The Smallest Huge Translation Mistake in the Bible

Creating Two Distinct ‘Sheep and Goat’ Parables

In 2017 the title of my sermon for Christ the King Sunday (Nov. 26) is “The Smallest Huge Translation Mistake in the Bible: Creating Two Distinct ‘Sheep and Goat’ Parables,” stemming from the translation of one small word in Matthew 25:32:

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people/them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats….

The small word at issue is autous, simply the pronoun them. The older King James and Revised Standard Versions correctly render it as “them.” But newer translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, change the meaning of the parable by rendering it as “people” — in other words, by interpreting the them as “people.” But the clear referent of them in this sentence is the subject of the first clause, “all the nations.” This may seem a small translation decision, but I propose that it has huge implications for interpreting this parable. It changes the major action from sorting nations to sorting people, directing us to imagine it as a sorting of individuals instead of a sorting of whole communities of people, ethnē, “nations.”

This seemingly small translation decision then allows or enables the Christendom eschatology of focusing on the fate of individuals in the afterlife. So instead of a parable that judges the politics and economics of empires, we get a parable that supports empires by playing the same games of sorting people into us vs. them. We get a parable that follows up the imperial, transactional practice of rewarding friends and punishing enemies with a Jesus the King who does the same thing in the afterlife. The sacred violence of empires on earth gets repeated and justified by Jesus/God for an eternity in heaven.

And I submit to you that the choice of “people” for autous greatly enables such an imperialistic reading. Yes, there is a tension with typical imperialism that Jesus’ criterion for sorting brings: the ultimate sorting into an eternal fate of heaven or hell is done on the basis of caring for the least in Jesus’ family. But the tension between imperialistic power and Jesus’ anti-imperialistic Gospel has generally melted away in light of the individualism allowed by changing the referent of autous from “all the nations” to “people.” The parable of judgment can be reduced to a matter of individuals being free to choose charitable action in order to feel better about their fate in the afterlife.

But what if Jesus’ mission as the “Son of Man,” the New Human Being of Daniel 7, is an anti-imperialistic mission of judging the systemic violence of the politics and economics of empires? What if his mission favors the least powerful in Jesus the King’s family rather than the most powerful in the imperial family? What if it is about transforming nations towards justice and not just the choice of individuals to pursue charity? Then this passage must be read as a sorting of nations, not a sorting of people — as a sorting of communities of people at the very least, and not simply people as individuals.

Zahnd_A Farewell to MarsSince Brian Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars in 2014, I’ve come to see this passage as the quintessential Gospel passage on “Apocalypse,” a revelation of God’s judgment on sacralized collective human violence — that is, the systemic violence of empires and modern militaristic nations whose economics are basically about extracting resources from any nation or ‘people’ who can be overpowered. Zahnd has been a reader of Mimetic Theory and understands, first of all, that the violence is never God’s. The revelation is about God helping us to see and understand the consequences of our human violence.

How do we measure and evaluate the consequences of human violence? Given Zahnd’s reading of this judgment passage, the answer is that God is revealing the divine plan that Creation has essentially been structured “since the foundation of the world” to yield blessing when all the least are cared for. Conversely, when the least are sacrificed instead of cared for, the result is a violence that envelopes even those in power — human beings who mistakenly see power as manipulating violence toward others and away from themselves. Human brokers of power are playing with fire in doing so. Creation has been structured by God to work best for everyone, “all the nations,” when the most vulnerable are attended to instead of the least vulnerable. (This is also a reality at the origins of our species since human infants are born the most vulnerable of all creatures; it takes years for human beings to mature enough to leave the nest. Is this another argument in favor of expanded roles for women, since mothers seem to know this more experientially?) Human beings can continue to behave otherwise. We can continue to operate with a power that favors the center rather than the margins. But it will prove to be as futile as spitting into the wind. God in Jesus the Messiah is revealing a Creation that favors the margins rather than the center. “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

Matthew 25:31-46 thus reveals the key to human flourishing (with the rest of Creation still waiting for the children of God to get our act together — Rom. 8:19-23): communities that tend to the least will flourish, while communities (“nations”) that neglect the least will be playing with the fire of their own systemic violence. This has been true since the foundation of the world.

But there have been various blockages. The primary blinder/earplug has been culture based in Sacred Violence, epitomized by empires and modern militaristic nations, which structure human community to privilege the center, sacrificing those on the margins. Mimetic Theory helps us to be clear about the unveiling of that sin of our human origins — revealing things hidden since the foundation of the world.

Zahnd’s reading of Matthew 5:31-46 has rocked my world because it helps us to be more clear about another blinder/earplug to God’s revelation of human flourishing. And I propose that this second blockage has come about as an unintended consequence of the first unveiling. For the latter begins with forgiven and repentant individuals experiencing conversion — namely, a gradual ability to step out of cultures of Sacred Violence into cultures of compassion and forgiveness. But the ‘unintended consequence’ has become Individualism, an undue emphasis on salvation around conversion of individuals at the expense of meaningfully experiencing the transformation of homo sapiens in our cultural and institutional dimensions. The New Human Being gathers the nations for judgment, not just individuals.

The seemingly small but huge translation error of autous bears witness to this blockage due to Individualism. Readers ignore the gathering of the “nations,” in favor of making it be a sorting of “people.” For conservative evangelicals, it is read as the final sorting into heaven and hell between believers and unbelievers, respectively — despite the fact that the stated measure for sorting has nothing to do with believing. For “mainline” Christians it is read as the justification to compel charity. But both readings leave “nations” off the hook. I believe this to be a symptom of the first dimension of human conversion of individuals that has led to a distortion into Individualism — often then supported by a politics of Libertarianism.

Zahnd’s reading can provide the beginning of an antidote, helping to begin the unveiling of God’s healing salvation on the level of human institutions and cultures. God in Jesus the Messiah is healing our systemic violence that neglects or sacrifices the vulnerable. The cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has begun an unveiling of a human flourishing through a conversion of human cultures (the advent of God’s Kingdom!) from privileging the most powerful to a compassionate caring for the least powerful. And we will need to consider how this conversion goes well beyond individual charity to a transformation of what truly makes for successful, flourishing nations. It will require following a completely different King. It will deeply involve the politics and economics of communities, “nations,” in history.

See much more on this under the Gospel Reading on my webpage Christ the King A, beginning with an alternate translation of the entire Gospel and its explanation. Let me conclude these opening remarks with a brief preview of Zahnd’s own words:

So how does Jesus judge or evaluate nations? What criteria does he use? When we evaluate nations, we tend to do so on the basis of wealth and power — Gross Domestic Product, standard of living, strength of the economy, strength of the military. But this is not the criterion Jesus uses to judge the nations as he sits upon his glorious throne. Jesus judges nations on how well they care for four kinds of people:

The Poor. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . I was naked and you gave me clothing.

The Sick. I was sick and you took care of me.

The Immigrant. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

The Prisoner. I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:35-36) (p. 165)

One final thought as an illustration of what I think is at stake: in 2017 President Trump and the Republican Congress are offering a Tax Cut bill. How do we measure this bill in light of a revelation of a divine economics built-in to the Creation that favors the least in God’s family? We can once again opt for a politics and economics that favors the already powerful, but this parable suggests that that will eventually result in a ‘time of punishment’ when we suffer the fiery consequences of our own systemic violence.

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The World of Grace: An Invitation into a Spirituality for the Second Half of Life

Rohr - Falling Upward[This blog provides the Opening Comments for my lectionary webpage on Proper 20A, prompted by the texts of Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.]

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.

At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.

While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in all the moments of lived life?

Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)

So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the personal stories that shape our self-understanding.

I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.

But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the ‘original dualisms’: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-uncleanfair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.

So what happens to prompt movement into a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived moments are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption — both positively at moments of wondrous grace but also negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. The latter moments often raise up shouts of, “Life is unfair!”

Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of the dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together in love.

Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.

So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.

This week’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard offers us a similar and even more straightforward invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.

But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace so that not even moments of great personal loss could extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced deeply enough the Crucified God in Christ to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help lead me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

Rohr-Darcy - A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeOne story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” And he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to co-lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.

But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, having coped with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paula’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going into the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,

“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”

Paula answered simply, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”

“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”

I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in the deep and wondrous mystery of Love.

[This blog provides the Opening Comments for my lectionary webpage on Proper 20A. For more those texts, go to Proper 20A]

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.

At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.

While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in the all the moments of lived life?

Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward, when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)

So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the stories that shape our self-understanding.

I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.

But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the first original dualisms: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-uncleanfair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.

So what happens to prompt movement to a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived moments are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption, both positively at moments of wondrous grace and negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. Moments, in short, of shouting out, “Life is unfair!”

Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of those dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together.

Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.

So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.

This week’s Parable of the Vineyard Workers gives us a similar invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.

But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace such that not even moments of great personal loss can extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced the Crucified God in Christ deeply enough to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help to bring me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

One story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” and he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident with a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.

But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, coping with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paul’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going in the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,

“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”

She had had the experience of owning things and deserving things. Paula answered, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”

“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”

I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in Love.

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Richard Rohr‘s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It did nothing less than articulate my own spiritual journey. Ever since my teenage years, I could not be satisfied with the God whom I was being taught. I considered myself “agnostic” in my late teens, early twenties. I was like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov — an intellectual who couldn’t make sense of the suffering in the world. So when I decided to go to seminary at about age 24, it was not just a vocational calling. The decision was also about needing to see if I could begin to encounter a new God. I sought to be more like Alyosha Karamazov, on a spiritual journey with guides like Father Zosima. In growing up, I had already experienced gracious pastors and my own father who encouraged my spiritual questioning and planted the seeds for a new encounter.

At the seminary and in my subsequent career as a parish pastor, I gradually began to encounter a different God than the one we are taught. The first pivotal guide was Jürgen Moltmann, especially his The Crucified God. Even the book description on the cover expresses my main issue:

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering.

While reading and studying theologians like Moltmann was important, even more so have been the countless parishioners over the years who have given me the privilege of sharing their lived lives with them — from the moments of great joy and celebration to the moments of great sorrow and suffering. How does one encounter God in the all the moments of lived life?

Reading Rohr‘s Falling Upward, when it was published in 2011, and sharing it with a Bible study group shortly thereafter, put new words with my own lived spiritual journey. His thesis is that the human journey of lived life generally encounters two quite different Gods connected with the notion of ‘two halves of life.’

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion. So you might wonder if there is much point in providing a guide to the territory ahead of time. Yet that is exactly why we must. It is vitally important to know what is coming and being offered to all of us. (Falling Upward, xiii)

So the first half is about constructing, with a lot of help from one’s culture, a safe container. It involves the legal structuring in a culture and the stories that shape our self-understanding.

I cannot think of a culture in human history, before the present postmodern era, that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build it yourself’ worldviews, in my studied opinion.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

An important word in the above description is “necessary.” Human beings fail to thrive without a healthy experience in building a safe container. And part of the safety and goodness in this container is having a transcendent guarantor: a God who presides over, justifies, and gives secure structure to the edifice.

But since this is only the first basic stage of becoming human, it bears the imprint of its beginning: a dualistic structure from the first original dualisms: me-other of the forming ego, and us-them of the structuring culture. From these derive all the other many dualisms that give meaning to the container built in the first half of life: good-evil, clean-uncleanfair-unfair (or just-unjust), successful-unsuccessful, rich-poor, deserving-undeserving, blessing-curse, reward-punishment, et al. This is the “way of the world” that all young people must learn in growing up. And the God who presides over it is the ultimate creator and arbiter of all these dualisms.

So what happens to prompt movement to a second half of life? Life happens. And among the lived moments are always moments that challenge the basic structure of the container’s dualisms — moments that especially challenge the fair-unfair assumption, both positively at moments of wondrous grace and negatively at moments of suffering undeserved evil. Moments, in short, of shouting out, “Life is unfair!”

Such moments also call God into question as the arbiter of fair and unfair. And so the work of the second half of life begins, seeking a new spirituality — and perhaps a new encounter with God that helps to begin to make sense out of life as lived. It doesn’t do away with the container from the first half of life. But it makes sense differently of those dualisms. It begins to experience them within a unity of all that is. And the experience of God changes, too, from that of keeper of the dualisms to that of unifier. And as we gleaned from a theologian like Moltmann above, the suffering is not a problem to be solved but something we experience in the unity of God. Suffering is part of God. But so is joy. In God’s unifying presence, suffering and joy can be held together.

Above all, in the second half of life we come to experience life as neither fair nor unfair. Life simply is. “It is what it is.” And when we are most fortunate, that “isness” is . . . Grace, gift.

So why these deep ponderings on the occasion of this text from Matthew — or the story of Jonah, for that matter? I believe that the parables of the past two Sundays (including Jonah) are basically invitations into a spirituality for the second half of life. As I reflected last week, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is more than a conventional story of crime and punishment. The servant has been given the gracious version of challenging life’s fairness; he has undeservedly, by this world’s standards, been forgiven an unpayable debt. As such, he is invited into a world of Grace, where debts are no longer kept. When he continues to keep a relatively small, payable debt with his fellow servant, he doesn’t simply get punished for a wrong-doing. He steps out of the world of Grace offered to him and back into the world of debt-keeping, where slavery or jail cells await those who can’t keep their debts.

This week’s Parable of the Vineyard Workers gives us a similar invitation into a whole new world of Grace, a world beyond the rules of fairness we were taught to a world of overflowing generosity.

But how does this spirituality for the second half of life work for the moments of painful loss and suffering? To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ‘arrived’ yet at the fullness of living in a world of such grace such that not even moments of great personal loss can extinguish the grace. I only glimpse it and hope that I will be far enough along on this journey to survive life’s greatest losses. And even if I’m not yet far enough along, I have experienced the Crucified God in Christ deeply enough to trust that God will be present with me in my times of greatest suffering, and then can help to bring me out on the other side. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”

One story has become quintessential for me in my own spiritual journey. Richard Rohr, shortly after releasing the book, held a conference on “A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” and he invited speaker Paula D’Arcy to lead with him, whose personal story very much adds the dimension of facing life’s greatest losses. When she was 27, and pregnant with her second child, her husband and first child were killed in an accident with a drunk driver. Paula tells many stories of being shaken out of the good and necessary spirituality in the first half of her life but then also the long journey into a spirituality for the second half of her life.

But it is a story that she tells about her friend Susan that stays with me. It is at a time when they are both older. Paula has finally moved through her darkness into a mature spirituality of Grace. Susan has also moved on from the first half of her life, coping with a divorce from an evangelical Christian and then finding new life in marrying a Jewish man. Paula happened to be visiting Susan (they no longer lived in the same town) when Susan received the same terrible news that had rocked Paul’s world: Susan’s 22 year-old son Mark, on his way home from college, had been hit by a drunk driver and killed. Paula accompanied her friend to the hospital but initially gave her the privacy of going in the Emergency Room alone to be with her son’s dead body. After a long time, Susan called for her friend to join her, gently saying to her when she arrived,

“Please tell me the truth. He never was really mine, was he?”

She had had the experience of owning things and deserving things. Paula answered, “Susan, none of them are ours. It’s all gift.”

“If that is true, then he can’t be taken from me. If he was gift, then at this moment I will give him back.” And Susan took Paula’s hand and one of her son’s hands, raised her eyes to the heavens, and prayed, “God, before me is the greatest gift you ever gave me. And now I give it back. Thank you. Thank you for all these years.”

I don’t know if I could pray such a prayer in a similar situation. But I believe that this is what it looks like to live in the world of Grace, where times of sorrow are held together with times of joy and love. It is a world in which all law is fulfilled in Love.

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Report on the 2017 Theology & Peace Conference: Embracing We-Centricity

Article featured in the COV&R Bulletin (Now available with free and open online access!)

I’m not okay. When you ask me in passing how I am, I may answer ‘fine’… We all answer with the same line, ‘I’m fine. How are you?’ But none of us are okay. On 9/11, the American people experienced a massive trauma. We are suffering from a form of collective PTSD we have yet to address. We are not okay.
~ Sereta Richardson

Last May, Theology & Peace held our tenth anniversary conference: “Embracing We-Centricity: Practices that Nurture the Common Good.” Our theme was inspired in part by Vittorio Gallese’s use of the term “we-centricity” to describe our inherent openness to the other:

“Every time we relate to other people, we automatically inhabit a we-centric space, within which we exploit a series of implicit certainties about the other. This implicit and pre-theoretical, but at the same time contentful state enables us to directly understand what the other person is doing, why he or she is doing it, and how he or she feels about a specific situation.” (“The Two Sides of Mimesis,” Mimesis and Science, 100)

While mimetic theory helps explain our interconnectedness, it more importantly reveals why “we-centricity” is also problematic, why the “common good” has historically been a bad thing for those who have been victimized and excluded. Beginning with our 2013 conference, “Lynching, Scapegoating & Actual Innocence,” Theology & Peace has examined the history of racism, the inherited trauma of slavery and lynching, and the continued destruction to black communities unleashed by the War on Drugs. With the mass incarceration of black men, the American people are engaging in scapegoating on a horrific scale. As pastors, theologians and activists, our goal is to educate our faith communities on the sacrificial foundations which structure our corporate life. And going beyond diagnosis, we seek practical models for nonviolent action that subvert the deep structures of racism, that interrupt the negative rhetoric directed against immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ persons, and that de-escalate mimetic contagion before it sweeps us up in its wake.

A year ago, at this time, the board of Theology & Peace recognized that whatever the results of the U.S. presidential election, the American people would be deeply divided. Sick with rivalry and self-righteous contempt on all sides, our public discourse has been reduced to a circus of model-obstacle relationships. The language of universal rights is stifled by a growing rhetoric of hate and resentment. We do not have to accept this as the new normal. René Girard bequeathed us the tools not only to parse the mimetic dynamics fueling the rise of populism and “the age of anger,” but to set the stage for a new era of political and social engagement.

At this year’s Theology & Peace conference, we engaged spiritual practices which, repeated over time, can transform our habitual ways of being together. Drawing on a variety of faith traditions, our speakers provided us with tangible tools not only for building our resistance to the unconscious dynamics responsible for scapegoating, but for creating compassionate spaces for healing our individual and collective trauma.

Sister Rose Pacatte led us in “Watching Film as a Spiritual Practice,” an adaptation of lectio divina, the ancient monastic practice of receptivity to the power of scripture. Together we watched the film The Visitor about a man who arrives home to discover illegal immigrants camped out in his NYC apartment. Sr. Rose asked that we identify with a character in the film—that we reflect on a scene in movie which seemed to “choose us” and share with others the ways the film touched our hearts. Our ego-centric engagement with the film was suspended just enough that we found ourselves impacted in unexpected ways.

Theology & Peace board member Sereta Richardson presented on Circle Processes. A black woman, a single mother, a veteran, and a former police officer, Sereta recounted with unusual eloquence and honesty the pain of a life marked by trauma and PTSD. She described the release that comes with sharing with others around the circle the suffering that each of us has bottled up inside. Delivering the words quoted above, she warned us. As long as 9/11 and its unprocessed pain remains bottled up in the American people, our collective PTSD poses a threat to ourselves and to the rest of the world, too often seeking release by targeting others in our midst. Inviting us to join her in a circle process, Sereta asked that those who were willing vocalize what they’re most afraid of. As we went around the room, we could feel our shared space shift from fear to compassion.

Boston College theologian Brian D. Robinette shared his work integrating mimetic theory with Christian contemplative practice. Distilling the wisdom of the desert monastics and contemporary teachers like Belden Lane and Martin Laird, Brian described multiple ways contemplative practice loosens mimetic binds, freeing us from rivalry with our neighbors in order that we may truly love them. Turning the gaze inward, we come to recognize the many borrowed desires within us! In the “practice of stillness,” we don’t judge those desires or afflicted emotions, we just take notice, “this is what envy feels like,” and without commentary we simply let them go. Stepping back from the many mimetic hooks we encounter on a daily basis, we quietly observe their passage down the stream of conscious awareness. Over time, the contemplative learns “to become creatively ‘indifferent’ (or ‘non-reactive’) to the riot of mimetic comparisons”. Brian offered us this image: “we can become dispassionate witness to the thoughts and desires streaming though us, as though watching particles swirling in a snow globe.” (See his article, “Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire,” Contagion 24 [2017], pp. 73-100, quotations from pp. 87 and 89.)

Role Playing

Jonathan Brenneman, Coordinator for Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USA, presented on “The Spiritual Practice of Nonviolent Direct Action.” A member of Christian Peacemaking Teams (CPT), he stood with victims of aggression in Hebron (Palestine), at Standing Rock, and in South Africa. Jonathan shared faith-based strategies focused on de-escalating conflict and improving conditions for victims of oppression and violence. Following the poet Joy Harjo, Jonathan emphasized that we treat the enemy as worthy of engagement. Do not demonize the oppressors, but view them as mistaken. Include them in solutions understood as correction rather than victory. Jonathan described a critical moment in Hebron when the checkpoints closed suddenly, making it difficult for Palestinian school children to return home. CPT utilized their training to engage the soldiers as part of the solution rather than treating them as enemies worthy only of hate. Jonathan concluded by engaging us in role play between the victim, the aggressor, and active bystanders able to disrupt the status quo. He equipped us with an extensive list of best practices: “feel the discomfort, assess what’s happening, be aware of how many people are around, be aware of exists.…” (The entire list is on our website.) The final word: “Remember that the aggressor is loved by God and wants to act positively.” Jonathan quoted Thomas Merton: “The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation, and defeat” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander [Image, 1968] 86).

Elder CW Harris, founder of Intersection of Change (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), led an ecumenical worship service honoring his mentor, Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. His sermon described how he, a young black man, was “seized by a great affection.” Cosby introduced him not only to mimetic theory, but to a communal faith life shared with the victim—the homeless, junkies, ex-convicts. Cosby’s witness helped CW rise above anger and resentment, the collective response of many young blacks to the crushing reality of racism. Today CW continues to share that communal life in his community, Sandtown, Baltimore, a neighborhood ravaged by race riots in the ’60s and more recently by the War on the Drugs. Since the death of Freddie Gray, Sandtown has been at the center of the conflict between police and people of color. In the midst of the crisis, CW, building on the positive models he received from Gordon Cosby, has worked tirelessly to de-escalate the violence.

With recent events in Charlottesville, these are practices and models we sorely need.

Where do go from here? In our final conference session all those in attendance agreed we would create an online resource for those interested in cultivating the spiritual practices presented at the conference. We also invite you to join our Facebook page and participate on our Facebook discussion page. Please go to our website and consider becoming a member and/or making a donation.

Join us next year:
2018 Theology & Peace Conference
“Accepting the Invitation to the Beloved Community”
Monday, May 21 – Thursday, May 24, 2018
Hosted by American Baptist College, Nashville, Tennessee

Speakers include:
Dr. Forrest E. Harris, President of American Baptist College
The Rev. Dr. Thee Smith, EmoryUniversity
 Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms

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Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Trumpism, and Mimetic Theory, Part 2

In Part 1, the authoritarian, ‘Strong Man’ assault on reason and truth was posed as a crisis of our age that urges a depth of analysis that anthropology provides. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land was offered as a sociological study that helps bridge the way to anthropology. In Part 2, in fact, we will soon see that Hochschild herself reaches a point of anthropological analysis. She begins with the personal stories of people in Lake Charles, LA, and moves to their “deep stories” of being made to feel like strangers in their own land, especially by northern white elites. And that brings us to Trumpism, the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s attempts at a Strong Man presidency.

And so into the 150-year history of southern resentment of northern elites stepped Donald J. Trump, promising that they would no longer feel like strangers in their own land (Ch. 15). Hochschild writes:

All this was part of the “deep story.” In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful, and afraid. A president [Obama] allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana — its companies, its government, its church and media — reinforces that deep story. So this — the deep story — was in place before the match was struck. (222) …

[Trump’s] supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. The man who expressed amazement, arms upheld — “to be in the presence of such a man!” — seemed in a state of rapture. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land. (225)

Girard - The ScapegoatAnd this is precisely the moment that Hochschild herself goes to an anthropological depth, citing Emile Durkheim — and if one happens to check the endnotes (page 307), an added citation to René Girard, The Scapegoat! She writes about Trumpism as if herself a Mimetic Theorist:

“Collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is a state of emotional excitation felt by those who join with others they take to be fellow members of a moral or biological tribe. They gather to affirm their unity and, united, they feel secure and respected. While Durkheim was studying religions rites among indigenous tribes in Australia and elsewhere, much of what he observed could be applied to the [Trump] rally at the Lakefront Airport, as well as many others like it. People gather around what Durkheim calls a “totem” — a symbol such as a cross or a flag. Leaders associate themselves with the totem and charismatic leaders can become totems themselves. The function of the totem is to unify worshippers. Seen through Durkheim’s eyes, the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!” Added to that is a potent promise — to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant. Like other leaders promising rescue, Trump evokes a moral consciousness. But what he gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high. …

One way of reinforcing this “high” of a united brother- and sisterhood of believers is to revile and expel members of out groups. In his speeches, Trump has spoken of “something within Islam which hates Christians,” and of his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He has spoken of expelling all undocumented people of Mexican origin. And only reluctantly and in truculent tones (“I repudiate, okay?”) did he repudiate the notorious Louisiana KKK grand wizard, David Duke, thus signaling blacks as members of an out group. In nearly every rally, Trump points out a protestor, sometimes demonizing them and calling for their expulsion. (One protestor was even falsely depicted by his campaign as a member of ISIS.) Such scapegoating reinforces the joyous unity of the gathering. The act of casting out the “bad one” helps fans unite in a shared sense of being the “good ones,” the majority, no longer strangers in their own land. (225-26)

In short the Reality TV star, whose genre features a weekly expulsion, has found a way to tap into the same culture of resentment of the millions who watch such shows, and to integrate it into the real-life venue of national politics. Should we count this as an amazing feat? Or simply the inevitable outcome of a culture that is reverting back to a more primitive tribalism such that it consumes expulsion of the Other as entertainment?

I believe that we won’t begin to find answers, much less solutions, to our crisis (surely, a “mimetic crisis”), unless we reach the anthropological depth of understanding revealed in the anthropology of the Christian revelation — especially as brought into the modern scientific framework via René Girard’s Mimetic Theory.

First of all, MT makes it clear that rationality is not the core of being human; mimetic desire is. Hochschild seems to offer emotions as more central to being human, which is closer to the truth than reason. But neuroscience is also helping to paint the portrait of healthy human beings achieving an integration of reasoning and emoting toward intentions that are shared with other human beings (intention being the more scientific word for desire). Shared intentions. Mimetic desire. Our brains themselves appear to be constructed for such healthy integration, not simply as individual brains but as minds linked together into a social network by mirror neurons. (See, for example, the work of Daniel Siegle, who names his findings as the “Neurobiology of We.” There is also growing literature on the connection between mimetic desire and mirror neurons; see Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, ed. by Scott Garrels.)

But to fully make the connection to the Christian revelation, let us choose a text which Girard wrote about early on (The Scapegoat, ch. 14, “Satan Divided Against Himself”), a sort of mini-anthropology that happens to also include a Strong Man:

When Jesus’ family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin….” (Mark 3:21-29)

Jesus indicates that binding the Strong Man cannot begin without correctly understanding the parabolic truth of “Satan casting out Satan.” The so-called Strong Man of today — Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Ayn Rand’s warmed-over version of Nietzschean philosophy popularized in the Tea Party version of the Überindividualist pursuing ‘objectivist’ rational self-interest, and arguably not too far off from Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (whose version of capitalism Friedman and his Chicago economists actually implemented in the aftermath of Strong Man Pinochet’s 1973 military coup in Chilé) — all these manifestations of Strong Man philosophy continue to base attempts at iron-fisted Rule by getting the crowds to go along with fear of the Other, convincing them that they are on the side of the gods in casting out the satanic evil-doers.

Hope of binding the Strong Man, on the other hand, continues to begin with Jesus’ anthropological insight that such casting out of other human beings is never on the side of the true God who created the entire human household. Casting out the perceived satanic one(s) is actually satanic work itself. It is ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ not the gods casting out evildoers. It is the age-old structuring element of human anthropology which results in the continual divisions within the human household. It is as old as ancient tribalism.

And how can one begin to plunder that Strong Man’s house? Through the Holy Spirit of forgiveness (Mark 3:28-29). Through acceptance of each person — even the Strong Man himself — as a child in the Creator God’s household. A binding of the Strong Man’s violence, then, can only come through nonviolent engagement of the ‘Satan casting out Satan’-dynamic of human cultures. Jesus himself begins this movement on the Cross, letting himself be cast out as a satanic blasphemer against both Yahweh and Caesar, the Son of the gods.

Surrounding this passage are snippets about true family. Jesus’ own family perceive him as “out of his mind.” The follow-up to his parabolic anthropology is this response to news that his family is outside asking for him: “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34-35). Shared intentions. God-aligned mimetic desire.

How does one achieve such shared intentions with God? A life of prayer. On the night of his being handed over into the machinery of Satan casting out Satan, Jesus prays in the garden, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). He teaches all disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10).

And Jesus also stresses the role of forgiveness in prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Or, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Such forgiveness-centered prayer is the key to undoing the line-place-keeping “deep story” that was apparently common in Jesus day, too. Because when Jesus teaches his disciples about true discipleship, he consistently says things like, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). Or, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). And a saying accompanied by a prophetic action:

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37)

By placing a child in their midst, Jesus has turned our most common human “deep story” metaphor from line-place-keeping into a circle of friendship. Forgiveness is a willingness to give up one’s place in line for one who is more vulnerable. Forgiveness is not an allowing of the Strong Man to take a place at the head of the line, at the expense of the vulnerable. Such behavior is precisely what Jesus came to prophetically confront and expose. But neither is it a violent intervention. It is a nonviolent engagement that challenges our human castings out as satanic, offering inclusion into God’s family, where the most vulnerable have center-stage.

As I did in a blog earlier this year, I bring things back to our American context and give the last word to Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II:

A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 94-95)

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Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Trumpism, and Mimetic Theory, Part 1

Hochschild - Strangers in Their Own LandToday’s events, with the seemingly constant assault on facts and truth, calls into question an account of human beings as rational. In reviewing Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I anticipated offering Mimetic Theory — with its focus on mimetic desire, not reason — in support of de-emphasizing the popular view of Homo sapiens as a rational animal.

So I googled “quotes about human beings as rational animals,” expecting to find a nice quote from someone like Aristotle in support of human reasoning prowess. No such quote appeared. None. Instead, I found quotes only critical of the notion. Here’s a sampling:

I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. ―Oscar Wilde, Playwright

Human beings aren’t rational animals; we’re rationalizing animals who want to appear reasonable to ourselves. — Elliot Aronson, Psychologist

Man is a rational animal. So at least we have been told. Throughout a long life I have searched diligently for evidence in favor of this statement. So far, I have not had the good fortune to come across it. — Bertrand Russell, Philosopher

Given our place in history, this makes sense. If the 20th Century wasn’t enough of an attack on the Enlightenment celebration of human reason, we are entering Round Two of the rise of authoritarian, ‘Strong Man’ attacks on truth and reason. How does this happen? I propose that it is the result, at least in part, of living under a deficient anthropology, an insufficient understanding of who we are as human beings.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent book Strangers in Their Own Land offers Mimetic Theorists a sociological study that can help deepen our anthropological understanding of matters such as the human susceptibility to a Strong Man. A Berkeley sociologist, she spent many months over several years living in Lake Charles, LA, a hotbed of the Tea Party movement. Hochschild begins her book with stories about the people she met, interviewed, and with whom she developed relationships. They exemplify an account of people who seemingly and irrationally support politics that go against their personal interests — the Great Paradox, she calls it.

I was personally moved by the story of Harold and Annette Areno, who still live on the farming homestead of Harold’s parents and nine siblings (Ch. 3, “The Rememberers”). The Arenos bear witness to devastating loss, beginning with the environment of their youth. Annette reminisces,

“I remember sitting under the cypress for shade in the heat of the summer. The moss hanging on it was green then. Frogs could breathe and they could find all kinds of minnows. Then industry came in. It began to stink so bad you had to leave the windows down on hot nights. It killed the cypress and grass from here clear out to the Gulf. And you still can’t eat the fish or drink the water.” (42)

And as if the devastation of one’s home environment isn’t enough, Hochschild recounts:

But there is more. Animals and fish are not all they have lost. I brace myself.

Shifting in his chair and coughing slightly, Harold continues, “My brother-in-law J.D. was the first. He came down with a brain tumor and died at forty-seven. Then my sister next door, Lily May, had breast cancer that went into her bones. My mom died of lung and bladder cancer. And others up the bayou: Edward May and Lambert both died with cancer. Julia and Wendell, live two miles from here, they got it. My sister grew up here but moved over to Houston River and she’s fighting cancer. And my other brother-in-law, he had prostate cancer that went in the bone.” (Both Annette and Harold are cancer survivors.)

“The only one that didn’t get cancer was my daddy,” Harold says, “and he never worked in the plants. Everybody else — all us kids and our spouses that lived on these forty acres — come down with cancer.”

In Harold’s immediate family, all those who got cancer, except for Annette and Harold, died of it. No one in earlier generations — like that of Harold’s grandfather — suffered from or died of cancer. And, as Pentecostals, no one in the family smoked or drank liquor. (43-44)

The Arenos now consider themselves environmentalists, yet here’s the Great Paradox: they continually support Tea Party and other Republican candidates who want to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Why? That’s what Hochschild’s book seeks to understand. It goes deeper in its analysis to cultures and “deep stories” the likes of which most of us cannot fully see, because we are the proverbial ‘fish in water’ (hopefully, not the fish in the bayou waters around Lake Charles). The thing most easily hidden from us is the ‘rationality’ of the cultures in which we are nurtured.

Mimetic Theory poses that the Arenos’ dominant culture is the only kind available to any human being since our advent as a species, namely, a religion-based culture. (Even so-called secular culture is religious via its faith in false transcendences, such as the “myth of the free market”; see my previous blog, “Opposing Faiths: ‘Free Market’ vs. Easter.”) Hochschild’s telling of the Arenos’ story emphasizes their culture as rooted in Pentecostal Christian faith; it is what helped them survive their catastrophic losses of home and loved ones. She writes, “Their faith had guided them through a painful loss of family, friends, neighbors, frogs, turtles, and trees. They felt God had blessed them with this courage to face their ordeals, and they thanked Him for that” (47).

And so when the Arenos choose political candidates to support, faith issues take precedence: “We vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs. We try to be right-living, clean-living people, and we’d like our leaders to live that way and believe in that, too” (47). Moreover, as believers in the Rapture, going to heaven is their ultimate consolation. As Harold Areno tells Hochschild, “We’re on this earth for a limited amount of time. But if we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven, and Heaven is for eternity. We’ll never have to worry about the environment from then on. That’s the most important thing. I’m thinking long-term” (54). Yes, our cultures can help us to rationalize quite a lot.

Hochschild’s next move is to go deeper into the enculturation process to what she calls “deep story”:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (135)

In an endnote to this paragraph (on page 297), she further explains that the process of “deep story” involves the central metaphors each person uses to shape meaning in their lives, citing especially the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. Hochschild pursues this strategy by first seeking a deep story that arises out of and resonates with the stories she has been listening to.

The basic deep story she hears among the Tea Partyists of Louisiana involves the metaphor of standing in line with everyone else in this competitive consumerist culture. The typical Tea Partyist stands somewhere in the middle of the line, seeking to advance; and the white elitists who are in front of them in the line seem to be trying to help those behind them, especially People of Color, to line-jump in front of them. Hochschild converts this metaphor into a lengthy narrative (pp. 136-45) that she shares with those she has been getting to know. Their basic response is, ‘Yep, that about sums things up’ (145).

Next, she suggests how this basic deep story is adaptable into various kinds of personal stories based on the individual’s personal metaphor for themselves: the Team Player (Ch. 10), the Worshipper (Ch. 11), the Cowboy (Ch. 12), and the Rebel (Ch. 13).

Ultimately, however, these deep stories are rooted in deeper history. For people with long roots in Louisiana, this is basically a history of racism that goes back to the Civil War of the 1860’s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s (Ch. 14). It is about northern white elites telling you how wrong you are, and then holding a deep resentment toward them.

And so finally into that 150-year history stepped Donald J. Trump, promising that they would no longer feel like strangers in their own land (Ch. 15)….

Proceed to Part 2

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MT and ACEs

“It’s not what’s wrong with you — it’s what happened to you.”

Resilience still 06Last week I attended a community event to learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences — ACEs. The featured activity was to view a recent documentary by James Redford (Robert’s son) called Resilience, which primarily told the story of both the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) original, groundbreaking ACE study (see the CDC website for more info) and a major application of that study in practice — the story of San Francisco pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris (who also has a “must see” Ted Talk telling her story).

There are many angles and vocations from which to address the health phenomenon of ACEs. I would like to offer here the perspective of anthropology in the way of Mimetic Theory (MT). ACEs represents a scientific study that offers a potential goldmine for human healing on so many levels. But we can also count on massive resistance. Why? From what perspective? From the default cultural perspective of our original anthropology, namely, a way of being human based in accusation, blame, and scapegoating. In our current iterations of this deep enculturation, we are a society of laws centered on retributive justice. In short, our deepest enculturation rebels against an approach that can be summed up,

“It’s not what’s wrong with you — it’s what happened to you.”

We need to find blame either in someone else or in some aspect of ourselves. Having bitten from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, our standard way of thinking divides all of the world into Good and Evil. We resist a knowledge that seeks to suspend such judgments and instead to know simply what is. In other words, we resist scientific knowledge when it comes up against our most Sacred views that are rooted in a scapegoating-structured sense of societal order — when it comes up against good old-time religion as the center of culture.

We’ve seen this since the beginning of modern science. The church defending its earth-centered view of the cosmos against Copernicus and Galileo. Biblical fundamentalists defending the six-day creation story of Genesis 1 against Darwinism. Currently, we are witnessing an interpretation of Genesis 1:26 that continues to justify humankind’s imperialistic dominion over the earth in the face of the scientific community’s dire warnings about climate change. Yes, sadly we can expect resistance to the wonderful potential to revolutionize health care in light of the ACEs study because it goes against our enculturation around blame, accusation, and punishment — a justice system focused on retribution. It is an enculturation that even carries over into the popularized views of modern health care: find out what’s wrong with someone and fix it.

Mimetic Theory offers the revolution in understanding human enculturation that can support the scientific revolution of knowledge, summed up in the simple phrase,

“It’s not what’s wrong with you — it’s what happened to you.”

This is not a revolution that absolves anyone of personal responsibility — as would seem to be the case from the perspective of Retributive Justice. On the contrary, it leads to a more true and healthy sense of personal responsibility, precisely because it begins with simply what is rather than with blame for what’s wrong. The latter is usually the prelude to some sort of violent expulsion or death. To begin with simply what is, on the other hand, is the gateway to a resurrection response, a Way that seeks to respond to a situation of less health and aliveness by marshaling communal resources to pursue a path towards greater health and aliveness. The ACEs study and the health strategies it is spawning are a brilliant example of this.

Alison - The Joy of Being WrongMimetic Theory can lend support by helping us to understand that any cultural resistance to it is the essence of the Original Sin — the Sin of culture founded in our deadly Order based on our own fallen Knowledge of Good and Evil — the Sin from which Jesus’ loving submission to that Order liberates us. In the revelation of Jesus Christ, we begin to have our experience of God transformed from one of wrathful retribution to one of loving restoration. We are met by a God of healing, not punishment. We encounter a God who says to us, “It’s not what’s wrong with you — it’s what happened to you. … And I am here with you to help you respond with courage and healing and new life.”

(For more, see the brilliant work of James Alison, especially The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. Alison’s entire theological program could be said to be an elaboration of the last paragraph of this blog.)

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Opposing Faiths: “Free Market” vs. Easter

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth [‘mammon’].” — Matt. 6:24; par. Luke 16:13

The first Easter morning reveals how different these two masters are. It’s not so much a matter of a logical contradiction of following two masters. Clearly, it’s an existential contradiction due to the fact that these masters are revealed to be polar opposites — such that any normal human being should be disposed to hate one and love the other. The gods of wealth have always been on the side of this world’s most successful people, the “winners.” The God of Jesus the Crucified and Resurrected Messiah reveals true divinity to be beyond taking sides in human affairs by siding with one of this world’s biggest “losers” — a man duly tried and executed as being against the reigning cultural religions.

Mimetic Theory helps to sharpen our understanding of the false masters of our evolution, gods who structure everything in dualisms of us-them, blessed-cursed, winners-losers, wealthy-poor, et. al. Jesus’ self-sacrifice as an executed loser is the only way a nonviolent God has of breaking through all of our false transcendences to reveal the true God as beyond all of the dualisms — revealed precisely through God’s Easter vindication of one deemed as an outsider to our false gods. “Blasphemer!” “Insurrectionist!” No, the Revealer of God as a power of love that can even heal our many us-them divisions.

But such healing must overcome the obstacle of our first evolution. Easter is the pivot-point of a re-evolution. As Paul says, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made just” (Rom 5:19). It’s interesting that Paul uses the past and future tenses in the two clauses of this statement. The disobedience is in the past at the point of our origins. Then, it is understood in Paul’s theological context that the “one man’s obedience” has already happened in the cross, revealed as obedience in the resurrection, but the work of making the many just is apparently ongoing and yet to be completed. We live in an era characterized by an overlapping of the original disobedience and the new obedience, each with its own master. We cannot serve both — unless we misrecognize the difference between false and true transcendence, between idols and God.

So as creatures who evolved with the experience of transcendent power, the key to our re-evolution is conversion in obedience to the true master. Which god commands our obedience? The gods of our evolution who divide the world between winners and losers? Or the God who graciously offers re-evolution through the obedience of Jesus the Loser Messiah — the one who seeks to heal those divisions by constantly identifying with this world’s losers (such as the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned, and immigrant of Matt 25:31-46)?

The title of this blog suggests that our modern North American form of trying to serve two masters involves elevating the “free market” to a status of false transcendence. Let me be clear: The way that markets operate in our economics is a power transcendent to our realm as “interdividuals” (Girard’s neologism for “individuals”). Markets are mechanisms with power higher than any one person. But their transcendence only remains truly perceived when they are given a wholly anthropological grounding in a realm of transcendence created by human interaction. The problem comes when the “free market” is given an interpretation that goes beyond the anthropological, when it is viewed as some force of nature with a power governing human relations, rather than as a power wholly grounded in human relations. It is like Jesus said of the sabbath, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Similarly, markets are made to be governed by humankind, not humankind by the markets.1

But our current iteration of capitalism — especially in the conservative Republican version of it, since the advent of “Reaganomics” — seems to place governance and markets in opposition. Governments need to get out of the way of markets, according to this economic philosophy, and let them ‘freely’ operate. I propose that this is an approach to economics which crosses the boundary into a false transcendence, letting markets supposedly rule us instead of the other way around. And the deeper truth behind this “Reaganomics” is that it is a ruse to let those who have the wealth make the rules behind the scenes, such that markets work in their favor. Markets are never “free” in the sense of being completely unbound by any human rules to simply work as a force of nature akin to the naturals laws put into place by the true Creator. The creator of markets are human beings, and it will always be human rules that dictates their workings. So if government ‘gets out of the way’ of setting the rules, then some other governing body of human beings are the ones ‘free’ to set the rules. In our current form of “Reaganomics,” that governing body becomes by default those who already hold the most economic power . . . the wealthiest oligarchs. Should this trend continue, the United States will further descend from its democratic ideals into an oligarchic reality.

Reich - Saving CapitalismI have used quotes around the phrase “free markets” following the convention of Robert Reich in his “big-league” important book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. I highly recommend this book as a guide for learning effective articulations critical of Reaganomics. His basic point is consonant with what I’m saying in terms of false transcendence — and so he is seeking a ‘redeemed’ capitalism properly governed by the many, instead of a version that is falsely transcendent in order to cover for the kleptocracy of the wealthiest. Markets are never free. ‘Markets are made for humankind, and not humankind for markets.’

Reich writes contra to the “prevailing view” that pits “free market” against government,

But the prevailing view, as well as the debate it has spawned, is utterly false. There can be no “free market” without government. The “free market” does not exist in the wilds beyond the reach of civilization. Competition in the wild is a contest for survival in which the largest and strongest typically win. Civilization, by contrast, is defined by rules; rules create markets, and governments generate the rules….

A market — any market — requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game. In most modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts. Government doesn’t “intrude” on the “free market.” It creates the market.

The rules are neither neutral nor universal, and they are not permanent. Different societies at different times have adopted different versions. The rules partly mirror a society’s evolving norms and values but also reflect who in society has the most power to make or influence them. Yet the interminable debate over whether the “free market” is better than “government” makes it impossible for us to examine who exercises this power, how they benefit from doing so, and whether such rules need to be altered so that more people benefit from them. (pp. 4-5)

Mimetic Theory offers us a lens to the sacred violence in our current economics: human beings move-in to manipulate people through the false transcendence, in this case leading the majority to believe in a myth of “free markets.” Reich, who as far as I know is not aware of Mimetic Theory, nevertheless describes the process well:

The “free market” is a myth that prevents us from examining these rule changes and asking whom they serve. The myth is therefore highly useful to those who do not wish such an examination to be undertaken. It is no accident that those with disproportionate influence over these rules, who are the largest beneficiaries of how the rules have been designed and adapted, are also among the most vehement supporters of the “free market” and the most ardent advocates of the relative superiority of the market over government. But the debate itself also serves their goal of distracting the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, their own power over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results. In other words, not only do these “free market” advocates want the public to agree with them about the superiority of the market but also about the central importance of this interminable debate. (pp. 6-7)

Sung - Desire, Market, and ReligionI would like to conclude with another book recommendation, one that brings us back where we began, with the opposition of Easter faith with “free market” faith. Brazilian liberation theologian Jung Mo Sung is a reader of Mimetic Theory who, in his book Desire, Market, and Religion, applies some of its insights to a theological evaluation of market economics. He begins by elaborating just how much current versions of capitalism operate akin to a religious faith, with principles and doctrines that require faith not unlike religious doctrines.

A brief example in line with what we have talked about here would be the way in which recent proponents of capitalism present the “free market” with “market laws” akin to natural laws governed by forces outside human control. In commenting on F. Fukuyama’s faith in finite human beings to embark on unbounded progress, Sung writes,

Fukuyama, like many other liberal and neoliberal thinkers, credits this magic capacity to technology; not any technology, but technology that was developed “in accordance with certain defined rules [that were] laid down not by man, but by nature and nature’s laws.” And what is this nature that is able to generate such a powerful science? It is the same nature that, according to Fukuyama, moved the evolution of history in the direction of the market system. Likewise Paul A. Samuelson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, says that the capitalist market system “merely evolved, and, as in the case of nature, is undergoing changes.” (p. 14)

We see that markets created and governed by human beings are viewed instead as created and governed by transcendent powers beyond humankind. In light of Mimetic Theory, this is the familiar story of sacred violence justified by “orders of creation.” “Free market” capitalism thus operates in ways similar to the sacred violence behind other isms, like racism and sexism. Inequality is portrayed as something created beyond human control in a state of nature:

  • Men are ‘naturally’ superior to women and should rule over them.
  • White people are superior to People of Color and should rule over them.
  • Wealthy people are selected by the “free market” to succeed, and poor people are ‘necessary sacrifices’ to the good order of market capitalism.

It is no coincidence that all the isms are intersectional in their oppression. All of it is grounded in faith that the world is ruled by gods who select winners and losers.

And so I give the last word to Sung, who poses the Easter faith contra to faith in the “free market”:

The Christian faith is not grounded in this conception of a God who is always on the side of the righteous winner. On the contrary, it is grounded in the confession that Jesus of Nazareth is risen. That is the centre of our faith. To confess that Jesus — defeated, condemned and killed by the Roman Empire and the Temple — is risen is to believe in a God who is not partnering with the winner (the Empire and the Temple). This faith allows the distinction between victory and the power of truth and justice. (p. 24)

Notes

1. For a similar move writing on economics from Luke 16:13, on serving two masters, to Mark 2:27, the sabbath serving humankind, see Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 240-41.

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