Charles K. Bellinger
Dec. 17, 2016
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (II Sam. 12:1-7)
Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:3-11)
In her book The Nature of Evil DePaul University ethicist Daryl Koehn says that there are two primary ways that individuals and cultures approach the problem of evil. She calls them the moralistic way and the way of wisdom. The moralistic way is, of course, much more popular and widely adopted within the human race. The wisdom tradition is rarely grasped and lived out.
The moralistic approach starts with the assumption that it is relatively easy to distinguish the good people from the bad people, and by some strange coincidence it always turns out to be the case that the good people are us and the bad people are them. Evil enters the world through the corruption of the will; they, the bad people, are characterized by vice, by a series of wrong choices that they are making, that arise out of their nefarious motives; we, on the other hand, pride ourselves on our virtue; we make good choices that arise out of our pure motives. They, the bad people, may be merely annoying and troublesome, but when their vice is allowed free rein, they will become violent and will reveal their true nature as victimizers. They may thus force us to use counter-violence against them, as we come to the defense of their victims. In our own eyes, of course, our violence will always be good and redemptive; we will live in the bubble of our own myth of innocence.
The wisdom tradition has a very different approach to the problem of evil within human culture. It begins with the assumption that the central problem with human beings is not vice and evil motives, but rather a lack of deep and transformative self-knowledge. This tradition sees that the moralistic way is inevitably a catch-22, a trap of hypocrisy, because in the very act of attacking those others who we have labeled as the bad people, we become more and more like them. We become caught up in a cycle of reciprocal violence within which our behavior becomes mechanical and utterly predictable. The others who we are attacking will also be inhabiting their own moralistic worldview, and living within their own myth of innocence. As René Girard says, “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same.” [Girard, I See Satan, 164]
The wisdom tradition teaches that the problem with human beings lies not in the will but in the intellect—more specifically in a lack of self-knowledge. This tradition maintains that the energy driving the moralistic worldview is in fact a fear of self-knowledge. We attack the evil other as a continual distraction from the real spiritual task that we ought to be pursuing, which is waking up from the moralistic nightmare and developing a genuine self-understanding. We can hear the voice of the wisdom tradition speaking in this quotation from Thomas Merton: “. . . instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” [Merton, New Seeds, 122]
In the first paragraph of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, there is a small phrase that has engaged the attention of philosophers for more than two thousand years: “All action intends a good.” Aristotle was not saying that all human actions are good, that we never do evil. He was saying that the human will is an appetite, a deep longing, for that which is good for us. When I first encountered this idea in grad school, I thought that it cannot possibly be true. There must be counter examples that can be found, in which human beings have acted in evil ways knowing that what they were doing was evil. But when I raised this objection with my professor, he explained to me that I had not actually understood what Aristotle was saying. Even in the most extreme cases that we can imagine, such as a serial killer who would say that he knew he was doing evil, still, there must be some benefit that the serial killer is gaining from his actions, some feeling of “exhilaration” through the exercise of control or “freedom” from all binding constraints. It is that feeling that is the good at which his actions are aiming. So once you grasp what Aristotle is saying, then you realize that there is no effective counter example that can ever be found. “It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven” still contains within it the concept “better.”
Those of you who have taken courses with me know that I have a high regard for the writings of René Girard. Reading Daryl Koehn’s book has given me a framework within which I can see Girard as a thinker who inhabits the wisdom tradition. His thought, in a nutshell, is a critique of the intrinsically moralistic structure of human culture, and a call to develop greater self-knowledge.
Girard’s thought is often boiled down to three main points: mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and the way the Bible reveals mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism. Mimetic desire means that we human beings look around at other human beings and copy their desires. We think that others have a greater fullness of being than we have because they possess things that we don’t possess; therefore we copy their desires and become rivals of them to possess those things. This is clearly seen in the behavior of small children, but we as adults are usually just grown up small children. Our forms of mimetic desire are more sophisticated, but the basic structure has not changed. One of Girard’s favorite verses in this regard is the Tenth Commandment, which prohibits coveting. As Girard notes, the text begins to list the things that could be coveted, such as the neighbor’s spouse, servant, ox, or donkey, and then it abruptly breaks off the list and says “or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” We are seeing into the biblical author’s mind at the exact moment that mimetic desire is coming into focus. It is not the objects that are important, but the fact that the neighbor has them.
The famous story of the prophet Nathan confronting David is another powerful text in the Bible that elucidates Girard’s message. David did not obey the Tenth Commandment, which led him to also break two other commandments. When the prophet exposes David’s hypocrisy, we are seeing that precise moment of self-knowledge that is at the heart of the Bible’s transforming power in human history. We human beings careen through our lives, going along our moralistic way, until we are interrupted by moments of grace that are simultaneously moments of judgment.
In the gospel passage that we heard today, the same moment of growth in self-knowledge is reenacted. The crowd, driven to a frenzy of violence by their moralistic denunciation of the woman caught in adultery, is on the verge of stoning her. We may not think of this as one of the miracle stories of the gospels, but it actually is. Jesus performed a miracle by preventing a lynching. According to Girard, Jesus bent down to write in the sand to avoid eye contact with the murderous crowd, because he knew that they would falsely project into his eyes their own murderous intent. He avoided eye contact to allow a space to open up within which his words could be heard: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Because human behavior is mimetic it is the first stone that is the most important. The crowd wanted Jesus to either throw the first stone himself or to approve of someone who did. But his words turned the situation inside out. The violent frenzy of self-righteousness is an attempt to avoid self-knowledge; the words of Jesus made a lack of introspection impossible. “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.” In words that echo one of the key themes of the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Girard says: “Instead of the mindless uniformity of the mob, we watch genuine individuals emerging from the crowd. The Gospel text can be read almost allegorically, as the emergence of genuine personhood out of the primordial mob.” [Girard, "The First Stone," 14]
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Girard is sometimes accused of lacking an ecclesiology, a charge that he admits has merit.[Girard, The One by Whom, 78] But one thinker cannot do everything, and one of the key hallmarks of Girard’s thought is his ready willingness to allow others to develop mimetic theory into areas that he himself did not. I turn thus to James Alison, one of the most creative theological expositors of Girard. Alison is known for his advocacy on behalf of those who have a minority status within church and society due to their sexual orientation.
In a series of books published over the past two decades, Alison has extended Girard’s anthropological insights into such topics as atonement theory, the doctrine of original sin, eschatology, and moral theology. His basic method is to break down the settled dichotomy of modern religion, which caricatures “liberals” as viewing scripture and tradition as nothing but a morass of ignorance, intolerance, oppression, and violence, and “conservatives” as reactionaries who are nothing but intolerant oppressors. Alison reads the biblical texts with an intense seriousness, hearing in them a voice that breaks down such settled dichotomies and allows for genuine conversation to emerge between human beings, regardless of where they find themselves located on any ideological map. For him, it is not simply the case that the Bible contains insights that were ahead of its time; those insights are still ahead of our time.
Thinking out of the new experience of God that reading Girard made possible for him, Alison articulates an ecclesiology within which the Church is body of those who are gathered by the forgiving victim, Jesus Christ. Within the moralistic worldview, the resurrected Christ ought to have come back from the grave, leading legions of angels to slaughter the wicked Jews and Romans who had unjustly murdered him. But the Christ we meet in the Bible is not a victorious general, perpetuating the cycle of violence; he is the one who triumphs over demonic violence precisely by not replicating it, by not being reactive and mimetic. The Church, if it is truly to be the Church, must be the body that teaches, preaches, and lives out the non-resentful, non-reactive, grace-filled, and transformatively loving example of Jesus. Human sin is, at root, resistance to the continuing creative work of God, and the Church is that place within moralistic human culture that points beyond that culture in openness to the completion of God’s work of creation.[Alison, Raising Abel, 74. See also Faith Beyond Resentment. I develop this theme in my book The Trinitarian Self.]
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Many people think that in the Christmas carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” the word “merry” is an adjective, but it is actually part of an archaic verb phrase. “To rest merry” means to have a sense of peace, calm, happiness, contentment. It is the opposite of fear, anxiety, confusion, dismay. The lyrics of the first verse make the meaning of this phrase clear, as they ask God to let nothing dismay us; Christ was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power; these are tidings of comfort and joy. In our age, which is wracked by both physical and rhetorical violence, we are certainly not resting merry.
There was a survey done several years ago at Brite regarding the theological beliefs of the students and how those beliefs were impacted by their studies here. One of the more interesting results of the survey was the finding that first year students were much more likely to say that they believed in the Devil than third or fourth year students. It seems that seminary study has a demythologizing effect on certain aspects of the embedded theologies of the entering students. While there are beneficial results of such demythologizing, there is also a loss, which I do my best to counteract in my course on Religion and Violence. Because what the Christmas carol refers to as “Satan’s power” is a very real thing. When smoke rises from chimneys in Nazi concentration camps, we are seeing Satan’s power; when a disturbed young man walks into a school in Newtown, Connecticut and slaughters young children, we are seeing Satan’s power; when dozens of people in Nice, France are mowed down by a truck, we are seeing Satan’s power; when a nightclub in Orlando has pools of blood on its floor we are seeing Satan’s power; when a police officer in South Carolina shoots and kills a black man in the back who is running away from him, we are seeing Satan’s power; when five police officers are shot and killed in Dallas, we are seeing Satan’s power. Violence is a shape-shifting phenomenon in human culture; it is a theme with variations.
To be trained in theology is to be sensitized to such horrors, but it is more than that. To be trained in theology is to be made aware that there is no simple solution to the problem of moral evil in the world. There is, however, a hard solution, a difficult and demanding one. It is that all of us, in our own contexts and in our own individual journeys through time, can come to realize that we are children of the God who both convicts us of our sin and calls us to new life. It is only through responding to this call, in company with others, that we will ever find ourselves in that place where we can truly “rest merry.”
Alison, James. Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. New York: Crossroad, 2001. _____. Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad, 1996.
Bellinger, Charles K. The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence. Eugene: Pickwick, 2008.
Girard, René. “The First Stone.” Renascence 52, no. 1 (1999), 5–17.
_____. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001.
_____. The One by Whom Scandal Comes. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014.
Koehn, Daryl. The Nature of Evil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1961.