Friday, March 6, 2015

Find Me A Victim

I've been reading "A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace", by Brian Zahnd.  It's a wonderfully written book - not difficult to read, and yet it gets its point across very well.  And the point of the book is one that is so important for the Church today - especially the Church in America.  The point being to challenge our sacred violence, especially within the context of our religious and political systems, which all too often serve to legitimate and sacralize our violence.

I found Chapter 5 of this book to be particularly insightful, and it inspired me to write my own thoughts.  The chapter is an in depth look at John chapter 8.  Before I get into this passage, I would like to lay out some groundwork.

The Bible As Constitution

One of the worst things to happen to Christianity, in my opinion, is when the Bible was divided into chapter and verse.  Oh, of course this makes certain things much easier - I benefit from this every time I write a blog, because without this divisional system I would not be able to call attention to statements and stories so quickly and easily.  But the division causes us to be lazy readers.  We all too easily forget that the original readers of these passages did not have chapter and verse, and would read the entire thing all at once - and thus the passages and verses were naturally contextualized within the whole "book" they were within.

But when we remove verses and passages from their context, we all too often fall into a pattern of reading the Bible - as Brian McClaren puts it in his book "A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith" - like a constitutional lawyer.  I think that this analogy of McClaren's is brilliant, but I would want to further clarify it - because we do it like a bad constitutional lawyer.

One of the best examples of this comes in the form of the gun debate.  There was an article on Mother Jones that demonstrated how, historically, the 2nd amendment of the constitution has never been interpreted to mean that anyone can have any kind of weapon and in any quantity and they can purchase them without any kind of check to make sure they are not mentally disturbed (or anything of the kind).  And in fact, as the article demonstrates, the purpose of the NRA used to be to encourage people to be more safe with their guns - but more recently, it has transformed into a lobbying group whose purpose is to radically change the perspective on the 2nd amendment to mean "anyone can have any kind of weapon and in any quantity and they can purchase them without any kind of check to make sure they are not mentally disturbed (or anything of the kind)."

This redefinition of the 2nd Amendment is accomplished by focusing very heavily on certain phrases within the 2nd amendment while at the same time blatantly ignoring their context (both literal and historical).  Those who push for this reading of the amendment will emphasize the phrases "Congress shall make no law" and "right to bear arms" - but when they do so, they have to ignore the fact that the amendment starts out with the phrase: "a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state".  Notice the terminology: "well regulated militia".  This means that if you wish to bear arms, you must be part of a well regulated militia - it seems pretty clear from this phrase that the purpose of the amendment was not to mean that the government can never regulate arms.

But if this doesn't make it clear enough, we can check Article I, Section  8 of the Constitution itself for the definition of a militia, which states that Congress (ahem…the Federal Government…) shall have the power:

Clause 15:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
Clause 16:
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
The fact that the purpose of a militia - according to this passage of the constitution - is to be a force that the Federal government can call upon to suppress insurrections and repel invasions, and which the government can organize and discipline, makes it pretty clear that the purpose of the 2nd amendment was never to mean "anyone can have any kind of weapon and in any quantity and they can purchase them without any kind of check to make sure they are not mentally disturbed (or anything of the kind)."

Just like the bad constitutional lawyer who emphasizes the phrases "Congress shall make no law" and "right to bear arms" while ignoring the rest of the amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution itself, we do the same thing with the Bible all the time - we take phrases out of context and form theologies out of them, and then no matter what other sections of the Bible are called to our attention we argue and fight for our perspective.  I've actually written about how the 2nd amendment ties in to this bad form of Biblical interpretation before, and that post is relevant to this one in more ways than one - but for the purpose of this post I would like to now move on to another analogy before I begin to tie this all in to John chapter 8.

The Scapegoat Mechanism
In another one of my posts I wrote about how the atonement of the cross is connected to scapegoating, and I summarized Rene Girard's brilliant theory on mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism.  This theory also plays out in John chapter 8, so I'd like to once more summarize Girard's theory, which consists of 6 steps:

  1. Mimetic Desire
    Mimesis is our human tendency to learn by imitating each other.  This tendency starts the moment we exit the womb - as has been demonstrated by one study, conducted on 74 newborn babies, that found that the mean age at which these babies began to demonstrate the ability to imitate facial expressions was 36 hours.  This mimesis is how we learn - and thus it is one of our greatest strengths.  Without it, we would not even learn how to talk.  But, it comes with a weakness - we not only learn good habits and behaviors, but bad habits and behaviors as well.  And not only this, but it is through mimesis that we learn what to desire - and so often these learned desires are harmful desires.
  2. Mimetic Rivalry
    This learned desire often turns into a rivalry when we end up desiring the same things as the ones we imitate - when we all desire the same things, but there is a limited quantity of these things, we end up preventing each other from obtaining these things.  So this turns into a vicious cycle - the ones we imitate first said “be like me: value this object.”  But when we reach out to take it, the ones we imitate say “Do not be like me - the object is mine, and you can't have it!”  This rivalry is demonstrated at a very early age - my own children are wonderful examples of this.  I have two daughters who share a bedroom.  The older of the two has many stuffed animals - most of which she never plays with.  The younger - who is now 2 - has begun taking these dolls, which are otherwise never played with, and she will play with them.  But the older child is then incensed - "those are mine!"  The older child takes these dolls from the younger forcefully, and then we scold her for doing so.  So then she waits for the moment that the younger child puts the doll down so that she can scoop it up and pretend that she is very interested in playing with the doll - but she has never played with this doll before.  You see, the doll becomes much more desirable to my older daughter because someone else wants it.
  3. The Crisis of Distinctions
    Our societies so often distinguish classes of people according to "haves" and "have-nots".  In this way, we tend to sacralize the desires spoken of in steps 1 and 2, and we distinguish the value of people by how much of these resources they have obtained.  But when everyone wants the same things, what often happens is that we end up causing a shortage of the resource - sometimes because we have used the resource up, sometimes because of a natural disaster (which could be a weather event, a disease, a famine, etc.).  When this happens, the distinctions that formerly separated persons and groups of persons into classes disappear.  Walter Wink summarizes what happens next in "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination":
    Students seize the administration building, demanding a share in decision-making power that has previously been the sole prerogative of the administrators. Mill workers shut down the plant, insisting on a voice in shaping their new contract. The hierarchical barriers that society has so carefully erected, unjust as they may be, dike society against the flood of anarchy. When these distinctions collapse (as when soldiers in Vietnam refused to obey orders from their officers), that social system faces the possibility of collapse. Collapse can be averted, however, if society can find a scapegoat.
    At this stage, society threatens to tear itself apart because we've got people fighting over these commonly desired resources.  If the fighting does not stop somehow, our societal structures will collapse.  This brings us to the next step:
  4. The Necessary Victim
    In order to “save” society from the chaos that results from steps 1-3, a victim must be found - towards which all the violence of that society is then directed and released upon.  In order to do this, the society must find a victim which they can all agree is guilty, and this victim needs to be incapable of defending themselves against the mob.  So this victim often ends up being one which has features distinguishing himself/herself/themselves from the "norm" - the average citizen.  Once society has found such a victim - and one that they can all agree is guilty - the blame for all of society's problems is pinned on this victim, and they are punished by that society.  This victim then serves as a release valve - releasing the “steam” of the society’s violence.  What makes the scapegoat mechanism so insidious is that it works - after we've destroyed our victim, for a time the violence of our society disappears.  We feel good - we've taken out our anger on this scapegoat, and now people who were once enemies are friends because they've been united against a common enemy. 
    The fact that the mechanism seems to have worked leads to the next step:
  5. Sacralizing the Victim
    The scapegoat is made sacred by being simultaneously regarded as cursed and life-bringing - the victim is cursed, because they were (according to our myths) to blame for all our problems, but they are life-bringing because destroying them caused the cathartic release from step 4.  Because the chaos within step 4 was survived and released through the scapegoat, the story of the scapegoat becomes sacred and cannot be challenged - a challenge to our scapegoat mechanism is a threat to society itself.  In other words, it becomes very difficult to challenge the guilt of the scapegoat, because society knows that if the scapegoat is not truly guilty, that means society shares in the blame - so if you stand up for a scapegoat, this often results in turning you into the next scapegoat.
    But this is not the final step of the cycle - because the scapegoat was not truly the problem.  Our mimetic rivalry and the fact that we never challenged our learned desires (do I really need this stuffed animal I've never played with before?) was always the issue.  So this leads to step 6:
  6. Sacrificial Repetition
    The violence directed towards a scapegoat releases pressure on society, but only for a time.  And so the type of person who was made the scapegoat in step 4 must be repeatedly victimized and used as a release valve in order to control society’s violence.  This becomes a religious structure of organized violence in the interest of social tranquility.
This cycle is illustrated in the flow of John chapter 8 - but before I move on to demonstrate this, I would like to bring in just one more analogy.  Bear with me, and I promise I will tie all of this together.

Find Me A Victim

Find me a victim, or you'll be the victim!
When I was a child, one of my favorite things was Looney Tunes - Bugs Bunny, Sylvester and Tweety, Speedy Gonzales....  My family and I can quote entire scenes from some of these cartoons.  There is one particular episode that chapter 5 of Brian Zahnd's book reminded me of - it's called "Roman Legion-Hare" (you can watch it here if you like, though I will warn you that there are pop up ads).  The episode begins with a crowd at a Colosseum, awaiting the spectacle of a victim being thrown to a lion.  But after Emperor Nero announces the command to throw out the first victim, one soldier replies in a nasally voice "but sire, we're all out of victims!"  So Nero calls Yosemite Sam, and tells him to "get me a victim right away, or you'll be the victim!"  

Already, I would argue, we see a prophetic picture of the violence of Rome - as history shows us, Rome was so murderously violent that they could never find enough victims, and in the end the empire is so divided by its own competition and inner violence that they are defeated by an opponent which would seem to be weaker then their mighty empire.  So the picture in this cartoon is actually a great way for understanding how the supposed guilt of the scapegoat is really just a foil to mask our insane desire to take our violence out on someone, and this is why anyone who gets in between us and our victim often ends up being the next victim.

But back to the cartoon - after being told that if he does not find a victim, he'll be the next victim, Yosemite Sam scrambles off to find one and save his neck.  And of course, quite predictably, he runs into the wily trickster himself, Bugs Bunny.  As Sam repeatedly tries to capture Bugs, over and over he ends up being attacked by the lions which were intended for the victim.  At the end of the episode, both Yosemite Sam and Nero are standing on top of a pillar as these lions - intended for the sacred victim Sam was supposed to bring - are clawing after the victimizers.  As the old cliché goes - what goes around comes around. 

This is actually a great metaphor for how the scapegoat mechanism works!  Because if we're completely honest, it never fixes our problems, and in the end, those problems - our consuming desires and the rivalry that results from them, represented powerfully by the lions in the cartoon - end up devouring us!  We thought that by throwing a victim to our lions, we would be saved - but the lions are never satisfied!  This is because the solution to our mimetic desire and rivalry is not to find a victim - it is the realization that we don't really need the doll to be happy, and in fact if we'd just share this doll with our sister, we'd receive something much more valuable than a doll: a friend!

And now I will tie this all together, as promised.

The Truth Will Set You Free
In chapter 5 of "A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace", Zahnd talks about how we've stripped a certain saying of Jesus from John chapter 8 of its meaning and turned it into a meaningless cliché - that saying is "the truth will set you free."  It is because we don't pay attention to the whole chapter that we've done this - just like the bad constitutional lawyer.  Because we haven't paid careful attention to the context this saying is set within, we've made "the truth" of this saying into an arbitrary thing - "the truth" can be anything!  Or more specifically, "the truth" that "sets you free" is always whatever I say it is - and not what Jesus means by "the truth".  And so the saying becomes meaningless.

But if we really want to understand what Jesus is talking about when he mentions "the truth", we ought to pay careful attention to the entire chapter this saying is set within.  And when Zahnd did this, he discovered that the saying is bracketed by two attempted stonings - and so he feels that we should interpret the saying within their context.  This bracketing, by the way, actually seems to be a commonly used literary device in Jewish writing - it is used quite often in the Gospel of Mark, and without realizing that this is what is happening, certain stories can seem quite odd.  A great example of this is when Mark brackets the "cleansing of the temple" with the cursing and subsequent withering of the fig tree - if we don't understand that the fig tree is meant to help us interpret the "cleansing of the temple", it might seem very odd that Jesus has cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit in the middle of a season in which no fig tree would have been bearing fruit in the first place (and thus, this would seem a misuse of Jesus' power).  But if we understand that the fig tree is meant to be a metaphorical aid for understanding what happens in the temple, the problems disappear.

Likewise, in John chapter 8, "the truth will set you free" is bracketed by two attempted stonings.  At the beginning of the chapter, "the scribes and Pharisees" - or the "religious industrial complex" of their day - bring Jesus a victim (think back to Yosemite Sam and the Scapegoat Mechanism).  This victim is clearly guilty, according to them - she has been "caught in the act of committing adultery"!  Never-mind the fact that one might question the circumstances in which one would catch this act happening (what were you doing sneaking around someone else's house?), or the absence of the other party in this accusation (hey, it takes two to commit adultery).  We have a sacrificial victim here, to satisfy our need to take out our violence on someone.  So the religious leaders demand that Jesus allow them to turn this woman into a scapegoat and stone her.

Now, we should pay careful attention to the fact that this is a stoning that they are demanding.  Zahnd highlights the importance of this by pointing out how stoning is not a very efficient way to kill someone - there are far more efficient ways to do this, and ones that could have been performed by the scribes and Pharisees without seeking the cooperation of a crowd.  So why is stoning the approved form of execution in Jewish law?

Notice how other forms of execution appoint a certain member of society to carry out the execution - the ruling authorities of society are never the ones to perform the act of execution that they demand, and thus they are able to avoid the guilt.  But no matter the circumstances - even when the victim is known to be guilty without a shadow of a doubt in the mind of the executioner and thus to be "deserving" of the execution - the executioner cannot help but feel guilty for this act.  This is why so often executioners have employed various coping mechanisms - such as wearing a hood or mask in order to, as it were, pretend that it is not them doing this thing.  Modern executioners have to repeatedly tell themselves that they are performing their duty - in essence they are displacing the guilt of the execution upon the government.

But stoning is a unique method of execution in that it is a communal form of execution - the whole society joins in the ceremony, and thus all members are able to release their need for violence upon this victim!  Not only that, but they are simultaneously able to lie to themselves about the hand they have played in killing this victim.  In a stoning, each person throws a stone - an act which, alone, would not kill the victim but merely bruise them.  Collectively, however, these stones are effective for killing the victim.  In this way, each member of the society is able to deny the hand they played in killing their victim while simultaneously satisfying their need for violence. 

So the religious authorities bring their scapegoat to Jesus and demand that he let them perform their sacred violence - but Jesus unmasks this mechanism and exposes it by demanding that the first stone be thrown by someone who is without sin!  This is a brilliant move on Jesus' part, because he is exposing the scapegoat mechanism as a way for fooling ourselves into thinking we've solved the problems that are tearing apart our society through killing a victim!  This context should not be ignored when we read Jesus saying, immediately after releasing their scapegoat:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
Jesus has just acted as light by exposing the scapegoat mechanism as a fraud, and demonstrating mercy - and this demonstration of mercy is the context for the phrase: "whoever follows me".  Jesus is asking us to follow him in the way of mercy - the way of releasing our need to carry out our violence, and to crucify our ego, as it were, so that we can stop fighting amongst ourselves over the same resources!  It is our egoic desire which causes conflict, and this is why Paul said in Acts 20:35 that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" - he is challenging the selfish desires that result in mimetic rivalry!

But going back to John 8 - after Jesus says he is the light of the world, the religious authorities question his testimony.  It really stings when our scapegoating has been invalidated, and so they are now seeking to redirect their violence upon Jesus - but first they need an excuse to do so.  They need to prove to themselves that Jesus is guilty.  In this context, Jesus then makes a powerful statement that is all too often ignored in Christian theology: "You judge by human standards; I judge no one." (John 8:15

It is further on in this same speech by Jesus that he declares (verses 31-32):

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
It is Zahnd's contention in his book - and I would agree with him - that this statement should be contextualized within the events of the whole chapter.  Jesus has just freed a sacrificial victim and exposed the scapegoat mechanism as a fraud - and afterwards he said that he judges no one.  It is this word of non-judgement and mercy that Jesus is speaking of in the first half of the above statement - Jesus is saying that if you want to be his disciples, you must commit to a radically merciful life in which you judge no one.  And if you do this, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Now watch what happens next - because as I said, the author uses the Jewish literary technique of bracketing here in order to help us understand what is going on in this statement.  After Jesus talks about knowing the truth and being made free, it says in verse 33:

They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
The fact that Jesus has implied that they are not already free upsets them - they are indignant over this implication!  But Jesus immediately replies in verse 34 that when we commit a sin, we are a slave to that sin.  Is Jesus speaking generally about sin here?  Perhaps.  But I think it would be better to consider the sin he seems to very specifically have within his sights throughout this passage - the sin of judging one another and victimizing; the sin of mimetic violence.  And Jesus delivers the punchline in verse 37:
I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.
Do you see what's going on here?  These people need a victim.  Just like Jesus pointed out in verse 34, they are slaves to their violent behavior.  As soon as Jesus released their sacred victim, they started looking for another, and so they set their sights on Jesus.  Indeed, the chapter even lets us know this is going on right from the start when it starts the story of the woman they were trying to stone by saying in verse 6 that this whole scenario was a set up "so that they might have some charge to bring against him".

Further on in the story, the Pharisees insist that Abraham is their father - an attempt to proclaim their innocence of Jesus charge against their victimizing.  In Jesus' reply, he states (verse 41) that they are doing what their father does, and then he states in verse 44:

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Now, does Jesus mean that Satan - as a literal being with his/her own person-hood - has literally fathered them?  He has impregnated their mothers in a dark inverse of the virgin birth?  No, I am sure he means this metaphorically - indeed, I have argued in my series "Satan: Lifting the Veil" that ha satan (literally: the accuser) is a metaphor for our accusing nature which causes violence.  So Jesus is saying here that our tendency to accuse each other when we don't get what we want is the cause of violence, and that accusation is always a lie in some form.  Once again we see that the theme of this passage is that Jesus calls his disciples to a radical mercy that refuses to ever judge anyone

But the Pharisees are relentless - they turn right around and accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and of having a demon in verse 48.  This is an astounding accusation - proving that someone does or does not have a demon is an impossible task, but it could certainly be proven in a verifiable manner that Jesus was not a Samaritan, as this was (in their time) a matter of genetics and place of birth.  But why would they accuse Jesus of being one?  Because Samaritans were one of their favorite scapegoats - the relationship between Samaritans and "mainline Jews" of their day was similar to Christians and Jews, or perhaps Christians and Muslims
(understand that Samaritans had shared the same religious views, but had broken with the "mainline Jews" over the issue of worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem).  In both cases (Jews and Muslims), there is a relationship with Christianity in that much of the same religious literature is shared, and many of the same convictions.  But the members of these religions are seen as "other", and are quite often portrayed by Christians as being violent, scary, without morals, etc., and they are highly resented.  This was very similar to the attitude between mainline Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' day.  The fact that these Pharisees accuse Jesus (quite falsely) of being a Samaritan exposes their pathological need to find a victim, and we see this carried out to the end of the passage in verses 56-59:
Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
This entire chapter is about mimetic violence, and Jesus' call to radical mercy as the only thing which can solve the problems this violence creates.  But when we take a single statement like "the truth will set you free" out of its context, it renders it meaningless and turns it into a cliché.  But if we can see how our violence always comes back to devour us - like the lions in the Bugs Bunny cartoon - we can follow Jesus in the Way of mercy, and we will be set free!

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