Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Living in the Luminous Shadow!

In my book Virtually Christian I described a world radically infected by Christ. There has been a two millennial drip, drip, drip that has soaked our culture in the compassion and forgiveness of Christ, like soaking a Christmas cake in brandy!

You don't see it? You think things are worse, more violent, more unjust, than they have ever been? And has not Christendom (Christian Culture) been one of the main culprits of the heedless violence in the world?

But how would you know that unless a source of compassion had made you exactly that degree more aware?

My argument is not that things are objectively better or worse. My argument is that our minds have been changed by Christ. And now because of that things can and may become better!

The underlying logic is no different from Rene Girard's basic thesis, that the gospel has intelligently revealed the victim at the source of human culture. All I have done is added the necessary layer of Christ's compassion as the "luminous shadow" that throws this victim into relief. Plus the narrative of that shadow in culture, showing how it has progressively provided the sign and seed of transformative meaning throughout our world.

Especially in his latest work Girard accents the negative transformation. In Battling to the End he says that "The Passion brings war because it tells the truth about humanity...The Passion leads to the hydrogen bomb..." Ever since the gospel revelation of the victim humanity has lost its ability effectively to blame the scapegoat and so re-found the human order on violence, yet at the same time it has refused to renounce violence. Placed in an untenable situation by the gospel humanity continues to have recourse to violence, desperately and in larger and larger doses, until it finally unleashes nuclear war.

This is a highly negative gospel reconstitution of human history, and there is no doubt truth in it. But if the Passion leads to the bomb, that is the case from the perspective of the old unreconstructed humanity. Even more surely and powerfully the Passion and Resurrection are producing a new human way, a new creation. This has to be the case because the negative effect can only be provoked by the prior radical presence of positive meaning. The problem is in recognizing its effectiveness. At first sight it does not seem able to change political or economic patterns, nor most social or intellectual ones. It takes place in cracks in the system and can easily seem to evaporate when you would most like to see it work. But the luminous shadow is necessarily there, underlying all the travail of our modern world, prompting a progressive turn toward compassion, forgiveness, sharing, nonviolence.

Once you develop an eye for it you begin to see it more and more readily. I continue to be amazed at the act of the British Government in 2010 apologizing for the massacre in Derry, N.Ireland, in 1972, known as Bloody Sunday. This was one of the main triggers provoking the violence of the IRA with the support of the Catholic population, leading to over twenty five years of urban warfare. Those acquainted with the history of the two major islands off the coast of Europe are used to hearing of 800 years of English attacks on Ireland. Bloody Sunday could be seen as just one more in an interminable list of murder and wrong visited by the greater military power on the weaker. But then for the British government to turn around and apologize so resolutely and fully on something in living memory indicated suddenly that a new contemporary principle is at work. The healing effect was enormous.

Robert Downey Jr.'s recent appeal for forgiveness for Mel Gibson also ranks as a clear case of the luminous shadow. Gibson's pariah status in the film industry is well known, first having made a movie about Christ that pushed Jewish (and other) sensitivities to the limit, and then offending directly with a drunken rant against Jews on the occasion of his arrest for drunk driving. Robert Downey told how Gibson had given him work about fifteen years ago when he too was a pariah and no one would cast him because of his record of drug abuse. Gibson did so then on the condition that Downey accepted responsibility for his actions and was ready to offer forgiveness to the next person. As it turned out that person was Gibson. Downey appealed to an audience of Hollywood's great and glitterati :"Unless you are without sin, and if you are you are in the wrong (expletive) industry, you should forgive him and let him work.”

The cuing of Christ's compassion, to the degree of a direct quote, was unmistakably part of the appeal (and ironically layered into the situation by Gibson's own movie) and it exploded around Twitter and the blogosphere in a wildfire of fascination. Could/would Hollywood respond to this sign of the gospel? Whatever the answer there can be no doubt that multiple signs of Christ's compassion were lit up in people's brains, whether they agreed or not.

And that's the point. At the level of sign, of meaning, the compassion of Christ is irrepressible, irrescindable. It's never going to go away! It can be rejected of course. But it will keep returning, more and more insistently, and at some point it can and must be accepted. "If I am raised up I will draw all humankind to myself!"

The effect of the sign of the Cross is a geological sedimentation that over the years creates a new human landscape. It is like all those billions of tiny shells that produce limestone and over time are pressed upward by the earth to form great mountain ranges. Every individual shell is a shift in the neural structure of the human brain impacted by the sign of Christ's compassion. Little by little all those shifts are giving rise to a new humanity. To what forces can the largely nonviolent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt be attributed if not some profound change in human sensibility? And what is the seemingly leaderless and inchoate, and yet intensely communicative and symbol-producing activity of worldwide Occupy Wall Street if not to a tectonic rumbling in the deep structures of human meaning?

The gospels themselves use images of large-scale organic change. They say the Kingdom of God is like leaven which completely transforms the shape and constitution of a huge batch of dough. Or they show Jesus at a wedding changing a vast quantity of water into wine, in one stroke morphing the concrete senses of a human community from horrible failure to amazing success.

What it would be like if Christian churches lost their purpose of brokering eternity and supplying a sense of metaphysical worth, to being schools where people learned this new meaning of humanity; period?

But even if the churches don't do this it is still happening any way. Happening all round us.

In many ways the feeling of actual contemporary Christianity comes more authentically outside of church than in it. Outside has a resonance of a new transforming humanity but inside can almost completely lack it. The inside's traditional symbol system refers intimately to another, heavenly world and the rightness communicated from it. It was developed over thousands of years, both the time of Christianity itself and of other thought worlds preceding it into which Christianity tapped. So going into church with the watershed change I'm talking about in mind is to discover this place is actually designed not to represent it! The experience of the churches could in one sense be compared to walking into pagan temples in the first century while the message of Christianity was running around on the streets outside!

But when Christian communities begin to understand that their key meaningful context is not another world to which we are destined after death, but in fact this one--because it is pivoting on the compassion of Christ--then all the symbolic references change of themselves. And when Christian communities live fully in a transformed symbol system like this, well, what will that mean? Nothing less than the rebirth of Christian faith!

Tony Bartlett, TinR

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Money, it's a Crime: Jesus and the Banks

It must have gotten pretty bad out there.

For folks to begin invoking Jesus as a solution to the world of finance, the end of the world itself must have arrived.

Recent posts on Facebook and images of street-theater in the finance district of London U.K. have depicted Jesus casting out the traders and money changers from the temple. The surface message is that Jesus does not like investment banks and derivatives, but to get Jesus in on the act really suggests something quite a bit more serious.

It is a hint of a very profound disillusion with the world of financial speculation, and a shaking that goes to the foundations even of profit-driven capitalism itself.

If you check Jesus in the gospels he does not talk of reform of money or wealth. Rather he's about a root and branch stripping away of these things as principles of human organization. He replaces "get" with "give", and a worldview of scarcity with a lifeworld of abundance. "If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return....Give and and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap." (Luke 6:34-38)

Bringing Jesus into the discussion on the banks is like setting a camp fire in the built-up California canyons during the Santa Ana winds. You're asking to burn the whole place down.

People's willingness to mention Jesus in this connection, therefore, does seem like sign of the end of the world, or at least of a world. It is one of those "stars falling from the skies" things, a portent of the imminent breakdown of the established order as such.

The whole history of Christendom (actual Christian culture) is a series of unhappy compromises between the radicalism of Jesus and the actual way human beings do business and wish to continue doing. This is evidently true in regard to the issue of violence, but it's also the case in respect of money.

The latest and perhaps most effective compromise in connection to money involves a theme of personal election, whereby enormous wealth is given to a few by a form of divine decree. This can be expressed as economic dogma: the rich must be allowed to be rich for they are the only true generators of wealth. Or, it can come in Christian terms for Christian voters: a version of Calvinist election mixes with prosperity gospel to supply a God-given right to unconditioned wealth.

And then, by a perverse but watertight logic, the wealthy truly are entitled, while those who depend on Social Security have a false "entitlement" attitude. The first have the purity of divine right behind them, and the second only sinful human resentment.

But there is a crucial piece missing from the whole discussion, a piece that changes the entire perspective by which we judge wealth. And once again we have the epoch-making insights of René Girard to thank. He has given us the concept of mimesis which tells us that we value things according to the eyes of the other. It tells us our desire is mediated. (And his insights have recently received clamorous backing from the discoveries by neural science of "mirror neurons.")

If wealth was in any way simply objective, like a mountain of twenty thousand feet, or a river ten feet deep, then we'd be able to draw a measure and say yes, that is wealth. But there is an intrinsically comparative element in wealth. People with houses in the Hamptons or the D.C. suburbs probably look pretty wealthy to the rest of us. But living in those places they always have their own differentials: the size of the frontage, the number of rooms, the yacht, the private jet. And then, for the people with all those things, there remains the truly astonishingly rich. The ones who can book rooms in Dubai at $25,000 a night, who have art collections with Van Goghs and Renoirs, who can purchase newspapers, T.V. stations, private islands, football teams, and much more, more than we can imagine!

Definitely all these things have a material elements--you can't play without marbles--but they exist within a framework of being seen by others, of a shared desire that gives them their final and truest value. Even the most exclusive private yacht visited by a handful of privileged guests is seen and desired by them, and behind them stands all the lesser yachts seen by everyone else. Those billions of glances of desire are implied in the glances of the privileged few who have also shared those other glances, and carry them with them, and so say on behalf of everyone "this really is the best possible yacht in the world." Through them the eyes of all the world are trained on the most private, privileged of possessions, giving it its worth.

If this is in fact the case then it is humanly impossible--anthropologically impossible--to claim that wealth is individual and not shared. Everything is shared; it's simply in my hand not yours! But neurally and humanly it's in both our hands!

This anthropology of the mirroring of wealth then becomes the reason why a certain brand of theology has to be called in service to create a fiction that wealth is really individual. "God" is in people's minds the only unaccountable, incomparable, unmediated being. And so to give wealth its rights it has to have the backing of such an incomparable entity.

But apart from the fact that this is Greek essentialist theology and not a Trinitarian God, it is fundamentally not human. It does not respect, it does not look to, humanity.

Because here's the thing: if wealth is shared neurally or psychically between us, it means that in a fundamental human sense it belongs to everyone. That's where it's meaning comes from, from everyone. It is a common good! You can't have wealth without the other person, and without all the other persons. Wealth is something we create together and thus by its internal human logic we have to dispose of together. We can dispose of it using Greek theologies of election (i.e. the rich must stay rich) which necessarily involve endless rivalry, struggle and, in the end, plain insanity. Or we can dispose of it by a New Testament gospel of gift, something which changes the inner dynamic of mimesis from rivalry to love.

How this plays out in practical detail is a matter for actual politics. But the principle is clear and can only have clear results. We live in a shared universe. We can make that a matter of constant absurd rivalry, always seeking to expropriate what can never be expropriated. Or we can come into the space of God's intention, having created such a shared world in the first place. We can come into the space of Jubilee, the Israelite institution whereby all debts were rendered null on a systematic periodic basis (every fifty years). We can come into the area of the Lord's prayer where the same action is a condition of the prayer itself, and in a permanent present tense: "Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors..."

We can come into the space of a compassionately shared world, rather than a violently shared one. At least, that would seem to be the case once you bring Jesus into the picture!

Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence