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Are Ultimate Evil and Ultimate Goodness in Confrontation in Alternative Christianities?

What precisely might it be that first century Christianity opposes in pagan religion or simply non-Christian religion? Given the multiple positive references to Greek and pagan thought in both Testaments, it is clearly not a wholesale rejection of human wisdom and religion per se. Religion was not itself a realm apart from everyday life such that one could separate it out and thus avoid it. To be a citizen, to go shopping in the market, to own a home, would necessarily overlap with the realm of the sacred. But two specific acts, participation in pagan sacrificial rites and in occupations of war and violence, were beyond the pale for the first Christians and seemed to demarcate the Christian faith from the surrounding world. Pagan sacrificial rites, as Bruce McClelland describes it, “exemplified quite unequivocally a resistance to the Christian message, if for no other reason than that Christ was presumed to be the ultimate and last sacrificial victim.”[1] Non-participation in the military and limited participation in the rites of Rome were, of course, not necessarily two separate realms.  Given René Girard’s interpretation of sacrificial religion as a process in which the realm of the sacred is created through violence (the sacrifice of the scapegoat covered over in myth), then the early Christian refusal of pagan sacrificial religion can be read as part and parcel of its overall rejection of violence.

By the same standard, contemporary nationalism and capitalism (the reigning “religious” ethos) may constitute the world of our everyday life but as with archaic religion, if violence is beyond the pale the Christian must recognize the line of demarcation. The difference in the modern period is that the violence of archaic religion has been demystified by Christ, which means the genesis of religious myth has ceased. However, a Christianity aligned with nationalism and materialism has separated itself from archaic violence only to engender an un-circumscribed violence. The scapegoating mechanism no longer functions but at the same time violence is no long regulated or delimited. Nationalism and capitalism, in their potential for global destruction are unprecedented and if left unchallenged, extinction of all life on the planet is not simply one possibility but the only possibility.  

As Girard has described it, only sacrificial religion “has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans.”[2] Christ has forever exposed the true nature of sacred violence but where Christians are not Christian enough(?), this exposure may simply unleash an unopposed violence.  If Christ is the final sacrifice, the exposure of the scapegoating mechanism, the alternative to sacred violence, then nationalism and capitalism too must be overtly resisted at their point of violent sacrifice and only a fully functioning form of the faith offers the necessary resistance. This is not merely a matter of personal piety or concern for the preservation of an untainted religion, rather it is the means of exposing the anti-Christ, defeating Satan, and redeeming the cosmos.

The mode of resistance, the unfolding subject of biblical revelation culminating in Christ, is not on the basis of violence but is found in a reorientation to even the presumption of violence. There are a group of “power words” deployed throughout Scripture which characterize the violence and sacrifice which Christ opposes and defeats. Knowing (as in the “knowledge of good and evil”), grasping (grasping the forbidden fruit or “taking hold” of Christ), being (“I am and there is no other”) describe the Fall and fallenness in terms of the deployment of power. The attempt to “stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life,” to become the grasper (Jacob) of the blessing, to make a name and storm the heavens through a grand tower, to grasp and seduce (Genesis 39:12), as with the slave granted forgiveness but who then “seized and began to choke his fellow slave,” all describe the attempt to grasp life or substance through violence. As Mathew describes it, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Mt 11:12).  It might be summed up in Jesus warning that he who would grasp life, he who would save his life, by that very act loses it.

 The nature of this power is exposed in the ultimate power grab: “Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.’ After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. They laid hands on Him and seized Him” (Mark 14:44-46). The seizing, delivering, and handing over, encompass the ultimate sin, often laid at the feet of Judas. But Judas starts the chain reaction of “delivering” or “handing over” (παραδίδωμι contains both the gift, δίδωμι, and its destruction) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Matthew 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified.  John equates this handing over or delivering up with darkness, with Satan entering into Judas, and with the uncleanness that clings to the Apostles feet. Jesus is delivered over to the Gentiles or Romans through the Jews by means of an Apostle, such that every class of human is involved in this deliverance. Darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, are encompassed in the movement which delivers Jesus unto death.

Simultaneous with the grab for heaven is the inauguration of the mode in which the kingdom will be established through one “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). It is specifically not by violent grasping but by non-grasping nonviolence that Jesus is characterized and that he is to be imitated (imitation of Christ is the point in this passage). The will of Christ in his surrender is identified with the new law, inscribed on the heart through the final sacrifice (Heb. 10:14-18). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on hearts; it came about also “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The breathing out of the Spirit is specifically connected with the non-grasping, relinquishing mode of Jesus death. “And Jesus cried loudly, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit'” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrendering and handing over the Spirit to the Father. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father come together in the singular event described by Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus’ judges and his executioners wanted to punish a criminal, to grasp him and hand him over; he wanted to give himself, as the Last Supper sayings show, for the many.

Maximus the Confessor says that Christ on the cross altered the “use of death.” He means that death, which was brought by God after the fall into Eden as punishment, was transformed by the crucified one into a means of salvation from sin.  Maximus compared the scene of the garden of Eden and the cross, suggesting one is a grasping and one is a relinquishing. As Girard has described it, whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life may have its limits, but at the moment of dying these limits can be broken down. Death is passage beyond an inexorable limit, beyond all previous limits. Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) and in imitating his death, in taking up his cross and dying, we too are entrusted in the Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). Death becomes the mode of surrender which endures sacrificial violence and overcomes it.

The ultimate destruction aimed at Christ is deflected through a direct confrontation with and exposure of violence. This is the sacrifice that reverses sacrificial violence – it sanctifies, it is the means of character change involved in inscribing the law on the heart, and it is an alternative mode of knowing written on the mind (Heb 10:14-18). As Graham Ward describes it, “Jesus’s life is the performance within which the salvation promised by God is made effective for all; just as the narration of Jesus’s life, work and teaching is the performance (re-enacted by each reader/listener) by which the salvation effected by God in Christ is made available to all.”[3] The Word made flesh is an alternative “representation” or a new mode of inscription. Where in violent sacrifice the flesh is transposed into a semiotic, a grasp for meaning, in the incarnate word flesh becomes the bearer of meaning. As we make the word flesh, taking up Jesus’ way of thinking and perceiving we enter a (metanoia – noeo – a knowing) mode which is not simply a moral category but an epistemological one in which the living word cannot be grasped or possessed or fully comprehended. There is no end of reading, no end of repeating the story as we take up this word which never accommodates grasping ownership.

Life cannot be had through our word, our knowledge, our grasping, our violence. We must give up on this grasping of life. Redemption means a (re)turn to the word of God but the way we get there pertains to our method. The Word must now be inscribed upon the heart and we must be enscribed in the word.  We must be entextualised and take up this word and walk. We must be animated by the narrative force of Christ which is precisely enacted in a non-violent relinquishing of life.

In summary, a “Christianity” wedded to nationalistic and materialistic violence is bound toward an apocalyptic destruction which can only be interrupted by a true form of the religion. It is the confrontation between this anti-Christ and Christ which Scripture depicts as the final confrontation between good and evil, a confrontation now unfolding in two forms of the faith.

(Register for the Module on Religion and Culture on Monday the 27th at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org.)


[1] Bruce McClelland, Sacrifice and Early Christianity (Ph.D. Dissertation Chapter 5).

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/on-war-and-apocalypse

[3] Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Blackwell Publishing Ltd), p. 45.

The Problem of Religion and Nationalism

The innocent question, “Are you religious?” raised in the Japanese context will evoke an answer which hints at a history that has been repressed in the West.  Even if the subject being questioned happens to be praying at a Shinto shrine, the answer is most likely to be negative.  Praying and offering homage or worship indicating complete obedience to a national identity – does it seem strange?  (It will make no difference if the question is raised in Japanese and the word shukyo is used in place of “religion.”) The act of praying or making an offering at a shrine or of following the practices affiliated with being Japanese are specifically not “religious” but are simply the requirements of being Japanese.

To get at the ambiguity of the question, an ambiguity that is more normative for human history and culture than not, we can raise a similar question in a Western context. Ask someone who stands and sings the national anthem, “Are you religious?” Whatever their answer, the question would not seem to apply to the act of singing or even the act of pledging allegiance to the flag “under God.” They might reply that they are religious, but probably will be eager to explain that the scruples (the original meaning of religious) demanded by the civic faith of the land are not religious. There is only a slight difference between the function of national identity in Japan and the United States. In fact, it is precisely the U. S. and Great Britain that the Japanese had in mind when the Meiji elites began to set forth the understanding that makes up the modern Japanese sensibility. That is, the supposed division between national identity and religion is of recent vintage.

 For example, a pre-Christian Roman could not have conceived of separating his religion from his identity with Empire. They were one and the same. In the ancient world the phenomena we might call “religious” permeated daily life. There was no clearly demarcated realm which one might dub religious as the gods were everywhere and everything potentially religious. Even in modern Japan the gods reign over the kitchen, the toilet, the forest, and are in control of life and death to such a degree (even if only dimly acknowledged) that to build a house, buy a car, or raise a child, without following the required practices is, for most, just too dangerous.  The notion of religion as a realm apart arises only with the accompanying modern notion of the secular and Japan’s encounter with the West.

The role of Christianity in early modern Japan and ancient Rome seems to have created very similar predicaments for potential converts. Can one be a good Roman or a good Japanese if one does not adhere to the rites required by the state? Can a Christian bow to the emperor so as to acknowledge his supreme power? The original Christians answered this question decisively, acknowledging that certain rites required by Rome were forbidden by the Christian faith. A Christian could not acquiesce to Caesars claim to exclusive or final sovereignty. The faith demanded loyalty to one God and this particular God, unlike the multiplicity of gods, would not allow preeminent loyalty to the state. There would have been numerous occasions (feasts and festival days) on which loyalty to the gods would mark loyalty to the state. The Roman provinces were kept orderly by governors who were simultaneously public cult leaders. No one really cared about private cults so long as they remained private. Notions of personal belief or private faith were allowed but were accorded little importance in terms of true piety – which was synonymous with publicly honoring the traditions.  The strange Christian notion that they could not offer sacrifices, light incense, or perform other religious rites for the gods, would have been read as disloyalty to the state. One either pledges his allegiance or he does not and Caesar was not tolerant of insurrectionists

The resolution brought about through the Constantinian compromise, the rise of modernity and notions of the secular, is not to ban oaths, sacrifices, and rites, it is to declare what was formerly religion as religious no more. The positing of this secular space simultaneously posits a separate role for religion, which tended to copy Roman cult practices and organization.  It is not Japan which first converted religion into rites of state, it was the West. It was Western Christians who developed a full-blown notion of religion as a realm apart and the profane world of the political as in no way intersecting with the sacred. Constantine’s conversion, Augustine’s two cities, Descartes’ soul and body, are the signposts of the rise of a religious sensibility which no longer need interfere with civic duties – theoretically. (The tension between Church and state was never a settled proposition, as was clear to Japan’s elites.)

The contested nature of religion in Japan and the open debate of the Meiji government as to how best deploy what is and what is not religious, points to the manipulation of religion by cultural elites aiming to achieve parity with the West. Japan offers a unique hot house for an examination of the role of national identity and religion due to its relatively late development of national institutions. It was with the specific goal of warding off Western dominance, equated with Christianity, that Japan adapted Western institutions of state.  Japanese intended to take the Western form of state and fill it with Japanese substance. Great Britain had their monarch, who was also head of the national religion, so Japan would have her Emperor as head of a new State Shinto. But to call this form of Shinto “religious” would create problems with the West and with Japanese who had converted to Christianity. There was the need to isolate the imperial institution and its connection to religion so as to justify these institutions (particularly in the eyes of the West). There was the pressure of the United States to protect Japanese Christians and the recent discovery of hidden Christians around Nagasaki became the focus of the United States and thus the concern of the Japanese government.  

At the same time, the Western model posed the puzzle for Japanese as to how the nation-state could create loyalty in the midst of conflicts created by a fragmented religion. Freedom of religion and the maintenance of social order was not a finished process in the West and had not even been posed as a possibility in the East. When religionists perceived that the West was to be the model in early Meiji, Buddhists and Shintoists began vying and arguing for the top spot in the implicit state religion, like Christianity in the West. The leap to State Shinto, the religion transformed into a national polity, points to the reality Japanese perceived at the heart of the Western nation-state. The modern nation-state is religion by another name. (As Peter Berger came to recognize late in his career, the sacred canopy of nationalism functions as religion always functioned.)

 The hardening distinction between private piety and the need for public order, hammered out over centuries in the West, became overt political policy in Japan. The Meiji Constitution reflects the attempt to relegate religion to private belief and to posit the belief supporting the public realm as non-religious. The Imperial Constitution enshrined religious freedom (a freedom of private belief) while, according to Trent Maxey, it “sacralized and secularized the imperial institution.”[1] Maxey maintains the constitution “offered the avowedly religious the promise of freedom in proportion to their irrelevance to and undifferentiated treatment by the state.”[2]

What Japanese perceived in 19th century America is the abiding truth that conservative religion, stripped of its anarchic (anti-arche or over and against the principalities and powers) and independent impulses, serves the modern state. The notion of a Christianity independent of national identity did not present itself, even to Japanese who converted to Christianity.  Uchimura Kanzo, who became a Christian and studied at Amherst College, reaches the dilemma posed by his new faith. If being Christian was a constitutive part of being American and visa versa, then this necessarily stood juxtaposed to his Japanese identity. Loving Jesus stood opposed to loving Japan. In the end, Uchimura could not abide the Western Church due to its integration into Western national identity, and so he founds the No Church Movement.

This sad history of Christianity made subservient to the state is not simply a cultural problem or a problem of practice. Even the study of religion has been infected. The father of modern religious studies, Mircea Eliade, under the guise of saving religion from the encroachments of the secular, sums up this history in creating a place for religion which is absolutely transcendent and absolutely irrelevant. Religion rises above the mere social, economic, historical, or psychological to its own sui generis category. It is universal by way of being unalterable, irreducible and inconceivable. The sacred maintains it place only in its complete difference from the profane world which people actually inhabit. Eliade’s dalliance with fascism and anti-Semitism embodies the role for religion in the modern state. Even the formal study of religion in the modern university must lend itself to state servitude.

There is a Christianity that has not bowed its knee to the Baal of the age. By definition it is a militantly non-violent, anarchic, destabilizing, critic of Empire.  It is on this basis that the upcoming PBI module will undertake the study of religion and culture. World Culture and Religion is a study of religion which aims to demonstrate how Christ exposes and defeats the religio-cultural understanding as it exists in several of the world’s major religions and cultures, most especially Christianity and the United States, as well as how Christ redirects and completes this understanding. 

Sign up beginning on January 27th at PBI.


[1] I am following my nephew Trent Maxey’s excellent work, The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Asia Center, 2014, and quoting here from p. 185.

[2] Ibid p. 184.

Have the Dark Ages Returned?

How is it that the United States is entering yet another war, a war which is arousing enthusiasm for Trump among his evangelical base? In the rhetoric of various evangelical leaders (as Franklin Graham has put it, Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion”), war seems to be part of a “necessary” clash of religions and civilizations? This seemingly medieval perception is, I would claim, precisely that – medieval in its theological/Roman Catholic roots. How is it that a medieval ideology has come to dominate evangelical religion and American politics?

The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion begun under Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Christian Coalition (with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), the turn to partisan politics and the cry for cultural war begun by Newt Gingrich (a convert to Roman Catholicism), is the first phase in this two-part story. Gingrich’s name-calling, conspiracy theories, strategic obstructionism through government shut-downs, all in the name of bringing religion back into the public square, is certainly echoed in the Trump phenomenon.  But underlying the politics is the rise of a peculiar Catholic sensibility first expressed by George W. Bush.

Three days after the massive terrorist attacks of September 11, president Bush assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” Bush concluded his address by invoking St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:38-39) that nothing can divide us from the love of God. America set out on a holy war as Bush described it, “our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” The “mission” was not merely to bring justice to the men and the groups that had attacked the country but also to “defend freedom” in a world where “freedom is under attack.” This battle for freedom would be “civilizations fight,” led by the United States. In this struggle, both military and metaphysical, “the outcome is certain,” since “freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” In Bush’s picture we would win the fight against evil through violence, war, and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives. Bush began a crusade which would fuse state and church in the fight for Christian civilization and in his conception of this world struggle, it is precisely Catholic intellectuals to whom Bush would turn.

Damon Linker in his book, The Theocons, traces the key thinkers and shapers behind Bush doctrine and the fusion of right-wing politics and theology. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of the right-wing Catholic journal First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.”

In Michael Novak’s view, Christianity, modern democracy, and modern capitalism arose from and continue to share “the same logic, the same moral principles, the same set of cultural values, institutions, and presuppositions. Markets don’t simply produce economic growth; they mirror the divine Trinity in the way they enable many diverse individuals to function as one in perfect harmony. For Novak, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding the market was quite simply the hand of God – and the rise and spread of democratic capitalism in the world is the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”

 William Kristol, the non-Catholic of the group, claims that modern conservatism should be based on a synthesis of religion, nationalism, and economic growth and that republicans should give up their resistance to the transformation of their party into an explicitly religious organization – all for the sake of banishing liberalism, the “enemy,” from American political life (all of this and the manner it came to shape Bush’s doctrine is set forth in Linker’s 2007 book).

Steve Bannon, perhaps the key thinker behind Donald Trump, believes the United States is a Christian nation, not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country’s culture is Christian. This means our war with evil is a literal war against Islam: “We” in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In a speech at the Vatican, he said, “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” During broadcasts of the Breitbart News Daily radio show, he alleged that “Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media.” In his dark vision he planned, according to The Washington Post, to make a three-part movie in which radical Muslims take over the United States and remake it into the “Islamic States of America.” According to Newsday, an article published in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Bannon as a “supporter of apocalyptic geopolitics,” the logic of which is “no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism.”

Attorney General William Barr in a recent speech at Notre Dame, warned that Catholicism and other mainstream religions are the target of “organized destruction” by “secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia.” He insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” responsible for every sort of “social pathology,” including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy. The Guardian reports that C Colt Anderson, a Roman Catholic theologian has warned that Barr’s brand of radically conservative Catholicism is a “threat to American democracy.” He described the speech as a “dog whistle” to ultra-conservative Catholics. “The attorney general is taking positions that are essentially un-Democratic” because they demolish the wall between church and state, according to Anderson.[1]

As The Guardian notes, while the president enjoys the support of right-wing Christian evangelical leaders and their followers, he has also surrounded himself with conservative Roman Catholics like Barr and Patrick Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, both of whom served on the board of directors of a Washington-based organization staffed by priests from the secretive, ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei. Ron Dreher is an example of why conservative Catholics are falling in line behind Trump: “As we religious conservatives think about how to vote in the election next fall, we should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice. Thank God Bill Barr is there.”

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not Catholic but a devout evangelical, his open discussion of Christianity and foreign policy (particularly pro-Israel and anti-Islamic leanings) have raised questions about the extent to which evangelical beliefs are directly influencing recent decisions. The New York Times reports, his was the loudest voice in the administration pushing President Trump to kill Iran’s most important general, Qasem Soleimani.

Perhaps the new middle age has commenced, just as Steve Bannon would have it:

“And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if … the people in the Church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

The line being drawn between this present moment and the Middle Ages is seen by alt right thinkers as a positive strategy. A variety of Catholic journals and thinkers would counter the cry of “Allahu akbar” with “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) as the call to war against the imagined Islamic enemy. [2] If ever there were a moment for the peace of the Gospel to receive a hearing and to make a difference this would seem to be that moment.

When “Christians” take up the sword to secure themselves and their people they have joined themselves to the power of death, linked to the power of Satan. This means that they have retreated from doing the work of God’s Kingdom, founded on the power of resurrection and not the power of death. As Christians faced with a profound Medieval form of Christianity we must turn firmly away from the means and method of empire. We are not seeking power and security through tight borders, strong military, or the defeat of Islam in war. The danger is that in aligning with the powers and methods of empire, Christians have joined forces with the counter-Kingdom of the antiChrist.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/19/william-barr-attorney-general-catholic-conservative-speech

[2] For example, see the Imaginative Conservative, The American Conservative,

Book Club

It was Liam’s turn to host us and so several of us car-pooled to his old farm house east of town. Liam and his first wife had begun working on the extensions to the farmhouse more than thirty years previously and had laid the large plank walnut flooring and built the first extension. I am not sure if there is an extension for each wife but there are three additions and three former wives. Though Liam just turned 80, he calls it “the house of the future,” meaning it is not finished and he is hoping, I guess, for more wives.  We gathered in front of the fireplace behind the kitchen and we could hear each new arrival stomping snow off their boots in the mud room at the front of the house and then passing over the hardwood onto the block limestone. The beams protruding from the living room into the kitchen, the intricately carved buttresses, and a bed set into a cavern off the kitchen, reflected Liam’s gift for innovation and using whatever materials presented themselves.

As about eight of us gathered we settled into our usual rhythm as the warm glow of the fire, of special refreshments, of returning to the comfort of book club took hold. No one in particular initiates the conversation but it always clicks into place.

The group seems to have been working on this same book, Nonviolent Communication, forever. We prepare by reading a chapter and then discuss how to apply the principles but somehow, we never move forward. The point of the chapters is easy enough but the application and practice seem to elude us and we forget what we just read. Even when we remember we had covered a chapter, no one seems to be able to say exactly what the chapter had been about. Liam suggested we just continually read the book, and though we had not agreed, this seems to be our fate.

 Each Thursday evening, we gather and practice “focusing,” “observing without evaluating,” “identifying and expressing feelings,” and “taking responsibility for our feelings.” As each person talks, we concentrate intensely on “empathy,” “connecting compassionately with ourselves,” while at the same time “listening for the feelings and needs” behind what others are saying.  We slowly get lost as we attempt to keep all of these balls in the air; which is not to say that we do not enjoy the process – we do – but this past week we hit a peculiar turning point.

On this particular Thursday we were practicing using action language, as it is “positive action language” which will resolve conflict. One needs to pose present action language, such as “I’d like you to tell me if you’d be willing to . . .?” This sort of positive action language “helps foster a respectful discussion,” apparently. Then Irving raised a fundamental existential question: “What if they are not willing? In fact, what if the premise of this book is mistaken? What if people are not basically good and desiring peace?”

I am usually the one to raise the dark questions.  As Ricardo has put it, your answer for everything is, “It is systematic evil.” We were discussing the film, Three Identical Strangers, and he was wondering what particular conspiracy was at work behind separating the triplets, and I may have used that particular phrase.  In a burst of not “nonviolent communication” he let me know he was fed up. “‘It is systematic evil’ is not an explanation of anything,” he said in total exasperation. Clearly, he was not “connecting compassionately” nor “finding the need behind the words.” The hard truth of my dark turn of mind and his clear frustration were such a delightful combination that I nearly spit my street tacos on him laughing.   

At any rate, we were all stunned that Irving, of all people, had raised this fundamental existential question. Where I have always been suspicious that radical evil may describe the truth of the human race, it is people like Irving who immediately relieve the suspicion. Irving seems to be peace itself, not needing to practice nonviolent communication, as he seems to have been born with a basic compassion which inevitably sees the inherent goodness in people. People, who at one time would have been hard for me to tolerate, take on a different light seeing them through Irving’s perspective. Watching his appreciation for people had taught me to also appreciate them and I think we all had the same feeling. So, we sat momentarily silenced, as his statement took all of the energy out of the room.

 The entire working premise of the book and the group were built upon the notion that violence was primarily a matter of miscommunication. If we could only learn to communicate nonviolently then we could forego participation in the worst sort of evil. If we could learn to get behind our own and other’s anger and “see the need,” then we could escape the trap of violence. But there it was: what if violence goes deeper than a communicative difficulty and what if goodness is not to be presumed?

In case anyone had missed it, I spelled out the dark implication of Irving’s statement, my spiritual gift. If we cannot rely on the basic goodness of the human race then neither can we consider the premise of this book to be workable. If it is not goodness but evil that is the underlying motive of even a few people, then this book is bound to get us into trouble. The book accounts for all sorts of twistedness and presumes the truth is obscured by anger and the need for affirmation, but it is also presumed that the twistedness can be untwisted so as to arrive at a fundamental human goodness.  If this is not the case, and some are constituted in their twistedness. . . well then?

We absorbed the darkness of the moment – suspended in midair.

We abruptly turned from it, not for any specifiable reason. Maybe the warmth of the group, our communal labor premised upon a basic goodness – that light has shown in the darkness – had produced its own self-evident goodness. Either option, darkness or light, had seemed momentarily plausible.

Liam went to his cabinet and retrieved what he called his “malaria remedy” and it did seem to calm the fever. Anna Rose turned to the section on “emergency empathy” and read aloud, “Are you feeling reassured about that, or would you like more reassurance . . .?” The conversation continued with “all needs heard” and “empathy shared” on the presumption that the universe is good.

That final evening before our Christmas break we all knew something special had transpired. Irving’s mother was visiting and we all felt we now knew where his expansive generosity came from. She requested that we pray, something we had never done in book club, and yet it could not have been otherwise. We formed a circle in the kitchen and held hands and knew:

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

(Names have been changed and some events rearranged.)

Mutually Assured Destruction Is Not the Answer but the Problem Exposed by Christ

The Old Testament prophets and Psalms echo the refrain, “How long God,” and then join this to a wide-ranging summation of evils as in, “how long must we suffer injustice, violence, and oppression. How long before you rescue us – will it be forever” (e.g. Psalm 13:1-2)? The darkness is accentuated with the coming birth of the Messiah. A world census in which a megalomaniac rules, sends Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. After Jesus’ birth, Herod murders all the babies of Bethlehem to wipe out the competition. And it only gets worse from there. The darkness is not banished but seems to deepen as the light grows in intensity. This is not a process completed in the New Testament but the battle continues in the Church so that there is an ever-heightened confrontation being worked out historically. The dark night prior to the coming of the light, characterizing advent, calls for describing the full depth of darkness Christ confronted and which he continues to confront in the Church. The presumption is that the battle continues as does the depth that revelation penetrates and the apprehension of the darkness it dispels and the nature of God revealed. There is an exposure, not simply of the genesis of subjective evil, but the anatomy of the madness that grips the world and the presumption is that the madness of the former is of the same order as that of the latter. The presumption of gaining peace through violence, of avoiding death by killing, of throwing off suffering by inflicting it, might describe the work of a mad individual or a world gone mad.   

To make the point that a similar form of madness is at work at every level, I will use as an example the ultimate madness – M(utually) A(ssured) D(estruction) of nuclear war. Two years ago, in December 2017, Daniel Ellsberg published The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, depicting his work as a war strategist for the Pentagon in the early 1960s. At the same time as he copied the Pentagon Papers (detailing the Johnson administration’s lies about the Vietnam War), Ellsberg also copied nuclear war plans which he also intended to release to the public (but which were lost). Ellsberg describes U. S. plans for nuclear attack that can be triggered inadvertently (which has nearly occurred over a hundred times in Noam Chomsky’s count), or by intention, which would lead to a nuclear holocaust which would wipe out at least a third of all human life and potentially all life on the planet.

At one point Ellsberg came upon a document which read, “Top Secret- Sensitive” and marked “For the President’s Eyes Only.” The document posed the question to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as to how many people would be killed in the Soviet Union and China in a nuclear first strike by the United States. The answer was in the form of a graph, in which the vertical axis showed the number of deaths in the millions while the horizontal axis showed the amount of time in months. It was estimated that at least 275 million people would die instantaneously, while after six months the number would rise to 325 million deaths. The Pentagon calculated another 100 million deaths in the Warsaw Pact countries and potentially another 100 million dead in Western Europe, “depending on which way the wind blew.” The total casualties of a nuclear U. S. first strike would be at least 600 million dead, “a hundred holocausts” by the Pentagon’s estimate.

Ellsberg writes, “I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.” Ellsberg has described it as an incomprehensible evil; a form of madness and destruction so large in scale as to be beyond the scope of understanding. Yet, the basic plans are the same today as those Ellsberg saw in the 1960s.

The basic strategy is for a “first strike” which would eliminate enemy cities and targets before U. S. targets are struck. To ensure that there is the possibility of retaliation, even after missing the opportunity for first strike, a series of individuals have access to the “button” should the chain of command be unresponsive or eliminated. This “dead hand” approach means that multiple individuals, and not the one finger of the president, have the potential to start or finish a nuclear war. The probability, according to Ellsberg, is that the same system is in place in Russia and China and other nuclear-armed powers. There are any number of individuals (Chomsky estimates 1 thousand) that might push the button should they perceive the chain of command above them to have been incapacitated. This means there is ample opportunity for mistakes or false alarms which could lead to unintended world destruction.

Ellsberg warns that the threat of nuclear holocaust has only increased since the end of the Cold War, partly due to a decreased public awareness of the danger and partly because of the continued “use” of nuclear weapons as a threat in negotiations. The “fire and fury” of Trump, in this sense, is not an aberration but the culmination of a “mad” logic in which ones negotiating partners will be more easily coerced if they consider the finger on the button to be unpredictable. Trump, purposely or not, embodies the “madman theory” pioneered by President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. As in any robbery of a store with a gun, the victims must believe the gun is a real threat and the one holding it must appear crazy enough to pull the trigger. The crazier he appears the greater the perceived threat and the more effective the deadly weapon.

According to Ellsberg, during the Korean War both Truman and then Eisenhower threatened to drop nukes in order to get the Chinese to negotiate. He lists more than 25 such incidents of nuclear threats by U. S. presidents, during the Cold War alone. The following exchange between Nixon and Kissinger is from an Oval Office conversation (recorded on Nixon’s secret taping system) regarding a North Vietnamese offensive from April 25, 1972: Nixon: “I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?” Kissinger: “About two hundred thousand people.” Nixon: “No, no, no … I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?” Kissinger: “That, I think would just be too much.” Nixon: “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ sakes.”

Both Presidents Bush and Obama threatened nuclear war on Iran on several occasions. A near requirement for running for the Oval Office, whether Republican or Democrat, is a demonstrated willingness to resort to nuclear weapons. It is a sort of litmus test of ruthlessness to qualify for the Office. Trump’s tweets are just a more shrill and public version of what has been required of every American president and presidential hopeful in the nuclear age. Only potential “mad men” need apply. One must be willing to consider not simply homicide or genocide but omnicide – the destruction of the human species.

Given the logic that peace requires absolute violence, that life requires the weapon of death, the reversal of this logic by Christ can be understood to be salvific on multiple levels. The logic of mutually assured destruction is the logic that is always at work in tribal and national wars and rightly understood it is the logic at work within the individual. Death as the means to life, describes religions based on human sacrifice, societies organized by scapegoating the outsider, religion that pictures death as a doorway, or it might describe the masochistic individual bent on self-destruction which is aimed at ridding himself of his self-destructive tendencies. This death drive is that which Christ exposed in his life, death and resurrection. His formula for undoing this logic is world transforming because it reverses the logic of the world. “He would save his life will lose it.” This is because this mode of salvation is life destroying. Whether it is the accumulation of security through wealth, through religious righteousness, through chariots and horses, or through sacrificial manipulation of the gods, life is destroyed by human salvation systems. People are violent idol makers, hostile toward God and uncomprehending, according to Paul. In their incomprehension they would destroy themselves and the world.

The revelation of Christ witnessed to in Scripture is not about God’s anger being appeased or satisfied. It is about the human predicament, the exposure of the destructive nature of this logic, and the positing of life on a different principle. Christ comes to resolve the problem but also to give a surprising diagnosis to the problem. Humans are the problem and even the human solutions to the problem are the problem. He who would save himself is in the process destroying himself, and unless he gives up on this mode of saving his life, he destroys it. This obviously includes wars to destroy evil which multiply evil, religion to appease the gods which sacrifice to the gods (including notions of penal substitution), and scapegoating the neighbor in an effort to isolate and destroy the problem. If the problem is us then the solution will also be within us in the most minute and the most global way. Individual sickness, social disease, national disease, world disease, all consist of the same human problem and require the same cure. The incarnation is required because the sickness is within the human condition, as is its cure. Christ gives us a diagnosis of the problem that says we are the problem and he offers a cure that is focused on the nature of sin and the duplicitous and violent nature of the human heart but also on the global scale of the problem.

In a strange way Penal Substitution is a theory of mutually assured destruction in which God is not only on the cross but with his enemies at the foot of the cross carrying out the crucifixion. God was angry, but the destruction of Christ means now he is not. God is now enabled to forgive and love through the violence and death of Christ. This seems to take the logic of sin and apply it to God. In this deplorable theory, the primary message is that the violence and evil that would destroy the world has its ontological ground in God. In turn, the apocalyptic destruction of the world is presumed to be precisely the work of God, rather than as Scripture portrays it, as the culminating work of humans.

If the Gospel message is as we see it preached in Acts and in a summation of that Gospel in the epistles, there is no notion of the cross saving from hell or saving from God. We are saved from sin, death, and the devil and from the principalities and powers that would destroy everything. God is not like Caiaphas in need of a scapegoat, requiring one man to die to save the nation.  God is not like Pilate, Anselm, Luther and Calvin, requiring an execution to satisfy justice. God does not follow human logic which is bent on violence and world destruction to save.

The perspective of the New Testament does not brush aside human suffering, violence, and evil, but presumes this is the problem creating the painful wait of Advent. Advent tells us what to expect with the coming of the Messiah. Christ is expected to expose and solve the problem of evil and we are part of the solution. Christ will defeat sin, death and the devil and rescue from mutually assured destruction, but this is the prolonged work which continues after Easter. The messianic salvation breaks into the midst of this madness, not to resolve it from above, but to cure it from within in the unfolding of healing sanity through the continued incarnate work of the Church.

Waiting for Godot or the Wait of Advent

Being human means being consigned to waiting. The waiting may be on the order of waiting for Godot – a compounded futility and frustration. The two main characters in the play, Vladimir and Estragon, are in pain. One is suffering physically and the other is suffering mentally and in both acts they take steps to try to hang themselves.  Waiting is simply what they are occupied with. It does not seem that Godot will provide relief and it is doubtful he will even show up. In fact, it is not clear that he even exists and if he does exist, given the evidence of his purported ill treatment of the boy messenger, he does not seem to be particularly kind or even worth waiting for. This purported “keeper of sheep and goats” has left his characters hanging. Their literal discussion of the act (of hanging themselves) and the existential circumstance both indicate the need for some sort of closure or relief, but they wait as this seems to be their lot.

Vladimir, the more philosophically inclined, insists they wait but it is a burden accentuated by Estragon’s aching feet and Vladimir’s enlarged prostate. The suffering is slightly relieved by conversation, an incomplete joke (Vladimir cannot complete the joke due to the constant need to urinate), and the capacity to sleep. But as Job lamented and as Estragon experiences it, even sleep produces nightmares and Vladimir refuses to listen to Estragon’s dreams – so sleep is only isolated suffering.  A pair of visitors accentuate the futility and unfairness. Their visit offers promise one might forego the mental agony of waiting, or so it is implied in the incapacity for thought of the two visitors (Lucky, the slave and Pozzo, his master), but this slave/master circumstance is even more immediately oppressive than aching feet or mental anguish. Things are not right and this oppressiveness points beyond itself to waiting for something better. The play illustrates the human predicament needing resolution and reducing everyone to waiting.

George Carlin describes a dog’s life as waiting for something to happen – the eager tail wagging, the longing looks, is all pure anticipation. But what awaits humans is not a ride in the car. The temporal condition, a unique human understanding, means that there are only so many acts in any life, so we wait for life to play out and somehow resolve itself. The angst driven aspect of the waiting is accentuated by the incapacity to grasp the nature of the long-anticipated arrival. There is an ambiguity as to the identity of Godot, perfectly fitting in describing the marked absence contained in human anticipation and angst. The ambiguity is angst ridden – is it death, God, rescue, final destruction, or simply an unfillable absence longing for final presence? To name it may be to misname it and to miss the all-inclusive life absorbing nature of the wait. Freud’s death drive, Lacan’s real, or Kierkegaard’s angst, is all encompassing in that it cannot be specified.

Advent, from the Latin word adventus, is a time marked by expectant waiting of a different kind. It is the expectation of the birth of Christ, reimagined and infused with hope of the Parousia, so that “God with us” identifies the nature of the absence. The waiting is not over at Christmas or Easter but now waiting is an ongoing order of expectation in which the genealogy of suffering, oppression, and death, are exposed. The angst is identified and pinpointed in the peculiar absence portrayed in the Gospels. God is present in the worst sort of suffering and advent is a training in a reoriented waiting.  

The medieval Catholic Church, in its pursuit of glory “now” (in Luther’s estimate) missed God in the suffering of the cross. Wealth and power mark it, or any church, indicating the refusal of advent – the refusal to wait. The theologians of glory have turned to the noise machines (Deus ex Machina) of the cathedral and mall like structures, the glittering gold of wealth, and the empty promise of power. Instead of waiting upon the Christ in humble places – the manger and the cross – they would seek him out in the Palace. A “theology of the cross” (Luther’s phrase) turns from glory (the big, the loud, and the noisy) to the humble and the unnoticed. Advent is a period of learning to live the principle of the manger and cross which address the human condition from within.

Advent affirms the human perspective – the place of lamentation and waiting for things to be made right. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2). Waiting in suffering lament is the recurrent theme of the Hebrew Bible, from Psalms, to Isaiah, to Habakkuk. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence! and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).  The perspective is not one that would brush aside human suffering, violence, and evil, but presumes this is precisely the problem creating the painful wait. The messianic salvation breaks into the midst of this suffering, not to resolve it from above, but to cure it from within.

The verdict that Christ must die due to God’s wrath and not because people would kill him, overlooks the lament inherent in advent. There is no lament and waiting in Penal substitution and no real engagement with the human perspective. God and the persecutors are on the same side in justifying the death of Christ as his death resolves a heavenly need and does not address an earthly absence. God and his followers are now at the foot of the cross reveling in the final (in)justice. The dying is an objective legal necessity and the perspective is divine rather than human (divine anger diverted).  The books are cleared “now” and the blessings can flow, and there is no waiting for justification. There is no advent.

Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes on the cross, depicts the worlds injustices: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). The Psalm describes the crucifixion scene: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (22:7-8). Yet in the midst of this suffering, and this seems to be Jesus point in quoting the Psalm, there is hope. It is not simply the futile waiting for Godot but prayerful complaint brought before God, the very form of which presumes “he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (22:24).

 Christ is not departing from Hebrew advent but is completing it. His cry from the cross partakes of a biblical theme: waiting upon God to act to remedy the world’s injustices. His quotation of the Psalm simultaneously enacts and fulfills the hope at the end of the prayer. God has already acted and is acting as Christ quotes it. This Scripture is now being fulfilled: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! (22:26). “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it” (22:30-31). He has done it, he is doing it, and he will do it, but who can see it? Only those who wait. It is a process that requires waiting.

Waiting in the fields are the humble shepherds. The stargazers have patiently plotted a path of star light. A few fishermen recognize God is acting in a small way through a child, a carpenter, a roving teacher. Here is a man the world would overlook: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Math. 12:19-20). It was not those at the center of power, important Pharisees, powerful kings, or experts in the law, who have the patient perspective to wait and in waiting to recognize the Christ.

At the end of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon once again encounter Lucky and Pozzo beneath the tree where they are waiting, but this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb and Pozzo has no memory of having met the men the night before. The suspicion dawns that Pozzo and Lucky are the alter-egos of Vladimir and Estragon and that their waiting is interminable as they are incapable of knowing if Godot has arrived or already come and gone. The two men once again assure one another they will hang themselves tomorrow should Godot not show.

We are all made to wait but the choice is an insufferable waiting or the hopeful waiting of advent.

Eucharist as The Counter to Thanksgiving

The seemingly benign aspect of Thanksgiving, a eucharistic like thanksgiving meal incorporating all the elements of American religion, functions as something just short of myth. The meal celebrates the great good will of Pilgrims embracing God’s good earth and her native people sharing together in the plenteous bounty of an emerging millennial kingdom. Here, at its beginning is the Eden of the American experience in which nature meets grace. Of course, it wasn’t until around the time of the American Revolution that the name “Pilgrims” came to be associated with the settlers, at which time they became symbolic of the American faith. (The name itself a false description implying mere pilgrims on a religious pilgrimage across a new holy land.) Myth conjoined with national identity may appear benign only from the perspective of belief. The blood and soil of Germany or the folk myths of Japan function in a role of invented tradition which demonstrate the dark side of the founding myths of the nation-state.

 The Meiji Restoration, in Japan, puts on full display the necessity of having something to restore as the unifying element which would form the core doctrine of the modern ideology. The Kojiki, with its depiction of the emperor descended from the Sun Goddess, served as the myth to give divine dignity to the newly emerging Japanese identity. The emperor restored to centrality is putting God “back” in the center of a socio-political system which must posit the reified element from which it emerges. Though there cannot be said to be a “Japanese” identity until it is forged in the modern period, for the identity to function it must have eternal roots in the mythical past. The tradition does not predate the modern practices but the legacy is a necessity to obtain a unified ideology and population. The Emperor was not only the center of a new identity but would be the means of mobilizing the population in a religious world war. Japanese, German, and American identity are built upon imagined communities, the stories of which are contested, quite literally, on the world stage. The modern needs the imagined myth from which to forge the common culture, but by definition the shared values of the nation (constituting a religious-like identity) cannot tolerate counter-myth.

In the description of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, what Germany lacked at the end of World War I was an enduring subject or identity, and the Nazi notion of an Aryan race filled in this mythical role. Nazism as Alfred Rosenberg says, is a resuscitation or restoration of Odin (Odin is the God of wisdom, poetry, death, divination and magic). Odin is dead but as essence of the German soul Odin is resuscitated in National Socialism. The height of German thought “restored” by Nazism forges an identity from out of a mythic Aryanism, setting up the ideology of restoration and return.

The deadly aspect of the myth is that pure humanity is gained in differentiation and contrast with its polluted present identity. Just as the Japanese is precisely not Christian, the German Aryan is precisely not Jewish. In Hitler’s description, the Jew is not simply a bad race, a defective type: he is the antitype, the bastard par excellence as he has no culture of his own.  He is man in the abstract, as opposed to the man of singular, concrete identity forged from the blood and soil of Germany. The race linked to blood is repeated endlessly by Hitler. Blood is nature, it is natural selection; the material sign of a “will of nature” (Mein Kampf, pp. 390, 581), which is the will to difference, to distinction, to individuation.

Both the Aryan and Japanese myth focus on the Sun, the gestalt for distinction and sight serving as the backdrop for all forms of differentiation. Roman Emperor worship likewise was connected to Sun worship (the Unconquerable Sun, Sol Invictus, later identified with the Emperor). The Jews invoke the Roman Emperor at the trial of Jesus (“We have no King but Caesar”), and as they are swept up into cultic state identity they sacrifice the Jewish Messiah. The will to power, the power of distinction and difference represented in the mythological Sun gods, is the original National identity. The Aryans, the Japanese, the Americans, the Jews, give rise to cultures which bear, in Hitler’s words, “the inner features of their character” (MK, p. 400).  The delineation of this character is etched in the blood, the Other must die that the Volk, the nation, would be formed.

The colonists were not innocent refugees, mere pilgrims, as by 1620 hundreds of Native people had already been to England and back, mostly as captives.  This unimproved – formless people (Hitler’s depiction of the Jews often echoes in descriptions of the Natives) were “wild,” mere roving heathens, and the land they occupied open for the taking. The Separatists and Puritans constituting the “Pilgrims” were, from the beginning, intending to take the land away from its Native inhabitants and establish a new “Holy Kingdom.” In a Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623, Cotton Mather praised God for the smallpox epidemic that wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag people who had been their fellow diners at Thanksgiving. This blood for which Mather gives thanks is “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for better growth.”  The sacrifice of the Wampanoag is the divine opening of the new kingdom.

Sorting out myth and truth surrounding Thanksgiving may be aided in pitting the Eucharistic thanksgiving meal against American Thanksgiving. Both are meals expressing thanks for the abundance of the earth in providing food. The use of bread and wine as signs of gratitude, employed by Jesus, are first seen when the priest Melchizedek offered bread and wine to thank God the creator for the fruits of the earth (Gen. 14:18-20). In both meals, thanks is offered in the midst of an impending death. The Words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper are: “He took the bread, and giving thanks, broke it,” and, “He took the cup, and once more giving thanks, he gave it to his disciples” (see Lk 22:19, 17 and 1 Cor 11:24). The impending death is not hidden or mythologized by the meal but accentuated. Jesus alludes to his death and to the traitor in their midst. There is an inherently demythologizing element in the discussion of betrayal, death, sacrificial servitude, and the reversal of nation building in the Lord’s Supper.

Included in American Thanksgiving are all the elements of myth (in a Girardian sense) covering over the genocidal inclinations, the unfolding betrayal, the sacralizing of those betrayed, all of this already present in the hearts of the “Pilgrims.” (Even the beloved corn of the sacred tradition was stolen from the natives, along with many “pretty” items taken from Wampanoag graves.) The American myth hides the death dealing intentions of the “Pilgrims.” Christ exposes the death dealing nature of these “inner features” (Hitler’s depiction) and this is the original Gospel message: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The true thanksgiving exposes the murderous complicity in the invented myth underlying nation building.

The great irony of the American Myth is that it defangs Eucharist and Church by enfolding it into the founding of America. On the Manataka American Indian Council website it notes the mythic element to each part of the Thanksgiving story, ending by noting the possibility that the myth about the “Pilgrims” landing on a “Rock” (they did not land at Plymouth Rock) originated as a reference to the New Testament in which Jesus says to Peter, “And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The appeal to these scriptures gives credence to the sanctity of colonization and the divine destiny of the dominant culture.

At a minimum the myth surrounding Thanksgiving should not be accepted as benign storytelling, as from such myths religious identities are forged.



Religious PTSD: Escaping Toxic Religion

Faith, my wife, is a supervisor of mental health workers so, though we live in a small town, we are continually aware of the suicides, child abuse, murder, spousal abuse, drug abuse, and all-around hellishness of peoples lives. The hard reality is that those who are mentally ill have usually experienced terrible trauma, the effects of which will consume much or all of their life. David, who is part of our community, works with those traumatized by their experience in the military. He is able to tap into a network of services for those suffering from PTSD connected to military service but his experience, like that on the national level (a veteran suicide every 65 minutes), is often a losing battle. In the past few weeks he has lost two friends to suicide. My previous work in Japan and then in the States, with Bible colleges, exposed the reality that there are many levels of mental illness that are not addressed by the usual theology and which are, in fact, aggravated by forms of the Christian faith. Various groups of former evangelicals have formed, like many of those who meet as part of Forging Ploughshares, that have been traumatized by evangelicalism.[1] People are sick and what has made them sick is usually quite obvious and very often the culprit is Christian religion.

 While it is certainly the case that religious meaning is meant to be therapeutic, Christianity often fails to address mental suffering and, instead, creates trauma which aggravates mental suffering.[2] The great exodus from evangelicalism is partly, informants and statistics indicate, because the religion can cause depression, obsessive compulsions, suicidal self-loathing, child abuse, and is giving rise to sexual abuse equal to or more pervasive than that in the general population.[3] The causes are not difficult to trace: notions of authoritarianism (male chauvinism/female subordination), perverse notions of child discipline (in the worst cases children are disciplined to death[4]), fear (e.g. fear of hell), and isolation and separation (e.g. children cut off from parents due to their choice of spouse or their sexual orientation). The misogyny and racism seem to have been made obvious in white evangelical support for Donald Trump and the recent election seems to be the catalyst for the exodus or public notice of the exodus in such groups as #exvangelical. People are sick and suffering and Christianity is aggravating the disease for many.

To put all of this in the third person, projecting the problem “out there,” may miss the shameful reality that I am personally acquainted with mental disease. I am never far from a rabbit hole of obsessive compulsion, which has motivated my particular theological focus.  It is important to begin with confession, as apart from the acknowledgement that disease grips me in a particular fashion and that I am aware of its grip, the case cannot be made as to the aetiologia of what, I would claim, is the universal human sickness and its cure. There is a force that can be named but the very process of naming it reduces one to a feeling of shame. The thing that I struggle with is banal repetition, such that if this force were personified it would make for the most insipid of persons.

What Freud calls the super-ego should not be mistaken for a healthy conscience as this creature only accuses of one or two things – endlessly repeating and through the repetition punishing its victims. It is obscene, not in some interesting diabolical way, but in its continual insistence of something lacking. As Adam Phillips has described it, “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.”[5] If embodied this creature would appear as damaged and needing to be euthanized. To mistake this thing for the self, certainly would involve self-hatred, but this seems to miss the point that it is the self that is traumatized by this obscenity. Better the world breaks out in all-out war, better that one is obliterated, then continue to be ceaselessly tortured by this unrelenting fault-finder. Indeed, Henri Bergson describes his great relief when world war broke out and the world matched his inner suffering.

The fault is not so much a moral failing as a failure to be complete or whole or substantial. In Hamlet’s soliloquy one is torn with whether to be or not to be. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a punishing conscience or to find rest in death? As with the children’s story, “The Missing Piece,” in which a large circle, missing a pie shaped wedge, goes looking for what is missing, what keeps one rolling along is an aching search for filling in what is absent. The felt lack of being and the compulsion to attain it through endlessly running the maze of accusation is an unbearable form of life. It is death dealing, the drive to death, in Freud and Lacan’s depiction. Lacan is darker than Freud in that he acknowledges that there is no cure but only the possibility of momentary survival. The only way of filling in the missing piece is through death and then one will have achieved the perfect circle of nothingness that constituted his drive in life. Whatever the form of the taunt of this obscene superego, I am convinced it is precisely not morality but immorality and evil (a true banality).

To confuse this punishing superego with the voice of God makes of religion the greatest possible evil as division, dialectic, and antagonism constitute the religion. There is a “Missing Piece Christianity” in which the true Jesus is hidden, the real kingdom is elsewhere, the final reality transcends us, and the true self alludes us.  The entire impetus is to find the truth “behind the text” in a higher critical analysis. The Constantinian divide separates us from access to the Kingdom, the Augustinian divide with its Neo-Platonism separates reality and experience, and the Anselmian/Calvinist divide posits an ongoing separation within the self. “Oh I’m looking for my missing piece looking for my missing Jesus, the missing Kingdom, the missing self, the missing life.”  There is a gap between us and God or within God himself and every effort is expended to close the divide. This accounts for major versions of the faith but is most clearly attached to notions of total depravity, penal substitution, and depictions of life as endless struggle with sin.  Rather than the religion healing, delivering, saving, it is geared more toward condemning, devaluing, traumatizing, and ultimately consuming life in mental illness mistaken for the faith of the New Testament.

The first step in any cure will mean ridding oneself of this God so that abandoning religion, for many, is the only alternative short of suicide. But as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, atheism per se is not an answer as there are many authorities and stand-ins for the role of this perverse superego God. The lack in human life becomes the power that controls and orders life and perverse religion accentuates an already existing problem. What is ultimately lacking, as examination of Romans 7 indicates, is life itself, as giving oneself to the pursuit of life through the conscience or through the law is a kind of living death (Paul’s “law of sin and death”) on the order of the death drive. Theology often repeats the story of the missing piece and accentuates or even constitutes elements of the disease.

The key note to Freudian psychology shared with biblical Christianity is to recognize that conscience (the sinful orientation to the law) or the superego does not provide access to the truth about ourselves but obscures, deludes, and deceives in regard to self-knowledge. The guilt (Freud calls it unconscious guilt) that weighs us down and which is accentuated and formalized by perverse religion is that which obscures the truth. The law of sickness, sin, and death, functions in the unconscious (obscured by a lie) so as to produce a punishing self-consciousness.  

To imagine this deluded punishment is a necessity enacted by God and fulfilled in Christ is to reify the human disease as religion and to make of the cross the culminating point of the disease. Death as cure, punishment as divine necessity, trauma as healing, confounds the cure and the disease and it is precisely this confounded religion that is traumatizing so many. The great mental struggle is to nail this thing down, to get a handle on it and throttle it, as if it is an objective reality. The moment of supreme objectification, Jesus reduced to the objective body on the cross, is made to support a notion of salvation which takes death to be salvific. If the body of Christ is the empirical bearer of necessary punishment, Christians are made to revel in his death like those at the foot of the cross, fascinated by the torture that duplicates and satisfies their own pain. God himself is at war with himself and this somehow matches and legitimates inner suffering and turmoil. Here the cross is the sign that God himself is the origin of the human disease.

A healing faith begins by recognizing that mental suffering is addressed by the great physician. The therapeuo or therapy of Christ is precisely aimed at the experience of mental suffering. In Paul’s explanation, perverse desire gives rise to punishing suffering as the law is presumed to be a means of achieving the self and actually involves painful loss of self. The pursuit of life in the law enacts a loss in which the ‘I’ observes or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7.23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7.20-21). Freud described it as the ambiguity between love and hate, desire and frustration. The same object gives rise to opposed feelings in which one is pitted against the self. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis the register of the imaginary (the ego) and the symbolic (the superego or law) are necessarily antagonistic as one revolves around vision (imaging) and the other around the auditory (the symbol system of language). There is no possibility of reconciliation between being and knowing, between the law of the mind and the law of the flesh. These registers are composed in opposition to the other. To imagine Christ satisfies this antagonistic law, as if this divide constitutes God himself, is to posit the sinful delusion as ultimate reality.

Authentic faith does not play into this “necessity” but exposes it as a delusion. Where this delusion arises through lack (lack of self, lack of life), the ground of faith is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (Ro. 8.29). This image is auditory and, in Paul’s depiction, is not an object of sight (ego). So achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of hearing and obeying, of walking as he did (8.4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8.5), of active submission (8.7,13), and patience (8.25). One works out this healing salvation as “the law of life in the Spirit” displaces the punishing law of sin and death.

The human tendency is to create an obstacle (an idol) that would serve to keep antagonistic desire alive.  The history of theology can be posited as a series of obstacles which have obscured an authentic Christianity. The trauma of perverse Christianity is doubly tragic in its displacement of a healing faith which eliminates the gap or divide in which we are traumatically pitted against ourselves.

“But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation”

(Ro. 10:6-10).


[1] The #exvangelical and Liturgist podcasts are hosted by several former evangelicals and focuses on evangelical trauma.

[2] Though it was not directly addressed at this year’s International Conference on Missions, from which Faith and I have just returned, Jeff Fife, the president of the conference, described his sexual abuse as a child and then his entry and traumatization in the military. The final talk of the conference was given by a hospice nurse observing that the manner in which people die, at peace or in turmoil, is indicative of the life they have lived.

[3] See my podcasts http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/the-passage-beyond-complementarianism-in-restoring-the-image/, http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/seromon-oppression-of-women-a-curse-of-the-fall-undone-in-christ/, and blog http://forgingploughshares.org/2019/10/17/salvation-as-freedom-from-sexual-abuse-and-oppression/

[4] In her book, Breaking Their Will, Janet Heimlich traces instances of child murder to notions of Christian discipline.

[5]Adam Phillips, “Against Self-Criticism” https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n05/adam-phillips/against-self-criticism

The End of an Era: Reflections on the Closing of Cincinnati Christian University

My wife and I met at CCU as did her parents, Mark and Pauline Maxey, and two of her brothers and their spouses. Faith’s extended family including 3 uncles and an aunt attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary (CBS) before it was designated a university and her uncle, Victor Maxey, was the school librarian for much of his life and much of the life of the school. Her Aunt, Isabelle, attended the school in its third year of operation. Isabelle’s father, R. Tibbs Maxey, drove her there in a Maxwell touring car from Boise Idaho and the old car had to be backed up Price Hill as it could not otherwise make the steep grade. Tibbs had experienced the divisiveness of liberalism up close, with Disciples’ organizations taking over two of the churches he had organized and he had watched the liberals capture his alma mater, the College of the Bible in Lexington, so he had a vested interest in the new school.   After hearing J. Russell Morse’s appeal for workers in China, Isabelle used her preparation at CBS in a lifetime of missionary service in Asia.

Faith’s father would make the journey to the school with his brother Tibbs and with Max Ward Randall from Minnesota Bible College. Mark was impacted at CBS by the teaching and preaching of Ira Boswell. During the Memphis convention, in which it was clear the liberals were making their move to capture the convention and the brotherhood, when the chairman had tried to quiet the objectors by intoning, “Let us pray,” Boswell had jumped up on a bench and shouted, “Pray nothin! I feel like fighting.” As Mark described him, “that was only part of his nature. He was at the same time one of the wittiest and most inspirational men I ever listened to.”

The outstanding class, in Mark’s memory, was a course on the Campbell debates taught by R. C. Foster. Cincinnati had been the sight of two of these debates and was in close proximity to the third, the debate on baptism with Nathan Rice, which had taken place in Paris Kentucky. This proximity to history and the sense that the tides were changing marked the atmosphere of the school. In Mark’s description: “The battle had not yet been won so the events related to the struggle were vigorously debated both in the classes and in the assemblies. The students knew what the issues were and why.” The “war” in Mark’s depiction and in his life-time of work had as much to do with allowing for freedom within brotherhood organizations as it did with higher criticism and theological liberalism.

Cincinnati was also the location of the United Christian Missionary Society and, due to World War II, two key informants of the Philippine struggle for independent missions, Juan Baronia and Ben Allison, were available. CBS became the center of a movement of independent missionaries and missions and Mark’s work for his B.D. thesis would detail the struggle against the UCMS as it occurred in the Philippines.  

Part of the significance of this depiction is its close ties to a specific historical projection, key personalities, and the story as it was being experienced. The Campbells and Stone had so grounded their reading of Scripture on reasonable interpretation that the broader sweep of Church history, inclusive of creeds and tradition, were largely brushed aside. Their own struggles, their deep intellectual engagement, their approach to Scripture and their particular experiences came to constitute its own significant history. This sense of continuing the historical struggle was passed to the early heirs of the movement.

The second-generation teaching at the school and the third generation of students, of which I would count myself, were bound to have a very different experience and sensibility. Neither Stone nor the Campbells hesitated to pose novel interpretations of Scripture and they were not anxious to establish a systematic theological understanding. The first generation at CBS were also practitioners of a new form of organization which was dependent upon a sense of individual freedom and the powers of individual interpretation.

 I may have gotten a distilled version of the anti-theology, anti-clergy, and anti-credentialing, in the person of Seth Wilson. Wilson (who made a point of his lack of ordination and credentials) had served as R. C. Foster’s teaching assistant at CBS, and though he never received a graduate degree, he was one of the founding faculty of Ozark Bible College. Ozark was in the mold of CBS, but specifically in the mold of R. C. Foster through the person of Seth Wilson. At that time, Ozark had no courses in theology. In its place we studied Acts, the life of Christ, and the New Testament, and of course we had a class in Restoration History. One of my memories is of John Relyea, who would serve and die in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea as a missionary, arguing with Seth in class that it was nonsense to be against a systematic theology as we all had one, either consciously or by default. Seth dismissed him, accusing him of thinking like a German.

The passage of CBS into the hands of a second generation of teachers is perhaps most notable in that with the hiring of Jack Cottrell, the school would undergo its first shift away from the inclinations against establishing a systematic theology. George Mark Elliot, who taught theology to Cottrell at CBS, like the Campbells and Stone had engaged the theological enterprise in an ad hoc manner. Cottrell would set out his understanding of the theological catalogue in his own three volume systematics, which is the most extensive systematic theological statement by a single individual to come out of the Independent branch of the Movement.

Cottrell does not often appeal to Stone-Campbell resources but largely affirms basic evangelical beliefs. Unlike the Campbells and Stone, he fully embraces Calvin’s version of penal substitution. (Stone had completely rejected the doctrine while the Campbells qualified it with a governmental notion of atonement.) Cottrell depicts Christ’s suffering on the Cross as the literal experience and payment for the penalty of eternal torturous existence. (R. C. Foster had warned that this sort of literal reading of hellish punishment as occurring in the suffering of Christ would reduce to contradiction.) In an innovation on original sin, Cottrell acknowledges that Romans 5:12-18 may depict a theoretical original sin wiped out by “Original Grace” given universally through the death and resurrection of Christ. Though he is pitting his Arminianism against Calvinism, as Elliot had understood, Arminianism is working within a Calvinist notion of sovereignty (seemingly reflected in this semi-Calvinist reading of Romans).

When it came time to write my Masters thesis under Cottrell I hit, innocently enough, on the worst of possible topics. Unbeknownst to me he had entered into discussion with Clark Pinnock and a group of “Open Theologians” who were reacting against notions of divine impassibility and an Augustinian understanding of God’s timelessness. I chose to write on and to defend some version of the traditional orthodox doctrine, though I had hoped to critique the Augustinian version of timelessness. It was not until I had initiated the research that I came to understand Cottrell believes (or did at that point) that God exists along a timeline or is temporal and that time is not created. I spent hours in discussion with Jack laying out the implications of suggesting God did not create time and that he is temporal. I equated it, in our conversation, with a Newtonian understanding with deistic implications. Needless to say, I never completed this thesis.

In the spirit of the founding of the school, Cottrell carried the fight against liberalism into theology, but with his emphasis on penal substitution, the unusual focus on the nature of God’s sovereignty, along with his teaching on women’s subordination and the notion that the Holy Spirit works only through the Bible, Cottrell’s articulation of theology is of a fundamentalist evangelical bent and is uneven at best. As George Mark Elliot had reportedly put it, “Cottrell may save us from attacks on biblical authority, but who will save us from his Calvinism.”

The early reactions against theological liberalism at CBS were mainly through New Testament scholarship, largely in the persons of R. C. Foster and his son, Lewis Foster. The tenor and quality of the argument changed with the shift to the battleground of theology. In my view theology was and is the way out of the morass of controversy between theological liberalism and fundamentalism. The moderate, Barton Stone-like tack of another Cincinnati graduate, James Strauss, whose tenure at Lincoln Christian Seminary is parallel to Cottrell’s at Cincinnati, indicates that the Restoration Movement and CBS had theological resources that could simultaneously resist both liberalism and fundamentalism. Strauss provided the impetus for a theological scholarship that moved beyond the modernist battles over authority and higher criticism and Lincoln has been marked by a steadier stream of orthodoxy. Theological fundamentalism simply does not contain the resources to counter the sort of rank liberalism that would eventually mark the demise of the original spirit of CBS. The history of the school followed a predictable pattern in the absence of these richer theological resources, so that the liberal biblical scholarship taught in the final years of the school was already outdated, a century behind, rendered passé by a variety of theological movements.

The closing of CCU marks the end of an era. [1] Its founders and the first generation of students were indeed in the midst of history making events. The Great Generation that went out from CBS changed the shape of missions and had a worldwide impact on the Church. The battles of the first generation, and their manner of engagement in the only way they knew, resulted in a school that had an international impact and defined a generation of ministers and missionaries.


[1] The “Historical Agreement” with another Bible College confounds the sad note of the school’s closing. The basic dishonesty in not addressing the needs of students and trumpeting instead an agreement with a school that has followed the same trajectory as CCU is an added blight. This school also recently received a rejection from the Higher Learning Commission and the reasons must be approximately those outlined in the HLC letter to CCU. Fifteen faculty and staff, mainly those teaching Bible and theology fired (the founding faculty retired or phased out), replaced with a focus on sports (4 full time coaches at a school of less the 200), the position of Registrar phased out, multiplication of administrative salaries and positions, mission drift, etc. etc.

Progress in Conversion: From Charles Manson’s Brainwashing to Cultivating Discernment

In my last blog (here) I made the point that peaceful non-violence was the goal, but not yet an established or fully worked out ethic in the patristic period. Tertullian could imagine delighting in watching his enemies suffer in hell from his perspective in paradise, though he was adamant that one should not even be associated with violence by accepting a military honor. Origen failed to see that beating slaves was a form of violence unworthy of his explanation of God’s discipline; a form of violence which he otherwise abhorred. This does not mean that for the first 400 years nonviolent peace was not the goal, it simply indicates obvious blind spots. The point is not that the fathers willfully tolerated and accepted certain forms of violence; rather they could not fully discern what constitutes violence. What we can readily identify as unworthy of Christian thought and behavior, they were somehow blind to.

This entails several implications for how we are to go about the Christian life. First of all, there is no golden age in which the Christian tradition is adequate, in which the kingdom of God on earth is a fully worked out reality. Clearly the Constantinian compromise is one in which we are still enmeshed but it is not enough to “get beyond” Constantine. Restoration or return to the practices and understanding of the first Christians is an inadequate goal and a passive notion of salvation (salvation as return, as simply ridding ourselves of innovations, of passively entrusting our mind to the culture of the church) is sub-Christian. Conversion is not a singular moment but a process to be cultivated and applied as part of an expanding reality. Progress in conversion, in passage from being blind to seeing and to continued exposure of blind spots, must consist in cultivating capacities for discernment. This discernment must consist of several layers, objective and subjective, such that our understanding of God and objective reality will be a coordinate working in tandem with subjective experience. In other words, putting on the mind of Christ through the work of the Spirit is not an abandonment of reasoned effort or of concentrated self-reflection.  

Certainly, there is a model to be had in Christ, there is the supposition of guidance through the Spirit, and there is corporate molding in the Church, such that cultivation of dawning insight is not simply given over to rational thought, the power of dialectic, or the phenomenology of mood and emotion. There is also the original awareness in conversion of an enabling capacity to see. What is it precisely though, that one sees subsequent to having been blind? Beginning with the constituent pillars of blindness, its inevitable convergence with violence, its dependence on oppression, I believe it is possible to identify the dynamic of darkness (to name the violence) and to cultivate discernment of the light (to expand upon peace).

 Paul’s conversion from belief in a God who prompted him to kill, to belief in the Father of Christ which prompted him to lay down his life, contains the prototypical elements of every conversion. The sinful orientation to the law posits a punishing authority (call it god, father, the nation, Charles Manson (see below), or simply the superego) which holds out the possibility of life (presence, being, authentic existence, safety) at the expense of masochistic sacrifice (formal religious sacrifice, oppressive self-sacrifice, or sadistic sacrifice of others). Life is to be had in death and the structure of this dynamic of death consists of a perfect absence or a full darkness. The Pharisaical religion but any human religion, any human salvation system or neurosis, contains the same structure.

For example, Charles Manson, nearly illiterate and almost completely unschooled, might be confused with a gnostic high priest or new age guru: “Time does not exist. There is no good and evil. Death is not real. All human beings are God and the Devil at the same time, and all are part of the other. The universe is one and all that is.” In this world, according to Tex Watson (one of Manson’s “family” members), it is fine to kill because human life is worthless. To kill someone is the equivalent of “breaking off a minute piece of some cosmic cookie,” Watson explained. Death is to be embraced because it exposes the soul to the oneness of the universe. How Manson learned to manipulate people is not exactly clear. Some say it was through reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Tom O’Neill suggests that Charlie was trained by the CIA (a seemingly conspiratorial claim that he partially backs up). We know he was introduced to Scientology in prison. The mixture of his manipulative powers, LSD, sexual humiliation, reduced Tex and his friends to obedient automatons who killed 9 people at Manson’s arbitrary bidding. Cult, nation state, or run of the mill neurosis, will serve up the necessity of violent sacrifice, an oppressive depiction of god or reality, and a fundamental incapacity for discerning life.

There is an inverse relationship between what Paul (or anyone) is converted from to what he is converted to in Christ. The difference is that the refinements of death and the emptying out of evil blandly converge on violence (a limited prospect by definition) – there is no art, no refinement of sensibilities, no cultivation of discernment, as one simply learns, in Manson’s phrase, to be a “mechanical boy.” The swami on his bed of nails, the monk emptied of self and transformed into a statue, the soldier trained to stifle his humanity, the neurotic compulsively bound by repetition, or the Pharisee set to destroy his enemies, describes those hemmed in by death. Though this death like experience might be confused with self-transcendence, the isolating fixation within the self and the circumstance is definitive.

It is a more difficult task to describe how one subscribes to life and cultivates love and peace, not because these are less tangible but because here there is an infinite breadth of transcendent possibility. Knowing and loving others and the capacity to appreciate their value is the inverse sign of a developing capacity to judge the self and to escape the confines (the law) of a “given” circumstance.  The New Testament links conversion with a refocusing of values as one’s sense of worth is shifted. The pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in a field brings about an exchange, costing all that one has. The discerning pearl merchant, those well trained in the value of things, perceive what the undiscerning and untrained fail to perceive. One must undergo a “training in righteousness,” not merely to instill a new ethic but to be shaped by a new value and valuation system. To perceive God’s Kingdom, to be shaped by its values, will mean shedding the oppressive top down power of the law for a “power-under” or “bottom-up” perspective in which the subtleties of fine pearls and hidden treasures are exposed.

 A primary difference is that there is a substantive reality to be obtained as this treasure is precisely not an unobtainable object (as with the image of the idol or the ego) but is prime reality. There are substantial realities of love, peace, goodness and beauty, that do not depend upon nor are they ultimately overcome by insubstantial evil. As Robert Doran has put it, “this world is intelligible, things do hold together, we can make sense of the universe and of our lives, we can overcome the fragmentation of knowledge, we can make true judgments, we can make good decisions, we can transcend ourselves to what is and to what is good.”[1] The contrast with blindness gives no substantive or necessary role to evil or darkness but it does demonstrate that perception, sensibilities, discernment, and progress are the entry way into an alternative understanding which we must cultivate.

Maybe it is with this moral sensibility that one might appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s reworked ending for the Manson killers in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Instead of wiping out the innocent goodness of the world, represented by Sharon Tate, a true believer might reimagine a universe in which the good turns out to be the more enduring reality.


[1] Quoted from Byrne, Patrick H. The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics (Lonergan Studies) (p. 29). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.