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…”

Mere Christianity

Some thoughts inspired by C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and mimetic theory

Who is this man who forgives sins? Is he entitled to forgive a woman accused of adultery? Shouldn’t this be up to the husband of this woman?

Who has been hurt by the adultery? The husband, sure, but also Love itself… This man, Jesus of Nazareth, the one who is called the Christ, forgives sins and mistakes committed between human beings… He either is a complete lunatic, or he is who he claims to be – namely: the incarnation of Love himself, violated time and again by our great sin, which is pride…

These thoughts on Jesus of Nazareth are inspired by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), a former atheist who converted to Christianity because it made more reasonable sense to him than his atheism. Of course Lewis became well-known for his series of seven fantasy novels The Chronicles of Narnia, but the fame of this series sometimes overshadows other work by this fascinating author. And that’s a shame because, up to this day, Lewis remains a surprisingly fresh Christian thinker.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis tries to explain, as a lay-man, what Christianity is essentially about. I’ve tried to summarize some of his main insights on “the fall of the human race” and “the need for salvation” in three sections (paradise – the fall – salvation). References to familiar biblical stories should be clear. Relevant inspirational fragments of Mere Christianity can be read in enclosed pdf. Those familiar with mimetic theory will certainly recognize major themes of Girard’s approximation of Christianity in my summary – reading of The Great Sin (fragment 2 of Mere Christianity in pdf, see below) is highly recommended. Enjoy!

 CLICK HERE TO READ FRAGMENT 1 – THE SHOCKING ALTERNATIVE – OF MERE CHRISTIANITY (PDF)

PARADISE

We are social animals.

We are naturally interested in each other.

Experiencing that someone is interested in you as you are, is the fulfillment of a deep human desire. It’s paradise.

THE FALL – A PARASITE IN PARADISE

Because we are interested in each other, we may also get interested in our neighbor’s peculiar activities and possessions. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But in comes this surreptitious fear, whispering in our ear: “The difference between yourself and the other is not something to be joyful or inspired about. It means that you are less important than the other, that you are less…” And you indeed start asking yourself why you shouldn’t have, for example, a fruit tree of your own like your neighbor. You start wondering why your neighbor should hold more proprietary rights to cultivate a particular kind of fruit, and why you should be less entitled to enjoy that fruit.

Soon after this kind of competitive comparison we become interested in our neighbor because of what he or she seems to represent – an importance because of certain activities and possessions –, and no longer because of him- or herself. Moreover, instead of questioning ourselves on our deepest desires, we get focused on the idea that the other finds pride in “being more important” than ourselves. Like a child who thinks his parents are trying to boss him around, and that responds to this impression in trying to become the boss himself. Of course, in imitating the supposed pride of someone else, we’ll never notice the reality of the situation, namely that the other might as well give us advice because he really cares about us – and not because he’s trying to protect his own interests or prestige…

All too often a supposed pride is imitated: we develop pride ourselves, deceiving ourselves by thinking “we are better than the one who displays pride” – which is of course an utterance of pride itself! That’s why we often desire recognition, not for ourselves, but for the prestige we have constructed in jealously comparing ourselves – not to others, but to what we imagine about others. Blinding ourselves for the attention we do receive (as someone is indeed asking us: “What is bothering you, why are you so angry?”), we find it all the more difficult to live close to a neighbor who seems to receive all the recognition in the world. A destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy…

CLICK HERE TO READ FRAGMENT 2 – THE GREAT SIN – OF MERE CHRISTIANITY (PDF)

It’s pride – a mimetic, mutually reinforcing desire for recognition of one another’s prestige –  which poisons human relationships. Because of this poison, we are no longer interested in each other, hell, we’re not even interested in ourselves anymore. The devilish dynamic of pride takes its toll: unable to exist by itself, it parasitizes on our initial interest in each other to pervert this interest. In the end, because of pride, we are no longer capable of respecting ourselves and others, as we are obsessed with the vanity of some prestige

Hell is the twisted opposite of the original heavenly situation between human beings: while we are initially attentive to certain objects, activities and goals because of a natural and basic interest in others, we gradually become interested in others only because of the allegedly weighty importance of certain objects, activities and goals. Others become means to achieve this alleged importance ourselves. They no longer are the alpha and omega (source and destination, origin and goal) of our interest. In other words, we are no longer capable of fulfilling our neighbor’s deepest desire: being interested in our neighbor for his or her own sake. Moreover, we are equally no longer capable of receiving the interest of others in ourselves, because we mainly focus on others who seem to be interested in (and seem to confirm) our prestige.

SALVATION

Christianity is convinced that human beings can only exist fully “in relationships”. It is also convinced that pride always, time and again, threatens to poison human relationships, and alienates men from themselves and each other. Therefore it keeps on visiting this “doctor” (apart from other doctors within and outside the world of religion) who is believed to have revealed the human sickness – the epidemic of pride and jealousy (the original sin) – in all its hidden depths, and who is also believed to have offered an ultimate cure for this. This doctor is known as Jesus of Nazareth, the one who is called the Christ.

 CLICK HERE TO READ FRAGMENT 3 – WE HAVE CAUSE TO BE UNEASY – OF MERE CHRISTIANITY (PDF)

Christ is believed to infect humankind – as no other before or after him – with the restoring epidemic of creative Love (understood as genuine interest in others, without ulterior motives).

CHRISTIANS AND NON-CHRISTIANS

So Christianity, although aimed at all, is – at the explicit level – not for people:

who don’t believe there’s anything ALIENATING or WRONG with human relationships based on a (jealous) competition for prestige (pride), and based on a fear of others who are mistrusted as potential rivals (“who could take my life and safety away – things I’m entitled to have…”).

who don’t believe there’s a PERFECT VERSION of something like genuine interest in others; who don’t believe in the existence of a kind OF LOVE WITHOUT ULTERIOR MOTIVES, which creates an exemplary, inspiring and redeeming dynamic whenever we “get lost” in the temptations of pride and jealousy.

who don’t believe that SALVATION lies in the cultivation and (otherworldly) fulfillment of the dynamic of “genuine love for or interest in others”.

who don’t believe, in short, that there’s any SICKNESS they themselves and humankind as a whole needs to be CURED or SAVED from.

who don’t believe, even if they agree on the question of our typical “sickness” as human beings, that salvation has been offered to us in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, Christianity is for people:

who believe we tend to attach importance to prestige and other “things of this world” because we are possessed by a deep and largely hidden FEAR OF DEATH – which makes our life seem of “no importance”, hence we try to give it some “weight” (the weight of vanity that is, of things that will pass just the same).

who believe it is ultimately fear of death which keeps us from developing full and perfect love for one another. Our desire to love one another is crossed by the dynamic of pride and jealousy – THE LOVE AND AMBITION FOR IMAGE, STATUS, PRESTIGE, REPUTATION, CONTROLLING POWER and for recognition because of that… Because we fear death, we tend to look for things which promise “immortal fame” – the PARADOX being that some of us are willing to literally SACRIFICE their own life TO ACHIEVE this kind of IMMORTALITY (examples of this kind of masochistic sacrifice are suicidal terrorist attacks, or suicide because one feels like a loser if one doesn’t achieve what is supposed to be “a worthwhile life by the standards of this world”).

who believe that a being, capable of perfect love, can only be a being that is NOT DEFINED BY DEATH.

who believe that a being, capable of perfect love, is Love in itself, and is “essentially relational” – this idea is expressed symbolically in the idea of the Trinity (“God” or “(Perfect) Love” as the relationship between “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”).

CLICK HERE TO READ FRAGMENT 4 – GOOD INFECTION – OF MERE CHRISTIANITY (PDF)

who believe that God, as an immortal being, is other than us humans (who are mortal), but is genuinely concerned with those who are other – because Love is “being interested in the other for the sake of the other”, because Love is “wanting the other to exist and to live in happiness”. Of course the condition for real and full happiness is freedom…

who believe God, this being of Love, offers salvation to the whole of humankind in eventually becoming the incarnated victim of the Pride of the whole of humankind. Expelled as “the common enemy” or forsaken “by all” (including his so-called friends), this victim – Christ – offers “the other cheek” (which is the mystery of the resurrection), challenging and freeing us to include the ones who, time and again, become the victim of our worst fears, of our pride, envy and frustration… To be forgiven by a victim who has every right to “take revenge” because of his total innocence, is an experience of FORGIVENESS and GRACE in its most outspoken form.

who believe that Christ desires to LIBERATE us from the fear of death, so that we can start loving each other more fully and perfectly, creating another basis to build human relationships – the basis or PARADISE we naturally start from (our genuine interest in others) which is all too soon corrupted by our fears and frustrations.

who believe that IMMORTALITY should not be the goal of (or “reward” for) one’s actions, but IS A MEANS to start developing actions of a perfecting love for one’s neighbor…

who believe that Christ shows that a God of Love is not “almighty” in the sense of being “all-controlling”; God is almighty seen from the perspective of a Christ who is not deceived by the temptation of pride and “this-worldly ambition”. By resisting the temptation for some kind of “prestige” (in other words by RESISTING MASOCHISM) Christ is able “to become the Servant of all” and to keep on loving others for the sake of those others… Because Christ is true to the “Spirit” of his “Father”, because Christ remains “the incarnation of Love”, he can resist sacrificing others (in other words RESIST SADISM) for the sake of some pride.

CLICK HERE TO READ FRAGMENT 5 – THE NEW MEN – OF MERE CHRISTIANITY (PDF)

who believe suffering is not the ultimate definition and goal of life, but who are WILLING TO SUFFER BECAUSE OF LOVE FOR ONE’S NEIGHBOR.

who believe they still have A LONG WAY TO GO, but that there’s Someone giving them life, time and again, to GET BACK UP (leaving the ‘dead way of pride’ and choosing the ‘living path of love’), even if they don’t immediately see it or experience it…

who don’t wish to take pride in being CHRISTIANS, knowing that some of the people who call themselves NON-BELIEVERS or NON-CHRISTIANS are much closer to the reality incarnated by Christ than they are themselves…

THE MESSAGE

1 John 3:11-14:

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.

Matthew 23:29-39:

Jesus said: “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!”

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.”

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”