Two of my friends who serve on the Theology and Peace board have, at different times, used the image of "The Matrix" to describe the relationship of Girardian Christians with the culture around us. It always seemed an interesting analogy, and I've even used it in a sermon. But I only recently came to understand it fully.
You may remember the "Matrix" film trilogy, in which human beings have lost a war to machines and computer programs, and are now kept in pods where the energy their bodies generate is used to power their mechanical and electronic overlords. To keep the humans pacified, their brains are linked to a computer program which causes them to see a pleasant, ordinary world where they live full, if imaginary, lives. Only a small group of humans know the awful truth, and they struggle to free their fellows from their bondage.
In recent weeks, I think I have come to an awakening of my own, and like many such experiences, it has been jarring and painful. A few weeks ago, I received a call from a parishioner, saying her house was on fire. I quickly headed to the scene of the fire, and stood with two church members and friends as we watched firefighters come and go from their smoky home. In the course of the couple of hours I was with them, I was told that the fire had been intentionally set. That would be the first of many shocks, that day and in the days to follow.
My administrative assistant, who also did bookkeeping for our congregation, was arrested and charged with two counts of arson. She was subsequently charged with theft, for having allegedly embezzled more than $100,000 from our church. Within a few hours, my world was turned upside down. A woman I had trusted enough to have given her a key to my own home sat in jail. The arson victims were without a home. Nothing I knew when I woke up that morning seemed to be true anymore.
The next few days would bring more shocks. Those shocks would bring me to realize that we live in a violent world. I've known this in theory, I guess. I've been reading the works of Rene Girard for a few years now. I know his contention that human culture is founded on violence. But my congregation, and I, could always see the violence as somewhere else, someone else's problem. We felt insulated from it.
Now, violence had touched us more deeply than we could have ever imagined. A violent crime had been committed in our midst. In the Book of Acts, Saul of Tarsus is confronted on the road to Damascus with a horrible reality--he has been violently persecuting Jesus and his followers. In a moment, what he saw as his duty, the dictates of his faith, a thing worthy of honor, is revealed for what it really is--the violent persecution of innocent victims. For Saul, this is a crisis. He neither eats nor even sees for three days.
I can relate. I fell into a deep depression and lost 10 pounds in the first two weeks after the arson fire. I saw violence everywhere. The detectives, whose power is based on coercion and fear, were in our office quite a lot, complete with holstered guns, in those first few days. My assistant was jailed, cut off from family and even from those of us who would like to have had an explanation for her actions. And she faces decades in a place of violence and pain. Having lived in this culture, she sought a violent solution to her problems, leaving suffering victims in her wake.
My congregation has been wonderful, caring for the needs of both families affected by these events with prayers, and meals (we're Midwestern Christians, after all). Yet I worry about the possibility of conflict. I ask those who are angry to imitate Jesus, and not the offender, in their reactions to these events. Most listen to me, for which I am grateful. Some do not. I have come to understand that revenge is imitation of one who has wronged us. As Christians, Rene Girard has taught me, we make a choice to imitate Jesus. I am grateful for this insight, and do my best to pass it on to others around me.
I know now that the world is a violent place. Like those poor struggling humans in "The Matrix"; like Paul on the road to Damascus; I have been confronted with a reality that is both freeing and painful. I now see that Jesus came to free us from our violent ways, to offer us another path. I understand why Paul was in such crisis that seeing, eating, functioning was too painful. I don't think it's too much to say that I have shared that experience with Paul. I can no longer pretend that my world is peaceful and safe in the way that I believed it was 5 weeks ago.
After being blinded on the road, after three days of struggling with the revelation of his own violence, Paul meets Ananias, a member of the Damascus church. Ananias does the most remarkable thing...he embraces Paul. Paul, the persecutor of the Church, is embraced by the very Church he had intended to destroy. This new community becomes Paul's safety and solace, and the Holy Spirit becomes the source of his strength.
I, too, have had to find new sources of safety and strength. Police with guns no longer help me feel safe. An adversarial system no longer seems like a source of justice. But, thanks to the insights of Rene Girard, I know that my strength comes from following Jesus. The Holy Spirit stands with me and advocates for me in this violent world. Something like scales have fallen from my eyes.
The weeks and months to come will bring new stressors. There are court dates yet to come. I will again be confronted with the painful realities of life in this culture founded on violence. I know, however, that I will not go through these moments alone. My congregation has stood together well, striving to be the Church in this new reality--and getting it right a remarkable majority of the time! And the Holy Spirit will stand with me, strengthening me and reminding me that all of this will end in resurrection.
I am deeply grateful to Rene Girard and those who introduced me to his work, for helping me make sense of these difficult days. Theology and Peace has been invaluable to me, and I am honored to work with the T&P board to make this knowledge available to others.