Over the past week, since the terrible bombings in France and Lebanon, the reprisals and political repercussions for Syrian refugees, there have been a lot of tweets, memes, and other posts about prayer flying around. How we should pray for this and pray for that, as though things were so desperate that only God can extricate us from the deadly rhythm of violence and counter-violence into which we find ourselves plunged? It's a complicated mess; sometimes it feels like rather than make the hard decision to actually follow the gospel, knowing full well that to do so is to put the good of the other ahead of our own life, we throw it up to heaven and, in doing so, let the forces that truly frighten us carry the day. But what made me think I wanted to write about this isn't any kind of frustration with that process; I mean, it's hard to organize a political response to huge problems when religious allies are so scattered and fellow Christians are, let's face it, widely divided on what a good resolution of the problem may be. We remember that our Christian nation denied entry of Jews requesting asylum before the second world war, and interned innocent American citizens during that conflict as well. Our ambivalence about just who the gospel's "little ones" might be is part of a national and religious heritage that includes but predates slavery and the displacement and mass murder of First Nation peoples on three continents.
One question that came up among the many good questions I've seen people asking these days is, "What good does prayer do? When people on both sides of an issue are praying for opposite outcomes of the same issue, how does God decide who wins? Does praying 'change God's mind,' or is it just a way of transferring responsibility for my life to another polarity and achieving some psychic distance from the horror I'm willing to inflict on other people?"
I don't have any answer to those questions, really, but I think I have stumbled upon another way of looking at prayer that offers some insight, and of course it comes with the anthropological starting point that characterizes the work of Rene Girard. In my parish, we're nearing the end of part 3 of 4 in our study and reflection with James Alison in his systematic Girardian approach to Christianity in Jesus, the Forgiving Victim. As it turns out, I've been reading and re-reading the chapter on what prayer means in his radical view of the faith, and I thought that as long as I'm thinking about it, I'd try to share my interiorization of what he has to say with you, both as an exercise for me and perhaps as a partial response to all the questions about prayer that are going on around the world.
We like to think of ourselves as individuals who are unique and distinguishable from others, but the reality is that everything that we are, starting with our existence, is given to us by the "social other," that is, everything which exists (apart from God) that is not me. We are beings who see and imitate. Our ability to speak, walk, make faces, eat, everything we do is a process into which we're inducted by others. In Alison's words (this may be a quote from Girard himself), we "desire according to the desire of the other." In other words, we learn what to want, what is good and bad, by imitating others. We're very good at it; better, in fact, than any of our simian cousins. We receive our "self" from the other. If we lose our memory, for instance, the only way we can have access to it is by someone else remembering for us, and reminding us. We truly are part of an organism that perpetuates itself by imitation.
Where this gets to be problem, of course, is when we start desiring the same things. This gets into the heart of the Girardian hypothesis about violence and mimesis, and the origins of civilization, both political and religious, in controlling the murderous process by which equilibrium is achieved when mimetic desire reaches critical mass in a group. At that point, he says, a process which has come to be called the "scapegoat mechanism" kicks in, whereby the group achieves unanimity in blaming someone, generally an outsider or a person of importance within the group, laying the burden of blame on that individual or group, and then killing or ostracizing that person.
The religious question is, is there another "other" besides the social other, that is, besides what we're told to desire and imitate by civilization, who can extricate us from the patterns of desire and imitation that we absorb and participate in handing on? Most gods (clearly, including counterfeits of the God of Moses and Jesus) are just projections of the fears and hatred of the Social Other, the group that formed us in the first place. Prayer and sacrifice to these gods is really just a way of ritualizing the scapegoat mechanism, in a sense, it's praying to an extension of ourselves, a deification of the values of the group we belong to. But the "God who is not like the other gods," the One God of the Jews and of Jesus, approaches us from beyond (and yet, within) the social other as "another Other" who is full of desire for us, and who invites us to share in the universal desire for good that belongs to God alone. It is the approach of this God in scripture, in the self-revelation to a people, that first revealed to us the possibility of the innocence of the victim, as we first hear in the Servant Songs of Isaiah. It is the narrative of Christ that makes clear in human history an alternate way of being human, of escaping forever the cycle of violence and sacrifice that shapes our race, by revealing that not only is the victim of our violence just like ourselves, but that the process is a lie, the victim is innocent, and that furthermore, God's own self has taken the victim's place and returned with words of love on his lips. We don't have to do that any more. God doesn't want victims and sacrifice. God wants a family that cares for every other person. No victims, no outsiders.
So, what is prayer in the context of this view of faith, wherein we pray not to a projection of our own violence and division but to a God who is not like those other gods, a God who, rather than demanding our approach by sacrifice, is approaching us, telling us that there's nothing to be afraid of because God has already been into the breach and is unaffected by death? What does Jesus do when he prays? What does he say about praying?
When Jesus talks about praying, he says, "Don't pray like the hypocrites." Don't receive your self, don't desire and imitate, based on what others think of you. Jesus, a human being like us, knows well how we receive who we are and what we want from one another, and he knows that what we want is almost inherently self-serving. The problem is that we might get what we desire from others, the flattery, the adulation, and "already have your reward," receive what we want, but not what we ask for. Jesus tells us to go to your "inner room" (your "larder," says Alison, not bedroom; the larder in the Middle Eastern home is a windowless, enclosed room, where there's no outside view). There, "your Father who sees in secret" will hear your prayer. We are to receive our self, who we really are, by hearing and imitating the Other Other, the One who loves fearlessly and without need or desire to reciprocation. Jesus gets away from the crowds after healings and miracles for the same reason: their desire for themselves and for him, whether to make him king or kill him, cannot be allowed to shape his self-image; he retreats to a place where he can listen for the voice of the One who calls him "my beloved," the One whose love is always approaching him, and from whom he derives his strength to be-for-others. In his prayer, he is shaped by the approaching presence of the One who loves him unconditionally.
We don't know how to pray, St. Paul says in Romans. But the Spirit cries out for us, "Abba!" The Spirit leads us to the Father, so that we begin to understand in our prayer our relationship to one another. Those two relationships are inseparable, as Jesus taught: loving God is "like" loving our neighbor. As the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation puts it, "You gave him up to death so that we might turn again to you and find our way to one another." Christian prayer leads us toward one another, whether the other is aware of God's approach or not, because God comes toward us from within the social other, and yet beyond it. It is exactly as Pope Francis expressed in a speech last year, "First you pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That is how prayer works." By helping us break the cycle of desire and imitation that once had us being shaped by what the gospels call "the world," that is, the violent and grasping civilization all around us, and then reshaping our desire, the other Other, the "God who is not like the other gods," has entered the place of rejection, shame, and death and come back from the dead with only words of love and desire for us.
So back to the original question, in the middle of all this violence, how does prayer work? My suspicion is that as we learn to pray by being awakened by the gospel to a God who is approaching us and every other person who is, or was, or will be with words of love that urge us from deep within to stop blaming the stranger, the outsider, the rich, the poor, the king, anyone, and to stop allowing the patterns of violence and exclusion that run civilization from shaping our choices. That God calls to us from the margins of history through the scriptures to be aware of our destructive behavior and misuse of religion to be a swamp of legalism and judgment rather than the liberating life of love-enabled service that it was meant to be. Prayer leads us toward the other Other, that is, Abba, and what Jesus called the "kingdom of God," where death has no power and the influence of violent civilization has ended. It introduces us to a new world wherein the Spirit prays for us, drawing us together in this world, on behalf of victims everywhere. When we find ourselves taking the place of the victims, whoever they are, wherever they are, we're praying rightly. When we find ourselves praying for protection from victims, to keep things the way they are while we enjoy the life we deny to others, our prayer is being guided by gods who are projections of our worst self. Idols.
As I said at the outset, this is probably a vain attempt to articulate what I'm only beginning to take to heart myself. But it is helping me, anyway, to know that God is approaching us, that victimization of innocents has been exposed as a lie, and that, yes, I am Syria, I am the Mexican immigrant, I am Paris, #blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter. The process of shedding deeply-held American exceptionalism and Catholic exceptionalism and white exceptionalism and straight, white, wealth-attuned exceptionalism that I have received from the "social other" and receiving a new self from the loving, liberating Other other is not difficult only for me. I can read its difficulty in every post I read on Facebook, every story on CNN, every homily I hear on Sunday. Our blood and our boundaries are thicker than baptismal water. I just know that I want to become the one who welcomes, whatever the cost, and not the one who is unmoved by and hostile to the victims of our skewed desire. That's where I find myself at the end of this year of grace, just a few days before the feast of Christ the King, on which we hear the story of one terrible day when it seemed like civilization won, and power, sacrifice, and violence had their day. But Christ lives, and out of the garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem the opportunity for a new way of being human has emerged.
"Well, that was a real mess," Jesus said on the road to Emmaus. "What do you say we start a new game?"