Science or the Resurrection to Beauty

  • THE SPIRITUALITY OF A SCIENTIFIC ATTITUDE

Spirituality or a spiritual attitude basically consists of an interest in reality because of reality itself. It means that you do not reduce reality to a particular need or something that is useful (and, of course, what human beings need is not only defined by nature; we also mimetically learned to desire things beyond merely biological needs – nurture has its way as well in human life). It also means that the question of something’s or someone’s worth is not dependent on the question of usefulness. For instance, in a spiritual sense it makes no sense to ask about a newborn baby what he or she can be used for.

Nowadays we often seem brainwashed to approach reality from a utilitarian or even purely economic point of view. But this means that other aspects of reality and a more complete understanding of it remain in the dark. Therefore, St. John of the Cross writes:

St John of the Cross quote on spiritual understandingIf you purify your soul of attachment to and desire for things, you will understand them spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.

Indeed, if a student no longer approaches a poem merely because of a possible test about it and because of a desire to get good grades, the student can become interested in the poem because of the poem itself – and enjoy its beauty. Indeed, if a physicist does not approach nature from the question how it can be made of use for the survival of the human species (what physicists rarely do, anyway), the physicist may approach the truth of nature more fully – and enjoy its poetry.

carrot and stick methodTruth, in whatever sense, does not primarily have to be useful. Truth has to be true. Nowadays, all too often in science too, research is legitimized by utilitarian concerns. But this is not what drives scientists who are involved in a quest for truth. The following clip may illustrate this. It is about assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo who surprises Professor Andrei Linde with evidence that supports cosmic inflation theory. The discovery, made by Kuo and his colleagues at the BICEP2 experiment, represents the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.” Note that possible recognition by organizations like the Nobel Prize Committee is a consequence of what these scientists do, it is not a goal that serves as the source of their passion and vocation as “truth seekers” (they are not enslaved donkeys who need that kind of carrot to move). Click to watch:

 

  • SPIRITUALITY IN AMERICAN BEAUTY (SAM MENDES, 1999)

The core of the spiritual attitude is portrayed magnificently in American Beauty (the 1999 Sam Mendes picture that would eventually win 5 Academy Awards out of 8 nominations). Lester Burnham, the main character (played by Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey), “passes from death to life” as he awakens to a fuller awareness of reality. In the beginning of the film Lester is entangled in the preoccupations of a society that focuses on appearances. Clearly he has gradually learned to approach other people and things from the question whether or not they are useful in his pursuit of happiness. Instead of giving him a fulfilled life, this utilitarian approach has left him empty and alienated from himself and others. “In a way, I am dead already,” he says.

Playboy Bunny Carrot CartoonThroughout the film, Lester becomes obsessed with the young “American Beauty” Angela, a friend of his daughter Jane. He mainly fantasizes about her as the ultimate fulfillment of his sexual desires. Angela knows about this male gaze all too well, and she presents herself accordingly in order to gain some sort of (questionable) recognition. Maybe she could have become a playboy bunny in the mansion of the late Hugh Hefner (1926-2017), who knows?

Angela appears to be a sexually very experienced girl. The reality, however, is that she is still a virgin. Lester awakens to this reality when he is on the verge of having sex with her. “This is my first time,” she tells him. This statement literally brings Lester to his senses. After that, he no longer approaches Angela from his particular needs, but he opens up to the more complete reality of the vulnerable angel that she is. In short, Lester becomes interested in Angela because of Angela herself, and not because of the satisfaction of his desires. For the first time he really looks at her more closely. He learns to love the truth and beauty of who she is, and is no longer blinded by who she appears to be. He converts to Love.

Lester has rediscovered a truly spiritual perspective on life, a perspective that is exemplified throughout the film by the character of Ricky, the son of the family next door. Ricky is able to contemplate reality because of reality itself and discovers beauty in all things. He is even moved by a bag, dancing in the wind. As he watches the film he made of it together with Jane, he says:

Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed? It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just… dancing with me… like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid… ever. Video is a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.

Click to watch this scene:

These words of Ricky are repeated at the end of the film by Lester, whose voice over is actually the voice over of a dead man, a murdered man. By quoting the words of Ricky, Lester shows that he has truly become alive to reality as a whole. The paradox, of course, is that in the beginning of the film Lester is physically alive but dead spiritually (remember him saying, “In a way, I am dead already.”). At the end of the film he is dead physically but resurrected to a spiritually fulfilled life.

Biblically speaking, Lester went from being like Cain to being like Abel (see Genesis 4). Apparently, Cain’s goal in life is the recognition of others. He desires the affirmation of a certain idea of himself, and thus does not love himself nor others (he is not interested in others because of themselves, but because of his desire for recognition). Abel, on the other hand, approaches others because of a love for those others themselves. He presents a gift to make someone happy, not to gain some sort of status or prestige. Of course, the possible consequence of love is recognition. Cain, in contrast, presents a gift to get attention. That’s why he becomes jealous of his brother Abel when he sees that Abel’s gift is noticed and his is not. If Cain’s goal would have been to love the other, he would have been happy to see the other happy, even if it wasn’t with his gift. Cain’s deeds, however, clearly are not inspired by love. That’s why he becomes mad and that’s why he is unable to feel gratitude for the attention he does receive when the other he presented his gift to asks him, “Why are you so mad?” Dead to himself, Cain is dead to others as well. Eventually, Abel is also physically murdered by him. Indeed, if you’re associated with others who become obstacles to a desirable social image, you run the risk of being banned, eliminated or killed. Concerned with socially acceptable images, people tend to be in a constant state of transiency (“eternal life does not reside” in their identity, as they constantly have to change it to what’s popular), which, like Cain, leads them to hate themselves and others. In the New Testament, the first letter of John summarizes all of these insights (1 John 3: 11-15):

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

In American Beauty, Lester becomes one of those victims of people who want to protect their self-image. However, instead of mimetically responding to the lack of love and the evil that he had to endure by seeking revenge, he focuses on the love he did receive. That’s why he does not stay mad. That’s why he is eventually fulfilled with gratitude. Filled with grace, he becomes merciful – a forgiving victim (see James Alison’s theology). These are his final words:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… You will someday.

Click to watch more scenes and their analysis:

 

CLICK HERE TO SEE SCAPEGOATING IN AMERICAN BEAUTY

In Memoriam Michaël Ghijs

gabriel-garridoSaturday, February 23, 2008. Gabriel Garrido, a renowned conductor of Latin American baroque music, is about to begin an evening concert at Cité de la Musique, Paris. His equally famous Ensemble Elyma is ready, together with eleven members of the Belgian boy and men choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. All of a sudden, maestro Garrido turns around and addresses the audience:

“We are saddened to inform you that two days ago, on Thursday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs, the widely acclaimed conductor of the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino from Aalst, Belgium, passed away. We would like to dedicate this concert to his memory.”

Then he turns again and looks us straight in the eyes. We, the members of the Cantate Domino choir, all have a lump in the throat. We all try to hold back our tears. Finally, maestro Garrido raises his hands and off we go to sing Cantate Domino’s first concert after the death of its founder. We all know things will never be the same again (footage from the concert):

Only 5 months before, on October 8, 2007, on his 74th birthday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still remember it vividly, because we used to celebrate our birthdays together (mine is on October 6).

Michaël Ghijs conducts his choir one last time during Mass on Sunday, February 3, 2008, in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels. He is literally deathly sick at the time, no longer able to accompany his boys during the entrance procession, but still he manages to direct them for the remainder of the Mass. It is but one example of his tremendous willpower and passion. Of course, these personality traits make him stubborn at times. For instance, during a concert tour in Asia he asks me wether or not to include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for an afternoon programme. My answer is not to include it, because I have the impression that the young trebles don’t seem sure about themselves. From his reaction I immediately know I shouldn’t have said that. He starts rehearsal with the Choral Fantasy, saying that the sopranos will show everyone who doubts them what they are capable of. Eventually, he shows me wrong. He is, as always, proud of the achievements of his singers. It is no coincidence that many former members of Cantate Domino have a career in music.

philippe-herrewegheMichaël Ghijs is proud of and grateful for the hard work and successes of the people he works with, yet he is not driven by pride. Although he can be stubborn, he can also say that he is sorry and admit to making mistakes. It is characteristic of the way he leads the choir. Conflicts are possible, meaning that Michaël Ghijs is not just a commander-in-chief who expects blind obedience. On the other hand, great discipline is needed and established because he wants to perform the often difficult music the best he can. Not because he wants to make a career or because he chases some kind of success, but simply because he loves the (mostly religious) music and the message it contains. His love of music itself and his artistic motivations became clear, for instance, when he compared different recordings of the same work. I remember very vividly, during my first year in the choir, that he really disliked a recording of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. It’s the recording some of my friends and I had bought. He thought the overall interpretation didn’t serve the music nor the message. Also, after concerts, he could be very dissatisfied with our performance even when the crowd had given us a standing ovation.

I guess this is difficult to understand for people who are primarily driven by a desire to make a career and/or to become rich. True, eventually the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino works with famous conductors like Colin Davis, Laszlo Heltay, Ronald Zollman, Philippe Herreweghe, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Cao, Claudio Abbado, Alexander Rahbari, Johan Duijck, Rudolf Werthen and Dirk Brossé; with musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy, José van Dam and even Toots Thielemans; with ensembles like Capilla Flamenca and the above mentioned Ensemble Elyma – listen to an excerpt from the collaboration on the CD Corpus Christi à Cusco (K617, 2006):

The choir even participates in the movies Daens and In BrugesNothing of the choir’s impressive resume, however, has ever been a goal. It’s just been a consequence of passion and hard work (the trebles alone practice up to 15 hours a week!). Moreover, Cantate Domino has never been a merely artistic project.

jose-van-damtoots-thielemans

in-bruges

Michaël Ghijs has a hard time refusing boys who can’t really sing. Those who persevere find a way of making themselves helpful in the practical organisation of the choir. They are welcome to join the choir on its concert tours. Regarding these tours, Michaël Ghijs also has a hard time refusing members who don’t really deserve to come along because of longer periods of absence. Sometimes the yearly concert tours are undertaken by a group of around eighty individuals, making them a financially challenging operation. Yet Reverend Ghijs often pays the entire trip out of his own pocket for members whose financial situation doesn’t otherwise allow them to travel. The choir indeed is open to people of all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. Reverend Ghijs also makes it a point to look after members and former members when they experience difficulties in their lives. For instance, he provides shelter for a young man who came out of the closet as a homosexual and whose parents threw him out because of that. Or he gives daily calls to a former member of the choir who is in the hospital for a treatment of meningitis. There are so many situations to mention… Perhaps it is in these social aspects that the priestly vocation of Ghijs is most apparent. The choir never is a money making machine. Singing at funerals and marriages, or performing in care homes, prisons, whatever: the choir often just receives enough to pay the bill of the bus (sometimes to the chagrin of the older members who are in charge of the finances).

diapason-cover-june-2005In any case, what Michaël Ghijs achieves with his choir, with boys who often don’t have any proper education in music, is nothing short of a miracle. One of his best qualities is his firm belief in the abilities of young people before they even believe in themselves. When some of us think we will never be able to properly perform Amen by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Michaël Ghijs pulls us through. He even wants us to sing it at the Belgian provincial choir tournaments, next to, among other music, Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the end he is right. Our perfomance places us, once again, in the highest division. In the same period an album is recorded by Capilla Flamenca together with some trebles of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. Ten years later, this CD is listed among “the 25 most beautiful recordings of boy choirs” by renowned French magazine Diapason (June, 2005):

diapason-review-of-cantate-domino-aalst

Listen to an excerpt from the CD Missa Alleluia (Eufoda, 1996):

If anything, these things prove that Michaël Ghijs above all educated young people to enable them to shine and to share their talents with the world. Of course, there will always be cynical minds who regard the work of a priest with young boys and men with suspicion. I know Reverend Ghijs got called names sometimes by so-called rebellious teenagers when he crossed the street with his boy sopranos. The words are not worth repeating. Reverend Ghijs, unlike me, ignored them and always continued his work with the same energy, passion, eagerness to learn and genuine concern for what happened in the lives of his singers.

I’ve had the privilege to have known this man, a true friend and mentor, for almost twenty years. Like everyone else, he was a complex human being with flaws and weaknesses, with doubts and frustrations. He dared to be vulnerable. He kept reading and studying, knowing that he never knew enough. He questioned the personal assumptions of his Christian faith and developed his theology in a different direction over the years (in no small part because he discovered the work of James Alison). He loved the good life and could enjoy delicious food and drinks in good company.

Michaël Ghijs is missed by friends all over the world, from the Americas over Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and a range of other European countries to South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and many other places. In the course of his lifetime, Reverend Michaël Ghijs discovered his own limits and cultural boundaries, not as ends in themselves to separate himself from others, but, on the contrary, as means to encounter others. His legacy is a spirituality to be imitated and a work to be continued, in whatever context, in true friendship and in gratitude.

May God bless him.

My trip down memory lane, compiled from different tv performances, pictures and records – life in Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino:

Invitations to Explorations (COV&R 2016)

COV&R 2016The annual and 26th conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) coincided with the 6th annual conference of the Australian Girard Seminar. It was the first meeting of its kind after the passing of René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), whose groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and eventually developed mimetic theory is further explored by an ever growing number of scholars on these occasions. Certainly and sadly in this day and age, the theme of the conference couldn’t have been more appropriate: Violence in the Name of Religion. The academic yet also cordial gathering was held at the campus of ACU (Australian Catholic University) from Wednesday 13 July until Sunday 17 July 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

As is always the case, also at this COV&R the participants gave each other lots of inspiration. In the coming months I will probably share some explorations I felt invited to on this blog. For now I’d like to highlight some of the ideas I thought were quite inspiring (at least to me).

WEDNESDAY, 13 JULY

The Myth of Religious ViolenceProf. William T. Cavanaugh started off the event by giving the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture. AS PEOPLE USED TO BELIEVE IN THE GODS – Girard and the Myth of Religious Violence was the provocative title of his contribution, which essentially stated that violence is not a religious problem but a universally human reality (as Dr. Petra Steinmair-Pösel succinctly pointed out in her response to the lecture).

Cavanaugh summarized the myth many people believe in nowadays as follows:

  1. There is a trans-historical and transcultural essence of religion that distinguishes it from essentially secular phenomena like reason, or politics and economics: religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism [Cavanaugh was aware that some people might not call Buddhism a religion] are essentially different from secular phenomena like nationalism, consumerism, and Marxism.
  2. Religion has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena.
  3. Therefore, religion should be marginalized from public power and secularism should be encouraged.

He then went on to debunk this myth by pointing out how the religious/secular dichotomy originated as a typically western phenomenon. In the words of Cavanaugh:

The religious/secular distinction is not trans-historical and transcultural: it is a contingent product of the modern West. What counts as religious and what counts as secular in any given circumstance depends on the political purposes of the one making the distinction. The distinction is commonly used to endorse as rational and peacemaking certain beliefs and practices, labeled secular, and to condemn others, labeled religious, as essentially irrational and prone to violence. The distinction does not simply describe the way the world is, but rather tells us about how the West distributes power.

The creation of the sovereign state meant that the ambit of ecclesiastical authorities would gradually be confined to religion – the realm of belief – while the civil authorities would take charge of the political. The religious/secular and religion/politics distinctions helped eventually to create the expectation that the natural place of the church was the private sphere.

Some more explanation might be in place here for some readers. Following René Girard, the possibility itself of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be considered as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of the lie at the heart of archaic religious systems, namely the scapegoat mechanism. As such the Judeo-Christian tradition is, in principle, responsible for the gradual loss of belief in the effectiveness of ancient ritual sacrifices (even if these were sometimes revived in so-called Christian societies; criticism of these practices comes from the Gospel itself, for instance by Erasmus, “Prince of the Humanists”). Ritual sacrifices contained violence in a twofold sense (see also Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy): they were themselves of course a form of bloody violence, but they were also believed to control the possibility of greater violent (natural and/or social) disasters understood as “the wrath of the gods” (= violence transferred to a sacred or transcendent realm).

While secularism no longer endorses the belief that potentially violent gods should be appeased by bloody sacrifices to establish an eventually peaceful world order, it does try to locate potential sources of violence or disorder that should be eliminated (“sacrificed” in a sense). It is no accident that Dr. Steinmair-Pösel, in her response to the lecture, spoke of secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” in that it “scapegoats the scapegoaters”. In this sense it goes against the heart of Christianity as a call for forgiveness (from the part of the victim) and conversion (to neighborly love that is, from the part of the perpetrator). The imitation of the “kenotic movement of Christ” should result in attitudes refraining from revenge. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized human community, people often rival each other’s claim to be “victims” and as such feel entitled to sometimes violently prosecute others who are considered “perpetrators”. While we’re Wolfgang Palaver COV&R 2016at it, Prof. Wolfgang Palaver would later on, in his own lecture, rightly point to the fact that many of today’s terrorists legitimize themselves as victims or defenders of victims (from groups like ISIS to Aum Shinrikyo and people like Anders Breivik). Secularism thus is, in certain circumstances, but one of several contemporary ideological systems that can legitimize marginalization and even (violent) discrimination of certain groups in the name of victims. Mosques have been set to fire after ISIS attacks, for instance. As a means of victimizing others in turn, however, secularism tragically adds to the problem of violent extremism: it makes it more easy for organizations like ISIS to claim that “their people” are indeed “victims” or that they are being “marginalized”. And so the vicious circle goes on and on. In short, by labeling religion in general and its believers as “often dangerously irrational”, “potentially violent” and therefore “better if gone, eliminated or destroyed”, secularism ironically becomes a religious system itself. A religious system is understood then as a social order arising out of so-called necessary sacrifices to prevent potentially violent mayhem. All of this, again, in the words of Prof. Cavanaugh:

The point is not only that people are just as likely to kill for secular things like Marxism and capitalism [remember the Gulag or the Cold War] as they are for religious things like Islam and Hinduism. The point is that the religious/secular distinction is itself an act of power that labels certain things “religious” and therefore essentially irrational and potentially dangerous, while authorizing as “secular” other belief systems and practices whose violence is accepted as rational and peacemaking.

[Cavanaugh eventually quotes Girard on religion and religion in the secular, and provides further explanation (I took the picture on the right from the core of the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney):]

IMAG2676_1_1Girard: “Any phenomenon associated with the acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed ‘religious’.”

Religion, in this sense, is not a sui generis phenomenon that can be separated out from culture, reason, politics, economics, or society.

Girard uses religion in a narrow sense to refer to the archaic (mis)representation of sacrificial violence, and in a broader sense to refer to the ways that all societies – even modern secular ones – employ the same mechanisms to legitimate and control violence. In good Durkheimian fashion, Girard uses the term “religion” to name the way that any society – including any “secular” society – represents itself to itself. As Girard writes “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist.”

[From Girard’s anthropological perspective on secularism and anti-religion, the religious/secular dichotomy indeed becomes part of one of today’s most important myths (the discourse that establishes a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence). Cavanaugh continues and concludes:]

The religious/secular dichotomy is itself part of the apparatus whereby violence is concealed. Girard’s goal is to reveal it, and thereby undermine the religious/secular dichotomy.

As Girard says, the Christian “Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naïve illusion that we are finished with it… Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting.”

During the remainder of my time in Australia, about a week after the conference, I discovered that the myth of secularism is alive and well on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, Sydney:

IMAG2574 IMAG2575 IMAG2577

Secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” (see higher, Dr. Steinmair-Pösel) thus contains a warning for Christians themselves (and for all who try to develop a spiritual attitude that goes beyond the convenient and comfortable dualism of “good versus evil”, be it for instance “good secularism versus evil religion”): Jesus never attempted to completely abolish the existing cultural (religious) traditions and social systems, he merely tried to transform his own Jewish religion, whenever and wherever needed, in light of neighborly love. In their covert and overt attempts to completely remove religion from the public sphere, certain secularists attain the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish: they continue an essentially sacrificial (“religious”) system. As Dr. Steinmair-Pösel concluded in her response to the first plenary session, the difference between so-called archaic religion and Judeo-Christian tradition (or religion and “secularism” for that matter) therefore can never result in a complete “separation” with one destroying the other, but should be thought of as a distinction. In other words and as I understand it, the ultimate human possibility of a humanitarian ethos, materializing in whatever cultural form, ceases to exist whenever one culture establishes itself at the expense of another (for sure, the colonial history of certain so-called Christians implied the disappearance of humanitarianism).

Evening Drink with COV&R friends Melbourne 2016Well, one thing became clear on the first evening of the conference. The organizers not only provided the participants with a great reception and dinner, they indeed also promised copious food for thought.

THURSDAY, 14 JULY

The high expectations for the rest of the conference were already met on the second day. Religion and Violence in Girard’s Mimetic Theory, the second plenary session, saw Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dr. Sarah Bachelard and Dr. Chris Fleming engage in a discussion with Girard’s thought to approach modern politics and contemporary social phenomena.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy COV&R 2016From the lectures of Prof. Dupuy and Dr. Bachelard I became more aware of the difference between the terror of today’s violent extremism on the one hand, and the terror of “the fear of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction)” by a nuclear war during the Cold War on the other. During the Cold War, the threat of total annihilation served as a third party, a non-human entity (an exteriorization of violence) to which both the US and the USSR bowed. A “cold war” thus resulted in a “hot peace” (a nuclear peace). Today’s suicidal terrorists, however, don’t fear annihilation in any way. So the threat of annihilation as a means to establish an ever precarious peace doesn’t work. This means that we are challenged to look for other attempts to create peace which don’t alienate us from “the best of ourselves”.

Prof. Dupuy also made an intriguing remark on the relationship between “victim” and “crowd”. While the old sacred is based on the gathering of an undifferentiated crowd around a sacrificial victim (or a series of victims), today’s violent extremism basically consists of one or more murderous suicidal subjects who attack and disperse an undifferentiated crowd. Dupuy therefore considers modern terrorism as a sham or simulacrum of the foundational event (of the old sacred). The UNANIMITY of the crowd is swapped for the ANONIMITY of the crowd. Instead of containing violence, the self-sacrifice of the suicide terrorist implies not contained violence. In one of the concurrent sessions I attended, The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions, Prof. Thomas Ryba pointed to the difference between the dynamic of Christ and its “satanic” reversal, which joins the thought of Dupuy from a Christian perspective. Jesus is one who is willing to die for all (because he refuses the sacrifice of others to save himself), while a suicide terrorist wants all to die for one (for the purpose of his self-aggrandizement).

Dr. Fleming concluded the second plenary session by pointing to an interesting (mimetically opposing) parallel between the political left and right when it comes to interpreting violent extremism. Depending on the external features of the violent extremists in question, both the political left and right easily replace structural theories with theories of agency in explaining human behavior. For instance, the right tends to explain the violence of a Muslim shooter from the ideological structure that is Islam, while the left in this case generally claims that the problem lies in the individual and not in Islam. The reverse will happen in the case of a white (Christian) shooter, for instance. In other words, from a certain political left, Islam structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by scapegoating an individual agent, i.e. the Muslim shooter. On the other hand, from a certain political right, Christianity structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by, once again, scapegoating an individual agent, this time a Christian shooter. Contenders on both sides would try to generalize the disposition of one agent to a collective disposition of THE Muslim or THE Christian, or even THE believer (if certain atheists were to be believed). If you belong to a certain group and you want to protect the image of purity of that group, you might attribute the terrorist behavior of one of your own to specific circumstances explaining the erratic behavior of that individual. So there are different levels of attribution (see attribution theory in social psychology, click here) in all these cases.

In any case, it seems that violent extremists try to escape the limits of human existence by committing “non-negotiable” acts which make them feel like gods. In the words of Fleming, “gods don’t need politics.” Which made me suddenly think about the saying, “All’s fair in love and war…” A reflection that is to be continued, for sure.

The third plenary session, on the evening of the second day, was a lecture by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths. She gave a challenging assessment of the relationship between Islam and violence, stressing the point that poor religious education and a very limited understanding of Islam facilitate the connection between Islam and violence. Once again, removing a religion like Islam from serious public and academic debate and leaving it to the hands of self-declared imams on the worldwide web seems like a very bad idea. I can only highly recommend the work of Prof. Afsaruddin to clear some important misconceptions.

FRIDAY, 15 JULY

The first plenary session on Friday morning started with some turmoil. Prof. Wolfgang Palaver, Prof. Greg Barton and Dr. Julian Droogan eventually talked about Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam. Their session, sadly enough, was all the more topical since news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day had just arrived. Prof. Greg Barton came in a bit late because he was asked, being a counter-terrorist expert, about his first thoughts on the attack for Australian TV.

Dr. Droogan began his lecture by describing the main conceptual problems with “radicalization” as an explanatory tool for violent extremism. Again, also in this lecture, some common assumptions were challenged:

  • The assumption that violent extremism is caused by radical beliefs is not born out by research that suggests that violent extremism is more often supported by social dynamics and perceptions of identity.
  • By assuming that it is radical ideas that primarily lead people to violent extremism, an easy assumption is made linking religious or political concepts as the primary drivers of violence.
  • De-radicalization? It is a difficult and sensitive task to convince an individual to make changes to cognitive beliefs especially when these are tied to a person’s identity / reinforced through social networks.

So de-radicalization programs which merely focus on “ideas” won’t work, since violent extremism has more to do with building an identity than with ideology as such.

No wonder then that violent extremists like ISIS find their most ardent supporters in youth groups, traditionally groups in the midst of developing their identity. As Droogan pointed out, a 2014 ICM poll revealed that more than 25 % of French youth (of all religions and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 24) had a favorable attitude towards ISIS.

The man who killed 84 people in Nice by driving a lorry through a crowd, 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues as well. Dr. Droogan presented the profile of an ISIS fighter in the western diaspora, containing characteristics that would prove to be true for this terrorist too (inserted information about the Nice killer comes from BBC News, in italics):

Young – grew up in the post 9/11 world of counter terrorism and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric.

75 % joined Al Qaeda or ISIS through friends – social networks.

Almost 25 % joined through family or acquaintances.

Speak of the importance of finding meaning in their lives – a search for meaning and identity.

Very rare that parents were at all aware of their children’s desire; international affairs, foreign policy or terrorism not discussed at home.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel last visited Tunisia four years ago, people in his hometown Msaken told the BBC’s Rana Jawad. They said many people knew his family and were shocked by his actions. “We remember him as a normal person from a wealthy family,” a town resident told her.

Mostly youth in transitional stages of their lives:

Students

Immigrants

Between jobs

Between relationships

Police say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married with three children, although he no longer lived with his wife. She was detained for questioning by police on 15 July but has since been released. A woman who knows the family told the BBC Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been thrown out of their home in the Le Ray area of Nice more than a year ago after allegedly beating his wife.

Left or about to leave their family

Looking for new family or friends or community of like-minded passionate idealists

Mostly youth who are deeply concerned with finding meaning, value and significance in their lives, and have a commitment to action

Examinations of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s browsing history showed he had carried out research for his attack. On 1 July he searched for details of the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice as well as videos showing “terrible” fatal traffic accidents. He had also read about recent attacks in Orlando, where a man proclaiming allegiance to IS shot 49 people in a gay nightclub, Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers, and Magnanville near Paris, where a French jihadist stabbed two police officials to death. In the days before the attack, he twice drove to the Promenade des Anglais in his rented lorry, sold his van and attempted to withdraw money, Mr Molins said. This showed that his act was “premeditated and deliberate”, he said. He reserved the 19-tonne refrigeration lorry on 4 July and collected it on 11 July in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, just west of Nice. During his reconnaissance trips, he sent a selfie photo from the driver’s cabin. Just minutes before launching his attack, he sent text messages asking accomplices to give him more weapons and boasting about having obtained a pistol. He fired that pistol at police during his rampage, before police shot him dead. “Bring more weapons, bring five to C,” one of the messages said. Police are trying to identify who the message was sent to.

No traditional religious education

The Nice killer lived a life “far from religion”, eating pork, taking drugs and indulging in a “wild” sex life, French prosecutor François Molins said.

Some “born again” or “conversion” experience

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Nice killer had apparently been radicalized very quickly. From 1 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel made more or less daily internet searches for verses of the Koran and “nasheeds” – jihadist propaganda chants. He also researched the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Investigators found photos of dead bodies and images linked to radical Islamism on his computer, including the flag of so-called Islamic State, the cover of an issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – attacked by gunmen in January 2015 – and photos of Osama bin Laden and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In the eight days leading up to the attack, he grew a beard and told friends this was for “religious reasons”. He also told them he did not understand why IS could not hold territory and showed them a video of a beheading on his mobile phone. In response to their shock, he said he was “used to it”. However, there was no evidence that he had pledged allegiance to any radical groups or had contact with known Islamists.

Those who do practice religious ritual may have been expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs

Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam COV&R 2016As is also clear from the research conducted by Prof. Barton, many of the recent terrorists have a history of violence and petty crime.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with police between 2010 and 2016 for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. In March, a court in Nice convicted him of assaulting a motorist with an improvised weapon – a wooden pallet – during an altercation. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to contact police once a week, which he did. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “never flagged for signs of radicalization”, officials say, and he was not on France’s “Fiche S” high-security watch list. The majority of attacks carried out in the country since January 2015 have been staged by men designated “Fiche S”, and also linked to IS. In 2014, IS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in an audio message: “If you can’t detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself… run them over with your car.” Many of France’s jihadist killers, starting with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, also began their journey towards militant Islam as petty criminals.

Dr. Droogan concluded that groups like ISIS capitalize on youth rebelliousness and the search for significance and glory. It should be stressed that the Nice killer, for instance, not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, the Nice killer apparently had mental issues as well. Add this to the equation and you might get a very explosive, dangerous mindset.

A psychiatrist, Chamseddine Hamouda, carried out a mental assessment of the killer a few years ago after his father became concerned about his “troubling behaviour of a psychotic nature”. “He was a stranger to himself,” Mr Hamouda said. “I advised his parents that he needed treatment. At the time he exhibited violent behaviour towards his family… I’m sure that in the past 12 years something else happened that perhaps influenced how he thought.”

In short, ISIS is one of possible organizations, and a popular one at that, which provide an outlet for people who became extremely violent. These violent tendencies mainly have other causes than some twisted ideology. The allegiance with a twisted ideology should be understood more as a consequence of the obsession to achieve significance, attention or recognition through a highly publicized act of violence.

ProfSolidarity with France & Nice (because of terror attack) in Melbourne. Wolfgang Palaver’s contribution for this plenary session was all the more challenging as it highlighted the inspiration Islamic tradition itself could provide to create a more peaceful world. Prof. Palaver situated Islam within the Abrahamic tradition’s potential to criticize “sacred” phenomena born from bloody sacrifices. In the words of René Girard, “The peoples of the world do not invent their gods, they deify their victims.” This could be said of the way ISIS glorifies its suicide terrorists as well. In this context Palaver distinguished between the sacred and the holy, the first basically being the false transcendence of idolatry (as in ISIS claimed suicide attacks), while the latter points to the mysterious transcendence of a “God” who is other than the human projections of power. Seems like a grace needed in this ever broken world…

SATURDAY, 16 JULY

The final plenary session again was packed with impulses for further explorations. Prof. Frank Brennan SJ, Assoc. Prof. Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier & Ms Naomi Wolfe formed the panel for Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History.

One realization in particular struck me. When white people first came to Australia, they asked themselves whether aboriginals were actually “real human beings”, and tried to think of aboriginals as somewhat being in an animal stage instead. Similarly, however, aboriginals too asked themselves whether white people were actually “real human beings”, thinking of white people as ghosts instead.

I guess there is no greater challenge in human relationships than to think of the other as “other” without, however, situating that “otherness” in “something less” or “something more” than oneself. Idolatry of one’s self-image as “better than others” or of others as “better than myself” only leads to alienation, narcissistic illusions, hypodermic frustrations, self-loathing, hatred of others and eventually violence.

We are limited human beings, and as such we’re always called to the never-ending exploration and acceptance of the mystery we are to ourselves and to each other. Us is a life sizzling with creativity.

This COV&R has only been the third I went to (the first two I attended were in the US – Cedar Falls, 2013 & Saint Louis, 2015), but I must say that I always feel charged with energy when coming back. For this I’m very grateful. I’d like to end this report by explicitly thanking the organizers of all COV&R conferences, on this occasion the organizers of the 2016 COV&R.

So thank you:

COV&R 2016 Gala DinnerACU (Australian Catholic University)

Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University)

IMITATIO

THE RAVEN FOUNDATION (Suzanne & Keith Ross)

THE AUSTRALIAN GIRARD SEMINAR (especially Prof. Scott Cowdell, Dr. Chris Fleming, Dr. Joel Hodge, Dr. Carly Osborn, Wojtek Kaftanski)

The Theory of René Girard by Carly Osborn

I’d also like to congratulate Yevgen Galona, Lukasz Mudrak and Elizabeth Culhane for winning the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize (place one to three, respectively).

Concurrent Session on Madmen COV&R 2016I’d like to thank the lecturers of the concurrent sessions I went to (they were all delightful): Jonathan Cole (The Jihadist Current and the West: The Clash of Conceptuality), Susan Wright (Rekindling a Sacrificial Crisis in the Eucharist: John’s Midrashic Reversal of the ‘Manna’ Metaphors), Chloé Collier (American Presidents and Apocalyptic Discourse: Justifying Violent Foreign Policies in Times of Crisis), Suzanne Ross (Acquisitive Desire in Early Childhood: Rethinking Rivalry in the Playroom), Mathias Moosbrugger (Ignatius of Loyola and Mimetic Theory: Is it a Thing?), Wojtek Kaftanski (Mimesis as the Problem and the Cure: Kierkegaard and Girard on Human Autonomy and Authenticity), Scott Cowdell (A Five-Act Girardian Theo-Drama), David Gore (The Call to Follow Jesus), Thomas Ryba (The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions), Jeremiah Alberg (Forbidding What We Desire; Desiring What We Are Forbidden – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue *), Diego Bubbio (The Self in Crisis: A Mimetic Theory of Mad Men), Paul Dumouchel (About Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing).Dekalog Kieslowski

* In his presentation on Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Prof. Jeremiah Alberg mentioned that the co-scenarist for these groundbreaking movies, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, declared that his ideas are based on the books of René Girard. Something to look at more thoroughly in the future. For more on this, click here: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Jeux interdits – Essai sur le Décalogue de Kieslowski (extrait), Yves Vaillancourt (pdf).

Finally, I’d like to thank every single participant for making this a warm, loving gathering as well, with an ever present spirit of kindness and friendship. I’m already looking forward to the COV&R of 2017, in Madrid.

Lunch Field Trip COV&R 2016COV&R 2016 participantsLunch & Wine Tasting Field Trip COV&R 2016

The Gospel in Star Wars

1. The Myth of the Hero’s Journey in Star Wars

Much has been written about the mythological nature of the Star Wars movie saga. Indeed its creator, George Lucas, is heavily influenced by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell even became a mentor to Lucas, helping him to create this new mythology for the blockbuster and pop culture audience. Bill Moyers interviewed Lucas about the mythology of Star Wars:

Joseph Campbell became famous for his concept of “the hero’s journey”, one of the main patterns inJoseph Campbell George Lucas Meme mythology, observable in stories throughout the world and recaptured by George Lucas. An exhibition on Star Wars at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney focused on this theme. Here is some explanation from the teachers notes to this exhibition (click here – pdf):

Joseph Campbell, one of the world’s foremost students and scholars of mythology, studied thousands of myths from around the world and discovered that the majority of them shared many common characteristics. In fact, he saw all the stories as variations of one overall tale, which he named the ‘monomyth’. The subject of the hero is no exception. While the heroes of various cultures may be defined as heroic for different reasons, nearly each one fits the stages of the hero journey as developed by Campbell.

According to Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949:245–246) we can summarize the hero’s journey into three main stages.

Departure

‘The mythological hero, setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).’

The Hero's Journey 1Initiation

‘Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).’

The Hero's Journey 3Return

‘The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).’

The Hero's Journey 5Other researchers and scholars have made similar observations regarding this universal mythological and archaic cultural pattern. The pinnacle of the initiation stage is always the “death and rebirth” or, in other words, the “sacrifice and resurrection” of the hero (or heroine). According to Campbell and others, the hero “has to die to his old self” through a supreme (series of) ordeal(s) and return as someone who has the skills to renew life, prosperity, order and peace for his community. It is no coincidence that initiation rituals take the same pattern. In short, archaic cultures defend the idea that a sacrifice (of a hero or his enemy, of a beast or a monster) is necessary to save communities from potentially or ongoing destructive crises. Already James Frazer in his classic study The Golden Bough (click here – pdf) described the necessity of periodic sacrifices as an essential belief underlying myths and rituals throughout the world. The creatures that are sacrificed or sacrifice themselves turn out to be somewhat ambiguous: sometimes they are presented as “bad” as they are considered responsible for all kinds of evil; sometimes they are presented as “good” as their death will save the community; often they are presented as both bad (“monsters” while alive) and good (“saviors” when dead or cast out).

Together with scholars like Frazer, René Girard observes that the above mentioned mythological pattern shows up in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels as well, especially in the story of Jesus Christ’s Passion. However, unlike Frazer, Campbell and the like, Girard does not believe that the story of Christ’s Passion is “just one more myth”. The structural pattern might be the same, but the content of this story’s message is very different. The Gospels do not justify the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. They show how this victim is innocent of the charges put against it. They reveal Jesus as a scapegoat in the way this word is understood nowadays: as someone who is accused of things he is not responsible for. Eventually, the Gospels thus fundamentally question the necessity of violence to build peace and order. From the perspective of the Gospels, there is no “good” vs. “bad” violence, nor “justified” vs. “unjustified” sacrifices. Violence in itself is considered “evil”, even “satanic”.

In light of these considerations, it is interesting to once again take a look at Star Wars and ask the question whether this saga is purely mythical or if it also contains some of the criticisms on myth by the Gospels. As it turns out, Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, seems the key to answer this question.

2. The Tragedy of a Violent Cycle in Star Wars & The Gospel’s Alternative

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal a cycle of events that shows up again and again in the history of mankind. In a first stage, on a psychological level, humans always reinforce each other’s anxious desire and greed for things like prestige, riches, honor and power. From this comes competition, rivalry and violence, resulting in a second stage: a social crisis. The third stage, the political solution to this crisis, is usually found in the expulsion or destruction of a common enemy or victim – an individual or a group –, which restores order, peace and unity within a human community. The leaders of the newly found order justify that sacrifice as well as their own leadership by presenting the sacrificed victims as creatures who had to die in order to prevent further disorder. The recollection of this sacrifice results in a fourth, cultural stage: (sacrificial) rituals and mythological stories gratefully reenact or retell the events that kept (and still keep) the community together, while all sorts of taboos remind the community of the dangers of certain objects and actions associated with crisis situations. Of course this whole cycle of events starts again when a mutually reinforced desire for things like power resurfaces: as those in power increasingly fear they might lose their status, they more anxiously will hold on to it, thus making their status more desirable for others and thus (tragically and ironically) reinforcing the rivalry they wanted to prevent…

The principle of disorder coming from a rivalry based on mutually reinforced desires for things like power, as well as the principle of order coming from the elimination of those who are presented as mainly responsible for that disorder, is personified as “Satan” in the Gospels. Satan is the “prince of this world”, the personification of the murders and the lies people in power use to solidify and justify their position. “The kings of this world” indeed often refer to all kinds of possible threats in order to present themselves as “saviors” of their community, providing safety and security. The tragic and ironic truth, of course, is that they can only secure their own position for as long as their citizens don’t feel safe but fear those possible threats.

Palpatine and Julius CaesarThe Star Wars saga reveals the satanic cycle in its own way. Senator Palpatine is the politician who takes advantage of political and social turmoil in the Galactic Republic to eventually gain absolute power. He first becomes Chancellor and then, finally, Emperor of the newly found Galactic Empire. In this respect Star Wars is reminiscent of what happened to the Roman Empire with the arrival of Julius Caesar. Both Senator Palpatine and Julius Caesar were given extended rule and power for the sake of the safety of their respective Republic, in the midst of civil wars. However, they both stayed in their position much longer than they were supposed to be, their dictatorship eventually destroying the democracy they were supposed to protect. Moreover, they both were involved in the wars that threatened the stability of their Republic. Senator Palpatine even secretly organized the political turmoil and he provoked the wars in the Galactic Republic. That way he could present himself as the “savior” who was desperately needed. This trick was also used by Syrian dictator Assad (and other dictators in the Middle East, for that matter) when he released Islamist extremists from prison so they could join the rebels who fought against his rule – watch the following clip from 00:50-01:04:

“Extremists from Syria and around the region start traveling to join the rebels. Assad actually encourages this by releasing Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion with extremism, make it harder for foreigners to back them.”

Palpatine is able to sell the illusion that he is the one who can bring peace to the Galaxy. Of course he will, ironically, violently suppress every possible “enemy” or threat, thereby feeding the rebellion he is trying to prevent. Once hailed as a savior Palpatine becomes the evil Emperor who needs to be sacrificed himself.

In short, in Star Wars the first stage of the satanic cycle is represented in Palpatine’s reinforced desire for power. This eventually results in the social crisis of the second stage. Then comes the third stage of provisional peace, based on the sacrifice of Palpatine’s and his Empire’s so-called enemies. The cultural order of the fourth stage is only briefly kept. Palpatine’s position almost immediately becomes the object of the ambitions and desires of others.

Palpatine turns out to be Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. The so-called “evil” order of the Sith is the age-old enemy of the so-called “good” order of the Jedi-knights. However, as Episode III of the Star Wars saga makes clear, the line between good and evil cannot be so easily drawn.

Anakin Skywalker is a young Jedi apprentice who gradually becomes a puppet of the seemingly inevitable “satanic” cycle of events. In a first psychological stage Anakin becomes the victim of fear (of rejection), jealousy, pride, anger, hate and greed. In other words, he suffers from those characteristics which the Christian tradition has identified as “cardinal sins”. Master Yoda, head of the Jedi Council, warns Anakin against the dark forces of fear (from script number 77):

YODA: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.

ANAKIN: I won’t let these visions come true, Master Yoda.

YODA: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.

ANAKIN: What must I do, Master Yoda?

YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

Of course this is rather a Buddhist way of handling things (as, in Buddhism, attachment is seen as the source of suffering and “nirvana” is the state of bliss where one is free of suffering and therefore of attachments). But Yoda’s warning against jealousy also refers to the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain gets an advice from “the Lord” when Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:6-7):

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain, feeling rejected, nevertheless ends up killing his brother. The warnings of Yoda too go in vain. Anakin rather takes advice of Chancellor Palpatine, “Darth Sidious”, who – like the (“hidious, hissing”) snake in the Genesis story of the Fall – feeds Anakin’s feelings of jealousy, greed and resentment (from script number 88 & 118):

ANAKIN: You wanted to see me, Chancellor.

PALPATINE: Yes, Anakin! Come closer. I have good news. Our Clone Intelligence Units have discovered the location of General Grievous. He is hiding in the Utapau system.

ANAKIN: At last, we’ll be able to capture that monster and end this war.

PALPATINE: I would worry about the collective wisdom of the Council if they didn’t select you for this assignment. You are the best choice by far… but, they can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.

* * *

ANAKIN: Chancellor, we have just received a report from Master Kenobi. He has engaged General Grievous.

PALPATINE: We can only hope that Master Kenobi is up to the challenge.

ANAKIN: I should be there with him.

PALPATINE: It is upsetting to me to see that the Council doesn’t seem to fully appreciate your talents. Don’t you wonder why they won’t make you a Jedi Master?

ANAKIN: I wish I knew. More and more I get the feeling that I am being excluded from the Council. I know there are things about the Force that they are not telling me.

PALPATINE: They don’t trust you, Anakin. They see your future. They know your power will be too strong to control. Anakin, you must break through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you. Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force.

Cain and AbelIn the end, Anakin, like Cain, also wants to kill his “brother”, his mentor Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (from script number 214):

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, My Master. I wish it were otherwise.

ANAKIN jumps and flips onto OBI-WAN’s platform. The fighting continues again until OBI-WAN jumps toward the safety of the black sandy edge of the lava river. He yells at Anakin.

OBI-WAN: It’s over, Anakin. I have the high ground.

ANAKIN: You underestimate my power!

OBI-WAN: Don’t try it.

ANAKIN follows, and OBI-WAN cuts his young apprentice at the knees, then cuts off his left arm in the blink of an eye. ANAKIN tumbles down the embankment and rolls to a stop near the edge of the lava.

ANAKIN struggles to pull himself up the embankment with his mechanical hand. His thin leather glove has been burned off. He keeps sliding down in the black sand.
OBI-WAN: (continuing)… You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them. It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness.

OBI-WAN picks up Anakin’s light saber and begins to walk away. He stops and looks back.

ANAKIN: I hate you!

OBI-WAN: You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.

At this point in the story, Anakin is already involved in the second and third stage of the satanic cycle. He is convinced that the crisis in the Galactic Republic can only be stopped by sacrificing the Jedi and by establishing the rule of the Sith. Moreover, he believes that the power of the Sith will save the life of his wife Padme (but he will tragically accomplish the opposite).

In any case, Anakin is willing to believe Palpatine, who portrays the Jedi as a threat to the survival of the Republic. After being named “Darth Vader” while receiving his new identity as Sith Lord, Anakin is prepared to sacrifice the Jedi in order to prevent further “civil war” and establish “peace” (from script number 88 & 130):

PALPATINE: You must sense what I have come to suspect … the Jedi Council want control of the Republic… they’re planning to betray me.

ANAKIN: I don’t think…

PALPATINE: Anakin, search your feelings. You know, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I know they don’t trust you…

PALPATINE: Or the Senate… or the Republic… or democracy for that matter.

ANAKIN: I have to admit my trust in them has been shaken.

PALPATINE: Why? They asked you to do something that made you feel dishonest, didn’t they?

ANAKIN doesn’t say anything. He simply looks down.

PALPATINE: (continuing) They asked you to spy on me, didn’t they?

ANAKIN: I don’t know… I don’t know what to say.

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

* * *

PALPATINE: Every single Jedi, including your friend Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic. You understand that, don’t you?

ANAKIN: I understand, Master.

PALPATINE: We must move quickly. The Jedi are relentless; if they are not all destroyed, it will be civil war without end. First, I want you to go to the Jedi Temple. We will catch them off balance. Do what must be done, Lord Vader. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy. Only then will you be strong enough with the dark side to save Padme.

ANAKIN: What about the other Jedi spread across the galaxy?

PALPATINE: Their betrayal will be dealt with. After you have killed all the Jedi in the Temple, go to the Mustafar system. Wipe out Viceroy Gunray and the other Separatist leaders. Once more, the Sith will rule the galaxy, and we shall have peace.

The reasons given by Darth Sidious (Palpatine) and Darth Vader (Anakin) to justify the murder of the Jedi are the exact same reasons given by the chief priests and the Pharisees in the Gospels to justify the murder of Jesus.

Jesus accuses the Jewish leaders of obeying “the devil”. In the Gospel of John, the devil clearly is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies. [Note that Jesus does not believe that God wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice”. He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”…]

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Although both the killing of Jesus and the Jedi is justified by the potential danger they supposedly carry with them, there is a crucial difference between the attitude of Jesus and the attitude of the Jedi regarding the charges put against them. Jesus indeed is not drawn into a rivalry with “the kings of this world”, while the Jedi see no other option but to fight “the kings of their world”, the Sith.

In the competition to become rulers of the Galaxy, the Sith and the Jedi imitate each other more and more. As they try to distinguish themselves from each other, they tragically establish the opposite: they become, in the words of René Girard, “mimetic doubles” in a crisis of undifferentiation. At the height of the crisis, the Jedi are convinced that they should temporarily abandon normal democratic rules and replace so-called “corrupted” Senators in order to achieve peace. That’s exactly what Palpatine did earlier when he became a Chancellor with extended power! Moreover, the Jedi justify their politics of excluding “the betrayers” by referring to a potential plot against their order – once again, this is exactly the same as when Palpatine referred to a potential plot against the Senate to justify the eradication of the Jedi. Yoda senses the danger of this situation, as if he realizes that eventually there is no difference between so-called “good” and “bad” violence (from script number 117):

MACE WINDU: I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. The dark side of the Force surrounds the Chancellor.

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.

MACE WINDU: That could be a dangerous move… the Jedi Council would have to take control of the Senate in order to secure a peaceful transition…

Kl-ADI-MUNDI: … and replace the Congress with Senators who are not filled with greed and corruption.

YODA: To a dark place this line of thought will carry us. Hmm… great care we must take.

From this perspective, maybe the greatest wisdom in Episode III comes from Palpatine, Darth Sidious (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: Remember back to your early teachings. Anakin. “All those who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.

ANAKIN: The Jedi use their power for good.

PALPATINE: Good is a point of view, Anakin. And the Jedi point of view is not the only valid one. The Dark Lords of the Sith believe in security and justice also, yet they are considered by the Jedi to be…

ANAKIN: … evil.

PALPATINE: … from a Jedi’s point of view. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. The difference between the two is the Sith are not afraid of the dark side of the Force. That is why they are more powerful.

ANAKIN: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.

PALPATINE: And the Jedi don’t?

ANAKIN: The Jedi are selfless … they only care about others.

PALPATINE smiles.

PALPATINE: Or so you’ve been trained to believe. Why is it, then, that they have asked you to do something you feel is wrong?

ANAKIN: I’m not sure it’s wrong.

PALPATINE: Have they asked you to betray the Jedi code? The Constitution? A friendship? Your own values? Think. Consider their motives. Keep your mind clear of assumptions. The fear of losing power is a weakness of both the Jedi and the Sith.

It is no surprise then that both sides use violence: Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi are killing clones while Anakin – now Darth Vader – is killing the separatists.

In the final battle of Episode III between Anakin and his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin once again reveals the insight into the state of undifferentiation between mimetic doubles like the Sith and the Jedi. Both Obi-Wan and Anakin feel the other “is lost” and has to die (from script number 214):

OBI-WAN: I have failed you, Anakin. I was never able to teach you to think.

ANAKIN and OBI-WAN confront each other on the lava river.

ANAKIN: I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over…

OBI-WAN: From the Sith! Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.

ANAKIN: From the Jedi point of view! From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.

OBI-WAN: Well, then you are lost!

ANAKIN: This is the end for you, my Master. I wish it were otherwise.

If these words of Anakin were applied to the Star Wars saga as a whole, with the Sith portrayed as “the good guys”, the Episodes would have had some mirroring titles, namely (by the way, the working title of The Return of the Jedi for a long time was The Revenge of the Jedi, indeed):

Episode I: A New Hope (as opposed to The Phantom Menace)
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Episode III: The Return of the Sith (as opposed to The Revenge of the Sith)
Episode IV: The Phantom Menace (as opposed to A New Hope)
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: The Revenge of the Jedi (as opposed to The Return of the Jedi)

Star Wars Prequel Trilogy PosterStar Wars Original Trilogy Poster

Perhaps the ultimate difference between the message of Star Wars and the message of the Gospels becomes clear by considering a story told by Palpatine (from script number 88):

PALPATINE: (continuing) Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis “the wise”?

ANAKIN: No.

PALPATINE: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

ANAKIN: He could actually save people from death?

PALPATINE: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

ANAKIN: What happened to him?

PALPATINE: He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. (smiles) Plagueis never saw it coming. It’s ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.

The last sentence of Palpatine’s story also refers to a passage in the Gospels, when Jesus is dangling on the cross and is sneered at by the rulers, for instance in Mark 15:31:

The chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Jesus among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!”

sacrificial peaceBoth the Sith and the Jedi “save others” by “killing enemies” and “teaching others to become like them”, i.e. killers. Hence the Sith and the Jedi become rivals to both their enemies and their apprentices. This rivalry can only end in the death of one party, until the inevitable cycle of rivalry starts again. This is the meaning of Palpatine’s story. In the Star Wars Universe there has to be sacrifice, one way or the other, to create an ever provisional “peace”. In Episode VI, for instance, in the end either Luke Skywalker or Emperor Palpatine is killed. Darth Vader – Anakin Skywalker – eventually kills the Emperor to save his son. This means that Anakin Skywalker is “the One who brings balance to the Force” after all. He fulfilled his destiny. Moreover, by dying himself Darth-Vader-Anakin-Skywalker, the “evil one” while alive, becomes the “savior” of the Galaxy in the blink of an eye.

It seems that, by telling the story of Darth Plagueis, Palpatine prophesied his own tragic fate. Once again, in this way, the story of Palpatine refers to the history of Caesar, who was killed also by Brutus, his “son”. In the words of Jesus (Matthew 26:52): “Those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Darth Vader vs. The EmperorAssassination of Julius Caesar by BrutusThe Gospels hold that there is another way. Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36):

I did not come to bring peace“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader and their God till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.

Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrination, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.

In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27):

Peace I leave with you“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Indeed Jesus saves others by calling their sacrifice or expulsion from the community into question. When he takes sides with a woman accused of adultery, who is about to be stoned, he does not want to get stoned himself, but he hopes that the community will show “mercy” and will not “sacrifice” (see Matthew 9:13).

Truman Atomic Bombing HiroshimaHowever, in consistently refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus is eventually sacrificed himself. Indeed, Jesus saved others, but he cannot save himself: if you stand up for the bullied, you run the risk of being bullied yourself, and you can only hope that others will show mercy as you yourself refuse to take part in sacrifice. When Jesus is arrested to be crucified, he refuses to start a civil war. He refuses to become the imitator of his persecutors, a “prince of this world”, a “Muammar Gaddafi” or even a “Harry Truman” (who considered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified). By withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of his persecutors and the ones who betrayed him – his disciples), Jesus creates the possibility of a truly new world. Imitating the One who “offers the other cheek”, the One who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, indeed allows each and every one of us to accept and deal with our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or “crucified” for jumping to this occasion…

To conclude, both the Star Wars saga and the Gospels eventually reveal violence for what it is, with all its tendencies towards undifferentiation, but the Star Wars saga seems to consider this violence to be an inevitable, tragic part of the social make-up. In the end, according to the Star Wars saga, the world always needs some sort of “sacrifice” that allows for a new “order”, i.e. for new “differences” between a group and its common enemy, between “good” and “bad” violence. The Gospels, on the other hand, consider another possibility – the imitation of Christ. In the words of René Girard (from an interview on Dutch television in 1985 – click here):

René Girard portraitYou see, what the Bible tells you and no other religion tells you, is that sacrifice is so inborn in human beings, so important in human society, that you can refuse sacrifice only if you accept to die. Because the moment will come where rivalry, mimetic rivalry between your brother and you, will put you in a situation where either he kills you or you kill him. And I think Greek tragedy stops right there – it says: “Well, I have the right of self-defense. It is mine.” What I think the Bible does, is saying: “You have to go beyond that.”

Star Wars

De Hoer in Dimitri Verhulst?

‘Bent u zover, heer?’ fluisterde ze hem toe, volhardend in haar rol. Hij ging over haar heen liggen, kwam in haar, en begon kort en ritmisch te stoten, steeds vuriger en feller. En toen ze met evenveel hartstocht reageerde, zakte haar sluier af en werd haar gezicht volledig zichtbaar. Zal hij me nu herkennen? vroeg Tamar zich af. Zal hij zich terugtrekken of – zoals Tamar het zich voorstelde in een vermetel soort dagdroom – zal hij doorgaan, zelfs al had hij haar herkend? Ja, zou hij misschien met nog grotere hartstocht doorgaan, juist omdát hij haar had herkend? (Kirsch, p. 151).

The Harlot by the Side of the Road (Jonathan Kirsch) coverJaren geleden kocht ik het boek De Ongehoorde Bijbel (Servire, Utrecht, 1997) van Jonathan Kirsch. De titel in het Engels luidt The Harlot by the Side of the Road – Forbidden Tales of the Bible (Ballantine Books, New York, 1997) en verwijst naar het verhaal over Tamar en Juda (Genesis 38). Het bovenstaande tekstfragment komt uit een hervertelling van dit verhaal door Kirsch. Het is maar een van de eigenaardige, weinig gekende en eerder schokkende verhalen uit het Oude Testament die de auteur voor het voetlicht brengt. Interessant is dat de hervertelde verhalen niet alleen telkens naast de vertaalde Bijbeltekst worden geplaatst, maar ook worden gevolgd door historische en culturele achtergrondinformatie.

De incest van Lot en zijn dochters, de verkrachting van Dina, de seksuele gemeenschap tussen Tamar en haar schoonvader Juda, Jefta die zijn dochter offert aan God voor een militaire overwinning van Israël op de Ammonieten, en allerlei andere Bijbelverhalen over geweld, volkerenmoorden en seksuele uitspattingen – het passeert allemaal de revue in het boek van Kirsch. De commentaren die deze verhalen telkens in een historische context plaatsen, maken de verhalen vaak nog vreemder dan ze al zijn, maar openen tegelijk verrassende perspectieven. Het is alsof je als buitenlander uitleg krijgt bij de toespelingen van een stand-up comedian op de politieke situatie van zijn land, zodat je kan meelachen met zijn publiek. Of dat je, meer in het algemeen, vertrouwd geraakt met een cultureel en taal-specifiek idioom, zodat je naast vreugde om wat je leest ook verwondering, verbijstering, woede of verdriet kan voelen.

Kirsch verwijst meermaals naar de manier waarop de joden sinds het prille ontstaan van de Hebreeuwse Bijbel (het Oude Testament) met deze teksten zijn omgesprongen, en dat maakt van die Bijbel een boeiende literaire inspiratiebron. De joodse wijzen – de rabbi’s – uit de Oudheid zijn de eerste beoefenaars van de zogenaamde midrasj: “een meditatie over of beschouwing van de Schrift waarin de boodschap wordt aangepast aan de hedendaagse behoeften” (Geza Vermes). Daarbij putten zij rijkelijk uit de Haggadah (joodse sagen en legenden) en presenteren zij hun uitleg of exegese als een hervertelling die tal van nieuwe betekenissen en associaties oproept. Verzamelingen van zulke exegeses zijn bekend geworden als de Talmoed en de Midrasj.

Het joodse gebruik om verhalen uit te leggen door ze opnieuw te vertellen is natuurlijk ook aanwezig bij andere volkeren. Mensen houden nu eenmaal van verhalen. Het is eveneens aanwezig bij de jood Jezus van Nazaret – niet toevallig soms “rabbi” genoemd – en de schrijvers van het Nieuwe Testament. Jezus’ parabels en uitspraken, alsook de verhalen over hem, staan dan ook bol van vaak nadrukkelijke, soms ook subtiele verwijzingen naar verhalen en teksten uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel. Deze traditie van intertekstuele verwijzingen heeft zich ook doorgezet in de literaire en bredere artistieke geschiedenis, van de Oudheid, over de middeleeuwen tot nu. Eigenlijk wordt het Nieuwe Testament pas begrijpelijk vanuit de intertekstualiteit: als een interpretatie van de Hebreeuwse Bijbel vanuit bepaalde ervaringen met Jezus van Nazaret.

Het verhaal over Tamar en Juda, uit de titel van Kirsch’ boek, kan als voorbeeld dienen om een en ander te verduidelijken.

Op weg met hoeren en broers

Tamar is de weduwe van Er, de oudste zoon van Juda. Na de dood van haar man wordt zij, volgens het toenmalige gebruik, aan haar schoonbroer Onan toevertrouwd. Als ook hij haar niet zwanger maakt en sterft, wacht haar een twijfelachtig lot. Juda beschouwt Tamar als een onheilsbrenger en doet er alles aan om zijn derde zoon Sela van haar weg te houden. Daardoor dreigt Tamar een kinderloze weduwe te blijven en in een levensgevaarlijke marginaliteit terecht te komen. Jonathan Kirsch verduidelijkt (p. 176-177):

Volgens de Bijbelse wetten, ging het bezit van een man rechtstreeks over op zijn kinderen (Deut 21, 16-17) of zijn andere bloedverwanten (Num 27, 8-11). Een kinderloze weduwe als Tamar had dus geen acceptabele, vaste plaats in de gemeenschap waarin ze leefde; ze kon zich niet zonder grote risico’s wagen aan seksuele gemeenschap, kinderen krijgen of grootbrengen of zelf de kost verdienen; ze was aan handen en voeten gebonden.

Als een vrouw als Tamar het waagde toch met iemand gemeenschap te hebben, werd ze gezien als zo’n groot gevaar voor de maatschappelijke en zedelijke orde van de samenleving uit die tijd dat ze letterlijk moest worden ‘uitgewist’. Een ongetrouwde vrouw die met een man naar bed ging, moest volgens de strenge Bijbelse wetten ter dood worden gebracht (Deut 22, 21), net als de echtgenote die het waagde om vreemd te gaan (Lev 20, 10). Het is veelbetekenend dat de steniging van een ongehuwde vrouw die zich schuldig had gemaakt aan verboden seks, geacht werd te worden uitgevoerd ‘bij het huis van haar vader’; alsof dit bedoeld was om te onderstrepen dat een vrouw zonder acceptabele mannelijke beschermer – haar vader, echtgenoot of volwassen zoon – eenvoudigweg veel te gevaarlijk was om in leven te laten.

Bovendien is Tamar een Kanaänitische vrouw, alleen door haar vroegere huwelijk met Er verbonden aan het volk van Israël. Vreemdelinge, weduwe en kinderloze vrouw: de uitzichtloze, “vervloekte” situatie van Tamar schijnt compleet. Op basis van deze kenmerken alleen al wordt ze door het patriarchale Israël van haar tijd feitelijk verstoten en is ze ten dode opgeschreven. Israël is niet anders dan andere menselijke gemeenschappen die de neiging hebben om hun voortbestaan te verzekeren ten koste van slachtoffers. Tot Tamar een list verzint. Ze vermomt zich als een hoer en slaagt erin om op die manier haar schoonvader Juda te verleiden tot seksuele gemeenschap met haar. De zwangerschap die daarop volgt zal twee zonen voortbrengen: de tweeling Peres en Zerach. Juda kan uiteindelijk niets anders doen dan deze kinderen te erkennen als zijn nageslacht.

Het klinkt misschien eigenaardig, maar door zich als een hoer te vermommen en haar schoonvader te verleiden tot seksuele gemeenschap, zet Tamar de mannenwereld waarin ze vertoeft een hak. Jonathan Kirsch besluit (p. 177-178):

Tamars seksuele hinderlaag voor Juda op de weg naar Timna was de daad van een dappere, vindingrijke vrouw, die weigerde zich neer te leggen bij het lot dat het patriarchaat van het Bijbelse Israël een kinderloze weduwe voorschreef. Ze was niet zomaar een verleidster die door de hoer te spelen haar schoonvader listig ertoe bracht kinderen bij haar te verwekken. Ze was veeleer een vrouw die voor haar rechten opkwam, op de enige manier die voor een vrouw in haar tijdsgewricht en samenleving open stond.

Het verhaal van Tamar is één voorbeeld van “de eigenzinnige vrouw”. In de Hebreeuwse Bijbel is dit een nadrukkelijk aanwezig thema. Het Nieuwe Testament zal er uitgebreid op terugkomen en het ook in verband brengen met een ander thema uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel, namelijk de rivaliteit tussen broers (al dan niet om het eerstgeboorterecht). Er zij hierbij gedacht aan Kaïn en Abel, Ismaël en Isaak, Esau en Jakob en Jozef en zijn broers. In het verhaal over Tamar is dit thema ook aanwezig. Bij de geboorte van haar zonen is het Zerach die Peres, die net iets eerder geboren zal worden, te slim af is (Gen 38, 28-30):

Perez and ZerahTijdens het baren stak een van de beide kinderen een handje naar buiten; de vroedvrouw greep dit, bond er een rode draad omheen en zei: ‘Deze is het eerst gekomen.’ Maar het kind trok zijn hand terug, en toen kwam zijn broer tevoorschijn. Toen sprak zij: ‘Jij hebt voor een flinke bres gezorgd.’ Daarom noemde men hem Peres. Daarna kwam zijn broer met de scharlaken draad om zijn hand. Hem noemde men Zerach.

De rabbijnse tradities met hun hervertellende uitleg brengen Tamar en haar zonen in verband met een andere, opmerkelijke Kanaänitische: de hoer Rachab. In het Bijbelse boek Jozua speelt deze vrouw een sleutelrol bij de verovering van de stad Jericho en het land Kanaän door de Israëlieten. Zij verbergt immers twee Israëlitische verkenners voor een patrouille die door de koning van Jericho was uitgestuurd. Uit dankbaarheid beloven de verkenners Rachab dat ze haar leven en dat van haar familie zullen sparen. Het enige wat ze daarvoor moet doen is het rode koord, waarmee ze de verkenners van de stadsmuren liet zakken, aan haar raam hangen. Op die manier zullen de Israëlieten haar huis herkennen en weten dat daar een van hun bondgenoten woont. De rabbijnse geleerden beschouwen de niet nader genoemde verkenners vaak als Peres en Zerach. En van het rode koord weten ze te vertellen dat het de rode draad is die om de pols van Zerach was gebonden bij zijn geboorte!

In het Nieuwe Testament, meer bepaald in het evangelie volgens Matteüs, komen Tamar en Rachab samen met twee andere vrouwen – Ruth en Batseba – terecht in de stamboomlijst van Jezus. Het zijn de enige vier vrouwen die in deze lijst vermeld worden en dat is opmerkelijk. Ze hebben met elkaar hun vaak sterke karakters en niet onbesproken seksuele levenswandel gemeen. Hen als de verre moeders van de zogenaamde Christus portretteren is op zijn minst gewaagd. Helemaal provocerend wordt Matteüs als hij Jezus het volgende laat zeggen tegen de hogepriesters en de oudsten van het Joodse volk, nadat hij – en dat is ook niet onbelangrijk in het licht van het voorgaande – een parabel over twee broers heeft verteld (Mt 21, 31):

‘Ik verzeker u, tollenaars en hoeren gaan u voor naar het koninkrijk van God.’

De stamboomlijst met “hoeren” is dus met andere woorden geen toeval. De evangelist Matteüs wil zijn lezers blijkbaar al bij de aanvang van zijn werk duidelijk maken dat de God waarin hij gelooft – die zich te kennen zou geven in Jezus van Nazaret – iets te maken heeft met het perspectief van mensen die doorgaans “in de marge” van de samenleving vertoeven. De stamboomlijst van Jezus is dan ook als het ware een “code”, een “interpretatiesleutel” die de lezer meekrijgt om zowel het evangelie zelf als de Hebreeuwse Bijbel met een bepaalde bril te lezen. Gooi je de stamboomlijst overboord, dan gooi je essentiële informatie overboord om tot een goed begrip van het Matteüsevangelie en de Bijbel in zijn geheel te komen.

Er zijn natuurlijk nog andere interpretatiesleutels aanwezig in zowel de Hebreeuwse Bijbel als het Nieuwe Testament, maar alle wijzen ze in een gelijkaardige richting. In het evangelie volgens Lucas staat bijvoorbeeld het welbekende verhaal over “de Emmaüsgangers”: leerlingen van Jezus die, teleurgesteld en gedesoriënteerd door de kruisiging en dood van hun geliefde meester, wegtrekken van Jeruzalem naar het dorp Emmaüs. Onderweg komen ze een vreemdeling tegen. Deze man is eigenlijk Jezus – die Lucas voorstelt als verrezen –, maar ze herkennen hem niet. Ze geraken aan de praat en eten met hem. Uiteindelijk herkennen ze hem, nadat hij hun de Hebreeuwse Bijbel vanuit een bepaald perspectief heeft uitgelegd, namelijk (Luc 24, 27):

Jezus legde hun uit wat in heel de Schrift op Hemzelf betrekking had, te beginnen bij Mozes en alle Profeten.

Als je de Hebreeuwse Bijbel uitlegt vanuit het perspectief van iemand die verstoten en gekruisigd is, én vanuit de overtuiging dat God zich in deze gekruisigde openbaart, levert je lectuur opmerkelijke resultaten op. Neem bijvoorbeeld het wreedaardige relaas in het zevende hoofdstuk van het al eerder vermelde boek Jozua. Daarin draagt “de Heer” Jozua op om een zekere Achan en al zijn bezittingen te vernietigen nadat Israël een militaire nederlaag heeft geleden. Achan zou goederen in zijn bezit hebben die hem niet toebehoren, en dat zou onheil brengen. Dit is het einde van het verhaal (Jozua 7, 25-26):

Jozua sprak: ‘Omdat je ons in het ongeluk hebt gestort, stort de heer jou vandaag in het ongeluk!’ En heel Israël stenigde hen; zij verbrandden hen en wierpen stenen naar hen. Daarna richtten zij boven hen een grote steenhoop op, die er vandaag nog ligt. Toen bedaarde de hevige toorn van de heer. Daarom heet die plaats nu nog het Achordal.

Joshua 7 25 Brick BibleJoshua 7 25b Brick BibleJoshua 7 25c Brick Bible

Als je dit verhaal leest vanuit het perspectief van wat op “een verstotene” of “een gekruisigde” (Jezus) betrekking heeft van wie je gelooft dat God aan zijn zijde staat, dan moet je wel tot het besluit komen dat Achan, de gestenigde en verbrande, in dit verhaal de persoon is met wie Jezus kan worden geïdentificeerd. En dan kom je ook tot het besluit dat die God allesbehalve de steniging van Achan goedkeurt. Vandaar dat Jezus ook zal zeggen dat hij, in de lijn van bepaalde profeten en psalmen uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel, gelooft in een God die “barmhartigheid wil, en geen offer” (Mt 9, 13). Vandaar ook dat Jezus als interpretatiesleutel en zelfs leefsleutel meegeeft:

‘U zult de Heer uw God liefhebben met heel uw hart en met heel uw ziel en met heel uw verstand. Dat is het grootste en eerste gebod. Het tweede is daaraan gelijk: U zult uw naaste liefhebben als uzelf. Aan deze twee geboden hangen heel de Wet en de Profeten.’

John Steinbeck And now that you don't have to be perfect you can be goodDeze naastenliefde is misschien wel ethisch, maar allesbehalve moralistisch. Het zijn immers de moraalridders die, vaak met de beste bedoelingen, doorheen de geschiedenis van de mensheid uiteindelijk de grootste wreedheden begaan. Zowel de Hebreeuwse Bijbel als het Nieuwe Testament vormen een kritiek op al te utopische en al te romantische denkbeelden. Wanneer Petrus zijn vriend Jezus verzekert dat hij hem nooit in de steek zal laten, zet Jezus hem met zijn voetjes op de grond – geparafraseerd: “Als puntje bij paaltje komt, als ik gevangen ben en ter dood veroordeeld zal worden, ga je mij in de steek laten; je bent niet de held die je denkt te zijn.” Zulke boodschappen zijn niet altijd aangenaam om te horen. De waarheid kwetst. Petrus is geen superman. En ook de zogenaamd grote figuren uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel zijn allesbehalve onberispelijk.

De teksten in de Bijbel bevatten in de eerste plaats dan ook een antropologie: ze tonen de mens zoals hij is. In het verlengde daarvan tonen ze vaak ook een God die niet meer blijkt dan een bekrachtiging van kleinmenselijke verzuchtingen. Maar het is precies door dit soort context zonder voorbehoud te schetsen dat ook de kritiek erop zich kan manifesteren of openbaren. In die grote bibliotheek die de Bijbel is, met allerlei verschillende soorten boeken en teksten (die elk een eigen aanpak vergen), breekt gaandeweg een fundamentele kritiek door op de al te grote vooruitgangsdromen en morele superioriteitsgevoelens die mensen kunnen hebben. En dit vanuit het perspectief van de slachtoffers daarvan.

Wat overblijft is een Bijbelse spiritualiteit: je kan regels manipuleren om anderen te onderdrukken, of je kan regels manipuleren om op te komen voor je eigen waardigheid als mogelijkheidsvoorwaarde om op te komen voor de waardigheid van anderen (zie Jezus’ uitspraken: “De sabbat is er voor de mens en niet de mens voor de sabbat” en “Bemin je naaste als jezelf”). Zowel Juda als Tamar zijn corrupte en sluwe kinderen van hun tijd en cultuur, maar het is precies in die corruptie en historische beperktheid dat zich, in het geval van Tamar, iets van een emancipatorische humaniteit manifesteert.

Op weg met Verhulst en Steinbeck, literaire broers

Bloedboek Dimitri Verhulst CoverZoals zijn verhalen en personages is de Bijbel in zijn geheel te rijk, te genuanceerd en te paradoxaal om “helemaal slecht” of “helemaal goed” te zijn. Ik ben dan ook razend benieuwd hoe Dimitri Verhulst, wiens werk ik telkens met graagte lees, de eerste vijf boeken van de Bijbel heeft herverteld in zijn nieuwe roman Bloedboek. Jammer wel dat hij blijkbaar niets doet met de stamboomlijsten in de Pentateuch. Die zouden immers boeiende interpretatieve impulsen kunnen geven, zoals Matteüs dat doet met de stamboomlijst van Jezus in zijn evangelie (zie hoger).

Verhulst bevindt zich met dit project alvast in een kransje van grote literatoren die iets gelijkaardigs hebben gedaan. De lijvigste roman van de Amerikaanse Nobelprijswinnaar John Steinbeck, East of Eden, is bijvoorbeeld een hervertelling van het verhaal over Kaïn en Abel (Gen 4, 1-16). Geen vijf boeken dus, maar één verhaal dat vanuit een inherente rijkdom aan allerlei mogelijke motieven en consequenties wordt “herdacht” voor de periode tussen de Amerikaanse Burgeroorlog en de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Eén van de personages uit de roman (een Chinese butler genaamd “Lee”) vat het universele thema van het Bijbelverhaal en de roman zelf samen, in een antwoord op de vraag op welke manier het verhaal van Kaïn en Abel over ieder mens gaat (John Steinbeck, East of Eden, Penguin Books, p. 271):

East of Eden John Steinbeck Cover“I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now – don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there – the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides the secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world – and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal. Now wait! Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul – the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”

Dimitri VerhulstMeer dan ooit heeft onze wereld nood aan zulke erudiete, literaire benaderingen van Bijbelteksten om aan de valkuilen van fundamentalisme en levensbeschouwelijk extremisme (van zowel gelovige als atheïstische zijde) te kunnen ontsnappen. De Angelsaksische wereld kent liedschrijvers als Bruce Springsteen (met een katholieke achtergrond) en Leonard Cohen (met joodse wortels), om er maar twee te noemen. En wij hebben iemand als Dimitri Verhulst. Ik kan haast niet wachten om te lezen wat hij heeft gedaan met deze universele verhalen over broedermoorden, corrumperende machtsspelletjes, bloedige oorlogen en… moedige vrouwen uit wie een nieuw soort leven aanbreekt. Misschien heeft hij wel de hoer ontdekt die ons “voorgaat naar het koninkrijk van God.” Niet over haar schrijven zou alleszins zonde zijn.

Erik Buys

P.S.: OPEN BRIEF AAN PATRICK LOOBUYCK EN DE PLEITBEZORGERS VAN LEF (PDF; klik hier)

Meer hierover op de Thomas-site (KU Leuven); klik hier.