To The Heart of the Christian Faith

Possessed by the Demon of Social Shame and Guilt

Bob was called to the principal’s office. Together with other students he took part in a display of troublesome behavior while being presented a movie in the school’s theater. He knew that the principal would punish him severely if the principal would find out that he had damaged some of the seats together with his friends. But Bob was clever in presenting his story. He could convince the principal that he and his classmates suffered from the bad influence of one student in particular: Oedipus. Oedipus, a rich, arrogant and bothersome boy eventually took the biggest chunk of the blame, although he had only yelled a bit together with the others. He certainly hadn’t damaged anything. So in fact he was a scapegoat, as he was wrongfully accused for being the worst perpetrator. But of course Oedipus bore his punishment with pride: he wouldn’t want to be called a detector by his friends. He’d rather be “the hero” who “took it like a man” than be known as a “coward” – that would be too shameful.

Oedipus stabs out his eyesIn short, what happens in this case is that Bob’s protection of his social profile and self-image leads to the scapegoating of Oedipus. And Oedipus, desiring to protect his social prestige as well, is willing to sacrifice himself for the group.

So the supposed “hetero-aggression” of the principal towards Bob leads to Bob’s “auto-aggression”: Bob cannot be honest about himself because he is too afraid of what will happen to him. Furthermore, because he is ashamed in front of his principal, Bob develops a kind of shamelessness towards his friend Oedipus. Backed-up by his friends, Bob is able to harm the reputation of Oedipus even more. Oedipus, in turn, on experiencing this “hetero-aggression” by his friends, is willing to perform a sort of “auto-aggression”. His “self-sacrifice” thus is an imitation of his sacrifice by the group of friends. Oedipus looks at himself through the eyes of the group who betrays him, and instead of standing up for himself he becomes ashamed of himself, eventually betraying himself in favor of a “social idol” that should gain him “respect”.

cool laughing stockThe story continues… Bob and his friends always looked at Oedipus as “the crazy one”, but also “the audacious one” and “the one who was way too cool to study for school”. And Oedipus was more than willing to meet the expectations of his class-mates, acting like the funny guy, doing all sorts of crazy things – in class, on the playground, with his locker, etc. After all, Oedipus truly was “different”, wasn’t he?

Well, that’s what all of them thought until they met Mahatma. Mahatma was an exchange student from India. He came from a poor family, but he studied very hard and had earned a scholarship to come to the States. Mahatma could have easily become the new laughing stock, but he simply was too fascinating, funny and caring to not be taken seriously one way or the other. Everybody ended up listening to what he, who appeared to be indeed very “different” at first glance, had to say.

Mahatma noticed how Bob, Oedipus and their friends all showed the tendency to cultivate the idea that “it is not cool to work hard for school”. Mahatma was quite sure that some of them studied hard, but it was like they were intercepting any possible disappointment and shame about themselves. No one likes to acknowledge that one studied hard when the grades are bad eventually – for it could be interpreted as a lack of intelligence or talent for a particular subject. Moreover, Mahatma noticed, whenever someone did acknowledge that he worked hard he was immediately somewhat excluded as a laughing stock. “Well,” Mahatma said, “I don’t understand why studying hard for school should be anything to be ashamed of. Even if it turns out that you are not performing too well for one particular subject, it still allows you to discover what your true talents are. And if you can be honest about yourself and realize that you are not that different from the hard working ‘nerd’ you’re making fun of, you can be more loving towards others – allowing them to be honest about themselves as well.”

How about that? Mahatma is doing nothing else than imitating the Christ of the Gospels. Jesus of Nazareth, the one who is called the Christ, reminds people of who they really are: not at all that different from the people they look down on. That’s why he says, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Jesus wants to replace the love for our untruthful self-image and the adherence to our “reputation” with the love for ourselves and others. We can be like the hard working student who feels ashamed of himself, even guilty of studying hard, and indeed develop the tendency to publicly and hypocritically loath or exclude other hard working students. On the other hand, if we no longer feel ashamed of ourselves, we can start feeling ashamed of the hurt we brought to others because we were too preoccupied with our social profile. That is what happens to Peter: after denying Jesus when the latter is imprisoned, Peter eventually feels ashamed because of the hurt he brought to his friend.

To get back to the story of Bob, Oedipus and Mahatma… Mahatma made something similar happen to his new friends from the States. He made Bob and the others see that they were not at all that different from Oedipus, and that they were all “addicted” to the same negative attitude towards “studying hard for school”. It was an attitude which possessed them like a demon. Mahatma was able to make them look at themselves through the eyes of the ones who were always mocked for being “nerds”. Confronted with the “cool nerd” that Mahatma was, those nerds turned out to be not that “uncool”, “boring” or “hypocritical” after all. Besides, from the point of view of the nerds Bob and his friends were the often uncool and boring hypocrites!

Jesus and Demoniac (Peter Howson)All of this dawned on Bob, Oedipus and their friends. Mahatma was THE nerd who enabled them to be honest about themselves. He could have easily condemned them for what they did to other nerds and other excluded people, but instead he forgave them before they even fully realized how they had hurt themselves and others because of their addiction to a “social idol”. What Mahatma did to them was confronting and liberating at the same time. The truth about how they had lived their lives hurt at first, but set them free as well. It made them independent of the shame others would try to transfer on them, and at the same time allowed them to take sides with and love the oppressed and vulnerable.

So Bob, Oedipus and the others became Mahatmas in their own way, imitating the love he gave them, and trying to reconcile people with each other. Their contagious work of creating a realm of forgiveness allowed people to acknowledge what they had done to others. It allowed people to no longer be ashamed of themselves in favor of a “social idol”. On the contrary, it allowed people to be ashamed and remorseful without being crushed under guilt, and to newly love the ones they had hurt. And finally, it allowed people to free themselves from the traumas they had suffered themselves. As more people experienced the forgiving love that enabled them to accept themselves, those people no longer felt the need to defend a certain self-image and became more capable (though not totally) of living lives without excluding or judging others.

Salvation by a Contamination with Divine Grace:

“Father, Son, Holy Spirit”

We are truly “godlike”

As hinted at earlier, the “Spirit” that “contaminated” the group of Bob and his friends, and that was created by the self-confident “Son” of India Mahatma (who is indeed carried by a “Fatherly” or “Motherly” Love that allows him to love himself in spite of possible social exclusion), was also the Spirit that contaminated the followers of Jesus. It was the “forgiving nerd” Mahatma – a forgiving “other” – that allowed Bob and his friends to “come to themselves” and “change”: acknowledging their “addictions”, they could free themselves and discover their own talents, paradoxically becoming like the “forgiving nerd” themselves in loving and reconciling people.

The New Testament writers believe that what Mahatma did for his new classmates, Jesus did for the whole of humanity. Jesus is the one who calls for the end of the sacrifice of every possible “Oedipus” by running the risk of being sacrificed himself. He is the ultimate “Other”, the “Mahatma par excellence” who, forgiving, enables us to be honest about ourselves. This makes possible the reconciliation and salvation of humanity as a whole, as there would be no need for a final “One Big Human Oedipus” (one big common enemy or sacrificed victim) to accomplish this. Resurrected, The Forgiving Crucified Jesus who does not simply avenge all the other “excluded” or “sacrificed” allows his disciples and all the rest of us to “do justice” to the ones we hurt, and to imitate him by forgiving those who hurt us – creating the possibility that they might do justice to us as well.

the weak can never forgive (Mahatma Gandhi)Jesus kills every “social idol”, meaning that he is guided by a Love which “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” He allows us to see ourselves through the loving eyes of “the One who cannot be reduced to our man-made world.” As Mahatma allows Bob and his friends to look at themselves through the eyes of a “loving nerd” who does not “crush them under guilt” (that would lead to the temptation to brush off the blame on a scapegoat again), Jesus allows us to look at ourselves through the eyes of a “Loving God” who “believes in us.” Like Mahatma allowed Bob and his friends to discover they were somewhat “nerds” themselves, Jesus allows us to discover we are truly “godlike”. The forgiveness of Jesus paradoxically “re-creates” and “changes” us by bringing us to our”selves”.

Of course, in this broken world we never fully realize our self-acceptance and the acceptance of others – the experience of God as Love (i.e. the experience of God at a human level) –, but we can follow the example of Christ the best we can (as far as it is possible for each of us): forgiving each other time and again, “seventy times seven”. For indeed, realistically speaking, none of us is perfect. So contrary to the famous line of one popular movie from 1970 (Love Story), “love means having to say you’re sorry…” It means being forgiven, “as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

The Prodigal Son (Rembrandt c1669)

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