Challenging Stories of Revelation

On Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible

SEVEN STORIES – GENERAL OUTLINE

In 2017, Anthony W. Bartlett publishes a remarkable book, Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible (Hopetime Press, Great Britain, 2017). It is the result of a lifelong personal engagement with Biblical texts and their existential, spiritual and cultural implications. The book’s title already suggests its multi-layered character.

Seven Stories (Anthony Bartlett)

First of all, the book presents itself as an instrument for individual and communal spiritual reflection. After an introductory chapter on methodology with key concepts and hermeneutical starting points, the reader is invited to reflect on key Biblical texts by following the development of seven stories throughout the Bible. Each chapter starts off with an overview containing a lesson plan, the main learning objectives, the synopsis of the story as a whole and some key words and concepts. This is followed by three lessons on the actual story, each of them containing the necessary information to understand the Biblical texts that are mentioned. Every lesson also ends with an invitation to further explorations (i.e. lesson questions, questions for personal reflection, a glossary, a list of resources and background reading, and some cultural references).

Secondly, content-wise the book lays bare the often hidden challenge represented by the Biblical texts themselves, which is to understand their two-fold revelation. On the one hand, the Biblical texts reveal how human identity is tarnished and generated by violence, resulting in a wrongful understanding of God as violent. On the other hand, the Bible also reveals that God is actually nonviolent: God is a God of love.

The seven stories thus contain, thirdly, an invitation for a transformational journey: from an awareness about our complicity in the world of violence to our participation in a reality that is not dependent on violence – the reality of the God of Jesus. That’s what the “conversion” experience is all about in a Biblical sense. In his introduction Anthony Bartlett explains the aim of the book as follows (p. 9):

“Today we are on the cusp of an enormous shift, from colluding with inherited tropes of violent divinity, to surrendering completely to the dramatic truth revealed through the whole Bible: nothing less than a nonviolent God bringing to birth a nonviolent humanity. We offer this coursebook as a heartfelt contribution to this worldwide movement.”

Bartlett follows three main interpretive principles that allow him and his readers to understand the Bible the way he does:

  • an academic and scholarly background of historical-critical research
  • the anthropology of French-American thinker René Girard (1923-2015) – explained very well in the first chapter
  • a faith relationship with a God of nonviolence – in the author’s case as part of the Wood Hath Hope Christian Community, among others

These principles counter the temptations of Marcionism on the one hand and of fundamentalism on the other. The God of the Old Testament is consistent with the God of the Sermon on the Mount, but this becomes clear through a collection of Biblical texts that contains both the default human understanding of God as violent and the revelation of God as nonviolent. Again from the introduction (p. 9) – emphasis mine:

“If the Bible is anthropological revelation – showing us the violence of human cultural origins – then the Bible must carry within itself a critique of its own theological forms. If on the one hand the Bible tells about human violence and on the other about God, texts about the latter will always be written and read in tension with texts about the former. It is only over the course of development of the whole Bible that resolution will be possible, but the tension must be always kept in mind. […] The whole labor of the text, from Genesis to Revelation, is a journey of decoding the Bible by the Bible.”

To understand the Biblical texts as texts “in travail”, on the way to a more complete revelation of the human and the divine, allows for a non-fundamentalist approach of the Bible’s authority. Anthony Bartlett explains this very well – once again from the introduction (pp. 12-13), emphasis mine:

“In order to get to that final twist we first must have a continuity of narrative which can bring us to that point. In order for the new to arrive there must first be the familiar and the known. Thus Seven Stories includes cycles on the Land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple. These institutions and their symbolic value provided the necessary historical and narrative arc within which the plot of the new could emerge. In the Seven Stories understanding, the Land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple are the stable rock of ordinary human culture in and through which the stresses of the new show themselves, and finally break through into new creation.

The upshot of all this is a very clear understanding of the authority of the text. To claim authority for scripture does not depend on an abstract notion of inerrancy, so that somehow every single statement in its literal and grammatical form has the weight of a courtroom statement by or about God. To assert this is to create nothing more than a weapon of authority where the authority is more important than the story, than the transformation wrought by the stories. No, the authority of scripture is much more consistent with a God of creative love, and of loving creation. Its authority lies within the transformative process itself, within its slow, gentle but unfailing agency to bring creation to perfection in peace and love. Is this not a much more credible notion of authority, represented in the slow patient progression of Biblical texts and their final realization in the person of Jesus? Rather than a rock falling from the sky the Bible is a seed sprouting from the earth. Whatever is consistent with this generative process has authority. Everything else is the rock of human culture against which the seed is slowly but irresistibly straining.

[…]

The Bible is always in discussion with itself and the informed student will see and feel this at every point. Genesis is in discussion with Exodus-through-Kings, Job with Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes with Proverbs, Jonah with Nahum, Ruth with Nehemiah, Song of Songs with Genesis, and Daniel with almost all of the above. For a Christian the point where the discussion is resolved is with Jesus. And so the persona and teaching of Jesus always constitute the third lesson in each cycle, folding into his story the transformative changes detected in his scriptural tradition. He is also mentioned freely in the course of the Old Testament lessons, because he is indeed the final interpretive lens, the final twist that makes sense of everything.”

SEVEN STORIES – CONCRETE EXAMPLE

A concrete example from the book shows how rich and enriching the above described approach truly is. The first of the seven stories bears the title Oppression to Justice and deals with the Hebrews as Hapiru – a class of dispossessed people from different ethnic backgrounds –, their Exodus experience and the interpretation of that experience by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The end of the second lesson, on the Exodus experience, combines all the different layers present in Bartlett’s book. It is but one of many superb examples of how historical-critical research, combined with Girard’s anthropology and an overall interdisciplinary approach open up well-known Biblical texts as if for the first time, allowing for personal and communal spiritual growth in unexpected ways (pp. 59-60) – emphasis mine:

“The Law’s justice includes reciprocal violence. For example, Ex. 21.29-30 (if an ox kills someone then the ox and owner must be killed). This acts as a deterrent to breaking the law – a fear of retributive violence. It also attempts to be commensurate, not excessive. Nevertheless, it remains the effect of generative violence.

This reciprocity is at work in the death of the first born, the ultimate violent act of God to free the Hebrews. How can we reconcile the story with a nonviolent God? The answer lies in how the Exodus Hebrews produced an interpretation of real events. The Bible reveals as much about us as it does about God. If we explain the narrative of the ten plagues as a cultural lens by which those who told the story saw God then it becomes simply a layer of text which points beyond itself. The ten plagues can be explained from a factual point of view: natural events which are then constructed as divine violence.

For example, the Ten Plagues theory of Dr John Marr (epidemiologist) and Curtis Malloy (medical researcher) understands the plagues as a series of closely linked natural events.

At http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/04/garden/biblical-plagues-a-novel-theory.html .

The basic point is there is a plausible natural explanation for disasters which then, in the tradition, are read as a direct effect of divine action. But it is the root change in human perspective that counts and which is the work of revelation – God is on the side of the oppressed and is creating a new people based in this relationship.

From a Girardian-anthropological point of view, the Egyptians could also see the plagues as caused by a cursed people who actually had to be expelled (cf. Ex. 11.1). Egyptian historians from the 3rd century BCE in fact report this viewpoint – the Exodus Hebrews were diseased and expelled. (See The Bible, Violence and the Sacred, by James G. Williams.)

The Hebrews fleeing Egypt perceive that God is on their side in terms of generative violence, while the Egyptians see the same events based on the same generative violence, but in terms of a cursed group. Both parties interpret the events according to the default human frame of meaning. Nevertheless, in the overall Biblical narrative something amazing is happening: a God of human transformation is being revealed. From the anthropological perspective the Exodus picture of divine violence is an interpretation of natural events, but the underlying truth is God’s intervention on behalf of a group of oppressed people, laying the foundation of a transformative divine and human journey. This is the true work of the Biblical God, changing our human perspective progressively and continually, including our perception of God as violent. In the following cycle we will see how the book of Genesis prefaces the book of Exodus with a profound critique of human violence. So, a deeper change of meaning (semiotic shift) is already set up in the Bible text before we even get to read Exodus! In our next lesson we will see how Jesus reinterprets the Law, reading its radical intent, and teaches us the full revelation of a God of nonviolence.”

Readers who are by now eager to know what more liberating spiritual treasures await them can purchase Seven Stories on Amazon. I cannot recommend it enough.

SEVEN STORIES – THE BROADER MOVEMENT

Anthony Bartlett is but one of those scholars whose theological reflections are deeply inspired by the work of the late René Girard. Not only is Girard’s work very interesting for people who embrace a vastly interdisciplinary approach to social sciences and cultural studies, but it also enables an understanding of theology and Biblical studies as anthropological resources – as resources that give a clear picture of what it means to be human (pointing out humanity’s limitations, pitfalls and possibilities).

Apart from Anthony Bartlett, I would like to take the opportunity to mention a few others (out of many scholars) who adopt a similar approach to theology and Biblical studies, and who are part of a broader movement of contemporary theology that is inspired by the work of René Girard: the late Jesuit Raymund Schwager (1935-2004), Paul Nuechterlein (editor of the highly informative and inspiring Girardian Lectionary), the people from The Raven Foundation and, last but not least, James Alison.

A couple of years ago, in 2013, James Alison in cooperation with The Raven Foundation and Imitatio produced Jesus the Forgiving Victim series (a series of videos, books and a website). In the second book of the series, God, not one of the gods (Doers Publishing, Glenview, 2013), Alison highlights a transformative reading of Joshua 7, in the same vein as Bartlett reads Biblical texts.

Joshua 7 is basically the story of the people of Israel behaving as a lynch mob, blaming a certain Achan for loosing a battle against the Amorites. The story of the stoning of Achan is told from the perspective of people who believe that God demands such a stoning. James Alison shows what a transformative reading of this story looks like by using the Emmaus story in Luke as a reference – thus, in the words of Anthony Bartlett, “the Bible decodes the Bible” (pp. 109-117); emphasis mine:

In the Joshua passage the voice of the victimized one [can] not be heard. But in the Emmaus story we [find] ourselves in the presence of one who is telling the account of a lynching from the perspective of the person who was lynched. This was a voice that had not been heard before, as indeed it is not heard in the Achan story. It is as though at last, Achan’s version of events is beginning to pour out through the cracks between the stones which had covered him over. What I want to suggest is that when it says of Jesus on the road to Emmaus ‘… He opened up to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ what we are getting is the crucified victim telling the story from Achan’s point of view. The story of how a gang of people needed to find an enemy within and set it up so that one was found, and this was what happened to him. The dead man talking would be Achan giving Achan’s account of his lynching. And indeed you can imagine many other similar stories where someone who is hated without cause can begin to tell their version of events.

What I wanted to bring out is that the two stories, the Achan story and the Emmaus story, are structurally identical stories, but told from opposite perspectives. There is the top-down version, the version told by the successful organizers of group togetherness, the persecutors’ account, and then there is the bottom-up version of the same story, told by the victim from under the stones, on the cross, or in the pit. All the elements of both accounts are the same: rivalry leading to a collapse of morale and structure, leaders trying to find a way to recreate morale, managing to do so by setting up a way of getting everyone together against someone else, and when this finally works, and the ‘someone else’ is got rid of, unanimity, peace, is restored, order is born again, and everyone is telling the same story.

The only trouble is that the moment that the victim’s story can be heard, it reveals that the other story is untrue. It is a lie. Its perpetrators need to believe it for it to work. They need to believe that they’ve really got the bad guy, and indeed in their account the bad guy even agrees with them. These are two entirely different perspectives on exactly the same story. The perspective of the survivors and those who have benefitted from the lynching, which is a lie, and the perspective which is never normally heard, and starts to emerge into our world thanks to the crucified and risen Lord, the perspective which tells the truth and which reveals the official perspective to be a lie. The survivors needed to believe the lie because they thought it would bring them together. But in fact it won’t. In fact they’ll soon be at each other’s throats about something else, and will need to go through this all over again and get someone else in the neck.

I hope you now see why I [refer] to the Emmaus story as not just a story but a paradigm, or model, of interpretation. The structure of how the New Testament operates is that it brings alive the same old story, but told from underneath, and it is this that is the fulfilment of Scripture.

[…]

I want to suggest to you why the Hebrew Scriptures, even a passage like [Joshua 7], are an enormous advance on the world of mythology. I’m going to do so by describing what I call two equal and opposite mistakes regarding the reading of Scripture. One I’m going to label the Marcionite error, in honour of an early Christian interpreter of the Scriptures called Marcion. In a nutshell, Marcion, faced with texts like the one we’ve just seen from the Hebrew Scriptures, said something to the effect of “These are awful stories – it cannot be the same god as the God of Jesus that is at work in them. It’s got to be another god altogether. ” So he proposed ditching the Hebrew Scriptures, as something to do with another god, and in fact he found himself pruning much of the New Testament as well, and ended up making a sort of compendium of the Gospels based on Luke, which he found to be nicer than the rest, making other things fit into it. Church authority, on the other hand, said ‘No! The Scriptures are one, and we receive both Testaments as making sense of each other.’ So Marcion’s view was rejected. Nevertheless, typically, in the modern world, it is Catholics who are tempted to his mistake.

The reverse of this, which is the mistake to which Protestants are more tempted in the modern world, is a fundamentalistic reading of Scripture. The fundamentalist position would be to say that, far from it being the case that there are two different gods in the different Testaments, there is in fact one God, and this God is the same at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. So where the Old Testament says ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ it means exactly the same as the God of Jesus Christ. Well, if you think like this, then when you are faced with a text like our Joshua text, you are going to have to come up with a complicated account of how God did in fact organize the sacrifice of Achan, but only so as to show in advance by what means he planned to undo the whole sacrificial system later, through the sacrifice of his Son. You can imagine the sort of rigorous mental gymnastics by which people seek to justify the word ‘God’ in the Joshua text, where it manifestly refers to the organizer of a lottery. How do you disentangle the sort of God who does that from doing nasty things to his Son in the crucifixion? You can see why a certain reading of Jesus’ death as being demanded by his Father, with the Father punishing the Son for the sins of others, is so popular. It fits in exactly with the need to say ‘It’s the same God.’

What is difficult for both parties to understand is quite how the New Testament works as interpretative key opening up the Hebrew Scriptures. What the New Testament does is allow us to see how, slowly and inexorably, the one true God, who was always making Godself known in and through the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, was always coming into the world. And in the degree to which God comes into the world, in the degree to which the revelation of Godself as simultaneously God and Victim comes into clearer and clearer focus, so what is being done by us in the human world of victimizing gets clearer and clearer, harder not to see as obvious, before our eyes. It is the growing clarity from the self-revealing victim coming into the world that leads to the stories surrounding victimary happenings getting nastier and nastier, since they are ever less successful in ‘covering up’ and ‘making things nice’.

The Joshua text we’ve looked at is a particularly good example of this just because it seems so nasty. It would be easy for us to say ‘But this text is the exact opposite of the New Testament. Marcion could scarcely have asked for a better example of what he’s talking about.’ And that, as I see it, is the mistake. If the Emmaus living interpretative principle I have suggested to you is true, than what you would expect is that as it gets closer and closer to becoming clear that it is the victim who is telling the true story, what you can also expect is that it will become clearer and clearer in the texts what is really going on in the movement towards the lynching. Therefore the texts will look nastier.

You can imagine earlier texts, and we have plenty of such texts in mythic literature, in which it is gods who organize things, gather people together, and produce expulsions or sacrifices, and the people take no responsibility at all. Whereas in the text we listened to, from Joshua, the word ‘God’ is very easily switched on or off, but what remains absolutely clear whether it’s on or off is the anthropological dimension of what’s going on. Everything is set out in anthropological terms, without responsibility being displaced onto the gods. You can tell exactly what’s going on here. The text is teetering on the brink of giving itself away. So when we read it, our Gospel-inspired skepticism takes us over the brink. Our skepticism which is provided for us by the gift of faith. If you believe that Jesus, the crucified victim, is God, you stop believing in the gods, you stop believing in weird forces revealing who is ‘really’ to blame, and you get closer and closer to seeing things as they really, humanly, are.

What I’m bringing out here is an understanding of progressive revelation. How it is that as the truth emerges more and more richly in our midst we cannot expect the textual effects of that emergence to get nicer and nicer. You would expect them to get nastier and nastier, but clearer and clearer. And finally you see exactly the same story being told from exactly the inverse perspective, so that there are no longer even the remains of any mythical bits at work. It requires no great imagination to think either ‘The Old Testament is bad and the New Testament is good’ or ‘All word values are the same in both Testaments.’ It requires rather more subtlety to imagine a process in which, as the self-manifestation of the innocent victim becomes clearer and clearer, so the understanding of how humans typically are inclined to behave becomes darker and darker, but more and more realistic.

Compare this with, say, the story of Oedipus, which is essentially the same story as the one we saw in Joshua. There is a plague and social problems in Thebes, and a conveniently slightly deformed outsider, who has provoked jealousy by marrying a prominent heiress, is forced to agree that he was really responsible for certain things that he almost certainly didn’t do, and even if he had done them, they wouldn’t have caused a plague. He is accused of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, while not knowing that this was what he was doing. He succumbs to confessing to this. And then he is expelled, sent off to exile so that the city can return to peace. Now this story is much nicer than the Hebrew story. The townsfolk were not responsible for a violent expulsion, they were victims of a horrible plague, and were confirmed in their horrible suspicions regarding their interloper, and the guilty one got his just reward. The Greek version remains mired in self-delusion. However, the Hebrew version of the same dynamic is radically more truthful, because it is on the point of giving away what was really going on.

Even the editor of the text in the Book of Joshua clearly has doubts about this story – the little hints of skepticism about what’s going on are one of the wonders of the Hebrew Scriptures. The editor starts by saying ‘But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things.’ So, it starts with a plural and then moves to a singular: ‘For Achan, son of Cami…’ and so on. And then you have the oddity of God’s behaviour. Although he might be expected to know everything, he appears to need a lottery to help find out ‘who did it’. And in fact, God tells Joshua that it is the people of Israel, in the plural, who have disobeyed him, before giving the instructions for the lottery that will find a singular victim. As you can imagine, an ancient rabbinical storyteller telling this story in a liturgical context, using this text as his Expositor’s Notes – which is very probably how such texts were handled in the ancient world – would have a good deal of fun wondering aloud about these things with his audience.”

There is much more to discover from authors like Anthony Bartlett and James Alison. I hope readers already enjoyed the above mentioned challenging and inspirational ideas.

Happy discovery!

P.S. The RavenCast did a series on Seven Stories that can be watched on YouTube. Here is one of the episodes – Adam Ericksen and Lindsey Paris-Lopez are joined by Linda and Tony Bartlett:

The TRUTH that sets us FREE to LOVE

[ZIE VERDER VOOR GEDEELTELIJKE NEDERLANDSE VERTALING]

THE STORY OF PETER

Peter was the new kid in town. Still he felt rather confident at his new school since he knew at least one of his schoolmates beforehand, a guy named Jesus. What Peter didn’t realize, however, was the fact that Jesus was heavily bullied by Peter’s new classmates, although Jesus was in another class. When he became aware of the situation, Peter made a “wise” decision to battle his FEAR of becoming an outcast. To gain the approval of his new classmates, he disassociated himself from Jesus. He pretended not to know Jesus that well. By playing along with the crowd Peter protected his good reputation and HONOR (see below Matthew 26:69-74). It was also a good way to ensure his position within the group; playing along gave Peter control and POWER over what could have been a precarious situation. After a few weeks Peter felt pretty comfortable going to school. Being among his new friends gave him lots of PLEASURE as he enjoyed the WEALTH of their luxurious parties. The fact that his friends did not accept him but only the image he forced himself into did not seem to bother Peter too much. After all, wasn’t that kind of over-dramatically characterized “selling your soul” self-denial in reality but a small price to pay in order to gain this world of honor, power, pleasure and wealth (see below Mark 8:35-36)? Why respect yourself if the rewards of not respecting yourself felt so good?

To make a long story short, Peter’s new life went pretty well until he ran into Jesus one day. Jesus was severely beaten up by some of Peter’s classmates. From that day onwards, Peter made a decision that would have sounded “foolish” to his friends and to his former self (see below 1 Corinthians 1:20b-25). In the face of the victim of the world he had been a part of, Peter decided to abandon a life that was defined by the pursuit of honor, power, pleasure and wealth (see Matthew 5, 1-11). His whole identity was transformed by the love for the enemy of the group he belonged to (see below 1 John 4:16). The fear of being “dead” to his classmates and of “social punishment” changed into a fear of being the cause of the “murder” of others (see below 1 John 4:17b-18). Peter also no longer considered honor and pleasure as ends in themselves, but as possible consequences of a life in love. If taking sides with the marginalized other made Peter DISHONORABLE in the eyes of some of his classmates, then so be it. Peter chose non-violent conflict in his own “house” over the violent peace and unity at the expense of excluded others (see below Matthew 10:34-36). He did not want that kind of sacrificial peace. He desired a different kind of peace, not based on “sacrifice” (see below John 14:27).

If willing the good of someone who had every reason to hate him made Peter feel UNPLEASURABLE, then so be it. The LOVE that was discovered by Peter and that became the basis of his life did not depend on whatever outcome. He would still love others even if, for instance, their farewell or their suffering or death would make him sad and wouldn’t bring him any pleasure at all. Independent of whatever outcome, the love Peter lived by can be called all-powerful in a paradoxical sense. Even if his classmates and their world would hate him (see below 1 John 3:13-14), Peter wouldn’t avoid being vulnerable and eventually POWERLESS from the perspective of that world (see below John 15:19). He would not seek power to dominate others but as a means to serve them (see below Luke 22:24-27), at most. Equally, Peter would not seek wealth as end in itself but as a means to serve others, at most. His spirit would be POOR in worries with regard to his possessions.

If Peter felt worried and guilty at all it was no longer because he didn’t live up to the expectations of the world of his classmates, but because love informed him that he had hurt others. Peter no longer respected social rules and laws because they would gain him recognition, but only insofar as they would be helpful in the service of love (see below Mark 2:23-28; see also Mark 12:29-31 and Paul on “spirit of the law vs letter of the law”); neither would he transgress rules because it would grant him a new social status among “the cool dudes” (see below Matthew 5:17). Love detached Peter from the addictive desire for approval. He tried to no longer imitate a man-made social environment based on exclusion but tried to imitate the flexible ways of love (blowing like the wind, free from all the man-made attachments – see below John 3:8). Love became his “Creator”. In taking sides with Jesus and the marginalized victim of whatever group, Peter lost a “masqueraded” life that was defined by the attachment to honor, power, pleasure and wealth, and he eventually saved his self-respect (see below Mark 8:35-36).

In short, Peter’s story ends with his refusal to take part in the sacrifice of others and therefore he runs the risk of being sacrificed or crucified himself, although he of course hopes that the world is able to show “mercy, not sacrifice” (see below Matthew 9:13). Peter refuses to “crucify himself” to participate in the masquerade of the attachment to approval and therefore he runs the risk of “being crucified”. Peter is willing to run that risk because of his obedience to the demands of love, which is an obedience that allows him to accept the truth about himself as a former persecutor and which sets him free from the destructive “powers and principalities” often governing this world. Because of love, Peter is no longer dead to himself and others (see below 1 John 3:13-14).

THE STORY OF MARY

Peter’s story is reminiscent of Mary’s story. Mary was the victim of a rape that made her pregnant and she was forced by her family to marry her “boyfriend(-rapist)” Saul. She was often beaten by her husband who could make her feel guilty about the beatings, as if she “deserved” them. In reality, Mary was a scapegoat. She was blamed for things she wasn’t guilty of. Sadly enough it took years for Mary to realize how badly she had been manipulated.

For years Mary lived in FEAR. She forced herself to be someone who would receive the approval of her husband, not his beatings. That’s where her HONOR lay, or so she thought. In trying to gain POWER over her husband’s behavior, however, she lost herself more and more. She was really hunting an illusion in her attempts to turn her family life into a comfortable environment of PLEASURE like the one of her best friend. Moreover, she worried about losing the WEALTH of her husband too. She thought that she would not be able to make a living of her own. It was only when her husband started beating her son too that she regained her self-respect: the love for this victim of the situation she had been part of, opened her eyes for the truth that she had hunted one illusion after the other, and liberated her from the addictive attachment to honor, power, pleasure and wealth.

Both the above stories of Peter and Mary show what the Christian tradition is essentially about. Christianity thus:

  • subverts any system (religious or secular) that originates from man’s attachment to honor, power, pleasure and/or wealth (attachments that are based on fear of death), even if that system calls itself “Christian”. Explanations on the origin of religion that rely on man’s attachment to honor, power, pleasure and/or wealth thus do not explain the origin of Christianity as such (but of perverted versions of Christianity). Explanations like the one proposed by Yuval Noah Harari’s (in Sapiens) should be evaluated from this perspective.
  • believes that love is a divine reality, which is not a sentiment or a feeling, but an active willing of the good of the other as other. This divine reality thus is not all-powerful in the sense that it controls everything, but in the sense that it is independent of any calculations about possible outcomes. Love gives itself, regardless of the question whether it is accepted or not. That’s why “grace” is what it is. God as “Creator” should be thought of as a loving dynamic that seeks to hold everything together, although not as an all-controlling entity (see Matthew 27:39-44).
  • shows the futility of many of the things we consider “meaningful” and thus opens up our eyes for a more comprehensive look on reality.
  • does not easily comfort because it challenges us to abandon our “comfort zone”.
  • is not “irrational”. On the contrary, it has a very sharp and clear view on the reality of human life and its absurdities, opening up a logic that could save human life from its absurdities.
  • testifies to a spirituality of “a love for reality because of reality itself, without ulterior motives” that can be found within other traditions as well.
  • is non-dualistic, as it does not seek the destruction of a so-called “evil world” but its transformation and fulfilment through love.
  • is not about “seeking the approval of God”, but is about the paradox of obeying the liberating demands of a love that needs no approval.

SUMMARY (click here for pdf):

AGAPE LOVE

To finish, some excerpts from the Bible on which all of the above is based:

Matthew 26, especially 26:69-74: Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), especially the Beatitudes (click here for more).

1 Corinthians 1:20b-25: Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 John 4:16: God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4:17b-18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.'”

John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mark 8:35-36: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

John 15:19: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

1 John 3:13-14: 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.

Luke 22:24-27: A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Mark 2:23-28: One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

John 3:8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

P.S.: THANKS TO James Alison, Robert Barron, René Girard, Emmanuel Levinas and many others for the inspiring insights into the reality of Christian life.

HET VERHAAL VAN PETRUS

Petrus was net verhuisd. Toch voelde hij zich vrij zelfzeker op zijn nieuwe school omdat hij ten minste een van zijn medescholieren al kende: een jongen genaamd Jezus. Petrus realiseerde zich echter niet dat Jezus hevig gepest werd door sommige van zijn nieuwe klasgenoten, hoewel Jezus tot een andere klas behoorde. Toen Petrus eenmaal begreep hoe de vork in de steel zat, nam hij een “wijze” beslissing om zijn ANGST voor sociale uitsluiting te bezweren: om de waardering van zijn nieuwe klasgenoten te verkrijgen, nam hij afstand van Jezus. Petrus deed alsof hij Jezus helemaal niet zo goed kende. Het bezorgde Petrus de EER van een goede reputatie in de wereld van zijn klasgenoten (klik voor Matteüs 26, 69-74a). Door het spel van de groep mee te spelen en zich niet met Jezus bezig te houden, kreeg Petrus controle en MACHT over de nieuwe situatie waarin hij zich bevond. Gaandeweg verwierf hij zekerheid over zijn positie binnen de groep. Na enkele weken voelde Petrus zich helemaal comfortabel op zijn nieuwe school. Hij ervoer veel GENOT in aanwezigheid van zijn nieuwe vrienden en hij verdronk in de WEELDE van hun rijkeluisfeestjes. Het feit dat zijn vrienden niet hem aanvaardden maar alleen het imago waaraan hij trachtte te voldoen, deerde hem niet al te erg. Zelfverloochening leek helemaal geen dramatische “verkoop van je ziel” als je in ruil daarvoor een wereld van eer, macht, genot en weelde won (klik voor Marcus 8, 35-36). Waarom zou je jezelf respecteren als de beloningen voor een gebrek aan zelfrespect zo goed voelden?

Om een lang verhaal kort te maken: Petrus genoot met volle teugen van zijn leven totdat hij op een dag Jezus opnieuw tegen het lijf liep. Die was in elkaar geslagen door enkele van Petrus’ klasgenoten. Vanaf die dag nam Petrus een beslissing die “dwaas” zou hebben geklonken in de oren van zijn vrienden en van zijn vroegere zelf (klik voor 1 Kor 1, 20b-29). Geconfronteerd met het slachtoffer van de wereld waarvan hij deel had uitgemaakt, besloot Petrus zijn leven niet langer te laten definiëren door het streven naar eer, macht, genot en weelde (klik voor Mt 5, 1-11). Zijn hele identiteit werd getransformeerd door de liefde voor de vijand van de groep waartoe hij behoorde (klik voor 1 Joh 4, 16b). De angst voor “sociale afstraffing” en om “dood” te zijn voor zijn klasgenoten veranderde in een vrees voor de “moord” op anderen (klik voor 1 Joh 4, 17b-18). Petrus beschouwde eer en genot niet langer als doelen op zich, maar als mogelijke gevolgen van een leven in liefde. Als partij kiezen voor de gemarginaliseerde ander hem ONEERVOL maakte in de ogen van sommige van zijn klasgenoten, dan was dat maar zo. Hij was bereid om daarover te discussiëren. Petrus verkoos niet-gewelddadig conflict in zijn eigen “huis” boven de gewelddadige vrede en eenheid die parasiteerde op een gemeenschappelijke externe vijand (klik voor Matteüs 10, 34-36). Hij wou geen vrede die gebaseerd was op uitsluiting. Hij verlangde een ander soort vrede die niet op offers was gebaseerd (klik voor Johannes 14, 27).

Het goede willen voor iemand die meer dan genoeg redenen heeft om je te haten, levert GEEN GENOT op. Het voelt op zijn zachtst gezegd onwennig aan, maar dat hield Petrus niet tegen. De LIEFDE die hij had ontdekt en die de basis werd voor zijn leven, was niet afhankelijk van enig mogelijk resultaat. Petrus zou anderen liefhebben, zelfs als bijvoorbeeld hun afscheid, hun lijden of hun dood hem verdriet zou doen. Onafhankelijk van gelijk welk resultaat kan de liefde die Petrus draagt op een paradoxale manier almachtig worden genoemd. Ook als zijn klasgenoten en hun wereld hem zouden haten (klik voor 1 Joh 3, 13-14), zou Petrus niet ophouden om zich kwetsbaar en zelfs MACHTELOOS op te stellen vanuit het perspectief van die wereld (klik voor Johannes 15, 19). Als hij al een machtspositie zou aanvaarden, dan zou hij dat niet langer doen om anderen te domineren maar dan zou hij die macht gebruiken als een middel om anderen te dienen (klik voor Lucas 22, 24-27). Op dezelfde manier zou Petrus ook niet langer weelde nastreven als een doel op zich, maar opnieuw als een middel om anderen te dienen. In ieder geval zou zijn geest ARM aan zorgen zijn inzake zijn bezittingen.

Als Petrus zich al zorgen maakte en zich schuldig voelde, dan was het niet langer omdat hij misschien niet aan de verwachtingen van de wereld van zijn klasgenoten beantwoordde, maar omdat de liefde hem had geopenbaard hoe hij anderen had gekwetst. Petrus was niet voor of tegen de sociale regels en wetten die heersten (klik voor Matteüs 5, 17), maar terwijl hij vroeger voor of tegen regels was om ergens aanzien te verwerven, stelde hij zich nu de vraag op welke manier de regels het best de doelen van een liefdevolle gerechtigheid dienden (klik voor Marcus 2, 23-28). Met andere woorden, de geest van de wet werd voor Petrus belangrijker dan de letter van de wet (zie Paulus alsook Marcus 12, 29-31). De liefde bevrijdde Petrus van het verslavend verlangen naar erkenning. Liefde werd zijn “Schepper”: de identiteit van Petrus hing niet langer af van een door mensen gecreëerde sociale omgeving, maar van een liefde die, als een frisse wind wars van de bekommernissen om eer, macht, genot en weelde, relaties aanknoopte met al wie en wat zogezegd “geen betekenis” had (klik voor Johannes 3, 8). Door partij te kiezen voor Jezus en het gemarginaliseerde slachtoffer van om het even welke groep, verloor Petrus een onwaarachtig leven in functie van eer, macht, genot en weelde, en redde hij uiteindelijk zijn zelfrespect (klik voor Marcus 8, 35-36).

Het verhaal van Petrus eindigt, kortom, met een Petrus die weigert om nog langer te participeren aan een wereld die is gebaseerd op offers. De liefde heeft Petrus de waarheid omtrent zichzelf doen ontdekken: hij is een vervolger geweest, iemand die zijn medemens kwaad doet. Gehoorzamend aan die liefde wordt hij, paradoxaal genoeg, vrij van de “duistere machten en krachten” die vaak deze wereld beheersen. Omdat hij niet langer in de ban is van de duistere gehechtheid aan eer, macht, genot en weelde, is hij ook niet langer dood voor zichzelf en anderen (klik voor 1 Joh 3, 13-14).

Wie het opneemt voor wie wordt gepest, loopt evenwel het gevaar om zelf ook te worden gepest. Petrus weigert de “afgodendienst van het sociale succes” en weigert aldus iedere vorm van “zelfkruisiging”, maar loopt daardoor ook het gevaar dat hij zal “gekruisigd worden”. Natuurlijk hoopt hij dat de wereld in staat is om te kiezen voor “barmhartigheid en geen offers” (klik voor Matteüs 9, 13), alleen weet hij niet op voorhand of de wereld die keuze zal maken. Wie niet buigt voor het bedrieglijke, vernietigende verlangen naar totale controle (“de almachtige god die alle touwtjes in handen heeft”), maar wel leeft vanuit een God die liefde is, kan anderen redden maar zichzelf niet (klik voor Matteüs 27, 39-44). Als je het opneemt voor wie wordt gepest, leg je je lot immers in handen van anderen die zich al dan niet tot “de liefde” zullen bekeren. Voor hetzelfde geld word je ook gepest. Als er dan toch nog sprake is van “almacht” in deze context, dan ligt ze in het feit dat je zelfrespect niet afhangt van het respect dat je al dan niet van anderen ontvangt als je vanuit de goddelijke liefde leeft. De narcist is afhankelijk van de erkenning die hij van andere mensen krijgt voor een onwaarachtig zelfbeeld. De mens die zich door de liefde gedragen weet, kan de realiteit van en omtrent zichzelf en anderen op een completere manier beleven.

HET VERHAAL VAN MARIA

Het verhaal van Petrus doet denken aan het verhaal van Maria. Maria was het slachtoffer van een verkrachting waardoor ze zwanger werd. Haar familie had haar gedwongen om met haar “vriend(-verkrachter)” Saul te huwen. Ze werd vaak geslagen door haar echtgenoot. Hij slaagde er bovendien in om haar een schuldgevoel te geven over dat geweld, alsof ze de slagen “verdiende”. In werkelijkheid was Maria een zondebok: ze werd beschuldigd van zaken waarvoor ze niet verantwoordelijk was. Jammer genoeg duurde het jaren vooraleer Maria zich realiseerde hoezeer ze door Saul en haar familie was gemanipuleerd.

Jarenlang leefde Maria in ANGST. Ze dwong zichzelf om iemand te zijn die waardering zou krijgen van haar echtgenoot, en geen slagen. Daarin lag haar EER, dacht ze. Terwijl ze MACHT probeerde te verwerven over het gedrag van haar man verloor ze zichzelf echter meer en meer. Ze jaagde werkelijk een illusie na in haar pogingen om GENOT in haar gezinsleven te vinden. Daarbovenop maakte ze zich zorgen over het verlies van WEELDE als haar echtgenoot haar zou verlaten. Ze vreesde dat ze de eindjes niet aan elkaar zou kunnen knopen als ze er alleen zou voor staan. Alleen toen Saul ook hun zoon Stephanus in elkaar begon te slaan, herwon ze haar zelfrespect: de liefde voor het slachtoffer van de situatie waarvan ze deel uitmaakte, opende haar ogen voor de waarheid dat ze de ene na de andere illusie had nagejaagd, en bevrijdde haar van de verslavende gehechtheid aan eer, macht, genot en weelde.

Zowel Petrus als Maria keerden zich af van een leven in functie van een imago dat waardering moest opleveren. Petrus verheerlijkte zichzelf niet langer, waardoor hij respect kreeg voor zichzelf en niet langer op anderen als Jezus neerkeek. Maria verheerlijkte haar echtgenoot niet langer, waardoor ze zich bevrijdde van een minderwaardigheidscomplex en meer respect kreeg voor zichzelf. Bij beiden leidde het herwonnen zelfrespect tot meer respect voor (onderdrukte) anderen. Anderen werden niet langer benaderd als middelen die het onrealistisch zelfbeeld van Petrus en Maria moesten bevestigen, maar als doelen op zich.

Zowel het verhaal van Petrus als van Maria openbaart de bekering tot een levenswijze waarop de christelijke traditie in essentie doelt.

EEN SAMENVATTING:

(klik hier voor pdf van het overzicht, en klik hier voor pdf inzake zaligsprekingen en voor post over zaligsprekingen en religieuze geloftes)

AGAPE LIEFDE

 

To This Day

Shane Koyczan is a spiritual man. A man of poetry and gentle madness. A man of stories, a man of truth. A man of beauty. His poem To This Day would be a great way to end a first part of a journey with mimetic theory in high school, especially regarding what I’ve written so far on the film American Beauty. It could follow these posts:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)

quote A weed is but an unloved flower Ella Wheeler WilcoxTo This Day and Shane’s TED-talk contain many themes I’ve written about before, for instance in a post entitled Atheism: a lack of unbelief?:

A person’s worth cannot be determined solely by human perception and judgment. Man is not simply the child of a “social other”, i.e. the product of a man-made social environment in which he gains or loses a sense of (self-) worth. He’s also, following the thoughts of people like James Alison and Emmanuel Levinas, a child of “the other Other”, and we should postpone any final judgment on other people and ourselves.

It also reminded me of this famous quote: “Every finite spirit believes either in a God or in an idol” (Max Scheler, 1874-1928). I wrote about this in several posts before, for instance in a post entitled That is (not) the question, about rap star Diam’s conversion to Islam – it talks about how we have the tendency to sacrifice ourselves and others to the demands of a so-called admirable (self-)image that seeks confirmation and recognition:

quote Shane Koyczan Be the weedDiam’s discovered how she tried to live up to the expectations of her fans, and how this enslaved her. She was kneeling to an image of herself as the admirable idol her fans wanted her to be. Kneeling to Allah, on the other hand, apparently meant that Diam’s no longer bowed to the demands of the music and entertainment industry. It was a turning point in her life. It enabled her to free herself, and to criticize the priorities in her life. From now on, she would seek and explore another source of motivations for her life.

Finally, Shane Koyczan’s story is reminiscent of Peter Howson’s story in a post entitled Desert Moments with Peter Howson:

“I used to be very badly bullied at school and when I was a bouncer in a nightclub for quite a few years I changed in a false sense then, and became a bully myself.” In other words: Howson became the imitator of his persecutors… He followed the mimetic principle of vengeance.

CLICK TO WATCH the video To This Day (click here to read the lyrics in pdf):

I’d like to give some quotes from his TED-talk as well, because they illustrate some key insights from René Girard’s mimetic theory and they reminded me of those previous posts:

quote do not be conformed by this world RomansWe were expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag. And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are.

See, they asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be. And I wasn’t the only one. We were being told that we somehow must become what we are not, sacrificing what we are to inherit the masquerade of what we will be. I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

quote be this guyOne of the first lines of poetry I can remember writing was in response to a world that demanded I hate myself. From age 15 to 18, I hated myself for becoming the thing that I loathed: a bully. When I was 19, I wrote, “I will love myself despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite.

CLICK TO WATCH Shane’s TED-talk:

Atheism: A Lack of Unbelief?

A while ago I had a conversation with two atheist colleagues of mine at the school where I’m teaching religion. I asked them the following question:

“Do you believe that things become valuable only if people accord them some value, and, on the other hand, that they no longer possess any value once people stop according them value?”

My colleagues answered: “Yes, we do…”

I went further: “So, if no one grants an individual any respect at all, including the individual himself, that individual actually doesn’t have any value? He’s worth nothing because no human being acknowledges him?”

They said: “Yes, of course…”

I’m sorry, but I cannot believe this. I cannot believe that the weight of what’s valuable and what’s not in the universe rests on our tiny, petty little shoulders. It’s too heavy a burden to be carried by mere mortals, who appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. I don’t believe that someone is worth nothing if he’s considered worthless by the human community, including himself. In short, I don’t believe, unlike the old Greek philosopher Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things” in these matters.

Sir Thomas Browne on judging people

A person’s worth cannot be determined solely by human perception and judgment. Man is not simply the child of a “social other”, i.e. the product of a man-made social environment in which he gains or loses a sense of (self-) worth. He’s also, following the thoughts of people like James Alison and Emmanuel Levinas, a child of “the other Other”, and we should postpone any final judgment on other people and ourselves.

Theologically speaking, this kind of “eschatological reservation” is quite liberating, not just for ourselves, but also for our neighbors. The lurking alternative seems human totalitarianism, meaning the aspiration of man – on an individual or collective level – to have total control in determining what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless. I’d say we better accept the limitedness of our existence, and leave the perfection of the world to “the Infinite One”, you know, “God”.

Unlike my atheist colleagues, I don’t believe we should try to occupy His kind of place. This unbelief makes me a believer, I believe… And indeed: “Every finite spirit believes either in a God or in an idol” (Max Scheler, 1874-1928). Right on, Max!

don't judge

Turn the other cheek

Once there was this girl, having the time of her life in a happy relationship. Until her boyfriend cheated on her. After that, she couldn’t go on with him. So they broke up.

A year later, she met this other guy. Love at first sight. They started dating. A few months down the road of this new romantic affair, a little fear started creeping into her mind: “What if I’ll be cheated on, again?” The fear grew bigger, as did her desire to safeguard her relationship. So she started controlling her new boyfriend, pressing him to inform her about his whereabouts. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he nevertheless had to suffer from her anxieties. Until he couldn’t stand it any longer, and her worst fear came true: he broke up with her. Tragic. Ironic. All she had done to avoid the destruction of the relationship brought about the relationship’s downfall. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it… (Matthew 16:25a).

What happened? Well, the girl was hurt, and she had been sad and angry because of it. Instead of letting go of her sadness and frustration, she started focusing on these emotions again while being in a new relationship. And she started hurting a guy who hadn’t done anything to cause her pain, insinuating he was not trustworthy and accusing him of being a liar and a cheater. In other words, she imitated the blows inflicted on her persona by inflicting similar blows on someone else. It was her way of taking revenge. Her new boyfriend turned out to be her scapegoat: someone who had to answer for her anger, although he was innocent. There is indeed, as René Girard and so many other Christian thinkers rightly point out, a nearly inextricable connection between the mimetic principle of vengeance and the scapegoating impulse.

In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt inflicting hurt – the cycle of original sin -, Christ invites us to take part in an act of creation. This is a creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), meaning that our actions are no longer defined by the lesser and greater evil we endured in the past. To return to the situation of the girl: Christ invites her to “turn the other cheek” as she begins a new relationship. To turn the other cheek indeed means that you refuse to let your relationships and yourself be defined by the hurtful mechanisms that eventually destroy relationships. Christ invites the girl to trust being vulnerable again. He invites her to keep faith over fear – for “fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering” as some famous wise man summarized Christ’s advice…

Forgiveness is at the heart of creation, destabilizing the balance of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – for, as some other wise man allegedly said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Coming from outside the cycle of bad deeds or “bad karma“, the grace of forgiveness opens up the possibility of a new kind of imitation or mimesis. Instead of imitating each other in trying to assert ourselves over against one another – as theologian James Alison would say –, “turning the other cheek” is an invitation to begin an imitation of recognizing and accepting each other’s vulnerability. Recognizing that “no one is without sin”, in order to end “casting the first stone”. It’s an invitation to shy away from self-assertion over against one another – which would be called a movement of kenosis (“self-emptying”) in theological terms. The imitatio Christi would thus lead to the recovery of human beings, for “being human” means “being in relationships”, and the act of grace Christ invites us to take part in is precisely aimed at restoring those relationships. Therefore: Whoever loses his life for me will find it… (Matthew 16:25b).

So Matthew 5:38-39 is not an invitation to be masochistic. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a radical refusal to surrender to the evil that we experience from time to time. It’s an invitation to obey the creative call of Love (click here to read more) – which is, paradoxically, truly liberating:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”