Letters from My Father

My father was born in 1911, eight years removed from the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, four years before the first coast to coast telephone call, and well within an age to remember WWI. As a child, he heard of a new weapon called a “tank” and pictured it according to the only tank he was familiar with – a sort of large oil drum with a slit around the middle permitting vision and a seat in the middle suspended in midair, large enough to simply roll over the enemy and every obstacle. His mother still enjoyed racing her horse and buggy against challengers along main street in Parsons Kansas, even though the Model T was quite popular.  As a boy he shook the hand of Frank James (of outlaw fame), whose ranch was a tourist attraction in Oklahoma. He would be among the 2nd generation of pilots and was taught to fly, he would find out later, by a flight instructor who taught an entire generation without benefit of ever attaining a pilot’s license. He owned a variety of airplanes, boats, and horses, the latter which he would race. He was a small-town mayor, edited and published his own newspaper, was the owner/operator of a small airport, and managed a variety of mobile home factories.

He lived through the Great Depression – though he was of an age and temperament that, in the telling at least, made of the Depression one of the most colorful and least depressing periods of his life. Depression in fact, is the last word I would associate with my father, despite living with the effects of polio and struggling his entire life to earn a living for a large family, which he was not unsuccessful at doing. Even in his final years in the nursing home, unable to walk and his memory sometimes unclear, he was still geared to making the most of his time. He instructed me to bring him the want ads from the newspaper as he planned to set up a car brokerage using the nursing home telephone.

My brothers and I would inherit no fortune, but the legacy we received was in the stories he told, which were not morality tales but which conveyed a perspective, a history, we carry. The comparison might be with those fascinated by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, but my father’s stories were not otherworldly, but earthy, firmly located in a particular time and place, concerning people he had known or his own experiences, and yet always bearing a sort of enchantment.

Many of these stories he eventually reproduced in written form.  A simple example, Roy Hardman:

Roy was a piano tuner and totally blind. He could not tell daylight from dark and his wife was also totally blind. Through the “short money” years, Roy and his wife raised a family of three, owned their own home, and was never dependent on the County, State, or relatives for any kind of assistance.

Now, one of the most far fetched tales of my repertoire is: Roy drove his own car. I have seen him many times in the Twenties with one of the children beside him telling him when to stop, turn, etc. Furthermore, as the children grew older, he taught each of them to drive the automobile.

Leroy, his second eldest has told me that his main caution was: “You can’t depend on the other driver avoiding you, as a lot of drivers don’t watch where they are going.”

Dad walked with a limp and many of his stories concerned those, like himself, whom he affectionately referred to as “gimps”: “My definition has always been a person with a handicap in appearance but not in reality. The ones to whom I refer have so completely overcome any handicap that they rather proudly refer to themselves as gimps.” Peg Highland, Up and Down John, Kraut Cutter Cherry, One Eyed Johnson, bore their “disability” in their moniker. Others like Luther Cortylou, another up and down walker, were known, not for their disability, but for an added flair it gave them:

If he passed fifty women on the street, he lifted his hat fifty times. It may have been an optical illusion, but it appeared as if he grasped the crown of his hat on his high step, held it level and stepped down from under the hat without having to lift it.

Cortylou was, in my father’s description, “in no way handicapped other than being president of a bank.

One Eyed Johnson worked for my father selling educational courses, during Dad’s short stint as a “professor” (another story). According to Dad, Johnson carried his glass eye in his coat pocket as it was most uncomfortable in his eye socket, but he thought it more dignified to have two eyes in place when calling on a prospective student. So, he would pop it in at the last minute to make a good impression.

He would knock and step back in his most elegant pose for the lady (he was selling secretarial courses) to open the door. A big smile that exposed teeth resembling the keyboard of a small piano, one blue eye and the other eye covered with tobacco crumbs and pocket fuzz. It was impressive as I am sure they remembered it forever.

There were over a hundred characters and stories, many simple vignettes, Dad would relate which had a cumulative effect. I suppose one could extract some sort of moral from some of his stories; many were darkly humorous, but all of them flowed out of a deeply amused, profound appreciation for life and people.  

 In my college years, feeling he had neglected corresponding with us regularly, Dad began to send us monthly letters addressed to his four sons, not by name but in the fashion of the Chinese television detective, Charlie Chan, who addressed his children numerically (“number one son,” etc.). He would simply print out the numbers 1-4 and circle the appropriate number. I was living in the dorm at the time, and a group of students, upon hearing I had received another letter, would gather to read it. Many of the stories were those that I had heard growing up, and so I knew them word for word; where to pause for effect, and the cadence in which they were told. Others were new to me (a bit off-color), vaguely remembered, or filled with new detail.  After more than a year of receiving these letters, one Christmas he presented each of the four of us with a bound copy of the letters.

More than forty years have passed since I received those bound letters and I have acquired hundreds of books and have even begun to dispose of books, as I realize I have limited time and space.  I have noticed postings on Facebook of people listing ten favorite or most influential books, most of which (being as I am friends with those of similar background) I have read or am familiar with. Some of the choices I agree with, some I feel sad that one has had such an impoverished life of the mind. I would have trouble sorting out single volumes among the many books which have been of key importance. Mostly I have read, absorbed the main points, moved on. The Brothers Karamazov profoundly impacted me, but I don’t think I have the energy or desire to reread it. Certain theologians deserve a second look, but mostly “I got it.” Maybe it is a sign of old age – I continue to read – but am less easily impressed, harder to engage fully, and much of my library, I now realize, is of limited importance.

The one book in my library which I will not part with bears a gold inscription against a black background, Letters From Papa. It may be of limited literary value, and no, it is not of biblical proportion. But having grown up with my father’s stories, I recognize the primary importance of narrative in finding and appreciating time and place.  The stories of a small town in Kansas were preparation for realizing the extraordinary in the ordinary: say, in the town of Bethlehem a child was born and they laid him in a feed trough as the child and his parents were economic and social gimps, not worth notice.  

Imitation as Death Dealing or Life Giving

The anthropological fact to be extracted from the biblical portrayal of fall and redemption, an understanding supported by both observation and recent developments in brain science, is that we are human by imitation. In biblical terms, damnation is imitation of evil (Heb. 6:12; III Jn 1:11) and salvation is imitation of Christ (I Cor. 1:11; Ephesians 5:1; Hebrews 13:7) and this basic concept properly informs the movement from fall (the first Adam as model or head of the race) to redemption (the 2nd Adam as model). Imitation accounts for the peculiar form that evil takes (the turn to violence, the experience of desire, jealousy and shame) and the necessary form that redemption takes (faith as the imitation of the faith of Christ, and corporate redemption). What it means to be human (freedom from mere instinct, freedom from the rule of brute strength), in both the extremes of evil and goodness, is due to the role of imitation or mimesis.  

The original image (God’s self-image) includes the corporate mirroring of Trinity. The work of the Son is a reflection of the Father enacted by the Spirit. Reflection shared (seeing oneself through another’s eyes) (Gen. 1:26-27) accounts for the corporate identity of God and the necessary plurality of humans (male and female) who bear this image. This also means the imaging part of image bearing depends upon the presence of the original image. The image of God shared with humans simultaneously includes the capacity for imitation and the necessary presence of God as the model to be mirrored.

The fall of humans is a turn from the Divine model, and as Paul describes it in Romans is, in the first instance, a turn to the human self-image (1:23). What can it mean that humans provide their own model? The self’s relating to itself in the relation (to paraphrase Kierkegaard), or the caving in of the individual, is witnessed in shame and hiding, but also in a new role for language. The deployment of language to name, apprehend, and connect with God and creation, collapses in upon the self, indicated in the new word coined for the occasion – “I.” This I is constituted in a bundle of new emotions – shame, fear, alienation, antagonism, and then murder. The circulating system of one sign referring to another (the knowledge of good and evil) is ultimately empty. Desire seems to endlessly follow the signs with no signified in sight.

If imitation is what makes us human – language learners lifted beyond instinct, it also accounts for the degraded form humanity can take. Where Adam had been created in God’s image, Adam “had a son in his own likeness, in his own image” (Gen. 5:3). Following the logic of Romans 1:18-32 and the early chapters of Genesis, the capacity to imitate God, turned into the desire to be God or to take his place, makes of mirroring and imaging a relation of the self to the self (the mind’s mirror) – a capacity for imitation turned around to mimetic desire. The subject looks to other persons, creation, himself, the law, for the object that will provide being, life, self-possession. The model may seem to be endowed with superior being – but this imagined plenitude only accentuates the lack in the self. There is no end to this jealousy as it leads to an ever-heightened desire. Every jealous child would bring down the world to get what they want. The near absolute role of the mimetic in humans has no instinctual brakes, no instinctive subordination to alpha males, no limit to its destructive desire. The jealous adult, unlike the jealous child, may have no subordinating power to control the murderous instinct.

Taking the place of the other, obtaining what they have, gives rise to the first murder (Cain slays Abel in a twisted bid to obtain his acceptance by God) which turns into an ever-snowballing epidemic of violence. Lamech, after what is perhaps a double homicide, and with his penchant for murder poetry, is representative of the new sociopathic race. Adam as model gives rise to Lamech at the head of the generation of Noah with its epidemic of violence from which even God cannot redeem.  

How Babel is an improvement over the generation of Noah is not completely clear but the confusion of languages precedes the first appearance of idolatry and the rise of homosexuality. The events of Babel seem to inaugurate a very different symbolic universe. The Sociopathic murder (all out chaos) of the pre-flood generation is replaced by tribalism, organized violence, and rampant idolatry. Even in the household of Abraham, Terah (Abraham’s father), was an idolater who also made and sold idols (according to Midrash Genesis Rabbah 38).

Abrahamic religion, at each step, seems to counter the idolatry spawned by the Babylonians. Like every good idolater, they would open heavens gate and obtain their own transcendence through their ability to stack bricks while Abraham is made to trod the earth and embrace his mortality. They would storm the heavens while God speaks to Abraham on earth; they would make a name for themselves while God’s promise is that he would make Abraham’s name great; they would engineer their own salvation through an enduring tower while Abraham is dependent upon God and faces the reality of his dissolution; they refuse to be scattered from the land while Abraham is set to wandering.

The slow extraction of Abraham from mimetic religion may describe his entire life-course. His departure from his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, is a departure from potential human models. Everything familiar was to be left behind including mimetic religion. Abraham hears the voice of God, but he imitates Melchizedek in calling Yahweh “the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:22).

The identity of God as the source of all life pertains to his circumcision. In Jewish understanding this cut inscribes God’s name on the flesh. In the words of Derrida, “Circumcision is to be thought in terms of the cut that severs the circle of the same, as the cut that opens the same to the other, which cuts a very different figure.” It is the cut that turns from the immanent creation to God as model. In Gen. 17 it establishes the covenant in which Abraham turns definitively to worshiping God. Where mimetic desire is the pursuit of wholeness for and within the self, circumcision renders the body fragmented or incomplete but depending on the life or completeness of God – a different order of desire.

Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac may be the final counter to a religion which would sacrifice the other so as to obtain life. When Isaac asks his father: “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s answer is “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22.1-8). The allusion is not simply to the ram Abraham finds, but to Christ. As René Girard puts it, “God, in this sense, will give the one who will sacrifice himself in order to do away with all sacrificial violence.”[1] Abraham’s journey from what was probably a religion of human sacrifice, involves the turn from presuming life is within his capacity or his power to produce. His acceptance of his own mortality, the realization he was “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19) and thus completely dependent upon God, marks the final turn from the mimetic grab for life at Babel.

The basic negative emotions – shame, jealousy, envy – can be understood as arising with mimetic rivalry – desiring life and wholeness and feeling its absence. With the faith of Abraham made complete and available in Christ, imitating his faith saves from blind sacrificial violence. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Eph. 5:1; Heb. 6:12). Rivalry, jealousy, and violence, are displaced by hope, love, and peace in the saving imitation of Christ.


[1] René Girard, Evolution and Conversion, pp. 203-04.

The Lie of the Divine Necessity of Sacrifice Exposed by Christ

Sacrifice is a central biblical theme but is this focus necessitated by God or humans? Does God require sacrifice or is it a human necessity? How we answer will determine our understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ: either as a culminating sacrifice required by God or as an intervention into human evil and an end to sacrifice. Combined with the prophetic tradition decrying the need for sacrifice (connecting it with disobedience, evil, and murder and echoed by Christ), and the explanation of René Girard of how sacrifice figures into human religion and culture as a cover for violence, I argue below that to interpret the death of Christ as a divine necessity conflates the Gospel with the evil it is meant to overturn.

The work of René Girard (1923-2015) decisively and exhaustively explains why sacrifice is at the center of violent human culture and religion and how it is that the Gospel intervenes in and halts this human necessity. In Girard’s depiction, religious sacrifice is the linchpin directing and organizing human violence so that cultures endure and arise in the midst of the need for spilling blood. There will be blood as human desire is mimetic or imitated, which gives rise to murderous rivalries (rivals desire the same object and this rivalry and desire snowball into chaotic violence). In Girard’s explanation, violence directed at a scapegoat contains this violence, so that culture depends upon an original murdered scapegoat. Religious myth hides the original murder as the victim is deified (as in the Enuma Elish, Marduk creates the heavens and the earth out of Tiamat’s corpse, myth depicts creation from out of death). Religion and culture do not cure this violence but organize it, direct it (onto enemies or victims), and utilize it behind religious sacrifice obscured behind myth. To be religious or cultured, under this definition, is not to be freed of the instinct to kill; rather, the need is sublimated and redirected onto a victim or group of victims and this “scapegoating mechanism” blinds those who deploy it.

According to Girard, Christ fills the role of the scapegoat so as to expose this blindness. The blindness presumes that the scapegoat is the source of all trouble and his death will resolve the problem (everything from sickness, drought, to fear of the destruction of the enemy). It is the fear that Rome would destroy Israel that points to the resolution of the crucifixion: “One man must die to save the nation” (John 11:50). As with every scapegoat, Christ is the perceived source of the problem and his death will provide the solution, as guilt and payment are loaded onto this innocent victim. In the words of the Psalmist quoted by Jesus, “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). They demonize and criminalize Jesus, who submits himself to their blindness as, “These words of Scripture have to be fulfilled in me ‘He let himself be taken for a criminal’” (Luke 22:37; Mark 15:28). In Girard’s explanation, the victim’s guilt is the mainspring of the victim or scapegoating mechanism – so that “persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without cause.”

 Pilate, the official Roman judge, declares Jesus innocent: “I find no fault against this man” (Luke 23:4). Even with his wife’s warning though, he is swept up along with the crowd. As Girard depicts it, blind anger becomes a contagion and Pilate, and all of the rulers, are caught up in the epidemic, fulfilling the role of a universal scapegoat depicted by David in Peter’s description: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one” (Acts 25-26). Even Peter is swept up in the contagion with his violent denunciation of Jesus.

From the cross Jesus says, “Father forgive them they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The exposure of this blindness is a key part of the revelation of the Gospel. Peter confirms: “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing” (Acts 3:17). Given Girard’s notion that the scapegoating mechanism depends upon belief in the guilt of the victim, the perpetrators acknowledgement of Christ’s innocence means the scapegoating mechanism and the blindness upon which it depends is exposed. The repentance and conversion of the first Christian congregation directly pertains to their involvement in sacrificing Christ. The willful disobedience that killed him is exposed and is not a backhanded way to achieve Divine forgiveness (as portrayed by Anselm).

They killed Christ, in part, in expectation that his sacrifice would save the Nation from the wrath of Rome but also that it would save their religion and Temple. The worst evil, killing Christ, imagines this sacrifice can propitiate and turn away wrath (the violent wrath of the enemy). At the same time, as with religious myth, the violence within the society, the potential violence of the enemy, the violence inherent to the human heart, is projected onto God as a Divine necessity. The Jews imagine, in their ignorance, that God demands the sacrifice of Christ due to his “sacrilegious” claims he will destroy the Temple (with its sacrificial system). His ultimate crime in their estimate is against the Temple and its sacrifices, on behalf of which they sacrifice Christ.

This understanding aligns with prophetic texts which depict sacrifice as conjoined to willful disobedience to God and rejection of his word:

For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

Jer. 7:22-23

God, through the voice of the prophet, disclaims any command to sacrifice and equates sacrifice, either directly or indirectly, with their walking in “their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart,” and the fact that they “went backward and not forward” (v. 24). Sacrifice parallels willful ignorance: “I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear” (v.25-26). Instead of obeying and listening they sacrifice and this sacrifice does not curb their wickedness. It seems to enable transition to human sacrifice: “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind” (v. 31).

Anti-sacrifice is thematic in the Psalms and Prophets: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required” (Ps. 40:6). “Open ears” seem to stand in contrast to sacrifice. While disobedience is not directly linked to sacrifice, “pride” and “falsehood” stand in contrast to those who trust in God (v. 5), and those who trust in God understand God desires obedience not sacrifice. The full realization of this points to the coming Messiah: “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart’” (v. 7-8).

The verses decrying sacrifice are explicit in connecting it to a misapprehension of God:  

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? (Is. 1:11)

This question comes amidst the accusation that these people “despise” God and are “corrupt,” “iniquitous,” “evildoers” (v. 4). They are morally sick from top to bottom (v. 5) and they presume to hold up “blood covered hands” in prayer (v. 15). All of this presumes on the notion that they offer up sacrifices to cover their sins. Instead, here and in Jeremiah (as in James), true religion will involve caring for widows and orphans, and ceasing to do evil (v. 16-17). A religion which presumes sacrifice covers evil is apparently worthless.

Specifically sacrifice is connected to disobedience which often culminates in murder: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Far from sacrifice enabling love and knowledge, those who sacrifice simultaneously “dealt treacherously against Me” (v. 7), leaving “bloody footprints” (v. 8) and their “priests murder on the way to Shechem” (v.9). Shechem was like an alternate Jerusalem, the ‘holy place’ for the Northern tribes where Abraham had received the first Divine promise. Now, instead of loyalty (covenant keeping), murderous religion reigns.

Jesus sights this passage in Hosea (Matt. 9:13; 12:7) and maintains that if they understood it they would not, by implication, have condemned him: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). It is not only his death but all murder which Christ links to their misapprehended religion. Jesus claims that the history of murder and its cause is interwoven with the spiritual blindness of the Scribes and Pharisees:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.

(Matthew 23:34-36)

The first murder and the last in the Hebrew Bible stand for the history of murder. The Pharisees did not commit these murders but they encapsulate the impetus behind murder, as revealed in their reaction to Jesus. They disclaim responsibility and connection to the history of this murder – and of course they are not directly responsible. It is not that they have inherited guilt but in distancing themselves, scapegoating their forefathers, they perpetuate the problem. “For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs” (Luke 11:47-48). It is not simply that they like dead prophets and would kill the living prophet Jesus, but in not recognizing themselves in their forefathers they perpetuate their crime. Their blindness to what they are doing is evident even as they are doing it. They immediately demonstrate a willingness to kill Jesus in disclaiming any likeness to those who killed the prophets (11:54). As with Christians who scapegoat the Jews for killing Jesus and then kill Jews, scapegoating perpetuates the founding murder and its propagation.

 Jesus proclaims “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). The murder of Abel at the foundation of the city of Cain is the first in a series of murders upon which the religion, culture, and cities of humankind are founded. The City of Man, as with Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus and every founding myth begins with a founding murder. The myth which would deify and cover over the murder of the victim is now exposed. In Christ what sacrifice hides is now revealed. No longer can we claim that sacrifice and murder are perpetuated by God – as His murder and all murder “shall be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:51). All that would claim the necessity of His sacrifice perpetuate the lie that killed Him.

(Allan S. Contreras Ríos will take up this topic in coming blogs. I hope this serves to introduce his work, which inspired this blog. Thank you Allan.)

A Meditation on Atonement

Language inscribes us into the world but what we would do with the letter, the word inscribed over the body, is escape. We would sink into language like a good Hindu loses himself in “OM” or soar heavenward on the wings of the letter. The word opens the third eye of entry and escape, it energizes the chakras of the body, transports to the essence of the universe, as it delivers from “ordinary reality.” Like the Babelites climbing heavenward the mystic, the philosopher, the engineer, the Don Juan, would sink into, climb upward, construct, or erect, his way to transcendence. The word is interwoven with desire as invisible vehicle and substance giving rise to fantasies of divine ecstasy. The mode of transport is the hidden letter, the invisible word, which brick by brick lures toward divine fullness.

 Fundamentalism of every brand clings to the word – an intonation dripping from the heavens – which has to be preserved in its original essence and repeated obsessively. Behind this compulsion to repeat is Being, substance, essence, endurance, which requires a neurotic grip on certain sounds, precise words, exact rituals, which repeated often enough will deliver the divine essence of self to self.  Like a snake consuming its own tail, the self-consumptive feeding on self presumes to fill itself with the word – the inner essence of self. This Borromean knot constitutes passage beyond “nature” to the pure symbolic order in which copulation, consumption, and desire are written over with (unnatural) eternal significance. The finite world is taken up as part of a divine symbolic order in which flesh would transform into spirit through subjection to the word.

An imagined lost innocence intrudes – a cut in nature to be healed. The drive to return, to achieve synthesis, to close the gap, to return to nature, is the Subject of desire. Achieving Nirvana, eternal return, Moksha, enlightenment, heaven, peace, is the dissolution of the subject. The word holds out the essence of being through a closed wound – the wound of self. Healing is disappearance, silence, dissolution, melding, ecstatic coupling, fantasmic flight. Ultimate meaning is paid for by the annihilation of its empirical vessel. The soul is paid for by the death of the body, heaven requires cosmic dissolution, peace demands absolute obliteration.

In the words of the theologians, first order reality is impassible, apophatic, unmoved, beyond. God is made to sustain a disincarnate symbolic order and the Sisyphean task is to ascend beyond on what is below. The fixed upward gaze can only tread on this incarnate stairway to heaven.

The biological body is refused and speaks only through the unconscious – as erogenous surface, inexplicable trauma, excessive enjoyment. The perceived center consists of organs – the heart, the brain, the bowels, the genitals – without bodies. No longer serving the body but the symbolic order, blood, excrement, thought, semen – the issue of each is an enduring letter – a point of infinite meaning, a sui generis whole. Identity with this production is a passage beyond the body, “outpassing myself into death,” in order to avoid death. The dead letter bears immortality as it cannot die.

 The choice is thought over being, the symbolic over the real, the soul over the body, absence over presence, alienation over love.

If sin names the gap, the struggle towards closure, the self as wound, will salvation accomplish the desire of sin? Does the death of Christ dissolve difference into sameness, satisfy the death dealing orientation to the word, or does Christ expose the delusion behind this murder? Is the Logos on a continuum with this word so that he accomplishes the obscene demand for infinite sacrifice (the body, the cosmos, God) or is Logos sent from God an intervention into this word and world?

The atonement comes to this: The Subject is structured around an absence, and the reification of this absence in the fundamental fantasy (“I am my own essence”) marks the origin and core of the Subject put to death in Christ. The tomb is exposed as empty; the essence is an absence. It is not the supposed noumenal real that harbors danger and promise for the Subject; it is the exposure of this fundamental fantasy that threatens the consistency of the existence of this Subject. This is the primal fear cast out in the perfect love of Christ.

God as love revealed in Christ means the body is raised, renewed, made available. The incarnation is the dissolution of the body as an orthopedic of the soul, as the bearer of the symbolic. The dissolution of the Other (God as apophatic, immovable, impassable, law giver) suspends the world as sign, as law, pointing toward a transcendent signified.

Salvation does not accomplish the desire of sin; rather, communion, koinonia, love, are the signified order fusing flesh and spirit, soul and body, heaven and earth. The body as bearer of the symbolic (law) is dead. As a result, John tell us, “In this world we are like Jesus” (I John 4:17, NASB).

“God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

(I John 4:15-18)

John is pointing believers to an immediate realization of the truth in love. The capacity to love (to walk as he walked in obedience to his example), and the mindset of belief (to put on the mind of Christ) as part of this love are immediate existential proofs (as I’ve written about it here). Where the human word opens a gap (marked by fear and alienation), agape love does not simply close the gap but displaces it with the connectedness to neighbor, God, and self.  Where the distance between sign and signified (the law of the mind and the law of the flesh) disables the will, love is an enabling of human agency, an experience of belief (without dependence on distance or difference or fear), and an immediate realization of the goodness and beauty of God. This is the undeniable accomplishment of the Christ!

Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous I knew Jesus had come for me.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid

God is Dead and What a Relief

We have reached a peculiar moment in this country in which a form of conservative evangelicalism is proving empty personally and nationally. The strange convergence of evangelical subculture with a crude political populism disdaining kissing prior to marriage on one hand but allowing for “pussy grabbing” porn star sex on the other, may be proving unsustainable. The thin film of the evangelical bubble, of Jesus camp, witnessing to strangers, and rescuing souls from hell, constitutes a universe which seemingly depends upon the hard-shell counter orbit of building the wall, imprisoning children at the border, and relentless capitalistic greed. Is it the notion of two kingdoms, one in which the obscenest cruelties are required while the other is all heavenly bliss, or is it that the character of this God who requires infinite torturous punishment of the many is falling into question? The misogynistic cruelties, the inherent racism and classism of the megachurch (attempting to grow by being attractive and entertaining), the manipulations of the super-preachers in gaining more members and more money (and, frequently, more sex), the hothouse of anti-intellectualism and a ghetto of disengagement, may in fact align with racist, populous politics. At the same time, the latter may be the blaring sign of the emptiness of the former. Being a part of this particular in-group requires a disproportionate out-group, a narrow engagement with reality, and the tendency to reduce every person to a potential customer for Jesus, and to become an exalted Tupperware salesperson. Max Weber’s secularization hypothesis, that secular values are creating a break with the once absolute authority of the church, would clearly seem to be at work. Whatever the cause, the bubble of evangelical belief is bursting for many. For the generation of Joshua Harris and now for Joshua Harris himself, who literally wrote the book on purity culture, this sort of God and faith are proving implausible.

Ultimately, I think it is the psychological burden of belief in this God, which is so punishing and constrictive that it may not be enough to “be saved,” elect, chosen, special, in his sight. The fact that one has built his life, constituted his reason for being, or more intimately – constituted his very subjectivity in the reality of this God, means that being liberated from his clutches is not reducible to any of the above – though each may be a contributing factor.  

Harris seems to have kissed both his God and his wife goodbye simultaneously, indicating this is not merely a crisis in his belief in transcendence. Marriage is the prototypical religious and social obligation (the foundation of the family and of society) but normally one would think it is the prototypical love relationship. Clearly the two stand in opposition for Harris, who acknowledges, fear was a primary impetus in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. His evangelical upbringing caused him to pass on fear and suspicion of the opposite sex (of God?).[1] This is the natural outworking of a belief where the one stands opposed to the other – social obligation against love – society against the intimate self – the intimate kernel of self against the imposition of God. The mistake would be to imagine that this self exists apart from this imposition.

It is precisely the move to divest oneself of God or law and to experience true (transgressive) love which Paul deploys in Romans 7. In the case of the woman whose husband is alive but who has fallen in love with another man (Rom. 7:1-4), she experiences God or the law (the same thing) as that which opposes her love.  In fact, her love, her identity or self, is synonymous with the force of opposition. Paul will describe this self, constituted in an oppressive self-punishment, as one given over to the law. The God perceived as synonymous with this law is not God at all but a self-imposed law and by extension a God, as in Feuerbach’s and Freud’s explanation, which is a self-projection or a God conceived through the lens of sin.

 A self and God constituted in opposition depends upon a double logic of exception – the God prohibits the things he does (violence, genocide, continual anger, the demand for human sacrifice) and the ego or “love” is a symptom of the prohibition (God and ego stand in the same relation to law). Paul’s discovery of the law and his discovery of the “I” are simultaneous with his having broken the law – all of which accounts for his skewed Pharisaical notion of God (prior to his conversion). This means the prohibition only has its force in the exception or in standing outside of it.  Or conversely, the exception can be seen as creating the rule. As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself.  The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it (and this fits Paul’s description of the sinful orientation to the law).

The point is that this sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment in which the obstacle (God or law) constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband as representative of God or the law, is a necessary part of identity, as he is the obstacle that makes relationship with some “other” an imagined possibility. In this construct which Paul calls sin, sin is the resistant core (love, ego, “I”) on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which God or the law is experienced as a foreign crushing power. It is precisely this God and this law from which Christ delivers (“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4)).

The question is if the evangelical religion reduplicates this sense of self and God constituted in exclusion, with its imputed or theoretical righteousness (a righteousness that is never achieved), of a mostly future salvation, of a continual sense that the self is pitted against the self? The God who demands infinite satisfaction, continual repentance, absolute purity, must be felt as an oppressive force. The punishing sense of guilt seems to constitute the dynamic of the religion and the sense that the law/God is in effect. Could it be that this law is no longer God’s law but the sinful means of gaining life, love, fulness, or divinity?

Christ, rightly understood, overcomes false notions of the infinite identified with God and the law.  The positing of this bad infinite (the lie of sin, the guilt of the law, the punishing superego) gives rise to a living death (women are fearful, my body is not me, love is transgressive).  The infinite in this sense is a negation of the finite and material, so to negate this negation is the first step in bringing a return of the world. Luther’s phrase that God died on the cross, passed through Hegel to Nietzsche to the effect that God is dead. The God of the philosophers, the God constituting modernity, the God of reason, the constrictive God of the law, is indeed undone by Christ on the cross. Nietzsche’s error was to presume that this God was the Father of Christ. The death of this God in atheism, whether in the religion of Marx or Hitler, makes it clear that atheism has not “rid us of his shadow.”

In this sense, forms of evangelicalism may only be a practical atheism in falling short of the tectonic shift in identity, in a renewed understanding of God and the universe, introduced by Christ. It is questionable whether a religion which reduces to political populism, self-realization, or to a punishing purity, should survive. One can only expect that the freedom and relief realized in the death of this God is an opening to the faith of the One who displaced him.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Hello Goodby,” Slate, Aug. 23, 2016 accessed at https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/08/i-kissed-dating-goodbye-author-is-maybe-kind-of-sorry.htm “What I was writing about was ‘Avoid this pain, avoid these mistakes, don’t do these things.’ Is that really how we grow as human beings?”

A Week in the Life of Forging Ploughshares

Helga had lost four husbands, though I never inquired specifically how or when she had lost them, an oversight I soon regretted.  “Leaky pipe,” she said when she called. “Don’t try to keep me from crawling under there,” she said. So, I drove into the country to try to persuade her to let me crawl into the two-foot space under the floorboards of her house. It was breathtaking how easy it was to persuade her: “Ok, you do it,” she said as soon as I got there. Only it came out “jew do it.”  Though in her 80’s she was clearly in charge. “You are quite macho,” she said and I was sure she was mocking me. She could have searched the five-county region of northern Missouri and not found someone less qualified to fix a leaky pipe. I told her, “When you call the water company tell them you have a PhD on the job.” She found this terribly amusing and repeated it several times to let me know how clever she considered me. Being a foreigner and well educated she clearly had refined sensibilities. Missourians – I learned after 15 years in their native habitat – are highly un-amused with life and are a hard people to impress.

I was feeling appreciated – until I saw where she was having me crawl. I am not given to claustrophobia and have squeezed through the tightest spots in caves but I got a sick feeling looking into the cobweb covered hole. I barely managed to twist around the beams head-first into the dark mud-filled hole. “Crawl toward the var zide,” she shouted.  I barely fit under the floorboards and I had to crawl on my elbows and it was hard to slide forward in the sticky mud. “Go vurther back,” she coaxed in her East Berlin accent. Then I realized there was no light from where I had crawled in.  I was surprised she had managed to close the heavy trap door but she is quite athletic – a former coach. Then it occurred to me where I would find Charles, Obed, and Hans, the former husbands no longer with us. The call had been so urgent I had not told Faith or anyone where I was going and I had left my phone in the car.

The feeling was that of being trapped in a coffin. But I could breathe and after the initial panic I accepted my fate. Of course, I was sorry that they would never find my body and no one would gather to say nice things about me.  Faith would be mad that I had so irresponsibly disappeared.

I wished I could have gone to the shore and enjoyed a final visit on the beach with Jason and Vangie. Jason’s beautiful vision of heaven which he has written about (here and here) came to mind – a little community of people gathering, sharing, enjoying one another’s company – I realized it was something we had enjoyed together these last days.

 It had been a good week. Mazie made a fine pasta and a dozen of us gathered and we sang “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” and “The Vine and the Fig Tree.” Louis, a good Quaker, joined our group as well as Mary Jane and Dorothy. I met Gary and Mary Jane when I was 18 and Gary went, “To see Jesus first,” as he put it. He had so enjoyed our little group and I think spent some of his happiest final days in our fellowship.

At the end, a few of us travelled down to Joplin to see him – Mazie, David, Chris, and Kelsi had prepared some really bad jokes to try to cheer him up. It was his jokes that had gotten us started on joke nights. Gary had been my prayer partner for over 40 years and I had often depended upon his faith to bolster my own. We laughed, reminisced and prayed. David, one of the most sensitive souls I have ever met, grew sentimental but I knew Gary would have none of it. “You going to return my hand or take it with you,” he asked. He survived a few more days and we met up with Mary Jane and Dorothy at his funeral. The group was able to help Mary Jane move into her new house in town and it was wonderful having them here the past few weeks.

In thinking about resurrection, our discussion as we ended I Corinthians, we had all described the simple pleasures of the week and the little things we could do to make it resurrection like. David had described his work with the suicide hotline and veterans groups. I had decided to join him on a veterans kayak trip. Most everyone in attendance suffered some form of PTSD – some bearing visible scars but most suffering mentally. David has a wonderful gift of affirming people and I very much enjoyed our float trip.  

Kelsi’s younger sister, Jaycee, was visiting and we had spent a brief time pulling weeds in the garden – Kelsi’s resurrection work.  She has a Japanese-like sense of neatness and presentation, and though our garden is smaller this year, the cucumbers, tomatoes, sage, and basil, are thriving. I had spent several evenings admiring the garden while watching the hummingbirds coming in to the feeder. We had celebrated Jaycees thirteenth birthday and Mazie presented her with the only mochi birthday cake I have ever seen.  Mazie and Chris’s resurrection work is all around them in their kindnesses to people. Chris came and looked at the leak in the Carpenter’s House roof and repaired it temporarily before taking on the task of replacing the windows.

Though Frank is far enough in the country that he does not make it in often, he had come to fix the garage door but ended up installing two ceiling fans and a light fixture – something I could have spent months attempting and failing at. His expertise makes everything we do possible – I should have told him that. Little Frankie, Andrew, and Chelsea entertained us for the day while Frank fixed everything. The little guys were such a delight to be around that I wished I could have seen my grandson more often.

It had been a good week and as usual one of the highlights was the Romans class in which six guys from Mexico, Canada, and between, meet up online. I had been encouraged by Matt’s great enthusiasm and energy. His blog on resurrection (here) coincided with the theme we were pursuing in both the class and in house church. We had phoned him in on Tuesday, David and Michael figured how to put him on the tv, and he joined the discussion as I quoted him at length. He described his work with the girls in Uganda through 91/Four and the fellowship of men he ministers to coming out of addiction – his resurrection work. Sharon sparked conversation with references to Richard Rohr – whom she was having me read and I remembered we had planned a podcast. The Cosmic Christ was on my mind as I heard Helga banging on the floor.

“What do you see,” she shouted. It was then I realized she had not closed the trap door. I did not bother to explain that I had been dying in the mud – enjoying my final week on earth.   

(Names and events have been altered and rearranged for narrative purposes).

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Enjoy Your Symptom

The following is a guest blog by Archbishop Apollyon Creed.

Dying is such a pleasure. In fact, the stain of death evokes final pleasure, ultimate fulfillment, ecstatic disillusion, final and full release. The full satisfaction of death will relieve the tension, complete desire, resolve the pain, and the very hope evokes pleasure. Satori, nirvana, desire, fuses life with death so that the pleasure of living is in the dying. Life without death is a weariness, a too muchness. Life reduced by death is manageable, commodifiable. With only so much to go around the very stuff of living, the gusto, the being, the value, the pursuit of more, is made possible. Where would be the living in any but a zero-sum economy, creating the value of more – more money, more power, more importance, more esteem, more fame? What is the point without this surplus value?

This excess evokes desire – the life force itself. The child is drawn into the world, beyond womb and breast, into a fulness of life only where this excess is sparked. The first couple are drawn East of Eden toward heaven’s gate, toward a fulness of cognition and the heights of personhood, only through this weight of glory. The greatest pleasure, the most efficient healing, is the unrelinquishing pursuit of desire. The pearl of great price, the fundamental reality, that which gives coherence to love, passion, and ambition, is pursuit of this excess. By definition, to keep love alive, to maintain the power of life, passion must increase and not dissipate. Every thesis needs its antithesis, every entity a non-entity, every something its nothing, as synthesis and balance is the obliteration of the force and counterforce of desire. The ultimate hope is that there is no reconciliation, no harmony, no peace. The irreconcilable, the eternal war, the ongoing struggle, is salvation.

So it is, all obstructions, every prohibition, each obstacle, in its punishing effect, evokes the possibility of pleasure – keeping desire alive. Rightly understood, the punishment is the pleasure as it is the final end – the short-circuit to ultimate enjoyment. Every pleasure is accentuated, heightened, filled with an eternal weight of meaning, where gallows await. Each of us must take rope in hand, become our own obstacle – law giver and executioner – so that the full pleasure of pain is meted out and enjoyed in our happy compulsions, our splendid depressions, the delights of madness. Resist or do not resist the compulsion to repeat – it is the same. Do not step on the crack, or step on the crack that will break your mother’s back, it does not matter. It is the compulsion, the creed, the prohibition, in its punishing effect, which will deliver you to your savior.

Every young aesthete must learn the first and only rule: do not give way on desire! To obtain the object of desire harbors the grave danger of despair, or worse, boredom.  The young Don Juan must calculate, tabulate, and fixate, not on mere humans, but on the realm of the infinite. Apart from the eternally enduring realm of more, lurks the danger of enduring choice, wholehearted commitment, serious relationship, the death of freedom. To slip from the bonds of earth’s gravity personas, relationships, character, cannot be fixed or settled as desire needs infinite choice – the only true freedom. The gravity of friendship, the weight of marriage, the earth’s material pull will tend to ground the young Jeffrey Epsteins before they take flight. Or the boring additions of the flesh: another mark in the journal, another passion spent, more effort expended, and it may not add up. Indeed, as the Great Master has taught, “the body is meant for fornication and fornication for the body,” but eventually the candle burns low. “I do not feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding—the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking—it is too tiring. I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything” (E/O I, 20).

It is best the aesthete learn the discipline and punishment of the ethicist who bears his cross of guilt and delights in moral masochism, his true religion, no matter the name of his God. The lack of being giving rise to desire is the Law Giver, who holds out the possibility of total unity and mergence through law. This religion of lack serves as the ultimate obstacle, the final prohibition, before which God himself must sacrifice. The God is immutable, unmoving, impassable, stone faced, or merely stone, it does not matter.  Death is the coin of this divine realm and all must bow and pour out life to the true divine and in offering the blood of sacrifice his desire is ensured. The God is, of course, the by-product of desire (the true life-force) but better reify and dub divine lest one balk at the eternal sacrifice required by death and desire. No greater delight is there than to do “evil” in the name of God!

All who are weary come, find rest and peace, an end of pain and the fulfillment of pleasure. Every illness bears its own cure, every sickness and suffering its own end. Do not give way on the death of loneliness, the death of lovelessness, the death of friendlessness, the death of neurosis, as judgment has been passed, punishment is extracted and, in the exchange, the immortal soul feels the pleasure of his God. The heightened moral conscience, the intensification of meaning, calls for a propitiating death. The dying may be a dying of self or other, but the world is soaked in the meaning of this sacrifice. Come, bow and worship the drive to death. Enjoy your symptom, while you can.

(From the Editor – Please note that Forging Ploughshares does not endorse the work of today’s contributor, Archbishop Apollyon. The Hebrew term Abaddon, and its Greek equivalent Apollyon appear in the Bible as both a place of destruction and an angel of the abyss. In the Hebrew Bible, abandon is used with reference to a bottomless pit, often appearing alongside Sheol, meaning the realm of the dead. The Archbishop is portrayed as the “King of the Locusts” in Revelation and is also called “The Angel of Death.” In Latin he is known as “Exterminans” or “Destroyer.” Though he has achieved great heights in his religious order, and though his advice is followed throughout the world, we at Forging Ploughshares have chosen to follow one not so well known or popularly heeded.)

Christ Against Salvation

In attempting to comprehend the “semantics of desire,” as Paul Ricoeur has put it, do we need to read Scripture as addressing an unconscious register to which we would otherwise not have access? Could it be that what compels, what distracts and lures, what would destroy, follows a logic which has us in its grip precisely in that it only achieves speech or consciousness by the same semantic loop which blunts access to consciousness? If desire and death are dealt out and marked by what cannot be said, then what is denied or repressed, what is unspeakable, requires a counter-hermeneutic or an alternative means of comprehension so as to follow and counter it. I presume putting this interpretive frame into place is the point of reading the Bible. It is not only that we are to meet Christ or learn about Christ but we are to put on the mind of Christ and this mode of thought must expose in the world and ourselves the matrix of death muting love and life.

The content of this hermeneutic of life is specifically summed up as a counter to a “salvation system” which kills. In various pithy sayings, so succinct that we tend to overlook their import, the point is conveyed that the mortal attempt to put on immortality is the juncture at which death becomes definitive of human identity. Jesus warns in all four Gospels, the human project of saving life ensures its loss. Taking the perishable for the imperishable posits life through means of death.  Mortality, per se, is not the human problem but the positing of an immortal essence as part of mortality.

In Paul’s description, the ego would establish itself through the law of the mind and, in this way, death becomes a definitive force in the self. The “I” is involved in a struggle for life which kills – this is the human sickness. More accurately, this “I” is a being of and for death in that the dynamics which first give rise to this speech formation (in Gen. 3 and Rom. 7 and in Lacanian psychoanalysis) is a dynamic of death. Life is not in the law nor in the symbolic order of language and the sign of the turn from life to death, in Adam (“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Gen. 3:10)) Paul (“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law” (Rom. 7:14-16)) and every human, is the attempt to inscribe the self into being through this order.  In Cartesian terms, the declaration “I am” (that is “my being is established by virtue of this statement”) would attribute being to a symbolic order without ontological ground and thus signals a being of death.

Paul sums up the problem in another phrase which, again due to its familiarity, we tend to reverse or misread: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). Doesn’t Paul have this exactly backwards? Isn’t death the sting of sin – that is, we sin and then we die – and this is according to the law? In this understanding sin gives rise to death and death is an outworking of the law. The problem, given that the law is the first principle, is death (due to sin). One must pay off his guilt for sin, according to the law, and then death is avoided. This is religion as we have it in contractual theology and in pagan religion. But what Paul says is a reversal of this: law is the power of sin, not because it is the first principle but because, in sin, we would make law (the symbolic order) primary.

Sin is the sting of death because sin is the taking up of death so that one’s life is a living death. Law is the opportunity of sin, as sin misuses the law as the source of life to escape death, and thus death is taken up with the law. This moral masochism, in Freud’s phrase, inscribes itself into the law – or the identity provided by the law. The human project of gaining life through the law is the premise of a contractual theology which depicts Christ as meeting the requirements of the law by paying off the penalty of sin (a misreading of Rom. 8:4). Every pagan sacrifice follows this logic – the god is angry because his law has been broken and requires death or sacrifice. Death is the means to life through the law. This formula, summing up the sin problem, precisely sums up human religion, even in its various Christian misconstruals. The profound tragedy is this reinstitutes the problem as if it is the solution.

Resurrection annuls the power of sin in death and the law (the law of sin and death), not because God works in this economy, but because this human economy is displaced by the divine reality of life. Through resurrection we conceive of God and reality differently, as it is clear death does not constrain God but only our conception of final reality. God does not deal in death and has nothing to do with death.

As Christ demonstrates, an understanding grounded in death cannot begin to comprehend God: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? . . . have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:18-27). According to the thought of the Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection) God, not seeing fit to keep his once living creatures alive, is indeed the God of the dead. The Sadducees understood God was not subject to death, but in their imagination, if God would deal with humans death would factor into the equation – he would, indeed, be the God of the dead. Jesus’ point is that mistaking death as an anthropological absolute is not simply to misunderstand humanity but is to misunderstand God.

Resurrection destroys this dialectic with death and every dualism, in that with God death is not.  As James Allison sums it up, “If God is not the God of the dead – death is nothing to him – it is not to be taken into account.” Death is not the controlling factor for God, and where it is imagined he finds death satisfying, or that he reigns over a vast host of creatures consigned to death, this marks the thought as human or sub-human. As Jesus puts it, “You are greatly mistaken.”

Every human economy circulates around death as its standard of exchange (this is obvious in idolatrous religion in offering up death to the gods but this is the Marxist critique of ideology and capitalism) and the human subject, in the attempt to possess life (the “I”) through the law is possessed (λαβοῦσα) by the law of sin and death. Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver as this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφορμν), and “came upon me” (λαβοῦσα) and reduced me to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death.  The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7.23), and “I” is at war with himself in a losing battle.  “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing life and “I died.” In this economy we need guilt, we need to make ourselves sick, we need to extract the sacrifice so as to pay off the law – the law we institute, the law we enact, and the penalties we require.

People are neurotic because they live in an economy where the pain of neurotic sin, of neurotic religion, is paying the dues required by guilt. Our morality is our immorality in that in this “moral factor,” this sense of guilt, satisfaction is found in an illness which refuses to give up the punishment of suffering (The Ego and the Id, 49). Jesus just becomes an extension of the human neurosis where it is thought he is paying off the guilt – suffering for the pleasure of God.

Realization of resurrection breaks open history and human knowing displacing death as the necessity determining human reality and perception. Where sin transforms death into a personal, cultural and religious reality, resurrection relegates death to a biological reality, and opens personhood and human community to the dynamic of life. In resurrection a new order of humanity, the 2nd Adam humanity has commenced, in which the perishable has put on the imperishable.  The resurrection inaugurates the conversion of the imagination calling us to expand our categories and to reconceive our humanity according to a new order of understanding we could not otherwise know. This salvation stands over and against salvation conceived in the first Adam.