who suffers or feels compassion for suffering.” (Bartlett, 237)

jesus' descent into hell to release the captives

It is for this same reason that Jesus could claim that he had come to set the captives free [See Luke 4:18].  By destroying the power of hell, he released all those, who over the centuries had been condemned to eternal punishment in its depths.  But lets not forget, its not just the monsters and demons which require deliverance.  No longer held captive by our fear, we too are liberated in the process.

rescuing others from the abyssReleased from its grip, we do not need to live in denial.  We may even find that we have the courage to approach the abyss, and with compassion to rescue others.  By dissolving the power the abyss holds over our imaginations, we are finally free to participate in a created order free of its threat.

Escher's Heaven and Hell

As Paul Nuechterlein points out on his website [link], its important to notice that the Book of Revelation ends with the following:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” [Revelation 21:1]

If we could actually give up our old-fashioned superstitions about heaven and hell, and could finally lay all the monsters to rest,  I wonder what would the world look like? Its difficult to imagine… but I have a feeling it would be a much safer place for all of us.   - Sue Wright


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June 29, 2008

“Monstrous!”

horrified housewifeis really the best response to the Genesis 22 story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac [link to text]. I read that once, and was impressed that biblical scholar James Crenshaw was willing to admit just how offensive this story really is. What sort of God would ask such a thing? Especially after Abraham, in total obedience to God’s command in Genesis 12:1-4 [link], had already given up his home, his family and everything he had ever know to follow God to a new, but totally unspecified land. I don’t blame people for rejecting the story outright, “Why should we listen to a god that makes such inhuman demands?”20_colette_isabella_bb_le_sacrifice.jpg

The thing is, ever since our daughter was born three years ago, we feel like those sorts of demands are made of us on a pretty regular basis. “Leave her with strangers so you can work another job that barely pays the day care costs.” “Why are you still nursing that child? Put her on formula so you can go back to work.” Who has time to even hold babies anymore or play with their children, when both parents have to work all day, come home, dish out some sort of meal, and then catch up with the laundry and pay the bills before they go to bed? When I look at the ways children are raised in this society, it scares me! Could it be, that we, like Abraham, are sacrificing our children in small ways every day?

latch key kidMy sisters and I were the first generation of latch key kids. Since both my parents had to work to pay the mortgage and make the car payments on time, we were left to fend for ourselves. Instead of mom greeting us with homemade cookies when we came home from school, it was reruns of “Little House on Prairie” and Hostess Twinkies. Little House on the PrairieAnd because both my parents had to work late some nights, sometimes we had to make our dinner too: which usually meant a jar of spaghetti sauce over noodles. How much worse it is today!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a return to traditional life as a latch key childfamily values or forcing women back into the home. But I can’t help feeling that American families are under attack - we no longer have the time or resources to provide a healthy home environment that actually nutures our children. What scares me the most is not that we are blind to the ramifications of this, but that we seem unable to find solutions. Many parents I know are deeply troubled by the effects of today’s lifestyle on their children, but feel trapped by economic realities beyond their control.

This Land is Their Land

In a recent discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book This Land is Their Land [link] aired on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” [link] the commentator suggested that middle class families are to blame for their plight: isn’t over consumption responsible for the financial problems of the middle class, especially all that overextended credit?

dumping the middle classWhile its true that my generation, Gen-X, was brought up believing we would inherit all the prosperity enjoyed by our parents, its not necessarily true that we consume more than them - all that prosperity is increasingly out of our reach. As Ehrenreich says, the corporate profits once shared with employees are now being channeled to a very small minority (.01%) at the top of the corporate ladder, while the rest of us on the lower rungs are left to fend for ourselves. The rising cost of living paired with the stagnation in wages, despite a 75% increase in worker productivity, means that today’s parents are forced to work significantly more hours than their parents, not just two jobs per household, but three just to make ends meet.

Recently John and I watched Bill Moyer’s “Journal” on PBS [link], in which experts discussed the effects of the economy on middle class families. McJobsNot only are we earning half of what the previous generation earned, today’s minimum wage is $5.85 as compared to $9.85 if we take inflation into account,

For more on the minimum wage and its effect on the middle class, including Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s response [link here]

we no longer receive employee benefits, and are forced to shoulder those costs ourselves. But since the cost of health insurance, retirement funds and education, have sky rocketed in the last decade, many of us, John and myself included, simply can’t afford health insurance, much less any kind of retirement! It was one thing back in the 90s for single twenty-somethings to complain about “McJobs” [link to definition], living on minimum wage without health insurance, but its quite corporate greed in the gilded ageanother thing for those of us now trying to raise families to survive in a financial climate thats being compared to the greed of the Gilded Age a century ago [link], the gross inequities of which produced the soup lines of the Great Depression.

In reaction to these criticisms I’ve heard the rebuttal, “stop complaining, and instead of making excuses, take responsibility for your problems: there are no free handouts.” Yes, its true that some of us Gen-Xers were slackers in our twenties, but as delayed adolescence passed, and we finally got serious about our futures, we’ve found that no matter how much we play by the rules, we just can’t win. There are too many odds against us - if the student loan debt doesn’t sink us, you can bet the credit card fees will!studentdebtgif.png Especially since credit card debt for middle-income families is soaring — up 75% to $5,031 between 1989 and 2001 (according to a report by Demos, a non-partisan public policy organization). [USA Today] “Middle-class families are using credit cards to fill in a gap between their income and costs,” says Tamara Draut, director of the economic opportunity program at Demos. credit card debt“It’s more about maintaining their standard of living than frivolous consumption.” There’s something seriously wrong when a family with a $70,000 annual income admits, “we used credit cards to pay for diapers, food and school stuff.” [link to article in USA Today]

When Bill Moyers asked his guest Holly Sklar “why do we put up with it?” she responded, “everyone is afraid to loose their job, whether you’re trying to unionize… or the company is threatening to outsource, you now add to this everyone is terrified to loose their job, because they have health insurance through their job… it’s a much harder context in which to ask for higher wages.” In today’s workplace, we don’t have permission to say “no” to our employers’ demands; especially when constant downsizing makes us anxious that we could be the next cut, and you’re living just one paycheck away from the bill collectors knocking at your door. Is it any wonder then that the voices of our children get lost in the daily rush to get to work on time?greedy corporate head

Like Bill Moyers, we usually end up blaming the greedy corporate heads, who really do seem to be benefiting at our expense. But isn’t it a bit more complex than that? Why, in a democratic society, don’t we demand more of our government and politicians?

That’s precisely the point: when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham didn’t object (at least not at first) because in Abraham’s day it was normal to sacrifice children. In his world people believed that the laws governing property and inheritance were dictated by the gods and those gods insisted that only one son could inherit. Thus when God repeatedly promised Abraham that his descendants would receive a great inheritance, Abraham assumed without question that it would happen according to those rules. Since Abraham had more than one son, he thought he had to sacrifice one of them. Therefore he sent Ishmael, his first son, into exile, which in those days meant certain starvation and death. But since sacrificial systems have a way of demanding new victims, it eventually turned on the one it was supposed to benefit, demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s favorite son, the one who was supposed to inherit everything!

Little has changed. As Paul Nuechterlein says on his website, “For we still practice child sacrifice, do we not? But the cultural difference is that it is no longer part of religious ritual. Our modern versions of sacred violence are acts of violence we sanction with causes or transgreedcendent values we hold as godlike.” To break free, our minds must begin to question the false logic of their claims. “The unveiling of sacred violence means the unveiling of our false gods.” [link] As long as we, as a people, continue to believe that our present economy is the source of our happiness, our security, our future, we will be pitted against our loved ones. It makes too many demands on us, insisting, for instance, that we sacrifice time with our children.time for our children

Abraham actually traveled three days to Mt. Moriah, the place God designated for the sacrifice. He had plenty of time to think things over. In the moment he raised the knife to sacrifice his son, his eyes were finally opened to the monstrous reality of what he was about to do. Likewise, after years of trying to keep pace with all the economic demands on us, John and I found ourselves exhausted and demoralized. We finally realized that whether we played by the rules or not, we would never get ahead. As Holly Sklar says, the American Dream is really working in reverse, trapping middle class families in a vicious cycle from which they are unable to escape. So instead of pursuing three incomes, we’ve decided to limit our work load. Family and friends sometimes criticize us for this choice and we still feel the economic pressure, but we are now thoroughly convinced that if we gave into the demands of those false gods the quality of our life would actually be diminished. We’d rather have time to garden, and to take walks in the evenings. Instead of eating fast food or frozen dinners every night, we’d rather invest our time and resources in relationships, entertaining friends and family. Instead of day care, we plan to schedule play dates, in which parents and not just children can network with each other. It will certainly be challenging, and our credit score may suffer a bit, but already we’ve noticed an important difference as the focus of our family has shifted: we’ve broken out of the isolated struggle to survive that so many families experience and find ourselves surrounded by a loosely knit community of friends. This feels like a much healthier environment in which to raise our children.God's promise to Abraham

Likewise, its no accident that its only after refusing to sacrifice Isaac that Abraham is finally able to receive the blessing - the inheritance - that God had been promising him all along. (Paul Nuechterlein). It wasn’t enough for Abraham to leave the land he had known. Just as all our strategies to get ahead financially or even our attempts to simplify our lives will prove futile, until we like Abraham free our minds, so that instead of listening to the gods which demand sacrifice, we can hear the generous and compassionate voice which promises abundant life and prosperity for all god’s children.photo-212.jpg

John and I can say that we’ve experienced more of the simple pleasures of life in the last year than in the previous years of our marriage. We’re getting better at seeing through the false promises and focusing on what really matters. We don’t feel as defeated by the economic system as we used to, because we’ve learned from experience that it just can’t deliver all the goods. In the process we hope to discover the positive ways in which God truly blesses us and our children. - Sue Wright


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