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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Imitating Christ: Messiahship for Beginners (B6O)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

I’m an appreciative amateur student of the philosophy of René Girard, the French anthropologist whose theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism really enlightened my understanding of “salvation” after half a century of Catholic education. Studying the culture, religion, and literature of world civilizations, Girard postulates that human beings learn by mimesis, no surprise; but also that norms of behavior in society, both religious and civil, are formed around mimetic desire, that is to say, our desire (some might say “need”) to have what the other person has. We want to have the good that we perceive others to have, and will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. This mimetic rivalry will, when untempered by law, fear, or religion, escalate into violence, as groups begin to want what other groups have, and so on. Girard theorizes that the “scapegoat mechanism,” which takes many forms both in civil justice and religious ritual, is meant to puncture the balloon of the escalating violence of mimetic desire by focusing the rage of the group upon an individual who is murdered (or cast out in primitive societies, the equivalent of murder). By isolating an individual or individuals as the “evildoers,” the society’s violence is focused upon them thus relieving the social structures of the tension of violence. A Catholic, Girard also sees the death of Jesus as the exposure of the diabolic origins of the scapegoat mechanism, because the victim is revealed to be innocent by resurrection from the dead by God, thus putting the whole “civilizing” process of violence to the lie. 

This is a massive oversimplification of a very convincing argument about the connections between civilization, religion, and violence. Much other work has been done in this field by people like Gil Baillie and James Alison. Alison has expanded the repercussions for Christianity of Girard’s work, seeing in the teaching of the Gospel consequences for Christian living. If humans are prone to mimetic desire, then we need someone to imitate who is not grasping, who is not dependent on possession for self-definition. So if God is love, is agape and kenosis, if God’s nature is to give and not to grasp, then God is the perfect object of human mimesis. Christ, who is in faith the eikon or image of the invisible God, is the one human being truly worthy of mimesis. The gospel teaching that God makes the rain fall and sun shine upon the good and bad alike is an invitation to be like God, to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Keeping Christ as the Christ of the gospels and not the Christ of Constantine, who is judge, king, and pantocrator of the universe, is thus an important corrective for Christians. What we’ve tended to do over the centuries is mistake the emperor for Christ. We’ve mistaken the parabolic Christ, say, in the parable of sheep and goats, for the real Jesus who told the story. The “son of man” or “servant of God” who is the messiah was no more an emperor than you or I, assuming you’re reading this and are not an emperor. I always will remember theologian David Power giving a talk at a conference and telling us that when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” we don’t mean that Jesus is a lord like the lords of earth (“my kingdom is not like those of this world”), but that lordship is redefined by who Jesus is, that is, by servanthood and kenotic love.

All of which brings us to Mark’s gospel and the readings this week. Jesus gathers around himself disciples, that is just a religion-speak word for “learners” or “students.” Disciples are with a “master” to learn a life-style, a way of perceiving and responding to reality. As Mark’s Jesus makes his journey, the disciples are exposed to a man of healing, exorcism, openness, who keeps insisting that their envy for privilege and status needs to be changed to a desire to serve one another. It’s no less a change than a complete reversal of worldview: the last shall be first, and the first last. Modern scripture scholars like Crossan and Borg challenge us to understand the reign of God as preached by Jesus as a clear and unequivocal alternative to the reign of Caesar Augustus, who was, remember, god! Look at any Roman coin or inscription of the era. It is not so much a matter of Christians learning to live in Caesar’s world: it was a matter of rediscovering whose world this really is, and realigning our allegiance, which requires a 180° turn. Hence, the call to metanoia, a complete “change of mind.” “Repent (turn around and walk the other way!) and believe (put your heart into) the gospel (this announcement of a different emperor)!”

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, both this week and last, has good Girardian advice in its tone, advice that we would like to say is bad psychology, bad like the gospel injunction to “be perfect.” Paul says to try to “please everyone,” even as he himself has made himself “all things to everybody” in order that a few at least might be saved. I see this as meaning something like this, which I’ve made my motto and try to repeat at every workshop I give: If Christ did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, that is, if being totally right, and powerful, and “almighty” isn’t something to hold onto, then exactly what is it about us that makes us want to be right all the time? If God didn’t cling to true godliness, then what about our little claim to “correctness,” or being right, or whatever it is we hold onto that makes us out to be better than the next guy? Why is it we can’t start thinking as a “we” instead of a “me and my own”?
 I've come to see St. Paul as the conversion story par excellence. Before and after his conversion, he was an apostle, but his catechetical style changed radically. After meeting Christ, he put away the sword, and relied on persuasion and example to change minds. He stopped using the catechetical method of Caesar, and became a servant of Christ. He changed gods, in a sense, and began to imitate the new one. "Be imitators of me," he says, "as I am of Christ." He grasps Girardian theory in the middle of the first century, and I'm still struggling with it two millennia later!

At St. Anne’s last weekend, we celebrated the Rite of Sending to Election for our catechumens, combined with the Rite of Sending to the Call to Continued Conversion for our candidates. Today they go to the cathedral for the rites with the bishop. These are people who are trying to imitate Christ by following the Catholic way. They’re imitators of us. No pressure or anything, but whom are we following? I think that’s what Lent is for, for rediscovering our real identity, our real identity, as a people made by God for God’s self, like God, living in agape for one another. We’re not really all that close to that, no matter what we might think in our more self-congratulatory moments. And yet, we gather every week to hear the gospel again, and to keep the story alive of the one who said, “be perfect” and “love your enemies,” two pieces of advice clearly contrary to the reign of Caesar Augustus and every Caesar, czar, premier, prime minister, and president since then.

We may not be going in the right direction, but at least the GPS is on. This week, and in a more intense way starting on Ash Wednesday, it will be beeping out like a relentless backseat driver: “Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn.”

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this week,
Gathering: I Have Loved You Michael Joncas
Psalm 32: I Turn to You Rory Cooney

Preparation Rite: To You Who Bow Rory Cooney
Communion: Healer of our Every Ill 
Marty Haugen
Recessional: Lift Up Your Hearts Roc O’Connor

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
 do everything for the glory of God.
 Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or 
the church of God,
 just as I try to please everyone in every way,
 not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
 that they may be saved.
 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

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