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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Satan, Sodom, and Rene Girard (C14O)

If you're looking for something juicy, you came to the wrong place. 

There was so much in the readings Sunday, and I know I don't have time to do any of it justice, but I felt I had to at least put my two cents in. One worthy possibility is just about whether to use the long or short form of readings. If you heard the short form of the gospel Sunday, you wouldn't even have heard the two lines of the gospel that turned my ear. But I'll save the long-short issue for another day.

Let's start here: After that first reading, psalm, and (coincidentally) second reading yesterday, our ears had to be ready for some good news, right? From the end of Isaiah, an oracle of restoration for Israel after return from exile, when Jerusalem will be as fecund as a nursing mother bouncing babies on her lap, and prosperity flowing like a river down her streets. The psalm urged that "all the earth cry out to God with joy" because of God's history as a liberator for Israel. St. Paul closes the letter to the Galatians "in his own hand," refuting again his detractors' insistence that adherence to Mosaic law and practice was required of Christians, against Paul's preaching of the preeminence of the cross. Restoration, liberation, freedom from the constraints of the past in the new way: these set up our hearing of the gospel.

So in the gospel narrative, Jesus sends seventy-two disciples ahead of him into the villages with instructions about announcing the good news, with instructions on how to ask for and receive hospitality from people of good will. Their message is his message: "The kingdom of God is at hand." They receive authority over sickness and demons. They are warned that not everyone will be happy to receive them. To everyone, their message is to be the same: "The kingdom of God is at hand." Just invite, and walk away from the inhospitable. When a Samaritan village rejected them, the twelve had wanted to call down "fire from heaven" on them (as Elijah did with his detractors), and Jesus rebuked them. In his instruction today, he tells the disciples just to shake the dust off and move on. Your offer was made in peace, Jesus is saying, and the reign of God is here in any case. And then, "it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town."


Did you wonder what Jesus in the gospel meant by that? When we think about Sodom and Gomorrah, we think of moral bankruptcy, and I'm pretty sure most of us think about sex.
"Sin City" is the place where anything goes. But that's not the way the Bible understands Sodom and Gomorrah. Take a look at Genesis 19 again. This section is part of Abraham's story, and his hospitality to two strangers has resulted in a promise of a son to him and Sara in their old age. Instead of welcoming the the guests of Abraham's kinsman Lot, who happened to be the same two "angels" who had visited Abraham, they demanded to have sex with them. Sex is not the issue, apparently, since Lot is quick to offer his daughters as a substitute. The breach of hospitality to strangers is the issue.  Ezekiel (16: 49-50) spells it out: “Now this was the sin of Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” In Hebrew writing is redundancy is the style: “detestable things” here refers to “they did not help the poor and needy,” as “haughty” refers back to “arrogant.” 

The awakening to this view of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin ought to help us to see that God’s wrath, which so many say came upon those cities for sexual aberration, was rather visited on them for their abuse of strangers. Listening to the gospel Sunday made that little bell go off in my head. We still are pretty sure that morality is almost entirely about what other people do in their bedrooms. If Catholics and other lectionary/Bible religions in this country would learn to hear the prophetic counter to this, that morality is economic justice, hospitality toward and protection of strangers, and that the practice of true religion is intrinsically tied to these behaviors ("mercy, not sacrifice"), it would be a good step toward public policy reform. There are moral issues for us to deal with in our wallets, workplaces, and borders that require some attention lest it become “more tolerable for Sodom” than for our towns.

So there's one piece of good news: the empire of God is a place of hospitality and invitation, without recrimination on those who refuse it. It's coming anyway. And refusing it will be its own punishment: the "kingdom of this world" will ultimately wreak its violence upon those who choose it. But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself.

Apparently, all of the seventy-two returned safely and elated, joyfully recounting their success over the cosmic enemies of God just as the twelve had done after their missioning in chapter 9, about which we heard over the last couple of weeks. As they recount their successes in the towns, Jesus utters that second strange line that can't help but arrest our ears and imagination: "I have seen Satan fall from the sky like lightning."

Philosopher-anthropologist-theologian Rene Girard catches the meaning of this in his 1999 book (2001 in English) I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Je vois Satan tomber comme l'√©clair). In the peaceful announcement of the reign of God, which is a clear choice against the violent mimesis of the kingdoms "of this world," he sees the end of Satan's rule over the earth. Now, by "this world" I don't mean that the reign of God is not in the world that we know, quite the contrary. In Girard's view, the mimetic violence that has stoked the machinery of civilization since people first came together runs on its own
energy by allowing people to control each other's desire for perceived goods by controlling the outlets for escalating violence through scapegoating. By means of "religion" and political structures, we attach blame to certain people, groups, or nations, and concentrate our rage about ourselves toward them. Our violent urges are transferred from within society to the scapegoat, and by marginalizing or destroying the scapegoats, our need for violence is temporarily satisfied. 

Girard sees the ministry of Jesus as offering a way out to us, first by his exposing the scapegoat mechanism as fraudulent and self-destructive. Faithful to his own calling to a vision of peace and justice, he endures the jealousy and hatred of both temple and civic authority, and eventually becomes the scapegoat in the process Girard describes. But God will have none of it: he raises Jesus to life, thus showing that the "victim" was innocent all along, and that the civilizing forces that killed him were guilty. Unlike the murderers, however, the judgment of God is sown into the world peacefully in the example and teaching of Jesus. Invite. Eat together. Don't try to be the greatest, but serve one another. Put away your sword. Be perfect, and imitate (make the object of your mimesis) God, who makes the rain fall and sun shine on the good and the bad alike. Love your enemies.

This is the meaning of the message the disciples were sent into the towns with. "The reign of God is at hand." Jesus rebuked the twelve who wanted him, like Elijah, to call down fire on their enemies. Even in today's passage, when the disciples rejoice that they are able to cast out demons, Jesus gently admonishes them to rejoice rather that their names are written in the reign of God, and not that they have power over the demons.

This is the new Jerusalem, where prosperity pours over us like a river. This is a new creation, where the adherence to laws and precepts is doesn't bring salvation, but rather salvation is through the cross of Jesus, which exposed the lie of his enemies. The meaning of the cross is that "you were called for freedom (to) serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

The gospel is certainly good news for the scapegoat, and in the morass of civilizing violence, any of us is likely to be put into that sorry place on behalf our angry, hoarding world. If we can learn to desire the good of other persons, rather than what we ourselves want, we can, with Christ, begin living here, in this world, in the reign of God. For that, "let all the earth cry out to God with joy."