Michael Battle Will Speak at Theology & Peace Conference!

Currently appointed as Herbert Thompson Professor of Church and Society and Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological Seminary in New York, the Very Rev. Michael Battle, Ph.D. has an undergraduate degree from Duke University, received his master’s of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, a master’s of Sacred Theology from Yale University and a PhD in theology and ethics, also from Duke University. He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1993. Battle’s clergy experience, in addition to his current church work, includes serving as vicar at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, NC, rector at Church of Our Saviour, in San Gabriel, California; rector at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, N.C.; and interim rector or associate priest with other churches in North Carolina and in Cape Town, South Africa.

On two occasions he moved into churches located in ethnically changing neighborhoods (to Asian in one and to Hispanic in the other) and helped both to adapt and grow. He also served as provost and canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. In 2010, Battle was given one of the highest Anglican Church distinctions as “Six Preacher,” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. A distinction given to only a few who demonstrate great dedication to the church that goes back to 16th century England and Thomas Cranmer. Battle’s academic experience includes service as interim dean of Students and Community Life at Episcopal Divinity School, dean for academic affairs, vice president and associate professor of theology at Virginia Theology Seminary; as associate professor of spirituality and black church studies, at Duke University’s Divinity School; and as assistant professor of spiritual and moral theology in the School of Theology at the University of the South. Battle has published nine books, including Reconciliation: the Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu and the book for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me.

In his PeaceBattle Institute he works on subjects of diversity, spirituality, prayer, race and reconciliation. Almost since its inception, he has served as pastor and spiritual director to hundreds of clergy and laity for CREDO for the Episcopal Church. He has also served as chaplain to Archbishop Tutu, Congressman John Lewis, the House of Bishops and, in 2008, was chaplain to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops. He is a featured keynote speaker and has led numerous clergy and lay retreats, including the bishops’ retreat of the Province of the West Indies. In addition, Battle has served as vice president to the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Arun Gandhi’s Institute for Nonviolence. Battle and his wife, Raquel, were married by Archbishop Tutu and are parents to two daughters, Sage and Bliss, and a son, Zion. All of whom were baptized by Archbishop Tutu as well.

Visit his website: michaelbattle.com

Faculty page: http://gts.edu/the-rev-dr-michael-battle/

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Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu

June 17-20, 2019
 “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu”
American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee
Speakers Include: The Very Rev. Michael Battle, Ph.D.The Rev. Janet Wolf 

René Girard

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mimetic Theory, as articulated by René Girard, offers profound insight into human nature, desire, rivalry and the tendency to create scapegoats on both the individual and systemic levels.

Martin Luther King‘s vision of Beloved Community offers an antidote to the disease that mimetic theory diagnoses.

Coming out of the context of apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu‘s theology of Ubuntu helps us understand our inter-dependence as a fundamental truth of being human, namely, that “I am only because we are.”

Desmond Tutu

The Beloved Community affords us the opportunity to move beyond our tribal tendencies and the scapegoat mechanism that insidiously infects our hearts, our communities, our political institutions and even our churches, and to enjoy inter-dependence and inter-dividuality in the spirit of Ubuntu.

More Speakers To Be Announced!

In partnership with American Baptist College, Nashville, Tennessee

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Speaker Announced for 2019 Conference in Nashville!

We are thrilled to announce that Rev. Janet Wolf, director of The Haley Farm and Nonviolent Organizing at the Children’s Defense Fund, will join us for the 2019 Theology & Peace Conference, “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu,” June 17-20 at American Baptist College in Nashville!

The link above features Rev. Wolf on a panel with Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Ndume Olatushani (who was sentenced to death and served 30 years for something he did not do), and our T&P president, Preston Shipp.

The Rev. Janet Wolf is the Director of Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farm and Nonviolent Organizing. She previously served as faculty chair and professor at American Baptist College in Nashville, a historically Black college and home to many of the national civil rights leaders. For the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Wolf served as pastor of rural and urban congregations for 12 years. As director of public policy and community outreach with Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy, she worked with a national interfaith coalition on harm reduction, alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice. She is the author of “To See and To Be Seen,” a chapter in  I Was in Prison: United Methodist Perspectives on Prison Ministry. For 12 years she also served as a community organizer around poverty rights. Wolf graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Stayed tuned! More speakers to be announced shortly!

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“Woke” to a New Reformation: The Razor’s Edge of “Identity Politics” as the Way to “Truth and Reconciliation”

Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It is derived from the African American Vernacular English expression “stay woke,” whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. — Wikipedia, “Woke”

For Lent 1B in 2018 I began a regular feature at my website titled “Elements of a New Reformation.” The idea of this feature is not just a new call to reform the church but to be “woke” to the New Reformation that’s already underway. I believe the term “woke” to be appropriate here because it is movements like Black Lives Matter in which I see the New Reformation to be be underway. Unfortunately, the church, still slowly waking up from its collusion in Christendom, is not a leader of the New Reformation; it has been a follower in some quarters and still an obstructionist in many others.

In July I began a regular preaching stint again as an interim pastor. The Second Reading that day was Ephesians 2:11-22 (Proper 11B) — the perfect text on which to begin preaching on the theme of New Reformation. Combined with Ephesians 2:8-10 it is easy to see where the Reformation failed. The latter was right to emphasize grace in passages like 2:8-10, but then it not only missed the point of grace in the verses to follow (after the “therefore” in 2:11) but proceeded to make matters worse. (For more on Eph. 2 and healing tribalism, see my recent blog “Healing Tribalism.”)

‘Creating one new humanity out of the two’ (Eph. 2:15). This is what the New Reformation must be about. In the language of our current moment in history, it is about God’s spirit working in the world to heal tribalism. The Reformation ended up multiplying the tribes by which human beings lived out their tribalism. I’m sure that was not the aim but it was the result. Why?

I think that much depends on the razor’s edge of what today is called “identity politics.” The online Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a helpful definition:

politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group

What I’m calling the razor’s edge of identity politics is that a first step essential to healing tribalism is to be ‘woke’ to how identities are malformed in history that structurally favor one group over another in a society’s institutions and culture. In short, some form of identity politics is necessary and good. But the razor’s edge is to fall off to one side or the other. One side is to lose the larger aim of “the interests and concerns of any larger political group” — what is sometimes called the “common good.” This is what is most often referred to pejoratively as “identity politics.”

Take the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Black Lives Matter can fall short of the razor’s edge if it misses the longer-term aim of lifting everyone toward the common good by simply pitting black lives against white lives. It becomes another entrenchment of tribalism.

But I would propose that falling off on the other side of the razor’s is actually much more often the case — namely, by refusing to recognize the positive side of identity politics — in this case, that black lives have mattered less than white lives in the historical structures of a White Supremacist culture. Healing of this centuries-long tribalism cannot begin to happen without being woke to a proper diagnosis. The most common outcome to conversations about race continues to be the label of “identity politics” as a justification to not have the conversation about race at all, thus falling short of reaching an historical diagnosis which might lead to genuine healing.

One of the places that I see New Reformation happening in our world is in South Africa. Like all reform movements it has certainly come with it ups and downs. On the positive side is the effort at “Truth and Reconciliation.” The very name implies that one cannot come without the other. We cannot get to reconciliation without some form of telling the truth of the disease of tribalism in need of healing. Sometimes, the overall aim is reconciliation, but the efforts at truth-telling are too quickly labeled as “identity politics” and then used as a justification to short-circuit truth-telling and move straight to reconciliation. For my part, I most often experience the cry of “identity politics” in this obstructionist sense of thinking we can move to reconciliation without truth-telling. Conversely, I most often experience movements like Black Lives Matter as a means of truth-telling on the way to any hopes for reconciliation. If Black Lives Matter is “identity politics,” then it is so in the positive step toward striving toward the interests and concerns of the larger political group. It is a striving toward the common good of reconciliation, of healing the tribalism that has become known as White Supremacy.

Theologically, the cry of “identity politics” as obstruction to truth-telling is akin to thinking we can have the forgiveness and reconciliation of resurrection without going through the painful truth of the cross. Anthropologically, especially in light of Mimetic Theory, it is akin to thinking we can move beyond the deeply embedded effects of the Scapegoat Mechanism without any solidarity with the victims who are the product of structuring human community founded on losers and winners, on those sacrificed and those who carry out the sacrifice. It means remaining blind to the mechanism at the foundation of all our human worlds, which the cross reveals.

In Mimetic Theory, James Alison has called this element of curing the blindness of the dominant viewpoint of a culture the “intelligence of the victim” (in many of his books, beginning with the first, Knowing Jesus); and Andrew McKenna the “epistemological privilege of the victim” (Violence and Difference). Here I’m suggesting that it’s simply the positive form, or the razor’s edge, of what is so often (too quickly) labeled as “identity politics.”

This raises a matter of disagreement between myself and my mentor, René Girard, when he commented in several places on “identity politics” (primarily the interview books When These Things Begin and The One by Whom Scandal Comes). He certainly has some truthful things to say about “identity politics” in the form of falling off on the one side of the razor’s edge into mimetic conflict between groups. But here’s the problem I’ve encountered with those remarks in my own work: Girard never made substantial comments on the razor’s edge of identity politics in the sense of diagnosing the institutional, systemic, and cultural embeddedness of the Scapegoat Mechanism in the isms of our time — racism, sexism, capitalism, etc. So I believe Girard left the door open to falling off the razor’s edge on the other side: calling something “identity politics” and then never getting around to the deeper truth-telling required for reconciliation, for healing the tribalism hidden since the foundation of the world. Antiracism work, for example, is not “identity politics” in the pejorative sense when it remains focused on the goal of healing racism for the common good. Yet the necessary first step is to provide a diagnosis of the problem which is too often hastily labeled as “identity politics” — as a justification for trying to get to reconciliation before there has been genuine truth-telling.

The greatest gift to me as a student of Mimetic Theory, and as a practitioner of peacemaking based upon it, has been the slow, gradual curing of my blindness (still ongoing!) as a educated white male in Euro-American white culture. It has opened me to listen to those who are oppressed in our culture. The analysis of the Scapegoat Mechanism as embedding sacrificial thinking and practices into a culture has made it easier for me to hear and understand movements like Black Lives Matter and inclusive language for gender. It inspires and motivates me to participate in things like the Poor People’s Campaign and ongoing antiracism work. These are the kind of movements which I experience as New Reformation — a sort of ‘virtual church’ of which the institutional church is now sometimes a follower.

Such work has increasingly become the work of Theology and Peace in recent years as we are now building a partnership with the American Bible College to live into Beloved Community. Please consider joining us in 2019 for “Engaged Mimetic Theory: Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu.”

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Interpreting the “Powers” Anthropologically

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” — Pogo, in a 1971 cartoon by Walt Kelly

I’ve come to see Mark 3:21-27 as one of the most important passages in the Bible. It is Mark’s — and thus the Gospel writers’ — first “parable.” It is the clearest example of Jesus reinterpreting a “higher power” in purely anthropological terms.

The worldview of ancient religions is largely that of a “polytheism,” a belief in the existence of a panoply of various deities and “spirits.” Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have continued a tendency to view entities such “Satan” or “Powers and principalities” as higher powers that have some sort of existence independent of human beings. We see Satan as some sort of higher power unto himself. Or, in modern worldviews, an example might be seeing the “free market” as some sort of benevolent natural force having independence from human interaction (see the earlier blog “Opposing Faiths: Free Market Vs. Easter”.)

Here’s why it is so important to recognize Jesus in a passage like today’s as demythologizing an entity like “Satan”: our human “polytheism” is part of the original sin of not taking responsibility for the consequences of our complex collective actions. That is, the things we do together in community that create higher powers are transcendent of us as individuals. Many of these are good. Participants in Alcoholic’s Anonymous, for example, experience the working of the healing Twelve Step community as a “higher power” that helps them defeat the higher power of alcohol in their lives.

According to Mimetic Theory, the Original higher power of human beings is the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat which grants the community an experience of temporary peace. It is a collective action that must be religiously repeated to maintain the peace. And as collective human actions evolve into human institutions and cultures, the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat is embedded as a structuring principle, a “Logos” which, as Heraclitus proposed, is the ‘father and king of everything.’ And the big payoff is this: by interpreting our collective violence as gods, we don’t have to accept responsibility. We collectively kill a human being on an altar and it’s because the gods commanded it.

It is only in light of the cross and resurrection that we can say with Pogo, “We have the enemy and he is us.” The Original higher power was good to the extent that it helped us to survive as a species, saving us from imploding by our own intra-species violence. But it is sinful in that it is still violence itself and blocks us from ever experiencing a lasting peace for the entire human household. In the terms of Jesus’ parable, we remain a house divided.

The Gospel unveiling of our mythology is exemplified by this first parable of Jesus. In a riddle, Jesus is exposing Satan as our own collective accusation and expulsion of those we label as an evil higher power. It’s what the scribes from Jerusalem have just done to Jesus, accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul — initiating a process of accusation and, eventually, a collective murder that will be completed on the cross. Jesus has come to expose our original sin, and this riddle about Satan casting out Satan is the first glimpse.

A crucial element of a New Reformation is to further demythologize our collective violence that remains as strong as ever in our institutions and cultures. (Once again, a good example is the myth of the “free market” addressed in the earlier blog.) Here are further comments/explication on this crucial passage:

Girard - The Scapegoat1. “The Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan” of Mark 3:23-27 is a pivotal text for Mimetic Theory. It is the first biblical text on which I heard René Girard speak (in the early 90’s); he first wrote on it in ch. 14 of The Scapegoat (1982). For those not familiar with Girard’s take: when Jesus asks, seemingly rhetorically, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, Girard essentially answers, ‘It happens all the time. In fact, that’s what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan.’

According to Mimetic Theory, our species survived because the satanic accusation and expulsion kept the peace when hominid groups were imploding through intra-community violence. The dominance hierarchies of other mammals were no longer keeping the peace among our ancestors. We were too embroiled in mimetic rivalries, and we were learning to use lethal weapons (clubs, rocks, etc.). The mechanism that entered the void is a “scapegoating mechanism,” an accusation turned into collective violence against an accused. The all-against-one violence brings peace to the majority. And the superhuman aura surrounding the victim (who was both blamed for the conflict and appears to have caused the peace) becomes the beginning of the experience of the sacred. The ensuing hierarchies of human culture are based on the dualism of sacred and profane and were religious from the very beginning of our species.

From earliest ancient near east sources, Satan is the Accuser. Subsequently, “Satan” also became a general name for the Evil One whom we want to cast out. So Satan the Accuser seeks to accuse and cast out Satan the Evil One. In short, “Satan casts out Satan” is the briefest description of a gospel anthropology unveiling the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin.

2. In Mark’s account, there are two crucial clues to the truth of this reading. Mark introduces it with the first use in his Gospel of the word “parable,” which has the meaning of “riddle” in his portrayal of Jesus. “Can Satan cast out Satan?” is thus a riddle, not a straightforward rhetorical question.

Second, and even more important, the context itself is a classic instance of Satan casting out Satan. The scribes from Jerusalem are accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul. They, of course, think they are doing God’s work of accusing an evil one and then working to cast him out (which they will eventually succeed in doing). But Jesus’ riddle names them as doing satanic work by virtue of their accusing. Their actions comprise an instance of ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ not God casting out Satan.

The truth that Jesus means for us to see, then, is in the stated consequences: a house divided against itself cannot stand. The human way of trying to keep a house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone, on being over against someone. Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom — the household — of God, which will build a household on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation and build God’s household on forgiveness. Jesus concludes, “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Satan’s reign is at an end precisely because his age-old game is that of Satan casting out Satan, resulting in a house divided that cannot stand.

3. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has recognized the key role of Satan in the Gospels. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright dedicates a significant section on “the Satan” at a crucial point in his argument (section entitled “The Real Enemy Identified: not Rome, but the Satan,” pp. 451-463). Jesus cannot be seen as the victorious Messiah unless we know who is the enemy defeated.

Yet Wright’s analysis of “the Satan” is still somewhat underdeveloped in light of its centrality to his argument. What kind of power and authority does Satan have? Girard’s answer is swift and clear: Satan’s power is anthropological — that is, it derives from the ways in which human beings organize themselves into community and culture. If we were to organize differently, Satan’s power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation, and his unveiling of the satanic powers have dealt them a death blow. Satan is losing his transcendent powers; he has fallen from heaven like lightning. Thus, Girard’s anthropology of grace can greatly enhance our understanding of Satan in the Gospels — especially the book in which he makes it central, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Girard - I See Satan4. There are important ontological matters at issue here. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, chapter 3 on “Satan” is crucial, but there is another important passage (at the end of ch. 5 on “Mythology”) that speaks to the ontology of Satan:

Why do the Gospels, in their most complete definition of the mimetic cycle, have recourse to a figure named Satan or the devil rather than to an impersonal principle? I think the principal reason is that the human subjects as individuals are not aware of the circular process in which they are trapped; the real manipulator of the process is mimetic contagion itself. There is no real subject within this mimetic contagion, and that is finally the meaning of the title “prince of this world,” if it is recognized that Satan is the absence of being.

Satan is not at all divine, but in naming him we allude to something essential that I mentioned briefly in my chapter about him [ch. 3], a matter of great interest in this book: the origin of primitive and pagan gods. Even if Satan’’s transcendence is false, totally without reality in a religious sense, on the worldly plane his works are undeniable and formidable. Satan is the absent subject of structures of disorder and order, which stem from rivalistic relations among humans. When it’’s all said and done, these rivalries both organize and disorganize human relations.

Satan is mimetic contagion as its most secret power, the creation of the false gods out of the midst of which Christianity emerged. To speak of the mimetic cycle in terms of Satan enables the Gospels to say or to suggest many things about the religions perceived by Christianity as false, deceptive, and illusory that they could not say in the language of scandal, the reconciling power of unanimous violence.

The peoples of the world do not invent their gods. They deify their victims. What prevents researchers from discovering this truth is their refusal to grasp the real violence behind the texts that represent it. The refusal of the real is the number one dogma of our time. It is the prolongation and perpetuation of the original mythic illusion. [Girard uses “myth” in the specialized sense of telling a story of reality from the perspective of perpetrators of scapegoating violence. Conversely, “Gospel” is telling the story of reality from the perspective of the Forgiving Victim of scapegoating violence.] (pp. 69-70)

Girard is saying that Satan has no real substance outside of our human relations. He is the name ancient peoples gave to those structures of human relations themselves. So when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater. We no longer name those structures as real, as “satanic,” as having to do fundamentally with accusing and expelling. Jesus in this passage shows that he understood the anthropology behind the name Satan and continued to use the name in order to speak to the thinking of his time. We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the anthropological insight or we risk perpetuating the perpetrators’ mythic version of reality.

5. There is ontological danger which an underdevelopment of “Satan” risks. If we don’t carefully define Satan’s power anthropologically, the danger is Manichaeism, or some brand of cosmology where the powers of evil have some form of ultimacy to rival God’s power of good. I think that N.T. Wright, in his more recent book Simply Jesus, walks the tightrope of this danger. I couldn’t agree more with his overall point and the move he makes to get there, when, at the end of the chapter on the cross, he once again gets to the crucial question. He writes:

Somehow, Jesus’’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’’s kingdom was established. The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. It was the ultimate Exodus event through which the tyrant was defeated, God’’s people were set free and given their fresh vocation, and God’’s presence was established in their midst in a completely new way for which the Temple itself was just an advance pointer. That is why, in John’’s gospel, the “glory of God” — with all the echoes of the anticipated return of YHWH to Zion —is revealed in and through Jesus, throughout his public career, in the “signs” he performed, but fully and finally as he is “lifted up” on the cross.

How can this be? How can the horrible, ugly, and brutal execution of a young prophet be the means of establishing God’’s kingdom? What does it mean to say, as we have done throughout this book, that the point of the story is that God is now in charge, if the means by which that is accomplished is the death of the one who had gone about making it happen?

There is of course much more that could be said on this subject. But, trying to boil it down and keep it simple, I think we can and must say at least this. In Jesus’’s own understanding of the battle he was fighting, Rome was not the real enemy. Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin. The terrible thing is that this charge is true. All humans have indeed worshiped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’’s image into the world. They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death. (pp. 185-86)

I suggest that the “much more that could be said on this subject” needs to be anthropology, namely, Mimetic Theory, which makes accusation and the Accuser central to our understanding of what generates and underlies all human culture. Otherwise, phrases like “anti-creation power” can be read like the Dark Side of the Force in the Star Wars saga. The following passage is so close to how a Girardian might speak of the cross, as Wright amplifies his own image of the Perfect Storm:

In addition to the gale of Rome, the high-pressure system of Israel’’s distorted ambitions, and the cyclone of the returning purposes of God, we perhaps need a downward vortex, a giant whirlpool, that threatens to suck down into the black depths all who sail too close to it. One might even tie the themes together and suggest that the gale and the pressure system are themselves driven by the same forces that are dragging down the dark waters: Rome and rebel Israel are the unwitting tools of the Satan, the Accuser, the great force of anti-creation.

And one might suggest that Jesus, precisely because he believed that in his public career “the time was fulfilled,” believed too that all these powers of evil were gathering themselves for one last battle, one last attempt to thwart the good purposes of the creator God, to pull the cosmos and the human race down into the depths. The only way, he believed, by which this great anti-creation power could be stopped and defeated would be for him, Jesus, anointed with God’’s Spirit to fight the real battle against the real enemy, to take the full power of evil and accusation upon himself, to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent. (pp. 187-88)

It is so close to the insight of MT’s anthropology, and yet the last line also teeters dangerously on the brink of Manichaeism. The way in which to avoid giving evil an ontological status that rivals God is to give it an anthropological one. We interpret the powers and principalities as embedded in the social DNA of our species, that is to say, as embedded in the way we have always organized ourselves into community based on accusations against scapegoats. That is why Satan is the Accuser with a capital “A.”

But, on the other hand, it is also why Satan has no firm ontology. Satan disappears if human beings come to organize themselves in another way — for example, the alternative way that Jesus has come to offer us by letting himself become the one accused and cast out. Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who is now the new basis for human community and culture. As such he is the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom, God’s new culture. He is the first born of a new anthropology, the Son of Man, the New Human Being. He rescues us from the deadly and sinful powers of the old anthropology and offers us a new way to be human, a new anthropology, a life lived in the Spirit instead of in the flesh. Just as we discover ourselves as the enemy, we are graciously invited to join God’s Way of becoming more truly human, a Way of flourishing rather than thwarting our own lives.

(P.S.–I believe that an example of falling into the trap of not anthropologically demythologizing the satanic powers is Gregory Boyd‘s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, especially Part VI, “The Principle of Cosmic Conflict,” which allows for many powers in the Bible without performing Jesus’ anthropological reading. It’s an enormously important book, as an evangelical pastor demythologizes divine violence through the lens of the cross — perhaps the most crucial element of a New Reformation. But such a huge project will not be fully completed without a demythologization that finds an anthropological interpretation of the Satanic powers. Human responsibility will once again be let off the hook.)

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Mark Your Calendars!

June 17-20, 2019
“Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu”
Nashville, Tennessee
Stay tuned for our forthcoming list of speakers!

René Girard

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mimetic Theory, as articulated by René Girard, offers profound insight into human nature, desire, rivalry and the tendency to create scapegoats on both the individual and systemic levels.

Martin Luther King‘s vision of Beloved Community offers an antidote to the disease that mimetic theory diagnoses.

Coming out of the context of apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu‘s theology of Ubuntu helps us understand our inter-dependence as a fundamental truth of being human, namely, that “I am only because we are.”

Desmond Tutu

The Beloved Community affords us the opportunity to move beyond our tribal tendencies and the scapegoat mechanism that insidiously infects our hearts, our communities, our political institutions and even our churches, and to enjoy inter-dependence and inter-dividuality in the spirit of Ubuntu.

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Healing Tribalism

(The following is the opening essay for my recent lectionary page Proper 11B.)

Tribalism. The new darling word for what ails our culture-in-crisis. Yet while our current fascination with tribalism may be new, the reality of tribalism is anything but. In fact, it may be said to be as old as sin itself. It has become increasingly clear to me that the church’s recent teachings on salvation have acted to hide a more biblical account of God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ.

Case in point: my personal history with today’s Second Reading, Ephesians 2. Growing up Lutheran, we preferred the first half of Ephesians 2, especially verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Salvation by grace through faith; it doesn’t get any more clear. The part in verse 10 gets a bit knotty with its mention of being created for good works as our way of life. Some brands of Lutheran seem allergic to “good works” because one might be tempted to see them as the way to salvation. My brand of Lutheranism taught that you just had to be careful that the good works are the result of salvation by grace, not the pre-requisite.

What we Lutherans never seemed to get to, however, was the “therefore” in verse 11 and the ensuing verses that shows us the details of what salvation looks like. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a proclamation about the healing of that age-old sin of tribalism. Yes, tribalism! When St. Paul characterizes salvation by grace itself as God in Jesus Christ creating one new humanity out of two, isn’t that the healing of tribalism? All the ways in which the human family divides itself into tribes is now being healed through the blood of Jesus Christ, who on the cross let himself be considered as one from an enemy tribe, the outsider, the criminal. And God raises him up as the promise of healing our tribalism. One new humanity out of two.

The need for a New Reformation could not be more clear here. The Reformation not only got stuck on verse 8, but it proved its missing the point of salvation in verses 11ff. by practicing another deadly form of tribalism, namely, Protestant vs. Catholic — and the many splintering versions of Protestantism that followed.

In addition to working with Ephesians 2 in the 2018 sermon (extemporized; no text), I brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of Genesis 2-3 as the symbol of our fall into tribalism. The common reading of the fall into sin that I was taught in Reformation theology sees only the disobedience of eating of the forbidden fruit as sinful. The knowledge of Good and Evil was presumed to be a good thing; the disobedience was presumed sinful. But this reading plays into the serpent’s injecting envy into the mix, persuading Eve that God is holding out on them with knowledge. A reading of this passage in terms of Contemplative Spirituality recognizes it as the beginning of dualistic thinking, the judging of everything as Us vs. Them — tribalism! Here, for example, is Richard Rohr in The Naked Now:

I call contemplation the tree of life, as compared to the other tree “in the center of the garden” of Eden, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), because these two serve as ideal metaphors for the two minds. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents “either-or” dualism, which we are strictly warned against, and even told not to eat. The tree of life promises access to eternal things (3:22), grows “crops twelve times a year,” and sprouts “leaves that are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It accesses the deep ground of God and of the self. The contemplative, nondual mind is a tree of continual and constant fruitfulness for the soul and for the world. (105)

And in The Divine Dance Rohr makes the role of love clear. No true knowledge can be gained without love:

You cannot know things if you don’t first of all grant them a foundational respect, if you don’t love them before you grab them with your mind. This is surely what Genesis warns us against from the beginning, in archetypal Eden: you’ll eat voraciously from that forbidden tree of knowledge before you know how to respect and honor what you are eating, which creates very entitled and proud people. All of life becomes a commodity for our consumption. (102)

Oughourlian - The Genesis of DesireAlso fresh for me in 2018 was presenting on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the perspective of Mimetic Theory. I had given a PowerPoint presentation at the 2018 COV&R Conference in Denver (July 11-14) titled, “‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ and Tree of the Crucified Messiah: Symbols of Original Untruth and Its Healing.” Perhaps the Girardian who developed this symbol the most as the biblical symbol of untruth is Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in chapter 2 of his book The Genesis of Desire, a very close reading of Genesis 2-4. James Warren, in his incisive summary of Oughourlian’s reading of Genesis 3, gives a portrait of human history that is uncomfortably familiar in this age of Trump and populist authoritarianism, an apt description of tribalism:

Human history thus becomes the kaleidoscopic reflection of a thousand variations of this kind of ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ with human activity characterized by wars and interpersonal hostilities based upon each side’s claimed possession of the ‘good,’ along with a labeling of the other side as evil. Utopian schemes, dictatorships, and even democracies will distinguish their own brands of good and evil, and seek to create the good society by eliminating evil-doers who threaten to pervert the structure. All over the planet human beings will gather themselves into associations large and small, defined by their perception of ‘good’ and characterized by attempts, both crass and subtle, to exclude the evil other. All of this will be experienced as what we call ‘morality,’ which is a function of the fall into rivalrous desire. (Compassion or Apocalypse?, 47)

But the deepest theological analysis of this symbol takes me back 26 years to the first Girardian book I read, Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s Sacred Violence, weaving Mimetic Theory in with St. Paul’s theological analysis in Romans.

Only after the serpent had persuaded her by this deception to imitate God’s acquisitive desire for the fruit did it become desirable to her; she learned rivalry from mimesis’s misrepresentation of the divine desire as envious. The moment of mimetic acquisitiveness has been reached and the train of events leading to the Sacred set in motion. Thus desire transforms God from creator, to whom one should be related in gratitude, into rival, to whom one is related by envy, and it does so by manipulating the prohibition (Rom 7:11). This is the act of sin as envy (phthonos). (93)

And so the envy and rivalry interact with the “knowledge of good and evil” in a way that leads to sacred violence, where even God gets caught up in the scapegoat mechanism:

This is the background of Paul’s statement that sin used the Law to deceive and kill Adam (Rom 7:11). According to the story they gained the knowledge of good and evil. According to our theory this “knowledge of good and evil” is acquisitive and conflictual mimesis with the divine. Before the transgression they knew only good — namely, that the creator is beneficent and generous, and free of envy. After the transgression they had imputed both evil and good to the creator in making God a rival. Thus faith as trust in the divine goodwill was at an end. Now the Law produced not faith but anxiety and rivalry with God and one another.” (96-97)

What does the Law ultimately produce? “For the law brings wrath. . .” (Rom. 4:15). Notice carefully, that Paul does not say “wrath of God.” He simply says wrath because he is trying to help us see that the reality of wrath is a human problem, not a divine one: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). I take this to mean a crucial contrast. Our wrath worked out against each other in tribalistic sacred violence is contrasted with the revelation of God’s righteous judgment of mercy, forgiveness, and love. (For more, see my essay on the “wrath of God” in Romans.)

How do we stem the current tide of a rising populist tribalism and its accompanying human wrath worked out against others? Will God’s righteousness truly be revealed in contrast to another ‘day’ of human wrath? The answer to both questions is forbearance. God’s righteousness, says St. Paul, is forbearance, a forbearance we can learn in obedience to Jesus the Messiah. The verse right before the cited contrast in Rom. 2:5 says so: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). And a chapter later Paul tells us the meaning of the Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross as a revelation of God’s righteousness: “God did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed. . .” (Rom. 3:25).

I give the last word to Richard Rohr in this beautiful portrait of how forbearance can meet tribalism:

Jesus forbears our brokenness so that we can do the same — for ourselves and, finally, for one another. He knows, as only the mind of God can, that what we refer to as evil is really goodness tortured by its own hunger and thirst, goodness that has not been able to experience being received and given back. “Evil” is what happens when human beings become tortured with this desire for goodness that they cannot experience. And then we do the kind of horrible things we see on our televisions and social media streams: killing each other, humiliating each other, hurting each other in abuses of power and privilege, showing a complete inability to even recognize the imago Dei in other beings or in ourselves.

True seeing extends your sight even further: the people you want to hate, the people who carry out the worst atrocities, are not evil at their core — they’re simply tortured human beings. They still carry the divine image. Hitler and Stalin carried the divine image. Hussein and Bin Laden carried the divine image! I am not inclined to admit this, but it’s the only conclusion that full seeing leads me toward. The forbearance of God toward me allows me to see the divine dance in all other broken vessels.

If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that seeing in this way robs me of a certain privilege I’ve allowed myself my whole life: I have always eaten generously from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The categories are clear in my mind, which makes judging come naturally. Kindness and forbearance? Much less so.

As I’ve entered this dance more and more, God has taken away from me the power to choose who are the good folks and who are bad ones; I no longer have the freedom to choose who I show respect to, which races I feel more comfortable around, and what religions — or religious subgroups — I don’t like.

“Those secular liberals!”Rohr - The Divine Dance

“Those fundamentalists!”

“Those Republican [or Democrat] idiots!”

But I’ve been dining my way through an alternative. Invited to a conscientious dietary shift, I eat instead from the Tree of Life, offered from the center of the archetypal Garden for all who enter the flow with bleeding and forbearing hearts. What a difference it makes: in this glorious, undifferentiated, freely-offered life, there is no longer a “they,” there.

It’s all “we.” (The Divine Dance, 176-78)

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