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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Healing and equality in the dominion of God — 1

There are some extraordinary claims made in the readings Sunday.  Hearing them in a couple of different translations made them even more radiant than I expected.
God did not make death,

nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.

For he fashioned all things that they might have being;

and the creatures of the world are wholesome,

and there is not a destructive drug among them

nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,

for justice is undying.

For God formed man to be imperishable;

the image of his own nature he made him.

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,

and they who belong to his company experience it.

The "envy of the devil" is an interesting anthropomorphism; I wonder whether it might be just as valid to hear, "the envy that is diabolical," in the Girardian sense, that kind of envy or desire for what the other has which escalates and leads to the violence that Girard describes as the scapegoat mechanism. Presented with life and goodness, in other words, we aren't satisfied with the life and goodness God has given us; we require the goodness which God has given to the neighbor, and we are eventually willing to kill to get it. What takes the wind out of our violence is religion, which substitutes ritualized violence, sacrifice, for the violence which we would do to one another. Ultimately, the undoing of sacrifice is the self-gift of Jesus, by which humanity, in sacrificing him, discovers that an innocent victim has been killed, and that this innocent victim was in fact the Son of God. Having exposed the scapegoating mechanism for the counterfeit of peace that it is, blood sacrifice has thus been ended forever in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. 

In the second reading, Paul is writing to the Corinthians, exhorting them to generosity in his collection for the impoverished and persecuted Christian church in Jerusalem. What I find striking is the connection Paul makes between generosity (charity) and equality, and both in the context of exodus freedom. As I wrote the word "charity" in the preceding sentence, it struck me that its Latin root, caritas, is derived from the Greek noun charis which appears several times in 2 Corinthians, and is translated various as "gift," "grace," and "gracious act/work/gift" as well as "favor." Further, the word is the basis of the word eucharistia or thanksgiving, a connection which Paul exploits in his writing to show that they are aspects of a single reality.

But the thing that strikes me is the argument Paul is making:

  1. You excel in so much, excel in this charis (the collection) also.

  2. Jesus was rich, but made himself poor to make you rich. (kenosis)

  3. I'm not asking you to make yourself poor, but that your abundance might supply their need as a matter of equality.

  4. Because sometime your need may be supplied by their abundance.

  5.  This is God's idea, because it is written (in the Torah), "Whoever had much did not have more; and whoever had little did not have less."

Now, to the casual listener, that last line might just get lost. Our heads are still spinning from the proto-Marxist sound of what went before, which was part of the economic revolution called for in Das Kapital: "From each according to his capacity; to each according to his need." And here, those very words are part of the Second Letter to the Corinthians! Furthermore, Paul seals his argument with a quotation from Exodus, from the very passage that describes the way manna was collected in the desert by the chosen people. In other words, everything we have is a gift from God, like manna. And as such, it belongs to all of us, and there ought to be a kind of equality, and that equality is tied to our freedom and deliverance by God from human bondage. Our being a people hinges on our attempt to do what we have been commanded to do with the manna, and what God makes (miraculously) happen: when the manna is gathered, no one who gathered more had too much, no one who gathered less had too little. 

God's charis underlies both of those readings. God made the world for life, and whatever is of death has nothing to do with God. Our clinging to what we have, our need to control the future by stockpiling money and assets when others have nothing, is an mark of our fear of death, of our terror that things will run out and we will die. But Wisdom says otherwise: God formed us to be imperishable. There can be nothing of death in the world because "justice is undying," and God's justice suffuses the photons, quarks and muons of this and every world in a way that cannot be fissioned by human manipulation. 

Recently, I read James Alison's book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998). Alison, a disciple and proponent of René Girard's mimetic theory, goes so far as to say that God has nothing to do with death, and that in the final analysis, death is something that needs to be forgiven. I don't even pretend to understand the thought process that gets him to that point, but Alison is convinced that the resurrection proves that God is in rivalry with nothing and no one. Nothing is even capable of being in rivalry with God. See what you think of this brief excerpt from chapter four, "The Resurrection and Original Sin," which I have copied courtesy of a Girardian lectionary website:

1. ...So, we have a first step in the recasting of God by the demonstration of the impossibility of perceiving God within the frame of reference structured by death. This, if you like, is a step made by the 'fact' of the resurrection: that, in the midst of history, this man who was dead is now alive.

2. ...whatever death is, God has nothing to do with it. That is to say, it becomes apparent not only that death is simply present as something which just is, but, exactly because of the resurrection of Jesus, it becomes present as something which need not be.

3. The second step shows that death is not merely something which has nothing to do with God, and which need not be, but that as a human reality, it is opposed to God. It is not only that our representation of God is inaccurate, needing refocusing, but our representation of God is actively contrary to the understanding of God which he wishes to make known. That is to say that the death of this man Jesus showed that death is not merely a biological reality, but is also a sinful reality. To put it in another way: it is not just that death is a human reality and not a divine one, but as a human reality it is a sinful reality. God, in raising Jesus was not merely showing that death has no power over him, but also revealing that the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death. In human reality, death and sin are intertwined: the necessity of human death is itself a necessity born of sin. In us, death is not merely a passive reality, but an active one; not something we merely receive, but one we deal out.

4. However, God did not raise Jesus from the dead merely to demonstrate his own deathless-ness, or to rescue Jesus from the middle of the human reality of death as a bodyguard may rescue a beleaguered pop star from the midst of a pressing crowd of fans, to get her away from it all as quickly as possible. The third step in the recasting of God and the recasting of sin is that God raised up this man who had been killed in this way for us. The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. (pp. 116-118)

OK, this is getting kind of long, so I'm going to save what I was thinking about Sunday's gospel for later, or tomorrow, or soon. At any rate, for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, there is a lot to hear in the readings. And the gospel is really the best of all...