To Jesus or Not To Jesus? (JECSE, January 22-25, 2019)

2019 started with a bang for some pastoral workers and teachers of Jesuit high schools from all over Europe. From Tuesday January 22nd until Friday January 25th, representatives of pastoral care groups assembled in Manresa, Spain, for a conference that was dubbed Can we talk about Jesus? About 100 participants from 17 countries gathered to learn from each other. The conference was organized by JECSE (Jesuit European Committee for Primary and Secondary Education).

The participants were divided into several “dynamic groups” to exchange experiences and reflections about their work and the speakers of the conference. This proved to be encouraging and inspiring at the same time. Encouraging, because the challenges a Christian pedagogy is faced with are similar across the European continent, and no Jesuit high school has to face these challenges all by itself (we indeed are part of “dynamic groups”). And inspiring, because people could hear new promising ways of dealing with those challenges from their international colleagues.

Manresa 1

Apart from the different workshops, key note speakers Fr. Adrian Porter sj and Fr. José María Rodríguez Olaizola sj gave food for thought and practice. Both these Jesuits mainly focused on the multi-convictional context in which today’s Jesuit high schools have to develop their pedagogical vision.

Adrian Porter went back to the sources of the Jesuit projects, namely the life and spiritual development of the order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Paradoxically, this “step back” presented a clearer picture of the current situation and of possible answers to that situation. José María presented some important features of the Christian faith and how these features might contribute to an emancipatory project in the face of some of today’s potentially suppressive psychosocial dynamics. The second part of his talk focused on how the emancipatory character of Christian faith could be transmitted. The following text is an attempt to summarize the content of both speeches in a reflective way. The speeches themselves can be found elsewhere.

Shifting Contexts

First of all, concerning the question about the characteristics of the situation in which Jesuit education takes place, it is clear that the context in which Ignatius developed his spiritual life and pedagogical vision is different from today’s context. Ignatius lived his life in countries whose culture was marked by Christian references. It is true that people can still encounter many of those references in contemporary Europe, but they often don’t understand them anymore. The cultural idiom has changed. Therefore, if we want to talk about Jesus at all in a sensible way and in a way that “sticks”, it is important to develop a “Jesus culture” in schools. This can be achieved through a conscious use of images, music, plays and other forms of cultural expression.ESP_Mundosi_500 The Jesuits can build on a long-lasting tradition in that respect. It is no coincidence that the pop band of the Jesuit project MUNDOSI performed at the conference one of the evenings. The group consists of lay people and Jesuits.

Jesuit education has always tried to reconcile human culture and religion. It does not consider “the world” as a place that we should liberate ourselves from to encounter God, but precisely as the place that we can co-develop in a responsible manner in order to find and even please God. This goes right back to the spiritual growth of Ignatius. At first he experienced his new life in the footsteps of great monks and saints in a military fashion (being the knight that he had been, but under different circumstances). Gradually however, he discovered that the spiritual life was not about “abandoning the world” or “conquering the life of a saint over the life of ordinary man,” but about “ordering the life of ordinary man in light of God’s vocation and grace.” Ignatius eventually no longer sought some sort of entitlement to God’s grace through his own efforts, but realized that God’s love had already been given to him apart from his efforts – which is in fact the experience of grace. In Manresa, Ignatius started writing his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises consist of forty contemplative imaginations of the life of Jesus. Apparently, Ignatius himself developed a “Jesus culture” right from the start. It allowed him to actively accept what he saw as God’s love. Ignatius lived that love as a dynamic that allowed him to give back love and to do things for the good of the world.

One of the things that Ignatius and the first Jesuits developed for the good of the world was good education. An Irish Jesuit at the conference used to hear quite regularly that “the Jesuits know their Cicero better than their Scripture.” From the get-go, Jesuit institutions indeed focused on young people, from all kinds of social backgrounds, who were destined for a worldly career. As Ignatius perceived the world as God-given, a worldly career for the benefit of mankind could very well be a service to God. However, in today’s multi-convictional and also often secularized context, this creates a tension between the expectations of certain parents and the motivations of Jesuit pedagogy.

The Place of Ignatian Spirituality

Many parents are very much interested in the fruits of the Ignatian tradition, a good education for their children. They often are less interested in the sources of that tradition, the belief that it is God who desires human beings to be “fully alive”. Hence it comes as no surprise that a second point addressed by both speakers is the question why we should talk about Jesus if today’s context might not be interested in the so-called “good news” proclaimed by Christianity.

The answer from a merely cultural and pedagogical point of view is, essentially, that the Christian tradition played a major role in human history on several levels – for better or for worse – and that no emancipatory pedagogical project can leave its students in the dark about the way that the Christian tradition co-created the world we are living in. In order to understand and critically question today’s society, we need a basic insight into the worldviews that are still at work in that society. Since the Christian tradition is often no longer explicitly understood in today’s culture, a re-introduction into the Christian cultural idiom might be mandatory. From the sixteenth century onwards, Jesuit education has always given attention to inspiring and influential historical figures from the past, and made those figures known. One workshop in particular, Educating the Hero Within by David Tuohy sj, reclaimed that tradition. It is clear that Ignatius and Jesus are figures who could use a renaissance today.

From a spiritual point of view, the Christian tradition functions as a critical resource vis-à-vis several current and often dominant ideas on happiness, freedom, (religious) faith, the meaning of life and what it means to be human. As Friedrich Sperringer sj made clear in his workshop on his experiences in Kosovo, the focus on Jesus paradoxically might intensify an open and multi-religious conversation about those questions.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the Jesuit order does not take its name from its founder, as is the case with most other religious orders in Christianity. The Jesuits want to stress that, ultimately, Ignatian spirituality is relative to the goal of that spirituality: the challenging emancipatory yet “comforting” encounter with Jesus. Ignatian spirituality is not about Ignatius, it is about Jesus. And if it is about Jesus, then Christian spirituality should – imitating the example of Jesus – imply an openness and respect to people from other cultures and traditions.

Adrian Porter referred to a presentation by Michael R. Carey with the title If You Meet Ignatius on the Road, Kill Him! (for the Jesuits of the Oregon Province and their Collaborators in Ministry – Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington July 30, 1992). Carey explains this title as follows:

If you meet the Buddha on the road kill himThe title is an allusion to the story of the Zen Buddhist master who struggled to bring his disciples along the road to the achievement of satori, or enlightenment. His were good disciples, reflectively reading from the Buddhist scriptures, earnestly chanting their prayers, patiently sitting in zazen, or seated meditation, in front of a great statue of the Buddha. The master understood that the disciples’ focus on Siddhartha Guatama as the historical Buddha might stand in the way of their each individually becoming the Buddha (which means, simply, ‘one who is awake’), so he asked them, ‘What should one do if he should meet the Buddha on the road?’ A few of the disciples attempted answers while others sat in reflection over this new koan, or problem, of their master. Finally, the Zen master warned, ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ It was said that many of his disciples achieved satori on that day. Others, very possibly, became even more confused!

The analogy is clear. If, in our search for the reality of the type of love that is present in Jesus, we get stuck in the Ignatian tradition as such (and its mediators, teachers and pastoral care workers), we should reorient our attitude towards that tradition: it is a means to another end, not an end in itself.

On the other hand, mediators are necessary in spiritual growth. Ignatius followed the example of the saints and of Jesus, and he also acknowledged the importance of intellectual work not to fall in totalitarian forms of subjectivism and relativism – wherein “the other as other” is reduced to a highly personal interpretation or experience of the other. As one participant from the Netherlands expressed it, “spirituality without reason (theology) that is merely about ‘feeling (good)’ is ‘spiritual masturbation’ and is not spirituality at all.” Eventually, every true spirituality fosters love of oneself and of others. Hence it opposes both the tendencies of a totalitarian subjectivism and objectivism.

In a previous post, Left with Right Identity Politics? – A Jewish Challenge, I wrote about the Jewishness of Jesus and the Christian tradition to explain why a truly Christian spirituality takes cultural traditions seriously as it also relativizes them:

Contrary to traditional notions of identity, the Judeo-Christian influence on history instills us with the idea that we are also free individuals. In other words, our identity is not determined by any particular cultural group, history, sexual orientation or even gender we’re born into. As individuals we do not necessarily belong to any particular group except, paradoxically, to humanity. Thus Judaism indeed opens up the possibility to perceive the other as ‘other human being’, irreducible to the particular characteristics of any ‘group’. To be a cultural animal from a traditional viewpoint means that a human being is born into a given culture that he naturally tries to maintain and develop. (Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by other cultures. This usually results in the exclusion or destruction of other cultures, understood as a ‘natural evolution’ in the cyclical order of things. There is no goal in this context but the goal to ‘preserve’ and ‘obey’ the endless laws governing human history.) To be a cultural animal from a Jewish or Judeo-Christian viewpoint means that a human being is born with natural gifts to adapt to and create any culture. (Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by the physical order of things, and to consider the possibility of the beyond, the revolutionary and truly new ‘meta-physical’; it is a consideration of a non-cyclical, linear future.) It is clear that Judaism warns against the deification of any particular culture or history. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one’s culture is ‘superior’ might lead to the oppression of ‘others’ who are perceived as ‘less human’, and Judaism battles this inhumane outcome. In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to many far right identity politics. On the other hand, Judaism also warns against the deification of individuality and human freedom. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one is ‘enlightened’ and free from particular cultural traditions and historical influences unlike ‘backward others’ leads to stores of rage and resentment from those others (who are merely ‘tolerated’ but not really engaged with in dialogue). In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to far left-wing and all too liberal identity politics, which feed the resentment right-wing identity politics thrive upon. Jesus warns his fellow Jews against the illusion that they are not dependent on historical influences like their ancestors. To think that we would not have made the mistakes our ancestors made in their time, is to deny the inescapable historicity of our humanity, and again leads to a rejection of the other as ‘other human being’. Again we then show the tendency to reduce others to the particular characteristics of a ‘group’ different from ‘us’. In short, Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges that there are physical forces and cultural laws which precede our existence, but they are merely starting points. They do not determine the goals and destiny of our lives. We are called to live an existence as individuals who ultimately belong to no particular group but humanity. Thus we are called ‘to love our neighbor as ourselves’. Therein lies the essence of ‘human nature’ in a Judeo-Christian sense.

Creating Opportunities for Spiritual Growth

An important third question both speakers addressed at the JECSE conference was how to share the life-giving experience of the encounter with Jesus. The present text already hinted at several ideas concerning this question: the creation of a conscious “Jesus culture”, using today’s cultural language to recount the story of Jesus (this world is not a place that should be avoided), and the creation of multi-religious communities (as is the case in Kosovo) around the figure of Jesus and figures from other traditions (“educating the hero within” by providing the experience of inspiring examples). It is also important to provide students with the intellectual means to counter both the temptations of religious fundamentalism and the so-called New Atheism. As José María Rodríguez Olaizola put it, “if you’re going to be an atheist, be an atheist in a truly critical manner.” If one thing became clear concerning the question how to transmit the idea that faith is a critical and inspiring option, it was that there is a lot of dynamic creativity in Jesuit high schools.

Ignatius by Gudiol

The JECSE conference in general proved to be a hotbed of inspiring ideas and of heartwarming international encounters. It was an opportunity for spiritual growth in itself. Mass was celebrated intensely at the place that was so important for the spiritual growth of Ignatius – the Cave in Manresa –, also because some of our colleagues had to cope with the sad news that some of their students had recently lost their lives. In the end, Ignatian spirituality is about empowering each other and about the encouragement to use all of our human faculties the best we can, for the good of ourselves and of the world, based on the faith that there is a loving God in whose hands we find shelter.

For sure the conference brought together the group of Flanders. Each of the seven high schools had sent one representative to the conference. Under the guidance of Peter Knapen and Tom De Bruyn, Wouter, Liesbet, Anne-Sophie, Heleen, Vera, Ruben and myself experienced four days of authentic, open, reflective and energizing encounters among our group. Just thinking about it makes me smile. I’m sure that I’m not the only one looking back with much gratitude, and with a great desire to develop some projects from within this group in the future.

Erik Buys

SJC Aalst, Belgium

 

Love the Enemy’s Side of the Story (Covington Kids vs Nathan Phillips)

I was ready alright. I saw a clip on YouTube where “white privileged teen boys of an all-male Catholic school (Covington)” were taunting and mocking Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Tribe member and Vietnam veteran. This happened after the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Moreover, some of the boys were wearing caps that said MAGA (“Make America Great Again”), especially also the boy with an apparent smirk on his face who seemed to block Nathan’s way.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been fascinated by Native American culture, especially since the Kevin Costner movie Dances with Wolves (1990) came out. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump and the way he wants to “Make America Great Again”, to put it mildly.

So I was ready alright. Ready to defend the oppressed, ready to take up the underdog cause. Ready to go on a rant against “conceited racists”. I spontaneously identified and empathized with Nathan Phillips. In doing so, I equally spontaneously vilified especially that smirking boy with the MAGA cap. My primal conclusion run parallel with this kind of meme:

nathan phillips and the maga hat wearing teens

However, luckily some people pointed to other clips about the event and I had to radically alter my vision. Don’t get me wrong. I still sympathize with people like Nathan Phillips, but now I also no longer vilify the teens from Covington Catholic High School. And here is why (thanks for this video by Dinkleberry Crunch):

 

Surely this video adds more context to the whole situation, and prevents me from thinking of one side as “noble knights” and the other as “big monsters”. The truth is that the knights (the “Jedi”) aren’t that noble and the monsters (the “Sith”) aren’t that monstrous. Moreover, by choosing sides the way I did, I became somewhat a self-righteous monster myself.

Jesus demands (Matthew 5:44): “Love your enemies.” Father Robert Barron pointed out that this kind of “love is not a sentiment or feeling. It is actively willing the good of the other.” Indeed, if love were a mere feeling, we could never love our “enemies”, for we mostly associate them with negative, dark sentiments. The reality of the love Jesus is talking about cannot be reduced to feelings, though. It has to do with a conscious act of the will. Love demands us to look at a conflict from “the enemy’s side”. This leads to a kind of self-criticism that allows us to restore a healthy relationship with “the enemy”. Love as an act of will operates in the hope that the enemy will imitate this kind of behavior, be self-critical himself, and make a new healthy relationship a reality – in whatever form. In other words, that kind of love has the potential to create a space for mutually reinforcing “good mimesis”.

Anyway, Jesus warns against perversions of “defending victims”. He fully stands with the oppressed, but refuses “to persecute others in the name of victims”. After all, by persecuting others in the name of victims, we tend to become oppressors ourselves, and we become the monsters we wanted to destroy. That’s what kind of happened to me, I must admit, in the case described above. Sometimes we need the words of wise, spiritual people to be more aware of what happens to ourselves and the world. So, to conclude this post, two quotes by the wise voices of Gil Bailie and René Girard:

René Girard in Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Continuum, London, New York, 2007, p. 236:

We have experienced various forms of totalitarianism that openly denied Christian principles. There has been the totalitarianism of the Left, which tried to outflank Christianity; and there has been totalitarianism of the Right, like Nazism, which found Christianity too soft on victims. This kind of totalitarianism is not only alive but it also has a great future. There will probably be some thinkers in the future who will reformulate this principle in a politically correct fashion, in more virulent forms, which will be more anti-Christian, albeit in an ultra-Christian caricature. When I say more Christian and more anti-Christian, I imply the figure of the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is nothing but that: it is the ideology that attempts to outchristianize Christianity, that imitates Christianity in a spirit of rivalry.

[…]

You can foresee the shape of what the Anti-Christ is going to be in the future: a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.

rené girard quote on caricature of christianity

Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1995, p. 20:

There’s plenty of truth in the revised picture of Western history that the young are now routinely taught, the picture of the West’s swashbuckling appetite for power, wealth, and dominion. What’s to be noted is that it is we, and not our cultural adversaries, who are teaching it to them. It is we, the spiritual beneficiaries of that less than always edifying history, who automatically empathize more with our ancestors’ victims than with our ancestors themselves. If we are tempted to think that this amazing shift is the product of our own moral achievement, all we have to do is look around at how shamelessly we exploit it for a little power, wealth, and dominion of our own.

The fact is that the concern for victims has gradually become the principal gyroscope in the Western world. Even the most vicious campaigns of victimization – including, astonishingly, even Hitler’s – have found it necessary to base their assertion of moral legitimacy on the claim that their goal was the protection or vindication of victims. However savagely we behave, and however wickedly and selectively we wield this moral gavel, protecting or rescuing innocent victims has become the cultural imperative everywhere the Biblical influence has been felt.

gil bailie quote on myths justifying violence

 

 

Don’t Blame the NON-EXISTENT GOD, Focus on the Reality of LOVE

I’m sure many of us hear the following voices from time to time:

They say that I should trust my boyfriend and respect his personal space and freedom, but that’s easy for them to say. How would they treat their current partners if they had been cheated on by their former partners, not once, but time and again?

***

They say that I should respect my liberal leftist teacher, but every time I open my mouth to talk about my deepest right-wing traditionalist convictions I am accused of being a narcissistic racist by some of my classmates.

***

They say that we should respect the so-called traditional family, but what about my best friend who is a victim of incest?

***

They say that I should respect my rightist classmate, but they forget that I’ve been called a libtard, moron and nigger constantly by many right-wing people over the past few years.

***

They say that I should respect the so-called beauty of nature and that I shouldn’t kick my dog when he’s behaving badly, but what do they know about the earthquake that destroyed my aunt’s house and the horse that smashed my brother’s face to smithereens?

***

They say that I should respect the immigrants who stay in the adjacent refugee center, but that’s easy for them to say. My daughter who lives in another town is harassed, almost daily, by a foreigner on the way to work.

***

They say that I should respect their culture and that I should be able to speak and write in their language, but they are not even themselves capable of writing in their own language without mistakes. In fact, I am better at writing in their language. Why should I accept the instruction of my professor to read one of the so-called great literary works of their culture while my own culture has some great writers as well?

***

They say that I should respect and cherish the so-called god-given gift of life, but they don’t seem to consider my trauma: the people who are dearest to me lost their lives in a car-crash. Why should I respect and believe in a god who apparently let this happen?

Have you ever experienced, like the voices above, a rejection or betrayal of yourself or the ones you love by your family, your friends, your classmates, your colleagues, your government, your president, strangers, foreigners, people with another worldview, or even the universe itself? If so, you probably also already took out your anxieties and frustrations on others in revenge of that rejection, although they had nothing to do with the trauma you experienced.

Your new boyfriend is not the old one who cheated on you. Your teacher is not the classmate who offended you. Your friend’s foster parent is not the uncle who abused your friend. Your rightist classmate is not the racist who doesn’t respect your color. Your dog is not the horse that smashed your brother’s face. Your refugee neighbor is not the foreigner who harassed your daughter. Your professor is not the double-standard hypocrite who expects things from you he wouldn’t expect from others.

All these people are non-existent enemies. They are blamed for things they are not responsible for. In other words, they are scapegoats who suffer from revenge – which is an imitated evil. The ultimate scapegoat, of course, is the non-existent god people sometimes get angry at. There is no god who controls our fate or who can be manipulated to have control over our fate.

The tragedy is that we might become so obsessed with fighting non-existing enemies that we ultimately create the enemy we actually wanted to destroy in order to save ourselves. Innocent others might get traumatized by our anger, and they might end up getting angry at others as well. Trauma often inflicts trauma. We might even become so obsessed with fighting the non-existent god and his illusory belief systems that we end up being dictated by the illusion ourselves.

The non-existent all-controlling god cannot prevent car-crashes in which we lose our beloved ones, nor can he cause them. He is not real. The love that connects us with those beloved ones, through and beyond pain and suffering, is real though. Eventually according to the Bible it is that love which reveals who God really is.

Ultimately, we want to love others and we want the love of others. When we experience the lack of others we love or the lack of love from others, we are hurt to the bone because our deepest desire is not met. We don’t want the pain and the sadness when people hurt us, or when people we love are taken away from us. We want love, even if it is because of love that we are able to feel hurt and sad in the first place. Love carries us. Even if we try to fight love with hate and indifference love is always first. Love is equally the source of our joy and our sadness, as it is the source of our indignation and attempts at indifference.

Focus on Love

So instead of focusing on a non-existent god and non-existent enemies because of our hurt, our sadness, our fear and our anger, isn’t it better to focus on the reality of the love that is felt through and beyond our pain? Isn’t it better to focus on the love that moves us beyond our fear, envy, possessiveness and revengefulness?

Those who were not able to let love in our lives shouldn’t be persecuted in others (or ourselves!) who have nothing to do with their sin. And those who showed us glimpses of what love is and who passed away or said goodbye shouldn’t be buried under grief when they can be gratefully present in our ability to love, each and every day.

Easily said. Not always easily done.

Love casts out Fear

NEDERLANDSE VERTALING:

BESCHULDIG GEEN ONBESTAANDE GOD, RICHT JE OP DE REALITEIT VAN DE LIEFDE

Ik ben er zeker van dat velen van ons gelijkaardige stemmen als de volgende al aan het woord hebben gehoord:

Ze zeggen dat ik mijn vriend moet vertrouwen en dat ik zijn persoonlijke ruimte en vrijheid moet respecteren, maar zij hebben gemakkelijk praten. Hoe zouden zij hun huidige partners behandelen als ze bedrogen zijn geweest door hun vorige partner, en dat niet één keer, maar telkens opnieuw?

***

Ze zeggen dat ik mijn leraar met zijn linkse opvattingen moet respecteren, maar elke keer als ik mijn mond open om te praten over mijn rechtse, conservatieve overtuigingen word ik racist genoemd door sommige klasgenoten.

***

Ze zeggen dat we respect moeten hebben voor het zogenaamd klassieke gezin, maar ze denken daarbij niet aan mijn vriendin die een slachtoffer is van incest.

***

Ze zeggen dat ik respect moet hebben voor die klasgenote met haar rechtse opvattingen, maar ze vergeten dat ik de voorbije jaren vele keren vuile neger werd genoemd door rechts georiënteerde mensen.

***

Ze zeggen dat ik de zogenaamde schoonheid van de natuur moet respecteren en dat ik mijn hond niet mag schoppen als hij zich misdraagt, maar zeg dat eens aan mijn tante wiens huis door een aardbeving werd vernietigd, en spreek eens met mijn broer wiens gezicht door de trap van een paard aan gruzelementen werd geslagen.

***

Ze zeggen dat ik de immigranten moet respecteren die in het naburige vluchtelingencentrum verblijven terwijl mijn dochter bijna elke dag wordt lastiggevallen door een vreemdeling op de weg naar haar werk.

***

Ze zeggen dat ik hun cultuur moet respecteren en dat ik hun taal moet kunnen spreken en schrijven, maar ze zijn zelf niet in staat om in hun eigen taal zonder fouten te schrijven. Eigenlijk schrijf ik zelfs beter in hun taal dan zijzelf. Waarom zou ik dan de opdracht van mijn professor aanvaarden om een van de zogenaamd grote literaire werken van hun cultuur te lezen, terwijl mijn cultuur ook grote schrijvers heeft voortgebracht?

***

Ze zeggen dat ik het zogenaamd goddelijke geschenk van het leven moet respecteren en koesteren, maar ze schijnen mijn trauma niet te overwegen: de mensen die mij het nauwst aan het hart liggen, lieten het leven in een auto-ongeluk. Waarom zou ik respect hebben voor en geloof hebben in een god die dit blijkbaar liet gebeuren?

Heb je ooit, zoals de zopas gehoorde stemmen, een afwijzing of verraad ervaren van jezelf of van mensen die je bemint door je familie, je vrienden, je klasgenoten, je collega’s, je regering, vreemdelingen, mensen met een andere levensbeschouwing, of zelfs “het universum” zelf? Indien je inderdaad die afwijzing hebt gevoeld, dan heb je waarschijnlijk ook wel al eens je angsten en frustraties afgereageerd op anderen die eigenlijk niets met jouw trauma te maken hebben.

Je nieuwe vriendje is niet je ex-vriendje dat jou bedrogen heeft. Je leraar is niet de klasgenoot die jou beledigde. De pleegouder van je vriendin is niet de oom die haar misbruikte. Je rechtse klasgenote is niet de raciste die geen respect heeft voor je huidskleur. Je hond is niet het paard dat het gezicht van je broer verbrijzelde. De vluchteling uit je buurt is niet de vreemdeling die je dochter lastigvalt. Je professor is niet de hypocriet die met twee maten en twee gewichten weegt; hij is niet iemand die van jou iets anders verwacht dan van anderen.

Al die mensen zijn onbestaande vijanden. Ze worden beschuldigd van zaken waarvoor ze niet verantwoordelijk zijn. Ze zijn, met andere woorden, zondebokken die lijden onder onze onterechte wraakzucht (en door die wraakzucht imiteren we het kwaad dat ons is aangedaan). De ultieme zondebok is natuurlijk de niet-bestaande god op wie mensen soms kwaad worden. Er is geen god die ons lot controleert en die we kunnen manipuleren om controle over ons lot te krijgen.

Het tragische is dat we zo geobsedeerd kunnen geraken door het bevechten van onze niet-bestaande vijanden dat we uiteindelijk toch een vijand creëren. En eigenlijk wilden we die vijand vernietigen om onszelf te redden. Onschuldige anderen kunnen getraumatiseerd geraken door de woede waarmee we ons afreageren, en daardoor kunnen zij dan weer boos worden op anderen. Trauma’s brengen vaak nieuwe trauma’s voort. We kunnen zelfs zo geobsedeerd geraken door het bevechten van een niet-bestaande god en de valse geloofssystemen die met hem gepaard gaan, dat ons eigen leven uiteindelijk gedicteerd wordt door die illusie.

De niet-bestaande alles controlerende god kan geen auto-ongelukken verhinderen waarin we onze geliefden verliezen, en hij kan evenmin die ongelukken veroorzaken. Hij is niet echt. Daarentegen is de liefde die ons met die geliefden verbindt, doorheen en voorbij ons verdriet, wél echt. Het is die liefde die uiteindelijk volgens de Bijbelse geschriften openbaart wie God werkelijk is.

Uiteindelijk beantwoordt de liefde misschien wel aan ons diepste verlangen: we willen anderen beminnen en we willen door anderen bemind worden. Wanneer we mensen moeten missen die we graag zien, of wanneer we een gebrek aan liefde van anderen ervaren, worden we tot in het diepste van onze ziel gekwetst, precies omdat ons diepste verlangen niet wordt vervuld. We willen niet de pijn en het verdriet wanneer mensen ons kwetsen, of wanneer de mensen die we graag zien ons worden ontnomen. We willen liefde, zelfs als het de liefde is die ervoor zorgt dat we überhaupt pijn en verdriet kunnen voelen. De liefde draagt ons. Zelfs als we de liefde bevechten met haat en onverschilligheid is de liefde nog altijd eerst. Liefde is tegelijk de bron van onze vreugde en ons verdriet, alsook van onze verontwaardiging en pogingen tot onverschilligheid.

Dus in plaats van ons te focussen op niet-bestaande vijanden en een niet-bestaande god wegens onze pijn, ons verdriet, onze angsten en onze boosheid, kunnen we ons misschien beter focussen op de werkelijkheid van de liefde die doorheen en voorbij onze pijn voelbaar wordt. Is het niet beter om ons te laten bewegen door die liefde in plaats van door angst, jaloezie, bezitterigheid en wraakzucht?

We moeten onszelf en anderen niet haten omdat sommige mensen niet in staat bleken om ons liefde te geven. En zij die ons wél een glimp lieten opvangen van wat liefde is, maar van wie we afscheid moesten nemen, zouden niet mogen begraven worden onder jammerklachten. Zij kunnen immers aanwezig blijven in ons dankbaar vermogen om lief te hebben, elke dag opnieuw.

Dat is gemakkelijk gezegd, niet altijd gemakkelijk gedaan. Toch is de hoop op een gerespecteerd en respectvol leven een hoop die we blijvend mogen koesteren.

John Steinbeck on Rejection (quote from East of Eden)

 

 

 

 

Left with Right Identity Politics? A Jewish Challenge

“Cutting off hands, Congo is ours!”

These words are sung regularly nowadays by certain young people across Flanders, Belgium. I heard them last year during a sporting event organized by the school I’m working in. The following is an example of a sticker found at my school:

Handjes kappen de Congo is van ons (sticker in SJC)

I also heard the racist chant on Congo more recently on a TV news report. Amateur footage showed how a young Belgian-Rwandese woman suffered harassment at a music festival from a group of young men. The men were singing “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” (“Cutting off hands, Congo is ours”). They of course refer to a horrible practice by colonists in former Belgian Congo: colonists sometimes cut the hands of workers who tried to escape oppressive labor conditions. In short, “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” is a very racist song, referring to barbaric aspects of western history and culture.

Leopold II and Congolese hands cut off

Apart from plain racist statements, nationalist claims are also a hype. “This is Flemish soil” are words which often come from the very same people who sometimes sing the Congo song, thereby jeopardizing the cause of those Flemish nationalists who want nothing to do with racism. At least at the already mentioned sporting event this was the case. “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” was uttered by students who write “Dit is Vlaamse grond” (“This is Flemish soil”) everywhere they can (on walls and desks, in notebooks, etcetera). It is quite ironic that people who claim to defend “the Flemish cause” associate themselves with a brutal practice of Belgium’s colonial past.

Godwin's LawIf the racist song is merely a self-proclaimed (however horribly misguided) “joke”, then the singers are really taking a basic element of a so-called politically correct framework as their moral reference point: racism should be rejected. If it is not a joke, then the singers truly reject what is often loathed as “political correctness”. In the latter case, the singers carry out Adolf Hitler’s worldview. Before going any further with this, it should be stressed that Godwin’s law is not at work here.

Claiming that “Flanders is for the Flemish” or, say, “Sweden belongs to the Swedes” on the one hand, and that “Congo belongs to the (Flemish) Europeans” on the other, is the same as claiming that some people have more rights than others. Apparently it is believed that Congo does not belong to the Congolese but to the Flemish.

Black Earth (book cover)To understand how those claims are connected to Hitler’s worldview it is recommended to read the work of historian Timothy Snyder (who was the first to deliver the René Girard Lecture at Stanford University, organized by Imitatio). Snyder explains Hitler’s worldview also in an interview with The Atlantic:

What Hitler says is that abstract thought—whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific—is inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state: races struggle against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try to take land.

[…]

It’s a very dark, empty universe. I mean, that’s how Hitler describes it to himself. There are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people. And so Hitler sees the only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he says it, human nature and physical nature. […] Unnatur is actually a term that Hitler uses, and I think it’s a really telling term. […] He sees the Jews as being the thing which destroys the world, which infects the world. He uses the term “pestilence” in this sense—the Jews have infected the world. They’ve made the world not just impure in some kind of metaphorical sense—he really means it. And so the only way to purify the world—to make things go back to the way they’re supposed to be, to have a natural ecology, to go back to this struggle between races, which Hitler thinks is natural—the only way to do that is to physically eliminate the Jews.

[…]

I went back and reread [Hitler’s manifesto] Mein Kampf, and reread the second book, and read all the major Hitler primary sources, and I was really astonished at how clearly these ideas came out—that, in fact, Hitler’s quite explicitly an ecological thinker, that the planetary level is the most important level. This is something that he says right from the beginning of Mein Kampf, all the way through. And likewise, I was struck that Hitler explicitly said that states are temporary, state borders will be washed away in the struggle for nature. In other words, the anarchy that he creates was actually there in the theory from the beginning. Hitler says from the very beginning, what we have to do is destroy the Jews; strip away the artificial political creations that the Jews are responsible for; and let nature just take its course. And what he means by nature’s course is [that] the stronger races destroy the weaker races.

[…]

In short, the “natural order”, according to Hitler, is the struggle between races, whereby the stronger “races” take land from the weaker. And so it happens that people to this day can claim that “Congo belongs to the Flemish” (which means that the Congolese are seen as belonging to a “weaker race”). Also according to Hitler, the so-called “natural order” is “morally preferable”. The Jews, in Hitler’s view, challenge the idea of a direct causality between a so-called “natural physical order of things” and “what is morally preferable”. I think Hitler is quite right about the latter case.

The Jews eventually, in the course of their history, question any determination of human beings by the physical forces that govern our universe. In ancient “pagan” (in this context “non-Jewish”) cultures these forces were deified and worshipped as “gods” (or “the divine” – “the sacred”). They were the authors of human life, whose laws prescribed the ultimate meaning and destiny of that life. Hitler re-interprets those forces in a somewhat pseudo-Darwinian sense, likewise claiming that the goal of human life is necessarily determined by the “laws of nature” as he defines them (see above). By contrast, the God of Israel ultimately calls human beings to become the authors of their own life and to understand themselves as relatively independent of “the given order of things”. To “the given order of things” belong our spontaneous inclinations, which also do not automatically determine our behavior (and the very fact that we can choose to follow our inclinations or not proves that we are relatively free and not determined by them). Even allegiance to a family, to a “father” and a “mother” becomes something that is not naturally, automatically given in a Jewish sense: it becomes a revealed commandment in the Ten Commandments. This might encourage us to focus our attention on those people who truly are father and mother figures in our lives, those who are not necessarily our biological father or mother (see The Judgment of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28). Jesus maybe goes even further, as he invites us to question our attachment to our own family and culture (see previous post: Jesus Christ, Narcissist?) in order to love our neighbor and “love our enemy”. In any case, to many people, like victims of incest, it is probably a relief that abusive family members or oppressive cultural customs do not determine their identity.

What is ultimately at stake in the ideological battle between Judaism and, for lack of a better word, (neo)paganism is a question about what it means to be a cultural animal. Some people would say that the identity of every human being is determined by a particular culture and its history. In this case, any attempt to overcome our paradoxical so-called natural attachment to “our own cultural in-group” is perceived as a “perversion of nature” that is bound to tragically fail. From this perspective we are born into a culture whose given traditions, customs, norms and values we should deeply respect. It is also believed that history shows whose culture is “superior” to other cultures. Again paradoxically, it seems like an endless and necessary law that we are committed to deify our history and cultural heritage.

Contrary to the traditional pagan notions of identity, the Judeo-Christian influence on history instills us with the idea that we are also free individuals. In other words, our identity is not determined by any particular cultural group, history, sexual orientation or even gender we’re born into. As individuals we do not necessarily belong to any particular group except, paradoxically, to humanity. Thus Judaism indeed opens up the possibility to perceive the other as “other human being” (as Hitler would have it and detests it, see above), irreducible to the particular characteristics of any “group”.

the-very-relationship-with-the-other-is-the-relationship-with-the-future-quote-1

To be a cultural animal from a (neo)pagan viewpoint means that a human being is born into a given culture that he naturally tries to maintain and develop.

[Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by other cultures. This usually results in the exclusion or destruction of other cultures, understood as a “natural evolution” in the cyclical order of things. There is no goal in this context but the goal to “preserve” and “obey” the endless laws governing human history.]

To be a cultural animal from a Jewish or Judeo-Christian viewpoint means that a human being is born with natural gifts to adapt to and create any culture.

[Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by the physical order of things, and to consider the possibility of the beyond, the revolutionary and truly new “meta-physical”; it is a consideration of a non-cyclical, linear future.]

Cyclical vs Linear

It is clear that Judaism warns against the deification of any particular culture or history. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one’s culture is “superior” leads to the oppression of “others” who are perceived as “less human”, and Judaism battles this inhumane outcome. In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to many far right identity politics. Ecclesiastes very nicely points to the futility of any human culture – generations and kings come and go (Ecclesiastes 1:11 & 4:14-16):

No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

On the other hand, Judaism also warns against the deification of individuality and human freedom. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one is “enlightened” and free from particular cultural traditions and historical influences unlike “backward others” leads to stores of rage and resentment from those others (who are merely “tolerated” but not really engaged in dialogue). In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to far left-wing and all too liberal identity politics, which feed the resentment right-wing identity politics thrive upon.

Levinas Quote on War

Jesus warns his fellow Jews against the illusion that they are not dependent on historical influences like their ancestors. To think that we would not have made the mistakes our ancestors made in their time, is to deny the inescapable historicity of our humanity, and again leads to a rejection of the other as “other human being”. Again we then show the tendency to reduce others to the particular characteristics of a “group” different from “us”. In the words of Jesus (Matthew 23:29-32):

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”

In short, Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges that there are physical forces and cultural laws which precede our existence, but they are merely starting points. They do not determine the goals and destiny of our lives. We are called to live an existence as individuals who ultimately belong to no particular group but humanity. Thus we are called “to love our neighbor as ourselves”. Therein lies the essence of “human nature” in a Judeo-Christian sense.

P.S. 1 It remains to be seen if a young Flemish nationalist movement like Schild & Vrienden is also a racist movement. Dries Van Langenhove, leader of the movement, called the above mentioned racist Congo song “an edgy student song, sung at nearly every party”. I hope he doesn’t mean that it should therefore be accepted. The supposed racism of “other cultures” doesn’t in any way justify racism in one’s own quarters (although it might make it comprehensible). To be proud of your own culture means that you don’t imitate morally questionable practices of other cultures, and that you don’t take those practices as a reference point to justify your own practices. In the case of responding to the racism of others, we are responsible for our own behavior, and we shouldn’t blame others for the way we act – that would be hiding behind a scapegoat mechanism.

Anyway, here is an interview with Dries Van Langenhove by Lana Lokteff of Red Ice. It reveals some of the suppositions of Schild & Vrienden concerning “identity formation” and some of their views on what it means to be part of a cultural realm:

P.S. 2 For more on the word culture and its etymology click here for slides on Australian pop culture (assembled by Angela Ballas – Yaryalitsa). Or watch the powerpoint:

The Jesus Treatment of Bullying

In Catholicism, A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image Books, 2011) Robert Barron explains the nonviolent way of Jesus in the face of evil as a “third” way, apart from violently fighting or fleeing the evil (pp. 48-51):

In words that still take our breath away, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44). In order to understand this radical teaching, we have to be clear on what Jesus means by “love” (agape in Matthew’s Greek). Love is not a sentiment or feeling, not merely a tribal loyalty or family devotion. Love is actively willing the good of the other as other. Often we are good or kind or just to others so that they might be good, kind, or just to us in return. But this is indirect egotism, not love. And this is why loving one’s enemies is the surest test of love. If I am good to someone who is sure to repay me, then I might simply be engaging in an act of disguised or implicit self-interest. But if I am generous to someone who is my enemy, who is not the least bit interested in responding to me in kind, then I can be sure that I have truly willed his good and not my own. And this is why Jesus says, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? … And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Mt 5:46-47). Jesus wants his followers to rise above the imperfect forms of benevolence that obtain among the general run of human beings and to aspire to love the way that God loves: “for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45). […] If we are truly free from our attachments, especially from the attachment to approval, then we can become “sons and daughters” of [this Love], this God and hence conduits of his peculiar grace. […]

The already radical teaching on loving one’s enemies becomes even more intensely focused as Jesus turns his attention to the practice of nonviolence. Giving voice to the common consensus among law-abiding Jews, Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well” (Mt 5:38-40). It is most important not to overlook the fact that this was, for its time, quite an enlightened, compassionate rule, for many individuals and nations would have felt justified in answering a violent affront with a devastating and disproportionate counterviolence. The seemingly brutal “eye for an eye” rule was in fact an attempt to delimit the retaliatory instinct. But, as we can see, Jesus is uneasy even with this relatively benign recommendation. I fully realize that Jesus’s instruction can sound like simple acquiescence to the power of violence, but we have to probe further. There are two classical responses to evil: fight or flight. When confronted with injustice or violence, we can answer in kind – and sometimes in our sinful world that is all that we can reasonably do. But as every playground bully and every geopolitical aggressor knows, this usually leads to an act of counterviolence, and then still another retaliation until the opponents are locked in an endless round of fighting. Gandhi expressed it this way: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The other typical responses to aggression are running away or submitting – and sometimes, given our finite, sinful situation, that is all we can do. But, finally, we all know that ceding to violence tends only to justify the aggressor and encourage even more injustice. And therefore it appears as though, in regard to solving the problem of violence, we are locked in a no-win situation, compelled to oscillate back and forth between two deeply unsatisfactory strategies.

In his instruction on nonviolence Jesus is giving us a way out, and we will grasp this if we attend carefully to the famous example he uses: “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well” (Lk 6:29). In the society of the time, one would never have used one’s left hand for any form of social interaction, since it was considered unclean. Thus, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, he is hitting you with the back of his hand, and this was the manner in which one would strike a slave or a child or a social inferior. In the face of this kind of violence, Jesus is recommending neither fighting back nor fleeing, but rather standing one’s ground. To turn the other cheek is to prevent him from hitting you the same way again. It is not to run or to acquiesce, but rather to signal to the aggressor that you refuse to accept the set of assumptions that have made his aggression possible. It is to show that you are occupying a different moral space. It is also, consequently, a manner of mirroring back to the violent person the deep injustice of what he is doing. The great promise of this approach is that it might not only stop the violence but also transform the perpetrator of it.

Robert Barron then gives some examples of this strategy, as it was used by Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Pope John Paul II (see the video fragment below):

The award winning social skills educator Brooks Gibbs, who tries to educate people to live by the Golden Rule, took the “mirroring strategy” of Jesus as a way to deal with bullying. What the mirroring strategy does, basically, is to take away the power of the bully to humiliate the victim. The words of the bully are received as “badges of honor”. It is comparable to the way the word “nigga” is sometimes used nowadays among African-American youngsters themselves, so the word gradually loses its power to have a derogatory meaning. I remember being called “homo” one time and thanking the one who yelled it for “the compliment”. In other words, the mirroring strategy in the face of evil is a kind of transformative mimetic practice that invites evildoers to imitate another set of practices and assumptions to end the evil. It could be an example of what René Girard calls “good mimesis”.Tupac on Niggas

Does it work? Not always, but if it does, the results are stunning, as is shown in the video below by Brooks Gibbs: